Sketch Lecture Room & Library Review (February 2010)

Posted on: February 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

The Grade II listed building at 9 Conduit Street in Mayfair, is the home of Sketch, the concept of which is relatively new to the British hospitality industry. Sketch promotes itself as a “lieu,” an all-day “drop in” complex of several parts, where guests can appreciate food, art and music. Whether in the Parlour (tea room), the Glade (bar and night club), the Gallery bistro or the fine dining Lecture Room and Library, they can be guaranteed an experience which will engage all their senses.

Opened in 2002, Sketch is the vision of Algerian born Mourad Mazouz, owner of Momo, and the French master chef Pierre Gagnaire. At seemingly endless expense, the Georgian house, once the showroom of Christian Dior, has been renovated and decorated by Mazouz along with a notable Parisian sculptor. Signature pieces by other international designers are also in evidence, whilst the imaginative menus have been created by Pierre Gagnaire.

The handsome three storey exterior, with classic Georgian sash windows, belies the spacious and highly modern interior that exudes cutting edge style and glamour. Of particular note are the walls of The Gallery which feature a moving frieze of projected video art accompanied by pulsating music.

Ascending the marble staircase and escorted by a charming meet and greet, front of house, maitre d’Hotel, one’s gaze is captured by an arresting crystal female mannequin, reportedly costing £100,000 together with a relatively evocative and bohemian aroma.

The culmination of this interrogation of the first four senses is the maitre d’ ceremoniously opening the dark wood double- doors to reveal the grandeur of the Lecture Room, surely one of the most sumptuous dining rooms in London.

With an ornate high domed ceiling and walls decorated with horizontal panels of different shades of yellow and brown, the immediate feeling is one of light and warmth. Two seemingly blank canvases on opposite walls are, when one looks closely, very faint portraits of a child’s face – the latest genre by a Chinese artist. Large, well spaced round tables with starched linen and velvet armchairs give luxury and comfort. Extra decadence is provided by plush carpet of orange, red and cream, whilst the mirrored dividing wall and hanging oriental pendant lamps give more light and colour.

However, the real star of the Lecture Room and library is the food created by the three Michelin starred Pierre Gagnaire, who was overseeing the kitchen – run by Jean-Denis Le Bras – on the day of our visit. With the white, wispy hair and beard of a wizard, he conjures up magical dishes of great complexity and elegance.

His innovative “New French” food experiments with an array of textures and flavours, whilst retaining balance and harmony. Sometimes unusual ingredients are used: consider, for instance, the Epine Vinette and Lardo di Colonnata which garnished a crustacean course of the tasting menu.

There are also elements of gently restrained fusion cooking. Whether on the carte or the lunchtime menu rapide, each dish often comprises at least three elements which arrive in separate designer plates or bowls. This is highly inventive, labour intensive food, reflecting the endless creativity and generosity of spirit of its creator.

The dining experience begins with an array of canapes, tiny creations which could be a meal in themselves for those on a diet! Tuna cream with cumin bread were amongst the delightful morsels which certainly whetted the appetite for more. A variety of breads, including white baguette, chestnut and milk brioche, came with seaweed or unsalted butter.

The tasting menu featured three outstanding courses of seafood. A dish of red mullet fillet and rillettes was garnished with beer-marinated turnip carpaccio, and braised beetroot, giving a crisp bite against the soft fish. The Vadouvan spicing complemented the robust flavour of the mullet without overwhelming it

The next course of brown crab – featuring only the delicate white meat – arrived with pan fried langoustine, both items revealing an exquisite sweetness and delicacy that only comes with the freshest of shellfish. (see top of page)

A rich foie gras terrine was offset by a red pepper and chorizo ice cream that produced a sensation of taste and temperature. Gingerbread added a mildly spicy element that worked well with the sauce Bigarade

Scallops, seared to give a caramelised crust and perfectly timed to a medium rare, sat on a vibrant green jus flecked with baby leek and salsify. Visually stunning, this was another wholly satisfying, indulgent dish.

Champagne granita with angostura bitters provided a refreshing if alcoholic interval before the meat course.

Venison came in two forms: a generous portion of saddle, cooked pink, and a rich daube of the shoulder, with great depth of flavour. The only discordant note was the accompanying red cabbage which proved a little too astringent. Nevertheless, the quince paste, onion cream and red wine jelly rescued the dish from being too imbalanced.

The cheese course of Roquefort terrine with Brittany sable and lemon wurtz was totally successful in balancing salty, sour and sweet tastes in a rich but light creation. The addition of tiny pieces of green peppers and other garnishes added textural complexity to this exciting new dish.

Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert offered a combination of elements, all of which demonstrated refined skills of the pastry section. Once again, experimentation with ingredients was seen in an offering of spiced jelly with lassi and cardamom.

More conventional but perfectly executed items were pear sorbet and coffee ice cream covered with crisp dark chocolate Other aspects of dining in the Lecture Room are excellent.

The service is utterly professional, with impeccable attention to detail. The team operates like a well oiled machine, but one with a genuine human desire to please. In the meet, greet and departure; in the serving and removal of plates; in the knowledgeable way they helped with menu explanations; in their guidance on the order to eat the array of small dishes; and in the serving and topping up of drinks, the staff proved masters of their craft. They combine efficiency, helpfulness and discretion without being obtrusive.

The wine list is, predictably, formidable, with prices to match. Bordeaux & Burgundy dominate, but it is also strong on Champagne. The outstanding sommelier, Fred Brugues, is able to discuss wine choices with consummate ease, showing a passion and understanding that excites the listener.

Prices in the Lecture Room are steep, but this is no ordinary restaurant but one of exceptional qualities which merit expenditure worthy of a special occasion. In 2005 the Lecture Room was ranked as the 18th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine and in 2008 it won the 2007-08 AA Wine Award for England. At present, it holds one Michelin star, but clearly has the potential to gain more.