Friday, 4 October 2013

Restaurant Review: The Ledbury, Notting Hill

Canapes: Gruyere tartlets
With an impending "big" birthday uppermost in our minds, we took the chance while at a lunch with some of the North East's best chefs recently to ask where in London would be a suitable venue for a full throttle celebratory blow-out. A couple of places garnered honourable mentions, including Kitchen Table, but a fair consensus seemed to be that we'd struggle to do any better than The Ledbury. That was my cue to cancel the booking that I'd made elsewhere, and then spend a considerable portion of the next week on TopTable, stalking a box-seat booking. It paid off, as I snared a prime time 7:15 seating. Hurrah.

If you follow these things, you're probably well aware of the pedigree of the place. If not, it goes like this: Two Michelin Stars; currently rated 13th best restaurant in the world in a somewhat daft but nonetheless influential yearly survey; regular appearances at the top of Best London Restaurant lists, swooning praise for Aussie Chef Brett Graham, that sort of thing. As such, our expectations were at stratosphere-bothering levels, so it's to the credit of the place that they were, if anything, well exceeded.

On arrival we were shown straight to our table, there didn't seem to be any sort of bar area. A good deal is made of the fact that despite all its fame The Ledbury is still a neighbourhood restaurant. That needs some qualifying: Notting Hill is not your average "neighbourhood", with some serious cash swilling around, as much being notable in the clientele on the evening of our visit. Nonetheless, the room, while very comfortable and plush, didn't scream opulence. Table decorations were sparse and artful, while bits of wood here and mirror there added to a relaxed, rather than intimidating feel. Tables were spaced pretty close together for a restaurant at this level; maybe that's where the "neigbourhood-y" thing comes from.

We had collectively decided in advance to go for the full-bollocks tasting menu and matched wines, Kasia swapping out the grouse main - she's not mad about the gamier end of the game spectrum - for sika deer, so decisions were minimal and we were swiftly on to dispatching the canapes of Gruyere tartlets, which tasted a bit like cheese footballs had been treated to the latest performance enhancing narcotic. Very good.

Sourdough and unsalted butter
Bread was a cutely presented wholemeal sourdough with a momentously hefty crust. I was halfway through commenting on how it takes confidence from a restaurant in their bread to only offer one type - that's all you get at The Fat Duck, for example - when additional brioches were offered. The bacon inflected one was predictably great, as was one of "crystalised malt". No, me neither. This was the first of a number of times expectations were set and then exceeded.

Amuse: Deep-fried Quail's egg, carrot puree, summer truffle
The first few courses arrived and were seen off in an almost disorientating flurry, the service not missing a beat, working impressively in tandem with both the kitchen and our tactically nurtured appetites. An amuse of Quail egg was (of course) cooked so the yolk ran perfectly. The crispness of the exterior was uncanny, leaving me wondering, not for the last time, " how the bloody hell did they do that".

Ceviche of Hand Dived Scallops with Tokyo Turnips, Seaweed Oil and Frozen Horseradish

Next up, the first "proper" dish, a ceviche of scallops that showed off some precision-cut wafers of the bivalve, layered with similarly treated turnip for crunch. The frozen horseradish cleansed at the same time as adding pungency, the seaweed oil leaving you with the vague feeling you'd just clambered out of the ocean, all depth and umami. I've got various seaweeds in the cupboard at home, doing nowt. They'll be taking part in oily experiments very soon, as this was amazing stuff.

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Pickled Cucumber, Celtic Mustard and Shiso
This was almost instantly succeeded by one of the Ledbury's signatures, a flame grilled piece of mackerel with all manner of cleverness by way of accompaniment. Most striking was how insanely juicy the fish was. A pouch of some kind of gel was full of what I took to be a tartare of mackerel, while some serious crunch was provided by the (compressed?) cucumber and shards of crisped-up panko.

Boudin of Teal with a Veloute of Globe Artichokes and Wiltshire Truffle
Hot on the heels of this came a study in soft beige and comfort. The boudin stood up to a knife but was disarmingly soft in the mouth. The frothed artichoke sauce was pleasant, but couldn't compete with the mushroom/ truffle sauce, poured at the table, which was the main attraction here. If anything, it overpowered the duck boudin which, presumably involving some of the dangly bits of a wild animal, I had expected to pack a bit more thwunk. 

As an aside, a note on fresh truffle: either I'm just not getting the good stuff, or I'm weirdly immune to it's charms. Neither the actual grated truffle on this, nor the amuse, did anything more than timidly hint at the vaguest whisper of shroom. In fairness, I understand this is not the season for the finest specimens. One of these days I'm going to have to buy one of the suckers fresh, grate it all over something and see what all the hoo-hah is about.

Back to the firing line, and the matched wines were beginning to take their toll, the early pace of the dishes resulting in a mildly embarrassing back-log of glasses on our table. I heroically saw off the remnants of a glass that hadn't set Kasia's world alight. The things you do.

Roast Sea Bass with Pumpkin and Mandarin Puree, Crab and Ginger
Interestingly, after our first encounter with meat, we were now back attending to piscine matters, with a stonking bit of sea bass. The real winner here though was a sphere of pumpkin flesh, possessed both of an unusually firm texture and far more flavour than it had any earthly right to. The crab meat crowning the fish was pretty bloody divine and the sauce was given a wonderful lift by the most judicious waft of lemongrass. I'd never think of putting most of these things together, but on this plate they were all getting along like the oldest of pals.

After a mercifully longer gap during which we congratulated ourselves on the choice of the evening's venue ("Christ, this is frigging amazing") and exchanged mild concerns ("They don't skimp on the booze, do they? I'm feeling a bit pissed"), we were on to the meat courses proper. We were introduced to a whole lump of pig's face at the table, artfully scattered with star anise, and other herbs and spices, before this was returned to the kitchen to be plated. Actually, what then arrived were not plates but really beautiful white stones on which sat a paean of all things porcine. 

Jowl of Pork with Prune Cooked in Smoked Tea, Walnuts and Black Pudding
The jowl itself, having been cooked for god knows how long, was superbly dense and rich, as was the sublimely reduced sauce. Crumbs of black pudding acted like a seasoning, adding pepperiness while shards of crackling were exactly as they should be, but still small enough not to require a trip to the dentist in their honour. A whole walnut sat proudly astride. This was a huge-hitting dish of almost laugh-out-loud perfection.

North Yorkshire Grouse with Mirabelle Plums, Red Vegetables and Leaves
Main courses brought for me something I'd been looking forward to all night as I've never tried Grouse before. Here, it arrived in rude shades of pink and burgundy, smelling of wildness and decadence. The flavour of the bird was fairly stupendous, one of the most arresting bits of protein I've ever had the pleasure of. A previously-unadvertised sauce of foie gras was moan-inducingly shit hot, while the salted Mirabelle and Radicchio contributed some much-needed bitterness. Mind-blowing stuff. Kasia had a taste and hated it; strange child. 

Saddle of Sika Deer with Celeriac Baked in Juniper, Smoked Bone Marrow and Crisp Potato
I had a shot of her deer, which was a stunning looking plate and also tasted superb, in particular the loose "sausage" of venison bits and the baked celeriac, something I think they used to serve here as a starter in it's own right.

A pre-dessert of some kind of citrussy granita with a soft meringue was a welcome change of direction and jolly nice, but I was still thinking about that Grouse...

Sliced Figs with Honey, Vanilla, Olives and Toasted Sourdough Ice Cream
For pud, another one of those things that nearly always ends up so disappointing: figs. No danger of that here though. I don't know whether they had been subject to any actual cooking or preparation, or whether they had just been picked from somewhere appropriate at the absolute height of their powers, but either way they were serenely sweet. The accompanying ice-cream was yet another knock out punch.

Brown Sugar Tart with Poached Grapes and Stem Ginger Ice Cream
A frankly in-no-way-required, but nonetheless appreciated extra dessert was provided in honour of the occasion. Brown Sugar Tart sounds very simple, but the flavour was deep and complex, full of not-quite-burnt caramel notes. Also, kudos to the steady-handed individual it was that piped all that chocolate out.

Teas and coffees came accompanied by some jolly nice petit-fours. I usually can't stand jellies, but these blood-orange specimens were winners. Ditto the chocolate and ginger logs.

And that was that. Phew. No doubt about it, an absolutely sublime meal by any standards. 

Service was unerringly pitch-perfect throughout. We were immediately put at our ease, water was instantly refilled, additional bread offered; all sounds very obvious and prosaic, but there's something hugely impressive about such a clearly well-oiled machine working a busy service. Also a note on the matched wines; they were great. A Picpoul perfectly highlighted the salinity of the scallop dish while an off-dry South African Chenin Blanc set off the duck dish perfectly for me, though it was a bit too close to dessert for Kasia. An Aussie PX was a first for me, but coming in just a notch or two less sweet than its Spanish cousin, was a perfect way to finish the meal.

In a restaurant scene dominated by "concepts", "USPs", fads and gimmicks, it felt like an unusually grown-up experience to just sit in a restaurant and be served stunningly good food matched with a delicious range of wines. There was no PR guff on the menu, we weren't treated to any "philosophy" and there was little, if any, "theatre". Don't get me wrong, these things (especially the modernist whizzes and bangs) all have their place, but not so much in the Ledbury, where the sheer quality of the ingredients, accuracy and restraint of the cooking and warmth of service were what shined. Yes, it cost a stupid amount: I think most of us can agree that the £407 bill for two is an obscene amount to drop on three or so hours of sitting down and eating some food. But I'm bloody glad we did, as I can't imagine a more appropriate, grown-up restaurant in which to celebrate a grown-up birthday.

Addendum: The day after the meal I got an email from Sommelier Adam Dugmore, with an attached menu including the changes to the regular tasting menu we'd had and all the accompanying wines, noting those that had differed from the ones usually poured. It's the little things...


The Ledbury on Urbanspoon


  1. I can only say Wow! and happy birthday!

  2. You sure do frequent a lot of restaurants Lee...makes me wonder when you have time to eat your own

    But happy birthday anyway...sounds like it was a great meal...though little fancy for my taste.

  3. Thanks Tanya (Actually Kasia's Birthday: afraid my 30th was some time ago..)

    Posh meals out are a bit of a guilty pleasure, and probably as far removed from cooking your own stuff as it's possible to get. I like both!


All comments gratefully received. Sorry about the word verification thing, but I've started getting bombed by spam.

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