Monday, June 30, 2014

Dinner by Heston (London)

June 2014

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA, UK
Tel: +44 20 7201 3833

Heston Blumental's Dinner had always intrigued us. It was set up with the concept of reviving long lost English recipes from hundreds of years ago and turning it into something which could be identified as haute cuisine. Having watched many episodes of The Tudors and being somewhat familiar with watching Henry VII's grand banquets (one would presume that the King of England would be served food which could conceivably be regarded as the finest of its time), we never got the impression that medieval English cuisine would be something we'd be dying to try soon (this brings the mind the bizarre whole swan dish which, when opened, would release dozens of escaping doves. This seemed to be something which delighted the good King).

Dinner now has two Michelin stars and is also phenomenally highly rated in San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurant (it is currently ranked 5th), which was compelling evidence that Chef Heston's project seems to have gained wider acceptance in the otherwise skeptical culinary circles.

Dinner took over the space formally occupied by the now defunct Foliage (a one Michelin starred restaurant at that time which we quite liked) in the ultra-luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and replaced the walls of the kitchen with full glass panels, exposing the entire kitchen and the rather interesting pineapple roasting room (more on this later) to the dining room. The restaurant was quite casual, with naked table tops more appropriate in a bistro than a fine dining establishment. The service was also informal yet friendly and pleasant.

The restaurant tried to create a context of the meal we were about to have by having literature printed on the menu and even on the other side of the cardboard napkin fastener, explaining the type of cuisine (i.e. Ol' English), the year when each particular dish was popular, the cookbooks where the recipes were found as well as some of the eating habits of their early ancestors. 

Meat Fruit (c. 1500): mandarin, chicken liver and foie gras parfait, grilled bread: We would be highly impressed if indeed the English made dishes like that half a millennium ago. This was amazing. A perfectly formed mandarin orange with the fruit gelee encasing a globe of pâté which was perfectly balanced and, despite its size, not difficult at all to finish together with a slice a grilled rye bread.

Bone-in rib of Hereford Prime for 2 (c. 1830): mushroom ketchup with triple-cooked chips: This was a large portion of beef which we took some time to polish off. The beef was excellent, and had a unique smoky flavour quite unlike any other steak we have eaten. The triple-cooked fries were also very addictive, especially when dipped in the mushroom ketchup. The only regret we had was our choice of wine; we had a half bottle of Nuits-St-Georges which was way too soft for a dish as strongly flavoured as this one.

Tipsy cake (c. 1810): spit roast pineapple: Dinner's signature dessert is its spit roast pineapple with a type of cake similar to a rum baba except with pineapple syrup rather than rum. Next to the kitchen is the roasting room (visible from the outside through the glass windows) where the several pineapples are slow roasted throughout the day for this dish (occasionally a chef could be seen slathering the pineapples with syrup). It was delicious.

An excellent lunch was capped off with an earl grey ganache. All in all, though the food was very good and the meal enjoyable, we felt that one had to be in the right mood to properly enjoy Dinner. We did not find the usual sombreness about the menu, table setting or service which is typical for a two Michelin starred restaurant, but instead experienced a rather casual ambience and novel cuisine which was in keeping with its stated concept of the medieval English banquet.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Square (London)

June 2014

6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair London, W1J 6PU, UK
Tel: +44 20 7495 7100

The Square is a modern French restaurant located off the upmarket New Bond Street which for a very long time has held on to two Michelin stars. It belongs to the same stable of restaurants which includes The Ledbury, a fellow double-starred restaurant but one which has garnered much more international acclaim, no doubt in a large part due to its mention in San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurants list (it sits in 10th position this year). Nonetheless, The Square (despite its relative anonymity) always has the reputation of being one of the finest restaurants in London and is a favourite of many of our friends who know the London scene well.

Located along the main road and just next to a traditional British pub which is more symbolic of British culinary traditions (till recent years of course), The Square opens up into a predictably square dining room. In the few times we've been there, the crowd had always been quite formal and business-like, and the rather spacious table alignments creates the sense of discretion which perhaps makes it an ideal location to hold confidential business discussions over a meal. Despite the current trend towards informality in some of London's newer and hip restaurants, eating here still feels like a serious affair and the waiters are decked out in crisp suits and have an appropriately snooty demeanour while providing the most professional of service. This place evokes memories of the pre-Lehman banking boom years when it would be customary to find City bankers in their three-piece Saville Row suits sipping their champagnes and discussing the new models of Aston Martins they intend to buy with their next bonus. The same discussions are probably still taking place nowadays, except the players now are more likely to be Russian oligarchs or Chinese industrialists.

I was here on a work day lunch, hence it was inadvisable for me to go on a bender and have champagne and the customary full bottle of wine. This did not prevent us from having a proper drink, as the rather comprehensive wine list included a very decent half bottle Gevrey Chambertin which was very enjoyable.

We started off with an amuse bouche of tuna cracker and lamb tartare on toast. The cracker was tasteless but the tartare on toast was pretty good.

My starter was the salad of cooked and raw spring vegetables with Montgomery cheddar "fondue", crisp quail egg, shoots and flowers. This was very well put together and highly enjoyable, with the cheese fondue (which had a tinge of turmeric flavour) particularly memorable.

The slow-cooked fillet of turbot with crushed Jersey Royals, pickled celery, mussels and cider was unexpected. Firstly, the fillet was cooked to a lesser degree of doneness which I was used to, and hence did not have the firmness I expected from a turbot dish. However, in this case, it really worked against the backdrop of the mussels and heavy-flavoured mussel/cider sauce. It was as if the main character of the dish wasn't the fish, but instead the fish was a base on which the mussels were able to express themselves. I thought it very impressive.

To finish up the wine, a small selection of some of our favourite cheeses were picked from a decent spread on the cheese trolley.

We finished off our very satisfying lunch by luxuriating on the very rich dessert of milk chocolate bar with salted peanuts, praline and banana, and proceeded to polish off the mignardises as well.