Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Tom Aikens, Chelsea
I never visited the "old", pre-refurbished/relaunched Tom Aikens. I believe he once held two Michelin stars at Pied a Terre, which whatever your thoughts on Michelin (and I have many) is impressive, and I can only suppose you have to possess a certain amount of nouse to run three (as far as I know) successful restaurants. Other than this I had few preconceptions about his ability as a chef; what I do have preconceptions about is this. In 2008, finding himself owing a large sum of money to a number of small producers (the true amount is still unknown but thought to be a good deal over £100,000), Aikens exploited a legal but morally questionable loophole in the way restaurants interact with their suppliers, declared himself bankrupt and carried on trading under a different company name. Many of those suppliers suffered greatly, some even went under, and the damage done to his reputation was incalculable.
His PR team must wince every time the bankruptcy gets brought up but however much I'd prefer not to open old wounds, the fact is that the actions of Aikens the man have a nasty habit of overshadowing anything coming out of his restaurants' kitchens. If you put your name in lights above the door, you surely must expect that extra scrutiny, but it's surprising just how strong the feelings he excites still are - the briefest of mentions on Twitter that I was headed to Aikens' eponymous restaurant in Chelsea provoked a flurry of angry links to the Telegraph article above; clearly this is a man who continues to divide opinion.
So that's the backstory. The latest chapter, or so they'd like you to believe, is that Tom Aikens has humbled-up and gone "more informal". In terms of the decor this means goodbye to the old starched white linen and soft furnishings and hello to bare wooden tables and stencilled quotes about food on the walls, but more interesting is what's happened to the food. Perhaps mindful (or jealous!) of the attention lavished on the new wave of London restaurants like Roganic and the Young Turks, the new menu leans away from classical French and towards foraging, British ingredients and arty, Noma-style presentation. Lovely fresh house bread was presented with three types of butter (our favourite had bacon bits in it, rather Viajante-like) and a tray of canapés, once they arrived (we were sat 35 minutes before any solid food arrived, but service settled down a bit after that) were universally admired, particularly a stunning teeny bowl of duck and truffle soup.
Raw turnip salad with chestnuts was light and fresh, although I could have done with more of the buttery chestnut paste smeared around the side of the plate and less of the fairly bland vegetable consommé poured on top. There was plenty of texture here, even some chunks of savoury jelly floating around, but this was in the end one of those "filler" vegetarian courses and not really strong enough to stand up in its own right.
Roast foie gras with thyme sabayon and smoked onions was much more successful, in fact I can barely remember a better cooked piece of cruelly-force-fed goose liver. The ethereally-light foie, which dissolved in the mouth like hot butter, was served with crunchy charcoal-blackened onions, a pairing which brought out the absolute best in everything on the plate. I loved this; if nothing else, the guy certainly knows what to do with foie gras.
Roast langoustine was a tad dry perhaps but a green slick of powerful herb mayonnaise made up for it; there was also a dusting of Can Roca-style prawn powder for a bit of extra interest.
I was looking forward to seeing if turbot with chicken skin would work - it certainly sounded interesting - but I'm afraid I'm still in the dark as this course was disastrously overcooked and dry. There could be a number of reasons for this but prime culprit is the appearance of AA Gill at a table for four in the corner; staff were struck with such abject terror we actually noticed them shaking. Anyway perhaps turbot and chicken skin is a brilliant and brave combination, or perhaps it isn't. Who knows.
Next, a lovely pink cube of Romney Lamb was served with a blob of tangy ewe's cheese and a battered anchovy. This was a clever take on the famous lamb and anchovy combo, and I rather enjoyed it despite the lamb being slightly on the tough side.
Having spotted it lurking on the menu I admit to fretting about the beetroot dessert - yes that's "beetroot" and "dessert" - for most of the meal, and it turns out my fears were quite well founded. I'm all for experimentation and pushing the boundaries of modern British cuisine, but trying to make a meringue out of beetroot is, I'm afraid, not the future. It was very odd, in fact I'd go so far as to say deeply unpleasant, and all the more psychologically distressing because due to the colour of it you kept hoping it was raspberry or blackberry you were eating, and not root vegetables. Full marks for seasonality I guess, but where will it end? Turnip sorbet? Brussel sprout pavlova? Cabbage pannacotta?
Petits fours were decent - a generous selection of chocolate covered things in a cute vintage OXO cube box, and incredibly citrusy jelly pieces in a separate little metal tin - but not really anything to set the pulse racing. More beetroot meringues were lurking amongst the bits and pieces but we studiously avoided them.
What's clear is that Tom Aikens (or at least someone at Tom Aikens) can cook; there were enough highlights - although only just - in this very variable meal to prove that. And it's entirely possible that, having had a life-changing meal at Roganic (they generally are) or Noma he had some kind of Damascene conversion and decided from now on it's all about foraging, unusual vegetables and savoury desserts. But I can't shake the niggling feeling that this most wiley of restaurateurs' attempts to reinvent himself as a trailblazing champion of Nordic cuisine is less about where his talents really lie and more about good PR. It was the more recognisably French and Haute Cuisine moments in the meal (the stunning foie gras, the lamb and anchovy) that worked, and the more obviously outside-influenced ones (the turnip salad, the beetroot dessert) that didn't. But the staff were lovely, the newly rustic interiors are impressive and despite everything that wasn't perfect, we did enjoy ourselves. And perhaps you will, too. Just avoid the beetroot dessert.
I was invited to review Tom Aikens