A bitter Gill to swallow.

Actually I’m not really that bitter. There must have been plenty of good competition, and there is also always the chance that I am either way ahead of, or more likely way behind, my time. Still, I thought my entry to the Sunday Times AA Gill Food Writing competition wasn’t half bad; better than last year’s effort anyway. I’d even managed to get my hopes up a bit because it took them so bloody long to judge, but you know exactly what they’ll blame that on, don’t you? Assuming I’m alive this time next year it’ll just about be time for my third knockback, but not to worry there is usually something else around the corner, whether you can see it or not. Here’s my entry for 2020, for your pleasure (now that I am allowed to fire it firmly in the face of the public). No feedback necessary, unless you’re at a loose end.

It’s Just Meat And Potatoes.

Oh, how we all miss the hospitality industry. That’s what they’ve decided to call it. Lump it all together in one big, sorry Highland clearance broth, long cooled and now sitting there all alone, just waiting for someone to pick up a trowel and taste how grey and rotten it’s become. The hospitality business is buggered. It’s having about as much fun as a wrongly convicted liberal democrat in a prison shower, and when it finally gets released heaven only knows what kind of state it will be in. Come to think of it even heaven won’t know; heaven must be a very hard place to imagine for someone who opened an organic, vegan gastro cafe last November.

Of course the crappiest jobs in the business have all been sent back home. We’re more than ever a nation of plate scrapers and bin fillers. Dishwashers have been whipped into submission, often twice a day, and now our special meals out are replaced by a special meal in – only at the end of it you have to clear the table yourself. That said it’s not a bother to pour yourself more wine – it saves having some unctuous tit glide past and top your glass up without asking. And to add to the extra chores it looks like the hospitality industry will most likely be the last to get a suck on the oxygen tank and as everyone keeps on saying: things may never be quite the same again.

If there’s one place I hope hasn’t changed that much it’s Lussmanns. They’ve made quite a nice little nest for themselves and are now slowly colonizing every smug, gilet wrapped, middle class commuter town up and left a little of London; Tring, Harpenden, Hitchin. That kind of place. And no place is quite as much like that kind of place as St Albans. It is our default setting. When all else is vetoed. Our go to gaff for seventy minutes and a bill that doesn’t create resentment. Lussmanns have also played it clever and still have splattered on every menu a rather favourable quote from a certain well known restaurant critic; to lure in the weak and impressionable and make them think that just getting a table is some kind of towering achievement.

Maybe they have a point. Lussmanns is clear and bright and, with the odd exception (it doesn’t help that one of the waiting staff always looks like they’ve spent the previous hour licking batteries), a perfectly pleasant experience. I don’t know how many times I’ve eaten there but I would say it is roughly the same number as the times that I’ve watched Jaws, which is a lot. When we moved near (we don’t have the gilets to live in) St Albans it might have been the first restaurant we tried. I ate there the night before our wedding. We take our friends and families there because we have never been ashamed of it.

We’re reasonable people, we can put aside the odd glitch. Wifey once burnt her mouth on a volcanic bowl of soup served there, but then she did neglect to blow on the spoon first and so, four years later, the ultimate responsibility is still the source of considerable debate. She was also served (the last visit before lockdown) a puy lentil salad with no puy lentils in it, which takes the turn ‘glaring omission’ to its logical conclusion. But then bless her, she at least is sometimes brave enough to go off piste because for me Lussmanns is all about one thing (well, strictly speaking two): steak and chips. On any other menu in any other restaurant I will practice some degree of variation but here I always order the same thing because when you’ve found a place that can give the steak that you want, the way that you want it then you have found a corner of peace in your soul for all time. And this won’t garrotte your bank account. No Hawksmoor or Prime. It’s not even Miller & Carter with their suspicious, distracting side orders and glacial service. You never finish feeling short changed, and in the culinary universe that’s somewhere on the list of importance just after taste and smell.

You see (and I’m almost certainly not the first to say this) there are quite a surprising number of ways that you can make half a pound of heifer not quite sit right. Wifey can do one about as well as you can in a home kitchen but it still isn’t quite the same as a good restaurant slab. The flavours seem different and the blood runs with a more appetising glean to it. And Lussmanns must have worked out pretty quickly that if you can get a modest cut of hanger steak nailed then you’ll have all manner of low aspirers coming back time and again. This is perhaps as good as it gets, with the possible exception of a perfectly crafted bacon sandwich that, oddly enough, is never as good out as when you make it your bloody self.

Order off the set menu every time and it will always be there, even when the moreish south coast sprats have been take off the starters and replaced by some semi-offensive stuffed pepper, shining crimson like the last face of a heart attack victim, artichoke puree oozing from every orifice. Frankly it doesn’t really matter what comes before or after a good steak. It could be cheese string and Angel Delight and still the meat would shine through. Even the wine is secondary, and that is saying quite something (I often pick the Viognier – it shouldn’t, but it does). The flavour then melts through the gaps in your teeth and emulsifies the roof of your mouth and makes you give off a moan swathed in oxytocin. This steak is not fine dining; instead it is functional, practical, accessible. It works. It is all you need.

And one shouldn’t forget the rest. The frites which never, ever disappoint. Even on the rare occasion that the meat doesn’t quite go all the way the frites have a satisfying salt crunch that seems to sustain itself through an onslaught of juice and chew and dollops from that spectacular little pot of mustard mayonnaise that crudely but effectively ties the whole thing together. All that is ever left is the rather unnecessary sprig of parsley, which you should have eaten at the start but never got round to because why the hell would you bother when you’ve got that thing to keep you busy. I would never not recommend Lussmanns and would always suggest the you-know-what. I don’t know if I like it more than that critic did but since I’ve never met them knowing that would be quite a clever trick. What I can tell you is that when the hospitality industry is finally allowed to come up for air then I know where I’ll go first: to Lussmanns, for the cow. And by that I don’t mean the battery licker.

G B Hewitt. 05.10.2020 (submitted May 2020).

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