"... the sheer delight of those desserts will be my future benchmark which I doubt will ever be beaten. "Review Rating: Reviewed by KimT
My challenge was to find a suitably impressive location for a work-colleague-turned-friend who has been to more cooking classes than you can shake a stick at. And who makes grown women weep with his culinary knowledge and skills.
Judging from the reservations system, the place is more than popular. I had to wait a while and pull strings to get a mid-week lunch slot. I hoped very much that the wait and effort was worthwhile.
As I was coming in from Westbourne Park and my friend from Notting Hill, we agreed to meet outside. I walked along the residential streets wondering whether I was in the right place and finally spied the bitter chocolate-coloured corner converted-pub building. The high level greenery around the deserted al fresco dining area only hinted at the wonders within.
A super-efficient receptionist whisked his coat away and handed me a table clip for my handbag and we were quickly led by a friendly but upright young man through the dining room to our table. I was surprised I didn’t get a “wow” feeling from the décor. Another surprise was that amongst the various diners – same and mixed sex couples, groups of four, a lone American - were a couple of large family groups. With quite young (extremely well behaved) children. Lucky kids! I’d expected a hallowed hush but this was a much more down-to-earth and relaxed environment than some Michelin restaurants. I exhaled with relief.
As we were handed creamy menus bearing muted watercolour illustrations of feathers and shells, the waiter chatted and asked whether we had any allergies and enquired what water we would like. While my companion surveyed the wine list, I took in the sweeping brown curtains, mirrored walls giving light and depth to the room, translucent window screens providing privacy and creamy striped no-nonsense but comfortable chairs.
I was a little surprised at the plain cutlery but my companion liked it. I wasn’t going to start a gender war and focused instead on the interesting but rather odd small sculptures on each table. We had a log, others had curved stones. There were a fair few staff gliding around, but they certainly weren’t intrusive and were expert at judging when to refill water and wine glasses. They smiled a lot too, which was nice.
While we focused on the menus, two morsels on a stone dish were presented to us – a hazelnut biscuit supporting a creamy foie gras swirl. The sweetness was unusual - my companion liked it but I wasn’t so sure. The nine-course tasting menu (two nearby gents raved about this when my companion chatted to them in the loos about it later) was priced at £105 per person and £175 with wines. It did look rather splendid. At the other end of the scale the £30 for two courses deal (£35 for three courses) looked like excellent value for money although the choice was limited.
My companion chose the wine - 2011 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc - New Zealand (£49) which he told me had been recommended by a wine expert in York. Who was I to argue? It was an excellent choice from my perspective – light, flavoursome and very drinkable. When the bread basket was presented, he zoomed in on the sour dough (he had a second helping it was so good) and I selected a warm brioche containing tiny crystals of ham. Marvellous.
He started with flame grilled mackerel with pickled cucumber, Celtic mustard and Shiso (£15). I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw this masterpiece – presented on midnight blue earthenware plate. I admired the incredible work that must have gone into placing the ingredients so beautifully within the semi-transparent rectangular sleeve of cucumber. Despite mackerel being fiendishly hard to do well, my companion declared that he would return to the restaurant just for this dish.
My Roast Scottish scallops with fennel, Mousserons and elderflower (£17.50) was another artistic triumph. And the sight of it – with a gnarled wooden skewer and sprinkled with miniscule pale flowers – took me back to the stunning fish dishes I had been presented with in Southern Japan many years ago. The delicate fennel fronds against tiny cubes of mushroom were delicious whilst the three substantial scallops were lightly crisped on the outside and firm but moist inside.
Another amuse-bouche arrived – this time it was morel in Earl Grey tea cream with Jersey Royal potato mash. While my companion explained how expensive these mushrooms were, I simply enjoyed the textures – including a pea froth and watercress leaves and a scent evocative of warm vegetable soup from a country kitchen. My companion wasn’t entirely convinced that they worked together. He was wrong.
I took this opportunity to visit the ladies and went down some steps noticing that the dark brown wallpaper actually had a subtle design with pictures of shelves bearing interesting ingredients and objects. Even the hand wash (Aesops aromatics) had a startling impact on my senses.
He enjoyed his roast breast and confit of pigeon with red vegetables and leaves, foie gras and cherries (£32). I admit I would have found poultry that rare a challenge although he declared it expertly cooked – earthy and moist. But I think I won with my fillet of seabass with broccoli stem, crab and black quinoa (£32). The bald stem looked like sea weed making it picture perfect and the precise covering of quinoa (it must have taken forever to position) gave a fabulous texture and taste. The aesthetics of this dish were almost matched by the perfection of the way the fish was cooked. I would return simply for this dish. Masterful.
A pre-dessert arrived. Strawberry granita, impossibly tiny wild strawberries, whipped ewe’s cream and shavings of meringue. It was the poshest and most exquisite Eton Mess ever. Words cannot describe how those cool, creamy and sharp tastes melted on your tongue – a mouthful of grown-up summer seaside.
Feeling close to sensory overload we waited for our desserts. As a brulee fan, I thought my burnt cream of lemon thyme with crushed apples, vanilla and olive oil (£9) was a brilliant choice. The side of madeleines were warm, sugary clouds studded with white chocolate gems and I am ashamed to admit that I ate them all.
But my companion’s pave of chocolate with milk puree and lovage ice cream (£9) left him literally speechless. I laughed out loud as I watched his face contort with pleasure as he attacked the pale green artwork on a tree illustrated plate. When he was finally able to speak he declared it the ultimate Careless Whisper moment with “I’m never gonna cook again – years of studying and I will never make something that perfect”.
The petits fours and coffees followed. I am sure they were good but we were still reeling from the sensational desserts. The bill came to £192.94.
At the end of our meal, we were honoured to be allowed a sneaky peek into the kitchen below. And we met the impossibly young owner Brett and his team of nine permanent staff (who all remained focused on the many tasks at hand) and numerous people learning their craft in the heat. You couldn’t meet a more charming and earnest man as he proudly showed us the state-of-the-art equipment in his recently refurbished kitchen, talked us through beef and pigeon supplier management and discussed the challenges of cooking mackerel just so. And he happily chatted about his family and pet pug who he takes to the parks in West London. He must surely be one of the most likeable and modest top chefs I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
I have had the good fortune to eat at many amazing restaurants. The food and service at The Ledbury were faultless and truly outstanding but there was something captivating about the lack of pretension. The visual images of the food are seared onto my memory and the sheer delight of those desserts will be my future benchmark which I doubt will ever be beaten.
KimT reviewed The Ledbury on Fri 14 Jun 2013