You enter the restaurant from Knightsbridge through the modest awning emblazoned with Marco’s name, into a hall with white and black tiled marble floor. This area is unmanned, the entrance to the dining room itself being through a very solid-looking oak door ahead to your left. On entering the dining room there is a reception desk to your right at which you are greeted, coats whisked away etc. A nice touch is the fine display of lilies on a table immediately in front of you as you enter. We were then led away to the reception area to the right, a couple of settees and a half a dozen chairs which was very busy this evening. We had booked for 21:30 and did not sit down at our table until 22:20, which suggests either some slow service or some pretty inaccurate judgement on the bookings, or both. The waiting area looks on to the main restaurant and apart from some rather uncomfortable chairs here (odd given that the chairs in the main dining room are fine) the major problem is that the space here is limited and smoking is by no means discouraged. This tolerance was being taken full advantage of by a fair proportion of the diners this evening, and the fug was sufficient in the waiting area that one American couple complained, were told “we allow smoking, and there is nowhere else to sit”, and after a brief discussion walked out.
Of course there are two sides to the smoking debate, but when a whole table of Spanish diners two tables along from us chain-smoked throughout the meal (not just between courses, but actually puffing away between mouthfuls), including cigars, then I think this goes a little too far. I would not have liked to have been next to this table, from where a cloud of smoke drifted across quite an expanse of the room, like a battle scene from a war movie. The dining room is at least blessedly free of music.
When we were finally seated we could relax, stop coughing and look at the menu, which is both wide-ranging and appealing. The wine list comes in a leather binder and is hand written in pencil. It is both extensive and expensive - with some of the highest mark-ups I have encountered: Cristal is £200 here, compared to £65 at Boyer in Reims, while a Vega Sicilia Unico 1970 was a little matter of £270. Even a relative “bargain”, a JJ Prum Riesling, was £45 against a retail price of around £11. The list is predominantly French, with just a few token alternatives (one South African red, one German white, a handful of Australian wines of each colour). We were guided by the sommelier to a Pernand Vergelesses 1992, which was also outrageously priced (I think this retails at around £17, so again an almost four times markup) but at least complemented our chosen dishes very well. There is scarcely a wine on the list here under £40.
The room is airy (lucky given the smoking policy) and tastefully decorated. There is a parquet floor, white ceiling with spots carefully illuminating each table, and Japanese-style wallpaper with a green background with various birds and flowers as the pattern. Both at the back of the room and on each pillar there are very fine mirrors. There is an assortment of fairly classical pictures adorning the walls, ranging from a still life of flowers, though to a landscape and a nude. Chairs are classic wooden design with upholstery of a blue and beige check fabric. On each table is a white linen tablecloth, an attractive small vase of irises, and even a wooden salt and pepper pot.
The amuse bouche was a single scallop, sitting in a pool of squid ink, topped with a tiny deep-fried squid whose arms come down over the side of the scallop. The scallop itself was perfect, the squid so tiny it added more a contrast of crispy texture than a substantive additional flavour, while the squid ink adds colour I felt rather than bringing any harmony to the dish. Still, the scallop was lovely, having been briefly grilled and then roasted for a few seconds, giving a nice edge of texture to the perfectly cooked crustacean (19/20). Breads are simple rolls, just brown and white, and were very good (18/20); the first set were cold, but later we were brought some warm rolls, so they are clearly baking up new batches through the evening.
I had a millefeuille of crab and tomato. This is a rhomboid slab of alternating layers of crab meat, tomato and avocado, sitting in the centre of a pool of intensely flavoured tomato vinaigrette, which had lovely balance. Around the edge of the pool were little green dots of avocado puree at regular intervals. This was a very fine dish, the constituents of the millefeuille perfectly fresh, the contrast of flavours and textures of the crab, tomato and avocado forming a pleasing harmony. Flavours were bright and distinct, and the vinaigrette added just that touch of sharpness that was needed. A beautiful dish (20/20).
My wife had a ballotine of wild salmon. This arrives as an oval of pink salmon, encased in herbs around the sides and topped with a spoonful of very fine Iranian caviar. Around the central slab of salmon are alternating little blobs of fromage blanc with a few chives on each blob, interspersed with little morsels of tender langoustine, which had been poached very gently and garnished with caviar. The salmon itself was moist, of perfect texture and full of perfectly judged salmon flavour. The fromage blanc was a good counterpoint to the strong flavour of the salmon, while the langoustines were perhaps too delicate a flavour to completely stand up to the salmon. However I am merely quibbling here - the execution was very fine and the dish worked very well (19/20).
My main course consisted of two packages of Savoy cabbage, each of which wrapped a parcel of Bresse pigeon breast and a slab of foie gras. Beside the two parcels was some mashed potato, the three elements resting in a fumet of cepes. The pigeon was beautifully judged, pink and tender, its flavours encased by the cabbage and set off well by the rich foie gras. The mashed potato was an excellent foil to the richness of the pigeon and foie gras, and was fairly remarkable in itself - silky smooth, creamy but not overly so. Only at Robuchon have I had better mash. The cabbage added a contrasting texture which again worked well with the rich meat, while the cepes sauce was full of delicate flavour, allowing the pigeon meat flavour to come through, neither subsumed by it nor dominating it. Such a careful balance of textures and layers of symbiotic flavours is something few can do, and shows a master at work (20/20).
Brill was topped with a soft green herb crust and rested on a bed of baby spinach, the whole sitting in a gratinated chive sabayon. The fish was timed beautifully, the herbs very fresh and distinct, again showing an intelligent balance which worked with the fish flavour rather than overwhelming it. The spinach was very delicately cooked and added good texture contrast, while the sabayon was beautifully balanced. A very fine dish indeed (20/20).
When I asked for cheese I was more than little surprised to have a plate brought to me with a selection. When I asked to choose from the board this was done without demur, but this displayed a carelessness in the service which had otherwise been generally good all evening (though I had to ask for additional bread on a couple of occasions rather than anyone noticing - of course a small point but a situation that would not have occurred at a similar level of establishment in France, where service is an art form). There was a somewhat unusual set of cheeses on display, with only Fourme d’Ambert, Reblochon and Roquefort of the classics. Supplementing these were the drum-shaped Chaource and a garlic and peppercorn soft cheese, as well as three ash-covered goats cheeses. After a cheese fiasco at Les Saveurs last summer I was relieved to report that the cheese were in generally very good condition, although one of the goat cheeses was a little dry, and the selection itself somewhat idiosyncratic. 18/20 for the cheese rather than higher. This was accompanied by three slices of bread: a walnut and raisin, a black olive and a simple country bread, all very good.
There was a little pre-dessert of creme caramel, which had silky texture, topped by a couple of raisins and lay in a little pool of lovely caramel sauce. It is hard to fault this, with great flavour and texture (20/20). Soufflé Rothschild consisted of an apricot soufflé, beside which were a few poached apricots, all in an apricot sauce. The soufflé had great texture and the fruit flavour was infused with a carefully controlled amount of Cointreau, which worked well and did not overwhelm the apricot (19/20).
I tried an old favourite from Harveys days, the Pyramide. This is a nougat glacé shaped into a four sided pyramid coated in passion fruit sorbet, the sides of the pyramid being enclosed by slices of wafer thin caramel. At the base of the pyramid is a pool of grapefruit juice, small pieces of grapefruit and grapefruit zest. This apparently odd-sounding combination in fact works beautifully together, the citrus sharpness setting off the nougat glacé, the odd nut inside the glacé to give a surprise when biting into it, the caramel quickly breaking up to give a crisp texture contrast. This has always been one of my favourite desserts of all time, and a truly original creation. If God made desserts, this is what they would taste like (20/20).
There were just a few dessert wines by the glass, a dull Sauternes, a good Coyeaux Muscat and one Jurancon wine, and it has to be lamented that at one time as many as ten dessert wines by the glass were offered here including d’Yquem. If a relatively mid-market restaurant like the Gramercy Tavern in New York can offer Chateau d’Yquem (and a dozen lesser wines) by the glass I fail to see why it should be beyond capabilities of a 3 Michelin star establishment.
Coffee, both filter and espresso, was faultless, strong and served in decent sized cups rather than the silly little cups so often used, which result in the need for a refill with each gulp. The coffee was accompanied by two trays, one of classic petit fours, the other of chocolates. The petit fours were very fine indeed. A lemon Madeleine had amazingly delicate texture and melted in the mouth, as did a raisin Madeleine. A raspberry tart had a lovely base and lovely syrupy fruit, while a sugar biscuit was about the only component to slip into mere 18/20 territory. A mini lemon tart was a revelation, with perfect pastry and dazzling filling which exploded on the palate, while a macaroon had delightfully light texture. A set of tuiles: biscuit, hazelnut, buttery, nut and almond, were all very well judged, having distinct flavours and fine texture. Overall 20/20 for petit fours. The plate of chocolates included dark chocolate-coated orange sticks and otherwise were a mix of rich truffles in bitter chocolate. The bill was perfectly OK in terms of practices - service was not included and the credit card slip was left open. The bill came to £265 for two, and I left a tip of £25.
Marco Pierre White is clearly one of the finest and most talented chefs in England, and indeed the world, but on previous visits to The Restaurant I have encountered many delights but also a disquieting inconsistency. I was delighted to find on this visit that the kitchen has settled down and is purring along in high gear, without a slip all evening. This level of consistency is essential given the fairly staggering prices, where any slip will bring extreme displeasure. At its best the dishes tonight like the Bresse pigeon and the Pyramide are as good as one is going to encounter at any restaurant in the world (e.g. on my tour of France last summer I tried Bresse pigeon several times, and none was better than the version tonight). The only caveats other than price would be the shockingly expensive wines, a cheeseboard that is good but still not of the league of the best restaurants in France (or even the very best in the UK) and a few rough edges remaining with the service, although this has improved by leaps and bounds from when the place opened. Overall a magnificent meal, though a costly one.