Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Tom Parker Bowles and reader George Connor compare notes on Chiltern Firehouse.
Tom Parker Bowles is a food writer and restaurant critic for the Mail on Sunday. His latest cookbook is Let’s Eat Meat.
George Connor is a postgraduate student from London. He eats out around twice a month and his favourite type of cuisine is Arabic. His best eating out experience was at Fresco Italian restaurant in Teignmouth, south Devon.
André Balazs is a world-renowned hotelier, and London’s Chiltern Firehouse is his first hotel outside the US.This imposingVictorian red-brick grade-II listed building on Marylebone’s Chiltern Street was once a fire station and has been transformed into a stunning hotel and restaurant.With ex-Viajante chef Nuno Mendes (opposite, top right) at the helm, the stylish dining room is a modern take on a brasserie and there is a mix of booths, tables and bar seating running alongside the open kitchen.The restaurant is light and airy and makes the most of the building’s high ceilings and original features, such as the big fire-station doors. An innovative and creative menu picks up on recent trends, including savoury doughnuts and smoked meats and fish. Mendes spent almost 16 years in the USA, so there are plenty of current American influences.
This is service unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, as if the massed armies of beautifully dressed greeters and waiting staff have some sort of ESP device that predicts one’s every wish. Drinks arrive almost before you’ve ordered them, glasses are filled to exactly the same level – and all of this with the broadest of smiles: everyone seems warm and human, not bland and over-drilled. *I was recognised: the senior staff seemed to have been hand picked from London’s greatest restaurants.
As intimidating as the building and location are, the service was surprisingly unfussy and personable. We were met by a friendly doorman who passed us on seamlessly to a hostess who guided us to seats at a bar that overlooked the kitchen. From here, we could watch the army of chefs preparing the complicated dishes. Everyone, including the sommelier, who helped pick an amazing Portuguese branco, was effortlessly attentive. Our waitress even secured for us the last of the octopus just as it was about to run out.
Über hotelier André Balazs took quite a risk hiring Nuno Mendes to run his kitchen – not because Mendes is an unknown talent (he’s an established and brilliant chef), but rather because his food tends towards the ultra-modern high end, and might seem a touch fussy even for the usually fickle international movers and shakers. The much-lauded crab doughnuts (opposite, centre left) were a little dense, although the crustacean itself was spanking fresh. A scallop tartare (or ceviche, or whatever it was called), was too well behaved and rather forgettable. And the fried chicken had a wonderful, crisp crust, but the meat lacked any real farmyard punch. Still, crisp cauliflower came with a wonderfully salty, powdered dip.Who knew a humble brassica could excite like this? Chipotle steak tartare (above left) appeared like some artist’s palette of proper rich, mooing meat, beautifully trimmed and chopped, with an egg yolk and a chipotle sauce that added smoke rather than heat. Caesar salad was elevated from fine to sublime with the addition of shiny sheets of the most wonderful chicken skin I’ve ever eaten. Pigeon was equally glorious, the meat shockingly pink but beautifully flavoured.Then there was grilled Iberico pork with roast garlic and lemon: a faultless piece of meat, and best dish of the night. So not exactly flawless, and the menu will develop with time, but mix Mendes (plus his head chef, formerly from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) with Balazs, and you have one hell of a good start.
To start we had the raved-about crab doughnuts which, despite the hype, were a little dense and slightly dry, although the meat held its own in terms of flavour. We decided to share all of our dishes, which included grilled octopus and chipotle steak tartare.The octopus was cooked in a trendy Big Green Egg barbecue and was moist and tender, unlike almost any octopus I’ve had before. It was served on a smooth, rich aubergine purée, similar to a very subtle moutabel (Middle Eastern dip).The tartare, while being a perfect example of the dish – fresh, succulent and suitably meaty – was spiced with a subtle chipotle sauce, a nod to Nuno Mendes’ time in the US. Our mains, chargrilled Iberico pork and monkfish cooked over pine (opposite, centre right) arrived promptly afterwards. Both had fantastic flavour; the smoky pine of the monkfish was combined with aniseedy fennel, but the flavours didn’t overpower the meaty fish.The Iberico pork came with a delicious chargrilled crust and had a smooth, rich taste. Gluttonously, we also had a rather unnecessary pot of bourbon sweet potatoes which, while incredibly smooth and sweet, lacked any real bourbon kick. To finish, we shared a baked-apple panna cotta which had a strong if slightly artificial taste. Despite this, the dish was actually very pleasant – a sorbet-like layer of frozen apple topped with a fluffy, creamy meringue.
The bottom line
The food is mainly great, but it’s the whole package that thrills. I haven’t been so seduced by a restaurant for years.The room looks astonishing – handsome rather than pretentious – and, within a few weeks of opening, it already has that elusive heart and soul that’s so vitally important. I’ll be back – if, of course, I can damned well get in.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 10/10; SERVICE 10/10; TOM’S TOTAL: 27/30
All in all, the place really delivered.The entire set-up is as good as the best I’ve ever encountered. From the building itself to the staff, food and drink, there was almost nothing I could fault.We came away satisfied, full and, frankly, blown away.
FOOD 9/10; ATMOSPHERE 9/10; SERVICE 10/10; GEORGE’S TOTAL: 28/30
Chiltern Firehouse Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
Overall, Chiltern Firehouse performs very well, although the chef might look at using more sustainable fish. Scientific advice is to avoid using monkfish and, while there’s insufficient data on octopus numbers, it’s better to avoid it. Otherwise, sourcing is impeccable with almost all meat and much of the fruit and veg being organic (the beef is free range and grass fed). Serious effort goes into reducing waste, and the restaurant has already forged a good relationship with local schools, teaching cookery skills and about food provenance.
Written June 2014