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July 20, 2012 8:13 pm
To ensure that any restaurant succeeds, restaurateurs have to work so closely with their chefs – and over so many hours – that parting is invariably painful.
It can start innocuously. The chef may ask for a quiet word to announce that they wish to move on. But if they also reveal that they are about to open their own restaurant, this can lead to a wholesale departure with the sous chef, the pastry chef and possibly even the restaurant manager following in their wake.
Of course, a chef may simply want to leave for personal reasons, presenting the restaurateur with the opportunity to change the food and the service.
Marlon Abela, the restaurateur behind the two branches of A Voce in Manhattan and Cassis, Umu, Morton’s and The Greenhouse in London, recently faced this predicament when Antonin Bonnet, his chef of more than five years’ standing at The Greenhouse, quietly let him know that he wanted to head back to his native France.
Abela, who takes his food and wine very seriously, started a worldwide search for Bonnet’s replacement and landed on another Frenchman, Arnaud Bignon, who had just won his second Michelin star at a restaurant just outside Athens. He clearly has an empathy with Abela. The first page of the menu reads like a cri de coeur – a passionate declaration that they plan to take The Greenhouse to new culinary heights.
But the partners have some work to do. Our evening at The Greenhouse felt uneven, a sensation that became apparent as we crossed its threshold.
One of the great attractions of this particular restaurant is that you can reach it by walking through Berkeley Square, one of London’s most romantic, and then through a quiet mews. Ours was an idyllic stroll in the evening sunshine, but suddenly our eyes had to readjust to the internal gloom as we entered the restaurant, where the lights had been turned down far too low.
This not only dampened our spirits but impeded one of the particular pleasures of visiting The Greenhouse, which is reading its wine list. This is vast, printed in small type and incredibly comprehensive. Indeed, it may well hold the world record for the ratio of bottles on offer – all of which I was assured are stored on site in excellent conditions – to covers in a restaurant.
For the adventurous it provides some great bargains, for while there are pages of rare wines at relatively (though not rapaciously) exalted prices, there are some seriously underpriced and well-preserved delights. For a total of £78 we shared, as our apéritif, one glass each of two elegant French wines – Le Soula Blanc 2007 from the Roussillon and a dry white Graves, Clos Floridène 2008 – and over dessert shared a glass of madeira. But the highlight was a bottle of 2000 Domaine Laureau, Bel Ouvrage, a Savennières from the invariably neglected Loire valley. At £38, this was a wine that conveyed freshness and dense minerality overlaid by the charms of considerable bottle age. It was a real gem.
And so too was one dish, a first course accurately described in terms of its contents, but somewhat frustratingly in terms of its presentation, as “Potato/Smoked/Romaine Lettuce/Oysters/Shallots”. What emerged was a thick but wonderfully light soup bound by egg yolks that showed genuine dexterity. There was also the requisite high level of technique in the delivery of our two fish main courses, cod and sea bass, but their accompaniments were disappointing. The consommé with the former was far too salty and overwhelmed the quinoa by its side, while the cube of nori seaweed alongside the bass was bland and virtually the same shape and presentation as the foie gras first course and the macadamia parfait that followed.
At the moment, The Greenhouse manifests two shortcomings. The first is that, like so many chefs who move into central London from outside, Bignon is simply trying too hard – Claude Bosi was just the same when he first opened Hibiscus five years ago. Bignon needs to relax. And he needs to spend whatever time he has away from the kitchen eating around, with a view to maximising the natural flavours of all his ingredients. Then the pleasures of his cooking may come to match those of the wine list.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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