Phil Howard

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