There's a saying in fashion: "Just because you can do the zip up doesn't mean you should." In other words, ability isn't the only consideration. After dinner at Tom Aikens I want to go into the kitchen and say, "Just because you can make crispy milk skin doesn't mean you should."
Those who eat out will know about Aikens – earmarked for greatness from an early age, he held two Michelin stars at Pied à Terre, followed by one at his eponymous restaurant (Mk I) in 2005. He expanded, crashed and burned, got new backing, then entirely reinvented his menu and the room it's served in.
He's a survivor, yes, but what we want to know is whether Tom Aikens Mk II is any good. For the short answer, see the comment about milk skin above.
I take my friend Tina along. She's immune to foodie hyperbole, and likes nothing better than a toasted bagel and a cup of tea but – crucially – she understands fashion in a way I never will. And this restaurant is all about fashion.
We are seated by the window; pools of light illuminate empty tables in the gloom but it's still possible to make out the food-related quotes printed on the walls. They're not inspiring.
Waiters in sports jackets appear in relay; every time it's disconcerting, as though a diner from another table is coming over to chat. A bud vase wobbles deliberately and even more disconcertingly. The menu is folded into little envelopes; inside are symbols and grids for what is on the main and two different tasting menus. My teeth are on edge before any food has been set down.
It's immediately clear from the canapés that the classic French cooking of before has been replaced by heavy influences of the very fashionable (and newly crowned Best Restaurant in the World for a third time) Noma, and its ilk. A chunk of stone comes out with various cylinders and cubes, which Suave Dave describes rather too quickly. I just catch blood and foie gras.
Of the starters proper, Tina's char-grilled and baked celeriac with pickled raisins (£10.50) has a curiously burnt taste and a distressingly challenging chew to it. It's served on a wibbly-wobbly plate, though. My raw turnip salad with chestnuts (£12) has a slick of almond-cream butter on one edge (in my house that happens when the dishwasher's playing up) and some rather listless leaves. The puréed chestnut nuggets are delicious. Call me a Philistine, but I'd have been happy with the coarse Hessian sack of rolls (including a fab semolina bread) and the three butters, of which bacon and onion is ace.
Pig comes out on top with main courses, too. I have "piglet" (£23), cuts of loin, belly and chop, lustrous and deeply flavoured, complemented by a pineapple fondant and braised little gem.
And now, with regret, we must come to the milk skin. Tina is, as mentioned, a woman of simple, elegant tastes. She's chosen roast John Dory with cauliflower (£23), as it sounds the least challenging item on a menu packed with melting tendons and vegetable granules. (And don't criticise me for bringing a non-foodie to this gaff: it's in deepest Chelsea, and as such is exactly where ladies who lunch hang about.)
A plate of beige arrives. "It's very Donna Karan," announces Tina. The fish is borderline dry, the cauliflower with cumin rather fragrant and good, but the layers of white matter over the plate are perplexing. We catch the waiter toss the words "milk skin" over his shoulder as he retreats to the gloom. She won't touch it; I do. It's crisp and tastes of curdle.
Because vegetables are treated with respect, even honour, on the menu, I have the candied beetroot pud (£7.50; there's also carrot granite and confit butternut). I should have known better by this point in the proceedings; again, it's style over substance (although in style terms it looks like what's left in the kidney dish at the end of an operation).
The meal finishes with a vintage tea caddy stuffed with miniature chocolate bars and candies. Along with the bread, the simplest extras are the standouts.
The low score reflects the experience rather than the food. It's clever without being intelligent. There's plenty of accomplishment in pure technique – but wouldn't a better accomplishment be empty plates and happy smiles?
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Tom Aikens 43 Elystan Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 2003 Lunch, Mon-Fri; dinner, Mon-Sat. Dinner about £115 for two, not including alcohol
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com