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 the family 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 (7/10). 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 (5/10).
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 the very nicely cooked langoustines (5/10). 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 (7/10). 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 (5/10). 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 (8/10). 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 (7/10). 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 (5/10). Passion fruit with cream cheese mousse, candied chestnut and shortbread was good, the passion fruit and chestnut nicely in balance, the shortbread texture enjoyable (6/10).
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.
The notes below are from June 2008.
When it opened Sketch made headlines for some of the wrong reasons, for offering the most expensive dinner in London. Since then, not only have prices at other top London places risen, but the prices at Sketch have actually fallen a little. Starters are a still chunky: £21 - £44, fish dishes £32 - £49, meat £36 - £52. Cheese was £20, desserts £12 - £16. An eight course tasting menu was £90 (less than Gordon Ramsay) and a seven course vegetarian menu was a nice option, coming in at £65.
The décor is still over the top French style; the crystal mannequin at the top of the stair apparently cost over £100,000. The wine list comes in a separate book, and has some very fine growers. Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve Personnelle 1998 was listed at £70 for a wine that retails at £22. Didier Dagenua Silex 2005 was £202 for a wine that costs around £60. Egon Muller Kabinett Riesling Schartzhofberger 2004 was listed at £89 for a wine that costs around £30 retail. Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon at £57 was a good choice for those looking for a good wine without breaking the bank (this wine retails at around £16). Bread was either rolls of country bread white, fig or an excellent airy foccacia (7/10).
As nibbles we had a tuna-flavoured cream with cumin crackers, sea bream ceviche, cuttlefish with red pepper and wasabi, goat cheese and meringue and a jelly of whisky and Guinness. The ceviche was perhaps the best of these, though I also enjoyed the cuttlefish (7/10). Further nibbles were pea veloute with a skewer of lamb cubes, which was excellent, with tender lamb and a strongly flavoured veloute (7/10). Baby squid was not at all chewy, served with onion tempura and a tomato sauce nicely lifted by some lemon (7/10). A little cube of tuna was seared after being marinaded with green apple and lime, served with a pineapple sorbet; I didn’t think this idea worked at all (3/10).
I tried the langoustine, which in the style of Sketch (itself borrowing from Gagnaire) was served several ways, each in a different little dish (it is a good job that the tables here are huge). Langoustine tartare with crunchy bok choy and a spiced grapefruit syrup was perhaps the most successful, letting the high quality langoustine speak for itself. A mousselline of langoustine with cardamom and strawberry cubes was just a bad idea, and a langoustine jelly in a cup with edaname broad beans and peppered bisque was a case of over-working the core ingredient far too much. Better was a version grilled with agria leaves and dried bacon, and pan-fried in beurre noisette with powder of langoustine shells and a soubressade sausage. I found the more elaborate workings did not work well, since langoustine has a fairly subtle and delightful taste that certainly does not need much in the way of distractions (5/10).
Beef was again served in multiple ways. Pan fried fillet of Simmental beef from Bavaria was nicely cooked, but I know from past experience that you can get much more tasty Simmental than this. This was served with pulpitos (small octopus) and truffled breadcrumbs. There was also a pleasant ravioli with a good beef jus, on which were some thin slices of wagyu beef fillet (which in themselves were not that exciting to me, especially after my recent experience of serious beef at l’Osier in Japan). There was also a black pancake with bone marrow with Paris mushrooms and lemon. Overall I thought the treatment of the beef was quite good, beef being better able to stand up to assorted flavour combinations. The portion size was generous, but I still could not get really excited over this dish. Finally, it seemed to me over-salted, something that I rarely say (6/10 only).
I did at least end on a high note with the cheese, now sensibly on a board; this is supplied by Bernard Antony so the basic material is as good as it gets. St Felicien was very ripe, as was Colombier, St Maure was a little under-ripe, but Cantal had a pleasing, nutty taste (9/10 cheese). My companions did well with their desserts (I was too full at this stage) with a particularly fine assortment of ice creams, and an excellent Caraibe chocolate biscut with chocolate veloute made with rum, an almond biscuit and crystallised grounduts. Service was, as on my previous visit, superb in all aspects. Overall it just seems to me that the price is just a bit high for what is being offered, and that the dishes are, in places, overworked.
Below are my notes from February 2003.
I was not endeared to this place by the booking experience. After ringing up I spoke to a woman dripping with attitude who twice put me on hold, and eventually conceded grudgingly that they may have a table free at 19:00 but that it was needed back by 21:00, at which point “you can go to the bar”; I then had to give my credit card details “in case you don’t turn up”. They also reconfirmed by phone. On physically arriving the female receptionist struggled to find the reservation and then said “well, I can’t find it – I’ll have to check with the manager” while looking on at a completely empty dining room. Clearly down as gatecrashers, we were ushered to a quiet corner, and only later did she admit that they had booked us into the bistro restaurant in the same building, despite my being very explicit about which restaurant I was booking, both on booking and on re-confirmation. I looked closely to see whether she was one of the valkyries that used to be on reception at the old Canteen who always used to be the ne plus ultra in receptionist attitude but she was not; perhaps they had gone on to set up a training class in rudeness after the restaurant closed. Grrrr…..
The dining room is on the first floor. You enter from Conduit street through an unassuming town-house door, and indeed have to ring a bell for admittance. As you walk in, on the right there is a patisserie shop, and ahead and down is a bar/nightclub, plus the spectacular bathrooms (of which more anon). The ambitious Sketch restaurant is one flight up. The dining room is decorated in modern French style, with luxury being the operative word, exemplified by a remarkably thick red patterned carpet in the first part of the dining room as you enter that you practically sink into. The dining room is in two parts, the part further away as you enter (i.e. on the Conduit Street side) having wooden flooring rather than carpet, but the decor is otherwise fairly uniform. Walls are padded with squares of what look like cream coloured leather chair seats, each pad having a little mirror in each corner. The ceiling is also white, studded with lots of tiny glittering lights in attractive patterns, supplemented by floor lights and (in the main dining area) by hanging lanterns. In the smaller area (where we were seated) there were two spectacularly large modern Chinese vases the height of a man, and a couple of fireplaces (though these are not used). The ceiling is very high and table spacing is generous. Each table has fine white linen cloth with matching napkins, and has on it a few candles in a brass holder. The effect is pretty with the glittering lights, though at our table it was rather dark to read the menu. The two windows overlooking Conduit street have attractive strands of glass beads each forming a patterned screen. Chairs are covered in a mix of two colours, some red, some brown, and are comfortable.
The bathrooms are spectacular. The men’s has a entirely mirrored effect made from highly polished black stone, with fairy lights in a web shape embedded in the walls, while the urinal is a tasteful wall with water moving endlessly over it. The ladies bathroom aparently has backlit panels with diamante decoration by the hand basins. Cubicles have a spider web design picked out in diamante. The toilet roll is suspended from the ceiling by chains of beads. Even the doorstop, toilet seat cover and flush all have matching diamante decoration. Mourad Mazouz, the owner, has reportedly poured in £10 million to this building, and at least the money is “up on the screen” as they say in Hollywood. Chef Pascal Sanchez has worked with Pierre Gagnaire in Paris for four years (though not at Gagnaire’s previous venture in St Etienne) and before that at a two star Michelin place in Switzerland. It is good that he has not tried to simply replicate the cooking at Gagnaire, though the same delight in wide-ranging ingredients is evident, and the same tendency to prefer large numbers of elements to a dish. The dining room was half full on this Saturday night (though the bar was buzzing downstairs) and it will be interesting to see how sustainable this place will be. The clientele seemed quite varied, from a couple of casually dressed Germans to a pair of late middle-aged gentlemen accompanied by two spectacularly pretty girls half their age who started their meal with cocktails and a bottle of Krug.
The menu arrives inside a leather-bound notebook, the pages inserted at strategic points. The wine list arrives in a large volume, but this is mostly empty, the wines being scribbled in pencil on the first few pages. The list is by no means extensive, with a few pages that refer to perhaps 100 or so bins, mostly French. The rest of the wine world has a cursory treatment, with for example just a single Spanish red. The growers are by no means all the classics, and indeed the Alsace section for example skips most of the big name growers and goes for Kreyderweiss and Ostertag. Dessert wines are esoteric, with just five listed including a Canadian wine, an Chateau d’Yquem 1994 at £105 a half or £35 a glass. Mark-ups are high, but not spectacularly so, e.g. Vintage Tunina from Jermann is £62 here compared to £59 at Zafferano and £51 at Timo. However there is scarcely any choice at all under £40, and plenty over £100.
Bread was either white rolls, “Italian” bread (that to all intents and purpose seemed to be brioche) and chestnut bread (7/10 for the white, 5/10 for the other two breads). Amuse-bouches were extensive. Cinnamon sticks and two well-made sable biscuits were fine, though it seemed a little odd to have a sweet biscuit at this stage (5/10). Little scales of cuttlefish were served with pepper and herbs, which worked much better together than this sounds (6/10). A teaspoon contained a dollop of almost liquid and very rich, very smooth foie gras (8/10). Ravioli of black pudding was the least successful dish, as the pasta was just a little hard, while the citrus and herb sauce that surrounded it was so acidic as to drown out even the taste of the black pudding (2/10). A little dish contained a surprisingly effective blend of finely diced pineapple with sesame seeds (7/10). Finally there were slivers of capable pepper biscuits, and also, rather unnecessarily, a bowl of caramelised mixed nuts. Perhaps best was a row of five perfectly cooked white beans with a smear of slow cooked egg yolk that surprised and delighted when on the tongue it was revealed that a little mustard had been added, lifting the dish and providing a good foil to the beans (9/10).
Service is worth remarking on. The team seem mostly French, and I recognised one sommelier from Louis XV in Monaco. They were very well drilled indeed, with water and wine topped up faultlessly, bread offered as needed, everything delivered and cleared without fuss or unnecessary flourish. Indeed this was the standard of service that the very finest restaurants in France deliver, but utterly eludes most UK restaurants of whatever price range. This is perhaps the best waiting team that I have come across in the UK.
Langoustines were cooked three ways, each arriving on a separate white china plate. Best were two langoustines served in a boat-shaped tuile in which was a walnut shortcake and some shredded caramelised pomegranate. The shellfish were very fresh and beautifully cooked, melting in the mouth when eaten, while the walnuts and pomegranate adding an interesting earthy texture as contrast (9/10). Langoustine tartare was enlivened by green mango and a little pressed grapefruit and ginger – the contrasting tastes actually working well together, with the ginger kept carefully in balance and the sharp taste of the mango enlivening the shellfish without dominating it (7/10). Langoustine mousseline featured more perfect langoustines (this time diced) and was was topped with Malabar pepper and creamed passion fruit butter. Here the only problem was the passion fruit butter which was too strong a flavour (also I am unconvinced that it is a good idea to mix passion fruit with langoustine) so was perhaps 5/10, though again the shellfish were very carefully cooked. Overall easily 7/10.
“Vegetables” again consistent of several components. The best dish was “wilted young winter salad, celeriac Colombo, turnip broth with farm cider”, served as a hot turnip broth with intense flavour containing stunningly tender turnip and a puree of celeriac at the base of a bowl with steep sides. The sides of the bowl were draped with wilted chard leaves, which were perfectly tender and a delightful surprise, a brilliant dish (9/10). Much less good was fresh pressed parsley coriander and tarragon juice, served as a cold green broth surrounding “conserve of cucumber, preserved lemons, Paris mushrooms and young fennel”. A dollop of these ingredients were served cold and finely chopped, topped with a thin fennel crisp, the latter being rather chewy. There were too many tastes here, with too much thought about colour and not enough on balance of taste (4/10). Next was stems of tender spinach beet with a cream of sweet potato and honey, topped with slivers of poached fennel, which was well prepared, but again served cold (5/10). Finally, three ways with artichoke comprised artichoke barigoule, Tender quarters of baby artichoke hearts with a small amount of light tomato sauce, served cold (6/10) and a dish containing artichoke puree and slivers of raw artichoke hearts topped with a generous amount of shaved black truffle, again served cold (6/10). The overall score was 6/10.
“Pekin” (sic) duck had three goujons of very good, very pink duck, and three further pieces stuffed with truffle and foie gras, served with a faultless, glistening demi glace. On the side was a good marmalade of red cabbage that would have been better with less of, or indeed no, blackcurrants, while quetsch plums with walnuts seemed just a distraction. A better match was a fine potato cake with cured wild boar ham inside and topped with green spring onions. The meat was of very high quality and the lustrous, rich demi-glace as near to perfection as one could hope for (8/10 overall, with 10/10 for the demi glace).
Turbot was served as a thick fillet, carefully cooked, and was fine in itself. However it rested on what was described as a shrimp and prawn infusion with wilted cabbage, but resembled a rather tasteless bed of sauerkraut. A side dish contained pearl barley “risotto” cooked with more of the shrimp and prawn infusion, topped with two cooked cherry tomatoes, a wedge of roast pear and glazed radishes that did nothing to lift the dish. Also served on the side was an egg cup containing a Day-Glo coloured cucumber gelee and a teaspoonful of crème fraiche, which again did not enhance the dish (4/10).
There was no cheese trolley here, but a selection. The provenance was good, the cheeses coming from a mixture of Neal’s Yard and the top notch Maison Antony, but they couldn’t resist a little tampering here. Brie was stuffed with truffles, and a hard cheese was marinated in wine. Stilton was served in a spoon mixed in with some dates. Cheddar was sliced thinly, while a Corsican goat’s cheese was about the only cheese served just as it was. The cheeses themselves were in very good condition and did not benefit from this added attention in my view (7/10 – would have been higher if they had just left them alone). There were a variety of distractions – no cheese crackers here. We had a cold celeriac puree flanked by hazelnuts that was very fine indeed but surely would have been better served warm with a main course? There were also a few dates, slivers of shortbread biscuit, pumpkin chutney and a marmalade of blackcurrant. Some plain bread would have sufficed. The portion control was really odd here, as the cheese arrived in huge slabs. We were sharing a portion of cheese and could manage substantially less than half the cheese offered between the two of us. All other dishes had perfectly normal portions, so I am not sure what happened here.
A “Winter 2002 Sketch Chocolate” came in a circular dish with a ring of chocolate mousse on top of which was a rich coffee mousse topped with a biscuit. The dark chocolate mousse was made from very high quality chocolate and was velvety smooth, containing a few raisins steeped in alcohol. The coffee mousse was similarly smooth, the little biscuit on top filled with Grand Marnier(8/10). Ice blood orange mousse was less impressive, the base having whole blood orange segments with a dollop of orange mousse on top – the texture was fine but the mousse flavour lacked intensity (5/10). Crispy sugar waffles made from Muscovado sugar were very good, delicate and not too sweet, resting on a bed of silky mango mousse topped with fresh (and perfectly fresh) mango (6/10).
Desserts are actually just £4 for small individual portions (of course they can afford to be generous after the other courses) or £28 for a grand plate. We found that three individual dishes was plenty for the two of us. Both filter and double espresso were very good indeed, made from excellent quality beans with a dark roast (8/10). A slight surprise was that no petit fours were offered – a deviation from otherwise very French style of service. Coffee was £2.50, or £3 for espresso.
The bill arrived inside a hollowed-out hardback book, so lands on the table with an appropriate thump. It was fine in terms of practices - service was included at 12.5% as advertised on the menu, and the credit card slip was closed The issue is the magnitude of it, as with no pre-dinner drinks, a shared cheese, shared desserts and one of the cheaper wines on the list a price tag of £170 each is, as a marketing consultant may put this, “fully priced”. Water at £4 seems a generous bargain. What you can say is that the ingredients are top class, the culinary technique is very fine, the décor is magnificent and the service perfect, so at least you get something for the money.