The day: 21st September 2007, Dinner.
The place: 4 Mill Street, W1S 2AX, Mayfair, London
The food: Modern English (= French)
The drinks: Rather short wine list but quite diverse, with a French slant, also by the glass and half bottle
A Scottish family restaurant in the outer reaches of Mayfair, this is an elegant place about whose cuisine we’d heard good things, even with Michelin stars being mentioned as deserved: we must pay a visit! We scoot past Via Condotti off Regent Street, and literally behind the corner is our target.
The interior, as we said, is elegant and the reception relatively formal. Huge fish tanks create a slightly surreal atmosphere, but ideal, together with the ornamental plants, to soften and enliven the stark room with black leather chairs and benches.
We sit in a nice, softly lit and relatively secluded end-of-room area, but our row of tables for couples is crammed, the tables themselves are quite small, with a largish table behind us producing excessive noise. Mrs. Maria Patterson herself takes the orders and she does indeed bring a ‘family touch’ with a welcome informality, while Mr Raymond Patterson rules the kitchen together with his son Tom.
How nice, two glasses with an aperitif appear on our table. Nose… ehm, wait a minute – the perfume is of a sweet wine, maybe a Passito of some kind. How weird, we think, to serve a dessert wine as an aperitif: is this a ‘Scottish family’ touch? We don’t think we are going to have it.
A couple of minutes later, a wine looking exactly the same appears on the table of the distinguished couple next to us who are at the end of their meal, and we begin to realise that this was simply a service mistake. We confirm with the distinguished neighbours (a very rare case indeed of interaction with other customers, we reflect), and we all appreciate the elegance by the staff of not remedying the error by simply shifting our untouched glasses to their table. In fact, those untouched glasses stuck to our already small table, despite our requests to take them away, till the first course was served a while later. Sorry guys, we just don’t want to start with a dessert wine.
The bread arrives. No bread basket, one piece from a tray, as usual in French style places in London. It is not memorable, and the picture we took was crap anyway, so let’s just skip it. The amuse-bouche looks much more interesting (though the picture is still dark – we were reluctant to disturb our distinguished neighbours with the flash):
It’s a wild mushroom veloute’ with garlic foam. The mushroom flavour is very intense, with some exceedingly pleasant, vanishingly delicate coffee traces on top of the garlic foam. An excellent start.
The short menu (six-seven items from each of three sections) offers three courses at a steep £40 with supplements for particular items. At these prices it had better be very, very good. For first course we have:
– Tortellini of rabbit, thyme butter, leaf spinach, Madeira jus split with olive oil.
– Scottish langoustine, tomato comfit, courgette flower tempura, gazpacho dressing, and to complete the dish a supplement of £2.50.
(As you can see, with our distinguished neighbours gone and only working class people like us remaining, we now feel free to use the flash).
By ‘tortellini’ in Italy we mean, as you know, pretty small pasta parcels shaped in a particular way. So we almost fall off our chairs when we are served this single mega-specimen of tortellinO filling the dish… An amusing chef surprise: we dig in to find a powerful reduction, a little too thick and gooey to our taste, on an excellent and generous spinach bed with chantarelle mushrooms. The whole ensemble provided an interesting range of flavours, almost too many of them. Aside from the amusement, we still prefer, to the bite, the traditional tortellini, due to the lack of proportion, in this mega-version, between filling and pasta. A satisfying dish, even if not one to write home about.
The langoustine was instead a thoroughly problematic dish. The frying was bad, of the dripping kind, with none of the lightness that should make it fly. This was not helped by the plate being too cold. The heavy-handed cooking destroyed the poor delicate fish, which we assume was fresh but had none, really none, of the fragrance of fresh seafood (Woman even suspected it had been reheated). Even the comfit was mediocre. Chefs, you can clearly cook well, what’s the matter? Let’s say a nice thing about this offering: it was beautiful to look at (indeed we should have just looked).
For second courses we go for:
– Sirloin of Scottish beef (30 days hung), sweetbread fritters, roasted asparagus, gratin dauphinoise, sauce bordelaise, all finished with a supplement of £3.00.
– Rolled herb stuffed saddle of lamb, terrine of vegetable comfit, and lamb fillet with mustard cream.
The piece of beef was stunning, cooked well (rare as we had of course asked), supported by a nice reduction and garnishes in a cleanly presented but very rich and complex dish. Definitely on the heavy side, especially the fried bit (do we detect a pattern here?), with ample use of fats.
The lamb dish was clearly a labour of love, with a great deal of thought behind it, pleasantly plated. But it provoked mixed reactions. For Woman it was over-elaborated, with too much of everything, too much fat, too many flavours. Man on the contrary appreciated the vast range of flavours and textures, and even while deprecating the lack of focus and sharpness in the conception, could not fail to be impressed by the deftness with which everything was made to stand together in a precarious equilibrium. Lovely colours too.
– Port marinated figs, honey and rosemary ice cream and cinnamon dumplings
– Coffee and cardamom crème brulee, milk foam, espresso granita and walnut biscotto
The crème brulee was quite overworked and heavy, as usual by now, but certainly not bad, with a very flavoursome coffee granite and a nice biscuit. There was a problem with the texture of the granita itself, its crystals too coarse and at times in discernible lumps. The sharp difference in texture between the creamy foam sitting on top of the more consistent crème brulee was on the other hand rather pleasant.
We had a half-bottle of Rene’ Mure’ Cote de Ruffach 2004 (very typical Gewurtztraminer from Alsace) at £14.50, and another half-bottle of Chateau de Gironville 2002 (Medoc) at £17. With water at £3.60, the whole experience would catapult us far beyond our £100 ballpark target. But we have an ace up our sleeve…a 50% reduction on the food bill. So the total of £135.68 is scaled down to a more reasonable £95.68.
The service was correct and quite efficient. That the Chefs Patterson are ambitious is obvious. They can sometimes pull off, at their best, beautiful, complex and satisfying dishes for the lovers of rich French cuisine. But, given the level they aim at, which is very high indeed, we found really too much heavy-handedness, over-elaboration and flaws in their performance, which definitely lacks the gifts of simplicity and focus. All the signs are of good chefs who are nevertheless striving much too hard, ending up beyond their zone of culinary comfort (how could they spoil a wonderful langoustine in that way, we still wonder?). The word ‘pretentious’ also insistently springs to mind…And the prices definitely betray arrogance and a confidence in their abilities that is excessive and misplaced – this cuisine just cannot command those prices. It is a pity, because had their approach been humbler and simpler, they could probably have created a most rewarding culinary experience in a pleasant and elegant environment. Don’t go at these prices unless you arm yourselves, like us, with a 50% food discount. Otherwise, if you are in the mood for real top French cuisine at reasonable prices, just take a cheap flight to Strasbourg and try Au Tilleul !