The Greenhouse is a very interesting restaurant indeed. Since it began business back in 1977, under Brian Turner, it has been the stage from which a serious succession of seriously skilled chefs have showcased their talents. This was where Gary Rhodes – back when his spiky hairdo was still considered cool – made a name for himself with his Michelin star-winning born-again British classics. His successor and protégé, Paul Merrett, possibly the only person to win a star without having somewhere to show it off – his restaurant, Interlude on Charlotte Street, was bought and closed by investors as Le Guide Rouge went to press – returned to the Greenhouse to win his second star in 2003. Then, just six days after Merrett learned of this reward, Marcus Abela and his MARC restaurant group (who also own Umu) purchased the property from the Levin family (owners of the Capital), immediately closing it for a four-month refit. Before reopening, Merrett left to set up his own, less formal venture, the Farm in Fulham. In his stead, Antonin Bonnet, who was Abela’s man at Morton’s private members club, stepped in briefly before Bjorn van der Horst was found to take the helm. He held onto the Greenhouse’s star in 2004, even earning an espoir ranking in 2006. In spite of this, that year van der Horst left to join Ramsay’s empire at La Noisette; with his departure the espoir evaporated, but Bonnet reappeared.
Lyon-born Bonnet, after his 2004 stint at the Greenhouse, had returned to Morton’s, where he had been running four kitchens and thirty chefs since his appointment as its head in 2002. His relationship with Abela did not start here however; before moving to Morton’s, Bonnet had been his private chef for two years. Do not assume though that he was inexperienced: having started cooking school at only 14 at the Boneveine Hotel; he cheffed for a year in the French army before travelling around Europe and the Far East. He returned to France, spending three years at Jean-Andre Charial’s Oustau de Baumaniere (2*) in Provence, then three more under Michel Bras (3*) in Laguiole; it was Bras who Bonnet claims was ‘really the one who taught me how to cook’. Next, a spell with Wolfgang Puck at both Spago and Granita in Los Angeles preceded a stretch at Marco Pierre White’s Oak Room (3*).
Today, Bonnet is considered one of London’s most exciting chefs, impressing critics and contemporaries together: Brett Graham counts the Greenhouse as one of his favourite restaurants, praising the chef’s attention to detail and creativity; Bosi and Aussignac are also fans; while Darroze has labelled him simply ‘a genius’ running ‘the best restaurant in London’. He is noted for his fondness for Asian flavours and ingredients – surely something to do with his Korean wife – and his ability to combine these with classic methods to create perfectly executed, original dishes. However, as exotic an appearance as his cooking has, he sees his approach as rather straightforward: ‘it’s about respecting the produce. It’s that simple…or maybe it’s that complicated.’ Although equally happy with haute cuisine or a hot curry, he is, at heart, a Frenchman through and through; one of his favourite meals is a ‘plate of tomatoes from the garden with mum’s fresh goat cheese and homemade olive oil’ and he has admitted his ultimate foodie fantasy is his grandmother’s bugnes – a culinary speciality from Lyon of doughnut-like pastry sprinkled with icing sugar.
I have been planning my trip to the Greenhouse for some time. Bonnet’s menus are always wonderfully intriguing with exciting Oriental twists to every item – in the chef’s own words, ‘the classical is the core, the line and then along that line there is enough flexibility to move ideas with the seasons and to adapt or tweak the recipes’ – as well as one starter, main and dessert that changes daily. Unfortunately, today the weather is terribly bad, having been raining since morning and I arrived at the restaurant utterly drenched, the water dripping from my face. Needless to say, I was not in the best of moods.
It did not help that the restaurant is literally buried in the basement of an apartment block, hidden within a small garden, secluded among one-way streets and side roads, within a myriad of mews. I found it eventually. To reach the entrance, one must first traverse this well-kept, paved little garden. Once inside and through the sleek reception, one finds themselves in the main dining area; this is quite large, holding sixty, with a private dining room for ten more that can be sealed off with glass doors embossed with etchings of white leaf. Another recent refurbishment took place last January, replacing David Collins’ old design (let us not dwell on it, but this included fake flowers and bijou birdcages…) with one drawn up by Virgile and Stone, who were engaged to establish a botanical theme inspired by its verdurous setting. To achieve this, alternating square and circle tables are complemented by similarly alternating apple-green or mushroom-cream leather armchairs; the walls and ceiling are similarly shaded with morel make-up; flooring is dark-stained smoked oak; and the far wall is banked with alike-apple banquettes beneath a feature wall of artfully arranged wooden branches. On the opposite side, glass cabinets hold spot-lit Art Nouveau objets d’art by Gallé and Daum whilst Philippe Hurel furniture fills the floor. Sunlight floods in from the full-length windows that line either side of the room; internal lighting is from sunken, dim ceiling lamps. Tables are exquisitely laid with Bernaudaud crockery and custom-made cover plates placed upon flowing alabaster tablecloths. The beautiful space is sophisticated, modern and minimalistic; it is luxurious yet understated. The mood is serious and discreet yet comfortable.
Once seated and supplied with the menus, I have to enlist Jérémie, my serveur’s, assistance in choosing what to order. To my chagrin, the Greenhouse is rather strict with regards to changing the tasting menu and adding demi-courses, with portions already apparently pre-prepared. This leads to a intricate order (of probably more food than I would normally opt for) of items from the menu degustation, du jour and ALC.
Amuse Bouche: Apple juice in rhubarb jelly with confit ginger; and beetroot cannelloni with parsnip Chantilly and beetroot coulis. The amuses arrived on a thick black granite slab: apple juice, spherificated within rhubarb jelly and sprinkled with confit ginger, accompanied parsnip Chantilly and beetroot coulis encased within beetroot tuile wrapper. The spherificated apple, coloured pale pink-orange was plated upon a white oyster shell disc, giving it the appearance of a fried egg; its subtle savour was sweetly-tart strengthened with a little ginger warmth. The crispy, sticky beet tube held creamy mousse and thick, liquid beetroot syrup. Already I had fallen in love with the presentation of the food.
Les Pains: Baguette; tomato; fig & hazelnut; and mushroom & mozzarella focaccia. Freshly baked bread was very, very good. Classic baguette was crunchy and yeasty; savoury rather than sweet tomato, fluffy and moist; fig and hazelnut, redolent of the fruit, had excellent crust and grainy figgy fragments; and focaccia was airy, feathery and crammed with chunks of woody, meaty cèpes and mild mozzarella. Both salted – with fleur de sel – and unsalted beurre de baratte from Fromagerie Reux in Lessay, Normandy, was served.
Entrée 1: Thai–scented butternut and mussel velouté; girolle mushrooms, tiger prawn, curry and coconut milk. A treasure trove of colossal char-grilled tiger prawn and squid fillet, mushrooms, mussels, segment of squash, kaffir lime and lemongrass leaves, lay poured over with a cumbaya and Thai basil spiced squash soup. The golden yellow velouté was thick and tasty; the coconut milk adding sweetness and creaminess whilst Thai basil – stronger and spicier than its Western sibling – supplied a slightly liquorice-aniseed suggestion that supplemented the sweetness of the squash and shellfish selection. The squid was tender; mussels, moist; and prawn, firm and succulent. The lemongrass, kaffir lime and cumbaya – another kaffir-lime-like leaf – all provided a pleasing lemony-citrus tang.
Entrée 2: Diver caught scallop; black trumpet mushrooms, marrow parfait and oatmeal infusion. A couplet of scallops, sitting on a bed of black trompettes and ornamented with oatmeal foam and sorrel leaf, came with a cube of butternut squash parfait and mere of mushroom coulis. Satisfyingly bouncy, but with buttery middles, the Scottish shellfish were expertly executed. Well-seasoned and sweet, they were set off by the sharp sorrel and strong, deep trompettes and purée. Amidst the mushrooms, the deliciously intense frilly scallop skirts had been left. The marrow, besides contrasting coldness, brought little else; the obscure oatmeal offered even less.
Entrée 3: Limousin veal sweetbread; wild garlic caramel, glazed leek and veal jus. Pan-fried sweetbread, lying upon caramelised garlic, black sugar and veal jus and coupled with confit cloves of garlic and braised leeks, was adorned with clover flowers, single large and several small sorrel leaves. The Limousin gland – its interior thick and creamy-smooth, its exterior edges caramelised – came apart without the use of a knife. Sweet, garlicky whole confit cloves were also very good. The leeks and jus were rather faintly flavoured and the clover flower had none of the honey hint that was expected. On the other hand, the sorrel was intensely lemony, almost bitter, although its crispiness was a nice contrast to the sweetbread’s softness. All the elements were well-made, but there was a distinct lack of impression made on the taste buds; especially disappointing considering how much I like sweetbreads, garlic and leeks.
Entrée 4: Pan-fried foie gras with Solliès figs; Sicilian lemon marmalade, goats’ cheese and basil leaves. Landes foie gras, nestled upon Sicilian lemon preserve and peppered with lemon zest, was accompanied by another spherification, this time of goats’ cheese and mozzarella, on a basil leaf and a Molino Royal marinated fig, topped with more basil – both regular and red baby forms. The ivory dewdrop – under orders to be consumed first – was short of the tartness typical of the two cheeses, their taste overpowered by the pungent raw herb. Cooking the foie gras slowly at low temperature before quickly searing it meant a pleasingly moist middle was maintained; however it had not been thoroughly deveined, which might not be to everyone’s preference. The intense, grainy marmalade was an excellent foil for the smooth, sweeter foie. The French fig, from Solliès and strawberry-coloured, was another highlight; its natural floral-acidity enhanced by the honey-like Spanish sweet wine.
Plat Principal 1: Wild turbot; Chioggia beetroot, quail egg and “beurre meunière” espuma. A thin fillet of steamed turbot was teamed with dandelion and beetroot leaves; quail egg capped with half caper and anchovies; beurre meunière mousse and three breeds of beetroot fashioned four ways: warm Chioggia quarters; sugar-beet purée; pickled beetroot mousse; and beetroot reduction. The soft fish was delicate and flaky, its subtle sweetness contrasted by the fluffy, sour espuma, but accentuated by the sticky, thick coulis. The Chioggia, or candy-cane, beet was more peppery and sugary than its regular red relation, as was the sugar-beet; the vinegary mousse, conversely, delivered agreeable acidity. The salad was crisp and mildly bitter and egg creamy, though its caper-anchovy crown was inconspicuous. This course clearly pit sweet and sour components against each other, and to good effect, but a more generous ration of turbot would have been appreciated.
Plat Principal 2: Bresse pigeon breast; sweet corn purée, liquorice, purple tatsoi and land cress salad. Roasted breast of pigeon, glazed with black olive and liquorice, was served with a salad of sweet corn, sorrel, cress, tatsoi, girolles and almond, atop giblet purée and liquorice-laced jus roti; quenelle of finely diced corn sat on the plate’s rim. The crimson bird from Bresse was tender, gamey and delicious; its skin, which was concealed on the underside of the meat, though it had been soaking in sauce, was still delectably crisp. The pigeon’s beefy jus was equally tasty whilst its coarse giblet gravy was deep and offal-rich. The corn, which has a certain affinity with the game-bird, came as juicy kernels and excellent, roughly-textured dumpling. Mushrooms, sorrel, cress, and tatsoi – an oriental mustard green – all delivered refreshingly peppery twang.
Plat Principal 3: Scottish hare “à la royale”; truffle gnocchi and Brussels sprout leaves. Saddle of Scottish hare, stuffed with foie gras and wild mushrooms, came covered with hare and red wine sauce; lardons, black truffle gnocchi topped with Brussels sprout leaves and a sprinkling of sorrel completed the dish. The lièvre had strong gaminess, complemented by the earthy girolles and balanced by the sweet foie. Gnocchi, which at first sight, looked rather stodgy proved delightfully light, although the autumn truffles from Burgundy were too weak to pick up on the nuttiness from the mushrooms or sprouts, whose conflicting crunch went well with the delicate dumplings.
Pre-dessert: Orange and star anise sorbet; quince compote, clove powder and Suzette sauce. Sorbet of orange and star anise, implanted upon quince mousse and surrounded by Suzette sauce – grand Marnier and orange – was scattered with streusel and ground clove. Both the consistency and sapour or the sorbet was excellent. It was paired with agreeably fierce sauce Suzette and crunchy, sweet crumble crumbs. Cloves, quince and star anise added a little tartness.
Dessert 1: “The last of the berries” served warm in a millefeuille; vanilla and tonka bean cream. Millefeuille made with pailleté feuilletine foundation, obesely overlaid with warm compote of berries (blackberry, raspberry and redcurrant), another feuilletine, then crème patisserie and capped with a caramelised final, third feuilletine was served with sorbet of the same berries upon a thick brushing of Banyuls reduction. Each forkful of the pastry French fancy was lovely: fruity, tangy, warm, crispy and moussy all at once. The sour sorbet, again very good, was coolingly contrary, whilst the sticky, sweet Banyuls – fortified aperitif/dessert wine from the Pyrenees similar to Port – was a nice touch.
Dessert 2: Spiced parsnip and caramelised pecan nut soufflé; Bourbon barrel matured maple syrup. Soufflé of spicy parsnip and crushed caramel pecan pieces was accompanied by neutralised ice cream infused with maple syrup and more caramelised pecan, bathing in shallow syrup. The soufflé was perfect: crisp, even skin; warm, lighter-than-air, marshmallow middle; and full of sweet, spicy, nutty, earthy, wholemeal flavour and tiny chunks of crunchy toffee-nut. Ice cream was once more faultless with a rich, complex smokiness from the maple and bourbon. This was very possibly the best soufflé I have had all year.
Dessert 3: Chocolate and toffee tart; “Guanaja” and lemon sorbet. For the finale, a dark chocolate and toffee mousse was served sandwiched between dark coco glacé with gold leaf garnish and thin praline croustillant; lemon sorbet, enwrapped with chocolate ice cream came alongside. The tart, created with intense, bitter Valrhona 70% Guanaja, which is inherently nutty and caramel-like, left a pleasant linger on the palette; the filling combining excellently with the sugary, super-crispy bottom crust. All the preceding sorbets had been superb, but this was special: lemon mousse was mixed at the last moment with caramel and Guanaja chocolate, as well as crème fouettée (whipped cream), to give it a surprising lightness to match its lively sweetness.
Petit Fours: Marshmallow with pineapple & paprika; coconut macaron with passion fruit; dark chocolate Guanaja; and chestnut & lemon milk chocolate. Soft marshmallow, speckled with sugary, slightly acidic pineapple and piquant paprika, did not work for me; the two very different sorts of sweet – from the fruit and from the dried sweet peppers – not harmonising as hoped. The macaron was better, liberally packed with thick, tart passion fruit jam. The two chocolates were high-quality: the dark choc filled with lime and bitter Guanaja; while the other, made with milder Jivara, containing an unsuspected liquid lemon-chestnut core and speckled with fleur de sel, was the best.
Regrettably, I must admit I was disappointed by my Greenhouse experience. The food, although flawless in execution – ingredients were all cooked to the correct and desired degree of rareness, nicely caramelised on the outside – seemed to lack a certain je ne sais quoi; combinations were creative, but did not always come off; and there was a general dullness in the power of the different flavours. I liked the velouté, foie gras (though I thought the spherification superfluous) and pigeon, but the meal would have been an almost abject anti-climax had it not been for a truly terrific round of desserts – I tip my hat to the chef de patisserie. Given the quality and premium provenance of the produce, in addition to the clear talent in the kitchen manifested in the advanced methods employed, the lacklustre savour of some of the dishes was all the more startling.
Service, first from Jérémie, then Lucia, was smooth, charming and attentive; both were exceptionally well-informed, friendly and obliging. However, my enduring memory will be of when l’addition arrived. No doubt caused by my complex mingling of the various menus, the final price was somewhat higher than I had expected. I raised an objection, which led to more confusion over exactly what had been agreed (I had attempted to clarify the cost at the start, as I knew my ordering would complicate it, but my original serveur had left). To cut a long story short – after being asked whether I was refusing to pay for one of the dishes, which I was not, though I was hurt a little by the accusation – I paid the new figure they asked. Taking into account that prior to this fuss, I was so pleased by the service that I was going to leave a tip on top of the service charge, in the end I only paid an extra £7.50. Not a shocking sum, I know, but the point is, I felt overcharged. I compare this with what happened some months ago somewhere else, when I was billed the full price for an item, although I actually had only a half-portion. When pointed this out, my serveur immediately apologised and removed the whole item from the total. In turn, I immediately felt obliged to him and left feeling grateful.
One reason why this lunch was a letdown was indeed the high expectations I had prior to the meal, but what made it so discouraging was that the restaurant has so much going in its favour. I loved the décor, presentation, mouth-watering menus, dreamy desserts, charming service and even those gorgeous breads. If only the food was better (and they were less rigid in letting diners order how they wished), this could be the full package. But instead, I was forced to leave the Greenhouse with a sour taste in my mouth and a cold, wet walk back through the unceasing rain, feeling more miserable than when I had first arrived.
27a Hay’s Mews, Mayfair, W1J 5NX
tel: 020 7499 3331
nearest tube: Green Park