At the risk of opening myself up to a load of obvious jokes, I am a simple man. I don’t follow trends. Fashion remains a true mystery. Take me somewhere with very loud music, terrible service and /or rude people, and you’ll see me get my coat within a few minutes, although my current record is actually 17 seconds (and yes, I’m looking at you, Hakkasan Nightclub, Las Vegas).
All of the above is basically why I adored Chamberlain’s. Or, more to the point, none of the above. That’s not to say it’s old fashioned or stuffy: it’s really not. It’s simple, classic and, best of all, they and I agree on what makes a good restaurant: good food, service and atmosphere. They also serve their champagne in saucers, which makes me smile.
The room is simple with a quiet dining area on the mezzanine, a cosy space on the ground floor and a smart downstairs room. One suspects the latter gets rammed at lunchtimes – this is the City, after all – but the variety of space means that, even on this quiet Monday evening, with only six other diners, there’s enough flexibility to make it feel cosy and intimate.
Service is charming, and beautifully judged. We’re happy to chat, so they chat to us. Others are clearly here on business and they’re served with subtle efficiency and left to discuss whatever billion dollar things it is that get discussed over a dinner table in the City. It’s not rocket science but it’s also not that common either.
As we sit down, a little pot of popcorn is placed on the table. It’s truffle popcorn, we’re told. We rapidly discover that it’s dangerously addictive, all buttery, salty, and deeply savoury. Bread – warm, densely crusted, sharp as good sourdough should be – arrives next, alongside smoked mackerel butter. Just think about that for a second. Smoked. Mackerel. Butter. Again, it’s addictive, so much so I push the basket, my side plate and butter knife to my wife, in case I keep eating.
The Chamberlain’s USP is that they’re owned by one of Billingsgate’s leading fishmongers and that sends me to the menu seeking the simplest of techniques, to let the ingredients shine and there are some dishes here that demonstrate considerable flair and an understanding of flavours. It’s just that they also know when to leave well alone and, when you’re owned by one of Billingsgate’s leading fishmongers, and your ingredients are this good, that’s sensibly often.
The simplicity of this snackage sends me looking for more similarly straightforward pleasures, and there are plenty but two catch my eye immediately: dressed Dorset crab, soft boiled egg, sour dough, and Cornish skate wing, brown parsley butter and capers. Across the table, it’s the hand dived Orkney scallop – with tea smoked bacon, celeriac and apple – and then wild Scottish halibut, roasted Chantenay carrots, cavolo nero and a burgundy jus.
And it’s all just glorious. Aside from the burgundy jus – which gives a gentle acidity that cuts through the fish’s richness – it’s a night of simple brilliance, in very generous proportions. Fat scallops, an enormous pile of sweet, sweet crab, and a skate wing that defeats me less than half way through. It’s a hell of a dish though, a perfect interpretation of a genuine classic, all lemony buttery goodness, flesh that peels easily from the bone (and hits the plate with a satisfying “whump” noise) and the tiniest, punchiest capers imaginable. It’s just that it could feed a family of four. Twice. (For the record, the leftovers made excellent fishcakes. Er, six, excellent fishcakes, to be precise.) Dessert, you won’t be surprised to learn, was an impossibility.
The trick now is to remember that Chamberlain’s exists. If you don’t work in the City, Leadenhall is not your first choice of stomping grounds. It’s also decidedly unflashy, and the kind of under-the-radar spot that isn’t going to get the glitterati or even the Twitterati chattering. But it should, it really should. Go once. I promise you you’ll remember it then.
Chamberlain’s of London
23-25 Leadenhall Market