I must admit to being a little muted in my appreciation of the news that Brown’s and Hix had parted company last autumn. After 10 years, the relationship was starting to feel a little stale, granted, but Hix did a particularly fine Beef Wellington, which is on my death row meal shortlist (especially if Mark Hix is around to cook it – otherwise I might just play it safe and take a Big Mac with a cheeseburger side), and I’m rarely, if ever, in favour of change that deprives me of something I like.
I wouldn’t say I loved Hix. Partly because it’s in Brown’s, a funny, slightly stuffy sort of hotel that has neither the grandeur of the Park Lane behemoths nor the fashionable funk of a Ham Yard or Charlotte Street Hotel. Being a thoroughfare between Albemarle and Dover Streets doesn’t help either, leaving it open to abuse as a sort of Mayfair shortcut (by charlatans like me). It’s a bit schizophrenic too, the inspirations behind restaurant, lounge and the newly refurbed Donovan Bar best filed under eclectic.
Above all, it – and particularly the lounge and restaurant – suffers for being old, very old, and, I imagine, for being protected by one if not several of this country’s many humourless conservation societies. No matter who’s in residence, either as chef or interior designer, I can only assume they have limited power over how the space looks, and particularly over its endless oak wooden panelling. Rather than eliciting a warm nostalgia, I’ve always found these smack of school dining halls, most keenly those I once visited on away match days to wrap my mouth around spongy sausages, cardboard chips and dribbly beans.
But less of what can’t be changed and more of what can. I was curious to see what would have become of the restaurant space since it was taken over by Heinz Beck, he of Rome’s three-Michelin-starred La Pergola and one-time chef of the Lanesborough’s now defunct Apsleys. The school dining hall feeling hasn’t gone altogether, but certainly, the new décor is fresher and more au courant – brass latticed screens (of course, brass!), banquettes with turquoise upholstery and some botanical wallpaper see to that. They’ve also shifted the entrance, which changes the feel of the hotel entrance more than the restaurant itself, which is now accessible directly from Albemarle Street.
And what of the eats? Beck’s theme is Italian, with significant British seasonal influences, and the framework of his new menu is reassuringly familiar (the invitation is to choose from antipasti, primi piatti, pesce and carne), at least half of it intelligible even to a man with a limited grasp of Italian culinary vocabulary.
A strong start, and one that was followed up when my dining companion and I were left to read the menu before receiving instructions from charming restaurant manager Fabrizio, a blessing given that far too often, officious waiting staff are trained to steer diners towards yesterday’s leftovers before they’ve had a moment to recognise their own leanings.
Presented with a generous helping of favourites, my leanings proved determinedly unadventurous. I plumped for grilled Scottish scallops with green and white asparagus (divine), fagottelli alla carbonara (delicious little savoury packages that popped zestily in the mouth) and roast veal with a pistachio crust served on a bed of braised onions (a touch moist on the night), with a side of truffle mash (a dish I defy any chef to get wrong).
We were encouraged to try a side of Agretti, a sort of wet Italian pampas grass that did little to animate the palette beyond confusion. Dessert was a triumph, a warm chocolate tarte with rum and raisin ice cream that made little sense on a warm summer evening but that more than teased my sweet tooth. All washed down with servings from the restaurant’s cellar (as yet a hangover from Hix, and soon to be updated), including a wonderful double-aged spumante and a pleasantly splashy Meursault (‘ah, an existential wine!’ *tumbleweeds*).
I can’t say I won’t miss Hix. I was perfectly happy with it. But Beck at Brown’s is a grade up.