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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Lo Scrigno del Duomo (upstairs)

The day: 3rd November 2008, Dinner.
The place: Piazza del Duomo, Trento
The venue: Scrigno del Duomo Osteria and Wine Bar
The food: Simple Fine Italian
The drinks: Short but strong list, Italian based, with several lesser known varieties

We are temporarily in Trento and we are thinking of paying our beloved Franca Merz a visit …but it’s a Monday! I Due Camini, like many other places, is closed. So why not stay in the very centre of town, and try the less formal sister venue of the Michelin starred Scrigno del Duomo? While the formal restaurant is in a basement, this is at ground level. The interior is warm and appealing – it reminds us a bit of the Vinothek in Bad Mergentheim (which also had an associated starred venue).

The menu is short and offers simple but very enticing dishes. First of all, you can just have a selection of Salumi (cured meats) and Cheeses (€8.50 for 5 items and €10.50 for 7). The Cheese section especially would offer you a comprehensive sample of the best of the Trentino production, including of course the fabulous Puzzone di Moena. There is a €33 three course menu. And then there are various individual dishes or salads, such as Spinach ‘sformatino’ with Puzzone cheese and Finferli (i.e. girolles) mushrooms at €9 or Octopus carpaccio with vegetables, oil and lemon at €12.

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives:

A nicely presented ‘basket’, with a small selection of superior bread.

The bread is made out of stone-ground high quality flour and leaven. The result speaks for itself.

For first courses we go for:

– Homemade tagliatelle with roasted duck (€10)

– Val di Gresta potato cream with veal meatballs and braised savoy cabbage (€10)

Well well well these are very nicely presented dishes for an osteria! The potato cream is just slightly gluey, but the potato flavour is striking indeed. The meatballs are larger than we thought and just perfect, moist and fulfilling, obviously made with good raw material. And the olive oil is top notch which, as ever, elevates the dish.

The tagliatelle are good if a bit ‘nervous’. But what amazing taste, here we are at fine dining, not osteria, levels: the reduction is intense and velvety; the aromatic tang of the rosemary tends to dominate but it integrates splendidly with the reduction and with the excellent duck. A pasta dish among the best we’ve had of late.

And the secondi:

– Roman ‘puntarelle’ with tuna morsels and balsamic vinaigrette (€15)

– Warm beef salad with vegetables and Tropea onions (€11).

The puntarellle, a typical vegetable from the Lazio region (of course also in London we sometimes find wonderful version of them here), are pleasantly fresh and crunchy, while the tuna, although slightly overcooked is still tender. The acidic base is apt, with the flaked almonds adding a gentler, sweeter finish.

The beef is boiled, shredded and composed with the finely sliced onions, fennels and small carrots. A moist, light and succulent dish, in which once again the acidic hint adds to the sense of freshness. Very agreeable on the palate.

All in all, with some water and two glasses of wine, the total came to around €60. Good value given the quality.

The service was friendly and correct. We are very happy. We are happy because with all the things that are going wrong in Italy it’s nice at least to come across places who uphold the standards of our cuisine in this way. It does not seem to take much to prepare a simple rewarding Italian dish: excellent, possibly local, ingredients, correct cooking, don’t go too heavy with the fats, and a sprinkle of personal touch – you don’t need to master complex preparations as in French cuisine. Yet so few manage to get it right. They certainly do it at this Osteria. We find it much better value than the starred sister venue downstairs where, despite the presence of a good chef, the experience can be a little hit and miss (the place where to go for fine cuisine in Trento is here). None of it here, where everything, but really everything, was most pleasant and well priced. Try it.