I've still never been to Theo Randall. I'm sure it's wonderful and everything but I'm afraid the dodgy treatment meted out almost exactly two years ago still leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth. That's not to say I'll never go, but it's unlikely to find itself high on the list - and it certainly didn't feature when it came to select a venue when Valentine's Day came around this year.
It felt right to go out for dinner on Valentine's Day this year, more so perhaps than other years, when I've usually been put off by resentment of its artificiality and a certainty that I'd be ripped off by greedy restaurateurs. But when you're living - and now working - together, and spending more than a little of your spare collective time messing about in the kitchen, it's true that a decent excuse for a night out that features someone else slaving over the hot stove is always welcome. It was also a Sunday this year, which seemed to present at least some possibility that West End restaurants and bars wouldn't be crammed to the rafters with credulous mugs paying through the nose. Plus we were celebrating the start of a new era and the rather rash purchase of a fancy car. Dinner out was definitely called for.
First, though, a cheeky cocktail at Hix Soho, which is danger of becoming a serious contender for favourite central London bar. With its pressed tin ceiling, quirkily low bar and subtle lighting, it would be a pleasing spot even without the bar billiards table. But there's more...
My paternal grandparents spent the 1960s managing The Squadron, an old-school seaside hotel in Ryde. By the time I started spending holidays on the Isle of Wight they had retired (the hotel has fallen a long way from grace these days) and moved to Seaview. All that remained of the Squadron years, setting aside for a minute the small matter of my parents' courtship, was an eclectic collection of glasses than bordered on the heroic. There were coloured glasses from drinks brands I seriously doubt ever actually existed, coupes and flutes of every conceivable geometry and more delicate umbrellas and adornments than you could swizzle a stick at. It was an Aladdin's Cave of kitsch, and one of the joys of my childhood. And I think I've just worked out where that crazy glass collection has ended up...
At Hix, although they do have traditional martini glasses somewhere in their collection, you're as likely to have your chilled spirit served in a sherry schooner or a port glass. (While we were there an actual Babycham coupe was sent out containing something far more grown up than the little bambi might have suggested.) Surprisingly, perhaps, and despite the unchilled glasses, the drinks are none the worse for this presentation, showing the value of a well-trained and confident mixologist. My schooner of Plymouth with its comical, and possibly record-breaking, twist of lemon may not have looked much like a traditional martini but it delivered on far more levels than any number of visually correct efforts I've been served elsewhere in the capital.
All too soon, it was off through the rain to Dean Street Townhouse for the main event. Beautiful room, lovely staff, busy but not crammed. All it needed was some halfway decent food and the evening could be considered a success. It was not to disappoint.
The menu is great: lots of vogue classics, a focus on seasonality, a veritable study in making a virtue out of old fashioned simple dishes - the signature dish is mince and boiled potatoes - served up with confidence in glam surroundings. To get away with this sort of thing the execution has to be spot on, and it's hard to judge that on a single visit. But when that visit is on one of the busiest and most high pressure nights of the year it seems a fair test and it's one that the Townhouse passed with flying colours.
A warm salad of rabbit, black pudding and scotch quails eggs was beautifully balanced, the richness of the meaty elements cut through by a sharp dressing and some quills of bitter chicory. Lovely. Antonia (choosing from the unadvertised vegetarian menu) started with a caramelised onion tart topped with a perfectly poached egg. Simple but effective, and praised far more highly than is usually the case for such a regular vegetarian fall-back option. This was followed by a main course macaroni cheese (which looked fab) and a lemon sole meuniere for me, which was (and I know I'm stealing from Masterchef here but sometimes there's no other way)... Cooked. To. Perfection. The only gripe was the pathetic bowl of buttered greens: barely more than a spoonful and yours for a cool £3.75. A bit naughty that.
We skipped pudding, feeling the remainder of our evening would be better spent walking over to Covent Garden and having a final snifter at Rules, still the holder of the favourite bar title. And we were right. More quirky glasses (this time, one feels, a bit more studied), more excellent mixing, and the third sumptuous room of the night. In fact if there are three better rooms in London than these three then I want to know about them.
A fine evening.Hix Soho, 66 Brewer Street London W1F 9TR 020 7292 3518
Dean Street Townhouse, 69 Dean Street London W1D 4QJ 020 7434 1775
Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7LB 020 7836 5314