Starters from £8.50-12.50, Mains from £17-23, Desserts at £7.20; Set Menu at £19/2-courses or £22/3-courses
Restaurant Sauterelle doesn’t seem to carry a high profile, even though it is
situated within the grand confines of The Royal Exchange and is part of the
Conran empire. On our visit, I was continuously and pleasantly surprised by
the technical skill of the kitchen and the flair of the chef, and was inspired by
many of the dishes which combined the best of French and Italian cuisine
through the advantageous purview of an outsider’s interpretation (Head
Chef Robin Gill is Irish). While not every course was as good as the next,
there is certainly much promise here and I can only imagine it going from
strength to strength in the coming months and years, so long as the
core team stays intact.
Getting paid royalties at the Exchange
An email popped up in my inbox a while back, inviting me to review a restaurant I’d never heard of before. This was unusual for two reasons: first, I like to think that I know about most restaurants of a certain calibre in London (well, I try my very best to), and second, once I did my research, it seemed like a place I’d actually enjoy trying out. Oddly enough, my foodie friend Mathilde had received the same offer. We therefore asked if we could do a meal together with our partners, and were eventually told that this would be fine. In the interests of fair disclosure, we paid for half of the meal.
Banking in on grand surroundings
The establishment in question, Restaurant Sauterelle, must have one of the grandest backdrops of any restaurant in London. Situated on the mezzanine level of The Royal Exchange, it is the fine dining arm of the catering operation which covers the ground and mezzanine levels of the building, all of which is run by D&D London, i.e. the Conran collection. (You can click on any of the images in the review to get the full-resolution images, or alternatively the complete set of pictures is available on my flickr account).
The large and open ground floor is essentially a bar (though they serve some food too) which is called the Royal Exchange Grand Café, and it overflows onto two opposite sides of the mezzanine level to make for quite a lively after-work drinks spot for the local City clientele.
Restaurant Sauterelle takes up another quarter of the mezzanine level, and is actually not that big of a restaurant within the context of the catering operation as a whole. A slice of the kitchen is visible from most of the tables in the restaurant, and it has airs of a fine dining room, with crisp white linens and accents of blue throughout. It is a pleasant dining space that is kept rather quiet by virtue of glass plates which have been fitted in the arches on the mezzanine ledge, cosseting diners from the riffraff down below.
A French, Italian & Irish Tour de Force
The Head Chef is Robin Gill, a young Irishman whose cuisine I guess I would characterize as mostly French, but with his own flair for invention and innovation. Most of the dishes on the menu sounded very appetizing – with a number having notably interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients – and we eventually decided to go for a tasting menu of sorts, where Chef Gill would determine what we got. We were excited and hoped our carte blanche experience would be a memorable one. In what I thought was a nice touch, the kitchen provided us with 2-4 different dishes for each course (instead of everyone having the same thing)…I think they knew this was a table that would be happy sharing the dishes (and we were, at least to a certain extent :)). The very pleasant Slovenian sommelier eventually convinced us to go for a wine pairing with small tasting glasses (roughly 100ml) for most of the courses, although a few wines covered two courses.
While we were anticipating what was to come, we busied ourselves with champagne and some very good bread and butter. One of the butters contained seaweed and was excellent.
The palate teaser arrived in a beautiful little turquoise glass bowl that bowed towards you so you could peer inside without having to bend down too far. A velouté of Jerusalem artichoke was then poured on top of the medley of ingredients and brought forth a very pleasing aroma. The waiter reminded us that a Jerusalem artichoke is not really an artichoke at all – in fact, it is a type of sunflower, of which the tubers are used, and has nothing at all to do with Jerusalem. In any case, it was a little explosion of flavor, with the rather sweet flavor of the Jerusalem artichoke poking its head out first, and then a second layer of flavor added by the subtle aroma and taste of truffle, followed by the wild mushrooms. The quail egg was cooked perfectly, ever so soft and oozing with a brilliant orange interior when broken. Everything worked together and not a note was out of place in this little opening number. 9/10.
Mathilde seemed to agree, noting that “This first dish was an in-depth introduction to Robin’s cuisine: an adventurous and successful way to mix flavours at their best.”
The starter of scallops and suckling pig was probably one of my favorite dishes of the evening in terms of conception, presentation and taste. I thought it looked beautiful and the slightly challenging idea of a très posh ‘surf and turf’ was intriguing. The most interesting thing about the dish was that while the scallops had been seared perfectly, they were actually quite mild in flavor on their own. However, when taken together with the pork or any of the exceedingly delicious vegetable elements (which were definitely more than just garnishing), the flavors interspersed with each other and the whole thing came alive on your palate. The suckling pig had a good crackling as well, which helped with texture variation, and the cauliflower part of the dish was sublime – and that’s coming from a man who’s not too keen on cauliflower. The little citrus kicks from the apple and lime were subtle, but ever-present, and also added an interesting and pleasant sensation to the dish. 8.5/10.
Although I don’t think Mathilde enjoyed the dish as much as I did, feeling that the scallops were “…lacking a kick despite the pork,” she noted that “on the other hand, the cauliflower purée was a nice addition to the dish and our Maestro managed once again to bring a common vegetable, in this case cauliflower, to the next level.”
We had opted for a Gavi wine (2008 Gavi, La Giustiniana, Piedmont, Italy) to go with the first two courses. It was a rather typical but good example, being very dry, crisp, clean and precise; it also opened up a bit in the glass to reveal a round fruit profile. It went nicely with both the amuse bouche and the scallop/suckling pig combo.
Chef Gill’s take on foie gras was certainly interesting. It had been marinated and then cooked sous-vide – placed in a plastic bag and slow-cooked in hot water for a long period of time, in order to retain as much flavor as possible – and the result was an exceedingly light and delicate foie gras which still retained the essence of the flavor that everyone knows and so many love. The smoke added more of an olfactory dimension to the dish, but then again smell is so interlinked with taste that there definitely was an undercurrent of smokiness on the palate too. The fruits and accompanying walnut toast were perfect bedfellows for this little wobbly morsel. It was also nice to see the appearance of quince, which was just detectable in and amongst the other fruit flavors. 7/10.
I only had a bite or two of the pigeon, but thought that it was a successful dish. I loved the salted Muscat grapes, and thought the carmelization on the pigeon was well executed, giving it a slight sweetness that goes so well with the gaminess of the bird. I think my favorite part of the dish was actually the celeriac ‘coleslaw’, which to me looked like pasta and reminded me of my recent meal at l’Arpège in Paris due to the playful use of the modest ingredient of celeriac. 7/10.
Mathilde felt that this dish “…was probably the most interesting in terms of the combination of flavours. The pigeon was well-cooked and, once again, the celeriac – this time presented as ‘coleslaw’ with watercress – added a good kick to it.”
To go with the gamey flavor of the pigeon and the richness of the foie gras, the sommelier had suggested the rather adventurous option a tawny port instead of the done-to-death Sauterne pairing. We were game (pardon the pun), but unfortunately neither myself nor @dewilded thought it worked very well with either dish as it was simply too overpowering and concentrated to blend well with some of the rather subtle flavors. That said, on its own, the 10-year-old Warre’s Otima from Portugal was perfectly fine, exemplifying an abundance of caramel, dried fruits and a dash of honey.
I didn’t taste the halibut, but Mrs. LF did and thought that “…the fish was quite bland on its own, although it had been very well cooked. The vierge sauce, however, was delicious. The issue I had with the dish was that the flavor of the sauce somehow didn’t integrate well with the fish – they seemed to remain too distinct from each other whereas, for example, in a fish dish I made the other day, the subtleness of the seabass seemed to merge effortlessly with its stuffing and sauce.” 6/10.
Interestingly, I think our blogging counterpart enjoyed this dish more than I did, stating that “The halibut was served with a very lemony guacamole that balanced the dish very well, supported by the pine nut sauce and the fennel.”
I was un-wowed by the roast cod dish which, by the sound of its description, set itself up to be a plate of food bursting with flavor. The cod had been well cooked – moist, flaky, just firm enough – but it didn’t have that much taste on its own, and I didn’t think the golden polenta crust added much to the flavor profile, although it looked very pretty set against the green and white elements of the dish. The parsely fregola was also on the bland side for me, and the other vegetal elements didn’t add enough of a punch to make it an interesting dish. The real saviour of the dish was the smoked eel, which was truly excellent and livened up the pasta and fish with its deep flavor whenever you got a bite of it. Maybe the strong flavor of the smoked eel and the rouille were meant to counterbalance the subtleness of the rest of the ingredients, but for me it was just lacking that je ne sais quoi overall. 6/10.
To accompany the fish dishes, we had decided upon a 2007 Chablis 1er Cru (Cote de Lechet, Domaine Bernard Defaix, Burgundy, France), which did what it said on the tin. It was a little steely, and had a very fresh citrus fruit spine to it and a good bit of length. I enjoyed it a lot and it was an improvement over the last pairing of port.
I agree completely with Mathilde on this, and I quote: “This dish revealed Robin’s love for tasty food and it was a true explosion of flavours and textures. The tender lamb and smoky aubergines played the usual perfect couple, while the kidney and the slow-cooked belly added different levels in term of tastes and textures.”
It was indeed a very engaging and concentrated dish, and I thought it had been executed fantastically, from succulent sweetbread to pink and flavorful rack of lamb, to surprisingly palatable offal, to masterfully cooked and marinated vegetable components. It was a tour de force. 9/10.
Unfortunately, as good as the lamb was, the beef seemed to let the whole table down. The fillet itself was simply lacking in flavor and had been cooked to beyond medium. The grilled leek was also lacking in inspiration and it felt like the whole thing would have benefitted from a little bit of sauce to tie things together. The slow-cooked beef cheek, tarragon mousse and bone marrow concoction was good, however, and was neatly encased by a round slice of shallot. It was by far the most interesting thing on the plate, which is a disappointment as you expect a well-aged piece of beef fillet to deliver on all counts when in the hands of a chef with obvious talent. 5/10.
Our chosen foil for the lamb and beef courses was a 2005 Rioja (Cune Reserva, Spain) suggested by the sommelier. As with so many red Riojas, it was a very satisfying red wine, offering plenty of ripe fruit, softness and smoothness, with the oak being pretty well integrated. It was a good choice indeed, and probably not a bad buy in the supermarket (it retails for about £10/bottle).
A brief & private intermission
The very friendly and accommodating restaurant manager, Carl Couchesne, asked us if we would like to take a breather before dessert and offered us a tour of the building. A walk sounded like a good idea at this point, so we followed our leader as he disappeared around the corner. He gave us a potted history of the various phases and changes that The Royal Exchange has been through, and history buff / knowledge sponge @dewilded added his own colourful anecdotes along the way. We were shown some beautiful paintings that adorned the sides of the building, a few of which are pictured below.
As we continued around the mezzanine level of the building, Carl next showed us the private dining space that is at the disposal of the restaurant. The private dining facilities are located on the opposite side of the building as the main dining room and would certainly make for an impressive venue for an important event or meeting.
We finished circling round the last side of the rectangular level by passing through the other side of the mezzanine bar and, after stepping past the kitchen, were back in the dining room and ready for our sweet courses! I am glad to say that these certainly didn’t disappoint.
The first dessert I spied was a playful looking little thing. The poached pear was simple but delicious and flavorsome, which is not always the case in a pear desert; it had clearly been well marinated. The cardamom popcorn also definitely worked nicely as a sideshow, although Mathilde didn’t agree, complaining that she “couldn’t really taste the cardamom in the popcorn, even if it added a funny touch to the dessert.” The white chocolate and grue de cocao panna cotta was luscious, with a perfectly smooth texture and good depth of flavor. It was a very light and pleasant little dessert. Mrs. LF said it was her second-favorite dessert, and that it was the best pear dessert she’s had in a long time. I seem to recall that it was not on the menu yet, so hopefully it’s been added now. 8/10.
I was only afforded one bite of this dish due to its popularity, but loved it. The banana and walnut cake was moist and infused with both flavors in equal proportion. Being American, I have a particular penchant for peanut brittle (it’s a bit thing in some places in the US), and thought this example was excellent. But by far the best thing on the plate was the peanut butter ice cream, which was simply to die for. 8/10.
It seemed that the tall French blogger and I were once again on the same page as she has “…always been a huge fan of banana and walnut; it was my favourite cake when I was a kid, so it could hardly go wrong. The peanut butter ice cream worked very nicely with the cake and balanced the strong banana taste. This dessert was once again a good proof of how much Robin loves playing with texture and flavours.”
For some reason, I seemed to be the only person who really enjoyed the rhubarb dessert – in hindsight, this may have been because the other deserts were much more naughty in comparison. To me, its fresh, zingy tartness was very refreshing and softened well by the lovely ice cream. It was the dessert in front of me, so I had a good deal of it since my companions preferred to focus their attentions elsewhere. 7/10.
However, the now nasty Mathilde 🙂 reflected that “The dessert didn’t come with any flavours worth remembering. It was fresh and light but didn’t match the other desserts that we were presented that night. The walnut crunch didn’t manage to create a strong enough texture to make it more appealing.”
As much as I liked my tangy rhubarb, I was slightly jealous of the crème brulée that was placed in front of @dewilded. This was probably the best dessert out of the four, even though I enjoyed them all for different reasons. The essence of star anise had been captured and infused perfectly throughout this wonderful circular tower of sweet cream, with its perfectly ‘burnt’ crown. This, when combined with the truly sublime mandarin cream (it was that good), was indeed heavenly when topped off with a little chunk of the crispy ginger tuile. 9/10.
After all of these desserts, we were slowly preparing the little capacity our stomachs had left for the final and highly-anticipated course. Mathilde had kindly organized for us to sample a new dessert that Restaurant Sauterelle is offering throughout the Easter period. It is collaboration between the highly regarded chocolatier Paul A Young (one of whose shops is also in The Royal Exchange) and Head Chef Robin Gill. To say this was good would be the understatement of the year. It was a fascinating architectural construction. A foundation of homemade muesli comprised of toasted nuts, dried fruits and toasted parsnip crisps provided multiple textures – some chewy, some crunchy, some soft – and an array of flavors that ranged from grainy, to nutty, to sweet and slightly salty. The walls were buttressed by palate-awakening cardamom truffles, and this magical little mountain was capped by vanilla snow.
And then there was the egg…oh my god, the egg! It was eventually split open simultaneously by all four of us and its rich dark chocolate shell (64% Madagascan) was to die for on its own, but sublimely enhanced by what is probably the best sea-salted caramel I’ve ever tasted. To elevate it to further heights of luxury, the chocolate shell was inlayed with edible 23 Carat gold leaf and Champagne was added in order to give “a vibrant finish to this chocolate delight.”
It is very difficult to describe the experience of eating this beautiful creation, but it was a great communal endeavour and all of the flavors and textures made it the most interesting, engaging and fun course of the night for me. If you go and they have it, order it. 10/10.
After all of my rambling, Mathilde said, “The only thing I can add to the excellent description written by LF is that we all left the room thinking that the egg would be the perfect breakfast. The combination of chocolate, muesli, fruits, etc., all balanced at their best, would make everybody look forward to the most important meal of the day!”
The thrill of new discovery
Overall, I was very impressed with the food at Restaurant Sauterelle: it was varied, interesting, for the most part very flavorsome, and cooked with a high technical ability. The service was attentive and pleasant throughout, the sommelier had been very helpful and friendly, with most of the pairings she helped us to select working well together (save for the port).
Chef Gill came out of the kitchen at the end of our meal – indeed, we were the last table standing – and struck me as a clearly talented, ambitious and passionate young chef who had been integrating all of his various cooking experiences into his culinary repertoire. For example, he spent time cooking in Italy, and this can clearly be seen through the way he works with vegetables, while his experience in French kitchens has obviously imparted much technical skill in his cooking (i.e. as you will have noticed, he is a fan of the Troisgros inspired sous-vide method).
We ended up walking out with him and his energetic and garrulous nature (he’s Irish after all :)) was a delight. As we went our separate ways, I couldn’t help but think what a lovely evening it had been. We had discovered architectural beauty (I had never been inside The Royal Exchange), new and memorable food, and had been able to share it with friends who appreciate such experiences as much as we do.
Mathilde summarized the evening as such: “On my way to Sauterelle, I didn’t really know what to expect and, after a quick look at the menu online, I wasn’t sure about the different dishes. But once we stepped into the restaurant with such a particular atmosphere and set-up, I started seeing things in a very different way.”
“And when the plates were served, the first forkfuls were a true revelation in terms of flavour and well-balanced textures. Robin is definitely a talented chef who knows how to leverage the tastes and the essence. Each dish is an expression of his love for fresh ingredients and, like a kid in the playground, you feel that he is having fun in his kitchen!”
I concur and, just like Heston Blumenthal, I always enjoy feeling like a kid in a candy store when I am about to embark on a new culinary adventure.
Wine: I didn’t have much of a chance to peruse the entire wine list, but it can be found online here.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Restaurant Sauterelle once, it was for dinner, and I was invited by the restaurant. We paid for half of the bill.*