Notting Hill, London
The waiter comes to the table with a baked potato on a board. Oh yeah? Is this what I’ve come to The Ledbury for? Is this what chef and co-owner Brett Graham thinks is worth the two stars recently bestowed by Michelin? Is this why The Ledbury has been named Britain’s restaurant of the year by Restaurant magazine…the credits roll on in Star Wars style.
I experience familiar tourist remorse. I read the reviews and can’t resist. But then I note how deadpan the server is. He’s standing poised with a knife. He slices the potato and out pops a potato shaped celeriac rolled in hay ash. Celeriac? Traditionally, the celery root has been hidden away in puree or julienned in mayonnaise. No decent family wants to actually see it. A celeriac looks like the innards of an antique explosive, a mass of grubby wires erupting from a pallid ball; viewed differently, it is a homicidal veg out to kill a human. But Graham has transformed this ugly sister of a root into an enchanting Cinderella. a half dozen delicate slices of the subtlest translucent celery are accompanied by a deepfried croquette of wild boar with a garnish of acidic wood sorrel, looks like shamrocks, and hazelnuts.
This is the Graham story: a cheeky Ozzie, still under thirty, with some of Adria’s smoke and mirrors, a confident grasp of French technique, Pacific Rim flavours, and a larky sense of humour. The tasting menu here runs well over $100 but I’m getting a bargain, the $48 (all prices approximate) prix fixe lunch of three courses. A great lunch is one of the charms of eating out in London, a way to sample a great chef without a crise de plastique. We eat promiscuously from everywhere. French butter of course to go with a chestnut roll or onion brioche. Then a sampling of the other starter. Gosh is no food local any more – now they’re making mozzarella in Hampshire and very good it is too served with semi-hard St-Nectaire and truffles on toast with a broth of grilled onions. Silken poached turbot – European turbot is a much subtler fish than the North Atlantic variety , and is paired with buttered langoustine claws, pumpkin foam, chanterelles and powdered ginger. The pressed suckling pig is as crisp as PekinG duck with white carrot, toasted grains and a glossily melting pork cheek cooked in Pedro Ximinez’ powerfully sweet sherry. Sounds like a mishmash doesn’t it. But it isn’t. Graham delicately separates each flavour from the other for maximum enjoyment.
We nibble away at a creamy vanilla and date tart set off by Clementine Leaf ice cream. As we parse the taste of clementine leaf, we look around at our fellow eaters. The Ledbury is a handsome well-windowed square, elegant but unpretentious. It may be off the beaten track in Notting Hill, trendy among young city types, but it’s a destination restaurant, drawing all kinds of people.
Mayfair. Follow that! I say to the Connaught Hotel. For my second lunch, I’m checking up on the grande dame of Mayfair hotels. For many years, the Connaught was famous for its French chef who, during the long rationing years after World War II, continued serving wonderful food while the rest of London starved. Now I’m anxious to see how well it’s kept its reputation. Well, the $55 prix fixe is a bit of all right – a couple of glasses of potable wine thrown in. A raft of sleek servers with thick menus glide over a well padded room stuffed with bank directors and gilded youth; a seventeen year old is lunching a dazzling Asian model. Helene Darroze, who has a single Michelin Star, is a petit point cook, an expert in precise effects and steamy emollient sauces, a lobster veloute scented with wild mushrooms, tiny ricotta gnocchi, little roasted pieces of lobster, tarragon cream, and the carrot and confit citrus mousseline that lightly bathes roasted scallops with Tandoori spices. I’ve never tried a spring onion reduction with fresh coriander but I challenge any blogger of I Hate Cilantro to hate it. Anyone who can make a carrot and confit citrus mousseline so it doesn’t taste like regular carrot and orange soup gets my vote too. And the tiny gently sweetened pear among the seasonal fruit and veg add piquancy to the venison roasted in Lampong Pepper.
The flavours are light and fragrant as in a passion fruit, lime and Malibu (coconut) jelly, not like jello at all, with candied ginger mousse, lime meringue and mango arranged on the plate.
Belgravia…Two great lunches, now for the third. Marcus Wareing, along with Gordon Ramsey and Marco Pierre White, was a pioneering chef in the renaissance of London restaurants. Now he’s at the Berkeley Hotel in Belgravia and still rates a couple of Michelin stars. It is my niece’s birthday and I’m springing for the $48 prix fix lunch. Now a New Yorker, she scans the menu on line, eager to eat Franglais. Imagine our horror when we arrive at the restaurant to be told that the prix fixe has risen by $30! Moreover the new lunch is uninviting – turkey and cranberry sauce ! Falafel! But if we want to eat Wareing’s famous daquoise of layers of prune jelly and pate de foie gras, we must go for the 145 buck menu. Hijacked, we mutter over a glass of Champagne. But what can we do? We ask about eating a la carte. The waiter sniffs. Several courses are very good indeed, Dorset crab, herb-stamped pappardelle with fresh truffles ground over it, but overall, we begin to feel like geese being forcefed – at what’s worse, a highly inflated price. Of course it isn’t the chef’s fault that there is a toddlers’ teaparty in the bar next door. Still it turns what was intended as a posh lunch into a pumpkin.
For more on eating out in London, go to ginamallet.com