Sketch in Mayfair occupies a large building that houses a ground floor casual restaurant as well as a bar and the upstairs flagship restaurant, which is called the Lecture Room and Library. It opened in 2003, owned by Mourad Mazouz with part ownership by renowned French chef Pierre Gagnaire, whose flagship restaurant in Paris has held three Michelin stars since 1998. He first gained three stars in the French countryside in St Etienne in 1992 before his restaurant went bankrupt in 1996. He reopened in Rue de Balzac in Paris, which proved an easier location to showcase his talents, regaining his three stars within two years of moving location. He now has a group of restaurants around the world, such as in Seoul. Sketch gained a Michelin star in 2005, a second in 2013 and a third in 2020.
While Pierre Gagnaire is executive chef of Sketch, these days he has a global restaurant empire to run, and the head chef here since 2013 has been Johannes Nuding. Prior to that he was head chef of Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Moscow, and before that worked at the mothership in Paris. A seven-course tasting menu was priced at £120, and a vegetarian version was £95. There was also a full a la carte choice. As with Pierre Gagnaire’s main restaurant, dishes tend to be multiple riffs on a single ingredient. Hence a dish featuring, say, langoustine, will arrive as five separate miniature dishes on the theme of langoustine.
The wine list was vast, stretching over 150 pages, ranging in price from £29 to £19.500. Examples were Boutinot Percheron Old Vine Cinsault 2014 at £29 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £9, En Besset Domaine de Fa 2016 at £71 compared to its retail price of £14, and Churton Best End Sauvignon Blanc 2015 at £92 for a label that will set you back £34 in a shop. At the prestige end of the list, Didier Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly Silex 2015 was £344 compared to its retail price of £121, and Chateau Haut-Brion La Mission was £614 for a wine that has a current market value of £286. One relative bargain on the list, which we drank, was the superb Arnaud Ente Bourgogne Chardonnay 2014 at £155 compared to its retail price of £205, a notionally basic Burgundy wine that possesses gorgeous acidity and minerality.
The Sketch Lecture Room and Library has two sections in the dining room, both extravagantly appointed. There is also a small private room available to one side. The bathrooms at Sketch are famously ornate in décor – “understated” is not really a theme here. You can Google them if you want to see endless slightly fetishist photos of bathrooms. Our meal began with a series of canapes. I enjoyed little Parmesan sable biscuits coated with almonds, which were delicate and had plenty of cheese flavour. Smoked duck was served on a spoon with plums and chestnuts, which worked nicely with the deeply flavoured meat. A little rice cake came with anchovies, coconuts, peanuts and coriander, which was unusual but worked nicely. Ox cheek tart braised with red wine and mustard was lovely, the meat having plenty of flavour, nicely elevated by the spiciness of the mustard. The casing for the ox cheek appeared to be pre-bought croustades that were probably deep-fried, but the flavour of the meat was excellent. A thin squid ink straw dunked in olive oil seemed rather superfluous, though I enjoyed vodka martini jelly with olive and lime foam (18/20 nibbles). A further amuse-bouche was an umami broth made with kombu seaweed, soya and ginger along with tofu, chive, carrot and beetroot. The tofu was fairly silky in texture and the broth was excellent (17/20).
Pate en croute had reasonable pastry but could have done with more foie gras and it was rather under-seasoned. This was pleasant enough, but was not remotely in the league of the top-notch pate en croute that you can find in France, for example the comparison between this and the dazzling one I ate at La Rotonde near Lyon is not a happy one (15/20). A sourdough loaf was presented along with a couple of additional rolls, one flavoured with grapefruit and walnut. The bread appeared to have an excess of yeast, presumably due to not being allowed to ferment for quite long enough. The texture was fine but I would have hoped for better bread here.
Langoustines came in several forms. The tails were roasted and served with Roscoff onions, mild green curry and accurately cooked mange tout (though where they got mange tout from in November in England eludes me). I really liked this dish element, though my very knowledgeable dining companion thought that the onion flavour somewhat overwhelmed the shellfish. Raviolo of langoustine with sage and poppy seed was undeniably flawed though, the shellfish overcooked and the pasta case hard and undercooked. Langoustine mousse came with green lentils and rather average oscietra caviar from a supplier called Caviar House Prunier. Finally langoustine tartare came with sticky grape juice and sweetcorn, which was odd though not unpleasant. The different elements were quite variable here, from the excellent tails to the dubious ravioli, so scoring is tricky (perhaps 16/20 average).
A dish called “sea garden” also had several elements. Mixed shellfish were marinated and served with Muscadet and distinctly subtle horseradish mayonnaise. Scallop carpaccio was very disappointing, having extremely limited flavour, paired with golden enoki mushrooms, avocado, lime and cider. Sea urchin bisque with sea urchin tongues and fregola was decent, and the dish was completed with smoked haddock with Pear William, celeriac, Granny Smith apple and Tunworth, a creamy cheese from Hampshire in the style of Camembert. Quite what it was doing on the plate with smoked haddock is a mystery that only the kitchen understands. It is one thing to combine unusual flavours, but quite what happened to the natural sweetness of what presumably were diver-caught scallops is a mystery to me (13/20).
Saddle of venison from Rhug estate appeared with juniper berries. This was actually very good, the venison nicely cooked and having plenty of flavour, the natural richness balanced by the acidity of the berries. Sauce agrodolce with it is a sweet and sour Italian sauce, the vinegar and sugar in reasonable balance, with turnips, white miso and shiitake mushrooms. On the side was smoked red beetroot with chervil root mousse and mustard, which worked quite nicely. Country bread knodel (boiled dumplings) with speck and baby onions completed the dish (17/20).
The other meat dish that we tried was themed around veal. Veal sweetbread from the Limousin area in central France was high quality though insufficiently caramelised, served with purple polenta and wild mushrooms. Veal blanquette is a rustic dish and was nicely made here, elevated with the luxurious addition of white truffle from Alba. This came with pumpkin ice cream and mild garlic puree (16/20).
We didn’t have cheese but tried two of the three available desserts. One was themed around apple. As usual with a Gagnaire dish, there were several elements. Terrine of Bramley apple came with redcurrant, blackberry and ice cider. There was an enjoyable pressed apple reduction with Cameroon Penja pepper. There was a cheesecake with Somerset cider, pepper-perry jelly with pear sorbet and sheep milk yogurt. Finally there was a roasted Goldrush apple flambee with twenty year old cider brandy from Somerset, and a glass of Pomona liqueur, an aged blend of apple juice and cider brandy. I enjoyed the pressed apple reduction best of the various elements, and the assorted components were very pleasant even if nothing really rose to stellar heights (17/20).
The other dessert was a selection of dishes including a Delica pumpkin ice cream with cinnamon, almond milk foam and a reduction of Somerset cider. This was not overly sweet, the cider providing some balance to the pumpkin flavour. A cube of burrata was glazed in honey and came with pink marshmallow, lime crystal and calamansi cream, which to be honest I found an odd combination. Even stranger was aubergine with golden raisins covered in a sheet of milk chocolate, with liquorice ice cream. This for me was an example of when pastry chefs decide that creativity is the altar at which they worship at the expense of common sense. No-one in history ever went to their grave craving a dessert of aubergine flesh, liquorice and chocolate. In addition, there was a glass of chestnut velouté, with green bell pepper sorbet and confit of pink grapefruit, which was another ill-conceived idea. There was also a blackcurrant and wine reduction with grapes, passion fruit and pear William liqueur, which at least resembled a dessert. Finally, there was a cocoa mousse with Manjari Madagascar chocolate parfait, praline and Calvados caramel, which was a pleasant dessert that was blissfully free of shrubbery. This was a mixed bag, though clearly there was plenty of kitchen technique on display here (16/20).
Coffee was from a Nespresso machine, the Kilimanjaro blend, which is the best that Nespresso produce at present but a long way from the quality that can be found these days in London. The bill arrived in a hollowed-out book. In my experience the fancier the container for the bill, the larger it is likely to be, and here the total including wine came to £318 per person. If you just shared a modestly priced bottle of wine (best of luck finding one of those here) then a more typical cost per person might be around £180 or so. Service was extremely slick, with an excellent and very knowledgeable sommelier that many moons ago worked with Marco Pierre White at the Oak Room.
The food here is very elaborate but as can be seen there were a number of issues with several of the dishes, and the standard here is a long way from that of the flagship restaurant in Paris. The style here is to add more and more elements in the various dish variations, and inevitably some of these ideas work better than others. For me the best ones, such as the roasted langoustine with onion and the venison saddle, were the ones where the kitchen held back from its incessant desire to be creative with flavour and ingredients. At a certain point plating up ever more dishes and variations on an ingredient ceases to be clever and inventive and starts to seem confused, almost desperate, as if the kitchen thinks that if it puts enough dishes on the table then at least some of them will work.
There were puzzling lapses in technique, shown with the hard langoustine raviolo and the under-caramelised sweetbread. This kind of technical slip should never happen at this price point. Sketch’s elevation to three-star level is as bewildering to me as it was to just about everyone else at the Michelin 2020 ceremony at the Hurlingham Club, where a room of chefs and industry insiders greeted the announcement with polite but undisguised incomprehension. There was hardly a single dish there that I would assess as true three-star level. The genuinely top-notch service and flashy surroundings simply do not make up for the uneven food experience.