Lady Astor once said, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee”.
Sir Winston Churchill retorted, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Churchill hated having a woman finally in parliament, and told her that it was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom. What did Lady Astor say? “Winston, you’re not handsome enough to have such fears!”
What a woman! The first woman to take her seat in the British Parliament in 1919, Nancy Astor was a well-born American who married into British aristocracy. No less than Lord Waldorf Astor. Does the Famous hotel Waldorf Astoria ring a bell? It should. Nancy was a feminist, a fire-brand, and the mental equal to Churchill, who duelled with her on a regular basis. Parliament had never been such fun.
As we stepped into the terribly pukkah 1920’s Art Deco ambience of the Astor Grill, one could almost picture Winston and Nancy swapping insults and port in a dark corner. Suits and Victorian gowns. Polished glass and gleaming brass. Fresh flowers, starched white cloths. The low hum of guests and waiters. Another time.
Is there room for such a place these days? In the time of Millennials and micro-herbs? I’d love to think so. And our big group who floated in mid-week to gather, eat and talk all felt the same. Especially when the maître d’, Rocky, whisked our coats away, flicked our napkins on our laps, and began a seriously beautiful dance of old-fashioned great service.
Our first waiter, Isabelle, knew the food, quietly was there when needed, and delivered each meal on point. Lachie backed her up. And our maître d’ poured the wine, supervised the room and kept the wheels turning. We relaxed. Completely. As only guests can do when professionals are in charge. It’s a good feeling.
And the food? Beautiful, perfectly cooked, great produce that was recognizable yet with nods to current fashion and presentation. Donna and I shared, as we often do, and the scallops with roasted hazelnuts, pork cheek, spinach puree and shaved parmesan, at $23, were among the best and most delicious of that shellfish I’ve had in a long time.
Other guests tried a variety of the entrées, from the ‘five spice free range pork belly’ to steak tartare, to a vegan salad, truffle mushrooms, the choice was big. Too big for me, as always, I so want restaurants to simplify, to keep fresh, and rotate. But in spite of the staggering choice, each dish was perfectly executed and delivered in good time.
The wine? War and Peace! Really. Pages of varietals, flavours, countries, endless. We started with an Italian Prosecco which was superb at $42, and motored on to a Joseph Chromy Sauvignon Blanc at $46. They really don’t need the choice – half or even a quarter the size list would do handsomely. And free up much needed money. I hate to see so much investment sitting gathering dust.
Donna and I decided we had to have the steak, so shared the Steak Astor, a ¼ kg. of eye fillet stuffed with stilton, served with bok choy and blue cheese sauce. And ‘the steak’ which was again a ¼ kg of eye fillet, wrapped in prosciutto, served with mushrooms and brandy cream sauce. Medium rare. Both $42.50.
Well, best steaks we’ve had in a while, but the first one, the Astor, had a surfeit of blue – cheese that is. Talk about gilding the lily. Stuffing or sauce, but not both – all together too too much blue. But the other? Perfect. We had a side of Tasmanian truffle infused mash which was to die for. Delicious, creamy with that faint fungi type aroma that only a truffle can impart.
Of course we had no room for dessert but had it anyway – the Orange Crema Catalana, like an orange crème brulée, $15, and the coconut and pandan panna cotta with lemon ice tea sorbet, ginger syrup and macaron. $15. Gone! We were gone, it was gone, and as we got up to pay, I asked Isabelle and Lachie, who were both so professional, were they planning their own restaurant?
“Haaa, no, I’m studying opera singing,” laughed Isabelle, “and Lachie’s a violinist.” Well, I went home sadder and wiser. Never think you know anything about anyone else. They’ll always surprise you. What a loss to the industry, but bonus for the arts, I guess.
Is the ghost of Churchill still around? Such a large figure in every way, could I smell his cigar as we left the building? Possibly, it had been a busy night as well for them, so long may the Astor hold its quiet reign at the top of town. Try it. Just for a bit of old world peace, quiet, and good service.