Apsleys – Like a Dream

Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th March 2012:

Scallops and asparagus at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The Lanesborough Hotel is one of those sharp imposing buildings that, if you were a tourist, you would almost be too afraid to enter. Its markings are so understated that, in the most part, it’s only identifiable by the lines of Rolls Royce that pull up outside. But this five star hotel houses Heinz Beck’s first restaurant outside of Italy, the Michelin starred Apsleys.

Heinz Beck has been the Executive Chef of La Pergola since 1994, the only three Michelin starred establishment in Rome, as well as the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that he was one of the most revered chefs in Europe.

You might think that with a three Michelin starred restaurant to look after, Apsleys would be neglected; but you would be wrong. In fact, Beck travels to Apsleys once a month to cook in the kitchens so that he knows all the food produced is of the same high standards. Perhaps that is why Apsleys gained its first Michelin star just five months after it opened in 2009.

It was with great pleasure, therefore, when Charlotte and I dined at Apsleys.

Duck tortelli with black truffle at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The evening started with a round of champagne and the bubbles clearly went to my head when I made the terrible mistake of not following my heart where food was concerned. While my scallops and asparagus satisfied the health angel perched on my shoulder, it didn’t quite hit the spot the way that Charlotte’s foie gras terrine with smoked apple and amaretti did. I guess I was not quite ready to stop the winter indulgence to embrace that taste of spring. An additional veal terrine croquette appeased me a little, but the next three courses did so much better.

When it came to Primi, there were no arguments – it had to be the tortelli with duck and black truffle. There are probably two ingredients that I dream of in my sleep, foie gras and truffle. It was too late for the foie gras but the truffle was certainly not going to escape. Its delicate earthy notes melted onto my palate all too soon.

Fillet beef with red wine at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

The Secondi came in the form of fillet beef cooked in red wine and Segovia suckling pig, essentially a texture of pork. Impressive flavours again but also the fact that a lot of thought has clearly been put into the nutrition of the dish. Instead of having a side of greens, the vegetables are fancifully displayed on the plate with the meat. If you dined here five days a week, you would probably still maintain your appetite, health and figure, I imagine. Well, if you didn’t indulge from their fine cheese trolley that is. I certainly would not say no to the offer of trying.

Chocolate soufflé with vanilla tahiti and raspberry at Apsley's, The Lanesborough Hotel

But that’s just wishful thinking, inspiring my dessert choice: Dream – an amalgamation of chocolate, dehydrated fruit, ices, glitter and all things nice. The alternative was a chocolate soufflé with vanilla Tahiti; rich, warm and chocolatey.

I know I have not made a mention of the wines but that’s because of the complexity of the wine situation. Apsleys’ enomatic system means that there is quite a selection available by the glass. While I am happy to explore my wines, especially the whites with a big dosage of minerality, Charlotte is a little less inclined. But kudos to our sommelier who expertly matched wines to our food and took into consideration my request for interesting pours. The Italian selection featured 2009 Cantina Terlano ‘Quarz’ Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Franz Haas Pinot Nero, 2009 Tosca d’Amlerita Chardonnay, 2009 Pio Cesare barbera, 2006 Castello del Terriccio ‘Tassinaia’, 2008 Tenyta Sette Ponti “Orma”, 2008 Brigaldora Recioto della Valpolicella classico and Franz Haas Moscato Rosa 2009. The Moscato Rosa was a particularly considered choice given that, in the most part, dessert wines tend to be, in my mind anyway, white or fortified. This heady red matched my dessert, well, like a dream.

At the end of the meal, with the petit fours and coffee, came Heinz Beck himself – a shy man who was much happier in the kitchen and talking about food than himself. But after four impressive courses, plus a few extras, we were happily in awe.

Blakes Restaurant: A dessert worth conquering, or being conquered by!

Published on BespokeRSVP on 10th February 2012:

When you have a chef who’s been with the same restaurant for over 20 years cooking for you, you know that their relationship with the establishment has been a good one. And that good relationship certainly translates across to the food – the sort that you might find in the restaurant at Blakes Hotel. But don’t imagine for a second that the food has stagnated in those 20 odd years, they haven’t. The menu reflected Executive Chef Neville Campbell’s recent tour of China as well as no doubt countless other expeditions to the Far East.

Indeed the oriental influences can be seen throughout the menu as well as the rest of the hotel, which is perhaps why it works so well. As you enter the hotel, you’re immediately greeted by the floral spice of some perfume which subtly permeates the air. It’s so delicate and yet robust at the same time, transporting you to somewhere exotic. Soon, you find yourself quite intoxicated as you make your way downstairs to the restaurant where you will be greeted by their efficient but not over-zealous staff.

The dim lighting and staggered alcoves mean that you always have a sense of privacy, which is definitely a good thing, especially if you’re planning to tackle the dessert that I did, alone. But much more on that later.

First, let’s start with… well, the starter. True to character, Charlotte ordered in the Champagne for the wait which really was no time at all. Hunger had me all over the pate de Foie Gras, which, I know, I know, is not the most ethical thing in hot debate but it just tastes so damn good. Charlotte finds herself tucking into the potently aromatic salt and peppered softshell crabs, lured by memories of her own travels to the Orient.

Charlotte then travelled further down the pepper theme with a peppercorn steak for her main, served perfectly pink. I switched from French to Chinese with an aromatic duck which was rare enough to bring out the gamey flavours but done enough to suit the spice. The red meats called for a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino Tenute Silvio Nardi 2004 whose robust fruit coped well with the spice of the red meats. Its medium body also did well with the truffled mash, which was simply divine. Even Charlotte abandoned her healthy spinach to indulge in my choice of side.

Having been sumptuously fed up to this point, Charlotte and I decide to take a much needed break to enjoy the rest of our wine before attempting to make room for dessert. To be perfectly honest, in my case, that exercise was completely pointless.

When I ordered the caramel soufflé, I was told that it was a very big dessert. “How big could it be?” I thought, “I’m the sort of girl who eats two desserts after all”. Knowing this already, Charlotte informed our waitress that wouldn’t be a problem at all. Of course when it arrived, my jaw dropped as close to the floor as is hygienically possible. Charlotte’s chocolate fondant with vanilla and pistachio was in a word, dwarfed.  Around four times the size of your average dessert, this soufflé was gaining on the height of the wine glasses. Two tuile straws inserted into its centre allowed copious amounts of warm caramel to be poured inside as well as already drizzled on the outside. I was almost embarrassed to be tackling something so American in portion size but I was determined not to be conquered.

Glasses of Château d’Yquem Premier Cru Classé ’95 accompanied both our desserts but was certainly not sweet enough for my caramel soufflé. I pandered after the Royal Tokaji, Aszu Essencia ’93 while staggering through my dessert. Half way through though, I decided to give up. As fabulously pleasing to the palate as it was, it didn’t seem right some how to be indulging in this entire beast of a dessert myself. Later, I discover that a group of four had tried to tackle the same dessert earlier and hadn’t made as much of a dent as me. That fact made me strangely proud – guess my tooth is truly sweet.

The only way to finish a meal so indulgent was to enjoy a cocktail or two at the bar, which, like true sabrites, we did.

Word on the East-Street, the pan-Asia(h) experience

Published on BespokeRSVP on 20th December 2011:

Pushing past a crowd of excited Asians, I spot a familiar looking blonde sitting at a low slung metallic table. As I was about to pull up an electric blue plastic stool, the screwed up face I saw was one of confusion. Upon closer inspection, this wasn’t a familiar face at all. Embarrassed, I quickly apologised and shuffled a couple of tables down, narrowly missing the low hanging light, before perching against another booth. Hoping that the neon adverts overhead will provide enough of a distraction from that little mishap, I surveyed the scene.

Soy and chilli sauce decorated the table, travel paraphernalia pasted the corrugated iron walls and the odd Lonely Planet guide was spotted lying around. Lined up against the simplistic tables were an eclectic selection of colourful plastic, wipe clean and metal chairs. This was the quintessential backpacker’s food stop – just where one needs to go on a gap-yah.

Heavy into the lunch hour, the place was a hive of activity. The tables around me were all heaving and laden with food. The open kitchen certainly did its part too, to fill my nostrils with exotic scents of chilli, tempura and a hint of ginger. A queue of people short of time soon formed at the crowded counter for takeaways. I almost felt sorry for them for having to take their food away when my fine feast of street food arrived.

The gentle crunch of the tempura vegetables offered contrasting textures to the goi cuon (rice paper rolls) while the coconut prawns cooled the fire of the kimchi served with the Bulgogi (marinaded grilled beef). Then just for the satisfaction of a full platter, gyoza and tod man khao pod (corn fritters) were served up too. Someone on the next table orders a cocktail, it arrived in a bucket with straws. Novel.

Snacking over, it was on to the more serious business of a beef panang curry with steamed jasmine rice – addictive stuff. That or the laksa (noodle soup), pad Thai, com Hué, bo luc lac (shaking beef)… You get the picture. Somehow the high flavoured power selection allowed room for something a bit sweeter. The bubor pulot hittam (sticky black rice pudding) wasn’t quite the sugar hit I was after so I was glad to be able to dip into some caramen chuoi ran (fried bananas) as well.

Lunch over and a pit stop at the on-site mini-mart later, I was out of the door and heading towards Oxford Circus.

Confused?

I guess I forgot to mention that I was somewhere between Fitzrovia and Soho. East-Street on Rathbone Place in fact – the latest venture and seventh restaurant from Nick Jeffrey and David Fox, the restaurateurs behind mini Asian chain Tampopo. Jeffrey and Fox had both backpacked extensively through East Asia and fell in love with the food and culture, which then became the inspiration behind their restaurants.

Packed within days of opening, there were clearly many who came to relive their backpacking experience at East-Street but many more to just have interesting food. Within the habitat of that typical East Asian street food set up, I can understand why. After all, I had dined from Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan without ever leaving central London.

East-Street 3-5 Rathbone Place London W1T 1HJ