Foliage Restaurant Review, London (2004)

Posted on: November 10th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Low Profile but High Powered. (June 2004) by Simon Carter, Co-Editor

It wasn’t so long ago that Marco Pierre White was a ‘meteor hurtling through the firmament’ at Harveys (now the site of Chez Bruce). We saw the precocious would-be-rock-star preparing ‘semi-reality’ televised meals for each of his mentors – Raymond Blanc, Albert Roux, Nico Ladenis and Pierre Koffman. A rare young talent taught by the best, destined to become the best. And there, in his kitchen, he barked his orders to “Gordon”, a lad who would follow, in turn, to Michelin Three Star greatness.

You may not see Chris Staines doing a ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ or a fly-on the-wall but this media shy talent does share something with these bastions of the art – Chris has served an apprenticeship with the best. Time in the kitchens of Nico Ladenis and Marco Pierre White and time well spent. When Marco ‘gave back’ his Three Stars at The Oak Room, Chris was instrumental in regaining two of them.

In March 2002, at the tender age of 27, he took over from Hywel Jones at Foliage and has subsequently pushed the restaurant to the verge of a second Michelin Star.

I’ve always associated The Mandarin Oriental Hotel with travelling celebrities, particularly from the music industry, looking for a fashionable retreat. This impression is reinforced by the media as well as the loud, trendy and high profile Mandarin Bar.

The irony is not lost as you walk through this din to get to Foliage (and again each time you take a comfort break). The contrast is exaggerated by the open archway to the hushed gastronomic dining room.

On this occasion we were running late after a torrid journey on the M4, thankfully a table was provided at the furthest point from the bar. The new Assistant Manager (Nick Liang) organised a much needed drink while we considered the menu.

I started with a brandade of frogs legs raviolo, poached langoustines, shallot tempura and a vegetable nage.

Like the amuse-bouches before, this proved luxurious, labour intensive, generous and understated. As with great artists, something so apparently difficult and complicated was made to feel easy – in this case the sensation was delivered to, rather than from, the palette – a natural harmony of ingredients executed perfectly with a touch of genius in the collaborations on the plate.

Bresse pigeon with foie gras, puy lentils, Savoy cabbage and vegetable confit followed. This was similar to a dish I had at the Oak Room in its hey day (the combinations of pasta and shellfish on the menu also remind of Marco). Here, the pigeon and generous slab of foie gras were steamed and wrapped in a blanched cabbage leaf. An inspired coupling of textures with the richness balanced by the earthy cabbage and puy lentils.

For pudding I opted for the concoction that included a chocolate fondant – I was not disappointed. This section, like the rest, was on form.

All in all, a truly memorable experience. A modern spin on classical French cooking with a theme of understated bold brush strokes that mask the complexity from the customer. The hallmark of a master of his trade; everything natural and just so…

Media profile or no, Chris Staines and Foliage can look forward to Two Michelin Stars, and for what it’s worth, my patronage for some time to come!

Staines Delivers without a Blemish. (June 2004) by Daniel Darwood, Co-Editor

If asked what is the greatest meal I have ever eaten, my reply would be Marco Pierre White’s gastronomic menu at The Oak Room: Ballotine of Salmon with crayfish tails and caviar; grilled lobster with sauce mousseline; breast of Bresse Pigeon with foie gras and pomme puree; brie with truffles and feillantine of raspberries with sauce Cardinale. The quality of these luxurious ingredients, the precision of the cooking and the intensity of the flavours made me return several times to indulge in these heavenly creations, or others from the Carte. However the Oak Room closed abruptly and all foodies must lament the passing of this great restaurant and of Marco’s inimitable style of cooking.

And yet his legacy is still evident on the national eating scene, not just in his surviving restaurants – Criterion, Quo Vadis, Belvedere, et al – and in the phenomenon that is Gordon Ramsey, but also in more quiet, understated but equally talented proteges.

Chris Staines is an excellent example of this. He used to be Sous Chef at the Oak Room and has succeeded Hywel Jones as Chef at Foliage, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Indeed many of the staff from the Oak Room joined Foliage when the Oak Room closed. With one Michelin Star to its credit, but deserving of more, this restaurant is the natural successor to The Oak Room in the quality of its cooking, value for money, and efficiency of service, if not in the grandeur of its setting – No oak panelling, grand chandeliers or Louis XV style chairs. Nor are they needed. The food speaks volumes.

Everything is top notch, from the salted or unsalted butter offered, the trio of canapes – which included a deep fried frogs leg with curried mayonnaise – through to the pre puddings and petits fours. Attention to detail is immaculate in all the courses, which often embrace five or six components. Consider, for instance, my starter: a dome of exquisitely light scallop mousse topped with truffle, encased in an open raviolo of perfect freshness, was surrounded by seared scallops of caramelised sweetness and three plump, freshly cooked langoustines. Tiny al dente asparagus spears and a foaming artichoke veloute completed this magnificent dish. Similar skill and care was lavished on the main course of saddle of rabbit with wild mushroom pithivier, Alsace bacon and vanilla cream. Pot roasting the rabbit retained its moistness, whilst the accompaniments enhanced its natural blandness. Overall the dish was a triumph of tastes and textures. The puddings are architectural in structure but harmonious in their combinations. The tangy dentelle of lemon and passion fruit, a caramelised citrus tart and mascarpone sorbet proved a refreshing final course.

This is serious cooking of the very highest order and reasonable prices for the West End (£50 for three courses for dinner). I hear the set lunch including wine is a steal at £32. My only – minor – grumbles are chairs without arms and mineral water at £5 a bottle.

Nevertheless, Foliage deserves much more recognition than its fashionable but noisy neighbour, the Bar, and the hotel itself, both of which have attracted more publicity.

All those involved in cooking and serving are to be congratulated on maintaining what must be one of the best restaurants in London, and certainly the best hotel restaurant in the capital.