Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London SW1
Saturday 13 June 2009
Yes, all right, I DO know there's a recession on. But this isn't just any old restaurant review. It's that special once-a-year occasion when I get to blow the Independent's budget on a spectacular dinner with the winning bidders in our annual charity auction, raising money for aid projects around the world. This year's highest bidder was Roger Hambury, who secretly bid for the lot as a Christmas present for his wife Fleur, knowing she had long harboured fantasies of becoming an undercover food critic.
I suggested Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley as our venue because it seemed a fairly safe bet we'd have a wonderful meal there. The super-talented Wareing is one of the brightest stars on the London restaurant scene, his reputation only burnished further since his acrimonious rupture with former mentor Gordon Ramsay.
The restaurant formerly known as Petrus is a dark, sober and rather manly affair – good qualities in a dinner date, but not necessarily in a dinner venue. The caption under the scene that greeted us could have read "Credit crunch? What credit crunch?" Every table was full, even on a Tuesday night. Fleur and Roger agreed with my initial impression that it was the kind of clientele among whom you wouldn't necessarily expect to bump into anyone you knew. Mind you, at that stage, we didn't even know each other.
Some champagne was needed to break the ice; but before we'd even had a chance to order apéritifs, we were bombarded with a flurry of amuse-bouches. Suddenly we found ourselves in full-on reviewing mode, before we'd even had a chance to exchange a few pleasantries. A faint memory of some not entirely appealing smoked tomato is all that remains of this opening stage of hostilities. I can only hope that Fleur was keeping fuller notes. Not until the next dish arrived, warm pumpkin soup sipped through a cold Parmesan foam, did social panic subside, and anticipation kick in; this wasn't so much a pre-starter as a jump-starter.
Fleur – a passionate foodie – had already scoped out the sample menu online and decided what she wanted to order. Roger, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed "fussy eater" whose first reaction to the menu was, "It's a bit scary". Probably because each dish, in the modern style, tended to contain an unexpected interloper, like a flasher in a school photo.
Fleur's starter offered the classic combination of roasted scallop with puréed cauliflower, but with macadamia nuts and nasturtiums capering around, and a sauce in which Fourme d'Ambert cheese and white chocolate formed an unlikely alliance, the dish was pushed too far in the direction of sweetness. "I would have liked a bit more cheese and a little less chocolate," decided Fleur, who was throwing herself with relish into her new role.
Roger's ravioli of quail with ham hock and white truffle was a single pasta parcel filled with densely textured meat. He was enjoying it, until I suggested that the resistance of the filling was reminiscent of a pork pie. "Mmm, pork pie," Roger hummed, with the wistful, faraway look of a man who is obliged to eat in fancy restaurants rather more often than he would like.
My own veal sweetbread with Swiss chard and roasted celeriac was impeccable, a showcase for Wareing's serious, classically inspired technique. His style of cooking isn't particularly directional; there are no games or jokes. But neither is there a huge amount of personality in his food; we were enjoying the meal, but it wasn't quite hitting the expected heights.
So it continued with the main courses, and again it was Fleur – the evening's guest of honour – who was underwhelmed. Her Welsh suckling pig, slow-cooked for 24 hours, was a wonderful thing of melting softness and richness. But about the rest of the dish, Fleur was merciless. "The crackling, I could have done myself. And it's all just too dry."
Roger's lamb was disappointingly short on taste, and the accompanying caraway spatzle released a back-of-the-spice-drawer mustiness that unbalanced the dish. Fleur had a bite, then scribbled furiously in her notebook, shaking her head. I began to be a bit scared of her. She seemed to be morphing from lovely Independent reader into Wandsworth's answer to A A Gill.
As I was being formally introduced to my main course – each dish comes to table with the obligatory recital of its key ingredients – the waiter warned, "Be careful how you cut into the snail beignet – they can burst". Oh yes, they most certainly can. Luckily, the jet of garlic butter only hit Fleur's dress, rather than her décolletage, but it was a rather unfortunate episode for which I can only apologise. Other than that (Mrs Lincoln), it was a great dish though the addition of frog's legs didn't bring much to the party, apart from the chance of pushing Roger further out of his comfort zone by forcing him to taste one. "We've been married for 17 years, and he's never even tried my risotto!" marvelled Fleur.
We shared a single portion of cheese, and even though we hadn't exactly hidden the fact that we were writing a review, what with the two notebooks and all, the serving was so meagre we could have read our notes through each wafer-thin slice.
Still casting around for solid ground, Roger ended with a version of Eton Mess that was very far from messy – four raspberries bearing a sliver of meringue. "It's ... nice," was his damning verdict, although he shunned the iridescent puddle of basil-flavoured goo as an alien taste too far. Fleur and I were both more enthusiastic about our own desserts, including a chocolate moelleux whose preparation was described in impressive detail by our waiter.
Service is generally much less jumpy and intrusive than it can be in these high-end places, though Fleur had issues. You can read her account of our meal on our website (see independent.co.uk/food). It was a great evening, and even though the food didn't quite earn the hoped-for five-star rating, the company certainly did. Thank you Roger and Fleur, for your generosity. And Fleur, do please send me that dry-cleaning bill.
Wilton Place, London SW1 (020-7235 1200)
A la carte dinner menu, £75 per head
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