Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant

Before I launch into what is going to be, let me warn you now, a gushing eulogy to my incredible dining experience at Apsleys, let me first get out of the way my one, solitary gripe: that inelegant, clunking name. Until about four years ago, the restaurant at The Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner was known simply as The Conservatory; then, following a tasteful and no doubt very expensive make-over, it was renamed Apsley's in honour of Apsley House, a.k.a. No. 1 London, the one-time residence of the Dukes of Wellington just across the road. In September, it was announced - to great excitement in the foodie community and not least in my small corner of it - that the kitchen was to come under the control of German-born, Italy-based superchef Heinz Beck, holder of three Michelin stars for his restaurant La Pergola in Rome.

Now, you'd think, wouldn't you, that this momentous occasion might merit a change of name to - say - 'Heinz Beck' or perhaps 'Heinz Beck at The Lanesborough'. Losing the Apsleys name would be no great loss; while well-respected and reasonably renowned, scoring fairly highly in (to give just one example) Zagat's 2010 guide, it has always been a stealth-wealth, cognoscenti type destination which could have survived a more radical name change. Even 'Heinz Beck at Apsleys' would trip off the tongue more easily if they really had to keep the name; but no, the powers that be have lumbered this astonishingly brilliant restaurant with an astonishingly dreadful moniker. Which, as this little rant will have made apparent, rather grinds my gears.

Crap name notwithstanding, Apsleys gets absolutely everything else very right indeed. To start with the room, it's a very beautiful space, the soaring glass ceiling adding drama to the luxuriously decorated, two-tiered space, done out in shades of mauve and taupe with plush, swirl-patterned carpet, modernist chandeliers and a mural the length of one wall. It's the polar opposite of many contemporary restaurant interiors with their minimalist, neutral decor and calculated absence of elaboratory flounces, but I liked Apsleys all the more for it; it strikes me that the perfect antidote to the current on-going economic doom and gloom is a little bit of unapologetic, conspicuous luxury, and Apsleys offers an abundance of it.

Another wonderfully old-school aspect of the experience is the service, boasting the highest ratio of waiting staff to tables I've experienced since Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's (of which, while I mention it, note the thoroughly sensible name - but I digress). Many restaurants make the mistake of thinking that having an army of staff will guarantee good service, but fail to train their people to a sufficiently high level and end up oppressing diners with over-attentiveness. Not so at Apsleys, where the battalion of staff from head waiter to junior tray-bearer via a couple of 'ranks' in between, has been drilled to perfection, ensuring that every diner's every need is not only met but also pre-empted, and those little acts that in lesser diners feel like fuss for fussing's sake - re-folding napkins while one's in the lav, topping up wine and water - just happen as if by magic.

Finally, and importantly, the staff have that rare quality of a sense of humour; our waiter played along with my shriek of mock-shock when he announced that 'Ze chef 'as prepared for you a little surprise' and our playful eye-rolling which greeted the detailed introductions and explanations of successive dishes. I don't mind this particular, new-ish quirk to fine dining as long as it genuinely adds something to my knowledge of the dish - here it does - but I nonetheless find it insanely amusing.

Speaking of which, it wasn't just me being amused but also my bouche, which leads me rather neatly to the important matter of what we actually ate, we being myself and my artist pal PV, like me not averse to a swanky dining room and a bit of top quality nosh. First to hit the table was a selection of wonderful freshly baked breads (special mention must go to the pancetta-infused rolls), accompanied by some excellent olive oil and rock salt served in dainty china dishes.

Then, as we sipped a glass of delicious Prosecco, we were presented with chef's aforementioned 'surprise' - not Heinz Beck popping up from beneath the table shouting 'Boo!' but a trio of quirky amuses: a liquorice allsort-sized slice of pepper and aubergine terrine, a melting veal beignet on a wisp of basil cream, and a piquant cube of kumquat jelly. The unlikely combination worked to serve the intended dual purpose of these things, namely to give a taste of what to expect from the meal ahead and to awaken the palate in readiness for it.

Palates awakened we started on our starters; PV had chosen potato cream with slow-cooked egg, while I went for Iberian suckling pig with pomegranate emulsion. Both were superb, PV's rich, thick soup marrying nicely with the almost jelly-like texture of the gently poached egg, the former being gently and ceremoniously poured over the latter at the table. My dish surprised me slightly by being not a simple dish of robustly-flavoured meat as I'd expected but actually a quite delicate salad, the slices of tender, rare meat joined on the plate by a scattering of wild herbs and pomegranate seeds as well as the tart, refreshing emulsion. It worked well, the meat and fruit complementing each other as comfortingly as roast pork and apple sauce but in a much lighter incarnation.

For our main courses we both fancied fish; I chose gilthead sea bream with pepper coulis and cucumber, while PV decided to try the mackerel in filo with olives and celery. Each dish was elegantly and imaginatively presented, the sea bream in angular herb-dusted goujons accompanied by an unexpected (and delicious) panzanella-stuffed pepper, and the mackerel in a long, appealing 'cigar' of crisp pastry. Each dish perfectly represented Beck's description of his style of cooking, 'light cuisine of Mediterranean flavours', bringing together delicately flavoured components in order to produce complex, rewarding layers of taste in each mouthful.

After a short rest we were brought a selection of palate cleansers, as I had fully expected we would be, Chef having already surprised us quite enough for one evening. Chilled mango puree, served in a shot glass with a hemisphere of crystal clear mint jelly on the side, did an excellent job of refreshing the taste buds without entirely obliterating the lingering flavours of what had gone before. What went after however was, for me at least, the real highlight of a meal that had been full of them.

Billed as 'chocolate tart', what I actually received was three mini-desserts; the tart itself, a shallow bowl of crunchy, spiced pastry filled with rich, warm, viscous melted chocolate laced with ginger; a mound of coarse strawberry 'salsa'; and a quenelle of awesome rosemary ice-cream. Each by itself was speech-arrestingly gorgeous, but when combined on the spoon and taken together almost brought tears of joy to my eyes. The only other dish which I can recall having reacted to with anything like this degree of sheer enjoyment was a strawberry souffle at Guillaume at Bennelong (note, again, the name...) in Sydney; this dessert topped even that. PV's pear cake with cinnamon and crunchy amaretti ice-cream was, he told me, extremely good, but I was so carried away with my plate of Manna that at the time it seemed impossible to countenance anything else on the table being in the same league. I am sure that this was unfair of me and that PV should be taken at his word.

Although I'm certain that coffee at Apsleys would be as carefully selected and presented as the food, we agreed that it would spoil rather than complement our state of pleasant satiation; but this wasn't to be the end of our meal. Whether ordering coffee or not, Chef likes to spoil diners one last time with a plate of hand-made chocolates and petits fours, five per person no less, which like everything to leave his kitchen are exquisite - innovative, light, delicious. A little slab of chocolate ganache spiked with popping candy was particularly memorable and fun.

And there I think is a word to sum up the whole experience of dining at Apsleys (now, let's not forget, 'A Heinz Beck Restaurant'); it really is great fun, being treated like royalty in a gorgeous space, enjoying clever, imaginative food served by adept staff who manage to maintain a studied elegance and formality without ever taking themselves too seriously. PV and I left on a real high, both I think aware that we hadn't just had a great meal, we'd had a really great experience.

So many restaurants, or rather restaurateurs, have gone out of business because they have invested more time and energy in gimmickery and spin than they have in getting the basics of food, ambience and service right. In contrast, assuming that the standards we experienced are maintained, I can see Apsleys quickly becoming one of the hottest tables in town and racking up another few Michelin stars for Mr Beck. Who knows, he might even work his magic outside of the kitchen and get them to do something about that damn silly name.

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA Tel: 020 7259 5599 http://bit.ly/5giP7

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Posted by +Hugh Wright

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