There has been something disorientating and bittersweet about returning to restaurants after a 4 month slumber – like the metaphysical stage of a hangover, there’s a foggy memory of the pre-Covid world but with a surreal tinge of existential angst, paranoia, maybe even a little guilt. On returning to one regular haunt a server eschewed our customary (but now illegal) handshake for a gloved fist bump. And there are your new pre-flight procedures to consider before going out (“Wallet? Coat? Scarf? Gloves? Anti-bacterial hand gel? Mask? Cabin crew ready for take-off”). The 10pm curfew and scotch egg craze are, mercifully, behind us. But in this current iteration of the restriction-shedding striptease, at least until 17 May, we must endure the freezing cold on a pre-booked pub bench or in a ludicrous plastic igloo, literally watching a carbonara turn into Heston-esque bacon and egg ice cream before our eyes. If lucky, there may be a toaster above a table to stave off the Artic chill, but we’re only kidding ourselves: in the inimitable words of Withnail, “we might as well sit round a cigarette.”
Stoically dining outdoors whilst braving chapped hands and trench foot has been a test of character – for customers and staff alike. But if the numbers of people trying to book tables are anything to go by it seems we’re up for the challenge. That forecast V-shaped recovery may yet materialise. In the meantime it has been heartening to hear the streets alive with the sound of restaurants. And when you get one of those days that briefly flirts with actual Spring-like weather, where better than a sunny table at The Grand Duchess by the Regent’s Canal?
The Grand Duchess is part of London Shell Co and – full disclosure – we already reviewed its sister vessel The Prince Regent a couple of years ago. Due to Covidian restrictions the cruise service on the boat is currently unavailable but the permanently-moored Grand Duchess has decking in Sheldon Square, all perfectly set up for al fresco dining. It is London Shell Co in static form; at the risk of sounding like a lost B-movie or obscure left-leaning punk band, it is the Terra Firma Version.
Out on deck it was unsurprisingly nippy but the service had clearly warmed up. A steady stream of walk-ins hoping to get a table without a booking were handled politely and, wherever possible, accommodated. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble despite the odd situation we’re all in at the moment. Within minutes a knowledgeable sommelier was guiding my companion and I through their (admittedly limited and young) wine list, allowing us to try samples first.
Starting with soda bread to nibble on, this had a hard crust and pleasingly squidgy centre, served with brown crab butter and chopped chives. And since it’s the partial end of lockdown, why not throw in London Shell Co’s trade mark angel hair fries with a Carlingford Lough oyster for good measure?
Next, to celebrate the arrival of asparagus season, three gently chargrilled Wye Valley spears came on a day-glo romesco sauce made with requisite nuttiness. Delicious.
I was already impressed by the seafood cookery aboard The Prince Regent on my last visit, so it was pleasing to see standards had not, pardon the pun, gone overboard.
Monkfish scampi with a red cabbage slaw and herb aioli had crunch and kick. Whilst torched mackerel became ubiquitous on every menu in 2017, and has made me wince ever since, here it somehow shone, assisted by purple sprouting broccoli, wild garlic and anchovy butter.
It takes training to cook Schrödinger’s asparagus
Observing other tables, the beer battered pollock and chips proved a popular choice but those fools missed out on the whole rainbow trout with blood orange, fennel and watercress salad. The bones will always be a menace but I marvelled at the precision of the cooking here.
My companion thought it best not to share desserts because of the Plague – honey to my ears as I think it’s best not to share desserts full stop. The custard tart with poached rhubarb was all mine, in all its wobbly, triangular glory. Last time on board The Prince Regent I felt they had dropped the ball at the dessert stage but they appear to have upped their game since.
Perhaps there was something simplistic about these dishes. But, peeling the onion, you realise there are barely visible layers of skill lurking beneath. It takes training to cook Schrödinger’s asparagus (making it somehow both al dente and soft at the same time), get the rainbow trout to melt in your mouth, the balance of acidity and aniseed in the salad, the creamy yet set consistency of the custard tart – and here it’s all the more impressive as they have such a tiny galley kitchen to work with. As I quaffed a cool glass of Austrian Grüner Veltliner by the heater, all this reminded me: this is the whole point of dining out isn’t it? No matter how much we try in our lockdown kitchens, this can’t be replicated at home.
Perhaps this is why, despite being unable to embrace each other yet, we are embracing hospitality. It’s back, baby. And at The Grand Duchess they’ve nailed it.
by J A Smith