Archive for May, 2005

Chef Interview: Alan Murchison (May 2005)

Posted on: May 13th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

L'Ortolan and Alan Murchison

 There is something comforting about returning to certain restaurants; there are those for which you develop an affection for the bricks and mortar. It would be easy to suggest L’Ortolan has that affect but there is so much more. Since the days of Nico, through John Burton-Race, Daniel Galmiche and now Alan Murchison, this building has seen four great Michelin starred chefs.

There is a fundamental difference with the package that is now L’Ortolan to those of the past – a very intelligent difference – Alan and business partner Abigail Lloyd have developed a combination of front of house, food, eating environment and value for money that hits the difficult leafy provinces market squarely between the eyes. Don’t get me wrong, there is no implication of compromise or cutting corners, on the contrary; the food is of the highest quality; the service impeccable; the dining room more comfortable than ever – Alan and Abi simply know how to run a restaurant that delivers the absolute best to their customers at an affordable price point.

Alan Murchison (and Abi) kindly found time to talk to late into the night one Friday evening – interview by Simon Carter, 13th May 2005.

Tell us about your background leading up to L’Ortolan

I started working as a kitchen porter from 14 so I’ve always been in the business. The first Michelin Starred kitchen was at Inverlochy Castle with Graham Newbold in 1988; he was brilliant – he’d been a personal chef to the Prince and Princess of Wales – there was no compromise in the quality of ingredients and you really had the feeling of being in one of the leading kitchens of the country. At the turn of the decade I spent a few months at Claridges, which was really tough, a complete contrast from the views from Inverlochy to never seeing daylight for a month.

I took a career break to run for Scotland for 18 months as a full time cross country runner before spending a couple of years working here with John Burton-Race. I found John excellent fun to work with – a really intuitive cook – and by the time I left I’d been promoted to junior sous chef. The next challenge was Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons, both John (Burton-Race) and Simon (Haigh, of Inverlochy Castle) had trained at Le Manoir. I was excited about working there and within two years was promoted to senior sous chef before being asked to run the cookery school. This was a turning point for me, both personally and professionally, I met my wife there and also had the chance to learn and absorb so much through some excellent stage opportunities.

You came here to run the L’Ortolan restaurant from 2001?

Well I arrived having learned so much about attention to detail: You see the whole package at Le Manoir – Raymond Blanc was such an inspiration in that way – it’s about the whole team, not just the kitchen. When you’re chef/patron you must of course ensure quality from the kitchen, but that is lost if service is no good and service is no good if surroundings and atmosphere are not right. As an example we’ve recently invested in both crockery and lighting, elements that are subtle changes to even our regular customers, which nonetheless improve the overall package. I’ll also try and chat to regular customers as it’s important to me to show appreciation to those who appreciate us.

There was a gap in your tenure at L’Ortolan, Daniel Galmiche came in for a while, what happened there?

We had a difference of opinion with the owner of the building, we didn’t have the freedom to run the business as we wanted. Spreadsheets were suggesting longer opening hours and higher prices. We felt that this could not be achieved without compromising quality and consistency to the customer. Abi and I now have an agreement where we have full control to run the restaurant as we want to and it’s working out very well. The break gave me a chance to recharge my batteries as well as fulfill a gastropub consultancy in Winchester

Your kitchen is a relaxed and controlled environment?

It always is and that extends right through from the kitchen to the front of house, we’re one big team and everyone knows exactly what they have to do and when they have to do it. There’s an unspoken trust that the whole team have in each other and that generates a relaxed and professional environment.

Do you consider yourselves as evolving with the restaurant?

We don’t stand still. We could sit back and be happy with six good starters, six good main courses and six good deserts but we’re always looking to improve, improve in every aspect of the package that is L’Ortolan restaurant. Abi and I have both been visiting two Michelin Star restaurants just to see what they’re doing and possibly stimulate some ideas.

So how would say your food on a plate is evolving?

Six months ago the cooking was safe. It had to be; we’d just come back and reopened and needed to be straight down the middle straight away. Getting the foundations right was my main criteria as there was a Michelin Star at stake. September to January was about ensuring the new brigade could deliver single or double component cooking with timing and consistency. Retaining the Star in January was great and a base from which to evolve the cooking style and signature.

What is involved in the creative process of developing a new dish?

All the team are involved. There are no egos. We all work together on thinking and creating new dishes. It may come straight away, take a dozen plates or on one occasion 27 plates and we scrapped the concept. We’ll keep working a dish until we’re absolutely sure it is something that works perfectly, that we can consistently reproduce and takes the style of the kitchen forward. Only then will it make the menu.

The menu now displays a mixture of components and techniques?

We’ve been looking at using every part of the animal and using a variety of techniques in their preparation and execution. The important thing is balance; trying to do simple perfectly executed dishes along with those that show off techniques. I’m finding with the complex dishes that it takes time to ensure we don’t over manufacture them; getting that fine balance is key and we just know when the dish has come together and works well. Within that, we like the customer to have an element of surprise and a wow factor – to walk away wondering how we achieved something – as one example the chocolate tasting plate has a combination of seven different types of chocolate with seven different textures on one plate and is source of pride as a signature dish.

Do you trial dishes on the lunch menu for the a la carte?

No not at all, it’s all made to measure as I believe the customer should have something unique whether they come at lunch, dinner, set or a la carte. The only time we may adopt or adapt a lunch dish is as a component of the gourmand menu such as the asparagus dish you ate this evening.

Tell us more about your lunch menu?

It is £18 for two courses and £21 for three. The customer gets canapés and an appetizer and three courses – for us it’s very hard work and effectively a marketing exercise. To get One Star cooking in these surroundings, with our overheads is very tough to put on for £21. There are always those customers that may go for the Carte at lunch time or have the bigger wine budgets – the set in itself is by no means a profit spinner for the restaurant.

Where do you source your supplies?

Cheese is about the only thing that we get locally. We’re unashamed that 70% of produce comes from France, we know we get consistency and quality from these suppliers. There is a particular supplier that sources from Rungis market in Paris that we use almost exclusively.

Where does your clientele come from – are they local?

We get a real mixture – there are many locals who become regulars, also business people from the M3/M4 corridor, as well as those loyal to the restaurant for generations of chefs. We do get customers from as far a-field as Ipswich, Poole and London so it’s a real mix.

You’ve just re-launched your website,, are you pleased with it?

Yes we are, it took some time to get done and there are still some improvements to finish off. It is a great vehicle for people to see what we’re doing and where we are. We’ve just completed some more food photography which we’re very pleased with and that will go on the website in due course. There are more and more customers that seem to have access to a computer while they’re on the phone to us and we can just walk them through aspects of the restaurant which when the website is of the right quality is a real benefit.

We also send an email newsletter to our database of customers. This also helps to get the phone ringing and is very cost effective and simple marketing.

Do you ask customers how they came to hear of you?

Yes we do and by far the largest proportion of new customers are by word of mouth recommendation, although they are second to the returning customer. It just shows us how important customer care is to growing our client list. The guides are also important as they each have a band of followers that take their recommendations on trust.

The Private Dining Rooms – tell us about them?

We’d had the idea of the champagne room for some time. A celebration room that is golden and light and we’re absolutely delighted with the result. The second room is more dark, masculine and rich. They are selling well but again they are like selling a car – seeing a picture of them isn’t enough, you need to see and feel them to know that you want to book one so we’ll always encourage guests to go up and take a look for themselves when they’re here.

And finally – your chef’s table, tell us about that?

Well I’ll tell you what – you’ve experienced it – I’ll leave that to you!

Alan Murchison (and Abi) kindly found time to talk to late into the night one Friday evening – interview by Simon Carter, 13th May 2005.

Husband and wife Matt & Rachel Weedon have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of working for team L’ortolan. Matt has been developing his skills working as Head Chef while Rachel has had front of house responsibilties. From June 2005 they are moving on to Glenapp Castle in Scotland. All at L’ortolan and wish them the best in their new adventure.


Alan Murchison’s L’Ortolan Chef’s Table Restaurant Review

Posted on: May 11th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Passion, precision and perfection are qualities needed by all top chefs. To display these consistently in their own kitchens, in the pressure of an evening service and under the scrutiny of discerning foodies, is a challenge that few chefs are willing to undergo; and of the few restaurants that offer a “chef’s table” experience, all have grand kitchens, large brigades of chefs and waiters, and an often absent celebrity chef.

None of this applies to Alan Murchison at Michelin Starred L’Ortolan, who has redesigned his own amazingly compact kitchen, and commands a relatively small brigade in the kitchen and dining room. His Chef’s table is available on Friday and Saturday for two people only each evening. With a distinguished c.v. that includes Inverochy Castle and Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons Alan is a true master of his kitchen. Neither the Ramsayesque expletives, nor the Novelli style theatricals are in evidence. The demeaning “Yes chef…right way chef…you are wonderful chef!” responses we have seen and heard on recent TV shows are also noticeable by their absence. Rather, he succeeds through calm management of a well drilled team, with great mutual respect being shown. His philosophy is simple: shouting and verbal abuse is a personal reflection of a failure to train one’s staff properly. No wonder he does not need to raise his voice: his kitchen runs like clockwork, but this is a personalised well oiled machine.

The relative comfort of the evening ends after the pre-prandial drinks. The bench style seat and narrow table are not the hallmarks of a luxurious restaurant. But then comfort and relaxation would be counter-productive; indeed, you have to be fully alert and attentive for the numerous courses and running commentary that Alan, his restaurant manager / sommelier, Paul Shanahan, and the waiting staff provide throughout the evening. Two is also the optimum number for an occasion like this, not because it is a romantic night out – far from it – but because no diverting conversation amongst a larger number can interfere with the essential focus of the evening.

Being set near the kitchen door and directly opposite the service station – about four feet away – with eye level views of everything that reaches the passe, this chef’s table offers an excellent vantage point. It has the closest and most intimate feel of the three chef’s tables at which we have eaten. Nor is there a glass partition to sanitise the proceedings.

From the receipt of the orders to the sending out of the finished dishes, it is possible to see most of the savoury courses being prepared. (The pastry and dessert section is to the left, away from the main line of vision.).What amazes the onlooker is the dexterity of skills, the attention to detail, the constant tasting, the impeccable sense of timing, and the exquisite presentation essential for cooking of this standard. As the plates are to be dressed, purees and sauces are smeared, components are un-moulded, quenelles are shaped and main ingredients plated and garnished, all with great aplomb. Different sets of hands converge onto the same plate, each adding a separate element, but nothing leaves without Alan’s final approval.

However, artistic finesse and architectural design always take second place to the freshness of ingredients and the clarity of taste. If this means buying form France rather than locally, which is still unfortunately the case, he is unashamed about doing so.

Much of Alan’s food sometimes looks simple but is complex to create; other dishes are complex and require even greater labour. But the effect is not heavy or cloying. One way of achieving this in savoury dishes is to finish the accompanying sauces with a cappaccino of half milk rather than butter and cream. Lightness is achieved without compromising flavour.

The view from this chef’s table leaves nothing to the imagination, as Michelin Starred Chef Alan Murchison plates a dish in direct eyeline of the lucky diners.

The curtain opened with three amuse – bouches: smoked bacon and lentil soup with white truffle oil, seared blue fin tuna “Nicoise”, and chicken liver and foie gras parfait. They served their purpose splendidly by exciting the palate without being overwhelming in taste or quantity. The soup had a depth of flavour without creamy richness; the tuna was succulently fresh; and the parfait had richness and contrasting textures, given its coating of pain d’espices and accompanying spiced fig. (Wine Selection: Champagne)

The next two cold courses provided the first taste of summer. A quenelle of white crab meat, the sweetness of which was countered by a lemon mayonnaise, came with pressed tomato and purees of avocado and coriander. This was a simple looking but complex dish. The vichyssoise which followed it enlivened our senses with its stunning colour and freshness of taste. It was garnished luxuriously with truffled potato salad and asparagus. (Wine Selection: Reisling, Trinity Hill, Wairarapa, NZ 2004)

What followed was one of the most labour intensive dishes on the menu. Fresh macaroni, adorned with a generous slice of black truffle, was served with succulent and sweet langoustines, poivrade artichokes and an intense langoustine cream sauce. This was a truly decadent dish, simple but luxurious.

Next, a plate of warm white and green spruce asparagus, with toasted hazelnuts, crutons and beurre noisette, provided an explosion of textures and flavours; lightness and richness being combined in a truly inspired dish. (Wine Selection: Bourgogne Chardonnay, Albert Sounit Cote Chalonaise, 2001)


In between our courses one of the covers in the dining room is being plated ‘Seafood’

Separate main courses of duck and rabbit proved faultless in every way, each dish a master-class of varied cooking techniques, expert use of differing cuts of the animal and harmonious presentation. The menu seriously understated the contents to keep the element of surprise. The description “duck tasting plate” gives no hint of the numerous elements, including breast, confit of leg, foie gras and faggot. The accompaniments of truffled chicory, pear, and sauternes and honey jus set off this rich dish perfectly.

The rabbit main course of confit shoulder, roasted saddle, and pan fried best end, with mustard seed sauce and red wine jus was stunning in its architectural construction – with tiny best end chops extruding proudly – and delicacy of taste. Again, no mention on the menu of the steamed ravioli of rabbit mousse on which the various cuts were mounted, or the pan fried kidneys which spiked the dish. (Wine Selection: Chateau al Boscq, St Estephe, Bordeaux, 2000)

A mille feuille of goat’s cheese and brie de meaux with white truffled honey and port reduction provided a minor interlude before the pudding. (Wine Selection: Vintage fortified shiraz, d’Arenberg, Mclaren Vale 2000 Australia)

However, for those who behave themselves, leave nothing on their plates and show enthusiasm, there may be an extra course! Luck was on our side, and we greedily devoured the suckling pig speciality of roasted saddle, braised shoulder, trotter stuffed with morel mousse and apple butter sauce. Superb, especially as this was the very first time the chef had presented this dish.  (Wine Selection: Iona Sauvignon Blanc, Elgin South Africa, 2004)

A pre dessert of lemon posset, blood orange granite, and orange / almond tuile prepared us for the pastry chef’s signature dish.

The chocolate tasting plate comprised five components, each executed to perfection. A hot chocolate fondant contrasted in texture and temperature with a layered iced parfait. The caramel dome encasing a white chocolate mousse offset a rich slice of dark chocolate tart and peanut brittle. Finally, the pave of chocolate and coffee mousse, shaped like a teardrop, confirmed the technical skill and artistry of the kitchen. All this would appeal to confirmed chocoholics and those of more moderate dispositions like ourselves.  (Wine Selection: Domaine des Cazes, Tuile, 1986, Muscat des Rivesaltes, France.)

The evening ended at around midnight in the lounge with coffee and petit fours – sorry no room! The soporific effect of the food and drink were now taking effect. What a pity, we were thinking, this is not a restaurant with rooms – a small reservation given the excellence of the evening. Alan and Abigail Lloyd engaged us in foodie conversation of their aims, aspirations, their quest to improve.

As far as we are concerned, they do not have to do very much. This is a restaurant that epitomises the spirit of progressive Michelin espoirs and will no doubt warrant ever closer inspection.. One feels that time and an appreciative clientele are on their side.

The Ledbury, Restaurant Review, Notting Hill. (2005)

Posted on: May 11th, 2005 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

New Opening: The Ledbury – May 2005 : Nigel Platts-Martin Strikes Again by Daniel Darwood

What’s all the fuss about? Jan Moir of the Daily Telegraph “almost tears” by a salad starter?; Giles Coren in the Times Magazine commenting that the bohemian bastions of the area are crumbling; and Guy Dimond, the Time Out food critic, talking of the “surgical implant of Mayfair into Notting Hill!” Having read these reviews shortly after visiting the Ledbury for the second time, within a week, I must admit I share their adulation of the food – although I didn’t get emotional about it – but am less bothered by the location.

Admittedly, this is not an area of London one would expect to find a gourmet restaurant, with luxurious décor, plush seating and stiff table linen: it’s not just Notting Hill, but the north eastern end of the district, near the less salubrious Westbourne Grove. It is away from trendy Portobello Road and the up market Kensington Church Street which houses the restaurants of Sally Clarke and Rowley Leigh.

But why should the West End have a monopoly of very good restaurants? I use this phrase advisedly, because the owners of The Ledbury, Nigel Platts-Martin and Philip Howard, already have one restaurant awarded two Michelin stars – The Square – and two awarded one – The Glasshouse and Chez Bruce. “Very good” implies a candidate for two Michelin stars and, judging from the dishes sampled, The Ledbury is clearly aiming for this bracket. And I don’t think for a second that Michelin et al will be at all worried about its location. They know that foodies will journey anywhere for great food. After all, Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s gained two Michelin stars in what was then unsophisticated Wandsworth Common – a lot further from Mayfair than Notting Hill. In the same way, if The Ledbury can sustain and develop its performance beyond its opening weeks, it could emulate the achievements of Harvey’s, The Square and other two star establishments.

Brett Graham – the 26-year-old Australian born chef – worked under Philip Howard at the Square for four years. In 2002 he was awarded the Restaurant Association Young Chef of the Year. His cooking is rich and complex but not heavy. There are classic combinations with novel adaptations; great depth of flavour especially in the sauces; perfect timing and enormous attention to detail. Attributes expected of most good kitchens, but The Ledbury has shown appropriate consistency from the very beginning.

The bread makes an initially strong impression. Here it is served warm with a crisp crust and chewy crumb. The amuse bouche, a tiny jelly of cherry tomatoes with a tuna tartare and avocado, was stunning in its delicate combination of sweet and savoury tastes: a perfect way to whet the appetite

Seafood ravioli – or raviolo to be grammatically correct – has become a modern classic, often badly done. Here, the understated “shellfish ravioli” was generously plump with its filling of minced lobster and prawn with a scallop mousse, and wrapped in an ethereally light pasta. At first sight the champagne cream sauce might appear to have made the dish too rich. However, the taste proved otherwise – perfectly harmonious and well balanced, with the al dente asparagus spears helping to cut the richness.

Lasagne of rabbit with morels was a triumph of earthy flavours with innovative presentation. Layers of rhombus shaped pasta alternated with shredded rabbit meat, the whole dish being extravagantly garnished with morels. Again, excessive richness was avoided by a cappuccino style veloute of thyme which helped to lighten the dish without detracting from the essential composition.

Terrine of lobster and leek has been done before, notably at Harvey’s. There have been many poor imitations since. However, Brett Graham takes it two stages further: by including jersey royals he gives contrasting flavour and creaminess to the mosaic look of the dish, whilst the frog’s leg beignets with watercress mayonnaise lifts the whole construction with an added crunch and delicate sweetness.

Roast foie gras with a tarte fine of figs and a fig and port puree is again a variation of foie gras and tatin classic which can be overwhelming in its richness. I prefer The Ledbury version which, although still indulgent – what foie gras dish could be otherwise? – is nevertheless much lighter and less sweet in its overall construction.

Main courses are composite dishes revealing mastery of technique, with a focus on flavour and moderate innovation.

Assiette of Veal (rump, sweetbreads and cheek) was suitably accompanied by a leek fondue and a deeply flavoured gratin of macaroni and wild mushrooms. White asparagus and toasted almonds gave added flavour and texture to the velvety creaminess of the meat and offal.

Pigeon from Bresse combined roasted pink breast and confit legs with a classic accompaniment of mushrooms and madeira – in this case a cepe consumme. The foie gras tortellini added yet another indulgent touch to this already luxurious dish.

Fillet of Beef was a tour de force. The well hung meat came medium rare with an intense red wine sauce and a croustillant of snails, oxtail and celeriac. Croustillants, a relative newcomer on modern French menus, can come in various shapes and components: this one was a cylinder of deep fried vermicelli encasing its moist and flavoursome contents. (First saw them at Lucas Carton in 2002).

Were constructive criticism to be made, it would be to suggest more attention to vegetable garnish; surely an opportunity missed to balance the richness of the veal, pigeon and beef dishes described – perhaps in the case of the pigeon the foie gras tortellini mis-constructed (were there such a word) the dish.

After such boldness, would the puddings be an anti-climax? Fortunately not, as similar qualities of skill and invention were evident. The coffee ice cream proved an ideal foil for the chicory crème brulee which it accompanied. The warm chocolate madeleines added a contrast of temperature and texture. Sorbets were silky soft in their consistency and intensely fruity, whilst assiette of mango comprised four elements – including upside down cake, filled tuile and sorbet – with the addition of vanilla ice cream.

Coffee came without petit fours, an understandable absence given the demands in the kitchen of the previous courses, and unnecessary after three excellent courses, but something that will require attention if Michelin stars are being sought.

In the kitchen, the talented Brett Graham, makes good use of his experience at the Square, leading a strong team to produce his labour intensive and inventive cooking. He has made a great start and now needs to pace himself to go all the way

The front of house is led by the manager, the delightful Helena Hell, whose warmth and charm inject a very personal touch to the proceedings. The sommelier, Dawn Davies, who has composed a very sensible wine list, with something for all pockets, is also very helpful. The overwhelming impression is one of great professionalism and team work, both inside the kitchen and in the restaurant itself.

£39.50 for three courses for dinner is a steal. Lunch, which we have not sampled, is £24.50 for three courses. There is also an eight course tasting menu at £55. Surely these prices cannot last and the honeymoon period will soon be over. However, The Ledbury has probably already built up a loyal customer base, including foodies who will travel some distance, and pay more, to eat there. It is clearly more than a neighbourhood restaurant, yet has an ideal neighbourhood setting. So, in the end, there is much to make a fuss about. We look forward to the 2006 editions of the food guides to begin the recognition process of this major addition to the London restaurant scene.

The Ledbury

127 Ledbury Road

London. W11 2AQ

0207 792 9090 (under construction)