Making Up for Lost Time — 2012 in Food & Wine

2012 was a great year for my family. After a long search, I finally got a new job in April. I now write about wine for a living, and must say I’m not missing the hectic, stress-filled “corporate culture” of international finance that used to encapsulate my working life.

With a growing family and a new direction for my career, I haven’t prioritized restaurant reviews as of late. And the inevitable flip side of the career coin is that I don’t have the budget I once did for global gastro gallivanting. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been eating (and drinking) some exciting things from time to time! What follows is a personal list of some of the best things I ate and drank during 2012 (plus a few surprises — both positive and negative).

Now that things are a little more settled with work, I do hope to be posting more often on this site in 2013 and beyond. In the meantime, and just in case I don’t happen to get around to it, you can always keep track of what I’m eating and drinking on:

In fact, many of the below pictures were instagram images, taken with my iPhone. Can you tell which ones? Probably. Apologies, but I just can’t be bothered taking ‘proper’ pictures all the time anymore, unless I’m pretty sure the food is going to merit it.

But without further adieu

~ Best Meals of 2012 ~ 

This ended up being a tie. The connecting thread between these two restaurants is their focus on the provenance and quality of single ingredients, and the aiding and abetting of these pristine centerpieces with elements that will enhance yet not overpower the star of the show. I suppose this could also be seen as the biggest restaurant trend of 2012: searching for the finest ingredients (the nearer by the better) and letting them shine, simply yet beautifully. Dead simple in theory, but very hard to get it just right. Both of these places do, thanks to the insane lengths they both go to in sourcing ingredients, and their precise conceptions and flavors.

Hedone (London)

Possibly the most controversial restaurant opening in London for some time, Hedone created a chasm between its early visitors (through dishes like Cévennes onions with pear shavings): there were “haters” and passionate proponents, nothing in-between. However, as time has passed, the self-taught Swedish chef Mikael Jonsson (a former lawyer and food blogger … and long-time Paleolithic diet adherent), seems to have found his stride.

This was the most memorable meal I had in 2012, helped by the fact that I spent it with two very dear friends. By all accounts, things only continue to get better. And the restaurant has achieved a Michelin Star within about a year of opening — no small feat, no matter what you may think of the tire company. You can find the full photo gallery of my meal there, along with a few of the many highlights below.

Oyster at Hedone

Poached Dorset Rock Oyster, Granny Smith, Pickled Shallots

Broken Duck's Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

Broken Duck’s Egg, Fresh Peas and Morels, Bell Pepper Chutney

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline at Hedone

55-Day-Aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline

Roast Squab Pigeon at Hedone

Roast Breast and Leg of Squab Pigeon, Smoked Potato, Parsley & Pistachio

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Brooklyn)

When our good friends Mathilde (a true Foodista) and David visited in the early Spring, we had a few really good meals, as well as some great food (and wine) at home. Somehow, I had managed to secure us seats at the fabled Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which is one of (if not the) hardest reservation to make in New York. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed, but you can read my full review here.

Luckily, that’s not where the story ended. When another friend visited New York in December, he invited me to dine at César’s palace once again. I actually found the food slightly better on the second occasion (which is really saying something). Out of 20+ dishes, all except for a couple were truly exceptional. This is still definitely one of the best places to eat in the New York area (and possibly the country).

Brooklyn Fare Window

The only picture I’m allowed to share — that’s so Brooklyn Fare

~ Most Disappointing Meals ~

Corton (Manhattan)

I had really wanted to dine at Corton for a while. So, when the opportunity came to meet up with Kristian it seemed like the perfect place. Sadly, it disappointed on almost every level. Aside for a bite or two, the food was utterly forgettable and (even worse for a Michelin 2* restaurant) the service was downright horrible. Even the wine pairing was lackluster, save for one special glass. It felt like our table was on a conveyor belt. The same one everyone else was on. No effort was made to make us feel special about the meal, and the staff kept looking at their watches and chatting to each other, ostensibly eager to leave (and get us out of there) as soon as possible … even though it wasn’t that late. This is to be expected in a more casual setting, but certainly not in a restaurant many regard as one of the finest in the city. I can’t imagine returning, despite the surprisingly pleasant room — it’s much nicer than internet pictures make out. You can see all of the photos here.

“Scotch Egg” at Corton

“Scotch Egg” — one of the only memorable bites at this 2* Michelin disappointment

wd~50 (Manhattan)

That I was really unimpressed with wd~50 is even more sad, given that I had enjoyed meals here previously. On this occasion, I ate with That Hungry Chef (who is now heading the kitchen here) right after the new menu format was introduced. Let’s just say I preferred the previous meals. It’s all become very Japanese (not a bad thing in itself, of course), and there were very few standouts in a meal of many plates. The meat dishes were overall much more solid than the other savory courses. Aside from the food, the dining room just didn’t feel like it was running smoothly, or in sync with the kitchen in many instances. More minor quibbles included plates that were so visibly scratched and un-wiped before leaving the pass, that they shouldn’t have ever left the kitchen in a restaurant of this standard. Oh, and seemingly random sizes of Yuzu milk ice puffs for every diner (I, of course, managed to get the small end of the nitrogen poaching stick). You can read my dining companions’ entertaining review here, and view all my photos here if you care to. Oh well, I do wish Wylie and his team luck with their new venture, Alder, in 2013.

Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse at wd~50

Dessert of Jasmine, Cucumber, Honeydew & Chartreuse — one of the few really good dishes at the re-launched wd~50

~ Best Surprise ~

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (Manhattan, RIP)

I had always liked L’Atelier in London as a place to get oftentimes astonishingly good haute cuisine in an informal atmosphere that was fun and engaging.  But after so many years in the limelight, followed by many years of falling from grace (Robuchon’s concept has famously been coined the McDonald’s of fine dining, i.e. you get roughly the same menu in any of its global locations, despite variations in local ingredients and cultures), I wondered if the ancient-by-restaurant-standards New York outpost would hold up to my fond memories.

Well, I dined there with my brother and we were both totally gob-smacked at how simply delicious everything was. You can actively go looking for faults in nearly anything, but here there were certainly no faults in the cooking. With a new chef and some of his own dishes, it was a fabulous meal. Sadly it’s closed now. Likely due to its awkward location within the Four Seasons hotel and the fickle dining trends of a large metropolis. You can read the full breakdown of my meal here. And all the photos are on my Flickr.

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar at L'Atelier New York

White Asparagus Gazpacho with Ossetra Caviar

~ Most Fun Meal ~

Torissi (Manhattan)
Chef’s Tasting Menu

This was another very difficult meal to book, but I seemed to have lucked out this year with tough tables. I had not been a fan of the original dinner service at Torrisi — having been rushed out so they could turn our table once, and feeling ‘meh’ about quite a few of the dishes (plus the annoyance of having no reservations and needing to wait from before 5pm to nab a table). I did, however, love the few lunches I had there.

So when they changed the format, and transitioned the ‘simpler’ fare to a location a few doors down (Parm), and focused solely on the more ‘refined’ food at Torrisi, I thought I’d give it another chance. Thank goodness I did. The sheer inventiveness, playfulness and presentation of the Chef’s Tasting Menu is fantastic. With it, the restaurant has morphed from being (proudly) Italian-American cuisine to a unique representation of historic New York dishes from all cultural backgrounds. There is a real nostalgia to the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the food was overall executed splendidly during our meal. It is worth trying to book based on my experience. A few of the more catchy dishes are pictured below as a little taster. The whole set can be found here (spoiler alert).

Smoked Sable Cigarettes at Torrisi

Smoked Sable Cigarettes

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) at Torrisi

Steak Tartare (à la Delmonico) — for the men

~ Weirdest Meal ~

ISA (Brooklyn)

There’s no real way of putting it gently: ISA is a weird place. I have only eaten there once, for brunch, and everything from the design of the menu, to the Brooklandia-ness of the waiters, to the odd amalgamation of dishes on offer made it the single most odd meal I had this year. Having said that, it was actually enjoyable overall and a few of the things we ate were really tasty. Those are pictured below, along with the menu and the bathroom (to give you an idea of what I’m talking about). You can see all the photos I took here.

ISA Entrance

Welcome to ISA

ISA Bathroom

Welcome to ISA’s Bathroom

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter at ISA

Wakame Biscuit with Yuzu Honey Butter — this was really good

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & 'Dirt'  at ISA

Chicken Leg with Sweet Potato Emulsion, Egg Yolk & ‘Dirt’ — a little sweet (and nuclear yellow), but pretty tasty

~ Best New (Temporary) Opening ~ 

Frej (Brooklyn)

My meal at the first incarnation of Fredrik Berselius’ cuisine (along with his then partner Richard Kuo) was one of the most enjoyable I had in 2012. I wrote a full review of it here, but suffice to say I am very excited about his new(ish) solo venture in the same space (Kinfolk Studios). He has imported a few pretty serious chefs to help out from his native Sweden, as well as enlarged the kitchen and dining room (plus made it a more comfortable space to eat).  I sampled some bar food there in December and will definitely be back for the full tasting menu — especially now that they have a full wine/beer/spirits program.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin at Frej

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin (photo courtesy of: Jose Moran, aka The Spanish Hipster)

~ Best New (Permanent) Opening ~

Empellon Cocina (Manhattan)

After reading all about Alex Stupak’s foray into Mexican cuisine (Empellon Taqueria) following his departure as (a very respected) Pastry Chef for wd~50, I was curious. Somehow I never made it to Taqueria, but I’m not sweating it too much, because the sequel is sooo good (as I think @jezmd would agree). Employing modernist cooking techniques yet keeping things extremely authentic, Stupak’s food at Cocina can be mind-blowingly good. In fact, I’m getting hungry just thinking about my meal there (and am plotting a return as I write this). One of my favorite dishes (despite its off-putting, gnarly appearance) was the lamb sweetbreads pictured below. Oh, and the bread they start you out with is off-the-charts good. In fact, the baking throughout all the dishes was stellar. Just go already.

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) at Empellon Cocina

Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza, Parlsey Root and Salsa Papanteca (Pumpkin Seeds, Piloncillo, Sweet Spices) — tasted as good as it looked bad

~ Best Burger ~ 

Little Big Burger (Portland, Oregon)

I ate more than my fair share of burgers in 2010 and 2011 (it’s New York, right?), and although my consumption slowed dramatically in 2012, of course I still had more than a few. At this moment, the one that stands above the rest was also the most demure. But it was definitely the best-tasting burger. Cooked medium (to order), and eaten together with some truffle oil fries, it was pretty darn magical. The few photos I have are here.

Cheeseburger at Little Big Burger

Cheeseburger Cooked Medium (To Order) with Tilamook Cheddar

~ Most Disappointing Burger ~ 

The Spotted Pig (Manhattan)

Talk about burger hype. Aside from Minetta Tavern (which somehow lives up to its stratospheric reputation, and won Best Burger in my 2011 list) plus a few others, The Spotted Pig’s burger is right up there in the NYC pantheon of burgers. And just look at it (pictured below) — it appears to be amazing, right? Well, sorry to be the harbinger of bad news, but the one time I had it (all $20 of it), the meat was shockingly bland and totally overpowered by the Roquefort cheese that’s slathered on top of it. Terrible? No … but no better than average in my book. At least the (copious amount of) shoestring fries served by its side were nearly perfect. Some of the other things we ate are pictured here.

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries at The Spotted Pig

Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries

~ Best Fried Chicken ~

Mad for Chicken (Manhattan)

Yes, it’s still open. And yes, it’s still good. Great, in fact. Despite the crowded market for fried chicken in NYC (Asian-inspired or otherwise), this stands as the best I’ve had (so far) in the area. The only question is, do you like the hot & spicy or soy garlic wings better? You can find The Skinny Bib’s take on our meal snack here too.

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings at Mad for Chicken (NYC)

6x Hot & Spicy, 6x Soy Garlic Wings

~ Best Pasta Dish ~

Frankies 457 (Brooklyn)

This is kind of a toss-up, but the “House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter” at Frankies 457 in Brooklyn was probably the most satisfying pasta dish I had in 2012. It was made even more delicious by the glass of Lambrusco I drank with it (Venturini Baldini Dell’Emilia NV).

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter at Frankies 457

House-Made Cavatelli with Faiccos Hot Sausage & Browned Sage Butter

~ Best Pizza ~ 

Don Antonio by Starita (Manhattan)

2012 was the year of the Montanara as far as NYC pizza went. The best one I had was at Don Antonio. The crust, with just a hint of donut sweetness on the crisp outside, demonstrates the brilliance of textural contract with soft, pillowy dough inside. The slightly smoked mozzarella works well too. Overall, it’s the perfect lunch (with a green salad on the side and some house red in your glass). If you sit at the bar, you can be in and out in under 30 minutes and have a civilized meal that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Montanara Pizza at Don Antonio by Starita

Don Antonio’s Montanara

~ Best Charcuterie ~ 

Soif (London)

This is sort of an excuse to list Soif in my round-up. From a restaurant group connected by an owner that’s in the business of selling natural wines, and with siblings that also serve up delicious, simple French fare (with a particular flair for charcuterie), Soif may be the best yet … even ahead of my beloved Terroirs. It’s more restaurant than wine bar, but can function reliably as either. Along with Douglas, I enjoyed some fine midday dishes, with the most memorable being the Jambon Persille seen below.

Jambon Persille at Soif

Jambon Persille

~ Best Non-Restaurant Meat Dish ~ 

Courtesy of Stone Barns Center (NY State)

As @catty pointed out a few days ago at brunch (at The Lambs Club if you must know), I really did win the food lottery this year — a few times, actually. But securing this bird was the real lottery. At the appointed date and time (9am, and not a second before … literally), I sent an email off to the good folks at the Stone Barn Center (i.e. the farm associated with Blue Hill at Stone Barns) to see if I would be one of the lucky few to win pay a lot of money for one of their highly sought-after heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving. Actually I lied. I also sent an email from my wife’s account exactly 20 seconds after sending mine. And she got the turkey, not me! Anyway, suffice to say this is BY FAR the finest turkey I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a Bourbon Red and tasted like no other turkey any of us had ever eaten. So much so that my uncle, who hates turkey, couldn’t stop eating it. Let’s hope we’re as lucky next year.

Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center

Preparing the Bourbon Red Turkey from Stone Barns Center for Thanksgiving

~ Best Restaurant Meat Dish ~

Hedone (London)

I won’t belabor the point. New Year’s resolution, you see. The “55-day-aged Black Angus Beef with Caramelized Echailions, Glazed Baby Carrots and Dauphinoise Mousseline” pictured near to top of this post was far and away the most superb meat I had at a restaurant in 2012.

~ Favorite New Brunch Spots ~

Allswell (Brooklyn)

In fact, I have ONLY been to Allswell for brunch, but many times. Aside from wanting to order nearly everything on the changing daily menu (they use Tumblr very effectively for this), they also have lovely service — which is child-friendly — plus a charming décor and ambience to boot. It’s casual but not annoyingly so, and the food is never casually executed in my experience. Their burger — which includes some well-aged beef in the blend, giving it a touch of appetizing funkiness — is also simple and delicious.

Allswell Dining Room

Allswell’s wallpapers are almost as memorable as their food

Reynards (Brooklyn)

I only had the chance to eat here once for a large family brunch. The interior design is spectacular and the brunch menu is equally alluring … as are the copious amounts of freshly baked goods they lay out next to the pass as you walk by to be seated at your table. The rabbit sausages I had there constituted one of the most satisfying dishes I ate this year.

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts at Reynards

Rabbit Sausages, Juliénas, Cortado & Donuts

~ Meal with the Best View ~

Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise (Canada)

Not much to say here. Just look at this …

View from Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Lake Louise

Now THAT’S a view

~ Best Coffee ~ 

Sweetleaf Williamsburg (Brooklyn)

This is by far my favorite café in the New York area right now. It is very serious about coffee, but doesn’t look down upon you if you’re not, and is laid back in a pleasant way (complete with a foosball table). They are very picky about whose beans they use to make their coffee though, and they generally know how to use the beans to the best effect. The barista in charge of quality control is often at the Williamsburg branch on Sundays (I am only ever in Brooklyn on weekends, so not sure about during the week), and it is worth seeking out a coffee made by his intuitive yet meticulous hands. The single best coffee drink I had in 2012 was the espresso he made for me from Sightglass Ethiopia, Shakiso, Mora Mora River Valley.

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso at Sweetleaf

Sightglass Mora Mora Espresso

Macchiato at Sweetleaf

Macchiato

Cortado at Sweetleaf

Cortado

"Rocket Fuel" at Sweetleaf

“Rocket Fuel”

~ These Were a Few of My Favorite (Sweet) Things ~

Mast Brothers (Brooklyn)
Mast Brothers Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

Moho River Dark Chocolate Bar

La Tulipe (NY State)
Canellés from La Tulipe

The daily batch of Canellés

Sal's Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)
Cannolo from DiMare Pastry Shop

Cannolo

Mrs. London’s (NY State)
Lemon Tart at Mrs. London's

Lemon Meringue Tart #1

Bouchon Bakery (Manhattan)
Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery

Lemon Meringue Tart #2

Paul A. Young (London)
Brownie from Paul A. Young

Classic Brownie (as long as he makes these, and as long as I can manage to get hold of them, they will likely remain on my annual list)

Dutch Desserts (NY State)
Chocolate Tart

Chocolate Tart

~ Favorite Wines for Every Occasion ~ 

The following is a heavily syphoned-down list of wines I’ve tasted this year that struck a chord, and that also (mostly) offer value for their respective categories. There are ten wines in each category, organized from red to white, in chronological vintage order, and then alphabetically.

‘Weekday’ can be taken to mean good “everyday” wines (almost all are well under $20 a bottle); ‘Weekend’ means wines that are a little more special (mostly around $30 a bottle, or less); and, well, ‘Special Occasion’ is obvious.

First, though, are five sparklers that punch above their designations (i.e. NV Champagne, Cremant and California) — and most certainly their price tags (listed in alphabetical order).

 Favorite Sparklers That Won’t (Totally) Break the Bank
  • Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Prestige Brut NV
  • Drappier Brut Nature Sans Soufre NV
  • PLR Legacy Blanc de Noirs NV
  • Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Brut Cuis 1er Cru NV
  • Roche Lacour Cremant de Limoux 2009
Weekday Wines
  • Weinhaus Ress KM501 Rheingau Dry Riesling 2009
  • d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab (Australia) 2010
  • La Petite Bellane Côte-du-Rhône Villages 2010
  • Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini (Greece) 2010
  • Le Coin Sauvignon Gris Bordeaux 2011
  • Principe Strozzi Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2011
  • Fattoria Viticcio Chianti Classico 2009
  • Alambrado Gran Selección Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2010
  • Château Florie Aude Bordeaux 2010
  • Domaine du Mistral “Plan de Dieu” Côtes-du-Rhône Villages 2011
Weekend Wines 
  • Domaine des Deux Roches “Chatenay” Saint-Véran 2009
  • Evening Land Pouilly-Fuissé 2009
  • Donnafugata “Tancredi” Sicily 2006
  • Fattoria Viticcio “Prunaio” Toscana 2006
  • Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2007
  • Oddero Nebbiolo Langhe 2008
  • Dashe Zinfandel Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley 2009
  • Owen Roe Syrah “Ex Umbris” Columbia Valley 2009
  • Boekenhoutskloof “The Chocolate Block” Western Cape 2010
  • Domaine de Nalys “Les Dix Salmes” Châteaneuf-du-Pape 2010
Special Occasion Wines
  • Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne NV
  • Château Bel Air Lagrave Moulis en Medoc Cru Bourgeois 1989
  • Godmé Père et Fils Champagne Brut Grand Cru 1999
  • Podere Il Carnasciale “Il Caberlot” Toscana 1999
  • Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos Saint Urbain “Rangen de Thann” Pinot Gris 2000
  • Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Ornellaia” Bolgheri Superiore 2006
  • Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004
  • Haut Roc Blanquant Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2005
  • Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005
  • Dominion Pingus “Flor de Pingus” Ribera del Duero 2009

Out of all these, the two most memorable wines of the year for me were the following (because of the wines themselves, as well as the company and setting):

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004

Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale “Les Chétillons” Champagne 2004 — at Brooklyn Fare

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005

Sean Thackrey “Orion” Rossi Vineyard 2005 — on Christmas Day (the wine was a birthday present from my brother, and its outfit a holiday gift from my wife)

So there you have it: 2012 in a nutshell. All the best for 2013, and let’s stay in (better) touch.

Happy belated New Year!

Matbaren – A Balanced Equation

Matbaren
Mathias Dahlgren
Grand Hôtel Stockholm
Södra Blasieholmshamnen 6
10327 Stockholm
Website
Map
Online Reservations (for Matbaren only, you must call for Matsalen)
Phone Reservations: +46 (0)8 679 3584

  • The menu at Matbaren changes every day and all dishes are served as ‘small plates’ (though some are not that small). The restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person, and prices range between SEK 135 – 315, or £12.50 – 30.00 (on average about SEK 250, or £23). There are 3-4 vegetarian options each day.
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

I had a superb meal and a wonderful time at Matbaren, Mathias Dahlgren’s more casual eatery in central Stockholm. It holds a Michelin star and deserves it. The intensity and balance of flavors in his food is memorable and the setting of Matbaren achieves a wonderful balance between the fun and the formal. The restaurant (which is only nominally a ‘bar’) is by no means cheap, but if you fancy a stimulating meal in a great setting, and don’t mind splurging a bit, look no further.

Entering the grand

I am fortunate enough to travel to Stockholm fairly often. I love the place no matter what the season. It always seems peaceful and content with itself. The air is crisp and you are surrounded by clear water in many of the main areas of the city. The people are straight forward and friendly in their own way.

My only frustration with these trips is that I am normally too consumed with work to be able to spend time exploring the more exciting culinary experiences that Stockholm has to offer, and it boasts many – from the simple to the more refined.

However, on my last trip in mid-October I was determined to at the very least pay homage to Sweden’s brightest star in the culinary world, that being Mathias Dahlgren. For those of you not familiar with the name, here’s a potted history. He was the proprietor of Bon Lloc from 1996-2005, which held a macaron in the Michelin guide. In 2007, he braved it on his own and opened up two restaurants in the Grand Hôtel Stockholm. One is a private dining salon called Matsalen which only has 38 covers and currently holds two of those Michelin macarons. The other, Matbaren, is nominally called a ‘bar’ (although it only accepts dining guests), but is no slouch, holding its own star from the man dressed in puffy white inner-tubes.

Chef Dahlgren’s flagship restaurant was recently voted #25 in the most recent, and now well-established, San Pellegrino’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and is only the second Swedish restaurant to hold two Michelin stars. He also holds the distinction of having been the recipient of Kockarnas Kock (‘Chef of all Chefs’, or Swedish Chef of the Year) four separate times, and is the only Swedish chef to have won the Bocuse d’Or.

Given my time constraints, and the probable difficulty in scoring a reservation at the private dining room at short notice, I opted to go to Matbaren, which was facilitated with ease only a few days before through their online booking system. I was meant to go with a colleague, but on the night of our reservation, we ended up hanging out with some of his friends at a casual restaurant called B.A.R. (coincidentally just behind Mathias Dahlgren), which was pleasant enough but the food was pretty ‘meh’. Nevertheless, undeterred, I booked a table for the following night and decided that I would go solo if need be.

The approach

I made my way across Skeppsbron, and over the bridge on a quite a chilly Nordic night, with the illuminated facade of the Grand Hôtel beckoning.

The vibe

Upon entering the very attractive room, I immediately liked the atmosphere and vibe of the place. The bar (where you can have the full menu) was still completely full and there were a few tables of two left, so I took one next to the window, which afforded a nice view of the room. The décor was very Scandinavian, with bright red accents throughout and some wonderfully playful high-backed white spindled chairs in the corner. The room exuded that difficult to achieve balance between the casual and the formal, and had a good energy without verging toward the frenetic.

The open kitchen

The rather small kitchen is visible through a glass wall, and the chefs were operating in a quiet, controlled and precise manner throughout my meal.

The table

My waiter came over to explain how the menu worked. The menu at Matbaren changes each day and is printed on brown paper – oh-so current, no? – within your wooden tray. The food is arranged into four sections (‘From our Country’, ‘From Other Countries’, ‘From the Plant World’ and ‘From the Pastry’ – i.e. desserts), and there are 3-4 dishes in each group. All dishes are presented in the format of ‘small plates’ and the restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person. They also have a very good selection of local beers and an interesting selection of wines by the glass. Also within your tray is a brown bag with the current day’s date stamped on it, which contains some crisp Swedish crackers, and on the right they place a small helping of butter with a little wooden spatula.

A memorable quartet

I would like to say at the outset that the service – which was solely provided by my one waiter – was phenomenal. He answered all of my questions without fail (even some fairly obscure ones) and was friendly at the same time as being professional and efficient in what was quite a busy dining room for most of the evening.

Crisp bread

After we decided on what my first course and accompanying wine would be, I opened up that brown paper bag and tasted some of the crisp bread, which was good, but even better when smeared with a touch of the creamy butter.

Creamy butter

I was also offered some other bread, of which I selected a white sourdough, which was excellent. They don’t do their baking in-house but rather source their breads from one of the best bakeries in Stockholm, whose name of course now escapes me.

Plate 1: Pumpkin & Broccoli, Truffle, Watercress, Hazelnut, Parmesan

I decided to start off with the pumpkin and broccoli as it sounded like a light dish and was recommended by the waiter (I had also eyed it myself). The green elements masked a base of faintly orange pumpkin cream, apparently a native variety that was in season at the time. While appearing to be a very simple plate of food, I actually found it to be quite complex in flavor and definitely more than the sum of its parts.

The pumpkin cream itself was rich and sweet, but not too much so. This was enhanced by the surprisingly pungent and concentrated flavor of the truffles, which were from the nearby island of Gotland (a popular summer vacation destination for Stockholm residents in the middle of the Baltic Sea). The truffles were fabulous – again full of flavor, but just restrained enough not to dominate the plate. The simply steamed broccoli served as a neutralizer of sorts, while the chopped hazelnuts (or were they actually almonds?) added bits of sweetness and textural variation. The hint of parmesan also lent a little dose of acidity to the sweetness of the pumpkin and the richness of the truffles. This was a really accomplished and harmonic dish that showed off the produce of the region and the season. The broccoli was a tad too chewy for my liking but I think it was probably intentionally cooked this way. 8/10.

The waiter recommended pairing this dish with the 2009 Mâcon-Charnay from Domaine Cordier (Bourgogne, France). This white Burgundy was rich and intense, but also refreshing and would give many a good wine from the nearby Côte d’Or a run for their money. It was a match made in heaven with the vegetables.

Plate 2: Sashimi of Salma Salmon & Reindeer, Avocado, Ginger, Horseradish

First of all, sorry about the appalling lighting in the photo – I’m still trying to get to grips with my little Canon. This is apparently one of Mathias Dahlgren’s signature dishes at the bar. I liked it a lot, but wasn’t wholly enamoured. The presentation was beautiful, I have to say, and the conceit was certainly clever. It is sort of a de-constructed sushi/sashimi box lunch. You’ve got the salmon, which I didn’t think was particularly memorable (it tasted farmed, but I didn’t enquire); you’ve got the ginger, but it’s fresh and not pickled; you’ve got the horseradish, i.e. wasabi, but it isn’t green (though the avocado is); and then you’ve got beads of tapioca, which have been soaked in soy sauce, lying on top…so while it appears to be fish roe it’s actually the soy sauce into which you’d normally dip the sashimi or sushi.

There are, however, two rather intriguing additions: avocado and reindeer carpaccio. They both somehow worked, despite my culinary logic telling me they shouldn’t. The softness of the avocado didn’t bother me, and its mild creaminess actually worked well with the sharpness present in the dish. The reindeer itself was excellent and somehow didn’t stick out like a sore thumb either – it was rich but certainly not overpowering.

I liked this dish, and thought it was an interesting take on a sushi/sashimi box meal, but it’s not what lingered in my memory a few days after the meal. 7/10.

The suggested wine pairing was a young German Riesling named Jacobus (2009) from Peter Jakob Kühn in Rheingau. It was an intense and unique Riesling in a very dry style which complemented the dish very well. Its biodynamic roots (pardon the pun) definitely showed through well.

Plate 3: Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes

This was quite possibly my favorite dish of the evening – for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste! 9/10.

Math for eggheads

The suggested liquid partner was a lovely Californian Pinot Noir, which I had read about but never had the opportunity to taste. It was the 2008 Garnet from Saintsbury (Carneros, CA) and I liked it on its own but didn’t think it integrated all that well with the egg and mushroom flavors. I think I personally would have tried for a white wine to drink with the dish – but these things are very subjective.

Dessert: Baked Wild Chocolate from Bolivia, Sour Cream, Toffee Ice Cream, Nuts

There’s not a whole lot to say about this chocolate dessert…but in a good way. My menu informed me that they have sold 28,967 of these since opening the restaurant in 2007, but the waiter said they’ve actually sold over 30,000. A decadent baked chocolate cake revealed a molten chocolate core, which melded nicely with the intense dollop of toffee residing on top. This was enhanced by a superb toffee ice cream and just the right amount of sour cream to cut through all that sweetness and gooeyness.

Aforementioned ‘gooeyness’

The addition of chopped nuts added the necessary crunch factor and it all worked together in harmony. It wasn’t the most original dessert I’ve ever had, but it was certainly excellent and very satisfying. 8/10.

2008 Vin doux Naturel Vendage, Domaine Pouderoux (Maury, France)

The sweet red wine that I drank with the dessert was my favorite out of the four wines I tasted that evening, and was also the best pairing. The light Grenache wine was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and retained a good streak of acidity to preserve its freshness. Red berry fruits – I noted raspberry most distinctly – abounded and I think I could have drank a whole bottle myself as dessert on its own…pure pleasure. It also went very nicely with the dark chocolate of the dessert. Chocolate and raspberries is a classic combination, I suppose.

Single macchiato

I finished off the meal with an espresso macchiato. Besides the coffee being very good itself, what I particularly liked was the fact that they brought out a silver pot of steamed milk (which had very fine foam), and after the waiter placed a dollop of foam on top. I was allowed to do with the milk as I pleased (I actually left it as it was served). Nice touch, though.

Petit fours

The bowl of petit fours that came with the coffee contained little round Madeleines that were delicately flavored with lemon and some dark chocolate with hefty chunks of hazelnut and a smattering of sea salt. Both were very tasty and I’m sort of ashamed to say that I ate the whole lot. Greedy me.

In the kitchen

Near the end of the meal I asked my ever-effervescent waiter if Mathias was in the kitchen today, to which he replied ‘yes’, and asked if I would like to meet him. He graciously took a minute to come and say hello and I was struck by his understated personality. After the meal, I asked the waiter if I could have the name of the olive oil that I had found so intriguing (it is from the arbequina olive and this particular version was from Spain). He explained that it is much less spicy than typical Italian oils and this is why they used it in particular dishes.

Mathias show me ‘THAT’ olive oil

He went to the kitchen to make sure he had the name right, and called me over to show me a bottle of the stuff. At that moment, Mathias came in from the back door in the kitchen and asked what was going on. He then took the bottle himself and showed it to me, and told me that when he spent time in Napa Valley he was able to find it there as well (I found some online afterward). He then asked me if I’ve ever had oranges, olive oil and salt before. When I said no, he sprung into action.

The chef’s kind offering

He told me that in some parts of Spain, it is a typical thing to eat for breakfast, but of course his version had an extra little element. He gave me a bowl of oranges, orange sorbet, the Spanish arbequina olive oil and sea salt and explained that it covered the “four corners” of taste, being sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The simple concoction certainly provided a nice explosion of flavors in the mouth. He said that he needed to get back to the dinner service and I thanked him again, hardly believing my luck at not only getting to meet him but also sample something straight from his hands. It was the perfect end to a highly enjoyable evening.

Equilibrium

A few things about my meal at Matbaren stood out for me.

Firstly, the flavors had been perfectly balanced in all four dishes I ordered. Everything had been thoroughly thought through and while all of the dishes were rich in flavor, there were no dud notes and every component was complementary. The intensity of the field mushrooms in the third dish I had particularly lingers in my mind. This highlights both the quality of the ingredients – many of which are locally sourced (there is a big emphasis on this) – and also the skill of the kitchen.

Secondly, the setting is exactly right for what the restaurant is purporting to be. It has a great ambience, lively and warm but not overly loud, and the staff is focused on making sure that their guests enjoy themselves while at the same time delivering the right degree of attentiveness.

This brings us to the issue of price. No matter how you slice it, Matbaren is not cheap. With the average price of a small plate above £20, things can add up quickly. That said, I would posit that an average bill at Matbaren is probably less than half the cost of the more exclusive Matsalen, which offers 5-courses and 8-courses for SEK 1500 (£140) and 1250 (£115) respectively (the corresponding wine pairings are SEK 1300 and 950). When all was told, my bill for four dishes and four wines at Matbaren ended up being just over SEK 1300 which is quite punchy even in by the fairly expensive standards of Stockholm.

That said, I was quite happy to pay on this occasion as I had a wonderful time – which is often a big ask when dining alone. I would highly recommend paying a visit to either restaurant if you find yourself in Stockholm and want to splurge on a meal.

From my brief introduction to Mathias Dahlgren’s food, I doubt you’ll be disappointed with it. Just like his illustration of the 63° egg on the restaurant’s menu, which is part humor and part science, I found Matbaren to be a perfectly balanced equation.

Oh, by the way, Matbaren keeps about 7-8 seats free (they are not bookable), so if you find yourself alone and want a good meal, there’s a good chance they’ll have a seat for you at the bar.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is concise but well put together and sufficiently diverse. The wines also facilitated some good and varied matching with the food. My only quibble was that they did seem to be quite highly marked up across the board.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Matbaren once, and it was for dinner*

The Sportsman – Captivating, Compelling, Complete

The Sportsman
Faversham Road
Whitstable CT5 4BP
Website
Map
Reservations: +44 (0)1227 273 370

  • Tasting menu at £55/person; à la carte menu: starters from £6-10, mains from £15-22, desserts £7
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Certainly one of most enjoyable meals I’ve had in the UK in the last few years – if you haven’t been, go!

From two to four, to the red door

It was winter 2009. We had lived, and ate, it up in France over the Christmas period. My wife was pregnant and didn’t feel like going out to rich dinners (in both senses of the word). My ever-present culinary adventurousness was restless. I wanted something special, something not London, but travelling abroad was out of the question. The resounding answer to my (granted, not earth-shattering) predicament came in two words, an article and a noun: The Sportsman.

Having read and heard about many tales of exceedingly special meals at what, on the face of it, is a simple pub on the rugged seaside near Canterbury from the food bloggers I regularly follow, I decided to book a meal there in April. It would be a special occasion for the two of us. However, it became even more special when we decided it would be more fun to experience this little journey with some good friends of a similar disposition – so we invited @mathildecuisine and @dewilded, who gladly accepted despite the fact that it seemed cause a significant family rift as they had to cancel a long-standing date with their parents. At least they have their priorities straight. ;-)

I will not regale you with a detailed history of The Sportsman as somehow it has done the unthinkable in a very short period of time: it is well-known to most UK foodies and a surprising number of international ones, a good deal of whom have made the Seasalter sojourn to experience it for themselves.

The potted history is that English brothers Stephen and Phil Harris took over The Sportsman, a local pub in Seasalter, in 1999. Since then, they have transformed it, not only in looks (scroll down for a few pictures of the lovely country pub interior) but also in terms of the food and drink being served. This was enough for them to gain a coveted Michelin star for their establishment, which they still hold. Many people I have spoken to think it is the best culinary day out one can have in the UK – high praise indeed, and expectations to match.

Our limousine for the afternoon

As my wife was not up for the rather long drive to the coast, we decided to all take the train, which worked out brilliantly – it also meant I could drink as I pleased – and we ended up arriving bang on schedule. We flagged down our limo driver (hehe) and were surprised at his choice of carriage. At least the windows were large. :)

The Seasalter beach

The Sportsman occupies a rather interesting stretch of UK coastline – some might call it desolate and lonely, others may call it inspiring. I think it’s fair to say that you might be disappointed if you came from afar for picturesque sandy beaches, because it ain’t a stereotypically beautiful beach. The restaurant is the only large structure in the area, and behind it lies a small garden plot, in which they grow some of their own fruit and vegetables when they are in season (it was fairly empty on our visit), beyond which there are a number of caravans parked in a random mish-mash of colors and sizes.

Man’s best friend was also happy to be there

As we had arrived a little early, we decided to refresh ourselves with a walk along the seaside before sitting down for our lunch. We weren’t the only ones who were happy to be there on this unseasonably sunny day. :)

We hit the post & headed back

We decided to stop at the sand and headed back to the restaurant to begin the meal – we were anxiously hungry.

We entered

As you can see, it really does look like a simple pub from the outside – we weren’t sure what the inside would hold in store for us.

Luckily, we had booked

I think this sign is probably up nearly all the time, but it did make us chuckle a little bit. One nice thing is that, given the majority of their customers come from out-of-town, they do still maintain a bar where locals can frequent (and did during our lunch), and they definitely have not disconnected themselves from the local community.

Through the red door

I loved the rugged old red front door, so had to take a photo, naturally.

We made ourselves at home

We had a great table in the corner of the front dining room, which afforded us a nice view of the whole dining space and also the bar. As you can see, there is a lovely wood-panelled floor, which is original, and the rest of the pub exudes warmth and light (though the especially sunny day we were blessed with probably did help). The tables are very large and well spaced out, and the chairs are comfortable. You can tell that they really care about giving their customers a good overall experience as they could surely pack in many more tables, which would likely sacrifice the calm and relaxed atmosphere of the place that we found to be perfect.

We made our selves even more at home

Any place serving Pol Roger Brut Réserve by the glass is a good spot in my book, and of course I insisted we all had a glass (well, Mrs. LF had a little sip of mine).

Difficult decisions out of the way, we settled in for the long haul

As this was a rather special occasion – heck, it was @dewilded’s birthday – we opted for some of the nicer wines on offer: a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a bottle of 2001 Château Palmer. It is worth nothing that the mark-up (or lack thereof) of the Château Palmer. They apparently got an extremely good deal off of their wine merchants (Berry Bros. & Rudd) on this wine and were actually selling below what I believe the normal retail price would be (it cost £79.95 in the restaurant), so our wallets and taste buds were successfully tempted to the Left Bank.

Tasting for England (via France, Turkey & America)

As I said, I certainly had very high expectations for this meal – after all @foodsnob had said it was probably the place to eat in the UK right now, pretty significant praise – which is not always a good thing, as you can get easily disappointed.

I have to point out that the restaurant had been exceedingly flexible and kind in letting us have the tasting menu (we did ask about this pretty far in advance), even though it was a weekend and they normally only serve it during the week.

Quartet of Amuse Bouches

Mrs. LF couldn’t stomach that much food, so just opted for a main course. We were all pleasantly surprised and impressed when we saw that they had prepared four sets of amuses for us, even though Mrs. LF wasn’t having the tasting menu – a nice touch.

Pork Scratchings with Apple-Mustard Dipping Sauce

The pork scratchings were unlike any I’ve had before. By this, I mean that they were sensational. Exceedingly light and crispy on the outside and (some were) meltingly fatty on the inside, the pork flavor was not at all overpowering and they were simply divine when dipped in the apple-mustard sauce. I guess this may be due to the fact that the pigs are literally reared next door. A real winner. 10/10.

Rock Oyster with Bramley Apple Juice & Seasalter Ham

As I am still a novice with oysters, I left it to @dewilded to comment on this beautifully presented dish, which I much enjoyed: “As far as I can remember, I loved the additional saltiness of the ham (Seasalter as it was) and how it married to that of the actual salty side of the oyster. The added texture of the ham to the oyster was a nice contrast to what oysters usually are as well, even though I remember these oysters to be quite meaty.” I would agree and also thought that the apple juice added a little hint of sweetness and also some acidity, though it wasn’t the overriding flavour I remember about the dish. 8/10.

Herring with Cream Cheese, Apple Jelly & Irish Soda Bread

Next up was another scrumptious morsel. The pickled herring was as good as or better than those I’ve had in Scandinavia, and paired well with the sweet and sharp apple and just-sweet homemade soda bread. I didn’t feel that the cream cheese added or detracted too much from this little skewer of joy, though I suppose it lent a more interesting textural experience in the mouth. 9/10.

Cauliflower Tart

The fourth nibble in this opening quartet was a little bite of vegetal perfection. The pastry shell was the correct thickness – crisp and light – and the cauliflower was amazingly fresh and crunchy, complemented by their homemade ricotta cheese and what I believe was a purée of onion. It was a good sign, as so many places in the UK simply don’t get pastry right in my experience. 9/10.

Baked Rock Oyster with Jersey Cream & Rhubarb Granita

For one reason or another, this dish seemed to elude most of our taste buds’ memories. I remember that I liked it but didn’t love it, and that the components did work rather well together – I just didn’t think it was a show-stopper. You can see @gourmetraveller’s review for her take on the dish.

A plain-looking but dynamic duo

After the cooked oyster, we were presented with a simple yet dynamic duo focusing on a singular ingredient – asparagus which had just come into season. It was presented on a different slab of stone, and I felt it was beautifully Spartan in appearance.

New Season Asparagus Tart

This was basically spring arriving on a plate. I felt the real star here was the beautiful little tartlette. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was again spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible. 10/10.

New Season Asparagus Soup

The chilled asparagus soup also tasted distinctly of fresh asparagus and was expertly seasoned; I enjoyed it a lot. 8/10.

Homemade Foccacia, Sourdough & Soda Bread

The bread was interestingly served after the aforementioned dishes. I had been forewarned to leave room for The Sportman’s homemade bread board, especially the focaccia. I have to say that all three of the breads on offer (sourdough, Irish soda bread and the focaccia) were probably some of the best I’ve had in a restaurant at the UK. I was particularly partial to the soda bread (which wasn’t too sweet, as I find many versions to be) and the chewy-crusted sourdough, though the focaccia was also excellent. 8/10.

Home-churned Butter (Plain and with Peppers)

Both of butters served were excellent, though Mrs. LF and I were both partial to the very gentle heat in the peppered one. 8/10.

Crab Risotto

This is a classic Sportsman dish, and many critics and bloggers have gone on about it. While I did like it a lot, I found it to be a little bit of a let-down. It certainly had an intenseness and depth of sweet, rich, fresh crab flavor, and the rice had been cooked properly (retaining that slight bite). I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but possibly because it was the first substantial portion of food we’d been served, I simply lost interest after the fourth or fifth bite due to the fact that all the preceding dishes had been more varied as there were merely bitefulls (save for the asparagus soup)? It was excellent, but not my personal favorite, again possibly due to the sequencing of the meal, and it isn’t one of the things that sticks in my mind regarding the meal a few months later. 8/10.

Smoked Wigeon, Pear & Mustard

Next up was a really enjoyable little dish. Wigeons are a wintering migratory bird in the UK (there are scarcely any permanent residents, but about 250k stop in the UK – mostly on the coastland – during the winter) and the ones at The Sportsman come from literally just down the beach, from what I understand. It was smoked and nearly raw, and had a very gamey (yet not unpleasant) flavor, which was expertly complemented with the sweet pear and creamy and slightly sharp mustard. I enjoyed the novelty of eating something I’d never had (and never knew existed) before as well, similar to when I first had smoked puffin with blueberries in Iceland! :) 9/10.

Seasalter Ham Cured in June 2008

The local ham arrived with a little card explaining where the ham came from, how it had been cured and where the inspiration was drawn from. I wholeheartedly applaud the team for breaking new ground and trying to make their own cured ham. For me, however, it was simply too salty and didn’t have the depth of flavor that I have tasted in Spanish and Italian versions. I thought the proportion of fat was about right, and a few bites were enjoyable, but after more than that, I became very thirsty and not interested any longer. 6/10.

Brill Braised in 'Old Meursault' with Smoked Pork

The fish course was possibly my favourite dish. Well, the seafood part of it was. The perfectly cooked line-caught brill and unbelievably good creamy yet light sauce were the perfect pair – I truly loved them together. The pork was also perfectly nice, and well cooked, although I didn’t think it added too much to the dish, aside from a chewy texture. I ate the pork separately as the fish and sauce combination was more my cup of tea, so to speak. I can still taste that sauce, it was exceptional. 9/10 (It was a 10/10 dish for me if they would have left out the pork).

2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Blanc), Domaine du Vieux Lazaret

Just a quick note about the first wine. At first whiff and taste, I was a little let down. It initially seemed very muted to me and didn’t offer up much on the palate. It did grow on me, however, and seemed to evolve in the glass a lot. As promised by Phil, it was very versatile in terms of going with the variety of dishes we had selected it to accompany. So, in the end, I had to admit it had been a good selection, but it is not a wine I think I would return to unless there was a very uninspiring wine list on hand.

Roast Ribeye (Served Pink) & Braised Shin of Local Angus Beef with Red Wine Sauce & Watercress Purée

Mrs. LF opted for the beef for her main course. She recalls that “the meat was extremely tender and well-cooked. While the ribeye had the characteristic stringy and fatty bits, it was a very good cut of beef, and the shin was also delicious. But what was amazing about this dish was the sauce. It was rich and had a real depth of flavor, but wasn’t overly heavy (like the one I had at the Pierre Koffman pop-up in Selfridges, for example) and was easily digestible. It also had a plummy flavor to it and was slightly sweet, so it possessed that sweet and sour tinge which I tend to like. The sauce really made the dish.

“The potatoes were also nice, especially when split open and used as a vessel to mop up that divine sauce. The watercress puree was a pretty little green blob that dotted to the top of the plate, and I guess it was just another option for introducing a bit of green vegetables to the dish, and I preferred it to having a few bright green English peas dotted around the side – it was a bit more refined and the cress flavor came through well.” 8/10.

Breaded Breast of Lamb

The breast of lamb was wrapped in a fried breaded crust and there was scarcely a trace of grease. It reminded me of a lamb breast dish I had at Hereford Road in London (the second time ever I’d tried lamb breast, an under-used part of the sheep), except The Sportsman’s dish was better. The ratio of bread to meat was just right, and the quite strong flavor of the lamb breast shone through but was then cut down to size by the fried crumbs and perfectly enhanced by the mint dipping sauce. An excellent dish. 8/10.

Roast Rack of Monkshill Farm Lamb with Braised Pork & Broccoli

The roast rack of lamb was simply presented and refreshingly unadorned. It was cooked beautifully and it had fantastic flavor. It was something you don’t get very often in a kitchen with such a pedigree, a simple dish with very few ingredients executed well enough to allow the natural taste of ‘what it is’ to come through, to paraphrase Curnonsky. 8/10.

2001 Château Palmer

The Château Palmer was still quite young but it was certainly very interesting to taste such a famous house’s wine for the first time – and a nice celebratory wine for @dewilded’s birthday. While it was still hadn’t developed the secondary flavors of a fully matured Bordeaux, it exhibited good black fruit and a note of spice, with tannins that were fairly supple. I think it would benefit from a number of years of ageing still, but the wine showed a lot of promise and did go well with the meaty members of our meal. As noted above, it was very good value and, come to think of it, all of the wine there was very well priced and they had a really good little selection available.

Blood Orange Ice Lolly with Cake-milk

The first up of the sweets on offer were ice lollies, daintily presented in little white cups. The red of the blood orange went nicely with the yellow-orange ‘cake-milk’ and the flavors melded almost as well, though not quite perfectly for me. The blood orange lolly itself was excellent on its own, and I loved the Sanguinello / Tarocco acidic bite, which is milder, sweeter and richer than grapefruit. The ‘cake-milk’ was pretty much exactly what it sounds like, except more the texture of cream…that tasted strangely of sweet full-fat milk. They did go together, and I guess it was almost a posh rendition of the Orange Julius, but I’m not sure they were the perfect partners. Enjoyable and fun though, nonetheless. 7/10.

Homemade Birthday Cake for @dewilded

As it was @dewilded’s birthday celebration, @mathildecuisine had pre-arranged for a cake to be served at the end of our lunch. What we didn’t know was that this was the first cake Stephen had attempted at The Sportsman. Well, let me tell you, the guy not also cooks fantastically, but his cake was also marvellous. It looked very heavy, but it was in reality extremely light and the texture was perfect. Hell, Mrs. LF even ate her whole (and very large slice), and she doesn’t normally like this kind of cake, so that’s saying something.

A not-so-little slice of joy

It was also yet another very kind gesture from the kitchen. And, just like the amuses, they also served Mrs. LF each of the dessert items on the tasting menu even though she only ordered one main course herself. That’s how you treat customers if you want to come back again and again. 8/10.

Violet Ice Cream

We were also given small dishes of violet ice cream, which was very good and indeed tasted of violets, but in a very subtle and nice way. 7/10.

Tea & Coffee

We relaxed and reflected on our meal over some fresh mint tea, which was very nice, while @dewilded opted for a more hearty coffee.

Tray of Petit Fours

The petit fours weren’t actually all that petit, but I wasn’t complaining! :) The word ‘generous’ again sprang to mind.

Rhubarb Sorbet

The rhubarb sorbet was very pleasant, showing off the sweet and tart nature of the stalks, and enhancing it with a bit of creaminess on the top for balance. 7/10.

Homemade Shortbread

The homemade shortbread was also very good, and there ain’t much more to say about that. 7/10.

Cheese Ice Cream with Pear Purée, Meringue & Ginger Cake Crumbs

The ice cream did exhibit the rich and ever so slightly sour creaminess of cream cheese which went very nicely with the sweet pear, into which it was slightly submerged. There were little bits of interesting crunch provided by the meringue and ginger cake crumbs, which added a nice nuance to the dish. This was my favorite out of the final trio of desserts. 9/10.

Worth travelling for

I do have a tendency to go on a bit, don’t I. (Notice that was a rhetorical question). Well, in summary, the food at The Sportsman was consistently at a very high level. Nearly all of it was locally sourced (from what I could tell); it had a real identity; and passion was infused into each bite. Once inside, you could not ask for a more comfortable and pretence-less country pub, and everything feels just right. Phil is an affable, knowledgeable, engaging, confident, humble and chilled out host and the natural light – when present – is soft and makes for a truly magical ambience. It is priced very fairly, especially by London or major metropolis standards, and is unique.

If you live in London or are visiting the UK, definitely try to get there.If possible, I would certainly opt for a weekday lunch in order to sample the tasting menu and to allow for digestion and relaxation for the rest of the day. But I would feel pretty confident in saying that any meal had at The Sportsman would be an enjoyable one. I hope more places like begin sprouting up around the UK very soon. This is what a restaurant is meant to be.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: as mentioned above, while there is a relatively small selection (whites listed on one blackboard, reds on another), it is interesting enough and generally very fairly priced.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Sportsman once, and it was for lunch.*

Sportsman on Urbanspoon

Arbutus – All Set for Lunch

Arbutus
63-64 Frith Street
London W1D 3JW
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Set-Lunch & Pre/Post-Theater Menu: 3 courses for £16.95 (Lunch, Mon-Sun) or £18.95 (Pre/Post-Theater, Mon-Sat)
  • À la carte Menu: Starters £7-11, Mains £13-19, Desserts £6.95
  • For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account

Arbutus does what so many ‘British’ restaurants based in London should do, but don’t. It provides simple, satisfying, seasonal, well-cooked and flavorful food at a very fair price. The service is informal yet professional and there are roughly 60 wines available by the carafe. To me, it’s the perfect place to go for lunch in central London – you will enjoy yourself without breaking the bank.

Lunch with the Detective, Part Deux

It had been a while since I first met up with Craig of The London Food Detective at Great Queen Street for a very good lunch, and we both decided it had been too long. We eventually decided on a date and settled on Arbutus in Soho as our second target, namely because it is known for having a bargain of a set-lunch menu.

Besides being a tree, Arbutus is also a nice little restaurant on the ever-inspiring Frith Street

I have walked by Arbutus countless times during my years of Soho meanderings, and was glad that I would finally be looking from the inside out. Chef Anthony Demetre was formerly of Putney Bridge Restaurant, where he earned his first Michelin star. Since opening Arbutus in May of 2006 with his business partner Will Smith (who doesn’t star in OTT American action movies), Demetre has built up a reputation for serving relatively simple yet well-executed ‘British gatropub meets French bistrot’ fare in a front-of-house ambience that is often described as informal and relaxed. Many critics and bloggers have also sung the praises of the 1 Michelin star establishment on the basis that the food represents very good value for money compared to many other restaurants carrying the same distinction.

The long bar at Arbutus

I was thus very excited to try the food and to catch up with my lunch buddy, Craig. I hadn’t noticed from outside that the left side of the building is mostly taken up by a long bar (at which you can dine comfortably) and that the back of the room wraps around to the right side, which houses the formal dining room, forming a long u-shape. The restaurant makes good use of the space, without things being too cramped.

(As a side note, the layout is remarkably similar to that of Trishna, an Indian restaurant just off Marylebone High Street I visited recently which I enjoyed and hope to write about in the near future).

Clear vision, clean cooking

Craig had already arrived, and was waiting at a table in the middle of the main dining room. We perused the menus for a while and chatted about the big news in our lives – for him, a move outside of London, and for me, the impending arrival of ‘Baby LF’. ;-)

Brown Bread & Butter

Some relatively soft brown bread was served, with a nice block of butter. Both were good and the bread certainly seemed to be homemade, though I forgot to ask. 6/10.

We both opted to go for the set-lunch menu, as you can’t really argue against £16.95 for 3 courses at a Michelin starred restaurant, unless there is a specific dish you must have off the à la carte. It was a compact set menu – two starters, two mains and either a dessert or cheese – but the choices were generally appealing and, after chatting with our waiter, it seemed like we might be able to substitute something here or there for little or no additional cost (please note that we didn’t actually try this, so please ask before assuming you can!).

Starter 1: Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade

Starter 1: Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade

Craig ordered the Crisp Pork Cheek & Celeriac Remoulade and said: “It was attractively presented with the pork cheek sitting on a colourful bed of leaves, with the celeriac remoulade on the side. The pork had a lovely crisp topping that contrasted with the warm, fatty, gelatinous cheek underneath. The pork melted in the mouth and the accompanying remoulade offered a mustardy, slightly bitter contrast to the richness of the fat. Together with the salad, this cleansed the palate and meant that the pork didn’t leave a greasy taste in the mouth, which I find can happen with pork cheek if it isn’t well cooked or served with a contrasting flavour or texture.

“I really enjoyed it and thought it showed off the ability of the kitchen to handle cheaper cuts of meat proficiently and it left me looking forward to my main course of lamb breast.”

Starter 2: Curly Kale & Potato Soup

I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful. 8/10.

Main Course: Welsh Lamb Breast & Crushed Root Vegetables

We were both feeling like manly men and ordered the same meaty main course (the other option was a chestnut mushroom risotto, which neither of us found tremendously inspiring from the description). The lamb breast rested upon a bed of soft, orange winter root vegetables. The vegetables had been mashed to a pulp and were quite sweet. I posited that the mash was composed of swede, sweet potato and carrot (Craig suggested there may have been parsnip too). Beneath the veggie mash laid a somewhat sweet brown sauce, which had notes of carmelized brown sugar. The lamb breast itself was well-cooked and the fat – of which there was a lot – dissolved beautifully and added a nice richness to the dish. It was a very satisfying main course, which I enjoyed, but not quite as much as the soup that preceded it. 6/10.

Cheese: Platter of Morbier

Of his cheese platter, Craig commented: “Unusually for me, I turned down the dessert and opted for cheese. Unlike at Great Queen Street, it was my turn for dessert envy, as LF’s floating island was very good – I nearly insisted on another spoonful before I tucked into my cheese!

“My morbier came served with a spicy fruit chutney and a thick slice of the brown bread we were served on arrival. To be honest, I would’ve probably preferred a cracker to give a bit of crunch, but never mind. The morbier was a little bit deceiving, as it had a strong aroma and I thought the blue streak through the middle of it would make it quite strong, but in fact it was quite mild and creamy and was slightly overpowered by the sweet chutney. All okay, but I definitely should have gone for the floating island….”

Dessert: Floating Island & Pink Pralines

I had no hesitation in selecting the floating island for dessert. I have only ever had this dessert in France (where it is called île flottante), and I always enjoy it, so I was eager to try a version on this side of the Channel. As you can see from the above photo, the dish was presented simply and beautifully. It was also extremely delicious. The vanilla custard (which the French call crème anglaise) was perfect, and they hadn’t skimped on the velvety waters that surrounded the towering island of meringue. The island itself was also perfect, being soft but just firm enough to keep its texture throughout the process of being devoured. The candied pink pralines that crowned the white cylindrical pillow were also buried beneath and hidden throughout the depths of the island. This was the icing on the cake, so to speak, as it added a little crunchiness to each bite, which played perfectly off the squidgyness of the meringue and the creaminess of the custard.

It was a very simple dessert – indeed, you normally get this in bistrot-type restaurants in France – but it was the best one I’ve had, and I still salivate when I look at the pictures of it. I would give it a 10/10 as it was the best example I’ve ever had of the dessert, and the pink pralines gave it that little extra edge of sophistication that made it truly special.

Oh, and the portion size was very generous, just as the previous plates, so I wasn’t left wanting more (well, okay, not that much more). ;-)

If you haven’t noticed, I thought the dessert was so pretty that I am currently using it as the banner for this website.

Single Espresso

After what was a relatively big weekday lunch by my standards, I needed a caffeine jolt to propel me back to my office and through the rest of the afternoon. The single espresso was passable, but was served a bit cold, so I wasn’t too impressed with that.

Undeniable value

Based on my first visit, I would have to agree with what I understand to be the general consensus about Arbutus. It provides you with very good food at very fair prices within a central London context. There is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the techniques or ingredients on offer, but what there is seems to be done very well. I can’t think of a better 3-course lunch that I’ve had in London for under £20 (of course, keep in mind that this price excludes wine, coffee/tea and service). In fact, it kind of reminds me of the lunch I first had with Craig at Great Queen Street, except this meal was cheaper. Our lunch had included very good and mostly seasonal ingredients that were used to their fullest effect through precise cooking and careful seasoning.

The atmosphere was fairly relaxed, but the service was good throughout and everyone generally seemed to be having a good time, the staff included, which is always a good sign. I also loved the fact that you can have so many wines by the carafe, and think more places in London should do this. Arbutus is definitely a place I’d like to return to, and it is a great place for people looking to eat well but without spending too much. Like I said, don’t expect to find anything out of the ordinary or mind-blowing, but I can’t imagine any of the dishes not being enjoyable here.

Craig concluded that, “Overall, it was another highly enjoyable lunch with LF and we made a good choice of restaurant. The food in Arbutus was of a high quality and was well-cooked by a kitchen using seasonal ingredients. When combined with the unpretentious and friendly service you can see why it has a Michelin star. For the price, it was an absolute bargain and I’d definitely go back. It’s not serving anything revolutionary, but like Great Queen Street it’s providing good, honest food at very fair prices for central London. I’m looking forward to our next lunch and aiming to go up 2:1 in the choice of dessert!”

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: a relatively small but very comprehensive and well-chosen wine list, with some top producers and a few more eclectic selections. The best thing is that they have about 60 wines available by the carafe, something that sister restaurant Wild Honey also does.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Arbutus once, and it was for their set-menu lunch.*

Arbutus on Urbanspoon

Galvin at Windows – Flying High & Deservedly So

Galvin at Windows
The London Hilton
22 Park Lane, 28th Floor
London W1K 1BE
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Dinner: Menu Dégustation at £75, £110 or £130 (depending on wines & courses selected); Menu Prestige at £58 for 3 courses; or À La Carte Menu at £33 for 3 courses
  • Lunch: 2 courses at £19.50; 3 courses at £25; or 3 courses + ½ bottle of wine, water & coffee at £39.50 (through toptable) + Bar Lunch Express dishes for £4-12

Galvin at Windows seems to have achieved a winning combination. The views and setting are stunning, the menu consists of the kind of food you want to eat quite often, and it is executed precisely with a subtle flair. The food we had at our Sunday lunch was delicious and reasonably priced for this type of venue, and I am now eager to try out their other establishments.

Becoming Galvinized

It was the dead of winter, the afternoons were drawing yet shorter, and there I was, still a veritable Galvin virgin. I thought to myself, I must be one of the only self-appointed ‘foodies’  in London who has not yet frequented one of the (then) two Galvin Brothers establishments in the London fog (they have since added the much-lauded and doted over Galvin La Chapelle and offshoot Cafe de Luxe in the City). So, when I discovered after a bit of research that you could get a 3-course lunch at their highest-flying venue for a mere £25/person – even on a Sunday – I decided I that I would finally lose my Galvinity and treat Mrs. LF to what I hoped would be a nice lunch with stunning views.

Perched atop the London Hilton hotel, with a commanding view of a good deal of London, lays Galvin at Windows. I had heard many good things from various friends and food bloggers, so the bar had been set pretty, erm, ‘high’. Upon taking the lift up to the top floor and soaking in the restaurant (and peeping into the nice and spacious bar), first impressions were certainly good. This place didn’t exude much of the cookie-cutter, drab ho-humness that is the global Hilton brand, but actually seemed to radiate with its own design, ambience and energy. The greeting was smooth and the waiters were friendly and professional.

Our beautiful sun bathed table overlooking Park Lane

Although we didn’t get a table right by the window, as I had requested through my toptable booking, we were given a lovely table on the lower floor that looked Northwest up Park Lane and beyond. There is also a raised rectangular dining area that stands about 4 or 5 feet above the ground-level tables. It was not that busy, probably due to the fact that our reservation was for 2pm.

These bros can cook

As we soaked in the view, our tummies were growing hungrier by the minute, so we quickly made up our minds, although all the 3 options for each of the courses did sound very appetizing.

Assortment of breads

With our starters and main courses selected, we were provided with two types of bread and a lovely little beehive of butter, all of which were fine but not stellar. 6/10.

Le Beurre et Le Mâcon Villages – how very French

As I was mainly having veggies and fish, I wanted to go for a white wine (Mrs. LF was not drinking as per usual since ‘the bump’ had appeared :)). I was looking at the wines by the glass, but the sommelier persuaded me that their other deal (3 courses, half a bottle of wine, water & coffee at £39.50) would probably be more economical and enjoyable, and that they had some very nice wines on the accompanying half-bottle selection. Like The Dude I am, I abided, and chose the 2008 Mâcon Villages Caves de L’aurore (Burgundy), which served its purpose very nicely throughout the first two courses. It had a nice golden color, a subtle nose of tropical fruit and a nicely integrated touch of oak. I’ve seen this on other restaurant lists for about £15 per half-bottle, so it was a decent deal given that the water and coffee were basically thrown in for free.

Starter 1: Slow Cooked Hens’ Egg, Warm Salad of Charlotte Potatoes & Smoked Haddock, Whole Grain Mustard Beurre Blanc

Simply put, my starter of slow cooked hens’ egg was as beautiful to look at as it was to taste. Everything here worked well together. When split, the egg yolk that oozed out was of a good thickness and orangey-golden hue. The sea of mustard beurre blanc was a perfect surface for the potatoes and haddock to float upon. The sauce itself was delicious – in fact, I spooned up a good deal of it on its own – and the potatoes were just warm, still firm and exhibited a note of sweetness. The taste of the smoked fish was not overpowering as not too much had been added, and as it all mingled together joyfully in my mouth I had the feeling that this was going to be a good meal. It was certainly an excellent beginning. 8/10.

Starter 2: Ravioli of Braised Beef Short Rib, Roast Red Onion Fondant, Horseradish Velouté

I thought that Mrs. LF’s was also presented in a beautiful and simple manner. Here’s what she thought: “The braised beef short rib inside the ravioli was moist and tender and the ravioli was not too filled (compared to the one I had in the York & Albany earlier in the year). The foam, or velouté, was exquisite: it kind of looked like a cream velouté and almost tasted like so, but was in fact horseradish. This was delicious and very innovative as it was a fusion of Italian and British cuisine.” 8/10.

Main Course 1: Fillet of Royal Bream, Gnocchi, Shellfish & Trompette

Okay, here was the deal-sealer. These boys can cook. Well, it is actually Head Chef André Garret presiding at Windows, but I am sure you get what I mean. This was a pretty flawless bit of cooking. Like my starter, it may not have been the most inventive or complex dish in the world, but it is the kind of thing I like to eat, and could do so quite often. The fish had been cooked to textbook perfection, still moist and soft yet adequately firm with a crispy skin. But, in a way, the real star here was the shellfish sauce, which was truly delectable. Its saltiness and sea flavors played off brilliantly against the slightly sweet and mild flavor of the Gilthead (‘Royal’) Bream. The mushrooms also worked well and the creaminess of the sauce admirably tied the whole dish together. Another 8/10 for me.

Main Course 2: Risotto of Butternut Squash, Sage & Mozzarella

It had become quite bright in the airy dining room, and it turned out that none of the pictures of Mrs. LF’s main course really did it justice. It was a nice looking…risotto. Yes, risotto, an Italian dish if I ever saw one. And I was a little puzzled at what this and the earlier ravioli were doing at this very Anglo-French-seeming restaurant. But nonetheless, this is what the good lady ordered, so was it any good?

Mrs. LF recalls that, “The risotto was cooked perfectly, and the smooth taste of the butternut squash worked well, making the risotto creamy and unctuous – as it should be – although I would have liked some kind of kick coming from one of the remaining ingredients, in order to open my appetite and make me want to go back to the dish after each bite. The taste of the sage didn’t do it for me, but maybe that’s because I am sensitive to strong aroma at the moment (being pregnant). I didn’t taste the mozzarella that was listed on the menu description, but noticed and tasted some shaved parmesan in its place.” 6.5/10.

Shared Dessert: Hot Chocolate Fondant, Salted Caramel, Praline Ice Cream & Hazelnut

In the end, Mrs. LF decided to opt-out of dessert (so her 2-course lunch cost £19.50), and I eventually and reluctantly succeeded to sharing my dessert with her. I really wished we had both got our own portion of this though. After waiting for a long time, one of the waiters informed us that the kitchen had messed up the fondant and was making a new one from scratch – this was annoying but their honesty was appreciated. When it did arrive, it was pretty much the perfect chocolate fondant. A moist dark chocolate cake encased the hot chocolate which gently leached out from its shell upon being broken by my fork. The combination of salty caramel, praline and warm chocolate was divine and I truly enjoyed devouring this little piece of edible beauty. 9/10.

Petit Fours from L’Artisan du Chocolat

After all of the aforementioned lusciousness, I decided I definitely needed a coffee, and then realized that it was conveniently included in my upgraded lunch package. It was a high quality black filter coffee, and the petit fours consisted of two chocolates and two truffles from L’Artisan du Chocolat, which was a nice treat. We have had the pleasure of exploring their range thanks to my parent’s holiday gifts over the past two years, and these didn’t disappoint. I also noted the fact that they provided two of each, so that Mrs. LF could have one even though she hadn’t ordered tea or coffee.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

After relaxing for a bit more, we asked for the bill, and were pleasantly surprised when a glass jar of big, fluffy pink and yellow marshmallows were offered to us as well. They were really good and left us with a well-deserved sweet memory of our meal.

One down, three to go

We looped around the dining room on our way out and had a look at the fun fair down below, and really were on Cloud 9 at this point.

On top of the world – well, London at least!

It had been a smooth, leisurely, pleasant and delicious lunch. Service throughout had been attentive, thoughtful, friendly and efficient. The views and the setting were fairly unique for London and the prices were reasonable within this context. I don’t think I need to say it again, but the food was of a very high calibre: each dish was technically well-cooked and had the added bonus of delicious, tried and tested flavor combinations that we certainly both enjoyed. I can understand why they have just been elevated to 1 Michelin star status in the 2010 UK guide (they didn’t yet hold the star when we dined there).

I am now eager to try their less formal Marylebone Bistrot de Luxe and am meant to be hitting Galvin La Chapelle with some other food bloggers in about a month’s time. I just hope that Jeff and Chris Galvin heed the warning signs of other British chefs who have grown too fast and too furiously in recent years and are now paying the price. In Windows, they definitely seem to have found a winning combination. I hope their other restaurants do the same and that they keep their enterprise manageable and consistently infused with their obvious skill, know-how and cooking ability.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: a nice selection of half bottles for the 3-course lunch deal; I didn’t check out the larger list in too much detail

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Galvin at Windows once, and it was for Sunday lunch.*

Galvin at Windows on Urbanspoon

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught – The Anglo-French Combination Loses Something in Translation

The Connaught
Carlos Place
London W1K 2AL
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Dinner: Signature menu (7-course tasting) at £85/person, 3-course menu at £75/person; Lunch menus at £35 (inclusive of water & coffee) and £42 (inclusive of 2 glasses of wine + water & coffee)

A grand yet modern dining room in a historic London hotel & a famous French female chef producing very good food somehow fail to produce a lasting impression

The woman who snatched the reins from Angela & Gordon

I will spare you the full introduction to chef Hélène Darroze as she is probably already pretty well known to most readers of this blog. How about some quick bullet points instead (I have been working too much lately)? Hopefully, like a good amuse bouche, they will be easily digestible:

  • Darroze comes from the Southwest of France (Les Landes) where her family has been in the hospitality and culinary fields for four generations, with her father holding a Michelin star at their Relais & Château hotel and restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan
  • She earned her BA in business and wanted to go into the hospitality business too, so got a job on the administrative side of Alain Ducasse’s organization and, after being there for a while and observing everything, decided she too wanted to be a chef, eventually rising to become his ‘right-hand woman’ (no small feat), cooking alongside the master chef at his Monaco-based Le Louis XV
  • She then went back to her family’s business and, due to a difference of cooking styles (it’s ‘complicated’), her father ‘volunteered’ to resign;
  • She retained the family’s Michelin star, won tons of awards for her culinary promise and prowess, then opened up her own restaurant on the left bank in Paris, which received 2 Michelin stars within two years of opening
  • In the spring of 2008, she was eventually convinced to take over the restaurant at London’s historically important Connaught hotel when Angela Hartnett and Gordon Ramsay Holdings essentially got booted out, gaining a Michelin star there within a year of opening. She took a big brigade from Paris to set up the operation and commutes every other week to London so is in the London kitchen approximately half the time

Given all the above, I had been very interested to try her food, especially given her reputation as being one of the best ambassadors for the food of her region and one of the brighter lights in the French culinary scene.

The triplet mystery

So, on a cold and rainy November evening, the dynamic duo arrived at the imposing façade of the oh-so English Connaught Hotel.

Anglo exterior, French guts

The restaurant lies to your right after entering the hotel, and is reached via a narrow corridor of dark wood panelling. The hotel was recently completely refurbished for the small price of £70 million and is quite classically beautiful inside.

Light at the end of the corridor?

Surprisingly, once inside the rather grand dining room, things become a bit lighter, with comfy upholstered chairs of white and mustard-yellow swirls, cushioned bench seating of muted gray with a vertical diamond pattern, some art deco details and golden chandeliers. This all somehow resolves itself very neatly within the still clubby carcass (i.e. dark wood panelling) of the room.

A quick perusal of the menu revealed the usual tasting menu and a 3-course option. We opted for the simpler of the two and began pondering the options there within. As I was ruminating, I was struck by the descriptions of her dishes. Nearly all of them were described in threes, and I was reminded of our recent meal at Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room & Library, where he is also fond of focusing on one primary ingredient for a dish and preparing in three different ways. As I was wondering whether this phenomenon of triplets was a peculiarly French affectation, some nibbles interrupted my train of thought.

Sorry, hold on, this is the…starter?

Amuse Bouche 1: Leek & potato velouté with barley foam; Parma ham; breadsticks

Now I thought this was slightly odd. We were in a very posh French dining room and Parma ham was being laid out on a sheet of black slate, with breadsticks poking up out of a basket on the side. It all seemed very Italian to me, although I guess the kitchen had salvaged its haute cuisine/French-ness by serving a tall glass of velouté as part of the trio. The Parma ham was good, but also particularly salty (6/10). The breadsticks were, well, breadsticks and don’t stand out in my memory (5/10). The leek and potato concoction was probably the nicest of the three, with a lovely smooth consistency and a subtle heat (the spicy kind) to it (7/10). A rather odd start, but a start nonetheless.

Amuse Bouche 2: Foie gras crème brûlée; green apple sorbet; peanut cappuccino

The next amuse was apparently a signature dish of Darroze. I thought it worked quite well, with the richness of the foie gras cream being well accented by the sweetness of the peanut foam and cut through by the very noticeable streak of green apple. It was all very pleasant, but the foie gras flavor did remain quite muted beneath it all and this little glass of joy certainly wasn’t an earth-shattering gastronomic moment for me. 7/10.

Bread & Butter

In the meantime, we had been served a nice selection of bread, which was of high quality. Butter was sliced from what is probably the largest slab of butter I’ve ever seen – a ginormous block of the creamy, yellow stuff was on display in the center of the dining room – and was also very good. 8/10.

Starter 1: Le Foie Gras des Landes (Duck Foie Gras from Les Landes) – One slice cooked ‘au torchon’; one slice confit with mild spices; chutney of Solliès figs

After a rather dainty start to the meal, it was a real shocker when my main course starter arrived. A huge white plate containing two MASSIVE slices of foie gras was placed before me (the above photo does not accurately convey the size of the slabs of overfed duck innards). There were two version on offer, one cooked au torchon – seasoned with port, wrapped in a kitchen towel  or torchon, and cooked sous-vide (under vacuum) – and the other mixed with a very nice streak of ‘mild spices’. I preferred the latter, while Mrs. LF was partial to the former. The slice with spice reminded me a lot of Christmas flavors (gingerbread, mulled wine, etc.) and I thought it went exceptionally well with the figs and the wonderfully concentrated chutney lurking beneath the three beautifully presented slices of fruit. The foie gras was served with large slices of country bread, which was good although I thought it was too thick for foie gras.

Left: Detail of the figs in the foie gras starter / Right: The accompanying bread for the foie gras

Overall, it was an excellent course, but it really should have been served as a main course (which wasn’t really an option given that this is a faux pas in France) or they should have served much thinner slices as I was pretty much full at this point in the meal, making it hard to salivate with anticipation over the rest of the dishes to come – not a good thing for a fine dining experience. While I can understand the desire to convey ‘value for money’ (after all, the 3-course menu is the not insignificant sum of £75/person), I thought the balance was really off on this course. 8/10 for the cooking, though.

Starter 2: Les Carottes (Carrots) – Yellow, orange, purple…caramelised in their jus with forest honey; cumin crumble; cappuccino with cumin foam

Mrs. LF had the following to say about her starter: “A wide selection of carrot varieties (of many different colors) was presented beautifully on the plate. Each was distinct in terms of both flavour and texture, while retaining the familiar underlying carrot taste. The jus with forest honey enhanced the sweetness of the carrots nicely. While intriguing to begin with, I soon tired of the dish and lost interest. The portion looked small, however in reality there was plenty, as the taste of it all was quite rich and fulsome.”

First time for everything – a carrot cappuccino with cumin foam (part of Starter 2)

On the other hand, the accompanying cappuccino, served in a tall glass, had the texture of velvet and was delightful,” Mrs. LF concluded. 6/10 overall for the dish.

Main Course 1: Le Homard Bleu (Blue Lobster) – Cooked in its shell; carrot & confit citrus mousseline; wild sorrel

My main course was very enjoyable. The lobster was sweet although a tad on the chewy side and, as is often the case, the claw had an exquisitely fine flavor. The accompaniments to the dish worked seamlessly, with the citrus mousseline providing a bit of sweet freshness (and an underlying acidity) and the brown onion reduction lending some richness and a hint of sharpness. The wild sorrel (greens) on top were actually not pointless, and had a sharp tanginess, which I thought helped to tie the dish together. Very accomplished cooking and not overly complicated. 8/10.

Main Course 2: Le Poulet Jaune des Landes (Corn-Fed Chicken) – Breast stuffed under the skin with wild mushrooms, cooked in a cocotte; Escaoutoun from Les Landes with brebis Basque cheese & cèpes; roasting jus with rosemary & walnuts

“The stuffed chicken breast was tender and cooked perfectly. The roasting jus was nice, but together with the chicken, it didn’t overwhelm me and I wasn’t in a hurry to reach for another bite,” said Mrs. LF of her main course. “The Escaoutoun, which I never had before, is speciality of Les Landes, and is a polenta-like dish blended with ewe’s-milk cheese and cèpes. The ewe’s milk cheese didn’t stand out as I thought it might do, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but overall my palate wasn’t overly excited about this novelty.” 7/10.

Dessert 1: 100% Chocolat – Venezuelan Carupano dark chocolate cream; bitter chocolate sorbet; hot chocolate sauce

Well, how was this dessert going to be bad? I mean, I love dark chocolate and that was all there was, again in three different formats. It worked delectably well and although I was stuffed at this point, thanks to eating all of my foie gras, it didn’t take long for me to dust off this very beautifully presented and technically well executed dessert. 8/10.

The sommelier has recommended a nice Pedro Ximénez to have alongside the chocolate and, indeed, it was a very nice combination. The sherry was very rich and sweet with an almost syrupy consistency, and the two played well off of each other.

Dessert 2: La Chataigne (Chestnut) – Biscuit, chantilly, wafer; Yuzu curd; Yuzu sorbet

Mrs. LF on her dessert: “I chose this as my final course because I love the flavor of chestnuts in a dessert. I guess it is a very French thing to enjoy. During Christmas time we have marron glace, which is a French candied chestnut. We also have barquette au marron, a sort of a tart in the shape of a boat that most traditional pâtisseries carry. So I went for this desert in order to satisfy my longing for a good French chestnut dessert.  But, after biting into the filled wafer, I realised that it was filled with the chantilly and that the chestnut element was in the brown little cubes that were scattered around the plate. Whilst those were delicious, I didn’t get the satisfaction of a true chestnut dessert. Apart from those little squares, the waffle was pretty bland, and the sorbet – while refreshing – didn’t overwhelm me either.” 7/10.

Something disjointed this way comes

Service throughout had certainly been attentive in some respects, but was far from slick and faultless. For instance, our table happened to be located next to one of the areas where the waiters added the final touches to the plates before bringing them to the table, and a few times I could clearly hear two of the waiters bickering between themselves. Also, while professional and attentive for the most part, it seemed a bit disjointed as we would get abandoned for a while and then swooned over a bit later. It wasn’t by any means horrible, but it did seem like they were very stressed, highly strung and not particularly well organized. I guess service doesn’t directly affect the stars in Michelin’s rating system (the level of ‘luxury’ is rated separately with a crossed fork and spoon symbol), but I was surprised that it wasn’t smoother.

Winding (up) down (stairs)…

But anyways, our meal had drawn to a pleasant close, or so we thought. Of course, this was fine dining, and this meant petit fours. But before they were rolled out (literally), some beautiful Hermès plates were set down in front of us. I can’t recall if there was a specific point for this, as I don’t remember eating anything off of them, but they were nice to look at anyway.

Decorative Plates by Hermès (yes, we really did lift them up and check the logo underneath)

After recently being served a group of petit fours that was called ‘Like a kid in a sweet shop’ at The Fat Duck, this time it looked like the candy store was being rolled out and delivered directly to our table. A lovely old-fashioned trolley containing various sweets in glass jars was parked at our table, and of course I could not refuse any of them, even though I felt 10 pounds heavier than when we first entered the restaurant. I thought this was a great touch and made the experience a lot more fun than the usual pre-sorted plateful of sweet morsels.

Petit Four trolley – literally like an adult in a candy shop

They were all pretty good, especially the marshmallows and chocolate truffles. The truffles were so good that Mrs. LF seems to have snatched hers before I was able to take a picture of them together on the second, slightly smaller Hermès plate (see below).

Easy does it...

As we were getting ready to explode, I asked our waitress if Ms. Darroze happened to be there this evening (I often try this line). I was surprised when the answer was ‘yes’, and even more pleasantly surprised when she asked us if we would like to meet her.

One star, plus two

Of course, we answered ‘yes’, and were shown downstairs to her office (she really has one down there directly across from the kitchen). Mrs. LF was able to converse with her in French, which was great, and she seemed to be a very straight-forward, earnest and down-to-earth woman.

The Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for donkey’s years

Upon leaving, we noticed the small army of Armagnac that was placed upon a table in the corridor near the entrance of the restaurant. We were informed that the Darroze family has been making their own Armagnac for ages, although it is done in very small batches so is not really available anywhere else besides their own establishments. I caught a glance of one (see below) that dated from 1942. It was a pretty impressive display.

And there is a quite a collection on-hand, this one from 1942

Fading away…

All things considered, our meal at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught was pleasant and a few of the dishes were excellent. However, the meal seems to have faded into the background of my brain’s culinary compartment. This is likely because nothing stood out as being truly exceptional for either of us – the food, the service, nor the ambience. I suppose a restaurant of a certain calibre and with a certain intent should be judged in the context of similar establishments, and in this case, I don’t think it holds up as well as many other 1-starred restaurants (not to mention the non-starred ones) at which I’ve dined in the last year. Maybe a visit to her restaurant in Paris would give me a greater appreciation for her particular style of food and cooking ethos, but from this meal it didn’t ever become clearly defined or fully realized – it was ‘very good’ (as the score below reflects), but not remarkable.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/11

Wine: a nice European-centric selection of wines (particularly strong in France, as you’d expect), with a few of bottles at lower price-points outside of the celebrity French regions and houses & a decent selection by the glass and half-bottle

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught once, and it was for dinner.*

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

McGuigan Goes Walkabout to Roussillon

A criminally good idea

The Aussies vs. The French

There are some invitations Laissez Fare does not turn down. After briefly meeting Chris Mitchell, one of the head honchos at Cube Communications (a boutique PR firm focusing on the wine trade) at the recent Blaggers’ Banquet, I somehow found myself getting an invite to one such event. A no-show was not an option.

The innovative and maybe somewhat ambitious plan was to pair the wines of one of Australia’s hottest wine producers with the light and refined French cuisine of Alexis Gauthier, who is head chef at the 1 Michelin star Roussillon, which is set on a quiet residential street in London’s Pimlico. The premise? Could Australian wines – which for so long have unfortunately been thought of as ‘sun in a bottle’ by many consumers, despite fairly radical revolutions in recent times at many of Australia’s wineries – blend in with the elegance and subtleness of Mr. Gauthier’s cuisine. Would they overpower and clash, or would they meld just as easily as French wine would? Even if they didn’t, I was much looking forward to a second visit to Roussillon, which was one of the first restaurants I reviewed on this blog, and which Mrs. LF and I enjoyed very much.

Shortly after arriving, we were appropriately plied with drink. All of McGuigan’s entry-level wines (which have a gray label in the UK) were on offer. As I tasted through them, I was introduced to Neil McGuigan, who is an MD at the company and oversees viticulture and winemaking at the eponymous firm. He is a very down to earth and affable fellow, and his love for humor becomes apparent quite quickly. One of the little anecdotes he told me, of which there were many, was the fact that his great-great grandfather had been deported from the UK to Australia for being a criminal. You see, he had stolen some wine from a nobleman, and Neil explained that his family had been trying to pay the world back for his ancestor’s transgressions ever since. Tuh-dum (drum roll please). It was hard to believe this laid-back dude was the at the helm of such a big winemaker, which is now one of the top-10 brands of Australian wine in the UK.

Neil gets serious...just for a minute

I was even more surprised when Chris asked Neil to give a little introductory speech, which while still peppered with his own brand of comedy, was also very eloquent, informative and to the point.

But we had rambled enough and it was time for the main event.

By the way, most of the wines from the classic range were quite pleasant and quaffable, and I remember particularly liking the Sauvignon Blanc, the Chardonnay (which had ripe apple and not too much oak), and the Pinot Grigio (which I found to be less fruity than Italian versions I’m familiar with, and which oddly seemed to have the aroma of petrol I normally associate with Riesling).

Some ‘pretty good piss’

So into Roussillon’s downstairs private dining room we went…

The table was set...as were our places...

...and the chef was explaining his special menu...

Alexis came in to go through the menu in detail and explain how, in theory, the wine should complement the food and vice versa. I was quite excited to taste what was on offer, especially after having recently seen chef Gauthier on Masterchef: The Professionals, where Marianne Lumb and viewers of the programme discovered his disdain for timers – indeed, he decides when things are cooked to the desired specification purely by touch and feel. I just hoped my lamb wouldn’t be totally raw!

I was also eager to taste the higher-end wines form McGuigan. Earlier on, as I tried to explain my struggle to better explain verbally how wines tasted to me, Neil had said that when he really enjoys a wine, he just says it’s “some pretty good piss.” Although it was a light-hearted joke, I did take what I gathered to be his point: that you should just enjoy really good wine, and not worry too much about trying to make sure you can describe it in exact detail. I just hoped that his top-end wines wouldn’t taste like, erm…

The basket of bread was full to the brim – woohoo!

While waiting for the first course to arrive, I hunkered down on one of the lovely little baguettes on offer, which was accompanied by some high quality French beurre.

Lobster & Purple Basil: Light Lobster Bisque Infused with Purple Basil with Scallops & Confit Tomato Tortellini – Paired with 2004 Earth’s Portrait Riesling

I enjoyed the lobster bisque, which was rich while remaining fairly light, and I did note that the purple basil was present but much milder than its green cousin, and that it worked well with the seafood flavors. I loved the two little tortellini in the center, too. I found that the Riesling’s acidity cut through the creaminess of the bisque rather well but, for me, the pairing didn’t set the world on fire. I didn’t feel that the wine either added to or detracted from the dish. Maybe being fairly new to Riesling myself, I just don’t ‘get it’ yet, but the wine wasn’t one I would probably go back to.

Wild Sea Bass & Razor Clams: Grilled Cut of Wild Sea Bass, Steamed Razor Clams with Szechuan Pepper & Lightly Spiced Fish Velouté – Paired with 2003 Bin 9000 Semillon

The next combination worked much better for my palate. The sea bass itself had been delicately cooked, and had a lovely soft firmness. I am a sucker for razor clams and felt that they worked well here. Looking at the description of the dish, I don’t now recall the pepper and spice that is alluded to, but I did like the dish overall, even though it didn’t really pack a punch. Peter Hall, the winemaker, was on hand to describe his Semillon himself. He explained that Hunter Valley Semillon is “one of the most distinct wines from Australia,” and that it is a lighter, finer style with usually about 9.5% – 10.5% ABV. Apparently, they have ‘Semillon & Seafood’ days locally, as the taste of the sea goes so well with this grape variety. I generally agreed with him in this case. The wine exhibited strong citrus and lime and had a wonderful structure. It didn’t dominate and seemed perfectly happy to swish along with the fish in my mouth. Peter mentioned that it was still “a little ways off yet”, and that its full toastiness and golden color were not quite showing through yet. I would certainly be happy to sample some more of that wine in a few years’ time.

Milk Fed Lamb & Thyme: Pyrenean Milk Fed Lamb Rubbed with Thyme, with Parmesan & Swiss Chard Gratin & Thyme Infused Lamb Jus – Paired with 2008 Shortlist Cabernet Sauvignon

The third course was highly enjoyable. The milk fed lamb was stupidly soft and had a mild and fine flavor which was subtly accented by the thyme. I was a little worried that a Cabernet Sauvignon might overpower a dish of such finesse, but I was wrong. The wine itself was very young (being a 2008), and my notes indicate that there was blackcurrant on the palate, that the wine was thick but not tannic (quite soft), that it was fairly jammy and fruit forward, and that there was a touch of spice present. The flavor of the wine actually went pretty well with the dish, especially the rich lamb jus. Neil pointed out that McGuigan was making a big push to give varietal definition to its range, especially at premium price points. He added that this wine was, after all, “only a baby” and that it had a “terrific future,” with the “oak being subservient to the fruit.” I agreed and think this will make a fantastic wine at its peak.

Blue d’Auvergne & Madeira: Feuillette of Blue Cheese, Madeira Reduction Jus, with Wild Rocket & Red Chard Salad – Paired with 2008 Handmade Shiraz

I don’t think I quite ‘got’ the last savory course. To me it seemed to be a nice, crispy puff pastry that was meant to have cheese inside, but that about 90% of that cheese had been sucked out prior to serving, leaving only the aroma and a few remnants of that blue from Auvergne. Possibly like so many other things, its subtly had passed me by. In any case, the Shiraz was a winner. It had a deep purple hue; it was voluptuous, rich, supple, and not overly tannic or oaky. This was not an aggressive Syrah from the Northern Rhone, it was a classically velvety red that had gentle spice and is bound to age well. I personally didn’t understand the pairing here, although chef Gautier said that the sweetness of the Madeira reduction should have gone well with the Shiraz flavors (black fruits)…

Quince & Yogurt: Quince & Sultana Parfait, Honey & Yogurt Sorbet – Paired with 2005 Personal Reserve Botrytis Semillon

But I soon forgot my little quandary when this little slice of heaven arrived, paired with some rather divine golden nectar from down under. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and ‘tis also the season for that elusive yellow fruit called quince. This parfait was indeed parfait. It was gently cooled, firm, soft and full of that unique quince flavor, which had the softest touch of sultana essence infused throughout. The sorbet was creamy, dreamy and retained that tartness of yogurt which beautifully balanced the sweetness of the parfait. But the real discovery was how well the sesame tuile combined with the sweet wine – bloody brilliant. I really loved this dessert wine, which is made in the Sauterne style, and was much finer than other may Australian sweeties I’ve tasted. Peter said that it was not common for botrytis to develop in the Hunter Valley, and that they only made in a “hit and miss” fashion. Most recently, they have produced it in 2005, 2008 and 2009. If I remember correctly, I don’t think you can yet buy this in the UK, so there’s probably not too much point in rambling on about how much I liked it anymore :)

At the end of the rather extended luncheon, chef Gauthier re-emerged to share a celebratory glass with Neil, which was a fitting end to a great 3-hour partnership between the Aussies and the French.

The two creators smile & celebrate a job well done

I came away from the meal with a greater appreciation of McGuigan’s wines, which I had hencetoforth only tasted in their entry-level form. Neil explained over lunch that they were striving to innovate, modernize and drive their higher-end wines to become really special, and that this would have positive ramifications for their wines at every price point. I certainly did get the feeling that these guys care very much about making excellent wines and also liked the fact that they seem to have a great time doing it.

Their success has not gone unnoticed either, as Neil himself was recently awarded White Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge and McGuigan Wines was a few weeks ago crowned Winemaker of the Year and Australian Producer of the Year at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.

What else can I say but “Good-on-yah mayte” in my best Australian accent?

* * *

Many thanks to Chris and the Cube Communications for organizing the meal.

If you’re interested in eating at Roussillon, they have a number of good value deals, including a 3-course price-fixe lunch menu which includes ½ a bottle of wine for £35/person. All contact details and menus can be found on their website.

McGuigan Wines are broadly available at Majestic, Tesco and many other supermarkets and wine merchants nationwide.

Roussillon on Urbanspoon

St John – Twice as Nice

St John Bar & Restaurant
26 St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Starters approx. £4-7, Mains approx. £15-25, Desserts approx. £6-7

St John serves simple, honest, delicious food that brings out the best of what its often humble ingredients can be. The dining space mirrors head chef Henderson’s paired down philosophy and is reminiscent of a posh school canteen for grown-ups...in a good way. The thing about St John is that, while it’s brilliant, there should be places like this in every town across the UK, where you can find well-cooked everyday dishes that won’t blow the bank. It’s the kind of food you might have gotten at your Nan’s or Auntie’s house in days gone by, and it’s not rocket science, after all. If you haven’t been, by all means go, if only to taste the marrow and sample one of their brilliant puddings. I just can’t believe there aren’t more places like this in London and elsewhere throughout Britain.

Sundays at St John

St John had been on my hit list for a long time – too long. So, when the weather began cooling and the days got darker, and when my stomach began craving for heart-warming comfort food, I happily discovered that St John was open for Sunday lunches. What a brilliant idea, I thought, and promptly booked myself in for the upcoming weekend.

I think that most readers of this blog will already know as much (or more) about St John, and its head chef Fergus Henderson, than I do, so I will spare you all of the literally gory details here. Suffice to say that the original outpost is located just opposite the Smithfield meat market in 1994 and that the building was formerly a smokehouse. Henderson is well-known for his ‘nose-to-tail eating’ philosophy (in fact, this was the title of his first cookbook), and the interior of the restaurant mirrors his style of food: it is paired down, simple and honest.

In 2003, Henderson and his business partner Trevor Gulliver opened a second branch, imaginatively called St John Bread and Wine, near Spitalfields market (spot the trend?). The original restaurant’s baking operations had outgrown its existing baking capabilities, so this new site took care of the new baking needs and also housed a smaller, less formal restaurant serving food and drink throughout the day.

As you will read further down, Mrs. LF and I so much enjoyed our first visit to St John that we immediately booked Sunday lunch for the very next week upon leaving. So this review comprises two meals on two consecutive Sundays.

Meal 1: Initiation

It was a typically bleak autumn afternoon as we made our way East to the City of London, gliding stealthily beneath its dragon-crowned gates in the anonymity of the Circle Line. I had only ever seen St John from the outside, and didn’t realize there was a little bakery and bar on the ground floor, with the main restaurant on a slightly raised level up a small flight of stairs. (You can see some pictures of these areas towards the end of the post).

An industrial entrance on a rather gloomy Sunday afternoon

We made our way up and found the place to be about half full but with a nice but quiet buzz about it. Our waitress took us to our little table for two, which was nestled very cosily against the right wall. After being given the paper menu (a good deal of the dishes change every day, with only a few fixtures/signature dishes such as the infamous marrow), we were served some bread. It was a wonderful loaf of sourdough with a great crust and bags of perfect sourdough flavor. We loved it. And one of my unofficial rules that normally holds true in restaurants is that, if the bread is excellent, there is a very good chance you’re in for some good food, too.

The amazing sourdough bread, the paper menu & the anticipation of that fabled marrow (with its eating instrument on the right)

We eventually ordered and took stock of the place. It is pretty much what I expected. Stark, basic, and mostly white. Industrial looking light fixtures, bistro-style wooden chairs, paper table cloths on top of the real ones, silverware that you can tell has been well used, waiting staff in kitchen whites. But most importantly, all of the diners there seemed to be genuinely having a good time. It was a posh school canteen for grown-ups.

The semi-open kitchen & 2 views of the canteen-style dining room from our little nook

After attempting to turn my eyes into binoculars while peering past the pass in the kitchen, to see what offal tricks these culinary wizards were conjuring, and soaking everything in, our efficient waitress came back with our starters.

Starter 1: Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad

And what a starter. Phwoah – just look at those bad boys! This was the signature dish I had been waiting to order. Despite my expectations being ridiculously high for what is after all a very simple dish, I was not let down one bit. This was one of the best and most satisfying things I’ve shoved down my gob in recent memory. It just worked on every level. The marrow was rich and smooth, with a half liquidized fat texture. Spread across the perfectly toasted bread (which was the right thickness for the dish), sprinkled with a bit of that chunky gray salt, and topped off with a good dose of fresh parsley and onions (with a faultless vinaigrette), I was eating way too fast. You had richness that was accented by salt and shot through the heart with fresh green acidity; you had smooth, you had crunchy you had chewy. It was all there…for about 2 minutes that is. Mrs. LF concurred and, had she been able to stomach it, would have had much more of it than she did (thank God she is slim and didn’t have the stomach for it!). No doubt, 10/10.

Starter 2: Split Pea Soup

Meanwhile, she was slurping up another wonderfully simple and rustic dish, a bowl of split pea soup. And what it lacked in looks, it certainly made up for in taste. It was one of the best pea soups I’ve had, hands down. Pure sweet pea flavor, perfectly seasoned, with a great thick but not-too-thick texture, we couldn’t really fault it. Mrs. LF informed me that when she was growing up in the Normandy countryside, they often began their meals with a simple vegetable soup, and she thought it a great start to the meal. 9/10.

Main Course 1: Ox Heart, Carrots & Aioli

For my main course, I ordered something I had never eaten before – we were in St John, after all. The ox heart had been masterfully cooked, being seared on the outside but with a very soft and buttery core (zoom in on the second photo to see what I’m talking about), and I loved the way it felt in my mouth. The taste was quite full-on; after all, it is a friggin’ heart we’re talking about. It is quite a lean meat (being a muscle), and you can taste its high mineral content on your palate (it’s high in both iron and copper), but not unpleasantly so. It had a nice little accompanying sauce and a lovely aioli on the side, which was good because it needed a little kick from time to time. I could see how eating the meat itself could become monotonous after a while as for me it wasn’t like a sumptuous steak you’d keep coming back to again and again without relief. For this reason the aioli and the simply cooked sweet carrots were well thought-out partners. Overall, I was really glad I tried this dish and enjoyed it. Would I order it again? Not necessarily, but it was well worth the experience. 7/10.

Main Course 2: Smoked Eel, Beetroot & Horseradish

Mrs. LF couldn’t believe how good her dish of smoked eel was, and neither could I when I tasted it. She commented that it had a “rich and strong taste of eel, yet it was perfectly balanced, so flavorsome and distinct and unlike any other seafood dish I’d had. The beetroot, which I never really loved before, was outstanding; it was as if they had marinated or cooked in some kind of vinegar, and that sharpness was the perfect accompaniment for the intense taste of the eel. I truly enjoyed this dish for its authenticity and honesty. 10/10.”

Dessert: Plum Jelly & Shortbread

The puddings…ooh…the puddings. My god, they all sounded so simple, so satisfying, so good. But alas, as one of Catherine Tate’s characters might say, “we was well full” by then. So we decided to split one and rolled the dessert dice. Thank God we came up trumps.

We simply loved this dessert. It was a perfect jelly – firm yet with a bit of wobble – whose creators had achieved the miracle of blissful balance between the sweet and tart. But jelly on its own is not a proper pudding. Luckily, the good folks at St John agreed, and provided some cooked plums on the side, as well as a dollop of thick cream and two of the best rectangles of homemade shortbread I’ve had. Just like the marrow, salad and toast – it just all worked together. We wanted another one, but in the end, we were good little adult canteen goers. 9/10.

Meal 2: Conversion?

With an overwhelmingly positive first meal at St John, we were back the next Sunday, same bat time, same bat channel. But could Fergus’ kitchen charm us twice?

Starter 1: Squid & Tomato

I had also heard good things about their calamari, and as they were on the menu that Sunday, I went for it. I was a bit underwhelmed. They were a little firmer than I thought they should be, but had good, sweet flavor and were well seasoned (like everything else at St John). The peppery rocket and sweet tomato provided good contrasts in both taste and texture, and I ate it quite happily though it was nothing compared to those towers of shins the week before. 6/10.

Starter 2: Pea & Ham Soup

Given Mrs. LF’s previously mentioned predisposition for a simple potage as the opening to the show, she again opted for the pea soup, although on this day there was some ham too. It was again an extremely satisfying soup which did everything it could possibly have. 9/10 once again.

Main Course 1: Whole Grouse with Bread Sauce & Grouse Pâté on Toast

Being bang in the middle of grouse season, I thought I would have my first grouse of the year, and for that matter, my first grouse ever so far as I can remember. I knew that this bird has a very pronounced flavor, and I hoped I would like it. I was delighted to see that when I cut into the meat, it had been skilfully cooked – perfectly reddish-pink in the middle. It did indeed have a strong flavor, which is quite hard to describe if you’ve never had it. Gamey and rich, I did enjoy it but didn’t fall in love. It does have a wonderful texture to it, though. I liked it best when eaten with some bread sauce (I needed that sweetness), and while I’m sure you’d be hard pressed to find a better grouse that was better cooked in the UK, I just don’t think this bird is my bag. Saying that, the accompanying little slice of crispy toast with grouse pâté was divine, and they were right to only include one as it was insanely rich. I will give it a 7/10 because I think it was a well-executed dish but one whose main component wasn’t really to my taste.

Main Course 2: Braised Hare & Mash

Of her main course, Mrs. LF said: “I chose this dish because I love rabbit, and since I never had hare before I thought that it would have similar taste to rabbit but in a more gamey way, which I imagined I’d like. And like it I did. It had that raw, rural feel to it that reminded me of French boeuf mode (although not with beef!). The hare was perfectly braised, with the meat threading off the bone, and the rich sauce with its bits of carrots and onion was rustic and just right. 9/10.”

Before dessert, I had the chance to visit the bathroom, which proved to be just as starkly designed as the rest of the place.

The storm trooper loos

The light & the luminary (Fergus himself in the background, dining with friends)

After being mildly disappointed so far, more with my menu selections than with the cooking itself, I was looking forward to those glorious puddings even more.

Dessert 1: Poached Plums & Spiced Ice Cream

After much heated debate, I had finally opted for the poached plums. After the success of last week’s dessert, I was again a little let down with this course. Not that it was bad, far from it. It just didn’t deliver that punch I had been expecting. The plums were well poached and had a nice sweet and sour flavor about them. The ice cream was pleasant if a bit forgettable, and the toast was a good vessel for soaking up the juice of the plums. But the real reason for my mild state of depression was that Mrs. LF was going on about how great her dessert was. So, being me, I started to pillage and plunder, which didn’t go down too well. I would give the plums 7/10.

Dessert 2: Baked Egg Custard & Blueberries

Yes, now this was the business. This is what I had been dreaming about, another proper pudding that could hold its weight against last week’s finale. The custard was thick, sweet and extremely more-ish. This was especially the case when you ate it in tandem with a little bit of the sweet blueberry compote. And those shortbreads were back again, there for dipping, dunking, defiling. As the little dog from the Churchill ad says, “Oh, yes”. So we had our happy ending, the meal had been pulled back from the brink of slight disappointment. 9/10.

The dining room at the end of our meal

The bakery & the bar as we prepared to enter the real world, once again

The St John scooter we spotted as we exited

Parting Thoughts & Shots

Despite the fact that I didn’t particularly like some of what I ordered on our second visit, St John now holds a special place in both my, and my fair lady’s, heart. We love the simply prepared and delicious food and the place’s complete and utter lack of pretence. As I mentioned before, you get the best of what these often modest ingredients have to offer at St John. And if you like one of the meats or fish in particular, they are almost guaranteed to make a great dish out of it for you. I think their puddings deserve a special mention, because they are just so satisfying – no tricks, gimmicks or unnecessary components, just plain good combinations.

One thing we did discuss at the end of our second meal was the fact that while most people think of St John as a thoroughly British affair, we’re not quite so sure. Of course, Henderson is a British chef, and some of the ingredients (i.e. the grouse I had) are native to the British Isles. But Mrs. LF reckons that the majority of the cooking techniques in the kitchen are, at their heart, those of good French home cooking. To wit, the flawless vinaigrette on my parsley salad, the hearty potages and the sauces. And she was also quick to point out that Britain is not the only country that utilizes a wide range of cheaper cuts of meat in its menus, as French country and bistro cooking does as well. Sure, the puddings are mostly British, but I think the woman makes a good point.

Another thing one might consider is the fact that some people reckon that St John is the 14th best restaurant in the world. While I would say it is probably a unique restaurant in my experience with London dining establishments – and maybe the wider UK – I think that, if true, this is a very sad fact.

Again, Mrs. LF piped up with some insightful thoughts, saying: “Yes, it is unique, but it shouldn’t be. There should be loads of places like St John all over the country. It’s not rocket science after all. Not everyone wants poncy fine dining, but people should have ready access to this kind of food – they’re not cooking foie gras, caviar and truffles, are they? Every single town in England should have a place like St John – I mean, why don’t British pubs, those ancient symbols of tradition, serve food like this? St John represents the things that are disappearing from our lives (not just in Britain, but in France too), where once upon a time you could eat like this every day, even at your family table. I mean, this is the kind of food you’d go to get at your best Auntie’s or Grandma’s house.”

And this is unfortunately what makes St John unique; it is exactly that kind of amazing home cooked food that we should all be having much more of, both at home and when we decide to eat out.

But whatever the case, what is clear is that St John is surely worth a visit. For my money, I can’t imagine a better place to enjoy a leisurely Sunday lunch in the din of winter.

And one last thing. If you do believe it is the 14th best restaurant in the world, it is certainly pretty easy to get a table here (at least for Sunday lunch) compared to some of the others on that list. So go already.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 8.5/10

Wine List: 7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined twice at St John, both times for Sunday lunch.*

St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon

sketch Lecture Room & Library – Gastronomic Theatre Fit for a King

sketch
9 Conduit Street
London W1S 2XG
Website
Map
Online Reservations

- À la carte: Starters from £21-44, Mains from £28-55, Desserts from £10-27 (all but one under £14)
Tasting
: 8-course menu at £95; 7-course vegetarian menu at £70
Lunch:
Gourmet rapide menus from £30-£48 (depending on 2 or 3 courses and whether or not you want wine and water included)

Be transported into a surreal and magical world that is sealed off from the mundane trappings of the everyday world. You have ascended to the upper echelons of sketch, and you are here to be looked after. Let the food dazzle and delight; permit the grand surroundings mesmerize; allow your whims be catered for; and, most of all, enjoy every minute...because it don’t come cheap!

Be transported into a surreal and magical world that is sealed off from the mundane trappings of the everyday world. You have ascended to the upper echelons of sketch, and you are here to be looked after. Let the food dazzle and delight; permit the grand surroundings mesmerize; allow your whims be catered for; and, most of all, enjoy every minute...because it don’t come cheap!

No ordinary townhouse

Let me preface this review by saying that I have been to sketch once before, so it wasn’t a complete shock to me when I walked in this time. One of our friends had somehow managed to secure one of the bars for her birthday drinks and Mrs. LF and I were introduced to the decadent, avant-garde madness that lies beyond this Georgian townhouse’s rather ordinary looking white facade. If you’ve never been and are planning to go, whichever part of sketch you decide to visit, do insist on visiting the bathrooms on the ground floor that lie through The Gallery dining room as they are certainly worth seeing.

sketch - a georgian townhouse

Looks normal enough from outside

Yes, sketch. A London institution that has somehow managed to retain its en vogue status since opening its doors six years ago, which is no mean feat given the constantly sprouting up competition. But we were not there to celebrity spot; we were there to eat some good food. And that meant stepping into the upper echelons of this mysterious and quirky little world. We were there for The Lecture Room and Library, the 1-starred Michelin dining room that is run under the close control of Pierre Gagnaire (who is apparently present every 4-6 weeks for a number of days), the acclaimed French chef whose iconoclastic modern fusion style of cooking seems rather well suited toward the raison d’être of sketch.

No ordinary greeting

When we ‘checked in’ at the little reception desk, David, the tall and charmingly flamboyant Irish man who seemed to be in charge, became very animated when he learned we would be dining upstairs. He offered us a tour of the premises, to be carried out by his rather fetching assistant, but we opted to postpone this until the end of the evening. We also declined the offer of a cocktail in one of the downstairs bars as we had already had that pleasure at our friend’s birthday celebration. I should say that the cocktails at sketch are imaginative, fun and excellent – but they are also probably the most expensive drinks I’ve ever bought in a London bar. Mrs. LF told our host that we’d rather just go upstairs. He then informed us that, as we were the first guests to arrive, we could have the upstairs parlour to ourselves. Now that sounded like a plan.

While attempting to ascertain our knowledge of chef Gagnaire, he opened the roped-off stairs for us and, with a grand gesture, bid us to follow him up the stairs. As we ascended, he informed us about all of the chef’s restaurants around the globe and gave us a potted biography of Mr. Gagnaire in his very pleasant but thoroughly OTT fashion. We noticed some of the intriguing artwork on the way up to our destination (see below), and were indeed being made to feel like we were quite special guests at this most hoity-toity of establishments. But of course that felt very good :).

Note: you can click on any of the pictures below for higher-resolution versions of the images.

artwork at the foot of the stairs

At the foot of the stairs

ascending the stairs

Ascending the stairs

When you reach the top of the stairs, there is a large doorway which remains sealed. Then, in his special way, our leader opened the vault, revealing what is probably the most striking dining room I’ve ever had the pleasure of stepping foot into. Our photos, most other photos I’ve seen, and even the professional video cameras from the recent episode of Masterchef: The Professionals simply don’t do the place justice. It is something to be seen in person, that’s for sure. You really feel like you’ve entered an extremely exclusive and luxurious place that is sealed off from the rest of the world.

the lecture room

The Lecture Room (main dining room)

While Mrs. LF made her way back downstairs to powder her nose, I had the good fortune to meet the chef, Jean-Denis Le Bras, who recently took over the upstairs kitchen. He was very pleasant and clearly enthusiastic about his food. Upon her return, Mrs. LF and I walked through the main dining room (which I presumed to be the ‘Lecture Room’), and the smaller ante-chamber (which I assumed to be the ‘Library’), which led into a very beautiful little parlour area, replete with rich reds, fireplace and Moroccan style window hangings and light fixtures.

the upstairs parlour

The ‘royal’ parlour...all to ourselves

the library as seen from the parlour

The Library (smaller dining room) as viewed from the parlour

After downing my favorite sketch cocktail, whose name now escapes me but I think has something to do with Barry White, we were offered an array of canapés, which we decided to have in the parlour as it was so cosy and we were having such a nice time there.

Our tray of canapés

Our tray of canapés

Element 1: Petite Tarts with Goat’s Cheese

Element 1: Petite Tarts with Goat’s Cheese

parmesan sablé & tarragon balls

Elements 2 & 3: Parmesan Sablé and Tapenade & Caramelized Hazelnut (top); Tarragon Balls with Corn Purée & Curry (in pot)

tuna cream & cumin bread

Element 4: Tuna Cream with Cumin Bread

yogurt & tandoori biscuit

Element 5: Yogurt with Tandoori Biscuit

Without going into laborious detail, it is suffice to say that this was a magnificent opening to our meal. Each element on the tray tasted every bit as good as it looked – which is saying something –with the goat’s cheese tarts and yogurt with tandoori biscuits being our favourites. We already felt spoiled receiving an entire tray of canapés, and not just the usual little dainty plate with one or two morsels that you normally find in such high-end restaurants. 9/10.

After asking a lot of questions about the dishes on the main menu, and receiving very detailed answers from our waiter, we finally arrived at our decisions and it was time to finally make our way to the Lecture Room.

No ordinary meal

Our table in the main room was against one of the side walls and afforded us a great view of all the action. The first thing we noted was just how comfortable the well-cushioned chairs were. Once seated, they were quick in offering to place Mrs. LF’s bag on a little stool near our table so that it didn’t stoop to retire on the god-knows-how-much-this-costs-per-square-foot carpet.

lecture room design features

Vaulted Pantheonic ceiling & North African inspired lighting in the main dining room (check out the decanters and the plush seats, too)

les pains

Les pains: mini-baguettes, white rolls, brown chestnut rolls & brioche sticks

les beurres

Les beurres: salted, unsalted, seaweed (all unpasteurized)

Of the breads, we tasted the mini-baguettes, the white rolls and the brown chestnut rolls, all of which were very good, with the mini-baguettes standing out as the best with their crispy crusts and lovely chewiness. The butters were beautifully presented (see above), and we both loved the one with seaweed in particular given its slightly salty and rich umami flavor. 8/10.

amuse bouche of raw tuna

Amuse bouche: Raw White Tuna, Cauliflower and Dried Bonito Cream & Salmon roe

The amuse bouche of tuna tartare was a very clever, refreshing and flavorsome dish, with all of the ingredients working together in concert. The clean taste of the raw fish was accentuated by salty salmon roe which was then toned down and rounded out by the bonito flakes which again possessed a lush umami flavor. The little chewy and crunchy pieces of cauliflower provided some much needed solid texture to offset the smoothness of the other ingredients. I really enjoyed this first ‘proper’ course. 8/10.

a bit of theatre

A bit of theatre: Presenting the 'Cocotte of Vegetables' in Mrs. LF's starter course about 10 minutes before it was served

starter 1 - perfume of the earth

Starter 1: Perfume of the Earth / Inspired by one of Pierre Gagnaire’s Favourite Perfumes 'Terre d’Hermès' (£39)

- Cocotte of Vegetables, Smoked Myrtle and Bay Laurel / Foie Gras Soup with Sarawak Pepper
- Chicory Fondue with Sake / Girolles Poached in Pig Jus / Culatello and Iberian Ham
– Almond Tart / White Beetroot Purée with Redcurrant / Red Beetroot Syrup / Purslane Salad
– Flambé Reblochon with Génépi / Toast “Terre de Sienne” / Caramelised Black Olives (Mrs. LF substituted the Reblochon for Brillat-Savarin)

Mrs. LF said her cocotte of vegetables was light and delicious, apart from one vegetable, which could have been a turnip (but she’s not sure), that didn’t have the sweetness of the other vegetables. 7/10.

Of the chicory fondue, she described it as a meaty and flavorsome dish with all the ingredients interacting beautifully together. 7/10.

The almond tart was “Interesting in the way it looked and the way it tasted also. It tasted more like a dessert because of the white marzipan-tasting layer that enveloped the dish (not my favourite, but very different and unique for sure).” 6/10.

The flambé of Brillat-Savarin with génépi was amazingly tasty as all of the ingredients used here came through somehow…even the Génépi in a very subtle way. We were also so surprised and pleased to see génépi on the menu as we love drinking in the alps at night after a hard day of skiing and had never seen it outside of the little region we normally go skiing in. 9/10.

langoustine addressed five ways

Starter 2: Langoustines, Addressed in Five Ways (£44)

- Roasted in Chickpea Flour / Carrot Syrup and Chorizo
– Tartare / Hitcho Vodka Jelly / Sardinian Lemon Paste
– Spicy Jelly / Cockle Marinière / Macco Artichoke Ice Cream
– Mousseline with Noilly Prat / Basmati Rice / Matcha Green Tea and Almond Paste Butter
– A la Plancha with Epine-Vinette and Lardo di Colonnata / Toast of Agria Potato

The most ‘normal’ of the langoustine quintuplets was arguably the best. It had been roasted beautifully and was still moist and succulent. It was resting on top of a deeply flavoured sauce, of which the strongest element was the chorizo (there were also chunks of the meat scattered around). The sausage made a surprisingly good companion to the langoustine and did not overpower the delicate, sweet flavor as I thought it might have. It was well seasoned, and I liked the addition of the thinly sliced chives on top. 9/10.

The tartare was probably my second-favorite dish and simply showed off the freshness of the crustacea. I don’t remember the vodka jelly, but I do remember the divine lemon paste, which was a perfect foil for the raw langoustine, and the crunchy slivers of cucumber also worked well. 8/10.

Although I did like all five of these mini-creations, my least favorite was probably the third one, which included a cockle marinière, although I did rather enjoy the artichoke ice cream. 6/10.

We were back on track with the little moussiline, which definitely had a subtle hint of vermouth, and went exceedingly well with the Japanese green tea soup, with the rice providing the necessary grip and bite. A mellow and subtle dish which I appreciated. 8/10.

Last up was a little sandwich of langoustine with some clever toast of extremely thin fried potato. The inherent sweetness of the langoustine was here matched with the quite sharp flavor of European barberries and the unctuousness of the little dabs of lard. 8/10.

What I loved about this starter was the sheer variety of ingredients – both in terms of geography (from Italy to Japan) and typicity (alcohols to rarely used berries) – and how they unearthed a variety of pleasing flavor duos (and trios) with the simple luxury of sweet langoustine. It was highly inventive, technically well cooked and thoroughly enjoyable.

main course 1 - pig

Main Course 1: Pig (£32)

- Spanish Pork Fillet Marinated with Juniper
– Black Pudding and Rhubarb Ravioli
– Blackcurrant Sauce Diable / Thinly Sliced Turnips in Dark Beer

Of her trio of pork dishes, Mrs. LF reflected that the Spanish pork fillet had been perfectly cooked, and tasted exquisite. She felt that “It didn’t taste obviously porky, perhaps as it was accompanied with a reddish sauce and also marinated in juniper. Usually I have pork more with a white wine or white sauce. Anyway, the marinade gave an unusual twist to the pork, which I really liked.” 8/10.

She said that the black pudding dish was “Quite rich for my own personal taste, and I therefore appreciated the small portion as I couldn’t have stomached more than that. Having said that, if you are a black pudding lover, it is a perfect dish. The black pudding tasted great and suited its well-textured ravioli wrapping perfectly.” 8/10.

Unfortunately, due to the amount of time that has elapsed since our visit and this review (and our lack of sufficient notes), neither of us can sufficiently recall the last dish (blackcurrant sauce diable and turnips) and therefore can provide no description/rating (shame on us!).

main course 2 - scallops & john dory

Main Course 2: Scallops & John Dory (£49)

- John Dory Fillet Poached in Citrus Butter / Paimpol Coco Bean Velouté
– John Dory Gravlax / Scallop Tartare with Gingerbread
– Oyster Hummus / Liebig Cucumber

I had opted for seafood again in my main course, which this time came on a trio of plates. The principal dish was my favorite. The fish had been skilfully poached and the butter flavor came through nicely. There was diced vegetal crunchiness and the unusual flavor of the white bean velouté  was yet again another example of a rare ingredient (at least for me) providing a new flavor combination that worked well with the core element of the dish, the delicate  and mildly flavored John Dory. 9/10.

I thought the prettiest plate by far was that of the raw fish. It didn’t pack that much of a flavor punch, although there was again evidence of Gagnaire’s hand in the use of three thin slices of crisp gingerbread underneath the fish and scallops, which I thought was a little stroke of genius. 7/10.

I must say that I am not an oyster person, having only had one or two in my life, and was sort of nervous about the last little dish. I went along with the waiter’s suggestion of swallowing it all in one go, and was actually pleasantly surprised. I think this was because the most dominant flavor by far was that of hummus. It was the familiar rich chickpea and a hint of cucumber that I could taste, and it was the slimy texture of the chewy oyster I could feel, so I managed to get through without too much pain. I would certainly like to learn to appreciate oysters, but as of now I am a total novice and just don’t get the fascination. 6/10.

dessert: saffron nonette

Dessert: Nonette

- Saffron nonette with citrus and limoncello marmalade
– Traditional crème caramel
– Confit grapefruit melon and watermelon

We were quite torn between a few of the dessert on the menu, but as we were feeling quite full by this point, we opted to split one of the lighter-sounding sweets. The nonette cake itself was the main component of the dessert. Although we were informed it was a traditional dessert from the Alsace region in France, it certainly did have its Middle Eastern influences with the main flavor elements being orange and saffron. The pain d’épice based cake was dense, sticky and packed with that sharp and sweet flavor of orange marmalade (here, more sweet than sharp), along with a subtle hint of saffron which was well infused throughout. It was okay, but didn’t knock our socks off. My favorite part of the dessert was actually the crème caramel, which was excellent. It had the perfect consistency and very good depth of flavor. The citrus hit of the last pot was very refreshing and nice way to finish our last course. Overall, this was probably the weakest part of the meal, although we did shy away from some of the more ambitious sounding desserts and, given the renown of Gagnaire’s – and his kitchen’s – pastry skills (i.e. they make the good pastries at Fortnum & Mason), I am sure his Grand Dessert (at £27!) or his Gâteau au Chocolat (£10) would have been mind-blowing. But our bellies were already blown and we just couldn’t stomach it. 6/10 for our little trio.

petit fours

Petit Fours

- Dark chocolate with lemon syrup
– Blackcurrant and marzipan
– Turkish Delight with ginger

Saying that, there’s always room for (some more) dessert :). The little petit fours were all very nice and were given to us even though we didn’t order tea or coffee. The little chocolate discs and the dark chocolate with lemon syrup filling stand out as the best of the bunch in my memory.

No ordinary blue loo

blue loos

Black and blue loo for you

I finally had my chance to nip off to the bathrooms, and was eager to see what I might find inside (okay, that didn’t sound quite right). But given the insaneness of the sketch’s other toilets, I didn’t know what to expect. These were much more ‘normal’, except for the fact that they were black and neon blue, and that pretty much all surfaces were reflective. It was sufficiently cool, though, and I didn’t feel let down. The only slightly odd thing was that there was a very nice Japanese woman whose only job seemed to be keeping watch on the loos and escorting customers up and down the stairs from the restaurant to the WCs and back again. She also had to wear a slightly odd, and probably fairly demeaning, costume which was essentially a glorified maid’s outfit. But hey, I guess that is just sketch.

No ordinary sommelier

I didn’t discuss the wines earlier as I thought they deserved a special mention. Helping us throughout the evening with our wine selections was the extremely helpful, professional and generous Baptiste, who we later learned was actually Assistant Manager and not the sommelier after all. He hails from the Loire region in France and was thoroughly knowledgeable (and slightly partial :)) to the wines of this region, and proved to be the perfect sommelier throughout the evening. The wine list was very interesting but, as I was the only one drinking, I was limited to glasses or half bottles.

He started me off with a 2007 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie (Guy Brossard) to accompany the first course, which worked sufficiently well due to the mix of sweet melon and bracing stringency.

He could tell I was really passionate about wine and when I saw that they had a half bottle of Raveneau Chablis on hand, my arm didn’t need too much twisting. It was the 2006 Chablis 1er Cru, Vaillons (Raveneau) and I can say without hesitation that it was one of the best wines I’ve had. It was a classic Chablis through and through. Its nose was slightly citrusy and floral; it was intense in flavor, with lots of green fruit and extremely subtle use of oak; and finished with a powerful, extremely long and dry finish. It was such a treat with my main course of scallops and John Dory.

To finish, Baptiste suggested I go for a 2004 Saumur, Brèze, Le Clos (Guiberteau) – a wine he knows well – and I wasn’t disappointed here either, as it abounded with fresh green apples, citrus and pears, complementing the dessert well.

But besides the amazing Ravenuau and the other well chosen wines, Baptiste was extremely observant and very eager to make sure I was happy and that my curiosity was being satisfied. At one point, he saw me staring at another table’s wine, which happened to be a 2005 Meursault, Les Luchets (Guy Roulot). He asked me why I was looking so intently at it as he had poured it, and I confessed that I was really into white Burgundy at the moment. I couldn’t believe it when he went and fetched some more of the very same wine and poured me a little tasting portion of it. It was a truly spectacular wine and I was overjoyed to try it.

But it didn’t end there. He also brought over small tasting portions of two other wines he thought I would be interested to try, without me asking and without hesitation. The other two, a 2005 Montlouis Sec, Rémus, Domaine de La Taille aux Loups (Jacky Blot) and a 2005 Coteaux du Layon, Beaulieu (Pierre Bise), were also both excellent and he knew one of the producers personally, so was able to add a lot of color to his descriptions of the wines and their makers.

This personal touch and obvious desire for the customer to walk away happy and feeling well looked after is one of the things I still remember about the meal over a month later, and one of the reasons I would want to return. This general spirit was present across all of the front of house staff, who I must say were mostly French, and made the evening a thoroughly pleasurable affair, along with the beautifully presented, appetizing, inventive and delicious food.

No ordinary damage

le bill

Le Bill

Once our evening had drawn to its close, Le Bill was presented to us within the casing of an old book which had been hollowed out inside – I suppose a little reference to the ‘Library’. It was definitely one of the more expensive dinners I’ve had, although given the fact that Mrs. LF and I felt we had been treated like minor royalty, I didn’t mind one bit paying up for this privilege.

Extraordinary enough to visit?

As you can no doubt tell, we had a delightful evening at sketch from start to finish. It is a unique venue which really pushes the boundaries in terms of design (see below for the parting shot to this review if you don’t believe me). The service and attention paid to us at every stage, from greeting to goodbyes, was exemplary and we were truly made to feel special throughout our time there, even though we were just another table of two. Chef Gagnaire’s food was inventive, creative, fun, explorative and, most important, it all worked. The kitchen was also technically proficient and all of the dishes were well seasoned (not over or under), and this on a night when the head honcho was not present. The wine list is formidable, and I have never been so well looked after by a sommelier that wasn’t even the ‘proper’ sommelier, with my desires being anticipated and more than met. Lastly, I really liked the fact that when you order à la carte, you essentially get a tasting menu of sorts anyway as there are canapés, amuse bouches and petit fours thrown in, plus the fact that each dish – whether a starter or a main course – is made up of three to five elements. This eliminates the niggling feeling that you might be ‘missing out’ on something if you don’t order the tasting menu.

doggy style

As we made our way back to the ordinary world that lay outside, sketch gave us its parting shot...and I give you mine

This is a place for special occasions, when you really feel like celebrating and being treated like a king (or queen). While it will certainly put a dent in most peoples’ bank accounts, on this occasion I was quite happy to pay for it. And I would certainly return…although next time I may opt for the Gourmet Rapide Lunch as it seems to represent good value by comparison to the dinner prices.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 8/10

Wine List: 9/10

Wine Selected: 9/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined once at sketch Lecture Room & Library for dinner.*

Sketch Lecture Room and Library on Urbanspoon

The Ledbury – Artistic Flare, Good Ingredients & Great Atmosphere – But I am Left Wanting More

The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Road
London W11 2AQ
Website
Map
Online Reservations

8-course tasting menu (including amuse bouche and pre-dessert) at £70/person, 3-courses at £60/person

It is a pleasure sit in The Ledbury’s dining room, be served by a professional & friendly staff and eat well prepared food with oftentimes interesting ingredients & combinations – I just wish there had been a few more ‘oohs’  and ‘aahs’

It is a pleasure to sit in The Ledbury’s dining room, be served by a professional & friendly staff and eat well prepared food with oftentimes interesting ingredients & combinations – I just wish there had been a few more ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’

Notting Hill or Berkeley Square?

For a long time, I had wanted to eat at either The Square or The Ledbury, the two sister restaurants owned by Philip Howard and Nigel Platts-Martin. The Square has held 2 Michelin stars for some time now, and has received consistently high praise over the years, while The Ledbury received 1 Michelin star in its first year of operation and a ‘rising star’ in last year’s guide. The Ledbury is also much closer to my neighborhood, so finally I managed to get there a few weeks ago before heading off to the US for a week or so.

The Ledbury’s kitchen is run by Brett Graham, a native Australian, who was voted the UK’s ‘Young Chef of the Year’ in 2002. After 3 years at The Square, he was given the green light to open The Ledbury in Notting Hill. After reading about him and his food on other blogs (i.e. here), I was fairly eager to try his cuisine, which seemed to be quite technical and colourful, with a modern Aussie flare.  As I don’t have any more new and interesting information about the chef, I will end the background information here!

Inviting interior, warm welcome

The Ledbury’s Facade

The Ledbury’s Facade

We arrived at The Ledbury bang on 7 o’clock, just as it began to drizzle outside. The restaurant was relatively empty, and we were greeted warmly by the hostess, who looked like she was a true professional who had been doing this for a while – a good sign.

As she showed us to our table, which was along the back wall of the restaurant, I found myself being very pleasantly surprised. You see, I have looked at the restaurant many a time from the outside (perusing the menu and the exterior dining area as I tried to walk off my Ottolenghi calories – there is a branch just down the street toward the Westbourne Grove end of Ledbury Road). You can’t really see too much of the interior from the street, and I had thought it might be a bit too stuffy and cramped inside.

Quite the opposite. The dining room is light, modern and very tastefully done, in shades of whites and dark grays. While it is a fairly small square-ish room (no pun intended), it doesn’t feel confined, and the ambience is very welcoming and airy. There are also nice little touches, such as individual, subtle black stone sculptures on each table, which look different depending what angle you look at them from; various iterations of similar design patterns upholstered on each chair; tastefully done curtains; and antique-style mirrors.

We were next welcomed by John Davey, who runs the floor (and who I believe was also formerly Maître d’ at The Square), who is a charming middle-aged Irish man who has spent a good deal of time in France in his day. We had a very nice exchange with him, which continued throughout the evening, and then focused on the task at hand – deciding what to eat and drink.

To my surprise, we avoided the normal tiff of whether or not to try the tasting menu at a restaurant we had never been to, as Mrs. LF seemed very keen on trying it, which is not usually the case. I was all ears, and decided to go for the wine pairing, which we would share, as one of us still had to drive home later on!

A good start

The restaurant was beginning to fill up, but was still fairly empty, which was good in the sense that the waiters and waitresses were very focused on us. At this point, we were brought a large tray of 4 or 5 types of bread, which were still warm and of good quality.

Canapé: Foie Gras & Crisp Flat Bread

Canapé: Foie Gras & Crisp Flat Bread

We were then brought a very intriguing looking nibble to start on, which was a foie gras mousse arranged in toothpaste like fashion across some homemade crispy flat bread, with micro-crumbs that the waiter and Maître d’ both confirmed to be Pain d’épices (roughly translated as ginger bread in English), though we still weren’t sure this was correct. But it was a real hit and we were really looking forward to the next ‘freebie’ instalment. 8/10.

Amuse Bouche: Raw Tuna, Yogurt & Tomato ‘Roe’ – so clever!

Amuse Bouche: Raw Tuna, Yogurt & Tomato ‘Roe’ – so clever!

Moving from strength to strength, the chef’s amuse bouche raised the bar again for this meal (which hadn’t even technically begun yet). The tuna, yogurt and croutons worked well together, with the yogurt being particularly very fresh and tart. But the best thing about the dish is that the part which looked like fish roe was actually tiny droplets of tomato essence. We had to confirm with the staff that our taste buds weren’t crazy (we couldn’t understand them when they described the dish the first time, and it certainly looked like roe), and were glad to know we weren’t incorrect in tasting a very intense tomato gelée. It was a very clever and very delicious little bit of visual trickery, and the taste of those droplets escalated the dish to another level. 8.5/10.

Course 1: Flame Grilled Mackerel with Cured Mackerel, Avocado and Shiso

Course 1: Flame Grilled Mackerel with Cured Mackerel, Avocado and Shiso

This was an interesting dish mainly due to the fact that both I and Mrs. LF are more used to eating marinated mackerel in the typical French fashion. This however was a grilled mackerel, and it was cooked very well, with crispy skin and soft but firm dark pinkish ‘meat’. It was nice to see mackerel on a menu of restaurant of this caliber as it is an often under-rated and very distinctive and flavorful fish. The more interesting part of the plate for me was the cured mackerel, which was housed inside a transparent green vegetable wrap, and got my taste buds going a bit more. I wasn’t sure how much the avocado added to the grilled fish, though. 7/10.

Course 2: Salad of Spring Vegetables with Parmesan Cream,  Walnut Oil and a Warm Pheasant’s Egg

Course 2: Salad of Spring Vegetables with Parmesan Cream, Walnut Oil and a Warm Pheasant’s Egg

This was a very delicate dish which was all about the individual ingredients – each little morsel’s freshness and unique flavor. They also happened to go very well together, and overall it was a successful and light dish. For me, the egg with parmesan cream was the winner, with the mushrooms playing second fiddle. 7/10.

Course 3: Terrine of Foie Gras and Confit Duck with Apricots & Fresh Almonds

Course 3: Terrine of Foie Gras and Confit Duck with Apricots & Fresh Almonds

An interesting brown and pink zebra striped concoction isn’t it? The foie gras dish was pushed to us and other tables as we sat down (it was also available as a special on the main menu), and the Maître d’ explained that the chef tries a different iteration of foie gras most evenings and that he had tasted this one personally a little earlier in the afternoon and though it was very good.

Well, the foie gras itself was very good, having real depth of flavor. The confit of duck was also successful. However, I’m not sure how well it worked as a combination, as both I and the missus would have preferred them to be served separately so we could mix and match as we pleased. This is because, together, the confit of duck overpowered the taste of the foie gras, and was quite salty against the smooth texture of the foie gras. We told this to the Maître d’ (as he asked for our comments on the dish); he understood our point of view and said he would pass on the comment to the kitchen. That said, the apricots, soft fresh almonds and miniscule mushrooms were perfect partners for the flavors of the foie confit. The toasted bread that accompanied the terrine was too rustic for the delicacy of the foie gras; toasted brioche bread would have been a more refined option. 6/10.

Course 4: Roast Monkfish with Peas, Morels & Marjoram

Course 4: Roast Monkfish with Peas, Morels & Marjoram

The monkfish was cooked well and the peas were full of, well, pea flavor. The morels were also as good as they normally are, and were well seasoned. I don’t have much more to say on this dish. Again, it was a nice, light and fairly delicate little plate of food which was cooked well. It certainly didn’t have that oomph we were looking for in what was the first of the main two courses of the meal, so was a slight let down in the flavor and excitement departments, even though it was executed to a good standard. 6/10.

Course 5: Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Puree and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso

Course 5: Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Puree and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso

It sure sounded and looked very nice (no?), but we were both disappointed with the lamb. I have read that Hebridean lamb is meant to be more full of flavor (and even slightly gamier) than other breeds of lamb, but for us it just really didn’t stack up. I don’t know if it was the chosen cut or the fact that this breed of lamb is a bit more lean, but the lamb tasted rather average and wasn’t particularly tender either. However, it was semi-rescued by a beautiful shaft of aubergine which was covered in a delectable miso glaze – not a combination I’ve had before, but would definitely have again. 5/10.

As you will have noticed by now from the photos, Chef Graham has a very unique, consistent and artistic way of presenting his food. It was almost like a series of paintings, and it was very visually pleasing, including the choice of plates and dishes employed. He certainly has a signature style in terms of the way his food looks.

As far as the style of food, based on the tasting menu, it seems as if he aims to mix delicate but distinct flavors together in rather light dishes (with the exception of the foie gras and duck confit, of course – although its intenseness was eased by apricot and fresh almonds), at times using slightly unusual combinations …all in a very subtle and pleasing fashion. We are not talking in-your-face bold flavors here.

Course 6: Cheese Platter

Course 6: Cheese Platter

There was a wide selection of cheeses available and the Maître d’ was happy to explain what they were and help me narrow down my decision. This was something I was grateful for and something that does not always happen (for example, see my disheartening experience at Le Gavroche). The bread was warm and fresh, and it was a good cheese platter all in all. 7/10.

Course 7: Pre-Dessert: Mystery Crème Brûlée

Course 7: Pre-Dessert: Mystery Crème Brûlée

To my horror, given that it has been some time since we had this meal, neither of us can remember what was inside this pretty little egg-shaped brûlée nor what the green bit on top was. All we can remember was that it was excellent, and that it was insanely better than the poor excuse for a main dessert which was to come next.

Course 8: Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus & Warm Vanilla Churros

Course 8: Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus & Warm Vanilla Churros

Well, much like the lamb it all sounded and looked very good, but my god man, this was not a real dessert! It was basically a strawberry jelly (Jell-O for my American readers), with strawberries that tasted way too tart (what else is new in England…but you still don’t expect it in a kitchen at this level) and a lacklustre dollop of cream on top. I also have no idea how they thought churros, which are traditionally served with hot chocolate or a chocolate or dulce de leche dipping sauce, would partner well with a strawberry jelly. What a let-down, especially as it was the last main note of the evening. 4/10.

A little bit of a whine

You may have noticed that I have not commented on the wine pairing. This is because, unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t think any of the wines were that great on their own (okay, the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage, Cuvée Gaby from Domaine due Colimbier was pretty good, but not a knock-out or anything) or that they really enhanced any of the dishes that much. This was really a shame, because (1) the full wine list was actually very good itself and (2) wine pairings with a tasting menu don’t come cheap, and it is experiences like this that make me think that it is sometimes better to invest the same amount of money, or even a bit more, to have a really good bottle of wine that you know will be good.

It is always a tough call if you want wine with tasting menus as sometimes you can get excellent pairings that broaden your horizons and really work well together with the food (see again Le Gavroche, which in this respect was amazing), while other times you can get mediocre quality wines that aren’t even worth their weight in ABV. I guess some restaurants just do not have good enough wines in their by-the-glass selections, and are loathe to open more expensive bottles for tasting menu pairings as some of it may be wasted. Well, it always presents a quandary for me, and I guess it is a dilemma I will continue to face in the future unless I figure out a foolproof way around it…suggestions welcome.

The thing is…

… I really liked The Ledbury, and I wanted to like it even more than my logic tells me I should. Major plusses were the decor, the ambience, the staff, the ingredients themselves, some of the combinations used, and the attention to detail and solid execution on most of the food. But a few things detracted from the meal and the overall experience. These were:

  • There just wasn’t enough vivacity in the flavor department throughout the meal for me. I am not saying that all food should shout in your face about how much it is bursting with new and bold flavors, and I do like subtle, well balanced combinations. But over a 6-course tasting menu with an amuse bouche and pre-dessert thrown in, in a Michelin starred restaurant, you do expect your palate to be wowed on more than one or two occasions.
  • I cannot get away from the fact that a proper dessert was missing from the meal, even if it was a tasting menu. I would have rather had one ‘real’ dessert which had legs to stand on, rather than a very nice little pre-dessert and a sour strawberry jelly with some odd bits thrown in on the side.
  • While the staff members were all professional and friendly and the service started off without a hitch, once the restaurant got busy, things really started to slow down at our table. This meant that after the first few courses the dishes came out in a slightly random fashion and that different people came and presented the dishes to us – with varying degrees of intelligibility and success.
  • Also, while the sommelier was a lovely young man, who explained the wines well, it did seem as if he was reading from memory off a card that had been written out earlier, and didn’t appear to have that passion and depth of knowledge that differentiates a very good sommelier from an average one.

That said, I would very much like to return to The Ledbury and try out the normal 3-course menu, or maybe for lunch. Possibly choosing the dishes that I really fancy with a slightly larger portion size will be more satisfying. I think Chef Graham’s food is definitely good, and has a lot of potential; I’m just not sure that our tasting menu on that particular night merited a Michelin star, and certainly not the two stars the restaurant is aiming for. But I will let you know if my opinion changes after the next visit.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7.5/10

Food: 6/10

Wine: 4/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at The Ledbury once.*

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