Editor's note: chef Adam Handling left Caxtons in May 2015 for a new restaurant called The Frog in E1.
Adam Handling made it to the finals of the 2013 Masterchef Professional completion after his culinary training at Gleneagles. He joined the kitchen of the St Ermin’s hotel as head chef in May 2014. The St Ermin’s has some interesting history as the HQ of the embryonic Secret Intelligence Service (now MI6) in 1938, with such luminaries as Ian Fleming, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess working there, though who they were actually working for was trickier to discern (Guy Burgess used to meet his Russian handler at the hotel bar to hand over classified documents).
The menu offered starters priced at £9 - £12, main courses £20 - £34, side dishes at £4.50 and desserts at £9.50. There was also a six course tasting menu at £65. Beef from the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Scotland was available in assorted forms e.g. a 250g rib eye steak was £27. There was also Scottish wagyu beef at an ambitious £50 for a 250g rib-eye steak.
The wine list had just under £100 labels, ranging from £20 to £295, with a median price of £44 and an average mark-up of around 3.2 times retail, which sadly does not even seem excessive these days for London. Sample bottles were Gavi Masseria di Casa 2013 at £33 for a wine that you can pick up in the high street for £9, the pleasant Delaire Graff Chardonnay 2012 at £43 compared to a retail price of £13, and Chassagne Montrachet Fontaine Gagnard 2011 at £90 for a wine that will set you back £37 in a shop. A loaf was made from scratch in the kitchen, something that I applaud in principle. Sadly this was not a great example of the breed, with a somewhat leathery crust (12/20).
We tried a few of the nibbles; here they are listed as extra chargeable items here rather than being absorbed into the main menu as amuses-bouche. Doughnuts with crab were rather dense and lacked much in the way of crab flavour (11/20). Much better was a crisp involving chicken liver (14/20) but seafood dumplings were, not to put too fine a point on it, burnt. The prawn, lobster and teriyaki filling was let down by the visibly blackened dumpling, which should never have left the kitchen (8/20).
Mackerel arrived with its skin somewhat charred but the flesh cooked all right, served with horseradish, cucumber and nasturtium. For me there could have been more horseradish flavour, but otherwise this was fine (12/20). I preferred a salt-baked celeriac salad with apple, truffle and dates, the celeriac having very good texture and the dates and apple working well with the earthiness of the celeriac (14/20).
For my main course, beef rump was served with artichokes and cabbage flavoured with salt and vinegar. The notionally medium rare beef was on the well done side of medium though had good flavour, but the cabbage was undercooked and its sweet and sour effect overly subtle (11/20). One of my dining companions who ordered a steak rare had it delivered beyond medium, and even a second attempt was well past any reasonable definition of rare, which is a pretty basic error. Chips on the side were distinctly soggy too (9/20).
Desserts were the most consistent part of the meal. A tropical fruit medley involved passion fruit sorbet, meringue, coconut, papaya mango and lime in assorted forms, and was enjoyably refreshing (14/20). I sampled some other desserts that were also good, so the pastry section at least seemed able to produce food without technical slip-ups. Coffee was fine.
Service was reasonable, though getting the attention of staff was not always easy. The bill came to £111 a head with plenty of wine to drink, and a typical bill if you shared a modest bottle of wine would be around £85 a head. Overall the meal was something of a curate’s egg, with the odd very good dish mixed in with too many technical errors in others. Adam Handling was away today (at a cookery competition, which he won) and perhaps this made a difference – it is hard to imagine a competent head chef not spotting some of the issues that we encountered if he had been on the pass. However if a kitchen does not have a smoothly running brigade then the head chef needs to actually turn up, as I don’t recall seeing any signs saying “Head chef not in – 25% off tonight”. It doesn’t have to be this way. At three star Michelin Hotel de Ville all the staff take vacation at the same time as the head chef, closing the restaurant when he is absent. This guarantees a consistent experience for customers. That may sound like an old-fashioned, romantic notion, but erratic meals like tonight’s show the value of such virtues.