The Bleeding Heart Restaurant is located down one of those little alleyways between Farringdon and Holburn that is invariably called "Dickensian". As I made my way over the cobblestones I was resigned to finding myself in somewhere like Tellson's Bank in A Tale of Two Cities which is described as "very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious".
In fact, the restaurant is very large, very light, very pretty and very capacious. It consist of not one establishment, but four: the main restaurant, the brasserie, the grill and the bar. Indeed, if you want to throw a private banquet, there's even a crypt that can accommodate up to 200 people. This is a heart with many chambers.
It's one of those restaurants that wins you over from the moment you walk in. It's privately owned by a Scotsman called Robert Wilson, and he and his wife, who's from New Zealand, have clearly poured their souls into the business. The attention to detail is superb. In just one of hundreds of exquisite little touches, there are red hearts all over the place: hanging off the menu, on the pat of butter, on the plates. Even the recessed lighting fixtures are heart-shaped.
Before sitting down, my companion and I had a little look around to try and work out why this restaurant was ranked third overall in Harden's as "Best for Romance". I think we found the answer in the form of a cosy little nook in the predictably named Charles Dickens Room. If Pip had brought Stella here, the ending of Great Expectations might have turned out to be even happier.
I was half-expecting the food to be traditional English fare, along similar lines to Simpsons of the Strand and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, but, dare I say it, it's better than that. It's French with little Kiwi touches, which sounds odd, but is actually a great combination. One of their specialties, for instance, which has been on the menu for 21 years, is a rack of New Zealand venison with a celeriac millefeuille. Having eaten my fill of venison the previous weekend, I opted for foie gras followed by roasted breast of corn-fed chicken, while my companion had Scallops followed by fillet of beef. I loved mine and he was so impressed he marched straight up to the maitre 'd and booked a table for Friday night. As you'd expect from a restaurant called the Bleeding Heart, the portions were very liberal.
The atmosphere is wonderfully convivial--so convivial, in fact, that as I was leaving at 3.45pm I spotted the editor of a national newspaper still holding court at a large table. Such long lunches are very much a thing of the past on Fleet Street, but once you've seated yourself in one of the Bleeding Heart's comfortable chairs you don't want to get up again. At lunchtime, the Bleeding Heart is full of men in pinstriped suits who are clearly intent on getting back to the office by 2.30pm, but few of them make it out before 3pm. By that time their Blackberries and Palm Pilots have long been forgotten.
As you'd expect from a place that is only a stone's throw from Fleet Street, alcohol is a top priority at the Bleeding Heart. The wall of the main restaurant is lined with pictures of different grapes, each bunch associated with a particular French vineyard, and on the way out, having sampled quite a few of these wines myself, I almost tripped over a trolley that was packed with bottles of whisky, port and brandy. Needless to say, this trolley was parked within easy reach of the newspaper editor.