Restaurant Reviews:  London



Koffmann's, Berkeley Hotel
Gauthier Soho
Yalla Yalla
St Alban
Cha Cha Moon
St John
The Capital Hotel
The Ritz (afternoon tea)
The Berkeley (afternoon tea)
Bentley's Oyster Bar
Locanda Locatelli
The Ledbury
Rasoi Vineet Bhatia
Tom Aikens
Le Suquet
Club Gascon
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
Kulu Kulu Sushi
Lindsay House
Tate Britain
Rôtisserie Jules, South Kensington
Ba Shan, Soho
Franco Manca, Brixton


Koffmann's, The Berkeley Hotel, SW1

The Berkeley has become something of a gastronomic resort in its own right. On the ground floor is Marcus Wareing; in the afternoon there is the superb Pret-a-Portea afternoon tea, and now, in the space formerly occupied by the Boxwood Café, and before that, Vong, is Pierre Koffmann's new restaurant, marking his return to the stoves after a good few years in retirement. Well, his return after a toe dipped in the water for a few months running the kitchen of an incredibly successful "pop-up" restaurant on the roof of Selfridges. Incidentally, I see that Selfridges are looking to open their own restaurant on their roof now.  

Koffmann's really got off on the best foot possible with me the moment I walked through the door. A cheery, welcoming welcome, completely at odds to the experience of far too many restaurants where you are "greeted" by some attitude-laden miserable bint as an inconvenient interruption to whatever it she's been pretending to do. Naturally I hadn't booked (well, I wasn't to know that the train would be over 15 minutes, was I?), but there was no sucking of teeth, no repeating of a "have you booked?" mantra. Instead, it was a huge smile and "of course, we can sort something out for you. You don't mind sitting at a larger table do you? All our twos are taken." I felt like a long absent friend returning. Excellent start.

The dining room is a split level space divided by a bar. Nice tablecloths, glasses etc, but - certainly on this lunchtime - there was a buzzy, informal atmosphere. 

Pierre Koffmann has eschewed his former fine dining, three-Michelin-starred cuisine to return (in part) to his Gascon roots to cook, as he has said, "the sort of food I like to eat." It's certainly an attractive menu, particularly if you don't like your food mucked about too much. So you've got things like daube of ox cheeks, roast chicken (for two), sole meunière etc. This is all on-message for the trend to simplify restaurant food, but simplicity highlights faults, particularly at the prices you need to charge on Knightsbridge. Also, I can, for example, grill a steak with shallots myself: Koffmann's was going to have to work really hard to impress me on the food front. The wine list is nicely put together. Obviously, given the location there is plenty of top end stuff at three figure prices, but if you're not a label spotter, there's a lot of choice under £30 a bottle.

There are a few survivors from the (g)olden days, and I could not resist a couple of those. But first, as nibbles while I read the menu, came some utterly delicious pissaladière: gorgeous crispy pastry and a quite splendid topping. Then some super bread came with a really generous quenelle of butter.

I started the meal proper with a terrine of foie gras with baguette. Terrine to me implies a slice of something made in a terrine mould (or at least a loaf tin). This was one of those tiny kilner jars with a very dense bit of foie gras set in some brown (meat jus?) jelly. I thought the foie gras just had a slight air of those jars of mi-cuit foie gras, and it just seemed to lack a bit of oomph from seasoning. There's also a fine line between rustic and lazy presentation. This was the small jar of foie gras and half a baguette and a slice of toasted raisin brioche. A lot of bread to accompany a starter, and it made it look really unbalanced on the plate.
I had a glass of a very pleasant 2007 Monbazillac 'Jour de Fruit' from Domaine de L'Ancienne Cure as an aperitif and with the foie gras.

Next came a dish from the Tante Claire past: pig's trotter stuffed with morels and sweetbreads. First you need to get past the initial shock of paying £27 for a pig's trotter. Just think morels, sweetbreads and the amount of work involved. Pierre Koffmann is the man who taught British chefs how to stuff a trotter, so expectations are high. This was great. The presentation was very honest: the whole stuffed trotter sat glistening on the plate, with a large quenelle of mashed potato, topped with three crispy spirals. The trotter was great: rich, piggy, almost gooey and (it has to be said) piggy unctuousness wrapped around a light mousse generously studded with sweetbreads and morels. A glossy stock stock reduction sauce had been reduced to just the right level, without becoming sticky. The mash was as it good as it gets, but still retained some potato flavour, unlike the Robuchon-inspired butter purées held together with a smidge of potato that I've come across quite a bit recently. I thought the three crispy spirals were going to be potato, so I got a shock when biting into one to find it was intensely piggy. I think it was crackling, but it's been suggested to me that it was ear, but how on earth you make a half-millimetre thick crispy mini rosti out of crackling or ears beats me. Terrific stuff.

But it didn't end there. There is a trend now, coming back into style from the pre-nouvelle cuisine era, of separately charged vegetables. Not here. I'd spotted some rather good looking chips coming into the dining room, but I had mash. Damn, I thought to myself. No. A basket of absolutely superb frites arrived, the stainless steel basket lined with - what else - a French newspaper. These really were incredibly good chips. Despite the thinness, there was the much desired, but seldom achieved, light, crisp exterior with a fluffy interior, all retaining a good potato flavour. Brilliant.

But it didn't end there. With the chips came two small Le Creuset marmites. One contained Puy (or at least Puy-ish) lentils, the other some petits pois à la francaise. Both suffered from being a bit lukewarm. Clearly the Le Creuset pots are merely for presentation and perhaps weren't even kept very warm in the kitchen. The lentils didn't thrill me, but the peas were great, especially with my trotter, for they were very porky flavoured from the bacon. If you were having something less piggy, then they might be a little overpowering.
Another very pleasant wine with this: a red Gaillac 2008 Cuvée des Drilles from Domaine d'Escausses. Lovely bright fruit, very light and fresh. I was pleased with my choice of this with the trotter.

For dessert floating islands (or rather oeufs à la neige) exerted a very strong pull on me. But la recherche du temps perdu won over in the end and I had the Koffmann signature pistachio soufflé. Just like the trotter, this was textbook stuff from the man who wrote the textbook. You simply won't get a better pistachio soufflé than this. It came with what looked like a beautiful pistachio ice cream, but as the ice cream was deposited (with an apology from the waiter as he did it) into the heart of the soufflé I didn't really get to savour it, other than as a chilled creaminess against the hot soufflé.

Good espresso came with the French equivalent of cupcakes (in their current ubiquity), some macarons, here chocolate flavoured.

My overall impression of Koffmann's was very favourable. Front of house is superb; Pierre Koffmann himself was clearly visible, working at the stoves and on the pass, which can only help the food. I found the foie gras disappointing, and the peas and lentils could have been hotter, but everything else was spot on, if overall rather carb-heavy. But then it should be when you get the bill and find this little lot has added up to £82 (inc service). It was very good indeed, and I'd love to go back, but there is better value to be found, even in London.

Also worthy of note is that the full menu and wine list is available on their website. None of the sample menus that feature a bit too often.

(August 2010)

Gauthier Soho, Romilly Street, W1

Gauthier Soho is the new home for Alexis Gauthier, formerly chef at the excellent Rousillon in Pimlico. There was some sort of falling out and Gauthier left to set up on his own, taking with him Roberto Pietro, Roussillon's sommelier, and quite possibly other staff too. Yet apparently Gauthier still retains a stake in Rousillon.

Gauthier Soho is, strangely enough, in Soho. Quite a change from genteel Pimlico I should imagine. But the building has history. And not just it dating back to the 1740s: for ten years or so, this property on Romilly Street was Richard Corrigan's flagship restaurant, The Lindsay House. Originally Gauthier wanted to keep the name, but that wasn't possible, and so Gauthier Soho it is.

There's not much you can do to a 1740s Soho townhouse, or at least not much that the planners will let you. So it's no surprise that once you've rung the doorbell for admission (you had to do this under Corrigan's ownership too), there's not a great deal of difference to previously. Two dining rooms topped off with two private rooms, joined by a staircase that, given health & safety considerations, is probably a lot less wonky than it feels. Corrigan had cultivated a shabby chic feel to the Lindsay House dining rooms. At least the dining room I was in (on the ground floor) was brighter than previously, and was now carpetted. Is it my imagination or are the tables a little smaller now?

Front of house staff were pretty good, though it felt a lot more formal than at Koffmann's. The imperious presence of Roberto Pietra was absent, but I thought the maître d'hôtel, (Damian Sanchez I see from my bill), was extremely good.

One idiosyncracy seemed to be a waitress who was rather over-concerned about my napkin. When I'd been seated at the table, I'd unfolded the napkin and put it on my lap. She brought another and with silver tongs placed on my side plate. I know I'm a messy eater and that the chances of spilling something down me were increased by about 400% given that I had a tie on, but this seemed to be taking preparedness to an excess. About five or ten minutes later she returned and asked me for the napkin that I had on my lap, which she took away, leaving me with the one she'd brought earlier. This was before any food had arrived other than nibbles.

I have to say, I did like the napkins. They were just the right shape and size to protect a man's front and were not too smooth and slippery that they kept falling off: no these stayed where they were put, the rectangular shape enabling the full shirt front and gravy catcher to be properly protected without needing to be tucked in at the neck.

Later in the meal when, as was to be expected, I'd managed to spill a bit of something down the napkin, she reappeared with another napkin between the tongs "may I heff your napkeen sir?"
I dread to think what their laundry bill is like if this is common practice! Though I was the only one I saw being so treated.

With the menu came a few nibbles: some paprika flavoured pastry straws, a couple of miniature croutes with guacamole and something I forget on top, and couple of air-dried ham (possibly Bayonne, the waiter did say, but I've forgotten), wrapped around a little bit of juicy fig. The paprika straws lacked the moreishness that the name and idea suggests, the guacamole was top notch, and the ham and figs were lovely too. Nice start.

The lunch menu (which doubles as a pre-theatre menu) offers four choices at each of three courses for an incredibly reasonably £18 for two courses and £25 for three courses. This is a real bargain. Pay another £8 and you get a half bottle of wine thrown in. This is an incredible bargain. You have a choice of, I think, two or three wines that can be included in the lunch menu. The one that caught my eye, given my food choices, was a 2007 Pinot Noir d'Alsace from Wunsch & Mann. On the wine list, this is £8.50 a glass or £32 a bottle, so £8 for 375ml is a remarkably good deal. Another plus point on the value stakes is that, as the menu says "we always offer still and sparkling filtered tap water free of charge."
There's also an eight course tasting menu available at lunchtime for £68, including coffee. I see that the evening menu also has the tasting menu for the same price, along with a slightly odd 5-course à la carte option. Look on the website to see what I mean. Personally, I think the lunch menu reads better than the dinner menu.

It's worth noting that at Roussillon, Alexis Gauthier was well known for his vegetarian cuisine, and here too there is a vegetarian version of the tasting menu available, something I'd been very tempted by in the past at Roussillon. On the lunch menu, two of the four starters and mains (plats de résistance as the menu calls them) are also vegetable based, if not entirely vegetarian. I loved the look (and the just detectable aroma wafting across the room) of the "light celeriac cream" poured around "bacon and Scottish girolles ravioli" on the next table.

Everything on the menu sounded great, and choosing was very difficult, particularly the starters. I admitted defeat and told the maître d' I was going to be awkward, as I couldn't decide, and would be making it a four course meal with two starters. No problem.

Next to arrive was a wonderful array of breads and two great hunks of butter (salted & unsalted). I thought the bacon bread was wonderful (didn't need any butter as the bacon kept it so moist, though without being claggy). But then I tried the chorizo bread. Oh boy! Bread heaven and with the potential to become seriously addictive. A plain brown roll was equally good in its unflashy little way. There were about another six sorts of bread I didn't try.

Time for some real food now, though, and first up was my first starter, Caramelised Piglet with Orange, Red Onion Marmalade, Glazed Beetroots & Xeres vinegar Dressing.
Two decent chunks of, I think suckling pig belly. Gorgeous sweet meat, with a delicate crispy crackling on top. Really good on its own, but particularly with the earthy beetroots and the flashes of orange from the sauce, that was more about the orange flavour than sweetness, something no doubt helped by the sherry vinegar. This would be a faultless dish, if I didn't end up wondering what the rather over-delicate onion marmalade was doing there.
It was at this stage that I remembered my 'phone had a camera. They're a bit rubbish, as the G1's camera is a bit weak, but would you like to see them?

Thought so:
piglet with beetroot and orange (half consumed, sorry)

Next came a dish whose arrival was foreshadowed by the scent of truffles wafting three feet in front of it: a Wild Mushroom and Truffle Risotto, Jus de Rôti
Go on. Feast your eyes on that! I find myself inhaling, imagining the glorious truffle aromas coming off it, when I look at that on the computer screen.
The rice was spot on, but really quite overshadowed by the very generous shavings of truffle, the mushrooms (trompettes de mort and girolles, possibly one other) and the roast meat (pork? chicken?) juices. Heavenly, and a dish I found myself worrying that it was nearly finished and I wouldn't have any more.
Interestingly the truffle risotto on the tasting menu and on the evening carte doesn't come with wild mushrooms. I thought the wild mushrooms were a very worthy addition, both texturally and in terms of flavour - and it's difficult to see how he could possibly have got much more truffle on the plate to compensate.

I would have thought and said that anyway (and probably had done so on twitter already), but in the interests of full disclosure, I should report that when I came to pay at the end of the meal, the maître d' told me that the risotto came with the chef's compliments.

Main courses hadn't posed such a dilemna to me when ordering, though when I saw an absolutely beautiful looking piece of cod on the next table, I wondered if I'd made a mistake by being put off by the "ginger and soya sauce" that the menu said it came with. Instead I'd chosen Thyme Rubbed Leg of Welsh Lamb, Yellow & Red Carrots, Chervil & Olive Oil Potato Purée, Garlic & Thyme Jus
Beautiful lamb, perfectly cooked, though maybe the dish overall lacked the wow factor of the other dishes. The thyme flavours were assertive without being dominant, but I wouldn't have objected if they'd been a little more muted. The potato purée tasted fine, but was lumpy - sufficiently lumpy that that must surely have been what was intended. The absence of butter from the potato purée certainly helped to keep the dish lighter.

Before dessert came a pre-dessert of peaches: peach sorbet, peach juice and a brunoise of peach, all served in a delicate little glass. Very refreshing and clean. Couldn't be improved.

My dessert was a blackberry gratin, blackberries marinated with port, yoghurt and marmalade, according to the menu. The slightly warm blackberries were gorgeous, the disc of somewhat lemony chiboust-cum-parfait on top had been lightly bruléed. I didn't detect any marmalade - unless that was the citrus in the parfait?
Unannounced on the menu, this came with a delightfully light white chocolate chantilly, with blackberry juice, served separately in another delicate, pretty glass.

Petit fours came regardless of whether coffee was ordered: some caramelised nutty things that looked unappealingly like they'd been vomited by an infant, and posed too much of a threat to what remain of my teeth, so I concentrated my attention on a couple of very light and airy coconut marshmallows. With a campari-soda aperitif, that all came to under £48 including service. With the freebie risotto, that was exceptional value, but even for just three courses, I'm very impressed by the value for money here.

(August 2010)

Polpo, Beak Street, W1 and Polpetto, (above the French House), Dean St, W1

When Polpo opened, sometime late last year, it created a lot of buzz, not least from a use of social media that must surely become a textbook study for marketeers of the future. Unusually for trendy new restaurants, the buzz about Polpo seems to have continued, and then intensified with the opening of a new smaller version, Polpetto. When the redoubtable Richard Vines, Bloomberg's food critic, says it's good enough to make him forgive the (co?)owner, Russell Norman, for throwing him out of Scott's, I thought it was worth a punt, despite St Marina of Metro wondering if it wasn't a bit too twitter-hyped.

As I was in London at short notice and not had any time to plan eating out, the no-booking policy in the evening also appealed. I wandered past Polpo in Beak Street mid evening. You could hear the noise from some distance down the street. Looking at the crowds milling around the bar area at the front of the premises, I could see it would be ages before I got a table, and while I don't mind eating alone, standing drinking alone in a busy bar doesn't appeal at all, so I retreated to my hotel room, to return a couple of hours later, when, as I'd hoped, the flow of people was out of, rather than into the restaurant.

The concept behind Polpo is that it's a Venetian bar (bacaro, apparently) transplanted to a New York dive bar, and then the whole think has been dumped into an 18th century house on Beak Street on the westernmost fringes of Soho, a house where apparently Canaletto once lived - something you feel probably wasn't entirely chance when it came to choosing the location.

You can book at lunchtime, but not in the evening (for some poncey sounding reason that they want it to be a neighbourhood restaurant), hence the queues when I sailed past for the first time. I'd like to comment on the decor, but it's so dimly lit by bare incandescent lightbulbs, the filaments of which give off just a pale orange glow, and flickering tealights on the tables, that I didn't really see very much! Reading the menu was difficult enough and I needed the torchlight effect of my mobile phone to help. Walls are bare brick and old white tiles, the bar appeared to be beaten metal. There's not the slightest air of pretension here. Other than the pretence that this hasn't all been very carefully designed, of course.

Tables are bare, a brown paper menu doubles as a place mat and glassware makes St John look positively Riedel. Actually there is more than an air of St John in the studied simplicity of the setting, and also of the food.

Anywhere else, the food would be described as tapas-like, but apparently there is a particular Venetian-Italian word for little snacks to go with drinks: cicheti, and one section of the menu is devoted to these cicheti. The rest of the menu is divided between "Breads", "Meat", "Fish", "Vegetables", "Cheese", "Desserts" and "Sweet Things". These are all small plates, and pricing is at very comfortable levels: I think a plate of charcuterie was the only thing on the menu that broke the £10 barrier. Where else in central London (or anywhere for that matter), can you found a goodly number of dishes for £1, £1.50 or £2?

Unlike Spanish tapas, or Chinese dim sum, the cicheti come as individual items. Ah, so that's how they can manage to have menu items priced at £1 etc. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind the single items, and I'd guess that many first-timers probably get a bit caught out and don't order enough initially: the cicheti seem to be about a mouthful and a half each. I'm sure the reasoning isn't that it means single diners get to try a whole range of dishes (which in a Spanish tapas place would result in far too much food), but it's a handy side effect.

I seemed to miss the wine list (apparently there's plenty available by the glass and 500ml carafe, as well as the bottle), and the combination of me enjoying my (very correct) Aperol Spritz, and the speed the food came, meant I never got round to pursuing it.

I started with a handful of cicheti: a chopped chicken liver crostino, a potato and parmesan crocchetta and some moscardini. The chicken liver was ok, somehow getting a certain earthiness into the liver, which came on top of a nicely crisp toast. The crocchetta was excellent - light fluffy cheese and potato in a crisp, grease-free crumb. Moscardini are - as I'm sure you know (I didn't) - baby octopus, about the size of a thumbnail. The moscardini were pleasingly plural, served in oil with a touch of chilli. Were they bought in? It would make sense, as preparing them must be a right bugger, and if they were bought in, then they were well sourced, as I found them an interesting, and tasty little snack.

Moving onto the larger dishes, I chose a Spinach, Parmesan & soft egg pizzetta and fritto misto. The pizzetta was a nice crisp base, though a little flavourless, with a good topping with lots of spinach, an egg (properly soft as per the menu description) and enough parmesan to act as more than just seasoning. The fritto misto was pretty good - a generous selection of squid, partly shell-on head-on prawns and whitebait/anchovies. Very cleanly fried - and accurately cooked too. Worthy of note towards the end of service.

I didn't bother with desserts (or the curiously titled sweet things that got their own section), as they sounded a bit peremptory, though entirely in keeping with the concept: affogato, sgroppino and cantucci biscuits with vin santo aren't desserts in my mind. Though there are a few other things too.

With a bottle of sparkling water (Lurisia, which I rather liked), and service, the bill came to just over £28.

Next evening I had a couple of hours to kill before my train, so rolled up at Polpo's new little brother, Polpetto just after it opened at 5.30. Polpetto is in the space above the French House pub in Dean Street, a space which once housed Fergus Henderson in his pre St John days. Unlike Polpo, Polpetto doesn't really have its own bar area, and while they still don't take bookings in the evening, they will take your mobile number and give you a ring in the pub downstairs when a table's available. I suspect the French House is going to do quite well out of this arrangement. Even before 6pm, I wasn't the first in, though there were still plenty of tables left. The decor is very similar to Polpo, though at least in the daylight I could see a bit more of it. A bare brick wall, wooden floorboards, metal covered tables pretty much crammed in, simple tumblers and cutlery, and the same brown paper menu cum place mat. Like Polpo, this isn't the place for an intimate, quiet meal.

The food is essentially identical to Polpo, though with only a handful of dishes in common. I have to say that I found both the menu and the setting more attractive at Polpetto. Whether that's a feature of what happened to be on the menu on the days I went, I don't know. There just seemed to be more on the menu at Polpetto that leaped out at me, and I was much more concerned that I wouldn't be able to order all the dishes I wanted. In particular a pigeon saltimbocca, spicy pork and fennel polpette, cotechino and pickled radicchio bruschetta and a pizzetta of pork shoulder & pickled pepper ended up having to be left unordered. Menu items go up to a whopping £12.50 here - for a whole grilled sea bream.

I started with a couple of cicheti: a duck and porcini meatball and smoked swordfish with lemon and dill ricotta. The meatball was jolly good - deep and meaty, with just a hint of porcini that didn't overpower the duck. I felt it was a bit let down by a rather ordinary tomato sauce that had been spooned over it. Of course, the kitchen hadn't worked too hard on the smoked swordfish, but I thought it was a nice delicate little bite: the slice of fish rolled around the ricotta with just a hint of citrus piquancy.
Zucchini fries were absolutely brilliant. Unbelievably addictive. The gastronomic equivalent of crack cocaine. On the train back I felt myself lusting after another plate of them and wishing I'd taken a portion away with me. Ok, there's nothing particularly innovative about them, and I suspect that the addictive qualities might have owed a little to the possibly liberal hand with the salt. But they really were fab.

Just a single "main course" dish, unfortunately, but thankfully my choice really hit the spot: osso bucco with saffron risotto. A generous slice of shin, nicely cooked and flavoured, with a risotto which I suspect some would regard as a bit overcooked, but I like my risotti to be cooked through and completely giving to the tooth.
With another Aperol spritz and water, and including service (which was really charming, led by a heavily tattooed slip of a gal) this was £28.

I suppose I should reverse the time slots on subsequent visits, but on these two visits, I found myself much preferring Polpetto, which seemed more laid back as well as having a slightly more interesting menu. The no-booking policy in the evening would, for me, militate against them being worth a trip into town, but if I worked in central London and wanted to avoid the rush hour, then they'd be very useful.

The other good thing is that my visits reminded me what a cool drink Aperol is. I'm really irritated with myself that, as it was absolutely tipping it down when I left Polpetto, that I jumped straight into a cab to Euston and forgot to go to Gerry's to get a couple of bottles of Aperol (and some bitters).

Both Polpo and Polpetto are difficult ones to score: the food is pretty simple, though well done, and much of one's experience will be down to how much the decor, cramped tables and huge, noisy buzz appeals.
(August 2010)

Yalla Yalla, 
Greens Court, off Brewer Street, W1

An answer to that perennial question, where can I get a decent meal near Piccadilly Circus at 3.30 (or 4.30, or 5.30). Or indeed all day. This is a tiny little gaff up the alley next to Lina Stores on Brewer Street. It's made to look bigger by the use of some comically tiny stools at the tables. On the counter there is a mouthwatering display of wraps and pastries - the tarts were so much better looking than the ones on the street outside. Ah, yes, there's a potential problem. Not really somewhere to take children. Not unless you're adept at answering questions like: "Daddy - what's a British Sex Shop?" "Daddy - why did the lady ask if you wanted to go upstairs with her?" "Daddy - why do all the men outside have dirty raincoats?" And so on. 

As well as all the stuff on the counter, there's a full menu of mezze and grilled meats, all apparently drawing on on the street food and café food of Beirut. I say apparently, as I have to admit that this is not a cuisine with which I'm at all familiar. 

On arrival a couple of bowls were put on the table, one with pickled vegetables, one with the saltiest olives I can remember coming across. 

I had a dish called soujoc, which comprised some rather good little lamb sausages that were served in an unusual and very tasty sauce made of tomatoes, parsley, lemon and pomegranate juice. Quite sour and astringent, but as moreish as a bottle of German riesling. 

Then some samboussek - little pasty type things, which came with either lamb or cheese fillings. I had the veggie version, filled with feta and halloumi cheese and mint, having also ordered the lamb sausages. 

Finally, makalé samak, a fritto misto that was better than most I've had in Italian restaurants. Whitebait, large prawns and squid in a very light batter, verging on a tempura style. Completely ungreasy. The prawns were prawns, but the whitebait was really good and the squid was scarcely short of stupendous in its buttery tenderness. Pomegranate seeds were scattered on top, and underneath were slice of fried aubergine. 

There were a dozen bins on the wine list, all but three from Lebanon. Nice to find a genuine family business in central London. I felt there was real passion at work here, and can't help but recommend it. My bill was £16 including a large bottle of water as well as an amazingly gorgeous apple mint and ginger lemonade.

(Feb 2010)

Charlotte Street, W1

I first went to Roka in November 2005, when I had a few reservations, but try as hard as I might, I simply cannot find any fault with my most recent visit to Roka, apart from a claim that I couldn't substantiate that a spark from the robata grill burned a hole in my jacket. Oh, and (as is the case with every restaurant that has them on the menu) they'd run out of sea urchins. 

I started with a couple of maki (sushi) rolls: one with tempura prawns, avocado and other stuff, the other with king crab. Both had a delicious, fresh flavour, with the main componment shining forth. 

Belly tuna sashimi was prime fish. 

A charming Japanese lady sat next to me insisted that I try the crab risotto she and her man were having: actually a rice hotpot, according to the menu, but I was struggling to see the difference between it and one of the best risottos that I've ever had. 

My black cod marinated in yuzu miso and cooked on the robata grill was a stunningly good piece of fish, with the marinade adding just the right amount of additional flavour without in any sense dominating the fish. The skill of the grill chefs was evident in the perfect cooking of the fish - it was also interesting to watch the chefs pin-boning the fish part-way through the cooking. 

Aubergines grilled on the robata were also spot on, with the mirin and ginger marinade again contributing rather than dominating. 

For dessert a delicate chawan mushi with strawberries and comb honey was delicious. 

The bill (though with 13.5% included) was four times that at Ba Shan, but I think there was probably 5 times the amount of food and the quality, environment and service was untold times better. Roka is expensive, but it's worth every penny. I find it a much better atmosphere than Zuma - Roka has a less snobby, more inclusive atmosphere.
(May 2009)


Franco Manca, Brixton Market

If this isn't the best pizza in England,then tell me where is, and tell me quickly!

When the sun's shining through the glass rooflights, and if the signs on the neighbouring stalls were in Italian, then you could easily believe you were in a back street in Naples, were it not for the cool-to-cold breeze that blows in from the market entrance.

Franco Manca is marked by its minimal menu, minimal service, minimal fittings, minimal everything. Include the fact that everything seems to be organic, and I suppose it's minimal input too. Except for the ferocious heat of the ovens and the excellence of the product.

There are no starters and no desserts, just 5 pizzas on the menu (and maybe a special on a blackboard). The wine list runs to just one red and one white (unnamed on the menu), or you can choose from the extensive list of one organic beer or for non-drinkers, organic lemonade or tap water. Wine and lemonade appear to come "en vrac." Tables, seating, tumblers, crockery, cutlery etc are all as simple as they come. So, as I say, all gives an authentic feel of a downmarket Naples back street.

Oddly the menu doesn't call a Pizza Napoletana, Napoletana, but just lists the ingredients (the bill calls it Napoletana, though). Just sitting there, you smell the sourdough cooking, and when it came, my Napoletana had a profoundly good crust with the slight bitterness of the charred touches counterpointing the sweetness of the tomato. The toppings were generous and strongly flavoured - the anchovies being particularly pungent. Yum! And all for less than the price of a Pizza Margherita at Pizza Express. The beer's 42% cheaper than Pizza Express too. I'm not particularly knocking Pizza Express, as they are solidly reliable when there's no other option. But the Franco Manca pizzas must be *the* bargain of Zones 1 & 2.
(May 2009)

Ba Shan, Romilly Street, Soho

Ok, I'm never going to be rude about Manchester's Yang Sing again. It might not be as good as it once was, but even now 99% of the Yang Sing's dim sum would knock the dull, bland and extortionately priced offerings of Ba Shan very well into touch.
It certainly sounded like I was at the same restaurant that all the critics went to, when looking at the menu and the surroundings. But have they all had taste transplants? There really was just nothing to excite or interest me. I should have gone to the New World and eaten off the trolleys.

The best dish was the jia mo (a sort of doughy flatbread) filled with allegedly cumin spiced beef. Nice and tasty. But scarcely half a mouthful in each of the two buns that made up the portion. The guotie "pot-stickers" had a nice light dough, but you could either describe the pork and chive filling as incredibly delicately flavoured or tasteless. I'd go for the latter. Prawn dumplings in spicy garlicky sauce had the same good dough as the guotie and a decent filling. The sauce, however seemed to be only a mix of heavy soy and a remarkably subtle chilli oil, with a few bits of chopped garlic stirred in. Although the dumplings sat on top of the sauce, it only really functioned as a dipping sauce, as the miniature rice spoon that along with a bowl formed the cover setting was too thick to be able to scoop up any of the sauce.
Iced tea was very nice (so it should be at £3.99).
The bill came to £20, and I felt fleeced. Delivery of food was remarkably slow. Far slower than it should have been. How on earth they manage if they have more than 10 in, I don't know. Service was distinctly disinterested and prone both to disappearing and getting distracted by waving at (presumably) his friends passing by outside. Even if the food lived up to the promise it would be very over-priced.
The ambience was dominated by people checking that their order had gone through and the type of Chinese music that unfortunately tends to sound screechy to western ears. The room I was in (I gather from the newspaper reviews there are others) was dark, with lots of dark wood. Tables are tiny, and you sit on hard stools. The furniture put me in mind of the scaled down versions you get in infants schools, though of course here they're square and minimal. The menu offers far less choice than it looks at first glance: the same ingredients and combinations recur several times. Having read the reviews in the national and London press, the only one who seems to have been to the same place and eaten the same food is John Walsh in the Independent, who seems to have had a pretty much identical experience.
(May 2009)

Rôtisserie Jules, Bute Street, South Kensington

What a busy little place this is! No frills, roast chicken and chips and not a lot else. The chicken was surprisingly good - very moist, and the jugs of gravy were good. Chips were standard; gratin dauphinois was substandard; but the carrot and parnsip purée was really good, and perhaps the stand-out dish of the night. There's a small dessert selection, but we went next door but one to the ice cream parlour.
(May 2009)

Cha Cha Moon, Ganton Street, London

Ganton Street is in that rather shabby no-man's land between Regent Street and Soho.  At first glance, it looks like a nightclub from the outside, with just a hard-to-decipher neon sign (I walked right past it the first time!) next to a very dark, unwelcoming entrance corridor.  But if you look peer into the blue tinted windows, you can see a handful of chefs working in the kitchen.

Once inside, the other side of the open kitchen takes up one side of the room, with a bar taking up another side.  The lighting inside is distinctly dark and gloomy: colours seemed to be mainly dark purples, and chocolate coloured bricks.  The ceiling is low and - presumably to give an oriental feel - has a grid of bamboo poles suspended from it.  It's a very angular room - all corners and no curves, which continues onto the tables. The seating and tables are canteen-style with long communal tables, though seating is in the form of two-seater benches, with padded leather seats, so at least it's not uncomfortable.

Cha Cha Moon is a noodle restaurant: there are soup noodles, lao mian noodles, wok noodles and one cold noodle dish.  Plus a few side dishes (spring rolls, spring onion pancake etc).  The menu is singularly unhelpful if you don't know much about Chinese noodle cuisine, though I expect most of the staff would be pleased to help: they seemed a friendly, happy lot, apart from one who could do nothing more than scowl sullenly and you could almost read that her mind was cursing these idiot customers making her do some work.  For London - for anywhere, for that matter - Cha Cha Moon is exceptionally good value, at least if your main purpose is to refuel.  All dishes are £3.50 and portion sizes are not ungenerous.  It appears that the £3.50 pricing is introductory and likely to increase in the future.

The problem is that the food really isn't any good.  Or rather, I should say, the food I had on the one occasion I visited: I might have chosen badly.  My t-smoked chicken lao mian had more chicken than I expected for £3.50, though the chicken itself didn't really rock my boat.  Alongside the bowl of noodles came four smaller bowls: one with a delicious garlic and ginger purée, one with something described as "spicy seasoning", which seemed to be mainly salt, one with chilli oil and one, slightly larger, with an almost clear though rather alarmingly grey looking broth.  (Apparently lao mian usually comes as a pretty much dry bowl of noodles, with broth on the side for you to add yourself.)  I'm glad I tasted the broth before pouring it on: it tasted like I would imagine the water used to clean the floor a fishmonger's would taste like - dirty, muddy with a slight fishy edge.  The noodles were cooked properly and actually weren't too difficult to eat once you cast aside western decorum.  My side dish of spring onion pancake was unfortunately a dismal failure: greasy, almost sweaty, looking and tasting (like it looked) like a the sole of a slipper that had been fried.  There were spring onions inside: I could see them, and they were clearly stewed down.  But I couldn't taste them.

The drinks list is short (just three wines: red, white, pink as the menu says), with cocktails and fruit juices dominating.  I had a non-alcoholic Guava Collins cocktail, which was nice and refreshing, but could have been even more so were the balance of guava and coconut slightly adjusted in favour of the guava.

At the price it's ok I suppose, but they're going to have to improve the food if they're going to be charging between £5 and £10 for dishes.

(June 2008)

One-o-One, Sheraton Park Tower Hotel, Knightsbridge, London

Pascal Proyart's restaurant, One-o-One lies at the foot of the Sheraton Park Tower at a prime Knightsbridge address (101 Knightsbridge, unsurprisingly). Proyart deals in fish and is without doubt London's biggest proponent of the Norwegian king crab.

This was one of the most difficult menus from which to choose that I've come across, largely because there is actually quite a small number of main ingredients, which reappear in a number of dishes, sometimes as the main ingredient, sometimes as a supporting act. For example Norwegian Red King Crab appears in no less than five dishes.

I have to say that the crab wasn't really that clever either. In a dish where it's served Chilled with Aioli Sauce and a Few Winkles, it lacked a really fresh, sweet flavour that the best crab can have, and as a dish it really suffered from the aioli being a little drizzle of very bland mayonnaise, with none of the flavour that you might expect in an aioli. Brittany Blue Lobster Macedoine, Red King Crab Pastilla, Aromatic Dressing, Apple Sorbet was similarly a little bland, lifted above all by the superb apple sorbet.

Confit Norwegian Salmon with a Green Pea Velouté, Gran Reserva Joselito Ham, Roasted Hazelnut was jolly good, though not quite as good as I remember a similar dish enjoyed many years previously just across the road when Marco Pierre White was at the Hyde Park Hotel. Dover Sole Cooked Meunière, Tsarkaya Oysters Béarnaise, Pommes Rissolées and Forest Mushrooms, Candied Tomato was a good dish, well executed.

The food was good to very good, but nowhere as good as I expected, given the Pascal Proyart's reputation in the guides and in the press. But what really let the meal down was the service that was really little better than inept. We were greeted on entering the bar attached to the restaurant, and asked if we'd like a drink before dinner. We would, and were seated in the bar area, which is a curious mix of dentist's waiting room and Starship Enterprise. After about 5 minutes, we were asked what we would like a drink. After about another five minutes (though it felt much longer) the drinks came. Still no menus to look at. We were then completely ignored (we were the only ones in the bar area) until we flagged someone down and asked to see the menu. Then the maitre d' came through and showed us to our table.

The restaurant was barely a third full all evening, but for some reason we were sat right next to the waiters' station in the centre of the room. Most of the banquette tables around the edge of the room remained empty all evening. Having taken our order, the maitre d' told us the sommelier would be along in a moment and then waltzed off to hand the order in. He apparently forgot to take menus off us. The sommelier didn't appear. Still with the menus in front of us and the wine list, the amuse arrived. The waitress hovered while we worked out what to do with the menus so that she could put the amuses on the table. We put our menus and the wine list on the floor next to our table. We had finished our amuses and were wondering if anyone would ever take a wine order when the maitre d' walked past, bent down, picked up the menus and wine list and reshelved them. We checked our watches and gave them four and a half minutes or until the first dishes arrived, whichever was sooner, to take our wine order. Any later, and we decided we'd make do with water. A waiter acting as sommelier came with just seconds to spare. That was the end of the real ineptitude, but the service throughout was little better than amateurish, with the maitre d' showing a complete inability to manage his staff or run a dining room.   I think he really let the kitchen down.

I've concentrated more on the service than the food, as the inept service really spoiled the evening. Was the food as dull as it seemed, or were we just so much on the back foot? Who knows. I don't think I'll be rushing back to try again, and indeed, we were content to rush out, declining desserts and coffee.
(May 2008)

Latium, Berners Street, London

A restaurant that's full to the gills is always a good sign. Restaurants in office blocks (on whatever floor) are usually not quite so good a sign. Latium is on the ground floor of an anonymous office block in one of the anonymous streets north of Oxford Street on the bad (east) side of Oxford Circus, in the no man's land between Nasty-tat-Land and Fitrovia proper. It's scarcely an imposing frontage, and while there's nothing exactly wrong or unpleasant about the interior of the restaurant, it feels more put into the space than designed for the space. None of this is necessarily a bad thing. There's no designer's huge fee to have to recoup and the anonymity and non-descript nature of Berners Street perhaps just shaves a tad off the rent? Certainly a three course à la carte for £28.50 in a top notch Italian restaurant (which this is) sounds good value to me. There's a set lunch for £19.50 for three courses too, for all the business lunchers on whom the credit crunch is biting. The final menu is, unusually, as separate menu of ravioli dishes (lot of kitchen work, but relatively cheap to produce, which also helps to keep the price down).

The restaurant was full when I went for lunch in April: I think I got the last table. The staff, however, seemed a bit harrassed, which manifested itself particularly at the beginning of the meal, when it took a minute or two too long to seat me at the table by which I was stood, and then when my aperitif order was taken, it took a long time to come, and then was not what I'd ordered (Punt e Mes). It then took a bit too long for the right aperitif to arrive. The arrival of a maitre d' type soon sorted things out, though, and for the rest of the meal, service was good.

The menus read very well, making it hard to reach a decision, but easy to decide to come back if the food's as good as it reads. As this is the first restaurant I've come across with a separate menu for ravioli, it seemed churlish to not partake, though I drew the line at having three courses of ravioli. So my first course was a selection of four fish ravioli, served with a light butter sauce and sea bass bottarga, with a few smears of ink on the rim of the plate. A black raviolo contained monkfish, a green raviolo contained bream, a yellow one was filled with salmon and a pink one with tuna. The pasta on all four was like gossamer silk, and each fish retained its identity in the mousses which made up the filling: the first three were scented with a touch of citrus, the tuna with tomato. Looked well, executed well and tasted well: can't really ask for more.

For main course, I had a scallop dish that combined I think six smallish scallops with a white onion purée swirled with balsamic, and chicory leaves (of a variety I cannot now recall). The scallops were beautifully sweet, and perfectly cooked, but a little overpowered by the agrodolce of onion, balsamic and chicory. The very fine, deep fried shavings of onion topping the scallops were superb. I'm never really convinced by sweet and sour sauces, whether it's the Chinese sticky gloop, the robust Italian agrodolce, or this particularly refined version, so I think I probably chose unwisely for my tastes.

Cheese was a selection of four Italian cheeses, all in excellent nick, but disappointingly mainstream. Then, for dessert, it was back to the ravioli. Three dessert ravioli are listed, with an option to take one of each, which I took. The first, filled with apple and pine kernels and served with a vanilla sauce was delicious. The second, a sweet mint raviolo with a pineapple and coconut sauce, didn't work particularly well for me, with the sauce feeling too sweet and overpowering for the delicate filling of the raviolo. The third one was the most interesting sounding one: a sweet chocolate raviolo with ricotta, candied fruit, pistachio and an orange sauce, which delivered on all counts, the pasta itself being flavoured and coloured with chocolate. However, the pasta on all three sweet ravioli was nowhere near as light as the savoury ravioli: I don't know whether this might be the result of the use of sugar in the pasta or less careful preparation or less careful cooking.

Espresso was seriously good (I suppose it should be with the International Coffee Organisation next door), and came with nicely made, very Italian petits fours, though it was just a little disappointing to be charged for a refill.

There was a nice selection of breads, though of nothing like the quality of Locanda Locatelli, which is still the benchmark for Italian breads, and it was unfortunate that the breads didn't live up to the stupendous quality of the olive oil served with them.

The wine list is almost uniquely Italian (save for some champagnes, but even that section of the list is headed by Prosecco and Franciacorta) and ranges around most regions. It might have been nice to find a few more wines from Latium, but there is plenty of interesting choice, much at approachable prices. I was toying between three or four whites at around the £25-£30 mark, but settled on a rather unusual single variety Riesling from Friuli (riesling usually only appears in blends in Friuli and Trentino) that was excellent. With a bottle of sparkling, the Punt e Mes (eventually), the bill for the four courses plus coffee and wine, including service was £83, which allowing for half a bottle of wine per person, would come to around £70 each for a four-course à la carte.
(April 2008) 

St John, 26 St John Street, London

My first visit to St John and possibly not typical as we were a group of 12 in their oddly trapezoidal private dining room, with it's oddly trapezoidal table, with a hole in one end to allow a pillar to pass through it. They didn't go as far as having a trapezoidal tablecloth, but just lots of paper tablecloths overlapping to fit. 

In many restaurants these days, when the menu says "Langoustines" you expect some complex dish usually involving foams, and probably belly pork. At St John, it said "langoustines" and what arrived was a huge platter piled high with langoustines in their shells. About six to eight each we thought. Little bowls of very olive oil tasting gloopy mayonnaise (delicious) and wedges of lemons were served separately. 

"Foie Gras" was next. The charming waitress put an (unmoulded) terrine of foie gras in front of me. After a moment I realised it wasn't all for me, so took a slice and passed the remaining 8 inches of terrine on. Nicely made, simple, traditional terrine of foie gras. Excellent toast with it. 

Main course was a whole suckling pig. Well, if this was a suckling pig, it was only in the way that the Bitty character in Little Britain is still suckling. It was presented (not quite sure how the waitress managed to carry it - they must have to do weight-training to work at St John), and then taken to the ante-chamber to be carved. The super-size-me suckling pig probably benefited a bit from its size, as it obviously needed longer cooking than a really baby piglet. I was presented with the head, but as my attention was distracted, one cheek was rapidly removed by the host sat next to me, so that I had to act quickly to get the other one, but then I was able to move onto the snout and other morsels in the head, before moving on to some of the numerous plates of meat which by now had appeared around the table. The pig was really pretty perfectly cooked, which is far from easy given its size and the various cuts involved. The head meat and trotter meat, were all perfectly cooked, but the prime cuts had not suffered at all: still juicy and with a good clean prime pork flavour. Oddly, the tongue was missing from the head, and I realise with horror that I don't think I explored whether the skull could be penetrated to get at the brain. Very remiss of me. And glory of glories, at least for those who like it, the crackling was amazing - wafer thin and crispy. There was a very good red wine and onion stuffing too. 

Dessert was Eccles Cake and Lancashire Cheese (a bit of a busman's holiday for me having travelled from Lancashire for the meal). Not a bad Lancashire Cheese. I forgot to ask whose it was, but from the flavour and texture would guess at Mrs Kirkham's. The Eccles cakes I found a tiny touch over-spiced and certainly a bit over-sized. Slightly thinner pastry would have helped too, I think, at least after such a big meal. 

Numerous doggy, sorry piggy bags had to be rustled up by the waitress for all the left over pig.

There is no ceremony here.  The restaurant is as sparse as a sparse thing.  The food is simple and plain.  But it's all really rather glorious.
(April 2008)

The Capital Hotel
Basil Street

NB: Eric Chavot has now left the Capital.  I have no experience of the new chef.

The restaurant in the Capital Hotel, for some years now the domain of chef Eric Chavot, has always been one of the most understated, least showy fine dining restaurants. It is a relatively small dining room, decorated in understated shades of coffee and cream. There is a small hotel bar attached to the restaurant, but this can become very busy and very smoky, so you are probably better going straight to your table.

At lunch, there is a good value set lunch, and in the evening the tasting menu offers good value and a wide coverage of the kitchen’s ability, but you do get quite a lot of food, and on the evening in May when I last visited, I noticed quite a few of those eating the tasting menu struggling somewhat, and even refusing one of the desserts. We didn’t have this problem as we elected to eat à la carte.

A batch of amuses arrived to start the meal, the most notable of which was a marinated salmon tartare that had a very good flavour, but was a bit mushy. For starters we chose an Assiette Landaise: a salad of ducky things from south-west France. There was some good foie gras terrine, a piece of fried foie gras, some confit duck leg (unfortunately the skin hadn’t been crisped) and a piece of roast breast that was both a bit underdone and too tough. This came with a some distinctly un-Landaise balsamic jelly (though it worked very well against the richness of the duck and foie gras) and leaves of little gem lettuce, with the dressing sitting in the veins of the leaves.

Our other starter was one of the signature dishes, a crab lasagna with langoustine cappucino. This comprised slices of crab mousseline sandwiched between sheets of excellent pasta. The crab mousseline was a little bit on the solid side, and curiously got increasingly crabby as you went down through the layers. The mousseline literally outweighed the pasta. The langoustine sauce was absolutely superb.

Our main courses were a roast lobster with a stupendous sauce vierge, served on a double tiered surprise plate, that’s fun or unnecessarily tricksy depending on your mood. The other main course was a saddle of rabbit with roast squid. The squid was very good with a really good roast flavour. The rabbit was fine, good but not exceptional, a boned and half rolled saddle, with a skewer of liver and kidney and an escalope (of the leg?) on the side. The rabbit came with a good tomato risotto that had been shaped into a small patty and wrapped with bacon to make a small parcel. A pan of bean and chorizo stew was served separately, and had some very strong flavours.

For dessert, we had one proper dessert and returned to the starters for the second dish. The dessert was an attractive sounding prune and berry compote with Sacher sponge, which on the plate looked nowhere near as attractive, and was actually a bit disappointing. The compote was just a smear of purée; the cake was good, but the dish was lifted by some splendid light chocolate ice cream. From the starters, a beetroot and goats cheese salad was chosen. This was fine, until you got to the pickled shredded beetroot element, which was over dominant and too acidic.

A post-dessert of raspberries and a lychee sorbet topped with a sheet of rose jelly, was, however, lovely.

We drank a bottle of 2005 Grüner Veltliner Renner, Schloss Gobelsburg (£39 on the list). This was a fairly rich, full GV with lots of spice and – because initially it was served far, far too cold – a lot of acidity. Very Good/Very Good Indeed. 88/100

The meal had moments of sheer brilliance, but it just wasn’t maintained throughout, and some aspects of the meal were just a little ordinary, and others just a little misjudged.

(May 2007)

Whitecross St, EC1

Alba (on Whitecross St a few hundred yards from the Barbican Centre main entrance) deals in Piemontese cuisine, with lots of emphasis (particularly at the right times of year) on ceps and truffles.  It is a clean elegant dining room, with a useful, unusually well-proportioned private room downstairs.

On my most recent visit, at the start of July 2006, service was excellent and the food much improved on my last wine dinner here (on a previous visit it was somewhat, well, rustic and heavy, with a heavy hand on the truffle oil).
The starter was a Carpaccio di salmone con capperi e cipolla rossa, which was a nice , light fresh dish: the salmon was lightly cooked/cured in an oil dressing with impeccably rinsed salted capers.
Next came Risotto ai funghi porcini. This was a touch under-seasoned, but had a good depth of flavour, though it seemed to lack a bit of the earthiness one might expect, perhaps because it's not the porcini season.
Main course was a Stinco di maiale al forno con cuori di zucchine in salsa agrodolce. This was a large slow roast pork shank on a bed of tasty mashed potatoes doing a remarkable impression of polenta (maybe there was polenta in with the mash?). The sweet and sour was very subtle. Courgette hearts are a waste of time!
A selection of really good Formaggi Piemontesi rounded the meal off.

Exmouth Market, EC1

Moro, in Exmouth Market, just off Roseberry Avenue up at the Sadler's Wells end, has been on my radar for a while now, although it's been open since 1997. As the name might suggest, it's cuisine is essentially Moorish - Spanish and North African, though on the day I went for lunch, it was more Spanish than North African.

It's a busy, bustling room that's a touch industrial with lots of hard surfaces: much more suitable, I'd say, for lunch than dinner, and certainly not a place for a romantic dinner.

With around 10 sherries by the glass, that was an obvious aperitif, though I was too busy enjoying them to make notes, even as to what they were. Two different palo cortados, I think: one around £4 a glass, one around £12 (a Colosia VORS I think). The second didn't quite warrant the price differential, although it was evidently more complex and interesting, just not three times so. Of course, you don't know how long it had been open.

Really good, open texture sourdough bread came in quantity and was replaced in similar quantity once we got near the bottom (which was fairly quickly!). We had some grilled chorizo off the tapas menu, just to keep us going while we pondered the menu and I pored over the short but interesting wine list, with plenty of choice under £30. Largely, but not exclusively Spanish.

We ended up choosing a bottle of 2004 Godello Guitián, D.O. Valdeorras, Bodegas La Tapada from Galicia. I was eyeing up a few more expensive options (the Godello was about £24), but the waitress persuaded me to look at cheaper options. She was pushing a 2004 Quinta Apolonia, Castilla y Leon, at £21, but the Godello meant I could tick another grape variety off!
It had an interesting smoky nose (that I don't think was entirely due to the wood-fired oven and charcoal grill going full tilt in the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant!), and seemed to have the roundness that a touch of oxidation brings. Very fresh and fruity on the palate, with a good depth of flavour and loads of character. A very pleasant wine. Very Good Indeed.

Our starters were warm cuttlefish, preserved lemon and celery salad and pan-fried calves kidneys with jamon, oloroso and toast. That gives a flavour of the cooking style: ingredients are king and given centre-stage; cooking is simple (yet hugely accurate), designed as much to enhance the ingredients as anything else. The cuttlefish, yellow from its cooking liquor, was served lukewarm and was stunningly tender and buttery and the lemon and celery salad worked perfectly. The kidneys were a touch dull to look at, but beautifully cooked and worked really well with the ham and oloroso sauce.

Our main courses were Iberico pork loin cooked in milk with mashed potato and wood roasted skate with braised spinach, white beans, paprika and garlic. The key point of both was an excellent central ingredient: meltingly tender, yet full-flavoured pork, and a fantastically fresh whole skate wing. Each had its own well chosen supporting cast.

As an excuse to try a couple more glasses of sherry (a couple of Amontillados this time I recall, though again I didn't take notes), we shared a plate of cheese: manchego, picos de l'Europa and Las Mil Ovejas. All in top condition, though served with a slightly disappointing membrillo - it could have done with a bit more quince flavour.

For dessert, they'd unfortunately not got any Seville orange tart, so we had to make do with a slice of chocolate and apricot tart, which was all you could expect of it, and some stunningly good rosewater and cardamom ice-cream

Good coffee.

I really enjoyed it at Moro: it's simple food, but (as I understand is the case at the River Café) the main thing is the excellent raw ingredients. It's not haute cuisine, nor is the restaurant at all relaxing, but it is excellent cooking and it's a delight to be somewhere that can lavish this sort of care on its food, without going down the complicating route.

Saturday lunch sounds interesting: four course tasting menus with a glass of sherry at each course for £40.

I'll definitely come back here.

(January 2006)

The Ritz, Piccadilly (afternoon tea)

I'm sorry, but this really is one just for the tourists, and the London Tourist Board should do something about it. Put simply, the quality is just not there, and the generosity is lacking. Sandwiches were thicker bread than you would expect with a very sparse filling indeed. Our afternon tea for two came with four, admittedly pretty good scones, but sufficient jam and cream for only two, and being parsimonious with that. Cakes were a distinct let down, including two mousse cakes (one chocolate for sure, one lemon I think) that tasted industrial and bought in. A very disappointing experience.

(November 2006)

The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge (afternoon tea)

By contrast with the Ritz, the setting is more humdrum, but also rather more relaxing.  And also in contrast to the Ritz, the afternoon tea at the Berkeley, the fashionista's Prêt-à-Portea, is exquisite in conception, quality and execution, and incredibly generous.  The gimmick is that cakes and pastries are inspired by the catwalk designs: the care and attention to detail is simply exquisite; and then on top of that they're delicious.  You get a selection of tasty canapé style savouries (replenished liberally, if required) before moving onto the cakes and pastries, which give you nine or ten such delights as a Missoni striped madelaine, an Alexander McQueen silver spice boot biscuit and a Christian Dior redcurrant mousse with grenadine jelly, pink spun sugar and a delightful little tuile in the shape of a shapely leg, wearing a Christian Dior high heel shoe.  This is all very, very clever, very, very intricate, and surprisingly very, very good.  A wide range of teas are offered, as are (at a supplement) various champagnes.  Everything, apart from the champagnes, comes in or on Paul Smith china.  
Highly recommended.
(May 2007)

Bentley's Oyster Bar,
Swallow Street, W1

The old Bentley's, with its clubby atmosphere, has been rejuvenated by Richard Corrigan (see Lindsay House below), though the oyster bar counter remains in enhanced former glory.  This was a very brief, very late lunch (around 3.30 p.m.!) in the downstairs oyster bar (the "Grill Room" upstairs is more 'proper' restaurant), and we just shared a dozen Colchester natives, some plainly grilled langoustines served with chick peas and olive oil, and a plain grilled sole.  All excellent quality, the langoustines and sole perfectly cooked.  The langoustines seemed very expensive though.  Perhaps because it was mid afternoon, service seemed a little slow, I think due to a front of house shift change.  I need to try this again, but provisionally 2/10.
(January 2006)

In May 2007, I popped in for a dozen oysters.  Unfortunately one was bad.  I can assure you that being confined on a train having had a bad oyster is not something to be repeated.  It's pretty appalling that Bentley's should have allowed a bad one to slip through.

Locanda Locatelli,
Seymour Street, W1

Locanda Locatelli, which, although it's address is Seymour Street, is actually part of the Churchill Hotel on Portman Square, is another of those irritating London restaurants where it's virtually impossible to book - not because they're full, they just put so many obstacles in the way: not answering and having an answering machine that tells you you're ringing at the wrong time are the two that have had me booking somewhere else each time I've thought of going.

But last Tuesday, we were just round the corner and thought we'd chance our arm and stroll in to see if they could do us. No problem, all sweetness and light and charm. Although it was busy, it is a very large restaurant, and throughout lunch they were very far from full.

The large windows onto the street aren't there to let in light: the blinds stop that, and it was actually just a touch dark in the dining room, which is kitted out in shades of beige and brown, with the brightly lit white tablecloths providing an accent. The end wall has huge circular mirrors above the banquettes. Seating is really comfortable, whether on the banquettes or the clever swivel chairs that don't look like they should swivel.

As soon as we sat down some brilliant parmesan grissini arrived - they must have been at least 18" long. Light and airy with a really good parmesan taste. A couple of Punt e Mes lubricated the menu-reading. Undoubtedly one of the best commercial vermouths, and certainly my favourite: shame it's not in more restaurants. 

The menu reads really quite plain, at first sight at least, but clearly the emphasis is on the ingredients and their being allowed to stand for themselves. I actually found most interest in the pasta section, but forgo having pasta to start with and as a main course (it was a close call though!).

Once we'd decided, a basket of fabulous breads was deposited on the table: warm focaccia; a hot flatbread, apparently stuffed with spinach and then fried; olive bread; and at least three other sorts. All delicious and served with an equally delicious olive oil, a jar of which was left on the table for us to keep refilling the dipping bowl. It's worth coming here for the bread alone!

Our first courses were testina di vitello, lampascioni, prezzemoli e capperi This was wafer thin slices of calf's head, or rather something inbetween a brawn and a salami, with a great pile of greens intermingled with lampascioni (Puglian wild "onions", apparently the bulb of a wild hyacinth) and capers that are as good as you can imagine a caper getting. Utterly delicious, and a generous portion. The second starter (unfortunately this was my one) was just a little less successful: it was small balls of sausage meat, wrapped in savoy cabbage and then braised, served with a meaty jus and two diamonds of saffron risotto (think of arancie, risotto balls that are deep fried, but in a flat diamond shape). Everything in the dish was high quality (notably the meat in the sausage), but it just seemed to lack something to lift it. I tried a bit of salt, but it wasn't that: I think the sausage meat could have done with a bit of a flavouring ingredient in it - maybe something like fennel, or maybe just some orange or lemon zest.

Main courses were Sgombro alla griglia, insalata verde and Garganelli alla triglia e olive nere. The first was a stunningly fresh, rather big mackerel, plainly char-grilled (no herbs or anything stuffed in the belly), hunk of lemon on the side, and a heap of greenery, mainly rocket. The delicate sweetness of the lightly cooked mackerel flesh was a revelation: fishmongers just don't seem to sell fish this fresh. Garganelli are a rolled pasta and the triglia was red mullet that had been flaked into a delicious light sauce along with some equally delicious purple olives (though a squeeze of the lemon that came with the mackerel really helped lift the pasta.).

We drank a bottle of 2000 Breg, IGT Venezia Giulia, Josko Gravner A light, bright, very clear brassy orange. Lightly caramel orangey nose with currants and light manzanilla hints. Full and round on the palate. A bit weird, as we expected: it must be a challenge for restaurants who choose to list Gravner's wines, as the return rate must be high! Quite round, yet also very dry on the finish. Nice balance and works very well with the food, and in particular the mackerel. Very Good Indeed.

The mackerel and the Breg could have been made for each other.

The Breg was on Locatelli's list at £69: wine-searcher doesn't find any current UK stockist, but at a Gravner tasting in October 2005, Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh gave a retail price of £36. Under 100% markup at a 1-star posh restaurant just off Portman Square in London, doesn't sound too bad to me. I thought the list was interesting, with plenty of interest at accessible price points too, not just £400 Barbarescos.

Dessert was Mousse all’ amaretto e sorbetto croccante di cioccolato This was a magnificent little dessert, which must have required loads of work in the kitchen. Imagine a chocolate cylinder, just a bit bigger than one of those small tins of mixer that you get on the train. But it's a very thin, crisp chocolate shell. Break into it, and inside is a gorgeous amaretto mousse: not at all oversweet and really perfectly balanced both in flavour and texture. But that's not all: dig a little further and you find a pool of liquid chocolate sauce on top of a small 1.5cm tall hemisphere of genoise sponge. To the side was a very small helping of an amazingly intense espresso sorbet, which proved a perfect foil. My companion, who doesn't like desserts was digging in to my amaretto mousse so eagerly, that the only real answer was to order a second one!

With the amaretto mousse, they recommended, an Umbrian red passito dessert wine: 2001 Passito di Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG, Antonelli Very young, dark purple. A slight nose, with some plummy black fruit. Very tannic on the palate with young black fruit. Didn't like it at all. It was, however, made drinkable in combination with the amaretto mousse and the super-concentrated espresso sorbet.

Darn good espresso too. We couldn't make our minds up about which grappas to have, so sought advice. A number of bottles were produced and some tasting samples poured to help us choose. A nice touch.

Service was very good: there when you wanted them, not hovering when they weren't wanted, though perhaps just a touch more aloof than you might expect in an Italian restaurant, even one of this class.

(January 2006)


Grosvenor Square, W1

NB: this review dates from when Jason Atherton was the head chef at Maze.  He has now moved on to open his own restaurant, Pollen Street Social.

I couldn’t book – their answering machine basically told me to clear off: I’d have to ring during office hours if I wanted to book.  That was on Saturday, and I wanted to go on Sunday.  There aren’t any office hours then.  Nice one, Gordon!  That might, of course, explain why it really wasn’t very busy at all.

As far as I can tell, this is another of the Ramsay Group’s hotel dining room ventures, this time in the Marriott (that used to be the Europa and probably numerous other things too) and with its own entrance on Fortress Grosvenor Square.  Like many hotel restaurants, it suffers a bit in ambience, well, a lot actually.  It’s airy and very swish and “nice”, but it does all look and feel a bit soulless.  It has a vaguely art deco feel to it, with lots of straight lines (though a swirl on the floor and a curved screen, both by the bar do relieve the rectilinearity), cream leather and rosewood.  For some reason, there is an area at the far end of the room and leading to the kitchen that it at a higher level than the rest.  I supposed it adds a bit of interest, but it also means that the staff as they prowl around (they didn’t have much to do on this lunchtime) can quite literally look down on you.  A touch disconcerting at times.  The tables are very heavy and don’t make it all easy to be polite and pull the table out a bit to allow the companion on the banquette side of the table to enter and exit. 

The front of house are unusually weak for a Ramsay establishment.  I was led to my table and given the wine list and an order for a bottle of sparkling water taken.  After a few minutes one of the sommeliers (there seemed to be as many sommeliers as regular staff) came and asked if I’d made my choice of wine.  Now, it’s not unknown for wine enthusiasts to steer their companions’ food choices to their wine choice, but this is the first time in several decades of dining, that I can remember being expected to pick a wine, without even having seen the menu!  (The menu outside is no use – that’s the “Summer” menu, and inside they’re onto a new season.)  Of course, they’d simply forgotten to give me the menu, but do I really pay an all but obligatory 12.5% service charge to have them forget to give me the menu?  Once I’d ordered and started receiving food, there were still just too many issues with the service for an establishment of these aspirations: I’d ordered a few glasses of wine, and their service was hardly co-ordinated, with some staff asking me if I’d like another glass of wine or a glass of another wine, while the sommeliers should have been bringing me what I’d already ordered.  Nor was this limited to my table: at one point a sommelier brought the next table’s bottle of wine over to re-fill their glasses (bottles are kept out of reach).  One person wasn’t drinking, and so his glass was empty, so the sommelier went to him first.  “No thanks,” he said, and so the sommelier took the bottle away, without refilling the other diners’ glasses, leaving them somewhat aghast!  Knowledge was a bit patchy too: a Hungarian riesling was described as being Rhine-like: when it came it was distinctly more Alsatian and/or Austrian in style.  On the label it was, of course, described as “Rhine Riesling” …  Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I could admit that it’s just down to personal impression of the wine.  That a glass of Albarino was so cold as to hurt when I cupped the glass to try to warm it up, is just a fault of service.

Does the food balance out these issues?  Well sort of, I suppose.  It is really very good.  Very refined, and the series of small portions, vaguely tapas style (though there’s nothing a Spaniard would recognise as tapas, so don’t be misled!) taps into a current London fashion.  The cooking is for the most part, spot on, well-judged and provides well thought out flavour combinations.  But again, it all just seems a bit soulless: there’s no passion for the food coming through on the plate.

We took the 5-course Chef’s Menu (£33 for five tapas style portions).  First to arrive was a Cornish Crab Mayonnaise with avocado mousse, a sweetcorn sorbet and a few grains of oscietra caviar.  The crab was delicious- remarkably meaty-textured, the avocado mousse silky smooth and bright green without tasting acidified.  The sweetcorn sorbet was, when eaten on its own, really very weird indeed and a challenging flavour-delivery method.  Ferran Adria would have been proud of his erstwhile pupil.  But before I sound too negative about it, it was a) an excellent sorbet, with a pure, deep, clean sweetcorn flavour and b) an excellent component of the dish as a whole.  Beautifully presented in a small glass bowl, revealing the layers of the dish.

Next was a carpaccio of swordfish and tuna.  Perfect penny-sized discs of excellent fish set out on a small rectangular plate like a series of elevator buttons.  The dish was slightly marred by slightly too strong a soy dressing.

This was followed by Daurade Royale with Scottish lobster risotto, which was served with a little meat jus.  A small, rather thin piece of daurade that was always going to be a challenge not to overcook, and they very nearly managed it: it was just ever so slightly overcooked.

The fourth dish was a small piece of fillet of beef (unless it was a new breed of pygmy cow, this must have been cut down from a larger piece – there must be a heck of a lot of waste in this kitchen) with foie gras and a parsley, snail and garlic aligot.  This was, of course, like a miniature tournedos Rossini.  The beef was excellent meat, precisely cooked to just under medium-rare.  The small piece of foie gras was very lightly and very accurately cooked.  The aligot (mashed potato) was ultra-smooth, but a little marred by being a bit too glutinous and gloopy.

Dessert was a white chocolate and coconut pannacotta with an olive caramel, white chocolate granité and vanilla shortbread.  This was a triumph.  The pannacotta itself had a perfect texture, the coconut was very subtle but served its purpose in cutting the tendency of white chocolate to be cloying.

We had a second, taster-size dessert off the menu: an apple trifle with cider granité served in a shot glass, with a cinnamon doughnut on the side – a markedly better doughnut than the very similar ones that are served as petit fours at L’Enclume in Cartmel.

(January 2006)

The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Rd, London W11

There was nothing like this here when I lived just round the corner on Westbourne Park Road around 15 years ago. Then the main trade of the area was in drugs throughout the year and violence during the Notting Hill Carnival. The Portobello Road area (at least that south of Westbourne Park Road) had begun to be gentrified: Mr Christian's delicatessen had opened; Books for Cooks was there and 192 had been getting good reviews from food writers. But the gentrification hadn't got down as far as All Saints Road (then notorious as one of the best places for drugs north of the river) or Ledbury Road, which is just a little further to the east and didn't have any sort of reputation. Now there are all sorts of restaurants and signs of posh folk. I bet it costs more than £150 a month for a one-bed flatlet here now ...

Normally this would be a prominent corner site with its black painted front, large windows and outdoor terrace for al fresco dining. Unfortunately, when I visited, it was largely hidden behind roadworks so the taxi driver missed it on the first sweep.

Inside, it is a calm room with dark wood and greys and beiges. The large windows give an airy feel, enhanced by the far wall, which is mirrored floor to ceiling with antiqued mirrors.
Staff are absolutely spot on: cheerful, helpful but not over-familiar.

Nibbles were a sort of fab prawn spring roll - very long and very thin, with a crisp then chewy wrapper around a chopped prawn filling - and a single sheet of feuille de brick topped with filet of a fine truffle flavoured mousse and sprinkled with cress.

There are two choices of menu: the three course à la carte at £45 or the eight course tasting menu at £55, with the option of an additional cheese course with a bargain £5 supplement.

My tasting menu started with Creamed eggs with cured sea trout, vodka chantilly and caviar. This was served in an egg shell, the chantilly and caviar on top of course. The 'caviar' seemed like Avruga to me, though there is nothing wrong with that. The chantilly was great: spot on texture with a perfect balance of vodka in it: enough that you could taste it, but not so much that you felt the heat of the alcohol. Beneath that was an über-creamy scrambled egg with morcels of seriously good cured trout folded through it.
With this I carried on drinking my aperitif of a glass of NV Larmandier-Bernier, Blanc de Blancs, Terrre de Vertus Premier Cru Champagne
Creamy, autolytic nose. Really good, fine bubbles that persist very well. Remarkably full-flavoured for a blanc de blancs. Mouthfilling and long. Very nice balance. Very Good Indeed.

Next up was a Loin of tuna wrapped in basil with a salad of radish and soy (The à la carte version of the dish comes with an upstanding menhir-like oyster beignet, I observed.) Excellent piece of tuna, served to all intents and purposes raw, but with a real meaty pure, almost umami flavour. The tuna came on a square of what must have been daikon, but which was so thin that it provided texture more than flavour. The simple radish salad - wafer thin red radish, a few sprigs of salad leaves and few stems of cress (is cress being rehabilitated?) provided a perfect counterpoint.
With this, I had a glass of 2004 Riesling Donatus, Kurt Angerer, Kamptal, Austria
Very minerally nose - almost to the exclusion of any real riesling character! Good attack, very clean and fresh, though with a nice weight on the palate, when the riesling starts to show through. Good length and with a very nice aftertaste. A bit simple maybe, though a good match for the tuna. Very Good.

Lasagne of rabbit and chanterelles with a velouté of thyme was not quite what I was expecting, but none the worse for it. Silky layers of pasta sandwiched a couple of slices of a very fine, delicate rabbit ballotine/mousseline, lifted by some slices of the rabbit fillet. At the bottom of the bowl was a richly flavoured rabbit and thyme velouté with a remarkably full-and-exquisitely flavoured thyme foam on top. The chanterelles added a perfect balancing earthy-fragrant note. Stunning dish.
A glass of 2004 Kerner Praepositus, Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige was served to accompany the rabbit. The Kerner had a fascinating nose of biscuity, lavender bubble bath with vaguely sauvignon blanc like hints behind. Very full and seeming a touch sweet on the attack. It becomes more focussed on the palate as it's held in the mouth. A very interesting wine - full and rich yet with a lovely freshness. Very Good Indeed+

Next, a glass appeared for me to taste blind - the wine would go with the next dish, a Loin of cod with rosemary butter and a cèpe, fennel and garlic emulsion.
The wine had quite a rich nose; buttery with a hint of oak. Clearly chardonnay, but I wonder if there's something else in it too, as there's a touch too much freshness for a straight chardonnay, although it could be a basic burgundy or chablis. Crisp, yet creamy on the palate with very good length. Good/Very Good. It turned out to be 2002 Bourgogne Blanc, Clos du Château, Château de Puligny Montrachet.
The cod was perhaps my dish of the night: a fantastic bit of fish, very precisely cooked. The emulsion was utterly delicious as was the small slick of Robuchon style garlic mash, which was picked up by the butteriness of the wine.

The next wine was a 2001 Muscat de Rio Patras, Parparoussis, Patras Peloponnese. This had a lovely fragrant - if straightforward - muscat nose. Quite delicate on the attack; and then fills out to a lovely sweetness. Exceptional balance for a sweet muscat. I would suspect this was lightly fortified (though apparently it's not.) Very Good Indeed.
This was served to accompany Roast foie gras with grilled fig, fig purée and grue de cocoa. A real work of art on the plate with the grilled, lightly glazed fig in one corner, the fig purée smeared across the diagonal of the plate, like a ribbon. Off centre (it wouldn't have surprised me if, had I got a ruler out, it was found to obey the rules of the golden section) was a generous, deep slab of foie gras. This had been topped with a layer of roughly chopped cocoa beans: when the foie gras was roasted, this cocoa mass had part melted into the top of the liver and partly into itself, forming a crunchy, almost crème brûlée like topping to the very accurately cooked liver. I was concerned, when I first tasted the crust that it was going to overpower with its bittersweet cocoa taste, but when taken with the foie gras it worked well, the flavours not competing and the textures working beautifully together. The combination with the fresh and dried fig too lifted it to another level. Another excellent dish. The muscat worked reasonably well with it.

Fillet of Venison, slow roasted in pepper and juniper with beetroot, parsnip and quince was next. Again, beautifully presented. Excellent meat, precisely cooked to just under medium rare and, the dish as a whole worked very well indeed - the quince was again a purée smeared ribbon like across the plate, but the parnsip deserves special mention for the extreme precision of its cooking, yielding a soft interior with a crisp exterior. I can't remember a single roast parsnip like this giving as much pleasure previously.
With this was served a simple syrah 2002 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, La Rosine, M&S Ogier
This has a sweet black fruit nose and very vibrant fruit on the palate. Very young, very simple, very light tannins. Good.
On its own a rather unexceptional, very simple wine, but it worked exceedingly well with the venison dish and all its sweet flavours.

The pre-dessert was a shot glass of what looked like a miniature pint of Boddingtons, but turned out to be a delightfully refreshing Lemongrass jelly with pineapple and coconut. And by 'eck love, it were gorgeous. The jelly was very lightly set, with a little brunoise of pineapple in the top half of the jelly. The head of the 'pint' was a coconut foam with a remarkably concentration of flavour.

It was at this point that they had to respond to one of three options: I hadn't had cheese and maybe they'd expected me to, hence throwing out the kitchen's timings; or something had gone wrong with the soufflé and they needed to start again; or they thought I looked a bit under-nourished.
I was asked if I would like to try a Vanilla and date tart with which the chef was particularly pleased. Well it would be rude not to.
The tart was a top class egg custard with a rich vanilla flavour and a great wobble factor. The date element was another ribbon smeared across the plate together with a layer of date purée between the custard and the the excellent crisp pastry. The tart came with an exemplary macadamia ice-cream and a few shards of caramelised macadamia nuts, presumably partly in homage to chef Brett Graham's Australian background. Very, very class stuff.

With this I was given a glass of eiswein, immediately recognisable as grüner veltliner and even if he'd not told me, I'd have guessed at Gobelsburg, as it was very reminiscent of previous Gobelsburg GV eisweine, although it was clear it wasn't the 1995 that had firmly ingrained itself onto my memory when tasted at Gordon Ramsay. It turned out to be 2003 Grüner Veltliner Eiswein, Schloss Gobelsburg, Kamptal
A very pure essence of GV fruit on the nose. Searingly pure on the palate - not so much concentrated as condensed; and almost painfully so. It is sweet, but that is so coincidental to the pure, utter concentration of GV fruit. Remarkable stuff. Excellent.

Then it was time for the soufflé. Chocolate soufflé with honeycomb and banana The soufflé itself was about as textbook technical perfection as it would be possible to get with a chocolate soufflé. The top was scattered with shards of honeycomb. At the table a quenelle of winningly perfect banana ice cream was dropped into the centre of the soufflé and some chocolate sauce poured in. It is difficult to imagine how this could possibly be bettered.
With this, a glass of 1999 Rasteau vin doux naturel, Domaine la Soumade was served. A fairly slight nose. Very young with lots of fruit. A bit unbalanced. Good. Didn't really work that well with the soufflé - it was just a bit too fresh and fruity.

With coffee and teas come some excellent chocolates - wafer thin discs of minty chocolate and some liquidy caramelly sort of cuby chocolates, and some pieces of nougat.

An exceptionally good meal and overall general experience.

9/10 (November 2005)

That's quite an expectation for any restaurant to live up to, and I have to admit that, when I returned to the Ledbury in January 2006, I was prepared to be just a little disappointed. We weren't in the slightest, and indeed, this meal was better than the last (which in its turn was probably the best of 2005). Unfortunately, we forgot to take a copy of the menu, so some of the menu descriptions are from memory, or taken from the last visit, where the dish was identical.

As we perused the menus we enjoyed a dinky half bottle of
NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs
A remarkably rich, toasty nose. Surprisingly full on the palate, yet very delicate and elegant. Confirms my faith in the general reliability of Ruinart and the odd éclat of brilliance. My companion wanted to know where to buy this. Very Good Indeed.

Having had the tasting menu last time, we had planned to go à la carte this time, but finding that everything we liked the look of was on the tasting menu, it was an obvious choice.

The appetiser was a thin cylinder of foie gras mousseline on a leaf of feuille de brick, sprinkled with salad cress. Remarkable depth of flavour in the foie gras mousseline, and the brick pastry appeared to be lightly flavoured with something that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

The amuse was a salt cod beignet with truffled cauliflower purée and shavings of white truffle. A slightly brave combination, given that you had two creamy purées (the brandade of the cod and the cauliflower) and salt cod and white truffle aren't the most obvious of natural combinations. But the light crisp deep-fried exterior of the cod beignet was sufficient to ensure the two similar textures were kept apart, and with the differences in flavour it worked well. There was a generous amount of truffle, and while it didn't in the slightest jar, to be really finicky, I'm not entirely convinced it really added that much to the dish, although it was a welcome additional texture, and a generous gesture.

Next up was a Loin of tuna wrapped in basil with a salad of radish and soy. I had had this on my previous visit, and the consistency between the two visits is quite remarkable: here is a dish that really works well, and all credit to Brett Graham for not playing with it! An excellent piece of tuna, with a really clean, pure flavour, cooked tataki style (i.e. virtually raw) and wrapped in spinach. The tuna came on a square of what must have been daikon, but which was so thin that it provided texture more than flavour. The simple radish salad - wafer thin red radish, a few sprigs of salad leaves and few stems of cress provided a perfect counterpoint.

Lasagne of rabbit with a velouté of thyme, some wild mushrooms (chanterelles) and a slick of cep purée Silky layers of pasta sandwiched first a very fine, delicate rabbit mousseline, and then a substantial quality of rabbit flesh, primarily (but not entirely?) from the fillet. This was an improvement on the last time I had this dish here at the Ledbury, with the mousseline being rather lighter this time, and there was a greater rabbit flesh to mousseline ratio, which improved the textural feel of the dish. This really is a great dish.

With this and the next dish was had glasses of 2002 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Axpoint, Franz Hirtzberger, Wachau
Floral, melony tropical fruit with a hint of white pepper on the nose. Very open and round on the palate with nice depth. Lots of flavours that are quite difficult to pin down. Very rich, open fruit attack and middle, with good spicing on the finish. Very Good Indeed.

The next dish was Sea bass with pumpkin purée and pumpkin gnocchi. This was a beautifully cooked sliver of sea bass, with lovely crisp, lemon-scented skin. Unfortunately the pumpkin gnocchi were a bit heavy and sticky-textured, although the flavour worked well. I did notice an adjacent table having the à la carte version of this dish, and would have to say that it didn't look particularly wonderful as a main course sized portion: quite a muddy looking appearance to the plate. Probably better as a tasting menu sized portion as we had it.

Next was a variation on the foie gras dish I had had last time: Roast foie gras with poached pear and grue de cocoa. A small piece (rather smaller than previously) of very acurately cooked foie gras. This had been topped with a layer of roughly chopped cocoa beans: when the foie gras was roasted, this cocoa mass had part melted into the top of the liver and partly into itself, forming a crunchy, almost crème brûlée like topping to the very accurately cooked liver. The pear worked well (pears and chocolate would, wouldn't they?), though I think on balance I slightly preferred the fig version of this dish.

The main meat course was some delicious, perfectly cooked milk fed lamb with truffled mash potatoes, on a bed of braised celery. A slightly richer, more coloured lamb than the Spanish milk fed lamb that Sayell Foods do, and actually rather better for it. This dish was so good, that we just got on and ate it, saving our analytical efforts for the two different glasses of wine that were served with the lamb:

2004 Aglianico IGT Terredora, Campania
A very deep, chocolatey, blackberry nose. Rich and ripe fruit on the palate. Possibly a bit overripe. This was the better match with the lamb. Very Good

2002 Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, La Rosine, M&S Ogier
A young blackberry-mulberry nose. Very young flavours with lots of bright berry fruit. Youngish, simple flavours. Very satisfying wine. Good/Very Good.

Excellent cheese followed, served with a mini loaf of bread and Alsace muscat jelly.

The first dessert was a Sauternes cream with apricots and vanilla cream. This was utterly stupendous and hugely refreshing - far more than you could possibly imagine. For both of us, including my companion, who doesn't like sweets, this was the dish of the night.

Then it was time for the soufflé. Chocolate soufflé with honeycomb and banana "The soufflé itself was about as textbook technical perfection as it would be possible to get with a chocolate soufflé. The top was scattered with shards of honeycomb. At the table a quenelle of winningly perfect banana ice cream was dropped into the centre of the soufflé and some chocolate sauce poured in. It is difficult to imagine how this could possibly be bettered." That's actually what I wrote last time: the same applied this time. Such utter consistency is worthy of high praise indeed. As a relatively accomplished (I like to think) home cook, the sight of numerous such soufflés coming out through the night, all completely identical and utterly perfectly risen, is breathtaking.

With the soufflé we had a 2003 Recioto della Valpolicella, Pergole Vece, Le Salette
I didn't take a proper note on this, but just enjoyed it. It was a good, though perhaps a little young, recioto that worked well with the soufflé - indeed it worked much better than the Rasteau that accompanied the self same soufflé on my last visit.

A nice pot of verveine, with excellent chocolates rounded a superb meal off very nicely, accompanied by a couple of glasses of 2003 Grüner Veltliner Eiswein, Schloss Gobelsburg, Kamptal
A very pure essence of GV fruit on the nose. Searingly pure and super-concentrated on the palate. Remarkable stuff. Excellent.

A word needs to be said about the excellent service. From the point of booking, when the 'phone is immediately answered, and answered politely and - one of the rarest things in London restaurants - cheerfully (and you're not put on hold either, which is almost as rare) and throughout the meal all the way through to departure, the service is absolutely first class. It is characterised by its professionalism, its cheerfulness, its friendliness (without being over-familiar) and its knowledge. It really is an excellent team front of house, matching the skills of the kitchen.

This should have two Michelin stars, not the one that it has just received.

(January 2006)

Rasoi Vineet Bhatia
10 Lincoln Street, London SW3

I'd read glowing things about this posh "modern Indian" restaurant round the back of Peter Jones and just off the King's Road. So I thought I'd better see what the fuss was about.

This was formerly the English Garden restaurant, part of Richard Corrigan's empire, but is now in the hands of Vineet Bhatia, apparently the first Indian chef-restaurateur to get a Michelin star. Obviously the cooking has changed from Corrigan-owned days, though perhaps not as much as you might think.

The rubbish bags heaped up by the side door with those huge catering tins of cooking oil were never there in the old Corrigan days either and don't bode that well for a restaurant of this supposed standing - it's just not the done thing to have all your rubbish on display, at least not at 6.45 in the evening.

Surviving from the Corrigan days is the practice of ringing the bell to gain admittance and layout of the restaurant. Decoration has, naturally, changed: the fresh airy style of the English Garden has been replaced (at least on a winter evening) by a darker, heavier feel, with the smell of incense greeting you as you enter the front door. There are lots of wall hangings, ganesha statues, tribal masks and bells and overall, even in the rear conservatory area, there's a hint of the bazaar about it. This stops at the tables and the staff, both of which are modern London restaurant style. The staff are multinational, some looking just a tad discomfited in their food-wallah jackets. Cutlery and crockery is stylish, mixed and matched between suppliers to suit the different dishes. The knives, from Guy Degrenne, deserve a special mention: very thin bladed with a reverse scimitar shape.

There is a whole host of menus: the carte; the Rasoi Gourmand menu (a tasting menu offering 7 courses for £58 and 9 courses for £69, with 4 or 6 glasses of wine available for another £30 and £45 respectively); a lunch table d'hôte (three courses for £24); a five-course lunch tasting menu (£30); a vegetarian carte; and a vegetarian tasting menu. Phew.

There is an intelligent wine list, not too ferociously priced for the location (round the back of Peter Jones), with a wide selection of rieslings from around the world. There aren't many restaurants where you would hear a party on an adjoining table wondering "Shall we have Austrian or Alsace riesling? Or German?"

As nibbles you get some papads, which were very dull and presumably bought-in. They were rescued by some very good chutneys: mango chutney was fairly standard, but the coriander/mint and tomato chutneys were beautifully fresh and lively both to look at and to taste.

A masala puff pastry fleuron was offered as an appetiser and was a bit unexceptional.

The first course of my seven course tasting menu was a grilled, spice-crusted scallop, chilli mash. Really good scallop, the spice crust precisely that - crusty and spicy in a way that complemented the scallop.

Next up was a Wild mushroom khichdi, mini papad and makhani ice cream, described by the French waiter who brought it to my table as a 'wild mushroom risotto with tomato ice-cream' which was precisely what it was, with just a light spicing. It was rather disappointing to see the papad as a component of the dish, given that there was still a bowl of them on the table.

This was followed by Grilled lobster, curry leaf and broccoli khichdi, spiced lobster jus, dried broccoli florets, sour spices and cocoa, which was pretty much as per the menu description. For theatrical effect, the spiced cocoa powder was puffed over the dish at the table: which made a mess of the tablecloth and I had to reach quickly for the napkin to stop myself getting dusted too. Nice balance to the dish, with a very deeply flavoured lobster velouté.

The next dish was probably the best of the evening, perhaps because it was more focussed and perhaps drew a little more on Vineet Bhatia's heritage. This was a Tamarind glazed quail, masala mash and basil naan. A very nicely cooked breast of quail, with a nicely balanced marinade/glaze. The mash was relatively substantial with masala spiced meat of some description folded into it. The basil naan was a couple of triangles of wonderfully light naan with a liberal topping of shredded basil.

Goat's cheese and smoked cashew nut samosa was an excellent samosa, with an interesting filling, suggesting that this is the sort of thing to look for dining off the carte.

This was followed by a Lamb and morel korma laced with truffle oil, steamed rice cakes and coconut chutney. This was an interesting dish: there was lots of spice in the korma, giving a very light, fresh, truffle-fragrant with a strident spicing, completely unlike the supermarket or average Indian restaurant notion of a korma. The rice cakes were a little odd - tasteless little flying saucer shaped discs of compressed, steamed rice. As far as I could tell, the coconut chutney consisted of a few thin strips of coconut.

Eschewing the option of a chocolate and almond samosa, I selected the Chilled mango and cumin lassi with coconut ice cream which was delicious and refreshing.

2002 Riesling Grand Cru Saering, Schlumberger
A dull nose, but lovely on the palate. A nice, concentrated, very minerally, very wet-pebbles riesling that worked very well with the scallop. Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

2002 Sancerre Vieilles Vignes, Jean Max Rogers
A crisp nose but with real depth and richness. It's crisp and clean on the palate too, though again with some depth. Notable length. Very Good +. Spot on with the lobster.

2003 Cornish Point Pinot Noir, Cornish Point, Central Otago, New Zealand
Very forward, fruity nose with a touch of spice. Rich and fresh on the palate with very ripe fruit and a touch of sweetness. Really very simple, but with a warm spicy feel on the finish. Good.
This worked very well with the lamb and morel korma.

???? Apianne Moscato del Melina
Delicate, apricotty muscat nose. Rich, off-sweet attack. Reminiscent of a muscat de rivesaltes - though that might be because the bottle's been open a little too long. Fairly full, quite direct and fairly simple. Good.

Overall, I got the impression that this was essentially a western kitchen with a good understanding of how to use Indian spice and techniques, rather than the other way round: none of the dishes would have been out of place on a menu without the sub-continental background and atmosphere here. I'm not really sure whether that's a criticism or not. I thoroughly enjoyed every course , but just have this feeling that everything was just off-target very, very slightly.

The prices, by the way, are what you would expect to pay for a French/Italian restaurant at the same location, which is absolutely fair enough.

(Nov 2005)


Tom Aikens, Elystan St, London

 I’d rung to book a couple of weeks previously and had been offered a table at 10:30 pm.  Things therefore got off to a bad start as I’d hung around, getting hungrier and hungrier throughout the evening, before arriving at the appointed hour, only to be told they had no trace of my booking.  After a while, they finally found my booking – somebody had put in for two weeks later.  To be fair, they did graciously accept their mistake and asked me to take a seat in their small bar area.  After about ten minutes, during which time nobody left the dining room and nobody came whom I could ask for a drink, I was led through to a corner table in the dining room.

 It is a comfortable, bright room in browns, creams and black.  Table settings are impeccable and tables are well spaced and large.  The one failing of the room is the lighting: even at 11 p.m. (and later) it is bright and harsh, not helped by a recessed rectangle in the centre of the room lit by concealed fluorescent tubes.  I noticed a woman on another table, in the centre of the room and so directly under the fluorescents, make some kind of comment about the harsh lighting to one of the senior front of house staff.  This was followed about five minutes later by lights being switched off, on, off, on as they tried to make the lighting more comfortable for that customer, and – it has to be said – for everyone else too.  They couldn’t manage it though, and the lights returned to their original setting.  I find it almost impossible to believe that in an establishment of this standard they didn’t know how to control the lighting.

 Aperitifs are not offered.  Rather they have a champagne trolley with four or five champagnes by the glass.  Pol Roger NV turned out to be a relatively reasonable £10 when I got my bill.

 The menu reads very well, with lots of interesting sounding dishes – well, at least they’re interesting when you read the description, as it is in the modern idiom where dishes have a single word name.  Hence “Rabbit” is actually a ‘rabbit and pea boudin with chilled pea soup, ventreche bacon and leek jelly’.  Reading the menu, there are certain themes that recur in many dishes: jellies, flavoured oils, “cannelloni”.  With so much of interest and with the risk of making an unbalanced choice from the à la carte (£60 for three courses), I gravitated towards the tasting menu (£75 for 7 courses), and was pleased when they confirmed that they could still do it, despite the late hour and the single diner.  The sommelier asked whether I would like the wine list or whether he could just provide a glass of wine with each course.  I opted for the latter.

 Some excellent bread arrived: curious little loaves, in variety, shaped like over-risen soufflés.  This was followed by a glass of white wine, which the sommelier said was to go with my first dish, “Scallop”.  “And the wine is … ?” I wondered.  The sommelier had decided to play a blind tasting game with me, and I readily went along with him.  As he hovered, I guessed at a relatively light Alsace pinot gris.  Almost, and he said he could understand why I said that.  He revealed it as 2003 Sylvaner, Domaine Ostertag.

A lightly fragrant nose.  My first guess would be Alsace pinot gris.  It’s not gewurztraminer, far too light for that.  Definitely feels Alsatian, with that sort of body and weight.  Very full and fragrant and a touch spicy on the palate.  Yes, I’ll stick with my first guess.  Well, yes, now I know it’s Sylvaner/Pinot Blanc, I can see it, though it’s a heavyweight version.  Very Good Indeed.

 “Scallop” was a roast scallop with a scallop tartare, some pickled baby carrots, a liberal scattering of baby nasturtium leaves and other baby salads and some very pure-flavoured lemon purée, that was unfortunately just a bit overpowering.  Otherwise a really good dish and a good introduction.

 The next glass arrived and the sommelier looked on quizzically.  Oh, this was too easy.  On the nose it’s obviously Alsace gewurztraminer, and he’s just left the capsule visible on the bottle.  He is suitably impressed when I suggest Schlumberger Gewurztraminer.  He revealed it as 2002 Gewurztraminer Fleur, Schlumberger.

Lightly perfumed gewurztraminer nose.  Round and rich gewurz palate; quite full with fair residual sugar.  Very Good.

 The Gewurztraminer went very well with the next dish, a small rectangle of a terrine of cured foie gras at the centre of a large plate liberally scattered with a salad of baby leaves and herbs, together with some pickled mushrooms and a cèpe vinaigrette.  Good terrine with excellent flavours but we’d had pickled carrots in the first dish and now we were having pickled mushrooms in the next.

 Next came “John Dory” – this was a cracking piece of roast John Dory with some fennel gazpacho, anchovy beignets, broad beans, the same herb salad that came with the foie gras terrine and a carrot sauce.  A great dish on its own, but in the context of a tasting menu, why the repetition?

 This came with a glass of 2002 Walter Hansel, Russian River Chardonnay.  My initial impression on the nose was a Chardonnay – toasty oak and in a new world style.  Very full on the palate, and it seems to have more to it than a straight chardonnay, so I guessed at an American Chardonnay-Semillon blend.  Very rich and a bit overpowering, both on its own and with the food.

 Before the next course came, the head sommelier came over and said that he’d been talking to his colleague and he wondered whether, rather than the wine they’d normally serve with “Lamb”, whether I’d be interested instead to try, with his compliments, a cult Californian cabernet.  It didn’t take long for me to agree.  This wine wasn’t served blind: 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Sequoia Grove, Rutherford, Napa Valley.  This had presumably been opened earlier in the day, as there was just a large glassful in the bottom of a decanter.  Presumably a trade sample they’d been given, as it’s not a wine that’s on their list.  It had a very deep, tobacco-dominated nose, with blackcurrant sweet fruit.  A huge nose.  Sweet fruit on the attack, but with an interesting minerality.  There are lots of tannins present in the wine – well integrated, though they do seem to separate out towards the finish and start to dominate.  An interesting wine.  Very powerful initially, then really rather elegant, and then finishing with the big tannins.

 The wine worked well with “Lamb”, but only because it was a poorly conceived, badly balanced dish: there was a small, wafer thin piece (2” x 1”) of perfect lamb, some good lamb sweetbread beignets (repeating the beignets with the John Dory).  But the dish should have been called “Tomato”, not “Lamb”.  There were confit tomatoes, a tomato gazpacho (partly repeating the gazpacho of the John Dory) with fresh diced tomatoes and some roast cherry tomatoes.  On the side was tomato canneloni stuffed with braised legs.  These cannellonis made more than one appearance in the meal, and would appear to be a puree of the fruit/vegetable, set with gelatine, spread thin to set and then used as the ‘pasta’.  The dish was totally dominated by tomatoes, and it was the tomatoes that worked well with the wine, as their acid cut the wine’s tannins.

 Cheese (included in the tasting menu price, making it particularly good value – it’s a £10 supplement on the 3-course £60 carte) is a very well chosen selection, all French, all (and you’d expect no different) in perfect condition.  What’s different here is an interesting, if slightly bizarre, practice of giving you a small taste of most of them, to help you make your choice.  So you end up with two plates of cheese.  Fantastic for cheese-aholics!  A glass of red pineau des charentes was a good all-round match for the cheese.

 Two desserts follows: “Chocolate” – a rich chocolate marquise with a excellent mousses of grapefruit and of chocolate, a grapefruit tuile (these tuiles are ubiquitous here) and an ultra thin crisp of dried grapefruit cut from the widest part of the grapefruit.  “Strawberry” was an excellent contrast to the “Chocolate”, although again some of the techniques recurred: poached strawberries with some strawberry mousse, a vanilla parfait, strawberry tuile and shortbread, which was the longest shortbread I’ve seen – a good eight or nine inches thin strip of quite delightful shortbread.

 With dessert they served a glass of 2003 Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé, Donnafugata
A deep gold.  Elegant, raisined muscat floral nose.  Immediately sweet on the attack, then some fresh acidity cuts in.  Very elegant indeed with excellent balance and a clean finish.

 Excellent coffee and chocolates, together with a whole array of yet more tuiles, are included in the £75 tasting menu (an additional £5 on the carte).  So the seven course tasting menu, including cheese and coffee is £75.  The three course carte is £60, plus £10 for cheese and £5 for coffee, which makes … ah! £75.  The tasting menu is really excellent value, if you can eat it all.  And there’s the nub.  The portions appear not to be much reduced from the portion size of the carte (so, you might say, even better value), but combined with the repetition of techniques and ingredients, it’s an awful lot of food, and when it came to leave I was feeling quite uncomfortably full.  A tasting menu, where the chef has selected what he should regard as the best meal off his menu, should have better balance and proportion than this at Tom Aikens.  All a bit odd, as, with the exception of the “Lamb”, the dishes taken on their own would suggest one of the best restaurants in the country.

 Once in the restaurant, service was quite excellent, able to be totally professional but able to make the diner feel completely at ease and comfortable.

(May 2005)

Le Suquet, Draycott Avenue, London
Le Suquet is probably one of the first London restaurants I ever visited back in the 1970s.  Many many many years ago (early 1970s), we used to have short breaks in London several times a year - we being my parents, me and my brother. Generally they were British Rail/British Transport Hotel deals, and not knowing any better, we just ate in the hotel restaurants. Then one time on the way back to Blackpool, my father happened to pick up a copy of Harpers & Queen, which then was a much more general interest magazine and also included restaurant reviews - I think written by a woman called Gaia Servadio. Or maybe she came later. It suddenly dawned on my father that there were restaurants out there in London, and they were worthy of our attention - all you needed were recommendations in magazines or guides. Anyway, one of the restaurants reviewed on that fateful day was a newly opened French seafood restaurant in Draycott Avenue called Le Suquet. It went on to be part of a small chain, owned and run by a larger than life refugee from Cannes, Pierre Martin: others in the chain were La Croisette (which I think was the original), L'Olivier, Le Quai St Pierre, and there was some involvement also in the initial opening of Lou Pescadou just south of Earls Court.  Le Suquet, and the others, went on to feature in the Good Good Guide etc regularly before dropping out a good few years ago: now only Lou Pescadou regularly appears in guides. I didn't even know if Le Suquet was still open, but I was down that end of town on 4th September 2004 and thought I'd walk down and see if it was still there. It was. I went in. I guess I probably last went in around 1985. Nothing had changed in 25+ years. Even the menu was identical. What you'd expect if you were sitting in a restaurant on the Croisette in Cannes. I had some plain grilled langoustines which were utterly impeccable and some monkfish in a heavily reduced shellfish sauce laced heavily with tarragon. A beautiful simple lunch, with a pichet of Provence rosé that restored one's faith in nostalgia!
(September 2004)
Club Gascon, Smithfield, London
Lunch  on 23rd March 2004 was at Club Gascon (note to anyone intending to go there: 57 West Smithfield, which is right next to the old Barts hospital - don't rely on taxi drivers to find it: I walked from Holborn Circus and found it easily, while my guest was driven aimlessly round Smithfield by a cabbie. Cabbies often seem to have problems round Smithfield - I remember one getting hopelessly lost about 20-25 years ago when were were meeting someone at a restaurant (gone now) called Bubbs on Snow Hill.)
This was my first visit to Club Gascon, and I can confidently say it won't be the last. The place throbs with a passion for Gascony: the food is amazing and the wine list fascinating, with appellations I'd never even heard of! In the end, I really did just have to give in and ask the sommelier to guide us to a couple of suitable bottles, which he did without straying anywhere near anything expensive on the list.
2001 Lapeyre Jurancon Sec, J. Bernard Larrieu Now this is a striking wine. A touch off-dry, but very minerally. I wonder if it's slightly oxidised, but apparently not. Big and very rich flavours with an interesting savouriness. Good/Very Good.
2001 Ch. du Cèdre "Le Prestige", Cahors, Verhaeghe et fils Powerful stuff, but also very approachable. Concentrated plummy nose with a touch of licorice. Big palate, serious wine with very good balance. Very Good Indeed.
Pacherenc Symphonie d'automne, Berthoumieu (Didn't note the vintage, I'm afraid). Very elegant light dessert wine which went very well with the range of foie gras dishes which were set before us.
The food is, of course, firmly rooted in Gascony and this was one of the most exciting meals I've had in a long time. There is not the striving for effect that you get at such as the Fat Duck at Bray, but it's also a step above classic French cuisine. Portion sizes (and prices) are small: you don't come here for a three course meal. Instead it's almost a tapas approach.
Next time I may avoid the meat dishes.
(March 2004)

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, London

I'm not going to say much about the decor, as everybody's seen it on the telly. I do think, however, that it still suffers in the same way that Tante Claire did. I've never been able to put my finger on it, but there is something about the room, and the corridor into it from the door that does not quite resonate for me.

Service is exceptional. I even wonder whether Jean-Claude Breton might be better than Silvano Giraldin. The menu structure is as at Petrus: 2 set lunches, one choice at each course, but interchangeable and an à la carte at £65 for three courses.

The appetiser was a small disc of marinated tuna, topped with a baby quenelle of exquisite ratatouille (so fine, the vegetables must have been chopped under a magnifying glass) and with a smear of tapenade on the plate around it. The appetiser appeared to change for the very last table to sit down at this lunchtime service - they got was appeared to be a soup. She did look a little like Fay Maschler so the thought crossed my mind that Ramsay might have sent out a little of the notorious "toxic scum" for her.

Bread was excellent and comes with two butters, on little marble slabs. One is salted (and for good measure they grind a bit of black pepper on top), the other unsalted. Bit gimmicky that perhaps.

Starter was Roast foie gras with banyuls sauce, sweet & sour cherries, caramelised endive. Delicious and hedonistic. The foie gras was a little on the blue side maybe, though I managed to force it all down. My foie gras was quite blonde in appearance, whereas that served a few moments earlier on an adjacent table was a deep mahogany. An odd inconsistency, but then I was eating mine and he was eating his. Neither of us left a trace (we weren't racing, or comparing, honest - I'm just nosy!).

Main course was the classic Ramsay dish of fillet of Aberdeen Angus with caramelised pigs trotter, quails egg and baby artichoke. Red wine sauce with truffle and lots of summer truffle sprinkled over the top. An utterly exquisite piece of meat - well flavoured without being high and cooked perfectly. The trotter element was like a tiny cotechino. The fried quail's egg seemed a little otiose and went better with the trotter boudin than it did the rest, but then the trotter went well with everything else, so in an odd sort of way it all knitted together.

The wine list is magnificent, with a broad range of style and price. In for a penny, in for a pound: I had a bottle of Planeta Santa Cecilia Nero d'Avola 1998, which to my mind uncannily matched the food throughout. Big and perfectly formed, but without being aggressive, dominant or striving for unnecessary effect. I find it interesting that the very same wine was more expensive at Northcote Manor near Blackburn a few days later than it had been at Gordon Ramsay. Gordon Ramsay's mark up was around 120%, Northcote's over 150%.

Some cheese was suggested for finishing off the wine. Fabulous cheese, and a little different a selection too. Goes without saying that it was all in perfect condition.

Then there was the freebie pre-dessert of a little, unmoulded creme brulée, with a small scoop of utterly ethereal pure essence of strawberry strawberry sorbet, a little very fresh strawberry juice round the outside and a crystallised mint leaf on top. That would have made a very good dessert. The proportions were almost sufficient!

Raspberry soufflé with bitter chocolate sorbet for pudding. I have never had a soufflé with quite so much flavour in it. It had risen precipitously, but absolutely vertical! It did get just a little eggy down the bottom though, which it shouldn't at that standard.

With the dessert, for little reason other than that they were simply to die for, came some "cornettos" - little cornets made out of very thin tuile biscuits filled with banana mouse and mascarpone. That must be what angels are given to eat when they've been particularly good. I can't think of a superlative to describe just how eye-rollingly amazing they were, so I'll just leave it at that.

Coffee (£5) was as excellent as it gets and served with chocolates (the same ones as at Petrus: they must get a discount for quantity) and a basket full of enough of the little baby meringues, the name of which I can never remember, to last the week.

There's the usual list of digestifs, but I took a couple of glasses (not at the same time!) of an excellent Eiswein from Schloss Gobelsburg.

None of this comes particularly cheap and the total bill, excluding service, was £151.
But neither is any of it startlingly expensive when I look at the individual items on the bill. I spent £70 on drinks (including a bottle of water at £4 and a glass of manzanilla at £4). Coffee was £5. It is £1.50 at the Bar Italia, but I must say Gordon Ramsay's was better, plus you get half a pound of chocolates and the meringues. And I think it would be fair to say Gordon Ramsay is a rather more comfortable place to spend 5 hours over lunch than the Bar Italia. Not that I'm trying to justify spending such a ludicrous amount of money on a single lunch, oh no!

I am striving very hard, and finding it very difficult not to give this 10 out of 10. In view of the bottom of the soufflé tasting a little eggy, I think I can bring myself to knock it down to 9 out of 10.

(July 2001)

A couple of more recent visits (2005 and 2006) confirm the above.

Itsu, Soho

Bigger (it seems to me), brasher and slightly more institutional that the Walton St original. The music (or rather its beat) is the same as the original as is the food. Prices (according to the colour of the rim on the plate, as is almost traditional now) are displayed prominently on walls and windows.

Itsu is a fun place that manages to serve some remarkably good stuff on its kaitens. The sushi perhaps tends to the more mundane, definitively westernised taste (think of what you get on supermarket sushi rather than the wide variety of fish and shellfish that would be expected at a Japanese sushi bar). Salmon plays a leading role - "new style" sashimi is stunningly good. The hot dishes that circulate on tea lights should not be ignored - they are more than a gimmick, and the same is true of the desserts.

It sounds cheap, but the white plates hold little of interest, unfortunately. It's the silver and gold plates  (and the special order hot dishes) that hold the real goodies. A superb carpaccio comes on its own (well on one occasion with grated mooli and a curious apparently satay inspired dipping sauce; on another occasion with a shallot sauce) or in a Vietnamese Crystal (i.e. rice paper) roll (sushi for people who don't like rice?). A teriyaki eel handroll was superb: quite small but perfectly formed and flavoured.  An Asian style tuna nicoise was, however, really rather dull.  The omelette and chive roll was excellent.  A duck crystal roll with hoisin was a bit dull.  Tuna nigiri was fab.  Very good creme brulee to finish.

It is very, very easy to eat far more and spend far more than you intended!

Drinks range from green tea to Asahi beer (a particularly good match with the food, I find) to Taittinger.

Service doesn't really come into a place like this, but the staff are actually very good - pleasant and knowledgeable.

(March 2006)
Kulu Kulu Sushi, Brewer Street, London
Kulu Kulu manages to tuck itself away on Brewer Street. From the street it is extremely unprepossessing, if not a little off-putting. None of the slick, flashy noisiness of the Yo! chain or even Itsu.

In some respects, it is best compared to Itsu. The food itself is important and takes in more than the normal varieties of sushi. There are some interesting things come out on the conveyor belt, but it would seem advisable to sit on the right, rather than the left, as a number of interesting looking things were snaffled by people on the other side before they made it round to me.

Salmon featured fairly heavy - raw on nigiri sushi, eggs in a sushi roll, teriyaki style and a rather odd tempura, served in a well flavoured broth. I can't but wonder whether they didn't drop some in a bowl of soup by accident and sent it out anyway!

Japanese green tea is free.

Among the dishes circulating on the conveyor is a scruffy hand written sign reminding you you're only allowed 40 minutes. (or maybe 45, I can't remember)

With a bottle of beer and about 6 or 7 plates the bill came to £20.

Pretty good and rather less formulaic than many conveyor belt sushi joints.

3 out 10. (actually 3.5)
(July 2001)
Another visit in March 2005 confirmed Kulu Kulu as an excellent source of good quality, excellent value sushi.  On this occasion, as well as what circulated on the kaiten, I ordered a plate of mixed tempura off the short menu (much of which appears on the kaiten anyway).  Good quality prawns together with slices of various vegetables in a delightful, crisp, clean tasting light batter.  Excellent.  Jolly good sushi, far more than a cut above Yo!. 
(March 2005)


Tate Britain Restaurant, Millbank  

 Praying that Mr Virgin would get us to London somewhere near the timetabled arrival time, I had booked (by e-mail, a first for me!) a table at the Tate Britain for 1.45 on 22nd March 2004, not so much for the gourmet experience as the wine list. Well, Mr Virgin did his best - witness the surprise in the train manager's voice when he announced "Ladies and gentlemen we are now approaching London Euston. And we are really very, very early." 17 minutes early in fact. I think the driver must have been desperate for the loo.

Until recently, the last time I was at The Tate Britain's restaurant, then simple the Tate Gallery restaurant before the Tate spread its wings, was about 20 years ago, and it has changed little in essence. It is a welcoming place that feels modern and is particularly comfortable, and of course it has Whistler's splendid mural.  Twenty years ago the food was distinctly British (Hindle Wakes, I remember), now it's got an Italianate touch. It's fair value, refreshingly simple food, that's on the whole remarkably wine friendly: the main point of the place is, of course, the wine list (around 60 half bottles!), which you can download from their website to peruse beforehand. 

The whole set up for me is more than a little reminiscent of the glory days of British Transport Hotels. 2 male maitre d's meet and greet; 3 waitresses, straight out of a Lyons Corner house or, err ... well, BTH ... do everything else, with the assistance of a couple of male commis waiters who carry back and forth to the kitchen.

To eat, we had an extremely stingy portion of dressed crab and a jolly good barbecued quail with chick peas, black pudding, endive & parsley, followed by a hefty slab of excellent skate with capers and parsley and a well flavoured, if slightly tough fried pork collette (pork chop with a bit of kidney on top) with a bramley apple and potato galette, and then just a plate of good cheese.

As an aperitif, we had a gorgeous half bottle of 2000 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, JJ Prüm 7.5% abv. Crisp, clean with a nice background richness. Very Good Indeed.

Moving on, there came 2002 Muscadet de S&M Sur Lie, Domaine de la Quilla 12% At £8 for the half bottle, we didn't think we could be done, and indeed it was a pretty good, decent basic muscadet. Nothing to get overly excited about, but perfectly adequate. Good.

A half of 1998 Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Aux Combottes, Domaine Dujac initially had an odd nose, reminiscent of a rather medicinal forest floor. But that medicinal note blew off after a while leaving some soft cherry fruit to come through. Excellent soft fruit on the palate, with the body building all the time. Really very full. Finishes with some interesting tannins and great length. Very Good.

Finally, with the end of the cheese and instead of pudding we had a delectable 50 cl of sweet Condrieu: 2000 Condrieu Fleurs d'automne, Pierre Gaillard A gorgeous gold colour that had the waitress coo-ing as she poured it. The nose is fantastic - glorious perfumed nature with citrus and honeyed raisins. On the palate, rich, but not cloying. Layers and layers of flavours that wash over the taste buds. Excellent depth. A very interesting wine indeed, and my first dessert condrieu. Excellent.

It was just after 4pm by this stage, and having made sure we had had enough (and having got our money!), the remaining restaurant staff knocked off for the afternoon, saying that we could stay as long as we wanted: security would be around about 6pm, but if we said we were staying for dinner then they'd probably not mind leaving us there. Yes. Dinner. I didn't know that. Apparently the Tate opens for dinner once or twice a month now. We didn't stay much longer (we assumed the cellar was locked) and after a leisurely stroll round the galleries upstairs (Turners amazing; other stuff very fine indeed; some complete cr*p worse even than you see on the railings of the Bayswater Road on a Sunday morning, but then what do I know about art?).
(March 2004)

Another visit (3rd September 2004) and all, apart from the menu was unchanged.  Excellent value, good simple food.  Stunning wine list.  On this occasion I started with a twice cooked Yorkshire Blue cheese souffle with an apples salad, which had good flavours: very well balanced with spot on seasoning.  It had a rather odd cakey consistency and, of course, it even looked a little like a blueberry muffin.  The plate came decorated with a scattering of crumbs of Yorkshire blue and a few very young, but remarkably tasty salad leaves.  A simple dish, but very friendly to my half bottle of Tokay Pinot Gris, Sélection de Grains Nobles, Clos St Imer Grand Cru by Ernest Burn (a complete bargain, well below retail, were it even to be available, at £45).  Main course was a salmon and dill fishcake with hollandaise and chips.  The fishcake was an excellent example, made with fairly lightly crushed potatoes rather than a smooth mash.  Lovely fresh, clean flavours and an excellent crumb, served on a bed of spinach with a slightly sparse serving of good hollandaise.  The chips were quite superb, undoubtedly among the best ever: soft and fluffy, with a fantastic crisp exterior, many with concave surfaces, which makes me wonder whether they've not been playing with a Blumenthal style dessicator.  A JJ Prum 2000 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett went very well with this, especially at the bargain price of £13 for a half bottle.  I returned to the Sélection de Grains Nobles with dessert, a very good tarte tatin made with heritage apples (sorry, I've forgotten what variety), served with a calvados fromage frais.
(September 2004)  

 Zuma, Raphael Street, London  

Zuma is a modern, trendy industrial-looking huge barn of a restaurant and bar on a quiet back street between the Brompton Road and Knightsbridge. At the front of the space is a large bar with tables, behind the bar are the three kitchen spaces: the robato grill, the sushi bar and the main kitchen. The restaurant tables fill the remaining space. It looks and feels swish and flash. Westminster's licensing requires all customers to have left by midnight.

At the weekend, there is no set lunch.

There is a £90 (per person) tasting menu for a minimum of two, which looked to cover most bases and offer good value, and then the carte, which is divided into "new dishes", "small dishes and salads", sushi, grill and dishes from the Zuma kitchen. The menu structure (and indeed the instructions for diners on the menu) encourage sharing and ordering lots of dishes. This is moneyed residential Knightsbridge and it's no surprise to find that bill can mount up quickly.

I started with a selection of four sashimi (there's a seven-item sashimi too): really good, sweet yellowtail, meaty tuna, slightly dull salmon and a beautiful scallop, sliced and sandwiching slices of lime. This was all stunningly presented in a large heavy bowl (which looked like stone), filled with crushed ice, with an obelisk of ice in the centre, the thickly sliced fish presented on leaves and the whole sprinkled with what appeared to be marigold petals.

Next was a dish off the "new dishes" section, an octopus salad. This was slow cooked, tender octopus very thinly sliced and arranged in overlapping discs to fill a really quite large plate. The octopus was good in itself, but also well set off by a delicious dressing and a nest of gently soused onion and crisp, fresh, radish sliced wafer thin. This really was a delicious dish.

From the robato grill, I ordered some scallops (not knowing that they'd be on the sashimi plate, and it's perhaps a black mark that the various sections in the kitchen don't communicate sufficiently to avoid duplication). The scallops were lightly grilled, with a good seared barbecue flavour, topped with a really good rough purée of apple and wasabi. Excellent scallops, perfectly cooked. Good dish (though with just two scallops, it's a very light dish if you think in terms of 'main course').

The Zuma Sorbet, off the interesting dessert menu, is a selection of three accurately made sorbets: mandarin, plum and lychee. Again presented in a heavy stone/stone-effect bowl filled with crushed ice, each sorbet has its own little wooden box, again filled with crushed ice, the single scoop of each sorbet on a bed of king lychee, with half a king lychee in the centre, supported by the three wooden boxes. On top of each sorbet was an excellent tuile cylinder.

Knowing nothing about sake, I consulted the sake sommelier, who recommended a glass of koshi nakagiroi, Tokubetsu Janmai with the various seafood dishes. This had a soft nose with peach and peach blossom scents. Very smooth, with a rich feel on the palate, with very pleasant floral scents. Interesting drink.

With the sorbets, she recommended a dry plum sake. This was fascinating. The nose was intriguing, like a madeirised 30-40 year old riesling Auslese, maybe with some pinot gris fruit. On the palate, it's really very reminiscent of an Alsatian pinot gris vendanges tardives with a bit of age on it, but it's a bit sweeter than a VT might be. It has the style of VT, but with a bit of SGN or even icewine concentration. It just a tiny bit sugar-syrupy on the finish with a slight stickiness on the lips. Very, very long.

(May 2007)

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Last updated: 10 April 2011