Eheu! We are in menu limbo – one of those funny times of the year when one season sluggishly becomes the next. Have you updated your menus recently? Do you know when you will be changing them? I am getting tired of asking these questions, though probably less tired than those having to answer them.
I have spoken to a gaggle of receptionists over the last couple of weeks as my list of eligible dining destinations has been whittled down to those already showcasing their new fall menus (do not ask me why this has become important: maybe, what with such a copious choice of restaurants in the city, any additional parameter that helps make selecting one easier, is welcome; or maybe it is just my OCD acting up). One restaurant that fulfils this criterion happens to be one that has also been on my ‘list’ for as long as I have had a ‘list’. It is also one that I have never heard anything but praise for with an exciting chef of tremendously fast-growing repute…
Aussie Brett Graham has impressed all his life. He impressed at age 15 when he began his cooking career scaling fish at a local Newcastle (Australia) restaurant before moving to Sydney to work under the well-travelled Liam Tomlin. He made an impression here too, winning the 1999 Josephine Pignolet Award as Sydney’s best young chef at only 19. This was the impetus for his leap across the seas to London, where he landed at the prestigious Square. He spent the next five years studying under Phil Howard, creating enough of a stir to be awarded Young Chef of the Year by the Restaurant Association in 2003 and being made sous chef in the same year. In 2005, thanks to his continued loyalty and not inconsiderable skill, Howard and restaurateur Nigel Platt’s-Martin offered Graham the chance to head their latest venture, The Ledbury. He accepted and has since, of course, continued to impress everyone, becoming the youngest Australian to ever win a Michelin star in 2006. Now leading an ambitious, young team of predominantly Aussie cooks (seven of thirteen kitchen staff), Graham is pumping out accomplished, serious, beautiful dishes. His passion, instinctive understanding of food and imagination has left critics and diners drooling and made The Ledbury, all the way out in W11 in what was once ‘crack square’, a destination restaurant with a faithful foodie following. Graham, who shuns the spotlight, refusing even to table hop, is also respected by his peers: Howard reckons that his success “comes as no surprise” as he is “an unusually talented chef with a phenomenal palate and a very gifted pair of hands”; Bruce Poole describes him as “absolutely outstanding”; whilst Shane Osborn thinks “he’s going to go right to the top” and “will be two or three star”.
Graham’s modern French style is marked by the special consideration and importance he devotes to every aspect of the plate: flavour combinations are interesting; textures contrasted; presentation paramount; even aromas are cared for. The food is also heavily influenced by local, seasonal produce with Graham always keen to lay his hands on as much “wild stuff” as he can. His labour-intensive kitchen is celebrated for its consistent delivery of imaginative, technically brilliant food that is adventurous without being silly; stylishly presented and full of flourish without sacrificing taste; and utilising all the much-loved modern methods – foaming, emulsifying, puréeing, etc – whilst being purposeful, unpretentious, direct and maximising flavours.
With such spirited, glowing and unanimous tribute, I cannot explain why I had waited this long to see what all the fuss was about. However, it is never too late to correct one’s mistakes; therefore, I made my booking (finally) and arrived at The Ledbury for what I hoped would be a memorable, satisfying experience…
Claire Nelson’s classically elegant and refined (£1.5m-plus) dining room is awash with black and white. Tables, circle and square shaped, are swathed in crisp, thick, impeccable ivory napery and simply adorned with small black china vases filled with bright red flowers; black glass ornaments, transparent or opaque depending on their exposure to light; matching black and white condiment holders; and pristine white porcelain crockery. Around the tables themselves sit very comfortable leather chairs, each sporting a pattern upon its soft gray back unique to the others at that table. The 65-cover room is rather small, but from the well-spaced, well-sized tables, this is unnoticed and further disguised by the high ceilings and clever use of full-length mirrors, clothed in thick black drapes, along the restaurant’s back wall. Wide windows lining the far edge and the front side, formed of floor-to-ceiling latticed-window patio doors, allow natural light to flood in intensifying the openness of the interior. Within, black beaded chandeliers and long light-bars lining the ceiling supplement this already ample outside light. Two tall wood columns, each recessed with a small hollow holding a pink bouquet of gerberas within a large black vase, break up the room and match the polished chevron parquet walnut flooring. Smartly-dressed staff maintain the colour motif with senior serveurs in dark suits and juniors in black, band collared, untucked shirts.
Amuse Bouche: Foie Gras Parfait on Feuille de Brique. Along with the menu came a North African themed teaser of feuille de brique spread with two parallel lines of foie gras parfait and strewn with watercress and poppy seeds. Neatly presented upon an immaculate napkin, this incredibly crisp, feather-light feuille of warka pastry featured creamy foie gras texturally contrasted against stringy shoots and crackly seeds and seasoned with a spicy cumin mixture.
Les Pains: Sourdough; Brown Bread with Olive; and Bacon and Onion Brioche. Homemade breads were served oven-warm throughout the evening. The sourdough and brown were excellent, though frustratingly, I was unable to try – as I do not eat pork – the house speciality brioche. The white bread, with a porous, springy consistency, had a slightly chewy, gratifyingly tearable crust. The brown was something special: wholesome, crusty, infused with mild olive and unbelievably fluffy, this bread was made of enwrapped layers that effortlessly peeled apart. Unsalted butter, sourced from a small Somerset supplier, was sprinkled with salty crystals.
Entrée 1: Scallop Roasted on Liquorice with Fennel, Girolles and Roasting Juices. A caramelised scallop, spitted upon a stick of liquorice and haloed with a fried onion curl, sat upon a fricassee of fennel and girolles, alongside a smearing of fennel purée. The plump scallop, à la marshmallow on a stick, was expertly executed: the lustrous lovely ochre skin was delightfully bouncy whilst the almost-molten middle was soft and succulent. The fricassee was surprisingly sapid and provided an interesting textural mix of malleable mushroom and firm fennel. The celadon-coloured purée was effervescently light, but full of fennel flavour. The marriage of earth and sea worked well with a common sweet anise hint running through the fennel and liquorice and complementing the scallop.
Entrée 2: Beetroot Baked in Salt and Marjoram with Hazelnuts and a Chantilly of Ewe’s Milk Cheese. A beetroot, baked for 24 hours in salt and marjoram, sat planet-like within cosmic rings of beetroot jus, whilst hazelnuts, croutons, girolles, beetroot crisps and a ewe’s milk cheese Chantilly moon orbited around; a balsamic vinaigrette reduction was added tableside. The warm beet was soft and smooth with a salty-sweet savour whilst the reduction was pleasurably intense. The earthy ewe’s milk cut through both of these whereas the crunchy nuts, crispy oven-baked crisps and crusty croutons made this a big play on textures.
Entrée 3: Flame Grilled Mackerel with Mackerel Tartare, Avocado and Shiso. A fillet of mackerel, soaked in its own roasting juices, lay conjoined by a crescent of avocado purée and was accompanied by mackerel tartare enwrapped within a transparent cucumber jelly; purple shiso leaves, croutons and wisps of persillade garnished the plate. My senses were immediately seduced by the rich aroma of mackerel, which was quickly followed by a fresh avocado after-odour. After this initial inveiglement, upon my first forkful of fish, my wits were entirely enamoured. Perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious, its crisp skin concealed a soft, flaky flesh with the marvellously moist mackerel simply melting in the mouth. The fish’s intense and oily richness was soothed by the creamy avocado; the croutons gave the dish some crunch; and the mackerel tartare and diced cucumber in a jelly pocket proved refreshing. The shiso – a herb of the mint family, grown throughout Asia and especially common in Japan – is another anise-flavoured ingredient and again worked well with the fish.
Entrée 4: Ravioli of Grouse and Cépe with Elderberries and a Velouté of Toasted Bread. A grouse raviolo, topped with elderberries and toasted bread velouté, rested upon a bed of green cabbage and thyme foam. The raviolo, though dumpling may be more apt a name given its beautifully generous size, was tightly packed with grouse leg confit, cépes and a little foie gras. Its delicate, wafer-thin pasta gave way to a succulent gamey, creamy and subtly sweet stuffing which complemented very nicely the elderberry, each bead of which was a fruity burst and whose pretty purple juices dribbled off enriching the flavoursome and fragrant thyme jus. The cabbage gave some bite as did the toasted bread volutes some crunchiness.
Plat Principal 1: Roast Sea Bass with Cauliflower, Raisins and Sea Purslane. A roasted fillet of sea bass swimming in its own juices was served upon a garlic, onion and sea purslane base and bejewelled with raisons. Together came a slur of girolle purée and cauliflower prepared three ways – as a roasted garnish, purée and beignets. The roast cauliflower was strong and almost caramelised whilst the mousse was subtle and mild; the sweet raisons were delightful, but sparse, surprises; and the girolle purée, thick and earthy. However, on the other hand, the fish was flaky, but its skin not crispy; the purslane was rather bland; and the beignets a touch greasy with the fulsome smell of ‘fish and chips’. Overall, this course did not really come off for me and when asked what I thought of it, I replied honestly so. Immediately the staff showed a genuine and touching concern, culminating with the offer to try another fish dish (unfortunately I felt obliged to decline as I still had another course to go and was desperate to leave room for dessert!).
Plat Principal 2: Loin of Roe Buck Deer with Celeriac Baked in Ash, Sweet Potato, Douglas Fir and Pepper. Gorgeous deep cerise tenderloin of deer, sliced into sexy slivers, lapped over green cabbage and an aromatic ichor of thyme emulsion and roasting juices. The Berkshire-bred venison was liberally accompanied by a plump sausage, implanted with a sprig of Douglas fir; baked sweet potato and its purée; and ash-baked celeriac slices. The pan fried, medium rare meat was so tender it almost melted on the tongue whilst the sausage was soft and unctuous with a hearty, gamey flavour. These were complemented by creamy, nearly buttery sweet potato and the celeriac’s distinctively thick, celery-like, warm earthiness tinged by the woody, smoky ash still encrusting the individual pieces. Some spiciness was welcomed from the jus. À propos, for those curious, the fir a.k.a. Christmas tree, had very faint, maybe citrus notes to it. A very satisfying dish.
With the serious eating done, it was time for a little frivolity. Sadly, satiation was starting to set in, so when the cheese cart was wheeled out, I passed. Generously though, I was still bidden to have a nibble of one or two, but I had to put my foot down here and insist that deserts were brought out.
Pre-dessert: Terrine of Strawberries with Sour Cream, Hibiscus and Warm Vanilla Doughnuts. A jellied brick of strawberry and orange slices, bathing in Hibiscus consommé, was superimposed with a scoop of sour cream ice cream, itself crowned with a strawberry slice tuile; a vanilla beignet was set along the rim of the plate. The tart terrine was highlighted by orange segments which exploded with refreshing juice; the stunning scarlet consommé had a mild tangy-sharpness; and the high-quality sour ice cream cut through the treat’s saccharinity. However, a superfluous second sour note was struck by the beignet, which though strongly spiced with vanilla, was a little stodgy. Interestingly and pleasantly, this was a miniature of one of the dessert on the menu
Dessert 1: Raspberry Soufflé with White Chocolate and Elderflower Ice Cream. A very fine rendition of a raspberry soufflé was brought bursting forth from a perfect porcelain ramekin. A cute candy cane pinstripe skirted this little extravagance’s edge, propping up a neat, sugar-dusted, tangerine top, which was pierced to allow the addition of a cold quenelle of silky smooth white chocolate and elderflower ice cream. The crisp skin concealed a lovely pink mellow middle that secretly hid hot whole raspberry rubies. The tart-sweetness of the fruit was well-tempered by the delicious ice cream. Very good.
Dessert 2: Pavé of Chocolate with Sunflower Seeds and Basil. The final dessert consisted of a black brick of dark chocolate, studied with a basil leaf, alongside a mossy-yellow scoop of basil ice cream atop a pasticcio of powdered elderflower, sunflower seeds and Oreo cookie crumbs; precise spots of pistou peppered the plate. The precious pavé of bitter, velvety dark chocolate was lusciously wicked. Sweet, herby ice cream was a great foil for the rich cocoa. The nutty/seedy/Oreo olio was a simple, but effective textural balance. The pistou – a cold sauce of Provence made from cloves of garlic, fresh basil and olive oil – was unusual, but completely bland. Nevertheless, this was an indulgent pleasure.
The chocolate was a great finish to the meal…or so I thought. The serveur approached with what I thought would be the offer of tea or coffee, but instead, he had a far more toothsome choice for me: ice cream – sour milk, cardamom and orange, basil and vanilla – or sorbet – pineapple, strawberry and passion fruit – to finish?
Dessert 3: Selection of Sorbet – Pineapple, Strawberry and Passion Fruit; and Thyme Brûlée with Honey Ice Cream and Chocolate Madeleine. Having sampled most of their ice creams already, I plumped for the latter. A trio of fruity sorbets, each set upon a platform of their respective fruit chunks and embellished with their personal tuiles, came upon a pretty platter. Together, a lovely, thoughtful gift of thyme brûlée, honey ice cream and cocoa madeleine was served. The excellent sorbets had distinct and superbly clear flavours with delightful garnishes. The brûlée, with a firm sugary shell and herby, buttery centre, matched well with the honeyed ice cream. The madeleine was a little dense for my liking.
Petit Fours: Chocolate-Banana Macaroon; Eucalyptus Dark Chocolate; Elderflower Marshmallow; and White Chocolate Truffle. The serveuse arrived with a tray of tempting treats which were subsequently served on a bitter bed of cocoa beans. I picked four: a decent macaroon that boasted strong banana essence overpowering its weaker chocolate filling; a good, smooth dark choc; a mild marshmallow with nice consistency; and a crunchy-coasted, creamy-cored truffle of concentrated white chocolate.
I was impressed with the standard and consistency of the meal; nine courses included only a single dud (the sea bass). The starters of mackerel and grouse, the main of venison and the chocolate dessert were all brilliantly made and scrumptious. What I was particularly struck by was the fact that many of the dishes that I tried and enjoyed were made up with ingredients that would not normally be my first choice; for example, mackerel would always lose out to John Dory, turbot and Dover sole; and raspberry, which I thought I was sick of after a summer season surfeit with its sweets. The dishes were, almost without exception, perfect in execution and displayed strong, bold, startlingly clear savours. I also thought that the lack of sauces in Graham’s cooking probably meant a much healthier meal than with more classical French cuisine (but who’s counting calories?). Instead, he relies on using the natural juices of the meats and fish to accentuate the flavours already present; Graham’s eschewal of heavier, thicker saucing is surprising given that he ran The Square’s bourgeois sauce station for some time. Additionally, regarding l’addition, I must comment on what great value it was; actually being one of the cheapest meals I have had in London in sometime! I believe this relatively low cost stems from the absence of some more luxe produce from the menu, though this is made utterly unnoticeable by the quality and freshness of the raw materials actually used (the menu reads like a list of foods currently at their seasonal peak) and the finesse and talent they are used with.
Service was also irreproachable; Luca and his staff were attentive, warm, polite and efficacious in all that they did. Whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it, there was someone present to provide it; bread was brought over before I even had the chance to request it; never did I thirst for water nor was I ever left twiddling my thumbs awaiting my next course or empty plate to be removed. I was pre-informed that I had the table until a specific time, but when the meal had concluded, we had already overran by almost an hour; however, at no point was I reminded of the time or hurried in anyway. One feels that The Ledbury wants its diners to enjoy themselves and staff will go out their way to ensure this. One memorable moment was when I left my seat to make a phone call and returned to find my napkin and cutlery replaced with a clean set. Another was when I arrived at the restaurant. Whilst my table was readied, I took a seat outside; as I waited, the hostess came out to greet me and struck up a nice little conversation. It’s the little touches such as these and many others throughout the meal that make the difference between a good meal and an excellent one.
127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, W11 2AQ
tel: 020 7792 9090
nearest tube: Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Park