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.
Built surprisingly recently, as late as 1931, the darling Dorchester is the babe of London’s bunch of grand hotels, but maybe my favourite. The Ritz oozes opulence; the Connaught is celebrated; Claridge’s, classy; the Savoy…shut; but the Dorchester endears, delights and has je ne sais quoi. In addition to its illustrious history of hospitality, the hotel also carries an important culinary legacy, of which the Grill is the greatest epitome. From here, Anton Mosimann revolutionised hotel dining in London with the 1975 introduction of his cuisine naturelle – a lighter, healthier way of eating – making the Dorchester’s the first hotel kitchen outside France to earn two Michelin stars. However, years past have seen such success stale and in an attempt to remedy this rot, 2006 saw the Dorchester Grill redubbed the Grill at the Dorchester and dramatically redesigned: from indulgently Iberian to scandalously Scottish. More significantly, a new chef was sought to replace the out-going (to Tom’s Kitchen) Ollie Couillard, who had struggled to stamp his mark on the restaurant. Indeed, the Grill is a tall order for any chef: first, there is its tradition as a bastion of Britishness to bear, but then there is the bad name gained for being the boring retreat of the blue-rinse mob.
Aiden Byrne was approached. Young, dynamic and English, Aiden – the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star – was seen as the ideal man to inherit the helm. However, he was at first hesitant. Visiting the restaurant did not help: after watching ‘people falling asleep in their bowls of soup’, his wife forbade him taking the job – ‘you’re not coming here,’ she decided. Ultimately though, the lure of London’s bright lights proved too persuasive and he accepted the job in October 2006. Aiden, who had been running Danesfield House near Marlow, previously worked at Tom Aikens (1*) as head chef; Pied à Terre (2*) as sous chef; Adlards, Norwich (1*) as head chef also; and Roscoff, Peacock Alley and the Commons (all in Dublin), chronologically. Thus he had learned directly from the likes of David Adlard, Paul Rankin, Richard Neat and, his mentor, master emulsifier, Tom Aikens. Aiden also, aptly, brings with him a passion for British cooking and ingredients: ‘my aim has always been to shatter the myth that British food has to be heavy and old-fashioned and to highlight the fact they we have some of the finest suppliers and produce in the world.’ Sounds like a marriage made in heaven…
The Grill’s gilded gateway is found along the opulent promenade – which happens to stretch the same length as Nelson’s Column – that runs through the hotel’s heart. That doorway may as well be a wormhole; entering the dining room, one is transported three hundred years into the past and three hundred miles north, to Bonnie Scotland. The décor was the million pound masterpiece of Thierry Despont, the same man charged with restoring nothing less than the Statue of Liberty. I can imagine what had happened: as deadline day drew near, this Frenchman, wrestling to overcome some mammoth mental roadblock and desperate for inspiration, must have found it in one of two places. The first was at the breakfast table: deliberating his dilemma over a bowl of porridge, his attention was arrested by the box, of Scott’s Porridge Oats of course, and his theme was determined then. But, on second thoughts, this is unlikely – they do not really do breakfast across la Manche, petit dejeuner there consists of cigarettes et café, n’est-ce pas? The second scenario saw his motivation come from the menu itself, opening it, reading the first item ‘Oak Smoked Scottish Salmon’ – it must have been the Sunday lunch menu – he decided he had struck gold: reminiscences of the Auld Alliance, la Vieille Alliance, swelled in his breast and this witty Frenchman, in mocking, defiant stand against les Rosbifs built a shrine to all that is Scottish. Historical note: this accord between France and Scotland aimed specifically against England culminated in the 1421 Battle of Bauge when the ‘Army of Scotland’, part of the French royal service, defeated Albion’s army and earned themselves the appellation ‘antidote to the English’.
Getting back on track…tartan dominates the room: green-and-thatched-red tartan carpets the floor; two types of it – green/navy/red-pinstripe and red/scarlet/green-pinstripe – upholster the high-backed armchairs; the same green/navy one wraps the wine shelves on either side of the dining area; whilst the red tartan lines dresser screens. The focal point is a large four-sided centre-couch complete with comfy cushions and crowned by a large bronze urn filled with several dozen roses. The glossy, golden-brown burnished walls are adorned in ‘Carry on Ceilidhing‘ style with the Grill’s most controversial feature -10ft tall highlanders and highland-lassies, unsurprisingly, togged up in more tartan. Other minor talking points include bright red, velvet bedsteads on some of the seating. Four large chandeliers hang from the cream ceiling. The restaurant, fitting about eighty, is filled with square tables dressed with white linen and finely furnished with elegant J.L. Coquet crockery, silver salt-and-pepper shakers made by Peugeot and a pair of fresh-cut roses.
I could continue writing all day, but I best stop and cut to the chase: the food.
Amuse Bouche 1: Lemongrass and Carrot Soup. An attention-grabbing amuse of lemongrass and carrot complete with spherificated cylindrical of coriander awakened our taste-buds. Each spoonful surrendered short sweetness succeeded by a deep, almost sharp finish from the lemony, gingery grass. The bitter bubble burst with a warm, citric spiciness that complemented the lemongrass.
Les Pains: Five seed & cereal; Brown rye; Walnut, thyme & onion; and Stilton. A four-strong selection of homemade breads was offered. A soft, wholemeal brown rye came plain or filled with five seeds and cereal. Walnut, thyme and onion was well-seasoned with the strong aroma and flavour of minty, lemon-like thyme and had a nice, nutty coat. The most interesting of all, however, was the Stilton. This fluffy, white bread with well-baked crust had a mellow, earthy essence; the potentially overpowering quality of the blue cheese was kept comfortably under control. Lescure butter from Normandy, with its characteristic gentle tang, was served alongside.
Entrée 1: Braised Chicken with potato and truffle cannelloni. An Aiden signature dish of three braised, boned chicken wings came sandwiched between two cannelloni – one of crispy spud filled with soup of potato, warm milk and truffle oil and another of chicken and truffle mousse – with a tater tuile, buckler-leaf sorrel garnish and dressed in truffle oil, chive and chicken jus sabayon. The mouth-watering wings, from Jason Wise of Ark Chicken, with sticky, caramelised skin, were succulent and flavourful. The pipe of pommes purée was soft and smooth with earthy, fungi depth. The cylinder of chicken mousse, also containing crunchy, diced potato, was just as creamy. The buckler-leaf sorrel supplied a welcome acidic, clean note of lemon, whilst the gorgeous gravy had smoky intensity from the truffle and richness from the jus roti. of Pied à Terre’s Shane Osborne described this as ‘one of my best dishes of the year,’ whereas, for me, it brought back memories of mumsy’s mash.
Entrée 2: Peach and Tomato Salad with pine vinaigrette. A rather summery second starter followed the first: slices of peach, heirloom, ripe and unripe tomato, served with peach and tomato fondants, peach mousse and tomato foam, were presented peppered with pine nuts, drizzled in vinaigrette and bedecked with baby basil and dill. The juicy, fragrant peach and faintly tangy tomato made a refreshing pair that was balanced by the sweetly-acidic sherry vinaigrette. The herbs added subtle sweetness and faint pungency to the plate; toasted nuts, crunch and creaminess; whilst a little olive oil, vibrant fruity flavour. I particularly liked the use of uncommon green tomato, which sprinkled with salt, is a favourite summer snack of mine.
Entrée 3: Poached Scallops with autumn vegetables and lemon thyme butter. A plenteous portion of four poached scallops were produced accompanied by an assortment of autumnal vegetables and light lemon thyme butter sauce. Moist, soft, sweet shellfish, slow cooked in vegetable broth, had firm, fine texture, full flavour and fell effortlessly apart. The collection of carefully chopped, crunchy, al dente greens – carrot, celeriac, courgette, fennel and onion – had delicate sweetness; and lemon rind julienne were pleasingly sour without being harsh. The delightful dressing, brimming with citric buzz, brought together and enlivened all the elements on the dish. The minty thyme and trim of parsley added additional refreshing tang.
Entrée de Mon Frère: Watercress Soup with poached cod and hen’s egg. My brother’s menu du jour commenced with classic British watercress soup, suitably coloured British racing green. Partnering the potage was poached pairing of hen’s egg covering chunky cod. Good, gently grainy consistency was backed up with stimulating, peppery savour. The egg was well-cooked and agreeably gooey, whilst the cod, tender and flaky. The Stilton bread came into its own when called upon to clean up the remnants of the soup.
Entrée 4: Chilled Beetroot Gazpacho with avocado sorbet and vodka jelly. A Tyrian purple bloodbath of beetroot boasted two buoyant islands of cloudy vodka jelly and electric-chartreuse avocado sorbet quenelles. This second speciality of Aiden’s was pregnant with powerful and complicated flavours: the very unctuous concoction gushed with earthy, sour and sweet smokiness; the vodka shot was seriously strong and sharp, but just about kept in check by the creamy, cooling assistance of avocado. This was a witty reworking of traditional beet borsht, itself customarily complemented with vodka. The potent potion of cooked and uncooked beetroot, golden beet, vanilla, apple juice, vinegar and coriander leaf was striking both in presentation and on the palate. The enduring vision of le visage de mon petit frère swollen with wide, surprised smile, showing off teeth sopping with bleeding beet juice just like a vampire, still amuses me.
Plat Principal: Roasted Turbot with lobster, apple and rosemary. A tripartite delight of three of my most favoured foods – turbot, lobster and sweetbread – saw the harvest of the soil, shoreline and shallower sea amassed upon a single plate. The roasted, golden-tanned turbot, with its delectable, distinguished taste, was excellently cooked and flawlessly flaky (it also came with Parma ham, which I removed); the fishy fillet sat atop apple julienne. Half-tail of bouncy, lissom lobster, roasted in rosemary, was warmed by the woody sweetness of the herb. The unannounced, but not unwelcome cannelloni of succulent sweetbread, moist lobster meat and diced roasted apple (within and atop) was seasoned with Calvados – that in true trou Normand fashion rewoke my appetite. The deeply delicious and creamy, enjoyably chewy roll was rich and intoxicating. Apple and more robust rosemary purée puddles mingled in the middle of the dish with concentrated, condensed sauce of veal jus, rosemary, roasted apple again and lobster oil. The successful application of apple, whose fruitiness underscored the subtly sweet savour of the shellfish, fish and meaty gland, was inspired. This intricate, intense dish was well-relished.
Plat Principal de Mon Frère: Angus Beef with Yorkshire Pudding. Served elegantly and traditionally tableside from the trolley by Victor, this was the second piece of British culinary culture on today’s carte. A plethora of porcelain ramekins and bronze bowls brimful of a variety of vegetables in light Hollandaise sauce; mustard, English and French (le meilleur, Victor nous a dit); horseradish; and Madeira gravy accompanied tender, pink carvings of medium-rare rib of Aberdeen Angus beef and jumbo crispy Yorkshire pudding. My brother’s beef was juicy and good quality; the roast potatoes were better than textbook with great crumbly coat; the sautéed-in-orange-juice carrots struck a pleasing chord with him; but he ignored the steamed broccoli. Digressing, I must mention the lovely handcrafted Laguiole-en-Aubrac steak knife set for this course that caught my eye.
Pre-Dessert: Yoghurt Mousse with carrot, orange and olive oil. This sophisticated structure was constructed thus: vegetal-sweet carrot mousse base was laid with a sour disc of iced homemade yoghurt; soft ring of moist carrot cake – crammed with carrot crème – came embedded in the mousse-yoghurt foundation; atop the cake sat a frozen segment of orange, beneath a quenelle of yoghurt sorbet sprinkled with orange skin crumbs and set with biscuit tuile. An orange potage was poured at the table. Light, refreshing and fruity, this was an excellent pre-dessert. The marriage between carrot and orange, logical with hindsight, was interesting and worked well. Textural variation and the complete continuum of cooler temperatures (ice, cold, mild) were both brought into play.
Dessert de Mon Frère: Melting Chocolate Tart with coffee ice cream and cardamom foam. The carte du jour concluded with molten coco cake with sablé breton base complemented with copious coffee ice cream and spoonful of cardamom foam. The Valrhona Caraïbe 66% sponge was balanced, mellow and woody with little sugariness, but a hint of coffee that obviously went well with the distinct ice cream. The cake’s almost-liquid layered top had a great sticky quality, whilst the base was short and buttery. Cardamom mousse was bittersweet and highlighted the choc’s smokiness. All in all, this was a very good chocolate dessert – and a continuation of the rich vein of cocoa puddings that I have lately hit upon.
Dessert: Super-moist Chestnut Sponge with chocolate mousse and vanilla ice cream. Pavé of chestnut sponge-cake sat under a smaller slice of chocolate mousse coupled with two thin, crisp pain feuilleté – one above, one below it. Atop this pyramid was placed a coco cannelloni sugar tuile oozing with Chantilly crème and a scoop of airy vanilla ice cream, embedded with biscuit wafer. Embellishment comprised of chestnut mousse, dashes of choc sauce and roasted chestnut chips. The Valrhona Ecuador 55% mousse was nicely bitter; the tuile tube, crunchy, earthy and sweet; chestnut cream was bittersweet and nutty, whilst its pieces, soft; but the cake itself, dense yet light, had less strength than was expected/desired. Despite that, the especially enjoyable experience of spooning all these elements together into creamy, crunchy, moist mouthfuls made this a delightful, autumn treat.
Café et Petit Fours: Lemon sponge cake; Chocolate biscuit button; Mohrenköpfe; and Blackcurrant macaron. A crumbly lemon sponge, crowned with passion fruit crème and diced lime zest, had good fruity punch and sourness; chocolate shortbread biscuit and fine coco feuille cemented with Valrhona Caraïbe 66% ganache was sugary-tart. An unconventional Mohrenköpfe – Moor’s head – of chocolate praline packed with pistachio, hazelnut and macadamia, melted in the mouth with milky nuttiness; whilst blackcurrant macaron was sweet and sharp. Coffee was good and, delightfully, free refills were offered.
The menu offers good ol’ English fare mixed with Aiden’s own adventurous creations, which combine humdrum ingredients in interesting and impressive ways, for instance, humble chicken and potato (admittedly with some truffle) were transformed into something surprising and outstanding. Judging from the food, the chef’s trademark must be big, bold flavours. Aiden’s cooking is confident, luxurious and gratifying and it is also consistent; execution was impeccable and not one dish disappointed. Hallmarks of teacher Tom Aikens, godfather of foam and serial saucer, are patently present on some of the plates, but in deliberate, mature, measured manner. Seasonally selected raw materials – micro-greens from Richard Vine (gardener not Bloomberg columnist), cheese from La Fromagerie, even new breed lamb from Denham Estate – are as excellent as expected and many of my favourites are found (turbot, partridge, Dover sole). Lastly, a previously reproved lack of legumes certainly seems set right.
Front-of-house, from Marion our serveuse to cheerful Victor (photographed above) to engaging, expert sommelier, Jason McAuliffe, was first-class. All our requests were dealt with readily, speedily and with a smile. For example, I fancied the 7-course tasting menu, whilst my diet-conscious, budget-watchful brother wanted the 3-course menu du jour. Normally, the whole table would have to order similarly, but this logistical headache was handled consummately – the kitchen even sent little brother a bowl of beetroot gazpacho, gratuit. Marion, on top of being patient, attentive and well-informed, took us on a full tour of the Grill, Dorchester’s many kitchens and Krug room; all impressive. Aiden himself, the anti-archetype of a Michelin chef – chipper, effervescent, shaven-headed and sprouting a thick Liverpudlian brogue – was a pleasure to meet.
Aiden’s ambitious, purposeful, excitingly-presented and thought-provoking cuisine is causing a stir and winning him some influential fans: Marcus Wareing thinks him ‘inventive, creative and a lovely guy’; Aikens commends his ‘passion for excellence’; Richard Vines (the Bloomberg one) rates him as ‘one of my favourite three/four chefs in London’; whilst even Alain Ducasse, steps away, is more worried about competing with him than the likes of Gordon Ramsay. Who am I to disagree with them? Luckily, I do not have to.
Now, if the idea of being trapped in a Walker’s biscuit tin is holding you back, be brave and follow Jay Rayner’s advice – ‘enjoy the food and…don’t look up’. Sympathetically, there is plenty on the plate to keep you busy and entertained. But do go fast: ‘I’m not going to be here forever. My dream is to open my own restaurant and the Dorchester is well aware of that.’ Aiden’s words, not mine.
53 Park Lane, Dorchester Hotel, WIK 1QA
tel: 020 7629 888
8nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner