Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley – Petrusalvation

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
The Berkeley
Wilton Place
London SW1X 7RL
Website
Map
Online bookings

  • Menus: prix-fixe lunch menu at £20 (2 courses), £28 (3 courses) or £50 (3 courses plus wine pairing chosen by sommelier); dinner is £80 for the 3-course à la carte menu, £85 for the ‘du jour’ menu (weekends only), £98 for the ‘prestige’ menu & £120 for the ‘gourmand’ menu (weekends only)
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr page

I was pleasantly surprised by the generally wonderful food I ate during a recent lunch at Marcus Wareing’s plush premises, which still retain the refrain of red Bordeaux from their previous proprietor’s rein. Nearly every dish was unabashedly redolent with robust & clearly delineated flavors that sang on the palate, while service was professional & well-meaning. Sure, the backdrop may be a bit dated & smack of economic excesses; and yes, the clientele seems to fit a particular stereotype, but the food certainly makes the attractively priced prix-fixe lunch tempting. And once you’ve had that, you might be tempted to explore further should your purse strings be flexible enough to cope. It’s not the most exciting or trendy restaurant in London right now, but the cooking certainly sets the bar high.

Curing my curiosity

I had been in London for a week, mostly for what turned out to be an exceedingly stressful and long week of work. However, after visiting Mrs. LF’s family in France on our second weekend in Europe, and returning to London with two days off before heading back to the US, I was looking forward to some relaxation, and hopefully a good meal…or two.

The day after our arrival the weekend prior, we had the good fortune to dine at the chef’s table of Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, and his first in London. I hope to post about that meal next, as we had a great time – Baby LF included – and generally enjoyed the food. My only other fancy meal for the trip was originally supposed to be at Pied à Terre, the dual Michelin star stalwart on Charlotte Street, at which I enjoyed a meal with my parents a number of years ago. However, with news that its head chef Shane Osbourne was to be departing rather soon, my dining colleague and I decided it might be more fun to try somewhere else.

In fact, in planning my London trip, I had originally thought about trying the seemingly good value prix-fixe lunch menu at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, despite the fact that I have never been a great fan of the current name adorning the restaurant’s masthead. Having never met the man in person or tasted his food, ‘who am I to judge anyway’ is a fair enough question. I guess I have just never liked the way he comes off on camera, or in press comments/interviews, or through accounts of him from people I know. However, I was informed by my partner in crime that the kitchen’s current head chef was definitely a talent (formerly holding the position of sous-chef at noma in Copenhagen) and, as I had always wanted to see what all the fuss was about anyway, it seemed like a grand idea – or at least a grand setting.

The restaurant’s Bordeaux red tones remain the same, even if the name has changed

If you enter the hotel from Wilton Place, just off Knightsbridge, you head straight to your right, through an open and pleasant informal dining space. Once through this area, two doors stand before you, they are opened (of course you would not open them yourself at a 5-star hotel), and you enter a fairly intimate rectangular dining room.

As I was the first one to arrive, I was seated on a cushioned bench at one of the three squat tables that serve as the waiting area, and I must admit I felt rather awkward on my own seated next to two smartly dressed older couples who were enjoying aperitifs and some nibbles before taking their proper seats. After fiddling with my phone for a bit, I was about to order some Champagne as this seemed to be what one should do (and I never say no to some good Champagne), but my partner in crime arrived just in time to prevent a minor fleecing of funds from my wallet.

As you would expect, the dining room tables were traditionally and faultlessly appointed, with perfectly ironed linen, fancy napery and so on and so forth. As many UK readers will know, this restaurant was formerly called Petrus, and was run by Gordon Ramsay Holdings before Marcus and Gordon went their separate ways in not such an amicable fashion. Ramsay recently, and rather ridiculously if you ask me, opened a new restaurant of the same name not that far away from the original one. Old habbits, and aging egos, die hard it would seem.

In any case, the dining room that David Collins designed in 2003 for the original Petrus remains largely the same so far as I could tell, with rich claret being the color of concentration. The metal gridding adorning the windows is reminiscent of a wine rack, reinforcing the theme. Tables are very well spaced, and parties of two are seated at four and eight o’clock. It is a formal room and most of the guests on the day we dined were probably over 50 and all very well turned out. I wondered if the food would be as traditional as the setting.

Tour de flavor

We were presented with a number of menu options, but in the end decided to go with the prix-fixe menu, which gives you two options for starters and mains and three choices for desserts, plus the amuse bouche(s), pre-dessert and petit fours that you expect at a restaurant that is catering for an inspector or two from a particular tire company. All in all, I thought it was pretty good value at £38 if the cooking would hold muster, and even better at £50 with a wine pairing thrown in.

In order to be completely transparent, for one reason or another – either because of our photo snapping or because of the name on our reservation – we did receive a few extra courses, which we had not asked for and for which we were not charged (these were: starters 1 and 3, which came with accompanying wines, plus possibly an additional pre-dessert).

Canapé 1: Crispy Fried Chicken, Pickled Mustard Seed Mayo & Waffle

First out of the kitchen was a warm and delectable little morsel. The textures of crispy chicken skin and soft waffle were appealing, with a slight trace of good poultry flavor and an excellent creamy mustard giving it some verve. If someone in America’s Deep South tried to distil some of the classic dishes from that region into a refined party canapé, this quite possibly would have been the result.

Canapé 2: Taramasalata, Radishes & Herbs on Melba Toast

One of my dirty kitchen secrets is that I quite enjoyed a particular supermarket’s tub of taramasalata when I lived in the UK. Slightly pink, creamy and salty, it always did the trick for a quick no-hassle snack. This version, besides being extremely beautiful to look at – with the micro herbs and delicate radish slices – was miles removed from the commercial stuff. It was definitely the best taramasalata I have I’ve ever had, including versions from well-known Mediterranean restaurants and a few home kitchens. Another extremely refined nibble that was not shy in the flavor department.

Canapé 3: Smoked Aubergine Dip with Mint Yogurt & Melba Toast

Sticking with the Mediterranean theme, we were given some more crisp melba toast in a basket, with a wonderful dip of eggplant and mint yogurt, which was quite ambitiously salted, but this worked due to the creaminess of the yogurt and the faint sweetness of the mint.

I was surprised with all three canapés as I had expected to be served very traditional French or British foods at the restaurant, and we had already been flown to the South of the USA and back to Greece. I was wondering what would come next.

I would give this opening trio of snacks an 8/10 as they were bursting with flavour and pretty original, at least within this context, and compared to my expectations.

Amuse Bouche: Butternut Squash Soup, Ginger Foam & Ginger Crunch – Served with Peanut Breadsticks

Our next course came in a narrow glass that contained what appeared to be some sort of deep orange milkshake, replete with whipped cream and toppings. It was in fact a butternut squash soup, which had a lovely creamy texture and was perfectly seasoned. The slightly sweet accent from the froth on top and the spice of ginger elevated this dish to live up to its appetizing presentation. Another strong dish, another 8/10.

Starter 1: Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil

We both received the next dish which, in my opinion, was one of the more beautiful plates I have had the pleasure of looking at in while. Luckily, the taste again lived up to the promise of the presentation. This dish was all about the sweetness of the Scottish scallops being married to the bright acidity and tang of the finger limes and lemon vinegar. Some additional sweetness was provided by dainty wild strawberries and a few sprigs of Thai basil. This cold plate warmed my heart and reminded me of my frozen plate of sea urchins at noma a few months prior (possibly because of the connection between the Orkney Islands and the lone Scotsman who caught the sea urchins at the Northern tip of Scandinavia). 9/10.

Starter 2: Smoked Goats’ Cheese, Shallot, Mint & Potato Bread

Next came the starter I had actually ordered from the menu. This was pure genius and not at all what I had been expecting to find at a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. It was probably not such an expensive dish to put together, but its rich flavors proved you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something taste amazing. The shallots had been beautifully cooked and were hence exceedingly sweet. This allied well with the smokiness that ran through the dish, from both the cheese and the char on the potato bread. The yogurt was excellent, as it had been in our canapés, and the mint – which arrived in both liquid and leaf form – not only added a pretty visual accent, but a significant layer of flavor too. I almost licked my plate clean. 9/10.

Starter 3: Langoustine, Black Pudding, Blood Orange & Leek

Another unannounced dish was presented shortly thereafter, and this one was also a looker. A classic combination of black pudding and langoustines was executed very well, but it was again the minute but flavorful accents that set this above other versions that I’ve had of this pairing. Besides its citrus notes, the blood orange added good acidity to cut through the sweetness of the langoustines and the richness of the black pudding. The langoustines were very close to the texture and sweetness of the ones I had at noma, and they were cooked very well, retaining their moisture and soft texture. 8/10.

Main Course: Cornish Pollock, Orecchiette, Dead Nettle, Preserved Lemon & Olive

Unfortunately, one of the two dud notes in this thus far edible symphony was my main course. I have had Pollock a few times before, and it has never been my favorite of fishes, but I thought in such a kitchen they might be able to elevate this humble craniate to new heights. Sadly it was not to be. The fish itself seemed a little too dry to me, and it just didn’t have much flavor. The same couldn’t be said of the accompaniments, which were actually excellent…on their own, that is. I really enjoyed the robust flavors that came from the green nettle (mimicking pesto in texture), the particularly sweet tomato (did they add a sweetening agent?), some bittersweet preserved lemon and purple olives. The homemade pasta they came with was first-rate too, cooked as al dente as you’d get in a proper Italian restaurant. So if it had just been a bowl of pasta with sauce, great, but unfortunately the fish and the rest of it just didn’t integrate at all and I almost didn’t see the point in finishing the fish itself. 6/10.

Men at Work

Our waiter asked us if we would like a tour of the kitchen as we waited for our desserts, and we certainly had no reason to decline. It turned out Marcus was not in the kitchen – I would guess he was in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel at the then soon-to-open (and now opened) The Gilbert Scott, his second London restaurant – but his head chef, James Knappett (who is on twitter, by the way), was present and had a lot of interesting things to say. I think the three of us actually ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and we learned a lot about the restaurant’s extremely high quality of sourcing of ingredients, plus the serious effort they put into making as many things as they can in the kitchen from scratch (including all of the pastas, for instance). It was also great to see them finishing all of the plates going out at the pass.

Pre-Dessert: Cubed Cake (Possibly Caramelized White Chocolate) & Honeycomb

After our seventh-inning, and eight-course stretch, we returned to our table, where we were met with another delight. I am not sure exactly what this creamy cube of a cake was called, but it was delicious, with a decadent dark chocolate layer on top, and some crumbled honeycomb whose crunchiness and mellow sweetness worked perfectly with it. 8/10.

Pre-Dessert 2: ‘Manhattan'

Given my current city of work, it was a shame that the other real shortcoming in my meal was the ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert. I really can’t recall much about it except that both my dining partner and I didn’t like it at all. It was a shame considering it was quite an attractive little glass. I prefer not to score this as, if I did, it would probably be around a three and disproportionately bring down the score for the overall meal. My strong reaction to it was probably due to my dislike of the flavors inherent within the glass (I remember something like blackcurrant and/or kirsch, neither of which I care for much).

Dessert: Custard Tart, Rhubarb & Black Pepper

We both ordered an evolved version of Marcus’ Wareing’s now classic British dessert, which originally made it through to the final event in the first series of The Great British Menu television, and, and was served to HRH herself. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I did enjoy most elements of the complicated plate, with its pink, creamy Hershey kisses, candied rhubarb, crispy crumbs and ice cream. The custard tart itself was very good, but I thought there was too much going on otherwise – it all seemed a sideshow, a distraction. The flavour of black pepper did come through very strongly, and I had mixed feelings about how this interacted with the sweeter-than-expected rhubarb flavour and the firm custard itself. I think the original version may have been better, though I never tried it. I would personally pare this down a bit more, at least presentation-wise. 6/10.

2005 santadi latinia (sardinia)

The sommelier recommended a sticky wine from Sardinia to go with dessert and it was pleasant enough though it didn’t get my palate racing. It was also quite aggressively priced, but I couldn’t complain given the extra courses and wines we had been given.

Bonbon Trolley

We were both totally stuffed at this point and, despite my noted sweet teeth, I couldn’t bring myself to sample a single sphere from the prodigious and immaculate bonbon trolley. :(

A splendid surprise

As I pointed out at the beginning, my expectations were not very high before our meal, and most of the food we were served far exceeded them. For the most part, each dish had been technically very well prepared, and the unifying theme – as there didn’t seem to be a particular type of cuisine being served – was the fullness of the flavors. Out of the all the dishes we tasted (and that was a fair many), the only dish in particular seemed lacking in this department was my companion’s starter of mackerel, cucumber, beetroot, carrot, finger lime and chilli.

Pretty Picture, Muted Flavors

It looked beautiful (see the photo above), but it just didn’t function well as a whole, and was quite bland, with the star of the show – the mackerel – leaving something to be desired. (I must add that his main course of beef cheeks and bone marrow was completely the opposite, with deep flavors that begged to be eaten). The only other thing we both didn’t like was the cute little ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert, but this is nitpicking. The fact is the food here certainly belongs in a small handful of the best London ‘fine dining’ restaurants.

Marcus, Part Deux

The service throughout the meal, which was delivered by a diverse cast of characters, was generally very good. Besides one person who I think took himself a tad too seriously, everyone was knowledgeable, friendly and professional. The interaction was definitely on the formal side, but this is what you expect at such a venue.

If I still lived in London, I don’t think I would be chomping at the bit to return asap, but I certainly would like to explore more of the menu as I think the kitchen is performing at a very high level. And if I had a business meeting or formal occasion to celebrate, this would definitely be one of the places I would consider. I guess this is proof that you can’t always judge a chef by his TV cover(age). Good show.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is a seriously thick, heavy, leather-bound tome of over 40 pages, which has some great wine from excellent producers. There is a good selection by the glass and half bottle too, although it seems very aggressively priced across the board, with mark-ups of 4 times or so common throughout. You can see a list of the wines we had by the glass that the sommelier chose for the pairings with our dishes.

The wines we drank

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley once, and it was for a weekday lunch. Please note above that we received two extra starters – with accompanying wine – plus possibly an extra pre-dessert, for which we did not ask and did not pay of, likely as we were either known to the house or simply because they saw that we were interested and taking photos of the food*

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley 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

York & Albany: Great Food, Fantastic Value – Long Live the Empire

York & Albany
127-129 Parkway
London NW1 7PS
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Starters from £7-9, Mains from £15-24, Desserts £6

Sumptuous surroundings, excellent service and simple yet elegant food with precise flavors and solid execution. The York & Albany is a good all-rounder and makes a great venue for sipping some excellent cocktails and/or having a flavorful and well-prepared meal.

Sumptuous surroundings, excellent service and simple yet elegant food with precise flavors and solid execution. The York & Albany is a good all-rounder and makes a great venue for sipping some excellent cocktails and/or having a flavorful and well-prepared meal

In town with the in-laws

My wife’s brother and his 11-year old son visited us two weekends ago. We wanted to take them out for a nice dinner on Saturday night and, as he runs a bar in France and loves English pubs, Mrs. LF said we should try to go for something pubby. Well, I wanted to make sure the food was good too, besides having a pub-like atmosphere, so came up with the idea of the Ramsay Empire (RE) joint venture with prodigal daughter Angela Hartnett: the York & Albany (Y&A), on the Northeast corner of Regent’s park, on the way up to Camden Town. I had never been there before, but had driven by a number of times since it opened its doors. I am a fan of Mrs. Hartnett, and have enjoyed her menu (if not her own personal cooking) at her Cielo restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida, where the food was as spectacular as the views of the ocean. I did my homework on Y&A too, where Head Chef is Colin Buchan (though Mrs. Hartnett is sometimes present), and couldn’t find a bad review from the professionals, so thought it would be a good bet.

Not really a pub after all

We had been walking for much of the rare sunny afternoon – along the Grand Union Canal and then around Primrose Hill – so had worked up an appetite by the time we reached our evening destination. We had a table reserved for 7.30pm, but turned up a bit early to have some drinks beforehand in the bar. I noticed as we walked up to the venue they had finally gotten an awning fitted, a nice purple one upon which the name of the place was clearly branded. This must have happened quite recently, because I’ve driven by countless times and always wondered why they didn’t have the name somewhere! Weird to have an un-branded RE venue indeed.

A dramatic approach, non?

A dramatic approach, non?

Upstairs: interesting combinations

Upon entering, I was a bit surprised as it definitely felt like we had walked into a fairly posh bar, not a pub. This wasn’t a bad thing though, and the design was actually quite pleasant, with some of the more interesting historical features retained and restored. The building itself was apparently originally a coaching inn designed by John Nash in the 1820’s. In keeping (no pun intended) with this history, there are 10 sleeping rooms on the upper floors, which look very nice and well appointed from their online photos. The bar had some very ‘hotel bar’ music playing, so it did sort of feel like you were in the bar of a 4-star boutique hotel that had been around for a while – not what I had expected, but not at all unpleasant. There is also “Nonna’s Deli” (occupying the space where apparently the stables used to be), which you can enter through either an outside door or through a door at one end of the bar, and is home to some of Mrs. Hartnett’s favorite foodstuffs – it all looked pretty good. The in-laws purchased some of “Nonna’s” homemade preserves. So, a bar-cum-hotel-cum-deli-cum…restaurant! Yes, that’s what we were really there for, the food!

The soft & mellow tones of the bar area

The soft & mellow tones of the bar area

But we were waiting for a fifth guest, our long-time friend, who we shall call “Mr. S”…and we needed to have a drink. After perusing the very nice cocktail list, the missus’ brother order a Pimms No. 1, I ordered the signature cocktail out of pure fascination (since it mixed champagne with vodka, which my brother in-law said was a cardinal faux-pas), while the missus and her nephew made do with fruit juices and such.

Champagne & Vodka – didn’t think the two would match, but it was surprisingly good & refreshing

Champagne & Vodka – didn’t think the two would match, but it was surprisingly good & refreshing

Well, let me tell you, the cocktails were excellent. The Pimms No. 1 was a master class in how to make this drink, which usually fails to inspire me when I go to peoples’ houses for outdoor parties, etc. My brother in-law, who is the former national cocktail-making champion of France (yes, for the WHOLE country), said it was done perfectly. And mine was tasted great too – sour citrus, fizz and a little clean hit of vodka: a surprising combination which was surprisingly good. The service at the bar was also excellent. They even proactively made sure that the restaurant was aware that we were there and coordinated everything for us.

Downstairs: simply red

Mr. S arrived fashionably late just as we were making our way to our table, fancy that. The upstairs section of the dining room was rather dimly lit and slightly brooding, though very full. I was a bit surprised as the hostess led us down the stairs because I hadn’t realized there was a proper downstairs, and had figured that was where the bathrooms were located. But more discoveries lurked down below.

First, it turned out that our round table for six afforded a perfect view of the kitchen window – so we had scored a Chef’s Table for free.

Chef’s Table, gratis

Chef’s Table, gratis

Second, it was like we had walked into a sumptuous red boudoir of some kind! And I am not joking. The walls were covered in a soft red fabric, the tables were red, the chairs were red, and so and so forth. A bit strange, but I began to make myself comfortable after the initial shock.

Only the lights aren’t red

Only the lights aren’t red

We were shortly thereafter welcomed by our waiter for the evening, who was the perfect Italian host: pleasant, professional and passionate. It also turned out that he would also double as our sommelier, so as I was under strict instructions not to order anything French, I eventually came to decide upon one of the Italian options (I don’t think my brother in-law wanted to stray too far from his home country after all :)). It was a 2005 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Poliziano (Tuscany, Italy) at £55/bottle and it was a good example, displaying deep and ripe red fruit, with a bit of leather and tobacco mixed in, plus a hint of spice. The tannins were a little strong at first but softened a bit after resting in the glass and bottle. A nice choice.

After a few sips of the wine, our orders were taken, and one of the dishes sounded so good that both Mrs. LF and I ordered it – a rare happening indeed (see Starter 1 below). Overall, the menu was rather abbreviated and offered fairly simply prepared dishes with very promising ingredients and flavor combinations…with a subtle but definite bent towards Italy.

Starter 1: Ravioli of braised rabbit leg, peas, wild mushroom and marjoram emulsion

Starter 1: Ravioli of braised rabbit leg, peas, wild mushroom and marjoram emulsion

My starter of rabbit ravioli was good…real good. The flavors were dense, precise, individual and all worked in concert to create a very more-ish dish. The pasta was perfectly made and the sauce was rich but with just a hint of tartness to keep it from being too full-on. Mrs. LF liked it just as much as I did. You can tell that the ingredients had been well sourced and brought to their full potential It got a 7/10 from both of us.

Starter 2: Ballottine of poached Scottish salmon, pickled mooli, watercress, spring vegetables, deep-fried quail’s egg

Starter 2: Ballottine of poached Scottish salmon, pickled mooli, watercress, spring vegetables, deep-fried quail’s egg

My brother in-law had the salmon ballottine, which he said was excellent, no complaints whatsoever. As he has a pretty discerning palate (also being a humble yet rather good chef), I took his word for it, but did get one fork-full and agreed. Not really my ideal type of starter, but it was a good piece of salmon and the dish had been executed to a high standard. I will refrain from giving it a score though, as I only had one bite.

By this point, I had began to notice that the salmon, and indeed all of the other dishes, had been served on the signature Gordon Ramsay Royal Doulton collection. After eating at so many RE establishments in the past little while (maze in New York and Claridge’s most recently), it was becoming a familiar site. But this wasn’t a negative at all, because the food at all of the RE establishments hadn’t let me down yet as of yet, which is saying something.

Starter 3: Smoked, peppered fillet of mackerel, Jersey royal potato salad, broad beans, truffle mayonnaise

Starter 3: Smoked, peppered fillet of mackerel, Jersey royal potato salad, broad beans, truffle mayonnaise

Mr. S had the mackerel salad and was not too forthcoming with a portion to taste. He said it was excellent and scoffed it down in about 1 minute flat. So no score, but again, high praise for the simple but defined and well combined flavors.

Main 1: Roasted Devon plaice with sweetcorn and girolle risotto, buttered runner beans

Main 1: Roasted Devon plaice with sweetcorn and girolle risotto, buttered runner beans

I really enjoyed my plaice main course. The fish was cooked very well and tasted nice and fresh. The risotto was perfectly al dente and creamy. The beans added a nice crunch to the other rather soft textures and the richness of the mushrooms rounded out each bite. No rocket science here, but good distinct flavors that worked well together. 7/10.

Main 2: Fillet of sea bream with gnocchi, warm crab and broccoli salad, shellfish butter

Main 2: Fillet of sea bream with gnocchi, warm crab and broccoli salad, shellfish butter

Mrs. LF’s brother had the sea bream, which he was very impressed with, saying that it had been cooked exactly right, and that it all worked together brilliantly. No taste for me, so no score.

Main 3: Cod tagine with spiced chick peas, carrot and coriander

Main 3: Cod tagine with spiced chick peas, carrot and coriander

Mrs. LF and Mr. S (getting confused yet?) both had the tagine. She said, and I quote: “It was really well seasoned and very flavorsome. Oftentimes these type of stew-ey dishes tend to be overcooked, lacking taste and seem to be a pointless mish-mash of things, but in this instance, all of the flavors were clear, and the spices used to make the tagine came together to make it a very hearty dish that was not at all boring and tasteless. The cod wasn’t too fishy, and was a well selected mild and firm companion to the stew. This definitely wasn’t a tagine you’d get in a cheap Moroccan restaurant in London, it was a tagine with a difference.” She gave it an 8/10.

Dessert 1: Millefeuille of pistachio and chocolate with glazed cherries, sesame tuile

Dessert 1: Millefeuille of pistachio and chocolate with glazed cherries, sesame tuile

Well, we are all wholeheartedly impressed with the presentation of this dish – it was absolutely beautiful. My brother in-law had one and Mrs. LF and her nephew also shared one. Unfortunately, while it tasted absolutely fine, it was not as mind blowing as its appearance led us to believe. Mrs. LF was more let down than me because she loves millefeuilles, and for her this really wasn’t one, as the only reason it could be given that title was because of the pastry which sandwiched the chocolate mousse on the top and bottom. When she thinks of millefeuille, she thinks crème patissiere, and this chocolate mousse was a let-down, being far from the real deal. If it had tasted amazing in its own right, she was very prepared to let it go, as it looked so pretty, but there are very few things that can escape the watchful eyes and discerning palate of my lovely French wife. After all that, her brother did seem to rather like it though :). All things considered, 5/10.

Dessert 2: Yoghurt parfait, melon salad, peach foam

Dessert 2: Yoghurt parfait, melon salad, peach foam

Mr. S continued his normal approach to dining out, and consumed his dessert in about the same time as his main course, with not a crumb reaching another soul’s mouth. Fair enough, I suppose, but not if he were a member of my family. He said it was a very refreshing dessert and liked it very much. But rules are rules: no taste, no score!

Dessert 3: Basil pannacotta with warm English strawberries, aged balsamic

Dessert 3: Basil pannacotta with warm English strawberries, aged balsamic

I ended the meal with a very pleasant and tasty basil pannacotta. Also a refreshing dessert, with the sweetness of the fresh fruit (and it actually was sweet, even the strawberries for once!) offsetting the creamy and subtly herbaceous cream. The perfect light finale to a very satisfying meal. (Note: the pannacotta was much greener than it looks in this picture do the flash going off).  7/10.

What can I say, Messrs. Ramsay & Buchan and Mme. Hartnett?

Indeed, what can I say? Another good performance from a slick RE operation. Good food, nice surroundings and very pleasant and professional service all around. Plus a free view of the goings on in the kitchen and plenty a helping of dark red allure.

My brother in-law was very impressed with everything, and summed it up best by saying (and I loosely quote and translate from memory): “I could not fault the service, which was much better than we typically get in France. And the food was so close to fine dining, and so well executed, that for the prices they were charging it was extremely good value for the money.”

I agree, and would recommend the York & Albany if you want a good semi-casual place to hang out with friends or your partner for a few cocktails, wines by the glass and/or some good, simple, well prepared flavorful food.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 7/10

Wine List: 7/10 (not a lot of depth, but good selections and a rather low average price/bottle)

Wine Selected: 7/10 (it did a little better than what it said on the tin)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at York & Albany once.*

York & Albany on Urbanspoon

maze at the London NYC – Another Good Show

maze at the London NYC
151 West 54th Street
(between 5th & 7th Aves.)
New York, NY 10019
Website
Map
Online Reservations

À la carte small plates from $13-20, market specials (i.e. mains) from $20-32, desserts from $9-11; or five-course chef’s tasting menu at $70/person

M@TLNYC is a good option for an informal meal in midtown Manhattan; the food is good and it has a nice ambience and buzz about it. With so many interesting dining options in Manhattan, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat at maze, but if I lived in the city I would definitely go there, and if I worked or lived in the neighborhood, I might visit quite often.

M@TLNYC is a good option for an informal meal in midtown Manhattan; the food is good and it has a nice ambience and buzz about it. With so many interesting dining options in Manhattan, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat at maze, but if I lived in the city I would definitely go there, and if I worked or lived in the neighborhood, I might visit quite often.

Ramsay over Broadway

On my recent trip to New York (see also Le Bernardin, Ess-a-Bagel and photos), my brother and his girlfriend invited us to the Broadway musical that she was managing. It was a very nice gesture, and we in turn wanted to treat them to a nice pre-theater dinner. After looking through the different restaurants that were within a few blocks of the venue, I eventually decided to book a table at maze at The London NYC. As many of you will know, maze is part of the Ramsay Empire (RE), being the American sister of the restaurant that goes by the same name in London. I have not yet been to the English version, but have always liked the look of the chef’s (Jason Atherton) cooking, which features small plates with bold colors and, at times, small nods to fusion flavors.

maze at the London NYC (heretofore referred to as the only slightly less complicated name of M@TLNYC) has the same small plate approach although, based on the menu when we dined there, it seems to focus on slightly more traditional flavor combination and ingredients. It is housed in what used to be the iconic New York all-suites hotel, the Rhiga Royal, home to rock stars of yesteryear. That hotel has been completely overhauled by the Blackstone Group and renamed as The London NYC. They have also recently done the same thing in Los Angeles with The London West Hollywood. And in true RE/Blackstone fashion – Blackstone helped to bankroll Ramsay’s international expansion – the two groups have collaborated in both ventures, just as they have with the RE’s other US venue in Boca Raton, Florida, where Blackstone owns the Boca Beach Club that Angela Hartnett’s Cielo sits on top of – by the way, it is a very good restaurant with a nice view.

Phew, now that we’ve navigated that labyrinth, onto the maze at hand.

Unfortunately, my brother’s girlfriend had to leave town earlier in the day, so it was just going to be the three of us for dinner, two from London and one from NYC – perfect.

Small plates, healthy prices

The London NYC from across the street

The London NYC from across the street

Mrs. LF and I arrived at 5.30pm, quite early but we didn’t want to rush the meal to get to the play. There is not much of a lobby to the hotel, and the two restaurants are located through a door on the right side when you walk in. When you pass through that door, you are in maze, which functions as the hotel’s bar and casual dining restaurant. To your back left is Ramsay’s eponymous fine dining restaurant, which is not really visible unless you actually walk over and look through the single door – it does 45 covers.

My brother was already there and had downed a drink at the bar. For being so early in the evening, the place was actually fairly busy. It was a very mixed crowd, with some in jeans and t-shirts and some in suits. The place is decorated very nicely and is quite dark. It has a nice vibe to it, with cool blacks, flourishes of metallic (mostly silver but some gold) on the walls and fittings, and dark gray-green accents provided by the upholstery on the chairs and banquettes. There are nice little details too; for instance, we noticed that the indentations in the banquette’s leather were filled with metal ‘buttons’ and not just circular pieces of metal, and you can tell a lot of care has gone into the design of the room. The tables are also quite cool, with an interesting layer of fabric underneath a transparent cover, lending it a textured appearance. It does all feel very RE, but it has been executed well in this case, except for a few of the wall fixtures which we thought were a bit silly.

maze @ The London NYC 3

The bar area

maze @ The London NYC - Dining Area

Some tables from the dining area

Our table

Our table

There was a tasting menu available, but given the time scale we thought it would be safer to order à la carte. There were a number of dishes that sounded great, however I was slightly surprised by the relatively high prices of the ‘small’ plates and was hoping they would be worth the money. I also had to keep reminding myself it was dollars, not pounds, although the prices still seemed a little punchy for being the informal dining space for hotel guests.

Would anything steal the show?

The head waiter knew that we had a show to get to, and acknowledged this when he first introduced himself (he did also tell us that we could fit in the tasting menu if we wanted, which was good to know). That said, it did take a little while for them to come back and take our order.

Once these formalities were out of the way, the sommelier came over to offer some help with the wine. After recommending two or three which the missus didn’t like the sound of (subtle glances confirmed this), he finally arrived at a bonafide US specimen which I had never tasted, so we went for that (Mrs. LF’s eyebrows had perked up at the description, you see). Oddly enough, I am least familiar with US wine, so I thought it would be good to experiment. The bottle in question was a Stony Hill Chardonnay, and while I liked the taste of it when I was given the first sip, the other two at the table were less enthusiastic. After taking a few more sips, I saw what they were saying and moved closer their opinion, although I did think it was a pleasant wine – it was just a very neutral and ordinary chardonnay with no bite and little finish to speak of. At $78/bottle, that had been a pretty costly decision – oh well, it’s always good to try new things, right?

The food began to arrive, which deflected attention away from my poor choice of wine :).

Sautéed sea scallops with chorizo, orange and white onion compote

Small Plate: Sautéed sea scallops with chorizo, orange and white onion compote

My scallops were excellent and started the meal off with a bang. Dusted with paprika salt, they were plump, meaty, sweet and seared perfectly. The compote hidden beneath was perfectly matched to the scallops, adding sweetness (onion), saltiness and bite (bacon) and a tad of acidity (orange). The scallop crackers served on top of the scallops gave the dish a great alternating texture, between soft flesh and crunchy scallop. It may have been a bit too sweet for some, but I’ve got a sweet tooth, so 8/10 from me.

Salad of confit fennel and beetroot, fresh ricotta and candied walnuts

Small Plate: Salad of confit fennel and beetroot, fresh ricotta and candied walnuts

Mrs. LF had ordered the salad, which sounded pleasant and certainly looked very beautiful. She said it was good, but nothing more than that. Each vegetable was fresh and tasted nice in its own right, however it wasn’t a particularly unified dish. 5/10.

Tortellini of beef short rib, escarole, trompette royale and dashi

Small Plate: Tortellini of beef short rib, escarole, trompette royale and dashi

My brother had ordered the short rib tortellini, after a bit of debate around the table. It certainly looked the part. After it was laid down on the table, one of the servers poured the dashi (a Japanese soup/stock) around it. When I think short ribs, I think slow-cooked, rich meat. The meat on the inside of the pasta was a bit too dry and lacked depth of flavor; it tasted alright, but didn’t live up to any of our expectations. The accompanying broth was very nice on its own, but it was also quite sweet and, in our opinions, overshadowed the beef flavor. 6/10.

Roast breast of duck with caramelized plums, sweet corn and red chili sauce

Main: Roast breast of duck with caramelized plums, sweet corn and red chili sauce

The duck was a successful dish, which is a good thing because both my brother and I had ordered it as our main course. The Long Island duck breast was nicely pink in the middle and the texture was spot on, and not at all rubbery (which you often find). The accompanying bits were very Thanksgiving-ish, but I have always liked cranberries with turkey, and the fairly sweet caramelized plums and corn provided me with the same kind of satisfaction. The soy vinaigrette went nicely with the flavor of the duck too. I don’t recall much of a chilli heat from the dish, though. Another 8/10.

Roasted Berkshire pork chop and braised belly with pear and saffron chutney

Main: Roasted Berkshire pork chop and braised belly with pear and saffron chutney

Mrs. LF had ordered the pork for her ‘market special’ (i.e. a main course portion). The chop itself was perfectly cooked, moist and flavorsome. The best part was the tiny piece of braised belly tucked beneath the carrots, and the apple cider gravy was perfect. We can’t remember can’t remember the pear and saffron chutney though! 7/10.

Valrhona chocolate fondant, green cardamom caramel sea salt and almond ice cream

Dessert: Valrhona chocolate fondant, green cardamom caramel sea salt and almond ice cream

The fondant was superb. The slight notes of salty caramel and cardamom felt right at home with the rich gooey chocolate, and the almond ice cream was able to cut through some of the richness. It wasn’t overly sweet and all of the ingredients worked to support each other. 8/10.

Lemon quark cheesecake with strawberry gelée and pistachio ice cream

Dessert: Lemon quark cheesecake with strawberry gelée and pistachio ice cream

This was my kind of lemon cheese cake. It had a soft texture and I recall little bits of crunchiness hidden within the lemon velvetiness. There was not that much strawberry, being  located in the bottom middle of the little tower, but fit in nicely. The pistachio ice cream was well done (not overly and artificially green), and again provided a nice counterbalance to the main part of the dessert. Simple, well conceived and well executed. 8/10.

Petit Fours: Chocolate & Salty Caramel Truffles and Peanut Brittle

Petit Fours: Chocolate & Salty Caramel Truffles and Peanut Brittle

The petit fours were good too, we liked both (my brother and I especially adored the brittle, as it brought back childhood memories, whereas Mrs. LF loved the caramel truffle), and it was a good close to a very pleasant meal.

Cool loos, big kitchen

The scallops, duck breast, pork and desserts had certainly given a good performance, but there were two supporting acts which deserve special mention too.

Bathroom Alley (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

Bathroom alley (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

A trip to the bathrooms revealed a narrow corridor with lots of doors and funky lighting. All of the bathrooms are for one person only and have their own door. They were very nice and very clean, which is always a good sign.

Secondly, we had organized to have a brief tour of the kitchen. In the interests of full disclosure, after my review of Claridge’s, Gordon Ramsay Holdings tweeted me to thank me for the review, and when I told them I would be at maze in NYC in a few weeks, they offered to set up a kitchen tour: nothing more, nothing less.

So the head waiter took us into the trenches after our meal. What is crazy is that the kitchen at The London NYC is responsible for maze, the 2 Michelin Star restaurant and all of the room service and corporate event catering for the hotel. The space is enormous: one long rectangular room with high ceilings that is loosely broken up into three areas (one for fine dining, one for maze, and one for catering). It is really an impressive kitchen, and I have to say that it was gleaming and completely spotless. It was interesting to note that most of what we overheard from the fine dining section was in French. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to take a photo, so you will just have to imagine it!

Chef’s Table (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

Chef’s table (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

We also got to see the chef’s table, which is located on one of the short ends of the rectangular space. It is a u-shaped banquette seating arrangement that looks out over the vast kitchen. We were told that you can hire it for lunch or for dinner and that there is only one price no matter how many people are at your table (it seats up to 8). Josh Emmet, the Chef de Cuisine at both M@TLNYC and GR@TLNYC, will prepare a special menu for your table. For lunch, this privilege will cost you $1,000 for five courses, and dinner is $1,900 for eight courses, with both including canapés and a glass of champagne for each diner. So if you have 8 people, it’s not completely unreasonable as I imagine it would be a pretty unique and fun experience.

Opening night review

I have to hand it to the RE, they certainly can be relied upon to provide a good meal in pleasant surroundings. This is true for other outposts such as Plane Food at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which is possibly the best thing about flying from T5 – I had an amazing sole dish there a few flights ago. And M@TLNYC was another good show.

While there were a few ordinary dishes that made us begin to worry (salad and tortellini), on the whole the food was simple, satisfying and well executed. My brother did have an insightful comment, in that nearly all the small plates and main courses we had contained a component that was very sweet, which in some cases seemed to dominate the dish. While this didn’t bother me and my rather sweet palate, he didn’t find it as appetizing (especially the dashi/short rib combo), but did note that the desserts were not at all too sweet. So, a word of caution for those that are not fans of sweeter non-dessert courses.

The ambience and surroundings were pleasant and the table was comfortable. The service was fine, although there were a few long waits during the course of the evening. But we made it to the next show on time without any problems.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine List: 7/10 (good variety, but the average price was too high in my view)

Wine Selected: 2/10 (sorry Stony Hill)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at M@TLNYC once.*

Maze (at the London) on Urbanspoon

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s – Mrs. Bucket (Bouquet) Couldn’t Fault It

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s
Brook Street
London W1K 4HR
Website
Map
Online Reservations

6-course tasting menu at £80/person, 3-course à la carte menu at £70/person

One feels pleasantly disconnected from the rest of the world in the luxurious surroundings of the grand dining room and the care of the restaurant’s professional  staff – oh, and the food isn’t half bad, either

One feels pleasantly disconnected from the rest of the world in the luxurious surroundings of the grand dining room and the care of the restaurant’s professional staff – oh, and the food isn’t half bad, either

A very special gift

Well, it’s not every day one prepares oneself for an indulgent Sunday evening affair at Claridge’s.  Unless you are obscenely loaded, I suppose. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been there if it had been for an extraordinarily kind gift I had received through work (opting instead for GR @ Chelsea Road), which entitled me to a meal at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s with a credit of £500. Yes, you read correctly, five hundred quid!  I actually received this gift at the beginning of the year and had re-scheduled the dinner 3 times due to various conflicts, but last Sunday was the night.

Now, if you know me (but how can you, this is an anonymous blog!), you will know that I will have downloaded and printed out the wine list to see what 750ml of bliss we could afford when subtracting £160 (the maximum spend/person on food) from £500. Well, after looking now and again at the list over the past months, I had my ideas…more on that later, though.

In a very unfortunate turn of events (for me at least), I began to feel slightly ill on the tube journey into town. Yes, I do know that one should not take public transport when one is expected at Claridge’s, but I wasn’t exactly planning to be sober enough to drive back home afterwards!

The facade of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's

The facade of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's

We arrived on time and gazed for a few second at the exterior of the hotel and restaurant. I tried my best to put on a brave face once we sat down, but I remained woozy and nauseous (couldn’t really look at cream) through the end of the main course, and was a real shame as it meant I couldn’t properly enjoy what seemed like some pretty good food.

The upshot of all of this is that my dearest, Mrs. LF, has kindly agreed to write the bulk of this review.  So I will turn it over to her for now…

Sumptuous surroundings and a familiar face

In order to arrive at the Gordon Ramsay section of Claridge’s, you must first walk through the extremely decadent foyer and then through the hotel’s luxurious ‘fumoir’, and I have to say that an ostentatious yet incredibly elegant atmosphere was slowly sweeping me away. At this point, I couldn’t help feeling relieved for the extra vestimentary efforts my husband and I made this evening. I was going to just turn up in jeans: good lord, what was I thinking of?!

As we were seated at our table which, I must say, was quite near the entrance of the dining room, we decided not to lament our luck too much as we soon realized that it provided us with an excellent view of the overall restaurant, and this way we would be all eyes and ears :).

After a few minutes of looking around, adjusting ourselves to the ambience and looking at the menu, we suddenly noticed a very familiar face amongst the staff. We kept on staring at him, wondering if it was really him! Jean-Francois, previously Maître d’hôtel at one of our old favourite restaurants, La Noisette, suddenly clicked on and made his way to greet us. Jean-Francois is one of the best Maître d’s I know; he owns the stage of the restaurants he orchestrates and delivers in style and savoir-faire.

After this joyful and unexpected reunion, the sommelier brought me a glass of 1999 Vintage Bollinger, soon followed by Italian bread-sticks with a couple of dips: sour cream with summer truffle and taramosalata. It was delicious and highly addictive, especially the truffle sour cream!

The à la carte menu was divided into two parts, the starter on the left side, and the main course on the right side. The desserts, we were told, would only be revealed at the end of the first two courses: fair enough! The ‘Menu Prestige’ (their name for the tasting menu) was presented on a separate menu card and, after a few minutes of scrolling the different dishes up and down, we opted for the latter option. In this Menu Prestige, one had the choice between 2 main courses (a nice touch), so the natural choice was for us to ensure we ordered differently.

After we had ordered, our Italian sommelier made his second appearance and asked if we had any preferences for the wine this evening. Mr. LF explained that with our unusually high budget, we were after a ‘very special’ wine and that we would welcome any recommendation he may have for a bottle that would cover the whole meal. The sommelier opted for a 2005 Condrieu, Domaine Mathilde et Yve Gangloff (£160/bottle), which is a Viognier from Côte du Rhône in France. Yve Gangloff is one of the rising stars of the region, having been named by Wine Spectator as one of the 28 most promising producers in the world a while ago.

At this stage, I would like to mention the wine, which was so extraordinary that I will never forget it. It had a deep and seductive golden color, the nose was complex with hints of apricot, pear and almond biscuit. Each sip enwrapped my palate with the most amazing gustatory sensations such as apple and pear, almond, vanilla, and honey. We thank our sommelier for his choice and with true Italian passion, he said that he was “so” happy that we were happy!

Now, onto the ‘star’

So the wine had me very much in the mood for the food.  Even though Mr. LF wasn’t feeling well, he was also in awe of the wine (which he seemed to have no problem drinking :)). The first of the ‘prestigious’ courses was arriving…

  1. Tomato, Basil and Mozzarella Salad, Virgin Mary Sorbet. The first course of a tasting menu has the duty of standing out and being a reflection of what you are about to experience. This small starter failed to do so and really wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was exactly as written on the menu: tomato, basil and mozzarella salad with a sorbet on top that tasted like bloody mary! It was okay, with nice ingredients and everything, but hey, come on, this is Claridge’s, this is a Michelin starred restaurant! The expectation for the evening is therefore very high, I wanted to be ‘wowed’ from start to finish and, quite frankly, this starter was a bit of a waste of time. I felt that I was being robbed from one course as this one didn’t really count. 4/10.
  2. Marinated Quail Breast and Crispy Leg, Confit Foie Gras, Green Bean Salad. Mmmm…delightful! You know what? Forget about what I just said earlier. This dish really redeemed the whole first course episode. We were back on track! This was a splendid, divine delight to my palate…the marinated quail breast was beautifully carved and tender, the leg that had been deep fried in a tempura-style batter was crispy indeed, and as I enjoyed picking it up with my fingers, a light sour cream sauce that was hidden underneath revealed itself and added extra flavour to the quail. The simplicity of the green bean salad was a good accompaniment, as it kept the dish light and simple. Then finally, pure indulgence was thrown on this dish with a small piece of confit de foie gras, which made me reach to heaven and back, oh yes! 10/10.
  3. Ravioli of Lobster and Salmon, Lemongrass and Coconut Bisque. This generous ravioli filled with meaty, flavoursome pieces of lobster and salmon was yet another well thought-out dish. The lemongrass and coconut bisque transported me somewhere exotic, maybe Thailand, whilst the ravioli naturally conveyed Italy. In any case, the fusion of the two created something special and memorable. If I must flaw this dish in anyway, then I would say that perhaps the lobster and salmon filling was a little too dry, possibly because the ravioli had been so liberally filled (?). 7.5/10.
  4. Main Course A: Suffolk Pork Belly, Fillet and Cheek, Crushed Peas, Pickled Shallots, Sable Potatoes. The chemistry between the pork, peas, pickled shallots and sable potatoes was awesome, contributing to one harmonious and delicious dish. Starting with the pork belly, I was slightly disappointed with the texture as I like my pork belly to be crispy on top and this one wasn’t. The cheek was tender and delightfully moist. The fillet was skilfully seared all around, giving colour and extra flavour to the meat. The crushed peas were ever slightly cooked, so that they kept their authenticity in taste and colour. The sable potatoes were succulent, melting in your mouth like mini-gnocchi’s. Last but not least: the pickled shallots! These tiny little guys more than delighted my palate as they delivered a subtle sour and sweet taste. I could have eaten a dozen of those, but sadly had to settle for the three that were on my plate :(. 8.5/10.
  5. Main Course B: Streamed Menai Straits Bass, Cucumber; Asparagus and Apple Fricassée with Oscietra Caviar Sauce. Unfortunately, Mr. LF still wasn’t feeling very well (despite finishing each previous course?!), but he did say that this was a very well executed fish dish, although not particularly inspiring. However, we will refrain from placing a rating on this dish as he didn’t have enough appetite and his judgement may have been skewed.
  6. Raspberry and Grapefruit Cream, Champagne Mousse. What can I say about this mousse? That it was served in a small glass, that it looked pretty in pink, that it was smooth in consistency with a domineering flavour of raspberry. Nothing to really rave about, but it was there and tasted lovely :). 6/10.
  7. Cold Valrhona Chocolate Fondant, Mint Ice Cream. Somehow, after the pre-dessert had arrived, Mr. LF seemed to be doing better, and had his appetite back. We concluded he must have gotten sun-stroke (I know, in England…?) from playing too much tennis in the afternoon. In any case, the chocolate dessert was very good. The fondant was a little cylinder of firm, deep, cold chocolate joy, and the mint ice cream was unusually good – and as this is one of Mr. LF’s favorite combinations of flavors, he gave it an 8/10.

Toward the end of the meal, Jean-Francois came over to say hello again and had a little surprise up his sleeve. He explained that he had arranged to give us a tour of the kitchen, which included being introduced to the head chef on duty that night, who was very friendly and lovely to talk to. This small personal touch from our favourite Maître d’ left us content and happy, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening in the ‘fumoir’ room for coffee and degustation of our petit fours.

We’ll be back

I’m back now; hope you enjoyed a different voice for the review.

Despite feeling completely ill for the first part of the meal, I could not help but feel cosseted by the amazing service and ambience of the main dining room. The chairs were wide and comfortable, the table was more than ample for a couple, the service was exquisite all-around, and they really did make us feel at home from the first instant. It is one of those places where you feel that nothing much could go wrong during your stay.

From what I could make out and from what the missus said above, the food was also in general up to scratch for a 1 Michelin star kitchen. While certainly not an adventurous menu (but then again, you do expect Claridge’s to remain fairly traditional), the flavor combinations generally worked well, and the food was cooked to a good standard. I personally thought there was some room for improvement in the first course for sure, as it was just too plain and the ingredients weren’t good enough on their own to stand out and wow, and maybe also in the ravioli and fish dishes – although due to the state of my tummy at the time, I can’t trust my judgement 100%.

Based on how comfortable and at ease we were made to feel during the evening, and at the general good quality of the food, we will definitely return to Claridge’s in the future – probably for a long weekend lunch – even though we’ll have to pick up the tab next time :(. Maybe we’ll take my mother-in-law, who would just love the classic and polished experience of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s.

As a side note, although we did bring our camera, we felt overly self-conscious and exposed in the dining room, so opted not to take photographs.  I do hope to start adding photographs to future blogs though – let me know what you think.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: 9/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: we have only dined at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s once, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well on the evening.  We also did not pay for the meal, but it was a corporate gift, not an invitation from the restaurant.*

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's on Urbanspoon

Offer on Chateau Bauduc / Ramsay’s Selection

The 10% discount on a £49.95 case of Ramsay Selection Six is good value

The 10% discount on a £49.95 case of Ramsay Selection Six is good value

There is a good deal on until the 22nd of June on Gordon Ramsay’s selection of Chateau Bauduc wines, for those living in the UK.  Bauduc have provided the house white wine at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay for ten consecutive vintages.

The Ramsay Selection Six is good value at £49.95, plus a 10% discount through the offer.  It includes: 2 Bordeaux Blanc (the house wine at RGR), 2 Les Trois Hectares Blanc 2006 (a Decanter World Wine Awards winner) and 2 Clos des Quinze 2006 (a medium-bodied red blend).  It comes to a total of £51.70 when including the delivery charge and discount.

You can have a look here for the other wines and offers available in this range.

Boxwood Cafe – A Good Deal but Nothing to Write Home About

Boxwood Cafe
The Berkeley Hotel
Wilton Place
Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7RL
Website
Map

Prix-fixe seasonal menu @ £28 for 3 courses + a 375ml carafe of new or old world wine

Boxwood Cafe

Well, this weekend started off nicely.  We went to dinner at Boxwood Cafe and had the prix-fixe meal, which was very good value at £28/person for 3 courses plus a 375ml carafe of wine (with a choice between 3 reds & 3 whites).

Although we got off to a bit of a shaky start, as we were seated next to a loud group of Japanese business men and stuck next to a one of the speakers (the music was fairly loud), we ended up having a really nice time.  I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the portions, which were definitely not stingy for a fixed-price deal.

I had a ham hock terrine to start with, which was very tasty.  The ham flavor, which was not overpowering or too salty (which I often find to be the case), was interlaced with green peas and a few other seasonal greens that offset the ham nicely.  There were two large toasted slices of bread for the terrine, which had been dowsed in a bit of olive oil and sprinkled with salt, and the dish worked very well.  My wife had the hummus with marinated tomatoes and parsley salad, which was fresh and tasty, although it was something that you could make at home just as well without too much effort.

My main course of hanger steak served with a red wine reduction, chermula sauce (great shallot taste and a lovely amount of heat) and sauteed potatoes was excellent.  It was cooked as I had asked for it – medium rare – and the flavor of the meat had just the right amount of ‘beefy-ness’ for me.  The potatoes were surprisingly tasty and had been sauteed to perfection.

My wife’s main course of trout with a refreshing green salad on top was less successful, however.  She had to send back the trout the first time around as it was a bit too raw in the middle, and they brought her a new one in about 5 minutes, which was cooked much better.  The trout was fairly bland, though, and while the accompanying salad was good – nice citrus and pickled flavors – the two didn’t combine particularly well and we both felt it was a pretty average dish.

My desert of lime tart with dark chocolate sorbet was very good indeed.  The tart was very limey, but not all that sharp (I actually like lime tarts to have a little more sharpness).  The pastry shell was cooked well (not undercooked as you often find), but it was the chocolate sorbet which stole the show – it was excellent, a really yummy, deep, dark chocolate ball of delight!  Unfortunately, my wife’s desert – fresh seasonal fruit in a yogurt crumble – was much less interesting.  It was quite tasty, but is really the kind of thing you could make for breakfast at home, so it was a little bit of a let-down for a fairly expensive restaurant in London.

We had a Chilean chardonnay and a Spanish Tempranillo/Cabernet blend to accompany the meal.  Neither were particuarly interesting, but both were pleasant enough: the chardonnay’s high alcohol was not balanced very well by any of other components in the wine, and the Spanish wine was certainly quaffable but not memorable.  That said, they did have Porcupine Ridge Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc as part of the prix-fixe menu – both of which are excellent – but we decided not to have them, as we have had both  quite recently (and actually visited Boekenhoutskloof, the winery that makes them, in South Africa earlier in the year).

The service throughout the meal was very pleasant, although we were served by a number of different waiters and waitresses (partly by virtue of us moving tables, which they accommodated straight away without a fuss).

The low-down

Overall, I think that the deal we had was good value, especially since you essentially get a whole bottle of decent wine between the two of you included in the price.  The food was good, but not outstanding, and I therefore wouldn’t recommend eating a la carte for dinner at Boxwood as there are a number of other restaurants in London at which you can find really fine cuisine for circa £100/couple (about what I estimate Boxwood would cost you without the prix-fixe menu).

Boxwood Cafe on Urbanspoon

It’s going to be a Ramsay weekend

I am looking forward to this weekend as I will have the unusual opportunity to sample some of the Ramsay empire’s offerings for a relatively small outlay.

Boxwood Offer

A special weekly-changing seasonal prix-fixe menu from Stuart Gillies at Boxwood Cafe.

I got emailed a special offer from Boxwood Cafe a while back.  Chef Stuart Gillies is presenting a weekly changing seasonal set menu for £23 for 2 courses and £28 for 3 courses, including a carafe of wine (a selection of old and new world) per guest.  And I took the bait.

I went to Boxwood a few years ago with my family and some friends for a special occasion and, I have to say, I was not overly impressed.  The food was okay (nothing stood out) and the atmosphere of the place was a bit strange (maybe by virtue of it being underground and with no natural light?).  The only real excitement came from the fact that Prince Harry and his entourage were seated in the private area around the corner from our table.  Hopefully, the restaurant can change my mind on Friday!

Anyway, on Sunday we are having dinner at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s.  I received a £500 voucher (yes, you read that correct, five hundred pounds!) to spend at the restaurant, so we are definitely in for a treat as this means we have quite a bit to spend on wine.  It might be my first chance to try a d’Yquem, as normally it is too expensive (both to buy retail and especially in a restaurant).  I have never been to Claridge’s and am hoping it lives up to some of my friends’ rave reviews.

I will update you on how we get on with Gordon & Co. sometime next week!