The Michelin-starred chef John Burton-Race is less well known for his cooking than for his tendency to get himself in the soup. His TV shows French Leave and Return of the Chef portrayed him, his wife Kim and their six children, as a jolly family having larks in the Gallic sunshine and, home again, in the Devon heartland.
So when his marriage exploded in 2007, the media had a ball. He was appearing on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, at the time, cooking for the other contestants and having badger-and-vixen shouting matches with the PR doyenne Lynne Franks, when his by-now-estranged wife Kim closed his restaurant, The New Angel in Dartmouth, and told the press about his drinking, philandering and tendency to fire his shotgun during arguments. The divorce settlement bankrupted him.
In 2012, he embarked on a plan of epic, titanic folly when he tried to crowd-source the world's first interactive restaurant. He asked for 8,000 foodies to cough up £60 each, for the privilege of helping him set up a restaurant, deciding its name and location, suggesting chefs to employ, and dishes they'd cook. He hoped to do this in 10 cities and start a cooking channel on which kitchenware manufacturers could advertise. Can you see anything wrong with that? Apart from the possibility that diners might not fancy making decisions about location and décor, and might prefer to keep their £60 to spend on supper? It never opened.
One sets off to review the newest New Angel, therefore, not knowing what to expect. It's 12 years since he had a site in London (John Burton-Race at the Landmark Hotel) and it's time we were reminded – what quality of cooking was it that brought him two Michelin stars at L'Ortolan in Shinfield, Berkshire, and another two at the Landmark in 2000, before his life went supernova?
No 39 Chepstow Place used to be Colchis, a Georgian restaurant, a rough-hewn and garlicky joint, with hearty pork dumplings, charred lamb kebabs and off-puttingly syrupy white wine. It's been transformed into a fine-dining shrine, trembling with good taste. White tablecloths, milk-chocolate decor, mirrored walls, balloon glasses, table lamps, single flower in jug – it's elegantly and cosily traditional, like a Werther's Original.
Huge smiles greet you, a beaming sommelier wheels over a Champagne trolley. The maître d' is a Frenchman with a relaxed manner. The waiter is amazingly handsome and formal. The menu is full of classic English dishes. What could a hungry food critic find fault with?
An amuse-bouche of chickpea cream with a gull's egg in cauliflower oil was very pleasant, a kind of smooth hummus soup. Angie's salad of spring vegetables with whipped goat's curd, crispy quail's egg, hazelnuts and tarragon dressing was a handsome watercolour of a dish, the mini-Scotch egg oozing orange yolk, a thin slice of radish folded into a magenta flower, the nuts and pickled beetroot limply contesting which has the upper hand.
My 'hand-dived scallops' (is there a sillier phrase?) had been lightly cooked for four seconds, and came with curried cauliflower, pickled vegetables and onion bhaji. The bhaji wasn't the kind you consume at the Bengal Curry House; tiny onion rings, they offered minimal crunch to the seafood without contributing any actual flavour. It all came and went and left no memory on the taste buds.
Main courses included sea bass with fennel, John Dory with crab, risotto of English asparagus – all Home Counties, girl-next-door cuteness. Fillet of Dutch veal came with ceps, broccoli and wild mushroom cream; the meat was nicely cooked and very soft. I wasn't sure what the tortellini filled with goat's curd and truffle brought to the dish except slimy cheesiness or cheesy sliminess; but it didn't work.
Angie's rack of Devonshire lamb was extraordinary, in that the cutlets had been cooked through on one side and left pinkly rare on the other. A melange of whole cherry tomatoes and tiny morels, pancetta and watercress gnocchi and a tomato and thyme jus all strove to distract from the question of why the chef cooked lamb two ways in the same slice. It was hard to cut and slightly weird to eat.
The puddings, though, were superb. Gariguette strawberries and lemon mille-feuille with meringue, strawberry sorbet and baby sorrel was served like a beautiful array of shells, with soft whorls of lemon curd. Raspberry soufflé with a fat raspberry nipple at the apex came with a white chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet. These were puds of imagination and dash – qualities mostly lacking in the blandly competent non-excitement of the starters and mains. Perhaps Mr Burton-Race, after years in the soup, is determined not to upset or disturb anyone by offering too much excitement. I hope he recovers his (considerable) nerve before long.
The New Angel Notting Hill, 39 Chepstow Place, London W2 (020-7221 7620). Around £200 for two, including wineReuse content