2019

J Sheekey in 2019

Article
Restaurant
London
J Sheekey in 2019

Blame it on the Room

At the time of writing, the Federal Aviation Authority has granted permission for deliveries to homes by drones. Commercial analysts say the biggest sector to be affected could be fast food deliveries to remote addresses.

This development would reduce even the subtlest monosyllabic exchange between deliverer and customer to nothing. I am not going to attempt to contest the convenience aspect of this advance in civilization but, simply, wonder in despair where this leads.

Of course, romance itself has been passed through a similar series of cyber filters enablers and algorithms of desire and requirement. Again, I wonder where this is going.

It worked for a very long time. A beautiful room, people dressed for delight, a perfect meal with a nonchalant regard for temperance and deep conversation.

People who enjoy the ritual and ceremony of taking time to get dressed, of building the evening from an early cocktail to the table, to indulge in a dinner that takes as long as it takes before that gorgeous languid drift at the elegant disarray of an undone table.

We settled on J Sheekey. It is not new, and it requires no explanation or introduction. It is a David Collins Studio project but that, in London restaurant years, was a long time ago. The place still looks beautiful. Gently worn here and there, but still a debonair, charming and seductive door to walk through.

A great restaurant is blessed with the instinct for discretion. The liquid windows at J Sheekey have a strange property of closing out the world and making the room a beautifully lit facility for secrecy.

Iain Watson was at the very start of the David Collins Studio story. The highs and the lows navigated with grace, immaculate elegance and fragrance. Edinburgh is pretty and Glasgow is handsome. Iain originates from Glasgow.

Serena and Paul roll through an international life of high proof glamour that carries notes of Eddie Cochran, Picasso, Talitha Getty and Trench town stepping manners. Logic decrees that you cannot have it all but, well, you get where I am going.

Chris Pietro serves in the front line at Vivienne Westwood. A natural fit for an instinct for provocation, subversion and lateral “what if?” thinking all served up on a bed of capricious charm. Nudge me and I will concede that Chris is amongst the three best dressed men I know.

Magnus Reid is half my age and has a CV twice the length of mine. Respected and closely watched chef, delinquent drummer for wandering doom stoner metal outfit Yung Druid, painter whose canvases somehow channel the tension of a Perth prison cell, in demand tattooist and occasional model. Magnus has an inability to politely suppress what he is thinking. The best smoker since prime period Marco Pierre White. Despite looking like authorities’ worst nightmare, he regularly eats at London’s best restaurants where he is welcomed like a lost son.

I get the easy bit. I know all the table just that right amount that means we don’t have to learn each other’s basics and negotiate formality but there is still a lot of mystery and surprise to pull out.

Graham Erickson: Why J Sheekey this evening and not somewhere new?

Serena Rees: What is special about this place is beyond explanation. This is even my favourite table. From the very point we could afford to eat in a place like this, it has been amongst my favourite places to relax.

GE: When did you first come here?

SR: Oh god, well, probably not in the nineties as we wouldn’t have been able to afford it and food wasn’t that high on our list of social priorities. So, I guess, the early 2000s. Then, we really came here a lot. I have been party to some terrible behaviour at this table. Which I won’t say anything more about. But I do have loads of special memories.

Chris Pietro: Sheekey, and some other places, are the total argument against things like food delivery and fast takeaway. We all use them, but they fail to fill you with the pleasure of a room like this with great service and beautiful food. I really love, in particular, Sheekey for its tiny human failings. You know, the service is fantastic and funny and friendly, but it gets very busy and sometimes there is the faintest sense of chaos. Somehow, they keep it all flowing with an adorable charm.

GE: I don’t recall the last time I used the words “adorable charm” about a food delivery!

CP: Exactly.

Magnus Reid: I love what we call Holy Communion restaurants. Places that have survived and served generations. The kids get introduced and the cycle keeps rolling. Places like that are getting rarer to find. I’ve never eaten here but this has that feel.

GE: You’ve never eaten here?

MR: No. I just never have. I had to call Grace Dent on the way here and ask her what to order.

Iain Watson: What did she tell you to order?

MR: Fish pie. No contest. She was right. It is just a perfect fish pie. Simple thing done perfectly.

GE: Magnus, you paint. Have you ever exchanged art for hospitality?

MR: Yeah, I mean I like the idea of it if it feels natural. I’ve done it a few times and, on the other side, as a restaurateur, I’ve taken art in exchange for food and drink. The art has to have a value. Say what you like about Hix but the Hirst and the Noble and Webster pieces in his places feel like they belong there, and it beds the restaurant into a sort of society. Restaurants where art is a part of the dialogue is usually interesting and exciting.

SR: Paul (Simonon – her bass icon/painter boyfriend) has given paintings to restaurants. He did a couple for Locatelli. It is different to paying with cash as it, for us, adds an emotional significance to eating food that has been given in exchange for art which is, in itself, an emotional product.

GE: It’s a lovely way for art to make it into restaurants and hotels. It gives it a meaning and a significance. With the bonus that artists themselves add something by being in a restaurant. I remember seeing Lucien Freud in a restaurant and the entire energy of the place was shifted and charged.

SR: I agree. I just got back from one of my favourite hotels. Le Colombe d”Or, St Paul de Vence, down in the South of France.

It was born out of all these great artists who hung out there and is filled with incredible art by Chagall, Picasso and everybody else who stayed there, and you cannot help but be moved by being amongst all this art. The place, itself, has become a work of art. It is really beautiful, and you could never replicate that by simply buying up and installing even fantastic art. It all feels like it is an integral part of the place.

GE: Elegance, romance and composition as a rebel stance in the age of casual convenience?

SR: Well, elegance is an incredibly ambiguous, elastic idea. I don’t associate it with formality and conservatism. I was always enthralled by an idea of elegance but not in a stuffy and stilted way that people might immediately think of elegance.

GE: Thankfully, there is something in youth that instinctively opposes what is the normal. My son and his mates have rejected social media and are defiantly happy to read classic literature. They organize old fashioned book clubs and discuss books over dinner at kitchen tables. I think that’s fantastic in an era of dating apps and Love Island. They just finished Brideshead Revisited and it is great to hear them discussing it. Their contemporaries think they are weird which, I guess is a large part of the point.

CP: You could even say that in this day and age a place like this is rebellious

GE: Totally. With its soft seats, its courtesy and its meticulous order it is the definition of rebel stance. I had dinner out in a Mexican diner in Shoreditch which I won’t name. You had to order at the counter. I went to the counter and started giving my order for our table to the girl who pointed at a tablet and said, “Just punch your order into that if it’s easier.”

“But I’m already talking to you”

“I’m just saying, if it is easier you can just type in what you want”

I felt like I was in some dystopian satire. I was with three friends and it, honestly, was amongst the least joyful eighty quid I have ever spent. So, a place like this, is against all of that. I hope to dear god I don’t live long enough to hear a waiter here tell me to type my order into a keyboard.

CP: It is the same with ideas of what is cool. Doing what comes instinctively is cool. This place doesn’t care about, or try to be cool, which makes it really cool.

GE: Do some places make it easy to fall in love?

SR: Absolutely. As I said earlier, this exact table has been a romantic element in my life, definitely.

GE: OK. What does the place do that makes it convey, or catalyse falling in love?

SR: In a beautiful restaurant all your cares and responsibilities have been removed. You are eating food which surpasses anything you could eat at home. All of your senses are being gorgeously indulged, so you slip into a soft idealized version of yourself, I guess. And if you feel like that then it is probable that the person you are with feels like that which is a pretty good starting point for falling in love.

CP: Also, however we choose to dress it is likely we enter a restaurant looking our best. So, there is a physical display and theatrical performance which is part of courting and seduction.

IW: I don’t think a beautiful room could, or should, make a person fall in love randomly or against judgement. There must be an attraction to begin with.

GE: The very new or the very beautiful?

SR: Beautiful. I like new things; I like gadgets and technology but not at the cost of beauty. I wouldn’t want a piece of furniture or clothing simply because it represented a new idea.

CP: I would actually go further and say that most new things hold no allure for me. It is unlikely that I could fall in love with a newly built home whereas I adore old buildings with stories and history.

GE: I find myself in the company occasionally of creative people who define themselves as design junkies. I hate terms like that. I feel only dismay when I hear them declare their love for exclusively new things. I never like that way of dressing. I like seeing people mix a disparate bunch of things from different eras in different states of condition. Same with houses. I like things that have taken a long time to get to their state of grace. Like music, I, we all I think, listen to music from any point in the last hundred years. I listen to new music and I like a lot of it but I could never, exclusively, commit only to new things.

GE: Is luxury wrong?

CP: It’s another of those words which are open to misinterpretation. Luxury should be relative to circumstance. Good bread and perfect butter may not cost a lot of money, but it can be the very model of absolute luxury.

MR: It is wrong when it is ostentatious for the sake of demonstrating status.

GE: I agree with that Coco Chanel line about luxury being the I opposite of vulgarity and not the opposite of poverty. A magazine, a cup of coffee at midnight and no pressure to get up the next day is the apogee of luxury and privilege for me. It doesn’t happen all of time but that is another critical factor in luxury. It should be sufficiently infrequent to be memorable.

IW: I agree. It should not be routine, habitual or taken for granted.

GE: I don’t want to sound worthy or virtuous, but I don’t think you should go into debt to acquire a luxury. It just becomes a responsibility and a detrimental thing which luxury should never be. People never mention value as part of luxury but a luxury must be, sort of, worth it’s cost.

GE: Who is the most stylish person we know?

MR: Anja, my wife. Not just because she is my wife and I should say that but because she has the most confident, instinctive amazing sense of style. (Google, or Instagram Anja Konstantinova to get an idea of why Magnus hails his wife as a style example).

GE: I have a mate called Dan. He is super low key. He isn’t wealthy. He has that animal ability to chuck things together, be it clothes, furniture, art, anything. It all falls into looking beautiful and artful. When I go to his place there will be a few things on his sideboard. Keys, sunglasses, hat, international currency, matches and a postcard. It will look perfect like a William Egglestone photograph or a Sophia Coppola moment. He used to write to Keith Haring in the eighties, so he has this gorgeous, quite priceless, collection of Haring hand draw cartoon postcards. He’s like, “Oh, yeah, that was Keith wishing me a happy holiday” and it’s this 6 x 4 piece of New York history. That’s pretty stylish for me.

CP: Style is definitely that thing that cannot be tutored or contrived. It has to just be.

The evening is winding up. There is a discovery in store for all of us except Magnus for it is he who introduces it. He learns about Peter Greenaway and us, in turn are introduced to Magnus’ favourite, and quite obscure, digestif.

Fernet Branco is an acute, medicinal drink served in tiny measures. It tastes of dark, damp caves, of ancient timber and of shadows cast across statues of saints. It is delicious. It is, according to Chris, the drink he has waited his life to taste. The off-record stuff stays off record. Safely disregarded by discrete waiters. Part of their job. Always will be, I hope.

Like leaving an old friend who you should see more often we leave in different directions each silently promising to spend more time with J Sheekey. To appreciate him while he is around. We needn’t worry, he looks in good shape. Older, still charming, still able to make time move a bit slower and to politely hold back the twenty first century.

Graham Erickson is a freelance writer living in London.

Dylan Thomas is a portraits and interiors photographer.