Some people - the irritating gits - are born over-achievers. Normally the CV and career path of chefs is of little interest to anyone other than the most obsessive restaurant geek (that would be me, then), but how the Ledbury came about is a glowing tribute to the talents of one of our most exciting young cooks. Brett Graham arrived in this country (according to my sources) in 2000. Two years later, he had won Young Chef of the Year. Three years after that, he opened the Ledbury, which this year won two Michelin stars. Not only that, but Graham's other project, a little pub in Fulham you may have heard of called the Harwood Arms, itself won a Michelin star. He's still only 30 years old. The utter bastard.
Graham famously learned his trade at Mayfair's The Square, under a chef with a proven track record of churning out Michelin-starred protegés, Philip Howard. In my ignorance, I was expecting the Ledbury to be a kind of Square Lite, showcasing some of the familiar Howard dishes but with less of the polish and sophistication than the mothership, which has after all been going since the early 90s. What I wasn't expecting was dish after dish of love, sparkle and invention, with a style and personality all of its own, and a front of house as charming and professional as any in the city.
Unusually for this blog, I had been to the Ledbury before but hadn't blogged about it, leaving that task in Hollow Legs' very capable hands. Lizzie's own love affair with the Ledbury began at Taste of London 2009, and with the famous ash-baked celeriac followed by a heavenly summer fruits bellini - Taste may be overcrowded, overpriced and very bad at PR, but for introducing us to this remarkable restaurant a handful of greedy bloggers will be forever grateful. But enough reminiscing; onto The Ledbury 2010.
An amuse of some kind of taramasalata (sorry but if it's not on the menu and I have to rely on my particularly useless powers of recall, then this is the best you're going to get) on a crispy strip of filo (I think) pastry was a pleasant enough start. I've never really had an amuse anything more than pleasant, but then perhaps that's the point - to get your tastebuds going without overshadowing any of the other dishes.
First course from the tasting menu proper (what the hell, you only live once) was a scallop cerviche with horseradish "snow". If you're thinking that sounds a bit too fancy-pants and twee to deliver on flavour, then you couldn't be more wrong; sweet fresh scallops were topped with acidic, spicy frozen horseradish and dressed with an intensely-flavoured dill pesto. It was one of those plates of food that delivered in spades in every department; delightful texture contrasts, intelligently balanced flavours, good use of the deep freeze. Simply brilliant.
Next a clever squid 'risotto' - not a risotto at all in fact, but pieces of squid flesh chopped up to the size of grains of rice in some kind of cream/stock sauce, garnished with a cauliflower foam (I'll forgive them this frippery) and sherry reduction. Bringing to mind the Sportsman's deconstructed crab risotto back in October, it was nevertheless a unique dish, showcasing a both a mastery of texture and flavour and experimentation without sacrificing straightforward pleasure of eating.
The flame-grilled mackerel was up there with the scallop cerviche as the standout dish of our meal on Saturday. How they had managed to get a fragile, smoky char-grilled skin on this tiny cube of fresh mackerel whilst keeping the flesh at the base ever so slightly pink is astonishing. Served with it was a cute little tube (made from some kind of translucent noodle or pasta) of cured mackerel and shiso. Yet another brilliant course.
These three crispy on the outside, moist within cubes of monkfish were served with a shockingly green sauce made from padron peppers. Accompanying the fish was a cylinder of dense (I think) potato fondant, or if it wasn't fondant it was a very very tasty and densely textured boiled potato. There wasn't a single element of any dish which wasn't carefully considered and in perfect harmony with the other ingredients, and each mouthful was a little voyage of discovery.
Doing to tiny cubes of chicken what they had very successfully done to tiny cubes of chargrilled mackerel, these were delicately flavoured, tender and with a good crispy skin. They were served with white asparagus and a creamy morel sauce, which had an astonishing rich flavour and was very attractively presented. The worst you could say about this plate of food is that chicken and mushrooms is hardly an earth-shattering match, but it's a testament to the invention and playfulness on display that this more straightforward assembly of ingredients still made an impression. A sprig of thyme hidden under a delicately seasoned milk skin showed a sense of humour and rounded off the complimentary flavours perfectly.
Last of the savoury courses was a piece of 24-hour slow cooked lamb, lovely and crispy outside and - it almost goes without saying - tender and pink within. Whilst the lamb was as good as you could hope for, it was served with a truly exceptional slice of miso aubergine, almost meaty in its richness. I hadn't previously considered myself an aubergine fan, but this one element of this one dish was perhaps the most revelatory moment in the whole meal. Turns out I did like aubergines after all, I just needed Brett Graham to cook them for me. Who knew?
So to desserts. It seems the relatively low key of the savoury amuse doesn't apply to the pre-dessert course, as this strawberry concoction was delicious. There were a number of different elements to it, but because they're not detailed on the menu I don't have a flipping clue what most of them were. There were chunks of fresh strawberries, some strawberry jelly and a teeny blob of strawberry ice cream, I think. Yeah, that'll do.
Caramelised banana galette with peanut ice cream was, if not anywhere near approaching a duff note, just slightly less exciting than the others. It tasted as good as caramel and bananas and peanut ice cream ever would, but there wasn't really anything extraordinary in terms of invention or technique. This is the problem with getting spoiled so much earlier in the meal - as soon as anything merely good comes along it can't help being a disappointment.
It wasn't just the food on the table that made this lunch one of the more memorable in recent years. Service from everyone, from the friendly sommellier who didn't flinch in the slightest when asked to recommend "something cheap", to the charming maitre d' who recognised us from our one visit nearly six months ago, was everything you could ask for. A world apart from the in-your-face over-familiarity of Bistrot Bruno Loubet a few days ago, these guys were smart, professional, discreet and efficient, a virtual masterclass in perfect service. A casual enquiry as to whether Graham was in the kitchen that day led to an invitation to meet the man himself at work, and so downstairs we trooped, to offer our embarassingly effusive feedback on the meal and even try a couple of mouthfuls of a la carte desserts (a clever violet-flavoured sorbet, and a superb honey soufflé with thyme ice cream). Graham is, depressingly inevitably, charming and eloquent, talking us through the techniques he used to produce the clever flame-grilling effect on the mackerel (cooked above the flames on a kind of thin frame which allows the oil to drip off and make a nice crispy skin) and promising to bring back that summer berry and hibiscus bellini if we gave him "enough notice" on our next visit.
Far from setting up a Square Mark II and gunning for Michelin stars using the tried and tested recipes of his old boss, Brett Graham's food at the Ledbury is unique - as characterful and intelligently experimental, and most importantly delicious, as any other restaurant in London, even the Square which (whisper it) almost seems slightly po-faced and dated in comparison. Some of the most exciting food I've had the pleasure to eat, by a chef at the top of his game, running his own two Michelin starred kitchen, and a throughly nice (and, Lizzie would like me to add, rather dishy) chap into the bargain. And did I mention he's only 30? The utter, utter bastard.
Photos are Lizzie's. She did the work so that I didn't have to.