Monday, December 28, 2009

Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley

Without doubt, Marcus Wareing serves up the best fine-dining experience in London. It is a constant source of amazement that he has yet to gain the third Michelin star that other - less accomplished, but more famous - restaurants have obtained despite their rather lacklustre offers. I've been lucky enough to eat at Marcus Wareing's Berkeley premises on several occasions, both before and after the much-publicized split with Gordon Ramsey, and have been a fan of his ever since first encountering his food at L'Oranger. My most recent trip, just before Christmas 2009, was nothing less than excellent, in every respect.

As always, the experience starts with being ushered into a deep sofa, being greeted with a champagne cocktail and a set of exquisite little canap├ęs (fois gras and miniature duck spring rolls on this occasion). My partner and I opted for the tasting menu, consisting of seven courses, with amuse bouche to start and truffles and coffee to end. The surroundings in the restaurant are designed to focus on the food - no background noise except the hum of other other diner's conversation and lights subtly dimmed. The whole room feels like it probably consumed most of the UK's annual velvet production, with the result that you eat while slumped and cosseted - a most agreeable way to eat a glorious meal.

The menu opened with an amuse bouche of mushroom soup with a luscious truffle foam served in a shot glass. The light foam and rich soup made a deeply savoury mushroom cappuccino that acted as a perfect opener. This was quickly followed by the first course - fois gras in a sweet and spicy cookie-crumb coat, served with yoghurt and a blackberry coulis. Although slightly wary at first, this rather odd mix worked spectacularly well, with the tartness of the blackberry cutting through the richness of the fois gras and the yoghurt mellowing the whole flavour. Bizarrely, it was almost like eating fois gras muesli and would definitely not have been out of place in a brunch or breakfast menu. As someone who is not a natural fan of fois gras, I've always been impressed by Wareing's use of this ingredient and his establishment is the only place where I actively look forward to a fois gras course.

A small dish of brown crab and marinated mackerel followed, accompanied by slivers of chestnut, pear and chargrilled potato bread. For me, this was the only course that did not work well - although the combination of pear, potato bread and crab worked well, the chestnut added little and felt like it was forced into the dish. As for the mackerel, it was not marinated particularly well and it simply tasted like a piece of mackerel sashimi, which was out of place with the rest of the menu. The next course, roasted quail with a white onion fondue, soon banished thoughts of the limp mackerel. The quail was light and tasty - avoiding the greasiness that is often prevalent with small game birds.

As usual, the scallop course was excellent - with the smoke and spice of chorizo and the unctuousness of a vanilla sauce providing a kaleidoscope of flavours as a background to the sweetness of the perfectly caramelized scallop. Just a little more chorizo would have made this dish soar, but this is really a trivial criticism. Having had lamb on a previous visit, and not liking pigeon, I opted to go off menu for the Aberdeen Angus fillet as my main course. The meat was superb, cooked medium rare and served with a crisp rosti and incredibly potent jus. My partner opted for the pork belly, which he said was also fantastic, with ribbons of crunchy, caramelised fat.

A pre-dessert of tiny, pretty gateaux formed the backdrop to one of the restaurant's real star dishes (one I have had on every visit so far), a warm chocolate moelleux with banana jelly and banana ice cream. This is, without doubt, the most chocolate-rich dessert every invented by man - akin to eating pure cocoa powder dissolved in clotted cream. The banana helps cut through the richness of the chocolate, but I wonder if it is time for a change - maybe a dark fruit coulis (or even a citrus coulis) would be worth a try? The truffles, served in something akin to a Louis XV chandelier, were also excellent, as usual.

Every detail of the service was seamless, from the opening welcome to being shown out of the door. With no notice the kitchens even managed to present me with a small birthday cake, an elegant chocolate covered nougat with beautiful writing in chocolate on a glass stand. (Thanks to my partner spotting another client with one and asking for one for me!). Another thoroughly brilliant exposition of cooking at by far the best dining room in London. Someone has to give him that third star...