Chelsea

Elystan Street, Chelsea

I think the first time I was really proud of this blog was when Elystan Street put my first write-up on their website. I struggle with this, I’m horribly competitive and I rarely enjoy my own work, but I am a food fan boy at heart and Phil Howard is right up there with my heroes. Outside of Brum I don’t think there is a chef I’ve eaten more of, from the luxurious splendour of The Square, to Elystan Street, his somewhat more laidback offering. He is one of those chefs that makes an a la carte decision impossible; you want to eat every dish listed and probably would if that didn’t require a remortgage.

We come on a Sunday lunch when the dining room is filled with Chelsea types. It makes for interesting eavesdropping; the table next to us has a son explaining his property plans to his mother. A small pied-a-terre in the city and a larger home on the coast will suffice for him. It’s another world here and this place caters purely for those; there is not much value anywhere on the wine list and very little for under £40 a bottle. Bread is the only introduction to the food and very good it is too, though it’s overshadowed by some truly outstanding butter.

Howard always seems to have a pasta dish present; I recall a hand-rolled macaroni at the previous establishment, whereas today is strozzapretti. Anything shaped like my first initial is fine with me. It’s the carrier for a loose ragu of finely chopped white park beef and a dusting of parmesan. It’s success is in its clarity; the beef is the star and here it is allowed to shine. The rest form the background setting; the pasta a vehicle, the parmesan the umami injection to the engine.

A fat fillet of cod is all butter basted flesh and pearlescent core, with parmesan gnocchi and buttered chanterelles. It’s fat heavy, yet fresh and light with clever acidity. Whoever said cheese and fish don’t go together has clearly never eaten here. Roast pork is just that; thin slices of pig just blushing pink, with cabbage and wedges of apple long massaged with heat. It’s not the prettiest plate of food I’ve eaten, though the flavour is there, in particular the cabbage spiked with lardons. On the side are roast potatoes, crumbly edged though maybe not as soft on the inside as I’d ideally like.

Desserts are no going to threaten the pastry section at Ducasse anytime soon, but then I expect that is entirely their intention. More homely, less fuss. We have a faultless sticky toffee pudding with earl grey ice cream and rice pudding with rhubarb. They are the Ronseal of puddings, which is fine by my girlfriend, who happens to love both of these more than she could ever love me. The ice creams in particular are textbook examples.

The above food, a couple of pre-drinks and a bottle of wine hits just shy of a ton apiece, an amount that sees our three courses arrive in around 40 minutes. Now maybe the clocks move faster in Chelsea, but for almost £200 I happen to see that as rushed. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, a sensation that was further exasperated by relentless perfect Negronis afterwards in the perfect Bar Termini. Maybe they cater for a different type of customer here, but for me the ideal Sunday lunch is a lazy affair slowly reeled out. I don’t want my dessert to arrive six minutes after they’ve cleared away the main plates. Phil Howard remains one of my culinary heroes, though I’ll gladly play those memories out in my head at my own pace, rather than the speedy service at Elystan Street.

Elystan Street, London

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Phil Howard is a man with bigger knackers than most. After two decades at the helm of one of London’s most important restaurants, he decided to sell The Square because the cuisine is no longer in line with the cooking that he wants to cook. For in industry so beloved of Michelin, he has effectively handed in his two stars and started again, making the move from a prime spot in Mayfair to one in Chelsea which failed to be fruitful for a certain Tom Aikens.  The new restaurant is a departure from The Square; less clinical, with table tops of wood and concrete replacing ironed white linen.  Natural light pours in through large windows that dominate two of the four walls, the others lined with the kind of modern art you wish you could afford at home.  The food, too, has changed.  Evolving into a vegetable heavy line-up with less emphasis on fats and protein.

The result is a restaurant that feels like an instant classic.  Ingredients are gently manoeuvred to bring out the optimum flavour, modern techniques employed for flavour, not frivolity.  Burrantina is elevated by a mollica like topping of dried black olives, toasted bread crumbs and spices.  Partially dried late season tomatoes give pops of sweetness, pine nuts crunch, and olive oil a gentle pepperiness.  It’s impeccably balanced and we mop up the last of the creamy cheese with sourdough of similar quality.  Another starter of beef tartare saw a fat quenelle sandwiched between slithers of berkswell cheese, itself on slices of artichoke that tempered the other big flavours.  The tartare was boldly seasoned with a dice of vegetables that provided bite against that finely chopped meat.  It tasted original, an achievement given how many tartare’s I have eaten of recent.

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The lightness of touch continued in to the mains with cod, served with golden raisins, spinach and a curried cauliflower puree that lifted everything it was smeared on to.  The fish was glorious; a nutty brown exterior that opened up to flakes the colour of Simon Cowell’s veneers.  Lamb rump was given the Ottolenghi treatment, with bulbs of roast garlic and a fragrant pesto coated aubergine.  Aubergine came back as a puree whilst a crisp potato terrine sucked up the juices of the animal.  It was stellar cooking, clinical and clean, with not an ingredient used in vain.

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Grouse was classically treated.  The delicate breast cooked to a consistent dark pink and doused in a sauce rich with tart elderberries that cut through the gamy meat.  A dice of root vegetables and an almost milky celeriac puree were harmonious whilst a crisp roll of the leg meat topped with a pear puree reinforced the birds flavour.  We revert back to the sourdough to clean up the last of the plate.

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Desserts kept up the high standard.  A just-set blackberry jelly, dotted with fruit and finished with a sorbet of staggering depth, hit all the right spots.  The star though, was a perfect tart with pastry so fine we had to check it was there.  From the fig jam at the base to the frangipane full of coarse pistachio, every mouthful delivered in spades.

025023 I’ve tried my best not to turn this into a direct comparison with the previous home of Phil Howards cooking, though its inevitable that people will.  For me, the more simplistic approach allowed the produce to speak for itself.  Every flavour was pronounced and clear, every dish concise with its execution.  It was modern cooking delivered in Phil Howards unmistakable style. Elystan Street produced the meal of the year for me, despite being a week old when we visited.  This time next year I fully expect to see its name towards the top of the list on all of the important food guides.

9/10

 

 

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London

It was impossible to go to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay without expecting it to be a great meal. In this last twelve months The Good Food guide have scored it the perfect ten – one of only three in the country to score this – along with it being one of only four UK restaurants to be bestowed with the maximum three stars from Michelin. Everything was pointing towards perfection, though expectation is the root of all disappointment; the mother of all frustration. By building a pre-set ideal based on another’s opinion surely I was setting myself up for a fall.

And then you push through the heavy door of the bijou building on Royal Hospital Road and all is fine. The greetings from an army of staff detract from its beige interior that borders between boring and serene.  Here, amongst the four walls in loaded Chelsea, is a world where handbags require stools, toilet roll is pointed into triangles after every visit and French haute cuisine is King.

Lets start with the bits before the real food arrives.  Excellent gourgeres disappeared from the basket instantly; the ethereal choux loaded with a cheesey bechamel that put shame to the ones at any of Ducasse’s restaurants.  An amuse came in a egg shell precisely trimmed and sprayed gold – I pity whoever has this as a job.  Inside a baked potato mousseline marbled with yolk and topped with a sliver of Perigord truffle that was both comforting and elegant.

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A dainty dish of agnolotti had al dente pasta with a filling of roasted pumpkin, softly flavoured with sage.  Transparent slices of guanciale ham coated the mouth with fat and let the flavours take over, whilst amaretti crumbs provided texture.  I wont eat a better dish all year, I’m sure.  Roasted beetroot had a salad perched prettily in a mound of smoked goats curd.  My partner declaring it not quite on the level of a similar dish that she had at The Square last year whilst practically licking the plate clean

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A fillet of plaice was sensational; the fish, still fresh and retaining its flavour, was enhanced by a pokey taramasalata, tender strips of razor clam and a beurre noisette, which proved that everything tastes better when basted in brown butter.  Rabbit, a meat I seldom eat due to it always arriving overcooked, had a perfectly timed loin, seasoned by the salty bayonne ham it was wrapped in.  Confit leg lay proudly on tender lentils, whilst teeny racks served as a remainder of the animal on the plate.  The sauce, a deep glossy thing of dreams, held everything together and pickled mustard seeds popped and provided heat and contrast.  It was cooking of the highest order.

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Desserts were a highlight in a meal of highlights.  An assiette showcased all five of the sweets available on the a la carte menu, the stars being a lemonade parfait with sheep milks sorbet and a smoked chocolate cigar with blood orange and cardamom ice cream – both of which could grace any table, anywhere. A peppermint souffle of perfect consistency arrived with a silky dark chocolate sorbet, the two combined echoing After Eights.  There was a faultless mini version of the Ramsay signature tarte tatin, and a carrot cake that didn’t taste much of carrot.  All of these made my dessert, a dainty custard tart with blood orange and mascarpone sorbet, seem a bit of an afterthought.  A bit of whimsy finished off proceedings as clementine ice cream dipped in white chocolate was served in bowl overflowing with dry ice. image

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The service was even better than La Gavroche, which is a phrase I never thought I’d say.  It was both friendly and concise, with the level of professionalism you would expect from a restaurant with such accolades.  A meal here doesn’t come cheap – between the three of us it would be mortgage payment back home – but nor should it; the brigade of staff (a total of thirty, as opposed to 42 diners) and the raw produce come at a price.  Both Michelin and The Good Food Guide consider it to be the countries finest and I have to agree with them.  Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is up there with the very best.

10/10

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