Under its new chef, this well-established Knightsbridge dining room could well regain its former greatness; our lunchtime visit, however, suffered from a portion control some might have thought excessive.
Ping! An email arrives from a leading PR firm, suggesting we review a restaurant that’s just (in one fell swoop) managed the rare achievement of losing not one but two Michelin stars (albeit with the good excuse of the departure of its long-term chef). Full marks for chutzpah!
But not such a bad idea, really. Under our own steam – resisting the PR’s kind ‘can we book you in’ blandishment – we’d already been intending to check out the result of one of London’s most important recent chef changes of recent times.
Not been following the excitement? Well, in his self-effacing way, former chef Eric Chavot had for many years been one of London’s most reliable top toques. Last year, however, he decided he’d just ‘had enough’.
Immediately after his departure, such reports as we received on the Capital were not happy. Recently, however, Jerome Ponchelle has taken over the stoves. He comes with a fine pedigree from the Connaught (in Michel Bourdin’s day) via a long stint at gentleman’s club-meets-restaurant Wilton’s.
The ill-proportioned Knightsbridge dining room which is now his home is probably better looking than it ever has been in the past – if you’re stuck with the proportions of a lofty railway carriage, comfortable neutrality is probably the best you can hope for, and that’s been successfully achieved here.
Located just 100 yards from Harrods, the space is small, so one has to assume that the aim is to push the establishment back to the two-star level, which is to say one of the top 10 restaurants in town. How else to make economic sense of a pocket-handkerchief-sized venture in a location like that?
At this level, of course, small is (potentially) beautiful. You’re never going to hit real gastronomic heights in a restaurant that’s very much bigger than Gordon Ramsay, say, and the capacity here can only be half that of Royal Hospital Road. On our visit in the relatively early days of the new régime, even this smaller space was hardly full: two of us doubled the number of lunch guests.
In deference to the times, we both ordered the set lunch (traditionally, here, one of the bargains of London). It is a nicely balanced affair, with three courses (£33) offering three choices at each. The wine list – though it can scale the heights if you want to – also offers some sensible suggestions around the £25 mark.
We were taken aback to find that the first food to arrive at our table was the first course we had ordered. Yes, this is a restaurant we assume to be of the highest ambition which feels that it can dispense with the amuse-bouche!
Brave or foolhardy? Well, much as one hates to buy into the idées reÃ§ues of dining Ã la Michelin, it did feel odd. And there weren’t any inter-courses either. Isn’t the point of these ‘bargain’ lunches – ours ended up costing around £125 for two – that the chef shows you what he can really do?
This lack of inter-courses might have mattered less if it were not for the fact that the dishes actually served really are on the dainty side. A bowl of lobster velouté came with the three of the advertised ravioli (of standard packet size) – very delicious’ but served in a bowl so small that the modest amount of liquid which could be accommodated felt more like a dressing than a soup.
Main courses similarly showed the high professionalism of the kitchen, but again a tendency to excessive lightness. If we’d eaten one of the main courses (a light and flaky vegetable pastry) as a prelude to the other (rich and satisfying oxtail) we don’t think we’d have felt over-full.
The obvious solution? To pig out on the treacle tart – homage, presumably, Ã Wilton’s? Pastry and treacle can’t be that expensive? Well, the portion – most obviously described as a ‘sliver’ – turned out to be perhaps a sixth of what John Bull might have expected.
Indeed, the only dish of the entire meal that was in any way generous was the very good plÃ¢teau de fromages (supplément). Even the petits fours – a ‘freebie’ at last! – were tiny.
So we emerged with slightly mixed feelings. The food here is undoubtedly very good, elegant and attractively presented’ so it really is a shame you might just feel the need to go for a restorative McD afterwards.