How Ms S and I managed to secure a booking at the hottest table in town last Friday night I’ll never know. In the few brief months since it opened, André Balazs first ever property outside of the States has been in the papers literally every single day. Its’ workhouse sleek black gates are the back drop for a cacophony of the great, good and frankly worse for wear. We surmised that our table booking was sanctioned due to the majority of the Chalk Farm crew (Kate Moss, Lindsay Lohan, Noel Gallagher et al) being installed in some luxury yurt clinging to a muddy hilltop Glasto way for the weekend.
We were slightly high with our booking coup of the year and managed to turn up a whole 45 minutes early (they apparently now have a reservations lockdown till September so we wanted to maximise every sleb-spotting minute). The rain seemed to be falling mainly on the Glasto plain (snigger) and blue skies lit up the Marylebone skyline so we chanced our arm at getting a seat in the pretty shrub enclosed terrace for a pre-dinner cocktail. The beautiful gate keeper was wielding a clipboard like a light saber – ready to cut down anyone who dared turn up without a booking. We grinned inanely whilst telling her we indeed had a booking and followed her jumpsuit encased bottom to a delightful corner bench.
People watching and sleb-spotting really is the order of the day here. Balaz’s infamous LA property Chateau Marmont has a legendary clientele built up over years – Chiltern Firehouse seems to have replicated this uber cool glamour in a matter of months. The ambience is chilled but lively, especially as several tables had probably spilled over from lunch and conversations were loud and fruity. The terrace features an outside fireplace and is prettily lit at night by candles.
Our evening was not just about reviewing though, as we were actually celebrating a birthday and were joined by the sparkling company of a sister, a brother-in-law and a best friend making our party five and giving our table a great excuse for bubbles! We’d heard about the what is now thought of as the signature dish of Crab Doughnuts so ploughed right in with an order. They were utterly exquisite. Think less doughnut – more profiterole with hot crab meat. So good that an order soon followed for another plate.
The Chiltern Firehouse kitchen currently has “chef curator” Nuno Mendes at the helm. This is enough to send shivers down the spine of foodies such as me – his mentors include the twin godfathers of Jean-George Vongerichten and Ferrian Adria. His previous restaurant, Viajante, earned a fast Michelin star – the food influenced globally as the name which translates as ‘traveller’ would suggest. Although excited to move into the restaurant for the real food, we lingered for a second cocktail. Disconcertingly after four attempts at reminding the waiter working our side of the terrace my Hendricks had still not turned up the cracks in the service began to show. Nothing puts me on edge more than having to wait for alcohol. The waiting staff and door staff seem rather more concerned with stopping people coming in than serving, and rush around at such a pace of importance that at one stage two jump-suited lovelies literally crashed into each other. Finally after making a ‘giving up’ hand gesture high in the air my gin arrived – just as we stood to go inside. Hey ho.
Inside the restaurant is laid out in brasserie style with leather banquette booths and open kitchen. The raised booths at the sides are definitely the ‘statement tables’ with the area in the middle being more cramped and noisy. We were lucky enough to have a fantastic round table in a side booth with a great view over the room, bar and kitchen. I tried hard not to be pushy in suggesting that we all tried something different so I had plenty to write about it, but actually apart from the red prawn starter we all made individual choices so I can give you a fair opinion of the menu.
Birthday girl chose the Green and White Asparagus brown butter wild chervil (12) which she was thrilled with being a veg with more limited choice. I joked that the wing of brown sugar across her asparagus looked like crispy chicken skin but even this was not enough from stopping her from wanting to ‘lick the plate’.
Sister (or Blister as she is affectionately known) had the Sea Trout Crudo, yellow mole, coriander (11) which was ‘ok – fruity and fresh but wouldn’t order again’. Bro-in-law and Best friend both had the popular menu choice of Red Prawns, almond milk, smoked grapes (14).
Neither of them could taste either almonds in the milk or smokiness in the grapes and one of the dishes was supposed to come without actual almonds but it still did. Attention to detail missing here. I had the Roasted Chicken Wings, slow cooked egg, rice broth & morels (15) and loved every single morsel of it – in fact I was scraping the bowl. The broth was wonderfully flavoured, the chicken perfectly cooked and there was a delicious nutty crunch while the mix of egg was decadent on top. I would definitely order this dish again.
Moving onto our main course whilst powering through a second bottle of the very light and summery Langue doc (can’t tell you the price – I think £25 but the website still tells you nothing about the menu and I wasn’t in charge of wine so didn’t make a note) we once again all chose different dishes – perfect dinner review companions! We ordered a combination of sides as dishes are on the small side – Creamed Spinach, Maple-Bourbon Sweet Potatoes at £5 each.
Ms S had the Roasted Celeriac sprouting broccoli, pearl onions & walnuts (19) which again was the main veg choice although she could have had either of the veg starters as main. She was once again thoroughly spoilt with her combinations of textures and flavour and heartily enjoyed the whole dish and said she would return simply for that dish again!
I’m going to leave Blister till last for this one as she was our ‘problem child’. Bro-in-law went for the star fish dish of Monkfish Cooked Over Pine, puffed barley, fennel (28) which apart from a tiny complaint that he would have liked more fennel was again enjoyed with gusto. Best-friend had the Roasted Turbot, seaweed fregola, cucumber and creme fraiche (30). She declared the fish a triumph, expertly cooked in fact, but found the rest of her dish slightly too pureed and lacking in texture. This was not helped by the sides that we had jointly ordered of creamed spinach and, surprisingly, pureed sweet potato. I guess we should have checked first. I chose the Chargrilled Iberico Pork, raw and roasted turnips (29). Now this was a first for me – not Iberico Pork, but the fact that chef recommended it be cooked rare. I thought pork was one of those meats that killed you if under-cooked but I trusted our chef and am obviously here to tell the tale. The meat was indeed good enough to take a long pause over. The wincingly intense seared exterior giving way to melt in your mouth pink, garlicky, slightly smoky flesh. The roasted turnips were not my cup of tea but I tried them anyway as a more solid alternative to the pureed sides which were beginning to taste a bit like posh baby food.
Now our problem child – Blister had ordered the Wood Grilled Aged Ribeye, Isle of Wight tomatoes, chimichurri (36) but the waitress came back to say it was now Fillet and was that ok as they alternated them. This seemed a strange explanation to me as Ribeye is nothing like Fillet and if you are a fan of one it doesn’t mean you will like the other. Blister was gracious however and accepted the Fillet cooked medium well. When it arrived she went very quiet as we gushed over our main courses and then looked up and declared that she definitely wasn’t eating Fillet. We all had a look and it certainly didn’t look the texture of Fillet. To add to the confusion the mint in the chimichurri made her think of lamb instead of beef so her tastebuds were all over the place. She called over our very hard-working waitress who said she would check the cut of meat with chef and came back to confirm it was best Fillet. Blister was not convinced and after attempting to chew her way through a few more mouthfuls she gave up and we asked the waitress for a chat with the manager. After asking three times to see him by the time the manager eventually came over all of our main courses had been cleared and he told us he was ‘unable to comment’ as there was no longer food to check – not really our fault! No explanation was offered but the dish was not included on our bill which made up in part for it.
As we needed to put a candle in a pudding for certain someone, we all ordered desserts(all £9) and once again the results were mixed. Birthday girl had the star pudding of Carrot Chiltern with cake crumbs, carrots and horse raddish icecream. On first mouthful it tasted divine but by the third spoon the saltiness in it made it challenging – we all tried and concurred. Nevertheless it came with a candle and a hand piped plate saying happy birthday so that made up for it. Note – the parrot was an added extra by us…
Blister and best friend had the Frozen Apple Pannacotta with herb granité and fried meringue which looked spectacular in a nuclear sort of way but tasted horribly artificial. The meringue got a big thumbs up though. Bro-in-law had Citrus Tarte with sesame sponge and clementine custard which he was very happy with, especially the marshmallow topping which he called unusual and different but very satisfying. I had the Dark Chocolate Tarte with toasted hazelnut ice-cream which came with a heavenly crispy wafer. The tarte was excellent but the ice-cream lacked a bit of the earthy punch you normally get with hazelnuts.
Our bill was eventually sorted out to satisfaction with various delayed gin’s and rejected steaks removed so although it was a faff it was dealt with correctly. As we had an early booking we were conscious that the jumpsuits were circling for our table so we exited hoping for a nightcap on the terrace. Unfortunately we were told the terrace closed at 9pm so our plan was foiled which was disappointing as up to that point our sleb-spotting total added up to one Jamie Theakston. Having read the weekend papers it transpired that after our exit, none other than CF regular Lindsay Lohan arrived. She was followed by a list of slebs as long as your arm including Jeremy Pivan, Katherine Jenkins, Carly Cole, Martina Navratilova and the lead guitarist from Glasto headliners Metallica!
Whatever your reason for coming at the moment it probably isn’t just for the food. Moments of excellence for us were tinged with poor attention to detail and the service is frenetic and haphazard (although I do have to mention our lovely waitress Letty, who was superb, worked tirelessly and was very knowledgeable about the food). It does have a lovely ambiance though and the terrace is a delightful oasis. Because of its already set in stone pedigree, the Chiltern Firehouse like The Ivy, will no doubt become a standard sleb hangout/paparazzi camp-out and will probably escape the fickleness currently affecting its neighbour The Met Bar. I wonder how long Nuno Mendes will stay as full-time curator though, as I slightly suspect his genius is under-resourced. And let’s face it – no-one is going there for the food.
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Review by Mrs Robinson