"Tom Aikens is back and brilliant"Review Rating: Reviewed by James Whiting
When a chef of Tom Aikens' calibre decides to close and refurbish his restaurant, causing the loss of his Michelin star, the relaunch had to be worth it. Unsurprisingly this led to hype and expectation, however, upon finishing the 8 course tasting menu you realise that the outcome was never in doubt. A procession of unadulterated excellence, with each course challenging the taste buds and senses via a smorgasbord of techniques, flavours and textures. However, this was not the expensive starched tablecloth and formal waiting staff of old. This was a stripped back, wooden, light, airy and relaxed affair. The food completely fits the new surroundings and everything feels very contemporary.
There was a glimpse of what was in store when a selection of five intricate canapés including almond and fois gras, and smoked cod roe coated in tomato powder arrive at the table atop two chunks of granite. These impressed with their flavours and detailed presentation. The bread was lovely and warm and came in a little canvas sack, there were again five different varieties. Yet, this was not an ostentatious display from the kitchen, the bag seemed to add a bit of rustic subtlety, and the breads were excellent. Highlights were the bacon and onion brioche and the cep powder coated roll. A trio of butters: burnt onion and bacon, caper and fennel, and aerated salted butter completed the spread.
With all this to sample and enjoy, the first course of the eight almost caught the table by surprise. It soon grabbed our attention. The scallops had simply been marinated in dill, and had a beautiful fresh flavour. The plate was a palette of green. Unknown, most likely foraged, leaves added to the vibrancy, along with the crème fraîche and the pickled cucumber discs that cut through the richness. The bowl completely encapsulated Spring, and was a spectacular start to the meal.
If the first dish was freshness, the next course was a masterclass in richness. Poached and roasted foie gras literally melted in the mouth, but contained none of the harsh flavours that can sometimes accompany this decadent ingredient. Spiced date purée worked in harmony with grapes and walnuts, and a crust of seeds gave great texture. The dish felt complete, and was perhaps Tom doffing his cap to the restaurant pre-refurb.
The next assault on the taste buds was a palette cleansing Jasmine cured salmon. The fish was predictably flawless. Apple was also present in various different guises. There were tiny balls, a bundle of matchsticks wrapped in a jelly film of pressed viola flowers and impossibly thin apple ravioli containing a jasmine tea filling. The technique on show was world class but pleasingly understated in comparison to the flavours on show.
Homemade ricotta was how the menu described the next course, seemingly simple. The plate that arrived was crammed full with surprises, and textures were the focal point. The green olive juice packed an awesome punch. The ricotta was creamy, and also appeared as snow along with a touch of parmesan. The honey jelly provided a pleasant sweetness, a myriad of leaves gave a much needed crunch. Here was the only mistake of the night, one solitary dandelion leaf that has seen better days. Although this was soon completely eclipsed by a pine nut sorbet that was star of the show. Totally smooth and intensely flavoured it gathered up the dish and made it whole. Something as simple as ricotta was the course of the night, and truly was a masterpiece.
Next up was a meaty piece of poached cod, that flaked at the poke of a fork. It was accompanied by apricot purée and orange brown butter with a sprinkling of rose petals. The fruitiness worked well with the fish.
The main was a deconstructed roast pigeon, complete with foot and claw still attached. Nuts and seeds added an interesting texture to the dish, however a slender dehydrated carrot seemed a little on the chewy side. Tiny chocolate and fois gras truffles were sprinkled about the plate and added an intense richness to the bird. The scattering of spelt did an excellent job soaking up the flavours from around the plate, and brought the whole dish together.
With the end of the menu in sight, the cheese course was a very hands on affair. The maitre d' cut and explained his selections from the extensive cheese board, all of which delivered on flavour. This was accompanied by four delicious chutneys in quaint little kiln jars and various flatbreads, again a demonstration of the kitchen's seemingly irrepressible capabilities.
Dessert arrived, and a brilliant menu drew to a close. This was the most challenging course of the evening. Carrot was laid out in every way imaginable: cake, grated, ice cream, soaked in sugar syrup and raw. It was by no means a conventional pudding. Everything did seem to work together but overall the dish wasn't quite sweet enough, and we were left feeling we missed out on pudding and were given a plate of vegetables. It was clear Tom wanted to challenge and delight with his food, but this was perhaps just a touch too far. It was a shame and just not the fitting end the a menu of such high calibre deserved.
Coffee and petit fours gave time to assess just how good the food had been. However, in classic Aikens style this was no simple selection of chocolates. Roughly 20 petit fours appeared bursting out of a brilliant antique tea chest with an accompanying OXO cube tin filled with sherbet sweets. Highlights included passion fruit jelly and grapefruit filled chocolate.
The whole evening was an exceptional gastronomic, boundary-pushing experience. Conclusions can be kept short: Tom Aikens is back, he is brilliant, and you should go see and eat it all for yourselves.
James Whiting reviewed Tom Aikens on Tue 04 Sep 2012