In London restaurant scene, chef Ben Spalding has become synonymous with “young” and “talented” and holds an extensive CV that contains many internationally renowned kitchens. In 2011-2012 Ben won himself critical acclaims as head chef of Roganic and from stints at The Loft and Stripped Back, and his new 6-month residency project at Islington’s rechristened bar John Salt became an instant talk of town. Sadly, Ben has left the venue.
A flashback to my 12-course tasting menu (£85) at John Salt was a testament to Ben’s intuitive and playful cooking. “Salad” was a carefully orchestrated melange of 45 kinds of fruit and vegetables in various states – fresh, pickled, dried, etc. – with sour cream fermented naturally at 25 degrees. The taste – pretty much your breakfast muesli with great twists – was not disparate but came alive at every bite. “Scallop” was pan seared, sliced horizontally, filled with caramelised kiwi and culatello “as if a slider”, and completed with cider butter and truffle. Fun and reminiscent of a sweet-and-sour. The truffle, however, was only a spectacle to the eyes and lacked a distinct aroma. Equally a jolly dish was a reinterpretation of “Chicken on a Brick”, which was chicken liver pate with a garnish of crispy chicken skins, lingonberries and sweet corn. The sparkle of a genius was also apparent in Salmon poached in maple syrup and dressed with layers of acidity (kaffir-lime infused creme fraiche and rotten mango juice).
John Salt, in a short period of time, marked a creative progress away from Ben at Roganic. The restraint of British ingredients (which is the philosophy of Roganic) was lifted and therefore the sourcing and inventions of Ben at John Salt became much more global, notably in Scandinavian ingredients and influences. The taste remained bold, wild but still lent itself flavoursome comfort. The downsides were that some dishes could have done with more refinement and kick-ass developments (reflective of a brilliant restaurant-in-the-making) and that the venue itself – a mezzanine floor above a busy bar – was too noisy for me to indulge and contemplate on the food.
Apsleys is a handsome restaurant at The Lanesborough Hotel with 3-Michelin-starred Italian chef Heinz Beck at its helm. The glass-roofed room is magnificent; the plates are gilded with gold; the head chef Heros de Agostini holds a pristine CV; the menu comes, of course, with some really, really high costs (antipasti £18.50-29; primi £17-21; secondi £33-38).
The cooking was, correspondingly, accomplished. Fresh and deliciously lean Salmon Tartare (£24) with Black Olives and Shallot was complimented with bitter peppery salad and creme fraiche. The immaculate square of crispy potato spaghetti provided extra texture and salty sweetness to the dish. Smoked Capon Ravioli (£19.50) was neat and correctly boiled for a wonderful toothsome texture. The garnish of velvety parmesan emulsion and meaty jus was pleasant, but the puree of pumpkins was weak. Veal “Saltimbocca” with Sage and Jerusalme Artichoke (£36) was an inventive take on the Italian tradition. Here the veal – sliced paper-thin, rolled with sage and finished with toasted amaranth – was a marvel. I loved the finishing touches of hefty veal jus and the nutty sweetness from jerusalem artichoke puree.
The least impressive was the service. I (and my +1) opted for “orange juice” instead of wine, but instead of us being provided with two glasses of orange juice (common sense?) we were given a jug (who would drink a whole jug?). We were unaware of this as the glasses were constantly and unobtrusively topped up. In the end, we were billed around £20 for the orange juice. This, despite the competent cooking, made me feel that it was slightly a rip-off.
Tom Aikens is one of the biggest names in the UK’s chef-y scene and known for his innovative, yet uncompromisingly complex approach to French cooking. His formerly inventive French fine-dining restaurant in Chelsea underwent a major refurbishment and looked northward to trendy Scandinavia for inspirations. The results were not only Noma-esque plates, chairs and bare wood decor but also the aesthetics of New Nordic plating. The FOH was also dolled up in a more rustically fashionable attire. (Think Barbour but Chelsea). Currently, the 7-course tasting menu is priced at £85, while the dishes on the carte dishes are individually priced (£13-19.50 for starters; £25-31 for mains; £10-14 for desserts).
I visited the restaurant in spring 2012 and unfortunately did not have the time to write up but I can still recall many dishes from the meal. Celeriac was a masterful construction of the same root vegetable prepared using various techniques – raw, char-grilled, baked, consomme-ed. I loved the effect of the wonderful smoky aroma cutting across the chilled and clarified broth. The vinegary juicy-ness from the pickled raisins was a thoughtful foil to the curd-y truffled creme fraiche and the fragrant note of thyme. Pork and Black Pudding was also a bowl of explosive umami. The perfectly cooked multi-cuts of pork were intense and moreish with black pudding crumbles. The polychrome of garnish – celery branch, celery butter, crispy pig’s skins, almond flakes – elevated the meaty dish with a herbal boost. Pigeon Consomme was a clever *posh-it-up* of your regular pot noodle. The plate arrived with an orderly arrangement of dehydrated, powdered components – grains and vegetables – and a disc of truffle custard. The idea was that these components would blend with the hot consomme and create dimensions for the beautifully pink roasted pigeon. It certainly put a big grin on my face! There were also dishes that did not quite work. Raw Turnip Salad lacked some vital freshness from the leaves and was overpowered by the chestnut puree, while Carrot Granite was just too oddly savoury and carrot-y for a dessert.
THE GRILL @ THE DORCHESTER
The Grill at the Dorchester is a very interestingly dichotomous restaurant. First, there was the traditional look – tartan seats and wall embellishments of Scottish-attired lads. Second, there was the FOH, very prim, proper and courteously formal. Third, there was the roast beef trolley, a fixed staple of the restaurant along with other classics of grilled sole and roasted grouse with bread sauce. But, the menu that existed beyond those Great British traditions (£10-21 for starters; £21-45 for mains; £12.50 for desserts) was unmistakably modern.
Glazed Calves Sweetbread (£26) was paired with crispy chicken wings, lemon and cumin bread. Personally, I found the dish cloyingly sweet and also crying for some refreshing elements to balance the offal strength. Lobster with Falmouth Bay Prawns, Langoustines and Shellfish Cream (£45) was a feast of paramount ingredients. The spiced sauce was comforting and reminiscent of both a bisque and a bouillabaisse. This was served with a small pot of custard-y seafood royale, which verged on being too rich and too generously spiced. Pistachio Crumb with Passion Fruit Bavarois with Apricot Sorbet and Saffron Ice Cream (£12.50) suffered from over-complication. Many textures of both passion fruit and apricot – bavarois, puree, gel, jelly, ice cream – did not create a unison in taste but glued together with the (finely tasting) chalky pistachio. The saffron ice cream which, by itself, would be quite a stunning treat did not seem to fit in.
131 Upper Street
Tel. 020 7359 7501
The Lanesborough Hotel
Tel 020 7333 7254
43 Elystan Street
Tel. 020 7584 2003
THE GRILL @ THE DORCHESTER
The Dorchester Hotel
9 Tilney Street
Tel. 020 7629 8888