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.
Chris brought with him respect for raw materials underlined with technical precision. The first nurtured in the British countryside and expressed by an emphasis on seasonality – ‘I don’t like to mess around with food. Cooking at its best should be seasonal’ – and simplicity through frequently changing menus. The latter skills were learned under two of London’s greats, Nico Landenis and more briefly, MPW, as well as Robert Reid, whom Chris credits with teaching him ‘a great deal about flavours, cooking process and how to treat ingredients’. Chris’ cuisine is certainly French-based with classical dishes delivered in modern style. He is fan of simple, natural flavours that should ‘shine through and compliment’ each other and for inspiration looks to fellow chefs Aikens, Osbourne and Gagnaire. Chris has also been commended on his attitude and applauded for his hard work, determination and good leadership. Furthermore, he is a genuine foodie himself and when holidaying, would take empty suitcases to fill with food and wine (this was before customs became so strict, I imagine). This passion is reinforced with a reputation for being first and last in the kitchen and a tendency to devote hours to the same dish before allowing it onto the menu. Having himself travelled and toiled in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Prague, California’s Napa Valley – spending a month with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry – and domestically, The Vineyard at Stockcross with John Campbell and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, he clearly champions the ‘cross-pollination’ of chefs. Thus, this week he welcomed Relais Gourmand Norbert Niederkofler from the St. Hubertus Hotel to Foliage.
Chef Norbert, himself a double Michelin medallist, can normally be found in his native Northern Italian village of San Cassiano, 1,535m up in the Dolomites. After years spent in some of Europe’s and America’s top restaurants, he returned home in 1996 to run the pizzeria at St. Hubertus, but in 2000, with the award of his first star, the pizzeria was ditched for fine-dining. Norbert has since been honing his craft, combining the traditions of the Tyrol or Alto Adige – a mingling of Mediterranean and German flavours and ingredients – with the methods and ideas he collected abroad, whilst also mentoring London’s own Giorgio Locatelli. Chris describes his cooking as ‘robust traditional northern Italian cuisine, with its unexpected accents absorbed from his travels – completely different from your classic Italian,’ while Gambero Rosso (Italy’s premier food publication) recommends it as ‘simple, straight, light…it is essential and convincing, it hits with discretion and class, all the way to the tips of the toes’. Others who have enjoyed his food include the Benetton and Agnelli families and Prince Albert of Monaco. He also hosts the Chef’s Cup, a competition attracting many Michelin-starred chefs, wine-makers and journalists, whose proceeds go to the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation, which raises funds to support spinal injury research. This is the bud from which Norbert’s relationship with Foliage bloomed; this charity was started by Mandarin’s executive chef, David Nicholls, whose son suffered a spinal injury in 2003. The mutual acquaintance means that Norbert is no foreigner in Foliage’s kitchen, having already visited last November. This year, he stayed from 21-31 October and offered a special tasting menu together with dishes dotting the ALC.
Foliage is hidden deep within the 150-year-old former Hyde Park Hotel – previously patronised by Edward VIII, Churchill, Valentino and Gandhi (for whom a goat was daily milked) – in part of what was once the Park Restaurant. To find it, one must climb the gilded staircase, traverse the marble lobby, negotiate the loud, trendy Mandarin Bar, navigate past opposing, open-glass, 5,000 bottle wine cupboards into the bright rotunda antechamber before finally reaching the calm, serene, cream and green dining room. The small, but spacious area – 46 covers – is set upon two tiers, allowing all diners a view through the floor-to-ceiling picture windows that look out onto the 350 acre Royal Park. Unfortunately the Candy, One Hyde Park, development next door currently obscures guests’ vision, though builders have considerately tried to camouflage the construction-site with green hoardings. The narrow top tier is fringed on all sides with blinds behind which large smoked-glass panels are filled with 24,000 white silk leaves that change colour in sync with the seasons. In its centre stands a short metal dais decked with dark vase holding bright orange, long-stem daylilies. Passing through a mirrored archway, one enters the wider, higher-ceilinged lower level. The theme is obviously rooted in verdure and designer, Adam Tihany, was indeed charged with ‘bring[ing] the park into the restaurant’. It seems he took this literally and each day the park is brought in with fresh beech leaves, collected by one of the staff, being placed beneath the bespoke clear-glass cover plates. Alan Titchmarsh would soil himself. Clean lines and geometric shapes dominate; cream walls are bordered with glossy rosewood; and chairs are light butterscotch leather and dark wood. Tables, set simply with plate, silver napkin ring and cube jardinière holding persimmon-coloured pincushion proteas, are doubly draped in thick golden linens embossed with white leaf embroidery. The frumpish chocolate-mauve carpet is the only reminder that one is still in a hotel.
I, of course, choose Chef Norbert’s Rosa Alpina Tasting Menu, plus an extra main and dessert from the regular ALC:
Amuse Bouche 1: Onion / Smoked Eel. White onion velouté with a sprig of Mizuna cress came with mustard crisp that concealed smoked eel tartare inset with capers and coarsely cut green apple. The white onion, with a naturally sweeter, milder flesh – offset by the peppery cress – had good density doubled with lovely flavour. The oiliness of the smoky eel was balanced by the sour capers and fruity-tart apple, whilst the pressed discus of fried mustard was sticky, sweet and then sharp.
Les Pains: Walnut; Sourdough; Brown Cereal Roll; White Roll; and French Baguette. Bread is brought in from boulangerie Poilâne, in Victoria. Large slices of sourdough had yeasty tanginess and chewy crust; walnut loaf was chock-a-block with copious chunks of nut; and both varieties of roll were crunchy and moist. My favourite, unusually, was the brilliant baguette; crusty, soft, delicious. French bread works best with French butter, thus this beurre de baratte is from serious Norman supplier, Le Beurre Bordier (who can count Passard, Ducasse and Robuchon as customers).
Entrée 1: Calf’s Head and Lobster; Beetroot Cannelloni / Horseradish Cream. Warm pressed calf’s head arrived adorned with alternating arrangement of lobster and white beetroot cannelloni filled with horseradish cream. The head, cooked, the flesh removed and moulded into a flat square was rich, almost sweet and jelly-like. Bouncy lobster, tail and claw, was intensely aromatic and, together with the sweet beet feuilles, was countered by the mildly pungent horseradish; this curious recipe must draw on Eastern European and Jewish traditions where the seafood-beetroot-horseradish marriage is not unusual.
Entrée 2: Pumpkin Risotto; Lardo Di Colonnata / Black Truffle. Pumpkin risotto (normally overlain with Lardo di Colonnato), sowed with pistachios and trimmed with truffles, was served with scallop brochette. The rice was delightfully all’onda and the addition of nuts, nicely thought out; the slightly creamy bite and mild sweetness of the pistachio paired well with the pumpkin. The brace of scallops too were very good, each sweet, moist and oozing savoury relish. Unfortunately the Scorzone truffles (Umbrian summer truffles) were not strong enough to stand out.
Entrée 3: Geröstel of Sweetbreads / Potatoes / Artichokes / Truffle. Geröstel – traditional Tyrolean peasant provender made from pork, hash and other leftovers – was given a creative reworking. The hashed pork was replaced with deep-fried sweetbreads, sitting atop slices of braised, unpeeled potato and artichoke, in light truffle foam. This time the truffles delivered that longed-for potent punch, both in fragrance and flavour. The succulent sweetbreads’ battered shuck had dry, crunchy outside and moist inside. These contrasted with the sweetbreads at Roussillon, also battered, but very lightly, vainly; here, the fried frame had purpose and presence. The left-on skin of the potato was a rustic touch and the artichoke, pleasantly salty.
Plat Principal 1: Red Mullet; Langoustine and oyster / Spider Crab Consommé. Two fillets of red mullet swimming, with squid-ink-tapioca tuile, in spider crab consommé were teamed with tartare of langoustine and oyster laced with lime. The fish, fully flavoured with the rouget’s remarkable shellfish-like savour, was prepared impeccably and innovatively: hot oil was poured upon the mullet slowly, the process being repeated thrice or so with the same oil to leave the fillets flaky and forming a thin film of bubbles from the skin that crackled and dissolved on the tongue like rice crispies – an excellent effect and one I have never seen before. The tangerine-coloured tarn of crab was clear, concentrated and distinct whilst the tartare, tasty and smooth; the sweeter langoustine and elemental oyster harmonised well and the lime’s citric zing perked up the pair.
Plat Principal 2: Breast of Guinea Fowl; Foie Gras / Black Venere Rice / Kumquats. Parsley sauce was spread below black Venere rice bedding upon which lay two thick tranches of guinea fowl; a slab of pan-fried foie gras, confit kumquat trio and (usually bacon-wrapped) guinea fowl leg confit came alongside. The bird, cooked sous vide and finished in the pan, was moist, meaty and mildly gamey with crispy skin; its legs were intense and deeply sapid. The wild, dark rice – originally a Chinese staple, but now widely grown in Piedmont – was delicious with unusually juicy, earthy grains; it also emitted a faint, but wholesome aroma. The bountifully buttered foie, close to raw and all but requiring a spoon to be eaten, though not necessarily undercooked, had good taste. At first sachharine, thanks to their thin rind, the kumquats’ soft orange inner flesh left a tart aftertaste that provided a decent counterpoint to the richness and sweetness of the foie and fowl confit. All told, a rather hearty dish.
Plat Principal 3: Beef / Tongue and Cheek / Salsify / Horseradish. The only Chris Staines creation that worked its way into my meal consisted of dense, dark chump of beef cheek atop a base of braised parsnips partnered with considerable cannelloni of tongue, mushrooms and chicken mousse. Roast salsify chips and pickled onions accompanied these with horseradish foam and red wine jus. The braised beef, infused with the wine, was mushy and fibrous and had a nice, sharp tickle from the horseradish. The pasta was delicate whilst its filling soft, saucy and earthy. Little pickled onions were especially pleasing and the parsnip, almost puréed, was delicately sweet and slightly nutty; the thick gravy was also good. Strong, robust flavours came together well and all the elements worked with each other nicely.
Pre-Dessert: Grapefruit Sorbet / Cashew / Ginger. Grapefruit sorbet, covering chopped cashews and crowned with ginger emulsion, came with a grapefruit segment dusted with white and Demerara sugar. Distinctly sour citrus sorbet matched agreeably with the rich, buttery nuts and warm, sweet, surprisingly intense ginger. The juicy grapefruit added some tart refreshment.
Dessert 1: Calvados Soufflé / Green Apple Iced Parfait / Sea Salt Caramel. A pretty plate, centred with apple parfait, skilfully sculpted like the self-same fruit, sitting on streusel and rim-to-rim smearing of sea salt caramel strewn with dried apple, was served with a shot of calvados soufflé and streaks of purée pomme. The forcefully fruity soufflé surprised with buried, burning-warm bits of moist apple and, though it had light consistency, was a little cloying for me. The iced green apple, almost too adorable to be eaten, had frosty freshness and its streusel (essentially crumble topping) setting was sweet and crunchy. The caramel was indeed salty and sticky, whilst the purée, tangy.
Dessert 2: Thai Mango; Mango Sorbet / Jelly / Chocolate Mousse. The final course featured a bar of chocolate ganache and very thin layer of passion fruit jelly gilded with coco mousse and topped with two quenelles of Thai mango sorbet and tuile; crescendoing driblets of mango coulis decorated the dish. The Valrhona equatoriale 55% tartufo had nice bitterness and big passion fruit punch. The sorbet, made from the smaller, stronger-tasting Thai breed of mango, had excellent, smooth texture. The sprig of basil gave a sweet, metallic finish.
Petit Fours: Pistachio and Vanilla, Honey & Iced Sugar Madeleines. Both varieties of sponge were exquisite: feather-light with super-crisp coat and airy, hot centre. The pistachio had gorgeous green colour within, though weak nuttiness, but the vanilla/honey/sugar sort overflowed with honeyed vanilla essence.
The most pleasing aspect of this very consistent meal was the unusual ingredients, techniques and recipes on show; Geröstel, the mullet’s novel cookery and black Venere rice were delightfully new to me whilst calf’s head, kumquat and mango I have not seen on any other menu this year. Obviously Norbert and his three-man team are working well with Chris’; the quality of the produce – some brought over from St. Hubertus, the rest (Irish beef, French fowl, Landes foie gras) sourced from independent, organic producers – nor its preparation could be faulted. Flavours were light and straightforward and presentation controlled and elegant, in line with Norbert’s daily message to his staff, ‘the simple things in life are the most beautiful.’ I also appreciated the signed copy of his beautiful book, St. Hubertus and the flavour of the Dolomites: look above, Katie Holmes and Roberta Armani, Giorgio’s niece have one too! Regretfully, I did not have the belly-berth to try more of Chris’ cooking, but the dish I chose, given his fascination for working with traditionally second cuts, was a good one. I also felt it, though more intricate, was characterised by an exquisite harmonisation between the elements whilst the ALC dessert, although made by the chef de pâtisserie rather than Chris himself, was clearly designed to wow and even if technically exciting, for me looked better than it tasted.
My chief serveuse, was sweet, helpful and patient. When she could not satisfy a query, she would without fail find the answer; asking after the provenance of the butter, for example, she left to learn it and returned not only with the supplier’s name, but their full address. Nevertheless, at other times the staff seemed a little overeager to remove my plates, which in turn made me feel more rushed and thus detrimentally affected my enjoyment of the food. In contrast again, the senior staff, Daniel on the door and restaurant manager, Markus Lindner, were warm, engaging, attentive and enthusiastic. Daniel was keen on my honest opinion of the whole Foliage experience and any ways I thought it may be improved – interactive improvement: uncommon but quite pleasant. Food-lover Markus was delightful to talk with, very open and candid. The whole atmosphere was relaxed, unstuffy yet still sophisticated and professional.
I am very pleased to have sampled some cooking from a distinguished chef whose dishes I would not otherwise have been able to, however because I tried so little of Chef Chris’ food, I cannot comment on Foliage fully or fairly. From the little I did taste though, I was impressed with the full flavours derived from essentially humble ingredients and meeting the man himself, I was left respecting his unpretentious, convivial manner and willingness to make time to speak to me.
In 2007, Foliage was awarded with an espoir by Michelin as well as presently possessing five AA rosettes (out of five): such fine credentials alone warrant a return visit, but my own experience here has earned one.
66 Knightsbridge, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, SW1X 7LA
tel: 020 7201 3723
nearest tube: Knightsbridge