LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
Let me tell you a fascinating tale about a place where you are transported away to someplace magical. A place that is welcoming and internally warming once you get there. A place that you want to hold on to very tightly and never let go even when your time there is done. For me this place of sinful magic was a restaurant in Notting Hill, Core by Clare Smyth.
I was welcomed on a rather cool night into the warmth of the lounge area of this restaurant. The warmth that I am referring to here references more than the temperature of the room. With Etta James playing sinfully sweet, as my hello to the space, and the calmly glowing lighting of the space that emitted a soft peach haze, I knew this was every bit the place I wanted to spend my evening. After exchanging pleasantries with the maitre’d as I confirmed my reservation, I was asked to wait by the bar given that I was a half hour early. I had not intended to be so early but London traffic turned out to be lighter than expected. The bar had lovely upholstered seating which was a nice touch given how cold I sometimes find bars without said accessories. Looking at the storage for the spirits, I was reminded of an omakase bar with the light wood and highlight lighting. The main bar itself though appeared to be made of beautiful cherry wood that had been finely polished. On the curved end of this bar was a grand flower arrangement which was reminiscent of something you would see upon entry to a beautiful public garden. At the back of the lounge were comfortable couch like seating where there were other people also waiting and taking in pre-dinner drinks. This comfort of that area of the lounge was reminiscent a time when you were having a drink in the home of a friend while conversing or settling in with a good book at home.
As I waited, I ordered a sparkling rose and made casual conversation with the bartender. The rose was interesting, as it started off sweet like a strawberry fruit and finished dry and crisp. This was one of the vast array of their by-the-glass offerings. I was also provided with smoked almonds which interestingly was able to have the intensity of the smoke match the salt equally. Generally, in my experience, the presence of smoke on a dish has it as the star leaving everything else to fall to the background. I found this quite interesting for a bar snack and its delicate composition only tingled my imagination further on what was to come. As we spoke, other smooth jazz and blues music played in the background and I watched as the bartender prepared syrup for use between the bar and I have to believe, the kitchen. They make several house-made flavors including rosemary, sage and thyme. I got lost in this time that I almost did not realize that I had been waiting for a little bit past my reservation time… though I did not mind. This was the most enjoyable wait that I have experienced in quite some time.
At this point, I was escorted to my table where I walked past the glass encased kitchen. It was a beautiful open white kitchen with chefs that looked relaxed despite the magic that they were creating. Clare Smyth was front and center already orchestrating the meals of the night for the other guests present. She had gentle movements but yet still stopped to turn around and say hello for a moment. She is of Scottish decent, has two Michelin stars, is awarded as the world’s best female chef AND was also the head chef for the royal’s, Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Needless to say, I was more than excited to eat at the best female chef in the worlds restaurant and I jumped at the opportunity of a tour of the kitchen after my meal by the gentleman escorting me to my table. At my table, I was presented with the menu and the first thing that I noticed was that the amuse bouche was listed. Success! I have mentioned in past entries that I tend to forget when I have too much information provided to me at the same time and here she had the forethought to list these items. A significant win in my book. Place settings were immaculate with cutlery not only wrapped per usual in their napkins but had the additional bouquet of plant life tied with a gentle bundle of what looked like some form of hay. The entire table looked like a fantasy story book tale of into the woods. Amidst this placement, were two books, one was the Michelin guide for France in 1991 and the other was one titled ‘The art of eating’. I am unsure of the symbolism of the 1991 guide, maybe if I had perused it would have been revealed to me but I have to assume that maybe she won her first award at that time? The second book simply resonated with me as well… I love eating. I was VERY tempted to take that with me for a quick read. I would have returned it… maybe. The last and most important thing that I noticed about my table was that I had clear sight of the kitchen and if you have been following me for awhile you know that this is the best entertainment for me while enjoying my meal.
After requesting the long tasting menu, they were fairly quick with the start of the meal. That was a surprise but it did not affect my impression of the meal thus far. I feel like I should have had some thoughts about that but nothing. I started with the jellied eel served in a seaweed crisp and sprayed with malt vinegar. There was something creamy about this plate but I could not identify about this bite and I think I could say overall that what I tasted most here was a cream cheese like flavor with a sweet finish possibly from the jelly. The eel was present but in my opinion was not the star of the bite. For the vinegar, while I loved the dramatic presentation of the spray over the my bite, I did not really taste it in the flavors here.
Next, we have the cheese and onion gougeres. Gougeres is baked choux pastry usually mixed with some cheese. In her rendition, onion flavor had been added to the mix. I had no idea what kind of cheese was used here so I apologize that I cannot share. Once upon a time, I was not the healthiest eater around and I would eat potato chips by the container load. If any of you have had Pringles sour cream and onion, think about this dish that way… only more refined. It is not a crisp but instead soft and fluffy dough. It is not sour cream but instead a fresh cheese. Finally, it is not an abrasive attack on the senses but a gentle welcome to the meal that I was about to enjoy. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on something that looked like a flat topped egg cup with a small flower atop. It continued the theme of enjoying a meal in a peaceful forest for me.
I have an Instagram page where I post some of my photos of my meals. The next amuse bouche is what people would call Instagram-ready. This was the crispy smoked duck wing with burnt orange and spices. The duck placed at the bottom of a spear was tied together with herbs and the burnt orange and mounted onto a wooden base. The color combination with the shiny haze of the duck with the rich brown of the dock and then the wild colors of the orange and herbs was quite a sight to witness. I really wish I had taken the orange and squeezed the juice over the duck before eating it. This action will probably have enhanced the already sweet flavor of what tasted like balsamic but in a different manner. I was far too excited to be tasting such a tiny beauty though that I did not do so. This was the first of three times that I noticed Clare played on two flavors of the same element i.e. in this case, two types of sweet. Later on below, you will see how she played on two types of salty.
The last of the starters was the foie gras parfait tart with madeira gelee. The foie is the silkiest that I have ever tasted, almost lending itself to a mousse. Rich and full the flavor of the foie is not lost on the lightness of its consistency. Another beautiful plating with a striking color scheme of reds, greens, yellow and white flowers. Yet another play on the welcome to the forest of your wildest fairy tale. Madeira is basically a fortified sweet wine from Portugal that lends itself in flavor to a port wine if you have had any… just to give you an idea of its sweetness. Now, with your imagination, pull together rich foie, with sweet madeira and buttery crust of tart … and let the magic of that combination speak deeply to your brain. If you cannot see it, then just make a reservation to have the experience for yourself.
I did not capture a picture of the bread and butter but it was sourdough with a slightly firm butter. I did not have any astounding reaction to it but what occurred to me as I progressed through the dinner is that it had to be simple as majority of the dishes came with a jus. I eat bread minimally in my diet so I have to assume that the idea was to dip the bread with the remaining jus. It would most likely not have resulted in the most pleasant of combinations if the bread was overwhelming as well.
Now onto the main menu. I started with Isle of Mull scallop tartare with a sea vegetable consommé. For this plate, one of the chefs introduced the dish themself and I quite love it when that happens. It shows pride and ownership in ones’ work which is something that I always strive to do in my personal life. If I recall correctly, the chef mentioned that scallops of this particular region are between ten (10) and fifteen (15) years of age. The dish was simple, fresh and understated. I have never had a seafood tartare so delicate as majority of the time, the lemon has been abrasive … even when only a small amount was added. There was a simplicity that chef achieved here in this preparation to the point that I almost did not taste any lemon. Come to think of it, maybe she found another way to prepare the tartare by way of the consommé, this would certainly explain a lot of what I tasted. It is possible that she used vinegar instead but there is a very high probability that I am wrong on that. The sea vegetable broth had a very strong taste of oysters for me and this was a welcome addition to the freshness of the scallop. Of course, I cannot go without mentioning the beautiful plating in a shell and the color scheme of green oil highlights over clear broth and off-white colored scallops… do not forget the green herbs to bring it all together. The one thing I would say could possibly be better here was to ensure that it would be easy for those not eating bread to get the consommé out of the shell. I found that to be especially challenging and since it was so delicious, internally, I deliberated on if I should just lift the shell and drink the consommé. I did not do that as I do not think I would be able to live with the memory of having done so. Now if I were having this meal in a private room, it would have been a different story. Kidding, I do have table side manners.
I have done this before. I get so excited by the presentation of a dish that I forget to take a picture before I eat it. The sad part in this case is that this is the dish that chef believes to be the most important on her menu. It is the potato with trout and herring roe. I cannot show you the beauty but I can certainly still describe it. This dish is of Irish origin and per my server the Scottish love potatoes which is one of many reasons why this is so important to chef. If my memory serves me correctly, the potato was pan seared, topped with seaweed butter and finished in the oven. In plating, it was served in a beurre blanc sauce topped with potato crisps. When I tried the beurre blanc sauce initially on its own, I felt it was salty and that worried me about how it would taste with the salt of the roe. Bad combination? Anything but. There are two different kinds of salt here that play ping pong between the left and right sides of your mouth, quite a game really. Eating it all together, you have the salty game in play between the sides of your mouth, in addition the rich beurre blanc standing firm the middle and the final touch of all flavors grounded by the potato as it slides down your throat. It is was a very fun plate to eat and this is one that would definitely have benefitted with a drag through of the bread in the beurre blanc.
I really want to say that I loved every dish since everything was perfect up until this dish. Alas, I tried very hard to like this next dish but I just could not. This was the skate fish with morecambe bay shrimps, Swiss chard and brown butter. Everything was fine except for the stuffed Swiss chard as there were too many herb flavors in there that for me overwhelmed the richness of the butter. I have a slight addiction to butter so you may say that my opinion on this part of the dish was jaded. Skate is a fish of firmer flesh but yet still delicate texture when prepared properly. Its flavor was a perfect addition to the rich nutmeg filled brown butter. Nutmeg has this powerful uniquely sweet flavor which changes ever so interestingly when combined with butter. This was the first time I had seen that combination and hence I was pleasantly surprised. The problem came as mentioned prior when I added the Swiss chard to the mix. I am unsure of what herbs were in the leaf but it was overpowering the perfection of the first two pieces. I guess you could say that the nutmeg and the herbs were having an argument but the herbs won with the nutmeg coming in at a close second so that its presence was still known. At this point, I thought to add the bay shrimps thinking it would bring a balance to the dish with a strong flavor. Unfortunately, bay shrimps are very tender and barely noticeable to the palate. For me, all they brought was additional texture to the dish.
I mentioned briefly earlier that they have a good selection of by-the-glass wines and an even better sommelier. On my red for the evening, I ended up with a traditional Bordeaux, Paulliac region but unfortunately a vintage that I cannot remember. The red achieved the dry, bold and oaky flavors that I love and is traditional for a Bordeaux but it did a funny thing here in that it still tasted as light as a Burgundy. I really wish I had gotten a picture of the bottle. It was in the selection of the white wine where I got some help. Generally, a chardonnay or Champagne is my go to on whites but the sommelier recommended a Greek wine. I have not had Greek wine before but this one was interesting as it was very dry but had a very definitive salty finish.
The next dish was aptly named the lamb carrot and as you can see from the photos, the carrot is the star. My waiter also said that this was to be served with lamb bread for the jus. I thought he meant that lamb broth had been incorporated in some manner with the bread. However, this was not the case, as lamb had been baked right into the center of the bread and topped with rosemary, a very welcome flavor indeed. It was shocking to say in the least to bite into the bread and see a whole piece of lamb in there. Obviously, I tasted it before I saw it so that was certainly the start of the shock here. But that was not the end of it where the lamb was concerned. On the plate, even though the carrot was of a larger serving than the lamb, the lamb still shown as the dominant flavor. It was crispy and rich having being braised initially I have to believe. The carrot too was braised to a smooth texture that you could cut through such as like a perfectly cooked scallop i.e. with little to no pressure. There was lamb jus and its flavor was particularly awoken by the earthy sheep milk yogurt. It was almost as though the lamb wanted to go to an all night dance party but the sheep milk was the rational (and right) one telling it to stay home. A side and important note on the lamb bread was that it was warm, almost as though they had pulled it out of the oven a few minutes before… perfection.
The next dish was the duck with red grapes. It was served with a thyme jelly and featured honey and timut pepper as additional ingredients. I did not really taste the pepper as the dish leaned more on the sweet side given the jelly and the grape. The duck was prepared to a medium temperature which was great but my personal preference is medium rare. As I ate the duck, I found that I could not taste just that alone as it was topped with the jelly and this of course prevented me from following my process of tasting the individual ingredients first. This was not a matter though as the jelly was required to balance out the rich and salty jus. There was a tart upon which the grape was placed but I was not the biggest fan of it when eaten alone. I felt that there could maybe have been a little more butter present. Additionally, it got a little soggy when sitting in the jus, which is to be expected but is a pet peeve of mine. Now, I have to say and I believe this is the most important thing to note, when all elements of the dish were combined together, it made for a phenomenal tasting. There were two different kinds of sweet in this bite, the natural from the grape and the jelly which is where I think the honey came in. There were also two different kinds of salt from the tart and from the jus. The play on presenting the same ingredient in two flavors is something that chef does especially well. This, I would say, is the only dish that it is required that you eat all the elements together to get the full story that it is trying to tell.
I was welcomed back to the world of fun plates with the next dish, the core apple. A multi-colored apple plated cleanly and presented with a spoon to enjoy. I took a look at the spoon and second look at the apple and wondered for a moment… “What am I supposed to do with this?”. Ok I am kidding, I did not think that but that I assume that is the funny response that chef was trying to evoke i.e. simple delicious plates of food with a fun twist. There was a caramelized apple in the center covered in apple mousse and then wrapped in the multi-colored gelee that you see on the plate. There must be a gross amount of precision required in the preparation and plating of this dish to maintain its form from creation to plating and serving. Incredible. The mousse was heavily apple based with a lighter and fluffier texture than you would normally expect from a mousse. The best part here for me was that it was not overly sweet and my guess is that this was achieved by allowing only the natural sweetness of a green apple to flavor the dish.
The final plate, which was the most beautiful to me was the pear and verbena served with a poire Williams sorbet. Color scheme is a mesh of greens and whites of various hues. The dish is best described as a round ball of sorbet served in a white crisp shell and covered in discs of pears. It is plated on a ring of something sweet but which must have hardened as it was a little tough to drag a spoon through. I am doubtful that that was supposed to be an edible part of the dish but as you well know by now, I explore everything about a plate put in front of me. The pear discs are extremely tender almost as though they had been soaked or maybe even blanched for awhile before cooling to get the texture. It still tasted as though it was a just ripe pear as opposed to an overripe one which would generally be a lot softer in texture. I was really curious to know how she achieved that, quite desperate to get an answer / know the secret really. There was also an herb of some sort on the dish that I cannot recall which paired quite nicely with the pear and sorbet. Poire William is a colorless brandy as my research has shown made from the Williams pear (also known as the Bartlett pear for those in the US) and while this was used to make the sorbet, its flavor was rather light to me which is to be expected given the light sweetness of the pear itself.
And alas readers, we sadly come to the end of the meal where I was served my petit fours. First was a warm and freshly baked chocolate tart. I had this with an espresso and this was certainly one of the better espresso that I have had in an awarded restaurant. It tasted as though you were directly chewing on the beans and as you may well expected emphasized the natural sweetness of the chocolate tart. The chocolate tart was molten and as such the rich dark insides poured out flowingly as it was cut into. The crust of the tart itself had just the right amount of butter that I loved for a piece so small. I have to mention though that I think the chocolate might have been a blend and I may have expressed that I prefer single origin chocolates. The final dish was what I recall tasted like a very sweet wine jelly and its name was, ‘Sauternes and Banyuls’. Both of these ingredients fall into the sweet wine category with sauternes being a French sweet wine and Banyuls being a fortified wine. The jelly is filled though and it oozes its flavor as you bite into it so best to eat it in one bite lest you make a bit of a mess.
Now that we are at the end of this tale, I hope I have convinced you to pay this place a visit as I can assure you that it is one unlike any other. Even a brief moment to have a drink at the lounge will be well worth the visit and I am sure your decidedly short stay in the lounge will very quickly lead to a request to dine for the night. Go ahead… indulge and enjoy yourself.