What a difference a day makes. The other evening, I was eating a Monster Munch and processed-cheese sandwich. Exactly twenty-four hours later I am a little drunk, a little full – and facing an artisan cheeseboard dilemma. What to have? Our waiter – one of the many heroes of the evening – solved the problem;
“How about I cut you a piece of each?”
The way to my heart is through a well-appointed cheeseboard, but even before it was wheeled over to us I was already in awe of The Ledbury. Retrospective is the greatest opinion-maker of all – and another twenty-fours on, I sit here, hungover and overfed to the point of guilt but still vehemently willing to assert to anyone that the Ledbury was probably one of the best meals I have ever had the pleasure to digest.
But, seeing as I happily eat crisp sandwiches, don’t take my word for this. The Ledbury commands a stratospheric score of 28-25-28 on Zagat. It currently sits as fourteenth best restaurant in the world and third-best in the United Kingdom, sitting behind only the Blumenthal empire of Dinner, ninth, and the Fat Duck, thirteenth*. Countless blogs and reviews laud the food – I will agree – it was belt-looseningly spectacular – but not even Shakespeare or that bird who write the Devil Wears Prada could apply verbiage to what chef Brett Graham serves up on his tasting menu (the only choice on a Friday or Saturday night). Suffice to say, it is a celebration of simple, elegant British cooking, re-purposed into two-Michelin-star finesse. Graham’s style champions the brilliantly sourced ingredients and not, say, the theatre of technique you get at The Fat Duck or the thrills and frills of Le Gavroche. This is fine-dining in its basest, rawest form.
Some dishes perfectly reaffirm Graham’s intentions – the ceviche of scallop is only slightly but suitably fanciful, crowned with crystallised English Wasabi. A bite-sized stuffed morel with mash leads into the main course and is tasty-enough, but almost a non-event, whereas a salad of spring greens and shoots is all but inconspicuous, but elevated at the last minute with a breaded, warm quails egg. My mate hit the nail on the head;
“This is light. Too light. It’s leading us to something rambunctious”
It so did. These daintier courses provide welcome undulation, leading into rich, bold flavours such as the steak-like heartiness of turbot and the crashing gaminess of the main course, saddle of roe deer. And how could that have been upstaged with a venison sausage on the side? I haven’t a clue, but it was.
The cheese trolley, though less disparate than many I have seen, was dished out generously and could have finished us off. It would have been that or the accompanying slug of Port. However, there was a perfectly-balanced dessert of brown sugar tart and stem ginger ice cream to ‘struggle’ through and thanks to a generous chef, as a passion-fruit soufflé to share as well. Laurens, our head waiter, must have felt our pain as we were whisked onto our feet for a brisk stroll down into the kitchen to meet Sous Chef Greg Austin.
Austin is a five-year mainstay of the kitchen and was in control that evening (I like to think that Graham was out on the moors, in driving rain, shooting / catching / picking the ingredients for next week’s menu). He explained the metronomical precision of what was the smallest kitchen I have seen in a long time and the recent refurbishment that corroborated the Ledbury’s recent meteoric rise to the top of British cooking (it is seven years old and gained its first Michelin star within a year, but waiting five more to get its second. It has only been regarded as one of the ‘best’ in the last couple of years). As we chatted, the kitchen buzzed around us in quiet order, lending some kind of matching personality to the disciplined feel of the food. Austin was like Ice Man, totally chilled, relaxed and in his own. He read us like an open book;
“You guys had desserts?”
“Yes, they were lovely” (Mr. Austin sir)
“Fancy a few more?”
“Well…” (I would literally give my testes for more)
“Laurens, arrange these guys some more desserts”
Cue a pavé of chocolate which was so rich that even a choco-fiend like I was overwhelmed, and a megalithic mille-feuille of mango, vanilla and lime. Oh god, and we still have petits fours to go.
This is my point. The food is spectacular. But what makes the Ledbury so memorable is the attention to detail, care and informality of the service. Adam, our sommelier, was matching wines for each course (nine glasses, plus grower Champagne, Port and Godfathers meant that I was almost numb by the time we left) and his rhetoric and knowledge was hypnotic. Nevertheless, he relapsed almost into MC duties and I wouldn’t have had it any other way;
“And off we go!”
“OK gents here we go with the mackerel! And we’re off to California now”
“Get ready for this one. It’s from North-Eastern Austria”
“I could drink this one with a straw”
With this last one, Adam was referring to an Italian white, called Cà dei Fratti ‘Pratto’ 2010, which accompanied the turbot. We unanimously agreed that this was the best match of the evening. One of my mates was in full ‘gush’ mode after a single sip;
“If I met Shakira, man. I’d be like ‘just give me a shot! I’ve got the wine!”
“In fact, I don’t need Shakira. Just give me the wine”
Adam returned a few moments later with the full name of the wine and where to find the stuff in London. This ‘whatever-whenever’ attitude defined the service. The restaurant manager – sadly I did not get his name – led a team of waiters who were there when they were needed but absent when they were not (or when our table erupted into crying fits of laughter, such as when one of us started to eat the cocoa grindings that served as the plate for the petits fours).
The Ledbury is a high-ceilinged, single room no-nonsense luxury of wooden walls, floors and cream seating. It doesn’t need a grand old dining room to define its unrelenting awesomeness. The food does this, but what pushes beyond are the wonderful people who work here. Never has service amazed me to such an extent. The saddening side to this is that it’s not easy to see, photograph or display what makes the Ledbury one of the best restaurants in the world.
In between laughing, eating, drinking and grinning like a loon, I looked around the room. It was a dinner service full of moneyed gentlemen immersed in their Blackberries. Every single one of them was sat across from a very bored, very attractive woman. I cannot speak for these couples but I would bet my tastebuds on them taking that meal for granted, simply a place to refuel and get away from the office or Eastenders. Come on! The Ledbury is way more than that!
The winning dish of the night was the Passionfruit Soufflé. We told Laurens so;
“They’re a nightmare to make. The chef makes it, and it could collapse. So if we make one, we always make a second alongside, just in case”
“What if both turn out all right?”
“Then we let the staff eat it”
Karma. The waiter gives us extra cheese, he gets soufflé.
Laurens smiled. “Sure is!”
Tasting menu with wine pairing £one hundred and seventy-five. With cheese supplement, Champagne, Port and digestifs, the total bill came to £seven hundred and twenty for three people, including service.
www.theledbury.com | 0207 792 9090 | 127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2AQ
* Update as of 30 April 2013: The Ledbury was announced in the 50 Best Restaurants 2013 as thirteenth, second in the United Kingdom, only behind Dinner, at seventh. On the up!