Tuesday, 2 June 2009
Launceston Place, Kensington
I'm not a fan of many of the food shows on TV. This is largely because not many of them are really about food - Come Dine With Me, although wildly popular, is really just a reality TV concept where the eating is secondary to gimmicks, The Hairy Bakers is a show made purely because someone at the BBC likes the title, and Ready Steady Cook has Antony Worrall Thompson in it. But I have been hooked to the recent series of Great British Menu, a show where top chefs from all over the UK cook dishes loosely based on the theme of "A Taste of Home", competing for a chance to serve at a banquet laid on for returning servicemen and women from Afghanistan. There are plenty of things wrong with the show - the endless repeats and recaps, the pointless hyping of non-existent tensions in the kitchen, and of course Jennie "Bloody" Bond, but the food is stunning.
Competing on behalf of the South East was Tristan Welch, who although impressing the judges with two of his dishes (An asparagus and egg starter, and a Mr. Whippy style ice cream dessert) failed to get anything on the banquet menu. But the British Army's loss is Kensington's gain, and I'm sure Tristan returned to his restaurant Launceston Place with his head held high. Sure enough, he was there to greet diners as they arrived to this spectacularly pretty part of London last night, and I'm sure his presence in the kitchen contributed to the very accomplished dinner I had.
After a glass of superb house champagne (didn't quite catch the exact bottle but it was a Roederer) in the bar, accompanied by homemade chilli crisps fashioned into a bracelet and tied together with black ribbon (very smart), we were shown to our table. As with any good restaurant, there's nothing I wouldn't have eaten across any of the a la carte or set menus, but as I was in the mood for celebrating I went off-piste and ordered from the slightly more expensive a la carte rather than the £35 Toptable menu. First to arrive however was an amuse of warm cauliflower soup topped with truffle and crème fraîche.
This was delicious. The crème fraîche floated over the warm soup so that when, as advised by the waiter, you sipped from the glass, the truffle aroma filled your nostrils as the cauliflower slipped down your throat with soothing intensity. Everything you'd want from an amuse, and although cauliflower soup as an amuse is hardly an earth-shattering revelation (see The Square, Andaman, Foliage, etc.), when it's done as well as this you can't really complain.
My starter was "Drunken quail flambé with hazelnut". The brandy-poached quail fillets were brought out to be shown to me before they returned to the kitchen for cooking. This was unnecessary and actually quite off-putting, as they were rather unattractive in this state - grey and swollen like pickled lambs tongues. When they returned, post-flambé and dressed, they looked better, but they really could have benefitted from a nice crispy skin instead of the wobbly grey membrane lurking beneath the jus. They were also quite bitter, possibly from some of the brandy not being burned off. The hazelnut foams and chunks were very tasty but it didn't really add up to a satisfying whole. A bit of a misfire this one, although I can see what they are trying to do.
Better - in fact, significantly better - was my friend's ironic "Egg and cress sandwich", a near copy of the version Tristan did for GBM, which was as visually stunning as it was fresh and tasty. Lovely powerful asparagus, fresh and light mayonnaise and slow-cooked egg yolks, threaded with salty cured ham. Top stuff.
My main course consisted of rose veal, sweetbreads, nettles(!) and pickled mushrooms. Again, clearly taking more than a nod from similar dishes I've eaten at The Square, it was none the worse for it, using gorgeous silky veal and nice enough sweetbreads flavoured I think with some sort of Indian spice - perhaps garam masala? The nettles were, perhaps fortunately, barely in evidence but the plate was shot through with delicate slices of melba toast. This was an exciting and robustly flavoured plate of food and I enjoyed it a great deal.
The other main course was less successful. Tamworth suckling pig would have been more acceptable if they had simply chosen leaner cuts of meat. There was so much gloopy fat rolled inside these medallions of pork that eating them was a struggle, and with the fat removed there was very little left. The boiled radishes were lovely and scented and subtle, but really couldn't save it.
Pre-dessert, and another slightly modified Great British Menu entry. Tristan has apparently kept the same instant ice-cream machine he used on the show and is still making the lovely Rhubarb and Crumble Mr. Whippy style ice creams, although these were served in plastic cones rather than the proper waffle cones. Still, they were very nice and came with a fruit liqueur to be sucked up using the straw. Oh and a great big lump of carved driftwood - always a treat.
My dessert proper was a very light rhubarb cheesecake and a decent blob of fresh clotted cream (I think). Nice enough on its own but the highlight was an extraordinarily concentrated swoosh of strawberry jammy purée thing, scattered with toffee. My friend's dessert was even better - an impossibly light rice pudding soufflé, served with a perfect little jar of raspberry ice cream. Delicious.
The cheese course (£8 supplement) was commendably 100% British Isles (that includes Ireland apparently). I tried a small selection of new cheeses, including a lovely soft pungent variety called Milleens from South West Ireland, and a gorgeous spongy sheep's milk cheese from East Sussex. It was no surprise to learn that both of these were unpasturised, and I shall keep my eyes open for them.
So yes, there were mistakes and misfires but it is somehow these little slips that make the whole experience at Launceston Place all the more charming. A kitchen innovating and creating to such a high degree as here are bound to mess up occasionally, and how much better to be unpredictable and occasionally brilliant than reliably middle-of-the-road. Behind the rollercoaster of a ride that is having a meal at Launceston Place is a kitchen, and a head chef, cooking with intelligence and unbridled enthusiasm.