I was a little taken aback on first setting foot in Harry Morgan's. This Jewish restaurant in St John's Wood is legendary. Johnny Gold and Terry O'Neil have been coming here for lunch for 20 years. Its chicken and matzo ball soup is supposed to be the best in London. So why does it look like a bog-standard greasy spoon?
This was all the more surprising given that it was completely refurbished in 2001. What on earth did it look like before, I wonder? The tables and chairs seemed as though they'd been bought in a job lot from Diners-R-US, the menus were encased in plastic and the lighting was so harsh I was worried about skin damage. One entire wall was decorated with wine bottles, an odd choice of motif given that the wine list offered a grand total of seven choices: three red, three white and one rose.
Having completely misunderstood what kind of place Harry Morgan's was, I'd advised my wife to put on her best party clothes. That turned out to be a mistake. The women's toilets flooded while she was powdering her nose and, as a result, her brand new Gina boots now have a rather unattractive tidemark on them.
I'd been hoping to see lots of gorgeous Jewish girls gorging on apple strudel--my wife is a gorgeous Jewish girl--but the customers were a pretty grim-looking crew. There was one man, in particular, sitting at the table in front of us wearing a wife-beater and a pair of soiled track-suit bottoms who gave the impression he'd just come from drowning a litter of kittens. My wife started with a bowl of egg and onion, which she pronounced quite nice on the grounds that they'd used spring onions rather than ordinary ones. I opted for the chicken and matzo ball soup which, I have to say, was also pretty good.
We were less fortunate with our main courses. I ordered a plate of salt beef with a side of coleslaw and pickles, while my wife had some apple strudel. I know, I know, that's a pudding, but, being a vegetarian, she didn't fancy any of the other things on offer. The salt beef was perfectly adequate, if a little dry, while the coleslaw and pickles were nothing special. My wife's verdict on the strudel? "A waste of calories."
Ethnic food is always a bit of a risk, particularly in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood restaurant like this, but before this trip to Harry Morgan's I'd always thought of myself as a fan of Jewish cuisine. I'm fond of chopped liver and chicken schnitzel is one of my favourite dishes of all time, particularly when it's fried with plenty of garlic. Perhaps I should have ordered those two things instead--both were on the menu.
I had lunch with Jenny Halpern at Nobu the following day and she was amazed that I'd actually sat down for a meal at this North London favourite.
"I love Harry's," she said, "but I don't think anyone actually eats there. I always get a takeaway."
Ah well. Next time I'll know. There's something called the The Harry M's Deli/Café next door, so perhaps that's the place to go for hot salt beef on rye. Still, if I am in the neighbourhood again, I think I'll probably go to Panzer's instead. Nigella Lawson says that this famous St John's Wood deli does the best gefilte fish in London.