Thursday, 4 March 2010
Flashes of Brilliance from the Tasting Menu at Launceston Place
We arrived at Launceston Place eager to indulge in a feast of imaginative food and a trough of fantastic wine and we weren’t disappointed. Having read various glowing and negative reviews on a range of blogs we were keen to judge Launceston Place for ourselves. What we found was that it is like a bit like Theo Walcott – frequent flashes of brilliance but occasional slip ups that mean that people are divided about whether he deserves higher honours.
We started with a glass of Roederer Champagne and some dainty devilled crisps sitting under a futuristic fibre-optic chandelier that had a touch of Dr. Who about it. It was very hard to resist the deluxe wine pairing menu from our charming sommelier who certainly isn’t called Sue Mellier (for full chat about the wines see "Steamed Off Labels")
We were seated next to a very camp man in jeans and a beanie who spent the next 45 minutes shrieking and aurally assaulting the rest of the restaurant whilst seemingly charming his two female friends. Whilst we were trying to ignore the amateur dramatics on the table next to us we were treated to a wonderful show from our waitress who was about to emphatically present us with the wine list – but as she was handing over the folder the sommelier saw the imminent mistake, slunk over, and gently snatched it from our waitresses grasp, leaving her dry, high and speechless. Seconds later she recovered and asked if we’d like some water. Then a waiter sauntered over and presented us with some more devilled crisps and set about explaining what they were in minute detail even though we’d already been through this whilst having our champagne. And at the end of the meal when we asked the last remaining senior waiter what he thought of the food he tied himself in knots and then explained that he hadn’t yet tried any of the dishes yet. I know these are minor points, but what is captures is the fact that almost all of the service is slick, professional and engaging. But every so often it falls flat.
But enough prattle about service. We’d come here for a feast, not an HR workshop.
What we described amongst ourselves as a cauliflower cappuccino laced with heady truffled oil kick started the meal impressively. It was texturally like drinking aerated double cream, but because of the cauliflower it felt as virtuous as a whole box of Sanatogen.
A single scallop adorned with seashore herbs arrived next. Being the inquisitive bunch that we were, we asked our waiter what the herbs were and were told that he didn’t know. This brought another waiter over who claimed it was the chefs secret. Fair enough. But when we asked Tristan Welch later he laughed it off and told us that they changed depending on what they had in but that ours included Alexanders and sea purslane. The scallop was beautifully soft and tasted not only of itself but of its naturally surroundings. They cook the scallop whilst still attached to the shell by searing it in a pan. The shell acts as a natural lid and it gets steamed in its own juices. Outstanding stuff, that was well matched with some Austrian Riesling.
Venison tartare emerged next along with a glass of Saint-Joseph. I’ve had a very similar dish recently in Gothenburg, but this one blew it out of its Baltic water. It was my favourite dish. Partly because of the way it connected us emotionally with the chef, whose wife is Scandinavian, but also because it engaged me with my forthcoming home. The meat was glossy, deeply flavoured and enhanced by the yellow mayonnaise, slithers of shallot and walnut dust which resembled breadcrumbs. The soft boiled quail’s egg added a sensual gloss to an exceptional dish. A glass of Saint-Joseph was a perfect match. I could swear the woodiness of the nut dust was actually in the wine.
A mini stargazey pie was an impressive looking little dish. But whilst we loved the presentation, perfect pastry and general idea, the overall experience was less than the sum of its parts. We enjoyed it but the wow was more visual than gustatory.
Perfectly pink lamb kissed with the finest jus, straddled by some lamb crackling and flanked by a salt roasted potato arrived next to both ahhhs and ooohs. The lamb itself was some of the best I’ve ever had. It was utopic. But the crackling didn’t crackle. It was extremely tasty, but, sadly was limp. What a shame. Ever since we’d seen the words “lamb crackling” on the menu we’d been dying to try it. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only problem.
The solitary potato that was presented to us in a salty bag may have been a nice idea. But it doesn’t work. It looks ugly. And was so salty it spoiled the whole dish. Which was a massive shame. I like the idea of the kitchen “showing its working” but only when it tastes good.
A deconstructed Waldorf Salad in a martini glass cleansed our salty palettes and lead us in to the cheese course which allowed us to have a very nice glass of sweet sherry before we were treated to a very disappointing pre-dessert.
Served in the same glass hemisphere as the excellent cauliflower cappuccino this clementine sorbet with valrhona chocolate was simply unpleasant. I won’t dwell on it, except to say that it weirdly achieved what it set out to do like a “forlorn hoper” in a Sharpe episode. Namely it made us love the real dessert.
And so to the best dessert I’ve had for ages. A rice pudding soufflé with raspberry ripple ice cream. Sheer, unadulterated genius. The soufflé was fluffy and textured with soft, creamy pudding rice that was penetrated with rapidly softening raspberry ripple ice cream. We adored this dish and almost applauded.
The main technical difficulty, which they have overcome, is to get a soufflé mixture made with rice to rise consistently and become airy. But they’ve achieved it spectacularly.
This was a phenomenal finale which was capped off by a visit to see Tristan Welch in his lively and banterful kitchen. He was extremely friendly and eager to hear what we thought as well as to share his stories about learning to use twitter and cook at the same time!
It was a very special meal that left us feeling seriously impressed by Tristan Welch’s frequent flashes of brilliance. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a decadent treat that I’d love to repeat. It bore all the hallmarks of someone who is trying extremely hard to prove themselves – and like anyone who is pushing boundaries and reaching for the stars, the occasional mistake creeps in. But in making these slip ups, it shows they are really trying. And whilst this might seem perverse, I’d rather see a chef really go for it and slip up once or twice, than play it safe. That’s why we loved El Bulli and L’enclume so much.