Simply food

LONDON CALLS

At a quirky boutique hotel in London’s Soho, I finally taste eggs Benny that live up to the name, with a surprise tarragon twist.

Party time at Sanctum Soho

Visits to London and indeed England have been few and far between during lockdown, but I have finally made it to the big city for a posh dinner at a private members’ club. It’s black tie of course and a diverse group of gentlemen who meet monthly to dine and enjoy each other’s company. I shall not name them or where we meet, for privacy is paramount. Suffice to say the site of tonight’s event is on the edge of Mayfair, close to Saville Row, where many of the members are fitted for their bespoke evening attire.

Since I haven’t stayed in a hotel in the capital for years, usually relying on the kindness of friends, I must search for a suitable hotel close to the venue. In the past I have stayed at Brown’s Hotel, now owned by Rocco Forte, successor to his hotelier father. Though the hotel is very convenient, their room rate is in excess of a big bag of sand—that’s cockney rhyming slang for a grand—more than I am prepared to pay simply for a place to rest my head.

Doorhandle bling

For about £200, Google gives me a four-star hotel less than five minutes walk from the club, just the other side of Regent Street in Soho and steps from kinky Carnaby Street. I have never heard of the Karma Sanctum Soho but the Trip Advisor ratings seem reasonable and the prices within budget. It bills itself as the original rock and roll hotel and when my black cab pulls up outside on a brilliant summer evening, it does not disappoint. A crowd spills out of the street-front bar over the pavement and into the road. Tall women in expensive dresses sipping on exotic looking cocktails share knowing looks over the heads of much shorter men. Pushing my way through the crush to check in I realize I am not of the same age group, nor is the décor aimed at my tastes, as I spot a giant picture of the late Jimi Hendrixs behind the reception desk. To get a deal, I’ve paid in advance, so there’s nothing for it but to press on. I’m informed that the resto is being used for a private party, but the exclusive hotel bar is on the roof.

Rooftop bar’s calavera flower pot

I chuck my bag onto the bed, hang my dinner jacket in the shower to get the wrinkles out and head upstairs. The music advertises its presence from a floor away. More rock and roll, a bit loud for my delicate ears, but thank goodness no rap. The rooftop bar is compact, but there’s room for a large hot tub and a life size statue of a mountain gorilla. Flowers grow out of a day of the dead calavera. More rock and roll portraits abound, but they do not interfere with the enjoyment of my large whiskey.

Taking a traveller with me to aid in dressing for the evening, I head back to my room. I had not noticed that the door handle was emblazoned with diamantés. Nor had I noticed how tiny the room is, filled with a large four poster bed. Who cares, as long as it is comfortable, surely the prerequisite of a hotel bed these days? I squeeze around the posts to the equally tiny bathroom, where the creases have fallen out of my jacket and dress with care. Somehow my black socks seemed to have escaped during my journey. The choice is between navy blue and bright pink. I choose the latter. Better to make a statement than have people know that I am colour blind.

London’s Soho district

I call the lift and it arrives with two tall women going down to the ground floor. They admire my socks. One is taller than me by several inches. She is dressed in a skin-tight white leather trouser suit and mile-high shoes. The other is shorter but still tall. She is dressed in a skin-tight black leather mini dress. Clearly, we are not headed to the same event.

A brisk walk brings me to my evening destination. A uniformed bulldog guards the inner sanctum at the private members’ club, still a place for men only. Legend claims it’s the model for PG Wodehouse‘s Drone’s Club. In the bar a Buck’s Fizz is proffered on a silver tray. The crowd of men in penguin suits has gathered and already the buzz of jovial conversation fills the air. No rock and roll music interrupts the banter.

Later we are seated for dinner, a good crowd squeezed into a cosy dining room. We enjoy English asparagus, Parma ham and a poached egg with a dab of hollandaise sauce–a harbinger of breakfast– with a delicious Mâcon Blanc Preludes 2019 Terres Secrètes accompanying. Ever traditionalists, we are next served with beef and my companions relish a Château des Demoiselles 2015 Castillion Côtes des Bordeaux. Red doesn’t agree with me, so I continue with the white while savouring tender beef Wellington with roasted Jersey Royal potatoes and steamed broccolini. Members who feel the need to speak must wear a top hat, which is passed around with alacrity. I don’t remember a word that was said, but I do recall we laughed a lot. We finish the meal with a cherry and pistachio parfait, with crystallised pistachio, Kirsch gel and cherry compote. The dessert wine is a 10-year-old Quinta de Val Da Figuera.

Al fresco eggs Soho in my Toronto garden

Now the evening gets serious and while the port circulates, we listen with polite attention to the guest speaker. He starts by saying that he knows we would rather stick needles in our eyeballs than talk about opera. I tune out, recalling the last time I went to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre to see the Mikado, where a very large 40-something black soprano played the 16-year-old Japanese virgin Yum-Yum. I could not suspend belief and left at intermission. By the time I came back from my reverie the evening was over, but we adjourned to the bar for nightcaps and more enjoyable conversation.

Very late, I wandered back to my hotel, fortunately close by. A cheerful bouncer seemed to be keeping control of the party and helpfully guided me to the lift. I crashed. The bed was welcoming. Roused by a wake-up call, I showered, packed and staggered down to breakfast. The resto had been cleared of all the detritus of the previous evening. The waiter was friendly and Italian. After a strong coffee, I was able to study the menu and spotted eggs Benedict. As I related in Gentleman’s Portion a couple of years ago, it seems impossible to get a decent eggs Benny in England. However, undaunted, I press on and am rewarded by an excellent and tasty breakfast.

The surprise innovation is that the chef has replaced hollandaise with béarnaise sauce and decorated the eggs with tiny tarragon leaves.  Instead of ham, he has opted for crispy bacon. It is delicious and I am so impressed that I shall add it to my repertoire immediately. I name it for the hotel’s location, where I shall also happily return.

EGGS SOHO

Shopping list

  • 2 fresh large room temperature eggs (each)
  • 1 English muffin (each)
  • 4 or 5 rashers of streaky bacon, crispy
  • 2 TBSP Béarnaise sauce

Garnish

  • Fresh tarragon leaves

Preparation and cooking

  1. Prepare the Béarnaise sauce and set to one side over a very low heat.
  2. Prepare the bacon: pan fry or broil several rashers of bacon until they are crisp. Set aside on a paper kitchen towel to absorb the fat.
  3. Fill a deep sided 10 in frying pan with water, add a good splash of white vinegar, and bring to the boil. The vinegar will help the albumen in the eggs hold together. Salt will substitute. Or use an egg poacher.
  4. At the last minute, when everything else is ready, add the carefully broken eggs to the boiling water and turn off the heat. Let the eggs sit for 3 min for soft and 5 min for medium.
  5. Break, do not cut, the muffins in half and toast. Use a fork to pry apart, if the muffin is stubborn.
  6. Plate the toasted muffins, arrange the crispy bacon on top of the muffins (TIP: use kitchen scissors to trim the bacon to the shape of the muffin), using a slotted spoon, gently lift each egg out of the water, drain excess water on a paper towel and then carefully slide the egg onto the bacon. Top with a couple of spoonfuls of sauce and garnish with fresh tarragon leaves. Serve immediately. A side of fresh asparagus works wonders.

NOTE: There’s a really good trick for making crispy bacon, which I wrote about in Bakin’ Bacon.

If you are in a panic about the sauce, use a packet mix. But the taste is infinitely superior if you make it from scratch. It only takes 5 min and can then rest while you prepare the remainder of the meal.

BÉARNAISE SAUCE

Shopping list

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 TBSP tarragon vinegar
  • juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh tarragon (about 4 TBSP chopped)
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 lb melted butter
  • 1 TBSP hot water

Preparation and cooking

  1. Pull half the tarragon leaves off their stalks and chop finely. Peel and chop the shallots finely. Bring the vinegar and lemon juice to a boil, add the tarragon and shallots, then cook until it is reduced by half. Strain, discard the tarragon and shallots and set aside to cool.
  2. Beat the egg yolks in a bowl over hot water so they start to thicken.
  3. Add a few drops of the cooled reduction and keep beating. Continue until all the reduction is added and the mixture is thick.
  4. Add melted butter slowly to form an emulsion. TIP: If at any time the sauce starts to separate, add a little very hot water and beat in gently.
  5. Season with a pinch of cayenne pepper for colour and bite. Reserving some tarragon leaves for a pretty garnish, chop the rest of the leaves (about 2 TBSP) and add to the sauce.

NOTE: Béarnaise sauce is a classic French sauce. It is called a daughter sauce because it derives from hollandaise, one of the five mother sauces of French cuisine. It was first served at the opening of the Pavilion Henri IV restaurant in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris in 1836. King Henri was a famous gourmand and hailed from the city of Béarn in south-west France. The sauce is traditionally served with steak and goes wonderfully with lobster.

Featured image: A life-sized mountain gorilla statue looks over the rooftops of Soho

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This is Nigel’s 349th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

PS: To those readers who thought “taking a traveller to my room” meant I’d picked up some sort of loose woman in the bar, let me just say that in London hotels it is quite acceptable to take the drink you ordered back to your room to finish. It get’s its name because it “travels.” I have deleted the vulgar and suggestive comments some readers made.

PPS: Some readers question whether Soho was named after the eponymous district in New York. The opposite is more likely.

Soho, in London’s West End, was developed from farmland by Henry VIII in 1536, when it became a royal park. Buildings started to be developed for the upper class, including the laying out of Soho Square in the 1680s. The origin of the name is unknown. The aristocracy had mostly moved away by the mid-19th century. For much of the 20th century Soho had a reputation as a base for the sex industry in addition to its night life and the headquarters of leading music and film companies. Since the 1980s, the area has undergone considerable gentrification.

SoHo is a neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Since the 20th century it has been the location of many artists’ lofts and art galleries, an example of inner-city regeneration. The name derives from the area being South of Houston Street, coined by an urban planner in 1962, and recalls the similar area in London. Almost all of SoHo is included in the SoHo–Cast Iron Historic District, which consists of 26 blocks and approximately 500 buildings, many of them incorporating cast-iron architectural elements.

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