We spent the morning before Hawksmoor at the Natural History Museum. I had been there several times previously, and thought it a convenient place to take my brother who seems to always be in need of more reference material for his art work. He is studying game art in Leicester and was down for the weekend to visit his older brother in London for the first time. When I thought about all the museums he could visit and enjoy, beyond the obvious galleries available to us like the Tate and the National, an opportunity to see one of the largest collections of natural exhibits in the world seemed too good to pass up.
I normally spend an hour or so walking through the museum before I leave, not paying specific attention to any exhibit, but with Leroy around, taking pictures of nearly everything we came across, from precious stones to python skeletons, it was only after our fifth hour did we finally decide it was time to leave. If hunger was not as compelling to us as it is, we probably would have stayed a little longer, spending some more time contemplating the gorgeous hummingbird installation or those of the lives of ichthyosaurs.
Though it may seem morbid and repulsive to some, our time at the museum made us even more excited to keep our reservation at Hawksmoor, a restaurant a short walk away in Knightsbridge. This has nothing to do with our sadistic, anthropocentric fervour, a desire to realise our dominance of the natural world through a thoroughly meaty Sunday roast, but because walking around the massive museum building took a lot out of us. In any case, all ethical fibre seems to dissipate when faced with the prospect of an immaculately cooked steak.
This Hawksmoor does not look like much from the outside. Just simple lettering and an all-black entrance. Stairs lead down into the basement restaurant, where you are immediately met by staff sat in the cloak room checking if people have a reservation. We arrive fifteen minutes early and are made to wait at the bar. It is a room that reminded me very much of the kind of aesthetic championed by the Dishoom in Kensington: a lot of lamps, bottles and brass. Intimate lighting too.
The Hawksmoor dining room was packed when we were lead in. A couple of families sat in the booths but a majority were couples on lunch dates. Almost every table bore inviting roast dinners upon them, so we knew exactly what to expect. Compared to what we usually have on Sundays, the portions were rather small. I decided to treat my brother to some oysters, the first he had ever eaten.
They came on a circular steel plate on a bed of ice chips. A solitary wedge of lemon sat enticingly in the centre of a ring of shimmering oyster half-shells. A small plate with tabasco and vinaigrette was brought along with it.
First, an oyster without any condiments. I wanted Leroy to taste the saline sea, embrace the full force of the liquor, the jelly-like meat of the crustacean, and to see him grimace at the metallic aftertaste which would inevitably come. What a face it was: obviously disgusted but trying to play it off cool as a cucumber, like a pre-teen trying their first sip of lager.
The next one was the harbinger of potential. An oyster with just a few drops of squeezed lemon. The same briny flavours emerge but with a fresh sharpness that effaces the metallic taint. With that gone, Leroy began to truly realise the potential of a simple, austere oyster: the freshest tasting sea creature you will ever consume.
Not too keen on oysters with the chilli vinegar kick of tabasco, we went on to ones gently caressed by balsamic vinegar and pickled, chopped garlic. These were sweet and delicious, our favourite combination, and the main reason we got another plateful after we finished with our roasts.
Our main meals took a little while to come, unsurprising because of how busy it was, so we spent most of that time talking about oysters. For what else can one talk about after popping that infamous cherry?
While Leroy silently contemplated how he could have possibly lived this long with not having tried a single oyster, I told him stories about them. About Seamus Heaney’s experience of them as the ‘philandering sigh of ocean’, as tasting the salt in a cluster of stars called Pleiades. My passion for oysters was deep so I went further still, and told him of the funny piece by Chekhov where he talks about eating an oyster as a child and thinking them to be slimy, salty frogs that gave him nightmares. Oysters, fresh and alive, prepared well and with care or with no preparation in the kitchen at all, has been some of the most inspiring food in history. And now he understood why.
Seeing the large plates placed before us after all this talk of oysters reignited our already revving ravenousness. It would seem that six oysters each served only to invigorate the appetite rather than appease it. There were blushing slices of rare rump steak, inviting golden potatoes, a massive mutant of a Yorkshire pudding that took up a third of the plate – largest Yorkshire Leroy had ever seen. Delicious bone marrow infused gravy came in a tiny porcelain jug, collard greens that were faultlessly cooked and cleverly propped up the mound of meat, carrots that were soft though with a slight bite to them, roasted garlic delightfully fragrant, and a sweetly caramelised shallot completing the marvellous Hawksmoor ensemble.
As we polished off the remnants of gravy and sauce off our plates with the last pieces of pudding, we hollered over our waiter who had reserved the final portion of oysters for our table. We toasted each oyster to brotherhood as Heaney does, and walked out the restaurant feeling uncharacteristically light and vivacious.
Though the meal was right and well, there is no doubt in my mind that the highlight of Leroy’s evening was watching my shoe get caught on one of Hawksmoor’s sharp stairs and fall forwards, up the stairs, grazing my knee and shin. I got up quickly as if I had just remembered to tie my shoelace and exited with red faced embarrassment to the giggles of my little brother.
Location: 3 Yeoman’s Row, Chelsea, London SW3 2AL