I’ve just fallen a little bit in love.
A couple of days ago my parents came up to visit us in Hertford for lunch and in keeping with our luck so far this year, our favourite pub proceeded to give us a really terrible meal. This always seems to happen when we go anywhere with my parents. The only thing worse than receiving a main course an hour late to find it’s over-cooked is when it’s my dad’s. When, almost two hours after we had sat down, it was pointed out the desserts we had just cancelled had been taken off the bill as though this was some kind of bonus, he managed to give an excellent illustration of why he is presently having treatment for a heart condition.
I’m not even going to name the place, mainly because I want to go back. It’s usually brilliant, perfectly located at the end of a good walk and takes dogs, but in fairness to my father, on this occasion they gave him every reason to come over all a bit Basil Fawlty.
So, when my friend Nick Revell visited the next day, I was feeling slightly less well-disposed towards my recently adopted home town than usual. Luckily I was about to find the perfect tonic. Mr Revell is quite the Epicurean, so I decided to try Lussmanns, a restaurant in the centre of town I’d heard good things about, with two other outposts in Harpenden and St. Albans. Alright – I know it’s not Paris, New York and Milan, but in Hertfordshire terms this is the big time. And frankly, I’m delighted I don’t have to travel far for something so utterly delightful.
The room is simply but elegantly decorated, with paintings that appear to be signed by the chef, which I rather liked. This is an achievement in itself as I’ve been to a number of places over the years where the proprietor has seen fit to inflict his daubs on his customers, and it’s rarely pretty. In this case, however, it added a lovely little touch of St Ives to proceedings. More importantly, that good taste extended to the food. We went for the set lunch at the indecently decent £11.95 for two courses and they went so well we had to have a third (a disgraceful hike to £14.50.)
Nick’s rabbit and pork rillettes was a nicely gutsy bit of cooking topped with a herb crust, while my cod cheeks with garlic, chilli and lime grew in stature the further I got through them. Served in a small frying pan, I prodded tentatively at first, just to be doubly sure I liked cheeks, and not convinced that the garlic shouldn’t have been chopped a little finer, at which point the ingredients all started ganging up on me, a little crunch from spring onion, softer ends of the same vegetable cooked out a little more, and the liquor seemingly intensifying with each mouthful. By the end, I was shovelling it in as fast as I could, until I experienced that lovely bittersweet disappointment of finishing something and finding there’s none of it left.
We were relatively unadventurous for main course, both going for the steak frites, and never has simplicity been so amply rewarded. Onglet can be a difficult cut and is normally cut relatively thin, but this is a kitchen that exudes confidence and if it wanted to serve a thicker slab than we were expecting, we weren’t going to argue. This was what steak tastes like in your imagination – juicy, tender and gloriously meaty. Well worth the £2 supplement, served with perfect French fries and hugely complimented by a carafe of the house Merlot.
As I have said, it would have been rude to skip dessert after such a main course, and more huge compliments were on the way. At the risk of slipping into hyperbole, I simply can’t remember enjoying a pudding more than my honey and thyme sponge – gorgeously moist and resting on the lightest of caramel sauces; seriously opulent and gently fragrant all at the same time. The use of herbs in both this and Nick’s superb fruit and rosemary crumble (nuts in the crumble, obviously,) spoke further volumes about the quality and imagination on display. The clotted cream ice cream with both dishes just felt like we were being spoiled. And who doesn’t enjoy being spoiled?
A couple of espressos later and a bill for £52 excluding charmingly gracious and unfussy service meant we walked out into the sunshine with spring in more than just our our steps. The menu proudly trumpets Giles Coren’s verdict in The Times that Lussmanns is ‘everything a modern local restaurant should be’. It’s impossible to disagree and I cannot wait to return with my wife to show her exactly what I’ve been gushing about. We just won’t bring my parents.