Saturday, 23 February 2013

Restaurant Review: Alyn Williams at The Westbury, Mayfair

Trips down to London have been sadly infrequent recently. One of the good bits about a visit southward is the chance to seek out a relatively bargainous lunch at one of the zillion or so top-flight restaurants that litter the place. Newcastle is not bad for eating out, with a few genuinely excellent restaurants and eateries, but with food as most other things, Londoners are farcically spoiled. Not for us are the multi-course extravaganzas of matched-wine tasting menus (we need the train fare home...), but, especially at lunchtime, it's very possible to eat some amazing stuff without incurring a bill that runs into hundreds of pounds. On previous sorties south we've been to Texture, Pied a Terre and Arbutus, all of which were great in different ways. This time out, I had seen some good reviews of Alyn Williams' newish restaurant in the Mayfair-situated Westbury Hotel, so off we schlepped to check it out.

After wandering through streets of bewilderingly expensive looking shops for designer labels I'd scarcely even heard of, we found the Westbury. The two blokes in top hats loitering outside were a dead giveaway. The restaurant itself is just inside the hotel entrance. Although the room is nice, and plush enough, it does feel like a large room in a hotel rather than a custom-designed space. The sparkly carpet is a bit odd, but fine if you're into that kind of thing. The seats were super-comfy, which is probably more important. There's a huge glass wine cabinet that seems to take up about a third of the restaurant, with a private dining table actually inside it! There are some fairly extraordinarily-priced bottles in there including a gold-plated bottle of vintage Dom Perignon Rose, yours for £35,000. I assume they let you keep the bottle?! Maybe next time.

Cheese gougeres were swiftly delivered to the table, and just about as swiftly despatched (hence no pic); pleasantly light but with a good cheesy - Fourme d'Ambert I think - tang. I always like to see what upper-end restaurants are doing in the bread and butter department, and here it was pretty damn great.

Excellent house bread
Beer bread rolls were still warm and a pleasure to rip into, a potato sourdough had a great crust and flavour and there was a black pepper crispbread too. Butter came both unsalted and whipped with caraway which split opinion; Kasia loved it, while I really liked the initial flavour but thought the aftertaste pretty strong and persistent.

We both went for the three course set lunch menu which offered two choices per course. First up for both of us were Oxtail faggots.

Oxtail faggots, celeriac, winter vegetables, beef stock
The depth of beefy flavour in this dish was pretty stunning. The faggot itself fell apart on contact and was aggressively seasoned and had some sort of grain, maybe pinhead barley in them, which added up to make them taste a bit like a very high-end haggis. The flavour in the baby turnips was also amazing. The stock was soaked up with the last of the bread. On reflection, I think the only other faggots I've had (no sniggering, homophobes) were Mr Brain's Pork Faggots. Suffice to say, this was a gargantuan leap forward from that rather unhappy experience. The dish as a whole straddled the well seasoned/ too salty divide, just about ok on that front for me, but then I do like handfuls of Maldon lobbed at things.

Next up for me was Hake cooked in red wine, while Kasia went for the Duck option.

Hake, red wine, smoked eel, Alexander
Fish cooked with red, rather than white wine seems to be more and more common on menus, which is fine by me as this was very good. The fish was nicely cooked, incredibly fresh tasting and was lent a savoury edge by the red wine glaze. The tiny croutons of smoked eel were a touch of genius, giving the whole dish extra depth. Pasnip puree was as silky as you like, while Alexanders, a new one for me, lent the thing a touch of green freshness.

Glazed Duck, pickled Judas ear, quinoa, wild garlic
I snaffled a taste of Kasia's duck which was also very nice. In a nifty touch, crispy quinoa had been used where the skin would once have been to give a textural contrast. Whether or not I'd have personally preferred a slice of crisped, salty duck skin or some quinoa on this plate is moot. The wild garlic reminded me that it's going to be time to get out and check for early growths of the stuff in familiar spots before too long.

An unadvertised pre-dessert of cheesecake, mandarin granita and honeycomb was bloody lovely, a great example of how three simple things that all pull in slightly different directions can add up to far more than the sum of their sugary parts. In different circumstances I could have done 7 or 8 of these no problem.

Bread and butter pudding, candied fruit ice cream
To finish with I opted for the rather un-Michelin starred option of bread and butter pudding, which was a rather fine example with a good crunchy crust and yieldingly custardy interior. In another very clever move, rather than buttering the bread with marmalade (I'm sure that's how my mum's made it in the past), citrus was present in the candied fruit ice cream which gave a contrast of both texture and temperature. The portion, slightly unusually for restaurants like this, was a whopper, and by the end of it I was pleasantly stuffed. Maybe they had a lot of bread to use up...

Roasted white chocolate, passion fruit, saffron
I was interested to see what Kasia's "Roasted white chocolate" would consist of, and it arrived in pannacotta format. I don't know how you go about roasting white chocolate, but this had a nice toasted flavour and the passion fruit foam provided a punchy acidic counterweight.

We had lingered long enough over all this to rule out there being any time for coffee or tea, but we were given some chocolates with the bill which were lovely; a very good salted caramel and incredibly coffee-ish coffee and Pedro Ximinez truffle.

Top-notch chocs
So; all told this was an excellent lunch. Some creative, and always very accurate, cooking with a few touches of real class. The bread, starters and pre-dessert were probably the pick of a very good bunch of things to eat.

Service was attentive and for the most part very friendly, with only the occasional slip into the kind of michelin-starred unsmiling seriousness that I can probably do without but maybe others want when they visit places like this. Further bread was swiftly offered once we devoured the initial basket. One of the waiters had just about the broadest cockney accent I've ever heard which for some reason seemed a bit funny in the hushed environs, but he was probably also the cheeriest of the front of house staff.

Including service, two rather nice glasses of Pol Roger (well, we don't get to do this often...), a further glass of Malbec for her and very nice American Merlot for me this all came to just over £100. Definitely not cheap, but I'd say very good value. If you just drank water you could have a really great lunch here for just over £50 for two, which is pretty amazing considering where this place is and the standard of the cooking. For comparison, the set lunch at the two Michelin-star The Square, which is just round the corner is a tenner more at £35, and while the tasting menu at Alyn Williams comes in at £60, The Square's costs £105. Without wanting to bang on about the price of things constantly, it's also worth pointing out that you can get a glass of wine here for the not-too eye watering price of £6, and that if you want a bottle you've got lots of choice at around £30-35. Not cheap, but not insane.

If you're after some top-flight cooking in Mayfair at a very reasonable price, this is a great place to go. We're off to save up for the tasting menu...


Alyn Williams at the Westbury Website

Alyn Williams at The Westbury on Urbanspoon


  1. Sounds delicious. We're hoping to be in London this September, we may give this place a try.

    1. Definitely recommend. Best meal I've had in London was Pied a Terre, that's worth a look. But like I said you're not spoiled for choice!

    2. sounds yummy and great pics

  2. Service is a strength here. The wine waiter gives advice you can rely on, and the crew is mostly excellent, though one knew quite a bit less than the others (including not knowing what a "sea vegetable" is – admittedly a question that doesn't feature on the UK citizenship test). Put all this together and I can unreservedly recommend Williams's cooking, as long as you can handle the old-schoolery of the setting.

    1. "What is a sea vegetable?" might be a lot less daft, and probably more useful than some of the questions on the citizenship test.


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