Archive for October, 2008

Le Gavroche (The Return), London

Entrance 

It was raining. It was cold. I was at Marble Arch station and I was early. ‘If I get there too soon, they will make me wait outside till they open,’ I thought to myself. But there was nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, so I headed down Park Lane. My toes had become numb from the short walk between Marble Arch and the restaurant, but as soon as I turned left onto Upper Brook Street, my heart, and my belly, were warmed by the fond memories of my last meal here. Instinctively, I started smiling to myself and my gait quickened, footsteps shortened, my heart began to beat a little faster. I felt the cold no longer.

Relais & Chateaux Logo Traditions & Qualité Logo

Its discreet door is distinguished only by the simple signage above. As one approaches, a symbolic fleur-de-lis, the Relais & Chateaux logo, and caricature coq gaulois, the arms of the Traditions & Qualité association, assure the diner they have arrived at one of Les Grandes Tables du Monde.
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Foliage, London

Foliage, enunciated [foh-lee-ahj] for the record darlings, is the Michelin-starred flagship restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge. The same hotel that was once home to the Restaurant Marco Pierre White, where this celebrated chief won his record-breaking three stars before moving on to the Oak Room (winning three there again, then giving them back). Today, London is littered with MPW’s former protégés – Ramsay, Chavot, Howard, Atherton, Tanaka and of course many more – therefore it is apt and almost inevitable that one old boy now runs his former residence.

Chris Staines, starting in Suffolk, moved first to Llangoed Hall (1*), Sir Bernard Ashley’s Welsh country house hotel; then Lucknam Park (1*), Bath for two years; Chez Nico (3*) for another two; and next the Oak Room (3*). His two-and-a-half years there were interesting to say the least; just as he was joining, MPW was leaving and retiring from day-to-day cheffing, finally serving his last three Michelin star meal to a paying customer here in December 1999, before handing back his étoiles. Under executive chef Robert Reid, Chris worked his way up to sous chef, then head chef, helping the restaurant regain a star in 2001. The next year however, MPW decided to close the Oak Room and in March 2002, Chris succeeded Hywel Jones as head chef at Foliage, which had just earned its own first star two months before. Many of the Oak Room’s staff followed him to Foliage.
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The Grill at the Dorchester, London

 

Another week, another trilogy realised: I have now eaten at all of the Dorchester Hotel’s three restaurants. China Tang was long ago now and, bar maybe the best egg-fried rice I have ever had, was rather forgettable. Widely derided Alain Ducasse was a disappointment; here, again only one dish – Filets de sole à la florentine, crevettes et champignons de Paris, sauce Château Chalon – shone (very brightly), whilst desserts I thought terrible and I did try three.

Already, automatically almost, I am inclined to favour the Grill. This is solely because it is the common casualty of some uncalled-for criticism from celebrated critic, AA Gill. Together with a favourite of mine, l’Ambassade de l’Ile, the Grill was awarded a single star (out of five) by this aforesaid assessor. Do not misunderstand – I do not mind if my judgment differs from his, but I do think that, after describing dishes as ‘utterly brilliant, deliciously flavoured’ and all the cooking as ‘craftsmanlike, considered and thoughtful,’ giving it only one star essentially because he did not like the décor, is just misrepresentative. I will describe the Grill’s design in more detail later, but for now, let us just say Mr. Gill liked it even less than l’Ambassade’s.

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The River Café, London

 

Ask anyone to name London’s top Italian restaurant and general consensus would suggest either Locanda Locatelli, Zafferano or the River Café. Regular readers should might have already read my reviews of the first two and have probably been waiting some time, as have I, for that inevitable visit to the River Café. Well, after many months – six to be certain – I am able to finally fulfil my gastronomic responsibility and complete my Grand Tour of London’s la Santissima Trinità.

Why the wait? A fatty steak. During dinner service on Saturday, 5 April, when cooking bistecca alla Fiorentina, ‘some flaring vapours got caught in the flue,’ causing the open grill to ‘explode like a jet plane.’ The forced shutting required for repair was viewed a good excuse for a refit and thus the River Café remained closed until a couple of weeks ago when, like a phoenix, it arose from its own ashes. The owners decided to take advantage of the interval and insurance money – used to cover staff salaries – spending the summer in Italy with their chefs, mastering new recipes, and sending people to work with suppliers and other restaurants – some, for example, worked at La Fromagerie, being taught how to look after cheese; others went to Specogna, a family-run winery in Northern Italy; whilst a few were sent to San Daniele near Venice to learn about prosciutto. A series of charitable projects were undertaken too: disabled kids helped build a vegetable garden in the former-dining-room-cum-greenhouse, later cooking with the very legumes of their labours; while a group of female chefs visited a women’s refuge.
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Almeida, London

  

October 13th-19th is chocolate week. Paul A. Young is a chocolatier. Alan Jones is a chef. Together, they have created a special chocolate menu at Almeida restaurant. I love chocolate. I will eat this chocolate menu.

Logical, succinct and simple, my sentences have never been so short, nor so selfish. And it only gets worse. This is probably also my most indulgent, most useless greedy adventure yet: this carte chocolat is only on for one week – chocolate week (surprise, surprise). But chocolate week was last week.

Upper Street, Islington, dating from at least the 12th century, has had a long if not spectacular history. It has always been part of one of England’s greatest roads – the Great North Road, successor to the Roman Ermine Road and itself precursor to the present A1 – and also a stopping place for hungry farmers from the surrounding fertile fields en route to the Royal Agricultural Hall. It was this thoroughfare of tradesman that first attracted many pubs and inns to the area and although Islington has since become a trendy, modern North London enclave, it is still characterised by the extensive array of eateries that exist there.

Today, 580 yards of high street gastro heaven separate two more-ambitious foodie establishments: Almeida, part of the 20-restaurant-strong D&D chain (formerly Terence Conran’s eating-empire), and the original Paul A. Young’s Fine Chocolates Camden Passage boutique.
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Roussillon, London

 

I almost embarrassed myself. Roussillon – a name which instantly invokes images of wine and warfare – had my mind motoring through elaborate metaphors and playful puns, probably involving Food Snob fighting les Français. It may not sound like much now, but it would have been something grand. Crois moi. This was my first reaction anyway; after all, the namesake London restaurant surely must be titled after the oft-fought-over petite province près les Pyrénées – former Catalan territory, land of vineyards and for centuries subject to the egomaniacal martial chauvinism of the monarchs of Aragon, France, Majorca and the Moors – non? Non!

You have the wrong Roussillon in mind, mes amis! Swap the Counts of Barcelona for the Popes of Avignon, Morue Catalane for Brandade de Morue, replace anchoïde with oursinade, gardiane with bouillabaisse, set your eyes 150 miles due north-east et voila! Where you should be looking is not Languedoc-Roussillon, but Lubéron, wherein little red Roussillon resides – a small village of Provence, birth-province of chef-patron Alexis Gauthier, famous for its tinted ruby-pink hills, rich with ochre and iron oxide deposits.

Embarrassment rolled over into relief; Languedoc-Roussillon natives had once been nicknamed ‘rat eaters’ – not exactly a palatable picture at dinnertime. But just as fast, relief revolved into restlessness as I recalled this ville perchée’s local legend and foodie folklore: there once was a young Lady Sermonde, wife of Raymond d’Avignon, Seigneur du Village, who was neglected by her husband, himself too preoccupied by hunting. Inevitably, the lonely Lady fell in love with another, a young troubadour, Guillaume de Cabestan. Raymond found out and furious, he killed him. In cruel revenge, he also had Willy’s heart served to his wife during dinner. Sermonde, having learned what had happened, threw herself off the close by cliffs, forever colouring the hillside with her blood. But on the bright side, for me at least, eating heart would be nothing new…

Scintillating as this storytelling is, let us refocus on the Pimlico restaurant, Roussillon, thus named by Chef Alexis after acquiring it in 1997 in partnership with Alex and James Palmer (the same entrepreneurs who set up, then sold, the New Covent Garden Soup Company); it had been Marabel’s, but new ownership and opening of MPW’s Mirabelle the same year, prompted the name change.
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Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, London

I suppose most of you have already read that Waitrose Food Illustrated article for yourselves now. It is legendary and rightly so: I imagine James Steen must have soiled himself listening to Marcus Wareing (that’s right – it’s Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley tonight! Can you feel the excitement?) launch into his sensationally blunt invective against that ‘sad b*st*rd’, Gordon Ramsay – a reporter’s wet dream, indeed. Although grudgingly good entertainment, it is also a personal shame as I was secretly hoping to dispense with the now-expected, prolix preamble this post (or at least condense it somewhat) and get tucked straight into dinner’s narrative; but how could I honestly ignore a feud that has rocked London’s dinnerland to its timbers or whose reverberations have, at the very least, shaken a few pristine pieces of cutlery out of their proper, precise places?

Here is the stereotypical tale of two teenage friends who grew up to become bitter enemies, conquering London’s restaurant scene along the way – did you know Team Ramsay-Wareing has amassed 15 Michelin stars? That’s within tasting distance of Robuchon’s 17! Impressive stuff. The story, and this is Marcus’ story, starts in Lancashire, where a shy, quiet teenager decided to follow his brother, the chef, into a culinary career. Enrolling into catering college, under big brother Brian’s behest, turned young Wareing’s world upside down, suddenly he was brimful of confidence: ‘the kitchen was my comfort zone and I felt good in whites.’ He was also the centre of attention and impressing peers, teachers and judges alike, enough so that one such referee referred him to a sous chef at the Savoy. Thus, aged 18, he had his foot in the door, becoming the Savoy’s new commis chef under the aegis of Anton Edelmann. Spending two years here, the galloping gastro then went through ten kitchens in ten years: he moved first to Le Gavroche, serving under another great, Albert Roux, and also where he first met Gordon; Marcus, 19, and Gordon, 22, hit it off instantly. Next came the Point, near NYC; the Grand Hotel, Amsterdam, joining Roux again; Gravetye Manor, West Sussex (where he met Jane, his wife); before arriving at Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire. Here, he was reunited with Ramsay, but only for one week: the morning he arrived, Gordon (in an unrelated move) handed in his notice; he was opening Aubergine and wanted Marcus with him. The fortnight that followed, under the notoriously difficult Koffmann, was more than enough convincement to lead Marcus one night to Aubergine’s backdoor, where, almost on the spot, Marco Pierre White gave Marcus Wareing a job at Gordon Ramsay’s first restaurant…stars…dizzy…The pair became inseparable, but after two years, side by side, sixteen hours a day, six days a week giving ‘that guy everything [he] had,’ Marcus needed a break and returned to NYC, to Daniel Boulud’s Le Cirque (then America’s top restaurant). However, twelve months and visa problems later, he was back with Ramsay – via Guy Savoy, Paris – setting up l’Oranger. Within a year, he had won a Michelin star, within another, he had been sacked (the day after Ramsay quit) over internecine wrangling with owners, A-Z. Undaunted, Marcus recovered in style, becoming chef-patron of then St James Street sited Pétrus, named after his favourite wine, in 1999. It took him only seven months more to earn another Michelin star. Going from strength to strength now, in 2003 he also took over the Savoy Grill; opened Banquette, an American diner, above it; and moved Pétrus into La Tante Claire’s old spot at The Berkeley. In 2004, he also earned Savoy its first ever star.

Note the symmetrical circularity of Marcus’ life: he begun at the Savoy, left, did a spell at Guy Savoy, then returned, thirteen years on, as head chef; also, after spending two weeks at La Tante Claire, ten years later he was back, replacing it with his own restaurant.

A year ago, everything looked grand: Pétrus had picked up star number two and Wareing was riding high, earning unanimous praise and plaudits aplenty -many touted Pétrus as London’s best restaurant – whilst Ramsay was opening restaurants across the world, recording TV shows and making his millions. What went wrong? Well, rumours of a rift had already begun surfacing in early 2007; apparently, Marcus had grown sick of the ‘shadow’ sobriquet his relationship with Gordon had earned him, as well as the claustrophobic consequences of being another cog in the GRH machine – he was a man ‘constrained, confined and trapped’. In May, gossip had it that Gordon was about to fire Marcus, but Wareing must have sensed this himself and made a pre-emptive strike: GRH’s lease with The Berkeley was due to expire on 19 September, so he launched an independent bid for it. And got it. A summer of squabbling between the two super-chefs supervened. Eventually, an accord was reached: Gordon kept the name (supposedly on its way to La Noisette’s old location), wine cellar and maître d’, Jean-Philippe Susilovic; Marcus kept his stars and won his freedom. After a one-week closure mid-September, Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley is now open.

  

The David Collins interior has remained intact. It is still sophisticated and dramatic yet warm and clubby; still very grown up. The belle époque theme is embodied by rich claret colouring, characteristic of Pétrus wine itself. The deep Burgundy walls and well-padded plum armchairs are contrasted against crisp white, double-layered tablecloths. Circles figure prominently too: ovular mirrors, round tables, white French blinds made of linking loops; and white, milk and dark chocolate-coloured boules upon two large abacuses that screen a wall of wine chillers. Well-spaced, large tables are dressed with a couple of calla lilies, white candleholder, Bernaudaud porcelain (Fat Duck, l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris and Jean Georges of New York are also fans) and thick, starched napkins. Fragrant bouquets of white hydrangeas and more calla lilies; opulent fittings; and dim lighting from glittering chandeliers and soft golden lamps adds to the sense of seduction and luxury.
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