Dinner: £45 for 3 courses or £55 for tasting menu, Lunch: £19 for 3 courses
Hoping for a Great British Menu
Launceston Place was on my hit-list for a good part of 2009 after I saw its Head Chef, Tristan Welch, appear on Great British Menu, the BBC television program that invites two great chefs from each region of Britain to prepare dishes that represent both their local area and ‘Britishness’ in general, with the winning dishes featuring at some gala event to be held at the end of the series, and cooked by the chefs who invented them. I liked what he was doing on the small screen (he won his heat too), and his gastronomic creations looked very enticing. So, one October evening, Mrs. LF and I set off to see if the Welchman would deliver.
Launceston Place looks slightly odd from outside. It is housed within a semicircular façade and is kitted out in a black tie paint scheme. It almost gives off the feeling of a very posh pub that caters to the wealthy people living in the nearby environs. In any case, we located the correct doorway (there are a few doors that lead nowhere) and were pleasantly surprised upon entering.
There is a very pretty little bar area as you enter the restaurant, where you can have an apéritif or wait for other members of your party to arrive. We decided to go straight to our table, however, which was off to the left side of the restaurant. They layout of the place is quite unique, with tables on either side of the central bar station, and also behind this area (which also seems to serve as a dishwashing and plating-up station), and adds a bit of interest. The decor is also fairly iconoclastic and I liked it – black walls throughout with brooding artwork, but with little splashes of color here and there. To me, it almost seemed like going into someone’s very nice home, where the dining room led into yet another little dining room. It’s worth mentioning that they also have a very nice private room on the lower level, where instead of actually being in the kitchen (i.e. a Chef’s Table), you are in a mock library that has a video display of the kitchen and two-way microphones (they call it the Chef’s Office), so you can chat with the chef(s) as they work (I am sure they must love that…!).
The building has served as a restaurant of some kind for a long time, and I think Tristan and the folks at D&D London (a spin-off from Terrence Conran’s restaurant group in which he still owns 51%, and which took over Image Restaurants, of which Launceston Place was a part, in June 2007) have done a fantastic job in updating the premises. For instance, our table for two made clever use of the space by having one seat on the end of the benching attached to the wall, and the other chair placed 90 degrees away (instead of facing each other) – enabling them to squeeze another table for 2 across the pathway.
But enough about design, architecture and acquisitions. Save for the last topic, that is not really my expertise.
Starry, starry night?
I thought the menu read brilliantly, and had a very hard time deciding what to order as there were so many things I wanted to try. While we were pondering the possibilities, some very nice devilled parsnip crisps were brought to the table, wrapped neatly with a little bit of Launceston Place branded black ribbon. In the end, we went for the 3-course menu, as previous experience with tasting menus on the first visit made us a bit wary (i.e. see here or here). But before our starters manifested: “the bouches were coming, the bouches were coming” (a reference for non-Americans can be found here).
And I am glad they did, because the leek soup was really fresh and awakened our palates. The contrasting temperatures worked well, and it had a nice light, creamy and froth-like quality about it (7/10). The sourdough bread was also very nice – and if memory serves me right (?), it is made in-house (7/10).
My starter of scallops was beautifully presented on a wooden slab with the molluscs served in their shells. It was a very accomplished dish in the sense that the scallops were cooked perfectly and were also large, juicy and very flavorful. The subtle seasoning of ‘aromatic herbs’ harmonized well and let the scallops do the talking. It wasn’t a ‘wow’ dish but I don’t think that was the intention. 7/10.
We both agreed that Mrs. LF’s starter was one of the better things we had eaten in a while. It was also cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque). 10/10.
Nearly as good was my main course of wild hare. It was served two ways, but the presentation wasn’t quite as neat as the starters had been. I didn’t really care, though, as it tasted delicious. What I presume was the breast of the poor little wabbit was cooked well, being very tender and soft, and having a lovely mild taste. The little quartet of ribs was executed perfectly, left quite red and rare, and had a slightly stronger taste (more salty than sweet), thereby bringing some balance to the dish. The nutmeg mash and pears were slightly sweet, and I thought the flavors all played well off of each other. Much like the scallops, I found this to be a nice and mellow dish that, while it didn’t really have that ‘wow’ factor, was really satisfying: it did the ingredients justice and showed the inventive hand of the chef. 8/10.
The one complete anomaly in our otherwise lovely meal was the suckling pig. Although this dish has drawn rave reviews from other bloggers since we dined at Launceston Place (see here for example), Mrs. LF could barely eat any of hers. She told me that it tasted extremely ‘piggy’ and just wasn’t nice – she posited that this particular bit of meat might have been off. I was shocked, and thought she must be crazy, but when I tasted it I agreed that it underneath the main taste of the meat lurked a very distinct and unpleasant flavor that I could also only describe as ‘way too piggy’. After googling it, I discovered that Tamworth pigs are meant to have a ‘distinct’ flavor, but somehow I don’t think this is what it was meant to taste like. In hindsight, we should have sent the dish back, but she wasn’t that hungry anyway so we just left a lot of it on the plate. Strangely enough, the servers didn’t ask why we had left so much of it when they came to clear the table for dessert (but more on the service later…). I am hesitant to rate the dish, because it will bring down the score of what was otherwise a very nice meal, but it was what it was – inedible. 1/10.
Luckily, the lovely taste of the palate cleanser went some way to clearing our taste-buds’ memory of the terrifying Tamworth. The sharpness of the lemon sorbet and was magic with the coulis and the flavors were every bit as beautiful as the presentation. You could actually taste the black pepper in the thinner-than-a-fingernail translucent tuile, and this added nicely to the interest in the mouth.
On some sound advice from Gastro1, I splashed out on the second-most expensive dessert wine I’ve ever had at £17 for the glass (for more the most expensive one, Chateau d’Yquem, see here). It was the Italian Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria, and it apparently retails for about £30 for a half-bottle. As I told Gastro1 after the meal, “It had huge peach on the nose and on the mid-palate, with dry nectarine on the finish, with very good acidity. It was a syrupy and quite oily (it coated the glass nicely when swirled), intense nectar. I thought it was almost like drinking an alcoholic peach nectar…amazing it comes from grapes!” Wonderful stuff, but not for the faint-hearted.
My dessert was marvellous. Again, it just all worked together. Presented on the now ubiquitous black slab, I liked the way it looked too. Come to think of it, in terms of presentation, I think that Chef Welsh and Brett Graham of The Ledbury share certain elements in their presentation styles. The set cream itself was mild and very moreish, the caramel and pralines worked a treat together, and my favorite element was actually the malt ice cream (I’m a sucker for anything ‘malted’). I liked the mixture of textures and temperatures and thought it was an interesting little concoction. 8/10.
Mrs. LF’s dessert was also good (thank god), so she was somewhat placated. It was light and the biscuits were powdery, dissolving in the mouth as you ate them. I tasted it (I know, I’m greedy! ) and also liked it – I do love lemon curd…. She correctly noted, however, that the basil sorbet wasn’t nearly as good or as the one served at Eastside Inn (see here, Course 6), which was a good deal better. 6/10.
Leading from the back
While the back of house seemed to have things in pretty good order, and the dining space looked the part, we weren’t very taken with the front of house. The service just wasn’t good. A few examples should give you the picture. We couldn’t find a place to park in the immediate area, so I popped out of the car and asked the woman at reception if she knew somewhere that we could park as non-residents. First, she looked at me as if I didn’t belong there, and secondly she didn’t have a clue and didn’t even try to help one iota – she just wasn’t interested. Fine, maybe just it was just me. No. After we were seated, it took ages for anyone to look at us let alone give us a menu or some nibbles. After literally about 20 minutes, we did get the menus, and thereafter the service simply consisted of taking our orders and delivering the food (without any explanation or niceties). In a restaurant that I am sure is gunning for Michelin stars, we both found this very strange and off-putting.
It was only towards the very end of the meal, when we were halfway through our desserts, that the situation changed…thanks to a very affable young man who wasn’t our waiter but somehow took it upon himself to engage with us about the dessert wine, and then other things.
Food-wise, from our experience, the menu at Launceston Place was playful, clever and enticing, while drawing upon well-sourced and fairly traditional British ingredients. With the unfortunate exception of the Tamworth Suckling Pig (which did get the lowest score of anything I’ve ever rated on this site), the food was deftly executed, innovative and subtle. Had it not been for the little piggy that should have gone home and a lack of finesse in the service, I would have classed this as a good 1-star Michelin meal.
In fact, I would certainly go back for more. And I did, when I embarked upon a tour of some of London’s top restaurants with some other bloggers a few weeks later. You can read about that gastropade and some of Launceston Place’s other excellent desserts here.
Of course, the place has become even more popular since we dined there, with their then Junior Sous Chef Steve Groves winning the last season of the BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals. So book well in advance as it may not be so easy to get a table anymore.
Wine: a nice selection of wines, although the mark-ups are pretty high from what I could gather on my perusal.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined twice at Launceston Place, once for dinner (for this review, where I paid) and once as part of an event organized by their PR agency (where I did not pay).*