Lunch with Ai Weiwei for 50 Quid?

Jane Egginton and her father enjoy a culinary and cultural afternoon

OK, so you don’t get to meet the man in person, but it’s still a great offer. The two Michelin-starred restaurant at Sketch in Mayfair is offering a meal deal that would put most eateries to shame: a three course Gourmet lunch in the Lecture Room & Library and an exhibition ticket for Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts for £49.

It’s an ongoing deal for any of the major exhibitions at the Royal Academy. My father and I make an annual pilgrimage to the RA for the Summer Exhibition, which my dad, an artist, loves. I am not a huge fan of the Summer Exhibition but I am very fond of my father and enjoy our little ritual. I don’t enjoy the food, though: lunch at the Royal Academy is way too much like eating in a school canteen for me.

So when I heard about Sketch’s deal, I suggested it to my father who is no aesthete. He may love art, but he is also immensely practical and, as an economist, has a key eye for finance. When I sent him the details, he responded: ‘I’m not sure it’s such a good deal. But, I’m up for it!’ I was impressed. He is 80 after all and doesn’t even live in London.

It didn’t start well, though. My father hates pretension and I arrived first at the Mayfair location to be greeted with raised eyebrows and Swarovski crystals. My heart sank. Things were not looking good. My father surely wouldn’t approve, although I loved the fantasy element, which felt wonderfully Alice in Wonderland on a rainy August London day.

I arrived with a friend and fellow travel writer and told the rather officious doorman to be sure to let my father in. ‘I wonder what this building used to be?’ my colleague mused. On googling it, she found out it was the centre of the suffragette movement – a history which seemed very unlikely now as we waited for our feast in the exquisite interior.

A text arrives from my father: ‘They won’t let me in’. I had to go down and fetch him from the bar: it was not a good start. My dad has never let me forget him being turned away from the Ritz for wearing trainers when I dragged him there for an unwanted (by him) glass of champagne. ‘It looks like a bordelo,’ my dad said as he sat down, drily, finally. At which point a waiter with a comedy French Inspector Clouseau accent says: ‘Let me introduce you to your butler’.

But as soon as the food began to arrive, everything changed. Our waiter – or was it butler – accommodated our every need, changing dishes to accommodate my father who is pescatarian and my friend who is gluten free. My dining companions had main courses of braised native cod glazed with a rich orange reduction, crunchy fennel – and a personal favourite: French mash. I had beautifully rare Scottish flank steak with shitake and bok choy and cheekily asked if I could have it with the mash rather than rice. When I couldn’t eat it all, they happily packed up the steak for my cat, Panda, and put in an extra portion of mash for me – a lovely touch.

Lunch is incredible value as it includes petit fours and amuse bouches and no less than four starters. I loved the squid ink wafer and fresh goat cheese and cured sea bream and horseradish mayonnaise with tart redcurrant; the rabbit pate less so. Desserts were light and somehow feminine and certainly reflected the summer season. A compote of summer fruits came with the fresh flavours of mint and lavender while a delicate dulcey granache appeared with armagnac lemon cristal de Vent.

The lunch menu is billed as Gourmet Rapide, but not so for us. We languished so long we nearly missed the exhibition. I welcomed the menu’s conciseness – two or three choices for each course and loved the combination of approachability and pomp in the style of the service. The menu changes as of course do the artists at the RA. Don’t be put off by the name of the rather serious sounding Lecture Room and Library, although it is certainly more grown up than the frivolous Parlour.

The food manages to be both exquisite and comforting. I was happy, but was my father? He leant back in his chair as I looked at him, expectantly. ‘It was excellent and the most memorable lunch of my life.’ My father does not give praise easily. I was almost even more delighted with his verdict than with lunch.

sketch
9 conduit street
London W1S 2XG
020 7659 45 00

www.sketch.london

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