Sketch – in a world of its own

A visit to Sketch is certainly an interesting and rather OTT experience.  I felt rather like a kid with a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.  As you enter the building you have the Parlour on your right, where you can order an indulgent Breakfast, Afternoon Tea, Comfort food and Cocktails.  The rather low key Parlour is in stark contrast to Pierre Gagnaire’s Michelin stared restaurant in the Lecture Room. The name of the restaurant does not really conjure up what is revealed after you are escorted up the exotically lit staircase. The doors are dramatically thrown open and you find yourself in a jewel box like room, decorated with a red, orange, blue and gold palette.

My companion had brought his camera but had forgotten his SD card, so was annoyed that in such a photogenic environment we were not going to do the place justice, but by using our phones we managed to get a few shots of the experience.

The first hurdle is the Champagne Trolley, something I am not a fan off. If I want a glass I prefer to check the wine list first to make sure I know what I am getting, so we just stuck to tap water while we made our menu selection. Despite the hefty prices you can still go down the less expensive route by ordering from the Gourmet Rapide Menu.  However as we wanted to get the full experience on our first visit we opted for the regular Tasting Menu (it is expensive, but as you will see from this post – you do get a lot for your money) and asked the Sommelier to recommend a bottle of wine that would suit the whole menu. He selected a reasonably priced bottle of Irouleguy, Xuri d’Ansa 2004 that was drinkable both on its own and as an accompaniment to the food.

Next came the bread, served with some rather spectacular tasting seaweed butter. Then the feast began.   We had a wonderful array of beautifully presented dishes served by Sketches very efficient staff.  Ironically though the presentation and service did eclipse the food a bit.  The food was very good, don’t get me wrong.  The Foie Gras Terrine with Mackerel Bouillon and Clams was an excellent start.  The Marinated Stone Bass, Peas, Spring Cabbage, Mint and
Smoked Lardons was quite lovely, nice flavour combinations and textures.  The huge King Scallop served with Nettle Cream, Haddock, Watercress Salad, Seaweed Butter and Rhubarb was fabulous. One of these could have been turned into a dozen servings at Apsleys (who served up scallop slivers rather than the more generous presentation delivered by Sketch) and the other dishes were enjoyable too. They just didn’t quite meet our expectations, which were perhaps a little too high, due to the rather excessive hype that Sketch gets.  We found ourselves inevitably making comparisons with meals we had in other restaurants. It wasn’t in the same class as Le Bristol in Paris (although the menu was very similar to the one we had there a few years back – especially the lobster and sweet bread dishes).  Moments at the Mandarin in Barcelona had the edge on food presentation and taste.  The Ledbury, The Kitchin and Tom Aikens (at his peak) also won on the flavour front.

This was a tasting menu that definitely filled you up though, we were getting full even before we started on the Grand Dessert which consists of no less than five desserts and a selection of petit fours. However sometimes less is more and I think I would have preferred just a couple of spectacular desserts, rather than five OK ones.  That said, it was still discernibly better than a lot of Michelin starred restaurants out there, and as such I would have no qualms about recommending the Sketch experience, and that’s even without having had the full tour of the premises – we didn’t get the chance to visit the Glade, the Gallery or the East Bar as Blackberry had reserved the rest of Sketch for a product launch, so there was a bit of a buzz around that, as Jessie J was providing the music.

UPDATE : September 2012, Sketch has been awarded a second Michelin Star.

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The Ledbury – More or Less?

We started off the new year on a high, with lunch at The Ledbury.   There were two  menu options. The special lunch Menu at £45 or the Tasting Menu at £75, both available with matching wine.  Such a tough choice, but it was The Ledbury and we just had to go down the “More” route.   We had matching wines for each course (including a matching wine for the amuse bouche) making a total of 8 glasses each (I think).  Pretty heavy for lunch time drinking I have to say. In retrospect the “Less” route might have been the more sensible choice.

We found the restaurant to be rather quiet on this visit, only a few tables were in use during our mid week lunch. So if you pick your day carefully it is possible to get a reservation at this temple of gastronomy.

We started with Chantilly of Colchester Oysters with a Tartare of Scallop and Oyster, Horseradish and Dill – a very elegant dish, this was followed by Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso. Then we had Hampshire Buffalo Milk Curd with Saint-Nectaire and Truffle Toast. The Truffle Toast was the highlight for me, delicious. We were four glasses down at this point when we moved on to the fish course of Roast Native Lobster with Broccoli stem, Natural Yogurt and Indian Spices in Brown Butter. This was followed by Pork Cheek cooked in Pedro Ximénez with Puffed Grains and Spiced Cream and Roast Haunch of Fallow Deer with White Beetroot and Smoked Bone Marrow and several more glasses of well matched wines. We finished with a light pre-dessert and the dessert of Pavé of Chocolate with Milk Purée and Lovage Ice Cream.

The food was universally good, we just felt that we had over done it.  I am always happy to go to The Ledbury but I think next time I will stick to the set lunch.

One tip though, if you do want to go down the Tasting Menu route,  is to do it at lunch time – the Tasting Menu is £30 cheaper then than the one offered in the evening.

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Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – Simmer down and reduce your expectations

The new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental may seat 140 guests, but getting one of these seats is not easy.  We reserved our table in January not long after the booking lines had opened and got the earliest table available, which was a 2.30 lunch sitting in March.  This meant we had been looking forward to “Dinner” for what seemed like ages.  Could it possibly live up to the hype or more importantly to my mind could it justify the loss of  The Foliage?

Interestingly there does seem to be a restaurant review pattern, in that the food bloggers are less wowed than the professional critics.  A pattern I am afraid we find ourselves following.  To be fair Heston in interviews has emphasised that Dinner is not trying to be a fine dining restaurant, it is not an outpost of  The Fat Duck.  The staff also made that very clear to us on our visit.  So we tried hard to adjust our expectations accordingly.

The kitchen is headed by Ashley Palmer-Watts who has worked with Heston at The Fat Duck for nine years in the capacity of Group Executive Chef.  “Dinner” (still hate the name) has unquestionably been the hottest opening this year, gathering an incredible amount of publicity and accolades.

During the summer months the terrace overlooking Hyde Park will  be used for al fresco dining and it may well take until the summer to get a reservation. The Restaurant is apparently fully booked  to the end of  June.  Reservations are even being offered as prizes and  being sold on ebay!

It was really nice to be greeted by the last two surviving members of the Foliage staff.  As a welcoming treat we were given a sample of the famous Meat Fruit, enabling us to effectively “tick the box” on that one.  It was a perfectly fine chicken liver parfait cleverly shaped like a Mandarin Orange in homage to the hotel.  I then ordered the Hay Smoked Mackerel starter with lemon salad, Gentlemen’s Relish and olive oil.  I found it to be a tasty and refreshing dish. For main course I chose the Pigeon, which was delicious, but in retrospect did not really justify the price which was actually more than the cost of the entire set menu. The standout dish for me was my dessert choice – no not the famous Tipsy cake with pineapple. I was a bit more adventurous. I went for the Brown Bread Ice-Cream, even though I had been warned and perhaps a little put off by it being described as having savoury elements.  It was unusual, but for me it really worked with the yeasty Ice-Cream contrasting well with the caramel sauce and oats. I found it really quite moreish.

My companion was less successful with his choices. He started with the Rice and Flesh which combined flavours that he did not particularly enjoy.  He also ordered the Powdered duck.  The meat was moist with subtle flavours but he did not like the contrasting hard fennel.   On the whole he felt that the historically inspired flavour combinations were a bit incongruous, sadly reminiscent of the cooking style at Oliver Peytons National Dining Room.

He then had what he described as the “Krispy Kreme” doughnut like Tipsy cake with spit roasted pineapple.  The Tipsy cake was OK but the smoky after taste from the pineapple chunks was less successful.

We finished the meal on a “high” note though with a small cup of Earl Grey ganache and some caraway biscuits.  This was rather playful in that it conjured up the taste of accidentally picking up and drinking a long discarded cup of cold tea – until the sugar rush kicked in!  This sweet treat seemed to be closer in concept to the type of food served at The Fat Duck than to Dinners historically inspired menu.

The restaurant with its £4 million make over looks good,  but not stunning. With that sort of money I expected this flag ship restaurant to have the same level of glamour as achieved by Moments at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona for example.

It was also strange to find ourselves seated at the same table location as we had during our memorable last meal at the Foliage.  Maybe it was just a coincidence or perhaps it was  intentional, indicating the level of customer care the Mandarin is famous for.

After our late lunch we met up with some friends in the adjoining Mandarin bar for a quick drink that lasted about 6 hours! The cocktails were on the whole really enjoyable, served by the super efficient staff. One annoyance was that they no longer offer bar food,  just the room service menu  if you are a resident.  I suspect this is a side effect of losing the The Park Restaurant.

So in conclusion I have to say unfortunately Dinner is not somewhere that I would rush to return too. Indeed if in Knightsbridge, I would be more likely to make a return visit to Koffmans or perhaps even Bar Boulud. We have no doubt that these changes will bring financial and critical  success to the Mandarin Oriental and certainly getting Heston to open his first London Restaurant here is quite a coup, but from our perspective sadly we feel that the Mandarin has lost more than it has gained.

UPDATE : October 2011 : The 2012 Michelin Guide has unsurprisingly awarded Dinner a star.

Marks out of 10

Food 6.2

Service 7

Ambience  5.5

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The Ledbury – embarassing leaks

Lunch at The Ledbury was always going to be an occasion. The food is superb.  I simply could not fault any of the dishes I chose from their Sunday Lunch menu.  Indeed it was one of these occasions where I really wanted to try nearly all the dishes on the menu.  Fortunately I was part of a large enough group to ensure that collectively we were able to order a range of different dishes. There were no dissenting voices at all, every one loved the food.  Only one thing went wrong during the lunch, which impacted on the table next to ours.  Water started coming through the ceiling from the room above,  I guess a burst pipe due to the cold weather. Nothing much the restaurant could do except, put a bowl on the table, call the plumber and move the guests to another table.  However it must have been very embarrassing for the staff, as the guests concerned included Martin Scorsese, Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher who certainly did not seem to particularly want to draw attention to themselves. Something that is hard to do when you have to stand up to avoid being splashed!

However when the food is this good, you do not let little things like plumbing problems get in the way, so back to the food.

My starter was the Flamed Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Tokyo Turnips and Celtic Mustard, it was a great choice. The Mackerel had so much flavour, it was really fresh and just melted in my mouth. The portion was quite substantial for a starter, but despite that I could easily have had seconds.

I was also tempted by the Ceviche of Hand Dived Scallops with Seaweed and Herb Dill Kohlrabi and Frozen Horseradish which one of my companions ordered. Visually it did not look as good, but I was told it was delicious, if a little light and summery for a winter menu.

For my main course I choose fish again. The Skate Poached in Brown Butter with Truffle Puree, Cauliflower, Parmesan Gnocchi and Sea Vegetables. This has to be my dish of the year. It was just so moreish. The Skate was perfect and the Parmesan Gnocchi reminded me so much of another favourite, the Gnocchi dish I had at The Foliage.

For dessert I ordered the Brown Sugar Tart with Muscat Grapes and Stem Ginger Ice Cream, which was matched with a surprisingly fruity Pedro Ximenez sherry from Barossa Valley in Australia, it was very different from the Spanish ones I have had in the past.  The tart was very light and the ice cream was very subtle.  The dessert highlight however had to be the Passion Fruit Souffle with Sauterne Ice cream, which was large enough for us all to try  – a perfect Souffle.

 

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Moments @ MO, Barcelona – Setting the standard

At long last we managed to have lunch at Moments restaurant. The delayed opening meant we missed the chance on our last visit to Barcelona.  We were pleasantly surprised by the  interior, as the Mandarin Oriental website does not do it justice. It is a beautiful room that is both stylish and comfortable.

We were greeted by a familiar face, Carlos formerly of the Foliage in London. One of our regular haunts. He presented us with a glass each of Carme Ruscelleda’s 20th anniversary Cava.  Without hesitation we decided on the tasting menu (125 euro’s ouch!) along with a lovely selection of wines by the glass.

The meal began with the famous Appetizers Micro Menu which consisted of four appetizers one for each season. We then had a very artistic dish based on “Miros Bird” the original which we understand hangs in Carme Ruscelleda’s restaurant in Tokyo.  This was followed by a very refreshing dish of cuttlefish and peas then a very moreish crayfish dish with morel cream. Next came an unusual but successful combination of flavours. Sea Bass with strawberry chutney.  There was a choice of main courses. Tuna Cheek or Iberian Pork. The Tuna cheek in particular was stunning.  We then moved on to the cheese course and two desserts simply named “Red” and “White”. We both agreed that the Red was our favourite as this was a standout dish and not just because it used popping candy!

We finished the meal with the Eight Pastry Divertimenti. A selection of Petit-fours presented on a three tier cake stand.

After the meal we were introduced to the head chef Raul Balam (Carme Ruscelleda’s son).  It’s always nice to be able to tell the chef how much we enjoyed the meal.

The restaurant is too new to have been awarded a Michelin star or should I say stars as it will undoubtedly pick up more than one in the not too distant future, it is certainly a rival to its 3 star sister restaurant Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mer.

WARNING: Dining at Moments can seriously damage your appreciation of other restaurants. Every other restaurant, even ones you really rated start to look scruffy and unprofessional in comparison. The attention to detail at MO is second to none.

UPDATE December 2010 – Moments awarded a Michelin Star in the 2011 Michelin Guide. In my view they merit two. For more information, see :-

UPDATE November 2012 – Moments awarded their second Michelin Star. Saw that one coming!

Marks out of 10

Food 8.3

Service 8.2

Ambience 8.5

LOCATION INFORMATION
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The Square – indulgence dilemma

Saturday night at The Square, what an indulgence!

We started in the bar area with some delicious canapes and a glass of the house champagne then moved to our table where we had the dilemma, do we go for the tasting menu or do we go À la carte? Tough one.


There were so many lovely sounding starters on the À la carte, we were pushed in that direction. Which was actually a mistake, as we have effectively trained ourselves to appreciate the smaller portions and broader taste range of tasting menus. So the larger portions for the mains were a bit of a struggle. The other plus for going the tasting menu route is if one course is not so great then it’s not such a big deal, as it effectively gets lost in the crowd.

Two of us made main course choices that really showed off The Squares cuisine.  I had the Roast Saddle of Lincolnshire Hare with a Tarte Fine of Celeriac and Pear which was amazing and one of my companions had the Fillet of Aged Ayrshire Beef with Autumn Truffle, Smoked Bone Marrow and Red Wine, again stunning but too large a portion.  My other companion choose the Caramelised Pork Belly with Glazed Trotter, Savoy Cabbage, Langoustine Claws and Lentils and was very disappointed, as the Pork Belly was very fatty. Which was such as shame as up until that point everything had been sublime.

The pre dessert was a rather nice  doughnut and rhubarb/raspberry concoction. Then for dessert I had a very boozy Rum and Raisin Soufflé with Gingerbread Ice Cream – stunning.  To finish we then had coffee and some Armagnac.  This was served with a nicely balanced selection of petits fours that consisted of some chocolate/nutty/Carmel truffles and a range of lollipop style sweets.  We finished them all. Only to have a second set delivered later.

The Square like Hibiscus has 2 Michelin stars and 4 AA Rosettes, but from the point of view of imagination and food quality based on our visits to both these restaurants, the Square is streets ahead of Hibiscus. However when we directly compared it to Tom Aikens which has 1 Michelin star and 5 AA Rosettes, the conclusion was that Tom Aikens pipped The Square at the post.

Marks out of 10

Food 7.8

Service 7.6

Ambience 7

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Square Meal

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