What’s all the fuss about? Jan Moir of the Daily Telegraph “almost moved..to tears” by a salad starter?; Giles Coren in the Times Magazine commenting that the bohemian bastions of the area are crumbling; and Guy Dimond, the Time Out food critic, talking of the “surgical implant of Mayfair into Notting Hill!” Having read these reviews shortly after visiting the Ledbury for the second time, within a week, I must admit I share their adulation of the food – although I didn’t get emotional about it – but am less bothered by the location.
Admittedly, this is not an area of London one would expect to find a gourmet restaurant, with luxurious décor, plush seating and stiff table linen: it’s not just Notting Hill, but the north eastern end of the district, near the less salubrious Westbourne Grove. It is away from trendy Portobello Road and the up market Kensington Church Street which houses the restaurants of Sally Clarke and Rowley Leigh.
But why should the West End have a monopoly of very good restaurants? I use this phrase advisedly, because the owners of The Ledbury, Nigel Platts-Martin and Philip Howard, already have one restaurant awarded two Michelin stars – The Square – and two awarded one – The Glasshouse and Chez Bruce. “Very good” implies a candidate for two Michelin stars and, judging from the dishes sampled, The Ledbury is clearly aiming for this bracket. And I don’t think for a second that Michelin et al will be at all worried about its location. They know that foodies will journey anywhere for great food. After all, Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s gained two Michelin stars in what was then unsophisticated Wandsworth Common – a lot further from Mayfair than Notting Hill. In the same way, if The Ledbury can sustain and develop its performance beyond its opening weeks, it could emulate the achievements of Harvey’s, The Square and other two star establishments.
Brett Graham – the 26-year-old Australian born chef – worked under Philip Howard at the Square for four years. In 2002 he was awarded the Restaurant Association Young Chef of the Year. His cooking is rich and complex but not heavy. There are classic combinations with novel adaptations; great depth of flavour especially in the sauces; perfect timing and enormous attention to detail. Attributes expected of most good kitchens, but The Ledbury has shown appropriate consistency from the very beginning.
The bread makes an initially strong impression. Here it is served warm with a crisp crust and chewy crumb. The amuse bouche, a tiny jelly of cherry tomatoes with a tuna tartare and avocado, was stunning in its delicate combination of sweet and savoury tastes: a perfect way to whet the appetite
Seafood ravioli – or raviolo to be grammatically correct – has become a modern classic, often badly done. Here, the understated “shellfish ravioli” was generously plump with its filling of minced lobster and prawn with a scallop mousse, and wrapped in an ethereally light pasta. At first sight the champagne cream sauce might appear to have made the dish too rich. However, the taste proved otherwise – perfectly harmonious and well balanced, with the al dente asparagus spears helping to cut the richness.
Lasagne of rabbit with morels was a triumph of earthy flavours with innovative presentation. Layers of rhombus shaped pasta alternated with shredded rabbit meat, the whole dish being extravagantly garnished with morels. Again, excessive richness was avoided by a cappuccino style veloute of thyme which helped to lighten the dish without detracting from the essential composition.
Terrine of lobster and leek has been done before, notably at Harvey’s. There have been many poor imitations since. However, Brett Graham takes it two stages further: by including jersey royals he gives contrasting flavour and creaminess to the mosaic look of the dish, whilst the frog’s leg beignets with watercress mayonnaise lifts the whole construction with an added crunch and delicate sweetness.
Roast foie gras with a tarte fine of figs and a fig and port puree is again a variation of foie gras and tatin classic which can be overwhelming in its richness. I prefer The Ledbury version which, although still indulgent – what foie gras dish could be otherwise? – is nevertheless much lighter and less sweet in its overall construction.
Main courses are composite dishes revealing mastery of technique, with a focus on flavour and moderate innovation.
Assiette of Veal (rump, sweetbreads and cheek) was suitably accompanied by a leek fondue and a deeply flavoured gratin of macaroni and wild mushrooms. White asparagus and toasted almonds gave added flavour and texture to the velvety creaminess of the meat and offal.
Pigeon from Bresse combined roasted pink breast and confit legs with a classic accompaniment of mushrooms and madeira – in this case a cepe consumme. The foie gras tortellini added yet another indulgent touch to this already luxurious dish.
Fillet of Beef was a tour de force. The well hung meat came medium rare with an intense red wine sauce and a croustillant of snails, oxtail and celeriac. Croustillants, a relative newcomer on modern French menus, can come in various shapes and components: this one was a cylinder of deep fried vermicelli encasing its moist and flavoursome contents. (First saw them at Lucas Carton in 2002).
Were constructive criticism to be made, it would be to suggest more attention to vegetable garnish; surely an opportunity missed to balance the richness of the veal, pigeon and beef dishes described – perhaps in the case of the pigeon the foie gras tortellini mis-constructed (were there such a word) the dish.
After such boldness, would the puddings be an anti-climax? Fortunately not, as similar qualities of skill and invention were evident. The coffee ice cream proved an ideal foil for the chicory crème brulee which it accompanied. The warm chocolate madeleines added a contrast of temperature and texture. Sorbets were silky soft in their consistency and intensely fruity, whilst assiette of mango comprised four elements – including upside down cake, filled tuile and sorbet – with the addition of vanilla ice cream.
Coffee came without petit fours, an understandable absence given the demands in the kitchen of the previous courses, and unnecessary after three excellent courses, but something that will require attention if Michelin stars are being sought.
In the kitchen, the talented Brett Graham, makes good use of his experience at the Square, leading a strong team to produce his labour intensive and inventive cooking. He has made a great start and now needs to pace himself to go all the way
The front of house is led by the manager, the delightful Helena Hell, whose warmth and charm inject a very personal touch to the proceedings. The sommelier, Dawn Davies, who has composed a very sensible wine list, with something for all pockets, is also very helpful. The overwhelming impression is one of great professionalism and team work, both inside the kitchen and in the restaurant itself.
£39.50 for three courses for dinner is a steal. Lunch, which we have not sampled, is £24.50 for three courses. There is also an eight course tasting menu at £55. Surely these prices cannot last and the honeymoon period will soon be over. However, The Ledbury has probably already built up a loyal customer base, including foodies who will travel some distance, and pay more, to eat there. It is clearly more than a neighbourhood restaurant, yet has an ideal neighbourhood setting. So, in the end, there is much to make a fuss about. We look forward to the 2006 editions of the food guides to begin the recognition process of this major addition to the London restaurant scene.
127 Ledbury Road
London. W11 2AQ
0207 792 9090
www.theledbury.com (under construction)