Wednesday, 11 January 2017
Galvin at the Athanaeum, Mayfair
I've long been a fan of the Galvin bros' flagship Windows restaurant, at the top of the Hilton Park Lane, and have had many wonderful meals there over the years. It's top-end dining at the top of the world, and you pay for it, but if you come away with anything other than a fierce desire to go back and do it all again as soon as possible then you've got a heart of stone.
But if I'm brutally honest, and that's hopefully why you're here, I've never had a completely knockout dinner at any of the Galvins' more "accessible" lower-budget joints, such as the Bistro de Luxe or La Chapelle. Objectively I know they're very decent places that many of my friends hold in extremely high regard, it's just for whatever reason I find it quite difficult to get too excited about French classics like escargots or crème brulée and would rather pay the extra to do full haute cuisine or tighten the purse strings and drop in somewhere like Zédel where they do regional French for about £20 a head. Which leaves more left over to spend on wine.
The good thing about the Galvin brand though is that they are always evolving. Even Windows, under the regime of its new Korean-born chef Joo Won, has started moving in more interesting Asian-fusion directions and a recent meal involved kimchi and bulgogi and all sorts of K-buzzwords to fantastic effect. And I've heard great things about the new Galvin HOP, Café a Vin as was, which has drawn itself a madly eccentric menu of burgers, pork chops and hot dogs, US/UK comfort food staples given a French aesthetic. So it was clearly time to give a Galvin other than Windows a try. And with that in mind I'm very glad I accepted an invite to the Athentaeum hotel in Mayfair and to Galvin at the Athenaeum.
But before dinner, drinks; excellent gin martinis in their ground floor which, thanks to giant floor-to-ceiling windows framing a living tropical wall, was like drinking in a giant vivarium. I can't say a great deal more about a martini in a hotel bar, but as martinis in hotel bars go, this was one of the good ones.
Relocated in the restaurant now, and you can tell a lot about a place from its bread offering. The bread at Athanaeum, just like I've enjoyed at Windows in the past, is this plaited baguette (it probably has a fancy boulangerie name but I don't know it) which breaks apart into lovely warm chunks just begging to be covered in salted butter.
First of the starters was a huge and unapologetically French slab of foie gras, wrapped in a clever ring of spiced bread and served with a kind of alcohol-poached apple segment topped with toasted walnuts, and dollops of cherry purée. And it was immensely enjoyable, with loads of flavour and not suffering from any hint of "fridge chill" which can spoil many a foie gras experience.
And this was a beautifully rich seafood soup, light and frothy and perfectly seasoned, presented with separate little pots of croutons, grated gruyere and rouille. Whether it's the miserable London winter weather or the fact that a soup is quite a good test of a kitchen's attention to detail, I seem to have been ordering a lot of soup in restaurants recently. And this was a fine example.
I make no apologies for ordering a burger for my main course. Years after the burger craze "hit", and certainly a long time after a good burger was a novelty in London I am still happily ordering them because they just hit every pleasure point I need in a single item of food - salt, fat, texture, and a great big oozing mound of bloody loose beef. The Galvin burger, which they've practised at the bar at Windows and refined at the Hop place in Spitalfields, is a genuinely lovely thing, perfect ratios of salad, beef and bread, and with a layer of good French cheese (possibly Comté but don't quote me on that).
But if you still insist on turning your nose up at burgers, then how about bolstering your bourgeois credentials with this - a neat pot of cassoulet, which had been "poshed up" by cooking duck breast to pink separately then arranging it on top of the bean mixture. It, too, was a comforting yet thoughtful bit of cooking, and further evidence that the Galvins can not only come up with a good recipe but crucially also hire the right people to replicate it as their business expands.
The meal ended with this Ille Flottante (sorry, "Floating Island" - see also "Caramelised apple tart" instead of "tarte tatin" as the Galvin menu writers attempt to stay French without being alienating) which packed a good hit of vanilla and chunks of caramelised (I think) chestnut studded in the Crème Anglaise. Sorry, "custard".
So despite my initial misgivings about any Galvin that doesn't involve being on the 28th floor of a Hilton, we thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this meal (including the service from our Londoner waitress, which was charming). What's interesting is that in their efforts to create a kind of hybrid French-English hotel restaurant, which in lesser hands would have ended up with a weak approximation of both and probably disappointing lovers of both French and English food simultaneously, they've almost accidentally ended up with quite an exciting third way. The idea of French cooking techniques being applied to English ingredients is hardly new, but that's not the only thing going on here. Dishes like the foie gras and the Ille Flottante (despite the Anglicised name) are recognisably French, and the burger and presumably things like the sticky toffee pudding are fairly solidly English, but they sit together on this menu quite happily because it's probably only in a hotel restaurant situation you'd be allowed to cherry pick the best of both and still come away with a coherent menu.
And since you didn't ask, the room for the night which was also kindly gifted as part of the review package was very nice too, on the 6th floor with views of Green Park. It's a strange thing, spending a night in a five star hotel in your own home town, but I can't pretend it wasn't great fun being a tourist for the night, checking in luggage, strolling down for dinner and then instead of rolling onto a bus for the journey to Battersea, heading for a night walk around Mayfair, taking in the lights of Piccadilly and shouting "You fools! You Goddamn fools!" at the queues outside the Hard Rock Café next door. Gives a whole new perspective on things, and a whole new set of reasons to fall in love with London all over again.
I was invited to eat, and stay, at the Athenaeum.