My first and last sightings over dinner at the Chiltern Firehouse – the reincarnation of the former fire station on Chiltern Street in Marylebone – probably constituted the most unlikely combination I have seen in such a setting. But both go a long way to explaining the individuals behind this exciting addition to London, as well as the level of detail required to make the restaurant of a hotel successful. (Its 26 suites will open in late May.)
The first was the firemen’s red-and-white hoses, woven together to line the ceiling, forming an absorbent acoustic system for the restaurant. The second was a glimpse of two logs brining in a sink at the corner of the kitchen. These had come from Mark Parr’s London Log Company (supplier to many top restaurants) and would soon be burning under the huge grill shipped in from Grill Works in Michigan.
Chiltern Firehouse has been created by two equally passionate and experienced individuals: hotelier André Balazs and chef Nuno Mendes. Hungarian-born Balazs already has several renowned hotels across the US to his credit, from Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to The Mercer in New York, but this is his first venture in London.
After numerous rumours that he was going to open in King’s Cross, this once-quiet street, now a hub for independent fashion shops, is a calmer canvas for his talents; the forecourt, home for so many years to the fire engines, is now an elegant garden. And although the passageways inside are rather narrow, there is an immediate sense of being in an atmospheric building.
Balazs and his team have accentuated this by paying close attention to the restaurant’s interior. The sight lines across the room are good. A thin, white candle is lit once the customers sit down at their table – somewhat precariously, as the tables are very close together. There is an elegant gradation in uniform from the waiters in a light-blue cravat to the station managers in pristine white jackets, reminiscent of the Italian Riviera. The small drinks and nibbles list tucked into the folded napkin on the marble table is another elegant touch.
This setting seems to have had a calming and inspirational effect on Mendes, the Portuguese chef who first made his impact in London at Viajante, in another reincarnation of a Victorian building, a former town hall in east London. At Viajante, Mendes’s food seemed overly ambitious; here he has quickly settled into a more relaxed mode, accepting that the last thing a customer wants to feel is challenged, either in terms of ingredients, language or taste.
Mendes’s task is currently made considerably easier because the restaurant is only open for dinner (breakfast and weekday lunch will follow once the suites open) and because the single-sheet menu is such a model of clarity. The red fire box logo is eye-catching, while the use of heavy black type to highlight each dish’s key ingredient makes for instant legibility.
Mendes’s interpretation of thin slices of raw scallop, turnips and tiger’s milk (a Peruvian citrus-based marinade) as a first course was exemplary, not so much for its technique or its appealing colour but because it was precisely spiced and served at just the right temperature (cool but not cold) to enhance all its flavours. The tiny mushrooms surrounding our other first course’s principal ingredients, grilled octopus and marinated aubergine, was another highlight.
While the chimichurri sauce smeared on the fillet of beef was tamer than the Argentine original, this was still a combination that worked well. More appealing, however, in terms of appearance and flavour, were two fillets of turbot covered with ribbons of dark and pale-yellow heritage carrots with a red carrot purée underneath. And I cannot remember when I last saw turbot on a menu priced 15 per cent below the beef.
The flavours of these two very different dishes were further complemented by the sommelier, Romain Audrière, recommending a pure and precise 2008 Pinot Noir from Domaine Guillaume in Jura (£90). Audrière has put together a fascinating list with a particularly interesting range of US wines.
There were quibbles. The waiters announcing the specials ought to include their cost and, however crowded the room, should avoid physical contact with customers – unless of course, a fire breaks out and they are called upon to offer a fireman’s lift.
1 Chiltern Street, London W1U 7PA; 020 7073 7676; chilternfirehouse.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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