THERE are only a few really great chefs de cuisine in Britain - field marshals of the classical kitchen. Theirs is not so much to cook as to devise menus and mobilise large kitchen staffs to knock them out.
Raymond Blanc is one. Albert Roux is one. And so is Nico Ladenis. Last week, in his latest move in a 20-year career, it looked to the outside world as if he had committed high treason among independent chefs, joining up with the Happy Eater empire and moving into Rocco Forte's Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane.
Not so. The new restaurant, Nico at Ninety, is every inch the family restaurant the Ladenises have run these past 20 years, first in Dulwich, then Battersea, Pimlico, Berkshire and the West End. Mr Ladenis is merely a tenant of the Forte organisation, now blessed with an address that, independently, he could never have dreamt of. In turn, Forte finally houses a culinary class act at 90 Park Lane.
With the move into the Grosvenor House Hotel, he leaves his Great Portland Street restaurant, formerly a hushed and pricey gastronomic enclave. It remains with the Ladenises, however, newly transformed into a smart bistro, Nico Central. It joins their Pimlico bistro as one of the best restaurants within its price range in London; perhaps, judging from a Tuesday lunch, the best.
Those who thought the old Michelin two-star on Great Portland Street a bit austere and a lot expensive should return to Nico Central. A new staff, led by an exemplary hostess, wear their competence lightly and cheerily. The lights are lower, the seating slightly tighter (and harder), the walls more brightly decorated and the atmosphere breezier. Gone are the large menus, written in French, proffering all the usual signature luxuries: truffles, langoustines, foie gras.
Replacing them is a short, laminated menu in English. One glance and you see a profound affection for bistro cooking, only matched for salt and pepper goodness by Charles Fontaine of the Quality Chop House. This is a heartily appetising, but intelligently refined, menu.
Starters include Mediterranean fish soup with rouille and croutons, deep fried squid with garlic mayonnaise, risotto with ceps, confit of duck with potato salad. Main courses continue the theme: grilled Dover sole, pot-roasted guinea fowl, grilled Scotch rib eye. So do desserts: creme caramel, pear crumble, vanilla ice-cream.
Gone, too, is the long wine list with its famous vintages, grand crus and chateau-bottled prices. The new list, showing a large number of bottles from Bibendum Wines, is a model of its sort. At the pricey end, for pounds 20 to pounds 50 a bottle, are some respectable burgundies and clarets.
Dear, but not insanely so, are perfect summer whites in the spicy Rolly Gassmann Gewurztraminer and fresh Italian Avignonesi Bianco, a blend of semillon and chardonnay, for about pounds 20 each. By way of a summer red, and priced for mere mortals, we had a fruity young rhone, the Vieille Ferme Cotes du Ventoux, for pounds 12.50.
The cooking, by Andrew Jeffs, a veteran of two Nico kitchens, is sure. A pretty summer salad of ripe, peeled plum tomatoes, orange segments, French baby spinach, fresh young rocket and young feta cheese managed to have both delicacy and character, pointed up by a hazelnut oil dressing. The duck confit, which has become almost a signature dish of Nico's, was superb, skin crisp, dark meat melting. Partnering it with potato salad in a mustardy vinaigrette is nothing new, yet doing it this well in London is rare indeed.
For anyone wondering where in London to eat fish, this is a perfect place. A fried cod was lightly puffed, melting and delicate within, served with sharp pickled cucumbers. Chips are dark golden, salty and delicious.
A second fish dish we sampled was red mullet, topped with a chopped olive and served on a fresh tomato sauce on ripe, blanched tomato slices. To the side was an intriguing green mound of basil-flavoured potato puree. This dish was good, but missed the punch of a similar Nico recipe, where the fish is dressed with olive oil and finished with a splash of balsamic vinegar.
Puddings - a light and piping hot Bakewell tart and a tarte tatin, with its toasty, caramelised perfume, were superb. For three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT, the bill was pounds 35 a head.
By contrast, it was nearly pounds 80 a head at Nico at Ninety. Mayfair is expensive: you would spend the same down the road in Le Gavroche or Les Saveurs. Yet Mr Ladenis and his team, so newly installed, have a job to rival either neighbouring restaurant.
This is an especially poignant challenge for Mr Ladenis who, for years, has openly longed for three Michelin stars, like the three Albert Roux has at Le Gavroche. It will matter, too, to Rocco Forte who, in a radical and imaginative move, gave Nico Ladenis the space to operate independently.
As one would expect from Dinah Jane Ladenis, Nico's wife, the restaurant is handsome and well run. Unlike Great Portland Street, it has the physical scope of the three-star of Nico's dreams, with a pretty, separate entrance to the hotel up a garden walk. Yet, for pounds 80 a head, dinner should be the meal of a lifetime. My dinner last Saturday night, five days after it opened, was more like fodder for millionaires.
The menu is large and in French: foreign glamour helps when a two-course dinner costs pounds 40. The luxuries banned from the Ladenis bistro all crop up: lobster, langoustine, foie gras and so on. Very nice they are, too, until they start seeming a caricature of themselves, rather like fur coats on Ivana Trump.
The amuse-gueules, those palate ticklers beloved of posh places, were fine indeed: tiny poached quail's eggs in pastry shells topped with a delicate sauce, and little constructions of goat's cheese with tiny wedges of asparagus and diced olive.
Again, the fish was superb, this time as a first course: tender little fillets of Dover sole, cooked on the grill, according to the menu, but white, delicate and moist on the plate. Fanned over it was a petal of sliced potato. Fussy, perhaps, but delicious with the fish. The disappointment was a great pool of slightly congealing, over- rich sauce, flavoured with ceps, with what seemed a rough stock at the base of it.
My partner's grilled scallops were the plumpest and freshest I have ever tasted. To follow, her Bresse pigeon was delicious; again, the sauce, a cloying phantom of the last, was not. Veal braised with madeira was earthy, tender, better than I imagined it could be. Yet there was another damn puddle of sauce.
Mr Ladenis is not frilly when it comes to desserts. There will be no kitsch pyramide de this, or fantasie de that . . . he serves old favourites: excellent lemon tarts, apple flans, creme caramels and so on. The creme caramel recipe might have been found in a back number of Marie Claire, pert with what seemed to be gelatine in a sauce that tasted of golden syrup and Grand Marnier. The miniature apple flan, however, was subtle, simple and quite exquisite.
We chose a half-bottle of 1990 Montagny premier cru for the first course; pounds 18 is dear for a half, but such is the cost of white burgundy in Mayfair. It could have been a supermarket selection from Ernest and Julio Gallo, so deeply chilled was the bottle.
Lunch at Park Lane, at pounds 25 for three courses including service, looks a much better bet, especially the boudin blanc. It is early days for this restaurant and it should improve by the minute. To meet the standards Mr Ladenis himself has forged, it will have to.
Nico Central, 35 Great Portland Street, London W1 (071-436 8846). No pipes. Approx pounds 35 for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Access, Visa, Amex, Diner's.
Nico at Ninety, Grosvenor House Hotel, 90 Park Lane, London W1 (071-409 1290). No pipes. Approx pounds 35 lunch, pounds 60- pounds 80 dinner for three courses, wine, coffee, service and VAT. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. Visa, Access, Diner's, Amex.
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