The restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s latest project is the National Dining Rooms at the National Gallery. It is situated in the Sainsbury Wing, although as Tesco has more or less blasted Sainsbury’s out of the water in every way you can think of in recent years, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Tesco takes it over, moves it out of town until everything in town goes bust, and then moves it back as the Tesco Metro Wing. Supermarkets. Aren’t they just so evil? Last week my car was broken into, window smashed and everything, and while I’m not one of those people who likes to blame supermarkets for all that is wrong in all the world, I do think it was Asda’s fault all the same.
Anyway, I’m meeting my mother, to take her out to lunch for her birthday. My mother is 78 and still plays tennis nearly every day. I always introduce her with: ‘This is my mother, who is 78 and still plays tennis nearly every day’, rather as Maggie Smith in A Private Function always introduced her mother with: ‘She’s 74, you know.’ I don’t know if this upsets my mother, but I do know that birthday lunches don’t. The other thing my mother is very good at, aside from being 78 and playing tennis nearly every day, is racking up birthday lunches, managing to get at least 17 out of every birthday. ‘I’ve already taken her to the Wolseley,’ says my father, ‘but she found her way out again.’ My father is with us. He can be a very hard man to shake off. For every 17 lunches my mother racks up for her birthday, I think it is probably fair to say my father is at them all. There may even be others he doesn’t tell her about.
We meet in the National Dining Rooms itself, which is divided into a bakery-cum-café on one side and a fine-dining restaurant on the other. I think, possibly, Peyton, the Nineties wunderkind (Isola, Mash, Atlantic Bar and Grill) who appears to be maturing nicely (Inn The Park) would like the restaurant to become something like the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is so good it’s become a destination entirely in and of itself. Sod the art, let’s just go and eat. That sort of place. However, while the Modern overlooks and opens on to the museum’s sculpture garden, you wouldn’t really know you were in the National Gallery from in here. The one art work is a Paula Rego triptych that’s not even especially appealing, while the rest of the décor is quite sludgy and low-ceilinged, giving it something of a gloomy, basement feel, even though it’s on the first floor overlooking Trafalgar Square. A great view, you would think, but not really. The Square is quite tacky these days and as full of pigeons as ever. I hate pigeons, although I accept that they have a rubbish life. When Mr Urban Pigeon gets home of an evening and Mrs Urban Pigeon asks him how his day went, I’m guessing he says something like, ‘Oh, you know, same old, same old. Pecked a few fag butts, had a crap, pecked a few more fag butts.... ’ The menu promises ‘the best in modern British cooking, using only fresh and seasonal ingredients from all over the British Isles’, rather as Roast and Canteen do, what with new British cooking being the new British cooking thing. I know, instantly, what my father is going to have to start with: oxtail soup with bone-marrow dumplings. My father is an offal man. My father, if you allow him, will tell you at length how his own mother used to press her own tongues and boil entire heads of things and how, when he was growing up, you could get stuffed hearts down the pub and they were really delicious and on and on and on until sometimes you just have to say, ‘Father, just hold it there while I have a quick retch.’ I should introduce my father with: ‘This is my father. He is 82 and an offal man.’ So he orders the oxtail soup, which is actually absurdly pricey at £12, but what the hell, this being my mother’s birthday lunch and a special occasion for the 17th time. My mother orders likewise while I decide on the warm watercress mousse with braised button onions (£6). We are brought bread, a whole dense, dark, home-baked loaf of it accompanied by a good scoop of wonderfully fresh unsalted butter. Terrific, as is the service. I think I recognise the restaurant manager as the chap who used to be at Sketch, and he’s done a wonderful job with the staff. Our waitress is friendly yet expert and, in her light brown top teamed with dark brown bottoms, darts all over the shop looking like a sprightly cappuccino. The soup arrives like a little piece of restaurant theatre; bowl first, with the dumplings at the bottom, then the liquid is poured over from a small jug. My father says the flavour is good but the broth is quite thin and the dumplings are tiny (like marbles) and he would have liked it better if it had all been a bit heartier. My own watercress mousse is visually delightful, looking as it does like a bright green minisandcastle. However, it is a little disappointing, flavour-wise, as it’s not only too salty, but that peppery kick you always expect from watercress never comes.
Next, we forgo the meat dishes (crisp pork belly; loin of Elwy Valley lamb; honey-roast duck) in favour of fish. Don’t know why, but we do. I have the steamed sea bream with shrimps, cucumber and mace (£16.50) and it is gorgeous. The fish is a perfect specimen, beautifully cooked all pearly and translucent — and the shrimps give it the most intense fishy flavour. I don’t really get the taste of mace, but I don’t care. My mother says her sea bass with braised fennel and herb breadcrumbs (£18.50) is ‘wonderful’ while my father’s monkfish, mullet and mussel stew (£16.50) not only looks good but tastes really good too: moist, fresh, with a lovely perfumed fishiness. Our side order of spinach, by the way, manages to be juicy without being watery, which is quite a hard thing to achieve with spinach.
My father finishes with cheeses from the excellent cheese list (13 cheeses, all British, with names like Blackstick Blue, Thomas Hoe Stevenson, Lord of the Hundreds, at £6 for one and £9 for two) while my mother and I share a steamed chocolate pudding (£4), which I think is as good as these things get: a deeply chocolatey sponge covered in a deeply chocolatey sauce and served with home-made custard. I think this is a fine restaurant, the kind that could easily become a destination one, although that possibly depends less on the food and more on it getting its own private entrance so it can stay open beyond gallery hours (at present, it is lunchtimes only). Whatever, my mother, who is 78 and plays tennis nearly every day, enjoyed her 17th birthday lunch, as did my father. I don’t know what he does while my mother plays tennis, but I’d bet dreaming about the days when kidneys were routinely served for breakfast comes into it somewhere.