In early 2012 Tom Aiken’s flagship restaurant, which originally opened in 2003, was relaunched with a more casual dining room format. Out went the linen tablecloths, and in came a wooden floor, bare tables and rough hessian napkins. Various sayings about food are printed on some of the dining room walls. On the tables are what appear to be precariously balanced, thin glass flower vases, which are apparently more robust than they seem. There are a few gimmicky touches: menus appear in envelopes, the wine list tucked away as pages pasted into old hardback books. Lee Westcott is head chef here; Tom Aikens is apparently present at most services, though he was elsewhere tonight. A three course meal was priced at £50.
The more rustic décor has not extended to the culinary technique. Tom Aikens has always had a tendency to the elaborate, with many elements on a plate, and this style has continued. We began with some nibbles. A little salad of tomato with black olive crumbs and basil puree was very carefully judged, the tomatoes having unusually good flavour, the olive crumbs adding a textural balance to the puree, the flavours the essence of traditional Mediterranean but the technique modern (7/10). Also excellent was a little bowl of duck with black truffle foam, with rich flavour yet the foam bringing some lightness (easily 7/10). Also pleasant was both raw and braised celeriac with truffle crème fraiche, garnished with fresh thyme. This was pleasant but lacked the wow factor of the other two nibbles (5/10). A little basket of four breads appeared next, served warm. The breads were all made from scratch, and with considerable skill. A bacon brioche was light and sweet but with a string hint of bacon, a cep roll tasted distinctly of ceps and had good texture, a rustic bread had good flavour and a buttermilk bread was delightfully light (8/10).
The wine list had around 250 choices, ranging in price from £24 to £2,300, with an average price of £68. The mark-up level averages a little over three times the retail price, which is fairly normal for London. The mark-up of the more costly wines is somewhat erratic, so those with means will find one prestige wine well below its current retail price, for example. Example wines included Pinotage Cloof 2008 at £34 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £9, the lovely Joh Jos Prum Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 2010 at £58 for a wine that retails at £19, and Cuvee Frederich Emile Trimbach 2004 at £104 for a wine that you can find for £31 in a shop.
Langoustines were roasted and served with langoustine powder, herb mayonnaise and a garnish of black olive crumbs with a few leaves. The langoustines were cooked beautifully, the olive and herb flavours going well with the shellfish, the mix of textures working well (8/10). Also good but slightly less impressive was lobster, served cold but cooked to a tender state, served with pickled cucumber and yoghurt granite; for me the pickled cucumber could have benefitted from a little more vinegar, though this was still a good dish (5/10).
John Dory came with cauliflower milk skin, sweet roast cauliflower, cumin and brown butter. The fish was again skilfully cooked, the cauliflower carefully cooked, the controlled flavour of cumin lifting the dish (7/10). “Ark chicken” from Devon (referring to a shelter for free range chickens) was cooked sous-vide and served with thinly sliced pasta, egg yolk, citrus endive and roast pine nut butter. The egg yolk worked well with the bitterness of the endive, the chicken having good flavour, though I am unconvinced that any British chickens have the quality of flavour as the best ones from France (6/10).
A coffee dessert had coffee sponge cake, ice cream in coated in coffee granules, coffee jelly, coffee granita and coffee crème caramel with espresso syrup. The jelly rather lacked flavour, but all the other elements were bursting with coffee flavour (7/10). Dark chocolate parfait was served as chocolate in various forms: chocolate ganache, chocolate roll, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and chocolate gel, balanced with mint syrup to offset the richness of the Valrhona chocolate (7/10).
Petit fours were as elaborate as the preceding courses. A little tin of passion fruit and grapefruit jellies were accompanied by a tray loaded with tempting mignardises. Amongst the collection were two different nougats, orange candy with dark chocolate, salted caramel, marshmallow, honeycomb, lemon chocolate, white chocolate with hazelnut and (of all things) chorizo, carrot cake, white chocolate with raisins, three different chocolate bars and three different tuiles. The salted caramel and carrot cake in particular were terrific (8/10 overall).
Service was extremely slick, the waiters knowledgeable about the dishes, the topping up faultless. The bill came to £117 a head. This did not actually seem that much to me given the tremendous amount of work that had gone into the dishes. I preferred this meal to the last one I had at Tom Aikens in the old dining room. Tom is a controversial character, but even his worst enemy could hardly deny that he can cook. The complexity of his style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think that compared to years ago his style has actually become (relatively) pared back. The technical cookery techniques used now have real relevance to the dishes, adding a texture here, an extra flavour note there, rather than just showing off culinary wizardry. This was a very impressive meal.