Helene Darroze (London): Haute cuisine with a few lows

(Visited December 2012)

The feel of the room is so elegant, luxurious that service seems to go out of its way, very out of its way, maybe too out of its way, to be friendly and chummy, lest some customers are intimidated. Man is very disappointed to have changed for once, in order to comply with the dress code, the jeans he always wears for a more or less civilised pair of trousers, when in the room there are not only jeans but even hoods…

We had been at Darroze always for the great value lunch menu (two of them reported here and here). This time we try a la carte (£80 for three courses at the time of writing), where we’ve spotted some interesting ways to burn money on expensive extra treats. As we shall see, some money will be better burnt than other, but some will also magically re-emerge from the ashes…

Bread is a pleasure to eat and the selection is varied:

breads

breads

A rustic amuse of top notch Bayonne (that would be South West) ham, the only potential French competitor for Italian hams :), with well made, light focaccia like bread

Ham and focaccia

Ham and focaccia

is followed by a stunner of ‘foie gras creme brulee ‘ topped by peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

Foie gras creme brulee with peanut foam

What a great combination, the peanut foam dense and substantial, a contrast of temperatures, a contrast of textures, if only the caramel disk had been lighter and less hard to break this would have been a perfect dish.

What can go wrong with Alba truffle? Well, we are not sure as we’re always going to be ecstatic with their perfume (costing a £30 supplement) in this dish of Jerusalem artichokes with Lardo di Colonnata, Parmigiano Reggiano cappuccino, and confit egg yolk:

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

Jerusalem artichokes, confit egg yolk , lardo di colonnata and Alba truffle

However, amidst the vapors of olfactory delight we spot a rather too low temperature of service, a dominance of sweetness, and a presence of the Lardo di Colonnata which is just perfunctory (one wonders how intensively Colonnata pigs must be raised to fill with their Lardo all of Italy and most of the world).

As a dish, aside from the truffle, we liked better the other starter, a delightful and delightfully cooked (rare) pigeon, accompanied by the finest of fine ravioli filled with all the explosive power of offal, and all in a Puy lentil soup that attained a no-holds-barred depth of flavour.

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

Offal ravioli and wood pigeon

This was close to perfection. A pity then that the Dover sole (£8 supplement) and especially the accompanying calamari were overcooked in this dish

Dover sole

Dover sole

We don’t expect to eat rubbery calamari in a 2* restaurant. Well, actually we do, as we’ve encountered this problem before at Darroze. The bright side is that we’ll appreciate even more the superfresh grilled calamari we’ll find in some humble trattorias and tavernas on the Mediterranean coast (e.g. here or here). Aside from the execution, this is a cute, original dish full of finesse, but that for us personally fails to stir much emotion, the sole hidden visually and flavourwise, pushed aside instead of being helped centrestage: the mariniere of spinach and shiso leaves, the seaweed butter, the lemongrass cappuccino, the clams (in meaningless quantity), the pieds de mouton, felt a little confused and made the sole moan: what am I doing here? We should say, a Dover sole Grenoblaise style had at Koffmann’s a couple of days later provided an unfortunate (for Darroze) benchmark for the delight Dover sole can be.

In the other main, this admittedly giant, but definitely lonely, Scottish scallop

Tandoori scallop

Tandoori scallop

had been roasted with Tandoori spices to nice and very controlled effect, the prettily turned vegetables dancing joyously around it, the velvety carrot and citrous mousseline providing that sweet-acidic dimension, and the jus adding yet further complexity. A very accomplished dish of subtle rather than in -yer-face flavours. But we deserved a couple of scallops in a main, no?

After a pleasant and suitably acidic pre-dessert of vanilla cream with passion fruit granite and praline, we enter the marvellous world of desserts at Darroze. Silence please:

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Steamed pistachio sponge with grapefruit

Pistachio cream

Pistachio cream

Carupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal creamCarupano chocolate ganache, Gianduia biscuit and galangal cream

The pistachio dessert had it all, an array of textures, intensity and balance of flavours concentrated in a disarming apparent simplicity, precision of execution.

The chocolate ganache… ah, the chocolate ganache: just beautiful. Sad it could not go on forever, with the intense hazelnuts of the gianduia separated from the ganache on top by a crunchy tiny sliver of chocolate “crust”, and a different textured bottom layer: we could  live on the thing (well, Woman could).

The generous and excellent petit fours are still there, as are the complimentary caneles. They might improve on the coffee.

Service today was not good, not good at all, for reasons that it would be just tedious to dwell on. We don’t know if it was because of our stony faces in certain moments or for other reasons, but the bill arrived with a significant discount (no Dover sole supplement, no truffle supplement). Normally, unless this kind of treat was a ‘reward’ for very regular custom, we’d protest, but you know what? This time we just took it. Man had suffered too much both having to wear his only pair of proper trousers AND ALSO having to waive his arms to get some water while risking dehydration… (Dramatise? Us? Naaah).

Here at Darroze we seem to always have the same type of experience, suitably scaled in quality according to the price of the menu: some unevenness, some absolute pinnacles, a sense that the meat dishes and the desserts tend to be the way for the kitchen to really come into its own, the love for ‘Les Landes’ mixed with Mediterranean and exotic influences and ingredients, a sense of generosity and comfort, absurdly variable service. You can feel very well indeed here, you may return on a whim at some point, you may not ache to return immediately.

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Bocca di Lupo (London): a bit of a letdown

(Visited December 2012)

Counter

Counter

It had been a long time since we’d come, in the early weeks of opening when it was all the rage, and we were really looking forward to our lunch at Bocca di Lupo. We love the concept of a grand tour of regional, often lesser known abroad, Italian dishes. It is not that all that common to find agnolotti del Plin in London!

Sadly, this time the best thing was the promising menu, and unfulfilled promises have a sour taste. The bread started out reasonably well:

Bread basket

Bread basket

In the savoury dishes, the overwhelming note was the heavy hand: too much salt, but most importantly too much oil, and when we say too much we really mean it. Ok, let’s explain.

We go with a number of dishes to share – starting with the said ravioli del plin:

Ravioli del plin in a slimmed down version

Ravioli del plin in a slimmed down version

While not disastrous, these ravioli begin a sense of letdown. The filling is nowhere enough, the dough dominates, and therefore the crucial meat flavour is sadly lacking (imagine that the very traditional way of eating them is in a napkin with NO condiment at all: all flavour must really come from the filling, not from immensely copious butter and cheese as here – the link at the beginning provides a pretty good idea of the real thing). Better to have half of the ravioli with double the filling.

The rest of the meal was a “Carciofo alla Giudia”. As proof of our enthusiasm, we jumped on it before remembering to take a picture – here are the remains of the artichoke:

The remains of the artichoke

The remains of the artichoke

a veal tartare:

Veal tartare

Veal tartare

a couple of pieces of Bollito (a slice of veal tongue and one of cotechino)

Bollito

Bollito

a puntarelle salad:

Puntarelle salaad

Puntarelle salad

and a chargrilled red radicchio.

Red Radicchio

Red Radicchio

The artichoke was good, but dripping oil profusely- sure, it is deep fried, but especially in view of the fact that this specimen was very trimmed, you don’t have the usual motive of a lot of leaves trapping the oil. It was just poor frying. The puntarelle salad, though the puntarelle were of good quality, again swam in oil. Not to mention the excess of salt that coupled with the salty anchovies was near murderous. Even the veal tartare (with many stringy bits left in, what a dishearteningly sloppy preparation) was soaked in oil, the meat of acceptable quality but a far cry from e.g. this one:

Trio Consorzio, Turin, NOT Bocca di Lupo!

since we are talking regional cuisine. Why don’t they just put the olive oil bottle on the table and let the customer take care of the dressing?

The red radicchio escaped the oil onslaught, but the “balsamic vinegar” dressing was rather sharp, in other words it was that not-th-real-thing balsamic that should be banned from existence – and with the radicchio being bitter (and, if that wasn’t enough, chargrilled!) this dish sang markedly out of tune.

The bollito was the best savoury dish, fine and simple and accompanied by good sauces.

At this point, we weren’t quite sure we should proceed with desserts – but we saw a Bunet (of which we eat tons when in Turin), and decided to share. And then Man saw the sabayon with poached pears, and Woman said no let’s leave it we make a perfect one at home, and Man said but come on on a dreary day like this it’s nice to have homely comfort food, and in the end red wine poached pears with sabayon were also ordered…

Well… the Bunet

Bunet/Bonet

Bunet/Bonet

was ok – though really different from any other Bunet we’ve ever tried – it is supposed to be a variation on the creme caramel, where coffee, amaretto biscuits and chocolate are added to the mixture. This one felt very different in texture, with the interior gooey and closer to a fondant – but no complaints here, as it tasted very good. But the pear:

not-so-enticing untrimmed pears in red wine

not-so-enticing untrimmed pears in red wine

Sabayon on the pears

Sabayon on the pears

oh dear, the pear and sabayon: just wrong. First of all, the pears were stone cold, and so was the plate they were on, as well as the pool of red wine syrup that bathed them. Ok, we could live with that, had it not been for the fact that upon contact the sabayon struggled to retain any warmth. Add to this that:

1. the glacial red wine syrup, diluted the poor sabayon into a cold, sorry, soggy, watery mess;

2. the pears were not peeled;

3. the pears had been cut in half but not stoned (stoning a pear isn’t beyond the wit of anyone while keeping the pear whole, but leaving it like that once you’ve opened is just like shouting ‘I don’t care’);

and we couldn’t avoid feeling shortchanged – mind you, we’d be fine with this in Aunt Mary’s greasy spoon, but once you are being charged £7.o0,  yes seven pounds ladies and gentlemen for a conference pear with egg yolk  whisked with a tablespoon of sugar and one of booze, you start bloody well demanding more attention to detail.

There are places in London nowadays offering well made, truly regional Italian fare at knock down prices (the way it should be, by the way, with this type of traditional cuisine where you do not bother with jus and turning of vegetables)  and our experience at Briciole just a couple of days earlier couldn’t be a more dramatic contrast with this one. They have the good ingredients, they have the skill, why do they not seem to care at Bocca di Lupo? Was it an off day, just before x-mas?  Or have Kennedy and Hugo (the minds behind BdL) taken their eyes off the ball terminally? Who knows, but it’ll take us a long while to be tempted to check again.

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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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Kai of Mayfair

(Visited: December 2012)

Kai is as soulless as they come. You are not unlikely to be sitting near members of the money elite from this or that part of the world. Not a crime being filthy rich, of course, more annoying though is being loud and boorish. But the draw to this place (see our previous visit here) are the lightness and clarity of flavours that are the hallmark of their cuisine. And that the lunchtime deal, unlike the a la carte, is oh so light also on the pocket.

Beautiful this steamed sea bass (farmed for sure, but of good quality) in an aromatic  broth that left breathing space for the fish to express its delicate flavour (how many chefs kill steamed fish with too heavy accompaniments!)

Sea bass

Sea bass

But this time it wasn’t always perfect.

The fried dumpling was indeed a gooey, undercooked mess with in addition another meaningless mess of eight (the point being?) vegetables inside:

Fried dumpling

Fried dumpling

This is the only duff dish we’ve had at Kai so far and so they are forgiven. Pretty though.

Instead the dessert, a pannacotta with all kinds of exotic fruits, was perfect -the texture that wobbly creaminess that is the whole point of mild-tasting pannacotta, and again so light- to finish.

Dessert

Dessert

Oh no: THIS is perfect to finish:

Petit fours

Petit fours

very well made: thank you very much!

All this for £27. In the midst of the most expensive real estate in the world, it’s amazing: you can gladly cope with a service that does go through the motions more than correctly but all too obviously doesn’t give a damn. Nor do we, till prices and flavours continue to impress.

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Great Taste at the Cadogan

interior

interior

(Visited December 2012)

It sounded like potential heaven: put together a skilled chef with the help of a couple of menu designers (currently no less than critic Fay Maschler and her Chef sister Beth Coventry) with top British ingredients, the winners of industry prize The Great Taste Award. This is what the restaurant at the Cadogan Hotel has done.

Ever the pessimist, Man smells the smell of shattered dreams. But let’s see.  The menu reads appealing enough:

Great Taste Award Winning Cold Meats
potted wild boar, jamon Iberico de Bellota, saucisson,
handmade sweet corned pork, sourdough miches

Cold cuts

Cold cuts

Bellota? We thought they were celebrating British products! Anyway, these cold meats, even if coming from illustrious producers, were redolent of some lack of love for the meats and for cutting and preserving them properly (appalling the Bellota). Some dryness, some stringiness, some greyness and not all that expected flavour to write home about, except of some sadness. They were also not presented properly, all amassed in a measly mound, some pieces condemned  to visual oblivion. The best of the lot was the corned pork.

On the other hand, this Loin of Wild Northumberland Roe Deer, celeriac puree, roasted golden beetroot & blackberry sauce

venison

Roe Deer

was a fantastic, beautiful piece of meat which benefited from sympathetic cooking, the sauce and roasted golden beetroot reduced to sticky intensity. The kitchen brigade showed its mettle here.

Apart from the venison, good memories come from the side veggies:

Veggies

Veggies

the vivid colours one million miles from the classic tired British vegetables of lore . Also a cobnut oil was remarkable, and stood the test of the stand alone taste very well.

Cobnut oil

Cobnut oil

In sum, a mixed experience, but with a high that was very high. If one isn’t  fazed by a slightly dead atmosphere (at least this lunch) it’s tempting to go back and pick a different starter. And when The Masch and her sister finish their shift, it will be interesting to see what other menu designers concoct. There’s somebody in this kitchen who can obviously execute with flair.

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One O One (London): ‘sustainable’ petits plats lunch

(Visited: December 2012)

Low flying in a sense, being below the radar of most gourmets (but not us: see our previous visit),  yet this one flies in the high skies when it comes to quality, and at lunch, to value: out of an infernal x-mas shopping and tourist crowd, only eight had the sense of stepping in for the terrific value lunch of petits plats (at the time of writing £22 for two, £28 for three… guess how the series continues?).

Since everything looked desperately appealing, seafood was the guiding light for choosing lunch. Beautiful classical technique and skill in presentation ooze out of every dish: this Fjord farm sea trout which comes at some point in the meal

Sea trout

marks a peak, it’s not only a chromatic beauty, it is also roasted in an exemplary way,  the  clementine beurre blanc a microcosm of delicious acidity, the butternut squash, almond and vanilla oil adding layers of flavour.  This piece of fish does honour to proper fish farming, and makes us forgive chef Pascal (as he likes to be called on the menu) for calling everything ‘sustainable‘ instead of farmed: when quality is this high, there is no shame in the word.

A haddock was sustainable, no doubt, but more importantly was drowned in a velvety and savoury /sweet whisky spiced soup missing perfection by a whisker, lacking that ultimate punch:

Smoked haddock

The slow cooked egg, once broken, created the effect you can easily imagine, adding to the lusciousness of it all.

The room feels a little like a boat. One sails in luxury class here, despite the affordability of what’s on the table.  Great sauce making ability is once again front stage  in these scallops (the salty pata negra…such a  culinary cliche’ well deserves a linguistic cliche’:   it IS a  marriage made in Heaven with the scallops!)

Scallops with truffled gnocchi

The chestnut soup with the ‘jus gras de poisson acidule’ (doesn’t this sound poetic?) was so mighty and lovely that even on its own it would have been a a faultless, impressive dish.

A pity that the grilling that imparted a ravishing smokiness to this turbot (yes, even turbot can be sustainable) also ever so slightly overcooked and dried it:

Grilled turbot

Quibbling, really: the risotto was creamy, sweet-sea infused, and together with the cuttlefish tagliatelle and the persillade  (read: parsley) Pernod cream it created  a stunning ensemble.

One can explain the lack of customers with the slightly cold, boat-hotel feel, and, let’s face it, with the lack of a service that beside formal politeness is capable of conveying any kind of enthusiasm (why don’t they use robots instead? Sustainable, of course). What is inexplicable is the absence of more recognition, from Michelin all the more so given the classical French bent of the cuisine. With ingredients of this quality -and remember  that the vicious and cruel, i.e. non-sustainable, a la carte menu reaps the sea of its finest wild delicacies, principles die after dusk, obviously- and with cooking of this order, this experience is a splendid demonstration that you don’t need to be filthy rich to enjoy fine cuisine in a fine room in a luxury area of London. But we cannot not ask the question: is all this sustainable?

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Weekend in London

There are many reasons why London is the greatest city on earth.

One them is that in the space of a walk you can eat Italian like in Italy, French like in France, Japanese like in Japan (granted, with a few local inflections…).

In an otherwise undistinguished Autumn weekend, this is just what we did, visiting in succession three of our long time favourites.

Latium continues to deliver immaculate ingredients prepared with simplicity and  flair, the secret of Maurizio Morelli’s dishes being an uncannily exact judgement in seasoning and flavour balance. Sometimes, in Tripadvisor sort of critiques, one reads complaints about the lack of a ‘wow!’ factor. But there is a sense in which the triumph of this cuisine lies precisely in the lack of any recourse to wow, as well as in the repudiation of gimmicks and fashions: this is a cuisine of classical equilibrium, of precise proportions, a classy cuisine. Think small Renaissance building as opposed to tallest skyscraper in the world. No celebrities here (go to Zafferano or Locatelli, for that, but better not), just lovely food and lovely service.

spadaaffumicatoepuntarelle2

Smoked Swordfish with Puntarelle

risottoeossobuchi2

Veal Ossobuco with saffron risotto

Kikuchi, this little joint tucked away in the unglamorous side street that it shares with a glamorous Hakkasan branch. We’ll admit, it may not be the greatest Japanese in the world, and yet it is bloody good, bloody authentic. How not be entranced by taciturn, courteous Mr. Kikuchi meticulously toiling away at his pretty, tasty sushis in front of his small clientele, hour after hour, evening after evening? There’s a sense of timelessness here. And how not to be charmed by those junior waitresses, probably students, with their faltering English, so polite and so barely comprehensible, bringing an apt sense of remoteness, and even by the veteran, grumpier waitress who hardly smiles at you after all these years? Try Kikuchi and you’ll see: you’ll get the addiction too, you’ll need his dishes again and again.

searedveryfattytunasushi2

Seared very fatty tuna sushi

californiarolls2

California rolls Kikuchi style

Koffman’s:  the old master, the most recent addition to our list of  favourites but it feels like it has always been there, an immense technique and capacity for powerful, full, knock-out flavours (starting from his bread basket, perhaps the best in London) put at the service of your sheer enjoyment, not giving a fig either about Michelin star strictures (he’s had enough three-starred glory) or your diet: if he judges that in a dish that amount of  butter and salt are needed to yield full flavour, that is what you get. No prissy calorie counting here. But relax: once in a while, you deserve it, and if you look well there are even lighter options on the menu. All served by one of the smoothest from of house teams in London.

duckpithivier2

Duck Pithivier

nonso2

Tasting of braised beef cheeks

The great man was surveying the service while we devoured our excellent turbot:

pesceconKoffman2

(yes, we like our turbot cheeks 🙂 )

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First grouse 2012…


…being in London, at Koffmann’s: where else?

In this year of the glorious thirteenth we were quick off the mark. We enquired whether Koffmann’s was stocked with grouses. They were due on the 15th morning from Scotland, and so there we were, ready for lunch service.

We were served their first two grouses of this season (pity they don’t have a ‘first item sold is free’ policy, like in some old shops in Rome).


It was just spectacular. No, really, spectacular. We don’t know what they do to it to obtain that wonderful texture in the pink roasted breast and legs. By the way, never forget the kitchen brigade beside the great man (who was still in Scotland that day): an applause for execution.

As you can see, the animal is resting on a slice of bread that is soaking the sticky, flavour-packed innards and the trademark dark lovely jus, that perfect match for the other potent flavours.

Definitely not baby food. This is food that strikes with force at the heart of your gustatory senses, so be prepared if you haven’t had it before.

A glimpse at the final treats…the dough of this baba’ was remarkable (Man, obviously not content with his La Peche Abusee 2004, would have liked more booze in it though):

 and the same for these superb madeleines, and butter free!!!


Oh come on, you didn’t believe that, did you? Of course they are not butter free. Actually they might define the opposite of butter free. Butter freeness is the one thing you definitely cannot ask at Koffman’s. But culinary bliss is worth a little sacrifice, every now and then.

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Royal China (Docklands, London)



 (Visited Saturday 25 February)


We entered Royal China Docklands (part of a historical mini chain in London with the mothership in Queensway) prepared for their renowned sullen service.


Well, it is true that they won’t win any cheerful hospitality award, but apart from some linguistic difficulties with the ‘lower ranked’ members of staff (who however even regaled us with some smiles, unbelievable, and certainly not to be expected from the managers – they clearly have deep problems to solve, their time too precious for smiles), overall they were not positively rude, which was a gratefully received achievement. And certainly they were efficient.


And it was a beautiful day, the room is pleasant, with spacious and well spaced tables and fine views of the river. And if you go in the warm season even better if you can sit outside; that would be a bit of London Dolce Vita.



No great choice of teas. They insisted very forcefully that we have jasmin because ‘we would find everything else (2 choices) too strong’.


Of course we avoided jasmin and opted for the other two choices.


We tried the dim sum on a weekend lunch (no reservations taken, arrive early enough if you don’t want to wait).


The overall quality of the food was not stellar as at Yauatcha, but it was still well above that of your average Chinatown restaurant. Actually the steamed dim sum was sometimes really well executed and delicious, only the soups disappointed.


The soups were hot and sour vegetables, and Rainbow been curd. As we said, disappointing, watery and without depth,

 



The dim sum, showcasing some quite brilliant flavours and fine making of the dumpling, included prawn and chive, crab and spinach, vegetable. We also had pork buns, whose filling was reasonable but not in the right proportion to the dough and really nothing to write home about (again, a poor show compared to the Yauatcha version), and a vegetable cheung fung which was instead very good..

 

 

 





The properly Chinese desserts (i.e. not Westernised) were worth the slightly long wait: a nice steamed sweet lotus paste bun, and a truly lovely Black sesame paste dumpling in peanut crumbs.





The cost for this type of lunch is very reasonable, around the £50 mark for two, which makes this branch of Royal China, considering the food quality and the surroundings, one of the best value for money for Chinese food in London.


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Alyn Williams at the Westbury (London):enigmatic

(Visited Feb 2012)


This place begins with a lie: it insists on describing itself as being located in Bond Street, while it isn’t. Resign yourselves guys, you are not in Bond street, we are not in Bond street, you at least are near it and Conduit Street where you really are is prestigious enough in our book 🙂


Everything in the newly refurbished room oozes luxury. Windowless, square, hushed luxury, to be precise. Personally we are phased by neither windowlessness nor squaredness nor hushedness, but some might get that slightly claustrophobic feeling of being in one of those joyless temples of gastronomy whose sole function is to allow the adoration of the chef (now who used this phrase already?) rather than to please the customer.



Well, some nibbles of Fourme d’Ambert gougeres as well as the bread threaten to immediately enrol us among the worshippers: they are wonderful. The gougeres have an extraordinary texture, at the same time airy and substantial, with an intense cheesy flavour. 

And the bread is made really, really well (a potato sourdough, a Guinness and star anise one, and a crispy flatbread similar to ‘cartamusica’ perhaps in appearance, though in fact totally different).

With such a spectacular beginning perhaps we set our expectations too high.




Yes, a Langoustine/fennel custard skin/cider apple/chestnut/smoked eel starter was very fresh and aromatic, the sweet flavour of the large langoustines matched by the more robust eel. But we felt it was served far too cold, especially the already rather timid bisque. A waiter assured us in very decisive fashion that this is how Chef wants it. We are perplexed. 

Chef is, by the way, but you probably have guessed it already, Alyn Williams of Marcus Wareing restaurant fame, somebody with such an eminent pedigree that we hesitate to proffer our ignorant criticisms. Yet we are the customers and the supposedly ultimate goal of his existence: so we will persist.

A Veal sweetbread/artichokes/celery/sherry is lonely, but cooked to perfection, with an amazing texture, nicely supported by the sherry, a real feat of cooking unachievable by mere mortals. So why is the artichoke puree merely nice and a little tame? The circle of vegetables around the lonely sweetbread is pretty, and prissy.

Grilled brill/squid ink/ricotta/cuttlefish/Puntarella/smoked lardo is finely cooked with a nice charcoal note, however (and we are beginning to notice there is always a however) the diced cuttlefish while pretty is unexpectededly a little rubbery, and its ink, salty (we guess, it was cooked by a different, less gifted hand than the god who produced the sweetbread). A nice, imperfect, good, unspectacular dish.




In the other main of Salisbury plain Venison/barley malt/acorn/choucroute/mandarin the sliced venison was excellent, with deep flavour and sous-vided to nice elastic tenderness. The microbits of mandarin seemed a little pointless in the grand scheme of things, but we don’t doubt there was a deep cheffy reason for their presence, as well as for all the other ingredients small and large, among which we found the krauts, sorry, choucroute which sounds far more refined, very pleasant. 




A pre-dessert of Crème Catalan/pear granita/pine sugar does not work in our opinion, too much contrast between the two main components, and the pine fails to shine (ask this guy for how to extract flavour from pine, we still remember his aromatic and balsamic pannacottas after years!).

Turning to desserts, Banana/Lapsang tea/Coconut/saffron/condensed milk had a very delicate Lapsang flavour, we’d have expected it to be more assertive. It was a very good and beautiful dessert, and well crafted, yet lacking a killer punch.

The other dessert is a sumptuously vertical Walnut whip, with an icecream that isn’t too convincing for us, while the ‘mousse’, let’s say, of the main element and its base jump at you from the plate.



Truffles follow as petit fours. Now these delivered the (PX) killer punch!

The (overstaffed) service, which struck us as slightly stiff in the beginning, is in fact composed of good chums; they just have a French style, poor guys :). All very competent, except a young and clueless waitress who, when asked about the cooking of a venison, spent about ten seconds muttering ‘the venison…the venison…let me think…’ and then struck by a sudden inspiration came out with: ‘I think it’s finished sous vide’. Now that’s an idea. She promised to ask somebody but she never did. It was clear that she didn’t give a toss about the dishes and we think that for this reason she should not be allowed to go near the customers.


Three courses are (for now) £45, with the option of a fully vegetarian one, and there are tasting menus at £55. So, price-wise, Alyn Williams is a clear winner on most competition at this (high) level.


Yet there is some skimping on some ingredient amounts, we feel, which may partially detract from the fullness of the experience, and explain our strange feelings about our lunch. We ask ourselves: did we like everything? And the answer is yes. Not one poor dish (and by poor we mean Michelin-star standard poor). Was anything banal? You’re joking. The level of technique and inventiveness here is high indeed.


And were we well-treated? Extremely.


But what was truly memorable? Honestly, only the nibbles, notably the gougeres and the petit fours, and the sweetbread. All the rest was clever, ingenious and very cleanly presented. The desserts especially, but everything really, showed exquisite technique. But for us most flavours were simply too polite. Even the temperatures were too timid. So, admirable, yes; memorable, no, at least for us and least on this occasion. Perhaps what we missed here was the directness and clarity we found for example at Petrus, a recently visited restaurant of similar class that also delivers highly accomplished cuisine. Anyway, we definitely feel we should return to try other appealing dishes by Alyn Williams (his menu is a pleasure to read), and also to get to the bottom of why such well-crafted creations failed to elicit screams of pleasure from us. Sometimes it happens that one only ‘gets’ it the second time, especially when the cooking is as subtle as this, and let’s not exclude the very real possibility that we are a bit slow of understanding.


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