Pecking proverbial milk tops from fine dining establishments across the UK

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Tom Aikens, London

43 Elyston Street, London, SW3 3NT, England **

Mon-Fri, Lunch 12-2:30pm, Dinner 6.45-11pm, Lunch Menu: £29 for three courses, coffee £5 supplement.


As J and I walked around the streets of South Ken, admiring the Georgian crescents and remarking open London’s unfailing and attractive ability to place council housing directly opposite what must be the London pads of the rich and famous, we both stated our desire to end up living in such an area. While this is in no doubt a possibility for J, it most certainly isn’t for me – but perhaps I can visit. One of the attractions of the area would be having such a wonderful restaurant as Tom Aikens as your local eatery. The dining room is a reasonably small affair, though the tables are well-spaced out. During our lunch 6 tables booked, including our own. No doubt the credit crunch is hitting the restaurant, though I might ignorantly wonder aloud whether Tom Aiken’s is more an upmarket local restaurant for South Kensington – it certainly did not have the suits one associates with the restaurants of Mayfair. However, one very noticeable victim of the credit crunch – if that is what is the cause of such an empty dining room – is atmosphere. The restaurant felt cold – temperature I mean – and empty, regularly the conversation of the separate tables stopped at the same time and the room was filled with a hush while numerous staff (though all of them attentive, more than competent and friendly without being intrusive) stood in the corner slightly aimlessly, almost embarrassed, waiting for something to do

This did not effect our enjoyment of the cooking at Tom Aikens. This was the finest lunch I’ve enjoyed at such a restaurant in a long time. The meal started very well with bread including a choice of semolina and buttermilk rolls and bacon brioches, alongside more standard fare of brown and ciabatta. All of these were served as individually baked breads, made on site. While the semolina roll was good, the bacon brioche was truly fantastic: flaky on the outside, sweet and moist on the inside and, well, exciting (8/10).

A successful amuse bouche kicked off proceedings. This consisted of a confit of rabbit hidden beneath a layer of chicken consommé jelly with chunks of celeriac, with a rich celeriac mousse on top. An enjoyably rich beginning. The jelly successfully avoided tasting of a Baxter’s soup (this happens more often than you might imagine in such restaurants), the celeriac mousse was particularly flavoursome with what seemed to be an addition of garlic and yet successfully did not dominate the more delicate flavour of the rabbit (8/10).
My starter consisted of a roast scallops, with cured duck breast, roast pine nut and mango puree. The scallops themselves were undone, leaving them slightly chewy. My personal preference for scallops is for them to be well done, so this was a slight left down. The dish did come together well though, with the mango puree providing appropriate bite to the depth of the duck and the pine nuts adding a little crunch to proceedings (6/10).

Mains consisted of roast loin and filet of venison on a bed choucroute red wine celeriac, fondant sage beignet and parsley crumb. This was wonderful. The venison arrived on top of the choucroute dressed in red wine alongside some celeriac. The edges of this had been cooked a little further providing an enjoyable crunchy texture. The venison had been cooked to perfection; extremely tender and succulent. Beignets seem to be very fashionable at the moment and this one was successful, with a light sage flavour coming through. On a normal occasion this would have been the highlight of the meal… (8/10).

Feeling a little disappointed by my rhubarb dessert at
the Ledbury the previous fortnight I ordered off the lunch menu and went for the truffle pannacotta, accompanied by black pepper truffle ice-cream, white-chocolate mousse, thin squares of white chocolate and truffle shavings. I think it is a sign of a great dish that I am still thinking about the intensity and richness of its flavours even now. It will go down in Fat Robin folklore. Each of the pannacotta, ice-cream and mousse were along a gradient ranging from silky and light (the mousse) to velvety and rich (the pannacotta). While all pretty much in the same general texture area (that is, smooth) each was sufficiently distinct to make for an interesting mouthful. While I appreciate such things are not to everyone’s taste, I am a fan of truffle and, as stated previously, black pepper as ingredients for desserts. What was very noticeable about this dish was the strength of the truffle flavour; a lesser chef perhaps might have backed away from having gone so full-out with arguably a daring flavour paring of white chocolate and black truffle (let alone also black pepper). For me this was a great success (10/10).

Petit fours here are generous to a fault. And such a statement is not something that comes easily to me. The number of sweet nibbles – various flavoured madeleines, chocolates, mousses of varying innovative flavours – were enough to warrant description as a second dessert. I am ashamed to say that neither I nor J could finish even half of these, though not for want of trying I assure you (8/10). A doggy-bag might have been a good idea.

What did others think? Tom Aikens on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Le Gavroche, London

43 Upper Brook Street, WK1 7QR **

Open for Lunch Mon-Fri 12-2pm. Three Course: £48.


Today K and I ventured into the depths of Mayfair – an inhospitable land for those of us up to our eyeballs in our overdrafts and entirely reliant on our culinary companion for food purchasing power – to visit what is regularly touted to be the finest restaurant in London: Le Gavroche. The restaurant is a few seconds walk away from Grosvenor Sq and a few minutes walk from Bond Street tube station. The lunch menu comes in at £48 per person. This includes a three course lunch, with an accompanying half bottle of wine (from a selection of 4), a half bottle of mineral water and coffee and petit fours. Given this, the initial feeling of intimidation faced by this price begins to weaken.

The main dining room itself is down a flight of stairs. You are led into what appears to be an old gentleman’s club with hunting lodge green walls and chairs to match. Vast arrays of flowers sit amongst mirrors on the walls. K and I were sat at a table directly next to one of these floral arrangements and I wonder, given that so much of food tasting is via one’s sense of smell, if the pungent aromas of lilies affected our lunch.

An amuse bouche arrived: sand eel fried in a thin, crispy batter on tartare sauce and a fried potato crisp. The eel itself had an intense eel-y flavour, with plenty of moisture. The tartare sauce was quite mild, with the predominant flavours being mayonnaise and mustard – the bite of capers was lacking. The potato crisp predominantly oily and reminded both of us of a Real McCoy crisp. K thought the dish tasted of a cold summer’s day on an overcast beach in Cornwall. Less articulately, I thought the eel itself was rather good but as a composition this was little disappointing (6/10).

My starter was a filet of pan-fried mackerel on top of a bed of mushed aubergine and caviar, surrounded by cooking juices. Similar to the amuse this was a dish of a striking contrast. The mackerel itself was great: a wonderfully fresh piece of fish which retained a pleasing degree of moisture, with each biting oozing with mackerel flavour. Its accompaniment, however, was bland and moreover had a rather unappetising dark green and greyish colour. This added very little to the dish aside from a different texture to partner the crispy coating of the fried mackerel (6/10). K had asparagus, thin slices of meaty chorizo and a poached egg in batter. She was visibly disappointed by this dish and, given that we had spent a while looking forward to this meal, attempted to find a way of stating this without dampening the mood. It is still, just about, asparagus season in England but these were less flavoursome than those at the height of the season. The chorizo was without dominating fatty bits but also lacked spice and sharpness. Together the ingredients were just ‘nice’ without being impressive. Simple arrangements of intensely and complementary flavoured ingredients is all well and good but sometimes, as was the case here, this fails to wow (4/10).

Mains was a supremely well cooked filet of roast pork – pink, moist and piggilicious – accompanied by puréed potatoes, prune preserve, glazed shiitake mushrooms and carrots and topped with deep fried pork crackling. This is haute cuisine at, perhaps, it’s most traditional and unadventurous but it is also it at its best. The pork was wonderful, and the other ingredients on the plate served their purposes well. The mash was creamy, the carrots and mushrooms succulent and sweet, the prune preserve gave an added kick. I enjoyed this: it was familiar, friendly and homely. It lacked perhaps enough flavour punch to be scored any higher, but this was still a fine dish (8.5/10). K and I swapped half-way through. Her mains was poached salmon, on the ‘rare’ side of poached, in a light tomato consommé with diced tomato with an arrangement of penne and a few sprigs of fennel. This was distinctly underwhelming. The salmon was, like with all the dishes in this meal, a good piece of meat. The consommé was light and subtle to the point of being bland, likewise the pasta added texture but not so much flavour. I tried to give extra time to this dish to see if, contrasted with the pork with its booming flavour, I was just missing the subtly. But closer inspection only seemed to confirm that this was just a little bit bland (4/10)

For dessert we shared a selection of six ice-creams and sorbets (Strawberry, black forest berries, pineapple, white chocolate, coffee and vanilla) and an assiette of puddings. The former were wonderful. The white chocolate ice cream was the most instantaneously wonderful, and successfully conveyed creamy white chocolate flavour without being sickly or overly sweet – quite an achievement. The other standout flavour here was the pineapple; a difficult ice cream to make in the first place, this captured pineapple flavour supremely well (8.5/10). The assiette consisted of: tiramisu, passion-fruit cheesecake, vanilla ice cream in a dark chocolate case, raspberries and shortbread, a rum baba, a chocolate truffle cake and a praline tart. Given the number I think the best way of summarising this dish would to be say that I would have happily eaten each one of these as a main dessert aside from the raspberries and shortbread. Each of these was a delight (9/10).

What did others think? Le Gavroche on Urbanspoon