Located in Swallow Street, which links Piccadilly and Regent’s Street in the south east corner of Mayfair, Bentley’s combines the elegant refinement of London’s wealthiest district with the vibrant informality of Soho.
In 2005, Michelin starred chef Richard Corrigan rescued this iconic and once celebrated fish restaurant, which originally opened in 1916, from a dramatic decline and almost inevitable closure. Many would now agree that he has restored Bentley’s to its original leading position.
Whilst the ground floor Oyster Bar and Cocktail Bar retain their original features, such as the marble bar and wooden panelling, the first floor Grill and Rib Room have undergone a more thorough refit. The floral patterned William Morris blue fabric wall covering with matching curtains, give a richer, sophisticated, if darker and more masculine feel to the room. This is reinforced by the plain wooden floor, comfortable studded blue leather chairs and decorative piscine prints. Fine napery covers well-spaced tables which are lit by old fashioned wall lights and cleverly directed spotlighting
Not that the more traditional décor and furnishings of the Grill Room dampen the atmosphere which is one of relaxed conviviality and real enjoyment. On a weekday evening in February we were impressed to find the room fully booked, with a lively buzz of contented diners. Or perhaps we should not have been so surprised given the reputation and following Bentley’s has established. The service, which is formal, but not stiff or condescending, contributes to this success. Indeed, we found it courteous, informative and eager to please without being intrusive or ingratiating.
Well known for his championing of impeccably sourced, seasonal British ingredients, Richard Corrigan celebrates them in his extensive menu of modern and traditional dishes. Smoked salmon with blinis, Dover sole meuniere, dressed crab and shellfish bisque sit alongside more inventive preparations such as roast quail with Jerusalem artichoke and white truffle, roast cod with quince, morcilla and calcots and oysters Vietnamese style. Combinations are sometimes unusual but always harmonious. Tastes and textures are finely balanced. The kitchen shows a range of well-honed skills in the preparation of the raw ingredients, cooking techniques and elegant presentation. Given the relative simplicity of many of the dishes – not a foam, smear or gel in sight –and with nowhere to hide, it is important that the cooking is finely tuned; Bentley’s more than succeeds in this respect.
With up to 60 covers upstairs, another 50 downstairs, not to mention the private dining room maximum 60) in the basement, the kitchens are kept very busy indeed. In addition to the oysters (three wild natives, four rocks, three hot rocks), langoustines and caviar, the menu structure accommodates a staggering 15 hot and cold starters, three Fish on the bone, six Waters and the Wild, five dishes From the Grill and five Desserts. All this creates an embarrassment of choice for which recommendations from the front of house are gratefully received. The sommelier judiciously matches the dishes with an interesting flight of wines.
Sat the start of our meal, both the breads and canapés gave a good impression, auguring well for the courses to come. Breads, including French baguette and sour dough, prepared on the premises, had a good bake with firm crumb and crisp crusts. The Irish soda bread was particularly accomplished. Two butters – Lincolnshire poacher and anchovy – showed a pleasing attention to detail.
Canapes featured delicate olive straws, richly flavoured duck rillettes and grain mustard feuilletes. Best of all was a deep fried savoury croquette which produced a veritable taste explosion of melting feta cheese and soft green olive.
Purists might reel in horror at one of our chosen starters. More than confident of the supreme quality of raw oysters, we nevertheless opted for a “Hot Rock.” Oyster tempura had a feather light, crisp batter encasing the warm, succulent bivalve which retained its magical alkaline qualities. The spicy chorizo offset this perfectly, whilst pickled red onions gave contrasting acidity and texture. Presented in their shells, which also provided a base for a well-made beurre blanc, the whole dish was lifted by an acidulation of lime. The accompanying wine, Gruner Veltliner Satzen 2012Weingut Manfred Felsner Kremstal – Austria, with its spicy and clean acidity, was an excellent match for this dish.
Tartare of beef featured soft, well-seasoned, superb quality meat, given a well measured kick of horseradish. Raw quail-s egg gave extra richness to bind the beef, whilst toasted sour dough added the texture contrast the dish needed.The medium bodied wine, Valpolicella Superiore Ripasso Torre del Falasco Veneto, with red fruits and good complexity did full justice to this classic dish.
An escalope of pan seared foie gras had a beautifully caramelised crust and a melting interior. Its richness was cut by slices of lime pickled apple which might prove too acidic for some palates but which we found balanced this luxuriously rich piece of offal perfectly. A chiffonade of sorrel added colour and texture with a muted acidity to this decadent dish. The sommelier showed her expertise in pairing it with a Jurancon, Clos Uroulat, Charles Hours, 2012, the balance of acidity and sweetness of which acted as a perfect foil.
Two seafood main courses were chosen.
Wild Sea bass was perfectly cooked to retain its deep, clean flavour and moist succulence. The crisp skinned and firm fleshed fillet, garnished with light potato gnocci, was perched on wilted sea lettuce and a fricassee of brown shrimps and wild mushrooms which added a rich, earthy quality. Although it did not need it, the dish was enhanced by the heady fragrance of a generous shaving of black truffle. Chablis, Billaud-Simon, 2012 with its crisp, mineral qualities and balance of high acidity and rich fruit, proved a highly satisfactory match.
Pan roasted scallops had sweet firm flesh and a golden caramelised crust. Balancing acidity came from blood orange segments, whilst braised salsify, pleasing al dente, gave contrasting texture and flavour. Brown shrimps added an intense shellfish depth of flavour. Finally, the various elements were brought together by a lively beurre blanc. The elderberry notes, high acidity and long finish of Nosiola Cesconi 2011 Dolomiti Trentino 2012 was another inspired choice of matching wine.
Side dishes of mashed potatoes and buttered spinach with garlic were generous in quantity and well rendered.
Too full to attempt cheese or rich puddings, such as Sticky toffee pudding with oyster stout ice cream or Bentley’s trifle with mascarpone, we opted for a trio of sorbets – Sicilian blood orange, passion fruit and champagne, apple and mint – all of velvety smoothness and intense flavour. Although it is notoriously difficult to match wines with iced desserts, the Royal Tokaji, late harvest, 2011: had a delightful seam of freshness that proved the exception to the rule.
Overall, our visit to Bentley’s was a highly pleasurable experience, and one we are eager to repeat. Whilst prices are high, they represent excellent value for money given the quality of ingredients and skill of cooking, and are not unreasonable compared with other, less accomplished, restaurants in the West End. No doubt Bentley’s will go from strength to strength under the watchful eye of its ebullient chef patron, whose essential joie de vivre it embodies in its food, wine and service.
To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, Richard Corrigan proposes: At Bentley’s http://www.bentleys.org/#/st-patricks-day/
- 16th March – Beef and Oyster Club from £45 for four courses and includes a glass of Bellini
- 17th March – The Feast of St Patrick, the grand finale of St Patrick’s Day. Celebrations will take place in the restaurant, followed by live music and entertainment in The Swallow Rooms hosted by Richard Corrigan himself. A three course lunch including live Irish music. £60 per person.