Heston Blumenthal’s historically-themed Knightsbridge newcomer – it’s undoubtedly a good restaurant, but is it good enough to stand up to the hype?
Has any restaurant in recent years been a more hotly anticipated media event than Heston Blumenthal’s Knightsbridge newcomer?
By the third day of official opening – on the lunch service of which we visited – reviews (adulatory) had already appeared in a couple of the broadsheets. As we entered, the media circus continued unabated. Heston and his PR right by the door. By the windows: a film crew. We were quickly embraced.
No denying the calm and order too, however. Here, the months of menu planning, and the two weeks of ‘friends and family’ trials, had clearly paid off. It may help that the brigade – both in the kitchen and front-of-house – seems large in comparison to the number of guests (still, in these early days, being limited to well under full capacity). You might think that, in such circumstances, the service should have been faultless. And it was.
The ambience of the dining room inspired mixed emotions. The less kind view was that the hotel-financed interior was corporate and rather neutral (if with wonderful, picture-window views of Hyde Park, and a lively goldfish bowl of a kitchen). As mid-afternoon gloaming set in, however, the room’s design made more sense, with the jelly-mould light fittings, in particular, injecting a greater air of whimsicality.
And finally, we get to see the menu, with its bizarre names such as Salumugundy (chicken oysters, bone marrow and horseradish cream), and in each case listing the date of the recipe that was its inspiration (in this case, 1720).
What a heritage, we’re supposed to believe, we Brits have ignored all these years!
But despite the mad-scientist-chef schtick, and the obscure menu descriptions, you may be disappointed if you head to this corner of Knightsbridge expecting to be dazzled by a succession of outre creations.
The dish you may already have read a lot about is the ‘Meat Fruit’ (which the management kindly sent over to us, along with a couple of glasses of fizz). It certainly looks brilliant: a chicken liver parfait that’s presented to look like a tangerine, within a cleverly reconstituted skin of that fruit.
But while it’s a great dish, there’s no real getting away from the fact that the super-intense twang of citrus and crackingly crunchy toast offset a food concept – parfait – so simple you could take it on a picnic. Like many of the other creations, what’s delivered is a known-and-usual indulgence with a smart historically-inspired veneer.
Cleverly ‘cutting’ flavours is a hallmark of eating here, and was also evident in a firmly-fleshed dish of hay-smoked mackerel, with lemon salad, gentleman’s relish and olive oil. Another starter, savoury porridge – a bit of a nod to the famous snail version – was gorgeous: vividly green, and both Colgate-fresh and soggily satisfying all at the same time.
Moving to the main event, baked cod with chard, presented on a butter sauce, was hard to better. Here the ‘period’ slant was hard to discern, but the maestro himself explained that the accompanying mussels were wood-fired (which adds a hint of smokiness), which was all the rage in 1940, apparently. Who knew? Who cares? For £22, in Knightsbridge, it was just a very good dish.
The other main course, pigeon, consisted of flesh that was immorally yielding, if maybe a bit underseasoned. Here the period schtick (1780) is to be found in the spicing with ale and artichokes, and very good it was. At £32 for a modest portion, though, the dish should have been good. Again the maestro explained: this particular bird had breezed in from Anjou, not Trafalgar Square, and one has to pay for quality.
And so to puds. Whoever said they’re what Brits do best was right, at least on the evidence of the Tipsy Cake (1810): this baked brioche with pineapple (theatrically spit-roast in the view of the punters) was a bravura performance. Our other dessert, Taffety Tart (1660) – which includes rose, fennel, lemon and blackcurrant – was undoubedly ‘different’, but something of a love-it-or-hate-it affair.
If one were looking to criticise, coffee, for around £4 a cup, was good but no more. This was also true of the white bread which was no better than you’d find in many gastropubs. (The brown was more interesting.)
And while we’re being picky, why is the china from Germany? And where are the English wines? Still under consideration apparently. Still? And the real ales, ciders and perries of Old England? Apparently, these definitely are ‘coming soon’.
And finally, as humble vegetables must have largely sustained this island nation for much of its history, surely the vast brigade of chefs might have plundered the market gardens of Olde England to find more than four, ultra-basic vegetable options – apart from spuds, the choices boil down to ‘carrots’ or ‘cabbage’!
These are, however, essentially quibbles. This is a worthwhile addition to London, over which The Fat Duck’s chef has wafted an admirable sprinkling of inspiration. And it’s reasonably enough priced… by the standards of Knightsbridge hotels.
In the long run, though, it’s not at all clear that, in the longer term, the waves of hype currently washing over the place are really doing the chef – or the restaurant – any favours at all.