I have a love / hate relationship with restaurants which boast about their views. When done well, like Rofuto back in Brum, the view becomes secondary; a bonus to the food which demands the attention of the plate, not the traffic levels below. On the flip of it, like in MPW at the Cube, it can be a distraction to some pretty abysmal food, even if the booking was knowingly done so mostly for the view. Or you could be sitting halfway up the Eiffel Tower, in Le Jules Verne, paying three hundred quid for a jellied beef soup and some cold veg. I’ve done all three and I know all too well that a good view is not a guarantee of a good meal.
And then there is Galvin at Windows, a smart restaurant perched high upon the top of the Hilton Park Lane, with arguably the best view in London and a Michelin star to boot. Its position in the heart of Mayfair has Hyde Park to one side and the city positioned far to the other. It demands a picture, or several, in our case as we peer over St James Palace from our seat. The room has an art deco feel which feels smart, the army of waiting staff gliding over the thick carpet, led by a certain Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame. The impeccable service and glorious view would be nothing without good food, which it delivers in abundance. The kitchen, headed up by Joo Won, is a tour of France, with our set lunch the flavours of Marseille – the southern port city where seafood is central to its cuisine. At £55.00 for three courses and half a bottle of wine, it must be up there for one of London’s best value lunches. The bread we munch on whilst perusing the menu is well made, in particular a pretty plait of warm white which more than compensates for the fridge cold butter.
I should learn to trust the kitchen more in these places – on paper none of the starters appealed, leaving braised lamb and salt cod as the most interesting sounding option. It delights, the creamy flakes of opaque cod adding an additional seasoning to the softly braised belly. There is a gentle heat from a garlic cream, pops of saltiness from capers and an underlying depth from the rich cooking liquor. I chase the last dots of the sauce around the dish whilst mentally applauding the impeccable balance of it all. On the other side of the table is a salad of young artichokes; the vegetal nuttiness held in to place by slices of peach and blobs of whipped curd. It was mid July on a plate, the herby dressing and slithers of olives providing a nice counterbalance.
We trust our charming waiter and take the vegetable tart as one of the mains. He is right; the veg that sits on top of the crisp base has been sourced with obvious care – it is a mile away from the tasteless stuff we have become accustomed to. Crumbled Saint Felicien adds a delicate luxury, as does a gazpacho like sauce which is poured tableside. It is received better than the braised feather blade with nicoise salad. There is very little wrong with it; the elements of egg, olive, tomato and anchovies all working with the beef, but it is disjointed – the protein too large and heavy for its nimble salad. I leave half the meat and have to explain myself to the waiter. I think he understands.
Dessert restores order. A take on clafoutis may have been refined to the point of a new identity but it takes great, so who cares. The soft dough is full of almond flavour, the macerated fruit an obvious foil for the richness. A basil ice cream is mercifully restrained and sits nicely amongst it all. A lemon parfait is all balanced acidity with aerated lemon curd and wedges of softly caramelised apricots on top of a tuile base. This is a kitchen that understands texture and flavour.
Nobody can claim that the cooking here is provocative or dangerous in any way. On the contrary; it is classical and restrained, comfortable in its own skill and confident in its own ability. None of what we ate was fireworks, though everything was considered and accurate in its delivery. It would be easy to come here and admire the view and get Fred to pose for a photo. We did. But there is much more to enjoy about Galvin at Windows, with the classically French cooking worthy of a trip of its own.