Features

Star quality

30 Jun 2014 by GrahamSmith

Take off your tie — London's top chefs are introducing a more relaxed approach to find dining, reports Jenny Southan


Lunch at the Ritz is not a casual affair. For a start, there’s a dress code, so gentlemen need to wear a jacket and tie. Upon arrival at the restaurant, you will be seated in a sumptuously decorated, Louis XVI-style dining room festooned with chandeliers, gilt, murals and marble. Tables are draped in heavy silken cloths and set with polished silver, fine bone china and fresh roses.

Once seated, a linen napkin is draped over your lap and still or sparkling water poured. After, butter is presented, a selection of bread served and your choice of aperitif noted.

Once menus have been perused, waiters discuss dishes at length, informing you of how they are made, where the ingredients are from and which wines pair well. Starters average £22, mains £40.

“We have a de jour menu, which is a set menu of three courses that changes daily, an à la carte and a tasting menu. Then, if a resident comes to us and says, ‘I feel like something simple today,’ like a steak, we wouldn’t say no, even if it wasn’t on the menu,” says Simon Girling, executive food and beverage operations manager for the Ritz restaurant (theritzlondon.com).

“We offer a fine-dining service – an amuse prior to your starter; petit fours at the end. We decant wine, and your Dover sole or rack of lamb will be prepared at the table.”

The Ritz is one of the few restaurants in the capital to have been awarded five red “spoons and forks”, a rating the Michelin Guide ascribes to environments that provide “luxury in the traditional style”.

Girling says: “You have to have an order of service, then for each of those tasks you would have a standard of performance – take the bottle of wine to the table, present it, read the description, let the guest taste and then pour the glass. Everybody is working to exactly the same format so you could change the head waiters and they could take over a table where the last person left off.”

As wonderful as it is to have a crêpe suzette flambéed in front of you, rich orangey aromas filling the room, the levels of formality exhibited at places such as the Ritz are going out of fashion in London. These days, Michelin-starred chefs have been taking a fresh approach to top-end dining, with an emphasis on excellent food in a relaxed setting.

The first thing to go has been the tablecloths. Two Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental (dinnerbyheston.com) set the trend when it opened three years ago.

Simon Rogan's Fera, which opened in May at the five-star Claridge’s hotel, has also gone for a minimalist, masculine look with naked walnut tabletops, handmade ceramic plates and, for some dishes, wooden forks.

Next are the uniforms. While waiters at the Ritz are styled in starched shirts, black bow ties and pristine white jackets, hosts at Andre Balazs’ six-month-old hotspot Chiltern Firehouse (captained by Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes) wear pink jumpsuits. At Alain Ducasse’s new Rivea restaurant at the Bulgari hotel, unveiled in May, staff pad around in Converse trainers and cardigans.

What’s driving this trend? It seems many people are tired of the pomp and ceremony that has traditionally accompanied fine dining. Tony Fleming, executive chef at Angler (anglerrestaurant.com), a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant at South Place hotel in the City, has noticed a shift: “About 15 or 20 years ago, Michelin-starred restaurants were almost considered sacred. Guests were in awe and chefs were untouchable. There were also fewer of them and they were very exclusive.

“Today, people are much more vocal about what they want and have more channels to express their views – social media has played a big part, as has the rise of review sites. Michelin has also been more receptive of the desires of its diners.”

This spring, Marcus Wareing (marcus-wareing.com) reopened his restaurant – now known simply as “Marcus” – at the Berkeley hotel, following a £1.4 million revamp ridding the interiors of heavy blood-red décor, serious drapery and temple-of-food atmosphere, yet still delivering its award-winning two-Michelin star cuisine. Although the tablecloths have remained, the experience is “more American and less French”, the chef told The Independent in April.

“It’s the opposite of what I was doing before – it is very relaxed and informal, it’s fine dining with fun,” Wareing tells Business Traveller. “The perception of fine dining is that it’s expensive, that it’s French, that waiters look down on you and intimidate you. I’m just tired of it. People simply want good food, good wine and good service.”

He adds: “Now, my clients can eat as little or as much as they like – before, it was a set format where they had to have a tasting menu.” It’s still pricey, with an eight-course tasting menu at £120 per person (plus £95 for wine pairings), but you can also sit down for lunch and spend £11 on a starter and £19 on a main.

Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive chef at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, says his collaboration with Blumenthal has taken a similar approach. “With Dinner, we wanted it to be simple, fun, bustling and relaxed – somewhere you’d come back to in the next couple of weeks for either steak and chips and a ‘meat fruit’ [chicken liver parfait in the shape of a mandarin] or a more involved dish such as pigeon with artichokes or braised celery.”

You might wonder if the Michelin Guide has been willing to recognise less formal restaurants, but this hasn’t been a problem for Dinner, which earned its second star last October – the rating is awarded solely for the cooking (see panel, facing page). There’s even a pub with a Michelin star (Tom Kerridge’s the Hand and Flowers in Buckinghamshire).

Rivea’s head chef Damien Leroux says: “What has happened in London over the past ten years is unique. The diversity and quality it offers is extraordinary.”

A good example of this is Lima in Fitzrovia (limalondon.com), which became the first Peruvian restaurant in Europe to win a star last autumn. Managing director Gabriel Gonzalez says: “We want people to have a great meal in a casual atmosphere and to experience new flavours. We have a friendly approach. People share a lot of the starters because they like to try a bit of everything. It’s more convivial.”

He adds: “We don’t have a sommelier as we didn’t think it would suit the concept. Instead, we keep a short wine list and categorise it by description so the waiter can guide you through it.” A second branch, Lima Floral, opens in Covent Garden in July.

Fine dining, it would seem, is becoming less elitist and more democratic for both chefs and consumers. Now, you can eat at Kaspar’s seafood bar and grill (kaspars.co.uk), launched last summer at the Savoy, and be just as likely to be sitting across from a man in a rugby shirt as one in a suit – there’s no dress code here.

Angler’s Fleming says: “Michelin-starred restaurants are held at an extremely high standard, but the entire industry has become more accessible. Diners are moving away from overly stuffy service and want to feel relaxed. New trends such as pop-up restaurants, food trucks and secret progressive dining experiences rub off on the industry as well, and hotel restaurants, especially, need to keep up with diners’ demands.”

Cheers to that.

Michelin Ratings

NEW LONDON RESTAURANTS

FERA AT CLARIDGE'S

Modernist gastronomy goes back to nature. Michelin-starred chef Simon Rogan crafts highly artistic tasting menus inspired by “the wild”, with foraged herbs, edible flowers, local ale and bowls carved from raw tree trunk. Even the bread course, served with cups of miso mushroom broth, is a surprising delight. You can also order à la carte. Opened in May. claridges.co.uk/fera

RIVEA AT THE BULGARI

Alain Ducasse takes a new direction from his three Michelin-starred restaurant at the Dorchester. Casually dressed staff serve the likes of Italian cicchetti and small plates inspired by the French Riviera at the yacht-themed Rivea in the Bulgari hotel. Opened in May. rivealondon.com

CHILTERN FIREHOUSE

Currently the hardest place in town to get a reservation. Part of the Chiltern Firehouse hotel in Marylebone, which opened in May, it’s owned by Andre Balazs (of Chateau Marmont in Hollywood), with food created by Nuno Mendes. Expensive, mind-blowing sharing plates are the order of the day. chilternfirehouse.com

TYPING ROOM

Part of the boutique Town Hall hotel in Bethnal Green, the kitchen (formerly under Nuno Mendes) is run by Lee Westcott and backed by Michelin-starred Jason Atherton (Pollen Street Social, Berners Tavern and the new City Social in the City’s Tower 42). Delicate components are placed on slate and stone and served in an understated dining room. Opened May. typingroom.com

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