The word ‘iconic’ is liberally applied to any number of things, but when it comes to London’s Royal Exchange, it is almost impossible to be hyperbolic. Built in 1566, the celebrated centre of trade has burned down twice over the course of its history, and was last rebuilt in its original Roman style and reopened by Queen Victoria in 1844. Today, having taken some slightly more sophisticated fire-proofing measures, the Royal Exchange still sits resplendently in the heart of London’s financial district, and now plays home to a glamorous collection of luxury boutique stores.
As of last year, it is also the residence of what the Evening Standard dubbed the city’s “most Instagrammable restaurant” – Fortnum & Mason’s Bar and Restaurant, which sits within the striking al fresco-style surroundings of a central courtyard. On a rainy October evening, we made our way there to discover whether that most quintessentially British of brands made for a welcome gastronomic addition within one of the capital’s most beautiful buildings.
Perhaps it’s the grandeur of the vaulted neoclassical atrium, the twinkling lights above the bar, or simply those camera-ready brushed turquoise banquette tables — but there is a distinctly festive feel about this restaurant. While I am sure the Royal Exchange looks heavenly basking in the light of the midday summer sun, finding shelter in this happy haven from a cold autumn night was incredibly cheering.
If you can manage to stave off your hunger long enough, I would recommend enjoying a drink at the rather eye-catching cocktail bar. If you’re looking to invest wisely — it’s perhaps worth mentioning here that Fortnum’s famously steep price points extend beyond its shoppable fare — then enough good cannot be said about the Beau’s Negroni. The perfect, just-light-enough aperitif is a heady combination of Hepple Gin, Cocchi di Torino, Mondino Amaro, raspberry, and (of course) Fortnum’s Blanc de Blancs Champagne Laurent Hostomme. A little too drinkable.
With over three centuries’ worth of experience to call upon, the bar was set undeniably high for Fortnum & Mason in the creation of its Royal Exchange menu. Sensibly, the team has opted to provide diners with a concisely curated edit of all the famous, fortifying things you would want from the heritage hamper-makers. If you’re one of 2019’s remaining carnivores, then you’d be a fool not to start with a Scotch egg, which Fortnum & Mason maintains it invented in 1738, and which comes served with a punchy helping of piccalilli.
The oysters, too, are exquisite — and served with just enough pomp and grandeur to make it feel as though you really do deserve to celebrate yourself on any given rainy Tuesday. Be brave and opt to sample one from each region; that way you can play Goldilocks when the waiting staff press you to declare a favourite.
Now, to the mains. I was advised on good authority to select a dish from the white truffle menu, and diligently opted for the toasted cheese sandwich. Be fairly cautioned here, reader, that Fortnums is not in the business of ‘concept cooking’. Should you opt for the same do not expect some new-age interpretation of what a toasted cheese sandwich might look like if all the ingredients were reinterpreted and served in canape-sized macarons.
You will quite literally receive a toasted cheese sandwich, served simply with a generous lashing of delicious white truffle. Perhaps not as exciting as the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli my dining companion enjoyed across the table – but pure and hearty comfort food at its finest. Of course, the fact that we were entirely too full to reasonably order dessert could not deter us from the noble work of research. Happily, I can report that the peanut butter and Valrhona chocolate parfait (served with decadent spiced banana) is entirely worth unbuttoning your jeans for.
Given its prestigious postcode and the quality of Fortnum’s ingredients, the menu prices shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The truffle-laden options will set you back a little more, but you’re looking at an average of £30 for a hearty main, £15 for a starter, and £9 for a dessert. We also shared a bottle of Fortnum’s Chablis at £42.
The Courtyard, The Royal Exchange, EC3V 3LR, fortnumandmason.com
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