We ate in the ‘Gastro’ side of the restaurant, where you have the choice of the ‘Menu Classic’ at £45/person (3 courses) or the ‘Menu Discovery’ at £65/person (a 7-course tasting men), plus an optional cheese plate at £15/person, which includes three wine pairings (one for each cheese)
I think it is only right to place a disclaimer at the beginning of this review. You see, Bjorn van der Horst is one of my favorite London-based chefs. I loved his food when he was heading up the kitchen at The Greenhouse, and La Noisette, his Michelin-starred restaurant that fell under the umbrella of the Ramsay Empire, was one of my most-loved London restaurants. However, after only about 18 months it met the same ill fate that so many restaurants at 164 Sloane Street had faced before it: La Noisette was Gordon Ramsay Holding’s second failed attempt on this site and, before that, Ian Pengelley (now of Gilgamesh fame) and private members club Monte’s (which involved both Alain Ducasse and Jamie Oliver at different points) both failed to survive there as well.
But it is often out of difficult situations that the best things are born, so you can imagine my excitement when rumors began circulating that Bjorn was going to start up his own restaurant in central London as the next step in his culinary career. As per my previous post, I had been waiting for his new venture, Eastside Inn (maybe an homage to New York?), to open for ages, and it finally did open its doors about five weeks ago. So, was my exuberance well founded?
Bjorn has launched Eastside Inn in partnership with his wife Justine. They have decided to split the restaurant into two distinct sides, which are connected by a large open kitchen which services both sides of the restaurant. In fact, there are actually two separate entrances to the building, one for the ‘Bistro’ and one for the ‘Gastro’.
The Bistro side is more casual, with a number seats at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, some tables against a long and burgundy-colored banquette, and a few other scattered tables. It serves mostly French classics such as charcuterie, cassoulet and a plat du jour, and is the less expensive of the two areas. Hors D’oeuvres range from £3-6, Entrées from £7-12, Main Courses from £12.50-18, and Desserts are £5-7.
We ate in the Gastro side of the restaurant, which is a small, modern and contemporary room. Here, there are 24 covers by my count (plus a private dining room), and you have the choice of the Menu Classic, where you choose your own 3-course meal for £45 (alternatively, you can ask for it to be a surprise and let the kitchen dictate on the dishes for you), and the Menu Discovery, which is a predetermined 7-course tasting menu for £65. Each menu includes three amuse bouches, and you can also opt for the cheese plate for an additional £15, which is inclusive of three wines which the sommelier has paired with each of the cheeses.
The Opening Acts
We arrived a little late as, unfortunately, Mrs. LF’s wallet had been stolen on the tube ride over to the City . We eventually tracked down the place, chose the right door (literally), and entered. We were escorted to our table in the relatively long, narrow triangular shaped Gastro dining room and were surprised to see that we were the only people there at 8pm. The room did feel slightly awkward, but I didn’t personally mind it too much. There are some paintings toward the back of the room, but none in the front, which makes the walls in the front seem a little barren. The dark wooden legs of the orangey-red leather chairs seemed like they had already been chipped a little, which was odd, considering the restaurant only just opened. The significant problem, however, is that the floor-to-ceiling window facing the street is covered by a thin see-through white veil. Mrs. LF therefore had a view of the not-so-attractive St John street by night. She correctly commented that in a fine dining room like this, you want to feel like you are completely removed from the outside world, like you are in a little, cosy cocoon where you can focus on your company and the food. And the odd window and curtain don’t quite give you that cosseted feeling.
We were greeted by one of our waiters (we had a few throughout the night), who was very pleasant, and we also had a consultation with the sommelier once we had decided we would be going for the tasting menu. Thierry, the sommelier, was very personable and helpful, and we eventually arrived at a small-production, biodynamic, unfiltered Sancerre from 45 year-old vines (Sebastien Riffault’s “Akménimé” 2007 at £55 a bottle) as most of the dishes seemed like they would go well with white wine. More on that later.
As we waited for our bouches to be amused, we were very surprised to have Bjorn himself come over to our table, introduce himself and have a quick chat with us. Later on, his wife Justine also made an appearance, and was very charming. Both visits were much appreciated and you can tell that both they and their staff are very excited and passionate about this new venture, curious to see what their customers think, and eager to please. The restaurant (at least the Gastro side) did slowly begin to fill up as the evening went on, and was probably half full by 9pm, and stayed that way.
The Pièce(s) de Résistance
After having the chef at our table for a minute (not quite a chef’s table, but close), it was onto the food. And there was a lot of it to be had! First were the three amuse bouches, which are meant to ‘awaken your palate’, according to the menu.
- ‘Toulouse’ was half-cooked foie gras on thin slices of crispy bread. It was simple, delicious and quite large for an amuse bouche. The foie gras had a noticeably sour tinge to it, which was different from others we’ve had, but didn’t detract from our enjoyment. 8/10.
- ‘Paris’ was a cube of fromage de tete (i.e. the stuff inside the head of a young cow), which was combined with slices of tiny cornichon, capers, and a sprinkle of caviar. It had a very rich flavor and the veal sauce that the tete was engulfed in was out of this world. 8/10.
- ‘New York’ was a piece of hamachi with a citrus and soy dressing, sesame seeds miniscule radishes and a tiny bit of jalapeño. The flavour combinations were precise and right on, and it was a fresh hit to the senses that certainly did awaken the palate. More Hawaii than New York for me, though . 8/10.
You may wonder why these cities were chosen for the amuse bouches. I am guessing it is because the Swiss born van der Horst, who has a Dutch father and a Franco-Spanish mother, grew up partly in France and also lived in New York – but who knows.
Now that our mouths were fully awake and at attention, we were ready for the procession to begin.
- Course 1: Almond Gazpacho with Smoked Paprika Prawns and Tomato Sorbet. This was a very refreshing, multi-layered dish. The shallow white bowls came out with the pinkish-red tomato sorbet in the middle, along with the smoky prawns. The cool beige almond soup was then poured by the waiter. The dish was very satisfying, and we seemed to discover another element to the dish in each bite, which kept it from being too much of the same. The gazpacho itself was delicately sweet, and melded very well with the smokiness of the prawns (which were excellent), with the tomato sorbet giving it a cold and balancing burst of sharpness. The paprika flavour came through in the right dose, and we also detected some soft chilli flavor, coriander and toasted almond flakes in different bites – which all went together brilliantly. 8/10.
- Course 2: Raw Diver Scallops with Sea Urchin Vinaigrette. The scallops themselves were excellent, full of that sweet and round scallop flavor and seasoned minimally but well. I had refrained from sea urchin in the past, so was not sure to expect. The urchin itself was quite bitter and did complement the sweetness of the scallops but, to quote Austin Powers, I just wasn’t sure whether it was “my bag, baby”. The bright orange and green sauce that skirted around the edge of the plate, which seemed to comprise of orange, sesame and lime juice, was excellent, with the scallops too. Overall the dish was a definite winner, especially so if you really like the unusual taste of sea urchin. The scallops and urchins definitely released some salty flavors in our wine, which beforehand had seemed quite balanced between acidity, fruitiness and alcohol, which added an interesting dimension to the dish. By the way, another facet of the wine was the fact that it had an unusually oily texture to it throughout the meal (when you swirled it around in the glass, an oily residue clung to the sides). I give the scallops 7/10.
- Course 3: Watermelon Salad “Matthew Norman” with Courgette Flower, Feta and Tapenade. This was a very refreshing dish, as you would expect with watermelon. I thought it would be in danger of being too salty, what with the double whammy of feta and olive tapenade versus the lonely watermelon, but Bjorn and his team were too clever to fall into that trap. Neither the cheese nor the tapenade was overly salty and the flavors gelled well together, and were aided by a bit of fresh chervil as well. The most unusual, and possibly the best part of the dish, were little chunky slices of pickled watermelon – the firm bits from just under the skin were used and it added a nice twist to the dish. The courgette flower, which had been battered tempura-style, was fried perfectly and very more-ish. FYI – if you don’t know who Matthew Norman is, he is a Guardian food critic, and heavily criticised this dish at La Noisette, so Bjorn decided to name it after him eventually. You have to admire his cheek. 7/10.
- Course 4: Poached Wild Turbot with Jersey Royales, Snails Confite and Beurre Rouge. This was pure class. The small piece of turbot was poached perfectly, retaining its firmness but flaking apart gently when you manoeuvred it with your fork. In fact, the fish was so fresh and well cooked, it would have been excellent served plainly on its own. But the beurre blanc (rich and succulent, as it should be) and the beurre rouge (which provide a bit of vinegar tanginess), with the addition of well executed seasonal potatoes and samphire elevated this dish to ‘gastro’ heaven. The snail, which was served whole, was very well done too and swam in those blissful sauces…and I don’t even like snails that much. A full 10/10.
- Course 5: Roasted Pigeon with Gooseberries, Swiss Chard and Girolles. Don’t worry, there was some red meat, too. The bird was cooked exactly how I like it, a nice deep red. The accompaniments worked particularly well, and the jus was probably the best thing we had besides the turbot dish. Alongside the pigeon, there was a small silver plate which contained a single, circular, crispy piece of rye bread with a schmear of pigeon liver pâté which was bold and rich, and a nice little touch to complete the dish. The Sancerre, which had gone pretty well with the rest of the courses, actually seemed best suited to this dish, which was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. 9/10.
- Course 6: “Ice Cube”. You know you’re in a fine dining restaurant when you get pre-desserts! The huge rectangular ice cubes were brought out on plates dressed with white napkins around them, and the top-side of each cube had a slightly depressed semi-circular area which had been carved away so that a little scoop of basil sorbet could be perched on top of it. The sorbet was very refreshing, and had a very strong sweet basil flavour – a good palate cleanser, which is the point of it, I suppose. 7/10.
- Course 7: Cheese Plate. We decided to share one portion of the cheese plate, which consisted of some Stinking Bishop, a Comte-style cheese and a Stichelton. We also got two triangles of La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese, which was apparently put on the cheese board as it reminds the chef of his childhood (there is also a poster of the Laughing cow in the Bistro side of the restaurant). The Stinking Bishop, which as the name infers is quite a pungent, rich, full-flavored and soft English cheese, was paired with a Rose Champagne, which provided for a very innovative and successful pairing. The Comte-like slice was my kind of cheese, hard, nutty and strong, and was combined with a Mas Amiel (a white wine from Maury, made from Grenache). The full body, texture and packed fruit flavor complemented the cheese nicely. The Stichelton, which is the same as Stilton but made with unpasteurized milk, was perfectly matched with a sweet white Jurancon wine from La Domaine de Souch. The cheese course was extremely generous, and I have never seen in done in this fashion, with each cheese being precisely matched with an accompanying wine. Bravo! 9/10.
- Course 8: White Chocolate Wonder with Raspberry and Pistachio. The desserts at La Noisette had been one of the best parts about the meals there – always fun and exciting – and I am happy to say that this doesn’t seem to have changed with the moving of venues. Our ‘wonder’ spheres came out in all of their circular glory, dusted various colors of sugary spray paint, only to be dissolved by the hot raspberry sauce, revealing a creamy pistachio paste core. Now, I am not the biggest fan of pistachio in desserts (in fact, I was slightly underwhelmed at Le Manoir Aux Qat’Saisons with their pistachio soufflé earlier this year), but I have to say this was phenomenal. The combination of the milky white chocolate, the sharp sweetness of the raspberry sauce and the richness of the pistachio flavor really worked well together. This is one of the best desserts I’ve had recently – it still won’t touch The River Cafe’s Nemesis, but they are completely different after all, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the taste sensations and the theater this dessert. 9/10.
A few side notes:
- This may be controversial (and intentionally so?), but there is no bread served with the tasting menu. We didn’t have a problem with this personally, but we did ask about the policy as we can imagine a lot of people having a serious issue with it (our only niggle is that we like to have it to mop up good sauces and all the stray bits of dishes that are left at the end). Apparently, Bjorn believes that you have so many different things to eat during the course of the meal, bread would only fill you up early on in the meal and your stomach space would be wasted. They do buy in bread, which is supposedly very high quality, from a French baker based outside of London (near Uxbridge if I remember correctly?). And I would like to stress that there was bread on offer with the cheese course, and it was good quality.
- One of the only disadvantages of the tasting menu was the fact that we didn’t have the signature Foie Gras with Espresso Syrup and Amaretto Foam, which I had been craving since La Noisette closed, but I suppose I will have to go back and have it another time!
As we had hoped, we had a really good night at Eastside Inn. The service was excellent throughout. It did seem like there were a lot of staff members considering the number of diners, but I guess this is the risk you run with a new venture. That said, everyone we interacted with was very friendly, charming, professional and knowledgeable. You definitely get the feeling that they are excited and proud to be a part of Eastside, and that they want it to succeed.
The food was of a very high quality across the board, and truly superb in a few instances (read: turbot, pigeon and wacky dessert creations). It is classic Bjorn van der Horst fine dining fare, and it goes from strength to strength, replete with challenging combinations and a real sense of personal flare in each dish. I hope that the menu changes often and reflects seasonal and local produce moving forward, as I think this will be important in drawing back repeat customers for the more fancy side of the restaurant. As noted above, we haven’t eaten in the bistro side, but we did walk over there after our meal to have a look at the menu, and some of the dishes looked very promising.
These days, it is quite rare to find a chef of Bjorn’s standard in London with his or her own place that has really made it their own, and Eastside Inn is dotted with quirky little personal touches throughout (like it or not) – from the Laughing Cow cheese, a little pot of homeade yogurt with red fruits and thyme covered in a cloth a la Bonne Maman served between two of the courses, to the very personal choice of artwork (Chris Gollon), to the whole way the place has been set up in two distinct restaurants. It is nice to see someone of this calibre who is focused on just one venture and wants it to succeed by making people happy by serving high-quality food with good service at reasonable prices.
When I think back on our evening, the one word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘generous’. And I think this is because it is a very personal project for Bjorn and his wife. They want to make you feel at home. You are offered not one, but three amuse bouches; you get not one but three glasses of wine with the cheese plate, which have been selected to complement each specific cheese; and there are little surprises throughout, such as the mysterious ‘Ice Cube’. Considering the prices charged and the quality of the food, it is very good value for a London restaurant that is surely a 1 or 2 star Michelin star contender.
While there are some minor things that will hopefully iron themselves out over time (for instance, the decor could use some tweaking), I think there is tremendous potential for Eastside Inn to establish itself as a serious stalwart on the London gastronomic scene.
Wine List: 7/10
Wine Selected: 7/10
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only dined at Eastside Inn once, although I dined at Bjorn’s former restaurant, La Noissette on a number of occasions.*