“I don’t want a temple. I don’t want a shrine. I just want pure gold happiness.” Despite Raymond Blanc’s plea, made over twenty years ago, guests at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and similar Michelin starred restaurants continue to show undue reverence as they worship at the feet of culinary gods. This attitude is encouraged by the formal service of liveried staff in hushed dining rooms, complete with luxurious décor, comfortable furnishings, fashionable crockery and fine napery. Such accoutrements are seen as the essential prerequisites for so called fine dining.
By contrast, and in line with his “New Vision for 2012,” Tom Aikens is amongst an increasing number of leading chefs who aim give diners a more relaxed, informal but stylish setting. Not that expense has been spared in the refurbishment of his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea, which reopened in January. Bare concrete walls, oak floorboards, mismatched bare tables and customised chairs give the dining room a dark, rustic tone; expensive but far removed from typical Michelin extravagance. This same simplicity extends to stoneware, slates and wooden boards on which many of the dishes are served. Additional unconventional features include the canvas wall with culinary quotations and space enhancing mirrors rotating on iron rods. Menus in envelopes, wine lists pasted in hardback books and petit fours served in old biscuit tins add to the novelty of the service. Perhaps the most controversial feature is the informal designer uniform – open neck shirt, tie and jeans – of the junior waiting staff.
All this change might divide opinion amongst the dedicated following Tom Aikens has attracted over his distinguished career. One thing they will all agree on, however, is the renewed vigour of his cuisine. It would seem that time during the six month’s closure was well spent in refining his cooking techniques, moderating – although not markedly so – the complexity of dishes, and developing new flavour combinations.
Sophistication of composition, clarity of taste, balance of texture and beauty in presentation continue to delight.
The menu comprises a carte of 20 savoury dishes and eight desserts. At £50 for three courses and £55 for the six and £75 for the eight course tasting menus, prices are competitive with restaurants of similar quality and, given the quality of ingredients and labour intensity and quality of the cooking, better value for money than most.
Fine Dining Guide visited on a weekday evening in March, enjoying a tasting menu with wines which utterly exceeded our high expectations.
An amuse bouche of duck cassonade with mushroom foam flecked with black truffles was at once rich, light and fragrant
A selection of canapés highlighted the enormous attention to detail lavished on these delectable morsels. Particularly impressive were the eel roulade with its gentle smokiness and creamy texture and tangy goat’s curd sandwiched between layers of crisp grated beetroot.
Breads, presented in a miniature sack, contained the outstanding bacon brioche – crisp, sweet, soft and crumbly. Equally accomplished were cep and buttermilk rolls.
Hand dived scallops, marinated with apple vinegar but retaining their inherent sweetness, contrasted with salty lardo crudo and bland tapioca. The composition was lifted by acidulated apple tarragon granite. The balance of tastes, textures and temperatures, enabling each element to retain its distinct identity, was astounding. (Wine Saint Mont Plaimont SW France, 2009)
The next dish proved high innovative. Pigeon breast, timed to a medium rare to retain its intense flavour, was served with truffle custard, foie gras, chocolate and mushroom puree and an array of green and red vegetable granules. Arranged on a dish to look like an artist’s palette, a delicate, pristinely clear pigeon consommé was poured over. The overall taste sensation – gamey, fresh and vibrant – was exciting and memorable. (Wine: Zinfandel Foxglove Paso Robles 2009)
A tranche of roasted foie gras was precisely rendered with a seared crust and soft melting creamy interior. Thyme sabayon added a herby lift whilst blackened spring onion added a bitterness which balanced the caramelised onion garnish. (Wine: Pais de Quenehuao, Chile, 2009)
Soft textured, gently smoked Venison Tartar was well seasoned and spiked with juniper. It benefited also from the addition of grated walnuts, wild sorrel and hazelnut puree. Melba toast added crispness and provided an attractive garnish. (Wine: Bourgogne Roucevie Domaine Arlaud 2008)
Skilled fish cookery was seen in an accurately timed fillet of roasted John Dory. This was creatively partnered with sweet cauliflower floret crisp , well judged cumin spicing, cauliflower milk skin and brown butter. As with the other dishes, the main element and garnishes were harmoniously matched, whilst the whole ensemble was visually stunning. (Wine: The Observatory, 2006, South Africa)
A succulent and sweet fillet of Romney lamb, served pink, came garnished with ewe’s cheese, garlic confit, and finished with a piquant sauce lifted by the addition of olives, capers and anchovies. (Wine: Rioja Olivier Riviere, 2009)
Finally, one of the three vegetable desserts was served. Candied beetroot was a veritable tour de force of invention, with yogurt parfait encased in cigarette of beetroot gel, nuggets of sweetened beets, flavoured meringue and port syrup.
Strong coffee and excellent petits fours – chocolates, tuiles, nougats and jellies – completed a memorable meal.
Service was knowledgeable, attentive and unobtrusive. Wine pairing, in particular, demonstrated the superb knowledge and skill of the head sommelier Raphael Rodriguez.
Overall, it is clear that the new Tom Aikens restaurant is not just about the more casual, understated refurbishment. More importantly, it is showcases a highly talented, reinvigorated chef near the top of his craft. I hesitate to say at the “top” as he continues to surprise us with his inexhaustible creativity and energy. A strong impression has been made amongst the critics in the first three months as the restaurant goes from strength to strength. We shall all watch the Michelin Guide in autumn with interest.