Wednesday, 5 October 2016
Elystan Street, South Kensington
Phil Howard has a lot to answer for. It was in his previous restaurant The Square, at some point in the summer of 2003, that I sat down with a friend and enjoyed a meal that utterly changed the way I thought about the business of eating out. I'd had good meals up to that point, true, though mainly on holiday in France and in that Bib Gourmandparent-friendly French regional style, but this was something else - cooking of stunning precision, exotic ingredients teased into geometric forms, service and surroundings of otherworldly luxury. Here, amongst the soft furnishings and modern art of a restaurant in Mayfair, eating Devon crab lasagne with basil cappucino, was when I realised just how good food could be.
So he's to be thanked, or blamed (depending on your point of view) for the fact you're reading this food blog 13 years later and, directly and indirectly, for a legion of chefs, restaurants and food fanatics that have crossed the doors of that Mayfair institution during Howard's tenure. He was - is - a giant of the industry, a "chef's chef" (to use the rather tired phrase) who never missed a shift in his kitchen, was a mentor to countless numbers of young hopefuls, and held onto two Michelin stars longer than most enjoy entire careers.
But times change and with the Square losing a star*[see comments] and some of its elitist luster we end up at at Elystan Street, where like so many Michelin-starred chefs of his generation, Howard's attempting to "go informal", with looser, more rustic presentations, more relaxed service, and - needless to say - no tablecloths.
And first impressions are good. It's a lovely bright room, clean lines and attractive woodwork, tables and chairs are inviting and comfortable, and house bread is really lovely, a delicate thin crust containing a soft, bouncy crumb. With a glass of house champagne to hand we were more than willing to look past the punchy prices on the dinner menu and enjoy the possibilities of dishes such as "Ravoli of langoustines with barbecue dressing" or "Mousseline of grouse with pearl barley". If this is the brave new direction of Elystan Street, then I'm all in favour.
Starters were, across the board (well, across the three our party ordered), very enjoyable indeed. My own sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, and soaked in one of those brilliant sticky sauces that these haute cuisine kitchens always do so well. "Truffled autumn slaw" didn't have much of a hint of truffle but was rich and smooth and full of interesting textures (including a few sprigs of crunchy deep-fried kale on top) and I loved every bit of it.
Shellfish bisque with potted shrimps on toast was another crowdpleaser, a supremely light and fresh bisque matched with a neat oblong of pressed shrimp and went down very well. And I didn't get to try the salad of roasted vegetables but judging from the noises being made there were no complaints there either, all the more impressive considering this was a vegan dish presumably constructed with its local audience in mind.
So, so far so very, very good. With the starters down we were all relaxed and happy, a bunch of people who had travelled across town and risked quite a bit of money on a brand new restaurant (albeit one with a prestigious pedigree) and were more than pleased with the way things were going. And then.
Then, somehow, Elystan Street seemed to conspire only to disappoint. The grouse itself in my main course had been cooked incredibly well (as you would expect) but had very little of that funky, aged flavour I look for in the best of these birds and the sauce it was dressed in, a thin affair of elderberries and little else, had none of the depth of meaty flavour needed to compliment game. Criticising anything as nebulous as a "lack of depth" in sauces runs the risk of looking like nit-picking, but you go to places like this (at least, I do) for that incredible way with reduced stock sauces you can't get in your usual high street joint. They had nailed the sweetbread sauce completely - why not the grouse?
"Butternut squash", said my friend as she picked through her main, "doesn't go with fish". Unfortunately for her, it had taken her £35 to find this out, and despite a very well cooked bit of john dory and an interesting black rice accompaniment, there just wasn't enough here to enjoy.
And parmesan gnocchi with mushroom purée had the same problem with lack of firepower - not enough flavour in the mushroom, not enough parmesan in the gnocchi, hardly a hint of the advertised truffle. "It's just a bit... boring" was the eventual response. £30 worth of boring.
Yes, the prices. Had the main courses gone better - a lot better - we may have been able to at least accept, if not overlook, the frightening numbers attached to everything at Elystan Street. But as events played out we began to see the lack of bells & whistles - no amuse bouche, no pre-dessert, not so much as a chocolate with the bill - as being rather mean-spirited in the context of an only intermittently enjoyable meal costing £100 a head.
Perhaps on another day, in another place, in another price bracket, I would have been able to enjoy this objectively very decent lemon tart a bit more. Perhaps I only imagined it was ever-so-slightly too sharp because I knew it was £12 and because of what came before. But in any circumstances I would not have enjoyed the accompaniment of a very, er, "goaty" goat's cheese ice cream, which was dungy and distressing next to the clean flavours of the tart. Weird.
I'll avoid piling criticism on criticism and ignore the occasional annoying service niggle (it's early days) and instead praise the excellent no-nonsense sommelier who helped us pick a very decent Italian Pinot, one of the cheapest on the list at £35, which matched well with most of what we ate. But in my experience it's when you even start to notice service niggles that's a sure as indicator as any that the experience has not gone well. We left £100 lighter a person and vaguely aware we'd have been better off at a huge number of other restaurants in town. Which is a shame, for all involved.
Maybe all of the issues at Elystan Street are a result of a classically French-trained chef attempting Modern British Rustic and being caught between a rock and a hard place. It's ironic the last time I ate a 2* chef's food attempting to go "no tablecloths" it was Tom Aikens, in this very building, and that fell similarly short. Perhaps there's just no shame in being haute cuisine if haute cuisine is what you're good at and haute cuisine is what people want. But anyway, I will just go back to reminiscing about Devon crab lasagne and basil cappucino and that restaurant in Mayfair, all those years ago, that changed everything.