Monday, 12 July 2010
One of the many great things about the Ledbury (yes I know I'm slightly obsessed with the place and do keep going on about it but bear with me) is that despite the fancy-pants multiple-Michelin-starred food and gleaming service you never feel like you're trespassing in a hallowed temple of gastronomy; eating in the buzzy, spacious room and dealing with the affable staff is easy and comfortable, and the emphasis seems to be on having a good time rather than silently noting the chef's plating skills. It may seem like an obvious goal for a restaurant to create an atmosphere which if not exactly informal then is at least relaxed, but I'm often surprised how even rather mediocre restaurants seem to want to flatter their chef's ego by turning the experience front of house into a solemn, stately parade. It's quite old fashioned, and of course completely counter-productive.
It's frustrating, then, and not a little puzzling, that Alexis Gauthier has decided the best way to enjoy his (often very nice indeed) food is in a silent and stuffy space with all the atmosphere of an awkward afternoon's tea in a rich relative's front room. That the tables were quite close together is understandable in such an odd building never designed to be a restaurant, but that I could hear every single word of every other diner's conversation all evening is less excusable. I'm not the world's biggest fan of piped music but if the alternative is having to be careful every time I put down my bread knife in case the 'ting' of contact with the tableware turned angry heads from the other tables, then I say bring on the muzak. In self-conscious whispers, and mainly to avoid broadcasting our food preferences to the entire room, I and my dinner date ordered four courses of the chef's choosing and hoped that none of it would be too noisy.
The amuses were a mixed bunch. Discs of melon wrapped with Parma ham were pleasant if a bit too knowingly 80s, and mini bruschetta were fine. But some (I think) chickpea 'chips' reeked of horrible old oil, and it was only as these were placed on the table that I realised it was the same smell that permeated the hallway and stairs of the restaurant. Smelling of a high street chippy isn't the greatest start for a restaurant aiming for the heights of gastronomy.
This teeny pile of fresh crab meat and beetroot purée topped with wild mushrooms and nuts was pretty good, and to be fair a generous second extra course on only the £45 four-course menu. At this point though, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Fortunately that creeping doubt was answered with the arrival of these lovely scallops, crunchy outside and juicy within, showcasing expert timing and a pleasant and unpretentious presentation. I loved the scattering of buttery girolles mushrooms, and a couple of streaks of some kind of tangy pesto added balance as well as colour. It's the kind of dish that on some level you expect from restaurants like this, but was none the worse for that.
Standards continued their upward curve with the arrival of this gorgeous summer truffle risotto. A generous layer of shaved fungus covered a prudent portion of creamy rice and the whole thing was steeped in some kind of pork jus. Like the Chinese Sichuanese, Gauthier have sensibly decided there are few dishes that can't be improved with the addition of pig, and though I suppose it could be considered unusual to add pork to what would otherwise be a classic vegetarian truffle risotto, there were no complaints from me.
Roasted Guinea Fowl in a Pot (to give it its full title) doesn't sound like the most interesting concept, and the way it had been dumped on the plate was rustic bordering on careless, but the flavours in the lovely moist meat and rich silky sauce were wonderful. If was going to pick holes I suppose I could say that a crispy skin on the bird would have been nice, but then that's probably counter to the traditional French pot-roasting method and I didn't miss it that much anyway. The kind of dish that reminds you just how good French food can be.
Pre-dessert was some kind of summer berry compote. In case you're wondering, it arrived just like this, with a berry stain up the side and looking like someone's leftovers. Tasted OK though.
Dessert was the biggest disappointment of the evening, not because it was the worst tasting (not much could top those awful chickpea chips) but because the Louis XV is a signature dish of Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and has been hyped from various quarters as the greatest chocolate pudding on the planet. Don't get me wrong, it was perfectly fine, but it mostly just tasted of cold chocolate fondant, and the base was so tough I had to use both hands and drive my spoon down with all my weight just to cut into it. Either I'm missing something critical or the pastry chef was having an off night, but I wasn't at all impressed.
While not groundbreaking in style or content, there's no doubt that Gauthier is a worthy addition to the motley collection of bars and restaurants of Soho, and it would be very mean to dismiss the food there based just on the rather staid and uncomfortable atmosphere in its upstairs dining room. But the hushed reverence asked of its diners combined with the competent but hardly ambitious menu speaks of a restaurant which exists largely to please the inspectors from Michelin - and by proxy the ego of its head chef - rather than the average punter. In my geeky foodie way I've ticked off Gauthier from the list, had a decent enough meal and didn't spend a fortune, so I don't have too many complaints. However, I equally can't see myself hurrying to return, and perhaps that tells you everything you need to know.
EDIT: It has come to my attention (thank you @marinametro and @applelisafood) that the risotto actually came with chicken jus and not pork. Apologies for this error, but I still think it would have been even better with pork, so my point kind of still stands...