Monday, 27 September 2010

Koffmann's, Knightsbridge

For those of us afflicted by the increasingly-common condition known as Restaurant Obsessive Disorder - symptoms of which include poring over online menus late at night, booking tables at new restaurants the minute phonelines open, and cataloguing everything we eat in words and even pictures assuming it to be of interest to others - the comings, goings and coming again of famous chefs at The Berkeley have been as fascinating as the peregrinations of the yellow warbler are to ornithologists.

Twelve years ago, Pierre Koffmann moved his three-Michelin starred restaurant La Tante Claire from its site at 68 Royal Hospital Road to The Berkeley, an early example of a top chef being lured to a top hotel. The Chelsea site vacated by La Tante Claire was taken on by the then relatively-unknown Gordon Ramsay, who three years later had three stars of his own. 
When Koffmann entered semi-retirement in 2003 (semi- in that he kept on a consultancy gig) and closed La Tante Claire, the by now very well-known Ramsay was taken on by The Berkeley's owners, Maybourne, to oversee all their restaurants. His two-starred, Marcus Wareing-helmed Pétrus replaced La Tante Claire, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's fusion temple Vong was booted out to make way for Gordon's smart-casual Boxwood Cafe.

Fast forward to 2010, and following very public fallings out between Ramsay and Maybourne (which only Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's survived), and between Wareing and Ramsay, a practically unchanged P
étrus is now Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley and the Boxwood Cafe site - empty since April 2010 - has been taken on by...none other than an un-retired Pierre Koffmann. Plus ca change, as M. Koffmann might say. I tell you all this by way of bringing home the point - to non-ROD sufferers - that in London restaurant terms, Koffmann's is A Very Big Deal Indeed. It's for this reason that I chose to go there for Sunday lunch with my friend Nina, who on her occasional visits from Bermuda entrusts to me the choosing of somewhere fabulous for a long, boozy catch-up meal. To my great relief and pleasure, Nina's trust was repaid by Koffmann's being every bit as good as I had expected it to be.

In keeping with the reputation of The Berkeley itself, everything about the restaurant is discreetly luxurious, all pale surfaces and gentle lighting, with cheerful flashes of colour provided by green-upholstered chairs and some wonderful floral arrangements. It's smart rather than formal; Nina and I were in our Sunday best but other diners were in jeans and didn't look out of place. The size of the tiered room - there are two dining rooms separated by a very chic bar area on the landing between - would allow for more tables than there are; the resulting generous spacing adds to the air of relaxed elegance.

The Sunday lunch menu, offering three choices for each of three courses, is exceptional value at just £26, round about the price of a main course on the a la carte (the cuisine may be 'the simple, of the countryside' but the prices are very much of the city). To kick off, Nina chose chicken liver parfait which was excellent, a hint of anise lifting it above the ordinary although its being served in a teeny-tiny Kilner jar seemed a little gastropub. My salad of hearts of palm with shrimps was much more in keeping with the surroundings; well-presented, colourful and classy. The crunchy shredded hearts were dressed in a lovely mustard/citrus emulsion full of flavour but not so much as to overwhelm the fat, sweet shrimps on top.

We both chose the same main course, braised shoulder of lamb with white bean cassoulet, and there could be no better example of the 'hearty, robust seasonal food' which it is Pierre Koffmann's stated intent to provide. The lamb was soft and rich, shaped into a neat cylinder and served on a bed of the hearty but not heavy stew. We were pleasantly surprised to be served a trio of complimentary side dishes (quite why they were complimentary I wasn't sure, but let's just say Nina is a very attractive woman) of honeyed carrots, green beans and  - a little oddly given our menu choices - French fries. All were good, although I thought the little metal pail the chips were served in was naff rather than nice.

We shared a flawless dessert of caramelised oeufs a la neige - more commonly known as ile flottante or floating island - a featherlight cloud of meringue atop a sweetened custard. Having spied, and smelled, the cheese trolley from across the room we shared a selection of the magnificently kept cheeses from La Fromagerie, two cow's and two goat's milk of which our favourites were the smooth, strong Fougeru and a salty Persille du Marais. A bottle of Corbieres Classique, Chateau Ollieux Romanis 2008 at £28 saw us through the meal, light enough to complement the starters yet robust enough to match well with the richness of the lamb and cheese dishes.

Service was generally as excellent as it should be in an establishment of this pedigree, but a couple of inadequacies stuck out. The waiter who took our food order would not take our wine order, but the sommelier sent to do so did no more than write down the name of the wine I had to point to on the list
The amuses-bouche we were presented with was no more than an anchovy fillet wrapped around a black olive on a disc of near-stale bread and the petits fours served with coffee, miniature chocolate macarons, were fridge-cold and chewy. These little freebies are lovely if they add something to the meal but if the desire isn't there to provide good ones, I'd rather have none at all.

These though really are minor gripes and don't in any way affect my opinion that this is a restaurant worth obsessing over. The food is superb, the atmosphere comforting and the service respectful but warm. It's not horrendously expensive either; our beautiful lunch, a good bottle of wine, a port, coffees and service came to £56 each.

The next time Pierre Koffmann retires it may be for good. ROD-sufferer or not, I'd recommend getting yourself to The Berkeley and catching him while you can.

Koffmann's, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London SW1X 7RL Tel: 020 7235 1010
Koffmann's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Emporio Armani Caffe, Knightsbridge

Emporio Armani in Knightsbridge is, to paraphrase the famous 80s advertising slogan for its near neighbour the V&A, an ace caff with quite a nice boutique attached. Located in the quiet mid-section of the Brompton Road, past the scrums around Harrods but not as far West as chi-chi Brompton Cross, the grand UK flagship of Giorgio Armani's younger, edgier label attracts a fashionable mix of well-heeled, well-dressed locals and wealthy foreign visitors. Thanks to the chic first floor Caffe, should hunger strike after a shopping spree or they require sustenance before one, they need not set foot outside the exquisitely polished door.

Readers of my recent write-up of Racine may recall that my best-friend-in-the-whole-wide-world Andrew works at Emporio Armani and it was at his suggestion that we booked ourselves in for lunch last week. Although aware of it, I'd never eaten at the Caffe (only the original, at Armani's Milan megastore) and might never have done had Andrew not heard good things which found their way to my ears. It had to be lunch - the Caffe is only open during normal store hours - and a day off work presented an ideal opportunity.

As you'd expect from the master of sleek, pared-down luxury, the design of Mr Armani's cafe is in perfect keeping with the philosophy of the label.  The decor of the long room - it runs the full width of the front of the store - combines high-gloss black marble, vast mirrors reflecting the natural light which pours in through an immense picture window, elegant beige seating and accents of Armani's favourite lipstick red. Like the clothes themselves, it's entirely classic while at the same time resolutely modern.

The menu reads as it should in a high-end Italian brasserie; there's a good range of antipasti and pasta, salads in starter and main course sizes and various fish and grills, as well as desserts and a lengthy drinks list for those fancying just a sugar or liquor high before dropping £600 on a blazer. As befits the demographic of the area - broadly, high-net-worth ladies who lunch and the men who walk them around town - the cooking style of chef-manager Djamel Benchikh is light and health-conscious without stripping away all signs of fun and indulgence, so while the majority of dishes are steamed, grilled and low-carb there's still some frittura going on.

Andrew started with calamari fritti while I ordered Parma ham with figs. The calamari were excellent, oil-less, crisp batter yielding to chewable rather than chewy squid. A slightly spicy, rich tomato dip served with it added colour and punch. My prosciutto - served in a portion large enough to serve as a light main course - was wonderful, a gorgeous mound of silky, salty ham and super-ripe figs complemented nicely by chunks of Galia melon and shavings of Parmesan. 

Main courses were equally simple and just as good; Andrew's test of any Italian restaurant (he and I have eaten our way around Tuscany) is their pasta e pomodoro and Armani's passed with flying colours, the thick, chunky tomato sauce having been slow-cooked to bring out an intensity of flavour not common in such a simple dish. My fillet of sea bass, adeptly seasoned, grilled to just-golden and presented on a soothing bed of palourde clams and broad beans was completely brilliant, the best fish dish I've had this year by a nautical mile.

Throughout the meal, warm tomato foccacia and olive bread, delicious on their own and even better dipped in the wonderful olive oil and balsamic provided, were regularly replenished. A couple of glasses of a crisp, floral Gavi di Gavi were the ideal accompaniment to the light but distinctive flavours of the food and tap water was happily brought and topped up (I mention this as reassurance to anyone who, nervous of asking the prices in a designer boutique, might be afraid to ask for anything less than Acqua Panna in a designer cafe). Service, from a brace of model-pretty staff, was as smart as the Armani suits they were wearing.

A couple of minor details, though far from criticisms, are worth noting. One is the aforementioned opening hours, or rather lack of them; the Caffe is only open when the store is open, currently 10-6 or at the latest 7. This is a shame, as I could see this being a really smart dinner destination if only the architects had thought to include a separate entrance. The other is that, unsurprisingly I suppose, the food is almost as expensive as the clothes; our two-course lunch with two glasses of wine, a Coke and 12.5% service came to £73. But like the collections for sale in the store around us, the price was borne out by superlative quality, expert manufacture and high style. 

Both this ace caff(e), and the rather nice boutique attached to it, are well worth a visit.

Emporio Armani Caffe, 191 Brompton Road, London SW3 1NE Tel: 020 7584 4549 

Emporio Armani Express on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 6 September 2010

Cafe Luc, Marylebone

This restaurant is now closed.

If I gave my blog posts headlines rather than simple titles, you can be sure that they would be dreadful punning ones. Bar Boulud? 'Not worth the hulla-Boulud'; Drapers Arms? 'Cut from some very fine cloth', that sort of thing. I say this only because while struggling to think where to begin with appraising an eminently forgettable dinner at Marylebone newbie Cafe Luc, I came up with several groan-out-loud possibilities: 'A Luclustre Performance'; 'Luc warm at best';  'Luc who's coming for dinner' - you get the picture. And speaking of pictures, you know it's come to something when I break my cardinal rule of not photographing food to snap my smiley-faced gazpacho, just to be sure of having something of interest to share.

This isn't to say I was left feeling entirely luctiferous by Cafe Luc, which occupies a huge site at the northern end of fashionable Marylebone High Street. Much of the experience was very agreeable, not least the company of the devilishly-handsome up-and-coming fashion television producer James Tomlinson who, you heard it here first, will very soon be telling us all what not to wear and how to look good clothed. The cocktails we kicked off the evening with - a vodka Martini and a Sea Breeze - were excellent, although there's no list so you just have to know what you want and hope that they know how to make it. And it's a not unattractive if rather corporate-feeling room, with lucent clusters of lamps spaced along biscuity-beige walls and plenty of mirrors for admiring one's fellow diners (and oneself) in. It's just those rather important elements of food and service that let the place down.

On its website, Cafe Luc boasts that "the classic brasserie menu references French and Mediterranean dishes, drawing on seasonal and local produce." So far so appetising, except that the menu 
doesn't actually make any references to seasonality or provenance, other than for a dish of Cornish mackerel on the prix-fixe which combines both (if by 'local' they mean 'regional' which I rather fancy to be the case). Sure, the smiley gazpacho was made with tomatoes, which are very much in season at the time of writing, but as a showcase of August's abundant lycopene-rich lovelies it wasn't exactly up there with, say, the beautiful, rainbow-hued salad of Heritage toms I enjoyed on my most recent visit to Dean Street Townhouse.

James and I ordered from the prix-fixe, good value at £15.50 and even better value at the £1 it was costing me thanks to an opening online offer. Good value, yes, but also depressingly pedestrian. As well as the gazpacho, which was garlicky, oily and not at all bad, starter choices were smoked salmon (described by both the menu and James as 'fine') served eccentrically on a toasted crumpet, and a duck terrine. Mains included pea risotto, the aforementioned Cornish mackerel and steak frites. We both ordered the latter; it was all right. Our desserts, lemon tart with raspberries and Chantilly and Nutella cr
ème brulée, were good although the latter tasted more of chocolate than of the promised hazelnut and thus disappointed. I'm honestly not sure if we'd have fared any better ordering a la carte; while it's perfectly possible to szhuszh up a 'classic brasserie menu' (step forward Automat) I don't think that's happening in the kitchen at Cafe Luc based on what we were served.

Ah yes - the service. Like the food, it wasn't actively bad, and I would probably have been more sympathetic had what we were eating been really stellar, but the so what-ness of the meal only served to accentuate the 'So what?' attitude of the people serving it. Excepting the warm welcome at the reception desk, staff were for the most part aloof, absent and seemingly uninterested in making our experience a memorable one. Worst of all, they committed the to-me impardonable table-side sin of serving James's main course to his empty place while he was away from the table. Given that other tables seemed to be receiving rather more attention, I can only conclude that because one of us was only paying a pound, we were deemed worthy of only 12.5 pence worth of service.

Somewhat depressingly, I expect that despite the blandness of all it has to offer Cafe Luc will thrive; while over-priced for what it is, perversely it's pretty cheap for Marylebone and in its very ordinariness could service a need for 'plain' food in an enclave which boasts plenty for the gourmand - The Providores, L'Autre Pied and Orrery are all nearby - but little for the casual diner. Whatever your culinary preference, I can only suggest that you Luc elsewhere.

Cafe Luc, 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 5HN Tel: 020 7258 9878

Cafe Luc on Urbanspoon
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