Ten years ago, 5 Blandford Street was Stephen Bull Restaurant, apparently where today’s ‘Modern British’ cooking was first invented. Five years ago, Stevie B had gone and, brilliantly baptised, Blandford Street, specialising in ‘Modern British’ and ‘European’ eating, stood there in its stead. One year ago (one year minus two days if for you are a pendant – the pot calling the kettle black, perhaps? jamais) it was l’Autre Pied and, now fully-evolved, ‘Modern European’ cuisine’s turn mettre sur pied at this auspicious address.
Young Englishman, Marcus Eaves, is the Head Chef and triumvir-titleholder – together with double Michelin dream team, Shane Osborn and David Moore – of this tributary (in every sense) to Pied à Terre. Until moving to l’Autre, Marcus had spent two years as Osborn’s sous chef at big brother, grand Pied and before that, had been sous chef at Claude Bosi’s then-Ludlow-based Hibiscus (2*). Born in Leamington Spa, but raised in neighbouring Warwick, he started his career at nearby Simpsons (1*), Kenilworth (now Birmingham); then moving to Lettonie (2*), Bath; prior to a year with John Burton Race at the Landmark Hotel (2*). Accolades that include Midlands Young Chef of the Year and Gordon Ramsay Scholar (both 2004), underlined by this exceptional education, elucidate epithets like ‘the Lewis Hamilton’ of England’s chefs. The Pied à Terre team clearly believe the hype, this is their first foray from home in sixteen years, so they must have great confidence and great expectations for their 27-year-old protégé.
The principle behind this Pied is to bring haute cuisine to the high-street and Michelin to the masses. Sophisticated food – expect purées aplenty, many mousses and gelées galore – is prepared with less refined, but by no means lower quality, ingredients in a no-frills, informal environment. Tables may not be covered with linen, amuses may not arrive, petit fours may have to be purchased, but standards, and aspirations, remain high: ‘Marcus will definitely be a Michelin candidate,’ according to Moore.
The investment has already started paying dividends. Applying his own natural creativity and early values learnt long ago growing up in the Midlands countryside – his father, a chef at a country hotel, inspired Eaves’ cooking and helped impart on him the importance of seasonality and quality of local produce – to techniques and skills studied and sharpened under some of the Capital’s most gifted chefs, he has already won both Timeout London and BMW Square Meal’s Best New Restaurant awards – beating alma mater, Hibiscus, to the latter.
L‘Autre is found in fashionable and foodie Marylebone. Behind a minimal, slate grey, open exterior is an interior inherited from the previous incumbent, which, in brave cost-saving strategy, has been basically continued with. Unfortunately, the bleak bequest left by Blandford Street within is a complete contrast: a clumsily shapen, cloistered space, made up with an Art Nouveau motivated motif, manifesting itself mostly through a hand-painted, chinoiserie artwork of flowers, fruits and spices; early twentieth-century iron grillwork; and not least, the flowing lines, quick curves and modern typeface, symbolic of this ‘whiplash’ aesthetic. Moore’s wish was ‘to capture the quality and simplicity of the restaurant’ which presents ‘a more relaxed, less formal experience.’ However, supposedly intimate recesses, nooks, niches and crannies thwart the sought-after unfussiness of immaculately white walls, clean lines, nude tabletops and hard, black-wooden chairs. The hand-painted foliage frescos figure on olive walls and large, fluorescent jade green glass screens that project into the restaurant’s centre. The colour scheme is further cluttered by dull ebony-wood floorboards; streaky zebrano wood tables; and cochineal leather banquettes complete with assorted silky little cushions. Floor-to-ceiling and panoramic, hung mirrors make the area appear a little larger than it is, but seating is still snugly set. The tables themselves feature small, inset, rubber placemats and are adorned with just a glass, bread plate and napkin; the crockery and cutlery to come are Villeroy & Boch. Inside it is dim with the main source of light the windowed frontage – though this is veiled by voiles – and the florally-tattooed jade screens, lit from behind. There is a small bar by the entrance, besides which a serving station is inserted into the wall. The soft music is chill-out, but the exposed surfaces can act as natural noise amplifiers. There is definitely a relaxed air and trendier vibe; when busy, the bustle creates a nice, comfy café feel.
The leather-bound menu consists of five/six ALC items per course, in addition to which, there is a £55 seven-course tasting menu and £22 three-course menu du jour. The dishes are appetisingly described and prices quite reasonable, I was already pretty sure I would plump for the tasting carte, but there were a couple of courses I wanted substituted; I was told this would not be a problem and was given liberal rein to choose whatever I wished…
Les Pains: White and Wholemeal. Bread is now baked onsite and comes,] in the warm form of white or wholemeal square-shaped baps. The softer white was yeasty and had nice crumb while the more rustic wholemeal was thicker and denser. The mild, silky, unsalted-only butter was from Paimpol, Brittany.
Entrée 1: Butternut Squash and Sage Velouté, Balsamic Lentils, Crème Fraîche. Balsamic vinegar-infused lentil quenelle, crowned with crème fraîche, was accompanied by baby onions and sprinkled with coriander and cress; golden yellow butternut squash potage was poured tableside. The thick, smooth squash soup had good body and nutty-sweetness soothed by spicy, slightly bitter sage; the marinated lentils, naturally nutty, sweet and peppery, but now enlivened with zinging vinegar, were a good complement – as was the warm, citrusy coriander. Cress contributed more pepper, whilst lively crème fraîche, more creaminess. Gently sautéed, sweetly-sour, baby onions were crunchy without yet soft within.
Entrée 2: Line Caught Plaice, Charlotte Potatoes, Brown Shrimp Emulsion and Shaved Fennel Salad. Pan fried plaice, placed upon a platform of crushed Charlotte potato, came crested with shaved Hispi cabbage and fennel salad and topped with herby tuile; the bowl was filled with blended brown shrimp emulsion and celery nage. The first sensation felt was the lovely smell of flaky, fine fish, pleasantly piping hot and cooked perfectly; its ochre-coloured crust in captivatingly stark contrast to immaculate ivory flesh. A common liquorice thread ran through the parsley, tarragon, dill and fennel, sweetly supplementing the seafood. The celery chunks, floating with firm, sweet shrimp in full-flavoured and – thanks to the chive and dill – slightly, but enjoyably sour broth, were refreshingly crunchy. The herb tuile, not surprisingly, soon turned soggy, howbeit retained its savour.
Entrée 3: Pan Fried Foie Gras, Sage and Onion Lyonnaise, Granny Smith Apple Sorbet. Next arrived an Arcadian slab of black slate carrying a caricature construction-site composed of two foie gras ingots – one resting on onion and sage confit – obliquitous ooze of more onion-sage oil and Granny Smith apple one two three four ways: purée; sorbet inserted with cinnamon tuile and atop mixed crushed nuts; and criss-crossed apple cuts julienne over apple jelly. The amber-capped, pale copper foie was a little well-done for my liking, but had strong flavour; confit was savoury-sweet, its spicier sage slicing through the foie’s fatty luxury – the green apple purée’s mild acidity did the same. The visibly just-sliced strips had nice crunch; jelly, intense fruity essence; and the sorbet’s coldness clearly contrasted with the warm meat while the sugary tuile harmonised with its richness. The dish was an interesting deconstruction and it was enjoyable mixing, matching and experimenting with the different elements. That said, though finely thought out and executed well, the final result was only decent. This was the newest item on the menu, thus it may still be a work-in-progress.
Plat Principal 1: Roasted Breast of Mallard, Beetroot Purée, Cracked Wheat, Candy Beetroot, Game Jus. Thulian pink mallard breast and dark sienna-skinned thigh confit, garnished with game gravy and plash of beetroot purée, were presented with untrimmed beet fondants, braised salsify, roasted baby onions and, in separate petite pot, lemon-laced cracked wheat. The wild duck, again as a personal preference, could have done with a minute or so less in the pan, but was still succulent and had such flavour, it is not worth complaining about. Sweet beet candy, maybe in homage to the sauvage canard, left indigenously untrimmed, went well with the meat. The scrumptious cracked wheat was puffy, nutty and kissed with lemon zest. Braised, elemental-tasting salsify shoot seemed at the time superfluous, however, in retrospect, it was a strikingly adroit addition: the salsify, or oyster plant (because it has savour similar to, obviously, oysters), was an attempt to manipulate the mallard’s own inherent hint of fishiness (from its diet of mostly, obviously, fish). All very obvious, obviously. Whether it came off on the plate, I honestly cannot fully recollect, but I applaud the crack and the cunning.
Plat Principal 2: Poached and Roasted Pigeon, Pumpkin and Orange Purée, Blackberry and Star Anise Glaze. Brink pink pigeon, rubbed with star anise and bedecked with blackberries, was partnered with roasted pumpkin, shredded Savoy cabbage and pommes dauphine; the plate was sashed with parallels of pumpkin and orange purée and ringed with jus roti. The tender, beautifully soft, beefy bird had great gaminess and gravy that was deliciously deep. The whole berries were juicy, saccharine, tangy and, together with the tart anise, a fantastic foil for the fowl. The pumpkin-orange paste had honeyed nuttiness; whilst the grainy gourd, that melted in the mouth, was subtly bittersweet. The pommes – basically beignet dumplings of mashed potato and choux pastry – were yummy: crispy, creamy and feather-light. A hint of peppery horseradish was their inspired secret spicy ingredient.
Pre-Dessert: Chocolate Shot and Miniature Warm Custard of Valrhona Chocolate, Marinated Pineapple, Passionfruit Ice Cream. In preparation for the more serious desserts, two dainties were delivered. First, was a cracked nougat-sprinkled triple-layered wee verrine of chocolate crème cradle, coffee mousse middle and praline cream coronet. Compounded together, the smooth, airy tiers were sweet, nutty and strongly reminiscent of whipped cappuccino. Secondly, a small bowl of warmed 90% Valrhona coco custard, with semi-submerged cool quenelle of passion fruit ice cream, had hidden pineapple pieces immersed within and hazelnut and cocoa crumbs scattered upon it. The frothy custard was bitter but sugary; ice cream, full of fruity zing; and the juicy pineapple, fizzy and refreshing.
Dessert 1: Black Forest Millefeuille. The initial pudding was a reinvention of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte – Black Forest Gateau: four plies of puff pastry separated, in ascending order, coupled scoops of cherry sorbet, chocolate mousse and kirsch foam. Alongside came milk coco ice cream, set with honey-glazed nut comet atop crushed pistachio, and smeared milk cocoa strewn with more nuts. The flaky pastry was caramelised until hazelnut-mahogany and had a nice nutty taste; cherry sorbet was tart; choc, sour-sweet; and kirsch, pleasantly mellow. Cracking those feuilles apart, the sandwiched fillings exuding out, and spooning large, clumsy helpings of pastry, cherry, chocolate, kirsch into my mouth, where the carnage continued, was enjoyable.
Dessert 2: Apple and Blackberry Crumble, Bayleaf Custard, Blackberry Sorbet. A coupe of hot apple compote and blackberry confiture, bathing in bay-leaf custard and covered with streusel, arrived decked with dollops of blackberry and bay-leaf sorbet and pistachio. The crumble was scrummy. Crunchy topping; gooey, herby, floral custard; sugary, moist, chunky compote; mildly tangy jam; all mingled delectably. The contrarily-cold, dense sorbets were more powerfully flavoured; the blackberry sharper and bay-leaf delightfully zingy, refreshing and almost metallic. Good stuff.
There is clearly plenty of talent behind the stoves; Marcus’ pedigree has already been particularised, but he is also joined by his brother, Jason, whom he poached from Le Champignon Sauvage, where he was sous chef; together, they are turning out full-flavoured, well-thought-out and well-presented plates. Execution today was faultless – I did mention a couple of cuts being better done than I prefer, but they were in no way even close to overcooked. An early criticism was the over-complication of dishes, maybe with an eager eye on Michelin inspector’s expectations, but if this was true then, it is has been tempered now. Ingredient choices, effective, purposeful whilst still rather simple, are occasionally inspired and sometimes deliciously creative – scallops, celery, Roquefort, pear and walnuts form one popular starter, for example. Personally, I can see some of Bosi’s influence in this regard and in the sheer labour-intensiveness of the cooking too. Eaves’ fondness for sweeter touches also resembles his former mentor. Locally-sourced produce – Cornish seafood, Shropshire wild game – mixes the humble with the refined; haddock, plaice, turnips sit side-by-side with foie gras, truffles and venison. It also helps keep prices sensible: using domestic raw materials when in season means they are at their cheapest whilst also at their tastiest.
My lunch was consistent in its quality and in my appreciation for the dishes, but I liked the foie least; it simply did not do much for me. The strongest course however, the pigeon, I thought terrific. The flavours were bold and combinations, beautiful; the plate also looked fantastic. After lunch, speaking with Marcus, I discovered I am not alone in my admiration for this delectable bird, which is the only item back on the carte from last autumn; he also loves it and it is his favourite item off the menu – so maybe that’s the secret ingredient then, love. Special mention goes out to the desserts too; here the Britishness of the bill really comes to the fore with retro classics. Black Forest gâteau, crumble, custard, baked Alaska are all childhood classics, each given a modern reworking. After finding out that there is no trained chef de pâtisserie in the kitchen at the moment, I was even more impressed with them – considering the high bar set by the rest of the food, the fact I did not descry a deviation from this standard with the puddings is a compliment to the current impromptu pâtissier.
The staff, as you would expect, are very relaxed and down-to-earth. It was my serveur, Davide’s, first week on the job, so his awareness of dish compositions and the provenance of the food were still unripe, but he did make every effort to find out any information I required. The manager, Stefano, on the other hand, showed off a flawless knowledge of all the dishes. He was attentive and inquisitive; asking me for my thoughts on the cooking and restaurant and carefully listening to my responses. He was also kind enough to introduce me to Marcus, who was just as keen on my opinions, clearly caring about them. He came across frank, friendly, easy-to-talk-to and I got the impression that behind his youthful, relaxed appearance lay tremendous ambition.
It is also worth noting that the restaurant has only been open (almost) literally one year and, which is always pleasing to see, the whole team is constantly working to improve themselves. This is evinced by their freshly humble willingness to accept constructive criticism: bread before was charged for and bought-in, now they bake it in the kitchen and one can eat as much as one wants (can); portion sizes were said to be too small, but my helpings were ample and filling; and even more minor amendments, like the introduction of music, have been made.
I read this in one review: [Fay Maschler’s friend] said to the chef, ‘I thought this was going to be more of a bistro.’ Marcus looked horrified. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ he said, ‘it is not what I was taught.’ I love it.
It is November now and January is in sight. Many think l’Autre has one pied in the door already. I think they deserve it.
5-7 Blandford Street, Marylebone, W1U 3DB
tel: 020 7486 9696
nearest tube: Bond Street