The Bingham Restaurant, 61-63 Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey
Saturday 30 January 2010
When it's freezing out and the Snow Queen seems to have parked a shard of ice in your heart, it's not the ideal time to consider the loveliness of the river terrace at the Bingham Hotel, Richmond. You try to imagine the scene in June, as you sit outside, drinking seabreezes in the sunshine surrounded by hair-flicking Surrey dreamboats, but, in mid-January, it's hard. Still, you had to come here because the place has just picked up its first Michelin star.
The silk curtains are drawn across the river view, so instead you inspect the loveliness of the décor in the bar and dining rooms. They're heavily designed in textures that suggest opulence, but threaten suffocation. The décor, cushions and patterned carpet are all pale gold, while recessed ceiling lights fight with giant chandeliers and discreet side lights to create a dim and churchy atmosphere. The bar is wonderfully well-stocked and appealing (and will be fabulous in summer) but in our dining room, all the tables were pushed against the walls and windows, leaving an empty open space in the middle of the carpet across which the waiting staff could have played French cricket or danced the tango with ease.
From the start, though, the food lifted the spirits. The focaccio bread impacted with olives was delicious. A bonne bouche of parmesan custard with butternut squash mousse was a complex little treat, tickled by crispy ginger on the top and touched with a hint of curry down below. The chef, Shay Cooper, paid his dues at the Vineyard in Newbury and picked up three AA rosettes at Olga Polizzi's Hotel Endsleigh in Devon: he is a whizz at modern British cooking. The menu features quail, artichokes, pig's trotters, hedgehog mushrooms, razor clams and sweetbreads. You can find foreign accents in this part of Surrey – a vacherin mousse, some ricotta gnocchi, foie gras, orange polenta – but you know they're tolerated only for bringing heady new flavours to the local provender.
My starter of organic salmon with braised octopus was wonderful, the fish so meltingly soft, it wasn't so much cooked as minimally changed from being raw. It sat in a purée of white beans with a ragu of baby squid. The combination was combustive, salmon and squid playing off each other like Reinhardt and Grappelli. My date's fillet of brill was beautiful: a heavenly tranche of fish, joined by a golden scallop, held in place by a lattice of rye. The brill was crispy outside and tender within, lying on a light bread sauce. "It's a really interesting combination," she said, "very fresh fish, crunchy beans, and the, er, poached grapes were a happy surprise. It's all incredibly delicately cooked."
Our mains were full, perhaps over-full, of heterogeneous excitements. I've become used, over the years, to chefs who throw on a plate nine or a dozen ingredients that have nothing much to say to one another, like a gathering of strangers on a traffic island. My glazed veal cheek was a bit like that. The cheek, glazed in red wine, was voluptuously rich, sticky and curiously light in texture, but they'd similarly glazed two cigarette-sized stalks of salsify to go with it, and they tasted of pickles. Sweetbreads lightly cooked in batter tasted fine, but seemed an odd counterpoint to the veal. Crisp veal tongue resembled a slice of Bakewell tart but tasted good, with a gribiche of cornichons, shallots and egg whites. Interesting – but did I need all this stuff rubbing shoulders in my oesophagus?
The waiter told my date her salt-marsh lamb would be served rare. No, she said, she wanted it medium. Ah no, madam, he said, this is the special water-tank method – namely sous-vide, in which you cook meat, inside vacuum packs, for several hours in a slow cooker. The result was tender, but incontrovertibly rare. The rest of her crowded plate involved tiny sweetbreads, fried lentil purée, a caper sauce and a roundel of lamb shoulder. There was too much going on, while the main event – the lamb – was too gloopy. And if you don't like your lamb rare, do you have to eat it that way because the chef wants you to?
Puddings showed a similar perversity. My jasmine pannacotta lurked, barely detectable, under an array of hibiscus jellies and a strawberry sorbet. My date asked for crème caramel: what arrived was a hazelnut and apple sponge with a blackberry sorbet, and some brown caramel sauce added as an afterthought.
By the end, we were a tad irritated by that common phenomenon: the chef who disregards what you want and gives you what he thinks may impress you. Mr Cooper is a cook of considerable skill and subtlety and deserves his Michelin star. But he might consider embracing the old-fashioned concept of letting customers have what they actually want.
The Bingham Restaurant, 61-63 Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey (020-8940 0902)
About £150 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: New Michelin stars
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