Heading down Edgware Road from Praed Street to Marble Arch, it is easy to feel a creeping fatalism. The area is rightly noted for its Middle Eastern restaurants, with garlanded food stores and smoky hookah bars vying for attention. The epicurean opportunities are familiar and not unattractive, but my destination on a Monday evening was not far from this familiar scene.
I continued my walk into Upper Berkeley Street which straddles the Marylebone area east of the Edgware Road and north of Oxford Street. Apart from a number of well known hotels such as The Churchill, it is without significant landmarks and the streets are eerily quiet even by 7pm. It is therefore with some relief that I find myself in the oasis of lights at Sixtyone Restaurant.
In fact the location of this new restaurant which, I am sure, will soon be a foodie destination, is not as out the way as it might seem. There are two entrances, a designated one off Upper Berkeley Street and the other through the Montcalm Hotel. The restaurant takes its name from the former.
Launched in November 2013, this is the eagerly anticipated debut of Chef Patron Arnaud Stevens. With the financial backing of Searcy’s (of Champagne bar fame), the restaurant has in Arnaud someone of impeccable heritage. With stints working with such giants as Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Richard Corrigan, and latterly himself as Executive Head Chef at the Gherkin, the opportunity for Arnaud to go it alone has long been overdue. Searcy’s can surely spot an opportunity for success.
The interior of Sixtyone exudes understated elegance with its comfortable chairs and banquettes, excellent lighting, and spacious layout. There are also quirky and inventive features, notably a large tubular copper set of lights that hang intriguingly above the tables like the innards of a Wurlitzer machine.
This aspect of the décor clearly reflects a sense of fun which seems to be the zeitgeist running through Arnaud’s vision.
The courteous, welcoming service is overseen by Artan Mesekrani whose extensive experience in high end restaurant management makes for interesting, nostalgic conversation.
The menus at Sixtyone are enticing yet unpretentious, offering excellent quality without a serious attack on the wallet. Starters are all £10 or less and include options such as Octopus Carpaccio, Dorset Oyster or Smoked Mallard Salad. There is also a choice of seven main courses, all under £20 and including, for example, Braised Beef Cheek with Black Pudding, Slow Cooked Sea Bream or Potimarron Gnocchi with Chanterelles. Due diligence is paid to provenance without being evangelical. As Arnaud later explained, the focus is on delivering absolute quality – the pretentions are to be left to others.
The options are all very appealing and as we begin the painful deliberation over our selection we find salvation in the tasting menu. Not only does this include a number of the options from the carte, it is also exceptional value at £45 for six courses (or £75 with wines).
Our taste buds are initially whetted by the house aperitif, a Sparkling English Rose by Balfour. The crisp dry flavours perfectly complemented by the arrival of breads and what is described on the menu as ‘snacks’.
Amongst the homemade breads was a wonderfully rich cep brioche and a tangy marmite bread, both unusual but immediately pleasing.
Serving the ‘snacks’ gave an opportunity for a piece of restaurant theatre which was highly revealing of the playfulness of the menu. A conical flask, lined with filter paper, was placed on our table. Into this the waitress began to scoop large spoonfuls of porcini granules, adding Dashi stock for us to witness the infusion and percolation process. The finished result was a liquid with an intense mushroom flavour. This was served alongside a soft and deeply flavourful mushroom parfait, silky smooth, a quenelle of perfection!
Already it was becoming clear that our preconceptions would be challenged. Although the menu listed ingredients, the descriptions of each course were terse and there was to be an element of surprise as each dish arrived.
The next course was described as Mussels, Bread Soup and Suckling Pork Belly. The mussels were enrobed by the creamy rich Polaine based soup. At the centre of the dish, the belly was the sweetest and softest of meat, with a delicate crisp skin. Melting into the soup was a quenelle of white chocolate ganache, the sweetness of which perfectly complemented the other ingredients. The dish was a real triumph of gastronomic acumen – a perfect, if unusual, combination of flavours and textures. The accompanying Bacholet Monnot Burgoyne Blanc 2011, with its chalky minerality, did full justice to the food
Next came the intriguing Rabbit Bolognese, Salsify and Almond. When this arrived it resembled classic Spaghetti Bolognese, the pasta sitting on a bed of ragout and the dish of almond resembling finely grated parmesan. An initial taste revealed the pasta to be salsify, but when the almonds were sprinkled on top of the rich, heavily reduced ragout, it was hard to believe this wasn’t a traditional but excellent “spag bol.” The clever presentation of the dish managed to trick both the eyes and the taste buds! Additional texture was provided by thyme croutons, a pleasing contrast to the softer components of the dish. The wine pairing was a very pleasant Chianti Classico.
From the rabbit we moved on to a dish of Roasted Cod with Garbure Vegetables. The rustic vibrancy of chunky carrots and potatoes cooked with kale in a saffron stock contrasted with the opaque flesh of the fish which had been accurately timed to showcase its beautiful fresh flavour and flaky texture. The addition of the Alsace bacon lifted the whole dish which was at once both a hearty and refined. The accompanying elegant Pinot Noir, Burgoyne Valet Freres Gevrey Chambertain. 2010, had a pure finish and velvety texture.
For the final savoury course we were treated to Squab Pigeon with Snails, Cauliflower and Parsley Risotto. The pigeon, precisely timed and well rested to showcase its gentle gaminess and melting texture, sat on a bed of silky cauliflower puree. The snails, suitably chewy but not tough, were classically paired with parsley, which came in a brilliantly green and well seasoned risotto. With contrasting textures from the al dente creamy rice and crisp puffed rice garnishes, this was a highly original presentation. This accomplished dish, showing high levels of skill and creativity, was enjoyed a beautiful Sicilian Cristo de Campobello Rosso 2011.
The dessert featured Rhubarb with White Chocolate and ginger. Visually impressive, with a riot of pinks, red and amber along a linear arrangement, it centred on a white chocolate bombe, encasing rhubarb compote. Although slightly oversweet and cloying, it was balanced by the acidity of the smooth rhubarb sorbet. Similarly, the warmth of ginger added a muted spicy element to the sweet and acidic elements. This final course managed to surpass expectations and, like the rest of the menu, deliver something different, exciting and fun. The accompanying dessert wine was a classic Muscat de Beaume de Venises, Le Chant de Griolles Paul Jaboulet Aine 2011.
The sense of the familiar and predictable which started my evening, was dispelled by dinner at Sixtyone. Through his menu Arnaud Stevens takes classic technique and flavour combinations, but somehow twists these into something different and unpredictable. His playfulness with the presentation and the arrangement of each dish builds a real sense of excitement and anticipation at the table.
The real strength of Arnaud’s cooking is that at no point does style take over from substance. In getting this balance right, Arnaud has managed to successfully walk a tightrope that many have tried and failed. Continuing in this way, Sixtyone is deserving of the commercial success to match its culinary excellence. Fine Dining Guide will follow its progress with interest.