I am a sucker for a well-written menu. And boy does Philip Howard know how to write them. His dish descriptions are neither long nor short, neither exhaustive nor aloof; the reader is given a fair hint of what will happen on the plate, whilst allowing enough flexibility for a surprise or two. Both sempiternal and seasonal signature items, whose quality can always be relied upon, litter every course; not to mention the ever-present ‘Fish of the Day’ that adds a mizzle of mystery into the equation. As you may be able to tell, I am not one to suffer from menu ennui; I can read (and talk/write about) good ones all day. The corollary to this, of course, is that I cannot stand cartes that promise so much, but deliver so little.
The Square, after my August bank holiday dinner with W, came very close to falling into this contemptible category. There were mitigating circumstances, however, which I have, from that day forward, clung to in heartfelt hope that that meal was a one-off, freak misfire. As it was a holiday, Chef Howard and sous-chef, Robert Westin, were both, unsurprising, on holiday themselves and on this fact I blame everything that went wrong that day.
Since then, almost every time I have asked a foodie, chef, maître d’hôtel or serveur/serveuse for a recommendation, the memory of that Monday has returned to haunt me. ‘The Square,’ a chorus from those in the know echoes, leaving me thinking to myself, why me? Why was I the only one ever served the duff stuff? Thus, this morning I decided to finally lay this ghost to rest with a spontaneous double-starred spot of tiffin. It was a bright and sunny day, which, after my meal last Monday (poor weather coincided with a poor experience or maybe my Mondays are voodooed?), I convinced myself was a safe omen. I arrived promptly. It was high noon. A time traditionally set aside for clashing swords and shoot-outs. Portentous.
Once inside, I saw nothing had changed; she wais as I left her. At the door I met David (O’Connor), he is new and of strong stock having previously managed another of Nigel-Martin Platt’s Michelin-ed tribe of restaurants, the Square’s suburban cousin, Chez Bruce. I was shown to my seat and the menus. ALC, tasting menu, menu du jour, chef’s specials; all, as mentioned afore, were a pleasure to read. The table was once more exquisite: Christofle silverware, Bernaudaud crockery and those beautiful, one-of-a-kind Kandinsky-esque cover plates from Restaurant MPW at the Hyde Park Hotel. Sadly, I have learnt that these will soon be replaced. Chef Howard and Bodo Sperlein (Tom Aikens, Le Champignon Sauvage, Charlie Trotter’s) have been collaborating for the last six months on new custom plates which will bear a contemporary, slightly Russian art deco design.
I had my head in the à la carte, when someone approached. I looked up. I was delighted to see the chef – confirming he was here this time, although I had certainly checked he would be – doing the rounds before service was in full swing. He cut an imposing figure, tall and broad-shouldered and seemingly full of energy (he does run marathons, don’t you know). I spoke to him briefly, telling him about my previous disappointment (honesty is the best policy?). He did not hold the criticism against me and I was able to ask him about his ‘philosophy’ on food: ‘I don’t want to innovate,’ he begun, ‘I believe classic combinations work best’. When asked about his style, he told me he wanted to make dishes that ‘feed the soul’ and which ‘you can sit in front of the TV and eat,’ adding, ‘with your eyes closed.’ Eyes open or closed, I wish I could have two Michelin-starred cuisine on my couch! I kept this thought to myself though. He left my table with a succinct summary of cooking: ‘refined comfort food’.
Quickly I asked David to help me decide what to order. At the Square, they can make demi-portions and allow customers substitutions on the tasting menu; something I always find very helpful. Eventually, we arrange something, taking the menu degustation and amending it with some of chef’s trademark dishes and day’s specials…
Les Pains: Baguette; Brown Bread; and Walnut & Raisin. The bread was offered hot and homemade, just how I like it. There were three types to try and all three did I try indeed: the big-bellied baguette had sharp, super-crispy tips; the wholemeal brown was deep-flavoured and thick; and the walnut-raisin, soft, fluffy and filled with warm, juicy fruit. Squares of salted and Christmas-trees of unsalted butter, plated upon levelled-whale-like glass saucers, were supplied from some of the best, Le Beurre Bordier (St. Malo) and Échiré (Deux-Sèvres) respectively.
Entrée 1: “Kedgeree”. Smoked haddock, heaped upon hard-boiled egg and superimposed with slices of leek and steamed celery, are spread over with curry cream and golden raisin purée; the dish is presented with poached quail’s egg, arronccino and mussel beignet with a garnish of Granny Smith julienne and deep-fried celery leaf. The fish, cooked sous-vide, was moist and soft, contrasting with the crunchy celery, crisp mussel tempura and crusty curried-haddock-risotto ball with nicely al dente rice. Thickly pureed raisins supplied sudden shots of sweet intensity; the mild, mellow curry sauce, a little spice; juicy apple added bite and gentle acidity; and the creamy eggs gave everything an unctuous richness.
For the curious few, Kedgeree is an East Indian recipe, originally of rice, lentils and onions, but colonised by the English into a breakfast item with smoked fish, sauces and hard-cooked eggs.
Entrée 2: Chef Propose – Roast Isles of Orkney Scallops with New Season’s Perigord Truffle Purée, Ecrasé of Butternut Squash, Chestnuts and Velouté of Cepes. Single, roasted scallop, sitting on crushed chestnuts and butternut squash and under an emulsion of cèpes, came overlaying a pair of pureed autumn truffle adipose arrows. The scallop, the largest I have ever seen, was delicious – moist, sweet, salty, firm and buttery – it peeled apart, grain by grain. Under the smoky mushroom velouté, wrapping the shellfish’s upper surface, was a welcome surprise of more truffle shavings, which together with their purée, though they did not seem to release any of their distinctive pungence – which made me think their taste would be similarly bland – had profound flavour. The soft ecrasé of chestnut and squash, together nutty and sweet, was a fine foil for the fungi and scallop.
Entrée 3: Ravioli of Calves Tail with Crushed Cauliflower and Chanterelles, White Truffles from Alba. A giant raviolo replete with braised calves’ tail, spring onion and wild mushrooms, sitting upon a cushion of coarsely crumbled cauliflower and parmesan, was capped with chanterelles, slow-cooked hen egg yolk and more parmesan; the dish was dressed with calves’ tail liquor split out with beurre noisette and finalised tableside with a generous grating of Alban white truffles. The pasta, made with a hint of chestnut, was delicate in texture and sweet-nuttiness; its filling of tender flesh, earthy cèpes, nutty chanterelles and chicken mousse gave it pleasing softness and serious savour. Crunchy cartilage and spring onion, both bulb and shoot, seemingly all thrown together, reinforced the rusticity of the raviolo perfectly. Although classic cauliflower cheese came as a sophisticated ecrassé of cauliflower and parmesan, it had the same subtle nutlike creaminess. The at hand abrading of the truffle allowed its garlicky aroma to engulf the table; this privileged tuber, against the humble pasta, was as pretentious a juxtaposition as could be, but it worked wonderfully.
Entrée 4: Roast Foie Gras with a Sweet and Sour Citrus Glaze, Candied Pineapple and Lime. On top of apple and pear compote pallet, lay foie gras lobe, layered with poached-and-semi-dried pineapple pieces, puffed rice and citrus-and-port glaze, alongside a ripple of pineapple purée and plashet of lime and pineapple jelly. Prepared sous-vide then pan-fried, the foie was firm without and milky molten within. The succession of sugary-sour combinations throughout were simultaneously a sweet complement and acidic counterpoint to the liver, cutting through its richness; warm, moist compote had fruity-tart balance, whilst the also-warm purée and cool jelly were each an example of the two extremes. Lime powder and honeycomb coated rice crispies offered surprising crunch amidst mouthfuls of soft foie.
Plat Principal 1: Fish of the Day – Roast Fillet of Turbot with a Fricassée of Winter Vegetables, Hand Rolled Farfelle and New Season’s Perigord Truffle. Thick fillet of turbot, swimming in cèpes velouté and jus roti, was served floating on handmade farfelle and roasted roots and greens – salsify, cauliflower and chervil – all strewn with truffle. This time the truffle was fainter yet still distinct, having melted onto the fresh bowtie pasta. Steak-like slice of fish, with beautifully firm flakes under a golden-brown burnish, was roasted just right. The fricassée of seasonal vegetables with aniseed chervil and elemental-marine salsify matched the refined taste of the turbot pleasingly. Buttery sweet roasting juices and mushroom emulsion beefed up this bowlful.
Plat Principal 2: Roast Saddle of Lincolnshire Hare with a Tarte Fine of Celeriac and Pear. Slivers of roasted saddle of hare, atop a tarte fine of celeriac and pear, beneath which was concealed sautéed spinach, were sauced with hare jus pepped with pickled pear and green peppercorns. The tarte was primped with port-glazed pear and endive and partnered with pureed celeriac. Strong flavours dominated: hare, roasted on the bone, had good earthy gaminess that stood up ably against the sweetness of the caramelised, sugared puff pastry; intensity of the winy, dense gravy; and pings of pungent pepper from the berries. The pastry, having soaked up all the syrupy juices, became sticky and flaky – an appreciated aftereffect. The silky celeriac had slight celery-anise-nuttiness, whilst the endive was bittersweet.
Dessert 1: Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with Passionfruit, Mango and a Citrus Terrine. A long cut of cheesecake, with biscuit base and thin passion fruit jelly finish, arrived alongside orange and grapefruit segments set in more jellied passion fruit and a miniature Swiss-roll rounded off with further passion fruit and mango sphere; the terrine was mounted with mascarpone ice cream and skirted with a splash of mango. It has been sometime since my last cheesecake, but it was worth the wait: Brillat-Savarin – a triple cream cow’s cheese from Normandy – studded with vanilla seeds, was creamy and luxurious; the biscuit, crumbly; its top, fruity yet mild. Adjacent terrine was tangy, juicy and refreshing. The passion fruit-mango sphere was sated with slightly resinous, sour sap whilst the roll, moist and mascarpone, smooth and gently acidic.
Dessert 2: Pavé of Chocolate with Griottines. Tall, rectangular tower of dark chocolate fixed upon paper-thin pailleté feuilletine of pistachios and raisins, garnished with griottines – French morello cherries, pitted and preserved in kirsch – coco pencil and crème fraîche ice cream, was brought in a shallow bath of kirschwasser liqueur and cherry jus. The Valrhona 72% Guanaja mousse itself was thick, dense yet marshmallow-like; this choc, naturally with notes of toasted nut, faint fruitiness and long finish, fitted favourably with the concentrated cherry concept. Marinated morellos had sweet crispiness and each bite was a burst of slightly-bitter, nutty kirsch, allayed a little by the lively ice cream; the jus, was sweeter, but with a spicy lick from the liqueur. This was a (tasty) twist on traditional Black Forest gateau – generally composed of kirsch-scented chocolate cake, sour cherries and kirsch-laced whipped cream.
Dessert 3: Date Soufflé with Burnt Orange and Almond Ice Cream. A flawless soufflé, fashioned with medjool date and orange juice, was embedded with burnt orange and almond ice cream at the table. The immaculate treat, shooting out of its ivory imprisonment clearly, desperately intent on escape, showed off a crusty, even surface, tanned gorgeous gold. Accompanying ice cream was very good: chopped honeyed almonds, caramelised orange purée and almond-infused ice cream, all mixed together, made for a smooth, sweet and sour, cold and crunchy complement to the hot, toffee-flavoured soufflé: I really ought to have asked for a second spoon of the stuff.
Café et Petit Fours: Salted Caramel Truffles; More Truffles and Nougat. A brimming bowl of salt-caramel truffles and trio of nougat were teamed with good, roasted-rich espresso. Honeyed homemade nougat confection was pleasantly sticky and soft, inset with thick chunks of nut. The chocolates were moreish: crunchy, wafer-like toffee encasing velvety, sugary-sour centre. My enjoyment of them must have been more obvious than I thought as it sparked the unselfish offer of a second sample from the Square’s coco caterer, Damien Allsop that, in turn, started an impromptu mini-session of truffle-tasting.
Exactly was my first thought. Chef Howard’s description of his cooking was exactly right – refined comfort food. That was exactly what I had just had nine scrumptious courses of. Execution was impeccable; portions were plentiful; combinations came off; flavours were full, distinct and definite; produce, tip-top (remember that colossal scallop); and most importantly, every dish simply tasted good. The chef’s signatures – foie gras, hare and cheesecake – were, as is standard here, superb: the kedgeree and chocolate pavé, well-worked colonial and retro classics, respectively; and the raviolo, pure indulgence. The cooking was sophisticated and serious yet satisfying and easy-to-eat at the same time. During my initial visit, starters were the strongest course and desserts weakest. This time, starters again had the edge, but plats principal and puddings closely followed, both multiple times better than previously, making this meal far superior, but also far more consistent.
Service was very good before, but this too had improved. Under David, who joined at the end of last summer, the FOH is efficient, slick and smooth. Chez Bruce is known as a friendly, neighbourhood restaurant and its former manager seems to have certainly brought some of that down-to-earth, personal charm with him here. Formally considered a bit of a businessman’s club, the atmosphere is now inviting, warm and hospitable. I, for one, felt completely comfy throughout lunch thanks to both David himself and Anthony, the young French serveuse, who also took care of me.
One of the factors that I consider separates good restaurants from great ones is generosity. Do not take this to mean that I think those places that give the most freebies are the best. I like restaurants – and I have mentioned this before – that seek to genuinely satisfy their customers; that really do give top priority to their pleasure; and that do not value a pretty penny above their guests’ gratification. The Square is generous in bucket-loads. Staff are friendly and engaging; one is never rushed in any way; even white truffle is served not as a 5g or 10g precisely appraised portion, but just grated by hand without a scale in sight – so what if an extra gram or two is given away; and, of course, there are the freebies (amuses, pre-desserts, petit-fours as a minimum) too.
This return visit has turned my opinion of this restaurant on its head. I must swallow my pride and confess I was wrong; the Square does deserve all its praise indeed. However, at least I can still take credit for being so gracious as to admit my error and being so open-minded as to have given this place another chance!
Alas, humility is hard, but humble pie has never tasted so good.
6-10 Bruton Street, W1J 6PU
tel: 020 7495 7100
nearest tube: Green Park