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.
Amuse Bouche 1: Confit of Foie Gras. First of the finger-foods were thin pastry feuille and foie gras sandwiches, crusted with cassis dust and atop a squiggle of golden quince purée. Creamy foie confit, flaky feuilles, biting blackcurrant and spur of sweet quince: these offered a very pleasant introduction to Monsieur Marcus’ kitchen.
Amuse Bouche 2: Black Truffle Parmesan Risotto Croquettes. More nibbles to occupy my fingers followed: golden, crunchy spheres of hot, creamy, cheesy risotto and robust, tasty truffle were superb. The yielding grains of rice within the milky magma middles felt lovely on the tongue. The nutty parmesan squared up to the bold black truffle. The result: fireworks.
Les Pains: Country Bread; Swiss Brown; Sourdough; and Potato & Honey Bread. The country bread was rustic in taste and texture with a hard, thick crust; Swiss brown was lighter with a moist, porous filling and brittle coat; whilst the slightly nutty sourdough had a dense middle and chewy exterior. The best though was the potato and honey; the potato gave a delicate, open crumb and honey, a crunchy, caramelised, but not sweet, edge. Unfortunately, these were not made by the restaurant itself, being bought in from the Flour Station instead. This obviously meant they were served neither fresh nor hot out the oven. The butter was English, unsalted and frustratingly un-spreadable.
Amuse Bouche 3: Warm Pumpkin Soup with Parmesan Foam and Pumpkin Seed Grissini. The official amuse was a shot of thick pumpkin potage topped with parmesan mousse complete with parmesan-pumpkin seed breadsticks, The smooth, satisfying soup balanced salty, nutlike and earthy tang while the skinny, smoky grissini were crisp, rich and packed serious salty relish.
Entrée 1: Pan Fried Foie Gras – Glazed Black Figs, Espresso and Salted Caramel Popcorn. A thick, fat cut of foie gras, resting upon warm fig compote, was the centrepiece of the dish; whole popcorn pieces and a smear of espresso syrup strewn with salty, caramelised popcorn dust supported. The lush liver was indescribably delicious. Its auburn veneer, which submitted so readily to my fork that my knife was never touched, held within a juicy, almost runny core. The underlying fig, chopped and diced with skin still on, gave great textural variation to the overlaying liver: its skin was chewy, flesh smooth and seeds gritty and crunchy. The espresso was an excellent addition, with a strong, grounding flavour initially exciting the taste buds and contrasting well with the rich foie, then leaving behind a pleasing roasted residual finish.
Entrée 2: Scallops and Cod – Confit, Cauliflower, Macadamia Nuts, Fourme d’Ambert and White Chocolate. A sizeable seared scallop, sliced open, was sat atop cauliflower purée, sprinkled with chopped Macadamia nuts and sided by a smearing of Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese; flakes of cod confit, squares of warm white chocolate and orange and purple pansies garnished the dish. My first taste was of nut-topped scallop spread with cheese; the formidable Fourme took hold of the shellfish and delivered a powerful punch proceeded by a clean, nutty aftertaste that complemented the crunchy Macadamias. Normally, I would have suggested the scallop could have done with a little more time in the pan, for though just about cooked through, the skin was still soft, but in this scenario, this suppler surface suited the scallop’s role as a transport for the stronger savours surrounding it. The firm cod cuts were full of flavour and combined nicely with the melting milky chocolate; the flowers added colour and texture; an accompaniment of grilled Irish soda bread was yummy – thick, moist and juicy. The plate was full of curious combinations, which came off rather well; dominant elements and more obliging ones worked together to create a very balanced whole.
Entrée 3: Roasted and Marinated Quail – Hispi Cabbage, Pommery Mustard and Baked Potato. Meaty fillets of roast quail lay on a bed of crisp hispi cabbage alongside baked potato foam within which was veiled quail leg and trompette fricassee. The bird’s skin was disconcertingly soggy, but on tasting, infused with Pommery mustard and anise, it delivered such strong, sweetish, sharp bursts that this was fast forgiven. The hispi, a sweeter, softer cabbage, was warm and snappy and also suffused with the palatial Pommery. I was long interested how something as unrefined as baked potato would be incorporated, but its foamy form was lighter than air with the subtlest creaminess to it. Within was a scrumptious surprise of quail legs, cooked till almost confit, coupled with black chanterelles; the gamey dark meat and deep, robust mushrooms were deliciously intense.
Entrée 4: Pan Fried Veal Sweetbread – Swiss Chard, Roasted Ceps and Celeriac, Sauternes Jus. Two thin tranches of celeriac served as an impromptu pancake for diced Swiss chard stalk and leaf, on top of which was placed a seriously seductive sweetbread slab. Surrounding this were bundles of roast ceps upon cep mousse adorned with black truffle julienne and an amber jus of veal stock and sauternes that had been added tableside. The glistening gamboge gland was exquisite: its blazing hot jacket proved ineffectual, but palatable, protection for the pretty pink, creamy kernel. The mini mushroom mounds were explosive in taste: the sweet-acidity the rich gravy had been absorbed by the meaty, smoky ceps, which together with the redolent, pungent truffle, were absolutely intoxicating. The subjacent Swiss chard was slightly bitter and crunchy, whilst its celeriac capsule was smooth and nutty: together, they were a nice earthy anchor for the deep intensity of this dish. This was sensual, epicurean eating. Wow!
Plat Principal 1: Scottish Halibut – Charred Leeks, Coddled Quail Egg, English Watercress and Creamed Caviar. A hunky hunch of halibut, braised, came carrying char gilled baby leek, cloven coddled quail egg and watercress-almond tuile. Smatterings of puréed watercress, spoonful of creamed Oscietra caviar, parmesan twirl and dark pansies filled the plate. The fishy fillet’s expert execution enabled me to devour the delicate flesh flake by firm flake. The watercress three ways – warm, thick paste; peppery, almost mustard-like, garniture; and slightly bitter tuile – were a pleasing terrene contrast to the sweeter halibut. I found the caviar cream, though silky smooth, lacking in impression. The lovely leek was mellow and tender, but I was supplied with just a single stalk to savour. The quail egg, traditional caviar complement, was warm and creamy, but again paltry in provision – maybe the kitchen was considering my health; one quail egg contains the same cholesterol as several hen eggs.
Plat Principal 2: Poached and Glazed Anjou Pigeon – Scottish Girolles, Almonds and Amaretti. A plump pigeon breast, poached and glazed with black olive, almond and cobnut crumble, rested on a busy base of broken amaretti biscuit bits, baby gem lettuce, girolle mushrooms and sliced spear of white asparagus. The list of ingredients was enticing; the presentation, mouth-watering. Crunchy asparagus, sweet and subtly nutlike; full-bodied, fruity girolles soaked in pigeon vinaigrette; crunchy cobnuts; crisp, sugary amaretti; bitter black olives; earthy lettuce dripping with pigeon jus: these mingled marvellously, matching and bouncing tastes and textures around my mouth. However, it was all in vain. The alluring cerise-coloured guise of the pigeon steak was a siren call; it wooed me in, only to dash my hopes on proverbial rocks. OK, I exaggerate, but the bird was seriously bereft of flavour. This alone was bad enough, but with such quality trimmings and as this was the meal’s climatic main course, it was criminal.
Pre-Dessert: Milk Chocolate & Raspberry Gâteau; Eton Mess; and Lemon Crème. A trio of sweets en miniature was served. There was a lovely chocolate and raspberry opera composed of fine layers of silky mousse and tart raspberry; with each bite, it felt like a hundred delicate feuilles were broken through. A petite quenelle of raspberry crème and soft-baked meringue with crisp white chocolate biscuit tuile was an airy, fruity reincarnation of Eton mess. In a shot glass was, not surprisingly, a shot of gin sorbet sitting on lemon curd and studded with dried violet petals. The combination of sweetly-sour lemon, hard, ice-cold gin jolt and crunchy sugary violets was very refreshing.
Dessert 1: Orange Crème, Spiced Brioche Crisps, Bitter Chocolate Sorbet. Though not a huge orange fan, the promise of bitter chocolate sorbet was an offer I could not refuse. Three thin, circular crisps of toasted brioche formed a double-decker club of marshmallow-like orange mousse. The sugar-dusted sandwich came topped with a sleek and shiny scoop of gold-powdered bitter chocolate sorbet and skirted by a splash of still-bitter cocoa crumb. The subtle, foamy crème offered none of the sour acidity of an orange, only its fruity, sweet refreshment; the spicy feuilles were warm with nutmeg and cinnamon; whilst the thick, grainy chocolate was just a treat. Violating the immaculate composition, a secret surprise stash of skinned orange segments was uncovered within. The lovely understated flavours, crunchy brioche cushioned within the soft, cream pillows and juicy fruit made this dessert unexpectedly gratifying.
Dessert 2: Warm Chocolate Moelleux, Banana Jelly, Banana Ice Cream. Positioned in the plate’s centre was a warm curvaceous cocoa cake, beside it was a boule of banana ice cream beset atop candied banana peel and chocolate chips. A sprinkling of rosemary sugar dust ran rim-to-rim opposite, intersected by a faint banana caramel line whose course was channelled by little jelly cubes of more banana-caramel. The moelleux, of connoisseurs’ choice 70% Valrhona, proved more than just a cake. Easing a spoon into the spongy, rough surface, the mini-enigma erupted with hot, dark liquid chocolate: a pleasant and pleasantly bitter surprise – this specific cacao is noted for its full variety of natural essences, ranging between fruity, coffee, floral and nutty. The well-made ice cream and jellies both had distinct, clear banana intensity. The rosemary’s subtly sour woody-lemon spark was an appreciated extra.
Dessert 3: Peanut Parfait, Valrhona Chocolate Mousse, Salt Caramel Jelly, Raspberry Crème. A pillar of peanut parfait, propped upon a caramelised peanut plinth and boasting a milk chocolate mousse capital on which balanced a cocoa tuile, was constructed shaduf-like over a small milk chocolate cup containing hidden raspberry coulis beneath raspberry crème and sugared nut; a dollop of salt caramel jelly and rice crispy clusters finished off the plate. Again the distinction and clarity of each element stood out whilst the variation of textures also played its part – smooth parfait; crispy rice; sticky, crunchy nut; soft chocolate. The raspberry picked up on the discreet fruity tones of the Valrhona and its partnership with the peanut was a deft redesign of traditional peanut butter and jelly.
Petit Fours: Bon Bon Trolley – Passion Fruit & Mango; Turkish Delight; Almond Praline; Dark Chocolate Ganache; White Chocolate & Blackcurrant; and Salted Caramel. A small serving cart carrying a large silver sculpture holding hanging bowls filled with an assortment of homemade chocolates was trolleyed over. Naturally, I tried one of each: the first had a fine liquid centre of powerful passion fruit tempered with cool mango; significantly better than average Turkish delight featured smooth jelly middle; praline, with crunchy nut shell and soft ganache, was good. Dark chocolate was nice and bitter; white chocolate had vinous, velvety fruit filling; and the salty caramel was lovely and strong, surprising my taste buds.
It is difficult to decide how much I enjoyed this meal. Beforehand, expectations were staggeringly high – I was anticipating 3* cooking (or something very close to it). Dinner started well: good amuses; great foie gras; good scallop and quail; stunning sweetbread. However, mains failed to impress and desserts, bar a very nice orange crème, were just decent. Marcus has a reputation for technical brilliance and sophistication and he deserves it: the food was faultless in preparation with clean, focused dishes featuring one or two showpiece ingredients simply teamed with just a small number of well-thought-out accompaniments. However, textbook execution is not enough on its own. I wanted to be awed and overwhelmed; I wasn’t (tough the sweetbread will remain with me for a long, long time). The food was definitely agreeable and though there were no ‘bad’ courses, my satisfaction was somewhat shackled by imperfect service.
At this level, impeccable service ought to be de rigueur. On the night, it ranged from friendly to frustrating to neglectful. No one was rude or made any major mistakes, but, as I have often written, it is the little details that matter most. Such little details that derailed my dining delight included the unwillingness of staff to appreciate my wish to learn more about dishes than simply their menu descriptions; one would think that after two/three times of asking, they would appreciate this. Another annoyance was, when asking for seconds from the bonbon trolley (foodslob rears his fat face again), I was demanded, politely, to limit my request. Now, this was me being greedy, but no is the last thing I want to hear somewhere such as this; it should not be in their vocabulary. Once, asking for more bread – actually, I had to ask for more every time I wanted some – I had to wait fifteen minutes for it. Another time, I questioned one serveuse about an ingredient; she insisted she would find out, but after a lengthy disappearance, she needed prompting after finally returning to inform me of the answer. More serious criticism however goes to the sometimes rushed treatment I received. I was not hurried through the meal, but staff did not always have/find/make time to actually stop at the table with food delivered and literally described on-the-go. There may have been problems with the FOH, generally, that night: I overheard an adjacent table complain about delayed main courses; apparently, twenty minutes was far beyond necessary and usual to wait for this gentleman, who seemed rather eager to impress his parents/in-laws and wife with his big-boy behaviour.
To be honest, I was very excited about this restaurant; I was desperate to love it, ready to preach the Gospel according to Marcus. However, ultimately the food was just good and service not perfect; as much as I wanted it to, as much as I willed it, the ground did not move for me, the spirit did not possess me…
London’s best? Sadly, I cannot concur.
The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, SW1X 7RL
tel: 020 7255 1200
nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge