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.