In a side street not far from Sloane Square, a snugly-scaled but ambitious venture by a chef from New York; on our visit, the staff were charm itself, but the excitement sometimes associated with the City That Never Sleeps was notable by its absence.
This discreetly-located Chelsea newcomer is your classic ‘proper’ fine dining restaurant. You immediately know this from the snug scale, the low, low lighting (not as shown in the photograph!) and the veritable army of smartly suited staff (and all very charming, too). Yes, reader, you could almost be in Gordon Ramsay’s famous gaff, not so far away in Royal Hospital Road.
We’ve been rather excited about the arrival of Five Fields for two reasons. One is that it’s remarkably rare for people to launch seriously food-led restaurants in London – even the Royal Borough, that cynosure of worldwide wealth, boasts no more than ten of them (and that’s being generous). And this really is a serious affair, with no lunchtime opening, and just five dinner services a week.
The other reason for excitement is that the chef/patron, Taylor Bonnyman (who is English), has a stellar cv, including working most recently with the most prominent male English chef in New York, Paul Liebrandt at Drew Nieporent’s Corton in Tribeca. As it happens, we wrote one of the first reviews of that restaurant back in 2008. We were very impressed by our visit, and most other observers, including Michelin, have subsequently expressed similarly high levels of contentment.
Bonnyman has made some impressive-sounding local hires too and, on the food front, our initial Five Fields impressions were all very favourable – a good choice of home-made breads, some simple but very tasty amuse-bouches, and a wide-ranging wine list, including some options at very reasonable prices. The first dish from the £65 dégustation menu – crab with sea urchin and pomelo – was a cracker too.
And then’ dish after dish that just missed! We were stumped by the sudden wrong turn. And into a cul-de-sac from which there seemed to be no escape. Plate after plate seemed to follow the same formula – protein centrepiece, fancily garnished, adorned with a semi-circle of sauce poured from a jug at table. The effect was numbing – in the end, almost a parody.
Where was the variety of formats we (distantly, admittedly) remember from Corton? Where is the variety of presentational conceits which is surely what a dégustation menu – where the chef controls the whole ‘shape’ of the meal – is supposed to be about? Where were the vibrant soups and wonderful puddings we noted as a highlight at Corton? We would like to say that the taste intensities of the individual dishes made up for it’ but, in all honesty, we can’t.
This is the sort of restaurant which stands or falls by its food, so, in the end, we had a thoroughly flat experience. We really hate to say this, as it’s very likely that Bonnyman has put his heart and soul, and clearly a lot of money, into a venture which is as rare as it is – in so many ways – commendable.
Perhaps part of the problem is the very fact that he is ‘chef/patron’? Just in the same way it is often said that companies shouldn’t combine the chairman and chief executive roles, it is a rare ‘fine-dining’ chef who is not better served, certainly at the beginning of ‘own-name’ career, by a partnership with someone else. Marco Pierre White’s fame evolved in partnership with Jimmy Lahoud, for example, and Gordon Ramsay had Chris Hutcheson. And Paul Liebrandt’s career in New York has flourished working with Drew Nieporent- surely the established restaurateur par excellence We can’t help wondering whether Taylor Bonnyman’s first personal venture would not have been better if he had followed the lead of his former boss.