Anyone can do complicated, it is simple that is hard. I fall about groaning whenever chefs tell me they cook simple food, then proceed to ply me with reductions, mousses and sugar cages. So when I heard that Tom Aikens was taking over Chelsea's old Blenheim pub and offering back-to-basics, affordable, all-day dining and drinking, I fell about groaning again.
Is Tom Aikens really capable of going simple? Remember, this is a chef accustomed to dealing with the high craft, high detail, high maintenance, and high stress of running a Michelin-starred restaurant. His head chef is Ollie Couillaud of La Trompette and The Dorchester Grill who has a similarly ambitious background.
Let's see now, back-to-basics - how does the thinking go? Roasts, grills, chips, cheeses, right? So we'll put in a spit-roast hearth, and we'll have a lobster tank right in the dining room. We'll need to have industrial grills for everything from côte de boeuf to a burger, and we'll need deep-fryers for the chips. And a wood-fired oven. And because we want to get back-to-basics, we will do all our own hanging and butchering of carcasses on the premises, and store our own wines and cheeses. And to show people we mean it, we'll put glass viewing panels in the floor so that diners can peep down and see the beef hanging in our coolroom, and the wines and cheeses in the cellar.
We need a bar on the first floor, kitted out as a games room, complete with leather couches and table football. And private rooms above that, fitted out by Dunhill. And we'll get this elegant modern cutlery from Ercuis in France, and we'll open for breakfast and lunch, and afternoon tea and cocktails and dinner, and we'll do functions, and have a kids menu and we'll bake all our own breads and pastries, and, and, and....
See? Suddenly the whole thing is immensely complicated. There are so many bells and whistles, it's cacophonic. It's cacophonic, anyway, as the oak floors, oak tables and white-tiled walls bounce back the noise from the Chelsea rent-a-crowd. But, like me, they may have come too soon, for in these early days, Tom's Kitchen is still finding simplicity a little difficult.
The front door does not seem to work, so the entrance is cobbled together, running past a corridor blocked with spare chairs. The two glass panels in the floor are hidden beneath tables, and the spit-roast lies empty and unused. The young staff try very hard but are still in "who's having what?" mode.
A cut-down menu is in force while the kitchen finds its feet, so, as yet, there are no charcuterie plates and no daily-changing pie and casserole blackboard specials. Instead, there is a see-saw mix of high status foie gras terrine, côte de boeuf and baked sea bass, and low-caff burgers, Caesar salads and macaroni cheeses. This is what happens when British chefs go simple: it's either the high table or junk food, and nothing in between.
The Seizure salad (£6.50) merely goes through the motions; "paprika and lime squid" (£6.50) is just fried calamari; and linguine with clams (£12.50) isn't linguine at all, but overcooked spaghetti in thin, watery juices, and clams out of their shells.
At least the French know how to do back-to-basics, and Tom Aikens knows how to do French. So, it is from the solid canon of French bistro cookery that the best dishes come. A Burgundian persillade of snails (£7.50) has six fat, fleshy molluscs tucked into their shells with snail trails of garlic, parsley and butter. It's flavour, without too much fuss - as is a goat cheese salad (£7.50) of two warm, melting discs of chèvre served on crisp croûtons on a bed of good young salad leaves scattered with fresh walnuts.
The wine list is simpler than the menu, but it is just as bi-polar; with a Domaine Orpin Sauvignon Blanc for £14 at one end and a £650 bottle of 1990 Château Latour at the other. Somewhere in between the two is a velvety bistro-friendly 2005 Domaine de la Madone Fleurie for £26 that adores my duck confit (£16.50), a relaxed, fall-off-the-bone leg served with crisp, chunky chips and a sticky red wine jus it doesn't need.
Bouillabaisse (£16.50) is a far cry from the gutsy, boiled rockfish soup of the Provençal waterfront. Instead, it is a small, refined bisque afloat with gently simmered chunks of sea bass, not without its own charms.
To finish, a crisp apple tart with caramel ice cream (£6) is a little slice of bistro heaven, but a "baked Vacherin" with garlic and white wine (£6) is a tongue-burner of a hot, thin, garlicky fondue. Surely a back-to-basics credo would leave this fine, simple winter cheese alone.
So it is still very much a work in progress, a classic case of somebody believing they can do everything at once. Give them time - it is going to take longer than a few weeks for them to find the basics here under all the trappings, much less get back to them.
Tom's Kitchen, 27 Cale Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7349 0202
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More kitchen restaurants
Bermondsey Kitchen 194 Bermondsey Street, London SE1, tel: 020 7407 5719 Ruth Quinlan from The Eagle originally set up the kitchen of this popular Borough local, installing a Spanish and Portuguese influence and separate tapas menu.
The Kitchin 78 Commercial Quay, Leith, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 555 1755 Tom Kitchin cooked with Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy before opening his own "kitchin" on the waterfront, combining seasonal Scottish produce with French finesse.
Blackstone's Kitchen 10A Queen Street, Bath, tel: 01225 338 803 Former Delia Smith food stylist Rebecca Blackstone opened this popular corner shop and takeaway with her husband Daniel back in 2003, serving up everything from hearty lamb pies to the cutest little cupcakes.
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