Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.
Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.
So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.
“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.
I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.
They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.
A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.
The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.
Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.
The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.
My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.
Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”
Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.
I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.
Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.
Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!
It’s the little things that make life so great.
With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.
Dining Room: 4.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.
**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.
“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”
Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.
I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.
But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.
Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*
The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.
But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.
We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.
Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.
“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.
By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.
Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.
My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken. Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.
When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.
Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.
Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets
Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France
Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle
Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France
Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan
Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France
Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam
Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France
Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan
Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France
Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint
Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia 2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy
Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb
Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany
Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries
Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream
Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron
Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.
And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.
In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.
Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.
Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.
“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”
Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!
Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!
The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.
The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).
After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.
Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:
We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.
The Ritz was unavailable.
We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.
Le Gavroche was unavailable.
I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”
Goodman was unavailable.
I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.
I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.
I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**
Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.
My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:
Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials
Lunch at The Ledbury
Dinner at The Square
(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)
There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market…
…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.
I’m pretty happy with that!
It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.
But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!
*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…
**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.