Philip Howard is undoubtedly one of the most talented chefs in London. The dining room, with its wood panelling, has a rather masculine feel, but tables are well spaced. These days three courses from the a la carte at dinner cost £80, a long tasting menu was £105, with a £35 three course lunch menu available. Bread was made on the premises (hurrah!) and was a selection of brown rolls, mini baguettes and walnut and raisin bread, offered with a choice of salted and unsalted butter from Brittany (17/20).
The extensive (88 page) wine list had fine producers and has some kind mark-ups at the upper end of the list. The lists started as low as £25 for Rueda Verdejo 2009 for a wine that retails at £7, and had a decent selection under £50. Jean-Philppe Fichet Aligote 2008 was £30 for a wine that costs about £9 retail, Mount Difficulty Long Gully 2007 was £90 for a wine that will set you back £34 retail, and Leflaive Batard Montrachet 2002 was a relatively kind £395 for a wine that costs £286 to buy. Coche Dury Mersault 2004 was priced at £205 for a wine that retails at £154, and Lafon Montrachet 2002 was priced at £1,450 and yet retails at £1,402. Yet the mark-ups are not entirely consistent, the champagnes in particular seemingly less appealing e.g. Dom Perignon 2000 was £580 for champagne that costs £205 in the shops.
Notes from a meal in July 2011 now follow.
Tonight I opted for the tasting menu (£105 per person), with one extra old favourite dish added in. A salad of globe artichokes was prepared with fresh almonds, broad beans and girolles, with a tartare of veal and Parmesan. The tartare was good, and the girolles in particular were of high quality, the other vegetables pleasant (17/20). I enjoyed a scallop (from Orkney) cooked whole with coco beans, fresh almonds and lemon verbena. The scallop was plump and sweet, and the hint of lemon provided acidity, while the coco beans were an interesting additional flavour note (18/20). The Scottish langoustine tail, sautéed with Parmesan gnocchi and an emulsion of potato and truffle is almost a signature dish of Philip Howard. This dish had an attractive balance of flavours, the mix of earthy tastes and the shellfish a pleasing contrast ; the langoustine itself tonight did not have as good a flavour as the last time I had it here, but this was still an excellent dish(18/20).
A slice of roast cod was offered with cauliflower puree, grilled potatoes, a summer truffle pesto and hazelnut oil veloute. Cod is not my favourite fish but this was certainly a very good specimen, though summer truffles always seem an understated taste to me (17/20). A fillet of turbot was good in itself, but was let down by a slightly hard pea and mint ravioli (just about 17/20 overall given the well timed piece of high quality fish).
Roast loin of spring lamb with caramelised garlic, olive gnocchi and balsamic vinegar was on surer ground, the lamb having nice depth of flavour and the balsamic a good balancing flavour note (18/20). Brillat Savarin cheesecake with currants was excellent, the rich, creamy cheese working well with a good biscuit base (18/20). This was followed by camomile soufflé with apricots and almond ice cream was technically well executed, and the camomile flavour did not dominate as I was worried it might, though the apricots were not the best I have tasted (17/20). Service was extremely good throughout, and the bill came to £150 a head with moderate wine.
Notes from a meal in May 2011 follow.
The meal began with a Scottish langoustine with pumpkin puree, Parmesan gnocchi, emulsion of potato and truffle, rings of trompette mushrooms and a separate field mushroom puree. Although there are a lot of flavours working together in this dish, I found that they worked well together, while the langoustine itself was excellent, and the purees had clear, distinct flavour (19/20).
Next was quail in several forms. A consommé had lovely depth of flavour, with tortellini of quail. A beignet of soft-boiled quail egg with raisin puree had a pleasing centre and a good, crisp coating. Quail jelly was served with pearl barley, little brunoise of vegetables and bacon foam. Finally there was a “club sandwich” with the layers being quail breast, foie gras, truffle cream, and a little raisin and raw apple. The jelly was the least successful element for me, but overall this was a clever dish, with sensible flavour combinations, carefully made (18/20).
The next dish was an Orkney scallop, cut into two before cooking (I personally prefer to keep the scallop whole as in France, but this is a matter of personal taste) with pumpkin puree, leek and chanterelles with butter flavoured with black truffles. The scallop itself was of high quality, sweet and with good flavour, cooked just through and not over-seared, with the earthy contrast of the mushrooms and pumpkin providing a suitable foil to its natural flavour (18/20).
This was followed by a very good piece of turbot (which I find can often have disappointing taste in UK restaurants for some reason), with lentils, smooth celeriac puree, Savoy cabbage and topped with caramelised pigs trotters, the latter providing a little saltiness and a crunchy texture contrast. Again there is a lot going on with this dish, but technique was again hard to fault, the fish timed well, the accompaniments providing a pleasing combination of tastes (18/20).
Cheese was from Jacques Vernier of Paris and Paxton and Whitfield of London, and the cheeses sampled were in good condition, including a ripe Epoisses and a creamy St Maure (18/20). We tried a selection of desserts. I most enjoyed a Brillat Savarin cheesecake, with blood orange coulis and an excellent lime ice cream giving the sharpness needed to balance the richness of the cheesecake (19/20). Black Forest soufflé was pleasant, just a fraction underdone perhaps, with a very good roulade of chocolate (18/20). Banana fritters are not really my thing, but seemed well made, though a banana beignet had a hint of greasiness. Rice pudding with rhubarb jelly was enjoyable. I was less keen on an Earl Grey jelly with truffle-infused honey and raisin puree, as I really didn’t think the earthiness of the truffle worked very well with the honey (maybe 16/20). A chestnut financier and very well-made truffles went well with the good quality coffee.
The restaurant manager David O’Connor (who since moved to Medlar) seems to me have lifted the level of service here, today being both efficient and friendly (the latter being something that was consistently absent on my prior visits to the Square). Overall this was an excellent meal, probably the best I have eaten here over the years. I definitely got a sense of a kitchen that was pushing onwards rather than resting on its laurels. It was a strong 18/20 meal, with a couple of dishes climbing into 19/20 territory. Flavours were clear and distinct, technique was excellent, and although some dishes were complex the components mostly actually made sense together, something that usually eludes lesser restaurants trying for sophisticated food.
Below are notes from a meal in May 2007, by way of comparison.
The menu is very appealing, the execution superb – for example a faultless lasagne of crab, very delicate pasta containing perfectly cooked crab meat, the pasta resting in a remarkably intense langoustine sauce. Another dish that impressed was veloute of truffles, little pasta funnels suffused with truffle flavour and accompanied by a two of pieces of remarkably tender chicken, along with a few wild mushrooms. For a main course try Bresse pigeon cooked pink with Savoy cabbage, itself stuffed with pigeon meat, in a reduction of the cooking juices with some diced vegetables with a little bacon mixed in.
The dining room is very attractive, and the only problem here was the service, which while usually polished suffers from an attitude that would make a New Yorker blush. They don’t discriminate though – Johnny Depp was ignored for as long as I was on one visit. Another service experience was when our petit fours arrived on one occasion – each had been slightly nibbled (presumably someone had just wanted to taste each one, and the waiters hadn’t noticed and just replaced the tray for the next diner). When we pointed out this the tray was taken away with much bad grace, and when we later mentioned this to the maitre d’ he said “oh, we thought you were joking”.