8-course tasting menu (including amuse bouche and pre-dessert) at £70/person, 3-courses at £60/person
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have only dined at The Ledbury once.*