The premises that used to be The Boxwood Café are the setting for Pierre Koffmann’s return to the stoves at the age of 62. He should need no introduction, but was one of the iconic chefs working in London, earning three deserved Michelin stars at La Tante Claire from 1993 to 2001 after opening that restaurant in 1978. Pierre started cooking in 1966 in France and then trained with the Roux Brothers, starting in 1970 at Le Gavroche as a sous-chef and progressing to head chef of The Waterside Inn from 1972 – 1977.
This time he has chosen a bistro rather than a fine dining format. The dining room is down a few steps from the street, with beige carpet rather than wooden floor (meaning much more comfortable noise levels), black and white prints on the walls and analgypta wallpaper. Starters were £10 - £16, main courses £17 - £36, but this price included vegetables, which these days so often appear as an unwelcome extra charge, and desserts around £12. At lunch there is a three course set menu for £22.50 (£26 on Sundays).
The notes that follow are from a meal in November 2010.
An amuse-bouche of celeriac remoulade with pig trotters was nicely made, the celeriac flavour coming through well, the pig trotter providing a crunchy texture contrast (5/10). Also pleasant was a little black pudding with sautéed apples (5/10). I began with crab salad with celeriac and apple, which was a really well executed dish. The crab was fresh (this time shell-free) and the celeriac and apple provided lovely balancing flavour (easily 6/10). This time I briefly tasted the scallops with squid ink, which was nice but I have to say was not a revelation.
What was truly superb was the classic dish of pig trotter stuffed with morels and sweetbreads. This was a rich, generous dish with superb depth of flavour. It is easy to see why this became Pierre Koffmann’s most famous dish. With the passing of the years I wonder whether an acidic element to balance the richness would be better than the mash, but this is really a terrific dish (9/10).
My roasted rabbit with Dijon mustard was very enjoyable, the rabbit tender and the seasoning bold (6/10). My wife’s Dover sole was a dish that was hard to score. I suspect that it was very good when delivered to the table, but she was asked whether we wanted it on or off the bone. Being a doctor, she knows how to fillet a fish, so asked for it on the bone, but despite this it reappeared off the bone. This would be OK if it was properly filleted, but it was a long, long way from that. I am not sure how it would be possible to mess up the filleting of this fish more, except perhaps by putting the flesh and the bones in a blender. Almost every mouthful was full of bones. Despite us complaining about this at multiple points, at no point in the evening did anyone actually apologise for this pretty unforgiveable screw-up. Desserts included the magnificent pistachio soufflé, which I have written about before (9/10) and a capable apple tart tatin (6/10). Coffee was also fine.
I rarely comment on the service in a restaurant (it does not come into my scoring system), but I will tonight. When we arrived there was a comedy of errors at the reception desk, where four staff managed to struggle for minutes to find the reservation, despite my spelling out my surname carefully on two occasions. Not a big deal really. When the amuse-bouche arrived, and my wife mentioned that she did not eat meat, this was replaced: all good so far. Yet just minutes later a second amuse-bouche of black pudding was put in front of her – how difficult is this? The worst thing was when this problem was politely pointed out, the distinctly grumpy waitress scowled and then muttered something under her breath that did not sound remotely like “oh yes, you just mentioned that moments ago; silly me”. This was followed by the Dover sole fiasco, related earlier. The exception to this shambles was the excellent sommelier, who was knowledgeable and helpful, and orchestrated careful topping up. For me a restaurant is all about the food, but the service tonight was simply unacceptable for any kind of smart restaurant. Front of house manager Claire, who was excellent last time, was away tonight, which doubtless did not help, but this was a service train wreck. This was all the more annoying since the food was very good indeed. The bill came to £104 a head.
What follows are notes from my first meal here, in July 2010.
The wine list, as one might expect, majors on France, and is priced at a premium level. Examples were Trimbach Riesling 2008 at a chunky £45 for a wine that costs £10 in the shops, while its better sister the lovely Cuvee Frederich Emile 2004 was £85 for a wine that costs £29 retail. Chateau Palmer 1995 was listed at £350 for a wine you can pick up for around £110, while investment bankers can contemplate Chateau Latour 1988 for £950 (+ VAT of course), a wine that actually costs around £290 in the shops. The bread is a work in progress. They are in the process of hiring a specialist baker in September, when the bread will be made from scratch; this evening it was bread from the hotel, which was grim. As this is a temporary situation I won’t score this.
Cheese goujeres are brought as you study the menu; these were piped into precise shape but were not piping hot, and for me a little more cheese in the mix would have improved things, though they were still good (5/10). My starter of scallops and leeks were served in a large scallops shell, with a well-balanced beurre blanc. The scallops were of good quality and nicely timed, the leeks good and the sharpness from the beurre blanc adding a little balancing acidity (6/10). Fresh crab with celeriac and apple was also excellent, the sharp apple and the earthy celeriac balancing the crab (6/10); the only issue was that there was a lot of crab shell present, so perhaps someone could invest in a UV lamp to avoid this problem in the future.
My main course of spicy duck was cooked very well, served with chicory and light cooking juices, carefully seasoned (6/10). Sea bass was good quality, line caught and served with a citrus jus (5/10). The matchstick chips were superb, crisp, light and boldly seasoned (7/10), served in French newspaper (Pierre’s partner, Claire Harrison, is a vegetable specialist, and has chosen the potatoes used in the chips; tonight they were Marquise, but the variety varies). Sugar snap peas were pleasant, but some carrots were a little overcooked (the carrots were barely 3/10).
Cheese is from La Fromagerie and was in good condition e.g. nice Brie and firm Beaufort (6/10). The star of the evening was an old Koffmann classic, pistachio soufflé with pistachio ice cream. This had stunning texture, the pistachio flavour beautifully integrated – cooking from the top drawer (9/10). I also tasted a very enjoyable peach melba (7/10). Service was friendly and attentive. The bill for two came to just over £100 each. It is great to see Pierre Koffmann back behind the stoves, and he seems to be loving every minute.