There are currently four restaurants in the UK holding three Michelin Stars. Only one of them is run by a female chef. Sadly, it's Gordon Ramsay's name, rather than hers, above the door. Which is a real shame. Because Clare Smyth and team gave me one of my most memorable dining experiences.
What separates three stars from one or two? It's hard to put a finger on it. The food's no more elaborate, the ingredients no more precious. If anything, the dishes were simpler. But there was perfection in their simple elegance. Every element there for a reason, every flavour distinct and complementary, every plate arranged as a work of art.
There's a £55 set menu for a three-course lunch here. Too often on these set price deals I'm lured to more expensive menus, because there seems a wide gulf between the cheap options and the rest. Not so here, where we were all delighted with the choices and felt no need to wander.
While perusing the menu we nibbled on savoury profiteroles stuffed with chicken liver mousse; a lovely complement to the kir royales we'd felt the need to splurge on. Next came the amuse bouche, a spring pea puree decorated with tiny flowers and vegetables (pictured top); an homage to the gardens down the street and as delicious as it was beautiful.
I was sorely tempted to go on to the lobster, asparagus and herb tortellini with lobster, broad bean and tomato consommé. (It certainly would have been the weight watcher-friendly choice.) But, fortunately, my friend Alex ordered that so I could have a look and a little taste. Light, delicate yet packed with flavour. The magic words "foie gras" had jumped off the menu page, however, and I felt compelled to order the chicken liver, foie gras and bone marrow crouton with artichoke, apples and truffle vinaigrette. Despite its rich ingredients this was delicate as well, with the meaty elements in an elegant sufficiency beneath the seasonal crunch of the fruit and the raw, shaved baby asparagus. Presentation was again artful, with the circles of vinaigrette matching the pattern of the serving plate below.
On to roasted rabbit loin with Bayonne ham, salted baked turnips, toasted hazelnuts and pickled mustard seed. Stunning. Rabbit's a tricky meat to cook; easily dried out. Each bite-sized morsel of loin rolled with ham was, as you'd expect at this level, perfect. Salt baking (all the rage in London right now) transforms a turnip's flavour into a concentrated, richer version of itself. And pickled mustard seeds were a revelation, adding a bit of crunch, sweet, savoury and tart all in one go.
Dessert was the one place I was tempted to wander off the set menu. Cheese, no matter how lovely the cart, wouldn't satisfy my sweet tooth, and roasted pineapple with coriander financiers (small, almond-flavoured sponge cakes, not bankers), coconut sorbet and vanilla cream sounded too virtuous. Having been surprised by the peanut butter mousse at Bruno Loubet's place last month, I decided to give it another go. This time a quenelle of the stuff served beside banana parfait, a bitter chocolate sandwich and caramelised bananas. Like the rest of my meal, this was a combination of ingredients that could have turned into a stomach-filling lead weight in the wrong hands. But again, Clare and team created a small work of art so concentrated in flavour, yet light in texture, your taste buds spun with satisfaction. Leaving your stomach replete, yet not stuffed. I sense I might finally get a handle on the portion control challenge if I had a three-star chef in the kitchen.
All of the surrounding elements were as fine as the food. Clare recently appeared on Saturday Kitchen talking about the redecoration of the dining room: its greys, silvers, mauves and gentle pinks create a soothing, neutral setting while still looking distinctive. A delightful German sommelier is happy to work to a budget and, indeed, has something to work with. There are a reassuring number of bottles priced between £35 and £60 on a comprehensive wine list that, as you would expect, rises to stratospheric names. And prices. (He produced a £55 Austrian white, a seasonal special not on the menu, that performed the admirable trick of working across our diverse menu choices.) Front-of-house staff is constantly on hand ... I'd guess there are 10 of them for the 40 diners ... managing to anticipate every need while being unobtrusive.
And, the sign of great service: when they make a mistake, they over compensate. We'd almost finished our wine. Alex had just a sip or two left in her glass. A waiter had topped it up ... with water. Easily done, to be honest, as the wine was very pale and we were sitting next to the window in a pool of sunshine that further drained colour from the glasses. But it shouldn't have happened. And, let's face it, you don't want to waste even one sip of a £55 bottle. Mortified, the sommelier apologised profusely and then matched each of our desserts with complementary glasses of appropriate dessert wines. Turning a mistake into yet another reason why this extravagant lunch seemed like value for money.
I'm sure other tables spent far more than we did. But we engaged in a lot of amusing banter with the waiters and took obvious delight, and a deep interest, in every course. Plus the wine mistake. All of which, I suspect, contributed to the maitre d's invitation for us to take a peek into the kitchen on our way out. And so through the swinging door to a pristine laboratory of gastronomy. Sous chefs already working away with military precision on prep for the dinner service. And Clare Smyth in the centre of it all, brow furrowed over menu notes while she kept one eye on everything going on. Every inch the general of her troops. Stern, in complete control, yet beautiful and serene. (In the middle of a long work day in a hot kitchen? Not fair, really.)
We had a short chat. She was gracious and welcoming. "Your name should be above the door," I said. She gave me a knowing little smile. I suspect she's heard this before. Someday soon ... whether over this door or another ... I'm sure it will be true.
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