The day: 15th August 2008, Dinner.
The place: 1 Lombard Street
The venue: 1 Lombard Street
The food: Modern French
The drinks: List impressive on French, more sketchy on other regions, e.g. Italy
Convenient if you happen to work at the Bank of England (you just need to cross the road), the Michelin star glow of this informatively named restaurant is guaranteed to attract other punters from further away. Like us, for example, eager to stray every now and then from our mainly Italian restaurant itinerary, to sample one of the many fine French cuisine examples our capital offers. We have hopes that the culinary imagination of chef patron Herbert Berger and chef de cuisine Tim Richardson is stronger than that of whoever conceived the name for the restaurant.
When you enter, the room looks gigantic and impressive: but it is the brasserie, which offers simpler food in a less formal environment. Crossing the entire room you reach the more intimate restaurant proper at the back. When we say more intimate, bear in mind that the ceiling still touches the sky, and you could move a warship through the windows. The colours are light and neutral; the atmosphere feels elegant but relaxed, especially considering we are in a French restaurant.
On the menu, two gastronomic set offerings, a nine course one at £45 and a five course one at £32. A la carte is, as usual, much more expensive. Our dietary and budgetary constraints thus combine to make us choose the five course option.
The bread arrives, offered from a tray.
In this department there is ample scope for improvement.
But here is an amuse bouche:
It’s described by the waiter as a ‘carrot and fennel cream with liquorice’. However, the thing you smell three meters away is truffle: it is in fact garnished with a few drops of truffle infused oil. It is really excellent. The consistency is dense, with a cheesy undertone supporting the other flavours, none of which is dominant: you cannot in fact detect the carrot, but the sweet colour comes from there. On this flavour layer, liquorice and fennel are gently propped against each other. Sorry for taking so long on a little amuse bouche, but this is promising indeed.
Next, the first item on the menu:
Carpaccio of Tuna with oriental spices, ginger and lime vinaigrette and black radish:
The tuna is cut in superfine slices. There cannot be more than a few grams of it in the plate. It is supremely tender, but with the flavour a little muted, or hard to detect in such a small amount. On the side, we find very strong flavours, ginger, what appears to be soy, and some herb, which we are not sure are a great match for this evanescent cut of the fish. Not bad, interesting ingredients, and we understand the chef’s desire to start without a bang, but perplexing.
And here is:
Feuillete of smoked Finnan Haddock with quail egg, and Colman English mustard sauce:
The supposedly main ingredient, haddock, has been classily miniaturized into insignificance, to produce beautiful little cubes which are too small to satisfy any wish for a decent bite, and on the other hand are (in our opinion) too salty. This dish is a quail egg dish, not a fish dish. Rant over. The dish is nevertheless cleverly constructed, arriving in a strong whiff of smoky perfume, with the glazed phyllo pastry on top, under which lies the creamy egg, and then a very nice mustard which cut beautifully through the fatty, creamy flavours. The egg worked very well with what little fish was there. This was a relatively complex, multilayered dish, offering interesting flavours and luscious textures, and balanced too (although Woman found it a little too fat, a sort of glorified comfort food). Yet, for how good and technically accomplished it was, it felt restrained, it lacked some memorable note, to our taste: maybe the tininess of the portion, depriving us of any satisfactory bite, contributed to this impression.
Here comes number three:
Salad of artichokes, wild mushrooms, French beans, pumpkinseed oil and old (how much?) balsamic vinegar.
A welcome vegetable interlude. The artichokes come in two guises, boiled (or steamed) and fried, and very nicely too. Then the girolles and the crunchy green beans offer a very pleasant consistency and beautiful flavours. A pity, but once again we found little control on the salt, which was too much. And the dishes had been assembled sloppily: the amount and sizes of mushrooms in one was amazingly larger than in the other: not that it made a difference to us, as we share everything…but still it violates the first rule of plating!
And here the big shot:
Pave’ of Angus Beef, morels in vin jaune a la creme, beef reduction, baby leeks.
The beef is excellent tastewise but it is surprisingly dry. The morel reduction is not as pleasant as expected, and it almost feels a little burned. Well, for a beef dish, we were finally expecting potent and wowing flavours, but we are severely underwhelmed. And, sure it is a tasting menu, but come on, that piece of meat is single-bite-sized. The prospect of death by starvation is looming on us!
Finally, the dessert:
Feuillantine of caramelised Granny Smith, Guinness ice-cream and glazed hazelnuts.
The feuillantine is rock solid. It does have a nicely toasted buttery flavour, which goes well with the toasted hazelnuts and the sweet apple. The Guinness ice cream is good though not ravishing. Man remarks that this dessert is difficult to eat (how do you break the tough crust without squashing the entire, meagre content?) and looks a little sullen. Down to earth, it is a blob of ice cream with a wafer and nuts, not quite thrilling enough for a starred tasting menu. A detail that would pass unnoticed if the flavour took your mouth by storm, but alas this is not the case. This dessert does not meet the high expectations, we have to say.
The advertised petit four are not brought, and now it is Woman looks sullen…It doesn’t really matter to us, as we normally just take a little bite of them, but it concludes a night of sloppy service (see below).
With two glasses of wine each (Josmeyer Pinot Blanc 2006 and Barbera Avvocata 2004) at a total of £27.80, plus water at £3.75, plus 12.5% service, the total comes to £107.49.
The service was far below par for a starred establishment. There was clearly no focus, no energy and no concentration. Cutlery fell more than once (once what sounded like an entire tray just past the kitchen door), forks were touched by the waiter’s finger (at the eating end), the bread was more or less thrown on the plate, the desserts were brought by the waiter with his thumbs deeply inserted in the plate, the dessert plate was taken away before it was finished (and before the cutlery had been replaced in it) and the plea by Man to leave it was ignored by the spaced-out waiter (which also goes to prove that, when an Italian and a French communicate in English, some miscommunication is bound to happen).
What to say of the cuisine? Good but underwhelming would sum it up well. The menu was elegantly constructed, and we found much technical skill on display, treating with assurance a great variety of interesting ingredients; but we did not find this skill ever translating into anything really memorable, and sometimes we even encountered some imprecision. Overall, all these elegant dishes didn’t stir any emotion. Maybe it was a bad night, but while this dinner was by no means unpleasant, it compared very badly for example with our recent French cuisine experience at Chapter One. The £32 menu we had is a special offer (though there always appear to be some kind of promotion at this restaurant) and it may look like good value for a Michelin starred venue in the City of London. But, considering that when we went home we had to cook ourselves some pasta ‘aglio e olio’ to quell our hunger…well, enough said.
(Added on 18 January 2009: they have just lost their star: in the light of the above, this seems justifiable, whereas Chapter One just got theirs)