I love seafood. I eat it every single day, in fact, twice a day. Honest. I cannot even recall the last day I went without fish, mollusc or crustacean. Is that strange? Well, even if it were, I would not change. Never. For no one.
So where in London should such a stubborn slave to seafood go to sate themselves? Straightaway, Scott’s and J Sheekey come to mind; both specialise in this stuff. I am hard pressed to name more (obviously discounting fish and chip shops). Actually, there is one but…am I allowed to tell you? You see, it is sort of a secret; not a calculated, chichi cabal, just somewhere that has happened to become one, slowly, over time, over the last ten years. OK, I’ll take the plunge and squeal like a piggy (lovely mingling of metaphors): who has heard of One-O-One? I imagine a disappointed grown from my readers. Fine. I admit that was an anticlimax – if anything, this is London’s worst kept secret; everyone has heard how good it is, but no one goes!
Some chefs are famous for their cooking, some famous for showing and telling as many as they can about their cooking; some even for not showing and telling anyone anything; and then, there is Pascal Proyart. Who? Exactly. Proyart is a self-confessed lover of all food aquatic; the man who first introduced the red king crab to England; and even the Norwegian Seafood Ambassador to the UK (no joke). A choir of critics have sung his praises and fellow chefs esteem him: Chavot (Capital, 2*) thinks that “when it comes to fish, no one can touch him in England;” whilst Aussignac (Club Gascon, 1*) believes he “deserves fame and recognition;” even Alan Yau is a fan, proclaiming Proyart “amazing.”
So why then is One-O-One so notoriously unappreciated? General consensus singles out two reasons: prices and setting. Before discussing prices, I must quickly inform you about the menu. ALC and tasting options are offered, but pride of place is given to Proyart’s ‘petits plats’. These are basically small grazing plates “in the same spirit as Atelier [de Joël Robuchon] or Club [Gascon], but around the ocean.” The petits plat menu is quartered: low tide (shellfish); the shore and beyond; high tide (fish); and the sea and earth (meat and seafood together). Customers are recommended to order three/four but, it seems many feel that £8-£15 for each is ridiculous. However, even ordering four of the most expensive dishes plus dessert (£6 each) would mean a five-course meal would set one back £66 – not utterly unreasonable, is it?
Concerns over the setting are harder to mitigate. The restaurant is located within the Sheraton Tower Hotel, Knightsbridge. Now, being a hotel restaurant is not the problem, many great restaurants reside in them, it is just that none can be found in one quite as ugly as this battleship-grey, cement pineapple monstrosity; 5* hotel? More like 1960s communist government office block. Although, once inside, things admittedly improve and so they should: only last year the hotel hired designers Forme to give the restaurant a £1m refurbishment. It can now boast such luxuries as a separate entrance and even its very own toilets – hullo!
One-O-One is divided into two separate spaces; one a bar, the other the restaurant itself. The contemporary, trendy former is shaped like an oyster shuck with a handcrafted, glass shared-table in the ‘oyster’s’ centre representing the pearl. The dining room, in contrast, is more traditional, relaxed and intimate. Soft, littoral tones litter the lozenge area: large azure cushions sit upon low earthy taupe armchairs around immaculate white linen-decked tables; a banquette of brown, turquoise, green and gold lines opposite ends of the room; auburn and russet hues of wooden panelling, cream walls and fallow carpeting conclude the colour scheme. It is rather bright inside: whilst white curtains block out both light and prying pedestrian gawps from off the street, spotlights and hanging retro lighting booths provide illumination. Noises too are filtered out, only to be replaced by an awkward disco soundtrack. There is ample space between well-proportioned tables, minimally furnished with stone candle holders and simple silver cutlery accompanying fine Limoges ware from Medard de Noblat, former purveyor to popes, shahs and even De Gaulle and currently supplying grand Georges V and Michel Guérard’s Les Prés d’Eugénie. The staff, responsible for fifty covers, are dressed unflatteringly in white tunics with aquamarine collars, but managers are smartly suited. Although not the most beautiful, luxurious or exciting of rooms, it is unpretentious, quite graceful and very comfortable.
The menu may cause a migraine, not because it is complicated, but simply because there are so many dishes demanding to be ordered. Plates abound with creative combinations showcasing goodies from across the globe: red king crab from the Barents Sea, cod from Norwegian fjords, oysters and lobsters from Brittany, plus foods from North Africa and the Orient. Proyart seeks the finest, freshest produce (fish arrive daily) whatever its provenance, but does not turn a blind eye to local suppliers – sea bass is line caught in Cornwall and most of his vegetables are from England. Deciding was difficult, but the petits plat principle meant I could try a good-sized selection. I also had Fabio, mon serveur, to help steer me trough the choices. Although, deep down, I felt whatever I chose, it had to be good when the chef’s publicly declared objective is “to cook fish like nowhere else in the country.”
Amuse Bouche: Mexican Ceviche. Tonight’s amuse consisted of halibut, tuna and sea bass ceviche bedded in a shot glass with couscous and coiffed with guacamole mousse and two mini poppadoms. This tiptop trio of fresh, firm fish had been marinated in a subtly spicy Mexican-style mix of lemon, chilli, coriander, parsley, garlic and tomato. The creamy avocado was the lulling lubricant between the coarse couscous and chilli ceviche; the playful poppadoms provided the crunch.
Les Pains: Plain White; Brown Bread; and Focaccia with Salt & Olive. The bread was good: the white bun, light and airy with a chewy crust; the better brown, soft, wholesome and yeasty; and the equally nice focaccia was well-seasoned, spongy and fluffy with lovely black olive bits aplenty. With the warm bread came a duet of butters – one unsalted, the other whipped with salty seaweed – both sourced from buttery Brittany, well creamy Cancale specifically. Those who do not like seafood would hate the latter; it was a savoury, briny beurre strongly suggestive of anchovies, but I, for one, liked its unique sea-fresh tanginess.
Entrée 1: Warm Norwegian Red King Crab with Sauce Vierge and Cockles. Three red king crab columns, constructed from the centre canon of the leg, together with a mop of marsh samphire commixed with cockles, came served in lucent, chartreuse sauce vierge and garnished with basil and roasted almonds. Presentation was perfect; the bright, vivid colours of the precisely positioned pieces were the ultimate testament to their freshness. The tasting did not disappoint. The unusually meaty cuts of crab, cooked in a water bath, were moist, salty-sweet and juicy. The samphire, with spinach-asparagus-like flavour, was slightly saline and very crisp, contrasting well with the succulent, chubby cockles. All the elements were gently tied together by the warm herb sauce, from which the peppery-sweet basil shone pleasingly.
Entrée 2: Brittany Blue Lobster & Artichoke Macédoine, Red King Crab Pastilla and Apple Sorbet. A tian of Breton lobster-English artichoke macedonia was crowned with artichoke mousse swirl wherein dwelt a dab of caviar. Across the plate, a pastilla triangle of red king crab enveloped with filo pastry rested upon a basilic buttress of more king crab. A cornucopia of potpourri filled the interspace: apple sorbet upon chilled apple pavé; apple cider jelly cube on mossy pastel green artichoke compote purée; a row of precise pink points of lobster mayonnaise; and light, reduced bisque dressing with mixed leaf and (inedible) violet artichoke flower garnish. The sweet, lissom lobster and nutty, creamy artichoke melded together well, their caviar topping supplying sharp refreshment. The hot pastilla was irresistibly flaky and deeply flavoured. Sour-sweet sorbet had a clean tang and was pleasantly coupled with the cold apple slice; the cider jelly packed a hard alcoholic punch. Soft, cool, mild macédoine; smooth, cold, shocking sorbet; crunchy, hot, bold crab; this dish was busy with texture, temperature and taste. Consistently close to over-congestion, the fresh ingredients managed to maintain their own.
Entrée 3: Pan-Seared Langoustine and Duck Foie Gras, Peking Duck Consommé, Hoisin Froth. A lavish lobe of duck foie gras, implanted with a decorative crab claw and balanced atop a loop of twin lush langoustines laterally lying head-to-head on a large raviolo of duck confit, came bathing in a consommé of Peking duck and hoisin froth. First, I slurped some soup. Slight disappointment: added tableside and filled with finely chopped cucumber cubes, it was weak. Then the raviolo, which was warmly spiced and well made. Next, I moved onto the foie, but when I went to find my knife, I found none. I soon discovered why. The stunning morsel was cooked exquisitely: a bouncy, seared surface willingly gave way, exposing a milky, melt-in-the-mouth middle, which I lapped up with the obliging spoon. As it disappeared, the twosome of toothsome scampi beneath appeared. The fattest, finest pair I may have ever seen were succulently sea-sweet. On reflection, the potage’s mildness may have made it a better foil for this magical marriage of meat and shellfish. A nice touch was the sprinkling of tiny cooking crumbs of foie from the frying pan that were delightfully crispy and full of charry relish.
Entrée 4: Red Mullet Bouillabaisse with Small Brittany Shellfish Parmentier, Seaweed Bread Mouillette. A fruits de mer midden, including mussels, whelks and cockles together with diced tomato, potato and garlic, formed the bed for a scrumptiously seductive, crimson-rose veneered red mullet fillet; a parmentier of assorted shellfish was poured by the serveur and seaweed mouillettes (large croutons) teetered on the plate’s rim. The parmentier proved more broth than bisque and could have been thicker for my liking, but it was well-seasoned with a welcome fishiness to it. The red mullet’s promising look had raised expectations untenably high; it had decent taste, but was not flaky enough nor was the skin at all crisp (Michel Roux Jr. would have been aghast). The customary rouille accompaniment was also absent. There were some saving graces though: mouthfuls of mixed shellfish mélange unleashed juicy, briny bursts and offered a wonderful diversity of textures – springy, firm, bouncy, fibrous, flaky, soft all in one go. The crunchy, herby mouillettes, which the chef had instructed me, via my serveur, would be best enjoyed introduced into the soup one by one, were another highlight.
Plat Principal 1: Pan-Roasted Norwegian White Halibut and Langoustine Dumpling, Paimpol Coco Beans Truffle Cassoulet, Sauce Nantua. Swirls of garden green parsley purée and dark amber Nantua sauce encircled a central plash of truffle-rich, celery-carrot, coco bean cassoulet over which lay a langoustine gyoza and thick fillet of golden-coated, snow white halibut with generous truffle garnish. Whoosh, immediately I was drunk on the aroma of redolent truffles – finally, for the first time in too long, decent truffles! I tucked in. The beautiful, firm fish was perfectly pan-roasted, allowing its sweet, delicate flavour to stand out. As clean tasting as the halibut was, the langoustine was oozing in hot, salty, savoury richness. The bite from the celery-carrot combo complemented the meaty, nutty Cocos de Paimpol, another Breton staple and the original cassoulet bean, which were opulently peppered with more truffle. The sauce Nantua of lobster bisque, tarragon and cream had a palatable bitter-sweetness; whilst fresh, smooth parsley orchestrated the lot with its peppery, grassy, liquorice warmth. This was expert flavour management; each element tasted delicious and each enhanced the others. I was desperate for some bigger cutlery just to cram more of these symphonious savours onto every forkful.
Plat Principal 2: Brittany Blue Lobster and Veal Sweetbread Glazed & Spiced Honey, Saffron Carrot Compote, Vanilla Emulsion, Citrus. A pretty pink, butter-roasted Brittany lobster tail, swimming in vanilla emulsion, was served with a hefty honey-glazed veal sweetbread, itself within its own burnt-umber reduction; where their respective sauces met and mingled in between, single skinned slices of colourful grapefruit, orange and lime were set astride. Rounding off the plate was a twirly tuile of carrot upon the veal and bright saffron carrot compote adorned with thyme. The grand gland, with its crisp, caramelised coat covering a silky centre, was superb. The lobster, on the other hand, was overcooked, no longer lithe, but a tad tough. The carrot mash was so light, it was more like mousseline, whilst its subtle saffron spicing was checked by the sweet vanilla. The citrus consortium conferred a refreshingly sour tickle that did not defeat the shellfish. Though superficially always in danger of being overwhelming sweet – something the serveur even warned of – I found this inherent threat tamed and skilfully directed.
Dessert 1: Coupe Liégeoise of Dark ‘Manjari’ Chocolate, Coffee and Salt Caramel Ice Cream. Two dark chocolate brownies came straddling a sizeable scoop of salty caramel ice cream, all buried under coffee-cocoa crème and atop a heap of honeycomb crumbs, with a dark chocolate shard as decoration. The ethereally light mousse carried a smooth, cool coffee taste, whilst the ice cream boasted of strong toffee. The dense duo of warm, moist brownies were very, very good; the dark Madagascan Manjari was not bitter, but faintly fruity instead. The saccharine honeycomb was brittle and clung affectionately to my teeth. A big mouthful brought with it a wealth of textures and temperatures; from cold to cool to warm and thick to frothy to creamy to crunchy. Digressing…is it only me who thinks this looks rather strikingly like a tank?
Dessert 2: Juniper Berries & White Chocolate, Lemon Sorbet and Soft Gin & Tonic Jelly. A triangular sablé biscuit base supported two rustic servings of white chocolate and juniper berry ice cream, upon which sat another triangle, this time a thick white chocolate feuile, decked with a neat quenelle of lemon sorbet; the final flourishes were an oversized biscuit tuile; scattered julienne orange rind; and triplet of gin and tonic jellies with mint leaf. The vertical boldness of this dish seized my attention whilst still across the room, but its purposeful, clear-cut and controlled flavours held onto it once in front of me. The star of the plate was the wonderfully fluffy ice cream pillows; the white chocolate was distinct and unadulterated whilst the berries brought a nice spicy-fruit bang. Every element played its part well: the sablé was crumbly; gin and tonic, refreshing; orange rind, intense; and lemon, clean and sour. Little details like the creamy crack from the feuille, super subtle smearing of strong orange coulis across the plate and cooling mint that cleansed the palate made such a tasty difference.
Petit Fours: Raspberry & Lychee Jelly; White Chocolate Truffle with Pistachio; Coconut Macaron; and Salty Caramel Dark Chocolate Truffle. With the bill came petit fours including good quality jelly which, although I am getting bored of these now, merited some distinction for its exotic lychee essence; poor coconut macaron that had been baked until biscuity-dry; and two truffles, both excellent. First, white pistachio pleased with its mildly nutty, double-cream-like filling, then dark salted caramel delighted with its explosive rich middle.
Throughout, service was faultless and, whilst always attentive and helpful, it warmed up terrifically from a very formal start. All the usual boxes were checked (bread, water, good timing of courses), but there were also unexpected niceties that stood out, such as lemon in the tap water and constant, convincingly sincere smiles from all. Fabio was praiseworthy indeed – he found time to field all my questions, always determined to provide the answer even if he did not know it already; made some sublime selections including the foie gras, halibut and juniper dessert (arguably my favourite three courses!); and was a generally charming and amicable host.
I know some who would object to the food here. I can hear them now complaining that there’s too much going on, the dish is too crowded, even that they cannot have meat and fish on the same plate! I disagree; Proyart’s cooking showed tremendous versatility and lots of confidence. The man obviously knows his fish, having been born in a small fishing village into a family of restaurateurs (going back three generations) and spending six years at Yves Mattagne’s Sea Grill (2*) in Brussels (then one of the top ten restaurants in the world) before moving to Le Divellec (2*) in Paris. Recently, whilst One-O-One was under refurbishment, he was also able to spend three months touring Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants including Les Pres d’Eugenie (3*). The current menu draws on new ingredients, ideas and techniques garnered on these travels – he has mastered the water bath for one – to deliver traditional dishes improved with modern twists and touches. The food ranges from simple to elaborate, from classic to contemporary, but is always original, well-designed and visually stunning. Unfortunately, there were a couple of slips in the cooking (red mullet and lobster tail), but the foie gras with langoustine and the halibut were absolutely delicious with both desserts deserving special commendation.
All in all, this is some pretty serious cooking by someone determined to make a statement. Well, another statement actually, to go with this one: “My goal is to get this place two stars, I’m really going for it…I’m ready to prove my point to the London public.” Dining here is an event in itself, demanding your attention, but fully deserving it.
101 Knightsbridge, Sheraton Tower Hotel, SW1X 7RN
tel: 020 7290 7101
nearest tube: Knightsbridge