Phil Howard opened Elystan Street in September 2016, in the premises that used to house Tom Aiken’s flagship restaurant. Phil was the two Michelin star executive chef of The Square from its beginnings in 1991, through to its sale to the Marlon Abela group in March 2016. Unusually for a chef, he is a graduate, with a degree in microbiology. He began his culinary career at Harveys under Marco Pierre White and then at Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson before embarking on his 25 year stint at The Square. Tony Burrowes, who worked at The Square, is the head chef here.
The dining room can seat 64 diners at full capacity, with blue and pink décor, wood floor and no tablecloths. The lighting was a touch gloomy, and was lowered as the evening progressed. Tables were quite well spaced but the hard surfaces led to a somewhat noisy room. The cooking style is much less elaborate than at The Square, and the menu at this time was a la carte, with no nibbles. Starters ranged from £22 to £29.50 other than a green salad at £12, main courses were £30 to £36 and desserts were £10 to £14.
The wine list was quite international in its scope, starting at £24 and going up to £375. Example labels were Weingut A.J. Adam Riesling Trocken 2015 was £42 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £25, Grosset Springvale Riesling 2015 was £65 compared to its retail price of £22, and the enjoyable Alain Chavy Puligny Montrachet 2013 was priced at £89 for a bottle that will set you back £34 in the shops. There were posher selections too: Chateau de la Maltroye Morgeot Chassagne Montrachet 2013 was £155 for a label that retails at £52, and Chateau Montrose 1995 was £225 compared to its current market value of £112. Mark-ups were a tad inconsistent and there was the odd error – one seeming relative bargain turned out to be a half bottle when I inquired about it but was not marked as such. Doubtless such glitches will be ironed out in due course.
Bread was from the Flourish bakery in Watford and was good. There were no nibbles. Langoustine ravioli came with hispi cabbage, sweetcorn and barbecue dressing. The shellfish was cooked properly and had reasonable flavour and the pasta had good texture. The cabbage was fine but the combination of the dressing and the sweetcorn provided sweetness that was a somewhat odd pairing for the inherent sweetness of the shellfish. For me, something acidic or sour might have provided better balance to the dish, nice though it was (just about 14/20).
A starter of roasted vegetables included carefully cooked cauliflower, carrots, shallots, goat curd and squash. This came with cashew hummus, which I thought worked particularly well, and curry oil that for me was too subtle to really add much. This was a pleasant dish, the original element of the cashew hummus lifting the dish beyond the ordinary (14/20).
Duck came with a tarte fine of caramelized endives and figs. I liked the tart very much, the endives providing a hint of bitterness that balanced the richness of the duck, and the figs brought a further balancing element. Although the design of the dish was good, there was a problem in the execution: the duck was a bit overcooked, just barely on the pink side of overcooked. This was a pity as otherwise the dish was very enjoyable (13/20).
John Dory was also on the far side of being perfectly cooked. It came with crushed butternut squash, pickled walnuts, trompette mushrooms, sage and black rice. Again the design of the dish was fine, but the slight overcooking of the fish held it back (13/20). A brownie was smashed up and served with chocolate foam, vanilla cream and hazelnut ice cream. This was enjoyable enough, the hazelnuts working well with the chocolate (14/20).
Lemon tart was the dish of the night by a country mile. Phil Howard used to work at Harveys, and this dish was actually based on a recipe from that iconic restaurant. It illustrates the effect that Marco Pierre White has had on food in England when one of his dishes is appearing decades after its first appearance. I remember this dish well from its early days in Wandsworth all those years ago, the filling quivering and with just the right level of acidity, the pastry base thin (easily 17/20).
Coffee was decent, a Musetti brew. There are so many better coffee suppliers in London than this, beloved as it is amongst restaurateurs for its consistency and low price. I don’t think this was even the premium sub-brand of Musetti. Service this evening was good, especially considering it was just the second official night of opening. The waiters were friendly though topping up was a touch erratic, but overall the service was fine. The bill came to £141 a head with a pleasant but hardly excessive bottle of Burgundy. If you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical all-in cost per person for three courses and coffee would be around £110. This is the main issue I have. At this price point things need to be really impressive rather than merely capable. This was certainly an enjoyable meal, but other than the lemon tart nothing really stood out for me as outstanding, and at this price you would hope for something more. Nonetheless, Phil Howard brings a huge reputation from The Square and a loyal clientele that filled the restaurant on its second official night of opening. Doubtless the kitchen will settle into a rhythm in due course, but in a year of lacklustre London openings I was hoping for something thrilling rather than merely very good. Such is the danger of high expectations.