As the home of the City of London, Guildhall has been the centre of City government since the 12th century, and still serves as the City’s ceremonial centre. Recently discovered remains of a Roman amphitheatre indicate that the site was significant as far back as Roman times. Having survived the Great Fire of London, it is the only pre-1666 secular stone structure still standing in the City. The gothic building served as a base for the Lord Mayor in an era when mayor rivaled the monarch for influence and prestige. Trials in the hall have included those of Thomas Cranmer, Lady Jane Grey and Henry Garnet (in connection to the Gunpowder Plot). Fast forward to late 2011, and the team behind Hawksmoor Spitalfields and Seven Dials have cleverly chosen to open their third steakhouse in the suit-filled, BMW-lined, cash-rich City of London, housing Hawksmoor Guildhall in a Grade II listed building inches away from the Guildhall’s soaring ceilings.
The latest addition to the Hawksmoor family is the largest of the trio, able to accommodate 170 covers. A circular sapphire stained glass window prettifies the main entrance, where a sweeping staircase leads you down into the expansive space furnished with chocolate brown leather seats, polished wooden floors and walls lined with wood panelling, which give the impression you’re aboard a vintage sea liner. Reinforcing the nautical theme are porthole lights, a low ceiling and art deco light fittings modelled on the ones used in the Titanic. Specimen cabinets from the Natural History Museum populate the room, while tables have been pilfered from school science departments.
Beef dominates proceedings, with a six-course tasting menu the star attraction. The affable waiting staff sport rolled up checked shirts, fitted jeans and goofy grins. It’s a Tuesday night and the room is abuzz with animated chatter. To my left, a table of sharp-suited businessmen who look like they’ve even nothing but T-bone steak their entire lives, gesticulate wildly with their meaty hands. I kick off my meat feast with a duo of aged whites by the glass, impressed to see both Rioja stalwart López de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco 2001 and Lebanon’s finest, Château Musar 2003 on the list. Two generous glasses of liquid gold are brought to the table, the López de Heredia showing the signature nuttiness of aged white Rioja, while the Musar has a perfumed nose of dried quince and exotic fruits, which pairs perfectly with a sextet of saline Dorset native oysters. Clean and direct, they cleanse the palate in preparation for the pleasures of the flesh.
As inseparable on a 2011 menu as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, a second starter of woody salt-baked beetroot and crumbly Childwickbury goat’s cheese dances across the palate. For the main event, I default to the waiter, who, displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of each cut, talks me through the flavour nuances of each. I settle on a 600g sirloin, and, feeling primeval, ask for it rare. The Flintstones-sized steak is the largest piece of meat I’ve ever encountered. So huge as to be rendered cartoon-like, it could have fed a family of five. Determined to do it justice, I grab my knife and fork and venture into its soft interior.
There’s something about eating a steak that unleashes the inner caveman (or woman). A thick, bloodied slab of meat brings you face-to-face with your carnivorous nature. Attacking the cut and devouring the rare meat links you to your Neanderthal ancestors who hunted to survive. It’s inherently masculine; the ultimate Alpha Male meal, and the polar opposite of a pretentious organic salad filled with frippery. There is something honest and pure about enjoying a steak; a reaffirmation of our status at the top of the food chain.
Aside from its arresting size, the sirloin is moist, tender, juicy (from the fat), and well seasoned. Perfectly pink inside, it has a smoky edge and is so supremely cooked, and such a pure expression of itself, that the accompanying béarnaise and bone marrow sauces hinder rather than enhance the flavour. A side of piping hot triple cooked chips held the crown of the best in London for all of a week, until a visit to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal knocked them from their perch. Hawksmoor’s homemade tomato sauce, served in a retro glass bottle, is given a playful twist by the addition of fennel.
Excited to see Pulenta Malbec 2008 on the wine list, on asking for a bottle, I am told they have run out, so opt instead for Luigi Bosca Gala 1 Malbec 2008, which charms with its fragrant nose of raspberries and plums. Voluptous, and with an alluring sweetness, the fine-grained tannins cut through the fat in the steak, while searing acidity adds wonderful freshness. Dessert presents an array of enticing options, from sticky toffee pudding to an old school popcorn sundae. I go for the peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream. A dynamic and decadent duo, the shortbread arrives as a parcel, its interior revealing molten peanut butter sauce.
The Hawksmoor team have struck gold with Guildhall, the word fittingly deriving from the Anglo-Saxon “gild”, meaning payment. Building on the success of its older siblings, the new kid on the chopping block has an electric atmosphere, refreshingly unstuffy staff, and fleshy food that satiates even the strongest of carnal desires.