My one and only trip to the southern states of America left very strong and very happy memories. There were breakfasts in Savannah, sunny lunches in genteel Charleston and long “cocktail hours” in New Orleans under the tutelage of the late RW Apple Jnr of The New York Times. There was also my introduction to proper corn bread and to muffuletta, the thick, spicy sandwich of boiled meats and cheese, a dish brought to New Orleans by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century.
When I heard that a chef was cooking southern food in central London, my antennae pricked up, though the name, The Lockhart, and the setting, just north of Marble Arch, were hard to picture in a southern context.
My first meal began disappointingly. The lunch menu offered only four main courses and two of these, the fried chicken and the muffuletta, had sold out. But the apology was conveyed with such heartfelt concern that it almost made amends, as did the immediate offer of a dish of venison saddle with apples and red eye gravy from the dinner menu. The Lockhart may be a long way physically from the Deep South but there’s certainly some southern warmth on offer.
On a return trip, I found its muffuletta undeniably authentic. This really is a hefty dish, served both generously and genuinely with the slices of meat and cheese in the middle of a sesame seed bun and a bowl of excellent salt and vinegar crisps on the side.
We returned a third time, for dinner, when we were led through to one of the three homespun tables facing the open kitchen. Over a glass of 2012 Pedroncelli Chenin Blanc from California’s Dry Creek Valley, I watched the chefs in action: almost all of them, like the waiting staff, were sporting beards.
The most magnificent beard belongs to Brad McDonald, who took over as head chef in January. As we ate, and shared a bottle of 2011 Fox Run Cabernet Franc from New York’s Finger Lakes, McDonald scooted around the kitchen, shouting out orders, ladling the grits, finishing the dishes and calling for his waiting staff.
This view, and what we ate, piqued my interest even further. “Dirty rice” – rice mixed with chicken offal – and crab was given extra piquancy by three smoked West Mersea oysters; a dish of tender white Tokyo turnips came with wafers of country ham; a Madeira-glazed roast quail sat on top of diced cabbage; and the bubbling side order of corn bread in an iron loaf tin looked and tasted most appealing with its glaze of honey butter. With wine and a shared dessert of a lemon icebox pie – lemon ice cream topped with soft meringue and crumbled Graham crackers – the bill came to £120 for two.
I returned a fourth time, just after lunch, and sat down for a chat with McDonald. What ensued was the story of his journey from Yazoo City, Mississippi, initially to New York, then to London and, via an introduction over Twitter, The Lockhart. I also got an explanation of why, every Sunday, 120 doughnuts filled with chocolate and vanilla cream or salted caramel are sold at £2 each outside his flat in east London.
McDonald grew up eating doughnuts for breakfast, hunting rabbit, duck and turkeys with his father, determined to be a chef. To please his parents he went to college where, he sighed with relief, he met his wife Molly who imbues the restaurant with southern charm. He cooked under Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse in New York, in whose kitchens he learnt technique but not to question anything, and then under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, where, as he put it succinctly, “I learnt to question everything.”
Stints at three restaurants in Brooklyn led to an invitation to come to London last year to consult on the opening of a Mexican restaurant, a move that led to a bout of homesickness. McDonald tweeted that he was planning a dinner of his favourite Southern dishes. This was read by a former manager of The Lockhart – opened in June 2013 by two Texan couples (Lockhart is in fact a small town in their home state). In January they hired the McDonald's and helped initiate a ritual which every Sunday lunchtime sees them and their two young children selling doughnuts. A family affair – in true Southern fashion.
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22-24 Seymour Place, London W1 H 7NL, 0203 011 5400, lockhartlondon.com