Core opened in August 2017 on the site of what was originally Leith’s and later became the Notting Hill Brasserie and then the Notting Hill Kitchen. The large site has been radically renovated, with a much lighter, airier dining room and a separate bar. It is the first solo venture of Clare Smyth, who had worked at The French Laundry and Per Se before becoming the long time head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s 3 star Michelin flagship restaurant in Royal Hospital Road.
Although this is clearly high end dining, the room has the more casual feel that is the way these days, with bare tables and hard surfaces rather than carpets and white linen tablecloths. There was also music playing, a little louder than I would have liked, though doubtless this is partly a matter of personal taste. There were three menu options: three courses from the a la carte, plus nibbles and petit fours, for £65. There were also two tasting menus, one at £80 and a lengthier one at £95. We opted for the longer tasting menu.
The wine list was quite extensive, with around 400 labels. The cheapest wine that I noticed was £38, though there were at least some wines under £50, and plenty of choice for those who wanted to splurge. The list unsurprisingly had no shortage of French bottles, but there was lots of choice from the New World too. Example labels were Dandelion Vineyards Menagerie of the Barossa 2015 at £45 compared to its retail price of £16, the very enjoyable Carl von Schubert Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett 2014 at £57 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £21, and Failla Wines Pinot Noir 2014 at £95 for a label that will set you back £36 in a shop. At the prestige end of the list, Les Pucelles Domaine Paul Pernot 2014 was £255 compared to its retail price of £100, and Domaine Roche de Bellene Montrachet 2011 was £750 for a wine that has a current market value of £336. Mark-ups were a touch erratic in places: Cheval Blanc 1985 was £1,200 compared to £885 for the 1995 vintage, yet the current market values of these wines are respectively £478 and £448, so the cash margin of the older vintage was £722 compared to £437 on the newer one, quite a difference.
The meal began with a selection of nibbles. Tomato and basil gougeres were properly warm and comforting, if a touch denser in texture than the best of their breed (16/20). Jellied eel with toasted seaweed and a spray of malt vinegar was a neat take on the East End dish, the eel having good flavour, the crisp making a pleasing contrast, and just enough vinegar to work effectively with the eel. Never have jellied eels tasted this good (17/20). Crispy smoked duck wing with burnt orange and spices arrived in a little jar to contain the smoke, which was removed with a flourish at the table. The meat was very nicely cooked, and the smokiness not too strong (18/20). Sausage in brioche with pickled eel was very pleasant, though not quite in the same league (16/20). The best nibble was a little tart of smoked tomato tartare with macadamia nuts and gazpacho along with black olive seeds. This was an unusual set of flavours that worked beautifully together, the pastry excellent and with just the right level of gentle smokiness (easily 18/20). The sourdough bread was made from scratch and was excellent, with good crust and texture (17/20).
The first formal course of the meal was crab royale topped with steamed Colchester crab. The royale base was made with the brown crab meat, cream milk and eggs, topped with a glaze made from consommé made from the shells. The texture of the royale was silky, the crab itself having good flavour yet for me the dish was a little one dimensional in flavour. It was prettily presented and entirely enjoyable, but perhaps would have been even better with another element (16/20).
This was followed by a large Isle of Mull scallop, served in its shell and cooked over wood, along with seaweed and a little butter sauce. The scallop was top notch, lightly cooked and delightful to eat. The only accompaniment was a stock made from the skirts of the scallop, which is poached with the scallop over a wood fire. The stock is then drained off and finished with the poached roe, sea cabbage and butter. It was nice to see a fine ingredient like this allowed to speak for itself without too much distraction (19/20).
Charlotte potato was the next dish, perhaps a reference to Clare’s upbringing in northern Ireland. This came from a Suffolk farm run by a producer called Chris Hayselden, who grows only potatoes and shallots. The potato itself came with a pool of dulse (a red seaweed with a bacon-like taste) beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. It was interesting to see the humble potato elevated to the centre point of a dish, and this particular potato was excellent, precisely cooked, and with a nicely balanced beurre blanc sauce (17/20).
Skate was next, served with Morecambe bay shrimps, squid, Swiss chard, nutmeg, mace and a brown butter sauce infused with toasted sourdough. The fish was on a bed of shallots, leeks, button mushrooms and shrimps. Skate is a tricky fish to work with, but here was expertly cooked, the lovely brown butter sauce showing the chef’s classical training (17/20).
The final savoury dish on the default tasting menu was “lamb braised carrot with sheep milk yoghurt”, and here the carrot was very much the centre of attention, a large carrot from Secretts farm in Surrey, topped with shreds of lamb and a little jus. In principle I see no reason why a vegetable should not be the main component of a dish, but then it needs to be really top notch. I can think of memorable vegetarian dishes like a charcoal grilled cauliflower at The Girl and the Goat, lovely gai lan with garlic at Royal China, or indeed the carrots at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which are at least as enjoyable as any lump of protein. However this particular carrot was, well, just not that great, properly cooked but having limited flavour. The accompaniments were fine, but the main element just didn’t cut the mustard (13/20). I had substituted this course for another dish, which fortunately was much better. Roscoff onion was stuffed with oxtail and served with short rib of beef, supplied from farms in the Lake District. The onion was beautifully sweet, the oxtail filling rich and the beef excellent (17/20).
A pre-dessert was lemonade parfait with honey and yoghurt. This was refreshing, though for me could have had a touch more acidity (16/20). Better was meringue with pear, poire William sorbet and lemon verbena. The meringue was delicate, the potentially dominant verbena flavour nicely controlled, and the pear brought its refreshing natural acidity to the dish (17/20).
The petit fours were top-notch pate de fruits and lovely warm chocolate tart (18/20). Coffee was excellent, supplied from HR Higgins, a 100% mellow Arabica Brazilian coffee from a company called Daterra that grows coffee in the Cerrado region of the country. It is nice to see a restaurant going to some lengths to source high quality coffee when so many places these days just default to a pod machine, or cheap industrial brands.
Service was excellent, the staff attentive and friendly. It was a surprisingly smooth service operation given that this was only the fourth day of service. The bill, with a bottle of Riesling to share plus another couple of glasses of wine, came to £180 a head. If you ordered three courses and shared a modest bottle of wine then a cost per head might be around £100 all in. This of course is not cheap, but you are getting some serious skill for your money.
Overall, I was impressed with Core, which showcases the considerable talents of Clare Smyth’s cooking in a relaxed setting. It is nice to see a restaurant aiming high on culinary ambition, at a time when so many London openings are burger joints or hipster places trying to impress diners with how cool they are rather than the quality of their cooking. The technical skill on display here is very solid, which is perhaps hardly surprising given that high technical culinary skill is, if you will excuse the pun, a core competence of Ms Smyth. The quality of some of the ingredients, particularly the scallop, was high, and it was good to see attention to detail in ancillary items such as the bread and coffee. Only one dish felt out of place, and although inevitably in a long menu there will be some dishes that you like more than others, the overall standard of the meal was high. I am sure that the restaurant will prosper.
Further reviews: 28th Jul 2018