In fact, it is only a question if you happen to be a slave to the idiosyncrasies of corporate dining etiquette. It is one of the burdens to bear when climbing the greasy pole.
I am sitting in The Square in Mayfair enjoying one of the finest lunches of the year when my attention is diverted from the rather lovely breads to the next table.
Here, there are six businessmen, all suited, some booted, some devilishly modish in open-necked shirts.
The fashion of dispensing with ties shows no sign of going away. It is the senior manager’s way of saying: “I am confident in my abilities. I am inclusive. I’m actually borderline creative. And I don’t mind if you do see my chest hair. I had it waxed a few weeks ago and, yes, it’s grown back, but I don’t care. I’m happy with body hair…”
Back at Table Gekko, there is that disconcerting, highly embarrassing moment just after the waiter presents the menus. Everyone quietly flicks through the pages and tries not to engage in conversation. The traditional game of executive menu poker has started. Eyes down.
Everyone is thinking: “Bloody Nora. We’ve come to a two bleedin’ Michelin star swag palace. We might as well go for it. If you can’t get nicely oiled at The Square, what really is the point…?”
But the chaps are also thinking: “Is it grabbing, a bit needy, like you don’t get out much, to go for Champers and the à la carte?
“Can the host afford it? Hang on, who is the bloody host? Who the hell is paying? It’d better not be me.
“I know we said we’d meet for lunch but no one actually presented a formal invite. I know I didn’t. So are we going Dutch?
“I know I can afford the à la carte because I am an insanely rich banker, but Jeremy’s been struggling since the bottom fell out of the gourmet Spam market…”
Eventually, of course, someone has the balls to say that the pigeon with truffles, starfish fillets and unicorn jus looks stunning and everyone else breathes a sigh of relief, does a fist pump under the table, and says: “Yes, the à la carte looks splendid today.”
Boozing, though, remains a minefield in corporate dining circles. It’s kind of okay to get stoked in the evening but lunch is another country.
If you don’t have wine, it suggests you are a lush. If you do have wine, it suggests you are a lush.
On the basis that you can’t win either way, I’d always recommend getting mildy hammered. This explains why I am writing a restaurant blog and not milking it in the City.
Inevitably, the six gents agree that they will drink… water. Water! With a fantastic gastronomic lunch. Unbelieveable. Not even a snifter.
I had intended not to drink, because I’m meant to be spending less. But I was so depressed by the sight of the pinstriped Methodists that I did the honourable thing and ordered a glass of house Champagne. Cheers, suckers.
Because I don’t get out half as much as I’d like, and half as much as people think, this was my first visit to The Square. It’s only been here, in Bruton Street, for 22 years. Blimey, what have I been missing?
I had been warned it was a little formal and businessy. Excellent: just my sort of place for a treat. No sliders. No Peruvian smoked gnats. No pickled popcorn.
In fact, I didn’t find it that formal. Smart, yes. Not arsey though. When I asked for tap water, chilled, rather than bottled nonsense, there was not a raised eyebrow from the waiter.
The jug arrived. No ice. “I’ve pissed them off,” I thought. “Screw them.”
Seconds later, a glass of artily hewn ice chips arrived. The ice was replenished throughout the meal without me noticing. That’s what I call classy, treating plain old non-volcanic filtered rainwater with respect.
I flicked through the à la carte, remembered my mission to cut costs, thought about begging off the chaps next-door (“Seeing as you didn’t order any wine, I thought you might like to chip in for a traveller from the provinces…”) and had a gander at the set lunch. What a total winner.
There’s fancier produce and more brow-creasing culinary treatments on the showpiece menus (lobster, foie gras, unicorn) which I’d love to try, but the set lunch, two choices at each course, was so good I didn’t look any further.
The menu just reads so well, in a confident, un-self-conscious way: risotto nero with Orkney scallop and gremolata; roast saddle of kid with parmesan gnocchetti, broad beans, morels and goat’s curd; sweet almond blancmange with crushed strawberries, strawberry ripple ice cream and toasted vanilla waffle.
Simple, isn’t it?
What’s not to like, especially when each course is delivered with such assurance and where everything – everything – is about the flavour?
The courses are preceded by a glass of edible summer: a ham and mint jelly topped with a pea bavarois and goat’s curd.
Every element is faultless. Sometimes you wonder what all the fuss is about with food, or I do.
Then you eat a course like this and it all makes sense.
The kid followed suit in a style of refined lunch-time rusticity. The meat had a lovely sweetness, knock-out gnocchetti and a proper lash of juice/gravy/jus, not a silly dribble. It baffles me why some kitchens do that. They spend hours perfecting the perfect sauce, roasting bones, cooking down liquor, adding magic ingredients, then put a rapidly evaporating squirt on the plate. What a waste.
Speaking of the chef, Philip Howard, I met him once at a cheffy dinner that I got invited to, by mistake I think. He will have remembered me as much as one remembers exam questions from 30 or 40 years ago.
So, I tell the waiter I’d been introduced to Big Phil and imagined the conversation in the kitchen…
Waiter: “Chef, the bloke at Table 8, the loser on his own, pissing on our profits by ordering tap water. Says he met you. Once. Tosser.”
Chef: “What’s he want? The red carpet. Knob. I’m trying to run a kitchen here for Methodists. Tell him he can come in here and suck my c**k.”
Instead of which, Big Phil appears at my table, says he hopes I have enjoyed lunch and speaks about the need to produce a good value set menu, regardless of a restaurant’s reputation.
He is effortlessly friendly. And he’s a genius.
Then a small silver tray with four pieces of nougat arrives. I can never eat petit fours after dessert. I finish the lot. They are amazing.
I love The Square. Did you pick up on that? Hopefully, I’ll get back before another 22 years expires. That’ll be in 2035. I’ll probably have the set lunch.
(Because I had a glass of fizz and a glass of red – because, frankly, someone had to – the total bill, with service, came to about £75.)
6-10 Bruton St London W1J 6PU
Tel: 020 7495 7100