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