Food and Drink: Halcyon days for a hotel dining-room: It's being hyped as celebrity haunt, but Emily Green thinks The Room's young chef is the real attraction
Saturday 28 August 1993
The stars must have been of the reclusive variety last Saturday night. The dining-room was nearly empty, and for at least half the evening there was only one other couple in a lovely walled garden. (Ms Fawcett, you're fired - ed.) Except (just kidding, Ms Fawcett) the couple in the garden were Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser.
Perhaps the Pinters suspected this was the last place in London they would run into anyone. And the management appears to have had similar suspicions, for it has relaunched the restaurant three times in little more than six years. First it was the Kingfisher, then the Halcyon, and then, last September, it was launched yet again, this time as The Room, which makes it sound like a black-and-white film about insanity.
At present, its appearance is not much different from that of many trendy London restaurants - cool whites, twisty metal, weird and wonderful sculptures made from dried flowers - which in turn look like something out of Harvey Nicks. As for the cooking, the restaurant has been running through chefs even faster than names and designers.
The latest, a 24-year-old named Martin Hadden, has been there four months. His cooking was commended to me by an ex- employer of his, Shaun Hill. 'The Halcyon's an odd place, or at least it has been, but you take your opportunities where you find them, and Martin's a good cook,' said Mr Hill. He should know. He is head chef of Gidleigh Park Hotel in Devon, and a very good cook himself.
At 24, Mr Hadden seems young for such a job. However, he started cooking at the age of 12, when he worked in a chip shop. He won the Roux Brothers Scholarship in 1989, and worked at Gidleigh for two years before moving to London to spend a year with Nico Ladenis.
All this training shows first in the extreme care. Everything, from bread rolls on up (hotel chefs must be competent bakers), is freshly made. Breads are excellent, though perhaps the dough could use more fermentation to counter liberal seasoning with herbs and sea salt.
As for the food proper, Mr Hadden can cook, all right. I plan to go back soon and often for Sunday brunch in the garden. Where I proceed to quibble, it is because I think he can relax, put slightly less on the plate and in a more straightforward way.
To start came what was described as a 'light curried soup'. It was not all that light, but had fresh, sweetish background taste which I took for apple. In fact, it was apple, mango and banana. To the side, crisped rice was light, and intended as the vehicle for a rich fruit chutney, a tiny pot of which confused us and went uneaten.
For some reason, the menu seems to take pains to avoid calling things by their names. Salmon, advertised as 'marinated', was gravadlax. It had the texture of smoked salmon but tasted purely of the fish - dense, fresh and delicious. Mr Hadden says he used a dry marinade, pressing the fish with a crust of sugar, salt, chopped dill, grated lemon zest and powdered ginger, leaving it overnight and scraping the crust off. It was served with a dollop of creme frache, a sprinkling of caviar and chives, and heavy little 'potato bread'. This was not bread at all, but potato cakes, and perfect for the dish.
To follow, more good things, so many they were spilling off the edges of those huge designer plates. Roast rack of lamb came with the bone breaded, the meat pink and flavoursome, and a highly reduced jus, in which lurked a fragrant little thicket of rosemary spears. Roast garlic cloves were sweet and satisfying. A little nest of gratineed potatoes was cooked to melting point.
Another example of slightly daft menu-ese for a good dish: 'duck, steamed then crisp-fried, with honey and thyme dressed leaves'. Why not say crispy duck? Mr Hadden explains: 'The meat has been well steamed before frying. We want the customer to know the meat has been cooked.' So, it's official: the duck is cooked, and cooked well, though the fat could have been further rendered. Waxy new potatoes that have been marinated with shallots and olive oil stand in for a potato salad. The mustard, honey and thyme dressing gives it an oriental spin.
A little lemon tart came in a crisp crust, its filling cooked properly - still quite luscious and loose, topped with a pretty coating of summer fruits. It sat in a pool of what tasted like creme Chantilly. This seemed to me like gilding the lily; to the chef's mind it provides a nice quick hit of a cream and vanilla antidote to the sharp fruits. Chocolate ice-cream was slightly fatty, but good all the same.
The restaurant manager tells me she is brand new to the job. It doesn't show. Like the new chef, she appears to care intensely about her guests, so plebs like me are cosseted like stars. Given that the kitchen and front of house are up to excellent food and no-holds-barred hospitality, perhaps the owners can relax with the star hype.
Effort, instead, should go into the wine list. It is a short page offering five champagnes (from house fizz at pounds 19, to Cristal at pounds 95), 13 whites, two roses, 13 reds, three dessert and four house wines. There is scant originality - or effort - in this economy. The list is little more than a top of the pops play list: there's a decent cheap French chardonnay, La Serre, a Gavi, a Rolly Gassmann Gewurz, a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and so on. You will have seen most of the bottles cheaper on many other lists.
Moreover, there is a striking paucity of half-bottles for a place ostensibly catering to abstemious Californians, and those there are seem somewhat greedily priced. With three courses, mineral water, herbal teas, 15 per cent service, a half bottle of a Australian Semillon, Basedows ( pounds 8), and a half bottle of Californian pinot noir, Saintsbury Garnet ( pounds 14.50), we paid almost exactly pounds 50 each. Weekdays, there is a set two-course lunch for pounds 12.95, which sounds a snip, and Sunday brunch should cost from pounds 20 to pounds 30.
The Room, Halcyon Hotel, 81 Holland Park, London W11 (071-727 7288). Children welcome; high-chairs. Low- level classical music and jazz in restaurant. Open breakfast, lunch and dinner daily except Sat lunch. Major credit cards.
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