Cinnamon club

(Visited December 2012)

We still cannot believe it took us ten years to get to visit the Cinnamon Club, but finally here we are. A wet pre x-Mas Saturday noon, the place is half full, but a continuous stream of punters will keep flowing in until we leave.

The room is magnificent, having stolen the premises of the former Westminster library – pity the place is not busier, so that what looks like a reading room in a former life, now turned into a first floor dining room, is inactive.

Reminding the dinaer this was Westminster Library

Reminding the diner this was Westminster Library

Service is laid back though attentive, if we close an eye on the error in the bill at the end (guess in whose favour: it’s a mystery why such casual mistakes are not 50% in our favour).

Well, the food then: many tempting choices, we began with “Tandoori breast of red leg partridge with chickpea and tamarind“, and a “Char-grilled Welsh lamb fillet with nutmeg, sweetbread bhaji and caper kachumber“.

Char-grilled Welsh lamb fillet with nutmeg, sweetbread bhaji and caper kachumber

Char-grilled Welsh lamb fillet with nutmeg, sweetbread bhaji and caper kachumber

Tandoori breast of red leg partridge with chickpea and tamarind

Tandoori breast of red leg partridge with chickpea and tamarind

Let’s face it, although we’ve eaten tons of it, we can’t say we know much about Indian food, so any allusion these dishes are making to flavour combination in more traditional dishes, if any, fly over us uncomprehended: but these starters definitely do taste good! The spices hit you with clarity one after the other, each new layer displacing the previous one, lingering on and enhancing the taste of each mouthful. For us, both lamb and partridge breast were a bit overdone, and while the lamb was still succulent, the partridge had turned dry. But the spices in the wonderful chickpeas again did the trick and saved the dish.

Now for mains – the “Pan fried bitter gourd filled with spiced Jerusalem couscous, yellow lentil sauce” is indeed uncompromisingly bitter: it is stuffed with what reminds us more of Sardinian fregola than cous cous, but it is good. Brave choice to go for something so at the far end of the bitterness scale. We suspect it won’t find too many takers, though any fan of wild dandelion leaves or wild chicory will love it, and they include us! The yellow lentil sauce sweetens the proceedings, and overall this is a very pleasing if not too classily presented dish (onion cutting all over the place).

Pan fried bitter gourd filled with spiced Jerusalem couscous, yellow lentil sauce

Pan fried bitter gourd filled with spiced Jerusalem couscous, yellow lentil sauce

The “Roast loin of Cumbrian wild red deer with corn and millet kedgeree, pickled vegetables” was high quality and this time a perfectly cooked piece of meat, though slightly on the cold side by the time we got it. Served with a lovely take on corn and millet kedgeree, with unadvertised white rice and greens, it was a pleasure to eat and representative of the fusion style this cuisine promotes.

Roast loin of Cumbrian wild red deer with corn and millet kedgeree, pickled vegetables

Roast loin of Cumbrian wild red deer with corn and millet kedgeree, pickled vegetables

We had to behave to skip dessert, as the Ras Malai is almost irresistible for Woman&Man. But this means we’ll be back! For, the vibrancy and subtlety of that spicing will certainly linger in our memory longer than the errors and imperfections.

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Two courses at Arbutus

Interior

Interior

(Visited December 2012)

Squid and mackerel ‘burger’, Cornish razor clams. £11.95

Saddle of rabbit, slow cooked shoulder cottage pie, red endive, pancetta. £18.50

Squid and mackerel ‘burger’, Cornish razor clams

Squid and mackerel ‘burger’, Cornish razor clams

Saddle of rabbit, slow cooked shoulder cottage pie, red endive, pancetta

Saddle of rabbit, slow cooked shoulder cottage pie, red endive, pancetta

Who can complain about gutsy, easy flowing Michelin starred cuisine like this, at these prices? Well, perhaps only a morose saddo who noticed the slight excess of salt in the otherwise delicious,moist, flavour packed burger. But even he will admit that it’s not so common to eat so well in London, even aside of pricing.

spuds

spuds

We never had a poor dish here, no matter how low-cost the menu from which it was taken. If Michelin stars reward consistency in quality, Arbutus is exemplary as a deserving establishment.
Maybe Arbutus lacks the environment to be the place for a great relaxed meal in the complete sense. Everything feels a bit rushed and cramped and noisy and the waiters always appear a little inexperienced and we would not take a friend there unless she was a terminal foodie like us.  But certainly it’s one the best places we know of where to have a great lunch, especially solo (or a duo or a small bunch of foodies), straight to the point. A longer description of a (very) old meal is here.

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Petrus (London): high class cooking

(Visited 30/12/2011)

We squeezed into the 2.30 lunch slot, which became 2.40, waiting and munching pop-corns (paprika, lemon, original yet not sure it’s such a cool idea) on the comfortable sofa at the entrance, entranced by the monumental cylindrical temperature controlled wine storage unit, around which the restaurant seems to revolve. It is an impressive room, with widely and rationally spaced tables, ideal for hosting an impressive meal. Did the lunch live up to it?

Well, the amuse immediately sets the tone and raises expectations of a not ordinary afternoon.




The Jerusalem artichoke mousse ever so velvety, in harmony with the exuberant truffle, and in harmonious contrast with some acidic capers below, all this lovingly engulfing a soft beef carpaccio. Not an ordinary amuse; Mark Askew (exec chef) and Sean Burbidge (head chef) are clearly dead serious about excellence.


We order, as one of the starters, a pheasant cooked three ways. But instead of that, this is what shows up:


Pan-fried sea scallops with celeriac, Granny Smith apple and truffle



This was a fabulous combination of sharp, earthy, sweet and umami flavours that  only a clumsy execution could spoil. But the execution was as good as one can hope for, the first of a series of dishes where the cooking, as well as the seasoning, was chillingly precise.


There remains the small matter that we haven’t ordered this dish. The person who took our order without writing it down had buckled under the pressure (room packed, last table orders). Well, ok, this is the way they do it, surely it feels more classy without a notepad, but Woman is on the verge of tears, oh the promising pheasant three ways… but the staff comes graciously in support of distressed Woman: of course we could have this, too, with their compliments and apologies three ways:


 Windsor Estate pheasant three ways with shaved chestnuts and cider consommé





The three ways of the pheasant are a raviolo, a ballotine and a fatty piece of leg. You can probably see how good, multidimensional, succulent the meat was (do you remember those dry horrors of some home-, or even restaurant-, cooked pheasant?), to say nothing of the delicious chestnut shavings. But what propelled this dish skywards was the humble consomme’, with its beguiling sweet-sour undertone.


The other starter we had ordered is


Pan-fried fillet of red mullet with clams, coriander gnocchi and a lemongrass sauce





Sorry to be repetitive guys, but the cooking of this fish was spot on, light crispness on soft moist meat. All components here truly work harmoniously together to raise the whole higher, congratulations, chef(s), as this is truly a great little dish. Can we just say, though, that the claims were rather pointless, in number, size, taste and function? Remove, remove! (and perhaps have more of the wonderful gnocchi).


The main of


Loin of Highland venison with braised shin, carrot purée and juniper sauce





is sumptuous, the succulent loin in the slightly crispy outside, the classical juniper accompaniment made into a ravishing sauce, the braised and wrapped shin telling yet a different story of texture and taste. Look at it: such a neat looking dish enclosing such a world of gustatory experience.


And then the bird:


Highland Red-leg partridge with pancetta, ceps and chestnuts, roasting jus  



Presented cleanly in slices, the wrapping of the pancetta here really gives wings to the taste of the meat. What is striking is the soft and moist texture, obtained by sous-videingfollowed by quick panfrying, another exemplary display of meticulous cooking. The velvety jus builds the layering of flavours, the vegetables do not merely play second fiddle, and the final pretty textural touch is what felt like barley inserted in the slices of meat.


Lovely sides of Dauphinoise potatoes and multicoloured carrots were also brought to the table.


By now we are almost alone in the room, there is a general air of demobilisation. The service becomes noticeably less sharp, even if always kind. Some restaurants have live jazz, here they have live ironing





But we still want our desserts.


The Chocolate sphere with milk ice cream and honeycomb


is chocolate to the n-th power – the photograph has been taken after the perfectly formed and light chocolate sphere had buckled under the hot melting chocolate poured on it. A little piece of pleasant theatre for a dessert that aims, and succeeds, to knock you down. This was high class comfort food, interesting in flavours and textures: technically speaking, pure gooey pleasure!


Next,


Frozen yoghurt with wild heather honey, roasted fig, walnuts and red wine syrup

which was refined and intriguing in conception, the various components playing intricate games with each other, but perhaps did not work so spectacularly in terms of taste, especially because the roast fig (end of December?) simply could not (and did not) deliver. More for the intellect than for the glutton.


Another little piece of theatre with the unusual petit fours, small vanilla and Armgnac icecreams in a white chocolate coating, served in “steaming ice”.





And more: chocolate coated almonds and two varieties of mint chocolates.





They really take chocolate seriously around here…


Oh, if only they took coffee as seriously as chocolate! Here we are, at the end of a remarkable meal, sipping poor filter coffee. Why, why, why? We ‘remonstrate’ with a surviving waiter (few humans are by now in the room, among them however we think we spotted Mark Askew running around, a good sign EDIT: or maybe not: we understand that Mark Askew has now left Petrus!), appealing to his Italianness. He insists on making us an espresso, and we don’t dare tell him that the results are not enthralling either. Please, somebody do something about this.


The service varied in quality during the meal (due to the late time some personnel disappeared). Particularly comical was our attempt to enquire with a newly arrived young sommelier about the cooking of the partridge. ‘Is it cooked sous-vide? ‘. ‘Yes it’s very sweet, nice isn’t it’. ‘No, we mean, is it cooked in a water bath?’. ‘Water bath?’. ‘No matter, yes it was very good’. The other waitress also had no idea, but she kindly asked in the kitchen. So it’s not a ‘total’ service, in the sense that not everybody is au fait with the dishes. And let’s face it, watching the ironing service performed in front of you is not top class stuff as the food (and no, it was not our first choice to get a table at 2:30 pm). But the attitude and procedures they have, the kindness of the individual waiters even when obviously tired and no doubt desperately wanting, but not showing to want, that we would just leave them alone, the generosity and smoothness with which they dealt with the wrong order, were admirable.


 This was our last meal out for 2011 and, apart from the sour coffee note, it ranks with the very best. The dishes here are intricate and at the same time clean and coolly logical, flavours orderly working as a team and not against each other. This is impressive modern fine cuisine, executed spotlessly and with perfect judgement. There is a certain clinical air about the dishes, a certain lack of aggression that some perhaps might not find exciting; but as far as we are concerned, on the palate judgement we were blown away by the harmony of it all. The dishes here please you rather than challenge you. We’ll settle for that. We anticipate this will soon be a 2* restaurant. Three courses (using top class produce) are £65, which is very fair for Mayfair.


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Locanda Locatelli (London): ‘Nice’ but not ‘Wow!’

(Visited: 28/12/2011)

Many say that Locanda Locatelli is expensive for what it offers. But consider this: what’s the price for time travel?

Because through the Locanda cuisine you step back a couple dozen years, and find yourself engaged by dishes whose conception would not have surprised our parents in their youth. And we could have exchanged today’s lunch with the one we reported on five year ago without being able to tell from the dishes which one was had when. Preservation rather evolution is the philosophy here.

This is not meant as a negative! We are certainly not going to object to preserving intact our great culinary tradition. But then, everything is about execution. How did they fare in today’s lunch?

The bread and parmesan grissini (unpictured) arrive and they are majestic: impressively well-made. In particular a ‘rosetta’ was airily empty inside exactly as it should be. One of the best, perhaps THE best bread basket in town, rivalled only by Koffmann’s.


We skipped the truffle dishes:

as it looked a bit sad in comparison with the one we had recently had here (incidentally, at a fraction of the price: 4 euros per gram there, 9 pounds here – this is London for you).

One of the primi was essentially the same we had five years ago, Pheasant ravioli with rosemary jus





and once again was near perfect: quite well filled with intensely flavoured pheasant, the jus powerful but not overwhelming the pheasant, with a luscious dense texture.


But less convincing was the other primo, Chestnut tagliatelle with wild mushrooms




Of course making a dough with chestnut will always create a texture problem for the pasta, making it brittle, and that’s expected, but the reward for this should be a superior flavour, which we did not detect. The sauce, boozy and creamy in a really retro style, was also too liquid in our judgment, but it was pleasant (no more). However, because the pasta was too smooth on the surface, there was a slight feeling of sliminess. Not pleasant.


The two mains are chromatically appealing thanks to the beautifully coloured sauces.


The Veal with lardo di Colonnata and fine herbs, parsnip puree, pumpkin, hazelnuts.



had an enticing assortment of ingredients, of which surprisingly the least impressive was what we expected to be the star, namely the lardo. However, the parsnip puree’ was a joy, one for the glutton with its sticky consistency absorbing the jus, of reasonable (no more) depth. The hazelnuts were of high quality and they shone. The veal itself, ever so delicate, just managed not to be overpowered.


On the other side of the table, a Roast English partridge, grapes, chestnuts, black cabbage with pancetta.


Nice touch, the grapes, but the pancetta had no punch(so it was not a punchetta), and neither had the chestnuts, leaving the cavolo nero, and us, a bit underwhelmed. What happened? We don’t know, but certainly larger quantities of these ingredients were needed in the dish to make a mark. The partridgewas cooked with great precision, and had good flavour. Once again, while very far from being a poor dish, and while holding well as a whole, it failed to really enthuse.


What was spectacular was one of the desserts. This ‘torte of the day’, a ‘Frangipane’ with pears and stracciatella icecream 


was good, the three textures (crumbly top, soft middle, and compact base) well balanced and the almonds commanding beautifully, with plenty of moistness and interest added by the pears and the icecream.

But even this paled near the  Cassata ‘Locanda’ style,



a ‘deconstructed’ cassata made with superb ricotta, superb canditi, superb everything, all spread out for your pleasure. This was  a masterclass in Italian flavours.


The petit fours were nice, too, though we have had better espressos (again, good, but just).



The service today was a little uneven, a little distracted, with a large number of waiters wandering around to not too much effect and without showing any genuine interest – and although this is for the cuisine, let us mention that the  pacing of the dishes was also very unsatisfactory, with firsts and mains brought in record time, and then taking an eternity to clear the empty dishes and get our dessert orders. It took fifteen minutes from firsts to mains and fifty minutes from mains to desserts.


There is also a chance of a bullshitting attitude by a senior waiter or maitre d’ who, when asked where the wild mushrooms came from in this season, told us they came from France. Very unlikely. We also noticed that after we asked a couple of questions like this, this maitre d’ started steering well away from our table…. Maybe he didn’t want to be bothered any longer. Or maybe we stink.


So, all in all, Locatelli continues to deliver good, on occasion very good (especially when it comes to pasta and desserts), but always very conservative, Italian cuisine. It is in a sense the Italian analog of Koffmann’s, although we have to say that unlike at Koffmann’s at the Locanda only few dishes managed to stir really deep emotion on this occasion, and there are also fewer sparkles of wit and original twists. Several times one says ‘Nice’ instead of ‘Wow!’ It is pricey, true, but as we remarked after our first visit there is also a sense of generosity in the portions, the non- rapacious prices for water and coffee, the rare absence (in London) of the gratuity automatically included in the price. With two glasses of wine at an (outrageous as usual in London) total of £27, and good coffees at a correct £2.50, each, we paid about £150 plus a tip.


We’ll keep taking a peek at this institution every five years or so, at this quiet sort of date when it’s incredibly easy to book, the room is only half full, and celebrities are scarce around to support the restaurant. Even if not always thrilling, Italian institutions need support nowadays.



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Viajante (London): inspiring

Great bread. And not only that. We normally hate no-choice menus, such as you get at Viajante. They seem to epitomise a chef’s arrogance; they say to the customer: it’s not about you – it’s about me, me, me, the chef. See our experience at Roganic.


So we only came here on the recommendation of a (very) expert friend  whom we trust.


But it is indeed worth the trek even for those of you from more luxurious parts of London (not us) to this, let’s say, more colourful one.


Nuno Mendes’ cuisine is often referred to as avante-garde. It is in fact more complex than that, weaving an undoubtedly modern narrative that is deeply rooted in tradition.


Our lunch had it all (apart from choice): technique, balance, power, amusement, tradition, innovation, generosity. Not a single dish disappointed or wasn’t interesting.


An unpretentiously presented butternut squash, milk skin and lardo was deceptively simple and the most intriguing dish of the day (as it s so hard to impress with a mainly vegetarian dish).



And a bread porridge with egg, sweetcorn and girolles, redolent of tradition, was a moving as well as well executed dish.





We went for the six course menu, which is a great bargain at £50 (EDIT FEB 2012: prices have now increased by 30% at lunch, so now this menu is £65, like at dinner – not so great value any longer), but the dishes are in fact many more, so much so that we won’t go into details. Look at them, they  tasted as good as they looked, from the initial amouse bouches (crab croquette, ‘Thai explosiion’, Amaranth with sorrel), in which the incredibly clear and hyperdimensional flavours attest that this chef means business,



 
to the cod loin with a stew of tripe, parsley and potatoes, to the intense, ravishing Maldonado pork cheek with cereals and garlic

 

to a suavely refreshing and light pickled and raw cucumber with reduced milk sorbet





to a concluding Mandarin Dondurma. We neither, it’s a Turkish ice-cream.


And it’s impossible to forget the petit fours, notably the truly mushroom tasting ‘chococolate porcini’, a final piece of fun and taste.

Service staff and the hostess were young and sweet and took their jobs very seriously but with a smile.


We went to Viajante fearing gimmicks, and we found instead very solid cuisine with some flavours from the past, some flavours from around the world, some flavours from the sheer imaginative power of the chef, all of them impeccably layered and assembled. It’s modern, it’s complex, it’s good, it’s different: go!




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The Greenhouse (London): an enticing trial lunch

On arrival, despite visiting on a budget offer, we are given all the customary extras – very elegant, very pleasant, very welcoming.


When we ask whether they mind if we take photos of the food, the maitre d’ almost laughs: why should I mind? We’d like to send the tape of this scene, occurred in what is otherwise a pretty formal setting, to the many stuck-up venues that consider themselves and their food so sacred that its images cannot be handled by mere mortals.

So let’s take a photo of the bread

 
It has a ‘professional boulangerie feel’, very standard but perfect looking, and it’s undoubtedly very well-made (we didn’t ask whether it was bought in).


We decided to have a “trial lunch” at this illustrious and historical Mayfair venue that has seen several chefs at the helm – they must have a Michelin star or two, they really must, but we can’t be arsed to check – show us the food first 🙂 – based on an amazing offer with this site, that afforded a three course meal and a coffee for less than what a single main costs in most fine dining places in London (the regular lunch menu, anyway, is also good value at £29 for three courses). Of course at this price we expect the selection to be limited and the dishes to be simpler, and that’s why we prefer to consider this visit as a mere trial, to get an indication of the style of Chef Antonin Bonnet’s cuisine. There is, anyway, an art in designing a budget fine-dining menu.
 
A tiny matter. A wine waiter or junior sommelier attempts to persuade us to buy a bottle of Barbera that is almost 50% more expensive than the more moderately priced (£36) Loire we had selected. Now, apart from the fact that a sommelier should be able to spot two cheap bastards like us, who would never upgrade so much on their stated request unless already fully drunk, we also consider it slightly bad form to attempt this upselling feat and jarring with the previous impression of hospitality.
 
After this, however, everything was smooth, including the impeccable topping up of the wine by the aforementioned waiter.
 

Very soft, enveloping textures in the first dish, Spaghetti squash and hen egg, hazelnuts, bristly ox tongue, apple balsamic vinegar (nothing else) with pleasant contrasts and balance between acidity and sweetness.

 
The strongly flavored sardines, glazed with birch syrup, do give pleasure, matched by an equally decisive jus (chicken?), accompanied by an aubergine caviar and girolles mushrooms;  a good ensemble although the aubergine caviar was overdelivering on labour and underdelivering on flavour.

More delicate but with neat flavours, and simply beautiful, was a dish of grey mullet with artichoke puree and dolce-forte sauce which once again created that acidic counterpoint:
A rich, sumptuous featherblade was enhanced by a shiny and powerful Guinness sauce and accompanied by smoked new potatoes, buttery and soft. This would have been a fantastic dish had it been completed by some other vegetable element; as it was, it was pleasant and powerful but slightly one-dimensional both texturally and taste-wise, and tending to become monotonous – more a dish to gobble up rather than one to slowly enjoy
A Guanaja chocolate dessert came as a ganache, it was light and delicious, with crunchy chocolate “medals” and a very very intense blackcurrant coulis that really shone through.
The cheeses featured a Morbier and three others that we have in the meanwhile forgotten in the orgy of intervening restaurant outings… Perhaps you can recognise them from the photo. They were excellent if, according to us, served at a very slightly sub-optimal temperature. A suggestion that seemd to greatly demoralise the maitre d’ who clearly cared, and made Man feel guilty for having made it. Let’s say that our mouths were too warm.


All in all an impressive display of precise cooking and creative, sometimes subtle combinations within a tight budget. While, for all the politeness and attentiveness, the whole atmosphere felt somehow a little cold for our liking (they certainly tend to cater for a clientele that is very different from low class us, as the mind-boggling wine list attests, and these are impalpable feelings anyway), we are very enticed to go back for the whole hog. That, however, will imply a serious dent in the wallet, even compared with restaurants of similar level of cuisine.The petit fours, pure class, certainly do invite you to return,  

and ever more so does an excellent espresso, served with a spark of originality – had it been slightly ‘shorter’ (less diluted) it would have competed for one of the best espressos of the year, and we don’t take such issues lightly…

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Galvin at Windows (London): a perfect lunch

We used to have the ‘£100 rule’, because we maintained it was possible to fine-dine in London for around that figure (for two and with an acceptable wine). Then, defeated by inflation, we gave up. But on a beautiful Summer afternoon, we seem to have gone back in time: the £45 three course lunch at Galvin at Windows, inclusive of water, wine and coffee, took us by surprise with dishes that went well beyond what one expects in such value lunches. Please follow us to the 28th floor of the Hilton on Park Lane.


An amuse of  cold clear tomato ‘consomme’ with peas (and the very attentive service) are immediately striking.  Not to mention the all important bread, which – we agreed with an Italian waiter – was excellent (the waiter said it was made in-house, though other sources conflict).



After the amuses, a table by the window becomes free, and although we are sitting at a perfectly nice table ‘in the second row’, well-spaced from the others, some offers just cannot be refused….(but to stress the point: the room is laid out really nicely, and one can be happy wherever she is seated).


For starters, we had a delicate but flavoursome, dense San Marzano tomato gazpacho (with garlic in Anglosaxon rather than Mediterranean quantity), very fresh. Only the mozzarella did not offer much flavour. And a superb flamed mackerel, one of those simple looking dishes that take your breath away for the precision of the flavours (the side microveggie were stunning).


A duck main dish is elegantly presented and prepared,

a shiny cherry jus supporting the main produce robustly and intriguingly.


But the cooking (in butter) of a cod was out of this world, making it translucent, moist and tender (skin wisely removed). The seasoning was bold. We often complain about dishes being over-salted. This dish is a lesson on the fact that it is not just a matter of sheer quantity of salt, and that much depends on the overall balance. The egg and the chicken jus somehow combined with the cod to provide a strong sensory attack that nonetheless remained, even for us, on the right side of the threshold.




We were looking forward with some trepidation (given our fussines with this specific dessert) to a Tonka bean pannacotta. But the specimen passed muster with flying colours, having achieved a delicious creamy consistency. And for something lighter, the vanilla poached and roasted apricots with apricot cream and pineapple sorbet were sweetly refreshing:





Just like sometimes restaurants can have a night off, sometimes they pull off the perfect meal, when everything feels smooth  and there is not one single fault, and a review reduces to a mere sequence of accolades. And even the weather helps.

oh, and this view is the reason why, according to Wikipedia, Her Majesty the Queen objected to the construction of the Hilton Hotel – nobody likes to have her garden overlooked:

Of course, this type of experience does not occur by chance – behind certain results there is immense preparation and fantastic teams both in the front room and in the kitchen. When a restaurant is well organised and there is true leadership, it can work well whether the boss is present or not. On this occasion, the bosses were neither in the front room nor in the kitchen, yet the two great teams obviously included people that one day will be bosses, because they managed to serve a large, quite full room entirely smoothly. Well done, guys.


After the meal, we strolled to our favourite destination after a lunch in Mayfair

We were coming with eyes trained to demand perfection in the dishes, and unforgiving of even the minutest sloppiness. We would like to pay a final tribute to Andre Garret and his team: their dishes met more stringent standards of precise execution  than some of the works at the Royal Academy!

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Gauthier Soho: A disappointing experience




 (Please read also the subsequent commentary here)

At the end of our dinner at Gauthier we were not happy, we were not satisfied, despite the fact that the truffle risotto (above) was luscious and intense as usual (with a £15 supplement it had better be).

This looks like the typical example of a restaurant that is being harmed by its own success. They are trying to fit too many diners in a space that might be charming and lovely, but in this way is rendered cramped and claustrophobic. On that night it was also unbearably noisy.

As a consequence, service suffers. While after so many years together we still enjoy our conversation…we could not ignore the disconcertingly long pauses between courses. Nor the fact that our dirty plates were left on our table for an eternity, just like in a crowded trattoria, much unlike a Michelin starred venue.

And any sauce tends to pool on one side of the plate: the sloping table – due to the sloping floor – that at the beginning of the evening looked rather charming, now adds to the air of decay. Here is an exhibit (veal sweetbread) if you want to exercise with your spirit level

In the past we used to appreciate Gauthier’s understated and precise cuisine, but this time the pressure was felt by the kitchen, too. While an amuse of ‘buillabasse’ was creative and good (with the components of the traditional dish served dry and separate, as little miniatures), and no sloping sauces here,

there were cooking slips, which pinnacled with an overcooked seabass featuring a very unpleasantly soggy skin.

At dinner you can have 3,4, and 5 courses for £35, £45 and £55, respectively. Consider that 5 courses at Gauthier count more or less as three normal courses. Personally, we don’t think our experience justifies these prices and when in London we’ll be looking elsewhere in the future (beside our eternal Italian favourite which we never fail to visit, of course!).

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Apsleys

The day: 5 December 2009, Lunch.

The place: Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA

The venue: Apsleys-A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough

The food: Modern Italian

The drinks: Luxury list but also by the glass and more easy-going options.

(Added January 2010: Apsleys has been awarded its first Michelin star)

One day after the very impressive Hibiscus, we set off again from our humble base in gritty East London towards the bright lights of Central London. We honestly weren’t expecting this Heinz Beck venue, for all the chef’s fame and his 3* at ‘home’ in Rome, to top our lunch at Hibiscus.

Little did we know we were in for a truly stellar lunch, in an elegant, comfortable, spacious, light-filled, no-expenses-spared, room.

An unpromising start with the waiter frantically trying to read the label, unable to tell us clearly where the two olive oils on offer come from (Imola, Florence…uhm). But from then on it will be a steep and endless rise to the sky.

The bread is – of course- home-made, coming in several varieties, including cereal and olives. Very tasty, and well made, touching both the bodily and the ethereal. The latter, a most refined version of Sardinian pane ‘carasau’, much thinner than the standard one, probably obtained by brushing a ‘batter’ on the baking sheet (very similar to what we had another very fine restaurant). This bread deserves a photo.

The amuse bouche takes us by storm.

A ‘pannacotta’ with olive tapenade and tomato concasse’, veal terrine with mustard seeds and candied Kumquat. Soft flavours, temperatures and textures, yet vibrant and fresh. The cheesy pannacotta plays well indeed with the two flavours. Great. (we wonder: where does he get tomatoes in December?).

Mellowed down by the food and the relentlessly charming waiter, we are all salivating expectations. He tempts us with a white truffle put under our nose (mercifully he does not say ‘from Alba’) but, even though inebriated by the noble smell, that lingers on well after he has taken the precious treasure away, we opt not to go bankrupt.

The primi establish beyond doubt that pasta can be pure fine dining. There were the celebrated ‘fagottelli carbonara’ (more on this story later).

And there was an unbelievable rabbit reduction in

Ravioli of rabbit and pistachio

That reduction, so intense but not heavy; the ravioli, well filled and simply wonderful, among the best we’ve ever eaten. Just wanting to be picky, the pistachio plays, surprisingly, a bit second fiddle here – we were expecting some crunchy textures and a more definite appearance in the form of flavour.

Will a lamb have been slaughtered and a pigeon shot for a good cause?

Yes, yes, yes!

Lamb crepinette

The movingly tender, moist, flavoursome lamb is enclosed in a crepe (egg and cheese) and spinach leaves. The warm provola cheese layered over aubergines adds power and a subtly bitter note, and the finely finely chopped peppers with the courgettes green are sweetly delicious. A stunning, boldly flavoured, beautiful looking dish rooted in tradition and taken much higher. (we wonder: where does he get the pepper and aubergines in December?).

Pigeon Royal

Once again, this pigeon’s cooking deserves the adjective ‘perfect’ (the breast poached and the leg slow-roasted).Very far reaching flavours all round, multidimensional, with an unadvertised rhubarb compote sublimely acidic and an added foie gras a seductive smooth, rich match for the gamey, earthy meat. And the succulent pearl onions, and the mustard seed sauce. What balance. What power.

We share one dessert. We’re glad about this decision as the specimen turns out to be a giant one:

Ricotta cannoli, cassata and Sharon fruit sorbet

Sicily reigns in this dish, the ricotta from stratosphere and encapsulated in the classiest of crispy cannoli, the pistachios now screaming flavour and texture, and we actually wanted to scream (of pleasure) after tasting an added glass of almond milk. The sorbet is not sweet which, in a dessert with plenty of sugar, makes for the right balance.

The petit four accompanying our (excellent) coffees spans an impressive range in terms of flavours, textures and recapitulate several regional Italian traditions: gianduiotto, pistachio and almond meringue with berry compote, ricciarelli, raspberry sugar, brownie. Simply excellent.

The service

Friendly, polite, attentive, unintrusive. We just wonder, miserable picky sods that we are, why in a restaurant of this class and obvious ambitions, they do not iron the tablecloths.

 

The low

What low?

 

The high

Fagottelli carbonara

We could not believe it. We could not believe that this famous signature dish was as good as it was. This is genious. The carbonara eggs springing in your mouth when you bite into the entire fagottello picked up rigorously with your spoon, the absolute balance, the perfect seasoning, the rustic, often heavy tradition brought to unprecedented heights and delicacy, the vivid colours (that courgette green again): this dish has it all. It moved us and it will remain in our tasting memories. (we wonder: where does he get courgettes in December?).

 

The Price

There’s a 3 course lunch menu at £45 including a starter version of the fagottelli. We went a la carte with two starters, two mains, a shared dessert, water, coffees and just a glass of wine and paid £145 (including the usual 12.5% discretionary service charge). A fuller a la carte meal with a basic wine will set you back around £200 for two, which, in truth, is fair for such cuisine (we must remark the generous portions, too). Tasting menus at £65 and £85.

 

Conclusion

Heinz Beck is a genius and this London enterprise of his does not fail to communicate it through executive chef Massimiliano Blasone and the rest of the team. This cuisine attains the clearest and most potent flavours and is never heavy, never unbalanced, never showy or egotistic. We are glad that London has such a true superstar, heavy calibre Italian cuisine restaurant.

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Wandering in Mayfair…

…maybe after an exhausting shopping day, or maybe just because you’re lucky enough to live there, you may stumble in one of our favourite Italian restaurants in London. We’ve had several delightful dinner at Semplice (fully reviewed here). On the last occasion in December, just before our non-holiday, we tried, for example, these memorable pheasant ravioli with potato sauce


To non-Italians such a type of dish may look overly rich in carbs, and while this might well be the case in pure dietary terms (not that it has harmed us so far)…on the palate there is really no sense of imbalance, the dense, starchy texture and sweet aroma of the potato sauce forming a really apt ligature for the freshly made pasta and the fragrant game filling.

And just to keep our carb intake at our needed levels for the night…we were also blown away by this perfect execution

of egg Sedanini with venison ragout in a black cabbage sauce. The picture and the colour perhaps convey something of the depth of flavour of a properly made pasta and ragout. This is a dish of both heartiness and composure.

They say at Semplice that the pasta is made every day. Opinions split as to whether one can really detect the difference between pasta made on the day and pasta that has been frozen (as most Italian restaurants, even the best, normally do, for obvious logistics reasons). At home we regularly freeze the excess pasta we make. Be that as it may, we merely underscore the integrity and conviction of a restaurant where such laborious practices are followed.

At the end of the meal (which also included a lot of proteins, e.g. in the form of this mouthwatering beast (do take a guess at what it is):

we are treated to a sample of a semi-hard cheese from the Val Brembana, with a nice brioche

whose one thousand aromas blew us away. This is ‘alpeggio’ cheese: made from milk of cows grazing on pastures at altitude in the Alps: and it does make a difference! The Italian cheese list at Semplice is probably the most interesting in London (together with the one here), worth a trip on its own if you want to learn about Italian cheeses.


Semplice have now expanded to a nearby ‘Trattoria’, where simpler food is served in a more informal setting: more on this story later!

By the way, they have just received a Michelin star: congratulations to Marco Torri and all his staff.

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