A Right Roasting
Jonathan Aitken, our guest reviewer, raves over the riches of great British food at Roast in London’s Borough Market
“Cry God for Iqbal Wahhab, England and St George!” This amended war cry of Shakespeare’s King Henry Vth to the English army at the 16th century siege of Harfleur is an appropriate rallying call to the 21st century army of English foodies who have long been yearning for a new champion of this sceptre’d isle’s national cuisine.
We Anglo-Saxon foodie soldiers who have tramped many restaurant miles in search of home-grown lovely grub, just like mother used to make, can at last move on from those old-fashioned English watering holes like Simpsons In The Strand, Rules, Wiltons and The Goring. For Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!
A new temple honouring our nation’s gastronomic excellence has opened. It is Roast, a stylish, spacious and, above all, delicious restaurant located in the heart of Southwark’s Borough Market with stunning views over the Thames to St Paul’s Cathedral. The quintessential Englishness of Roast’s surroundings (Borough Market is full of shoppers and stall holders straight from the pages of Charles Dickens or the watercolours of Thomas Rowlandson) continues on the menu. An initial glance at the daily specials reveals regional strengths of unusual culinary discernment such as roast shoulder of Tamworth Pork, Inverawe smoked Loch Etive trout, Harwood’s Colchester oysters and rock samphire from the White Cliffs of Dover.
You can go traditional or experimental here. My wife Elizabeth and I did a bit of both. Sitting on a comfortable suede sofa at the bar I enjoyed an aperitif glass of vintage English wine – Pinot Blanc Chapel Down 2002. As a former Kent MP I knew the crisp bouquet of this Maidstone vineyard would sharpen my palate for the treats in store, while my wife enjoyed a fresh carrot juice.
Moving to our table in the well-spaced dining room, we opted for fish appetisers. Elizabeth chose grilled Cornish pilchards with Gentleman’s Relish on toast while I had the market salad of the day.
It was sea kale (a rare Northumbrian delicacy) with mussels, brown shrimps and crab. These starters were so fresh and tangy that I felt like bursting into a fisherman’s sea shanty of approval, but the main course was even better.
As its name suggests, Roast specialises in roast meat and poultry with all the trimmings. After gazing wistfully into the open kitchen at the traditional options of Scotch beef with Yorkshire pudding, Welsh lamb and roast pork glowing with crisp crackle, I plumped for roast chicken (from Barnham in Norfolk, where, as a schoolboy I used to play village cricket) with Ayrshire bacon and bread sauce. My chosen vegetables were sprout tops, winter roast vegetable mash, and roast potatoes in dripping.
After that lot I felt appropriately plump myself but a five-mile run earlier in the day had given me a John Bull appetite. Having enjoyed every morsel of the main course I began to acquire his figure too! Elizabeth, who guards her figure more carefully, selected braised oxtail with celeriac mash and wild mushrooms, pronouncing the combination superb.
We then paused to enjoy a glass of Bordeaux (Chateau Pey La Tour Reserve 2003) with chef Lawrence Keogh. After a career which included spells at The Ritz, The Hyatt in Sydney and Marco Pierre White’s Quo Vadis, Keogh developed a passion for English food which is fully shared by Roast’s proprietor, the Bangladesh-born Iqbal Wahhab. Wahhab made his name as a foodie hero when he founded the Cinnamon Club on the site of the old Westminster Public Library in Great Smith Street, SW1. Although Roast and Cinnamon offer completely different menus, they both have high ceilings, elevated spaces, a proximity to great ecclesiastic buildings (Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s) and an insistence on ingredients of excellence. These are easy to find in Borough Market which, since mediaeval times, has been a Mecca for discerning food buyers. If you come to the market on a Saturday you will find it heaving with knowledgeable gastronomes, but Roast is there at the heart of the action for three meals a day, seven days a week, so it gets the best of the produce easily, according to Lawrence Keogh, as well as having its own direct lines of supply from Yorkshire farmers, Cornish fisherman et al.
Roast is certainly distinctive. While over-modest Brits deprecate their national cooking (except when they’re eating Sunday lunch at home) it has taken a Bangladeshi restaurateur and an Irish chef to go the whole hog for English dishes worthy of a king. One consequence of the high quality is that prices are high too. Expect to pay around £50 a head for a full-scale Roast dinner but there are bargains to be had for pre- or post-theatre suppers (£18 for two courses or £21 for three courses) or for the £12 full Borough Market breakfast (served 7am to 10am every morning). The Saturday Brunch at £25 per head (8-11am) with the market at full throttle all around you is fun and good value too.
Elizabeth and I brought our evening to an end with her pudding choice of Bramley apple, sultana and hazelnut crumble with custard and my savoury choice of a giant-sized Welsh Rarebit. Both were mouthwatering. Although we didn’t rave over the art nouveau décor, whose centrepiece seemed to be a row of white bath towels, we raved about everything else. If you love authentic English food, Roast will make your dreams come true.
Roast, Floral Hall, Stoney Street, Borough Market, London SE1 1TL, Tel: +44 20 7940 1300