La Chapelle – up for any special occasion

Ever since my first visit to Galvin La Chapelle three years ago, I have been a regular here. What is most amazing about this multiple award winning Michelin star restaurant in the 19th century grade II listed St. Botolph’s Hall, is its consistency, never failing from the standard which impressed me the first time around. And so, it isn’t very surprising that it was chosen as the venue for my roommate’s boyfriend to propose to her (among the short-listed competitors were Clos Maggiore and Oblix).

So this particular review is not only about Galvin La Chapelle in general but marks a very special occasion.

Having agreed on the location, the groom-to-be and I (his accomplice), went together about a month ago to check out the premises. Having been told that he was looking to propose, Galvin’s staff was incredibly forthcoming. Rebecca showed us around, suggested three locations within the restaurant, where he could expect some more privacy. One of the three was the first floor little stage-like area overlooking the rest of the restaurant accommodating about five tables. While it can be booked for larger parties, Rebecca suggested he could get a table there if no one should book it for that day. Luck was on our side and being a Wednesday and midweek, the space remained free from private party bookings.

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On the day, the semi-elaborate ruse played out well. The bride-to-be thought he was only taking her out for a nice dinner to reward her for a tough week at work. We had asked for the table to be set for two instead of 3 (me being the surprise guest to walk in to bring him the ring… Don’t ask, it’s just how close the three of us are!) and to our surprise, not only had we gotten that special table on the first floor, but the entire rest was kept free as well for us to be fully private. The only teeny tiny mistake that was done was that despite instructions for flowers sent to the restaurant to be handed over to me, they were placed at the table. She, however, did not get suspicious at all, just assuming he was being a nice boyfriend (given his good track record, it seemed plausible).

In I came as a surprise guest, standing in the door, not sure whether they could see me from upstairs at this angle, the staff reassured me and guided me through to them. Despite the momentary confusion, it slowly dawned on her what was just about to happen, especially given the giant gingerbread heart (my special touch in this proposal) with “Will you marry me?” written on it, being brought in behind me by the waitress (another thank you to the Galvin staff for playing along!). My roommate was in tears of joys, he was getting so nervous he couldn’t get the ring out and it all ended in the lovely words “Yes, of course!”

So now that the hard and emotional part is done (I filmed it all for future teary memories), let’s talk about the food.

In the past, I often had the Lasagne of Dorset crab, frisee & cornichon salad (£10.50) followed by their signature dish, the Tagine of Bresse pigeon, cous cous, confit lemon & harissa sauce (£29.50), finishing off with the Valrhona chocolate ganache, honeycomb & coconut sorbet (£11.50). Yet, this time around, I went for an all new line-up.

Landes foie gras, Provence nectarine, pistachio, lavender jelly & brioche £16.50

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Having recently experienced Club Gascon, supposedly the best foie gras house in London, I had some good grounds for comparison. Unlike Club Gascon, Galvin’s foie gras was much more straight forward: foie gras that could be recognized as foie gras by all senses. Melting in my mouth, it went perfectly with the piece of soft brioche, the lavender jelly adding the finishing fine touches to the taste.

Assiette of Herdwick lamb, ratatouille, San Marzano tomatoes & fennel £31.50

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The lamb was made out of several pieces from different body parts, providing a new taste with each. The diversity was a delight.

Banana soufflé, peanut praline & passion fruit sorbet £10.50

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This was apparently my roommate’s favourite dessert and I can understand why. Beautifully presented, the waiter then cuts a cross into it and fills it up with the berry sauce. It’s a deliciously sweet and light combination with the refreshing sorbet on the side.

At the very end we were served a last treat on the house for the celebration and the restaurant manager came to check all is well. Indeed, all was well. My roommate always liked Galvin but now it will carry a lifetime memory. After all is done, I can happily say this restaurant deserved being the chosen location for this special occasion.

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My recommendation: if it’s your first time, have the pigeon tagine!

Price: ££££

Food: *****

Service: *****

Decor: *****

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Club Gascon – Cheese is not the answer to everything

It all started with my friend’s sudden desire for foie gras and her research on where to have the best in London. Only after having agreed to it, did I find out that I passed by this very restaurant almost every day on my way to work: Club Gascon, a Michelin star French restaurant next to Smithfield market and Barbican.

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With a movie scheduled for later the same night, we started rather early at 6.30pm. Only two other couples were there before us, both middle-aged Japanese, from the looks of it, tourists. Extra thin and long cheese straws were provided in a little pot on the table to fill our mouths while we looked through the menu.

The menu was… not self-explanatory… Five categories were there to choose from: La Route du Sel, Le Potager, Les Foies Gras, L’Oceane and Les Paturages… It was easy enough for my friend to find an area to focus on: ‘Les Foies Gras’! The waiter then explained that he’d recommend to choose two to three dishes depending on our appetite. We went for three, both picking a foie gras as a middle dish.

My final choice was as follows:

From ‘La Route Due Sel’: Braised snails ‘Diabolo’ & wild fennel infusion £15.00

From ‘Les Foies Gras’: Pressed duck & crabs, king crab & hot tomato £15.50

From ‘Les Paturages’: New season lamb, olive pearls, pop and corn sauce £25.00

Before we worked our way through these, we enjoyed the lovely fresh range of bread with two types of butter, followed a refreshing amuse bouche.

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My starter with the snails was beautifully presented, almost artistic with the pieces of snail strategically placed around the green to evoke nature’s image. Clearly a good start to the evening.

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The foie gras however did not necessarily strike me. Sitting on black crackers, it sort of reminded me of the crabs sitting on dark rocks in the Galapagos. Beautiful, I though at first. Yet, the taste did not impress. The pressed meat tasted a bit dry while the pieces were rather small. The crackers were similar to the things you get at a Chinese dinner instead of bread.

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Moving on to the lamb then… Delicious! If… there wasn’t the popcorn (yes, the “pop and corn sauce” has actual popcorn in it!)… Exotic can be good, but sometimes, keeping it simple is even better. I for one, prefer my popcorn in the cinema. But of course you can bash me for being such a simple narrow mind.

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The highlight in so many ways, was the dessert… I had somehow drifted past the fact that it included cheese. In my defense, the description was too fancy to recognize it really, not as clear as the one my friend chose, where it stated foie gras (yes, again!). And so I bit into my piece of dark chocolate… To have my mouth filled by the taste of cheese. I love cheese, believe me! But, cheese is just not the answer to everything and when I order a chocolate dessert, I hope for chocolate. But again, maybe that’s just me. And of course you can blame me for not having asked for a clearer explanation on the components of the dessert (not that I was offered one…).

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So, that’s all I have to say about the food. In retrospect, I might have been convinced to go again, if it wasn’t for the disappointing service.

The sommelier experience was one such shocker. As I asked for a full bodied red wine recommendation, she mentioned a name to me. The conversation thereafter:

Me: “What sort of taste is it?”

Sommelier: “It’s fruity.”

Me: “What sort of fruit?”

Sommelier: “What sort of fruit? (With slight disdain) It taste’s… like a fruit.”

Me: “Yes but what sort of fruit?”

Sommelier: (after some silence) “Like a berry.”

Me: (with slight resignation) “Ok, we’ll take that one.”

Then, also being offered bread twice after our first slice (yes, I admit I was carb loading way too much), the selection became smaller and smaller, leaving by the third serving only two pieces of choice on the rather large bread plate. Economical? Avoiding waste? That could well be…

Overall, what’s left in my mind after a couple of weeks, are more of the visuals (stylish interior, artistic plates, beautifully decorated dishes) rather than the food or the people. And on my list of criteria, that’s just not enough. So, I’ll just have to eat my foie gras/animal cruelty dish elsewhere.

Price: ££££

Food: ***

Service: **

Decor: ****

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The chicken disguised as a mandarin

Isn’t it good to almost always have an excuse to go for a special dinner? This one now we had out planned for more than two months because it is just that hard to get a reservation… The second restaurant in Heston Blumenthal’s collection has only one Michelin star to boast compared to the well-known Fat Duck but is listed number 7 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal welcomed us in the Mandarin Oriental on Monday night. The airy and bright simple interior was the perfect setting on such a hot day (especially after my office’s A/C gave up and died halfway into the day leaving us to bake in the heat). We were off to a good start.

I must say the menu wasn’t simple but those things rarely are in Michelin starred restaurants. But wrapped around it were individual small drops of knowledge related to food. That’s the sort of thing I like.

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I chose the Meat Fruit as a starter.

Meat Fruit (c.1500)Mandarin, chicken liver & foie gras parfait, grilled bread
£16.00

Ingenious indeed, the chicken liver mousse appeared disguised in the shape of a mandarin orange next to a piece of toast. “Everything is edible, apart from the green leaf,” the waiter added. As I found out later, one of the signature dishes and most talked about plates from this restaurant, it wasn’t only visually entertaining but absolutely delicious as well.

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2013-07-22 19.12.48That was followed by the cod in cider.

Cod in Cider (c.1940)Chard & fired mussels
£27.00

Again, absolutely nothing to say against a magnificent dish. I was suspicious about having mussels around my fish but every single one of them with quite strong flavour was a delight. The fish had a very mild but juicy taste to it.

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Now comes the dessert… Or, the dessertS? We just couldn’t resist the tempting offer of the liquid nitrogen ice cream.

First things first though: my dessert was a chocolate cake.

Bohemian Cake (c.1890)Chocolate, citrus & London summertime honey ice cream
£10.50

2013-07-22 19.55.59While the fruits within the chocolate weren’t really my thing, the honey ice cream melted perfectly on my tongue leaving a refreshing taste.

Now to the highlight of the evening: the liquid nitrogen ice cream made right there at a table like a mini magic show.

2013-07-22 20.08.32While this won’t have the same effect the second time around, it’s definitely something to enjoy and get entertained by the first time. We surely were!

After all this positive talk, would I make this my favourite restaurant in London then? The answer is sadly a clear no. Why comes probably mostly down to the service. The food didn’t necessarily change my world view but it did a pretty decent job which was disappointingly not reflected by the service. Firm and good, but lacking that extra edge I’d expect from a place light that. Like possibly more description into the food or better answers to our question.

An example maybe? My friend was interested in the brown bread ice cream but as it came with malted yeast syrup and we were unsure what that was (both non-native English speakers), we enquired. The conversation went as follows:

Us: “What’s the malted yeast syrup like?”

Waitress: “It’s a syrup. On the dessert.”

Us: “Ok, but what is it like? What does it taste like?”

Waitress: “Like… malted yeast.”

Us: “Is that like marmite?”

Waitress: “No.”

Us: “So… What is it like then? Is it bitter?”

Waitress: “No, it’s sweet.”

You can think I’m picky but at this price, I just expect a bit more than being regurgitated the words on the menu.

In any case, if you do decide to go, try the Meat Fruit and spend that extra few £ to marvel at the ice cream magic!

Price: £££££

Food: *****

Service: ***

Decor: ****

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sketch – dinner with a loose purse string

I’m not much of a gourmet and definitely not a Michelin star hunter but sometimes the occasion calls for it. And so I recently indulged in a dinner at Pierre Gagnaire’s sketch Lecture Room and Library, a short walk off Oxford Circus station. Honestly, the website didn’t tell me much apart from giving me the feeling it might be an overly pretentious place… I was in for a very positive surprise.

Walking in, the girl at the entrance entertained us talking us through the art in the reception area, especially her favorite piece: a light art that spelt out LOVE if you moved your head quickly. Clearly this has nothing to do with the food and some may find this just too distracting. I personally enjoyed the entire experience that started right there in the funky entrance.

Once up the stairs, we entered our venue for the day, the Lecture Room and Library. The decor, very different from downstairs, was in colorful red and orange shades with comfortable armchairs in the image of a hip lecture room. The restaurant was very spacious, giving off an air of calm and peace.

Looking at the menu, I was too lazy to read all the details of the dishes (way too much sophistication for me) and chose what came to me naturally:

Lobster (there were other dishes with less straightforward names… Perfume of the Earth (£37), wth?? looked beautiful on my friend’s plate)

Native Blue Lobster / Jellified Sardine Infusion / Green Pepper with Horseradish / Red Orach Lobster Mousse / Traditional Bisque

Lobster Claws / Jersey Potato Salad

£46

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John Dory and Red Mullet

Pan-fried John Dory Fillet with Fresh Bay Leaves / Bouillabaisse with Baby Squid Red Mullet “Bellino” / Broccoli

£46

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That all accompanied by a fruity and lively white Australian wine recommended by our very pleasant waiter from same origin.

And… Last but not least…

Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert

Spiced Meringue / Bourbon Vanilla Ice Cream / Apricot and Basil Compote
Green Pepper Ice Cream / Raspberry and Tagete Marmalade / Coconut Shavings
White Peach and Lemon Verbena Bavaroise / Poached Peach / Rose Water Marshmallows Green Chartreuse Granité / Candied Kumquats / Rhubarb and Angelica Compote Strawberry Sorbet / Crispy Parmesan Cream / Balsamic Vinegar Tartlet
Pistachio Chocolate Frozen Parfait / Caramelised Almonds / Baileys Fudge
Six Desserts £30 (there’s also an option of three for £18)

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As if this wasn’t enough, the attentive waiter did ask what occasion led us there that night and surprised us with a beautiful (and delicious) piece of chocolate cake.

2013-06-26 22.40.33All dishes were highly sophisticated, tastes with a finesse I have rarely experienced elsewhere (even with specific clockwise eating order of the starter plates). If you’re looking for a quick dinner, this is NOT the place to go (at the end of the night we were there for over three hours without even realizing). But equally, you won’t have to worry about being fed with miniature dishes that are only artistic to look at, because this will fill you up for sure. The waiters matched the food equality, not only being polite as required but genuinely friendly and warm.

Upside for me of course was that I didn’t have to see the bill at the end of the day. But even the one who did (a generally very critical man) said it was an experience that was worth the price tag.

The only regret? Not having had the time to wander around and have a look at the other bar.

So, if you have a special occasion (where someone else may foot the bill), give it a go!

Price: £££££

Food: *****

Service: *****

Decor: ****

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