Since it opened in 1971, The Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge has seen an enviable galaxy of chefs including Richard Shepherd, Brian Turner, Philip Britten and Eric Chavot achieve Michelin stardom. The award of two stars saw its destination restaurant become veritable temple of gastronomy with dining in hushed, reverential tones as a mark to true respect to these culinary gods. Service was suitably formal, encouraged by the sumptuous décor, the arrangement of tables dressed in fine napery, and a desire to emulate classical front of house service.
By way of contrast, the first decades of this century have witnessed remarkable changes in eating out, especially in London. These include the opening of huge scale restaurants often with industrial chic or Nordic look interiors; and the popularity of tapas, sharing plates and street food, all of which are linked with the rise of so called relaxed, informal dining and service.
Thank goodness the Capital has not adopted the worst excesses of these developments. True, the table cloths have been replaced by table mats on the polished wood tables. There has also been a partial redesign, with the mirrored seahorse sculptures, blond wood paneling and mirrored walls creating the illusion of space. However, all are tastefully executed, consistent with the decor of a plush hotel restaurant.
Happily, there are no small dishes where the bill can easily mounts up deceptively quickly, no Scandinavian sparseness and no sloppy, over familiar service in the guise of informality. Uniformed staff remains making it easy to distinguish staff from guests, unlike the fashion in some high end restaurants.
Nathan Outlaw has embraced the trend towards informal dining but it can only be taken so far at the Capital, a bastion of traditional luxurious hospitality which necessarily involves a degree of formality. This does not mean stuffy, condescending or patronising service, indeed the opposite is clearly the case; from the doorman, reception and waiting staff to the sommelier and restaurant manager, it was a pleasure to experience welcoming, helpful and attentive service balanced by a degree of professionalism.
What is to be welcomed is the focus on fish, Nathan Outlaw’s forte, which has earned him two Michelin stars at this eponymous restaurant in Cornwall. Just as his previous employer and long term friend Rick Stein has spawned a dining empire in Padstein – sorry Padstow – so Nathan has expanded in Port Isaac and Rock, with two restaurants in each. The opening and success of Outlaw’s at the Capital saw his triumphant debut in London.
Worries about spreading his talent too thinly can be dismissed knowing that the brigade of ten in the kitchen is led by Peter Biggs, his sous chef in Cornwall for ten years. Delegation to highly trusted colleagues is an essential prerequisite for successful expansion and here it works perfectly.
Clearly the approach to food at Outlaw’s is the same as those of his other establishments: Sourcing of the finest ingredients is axiomatic. At our recent lunch, brill, scallops, sea bass, lemon sole came from Cornwall and hand dived scallops from Scotland. Sensitive treatment of the raw material, enabling natural flavours to shine, is fundamental. Precision in timing and judiciously light saucing enable the chef to do the fish justice without masking its delicate taste. Care is taken with vegetables which are integral parts of the dish
Pricing is realistic given the quality of ingredients, the accomplished cooking and the superior service. The £55 three-course Winter Menu. has four options in each course including one meat alternative for starters and mains. Cheese at no supplement is offered instead dessert. Even better value is the set lunch at £22 for two courses, £27 for three, with three options in each course.
Fine Dining Guide visited Outlaw’s in a busy lunch in March.
Openers to our meal augured well for what was to follow. Deep friend crispy fish balls were amazingly light and grease free, Dipped in herb mayonnaise, they were a delight to eat.
Even better was the rosemary focaccia, soft and fragrant crumb with a thin, crisp crust
An imaginative starter of brill comprised thin slices of cured fillet given a spicy twist with paprika and enlivened with lemon juice and paprika oil. This worked well with the acidity of a bed of pickled peppers. Dill yogurt and chopped dill provided a herbal lift, contrasting with smoked almonds which gave crunch and texture.
Crispy oysters magically retained their ozone fragrance and slimy texture after being bread crumbed and deep fried – two textures in one. Pickled shallots, carrots and cucumber balanced the richness of the seafood. The dish was bought together by an unusual mayonnaise based sauce using oysters, horseradish and cucumber tea. Thus, a familiar dish was transformed into an excitingly novel one.
In a special starter of the day, three hand-dived, wonderfully sweet scallops in their shells were swiftly baked in a Josper charcoal oven, Whilst lacking a caramelised crust resulting from pan searing, this was more than compensated for by an inventive orange and rosemary butter sauce and a gratin of cheddar and rosemary breadcrumbs. The seductive aroma of warm shells added an extra dimension to the dish. The overall balance of ingredients was impressive, especially as the rosemary could so easily have overpowered the seafood.
A lemon sole main course featured a grilled fillet precisely timed to retain its structure and moistness – not an easy feat with such a delicate fish. The accompanying sprouting broccoli, finished by char grilling, added texture colour and flavour. What made this simple pairing successful was the warm tartare sauce mixed with fish stock, which gave a well-judged richness, and the crispy capers and lemon oil dressing which acted as a seasoning.
A well timed fillet of sea bass was pan fried to produce a crisp skin and firm white flakes of succulent flesh. Perched on silky smooth, mashed potato, it was enhanced by smoked leeks which also gave a gentle crunch, and a deeply flavoured roast chicken dressing which worked particularly well with the other elements.
Herb crusted cod is almost a cliché in most restaurants. What made Outlaw’s version special is the addition of hazelnuts (to parsley, chives, tarragon and butter), giving the oven baked fish a particularly flavoursome and crunchy coating. Spinach with garlic proved a well-considered vegetable, whilst a dressing of mushrooms, shallots, oil and tarragon enlivened by Levin verjus, finished off the dish well.
To finish, four English cheeses in prime condition, including a Nottinghamshire blue and a Cornish five year matured cheddar specially sourced by Nathan Outlaw, proved a good alternative to those without a sweet tooth. Dried treacle bread, thinly sliced like Melba toast, fig and apple chutney and pickled celery, all delicious, showed that garnishes were not a mere afterthought.
Treacle tart, baked to order, had thin, crisp, buttery pastry and a rich not over-sweet filling. The orange and lemon zest balancing the sweetness of the treacle. Topped with a velvety smooth scoop of vanilla ice cream, this simple dessert embodied all the strengths of the pastry section.
Overall, it is not difficult to see why Outlaw’s has been awarded a Michelin star. Invention and creativity are reflected in harmonious combinations, refinement and elegant presentation of dishes, all of which reflect skills of a high order. These are only to be expected given Nathan Outlaw’s talents and his impressive CV, having worked with top chefs such as Gary Rhodes, Eric Chavot and John Campbell. Fine Dining Guide enjoyed its visit to Outlaw’s at the Capital and will follow its progress with interest.