Tasting success served up on a plate: Jean-Christophe Novelli, the new chef at the Four Seasons, has talent and a Michelin star for starters, and Emily Green predicts that fame is to follow
Saturday 22 January 1994
The Four Seasons almost fits the bill. Situated in Mayfair, it has a lovely view of Hyde Park. No expense has been spared, no comfort skimped. A pianist - not a harpist - tinkles away, the barmen, manager, waiters and sommelier are elegant pros, and the chef is Jean-Christophe Novelli.
When this young Frenchman arrived at the hotel last autumn he had a powerful referee in Marco Pierre White. He certainly had the talent. He even had a Michelin star (earned last year at the Provence restaurant at Gordleton Mill, Hampshire). There was one problem: he was not quite famous.
Doubtless this will change. The food at the Four Seasons is already good, and is likely to evolve handsomely. Mr Novelli is in the demanding position of having to prove himself to the public and his bosses. And his devotion to the task is best illustrated by the exultation with which he greeted his Michelin star: it was, he said, 'like a first communion'.
As a chef, Mr Novelli is a member of a highly ornate church. Make that baroque. His dishes look like the view through a kaleidoscope. No doubt those gripped by puritanical contempt for haute cuisine will take this as a sign of folly, or even as some violation of the Trades Descriptions Act. (Beef, they will say, should look like beef.)
I used to believe this. Now, after years of restaurant reviewing, I have come to the (unfashionable) view that a cook should follow his or her heart, do what he or she believes. If this is bog rustic and good, then hooray. If the application of a chive requires a microscope and tweezers, and the final result is a delight, that is fine too - or, in Mr Novelli's case, better than fine. These tiny ministrations are done with love, to flatter, impress and amuse.
He is especially eager to flatter, impress and amuse Michelin inspectors. These are nothing less than God's score-keepers to most young French chefs. And Mr Novelli is so ambitious, so reverential toward good food, that I believe he would forsake all earthly pleasures to please them.
His devotion starts with the best of raw ingredients: quivering sea-fresh scallops, newly snipped chives. Almost everywhere he has cooked in Britain (Geddes in Southampton, Nansidwell House Hotel in Falmouth, Floyd's pub near Totnes, the Provence in Hampshire) Mr Novelli has laid in herb gardens and salmon smokers. I have seen him dash to them at the height of meal service. Yes, he slaves over garnishes, but not (as mean-spirited Puritans might claim) to disguise rottenness, rather to signpost exquisite freshness.
Moreover, these twiddly bits often deliver something special. When you taste, for example, a trimmed and quartered spear of asparagus garnishing an appetiser, you are hit by a glorious flavour - with traces of what taste like star anise pointing up the earthiness of the vegetable.
This snippet of asparagus came in a remarkable dish. Salted cod and salmon brandade in a baby pumpkin was either going to be delicious or absurd. It was delicious. The salmon brought freshness to the traditional Portuguese dish of cod puree. The mix sat in a little pumpkin, its garnishes strewn around it like an autumn leaf-fall.
One could endlessly praise his handling of meat. He marshals cassoulet into terrines and into crepinette; his game terrines are moist, and taste fresh and clean; lamb cutlets will be superbly cooked - though they may be adorned with little stilton mousse souffles, an experiment I hope he will abandon.
For a devout chef, he plays some irreverent games; but when they work, it is disarming. This was the case with blanquette of langoustine, scallops and baby squid, which came with vanilla. It is an old trick to bump up the sweet, rich taste of lobster; here, little strands of the vanilla pod, like brown chives, sat criss-crossed over the fishy bits. The scallops were as plump as any I have seen, and lightly cooked for perfect moistness. The vanilla accentuated their natural sweetness, seconded by deglazing the saute pan with veal stock and using the juice for a drop of flavour and colour.
Such risk-taking, however, lays Mr Novelli open to errors of judgement and even the occasional howler. The cooking was exact in a panache of fish with a super- light saffron sauce; its freshly made pasta would pass muster with the most Francophobic Italian peasant. Its fault, for me, was that red mullet is not well complemented by mussels, nor mussels by salmon, and so on.
Another dish he has attempted in the past, and which seems already to have joined underwater fireworks in a museum of misbegotten inventions, is mint lasagne. This pudding comprised sheets of his prizeworthy, silky thin pasta layered over fig, what tasted like creme frache, and a sauce dominated by creme de menthe.
This is not to say that the Four Seasons is weak on puddings. Mr Novelli generously credits his pastry chef, Mike Ouchbakou, in the menu, and a Middle Eastern hand is subtly evident in a superb orange sorbet, its fruit freshness lent extra perfume by flower water. The whole construction, served on a thin, delicate sponge and surrounded with little orange-chocolate petals, looked like some elegant relation of Sixties flower-power. As a friend commented: 'It's a happy pudding.'
Speaking of happy, most of the waiting staff (whose English appears to be a second language) are charming in the flesh; but on the telephone, when taking a booking or answering a query, they choke on North American platitudes, presumably scripted by the restaurant's Canadian owners; when forced to depart from the script, they can even succumb to confused irritation. Do not put up with it, and do not be put off.
Four Seasons Restaurant, Four Seasons Hotel, Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1 (071-499 0888). Set lunch pounds 25- pounds 28; a la carte meals, from approx pounds 40- pounds 50; with medium-priced wine, from pounds 70. Open daily lunch and dinner. Major credit cards.
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