Tuesday, 20 May 2014
Chiltern Firehouse, Marylebone
You'd think after all the years I've been blogging about restaurants in London I'd be numb to the glamour and pizzazz that surrounds hot new openings and be able to report dispassionately on the service, the decor and the food anywhere without being affected by trivial things like the celebrity factor or the difficulty of getting a table. The sensible part of me knows that popularity does not make a good restaurant - often the opposite - and if there's one group of people who can't be trusted to frequent anywhere worth my hard-earned it's the kind of international jet-set Made in Chelsea types and soap stars who flock in baffling numbers to places like the Ivy or Cipriani to be charged £30 for a plate of pasta. Not for me. Or so I thought.
But OK, Chiltern Firehouse, you got me. I am beaten. I am putty in your hands. Even before I ate the first bite of the food, I was so caught up with the style and atmosphere of the place I could have been served a pot noodle and glass of Blue Nun for £90 and still never wanted to leave. It is, quite honestly, the most beautiful restaurant in London, inside and out, populated by staff so charming you'd invite them to your wedding and customers so impossibly attractive (present company excepted) I barely had time to pick up my jaw from the floor between each 8ft blonde model type floating past in a backless dress.
Outside is a garden terrace that wouldn't be out of place in a St Tropez beachfront hotel, all smart wicker furniture and artfully-draped wild vegetation. Inside, there's a bar lavishly appointed with marble and vintage mirrors like something airlifted from Versaille, a vast, raised open kitchen where chefs dance around amidst the flame and smoke, and surrounding it terraces of tables, from discreet corner snugs to grand banks of fitted armchairs. "No expense spared" doesn't tell even half the story, the place glows with opulence and charm; it's impossible not to be utterly seduced.
So with everything else going on, who cares about the food, but no - this too played along with the general themes of class and studied decadence. From the "snacks" menu, cauliflower florets, served in a pretty blue bowl alongside a fantastic truffle paste and crisp slivers of deep-fried herbage, was a very clever arrangement of shapes and textures.
Garden peas, served in their pods raw and as a kind of light mousse, draped with shoots and teeny white flowers were rather tricky to eat without cutlery but still satisfied on every other level. Incredible colour on them too.
Chicken "skins" actually had quite a bit of meat on them as well, like a very posh KFC bucket. They came with a luxurious smoky, meaty dip which I somehow managed to pile all of on top of one bit of chicken, then mourned its passing for the remaining portions.
Starters proper kept up the standard. Steak tartare was excellent, with the standard array of accoutrements (shallots, pickles, etc) supplemented by toasted pine nuts and a "Firehouse hot" sauce. The latter came in a very pretty little Alice in Wonderland style jar which was perhaps more stylish than practical - the viscous liquid inside showed no desire to leave through the tiny nozzle, so we didn't get to try very much of it. I'm sure it was lovely, though.
Influences from South America showed in a raw red prawns and vaguely ceviche-y almond milk sauce. Another summery arrangement of veg and flowers, and the prawns themselves had a fantastic flavour and texture; not at all slimy like they can be if not sparklingly fresh. But the real achievement here was the rich, smoky sauce, so beguiling I asked for a spoon to scrape my bowl clean.
Mains were, to be brutal, not quite as impressive as the starters but that's not to say they didn't still make a good accompaniment to the parade of Vogue model types that were gliding around in the background. Ribeye was a nice big slab of good quality meat, but could have done with a bit more cooking to break down the fat (we did ask for it medium). Onion rings were nice though, as were the heritage tomatoes.
And my own Iberico pork suffered only from a sauce containing far too much garlic, which battered pretty much everything else on the plate into meek submission. But the protein itself was tender and richly flavoured, and there was certainly plenty of it.
So much of it, in fact, that we skipped dessert in favour of an early evening nightcap on the terrace. The plan, so we were told, was to eventually serve the full menu out here, but meantime it made a superbly deluxe place to do a bit more ludicrous-people-watching and spin out an evening that neither of us wanted to end in a hurry. There was all just so much... entertainment to be had. From the food, sure, but the theatrics extended to every inch of the place, the amiable staff, the interiors, and of course a clientele like no other I've ever seen. Chiltern Firehouse is a one-off, an incredible achievement on so many fronts, like a vast, multi-million-pound production by an experimental immersive theatre company. It's hardly even anything as humdrum as a restaurant - it's a work of art that serves food.