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 Sophie Dear compare notes on Fera at Claridge’s.
Tom Parker Bowles is a food writer and restaurant critic for the Mail on Sunday. His latest cookbook is Let’s Eat Meat.
Sophie Dear is an Oxford- based doctor who eats out once a fortnight. Her top eating out experience has been the tasting menu at the Fat Duck in Bray, where she went as a surprise engagement present.
The triumphant arrival of Simon Rogan at the prestigious space left vacant by Gordon Ramsay sees the highly seasonal, ‘new natural’ style of cooking embraced by the smart set. Plush, expensive and elegantly run, Fera serves a weekday lunch menu, £45, an à la carte menu at £85 and a tasting menu at £105.
Dishes include dry-aged Herdwick hogget with sweetbreads, cucumber, yoghurt and blackberry, and hake in caramelised cabbage with new potatoes, chicken skin and nasturtium.
Fera has legions of staff ready to replace a fork, spoon or hairpiece in the blink of an eye. Service is impeccable and charming, if extremely ‘fayn dayning’. Conversation tends to be somewhat staccato when constantly interrupted for yet another long-winded introduction to a new dish. This problem is not unique to Fera. But please, let us pour our own wine. *I was recognised.
From start to finish we were wowed by the service. Staff were slick, attentive, well informed and enthusiastic about the menu. Chefs attended our table to explain some of the dishes, which was a nice touch. Tap water was provided.
‘Dear God, spare me from another tasting menu’, I was thinking. ‘What’s wrong with choosing three courses rather than wasting four hours of one’s life being lectured about the ingredients, provenance and technique?’ On this occasion, however, Simon Rogan restored my faith. He’s an astonishingly talented cook, more concerned with flavour than just making the plate (or slate) look like some form of edible still life (although he does that, too).
A starter of slow-cooked rabbit clad in a crisp onion batter was magnificent. A small mouthful, sure, but a wonderful one. Then a British aligot: soft cheese whipped into buttery mashed potato and topped with small chunks of slow-cooked duck’s heart. Everything is soft and seductive, the very essence of edible aplomb.
The brill was beautifully cooked and came surrounded by blewit mushrooms, tiny potatoes and stuff picked on the beach: a taste of late spring that dances around the mouth. This is real food, the kind you never forget – like the prawns so fresh I swear I saw them winking, draped in rich lardo. Exquisite ingredients, exquisitely cooked.
The amuse-bouche and bread (served with mushroom broth) were flavoursome and presented beautifully with edible flowers. We were very excited, too, by the cocktail menu, which included several unusual ingredients. Our starters, however, were disappointing; both lacked seasoning and, although the Portland crab my husband had was well prepared, the dressed lettuce resembled an aged bagged salad.
My dish of smoked cheese, potatoes, crispy pork and watercress was served in a shallow bowl, making it impossible to extricate the accompanying asparagus juice using the cutlery provided. The fluffy, delicately smoked cheese was the star of the dish. In contrast to the under-seasoned starters, a meagre portion of plaice braised in nettle butter with radishes and shrimp was too salty.
The accompanying salsify sticks, however, were citrussy and crunchy. My husband loved the sweet yet earthy gravy accompanying his guinea hen and the meat was succulent. Cheeses were varied, but unimaginatively presented in untidy wedges. We were sceptical about celeriac and buckwheat in a pudding, although the subtle caramel flavour worked well with the pears. The unorthodox flavours of the petits fours, such as smoked meringues with buckthorn, were very moreish.
The Bottom Line
Rogan’s one hell of a cook, and Fera’s one hell of a restaurant. But prices are teeth- clenchingly high. With a cheap bottle of wine and the tasting menu, I didn’t get much change from £350 for two. At lunch. So would I go back? Of course – if someone else were paying.
FOOD 8/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 9/10; TOM’S TOTAL: 24/30
The restaurant was beautiful and the service impeccable. The wines were fairly expensive but the food was better value. As we ate our £45 set lunch, I envied those having the tasting menu, but I think one visit is enough.
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 8/10; SERVICE 10/10; SOPHIE’S TOTAL: 25/30
Fera at Claridge’s Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating:
There aren’t many London restaurants that are able to source a large proportion of produce from their own farm. Fera’s Cumbrian farm provides much of the meat and it is all free range. With a sustainable seafood policy in place, you can be confident that the Portland crab and Scottish prawns are good options.
Written August 2014