Monday, 18 March 2019

Stem, Mayfair

It's so easy to get used to certain status quos in the London restaurant world that when something finally comes along to challenge them, it takes a little while to recognise. The settled fact was that whatever you were used to paying elsewhere in London for food and drink, to do the same in Mayfair, whether in a fancy hotel or independent restaurant, would cost you that much extra. The quality of the offering may not be significantly better (or indeed could be somewhat worse) but because people were used to paying more, places somehow got away with it. I've been guilty myself in the past of excusing anywhere charging too much as "expected for the area". The Mayfair Premium. Annoying, but what could you do?

Stem is proof it doesn't have to be this way. Seconds from Oxford Circus tube and right in the heart of Mayfair, this is the exception that proves the rule. Their evening 9-course tasting menu, full of technical prowess and seasonal joy, is £60 (that's £7.50 a dish once you add on service), the kind of price point you'd be lucky to find in any rural gastropub never mind somewhere in W1. And none of this comes at the expense of nice plush surroundings (Stem is very well designed, with plenty of space between tables) or sparkling service, led at time of eating by YBF nominee Emma Underwood ex- of Burnt Truffle and Where The Light Gets In. It's Mayfair with a Clerkenwell bill.

The style of food will be familiar to anyone who's tried Chef Mark Jarvis' cooking at Anglo, although it's important to point out that there are no "signature dishes" or familiar flourishes - Stem is entirely its own animal. We began with trout tartare topped with pickled carrots, on a bed of what I think they said was dill crème fraîche.

The only element of any dish I could find fault with was these gougères on the left. Heavy and rather sweet thanks to an allium stuffing, they badly missed the Comté cheese hit of versions I've had elsewhere, and were just not worth the effort. Perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so disappointed had I not had seriously good gougères before; maybe if they'd been sold as 'onion buns' they'd have got away with it. But as gougères they fell flat. Sourdough was good though - made in house - as was some nice salty butter.

There was a time when I would immediately dismiss any cooked oyster dish as unneccesary cowardice. I think it's down to certain places being unable or unwilling to unable to handle the storing, shucking and presentation of live oysters, instead falling back on the safer baking option, or it could just be blind prejudice on my part. Either way, over the last few years I've been offered cooked, poached and pickled oysters in so many different and exciting ways (The black pepper pickle versions at St Leonard's are a particular highlight) that my prejudice has disappeared entirely. These, served in a kind of nasturtium oil butter and topped with a crisp leaf of cabbage, were absolutely beautiful.

Next some very good potatoes and steamed leeks with a generous topping of incredibly powerful truffle, apparently from somewhere in Catalonia. The main ingredients were as nicely seasoned and vibrant as you'd want, but the real star here was the truffle which was so moist and dark with flavour it could have been picked out of the ground that very morning.

Cornish cod - well seasoned, with good defined flakes and nicely browned on top - came in various vivid shades of green (perhaps more nasturtium or even parsley oil) and a very interesting sauce made from white beans. I absolutely love dishes like this, with quite a bit of interesting textures and colours going on but with the main ingredient still the standout item.

Next some plump, bright green potato gnocchi, in an interesting and inventive mix of nuts and vegetables - crumbly, toasted cashews, pickled romanesco cauliflower and lovage oil. I would swear the gnocchi had been filled with parmesan cheese or suchlike but if they hadn't and this was indeed a vegan dish, then full marks for not making me miss dairy at all. Very clever stuff.

Beef tartare, pickled cucumber and king oyster (mushroom) wasn't anywhere near as weird as it sounds; just imagine chunks of bone marrow instead of oyster mushroom, capers instead of pickled cucumber and you have yourself a fairly traditional tartare recipe. It came with delicate slivers of marmite cracker - made using yesterday's bread, I think they said - which were as tasty as they were environmentally thoughtful.

Then one of those dishes I always look for on a restaurant menu, and always order if I see it. Roast pigeon, breast tender and with a gently charred skin, leg carefully deboned so you can eat it like a little pink lolipop, it was an absolute masterclass in game cooking and even possibly had the edge on a similar thing I was served at Sat Bains a week or so later. "Burned apple purée" and Tokyo turnip made perfect accompaniments, and then, of course, to finish, a dense, salty game jus which made you want to lick the plate clean. Which I think I pretty much did.

As a palate-cleanser, a sort of lemon and basil foam, which really did reset the tastebuds with its wonderful balance of citrus and herbs. Sometimes, rather than trying to beat people around with silly new flavour combinations for the sake of it, I wish more restaurants should treat these courses as intended - a familiar, calming interlude to prepare for the desserts proper. Who's not going to like lemon and basil foam? Certainly not me.

This was the best sticky toffee pudding I've ever eaten in London. To those of you who have suffered my repeated rants over the years about the sad state of STP work in the capital, this may seem like damning with faint praise. Much like the sorry state of fish and chips down here, I don't honestly know why so many restaurants and pubs manage to mess up this relatively simple dish so comprehensively; lack of confidence in the huge amounts of salt and sugar you need to put in to make a good version, possibly - guys, steamed sponge cake with some caramel sauce on top is not a Sticky Toffee Pudding. This above, so thick and dense it was basically a lump of dates bound with sugar with only a casual nod to sponge, is far more like it, and it came as no surprise that the recipe came from one of the Liverpudlian chefs.

A great way to finish the meal, then, and not much to complain about elsewhere either. Anywhere in town you can eat this well, for this amount of money (admittedly this was an invite from the chef, but it wouldn't have been much more than £100pp even with the booze and extra courses we had), is to be praised, but when I think of the awful dinners I've suffered in this part of town for much more money then Stem - friendly, technically impressive, generous of spirit - really stands out. It's a restaurant that gets almost everything right and almost nothing wrong, and deserves every bit of the success that is surely coming its way.


I was invited to try Stem by the team there, and didn't see a bill.


Nick said...

I had a superb meal here, with the best onion soup and the best mash potato I've ever had 👍

Anonymous said...

It's interesting. After the first paragraph or three, you can almost guarantee at the end it'll say "I didn't pay for this".

Disappointing really. And I assume unnecessary, just greedy.