There was a time when hotel restaurants in London had a deservedly appalling reputation. Even the flashiest hotels seemed to not consider having a decent restaurant to be a prority, so you ended up with bland, corporate rooms serving bland, corporate food to bland, corporate diners. Nowadays, a great number of the Michelin-starred establishments in London are affiliated with hotels, although very often this affiliation stretches no further than the hiring of the floorspace - Claridges Bar, for example, cannot transfer your tab to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant only a few steps away. "They are totally separate institutions," a waiter told me at the time. So with the new Ducasse at the Dorchester doing its best to turn back the image of London hotel restaurants twenty years (just read the reviews), I am eternally grateful for Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, which is probably the best food I've eaten all year.
Notice I was careful to say the "food" was the best I've had all year in that last paragraph. For unfortunately although the operation in the kitchen was as polished and brilliant as I've almost ever seen, the youthful front of house seemed inexperienced and out of place for a restaurant tipped for a 2nd Michelin Star next year. To mention just a few specifics - we waited a good 15 minutes before even been offered drinks or given the menu, and nobody greeted us as we were seated. There was very often a long wait between courses, and our 4-course menu took from 7:30pm until nearly 11pm to get through. And one of the waitresses repeatedly referred to one of my male friends as "she", although to be fair I often make that mistake too.
But in the context of the food at Foliage, all of these things blend into insignificance. Nibbles of spectacular strands of herby breadsticks came with a creamy cheese and onion dip and a startling smokey aubergine mousse, which was commendably experimental but so smokey it was a bit like eating coal. Even so, most seemed to enjoy it.
Next was a pre-starter of tomato mousse and crab meat, which despite being composed of very similar ingredients as the hideous concoction at Trinity, managed to get the balance of flavours just right and was a light and fluffy palatte cleanser with fantastically fresh crab meat. By this point I was already convinced of the skills of the kitchen, and just had my fingers crossed the standards would continue.
Sweetbreads with polenta didn't disappoint. I have ranted before about polenta, how it's literally one of the cheapest things to buy wholesale and every restaurant in London seems to be playing some sort of game to see how much they can get away charging for it. But this was a really lovely plate of food; the sweetbreads were moist and tasty and the polenta made a perfect accompaniment. However what I really noticed about this dish were the tiny bits of green leaf, a flavour I could not place but so fresh and strong they provided a taste hit in themselves as well as adding colour. They looked like mini sprigs of coriander but I'm pretty sure they weren't. Could they have been mustard shoots?
The seafood course was another astonishing success. Sorry about the poor photo but I was probably overwhelmed by the gorgeous smells rising from my plate and couldn't hold my hands still. Absolutely perfectly cooked scallops with one or two tiny cep mushrooms bursting with flavour, sitting on top of the most cauliflowery cauliflower puree I've ever known. Like the preceeding course, each element of the dish was perfectly prepared and served in a way so as to complement the others exactly. It's incredibly satisfying to be able to identify each component ingredient and yet to have them work together so well.
But just as I was gearing myself to declare this the best food of my entire life, I'm afraid Foliage slipped up a bit with my beef main. The presentation, the preparation and the execution of this plate of food was as faultless as the others, but somehow the beef itself was completely bland and tasted of nothing. A huge disappointment, as with better meat this would have been a sublime dish; as it was, it was only just good.
Before the dessert came a little palette cleanser of grapefruit foamy thing. Sorry I can't go into more detail, I'd had a few glasses of wine by this point, the waitress' accent was very strong and she'd just called my mate "she" again so I was probably stifling chuckles.
I noticed that "Calvados Souffle" with Sea Salt Caramel sounded remarkably similar to the excellent dessert I'd had at Pearl a few weeks ago, and thought that if those flavours worked so well together Foliage couldn't go far wrong either. As it turned out, this dessert turned out to be even better than that at Pearl, being both beautiful to look at and technically expert in execution. A good souffle is not an easy thing to pull off, but I can honestly say the flavours in each (lamentably brief) mouthful were breathtaking. And look at that sorbet - the waitress specifically mentioned that we were supposed to eat it, as she'd had a few diners thinking it was so perfect it must be artificial. I don't doubt her.
After a few best-forgotten chocolate experiments (chocolate, balasmic vinegar and salt? Er, no thanks) we finally persuaded them to bring us the bill, of which my share was £135. Not cheap of course, but this included a couple of the cocktails from the bar and enough wine so really wasn't too bad. And problems with service aside there wasn't a diner on my table of six that was anything less than very impressed with their meal. I've been to a few of these Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide and despite the usually high standards you tend to see the same ingredients and cooking techniques trotted out again and again. Not a bad thing, but you often get the impression the kitchen are aiming over your head to the Michelin judges - it can feel impersonal. This however is precise, direct cooking, somehow both haute cuisine and refreshingly unpretentious, and you leave with the impression that Foliage is genuinely trying to appeal directly to you, allowing you the privilege of understanding and relating to the ingredients on your plate while at the same time serving them in a way that surpasses your expectations. In short, Foliage is special.