21 Jul 2008

"*****" Insulation

LEGEND HAS it that Barbara Cartland kept a table at Claridge's for over fifty years, fawning over such staples as Dover Sole Meunière. Having dined under dinkily beaded, oversized shades which resemble upturned wedding cakes, I can certainly visualise the grand old Dame barking commands amidst the fray. With floral splays, a sinkingly deep, swirly patterned carpet and dense, dampening drapes, the effect is rather feminine. Indeed this expansive, expensive dining room looks more like an afternoon tea court then a Michelin icon.
My friend and I felt rather elite, secluded in one of the almost private rooms by the window. Someone must have given advance warning that things might become boisterous. The charming sommelier asked exactly how we were. The way he spoke it, it sounded quite philosophical for 12:30. Our waitress followed this by: ‘do we have any allergies?’ I considered disclosing my aversion to offices, exercise and football.
We were given the option of three menus, which must keep Head Chef Mark Sargeant busy: prestige, a la carte and the humble set lunch. You certainly have to keep your wits about you with all that paperwork. Being over half the price of the normal option and still gleaming with almost poetic descriptions, we chose the latter.
Salted/unsalted butter pots seated on little marble plinths arrived with a basket of airily centred ciabatta batons and pasty shaped wholemeal rolls. Perhaps a punishment for ordering the cheaper menu, the potato salad amuse bouche was rather unambitious. It did just about serve its function of whetting the appetite. Fresh and lightly creamy, with a texture in parts fluffy, and others frothy.
Beady glasses of organic06 Grüner Veltiner (Anton Bauer) were more effective appetisers however, poured level (hooray!) at table. Fresh, three dimensional, with grains of white pepper, apple skin and a hint of tropical fruit. Incidentally, you can see an odd marketing video from the producer, HERE. It seems they are playing on the ‘groovy’ Grüner tag.
We both chose starters of Hot Smoked Quail with Hazelnut Cream, French Beans, Foie Gras and Girolles. The dish was technically perfect. The moist quail had a crisp jacket which contrasted with the soft cubes of foie (which echoed the taupe of the table undercloths). With its sweetness, the piped hazelnut cream added more interest. The grass-green beans were al dente and the mushrooms simultaneously fleshy and earthy.
A bottle of Stellenbosch Syrah, ’04 Rudera slightly overwhelmed the poor birds. Opulent and inky with a mauve rim. Black pepper, cedar smoke, espresso, a mint leaf and new leather aromas gave way to a juicy, pulsating, blackberry palate. Slick stuff.
At this point I ventured to the spotless, sweet-smelling loo chamber. A chatty attendant was hot on my heels, ready to run the tap (how strenuous that would have been for me). He engaged me in a flush of questions about my experience of the hotel, my origins and my view of humanity. Our rapport revealed he had tended those loos for three years. Good to see someone at the tap of their profession...
On my way back to the table, I weaved past the restaurant’s ironically titled ‘Fumoir’, a relic to regulations. For my main course, I greatly enjoyed Pan Fried Gurnard stained by Saffron Citrus Fruit Sauce, pickled Cauliflower, diced Scallops and Capers. It was such a cosy, tasty dish with soft components kindly untaxing to the geriatric diners, that I could imagine having it for breakfast. Which is what I told the waitress. “With a nice glass of red too?” she replied. Why not? My friend, who is amongst the most carnivorous I know, enjoyed his Fillet of Cornish Lamb, arranged in medallions, rare-medium, with small Fried Green Tomatoes, Tarragon and a Courgette archipelago. Sufficient to say it fed my imagination as well as his appetite. This was bound within a substantial Hollandaise.
The cheese trolley was carted up the stairs to us like a sensitive patient. This wonderfully endowed, well-tended selection was predominantly unpasteurised. My friend chose England’s version of Epoisses, Stinking Bishop, Vouvray filled Forme d’Ambert, a Morbier domino (the ash line separates the morning and evening milk) and a similar looking cheese which the chef delicately infuses with white truffles. I had Roasted Peaches and Basil on Pain Perdu (or ‘eggy bread’) with Milk Ice Cream. The uncanny visual resemblance to coddled egg on bacon aside, it was soothing, reassuring and unpretentious. The absorbing slightly savoury sponge bread had caught the errant juice from the concentrated sugar of the peaches.
Immaculate macchiatos came with a 'connect-six' tray of petit fours including a cleansing cherry ice cream bullit.
Claridge's is graceful. Tradition is its currency. No designer, including Thierry Despont who lavished the lightening ‘art deco revival’ facelift almost seven years ago, will ever be able to bring it into the 21st century. Cartland would no doubt approve of its current guise. It, like I imagine her novels, provides effective insulation from the big bad world outside…

Gordon Ramsay at Claridges - Brook Street, London. W1K 4HR. T. 020 7499 0099
Nearest Tube: Bond Street

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's on Urbanspoon