I was not endeared to this place by the booking experience. After ringing up I spoke to a woman dripping with attitude who twice put me on hold, and eventually conceded grudgingly that they may have a table free at 19:00 but that it was needed back by 21:00, at which point “you can go to the bar”; I then had to give my credit card details “in case you don’t turn up”. They also reconfirmed by phone. On physically arriving the female receptionist struggled to find the reservation and then said “Well, I can’t find it – I’ll have to check with the manager” while looking at a completely empty dining room. Clearly down as gatecrashers, we were ushered to a quiet corner, and only later did she admit that they had booked us into the bistro restaurant in the same building, despite my being very explicit about which restaurant I was booking, both on booking and on re-confirmation. I looked closely to see whether she was one of the Valkyries that used to be on reception at the old Canteen in Chelsea Harbour. They always used to be the ne plus ultra in receptionist attitude but she was not; perhaps they had gone on to set up a training class in rudeness after the restaurant closed. Grrrr…..
The dining room is on the first floor. You enter from Conduit street through an unassuming town-house door, and have to ring a bell for admittance. As you walk in, on the right there is a patisserie shop, and ahead and down is a bar/nightclub, plus the spectacular bathrooms (on which more anon). The ambitious Sketch Library restaurant is one flight up. The dining room is decorated in modern French style, with luxury being the operative word, exemplified by a remarkably thick red patterned carpet in the first part of the dining room as you enter, that you practically sink into. The dining room is in two parts, the part further away as you enter (i.e. on the Conduit Street side) having wooden flooring rather than carpet, but the decor is otherwise fairly uniform. Walls are padded with squares of what look like cream coloured leather chair seats, each pad having a little mirror in each corner. The ceiling is also white, studded with lots of tiny glittering lights in attractive patterns, supplemented by floor lights and (in the main dining area) by hanging lanterns. In the smaller area (where we were seated) there are two spectacularly large modern Chinese vases the height of a man, and a couple of fireplaces (though these are not used). The ceiling is very high and the table spacing is generous. Each table has fine white linen cloth with matching napkins, and has on it a few candles in a brass holder. The effect is pretty with the glittering lights, though at our table it was rather dark, making it difficult to read the menu. The two windows overlooking Conduit street have attractive strands of glass beads each forming a patterned screen. The comfortable chairs are covered in a mix of red and brown upholstery.
The bathrooms are spectacular. The men’s has an entirely mirrored effect made from highly polished black stone, with fairy lights in a web shape embedded in the walls, while the urinal is a tasteful wall with water moving endlessly over it. The ladies bathroom apparently has backlit panels with diamante decoration by the hand basins. Cubicles have a spider web design picked out in diamante. The toilet roll is suspended from the ceiling by chains of beads. Even the doorstop, toilet seat cover and flush all have matching diamante decoration. Mourad Mazouz, the owner, has reportedly poured £10 million into this building, and at least the money is “up on the screen” as they say in Hollywood. Chef Pascal Sanchez has worked with Pierre Gagnaire in Paris for four years (though not at Gagnaire’s previous venture in St Etienne) and before that at a two star Michelin place in Switzerland. It is good that he has not tried to simply replicate the cooking at Gagnaire, though the same delight in wide-ranging ingredients, and the tendency to prefer large numbers of elements to a dish was evident. The dining room was half full on this Saturday night (though the bar was buzzing downstairs) and it will be interesting to see how sustainable this place will be. The clientele seemed quite varied, from a couple of casually dressed Germans to a pair of late middle-aged gentlemen accompanied by two spectacularly pretty girls half their age who started their meal with cocktails and a bottle of Krug.
The menu arrives inside a leather-bound notebook, the pages inserted at strategic points. The wine list arrives in a large volume, but this is mostly empty, the wines being scribbled in pencil on the first few pages. The list is by no means extensive, with a few pages that refer to perhaps 100 or so bins, mostly French. The rest of the wine world has a cursory treatment, with for example just a single Spanish red. The growers are by no means all the classics, and indeed the Alsace section for example skips most of the big name growers and goes for Kreyderweiss and Ostertag. The dessert wines are esoteric, with just five listed including a Canadian wine, a Chateau d’Yquem 1994 at £105 a half or £35 a glass. Mark-ups are high, but not spectacularly so, e.g. Vintage Tunina from Jermann is £62 here compared to £59 at Zafferano and £51 at Timo. However there is scarcely any choice at all under £40, and plenty over £100.
Bread was either white rolls, “Italian” bread (that to all intents and purpose seemed to be brioche) and chestnut bread (17/20 for the white, 15/20 for the other two breads). The amuse-bouches were extensive. The cinnamon sticks and two well-made sable biscuits were fine, though it seemed a little odd to have a sweet biscuit at this stage of the meal (15/20). Little scales of cuttlefish were served with pepper and herbs, which worked much better together than expected (16/20). A teaspoon contained a dollop of almost liquid and very rich, very smooth foie gras (18/20). The ravioli of black pudding was the least successful dish, as the pasta was just a little hard, while the citrus and herb sauce that surrounded it was so acidic as to drown out even the taste of the black pudding (12/20). A little dish contained a surprisingly effective blend of finely diced pineapple with sesame seeds (17/20). Finally there were slivers of capable pepper biscuits, and also, rather unnecessarily, a bowl of caramelised mixed nuts. Perhaps best was a row of five perfectly cooked white beans with a smear of slow cooked egg yolk that surprised and delighted when on the tongue it was revealed that a little mustard had been added, lifting the dish and providing a good foil to the beans (19/20).
Service is worth remarking on. The team seem mostly French, and I recognised one sommelier from Louis XV in Monaco. They were very well drilled indeed, with water and wine topped up faultlessly, bread offered as needed, and everything delivered and cleared without fuss or unnecessary flourish. Indeed this is the standard of service that the very finest restaurants in France deliver, but utterly eludes most UK restaurants of any price range. This is perhaps the best waiting team that I have come across in the UK.
The langoustines were cooked three ways, each arriving on a separate white china plate. Best were two langoustines served in a boat-shaped tuile in which was a walnut shortcake and some shredded caramelised pomegranate. The shellfish were very fresh and beautifully cooked, melting in the mouth when eaten, while the walnuts and pomegranate added an interesting earthy texture as contrast (19/20). The langoustine tartare was enlivened by green mango and a little pressed grapefruit and ginger – the contrasting tastes actually working well together, with the ginger kept carefully in balance and the sharp taste of the mango enlivening the shellfish without dominating it (17/20). The langoustine mousseline featured more perfect langoustines (this time diced) and was was topped with Malabar pepper and creamed passion fruit butter. Here the only problem was the passion fruit butter which was too strong a flavour (also I am unconvinced that it is a good idea to mix passion fruit with langoustine) so was perhaps 15/20, though again the shellfish were very carefully cooked. Overall easily 17/20.
“Vegetables” again consistent of several components. The best dish was “wilted young winter salad, celeriac Colombo, turnip broth with farm cider”, served as a hot turnip broth with intense flavour containing stunningly tender turnip and a puree of celeriac at the base of a bowl with steep sides. The sides of the bowl were draped with wilted chard leaves, which were perfectly tender and a delightful surprise, a brilliant dish (19/20). Not at all as good was fresh pressed parsley coriander and tarragon juice, served as a cold green broth surrounding “conserve of cucumber, preserved lemons, Paris mushrooms and young fennel”. A dollop of these ingredients were served cold and finely chopped, topped with a thin fennel crisp, the latter being rather chewy. There were too many tastes here, with too much thought about colour and not enough on balance of taste (14/20). Next was stems of tender spinach beet with a cream of sweet potato and honey, topped with slivers of poached fennel, which were well prepared, but again served cold (15/20). Finally, three ways with artichoke comprised artichoke barigoule, Tender quarters of baby artichoke hearts with a small amount of light tomato sauce, served cold (16/20) and a dish containing artichoke puree and slivers of raw artichoke hearts topped with a generous amount of shaved black truffle, again served cold (16/20). The overall score was 16/20.
The “Pekin” (sic) duck had three goujons of very good, very pink duck, and three further pieces stuffed with truffle and foie gras, served with a faultless, glistening demi glace. On the side there was a good marmalade of red cabbage that would have been better with lfewer, or indeed no, blackcurrants, while quetsch plums with walnuts seemed just a distraction. A better match was a fine potato cake with cured wild boar ham inside and topped with green spring onions. The meat was of very high quality and the lustrous, rich demi-glace as near to perfection as one could hope for (18/20 overall, with 20/20 for the demi glace).
The turbot was served as a thick fillet, carefully cooked, which was fine in itself. However it rested on what was described as a shrimp and prawn infusion with wilted cabbage, but resembled a rather tasteless bed of sauerkraut. A side dish contained pearl barley “risotto” cooked with more of the shrimp and prawn infusion, topped with two cooked cherry tomatoes, a wedge of roast pear and glazed radishes that did nothing to lift the dish. Also served on the side was an egg cup containing a Day-Glo coloured cucumber gelee and a teaspoonful of crème fraiche, which again did not enhance the dish (14/20).
There was no cheese trolley here, but a selection. The provenance was good, the cheeses coming from a mixture of Neal’s Yard and the top notch Maison Antony, but they couldn’t resist a little tampering here. The Brie was stuffed with truffles, and a hard cheese was marinated in wine. The Stilton was served in a spoon mixed in with some dates. Cheddar was sliced thinly, while a Corsican goat’s cheese was about the only cheese served just as it was. The cheeses themselves were in very good condition and did not benefit from this added attention in my view (17/20 – would have been higher if they had just left them alone). There were a variety of distractions – no cheese crackers here. We had a cold celeriac puree flanked by hazelnuts that was very fine indeed but surely would have been better served warm with a main course? There were also a few dates, slivers of shortbread biscuit, pumpkin chutney and marmalade of blackcurrant. Some plain bread would have sufficed. The portion control was really odd here, as the cheese arrived in huge slabs. We were sharing a portion of cheese and could manage substantially less than half the cheese offered between the two of us. All other dishes had perfectly normal portions, so I am not sure what happened here.
A “Winter 2002 Sketch Chocolate” came in a circular dish with a ring of chocolate mousse on top of which was a rich coffee mousse topped with a biscuit. The dark chocolate mousse was made from very high quality chocolate and was velvety smooth, containing a few raisins steeped in alcohol. The coffee mousse was similarly smooth, and the little biscuit on top was filled with Grand Marnier(18/20). Ice blood orange mousse was less impressive, the base having whole blood orange segments with a dollop of orange mousse on top – the texture was fine but the mousse flavour lacked intensity (15/20). The crispy sugar waffles made from Muscovado sugar were very good, delicate and not too sweet, resting on a bed of silky mango mousse topped with perfectly fresh mango (16/20).
Desserts are actually just £4 for small individual portions (of course they can afford to be generous after the other courses) or £28 for a grand plate. We found that three individual dishes was plenty for the two of us. Both the filter and double espresso were very good indeed, made from excellent quality beans with a dark roast (18/20). A slight surprise was that no petit fours were offered – a deviation from otherwise very French style of service. Coffee was £2.50, or £3 for espresso.
The bill arrived inside a hollowed-out hardback book, so landed on the table with an appropriate thump. It was fine in terms of practices - service was included at 12.5% as advertised on the menu, and the credit card slip was closed The issue was with the magnitude of it, as with no pre-dinner drinks, a shared cheese, shared desserts and one of the cheaper wines on the list a price tag was £170 each. This was, as a marketing consultant may put this, “fully priced”. Water at £4 seems a generous bargain. What I can say is that the ingredients are top class, the culinary technique is very fine, the décor is magnificent and the service perfect, so at least you get something for the money.