Core opened in August 2017, the new home to Clare Smyth, who for years retained three stars for Gordon Ramsay at his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea. The tasting menu was £105, with three courses at £65 and an intermediate length menu at £85. The dining room is airy and the tables are well spaced.
The wine list arrives in a thick book and has substantial coverage of the main wine-growing areas of the world, not just of France. For example it was nice to see the excellent Argyros Assyrtiko 2016 from Santorini at £70 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £24. Savage Red 2014 from Duncan Savage in the Western Cape was £95 compared to its retail price of £34, and the lovely Rioja Alta 904 2009 was £145 for a bottle that will set you back £50 in a shop. Higher up the list the mark-up levels barely abated, so Massetto 1998 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia was £1,975 compared to its retail price of £791, and was £1,600 for a wine whose current market value was £794. It seems to me a pity when restaurants just multiply their cost price by a certain factor, meaning that better wines generate disproportionately higher cash margins and discourage wine lovers from trading up to more ambitious bottles. If instead they applied a fairly flat cash margin then better wines become more attractive to buy, customers end up drinking nicer wines and have a happier time, and the restaurant still makes money. Sadly very few places, especially in London, bother to try.
An array of nibbles arrived to begin the meal. Smoked eel with dashi jelly, parsley, nori seaweed and vinegar was classy. Crispy duck wing was smoked with burnt orange and spices and was tasty, as was buttermilk fried chicken with Exmoor caviar. Clam tartlets were delicate, and Parmesan gougere with tomato and basil had plenty of flavour. Best of all was foie gras tartlet with madeira jelly, which had stunning flavour. On average these were 18/20 nibbles, but the foie gras tartlet was better than this.
I was rather less convinced by a take on of coleslaw, with pickled cabbage, smoked buttermilk and gazpacho granita. This was fine, and the balance of the sourness from the pickling juices with the buttermilk was good, but ultimately it was a very nice coleslaw (16/20 at best). The next dish was also vegetarian, a smoked tomato that had been grown for the restaurant in the Isle of Wight, with a tartare of cornichons, capers and shallots with fresh goat curd, and a glass of tomato consommé on the side. The tartare was nicely balanced and the consommé had good intensity, but ultimately this dish lives or dies by the quality of the main element: the tomato, and this was a merely pleasant specimen. Just days ago I had eaten extraordinary tomatoes at Le Calandre, and the difference in flavour was stark (14/20).
Better was a sort of risotto made with spelt (hulled wheat), cooked with a vegetable stock and arranged in a ring, topped with broad beans, peas, marjoram, mint, girolles and baby rocket, with a wild garlic oil consommé. This was excellent, the texture of the grains lovely, having nicely absorbed the stock, and the beans in particular were good (18/20).
This was followed by langoustine tail with calf sweetbread, along with pickled carrots, fennel and a pair of sauces. The first was a vin jaune sauce and the other being langoustine bisque. The shellfish was precisely cooked and had lovely inherent sweetness, and the sweetbread was also excellent, with creamy texture and rich yet mild flavour. The sourness of the pickled carrots was a good foil for the sweetbread, and the sauces were accomplished (18/20).
Next was turbot from a medium sized 4kg fish, served with caviar and charred kohlrabi, along with cockles and clams. The turbot had quite good flavour and the kohlrabi was a good accompaniment, though the fish itself was not in the league of two superb specimens I had eaten a few days ago in Dublin (17/20).
Roscoff onion was stuffed with oxtail and served with short ribs of beef that had been gently cooked for two days, served with crisp shallots and beef jus. I really liked the onion, and this had rather better flavour than the ribs, which were fine but not dazzling (17/20). Cheese was a choice of Lincolnshire poacher and Colston Bassett Stilton, both of which were in very good condition, and supplied from Le Fromagerie.
Cherry Bakewell featured Amerena cherries from the Bologna region, along with almond mousse flavoured with kirsch, the fruit brandy made from sour cherries. This was very enjoyable, the cherries of high quality (18/20). A dessert of wild strawberries, meringue and verbena was also excellent (18/20). Chocolate cremant with salted butter caramel and hazelnut ice cream was lovely (18/20), and the only dessert not quite of the same level was carrot cake with cream cheese, ginger and walnut. I am fond of carrots in dessert, being very partial to the Indian dish carrot halwa, and this was pleasant but not as good as the other dishes (16/20).
Coffee was excellent, from the estimable shop HR Higgins in Mayfair, and came with chocolate tart with lavender, and Sauternes and Banyuls jellies, the latter having very good texture.Service was charming and polished. The bill came to £274 per person, albeit with plenty of wine to drink. The menu itself was £105, with coffee at £5, mineral water at £5.50 and service at 12.5%. If you went for three courses and just shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head might be around £110.
Clare seems keen to put vegetables front and centre of her cooking at Core, something in itself that I find admirable. The drawback is that, by mostly using British produce, she is limited to the quality of the vegetables that we grow in the UK. With the best will in the world, whether it is due to our climate or other reasons, we just don’t seem to be able to produce really world class vegetables, perhaps with the exception of Jersey Royal potatoes. This is not being unpatriotic, but merely stating a fact, which can be confirmed by a visit to the vegetable markets of the Mediterranean (e.g. the one at Ventimiglia) and Japan. The quality of the tomatoes at Le Calandre or Don Alfonso 1890, for example, is light years ahead of the tomato served today. It is the same story if you compare the asparagus in the UK to the best from Vaucluse in south-east France, or British strawberries to those found in even a regular supermarket in Japan. Clare’s cooking is hard to fault technically, but I would love to see her working with more really world-class produce. That caveat aside, Core is an excellent restaurant and provides a very enjoyable overall experience. The cooking is very skilful and technically accomplished.
Further reviews: 15th Aug 2017