15 Jun 2008

Room Without a View

COURTESY OF Krista, author of Londonelicious, I found myself in the midst of the very rich and rather beautiful at the Hyde Park Hotel’s candlelit bar. Awaiting her entrance, I ordered a flute of Moët’s NV Rosé from a waitress in a super-sleek sexier version of an air stewardess’s outfit. The oval topped glass, which suckered the mandarin coloured, comma shaped coaster, was hard to drink from, unlike its effervescent contents. Copper terminal coloured and raspberry fruit-driven, a contrast to the 26million bottle/year űber-producer’s blotter-brut (white) imperial, one of my least favourite fizzes.
I had not met Krista, although I already felt I knew her from her crisp, energetic capital-centric restaurant blog, one of the UK’s most visited. It is often unnerving to meet or speak to someone whose work I follow. For example, some years ago, when Louis Theroux answered my e-mail requesting advice on gaining experience as a ‘runner’ at the BBC with a phone call, I found myself speaking in a ridiculously over familiar tone. With good bloggers, however, the inclusive exchange of comments, e-mails and links generally leave little room for significant surprises. Needless to say, Krista, who arrived punctually, was much as I imagined. She was not, as described by another prominent blogger, ‘unsophisticated’ in the flesh, but assiduous, friendly, interested and hungry. I am forbidden for revealing any more details. Her anonymity is an important attribute.
Much of this grand pile overlooks the graceful Royal Park. At 350 acres, it is so substantial it could swallow both islands of Venice. Built in the 1860s as a Gentleman’s Club, it became a hotel in 1902. The Mandarin Oriental group took it over from hotelier Lord Charles Forte in the mid 1990s, injecting nearly £60million in rejuvenation. Along with Browns and The Grosvenor, it was one of the jewels in Forte’s crown. I remember being taken there years ago one New Year’s Eve by my parents. Forte had just finished a long lunch and courteously greeted us. There is a picture somewhere.
Anecdote aside, the Mandarin Oriental group has an exciting tenure. Grandeur has not gone: the multi-marbled staircases remain. Style is not over substance, and details are attractive and fluid. Finishing a second flute with Krista, we were escorted into the evening’s main feature via a glass vinoteque. Dinner at the Michelin starred Foliage was my prize for penning a well-received review of Galvin at Windows, voted for by readers of Londonelicious.
Apparently the architect was given the brief: ‘bring the park into the restaurant’, which I am sure under normal circumstances he has stylistically realised. Elevations and careful table positioning ensures access to the view. It was, unfortunately choked on this visit by a building site/sight. A high-fenced pen ringed bright blue tarpaulin, stacks of bricks, paving slabs and even a portaloo. I often consider launching a Chap Magazine style campaign for charm: a ‘Charm Offensive’ if you like. In my experience, its power conquers most problems, as it did here. The staff, so pleasant, focussed, enthusiastic and at this point apologetic, managed to turn the carbuncle into comedy.
To literally bring the park indoors, a laurel leaf from the park had been framed under each glass plate. An elegant (but inedible) tradition.
I recently read that Suffolk Chef Chris Staines has been at Foliage for five years. His previous form included Nico Ladenis’ Chez Nico and Marco Pierre White. Whilst both three star achieving chefs famously returned these, it is worth noting that White actually won his top accolade at the Hyde Park. Aside from those esteemed Chefs, in an interview with Fine Dining Guide Staines states that he rates peers Tom Aikens, Shane Osborn and Pierre Gagnaire.
Krista, who promotes water on tap on ethical grounds, had her request met without a drop of disbelief. To omit indecision, promote symmetry, and in the interests of thorough review reconnaissance, we both opted for the Tasting Menu. Seven courses, plus an extra amuse bouche and provocative petit fours (in effect bringing this up to nine) might make banal reading – like seeing someone’s holiday photos. Here then, I will reveal only the highlights (and a singularly disappointing course). Most of the menu, written without hyperbole (or any adjectives) was cleanly rinsed by a benchmark, gripping Soave: La Rocca ’05 by Pieropan. This had lemon tea and greengages on the nose and an elaborate but accessible rested mineral, sugared almond and marzipan-laden palate.
The most memorable amuse bouche: lime-spiked hummus. The intensely fresh, laser sharp tang was softened by three types of tall brittle pastry sticks.
A trio of Scallops, crisply sealed, meltingly soft within, were sprinkled with sappy, torn Cockles. These mollusk mouthfulls were sweetened/sharpened by a sauce of raisin and mustard. A sauce spoon was provided (the last one I saw was at Lucknam Park over a decade ago). Both Krista and I mopped what the spoon failed to with sourdough and quite dense walnut bread.
Curled, buttery, Foie Gras, which matched the colour of the leather seats, was served two ways (a regularly quoted signature dish). It was offered with orchard fresh apple jelly, Pain d’Epice (honey) mousse and crisp Celery Shoots, arranged in a diagonal line which corresponded with Krista’s plate.
Sea Bass with a cosily sweetly nutty Pumpkin nugget, positively fatty Chorizo cubes and a toupé of Ruby Endive was a little mushy, however, and incompatable with the sausage. Monkfish might have made a happier marriage?
At this point, I got up to go to the loo, finding myself escorted by the Maitre’d to the bar. A waitress helped me cross the floor, passing me to a suited gent. In tandem, we completed the final furlong to the loo. A curious relay in which everyone involved knew I would soon pass water. Fluid for thought...
Beef, served rare-medium, with Watercress and Smoked Potato Purée mattress (how un petit peu of French puffs up the humble spud) was mouthwateringly succulent. The cedar smokiness felt as it if eminated, charringly, from the rested meat. A convincing illusion. The sommelier recommened a glass of ’04 Lalande de Pomerol from Château du Perron. It was handsome, lush, precociously forward and vanillin, with a blackurrant heart, and bevelled by menthol. It was powerful enough to joust the peppery cress.
An egg shaped ice cream pastille sprinkled with herb sugar (thyme?) and a posh Roly-Poly was the most engaging of the pudding duo. I must admit I would have loved to have seen an appearance of one of Staine’s famed Soufflés, especially the Calvados with Green Apple Iced Parfait and Sea Salt Caramel. However the rather boring sounding Peanut Parfairt with bittersweet, fruit centred, split Sachertorte and Bitter Chocolate Sauce was served almost entirely deconstructed: reduced to its elements. A glass of '04 Mas Amiel Maury, which has a Cadbury’s purple label, was served cold: disarmingly sweet, with more verve and less kick then Port and nudgingly refreshing.
Dark olive oil truffles sprinkled with salt crystals, dotted at the table with a pipette of aged balsamic, were tantalising, the effect almost suggesting iodine.
Waiters explained courses clearly and patiently and answered our questions eloquently. Those encountered were clearly food fanatics, reminiscing about their plate inclined pilgrammiges. They universally praised Barcelona’s Commerc 24, where, for want of a better term, super-blogger Aidan Brookes continues his apprenticeship.
When the bill came, we couldn’t find any mention of a service charge. Despite Krista determinedly asking about this, the restaurant made no claim. Fortunately, Krista’s American Express took the overall strain. I asked if it provoked tears. “Tears of joy”, she said.
Taking wine out of the equation, this was probably my most expensive dinner to date. From my experience, Staines has managed to coax and cajole prettiness and power out of often humble ingredients. Whilst generally excellent, with pristine service, I would have expected to meet a few more exciting ingredients along the way. I also think that the dining room, whilst softly lit, would benefit from more intimate lighting.
In my opinion, the suave mastery on show means Foliage effortlessly reaches the demands of its Michelin star, making an establishment like Wild Honey look even more obscenely undeserving. However, to acquire another, I imagine it would probably need a wider tableau of sought after provisional colour.
Thank you, Krista, for a wonderful treat, and also to those who kindly voted for me to win this.
Foliage – Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London. SW14 7LA. T. 020 7201 3723
UPDATE: Read Krista's account of the evening HERE.

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