In London, England for Christmas, seeing old friends and relations and staying in my mum’s flat on the Fulham Road, I am overjoyed to catch the last episode of season three of The Mighty Boosh on the television (my son gave me seasons one and two on DVD and they travel with me everywhere). I make my mum watch it and she finds it funny, even though (or perhaps because) its theme is acting and its plot hinges on the thespian rivalry between one of the protagonists (Howard Moon) and an alcoholic crab called Sammy. Meanwhile the other hero, Vince Noir, is trying to fit into a pair of very tight black drainpipe trousers so he can be cool enough to perform with a mod band he idolizes. What an amazing series of coincidences! And I’ll tell you why.
My mother, let me explain, is one of England’s leading theatrical agents, still working in her office 24-7, still doing a dazzling job at the sharp age of 84. She likes to take me out to dinner when I’m staying with her, which is very kind, as, (a) I can’t afford London restaurant prices on my own; (b) she is a mine of information on the latest, hottest places to eat; and (c) she is exceptionally good company.
This time she takes me to Scott’s which has suddenly become the most sought-after and talked-about restaurant in London. Not bad for a place that first opened in 1851 as an oyster bar on the Haymarket. It stayed there for over a century and became one of the great theatrical haunts. My mother explained how, during the 1960s, the renowned impresario Binkie Beaumont used the restaurant as his office, conducting meetings and taking calls at his lunchtime table. And this was where she so often had lunch with her friends and colleagues Robert Morley and Robin Fox. Scott’s moved to Mount Street in 1968, taking up a position in the heart of Mayfair, though losing its place in the hearts of Londoners as the last century dwindled to a close. The IRA bombed it twice—presumably because it was seen as an English institution. But it had become moribund and ignored until 2005, when it was acquired by Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings, the company that bought out the restaurants revivified by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin—great names like The Ivy, Le Caprice and J. Sheekey’s—as well as such swish rendezvous of my youth as Daphne’s on Draycott Avenue.
“Let’s go to Scott’s,” said my mother, and we did, to be greeted most affectionately by Sean, the bowler-hatted doorman, and Kevin Lansdown, the manager, both of them veterans of The Ivy. “We’ve moved a few things around,” smiled the fellow who showed us to our table. In fact, Caprice Holdings has spent over five million pounds refurbishing Scott’s and they have done it most impressively. The interior is unrecognizable but it looks as if it has been this way for decades. In the centre of the room is the oyster bar, its surface green onyx, its façade covered in stingray skin, built around a towering mountain of ice upon which the raw seafood briefly rests before it is born away to the tables. The walls, floor and tables are of a dark oak; glass and mirror are used subtly but often to fudge the dimensions of the room, and the walls are hung with works by England’s most current and avant-garde artists. Though the waiters may sigh at the size of the tables and the long reach needed to replace cutlery, they are a treat for the clientele.
I began with half a dozen oysters—Duchy of Cornwall Natives No. 3—minerally almost to the point of bitterness but ending with a sweetgrass redemption. They were served without horseradish, of course (I think that’s a Toronto invention) but with a classic shallot mignonette, half a lemon in muslin and a bottle of Tabasco (all of which went unused).
Next a cock crab from South Devon. I know about North Devon crabs. When I was myself a nipper, my mother would take us on holiday to a hotel called Portledge on the North Devon coast, near the villages of Bideford, Ilfracombe and Westward Ho!, where her family was from. My brother and I would go shrimping in the rock pools with small nets on thin bamboo poles, and the crabs were our underwater enemy—glossy brown rocks that would suddenly come to life and scuttle away in a billow of sand to the shrieks of the tiny Chatti.
Scott’s crab was a monster—so big they only brought me half, immaculately fresh and still in the shell. They also set down surgical tools that let me crack the shell of the legs and claws and excavate the chitinous chambers of the body, scraping away like a scrupulous dentist until my plate was piled with about a kilo of crab meat. Oh Lord, it was delicious—such flavour from the gooey brown meat and the flaky white! Orkney crabs are delicate little things that taste refined, almost with a hint of horseradish. Crabs from Suffolk and Kent are more powerfully flavoured. But the Devon crabs (North or South) have the most robustly flavourful flesh of all. Put them up against a Nova Scotia lobster and they would kick arthropod butt every time.There was so much crab meat that I could have gone home right then, but I had ordered a Dover sole. It was classically cooked: grilled with a little butter and a perfectly judged sprinkling of salt—its firm but delicate, fine-grained, sweet-tasting flesh separating into fillets with the merest pressure of knife and fork. Scott’s offers very English vegetables: Brussels sprouts with bacon, steamed or creamed spinach, braised fennel, chips that are a little too thickly cut and pure to turn your soul to the dark side. I found a Pouilly Fumé Les Cornets Domaine Coulbais 2005 an even better accompaniment. Lovely cheeses and desserts were proffered but the crab had usurped my appetite.
Scott’s is once again an institution, though pressure from the neighbours (specifically a member of the Westminster Council and a Daily Mail journalist who live upstairs) means the kitchen must shut down at 10:30, extractors switched off at 11:00 p.m., which prevents the place from doing the after-theatre business it deserves. The same neighbours, incidentally, almost killed Scott’s when it was set to re-open after its 2005 renovations, using influence to delay the ratification of its license. The owners were faced with a dilemma. They had already accepted sell-out reservations for weeks to come. They opened anyway, honouring those reservations and letting customers dine free for the 11 days it took to acquire their license. The resultant publicity ensured enormous goodwill for Scott’s. I must say, it is not misplaced. If you’re in London and fancy a crab, go nowhere else.
And the last coincidence—Vince Noir struggling to fit into his black drainpipes? Again, I shall blame the crab. Heading into Christmas proper, I find none of my trousers fit.