Saturday was my good friend Mark's birthday and happily he resurrected a 'tradition' from a couple of years ago involving treating a bunch of mates to a slap-up feed at one of London's finer eateries. Coincidentally, the focus has been on the Ramsay stable: we went to Claridge's last time and this year was the turn of the Boxwood Café, adjoining the Berkley Hotel.
Not a regular in Belgravia, I didn't really know how long it would take to get there and I consequently pitched up a little early. Given Mark's world famous approach to punctuality I knew I had plenty of time to kill, so I decided to kill it wisely in a spot of local research. A pavement advertisement board pointed the way and I was soon settled at the disconcertingly low bar of the Nag's Head, an engaging old London boozer that doesn't look like it has changed in donkey's years. The two signs outside proclaiming the 'no mobiles' rule tell you almost everything you need to know (it is robustly enforced, apparently), except to add that the Adnams was the best I've had outside Essex or Suffolk and you should be prepared for some incongruously loud MOR music. Well worth seeking out, even if you don't like Cliff Richard.
Back over to the restaurant to await the rest of the party. The Boxwood is ranged over several smartly appointed rooms all connected to a small but comfortable central bar where we enjoyed champers and cocktails until the whole party gathered. The same bar would later serve as an excellent prop for those of us who felt the need for a couple of digestifs from an interesting range of single malts.
The food at the Boxwood focuses on combining seasonal ingredients to create modern takes on classic brasserie fare. So croque monsieur crops up with smoked salmon and caviar, and a burger famously features veal and foie gras. Overall it's a well balanced, interesting menu, although with a dozen starters and a similar number of mains, it is perhaps a little daunting.
Ignoring (for once) the tasting menu (which looked good value at £55) we managed to sample a fair proportion of the à la carte and were generally very impressed. Among the starters, a crayfish bisque with wild mushrooms didn't hang around long enough for me to get a taste, the croque looked heavy going but wasn't, the generous array of queenie scallops on sea urchin butter left your reviewer forever grateful to the dedicated soul who milked the urchin. Elsewhere the intense pigginess of pork belly and trotter were finely complemented by the prawn salad and caper anchovy dressing, and the crab linguine was 'perfect'. I somehow failed to snaffle a fried oyster: they didn't last long either. The star turn, though, was a beautiful roasted tomato tatin, perfect pastry and a stunning combination of freshness, delicacy and depth of flavour.
The starters were washed down with a top St Aubin Premier Cru from what my learned colleague described as an 'interesting' list, not too long but with plenty of variety. Our charming sommelier was still learning her trade and had the nous to admit to the gaps in her knowledge. We later had a smooth Tour de By 1998, chosen, like the St Aubin, on the basis of value and a Castelnau de Suduirant 2004, chosen on the basis that we wanted something to go with our puddings.
For mains we again covered good ground, although three of us failed to resist the lure of the burger. This was a delicious plateful but didn't quite hold together as a burger. An attempt to squeeze it all together and eat it as a sandwich proved too much for the squashy meat. First rate chips and garnishes completed a fun ensemble. Others wolfed down an amazing lobster and beetroot risotto, confit duck leg, stuffed guinea fowl and a special of rump of lamb. All tremendously satisfying and reasonable value for a place of this stature.
We were mostly too full for puddings but as you'll have gathered we mostly had them anyway. Records from this period are sketchy to say the least but there were cute doughnuts and intense cheesecake involved.
So, a fine meal among friends, and big thanks to Mark for making it possible. Like the Nag's Head, the Boxwood is worth seeking out. It's not quite haute cuisine, but then it's not quite trying to be.
Boxwood Café, The Berkley, Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL. 020 7235 1010