“Andaman is a very big island. The people have no king. They are idolaters and live like wild beasts…You may take it for a fact that all the men of this island have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes like dogs; for I assure you that the whole aspect of their faces is that of big mastiffs. They are a very cruel race: whenever they can get hold of a man who is not one of their kind, they devour him.”
I know you must be eager for an explanation; you must be dying to know what these opening lines are all about. Well, I shall explain. The above is an extract from Il Milione, also (better) known as The Travels of Marco Polo, the chronicle of the eponymous fourteenth century Venetian trader/explorer who gained everlasting fame for his trailblazing travels along the Silk Road between the occident and Orient. It was on one of these travels that Signor Marco noticed, if not actually visited, Andaman.
Be patient; here comes the important/relevant bit. Thus, aware of this trivia titbit, I was left curious, surprised and, if honest, maybe a little scared when Dieter Müller chose to name his new London venture Andaman. Then it hit me, Müller, a German gentleman, actually a German chef with three Michelin stars, is trying to be funny, but he just cannot help but do it in awkward, formidable German fashion.
Whether his wit tickles you or not, no one can laugh at Müller’s credentials. He is one of Germany’s most respected and experienced chefs and a pioneer of German haute cuisine – for those who think that term a wry oxymoron, snuff those chuckles: Germany holds more Michelin stars than any country bar France. Born in the Black Forest into a family of restaurateurs, Müller grew up dreaming of cooking and in a castle no less. But this dream came true in 1992 when he opened Restaurant Dieter Müller at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a charming chateau near Cologne. Muller must have thought himself still dreaming when in 1997, Michelin awarded him drei stars here.
Originally from Baden, but a self-professed Francophile, his style is a blend of hearty German cooking, refined French cuisine and also creative Asian accents gained from his many travels. Maybe these travels have given him an affinity for Marco Polo and led him to mould Andaman and its menu on Polo’s voyage; Müller, renowned for his five course, nineteen dish Amuse-Bouche Menu, has created Andaman’s own unique Amuse Menu inspired by the silk route. He has also installed two protégés to run the kitchen from day to day: Christian Rosse and Philipp Vogel, from Schlosshotel Lerbach and Gleneagles respectively.
Andaman is part of the recently refurbished, swish St James’s Hotel and Club in Mayfair. Divided into two dining rooms, with the hotel bar providing additional seating if required, it holds a maximum of around fifty covers. The focal point of the first room is a small kitchen, which runs along one wall and through whose glass front one is able to view the labouring chiefs in their culinary laboratory stuffed with spices, oozing with oils and heaving with herbs. It is unbelievable that full meals could possibly be prepared in this miniature space and indeed it is untrue – sorry to ruin the magic – but this is only a finishing kitchen; the principal cooking is done downstairs and sent here, via dumbwaiter, to have the final touches added. The dining area adjacent has definitely been designed with Marco in mind; the décor draws heavily on Oriental themes and Eastern influences. The room is bordered with black lacquered Venetian (Marco was Venetian too) screens set off against a dark mahogany floor. Lighting comes largely from yellow backlit panels lining the kitchen’s exterior, which contrast strikingly with the dark furniture; low, soft armchairs; and glossy, onyx-like tables, adorned with nothing but a duo of yellow calla lilies and faux leather, latticed tablemats. The second, larger room glows with a golden glimmer. Three luxurious booths are lined with plush, blonde banquettes; tables are covered in creamy napery; and walls, ornate with a plethora of paintings, urns, statuettes and other various virtu and motley trinkets, shine saffron.
Amuse Bouche 1: Watermelon and mint soup. To begin with a minty soup shot was served with floating watermelon chunks. Its consistency was very pleasing, neither too dense nor too dilute, whilst the melon morsels added a welcome firm bite. The mild mint and melon combined refreshingly.
Amuse Bouche 2: Tandoori chicken mousse cornetto. Side by side with the soup came a delicate cornet filled with a creamy, crumbly mousse, which was light, but rich with spicy Indian seasoning; the vividness and distinctness of flavours was startlingly clear and clean.
Les Pains: Ciabatta; rye with nuts and figs; and wholegrain with seeds (sesame, sunflower or poppy). The clearly German-influenced bread tray offered small slices of crusty, soft ciabatta; dense rye embedded with hazelnut halves and sweet, dried figs; and crisp, milky-middled wholegrain buns seeded with sesame, sunflower or poppy. All the bread was homemade and delectably warm, but there was only unsalted butter. I liked most the nutty poppy seed.
Entrée 1: Deep fried scampi with pea purée and papaya-chilli vinaigrette. Upon a pea purée island, surrounded by a warm nage of papaya and chilli, came a couple of interlocked subtly-battered still-shelled scampi standing in soon-to-strike-scorpion-esque stance together with a decorative, vertical choux pastry stick. The first stimulus to my senses, to my surprise, was the smell of ‘fish and chips’ springing from the sweet shellfish, whose taste contrasted nicely with the earthy, sugary peas and spicy chilli-spiked vinaigrette. Textures also worked off one another: varying between lissom langoustine, mushy purée and crunchy papaya. Conversely, the long choux baton seemed surplus.
Entrée 2: Duo of soups – cappuccino of curry and lemongrass with prawns & clarified duck essence à la chinois. Two demitasses arrived, one of Sino-seasoned duck consommé and shredded-duck-stuffed ravioli and another of intoxicating, highly spiced soup with prawn brochette. Some instructions were attached: first, consume the ravioli and drink its soup, then eat the prawns, finishing with the cappuccino. The duck was rich; the pasta soft; and the clear soup (I assume a la chinois refers to both its strained and Oriental nature), with carrot, enoki mushroom and snips of squidgy spring onion, was hearty and warming. The second soup was even better with two salty, smoky prawns and an exotic, quixotic fusion of spices. This is a Dieter Müller signature and it is clear why: the taste is unique, ingredients hard to identify and flavours difficult to define. It is apparently made from fish stock, apple, pineapple, banana, onion and seasoned with lemongrass, lemon, garlic and curry paste, but whatever it contained, this heady blend was fruity, sweet, earthy and tangy all at once.
Entrée 3: Pea mint soup. A bowl of fresh peas and shredded lettuce was brought out into which a beautifully bright yellow-green chartreuse-coloured pea-mint potage was poured. Again the perfect consistency was achieved; a grainy creaminess with occasional croquant highlights of pea and lettuce ribbons. Each spoonful delivered a range of distinct flavours: the soup’s initial saltiness was quickly succeeded by the principal savour of sweet pea, which was followed by refreshing, tamed mint and finished with cooling lettuce; additionally, the whole peas were like sudden taste bombs. The bowl held a seriously generous portion, with the teapot filled with enough for a full second helping. The soft bread was very useful for soaking up the palatable herby pea pottage.
Plat Principal 1: Poached cod with horseradish and herb risotto. A poached rotund ring of cod was served with a horseradish crust upon herb-rich risotto and soya beans surrounded in shallow horseradish foam and garnished with spring onions and a drizzle of violet mustard. The cod was extremely soft and milky, being closer to cru, the closer the centre one came; the rice was a little sticky, but formed a nice pairing with the al dente beans; and the onions were pleasingly crisp. The fish, though milder than expected, was well complemented by the light foam and (soggy) coat of sharp horseradish with its distinctive aroma. A further flowery flush of spicy sweetness came from the violet mustard – FYI, this moutarde de violette is a terrific little thirteenth century Périgordian condiment made of black grapes, mustard seeds, wine vinegar and spices.
Plat Principal 2: Pigeon breast with anise polenta and corn. Two tender fillets of Pigeon arrived upon an anise-infused crostini di polenta in a rich demi-glace sauce and sweet corn emulsion accompanied by baby sweet corn and a saucisse of pigeon liver and heart. The soft, crimson-pink pigeon, with its lovely gaminess, worked delightfully with the deep, velvety red glaze and sweeter, lighter corn foam. A welcome crunch came from the corn, cooked firm to the bite, and thick, meaty sausage. The golden polenta fritta was hot and crumbly, but barring the juices that had soaked through from the bird, was rather tasteless. This dish was full of relish and rich aroma.
Either my praise of the curry and lemongrass cappuccino was appreciated indeed or maybe it was just tiresomely generous and the staff wished to shut me up, but whatever the reason, a second serving of this captivating concoction was kindly brought out.
No pre-dessert – I accepted this as sufficient excuse to order a second dessert. I had chosen one from the Amuse Menu already, but was having difficulty deciding on another, until the staff unanimously suggested, from the lunch menu in fact, the following:
Dessert 1: Tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream. A pretty pastry parcel of poached apples, frosted with sweet sugar, was served with broken biscuit, crème fraiche and vanilla ice cream. The crispiest, fragile pastry, deliciously dainty and light, with the sugar and crème was strongly reminiscent of Frosties cornflakes. The warm apples were soft and moist, the ice cream intense with vanilla and thick, whilst the crème cut refreshingly through the dish’s sweetness. The biscuit gave some nice textural variation, whilst small shavings of mint offered a very subtle earthy aftertaste. This was a very pleasing bonne bouche.
Dessert 2: Mousse of Jiavara chocolate and peanut toffee, cracknel of cocoa beans with sea salt and caramel ice cream. The second dessert consisted of a creamy brick of Jiavara chocolate mousse, decked with a thin feuille of sea salt and pine nut, upon which was a scoop of peanut toffee and caramel ice cream, decorated with a twisty tuile of dark chocolate. The first taste was of peanut butter from the velvety caramel nut toffee ice cream. A second spoonful, this time of the smooth cocoa mousse, revealed a hidden middle of peanut toffee. The feuille was nutty and crunchy and offered another contrast to the softer ice cream and mousse. All the elements, together, were evocative of a Snickers bar.
Petit Fours: Berliner; strawberry gelée; and vanilla cream with strawberry purée and berry mousse. The meal concluded with a nice trio of diverse PFs: an iced, vanilla custard-filled Berliner (fried German sweet beignet); a triangle of strawberry fruit-jelly; and a shot of vanilla crème thinly topped with strawberry purée and finished with airy berry foam. The doughnut was light with a crispy coat and melted middle whilst the jam-like gelée, sugary and creamy, resembled Turkish delight. The effervescent berry mousse had an almost astringent tartness that was quickly assuaged by the vanilla, whilst the strawberry gave the shot stronger savour.
I am delighted to say that I enjoyed the food very much and left the restaurant content. Courses were carefully crafted and well-designed. Cooking was precise and skilful. The cuisine was refined yet satisfying. However, what impressed me much more was the intensity and clarity of flavour that all the dishes possessed. I also appreciated the interesting, more unusual touches and ingredients, such as the moutarde de violette and offal-filled side saucisse, and liked the fresh approach to ordering. There are two menus, the Classic Selection and the themed Amuse Bouches; together these amount to essentially an ALC and tapas-like tasting menu (4/5/6 courses) respectively. It is though a versatile, very fluid setup, allowing one to choose items off either menu or both and tailor-make their own menu dégustation.
The FOH, led by Francesco di Meglio, was hospitable, enthusiastic and efficient. Service was professional, but courteous; always attentive and never intrusive. I was well tended by Francesco himself and sommelier, Massimo, with both of whom I was able to enjoy some pleasant conversation. They were friendly and affable without being familiar.
Bearing in mind that Andaman is still in its trial phase, having opened its doors just a week ago, the capability and smoothness of both kitchen and serving staff is doubly remarkable; and it will surely only improve before its official opening on 25 September. The restaurant’s arrival has so far made a rather stifled splash – though Michelin chefs and a few critics have already dropped by – but I am sure we shall soon hear that inevitable revving of the PR machine. Actually, Dieter has already started making all the right noises, proclaiming London the “hottest restaurant scene in the world” and praising the “open-mindedness” of the British. I think it will be enough to let the food do the talking.
7-8 Park Place, St James’s Hotel & Club, SW1A 1LP
tel: 020 7316 1600
nearest tube: Green Park