I first visited the Sketch Lecture Room almost two years ago. It was a different time. I was a different man. Since then, the economy has shrunk, whilst my admiration and enjoyment of good food has grown. Thus, in keeping with my own habitually contrarian nature, today I decided to dine at the most expensive restaurant in the country. But, like Matthew Fort, ‘I am a curious and greedy fellow. I like to spend my money on great food’.
The Lecture Room and Library are just one fraction of the fairytale fairground, one part of the pleasure palace that is Sketch; there is also the Glade, Gallery, East Bar and Parlour, another restaurant, bar, bar again and patisserie respectively. It is the brainchild of Mourad Mazouz and Pierre Gagnaire. The former is a Berber’s son from Algeria turned Paris and London restaurateur (hip eatery 404, Paris and trendy Momo, London), the latter a French super-chef (five Michelin stars). Together, they shared an ambition to launch a ‘lieu’ for food, art and music, which was first formed in 1996 when the pair plus an anonymous investor purchased a derelict eighteenth century building on Conduit Street. Many years and many millions later (some say twelve, some say more), finally in 2002, Madonna unveiled Sketch with an opening-night party that straightaway set it up as an exciting, outrageous and fantastically fashionable ‘magnet for extraordinary people’.
‘It was like Waterloo here at the beginning,’ Gagnaire has said, ‘or I felt like Joan of Arc. Everyone was attacking me. Really, I came here in a very humble way, not to conquer London. I think the people criticising me thought I was arrogant, because that’s the image of the French.’ Indeed, the critics were fierce in their condemnation of the restaurant, however, all their acrimony was aimed at one thing: the prices. An ALC meal here cost the average weekly wage. Although unarguably a considerate sum, this was acceptable to ‘Momo’ Mazouz; ‘I want to serve people who will save up for this kind of meal, the kind of people who will maybe only come twice a year, but experience something that will stay in their minds, noses and mouths for six months.’ And in truth, time has shown that there seems to be some proof that the kitchen was putting out food worthy of this grand goal.
In 2003, Tatler awarded the Lecture Room ‘Best Kitchen’; two years later, Michelin bestowed it a star as it jumped to eighteenth place on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best list. Even hard-to-please AA Gill professed that one was getting what they paid for regarding skill and ingredients and that Sketch could not be considered a rip-off. Chefs across the Capital considered it the most exciting kitchen in London.
This exciting kitchen is supervised by Chef Gagnaire and headed up by his protégé, Pascal Sanchez. Gagnaire himself grew up cooking in Apinac, near Saint-Etienne, at his father’s restaurant, Le Clos Fleury. Here he held on to its already-won one Michelin star, before launching his first eponymous spot in Saint-Etienne proper. It took him six years to earn two stars (1986), before a third arrived in 1993. Three years later, a move to Paris and the Hotel Balzac beckoned, there it took him only two years to regain all his stars. Today, his Balzac base is believed to be one of the top three tables in the world and, in addition to it and Sketch, he also has Gaya Rive Gauche (1*) in Paris and restaurants in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Dubai and Seoul. However, it was at le coeur where Sanchez spent four years learning his trade (and at a two star in Switzerland prior), before moving to London in 2002.
Sketch resides within a Georgian townhouse that was once home to the Royal Institute of British Architects, then a Christian Dior showroom. When bought, the abandoned building’s roof was falling in and edifice unstable, but this did not deter Mazouz; nor did the escalating construction costs, British Heritage demands or unforeseen structural issues that followed and delayed its opening for three years.
December 2002, Sketch finally launched, fashionably late. OTT and wild, its design veered from Moroccan mod to Swedish suave, all set against Robert Adams’ original mouldings. Heston Blumenthal described it as ‘like walking into a scene from Alice in Wonderland.’ Well, once through the looking glass – for the record, I realise this reference is factually wrong and that Through the Looking Glass is the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, but this way works much nicer than, ‘Well, once down the rabbit hole…’ – to reach the Lecture Room, one must climb the much-marvelled-at marble staircase that resembles molten chocolate caramel resin. On one’s way to the first floor, they will pass the also-infamous lavatories bejewelled with Swarovski crystals and the £100,000-plus mannequin that stands sentry at the staircase’s top.
Entering through heavy, dark wood double-doors, one passes through an arch embedded in an orange-tinted, reflective wall of latticed glass. This is the Lecture Room, on the far side, by the windows looking onto Conduit Street, is the Library. The wall’s of the latter are quilted in golden-honey leather and studded with silver stamps; on each side are fireplaces below bull’s eye mirrors and between two adult-size Oriental urns; windows are draped in glittery glass beads; and the bare, wooden floor bears big banquet tables. The Lecture Room is a large, open space with sumptuously carved, high dome ceiling. Wall’s, made up of stitched horizontal panels of rising shades of amber that give a three-dimensional effect, are matched by a deep, decadent carpet of orange, red and cream circles and swirls. International designers were commissioned to create signature pieces throughout the interior, including the gilded silver chandelier, complete with blue glow and butterflies that flap their wings, by Georgian artist, Tamara Kvesitadza, that illuminates the inside of the dome. More light is supplied by hanging Chinese-esque pendant lamps covered with orange cloth. Comfy, velvet armchairs in lush shades of purple, rose, burnt orange and ochre sit around circular tables, generous in size and spacing. On the thickly, twice laid tablecloths are Astier de Villatte and Bernaudaud crockery; Ercuis cutlery; and bronze tree-shaped candle holders. It is luxe, lush and plush; one is cosseted and comforted and immediately at ease. The bright, lavish colours exude warmth and the soft furnishings relieve and disarm.
Following a friend’s advice, today I opted for ALC and as the menus were whisked away, the first round of amuses appeared.
Amuses Bouche 1: Japanese Vodka Jelly, Turnip Soaked Campari; Colombo Meringue, Goat’s Cheese; Feuilletine of Pineapple and Smoked Eel; Fennel, Orange, Coconut; and Tuna and Chantilly Cream, Cumin Crackers. Obeying orders, I begun with the Shōchū jelly, topped with red turnip Campari cube and lemon balm; Shōchū, an alcoholic beverage from Japan, stronger than sake, had mild nuttiness, as did the turnip, while the bitter Campari and lemony leaf added tanginess. Then it was the flaky meringue, filled with tart goat’s cheese flavoured with spicy poudre de Colombo. Next, pineapple feuilletine, whose sweet acidity cut through its contents of rich smoked eel nicely. A clean, clear shot of fennel and orange juices, finished with creamy coconut foam, followed. Eaten last were earthy, warm cumin crackers, standing in semolina, paired with smooth, only faintly-fishy tuna and Chantilly mousse.
Les Pains: White Roll; Baguette; Fig Roll; and Toasted Country Bread. Four choices of home-baked bread were offered: white, baguette, fig or country bread. White had a chewy, tearaway, well-baked crust and cushioned centre; baguettes were brittle outside and milky within. Soft fruity rolls had grainy, rich dried fig fragments whilst toasted slices of brown were brittle and biscuity. The bread was served, unconventionally, in a bowl rather than side-dish; alongside, a crescent plate contained salted and unsalted butters, each with an individual mini-breadknife. The velvety butter was the finest France has to offer: Le Beurre Bordier of St. Malo, whose clients include Ducasse, Passard and Robuchon.
Amuse Bouche 2: Bonito and Cauliflower Cream. Another two amuses then arrived. First came cauliflower cream decked with dried bonito flakes. The cauliflower was creamy and earthy-sweet, enhanced by bonito – or katsuo-bushi, an indispensible ingredient of Japanese cooking. These umami-ful, ultra-thin fillets were rich, but delicate with fine fishiness and subtle smokiness, leaving a clean aftertaste.
Amuse Bouche 3: Red Tuna Sashimi. Secondly, superfine sangria-tinted slivers of tuna sashimi marinated merely in olive oil were delicious. These fatty, silky, satisfying slices simply melted in the mouth. The tuna was of the superior red variety – the same kind that a Madrid restaurant has just forked out €3,600 for a single fish weighing nearly 300kg.
Entrée 1: Sea Garden No.3: Braised Red Mullet, Small Clams, Raw Baby Artichokes in Kerala Pepper; Foie Gras Chantilly with Toasted Hazelnuts, Baby Squid Salad; Vialone Nano Rice Water with Mirin, Crunchy Sweet and Sour Vegetables; Chaud-froid of Dover Sole with Champagne, Mushroom Ravioli. I appreciate that the dish descriptions are descriptive enough, but bear with me whilst I rattle on.
To my delight, four different dishes were delivered. The principal plate presented braised red mullet morsels, baby artichoke quarters and clams, trimmed with fennel leaf and mizzled with red mullet and Kerala pepper jus. The mullet and molluscs worked well together, the clams picking up on the fish’s distinctive, essentially shellfish savour. The artichoke, a natural sweetener, and aniseed-like fennel strengthened the seafood’s sweetness, which the south Indian Kerala (considered the finest pepper in the world), pungent and aromatic, countered.
Dover sole, room temperature and covered in Champagne crème, sat upon a disc of tomato jelly with duxelle of Paris mushrooms sandwiched in between. The sauce was rich and tangy-sweet complementing, but not overpowering, the buttery sole, similar to the rouget in taste, sweeter mushrooms or tomato. This component of the course come off on a couple of levels: it was a deconstruction of sauce Duxelles – made with white wine, tomato and mushroom duxelle – that is traditionally served with fish, whilst also a witty juxtaposition of common, cultivated (the second most widely farmed fungi in the world) Paris champignons and cultured, sophisticated Dover sole.
One additional cup carried mixed leaf salad straddled with baby squid and foie gras Chantilly – peppery, bitter leaves, dressed in salt and lemon, gave the smooth foie a small pinch whilst the little squid were the tenderest examples I have had in sometime. Another held risotto rice water and rice wine emulsion containing celery heart, its chopped stalk, red and white beetroot slices and their pickled cubes proffering creamy Vialone Nano with mellow Mirin foam; the vegetables had refreshing crunch and sugary-vinegary tartness. This was a nifty finish to an aquatic appetiser – Mirin rice wine is used in Japan to erase fishy fragrances, making this an effective palate cleanser.
Plat Principal 1: Scallops and John Dory: Mousseline of Scallops and Grilled Salpicon / Green Velouté with Pearl Barley; Roast King Scallops Spiced with ‘Terre de Sienne’ / Chicory Fondue; Roast John Dory Fillet in Espelette Butter; Green Cabbage Marmalade ‘Kimchi’ Style.
Ivory ingots of John Dory, poached in tarragon and Basque pepper butter, and a roasted Scottish King scallop, were served with pan-fried, pastel yellow leaves of chicory, red cabbage and chives. The piment d’Espelette produced a Pyrenean peppery heat that was warm and brief without being overwhelming whilst the sugary zing of tarragon matched the St. Pierre‘s sweetness and gave it an herby tickle. The scallop, moist and delicate with firm yet fine grain, was consummately cooked and full of savoury relish. Crisp chicory was citrus sharp and agreeably tangy, playing off the residual spicy sourness of the crunchy red cabbage kimchi. Once more, skilful seasoning with simple salt and lemon raised this to a higher level.
Alongside was brought a bowl brimming with bobbing bits of diced scallop and pearl barley, swimming in verdurous spinach and watercress velouté above a base of scallop mousseline. This scallop ‘custard’ was composed of thick, almost creamy, curled lobes, made from the shellfish’s purée. Watercress and spinach were slightly bitter and peppery, whilst the barley gave the soup some body and an exciting textural dimension with the pop of its pearls.
Plat Principal 2: Bresse Chicken and Scottish Lobster: Roast Chicken and Blue Lobster in Vegetable Broth / Chicken Breast and Lobster Finely Sliced and Shaved Turnip / Lobster Bisque with Curcuma / Cubes of Frosted Foie Gras / Crispy Chicken Leg.
This supplement from off the tasting menu entailed a voluptuous quadumvirate column composed of a shaped turnip plinth, below roasted breast of Bresse chicken, itself underneath pan-fried foie gras and all crowned with a capital of blue lobster; this sublime brochette stood in the shellfish’s spiced bisque. The lobster had bouncy, juicy flesh, whilst the molten-middled foie fell off the skewer at the slightest stimulus. The chicken, roasted to perfection, was succulent and tasty; its skin, rich and crunchy. The solid, but tender turnip humbly held up and complemented its princely partners with a delicate, nutty sweetness. Bisque, mildly rich and shellfish sweet, was effused with smoky, earthy muskiness and coloured copper by curcuma, a south Asian type of turmeric.
Accompanying this was a boat-bowl bedded with baby spinach, red pepper and watercress beneath boned chicken leg and littered with garlic crumble. Again adeptly cooked chicken with the crackliest of skin sat upon soft, moist spinach and fresh watercress, whose deeper flavours were lightened by the red pepper and mild garlic. A good drizzling of lemon juice helpfully cut through the fatty (tasty) leg meat.
Plat Principal 3: Duck: Roast Breast of Duck with Cinnamon Stick; Glazed Fillets in a Banyuls Jus and Bitter Chocolate Sauce; Autumn Fruit Marmalade and Pumpkin Velouté; Preserved Duck Leg with Cumin / Red Cabbage Jelly.
The main element of the main course was thinly filleted roasted duck breast, glazed with Banyuls reduction, above a blanket of red onions and seasonal fruit marmalade; the dish was adorned with golden splashes of pumpkin purée and a pouring of Banyuls and bitter chocolate jus. The duck had dark, rich meat and fiendish film of crispy fat. Bittersweet sauce, Banyuls gloss, nutty pumpkin and firm red onions all accentuated the sweetness of the plate, but the warm, juicy acidity of the autumn fruits – apple, pear and fig – were an excellent foil for this. The aroma, a combination of cinnamon, chocolate, roasted duck and caramelised fruits, was intoxicating; the flavours, though bold and full, were well-balanced and delicious.
Paired with the breast were preserved cubes of duck leg in red cabbage jelly, coupled with red currants and spiced with cumin, as well as a small platter of straightforward, steamed patty pan, courgette and celery. The tiny terrine squares of jellied duck, cabbage and cumin, however, proved rather disagreeable to me; their taste too intense and earthy. That said, the sugary-tart currant was effective at subduing, or rather masking, this. The second supplement was far more pleasant and useful: the crunchy vegetables, full of delicate moisture, were a refreshing complement to the powerful parent portion.
Dessert 1: Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert: A Combination of Five Miniature Desserts. A significant spread of savouries was followed by a sweet banquet formed from seven plates, bowls and glasses.
Primary place was taken by a lot of lemony delights. Sticky lemon-laced marshmallow-like meringue embedded with citron caviar sat on excellent shortbread. In a demi-tasse, magnetically held to its saucer at a dangerous angle, soft, soaked sablé roule was set in tangy würtz au citron – when Hervé This invented lemon crèmes, he named them after famous chemists (he himself was one too, after all); this rendition was an example of his third version, ‘Würtz’, consisting of lemon mousse with gelatine. The final piece of the citrusy trilogy was a shot of syrupy, sour-sweet grapefruit, pear and lemon purées.
Once cleared, the second and third instalments appeared. Saffron jelly, surrounding milk ice cream overlaid with chartreuse parfait came with a matchstick of pain fried and violet flower. The flavours were deftly dealt with: spicy, sharp saffron and soft parfait, bittersweet and reminiscent of anise, were tempered by the cold, creamy ice cream. The third treat, blackcurrant jelly and ice cream capped with crisp, sugary opaline was very good; the thick, tart blackcurrant tingling the taste buds nicely.
The fourth and final fifth pieces of the plentiful pudding party followed. Vanilla pannacotta, holding hidden pieces of pineapple and green pepper, was adorned with rhubarb tuile and Kerala macaron. The smooth, sweet cream was subtly soured by the pineapple and brittle rhubarb biscuit, whilst spiced by the crispy macaron; the crunchy green pepper, refreshing and barely bitter, was an amazing addition that really impressed. Last, but not least, the chocolate; a cocoa cake log built off a base of caramelised peanut praline, protected by milky chocolate, over which rested a thin layer of red pepper coulis under an even thinner tuile of dark coco; chestnut ice cream and preserved red pepper partnered the bar. The hard, buttery nuts were a nice contrast to the light moussy choc and snappy tuile. The ice cream had interesting, unexpected sourness, whilst the red pepper, with its complex, fruity sweetness, elevated the attending elements.
Petit Fours: Chocolate and Lemon Verbena; Pâte d’Amandes with Pistachio; White Chocolate with Rhubarb; Blackcurrant in Marzipan; Marshmallow with Tarragon; and Apple and Tandoori Gelée. Considering the ample amount of each of the preceding portions, the single plate of petit fours seemed incomplete; not that I exactly had room for anything but a few fragments of too-tempting finger food. On tasting though, it became clear the kitchen would be able to fall back on the old adage ‘quality over quantity’; each piece was ably made, creatively constructed and scrummy.
Bitter dark chocolate thins cracked to exude cold, concentrated lemon. Star-shaped, grainy marzipan was filled with delicate, distinct pistachio. White chocolate crown contained pleasantly sharp, zesty rhubarb. A bite of the blackcurrant, encased in marzipan, brought on a wave of sharp sweetness from the single berry buried whole within. Sugary, peppery marshmallow, sticky and semi-solvent, scarcely made it off the plate. The creamy jelly of acidic apple and spicy, piquant tandoori was exotic, warm and heady.
No doubt my feelings regarding the food are clear; it was delicious. The flavours were strong and robust; the ingredients, imaginative and intriguing; and the presentation, exciting and appetising. The kitchen is obviously talented, showcasing both abundant technical accomplishment, moderating and magnifying flavours at will, as well as an appreciation of when to leave the produce alone. One highlight was the remarkably meticulous seasoning of the dishes – a small aspect indeed, but its noticeably should therefore make its superiority even more apparent – salt, pepper and lemon were used just perfectly; it was evident that there was a real Masterchef behind the stoves. And there was. Monsieur Chef, Pierre Gagnaire was in the house. Not only that, he was getting his hands dirty (maybe not the most comforting metaphor to associate with a cook) and, fortunately, I can boast to having seen it for myself. Before sampling his Grand Desserts, I was offered an opportunity to meet the man. Taken to the kitchen, I observed Chef Gagnaire at the pass – he was re-plating someone else’s duck just then. I was able to have a few words with him, showing off some of my mediocre French (on reflection, I do hope my mangling his mother tongue did not offend him!). The larger-than-life character, with his characteristically wispy hair, was all smiles and warmly welcoming. I must admit, I was rather excited as I met him; c’est juste, même moi.
All that I rue are those regrettable photographs that deny the full, visibly perceptible pleasure of this food to the reader. Unfortunately there was nothing I could do. I was gladly willing to move to some quiet, empty corner to avoid disturbing other diners with the flash of my camera, but the entire restaurant was booked; the Library packed out with a large party, whilst each seat in the Lecture Room was loaded with another lucky diner.
As mentioned, I had already eaten once here before, a long time ago, but to be honest, much of it has been forgotten, although a particularly potent lobster bisque, which W had the pleasure of enjoying the larger half, has not faded from my memory. I also remember being impressed, but I was also a far less practised and educated eater at that time, so it would not have taken much to amaze me, I am sure. This time round, I am able to value and recognise the quality and worth of the experience. Not only was the meal literally faultless, but it was a gastronomic tour around the world – West Indian powders, Indian seasoning, North African spices, Japanese infusions – evidence of the Chef’s immense knowledge of culinary cultures, raw materials and cooking methods. However, knowledge alone is not enough, he also knows exactly how to apply them with the most dramatic effect: I can still taste that Espelette-buttered John Dory as I write.
Gagnaire works plays across the full spectrum of taste, temperature and texture, usually combining all three elements with unexpected, but surprisingly harmonic effect. He is not afraid to mix sweet with savoury, robust with delicate, hot with cold. A fine example of his pushing flavours to their extremes is the duck main dish; intensely sweet jus, rich meat, fruity-tart marmalade are each strong and powerful, yet carefully composed and precisely poised. Yummy.
Let us not forget the FOH, after all, Sketch does hold all five AA rosettes – an acknowledgement of the kitchen’s and the serving staff’s ability. Today, I was taken considerate care of by Giovanni and Alex. Both were delightfully helpful and diligent. They covered all the customary bases and then went further, ensuring my every whim was catered for. All the staff were efficient, engaging and enthusiastic, but special mention is also merited by manager Fred Brugues, who was gracious, obliging and more than helpful. At the meal’s end I was also given a tour of all of Sketch’s multifarious subdivisions by Alex, who charmingly showed me as far as the door (or were they just desperate to see me gone?).
‘I don’t want to be in the limelight too much. I don’t do a lot of interviews. I prefer to be in the kitchen. The truth is on the plate.’ If Chef Gagnaire’s refreshing words are to be taken seriously, then it seems that Sketch does indeed live up to its reputation: the food is amazing. But so is the bill.
Lucky then that it is worthy of every penny.
9 Conduit Street, Mayfair, W1S 2XG
tel: 087 0777 4488
nearest tube: Oxford Circus