26 Aug 2008

A Bream Come True

'I don't want food snobs. They don't eat in the restaurants, they don't hold their birthday parties there...'
[Gordon Ramsay]
I CONSIDER Gordon Ramsay (or ‘Old Celeriac Head’, as Liz at Gastronomy Domine calls him) fascinating. His international modus operandi of culinary command and conquer seemingly occurs without compromise. I was even motivated to rendezvous with a Ramsayite at ‘G.R.H.Q.’ a few months ago in pursuit of a position at his ‘chic’ take on ‘informal dining’, the ‘Boxwood Café’. The experience was expectedly fraught, especially considering multiple interviews take place at once within an open plan suite. Alas, sommeliers chez Ramsay need to commit full time (meaning ‘life’), which I could not…
Anyway, as a consumer, I had a lovely afternoon amongst the ‘Perfect Day’ pictures at the Berkeley Hotel. As rain rinsed Knightsbridge of all but the most determined of Saturday shoppers, I sipped a bittersweet cardamom vodka martini in the venue’s little bar, lodged in a trellis between the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. Despite slightly low rent piped jazz, the smart, restfully toned, gold and silver leaf restaurant felt like a haven. The occasion: my father’s 75th birthday. My family can be a little disorientating for restaurant staff. My mother, wanting the best, scrutinised two tables before deciding on a cocoa coloured banquette at the back. The staff, possibly in fear, never flinched. When eventually seated, a basket of warm, crumbly, lightly seasoned bread came with small saucers of mannequin pink Taramasalata (refreshed when depleted). Writing this I am reminded of a tasting with a rep from 'Bagatelle', baker to the (Michelin) stars... I asked, "so how long have you been in bread?" to which I received a frosty response.
This was followed by the “set lunch soup”, a cool, creamy amuse bouche of soft melon spiked with a dot of uplifting basil. It was absolutely sweetly delicious and fully appetising (I had two in fact). With the assistance of a gracious sommelier who never attempted an upsell, but did pour a little eagerly, I chose a light red Burgundy. Beaune Teurnons 1er Cru ’04 (Dom. Chanson) was translucent with a pretty, balanced palate perfumed by light berry fruits. The texture was soft and refreshing. Acids were never intrusive. This worked beautifully with generous waves of San Daniele Ham spotted with dark, fleshy Vanilla Marinated English Cherries. Although I liked the rather romantic thinking behind the dish, the vanilla seeds, visible like finely milled pepper, almost drowned Parma’s delicately flavoured competitor.
Whilst the loos are adequate: understated and spotless, a number of people seem keen to preserve their memory in photographic form. I was first alerted to this phenomenon by critic Alastair Bathgate (Confessions of a Wino). He described the gents as California designer Barbara Barry’s ‘coup de grace’. He was particularly taken with the urinals: ‘…the reflection in the glass panel is of the one on the right, not a transparent view of the left hand one through the glass.’ There's more: ‘…with the Mona Lisa in mind, I moved my head around and from pretty much any angle the reflection aligned with the urinal behind the glass - how so?’ Such behaviour could get a chap in hot water. Regardless, when I visited, I caught another wayward diner snapping a loo view. He was clearly flushed by my interruption...
Interval over, a bottle of white Burgundy accompanied latter courses. Pernand Vergelesses ‘06, vineyards of which neighbour Corton Charlemagne, was made by the same producer as before: lightly mineral, a little young, but cleansing. Oak was strong on nose but only a picture frame to the palate.
Staying clear of the Veal and Foie Gras Burger (which can burger off), my Pan fried Black Bream with Cauliflower and Almonds had sweet flesh beneath scored, crisp skin. Short samphire strands were woven under the main attraction rather than left as a beaver’s dam on the side.
My father and sister chose Rib Eye of English Beef only to be told that they had been given the wrong menu. Rump of Veal was a much better understudy. The almost cosmetically striped, smokey, tender pillow was simply served with lemon, capers and mashed potato. My sister, who feels lost without a heavy ration of vegetables, felt the dish was wanting for more. A pint of wheat grass would be a tough love cure for her love of legumes.
To follow, making use of the season, which is what the Boxwood is all about, Elderflower and Wild Berry Jelly (a mildly regressive dish) was almost pretty, but not quite. The disparate, tender berries were quelled by a somewhat heavy-handed raspberry sorbet (which unfortunately looked like a prolapse, peeping from its bowl). A flute of blood orange coloured musky Bouvet sparkling wine complementarily added the flavour of rhubarb compote.
Bless the staff, who unlike Rex Whistler, marked the birthday being celebrated. My father’s cocktail triangle of Panna Cotta was illuminated by a silver candle lodged in a marshmallow cube. He was also given a little box of caramel truffles, which he offered to adjacent diners. Staff, thankfully, did not sing.
Despite one or two incongruous design details, including an old fashioned bread bin marooned in a corner, this is a well-groomed restaurant. ‘Café’ is misleading. Unlike the Patron Saint of Pétrus, Head Chef Stuart Giles talks of having ‘never chased an accolade’. This no doubt makes it a particularly good venue to spruce staff for other cogs in the Ramsay chain.
Whilst I think slightly stricter simplicity could lead to cleaner flavours (with particular reference to the vanilla cherries), ingredients were worth celeriating (apologies, celebrating). And compared to that other recent birthday meal which ended in a stand-off, Boxwood's staff were divine.Boxwood Café - Berkeley Hotel, Wilton Place, London. SW1X 7RL. T. 020 7235 1010 Nearest Tube: Knightsbridge
Pictured left: Tall vases, Berkeley Hotel
Boxwood Cafe on Urbanspoon
FURTHER LINK: Aidan Brooks, author of the Rolls Royce of Chef's Blogs (and a former Boxwood apprentice)