Tuesday, May 29, 2007


There is a danger to reviewing on the cheap, even for bloggers a notorious tight group of souls. This came to mind in considering Arbutus, a spare and clean-lined establishment just south of Soho Square. Planning to eat at Gordon Ramsay, St. Johns, and The Fat Duck does not come cheap, and I was delighted to learn that Arbutus, a well-regarded new restaurant in Soho, emphasizing Haute-Comfort food, was open on Sunday evening, and offered a three course pre-theater menu for 17.50 pounds. As Arbutus had been named the New Restaurant of the Year by Time Out London, the offer was too tempting to pass up, and, if the choices were not what I would have selected without constraint, they matched my tastes quite well.

And, truth be told, these three courses were sufficiently well-prepared that I wondered what I might have been treated to had I placed myself in the hands of Chef Anthony Demetre. Pre-theater menus have two traits that serve them well for diners, but less well for critics. They are designed to be prepared efficiently and are chosen because their food appeals to a wide swath of dinners. So, I was not presented with offal or with those dishes that are awash in the chef’s sweat.

Still, considering the rate of exchange, a dinner for $35.00 (with VAT included; service of 12.5% is added) is a deal. I began with a lovely soup of crushed tomatoes, which was as its name suggests a robust and textured red. The soup was fine served hot, but would have been more luscious if chilled later and served in the late summer tomato heat. This chef is willing to experiment with herbs, and I particularly admired the thin slices of fennel that enhanced the depth of the tomato.

Arbutus - London - Crushed Tomato Soup

The main course was a simple Rabbit Loin with Mustard Sauce, Herb Risotto, and Baby Carrots. If the artistry didn’t astonish this diner, the mustard sauce was beautifully puckery, and the emerald risotto was powerfully flavored with what must have included half of a herbarium. The dish was not flashy, but well-proportioned and rapidly prepared.

Arbutus - London - Rabbit Loin with Mustard Sauce, Herb Risotto and Baby Carrots

Of the three courses, dessert was the least striking: Rice Pudding Mousse with Strawberry Juice on a bed of fresh Strawberries - appropriate botanically, as Arbutus is refers to the botanical name for the strawberry tree (a tree that once grew in Soho Square). As advertised, here was rice pudding and strawberries. While the pudding was certainly creamy, it seemed more of a pudding than a mousse.

Arbutus - London - Rice Pudding Mousse with Strawberry Juice

As judged from the menu, Arbutus offers more complexity than my pleasant meal provided. Whether Arbutus achieves these goals is a question that I leave for those with deeper pockets.

63-64 Frith Street
London (Soho)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Crown at Whitebrook

It may be needlessly nasty to suggest that being the best restaurant in Wales is rather akin to being the leading intellectual pictured in Maxim or on Entertainment Tonight. If Americans think of Welsh cuisine at all, it is toasted cheese that comes to mind, prepared caerphilly, of course. The Welsh have some fine mountains, fields, and bays, of course – and many fine residents – some of whom prefer to dine in London - but they seem to have a preference for overcooked lamb and boiled leeks.

After two weeks of eating in Cardiff, a friend and I decided to drive through back, wet roads to the Crown at Whitebrook, a restaurant in Monmouthshire – on the English edge of Wales - that has recently received a Michelin star, one of two Welsh restaurants so honored, and the one rated by the Observer as the best restaurant in Wales. Under the direction of Chef James Sommerin, who has headed the kitchen for three years, after serving three years as sous chef, the Crown is the dining destination for those visited the Welsh capital.

The Crown at Whitebrook is not a restaurant of a kind that Americans find often. Hidden in a poetic corner of rustic Britain, it is a lengthy taxi ride from the train and about an hour from central Cardiff. Instead, the restaurant adjoins a rural hotel. The closest model in the United States might be the Inn at Little Washington, some distance outside the District of Columbia. The leading restaurants that dot Napa County have some of the same feel, except Napa operates as a tourist destination.

Guests are invited to arrive half an hour prior to dinner. We were a seated in a pleasantly comfortable hotel lounge, allowed to peruse the menu and wine list, and offered a drink. Such hospitality has its pleasures and drawbacks. The American diner typically arrives ready to go, go, go. Cooling one’s heels is not in our nature. Such slow time has blessings, but makes a long evening longer still.

Unlike urban boites, the décor of the Crown is decidedly muted, notably for creams and beiges and pale greens, set in country moderne. One is not expected to chew the architecture. More important is the graceful service. The servers, congenial and competent, are not the global nighthawks that urbanites have come to take for granted.

My only overarching complaint in what was a carefully composed and luxurious meal it was a de-emphasis of the savory. This was not true of each of the dishes, but many might have been goosed. We began with a set of four canapés. Least successful was a bland, and slightly watery, carrot-coriander soup that lacked strong carrot taste and much indication of coriander. In contrast the snip of fried haddock was a delightful chip of fish, beautifully prepared. Also stirring was a canapé of beet and goat cheese.

We were both startled and pleased by our amuse: a small bowl of chestnut soup with wild mushrooms and poached quail egg. It was as dense and woodsy as a late fall afternoon, served in mid-May. It certainly revealed the skills of our chef, even if it, too, was notable for a smooth and subtle flavor profile.

Crown at Whitebrook - Chestnut Soup

As an appetizer, I selected Roast Quail and Quail Confit with foie gras, beetroot, orange marmalade, and caramelized nuts. The dish was luscious and woodsy (again an autumnal dish). As a supporter of chefs who select bitter ingredients, I eagerly awaited the sting of the marmalade, but, again, it could have been used to greater effect. While the dish as prepared was not overly subtle, it could have been still more dramatic.

Crown at Whitebrook - Quail

The entree was marinated loin of Welsh lamb with wild garlic, asparagus, lima beans, turnips, fresh morels (the smallest morels that I have (barely) seen, each tinier than a fingertip – little baby morels) with a sauce of licorice and black treacle. With my preferred flavor profile this was a dish that demanded my attention. The dish was complex, congenial, and impressively prepared, but again the licorice and treacle were back-tastes, rather than front and center as would have been more courageous. The idea of the dish was magnificent, the reality just slightly short of brilliant. Unlike the other dishes, this presentation – lamb, morels, asparagus – shouted spring. It was the most seasonal dish from a chef whose cuisine did not seem tied to the climate. My companion, ordering the line-caught seabass on artichoke barigule, sauce d’epice and Parmesan enjoyed the subtlety of the chef’s vision, but wished he had played a more savory hand.

Crown at Whitebrook - Lamb with Morels and Asparagus

Crown at Whitebrook: Seabass

The palate cleaser was a dense raspberry gratine capped with a twenty-first century peach and vanilla foam. Unfortunately the foam was more airy than flavorful, and the raspberry cleansed the palate without foamy aid.

We closed with the recommended Coconut Parfait with Mango Espuna and Chilled Cucumber Soup. Of all the desserts I have recently tasted this was perhaps the oddest. The coconut panna cotta might have used a deeper tropical taste, but the mango provided this edge. The cucumber soup, an elegant and subtle touch, was mostly drowned out by the mango. All this was rather expected. However, the chef, gathering his bravado, added bits of carbonated crystallized sugar, surrounded by cocoa butter – Crackle Crystals as the British call them. Imagine a dessert made with Pop Rocks. It was as if a molecular imp had gained access to the kitchen when no one was guarding the pantry. If this were one of Hester Blumenthal tricks in a 20 course menu, I would have treasured the experience; in rural Wales I was simultaneously amused and puzzled at a moment that made diners April Fools.

Crown at Whitebrook - Coconut Panna Cotta with Mango

Still, the Crown at Whitebrook is a serious dining destination, a kitchen to be reckoned with in London or New York, run by a young chef who is still refining his culinary vision. The food stops short of perfection, because of an unwillingness to commit the drama of taste, even when Chef Sommerin feints to embrace it. If one wishes to be edgy one must accept the danger head on. The Crown will surely deserve its second star at that moment that Chef Sommerin ramps up the licorice and saves his Crackle Crystals for tykes and toddlers.

The Crown at Whitebrook
Whitebrook, Nr Monmouth, Monmouth NP25 4TX United Kingdom

Saturday, May 19, 2007

St. Johns --- Haute Slaughterhouse

There are some restaurants that change the culinary landscape: gastronomic earthquakes. Chez Penisse, Union Square Café, El Bulli and The American Place are some that come to mind. St. John, set near London’s Smithfield Market, is another. Chef Fergus Henderson believes in using the animal from head to end, as he describes in his respected 2004 cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Chef Henderson is fighting a wasting ailment, and will probably never stand behind a stove, but his influence is profound.

St. John eschews the fancy for the solid, the dramatic for the solid. While this style of cuisine has been termed Haute Barnyard, I think of it as Haute Slaughterhouse. It is less the product of the farm than of the butcher. The menu my evening included salted pig’s liver, kid, and chitterlings, but also such rarely served seafood as brill, and pollock. The dining room is ostentatiously simple, more like a nineteenth century workers’ mess, along the lines of Peter Luger. And prices are modest by London standards (my four courses were about 40 pounds).

My starter was a single gull’s egg with celery salt. I had some idea that this might be an egg of special flavor, but, despite a spotted shell and startling orange yolk, eaten blindfold this would have the taste much like any hardboiled egg.

Spring 2007 - New York, Wales, London 274

Spring 2007 - New York, Wales, London 275

The appetizer, a signature dish for Chef Henderson was Roasted Bone Marrow – four rough cut bones – with their marrow intact, served with Grilled Toast, Sea Salt, and Parsley Salad with Capers and Onions. This was carnally sublime and the recognition that marrow is moral deservedly helped to catapult St. Johns into the influential establishment that it is. St. John’s food is neither complex or fussy, what makes this work so well is that Henderson takes what has not be considered to be restaurant food, and prove its delights. The addition of the parsley salad matched the marrow, both in its lushness and in that it overturns the belief that parsley is not a suitable focus for high end dining. A remarkable appetizer.

Spring 2007 - New York, Wales, London 276

I chose Veal’s Tongue with Beetroot as my main course. The plate was almost audacious in its simplicity. I was presented with two pieces of veal tongue, baked and fried, and some plain beets. Yet, the modesty of the tongue, a most remarkably tender cut with the slightest taste of cured beef tongue, proved that this is no parlor trick. The beet matched the tongue without being elaborated in any way.

Spring 2007 - New York, Wales, London 279

As dessert I selected St. John’s treatment of an Eccles Cake, served with a slice of Lancaster cheese. The cheese was perfectly vibrant, but the Eccles cake, filled with a think and dense layer of raisins, was more of a pastry than a dessert, strictly speaking, and might have been more appealing had it been served warm with a scoop of, say, rum raisin ice cream.

Spring 2007 - New York, Wales, London 281

St. Johns plainspeak is distant from the elegance of Gordon Ramsay where I ate lunch, and yet it is perhaps a measure of the influence of the former on the latter than my lunch included pied au cochon and duck gizzard. While we have not seen a large influence of haute slaughterhouse cuisine on the American shores – and it may take awhile to penetrate, given Yankee squeamishness towards offal – in time we will be consuming veal tongue, unless moral politics intervenes.

St. John
26 St. John Street
London (Smithfield Market)