Dinner tasting menu at £95/person (£150/person with wine pairing) and 3-course dinner menu at £75/person
Meeting the older sister
Having had a pleasant (though not perfect) time at The Sqaure’s little sister in Westbourne Grove a few months ago – for full review of that dinner see here – we were very excited to try out what is one of the most established stalwarts on the London fine dining scene. From what I know about The Square, it is undoubtedly one of the most consistently well regarded high-end restaurants in London, both by mainstream media food critics and food bloggers alike.
Chef Philip Howard has certainly garnered a lot of respect and praise from his fellow chefs and food commentators of all sorts. This would appear to be partly because he is to some extent self-taught (though according to their website he did have a stint in the Dordogne, a year with Roux Restaurants Ltd. and a year at the now (in)famous Harveys where he had the opportunity to work with Marco Pierre White and no doubt learned that “mother nature is the true artist” – that chef’s favorite modern day refrain – in-between having frying pans thrown at him), and partly because he is one of the few head chefs performing at this level to actually be present and cooking in his own kitchen pretty much day in and day out. As a short aside, I recently saw quite an interesting video interview with him on Caterersearch, but generally speaking he eschews the media and tries to keep to himself to the extent possible.
So, an interesting character in the driving seat and certainly a serious contender for a very promising meal. My taste buds were certainly on high alert.
Though as we arrived, I had a very unfortunate discovery. I had made the stupid mistake of leaving my camera’s battery charging at home, rendering the camera in my bag completely useless for what I hoped would be a grand dinner. So apologies in advance (especially to the restaurant and the chef) for my quite colorless blackberry photos – they really do not do justice to the way the food looked, which was in general simple, elegant and beautifully presented.
Business or pleasure?
Occupying the ground floor of a Mayfair office block, the entrance to The Square is rather nondescript, with a subtle sign somewhat camouflaged in the slightly curved burnt orange wall to the left of the front door. The line of windows facing the street is frosted to just above eye level, so you have to jump up to see into the restaurant, unless you’re really tall. Once inside, this is an effective shield to the outside world, as when you are seated you can mainly see from the first floor upward of the buildings across the street, and not the street and pedestrian traffic.
We were efficiently welcomed and shown to our table, which was at the back left corner of the… well…square room, right next to where all of the food was being brought out from the kitchen. Not usually the best spot as it can be quite busy, but it turned out to be fine and afforded us a commanding view of the room and also enabled us to overhear the chit-chat of the staff.
Compared to The Ledbury, whose interior Mrs. LF and I both found really appealing, The Square’s ambience was a bit of a letdown. The tables are very well spread out, which provides you with good privacy and it isn’t too noisy. But it is quite a plain room that for me lacks an engaging identity or design theme. It seems much more a business lunch on the company’s expense place than somewhere you’d want to come for a romantic evening or a celebratory gathering.
At first impression, the waiting staff were also all business. There seemed to be a small army of them coming and going from our little corner. They all conveyed a very professional air but, at the same time, they all felt quite distant and reserved in their interactions with us. It wasn’t really a warm, inviting beginning. Not that this is a disaster, but quite the opposite of what we had experienced at The Ledbury.
These factors were compounded by the fact that, as we were perusing the menu and trying to make our choices, our first amuse bouche was brought out. Then, shortly thereafter, a second round of amuses (of which there were three elements) followed. The Square’s menu is quite a large affair, and it was rather awkward to find a place for them amongst all the little nibbles and bread which looked so appetizing. I got a bit flustered by the whole episode, and would have much rather preferred having them take our orders first and then properly beginning the meal. It just meant that we felt rushed and weren’t able to concentrate on the food as much as we would have wanted to. While this is a small thing, and I probably wouldn’t comment on it if the restaurant did not hold two heavy Michelin stars, it wasn’t an impressive start. Since there was no time limitation on the table that I was aware of, I just didn’t get why they were in such a hurry.
Are you gonna finish that?
But enough of my quibbles and onto the food. And boy was there a lot of it.
Even though we had opted for the standard à la carte 3-course menu, we quickly found out that it was to be more of a 7-course evening when taking into account all of the little extras that The Square very generously includes in all of its dinners. It also turned out that the portions at The Square are much larger than you get at any other restaurant of a similar ilk (at least the ones I’ve been to) and that the food was in general extremely rich. In this way, it was truly an old school approach that was full-on right through the end. This was again something neither of us was quite prepared for, and was barely able to stomach in the end. However, with 20/20 hindsight, I would know that when coming to The Square for dinner, or lunch for that matter, to show up with an empty stomach and to be in the mood for some rich and decadent food. With these conditions, I am certain I would enjoy the hell out of a meal at here.
You can find a blow-by-blow account of the meal below.
I guess in all of the hoopla surrounding the ordering and eating at the same time, I forgot to snap a photo of this dish. From memory, it came in a little glass cup which clearly displayed the distinct layers of colors and textures, with the cheese frazzle stuck into the glass vertically like a flagpole sans flag. It was very rich and the deep mushroom flavor came through clearly, curbed nicely by the layer of sweetcorn foam (which took up nearly half the glass), with notes of roasted fowl hovering in the background. It was pretty heavenly dipping the cheese stick all the way into the concoction and eating it all together. 8/10.
I almost forgot to mention the bread, which was good. It is all baked on-site and the best of the bunch was the white mini-baguette (crispy at the tips, crunchy crust and soft inside), followed closely by the walnut and raisin roll (lots of deep, almost sour nutty flavor balanced by the sweetness of sultanas). The brown rolls were okay. 7/10.
First up in the second course of amuses was a cornet of foie gras mousse, which was stuck into the center of a little brown wooden square. It was really rich and scrumptious and had a lovely smooth and silky texture. The anchovy ice cream cone offered some saltiness, and the combination definitely provided my palate with some serious amusement. (8/10). The black ink puff pastry, which had a salty core, was interesting and left a sharp, intriguing and pleasant taste in my mouth. Points for inventiveness, but I’m not sure it was a completely finished pastry conceptually. (6/10). The prawn crackers were nothing that special in and of themselves, but were crispy and flaky. They were enlivened a bit by the mild curry dipping sauce, which again had a great creamy consistency and a little hint of spice. (7/10).
Given that we were in the full swing of grouse season at the time of our meal, I really wanted to try some as we hadn’t yet had any this year. I didn’t have to work too hard in persuading Mrs. LF to order the grouse starter special for the evening, which did sound very appetizing.
It is a shame that this dish managed to pretty much kill both of our appetites for the rest of the evening. The potted grouse came in a large old fashioned self-sealing glass jar with a metal hinge (the kind you find homemade country jam in), and was full up to the brim of grouse paste. I unfortunately forgot to snap a photo (possibly due to shock), but it was a huge-bordering-on-ginormous portion for a main course, let alone a starter! It had a pretty singular flavor and didn’t really do that much for me personally. Even though it wasn’t my dish, Mrs. LF couldn’t even eat half of it, so I was brought in to dust it off, which I couldn’t do given the richness of my own starter (see below). The foie gras terrine itself was very good and I loved the gooseberry chutney with it. 6/10.
This dish was very beautifully presented, and was not exactly what I had expected when I thought of ‘lasagne’, which I typically associate with square or rectangular alternately stacked layers of pasta and sauce. The dainty little circular tower of crab lasagne was bathing in a luxurious bath of cream that was topped off with champagne bubbles. You could just tell this was going to be a satisfying plate of food. The lasagne itself was excellent, and the sweetness of the crab really shone through. The plentiful sauce was extremely rich and unctuous (lots of butter, lots of cream) and married well with crab, with the ‘lasagne’ layers providing some good chewy texture in order to ground the dish. The layer of shellfish cream on top lent different and slightly more sharp notes from the sea and again proved a worthy and subtle partner. It is a testament to the quality of the execution that I finished this starter, which was again huge and insanely rich, but I did wonder how well I would digest that sauce. 8/10.
Mrs. LF ordered the turbot for her main course. She said that it was a refined and light dish which she thoroughly enjoyed. The turbot itself had a great texture and the vichyssoise was clever because although it looked like a heavy, cream-based sauce, in reality it was mainly made up of puréed leeks, potatoes, onions and stock (with what seemed to be just a little bit of cream) and therefore had more of a vegetable essence. It worked beautifully with the delicateness of the turbot. The pretty black hive of caviar nestled on top of the fish gave it that little punch of salt needed to elevate the dish to something just more than a well prepared fish and sauce. 8/10.
I had heard that The Square’s sweetbreads ranked right up there with the best of them, so in my mind I had ordered this main as my ‘rich course’, thinking that the earlier starter of crab lasagne would be a rather ‘small and light’ start to the meal – well, we all know what happens when we assume.
There was a massive amount of sweetbreads on this plate, certainly more than I’ve ever seen before, even for a main course. They had all been huddled together in the middle, and in the back of my mind I thought they sort of formed the shape of a little brain…fancy that. They were served on a base of perfectly made beurre noisette and were surrounded by a plate of crisps, which I thought was novel, and they actually worked very well as instruments to dip into that lovely butter sauce. The sliced almonds on top worked a treat with the sweetbreads, as did the sweet accent of corn and the earthy and woody flavors of the girolles. The various bits of meat themselves were exactly the right texture for me, having been well seared and firm (they held their shape well) yet with just enough softness and bounce. It was a very good dish, but I felt that again there was just an enormous amount of everything. 8/10.
This little pre-dessert was a welcome respite to the carnage that had preceded it. The peach was refreshing and was of course a perfect foil for the vanilla yogurt. The beignet was crisp but I didn’t think it sat naturally on top of what was essentially a posh pot of yogurt. Maybe this is just an oddity of mine, or of this pair of restaurants, as I recall a similar thing happened at The Ledbury with churros and a strawberry gariguette and I had a similar reaction. 6/10.
Mrs. LF had the soufflé for her dessert. It was, in our experience, as good a soufflé as we’ve had, and was certainly a notch higher than the pistachio soufflé we had at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons earlier this year. The textures were spot on, with the exterior of the crown being nicely hardened and the insides being soft, light and fluffy. The peach flavor came through very strongly – so much so that Mrs. LF felt that it may have been a bit too strong, to the extent it almost smacked of artificial flavouring (though it was certainly genuine peach flavor). A scoop of ice cream was plopped into the center, where it sunk to its gooey death, and a bit of raspberry coulis was then poured into the crevasse it had created, which gave some good freshness and bite to the dessert. While we agreed it was the best we’ve had, I think we also came to the realization that sweet soufflés just really aren’t our favorite desserts; for some reason they just never seem to wholly satisfy either of us. 8/10.
I loved, loved, loved this dessert. There’s not all that much more to say about it. The three little parcels of raspberry mousse had been neatly wrapped with a ‘skin’ of raspberry which was slightly more sharp than the sweet creaminess of the mousse (although it did also have a nice pang of tartness). The nectarines were ripe and if memory serves me right they were a little syrupy too, and I really enjoyed the little kick up the butt that the lemon verbena jelly gave to any forkful you happened to include it with. In some sense, the raspberry ripple ice cream almost stole the show; it was just perfect in every way. It was such a nice ending to the meal, but of course, it wasn’t really the ending was it….9/10.
The petit fours were arranged in what I assume to be The Square’s classic presentation of ‘lollipops’ sticking out of a semi-circular shaped brown wooden block. It looked very pretty, and most of them were good. Memory fails me now, so I can’t tell you which ones I loved and which ones I could have done without.
Just to make sure that they had filled and coated every inch of our greatly expanded stomachs, there was also a bowl of around eight or nine truffles for the two of us! I absolutely adored them, but could only eat a couple at this point.
Because we liked them so much, we asked if we could have a little box to place the remaining truffles in to take them home with us. In a baffling and logic-defying move, one of the waiters decided that they should instead give us a full box of ‘new’ truffles from the kitchen and insisted that we leave the ‘old’ ones on the table, which defeated the whole point of not wanting to waste such good sweets. Maybe it is just not the done thing in such fine dining establishments? I really don’t know, but was sort of mystified by it all. Whatever the case, we did take home the box of truffles and scoffed them down pretty quickly the next evening .
I have thus far neglected to mention the wines for the evening. As I was the only one drinking, I ordered a half-bottle of the Condrieu that they had available from their very extensive and interesting wine list. It was a 2005 Christophe Pichon (Rhône Valley, France) that came in at £33/half bottle, and unfortunately it was a real let down after my sublime experience with another (and my first ever) Condrieu, which we shared a full bottle of at Claridge’s a few months back (see here for details, and for those who are interested in such things it was a 2005 Domaine Mathilde et Yve Gangloff, which still stands out as one of my favorite wines ever). This tasted almost completely different from my memory of the Gangloff wine, and was just sort of flat – not bad, just not what I was expecting, and an indication that I have a lot to learn about the various styles and qualities of Condrieu that are out there.
But for me, the highlight of the entire evening was to come from the wine I ordered with, or should I say for, my dessert. You see, since I first began getting really into wine a few years ago, I have been reading about how some of my favorite food writers and chef heroes more than love one wine in particular. I will give you a clue, in case you missed the title of this section of the review: it is the only Sauterne to have been given the title of Premier Cru Supérieur in the 1855 official classification of Bordeaux wine, it is golden and color, and for my money it is the nectar of the gods, if deities exist, and if they like wine (I hope to God they do). I have been contemplating buying a bottle for the last year or so, and have almost done so, except my existing means of storage would sort of be an insult to such a noble bottle of wine. Anyway, with writers like Joseph Wechsberg and chefs like Fernand Point extolling the virtues of this chateau’s exclusive elixir, I have been salivating at the opportunity to finally taste some of the stuff.
My moment finally arrived on this evening, as I was pleasantly shocked to see that The Square had Château d’Yquem available by the glass on their wine list. There must be a god after all, I thought. Of course, at £55/glass, it was not such an easy decision to make, as it would by far be the most expensive wine I’d ever purchased on a per millilitre basis, but compared to the cost of a bottle (or even half bottle) of a decent vintage, it seemed like the drop of a penny in the ocean, so I went for it. I was somewhat nervous, though, because for my hard earned £55 I was ‘only’ going to get a 1999, which some have written was not a great vintage and hence why it is probably one of, if not the, cheapest of all recent vintages.
I should have listened to my gastronomic heroes and not worried a bit. It was a magical experience and certainly worth every penny. Being an Yquem virgin and thereby not in a position to appreciate the nuances of various vintages, it was the most perfect wine I’ve ever drunk. Everything was in exact balance. It was sweet with a distinct dry nectarine flavor, but not too sweet. It had amazing acidity, but it was not too harsh, it just perfectly held in check the sweetness of the fruit and subtle and complex secondary notes of honey, toffee and almonds. It had an ethereal character to it, and in fact, it just defies exact definition for me at this point, but it will remain ingrained in my memory for a very long time, if not forever. I cannot wait to try my next glass or bottle of this mythical and mystical liquid gold.
Mixed feelings, but mostly good
As you’ve read above, the food at The Square was very accomplished. It was also all, with the exception of the turbot, very rich and the portions were gargantuan compared to other restaurants I’ve experienced at this level. And when it comes to food, the whole ethos of the place seems to be one of generosity, as we were given multiple amuses, lots of very good homemade bread, a pre-dessert and plentiful petit fours with our ‘3-course’ meal that ended up being 7-courses in total. This is all good, except of course you have to know what to expect going into the meal, otherwise you can be a little overwhelmed, as we definitely were.
But it must be the perfect place for businessmen (and other men, or women!) who really love their food, want lots of it, and feel disappointed and/or let down by the often miniscule portions and more feminine character of some of the fine dining world’s other establishments. The Square therefore offers something more hearty and, in a sense, more masculine, neatly filling a possible gap in the market whilst certainly filling the bellies of its customers.
As far as the non-food aspects of the meal went, I left with a neutral to slightly negative impression. As I mentioned before, I don’t think the dining space is particularly warm or inviting and I wouldn’t naturally think of going back there for a non-professional meal if the food hadn’t been so good.
I also found the service to be inconsistent and slightly odd throughout, notwithstanding the kafuffle at the beginning of the meal. The rather measured and distant attitude adopted by the fleet of staff for the first part of the meal seemed to almost immediately disappear once they saw me trying to take a photo of the food from my blackberry, when the flash accidentally went off. I don’t know if they thought ‘food blogger’, which then spurred them on to become more warm and engaging, or whether they were just very busy at the beginning of the service and then once they got to know us a bit better, they loosened up a bit. I hope it was the latter, but I have my doubts.
Whatever the case, they certainly did go out of their way towards the end of the meal, giving us those extra truffles and even producing one of the (very large) menus for us to take away. When we opened it up, we saw that it had been personally signed by Philip, who turned out to be in the kitchen that night, and both gestures were much appreciated.
In the end, I think The Square is someplace I’d probably return to for a good and hearty business lunch, whereas The Ledbury is someplace I’d like to return to with Mrs. LF and/or some friends on a Friday night or at weekends. Overall, I think the food at The Square was more consistently at a higher level than that of The Ledbury, although it certainly leans more toward the traditional than chef Brett Graham’s more innovative, modern and pretty fare. Both are solid operations and probably merit their current status – I just wish The Square was a bit more inviting in its approach and décor.
Wine List: 9/10
Wine Selected: 5/10 for the half bottle of Condrieu and easily 10/10 for the glass of Yquem (even if it was ‘only’ a 1999!)
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at The Square once for dinner.*
*PS: For Yquem lovers, gen.u.ine.ness recently provided me with a great tip. At The Greenhouse, they have 1997 by the glass for a measly £39/glass .