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

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Navigating an Absolute Maze of InterContinental Welch Coco Sauce

Don’t worry, the title will make sense by the end of the post.

I recently received an email asking me if I wanted to preview a copy of a new book that would be making its way onto the market soon. The book is called Coco, which doesn’t particularly help in identifying what type of book it might be. Once I found out it had something to do with food, restaurants and famous chefs, I of course said yes. And it turned out that Coco and her promoters had much more in store for me than just a review copy of the book…but first a few facts and opinions about this unusual book.

A unique, engaging, fun & beautiful book about food, restaurants and their passionate creators

7 Facts about Coco

  1. It is huge: 439 pages in total
  2. It is important: 10 famous chefs have picked the 10 chefs they think are the most interesting up and coming chefs
  3. It is international: the 10 top chefs hail from many countries and continents, as do their chosen upstarts
  4. It is diverse: besides selecting a smattering of Michelin starred chefs, the top chefs have also selected a wide range of culinary characters, ranging from a woman running a mini ice cream van in London, to an innovative coffee beverage creator in Taiwan, to a sandwich maker in Portland, Oregon (USA)
  5. It is colourful: 10 colors to be exact, as each top chefs’ picks are identified by one particular strand of color
  6. It has ribbons: one ribbon bookmark for each of the 10 top chefs’ colors
  7. It defies simple categorization: it is about chefs (mini-biographies for each), it is about restaurants (impressions of the chefs’ restaurants/outlets are given), it is a cookbook (it contains a few signature dishes from each chef), and it is packed with food photography

7 Opinions about Coco

  1. It is beautiful: the photography and the layout are fantastic, being consistently engaging, interesting and gorgeous
  2. It is the perfect coffee table book: it looks the part and, due to its sort of random nature (the chosen chefs are in alphabetical order), you never know what you will find when you open up the book and flip through the pages
  3. It is innovative: I am not aware of any book out there that has tried to achieve harmony through this type of fusion before
  4. It is controversial: obviously not everyone will agree with all of the selections, and some people will feel that important people have been overlooked, left out, or favoured (due to their association with the top chef who picked them)
  5. It is a cool travel guide: now, whenever I know I will be travelling internationally, I will consult Coco and see what chefs are in the city/country I am going to, and try to book a table if their establishment(s) seem interesting to me
  6. It is a bit annoying: if you want to go back and find a particular dish/chef/restaurant, you can’t really do it quickly and usually have to check the index for the page number(s) you’re after
  7. It is a triumph: simply by virtue of the fact that it now sits on my coffee table and I think I’ve picked it up every night to read about another chef, recipe or restaurant

Now, the PR company handling the launch of the book (more on them later) also happens to represent a fair number of the UK-based chefs and restaurants represented in Coco, and it just so happened that they wanted some food bloggers to partake in a gastro-tour around London to go to some of these restaurants, eat some of their signature dishes and possibly meet some of the chefs. Was I down for that? As we used to say in high school: “Well, duh…!”

After a week or so of heavy anticipation, the evening finally arrived, and first on the stop was a mysterious meeting-up location: The House of St Barnabas in Soho. All I knew was that (I thought) it had something to do with a charity, and wasn’t quite sure about why we were meeting there. It all became clear though once the well-healed bouncers finally let us through the doors. It turns out that this beautifully revamped building has been turned into a ‘pop-up private members club’ by the folks at Quintessentially and that we were to have canapés in a nice little room upstairs.

Canapés by Lyndy Redding of Absolute Taste

As we were all getting acquainted with each other (which can be odd for food bloggers as quite often we communicate regularly with each other via social media without first meeting face to face), we were offered champagne and some of the most beautifully presented canapés I’ve seen.

Lyndy Redding’s canapés, as presented in Coco

Many of the nibbles we had are presented in Coco and they were all pretty more-ish. My favorite was probably the tuna tataki with radish, apple and mustard served on chopsticks. I also liked the salt & pepper crusted beef skewers with horseradish cream (though, to my taste, it was a tad too heavy on the seasoning). Both of these were presented in an innovative and appetizing fashion (see page from the book above), and I loved the fact that many of the canapés were served on trays which were elaborately framed antique-looking mirrors that faced upwards.

I had the chance to speak with Lyndy for a good 10 minutes (in-keeping with Coco’s measurement units, I guess) and found her to be a very personable and down-to-earth woman who was clearly passionate about what she did. We had a nice chat about her experiences working with Gordon Ramsay over the years which I found to be both enjoyable and enlightening.

Starters by Jason Atherton of Maze

The entrance to Maze and their clever little cutlery holders (by the way, they have those at Maze in NYC too)

Having been to the New York version of the original London Maze, and having had a pretty decent meal there, I was really looking forward to a taste of Jason Atherton’s cooking. I had booked a table at Maze a while ago, but subsequently cancelled due to negative feedback I got from fellow food bloggers and other friends who had recently dined there. I was hoping that they might all be wrong as, in theory, I thought I would like Atherton’s style of cooking which is centered around small plates that employ often unusual flavor combinations in his own version of fusion cuisine.

The fine dining room at Maze (to the left when you walk in – to the right is Maze Grill) was dimly lit and seemed to have a little bit of a buzz going. There were signature Gordon Ramsay Holding design elements throughout and I generally thought it seemed liked a nice space, although a bit corporate and lacking in individuality. The staff were professional but not all that engaging.

Cornish Red Mullet, Rabbit Bolognese, Cuttlefish Tagliatelle, Squid Paint & Asparagus

The little bowl of food we were served certainly looked interesting, and the assembly of flavors and textures had us all commenting – some positive, some negative, some neutral. For my part, I thought the red mullet had been cooked very well (a nice texture if maybe a tad dry) and that it tasted very good. The bolognese was certainly rich and flavorsome. But I guess the real question was whether they belonged together on the same plate. Eating them together wasn’t at all unpleasant (nothing stuck out sorely), but I don’t think it was quite harmonious either as neither element lifted the other. If anything, the bolognese overpowered the delicate flavors of the fish. And I didn’t really see the point of the two cuttlefish rings on top as they kind of got lost in the mix. Finally, all the textures were quite soft; it could have used something to provide a bit of bite. So, while it was interesting and sort of tasty, it certainly wasn’t perfection on a plate for me.

Unfortunately, Chef Atherton didn’t seem to be around, so after finishing up the starter we were on our way back to the mini-bus for the next stop.

Maze on Urbanspoon

Main Course by Theo Randall at the InterContinental Hotel London

The entrance and the bar at Theo Randall

Next up was a brief trip to Italy, within the confines of a big corporate London hotel. I had never been to either the InterContinental Hotel London or Theo Randall’s restaurant there, and was looking forward to it. After all, he was head chef at one of my favorite London restaurants – River Cafe – for aeons and I like his Italian cooking.

The menu and the man himself teaching us about different fishing techniques

This time, Theo himself came out to our table and gave us the background to the dish we were about to eat. He had an infectious enthusiasm and a bubbly passion that quickly won everyone over. After learning about the different techniques of catching and storing fish in Scotland, the quite sizable dish was served.

The Italian breads on offer – the focaccia was particularly nice

Monkfish with Prosciutto, Artichokes, Capers, Parsley 7 Charlotte Potatoes

Phwoah, now that looked like a hearty plate of food. I’m not sure my photo really does it justice in terms of how it looked, though it was quite a rustic presentation, which is fine for me with Italian food. The monkfish itself was amazing, and should have theoretically paired well with the Parma ham but I found that the saltiness took over a bit too much. However, for me the star of the plate were the artichokes, and I don’t even normally like artichokes. They had been peeled down and soaked in some sort of delicious marinade for hours and were simply divine – without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted.

The service at the restaurant was very attentive and good, and although the room definitely had the hi-I’m-part-of-a-hotel feel about it, they had managed to add some warmth through the quality of the staff. Theo was also a gracious host throughout and even indulged us by letting us take photos with him as we were leaving and answering the odd question. He genuinely seemed like a really nice guy.

But on with the odyssey, and next up, desserts that we had to find some room for, and quickly.

Theo Randall on Urbanspoon

Desserts by Tristan Welch at Launceston Place

The entrance to Launceston Place, home to Tristan’s Welchness

I was the most excited to visit Launceston Place, mostly because Mrs. LF and I had one of our best London meals in recent memory at the very same place a few weeks earlier. Head Chef Tristan Welch had not been there on that occasion, and I wanted to tell him personally how much we had enjoyed his (kitchen’s) food.

Tristan presented the desserts himself along with his magnificent pastry chef and smooth-talking (American) sommelier – on the right side is the sublime palate cleanser of raspberry jelly and lemon sorbet with black pepper tuile

I like the way that they’ve redesigned this building, which has been a restaurant of various incarnations over the years. The D&D crew have made it into a sophisticated, modern restaurant, with the bold choice of off-black walls, almost broody paintings and nice little individual design touches here and there.

It turned out that Tristan was there to greet us and serve the medley of desserts himself. He was joined by his pastry chef and the sommelier. We were all quite simply bowled over when the multiple desserts began arriving on trays of thin black slate. Each temptation was described in full detail by Tristan and the pastry chef, and the sommelier did more than justice to the lovely accompanying dessert white (a 2004 Jurançon, ‘Syphonie de Novembre’, Domaine Cauhape) by explaining what grapes it was composed of and his own abbreviated tasting notes. While I guess I would have liked to hear what he thought after I had tried it (so as not to be biased), it was a lovely description and he was quite clearly passionate about his Jurançon. Is it just me, or do these Jurançon sweet wines seem to have sprouted up on most fine restaurants’ dessert wine lists over the last couple of years?  Were they always there and I just never noticed? Well, whatever…on to the desserts!

Assiette of Desserts

– Rice pudding soufflé, raspberry ripple ice cream –
– Lavender cream, violets, raspberry –
– Apple parfait, toffee, walnut –
– Dark chocolate, iced milk, crumble –
– Set custard cream, caramel and praline, malt ice cream –
– Banana sticky toffee pudding, Guinness ice cream (by Steve Grove, Winner of MasterChef The Professionals 2009) –

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed all of these wonderful creations. I had ordered and liked the set custard cream on my last visit, and found it just as nice this time around. However, it was overshadowed by a few of the other concoctions. The most fun of the bunch was also the most sweet, the apple parfait, which had cleverly been constructed into the shape of an apple, replete with a real apple stem sticking out on top. It was all sweet apple, caramely toffee and it reminded me of the toffee apples we used to get at Halloween. The walnut bits on the outside tried to balance the overriding sweetness, but didn’t quite do the trick. Nonetheless, it was a great dessert, I just couldn’t manage more than a few bites due to its potency. I also loved the dense and indulgent mound of dark chocolate and Steve Grove’s sticky toffee pudding creation (the Guinness ice cream was interesting in a good way).

Close-ups: rice pudding soufflé, dark chocolate, violets

But the triumph of the evening was the Tarte Tatin with homemade clotted cream. It was honestly one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I mean, just look at @mathildescuisine photo of it!!!

Tarte Tatin from Launceston Place (photo courtesy of Mathilde’s Cuisine)

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

So that was my little tale of a whirlwind tour of some of London’s top restaurants, their food and their chefs…all thanks to Coco. I hope you enjoyed it – we all certainly did!  Thanks to Sauce Communications for organizing everything and ensuring it all ran smoothly.

The motley crew

Oh, and if you still don’t get the title, just follow the trail of the bolded words throughout the article! 🙂