In 2000 I wrote on this web site: “The kitchen here is cooking at very high two Michelin star level, and would be a good bet for the UK’s next 3rd Michelin star restaurant” and this indeed transpired in 2001. It is in the premises of the old Tante Claire and opened in 1998 but was refurbished in 2006 (and will be refurbished once more in February 2013). Service is of a very high standard here, and the main problem is getting a reservation. Clare Smyth took over as head chef in 2007 and retained the restaurant's three Michelin stars, having worked at the restaurant since 2002 after having trained previously at Louis XV, amongst other restaurants.
Here are notes from an extensive tasting menu in December 2012. The meal began with cheese gougeres, which are always a welcome way to start a meal. A lot of restaurants make these, but not so many do them well. They should ideally be served warm, have plenty of cheese flavour and of course the choux pastry should be very delicate. Some versions have a scalding hot centre of béchamel, or lack flavour, but these were very good indeed (18/20). In case you are wondering, the best I ever ate were in France, using 4 year aged Comte from Bernard Antony. Bread is supplied from the Flour Station, a selection of white, brown, black olive, rosemary and slices of potato and honey bread. This was certainly very good, though I always think that bread should be made from scratch by a top kitchen (unless you are in Paris or Lyon, where near perfect bread can be bought).
Pumpkin soup was poured over roasted cep, ricotta cheese and Alsace bacon, with a bacon tuile on the side of the plate with pumpkin seeds as garnish. This dish was perhaps the least successful of the meal, the bacon flavour coming through nicely, but the pumpkin flavour a little subdued, a touch sweet and for me slightly under-seasoned (16/20). Ballotine of smoked confit duck with pears (pickled, poached and pureed) was served with walnuts and pain d’epice. This dish had good balance, the acidity of the pear working well with the richness of the terrine, though by contrast with the soup this dish seemed a touch salty (17/20). Better was warm foie gras with sweetbreads, carrots and almond foam and Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar. The foie gras was of high quality and had silky smooth texture yet deep liver flavour, the vinegar gave balance to the dish and the sweetbreads themselves were a triumph, having gorgeous texture (19/20).
A take on carbonara was made using soft hen egg yolk, smoked pomme puree, caramelised onions, Iberico ham, smoked bacon and onion consommé, topped with an emulsion of four year old Parmesan. This was a rich and comforting dish on this cold day; it could be argued that there were a lot of flavours going on here, but I liked the dish (18/20). Scallop was cooked with with lardo di colonnata (pork lard from Tuscany) and served with apple, walnuts, celery and cider emulsion. The scallop had nice natural sweetness and was lightly cooked, the apple provided a balancing sharpness, but while this was an enjoyable dish the flavours did not really stand out for me (17/20).
Roast turbot was served with cannelloni of artichoke and parmesan, cep and truffle with a sauce of black truffle, red wine and beef. This was a very good dish, the turbot carefully cooked and well able to stand up to the rich sauce, the cannelloni particularly good, having soft texture and with lots of cep flavour packed into the pasta (18/20). I slightly preferred this to sea bass that had been pan-fried and served with rock samphire, Oscietra caviar and a veloute of caviar and oyster. The fish was excellent and accurately seasoned, the sauce just a little lacking in intensity for me (still a good 17/20).
Pigeon with polenta was served with carrots and braised shallots, foie gras and smoked ventreche, and a sauce made from dates and the cooking juices. The pigeon (from Bresse) was itself excellent, the sauce very good, and I admire anyone that can make polenta taste decent (18/20). However the star dish was pork done in five separate ways: a sausage using the shoulder, roast loin with crushed new potato, bacon and spring onion, pork belly served with apple, pig cheeks wrapped in Savoy cabbage with Dijon mustard, and ham hock with pineapple. This was accompanied by an apple puree and braised pork jus. This was a well-designed dish, the various elements of the pork coming together well as a whole, enough apple to give balance, and the cooking of the pork was technically superb; the sausage in particular had superbly deep flavour (19/20).
Pre-dessert was lime and apple sorbet with lime mousse and avocado, diced Granny Smith apple, eucalyptus and shiso (Japanese mint). This was a pretty and refreshing dish, the sorbet having excellent texture and the lime providing freshness but not being too sharp (18/20). Crème brulee of prune and vanilla and freshly pressed apple juice was technically correct, the vanilla flavour coming through in the custard and top crisp, but while very well made, this dish was hard to really get excited about (17/20).
Smoked chocolate cigar with cardamom ice cream and blood orange jelly was very pretty indeed. The blood orange jelly was a nice foil to the chocolate, but for me the smoking of the chocolate was a distraction; it was not overly smoky in taste, but I do not think that this process really added anything positive to the dish (other than to provide the verbal reference to the cigar and smoking). The presentation, though, was superb (17/20). Also very attractive was lemonade parfait with spun honey, confit lemon and bergamot jelly, with a sheep milk and yoghurt sorbet. This was a clever dish, the balance of the citrus fruit and yoghurt good, and the spun honey was both a nice visual affect and also added a little balancing sweetness (18/20).
The bill came to £207 a head, with some reasonably modest wine. Coffee and petit fours were priced at £5, water £3.50 a bottle, the tasting menu was £125 each. Three courses were priced at £95, and there was a cheap lunch menu at £45. Overall this was a very fine meal indeed. The technical precision in the kitchen is hard to fault, and the best dishes had lovely flavour balance. The limiting factor for any UK kitchen is the ultimate quality of the ingredients that can be obtained, especially with regards to vegetables (compared to the finest produce in the Mediterranean or Japan) but Clare Smyth is clearly a top class chef. Her cooking and own style have clearly developed since she took over the reins here, and the meal today was as good an overall culinary experience as you are likely to encounter in the UK.
What follows are notes from my lunch in May 2010.
The wine list has oddly inconsistent mark-ups, though at no point could it be described as generous. Haut Brion 2004 was £349 for a wine you can buy for around £123, Andre Perret Condrieu Chery 2007 was £134 for a wine that you can pay £32 for but this can be found for £22 retail i.e. six times the retail price, yet Didier Dagenau Siliex 2004 was £140 for a wine that costs over £70 to buy i.e. only about double retail price (though service has to be added to this price of course). Generally expect mark-ups of perhaps four times retail price, but it is worth checking carefully for the exceptions in either direction. Bread is now mostly made at Ramsay’s own facility in Battersea, with the Poilane bread supplied from Poilane in Victoria, and this is certainly quite good bread, with selections such as black olive bread and rosemary and potato bread (perhaps 17/20 on average).
Nibbles were an aubergine caviar and a rocket, basil and Parmesan dip with crisps; I have always liked the aubergine caviar here, which I think works better than the other dip ( 17/20 average). A further amuse-bouche of deep-fried frog leg topped a potato salad and bacon lardons, around which was poured a wild garlic sauce. This dish worked well, with distinct flavours, and the garlic flavour well controlled (17/20).
Tortellini of crab and tiger prawn with parsley, chilli and lemongrass consommé is a variant on a Ramsay standby, and had cooked pasta and fresh crab. I would have been happier with slightly more vibrant taste of the spices, though I understand that this would not necessarily to be to all tastes (18/20). Slightly better was Porchetta with lardo di colonnata, pancetta and a confit of tomatoes, olives and basil was enjoyable, the rabbit and pork working well together, while perhaps the tomatoes could have been more in evidence (18/20).
For the main course, ox cheek was braised in red wine with a paysanne of spring vegetables, served with a polenta and marscapone cheese on the side with a red wine sauce. The ox cheek was tender, though for me the seasoning was a little too subtle, but I was impressed with the polenta side dish; anyone that can make polenta interesting gets my vote as a chef (17/20, but more for the polenta). I preferred roasted fillet of pork with smoked ventreche, with morteau sausage, pork belly, black pudding and caramelised apple and choucroute. Pork, apple and cabbage is a classic match, and the choucroute was nicely made, the pork moist and tender (strong 18/20).
Cheese is now supplied by La Fromagerie. A pre-dessert of Eton mess was excellent, the meringue very well made, the meringue having very good texture and the fruit flavours well balanced (19/20). Dessert proper was rum baba. It is always hard to think of this without comparing it to the Louis XV version. This was very well made, but the tough thing about this dessert is getting enough moisture in the bread base. Here it appeared to be baked a little longer than the Ducasse version, and although still very good was not quite as moist as it could be, though the chantilly cream was excellent (18/20).
Pear tatin was very good indeed, served with walnut ice cream and served with a garnish of flecks of Colston Basset Stilton, an unusual idea to balance the richness of the tatin. This worked quite well, and the tatin was very well made indeed (18/20). We finished with good coffee, and the frozen strawberry ice cream in a white chocolate shell that has been a Ramsay staple for many years. Service was extremely good today, very hard to fault at all.
I thought that the set lunch, at £45 per person, represented quite good value. Some of the cheaper lunch options in London restaurants can be disappointing in what arrives (and at the lower prices it is not reasonable to expect the costliest ingredients), but here there seemed to be a lot of attention to detail. The cooking technique here is excellent, and I found this more assured than my last meal here. I think this reflects Clare Smyth settling in and developing her own style.
Below are notes from a meal in March 2008, my first with new head chef Clare Smyth.
The dining room has just over a dozen tables and is simply decorated, with wooden panels painted white alternated with mirror panels, and a central pillar in the dining room also mirrored. There are no paintings on the walls, and no music to distract from the food. Lighting is nicely done with directed ceiling spots, though a dimming of the lights during the evening was unsubtle to say the least; it felt as if someone was about to call “last orders”. Other than that service was superb throughout, with waiters attentive without being intrusive, and what came across as a genuine interest in the customer. The wine list was 37 pages in length and full of top growers, but is fully priced. There is a solitary wine at £21, but Ata Rangi pinot noir 2006 was £82 (retail price around £23), Clot St Hune 2000 £185 (retail maybe £70) and Unico 1995 an unforgiving £440 (retail around £120). Even the basic Kistler Sonoma Coast, the least interesting wine of a great producer, was £130 for a wine that retails at about £30 (if you can find it). For nibbles there were crisps of mozzarella and potato cream and a cone of avocado and lobster salad. These were both fine though I recall previous incarnations of the crisps being more delicate (17/20). An amuse-bouche of a little ravioli with potato foam on a tiny bed of root vegetables and a jacket potato consommé had a pleasing smokiness (18/20).
My langoustine, lobster and salmon ravioli was poached in a light bisque with a lemongrass and chervil velouté. This is a slight update on an old Ramsay classic but I found the pasta just a fraction harder than ideal, and a filling that could have been a little more moist (17/20). Better was a starter of pan-fried Scottish scallops with a millefeuille of potato, parmesan veloute and truffle “smarties”, the star for me being the excellent potato, but here the scallops were timed just about perfectly (19/20). This is more than could be said for pan-fried John Dory, which was distinctly on the crispy side of cooked, served with Crab, caviar, crushed new potatoes and a basil vinaigrette; the fish itself was on the borderline of being suitable to be sent back, though the other elements of the dish were fine (15/20 at best). I fared better with excellent Barbary duck, cooked pink and with lovely flavour, served with creamed savoy cabbage, chestnuts, beetroot, turnips, black trumpet mushrooms and nicely judged Madeira jus (19/20).
The cheese was from Cave au Fromage in South Kensington, a mostly French board with a few British offerings such as Stinking Bishop and Stilton. These were in good condition but I am still in search of a cheese board in England to rival those you find in France (18/20). Pineapple and coconut soup with chilli syrup as a pre-dessert had its flavours in control and was fairly refreshing (17/20). A tarte tatin was well made though for me was caramelised just a little too long (18/20) though the taste was good, the pastry fine and the vanilla ice cream with it excellent. A Granny Smith parfait with honeycomb, bitter chocolate and champagne foam was very prettily presented and had nice texture, though the flavours seemed a little subdued (18/20). The white chocolate spheres with strawberry ice cream served in a dish with liquid nitrogen would perhaps be better with less theatre, being served so cold that the palate is numbed. Coffee was excellent. Overall this was a very enjoyable meal: the menu is appealing, full of dishes that you actually want to eat but not stuck in a time warp. Service was genuinely excellent. For me though the flavours are not truly exciting as one might hope for in a top 3 star place, and the odd slip as with the John Dory timing tonight should not occur at this level. I don’t think the bill is particularly excessive: three courses cost £90, and there are plenty of freebies thrown in for that.
Here are notes from a meal in 2007.
The new room retains the same 14 tables but the décor is less yellow and more cream/beige, and rather simpler. It is very restrained and does not distract from the food. There is no music, and there is carpet rather than the wooden floors that seem ubiquitous these days (and are very noisy). The service is very slick, led by Jean-Claude Breton, and this evening the front of house team did not put a foot wrong: dishes were delivered in a timely fashion, water, wine and bread were topped up carefully and there was no trouble getting attention. Even the cheese waiter really knew his stuff, a rarity in the UK. The wine list is substantial and features high quality growers from across the world e.g. from Germany there is JJ Prum and also Willi Haag as well as the more common Dr Loosen. There is the odd wine under £20 and some choice in the £25-£40 range, and certainly mark-ups are not the fiercest in London by any means. Trimbach Cuvee Frederich Emile was £69 for a wine that retails at £19.50 for example.
To begin with was a spoon containing a sphere of deep fried Parmesan rissole resting in a little rocket pesto (18/20) and a cornet containing sour cream courgette and aubergine topped with caviar. This sounds odd yet in fact the vegetable puree was very good indeed, and the saltiness of the caviar balanced the sour cream well, the aubergine puree at the bottom an interesting surprise (19/20). The first amuse-bouche was a “breakfast” of a soft boiled egg served in its shell with “baked beans” in tomato sauce, serviced with spoonful of cold wild mushroom duxelle and a potato and bacon crisp. This sounds rather gimmicky but was well made. The second amuse-bouche was a central tortellini filled with crushed amaretto biscuits, over which was poured a pumpkin velouté; the soup had very good flavour indeed, with a clean yet intense taste, and was accompanied by a parmesan bread stick (19/20). My first “proper” course was ballottine of foie gras in a ring, in the centre of which was a jelly of camomile, alongside a row of baby pickled vegetables (cauliflower, carrot, turnip, broccoli). The foie gras itself was of high quality, the ballottine having smooth texture, though I‘m not sure that camomile is the ideal partner for this flavour. The rosemary foccacia accompanying this dish was excellent, better than the regular breads (18/20).
Next was a pair of scallops that were topped with a thin layer of Parmesan, then pan fried. These were served with a parmesan velouté and octopus carpaccio. All very pleasant, though I wonder what the Parmesan crust on the scallops really offered, and whether they would have been cooked even better without this distraction (18/20). Fillet of line-caught halibut was of very high quality, fresh and timed beautifully, the fish having excellent texture. This was resting on two rolls of papardelle pasta, one flavoured with coriander and green in colour, the other with ginger and red in colour. A sauce of passion fruit butter was poured around the fish. On top of the fish were some unannounced but very tender baby French beans. I worried about whether the passion fruit would work, yet there was a pleasing freshness that carried the dish through, and the passion fruit butter avoided any sense of cloying. I would score this 19/20 except for one technical problem: the pasta roll of ginger was rather hard, while the other one was fine.
This was followed by three slices of Northumberland beef, cooked medium rare and surrounded by a ring of kohlrabi and assorted root vegetables, resting in an infusion of root vegetables that was also served on the side in a small cup to be drunk. Also served was a copper pot of mashed potato creamed with horseradish that I thought worked very well, the distinct flavour of the horseradish nicely keeping the richness of the mashed potato in check. All this was very well executed (19/20).
I should say that as I was steadily munching through this tasting menu my wife was eating an entirely vegetarian tasting menu alongside me (a fairly new feature here). The first dish was tiny red peppers stuffed with ratatouille, crisp dice of courgettes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes, served with a rich tomato coulis, made sour by the addition of vinegar. This was served with the same pickled baby vegetables as the foie gras, on top of a basil puree, and accompanied by a slice of brioche with black truffles, much better than the regular bread (18/20). The second course was a coriander papardelle, on top of an aubergine gratin, topped with wild mushrooms and a cep veloute. The pasta was a little hard, but otherwise the tastes and textures were good (16/20). The third course was a “paté” of slices of potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and black truffle, with an artichoke sauce containing a few tiny broad beans; this was the best dish in terms of originality and taste (19/20). The last dish was a fricassee of white beans with salsify, cauliflower, broccoli, and green beans, surrounded by a ring of baby spinach leaves and served with a white bean veloute, all delicate and tasting of the individual fresh vegetables (18/20).
Cheese was served on a crowded trolley, and is mostly French with a few British choices. Camembert was in fair condition, while Langres (from Champagne) was in better shape. Comte (from Jura) was pleasant but lacked the lovely taste that really top Comte possesses. Colston Basset Stilton was very good. They use Premiere Cheese as a supplier, which is OK but by keeping such a large board (there were maybe 30 cheeses) it was inevitable that not all were in peak condition: better to serve a half a dozen cheeses in truly perfect nick. For me this was only a 17/20 cheese board. A pre-dessert of pineapple and champagne soup topped with fromage frais and chilli was drunk through a straw and was pleasant, livened up by the inclusion of “space dust” (16/20). Dessert was Granny Smith granita, on top of Granny Smith parfait enclosed by rings of dark chocolate. At the base was a white chocolate mousse on a disc of rich chocolate sponge, and on top was a disc of spun sugar and a fine chocolate stick (18/20).
Bread is slices of either white, brown or tomato bread. The bread is well made and very pleasant, but not especially interesting (15/20). The bread is actually bought in from Marcus Miller in Battersea. While I don’t have a problem with restaurants buying in bread when they cannot make it better themselves, you have to ask yourself a question. This is a 3 star Michelin restaurant, one of the few in the UK. If anywhere is going to try and make bread, surely this should be the place? The bread at Roussillon, for example (who make their own), is better than here. At the end there is no tray of petit fours but a pretty metal display of a tree of wires and on the end of each “branch” is impaled a very good spherical chocolate (19/20). Balls of strawberry ice cream covered in white chocolate are served in a silver dish with liquid nitrogen spilling out. Coffee itself was better as espresso than filter, which seemed to me a little weak (17/20 on average). As I look back at the meal I can admire the generally fault-free technical execution combined with pleasant flavour combinations and good ingredients. However somehow for me the cooking lacks real excitement – there was no dish with the “wow” factor. For all its virtues this seems to me to lag somewhere below the halfway point of three star Michelin restaurants.
Here are notes from a meal in 2006.
Amuse bouche was pumpkin soup flavoured with truffle oil (19/20). My starter was pork belly flavoured with spices, remarkably tender after slow braising, surrounded by a somewhat superfluous ring of baby sautéed langoustines, which were adequately rather than perfectly timed, and whose delicate flavour was rather overwhelmed by the pork, spices, and by the horseradish flavoured blanc à la crème that was poured over them. The dish would have been better without the langoustines, though the pork was remarkably tender (18/20, higher without the langoustines). For main course I had a breast of Bresse chicken, poached then grilled, served on a bed of vegetables including asparagus, confit shallots and wild mushrooms, themselves atop a layer of Savoy cabbage seasoned with marjoram, resting on a bed of delicate borlotti beans (easily 19/20). The chicken was perfectly cooked, full of the flavour that comes only from Bresse chicken, while the vegetables were faultlessly cooked.
For dessert I had tarte tatin, which was very good but was less good than the rest of the meal. The pastry was flaky, the tart suitably caramelised, but somehow this lacked the flavour of the very best tarte tatin (for which try the Waterside Inn). This was served with some perfect vanilla ice cream (overall 17/20 for the tarte, 20/20 for the ice cream). Coffee was served with a little box of macaroons and also some home made chocolates. Service was classy and seemed effortless.