I would like to report that Ben’s birthday was a complete success. Hurrah! He thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of it, including the fact that he is, at time of writing, still asleep.
Around 4pm, I got dolled up and made my way through town to meet him at his office. I sat and read for a while whilst he got changed into his lovely formal evening wear. I need to quickly mention that Ben is the King of Charity Shop Trawling: the dress I wore for the evening was one of his finds (gorgeous) but so too was his suit. Not only does it fit wonderfully (he is tall and broad shouldered, so finding anything to fit is a bit of a mission), but it only cost about a fiver. I honestly don’t know how he does it.
Anyway, he changed into Dapper Evening Fox, and we made our way towards Green Park, and the Royal Institution. I had booked us a table for two in their Time&Space restaurant, for 6pm, and we had timed it beautifully. We were lead into their gorgeous dining room and seated in a cosy corner by the window.
The Time&Space restaurant is in-keeping with the style of the rest of the Royal Institution: a lot of this is offered by the architecture of the building itself (high ceilings, large rooms) but the decor matched in too (scientific journals lined the bookshelves, and the furniture was simple, smart and dark). The lighting was easy on the eye and befitting a quiet dining room, and I was surprised to noticed absolutely no ambient music. At first this was strange, but I actually really liked it: it added to the beautifully hushed library feel, and I found myself able to hear Ben’s conversation much easier.
As soon as we sat down, we were offered a bottle of water – good call, waiter man. Even the water glasses were cool – like wine glasses without stems. We were a little distracted by discussing the room itself, so the waiter had to come back several times before we’d made food choices (sorry!) – in the meantime I thought I’d treat Ben to a stonkingly good wine, in the form of my favourite, a Pinot Noir. What I actually chose (Chilcas Single Vineyard, 2007, Central Valley, Chile) got substituted with an Alamos Seleccion (2009, Mendoza, Argentina), but it was so good (and a bit cheaper!) that I really didn’t mind. Ben is not much of a wine drinker, so had no idea what to expect, but enthused about its smoothness, and how it was rich but not over-powering. We will have him yet!!
Even the complimentary bread was nice. Usually that’s not worth noting I guess, but it all helps. When we finally got around to ordering, we decided to “risk it” by ordering things when we weren’t entirely sure what they were – maybe that would be my one criticism of Time&Space, is their unnecessary use of little-used terms. You don’t need to use a “posh” version of black pudding (boudin noir? Really?) and, as girolles are not a common thing to find on any menu, it would help your “phillistine” diners if you could supplement it by saying “girolle mushrooms”.
Anyway, after ordering, the starters arrived swiftly, which was great as I was hungry hungry. Ben went for a fried duck egg, sat on a bed of black pudding (call it what it is) and served with some crisp fried new potatoes. The black pudding was not like greasy-spoon black pudding: it was light but rich, with a herby flavour to it. I think it had mushroom in as well, which was a nice touch. I went for those mushrooms I mentioned: Scottish girolles on a bed of whipped (read: mash) potato. It was very, very tasty (the girolles were like yellow Oyster mushrooms, and the mash gorgeously smooth) but a little on the small side. Perhaps for the best though, as for mains…. I went for steak.
Yes, a 10oz Rib Eye beauty, cooked to perfection (flame grilled so it was slightly caramelised on the outside, yet still beautifully rare in the middle) and served with amazing frites and bearnaise sauce in a cute tiny saucepan (hard to describe, they were good). It was all presented on a lovely wooden board (very rustic – love it) but I was a bit confused by the two sun-blushed tomatoes on top of my steak, nice as they were.
Meanwhile, Ben was already tucking in to his braised beef flank, with a herby breadcrumb crust. The beef had been slow-cooked to perfection: very soft, juicy meat, and packed with flavour. It was served on top of a bed of garlic-scented leeks, with sauteed mushrooms and a bone-marrow sauce. I think he got the better deal out of the two of us: whilst I really love a good steak frites (and mine was GOOD) Ben’s beef was just more “special”. It was all presented beautifully, and the portion size was perfect.
How to top it off then? Well Ben, it’s your birthday – let’s go the whole hog and have pudding. Waiter? Two coffees and two sticky toffee puddings please. Oh yes.
The coffees were… well, they were coffees. But the warm milk was a nice touch (didn’t make the coffee tepid!) but the PUDDINGS. My oh my. These weren’t cheap puds, doused within an inch of their lives in sauce – they were soft domes of hot, sweet loveliness (yes, food IS rather erotic), topped with a ball of gently melting vanilla ice cream. The sauce was hot and not overly abundant. The puddings disappeared very swiftly which, despite our already full bellies, gives you an idea of how delicious they were.
OK, all this talk of food is making my lose my ability to be coherent. Plus, I think this post is now long enough. Which means you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the conclusion of Benny’s Royal Institution Birthday Gala! Hold on to your hats, chaps – there’s SAD flowers, geriatric rats, cocktails and gorgeous shoes to look forward to!
Image credits: first one from Mark Whitfield (Daily Telegraph), all the rest are mine