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The National Dining Rooms

The National Gallery exhibits the best of British

Do the British really love the arts? Have we finally cast off that mean Northern Protestant disdain of beauty, that suspicion of ornament, that shunning of extravagance? Our British love of understatement, which at its best articulates refinement,  can too often be a justification for the mediocre and the cheap. So it was that museums, galleries and concert halls offered food in cafeterias that smacked  more of civil service canteens and boiled cod than of Ambrosian delights. But in recent years there has been a renaissance, or more accurately a naissance, since there was little of earlier merit that justified a rebirth.

The National Gallery Dining Rooms are located in the relatively new Sainsbury Wing. But be reassured that Sainsbury's cheeky chef Jamie Oliver won't be grabbing a handful of pukka sundried tomatoes to chuck into a ragu - the kitchens are under the overall direction of Oliver Peyton, and his concept here is the celebration of good British produce and cooking. Having said all this, I didn't find the room itself all that inspiring - the  decor is more safe than striking. Walking through the galleries on my way to the restaurant, I was struck by the magnificent still life paintings featuring every kind of provender. I half hoped that the walls of the dining room might be adorned with something really voluptuous like Joachim Beukelaer's painting "Earth" which shows a profusion of magnificent vegetables that leap off the canvas. Instead there's a sort of neo-renaissance fresco that looks rather like one of those commissions that decorate certain West End underground stations. Click the link to see the whole picture and to read about BEUCKELAER

But what really did impress me as I entered the room was the Bakery section, whose display of tempting pies, tarts and pastries was a feast for all the senses. There was a huge pork pie with crusty bits where the juices had leaked through the pastry a little, only to be dried by the fierce heat of the oven, then caramelised like the glaze on a rough pot. The gateaux were indulgent, especially a dark rich chocolate tart. Somehow I dragged myself past another super display, this time of English Cheeses,  to be shown to a pleasant table in a broad window where the room opens up with views towards Trafalgar Square.

Chef Jesse Dunford-Wood's menu is most inspiring, and you can view it on the NG website. The emphasis is on carefully sourced British produce, simply and lovingly prepared. I particularly admired a magnificent dish of roasted veal kidneys with wild mushrooms on its way to another table. Every month the produce of a particular county is showcased: this September it's Oxfordshire, and I was curious to see what it had to offer. From a choice of two dishes in three courses, I began with a starter of coddled trout, the most interesting fishy dish I've had for while. It was delicately flavoured (dill, I now wonder?) and was so soft and almost jelly like in consistency that every mouthful was a sensual delight. For my main course I chose the "Sandy and Black " pork, a local breed. It came slow cooked and pushed into a cylindrical shape, with a warm salad laced with crunchy bits of pork crackling and wodges of quince paste -all wonderful flavours. My only issue was that when asked which kind of potato I'd like with it, my portion of Peyton's signature mash added a further £3.50 to an already substantial £27.00 for the three course set lunch. I expect a set lunch price to be inclusive.

The wine list is interesting and features a number of wines by the glass, essential in what is a lunch venue. Ask the waiter to pour the wine for you at the table and try it first: after all you're paying more pro rata by the glass and you don't want a glass of oxidised wine. My glass of Limoux was fresh as a daisy and full of tropical grapefruit and melon overtones - a  perfect lunchtime tipple. I rather hope they will soon feature some English wines on the list - in the context it seemed a notable lack.  I rounded my lunch off with some creamy Oxford Blue cheese with home made breads and chutney.

I shall come back again if only to try the  Bakery, whose breakfasts and afternoon teas are becoming quite legendary, though a monthly checkup on British regional cooking county by county is also most tempting. Service, by the way, was prompt and professional under the eye of Manager Harry Ryder.

Clifford Mould September 2006

The National Gallery Dining Rooms, Sainsbury Wing, Trafalgar Square
Open 10am - 5.30pm daily and on Wednesdays until 8.30pm for dinner

A la carte lunch from about £35 a head for three courses including a glass of wine and a portion of mash.

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