The building that houses Sketch is home to several venues: a gourmet restaurant (The Lecture Room and Library), a more casual downstairs restaurant, a tearoom and cocktail bar. The upstairs Lecture Room and Library has opulent décor, with thick carpet and well-spaced tables with high quality white linen. There are several menu options: a six course tasting menu was priced at £95, and from the a la carte starters ranged from £33 to £42 and main courses £47 to £55, desserts £13 to £25. Sketch is owned by restaurateur Mourad Mazouz and iconic Parisian chef Pierre Gagnaire, who pops in on occasion but of course is not behind the stoves cooking dinner too often. The new head chef is Romain Chapel, who took over from Jean Denis LeBras in 2012. Romain is the son of legendary chef Alain Chapel, whose eponymous Mionnay restaurant held three stars for many years, though sadly that establishment closed last year. Romain Chapel has worked in some very serious kitchens, including stints with Olivier Roellinger at Maisons de Bricourt and Marc Haeberlin at Auberge de l’Ill, returning in 2010 to his father’s restaurant, and becoming head chef before it closed in February 2012.
The wine list was extensive, with around 700 wines, ranging in price from £18 to £17,000, with an average mark-up of around 3.7 times retail price, high even for Mayfair. Example wines include JJ Prum Kabinett 2009 at £49 for a wine that you can find in the shops for £22, Jermann Vintage Tunina 2010 at £98 for a wine that retails at £35, and Kistler les Noisetiers 2007 at £174 compared to a shop price of around £58.
Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, and good white bread slices and even better buckwheat bread, with an excellent crust (17/20). A plate of amuse-bouches comprised: goat cheese parfait and beetroot powder, spinach financier with Stilton cream, sea bream sashimi with white melon, cumin crackers with parsnip cream, and little Parmesan nibbles, and a bowl of sauerkraut foam. These were technically well made, though the sea bream flavour in this tiny nibble was barely discernible. I quite liked the sauerkraut foam, which was unusual; however the others did not stand out for me (15/20).
A dish called “sea garden” (£42) consisted of a main plate of excellent langoustines, carefully cooked and of evidently high quality. On the side was langoustine bisque with shrimp butter that had good flavour but would have been better warm. The other accompaniments were white crab meat (complete with a small piece of shell) with avocado and citrus gelee, and oysters in a bouillon of ”sorrel and quimper”; incidentally, Quimper is not an ingredient but a town in Brittany – I am not quite sure why it is highlighted on the menu. The main question to me with this complex plate of food (plates really) is whether the assorted extra elements really added anything to the core of the dish, the langoustines. The bisque made sense, but avocado and crab felt like it belonged as a separate dish, as did the warm oyster. It felt to me that the extra elements were added because having several components is notionally the Gagnaire style, rather than because these particular things really went together. If the langoustines had been cooked in a few different ways, for example, then this would have made more sense to me. As it was, it just seemed confused, and the crab shell slip and the cold bisque detracted rather than enhanced from the very nicely cooked langoustines (15/20). By contrast when I ate at Pierre Gagnaire in Paris I tried a dish of langoustines prepared five different ways, and this seemed to me a coherent dish design, as well as being flawlessly executed.
Duck (£47) was from Challans, and of high quality, served with cumin and cinnamon sauce, red cabbage and blackcurrant marmalade, red onions, prune paste, roasted foie gras and potatoes with coriander. The red cabbage was excellent, having just the right balance of sweet and sour, the blackurrant providing a hint of acidity to balance the richness of the duck, though the potatoes were rather overwhelmed by the considerable quantity of coriander used (17/20). I preferred this dish to the Simmental beef dish than I sampled, the beef itself not having quite the depth of flavour that I was expecting, and the dish seemed to me rather too rich with its Gorgonzola, rocket and carrot accompaniments (15/20). The savoury dishes at Sketch are nothing if not complex, and sometimes, in the words of Robert Browning, “less is more”. I wonder whether the chef should ask “what can I subtract from this dish” rather than “what can I add”, because for me the cooking would be improved by a more focused approach.
Vanilla soufflé (£13) was the dish of the day, the soufflé immaculately cooked with excellent texture and plenty of high quality vanilla flavour coming through (18/20). You can also choose either three (£16) or six (£25) mini-desserts. Gianduja chocolate was topped with caramel laced with Balsamic vinegar, chocolate sorbet and Sharon fruit – this was excellent, the rich chocolate nicely balanced by the acidity of the fruit (17/20). Pink grapefruit marmalade with dragon fruit with candied red pepper and pink champagne granita seemed to me a rather confused dish, with too many strong elements fighting for attention (15/20). Passion fruit with cream cheese mousse, candied chestnut and shortbread was good, the passion fruit and chestnut nicely in balance, the shortbread texture enjoyable (16/20).
Service was really top-notch, the staff very well drilled, the topping up flawless. This is the sort of classy service that very few London restaurants manage to pull off. The bill, with three glasses of wine each, came to £172 a head, even with a £50 off voucher. Certainly, if you go the a la carte route, it would be tough to drink wine and leave here with a bill of less than £150 a head, and it would be very easy to spend more than this. This is the fundamental issue with Sketch: the food is certainly accomplished, but not the very best in London, yet it is as expensive as anywhere. However, the dining room was full on a Tuesday lunch in February, so they clearly know their market.