Monday, 9 March 2009
Never has the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" been more appropriate than when applied to One-O-One seafood restaurant in Knightsbridge. In this genteel part of town, over the road from the stately, baroque Mandarin Oriental and next door to the clean bright lines of Harvey Nichols department store, squats the ugly grey edifice of the Sheraton Park Tower hotel, its mould-stained pods stacked up like breeze blocks, blocking out the sun and casting a depressing dirty shadow over Hyde Park. It is largely this reason that I've taken so long to visit, because despite various excellent reviews by people who eat out much more than I do, it requires quite a leap of faith that anywhere could serve anything worth eating in such a hideous building. But if anyone can, self-confessed seafood obsessive and head chef Pascal Proyart can. Amazingly, Proyart joined One-O-One a full nine years ago, and yet it seems to be only very recently that the restaurant is being spoken about as a destination. And ever on the cutting edge of restaurant trends in London, I visited last Friday.
It is a blessed relief, not to mention more or less a requirement, that One-O-One is much, much prettier inside than out. You enter into a large, crescent-shaped bar with a fancy glass table centrepiece. To the right of the bar, containing plush comfy chairs and attractive spot lit wood-panelled walls, is the restaurant itself - by no means a large room but with well-spaced tables and the atmosphere of a luxury cruise liner. Service is almost perfect - friendly without being obsequious, efficient without being snooty. Our party, as is often the case due to a combination of the London traffic and London weather, arrived in drips and drabs before 7pm but this didn't faze the staff at all and everyone's food arrived at once despite the orders being staggered somewhat.
One-O-One does have a traditional 3-course A La Carte menu, but the done thing is to go for their 'Petits Plats' selection - you choose from 3 to 6 small courses (no prizes for guessing how many I went for) and, in a clever bit of organisation, it's possible for each person on the table to have a different number of courses. This is quite unusual for what amounts to a tasting menu, and yet I don't remember anyone ever obviously "sitting out" a course despite everyone ordering different numbers. Full marks to the front of house on this one.
House bread is served with a choice of normal unsalted butter and an extraordinary salty seaweed-infused butter that looked like a Walnut Whip. It seemed to split the diners on our table down the middle, with some people relishing in the fishy flavours and others being not so sure. I loved it.
Amuse was a rather forgettable fish mousse of some sort topped with salmon roe. Fine, but considering this is the only dish of the entire evening that the kitchen is pushing onto you without you asking for it, you'd think they'd have free reign to do something a bit experimental - after all if you don't like it you can hardly ask for your money back. As it turns out I need not have worried that chef Proyart was playing it safe, judging by what was to follow.
First of my selected petit plats was three cute little columns of the most unbelievably sweet and silky King Crab leg meat, served alongside a perfectly judged sharp hit of pickled winkles to cut through the crab. It was everything you'd want from a dish - honest, strong flavours from premium ingredients, cooked sensitively and with skill, and with a master's sense of balance of flavour. Full marks.
Next up, a little stack of lobster meat and celeriac (a great combination), a couple of presentations of apple, and a samosa (they called it a "pastilla") containing more of that gorgeous sweet crab meat. Amusingly, they first served this dish without the sorbet, and after I pointed it out whipped it away and brought it back con sorbet and rotated 180 degrees to try and make it look like a new plate of food. I didn't mind though, as the samosa was still hot and the service otherwise had been so superb. There were others who had this dish that evening who thought there was a bit too much going on here, what with the sorbet AND the jelly AND the hot samosa AND the lobster salad. But I thought it was just ambitious enough, and a very attractive plate of food to boot.
Pan-Fried Scottish Scallops were unfortunately slightly disappointing. The scallops themselves were tiny and although of high quality and sweet, there wasn't enough of them to cut through the big slabs of oily preserved truffle they were lumped with. Also the foie gras was quite dry and "liver-y", and although it may seem odd to criticize liver for being too "liver-y", proper seared foie should be buttery and sweet and rich and not taste like one half of liver and onions. A good dish conceptually, let down by ingredients and execution I think.
Slow Roasted Pheasant with (more) Foie Gras & Pancetta was much better. The pheasant had amazing texture, melt-in-your-mouth buttery-ness and great, deep flavour. A little accompanying endive charlotte topped with trompette mushrooms was slightly tough but had been cooked just enough to rid it of the bitterness without it turning into sludge, and a chestnut purée offset the whole thing quite nicely. A little messy in presentation perhaps but otherwise top notch Michelin cooking.
The last of the savoury courses, a medallion of beef fillet steak with a burgundy sauce, was again very good. The beef was clearly of very high quality and tasted strongly of cow (amazing how many don't), the rich sauce guiding and complimenting the meat instead of smothering it. More of those trompette mushrooms and a couple of cubes of roast potato provided vegetation. As with the King Crab and the pheasant, One-O-One knows when to let the superb ingredients shine through, and the star of the show in this dish was the meat.
Dessert was a very attractive bowl of day-glo apple sorbet and chunks of apple, served in a light pink blackberry froth. It tasted how you'd imagine apple and blackberry to taste - nice enough but little more than a glorified fruit salad. Very pretty though, isn't it?
A few very pleasant petit fours arrived to offset the shock of the bill. One-O-One is a proper haute-cuisine restaurant, and despite the 50% off the food offer (thank you Topable), I still managed to get through the best part of £100 just on my own. Having said that, we had plenty of very nice wine (the list is pretty eclectic), a glass of champagne to start and a lovely peaty Lagavullin 16 to finish, and I can honestly say that I felt the price I paid was very fair. Good food very rarely comes cheap, and these ingredients in particular - King Crab, lobster, black truffle (albeit preserved), foie gras - never do. And on top of these flashy ingredients you get sparkling service, glamorous surroundings and seven or eight superbly constructed courses of probably the best seafood in London. All you need to do is ignore the concrete monstrosity outside on top of it, and you'll have yourself a wonderful evening.