Launceston Place – A Great Meal Ambushed by Too Many Buts

Launceston Place
1a Launceston Place
London W8 5RL
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Dinner: £45 for 3 courses or £55 for tasting menu, Lunch: £19 for 3 courses

Tristan Welch’s restaurant serves up clever, innovative & subtle food that draws upon well-sourced British ingredients. On our visit, all the dishes except one were very good or better. But while the back of house seems to be in good order, the front of house act could use some serious polishing. If they can solve that, the equation should equal a star from the Michelin man in the near future.

Hoping for a Great British Menu

Launceston Place was on my hit-list for a good part of 2009 after I saw its Head Chef, Tristan Welch, appear on Great British Menu, the BBC television program that invites two great chefs from each region of Britain to prepare dishes that represent both their local area and ‘Britishness’ in general, with the winning dishes featuring at some gala event to be held at the end of the series, and cooked by the chefs who invented them. I liked what he was doing on the small screen (he won his heat too), and his gastronomic creations looked very enticing. So, one October evening, Mrs. LF and I set off to see if the Welchman would deliver.

Mr. Launceston’s Curvy Facade

Launceston Place looks slightly odd from outside. It is housed within a semicircular façade and is kitted out in a black tie paint scheme. It almost gives off the feeling of a very posh pub that caters to the wealthy people living in the nearby environs. In any case, we located the correct doorway (there are a few doors that lead nowhere) and were pleasantly surprised upon entering.

There is a very pretty little bar area as you enter the restaurant, where you can have an apéritif or wait for other members of your party to arrive. We decided to go straight to our table, however, which was off to the left side of the restaurant. They layout of the place is quite unique, with tables on either side of the central bar station, and also behind this area (which also seems to serve as a dishwashing and plating-up station), and adds a bit of interest. The decor is also fairly iconoclastic and I liked it – black walls throughout with brooding artwork, but with little splashes of color here and there. To me, it almost seemed like going into someone’s very nice home, where the dining room led into yet another little dining room. It’s worth mentioning that they also have a very nice private room on the lower level, where instead of actually being in the kitchen (i.e. a Chef’s Table), you are in a mock library that has a video display of the kitchen and two-way microphones (they call it the Chef’s Office), so you can chat with the chef(s) as they work (I am sure they must love that…!).

The building has served as a restaurant of some kind for a long time, and I think Tristan and the folks at D&D London (a spin-off from Terrence Conran’s restaurant group in which he still owns 51%, and which took over Image Restaurants, of which Launceston Place was a part, in June 2007) have done a fantastic job in updating the premises. For instance, our table for two made clever use of the space by having one seat on the end of the benching attached to the wall, and the other chair placed 90 degrees away (instead of facing each other) – enabling them to squeeze another table for 2 across the pathway.

But enough about design, architecture and acquisitions. Save for the last topic, that is not really my expertise.

Starry, starry night?

I thought the menu read brilliantly, and had a very hard time deciding what to order as there were so many things I wanted to try. While we were pondering the possibilities, some very nice devilled parsnip crisps were brought to the table, wrapped neatly with a little bit of Launceston Place branded black ribbon. In the end, we went for the 3-course menu, as previous experience with tasting menus on the first visit made us a bit wary (i.e. see here or here). But before our starters manifested: “the bouches were coming, the bouches were coming” (a reference for non-Americans can be found here).

Left: Amuse Bouche of Hot & Cold Leek Soup / Right: Bread & Butter

And I am glad they did, because the leek soup was really fresh and awakened our palates. The contrasting temperatures worked well, and it had a nice light, creamy and froth-like quality about it (7/10). The sourdough bread was also very nice – and if memory serves me right (?), it is made in-house (7/10).

Starter 1: West Coast Scallops Roasted with Aromatic Herbs from the Coast Line

My starter of scallops was beautifully presented on a wooden slab with the molluscs served in their shells. It was a very accomplished dish in the sense that the scallops were cooked perfectly and were also large, juicy and very flavorful. The subtle seasoning of ‘aromatic herbs’ harmonized well and let the scallops do the talking. It wasn’t a ‘wow’ dish but I don’t think that was the intention. 7/10.

Starter 2: Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto

We both agreed that Mrs. LF’s starter was one of the better things we had eaten in a while. It was also cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque). 10/10.

Main Course 1: Wild Hare, Nutmeg Cream Potatoes & Spiced Pears

Nearly as good was my main course of wild hare. It was served two ways, but the presentation wasn’t quite as neat as the starters had been. I didn’t really care, though, as it tasted delicious. What I presume was the breast of the poor little wabbit was cooked well, being very tender and soft, and having a lovely mild taste. The little quartet of ribs was executed perfectly, left quite red and rare, and had a slightly stronger taste (more salty than sweet), thereby bringing some balance to the dish. The nutmeg mash and pears were slightly sweet, and I thought the flavors all played well off of each other. Much like the scallops, I found this to be a nice and mellow dish that, while it didn’t really have that ‘wow’ factor, was really satisfying: it did the ingredients justice and showed the inventive hand of the chef. 8/10.

Main Course 2: Tamworth Suckling Pig, Radishes & Honey Emulsion

The one complete anomaly in our otherwise lovely meal was the suckling pig. Although this dish has drawn rave reviews from other bloggers since we dined at Launceston Place (see here for example), Mrs. LF could barely eat any of hers. She told me that it tasted extremely ‘piggy’ and just wasn’t nice – she posited that this particular bit of meat might have been off. I was shocked, and thought she must be crazy, but when I tasted it I agreed that it underneath the main taste of the meat lurked a very distinct and unpleasant flavor that I could also only describe as ‘way too piggy’. After googling it, I discovered that Tamworth pigs are meant to have a ‘distinct’ flavor, but somehow I don’t think this is what it was meant to taste like. In hindsight, we should have sent the dish back, but she wasn’t that hungry anyway so we just left a lot of it on the plate. Strangely enough, the servers didn’t ask why we had left so much of it when they came to clear the table for dessert (but more on the service later…). I am hesitant to rate the dish, because it will bring down the score of what was otherwise a very nice meal, but it was what it was – inedible. 1/10.

Left: Pre-Dessert of Raspberry Coulis & Lemon Sorbet with Black Pepper Tuile / Right: Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria

Luckily, the lovely taste of the palate cleanser went some way to clearing our taste-buds’ memory of the terrifying Tamworth. The sharpness of the lemon sorbet and was magic with the coulis and the flavors were every bit as beautiful as the presentation. You could actually taste the black pepper in the thinner-than-a-fingernail translucent tuile, and this added nicely to the interest in the mouth.

On some sound advice from Gastro1, I splashed out on the second-most expensive dessert wine I’ve ever had at £17 for the glass (for more the most expensive one, Chateau d’Yquem, see here). It was the Italian Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria, and it apparently retails for about £30 for a half-bottle. As I told Gastro1 after the meal, “It had huge peach on the nose and on the mid-palate, with dry nectarine on the finish, with very good acidity. It was a syrupy and quite oily (it coated the glass nicely when swirled), intense nectar. I thought it was almost like drinking an alcoholic peach nectar…amazing it comes from grapes!” Wonderful stuff, but not for the faint-hearted.

Dessert 1: Set Custard Cream, Caramel & Praline, Malt Ice Cream

My dessert was marvellous. Again, it just all worked together. Presented on the now ubiquitous black slab, I liked the way it looked too. Come to think of it, in terms of presentation, I think that Chef Welsh and Brett Graham of The Ledbury share certain elements in their presentation styles. The set cream itself was mild and very moreish, the caramel and pralines worked a treat together, and my favorite element was actually the malt ice cream (I’m a sucker for anything ‘malted’). I liked the mixture of textures and temperatures and thought it was an interesting little concoction. 8/10.

Dessert 2: Strawberry Shortbread, Lemon Curd & Basil Sorbet

Mrs. LF’s dessert was also good (thank god), so she was somewhat placated. It was light and the biscuits were powdery, dissolving in the mouth as you ate them. I tasted it (I know, I’m greedy! :)) and also liked it – I do love lemon curd…. She correctly noted, however, that the basil sorbet wasn’t nearly as good or as the one served at Eastside Inn (see here, Course 6), which was a good deal better. 6/10.

Leading from the back

While the back of house seemed to have things in pretty good order, and the dining space looked the part, we weren’t very taken with the front of house. The service just wasn’t good. A few examples should give you the picture. We couldn’t find a place to park in the immediate area, so I popped out of the car and asked the woman at reception if she knew somewhere that we could park as non-residents. First, she looked at me as if I didn’t belong there, and secondly she didn’t have a clue and didn’t even try to help one iota – she just wasn’t interested.  Fine, maybe just it was just me. No. After we were seated, it took ages for anyone to look at us let alone give us a menu or some nibbles. After literally about 20 minutes, we did get the menus, and thereafter the service simply consisted of taking our orders and delivering the food (without any explanation or niceties). In a restaurant that I am sure is gunning for Michelin stars, we both found this very strange and off-putting.

It was only towards the very end of the meal, when we were halfway through our desserts, that the situation changed…thanks to a very affable young man who wasn’t our waiter but somehow took it upon himself to engage with us about the dessert wine, and then other things.

Food-wise, from our experience, the menu at Launceston Place was playful, clever and enticing, while drawing upon well-sourced and fairly traditional British ingredients. With the unfortunate exception of the Tamworth Suckling Pig (which did get the lowest score of anything I’ve ever rated on this site), the food was deftly executed, innovative and subtle. Had it not been for the little piggy that should have gone home and a lack of finesse in the service, I would have classed this as a good 1-star Michelin meal.

In fact, I would certainly go back for more. And I did, when I embarked upon a tour of some of London’s top restaurants with some other bloggers a few weeks later. You can read about that gastropade and some of Launceston Place’s other excellent desserts here.

Of course, the place has become even more popular since we dined there, with their then Junior Sous Chef Steve Groves winning the last season of the BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals. So book well in advance as it may not be so easy to get a table anymore.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: a nice selection of wines, although the mark-ups are pretty high from what I could gather on my perusal.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined twice at Launceston Place, once for dinner (for this review, where I paid) and once as part of an event organized by their PR agency (where I did not pay).*

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

The Square – Generous, Rich, Golden

The Square
6-10 Bruton Street
London W1J 6PU
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Dinner tasting menu at £95/person (£150/person with wine pairing) and 3-course dinner menu at £75/person

 

The Square is a solid 2 Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair serving generous portions of fine and rich French fare. The food, the business-like ambience and the efficient service seem better suited for a proper old school (and probably male) business meal than that of a romantic evening or celebratory occasion, however I doubt you’d be disappointed by the food whatever your reason for going may be.

The Square is a solid 2 Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair serving generous portions of fine and rich French fare. The food, the business-like ambience and the efficient service seem better suited for a proper old school (and probably male) business meal than that of a romantic evening or celebratory occasion, however I doubt you’d be disappointed by the food whatever your reason for going may be.

 

Meeting the older sister

Having had a pleasant (though not perfect) time at The Sqaure’s little sister in Westbourne Grove a few months ago – for full review of that dinner see here –  we were very excited to try out what is one of the most established stalwarts on the London fine dining scene. From what I know about The Square, it is undoubtedly one of the most consistently well regarded high-end restaurants in London, both by mainstream media food critics and food bloggers alike.

Chef Philip Howard has certainly garnered a lot of respect and praise from his fellow chefs and food commentators of all sorts. This would appear to be partly because he is to some extent self-taught (though according to their website he did have a stint in the Dordogne, a year with Roux Restaurants Ltd. and a year at the now (in)famous Harveys where he had the opportunity to work with Marco Pierre White and no doubt learned that “mother nature is the true artist” – that chef’s favorite modern day refrain – in-between having frying pans thrown at him), and partly because he is one of the few head chefs performing at this level to actually be present and cooking in his own kitchen pretty much day in and day out. As a short aside, I recently saw quite an interesting video interview with him on Caterersearch, but generally speaking he eschews the media and tries to keep to himself to the extent possible.

So, an interesting character in the driving seat and certainly a serious contender for a very promising meal.  My taste buds were certainly on high alert.

Though as we arrived, I had a very unfortunate discovery.  I had made the stupid mistake of leaving my camera’s battery charging at home, rendering the camera in my bag completely useless for what I hoped would be a grand dinner. So apologies in advance (especially to the restaurant and the chef) for my quite colorless blackberry photos – they really do not do justice to the way the food looked, which was in general simple, elegant and beautifully presented.

 

Arriving at The Square and realizing I only had my phone camera – oh well, we were there to eat, not take photos!

Arriving at The Square and realizing I only had my phone camera – oh well, we were there to eat, not take photos!

 

Business or pleasure?

Occupying the ground floor of a Mayfair office block, the entrance to The Square is rather nondescript, with a subtle sign somewhat camouflaged in the slightly curved burnt orange wall to the left of the front door.  The line of windows facing the street is frosted to just above eye level, so you have to jump up to see into the restaurant, unless you’re really tall. Once inside, this is an effective shield to the outside world, as when you are seated you can mainly see from the first floor upward of the buildings across the street, and not the street and pedestrian traffic.

We were efficiently welcomed and shown to our table, which was at the back left corner of the… well…square room, right next to where all of the food was being brought out from the kitchen. Not usually the best spot as it can be quite busy, but it turned out to be fine and afforded us a commanding view of the room and also enabled us to overhear the chit-chat of the staff.

Compared to The Ledbury, whose interior Mrs. LF and I both found really appealing, The Square’s ambience was a bit of a letdown. The tables are very well spread out, which provides you with good privacy and it isn’t too noisy. But it is quite a plain room that for me lacks an engaging identity or design theme. It seems much more a business lunch on the company’s expense place than somewhere you’d want to come for a romantic evening or a celebratory gathering.

At first impression, the waiting staff were also all business. There seemed to be a small army of them coming and going from our little corner. They all conveyed a very professional air but, at the same time, they all felt quite distant and reserved in their interactions with us. It wasn’t really a warm, inviting beginning. Not that this is a disaster, but quite the opposite of what we had experienced at The Ledbury.

These factors were compounded by the fact that, as we were perusing the menu and trying to make our choices, our first amuse bouche was brought out. Then, shortly thereafter, a second round of amuses (of which there were three elements) followed. The Square’s menu is quite a large affair, and it was rather awkward to find a place for them amongst all the little nibbles and bread which looked so appetizing. I got a bit flustered by the whole episode, and would have much rather preferred having them take our orders first and then properly beginning the meal. It just meant that we felt rushed and weren’t able to concentrate on the food as much as we would have wanted to. While this is a small thing, and I probably wouldn’t comment on it if the restaurant did not hold two heavy Michelin stars, it wasn’t an impressive start. Since there was no time limitation on the table that I was aware of, I just didn’t get why they were in such a hurry.

Are you gonna finish that?

But enough of my quibbles and onto the food. And boy was there a lot of it.

Even though we had opted for the standard à la carte 3-course menu, we quickly found out that it was to be more of a 7-course evening when taking into account all of the little extras that The Square very generously includes in all of its dinners. It also turned out that the portions at The Square are much larger than you get at any other restaurant of a similar ilk (at least the ones I’ve been to) and that the food was in general extremely rich. In this way, it was truly an old school approach that was full-on right through the end. This was again something neither of us was quite prepared for, and was barely able to stomach in the end. However, with 20/20 hindsight, I would know that when coming to The Square for dinner, or lunch for that matter, to show up with an empty stomach and to be in the mood for some rich and decadent food. With these conditions, I am certain I would enjoy the hell out of a meal at here.

You can find a blow-by-blow account of the meal below.

 

[Sorry - No Photo] Amuse Bouche: Gelee of Girolles & Roast Chicken Consommé with Corn Smoke Foam & Cheese Frazzle

Amuse Bouche: Gelée of Girolles & Roast Chicken Consommé with Corn Smoke Foam and Cheese Frazzle (Sorry - No Photo)

I guess in all of the hoopla surrounding the ordering and eating at the same time, I forgot to snap a photo of this dish. From memory, it came in a little glass cup which clearly displayed the distinct layers of colors and textures, with the cheese frazzle stuck into the glass vertically like a flagpole sans flag. It was very rich and the deep mushroom flavor came through clearly, curbed nicely by the layer of sweetcorn foam (which took up nearly half the glass), with notes of roasted fowl hovering in the background. It was pretty heavenly dipping the cheese stick all the way into the concoction and eating it all together. 8/10.

 

I almost forgot to mention the bread, which was good. It is all baked on-site and the best of the bunch was the white mini-baguette (crispy at the tips, crunchy crust and soft inside), followed closely by the walnut and raisin roll (lots of deep, almost sour nutty flavor balanced by the sweetness of sultanas). The brown rolls were okay. 7/10.

 

 

Further Amusement for our Bouches

Further Amusement for our Bouches

 

First up in the second course of amuses was a cornet of foie gras mousse, which was stuck into the center of a little brown wooden square. It was really rich and scrumptious and had a lovely smooth and silky texture. The anchovy ice cream cone offered some saltiness, and the combination definitely provided my palate with some serious amusement. (8/10). The black ink puff pastry, which had a salty core, was interesting and left a sharp, intriguing and pleasant taste in my mouth. Points for inventiveness, but I’m not sure it was a completely finished pastry conceptually. (6/10). The prawn crackers were nothing that special in and of themselves, but were crispy and flaky. They were enlivened a bit by the mild curry dipping sauce, which again had a great creamy consistency and a little hint of spice. (7/10).

 

[Sorry - No Photo] Starter 1: Potted Grouse with Terrine of Foie Gras, Pink Gooseberry Chutney and Sour Dough Toast

Starter 1: Potted Grouse with Terrine of Foie Gras, Pink Gooseberry Chutney and Sour Dough Toast" (Sorry - No Photo)

Given that we were in the full swing of grouse season at the time of our meal, I really wanted to try some as we hadn’t yet had any this year. I didn’t have to work too hard in persuading Mrs. LF to order the grouse starter special for the evening, which did sound very appetizing.

 

It is a shame that this dish managed to pretty much kill both of our appetites for the rest of the evening. The potted grouse came in a large old fashioned self-sealing glass jar with a metal hinge (the kind you find homemade country jam in), and was full up to the brim of grouse paste. I unfortunately forgot to snap a photo (possibly due to shock), but it was a huge-bordering-on-ginormous portion for a main course, let alone a starter! It had a pretty singular flavor and didn’t really do that much for me personally. Even though it wasn’t my dish, Mrs. LF couldn’t even eat half of it, so I was brought in to dust it off, which I couldn’t do given the richness of my own starter (see below). The foie gras terrine itself was very good and I loved the gooseberry chutney with it. 6/10.

 

Starter 2: Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam

Starter 2: Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam

 

This dish was very beautifully presented, and was not exactly what I had expected when I thought of ‘lasagne’, which I typically associate with square or rectangular alternately stacked layers of pasta and sauce. The dainty little circular tower of crab lasagne was bathing in a luxurious bath of cream that was topped off with champagne bubbles. You could just tell this was going to be a satisfying plate of food. The lasagne itself was excellent, and the sweetness of the crab really shone through. The plentiful sauce was extremely rich and unctuous (lots of butter, lots of cream) and married well with crab, with the ‘lasagne’ layers providing some good chewy texture in order to ground the dish. The layer of shellfish cream on top lent different and slightly more sharp notes from the sea and again proved a worthy and subtle partner. It is a testament to the quality of the execution that I finished this starter, which was again huge and insanely rich, but I did wonder how well I would digest that sauce. 8/10.

 

Main Course 1: Slow Cooked Turbot with a Warm Potato Salad, Leek Hearts, Vichyssoise and Smoked Eel

Main Course 1: Slow Cooked Turbot with a Warm Potato Salad, Leek Hearts, Vichyssoise and Smoked Eel

 

Mrs. LF ordered the turbot for her main course. She said that it was a refined and light dish which she thoroughly enjoyed. The turbot itself had a great texture and the vichyssoise was clever because although it looked like a heavy, cream-based sauce, in reality it was mainly made up of puréed leeks, potatoes, onions and stock (with what seemed to be just a little bit of cream) and therefore had more of a vegetable essence. It worked beautifully with the delicateness of the turbot. The pretty black hive of caviar nestled on top of the fish gave it that little punch of salt needed to elevate the dish to something just more than a well prepared fish and sauce. 8/10.

 

Main Course 2: Roast Calves Sweetbreads with Beurre Noisette, Sweetcorn, Girolles & Almonds

Main Course 2: Roast Calves Sweetbreads with Beurre Noisette, Sweetcorn, Girolles and Almonds

 

I had heard that The Square’s sweetbreads ranked right up there with the best of them, so in my mind I had ordered this main as my ‘rich course’, thinking that the earlier starter of crab lasagne would be a rather ‘small and light’ start to the meal – well, we all know what happens when we assume.

There was a massive amount of sweetbreads on this plate, certainly more than I’ve ever seen before, even for a main course. They had all been huddled together in the middle, and in the back of my mind I thought they sort of formed the shape of a little brain…fancy that. They were served on a base of perfectly made beurre noisette and were surrounded by a plate of crisps, which I thought was novel, and they actually worked very well as instruments to dip into that lovely butter sauce. The sliced almonds on top worked a treat with the sweetbreads, as did the sweet accent of corn and the earthy and woody flavors of the girolles. The various bits of meat themselves were exactly the right texture for me, having been well seared and firm (they held their shape well) yet with just enough softness and bounce. It was a very good dish, but I felt that again there was just an enormous amount of everything. 8/10.

 

Pre-Dessert: Peach & Vanilla Yogurt Topped with a Beignet

Pre-Dessert: Peach & Vanilla Yogurt Topped with a Beignet

 

This little pre-dessert was a welcome respite to the carnage that had preceded it. The peach was refreshing and was of course a perfect foil for the vanilla yogurt. The beignet was crisp but I didn’t think it sat naturally on top of what was essentially a posh pot of yogurt. Maybe this is just an oddity of mine, or of this pair of restaurants, as I recall a similar thing happened at The Ledbury with churros and a strawberry gariguette and I had a similar reaction. 6/10.

 

Dessert 1: Peach Melba Soufflé

Dessert 1: Peach Melba Soufflé

 

Mrs. LF had the soufflé for her dessert. It was, in our experience, as good a soufflé as we’ve had, and was certainly a notch higher than the pistachio soufflé we had at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons earlier this year.  The textures were spot on, with the exterior of the crown being nicely hardened and the insides being soft, light and fluffy. The peach flavor came through very strongly – so much so that Mrs. LF felt that it may have been a bit too strong, to the extent it almost smacked of artificial flavouring (though it was certainly genuine peach flavor). A scoop of ice cream was plopped into the center, where it sunk to its gooey death, and a bit of raspberry coulis was then poured into the crevasse it had created, which gave some good freshness and bite to the dessert. While we agreed it was the best we’ve had, I think we also came to the realization that sweet soufflés just really aren’t our favorite desserts; for some reason they just never seem to wholly satisfy either of us. 8/10.

 

Dessert 2: Mousseline of Raspberry with Lemon Verbena Jelly, Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream and Nectarines

Dessert 2: Mousseline of Raspberry with Lemon Verbena Jelly, Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream and Nectarines

 

I loved, loved, loved this dessert. There’s not all that much more to say about it. The three little parcels of raspberry mousse had been neatly wrapped with a ‘skin’ of raspberry which was slightly more sharp than the sweet creaminess of the mousse (although it did also have a nice pang of tartness). The nectarines were ripe and if memory serves me right they were a little syrupy too, and I really enjoyed the little kick up the butt that the lemon verbena jelly gave to any forkful you happened to include it with. In some sense, the raspberry ripple ice cream almost stole the show; it was just perfect in every way. It was such a nice ending to the meal, but of course, it wasn’t really the ending was it….9/10.

 

Petit Fours

Petit Fours

 

The petit fours were arranged in what I assume to be The Square’s classic presentation of ‘lollipops’ sticking out of a semi-circular shaped brown wooden block. It looked very pretty, and most of them were good. Memory fails me now, so I can’t tell you which ones I loved and which ones I could have done without.

Just to make sure that they had filled and coated every inch of our greatly expanded stomachs, there was also a bowl of around eight or nine truffles for the two of us! I absolutely adored them, but could only eat a couple at this point.

Because we liked them so much, we asked if we could have a little box to place the remaining truffles in to take them home with us. In a baffling and logic-defying move, one of the waiters decided that they should instead give us a full box of ‘new’ truffles from the kitchen and insisted that we leave the ‘old’ ones on the table, which defeated the whole point of not wanting to waste such good sweets. Maybe it is just not the done thing in such fine dining establishments? I really don’t know, but was sort of mystified by it all. Whatever the case, we did take home the box of truffles and scoffed them down pretty quickly the next evening :).

Yquemical bonding

I have thus far neglected to mention the wines for the evening. As I was the only one drinking, I ordered a half-bottle of the Condrieu that they had available from their very extensive and interesting wine list. It was a 2005 Christophe Pichon (Rhône Valley, France) that came in at £33/half bottle, and unfortunately it was a real let down after my sublime experience with another (and my first ever) Condrieu, which we shared a full bottle of at Claridge’s a few months back (see here for details, and for those who are interested in such things it was a 2005 Domaine Mathilde et Yve Gangloff, which still stands out as one of my favorite wines ever). This tasted almost completely different from my memory of the Gangloff wine, and was just sort of flat – not bad, just not what I was expecting, and an indication that I have a lot to learn about the various styles and qualities of Condrieu that are out there.

But for me, the highlight of the entire evening was to come from the wine I ordered with, or should I say for, my dessert. You see, since I first began getting really into wine a few years ago, I have been reading about how some of my favorite food writers and chef heroes more than love one wine in particular. I will give you a clue, in case you missed the title of this section of the review: it is the only Sauterne to have been given the title of Premier Cru Supérieur in the 1855 official classification of Bordeaux wine, it is golden and color, and for my money it is the nectar of the gods, if deities exist, and if they like wine (I hope to God they do). I have been contemplating buying a bottle for the last year or so, and have almost done so, except my existing means of storage would sort of be an insult to such a noble bottle of wine. Anyway, with writers like Joseph Wechsberg and chefs like Fernand Point extolling the virtues of this chateau’s exclusive elixir, I have been salivating at the opportunity to finally taste some of the stuff.

My moment finally arrived on this evening, as I was pleasantly shocked to see that The Square had Château d’Yquem available by the glass on their wine list. There must be a god after all, I thought. Of course, at £55/glass, it was not such an easy decision to make, as it would by far be the most expensive wine I’d ever purchased on a per millilitre basis, but compared to the cost of a bottle (or even half bottle) of a decent vintage, it seemed like the drop of a penny in the ocean, so I went for it. I was somewhat nervous, though, because for my hard earned £55 I was ‘only’ going to get a 1999, which some have written was not a great vintage and hence why it is probably one of, if not the, cheapest of all recent vintages.

 

1999 Château d’Yquem, 1er Grand Cru Classé Superieur (Sauternes, Bordeaux, France)

1999 Château d’Yquem, 1er Grand Cru Classé Superieur (Sauternes, Bordeaux, France)

 

I should have listened to my gastronomic heroes and not worried a bit. It was a magical experience and certainly worth every penny. Being an Yquem virgin and thereby not in a position to appreciate the nuances of various vintages, it was the most perfect wine I’ve ever drunk. Everything was in exact balance. It was sweet with a distinct dry nectarine flavor, but not too sweet. It had amazing acidity, but it was not too harsh, it just perfectly held in check the sweetness of the fruit and subtle and complex secondary notes of honey, toffee and almonds. It had an ethereal character to it, and in fact, it just defies exact definition for me at this point, but it will remain ingrained in my memory for a very long time, if not forever. I cannot wait to try my next glass or bottle of this mythical and mystical liquid gold.

Mixed feelings, but mostly good

As you’ve read above, the food at The Square was very accomplished. It was also all, with the exception of the turbot, very rich and the portions were gargantuan compared to other restaurants I’ve experienced at this level. And when it comes to food, the whole ethos of the place seems to be one of generosity, as we were given multiple amuses, lots of very good homemade bread, a pre-dessert and plentiful petit fours with our ‘3-course’ meal that ended up being 7-courses in total. This is all good, except of course you have to know what to expect going into the meal, otherwise you can be a little overwhelmed, as we definitely were.

But it must be the perfect place for businessmen (and other men, or women!) who really love their food, want lots of it, and feel disappointed and/or let down by the often miniscule portions and more feminine character of some of the fine dining world’s other establishments. The Square therefore offers something more hearty and, in a sense, more masculine, neatly filling a possible gap in the market whilst certainly filling the bellies of its customers.

As far as the non-food aspects of the meal went, I left with a neutral to slightly negative impression. As I mentioned before, I don’t think the dining space is particularly warm or inviting and I wouldn’t naturally think of going back there for a non-professional meal if the food hadn’t been so good.

I also found the service to be inconsistent and slightly odd throughout, notwithstanding the kafuffle at the beginning of the meal. The rather measured and distant attitude adopted by the fleet of staff for the first part of the meal seemed to almost immediately disappear once they saw me trying to take a photo of the food from my blackberry, when the flash accidentally went off. I don’t know if they thought ‘food blogger’, which then spurred them on to become more warm and engaging, or whether they were just very busy at the beginning of the service and then once they got to know us a bit better, they loosened up a bit. I hope it was the latter, but I have my doubts.

Whatever the case, they certainly did go out of their way towards the end of the meal, giving us those extra truffles and even producing one of the (very large) menus for us to take away. When we opened it up, we saw that it had been personally signed by Philip, who turned out to be in the kitchen that night, and both gestures were much appreciated.

In the end, I think The Square is someplace I’d probably return to for a good and hearty business lunch, whereas The Ledbury is someplace I’d like to return to with Mrs. LF and/or some friends on a Friday night or at weekends. Overall, I think the food at The Square was more consistently at a higher level than that of The Ledbury, although it certainly leans more toward the traditional than chef Brett Graham’s more innovative, modern and pretty fare. Both are solid operations and probably merit their current status – I just wish The Square was a bit more inviting in its approach and décor.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine List: 9/10

Wine Selected: 5/10 for the half bottle of Condrieu and easily 10/10 for the glass of Yquem (even if it was ‘only’ a 1999!)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Square once for dinner.*

*PS: For Yquem lovers, gen.u.ine.ness recently provided me with a great tip. At The Greenhouse, they have 1997 by the glass for a measly £39/glass :).

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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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