Much improved by a general ‘loosening up’, an eminent dining room offers unusually intriguing and tasty dishes in a setting of almost Scandinavian understatement; the set lunch (as so often in Chelsea) is a bargain well worth seeking out.
What a great job you have! Well, how hard can it be drifting round restaurants, and scribbling a few words down about it afterwards? Not that hard, obviously. But nor is it quite the unmitigated joy many people seem to imagine. Yes, it’s always nice to be fed, but the number of places you feel you’ve had an experience which is in any way special is, in truth, pretty small.
The joy of finding such a place is also, of course, greater if the discovery is to some extent unexpected. Not to say that Tom Aikens hasn’t already shown he can be a great chef – we still remember a wonderful lunch we had, almost a decade ago, at his original restaurant on this site.
But there have always been negatives too. His presentation has always been a bit Michelin-pleasing, with dishes teetering on the brink of being over-wrought. The former décor never quite ‘worked’ either. And there have been lacklustre spin-offs (successful as some of them have commercially been). Then there was that little difficulty with the suppliers’
But, hey, here he is, dusted down, with new Turkish backers, and with a new look and feel. The tonality of the dining room is dark, but the look is now understated and informal, with well-spaced tables and comfortable chairs – all very agreeable, in a slightly Scandinavian way. In accordance with the general loosening up, the staff from the former régime, mainly charming Frenchmen, now wear jeans – clean and pressed Chelsea-style jeans, but jeans nonetheless. They seem to have benefited from their liberation.
We’ve saved the best till last, though. Two of us tasted everything from the lunchtime menu, and had one of the most innovative and most enjoyable meals we can remember having in London, or anywhere else for that matter, for a very long time. There was almost nothing which was not a delight, from the choice of bread with the choice of butters with which the meal began, to the generous and perfectly ripe cheese selection and the artistically-presented range of petits-fours at the end – a meal with as much variety and interest as anyone could reasonably want (and all for £29 a head).
In between were starters of squid consommé with squid (cooked sous-vide), and a salad of pickled mushrooms with sourdough toast, and main courses of poached cabbage (with smoked bone marrow and poached bacon) and roast John Dory. Only this last dish failed to evoke total satisfaction, but it – like everything else – was presented with style and wit.
Our only slight concern? We may – already – have had our best meal of 2012.