Archive for October, 2008

Le Gavroche (The Return), London


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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