Kitchen W8 is a welcome revamp of the old 11 Abingdon Road premises, which has involved an improvement in the décor and, more importantly, in the kitchen. The place is now owned partly by Phil Howard and partly by previous owner Rebecca Mascarenhas (who has the erratic Sonnys). The dining room retains its split into different, quite cosy, sections with banquette seating around the walls, and seats up to 75. The wallpaper is a little dark but there are plenty of mirrors to offset that. There is the obligatory wooden floor, but noise levels are reasonable. Chef Mark Kempson was previously sous chef at The Square, and also worked at the Vineyard at Stockcross, so has a good pedigree.
What follows are notes from a March 2012 meal.
The wine list had around 100 bottles, ranging in price from £19 to £690, with an average price of £45. Mark-up levels average just a touch under three times the retail price, which is reasonable for London. Example wines include Rioja, Bodega Montesc. 2008 at £23 for a wine that you can find in the high street for around £7, Mount Barker Cabernet Sauvignon Plantagenet 2008 at £55 for a wine that you can pick up in a shop for £19, and Clos du Marquis 1996 at £130.00 for a wine that will set you back £52 at retail price. One bargain was the lovely Didier Dagenau Silex 2008 at £110 for a wine that costs £75 or more in a shop.
In addition to the à la carte there are cheaper set lunch menus (£19.50 for three courses) and early dinner menus (£24.50 for three courses before 7 p.m.). The meal began with salt cod beignets, which had light and crispy exteriors and good salt cod flavour (at least 16/20). Crispy hen’s egg (£11.50) was served with puree of Jerusalem artichoke, pink fir potatoes, pancetta and Perigord truffle, with a meat jus. This was an interesting dish, the egg rather like a Scotch egg but without the meat filling, the pancetta (from Brindisa) crisp and having lovely flavour, the potatoes providing some contrast to the richness of the other elements (15/20).
Mackerel salad with eel is what might be considered the signature dish of the restaurant, and one that I have had before (£10.50). Smoked eel is sliced thinly into a rectangular base, on which is placed pieces of mackerel, yellow beets and leek hearts: it is an attractive, unusual and enjoyable dish (16/20).
Sea bream fillet (£) was served with a puree of pumpkin, roast shallots, wild mushrooms and red wine sauce. The fish was cooked carefully and the sauce had good flavour, though the salt levels were a little high (14/20). Better was pata negra pork chop (£25.50), the meat sliced thinly and served with bacon gnocchi, crushed celeriac and wilted lettuce as a bed for the fan of pork slices. The pork itself had lovely flavour and was accurately cooked, the gnocchi nicely made, the celeriac adding a welcome earthy flavour note. Perhaps an element of acidity would have created more balance in the dish, but this was very enjoyable (16/20).
Passion fruit posset (£7.25) was served with a lime ice cream and with pieces of orange and pineapple. The lime ice cream was excellent, not too sharp, and went well with the creamy posset (16/20). Service was very good throughout the meal. The bill came to £116 each, but this was due to us having a classy wine, the Didier Dagenau Silex 2008, which as noted earlier was relatively good value.
Below are brief notes from a May 2010 meal.
The menu offered nine starters (£6.50 - £10.50), eleven main courses (£14 - £24.50). with extra vegetables at £3.50 and half a dozen desserts (£6.50). Cheese is £9. Urbina Seleccion Rioja 1998 was listed at £40 for a wine that costs around £14 to buy, my favourite Louis Roederer non-vintage champagne was £65 compared to a shop price of around £25 (prices vary wildly for this wine by the way, so check around), and Little Yering pinot noir was £20.50 for a wine that retails at about £7 or so. Breads were white and brown sourdough from Boulangerie de Paris, which has established itself since 2005 as perhaps the classiest UK bread supplier in my view. The brown sourdough in particular was excellent, with a lovely crust; this is supplemented by a pumpkin and onion bread that is made from scratch, and had nice texture (16/20 bread).
The menu has now changed with the new season. Salmon rilette with watercress cream and minted Jersey Royal was very good indeed, refreshing and well balanced (16/20). Roast guinea fowl was served with new season asparagus, herb spatzle and wild garlic. The meat was correctly cooked, the asparagus had good taste and the dish was properly seasoned (15/20). For dessert, passion fruit tart with (seasonal) Alphonso mango and lime ice cream also had good acidity and plenty of excellent mango flavour (15/20).
What follows are notes from a meal in February 2010.
Ravioli of Dorset crab pasta had fresh and good quality crab, albeit served with slightly softer pasta than would have been ideal. There was a creamy sauce flavoured with lemon and fennel, and some iceberg lettuce (14/20). Rib eye steak (from Ayreshire) had pleasant, though in the case of this piece of meat the ageing was just a little longer than optimal. Matchstick chips were decent, though not as crisp as I would have liked, though they were at least properly seasoned (15/20 overall for this main course). Pot-roast guinea fowl was flavoured with bacon choucroute, served with a sauce of golden raisins and hazelnut. The meat was cooked carefully, though it was far from clear what the hazelnuts added; they have quite a strong taste which rather dominated the dish (14/20). Rhubarb food was enjoyable, the rhubarb adding just the right level of acidity to the dish, while a blood orange sorbet had good flavour (15/20).
What follows are notes from a meal in December 2009.
Salmon rillette was a generous portion and had plenty of salmon flavour, served with toast and cucumber mousse; my only quibble was that it was fridge cold (14/20). I went for a dish I enjoyed previously, the eel, with mackerel, golden beetroot, leek hearts and sweet mustard; I think this is a terrific dish, original, pretty and having well balanced components (16/20).
For main course my haunch of Berkshire was lightly smoked before being cooked, adding just a hint of smoke but not too much. This was served on a bed of good Swiss chard with cooking juices, roasted Jerusalem artichokes and on the side I had some well-judged ratte potatoes (15/20). Fish pie was made with a potato rather than pastry crust, and had plenty of flavour from its haddock and salmon (15/20). Broccoli on the side was a bit under-cooked though (13/20).
Rhubarb fool with blood orange sorbet was an enjoyable dessert, but could perhaps have done with a little more rhubarb (14/20). Chocolate fondant was rich and comforting, with hazelnut praline and vanilla ice cream (15/20). I have noted before that the coffee is not particularly good, being too watery (11/20). Service was excellent, efficient and friendly.
What follows are notes from a meal in December 2009.
My lunch today was even better than my first meal. The starter of eel and mackerel was as before, so I won’t repeat this. My starter of ravioli of crab and red mullet with squid, cuttlefish, octopus and lemon featured carefully cooked pasta, a well-judged citrus dressing and that rarity, non-chewy cephalopods (a good 15/20). Roast duck breast was cooked pink and served with a tarte fine of caramelised endive giving some welcome acidity, while cooking juices were made into a rich sauce, the duck resting on a bed of spinach (16/20). Fillet of Cornish sea bream was well-timed, offered with leeks, otsres, mussels and a cream sauce (16/20). Buttered ratte potatoes on the side were also excellent (16/20).
For dessert, passion fruit and lime mess wuith Brillat Savarin cream was refreshing, while warm bitter chocolate pudding with hazelnut praline and vanilla ice cream had rich, melting chocolate with particularly good vanilla ice cream (16/20).
The notes that follow are from my first meal here, a dinner in November 2009.
Things started promisingly with an amuse bouche of warm salt cod beignets. The Square has served me some fine beignets over the years, and the chef here has clearly been taught well. The salt cod was very well balanced, the coating of batter light: a delicious start to the meal (17/20).
My starter of eel and mackerel was prettily presented. A rectangular base of thinly sliced smoked eel was topped with pieces of carefully grilled mackerel, leek hearts and sweet mustard. A clever touch was the addition of golden beetroots, providing an earthy balance to the fish, and use of a Chardonnay vimaigrette to provide balancing acidify. The overall effect was refreshing and attractive (16/20). Risotto of butternut squash and chanterelles was cooked in a red wine stock, topped with a soft poached egg. The texture of the rice was very good, and the red wine stock worked well, with just a hint of sweetness (15/20).
Hand-rolled pappardelle pasta was served in a rich game sauce, consisting of hare, some rabbit, a port and red wine sauce and a vegetable mirepoix. The effect was a dark, rich sauce with very tender pieces of meat amongst the pasta. This was almost a meal itself, and while delicious was very rich; I wonder whether some element could be added to give a little acidic relief to the richness of the game, but this was a very enjoyable, hearty dish (15/20).
Fillet of halibut with Beaufort crust was carefully timed, the fish flaking nicely when cut, served with melted onion and chanterelles (16/20). Ratte potatoes had lovely texture and good buttery flavour, while steamed purple sprouting broccoli was lightly cooked, allowing the distinctive flavour of the broccoli to come through well (15/20).
Lemon posset was served in a glass topped with a thin layer of blueberries, and a couple of small shortbread biscuits. Though a very simple dish, posset is not easy to get right (as I discovered when trying out competing recipes at home once). Here the balance of the lemon with the cream and sugar was spot on; I was worried that the blueberries might distract, but they worked out quite well. This was a delicious dessert (16/20). Crème caramel with date and caramelised orange puree was also skilfully made, the puree a good foil to the rich caramel, which tasted properly of caramel and avoided the egginess that sometimes happen in less skilled hands (15/20)
Coffee was about the only let-down of the meal, the espresso not having much intensity (11/20); this is a problem that can easily be fixed. Service, which seemed to feature several staff from the Square, was excellent throughout the evening, a slight delay in bringing the initial drinks the only trivial blip in an otherwise smooth service. The bill was £77 per person, but we did have some expensive wine.
Overall this was a strong 15/20 meal, and I feel this has the potential to go higher. It is impressive that the kitchen is running so smoothly just a week after its official opening, and I will certainly be returning. The whole team should be proud of what they have achieved, already reaching a standard that eludes the vast majority of London restaurants; Phil Howard does seem to have a magic touch.