It’s a funny old patch of London, around Grosvenor Square. The US embassy used to be a vast presence. Designed by Eero Saarinen and opened in 1960, it was probably the most significant piece of international modernism in the country. Most of us would never see its magnificent interior (though apparently its bones are to be reused in a grand hotel). Silent, implacable, like a buffalo in a tearoom, it commanded a strange hinterland of reassuringly expensive hotels where the Americans stayed, drinking at the same bars.
Weirdly, a lot of them are still there. Perhaps they haven’t worked out that the embassy’s moved to Battersea, and they’re waiting for the coded radio message that will get them all up on to the roof for the choppers when the price of avocados has caused civil unrest in the West End.
It seems sensible then, that US restaurateur Kathy Sidell should choose North Audley Street, just off the square, for the UK outpost of her successful Boston seafood operation Saltie Girl. It’s a wonderfully swish joint but, importantly, she hasn’t just rolled it out in an act of culinary imperialism. She’s integrated with grace. The fish are from our own shores. They have an entire menu of tinned fish from France, Spain and Portugal — currently catnip to British foodies — and she’s working with local talent in the particular person of Richard H Turner, one of the original partners in Hawksmoor.
The tins of fish are bewildering. They have a separate area behind the bar where they’re displayed on the same shelves as the booze bottles. Two members of staff stand before them, just opening and placing them on plates. We don’t have a name for these people yet. Can openers? Sardine somms? Tinfluencers? But the selection is outstanding: 32 kinds of sardines, then mussels, squid, octopus, cockles, clams, scallops, salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna . . . I’m not doing this for you, you know. Listing them is entirely for my own pleasure.
I take the wood-grilled razor clams in olive oil with a hunk of sourdough, whipped butter, three salts, lime and Guindilla pepper. All right. It comes on a bloody slate tile, and that would be unforgivable under normal circumstances. But then they slide out a crab cocktail with mustard aioli for which, although it comes in a jam jar, I can think of only inadequate superlatives.
Pepus is a brand of Spanish tinned clams. They’re poached in their own briny juices as part of the canning process, so when opened have a lot of spare, incredibly tasty liquid. The best way to recycle this, evidently, is to combine it with scraps of bacon, cream and spicy lobster oil to form a thick sauce that can be spooned over toast. The bread absorbs the liquid, so it’s the work of a few moments to grate a little cheese over everything and flash it under a grill. The combination is outrageous. The cheese forms a kind of net restraining the clams, which receive only the lightest heating, thus keeping their individual burdens of juices and molluscular fats. It’s almost too much to take; so rich, such rolling Atlantic breakers of flavour. Still, a few slices of meaty Spanish Raf tomato might cut the richness. Particularly in a creamy tonnato dressing with flecks of torched chilli.
It would have been extraordinarily impolite to refuse a New England-style lobster roll, though it seemed a little obvious, at least until the waiter suggested it could be served warm or cold. “How is it supposed to be served?” I asked. “Well, nobody’s ordered a cold one since we opened,” she replied. Which sounded like a challenge. Actually, it could be “a thing”, and we might be missing out, because the brioche batch roll still comes warm and buttery from the grill, so the fridge-cold and creamy lobster mix makes an incredible counterpoint. I’m going cold from here on in.
Of all the artists in a restaurant kitchen, it’s the fry cook who’s most easily overlooked. Dropping breadcrumbed bits into boiling oil doesn’t, on the face of it, have any of the glamour of tweezing microgreens on to a piece of mossy driftwood or setting off the sprinklers in a flare of flaming cognac, but whatever shy genius is manning the deep-fat at Saltie Girl gets all the praise for the langoustine scampi in tartare sauce.
Actually, I think this is some kind of revenge on the Brits as, for years, we’ve made a pub-grub pig’s ear out of scampi, so frying our world-beating langoustines in a batter-coat that is so light it could qualify as top-grade Japanese tempura is a flex calculated to make us hide our heads in shame. These guys were plump, moistly steaming, crisp and light in a way that transcended any hint of bar-snackery.
When I ordered the cookie with ice cream, I hadn’t imagined it would be the size of Oscar the Grouch’s dustbin lid, hot from the oven and, when cracked into, running over the plate like magma.
Back in the days when we used to write nasty reviews, critics loved a US restaurant opening in London. They’d invariably arrive with fanfare, misjudge some arcane nuance of the British class system, and we’d be able to trash them with full sneerage. It never mattered. They didn’t give a toss what the UK rags made of them and there were always enough Americans to keep them afloat. It was a mutually agreeable deal.
Saltie Girl, though, confounds the convention by being, well, just really excellent. There’s nothing to pick at here. Our own brilliant ingredients, delivered with experience and a kind of quiet transatlantic flair that’s actually rather humbling. There is much we can learn from Saltie Girl and we should flock there in droves to do so.
15 North Audley Street, London W1K 6WZ; 0203 893 3000; saltiegirl.com/location/saltie-girl-london
Cocktails, toasts and smoked fish: £12-£45
Small plates: £10-£36
Large plates: £15-£65