LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
Close your eyes and picture a calm residential street with primarily off-white townhouse-like homes. Walk to the end of said street and right on the left corner, imagine there is a restaurant with an unfussy sign announcing its presence. The sign is pleasant enough to warrant an entry as your curiosity grows. Why would a restaurant, rumored to be so refined and adventurous, be tucked away on this street is the question that you are looking to answer. Inside this restaurant, you walk into a bright, airy and yet simple space with clean lines. Dark brown and black hues with bright white overlays to warm your mind and dazzle your eyes. A central and dramatic light fixture with branches extending out from every side begins to tell the story of the meal you are about to consume but however does not nearly encompass what the experience is at the end. Welcome to The Ledbury. This restaurant is located in Notting Hill on Ledbury road and while it may be simple in all appearances, that is just about the only thing about it that is simple. The menu lends itself to simple combinations of basic ingredients but the plates are in actuality daringly bold and inventive while still maintaining and respecting the simplicity of their ingredients particularly vegetables.
Let me begin to walk you through the journey that I experienced while eating here. The image on the front of their menu, a bird, is appropriate to describe the heights of this journey that I plan to take you through. A bird, a deer, a pig and some mushrooms are all a part of the story I am about to tell so do read on to satisfy your curiosity of how they apply. Do read on to understand how chef crafts vegetables as the primary flavor even though they are listed as sides to the main ingredients. Do read on to see how chef plays games with your mind with but merely a twist of usage of the basic ingredients that you are already familiar with. And finally, do read on to see the beautiful chorus of flavors that chef creates in this daring escape to gastronomic ecstasy.
With rather quick service after being seated, I was presented with two options for a short menu and a long menu. The difference was only two dishes, the artichoke salad and the hen of the woods, so I decided to select the short given that is was lunch time and I had dinner reservations only a few hours later. In the end, I got an extra item of the long menu but I will wait to tell you that story a little later. In the usual pattern as with every fine dining restaurant, we start with the amuse bouches. The first was a seaweed crisp with smoked mussel. The seaweed is the winner here on flavor and the crisp tasted as though it was puffed rather than fried. I would have expected the smoke of the mussel to be dominant but that was not the case… not that it mattered much. The next was the guinea cold puff with jelly. It is a crispy puff with a very bold and present taste of guinea foul. My only thought on preparation was that it was the broth of the bird that was used here as there were no solid pieces in the puff. The puff was crispy which was quite deceiving from the outside as I thought it was maybe filled with meat or some sort of cream. Instead, there was the jelly placed atop the puff that contrasted the saltiness of the piece. I am unsure why but it had an after taste of a cheese crisp which I found to be quite interesting. A complete transformation of flavor is not generally anything that I have experienced in an aftertaste, as there are generally remnants of the initial flavor in some way manner or form. The last of the amuses was the steamed crumpet with brown butter and crab. Unfortunately, this piece was the least of my favorite pieces on the menu. I loved the attention to detail on the presentation, something that chef is incredibly good at, but there was too much of a lemon zest like taste in it for me.
With that we start the main menu, and the first up is the white beetroot with shallot and eel on the bottom and English caviar on top. I have prepared and eaten beetroot before but eating baby white beetroot is a first for me. In my research since the meal, I have found that white beetroot is sweeter than than the regular but still maintains the earthy and nutty flavor of the red. This was the perfect opener to the menu. The beetroot appears to have been shaved by a mandolin. While mostly dependent on the natural sweetness of the vegetable, I wonder if there was any additional sweetener here? Maybe a sweet molasses soaking of some sort to tenderize and to heighten its already sweet flavor. On the bottom of the plate is shallot and eel which is cold cooked and firm. As someone, who is a very frequent consumer of unagi, this was a different and welcome preparation of the fish without the japanese sauce. It was like a re-introduction to an ingredient that I was already very familiar with. Then there was the caviar which had the traditional saltiness of caviar but was not as bold in flavor as Osetra. However, the mix of sweet and salty when done right is always a winner. In this case, natural sweetening of beetroot was a perfect blend with the saltiness of the caviar. The earthiness of the beetroot paired with the earthy but mildly biting flavor of the shallots was another phenomenal flavor with those two ingredients combined. When the cold eel was added to the taste of beetroot and caviar, I had a presentation of two different kinds of salt, both natural and neither more dominant than the other. Instead, there was a musical harmony that ensued with the sweet beetroot in the middle. Have you ever heard a piano scale? Think of it that ways i.e. eel to start, beetroot in the middle and caviar as the top note. I must speak of the texture as that was an additional adventure. The crispness of an apple when you bite into it was achieved despite the thin shaving of the beetroot. This was due to the amount present and the multi layering of these slices. The shallots were softened but did not taste cooked so they still had a bit of a crunch to them. The eel as I had mentioned earlier was a tad firm and the caviar is as it always is, soft and silky with a melting finish. To pair all these together, you are welcomed into a fresh crispness with firm protein and a soft finish to ease the final consumption of the bite. I love how he was able to play with all these elements, thereby giving different experiences with every combination I tried. When finally, all elements were combined, I finally got to the end of the story of what I believe chef wanted me to taste which was a deep exploration into sweet, salt and earth and I loved and had quite a bit of fun with every step of the journey to get there.
The service is very professional with men in suits and women in white crisply ironed shirts and knee-length skirts. I forget but I believe the hue of the skirts matched that of the suits. The uniformity and attention to detail is something that always amuses me and is surprisingly what I see most restaurants take for granted… but not here. The warm bread and ice cream dollop shaped butter was brought out next. Perfection. I believe there was a sweet reduction of some sort dotted over the butter. There is a point that I need to share about the service and attention to detail here. Whenever, I am served crusty bread, I really only eat the soft center, reason being that the crust is what fills me up almost instantaneously and as such, I am unable to finish my meal. When the attendant brought me another round of bread, she presented me with a plate of bread with the crusts cut off to my utmost surprise. I have said it once and I will say it again, it is the little things that mean the most to me. I have had meals all around the world and this is the first restaurant that was conscious of that and adjusted. Another point to note is how knowledgeable everyone on the staff is about wines. When I asked for descriptions or recommendations, everyone was able to share some note or pointer where I am used to the proverbial, “I’ll send over the sommelier”. Do not get me wrong, I love the somms, but it is refreshing to have knowledgeable wait staff all around. I guess a final note to mention here really is that what I found on my trip is that overall, London restaurant service is better than in New York. I may be a traitor for saying that but it is what it is.
The next dish is the warm Bantam’s egg with celeriac, arbois, dried ham, truffle and croutons. A bantam chicken is a special chicken generally notably smaller than a regular chicken with males generally being more aggressive than their counterparts. The eggs of the bantam ratio can also be categorized in the small to tiny size weighing sometimes as tiny as only one (1) ounce. The yolk to white ratio is also generally higher. In my plate, the yolk had a deep orange color deeper than eggs that I have had in Spain and other European countries. Generally, the yolk coloring of eggs in the US is lighter than that you would find abroad. The preparation of the egg, I believe was over easy possibly with the whites removed as I do not recall seeing any on my plate. It was perfectly prepared with not an ounce of raw in sight and the beautiful spillover of golden magic when pierced with a knife. The egg was placed I believe atop a shaving on celeriac which is more commonly known as turnip root. The taste and texture here is similar to the crunch of a carrot but without the sweetness if that gives you an idea. Scattered atop the plate was ham, I believe it was iberico which is cured ham from black Iberian pigs, There was also arbois on the plate but I am unfamiliar with the ingredient and my research yielded nothing of it. It may have been the spice dusted packing peanuts textured item on the plate but with no particularly standout flavor. Finally, there were croutons to add further crunch texture to the plate. There was also a black reduction on the plate that if I recall correctly had a grainy element to it but on flavor addition to the plate, my apologies but my memory fails me. The presentation of the plate was a bit disappointing for me I must mention. It seemed a bit messy as items seemed to have been thrown or scattered onto the plate with no particular organization. The plate in of itself did not require any particular order with which to eat it so I guess I can presume that this was what chef intended. Where chef did win on presentation for me though was with the smatter of colors. With the deep orange hues contrasting the dark black sauce and pairing dark brown truffle all sitting on white celeriac with rouge ham. It was playful and interesting to look at despite the not quite ordered presentation. On taste, when the ham is eaten with the egg yolk, it lends salt to the rich flavors of the egg. At home, I like to skip adding salt to my scrambled eggs, allow butter to flavor it with my morning toast and this was a seemingly familiar approach to the preparation here. When truffle was added to the bite, it did not immediately present its flavor, it was more like a slow release as you ate it and I was quite curious as to how the delayed effect was achieved. The celeriac was the grounder on the plate allowing each of the individual ingredients that it was paired with do the talking with it functioning as a neutral taste on the bite. All put together, it was an adventure into salt and rich flavors that I enjoyed participating in. A game or rather an adventure trying the different ingredients before layering them in experimentation together. At a point in my exploration of the plate, I had the flavor of potato chips which was quite funny to say in the least, I think it may have been the truffle and egg combination that brought that out. At the end of this plate, what I had was yet another simple transformation of ingredients that layered flavors of rich with earthy and dominant flavors of vegetables. I confess that I have since recreated this plate at home and I enjoy it for breakfast from time to time. It refreshes my memory every time of this dish but obviously not as good as the original. One last point to mention here is that after eating all the elements on the plate, there is enough egg yolk to run some bread through though I did not do so myself.
The plating and presentation of the next dish wiped out of my memory the presentation of the prior. It was beautifully plated with various combinations of white and cream dotted with deep fuchsia pink splatter of what appeared to be small flower petals. The squid on the center of the plate almost translucent in color brought a realistic view to the plate from the ethereal brightness of the other colors on the plate. Toasted pine nuts, though scattered on the dish formed a round ring, I am sure unintentionally, around the squid providing a highlight of what was supposed to be the main ingredient on the plate. The cauliflower foam also circled the dish but with a wider diameter than that of the pine nuts giving a swirling circle view that was interesting at every level. Everything I had tasted on the menu till this plate had been divine and this plate did not break that trend, it took that fact further than I could have imagined. When I saw the barley risotto on the menu, I was pleasantly surprised as someone who does not eat rice, this is generally my substitute for that ingredient. Between couscous, quinoa and barley, these are my rice substitutions so I was certainly eager to savor every bite on this plate without one ounce of guilt. This plate was the squid and barley risotto with cauliflower and pine nuts. The “cream” of the risotto did not appear to be full fat milk cream but instead tasted more like cauliflower cream which was yet another healthy alternative that was a member of this plate. This plate was my favorite of the meal on taste and I would say the second most creative. The most creative I feel was the dish that I will describe next so be a little more patient with me. I believe this dish could be classified as a vegetarian plate without the squid and it certainly made me realize that most of the dishes with a little substitution here and there could easily be made vegetarian. I have been hard pressed to find vegetarian fine dining experiences that are not Indian. Nix in New York is the only memorable one that comes to mind really. On taste, the cauliflower cream was the winner here and the combination and transformation of barley with this ingredient is no small feat. The barley was cooked to that texture that still requires a bit of chewing as opposed to the mash level that most recipes I have seen call for. The chewing required here gave a “press” of flavors and allowed the taste to last just a little bit longer on the tongue as you ate it. As I ate this dish, my brain was confused as to how it could be so “healthy” given how deeply rich in flavor it was. This was too rich in flavor for me not to justify it as being “healthy” in my mind. As for the squid, I could eat this dish without it honestly, as it really only provided an additional texture for me. I was far too enchanted by the cauliflower and barley combination to notice anything else. The squid, like the truffle in the plate before it, had a slow appearance of flavor but that is the case even in of the ingredient itself as it does not have the boldest of flavors without significant seasoning. Chef was very simple here and I dare to say that he only used a dash of salt on this plate, and not much else so as not to distract from the rest of the plate. If I could eat this plate everyday I would. Technically, I can since I could fit it into my caloric budget but it would be far too complicated to replicate something so simple as this. It is always these kinds of dishes that require significant precision on preparation. In the end, I found this dish to be surprising and unconsciously fulfilling, beautifully prepared and presented and seasonal to say in the least in its final delivery to the palate.
As I mentioned earlier, I selected the short six course menu as it was lunch time but I was heartbroken that I would miss the hen of the woods mushroom dish as I love mushrooms quite a bit. This is where things get interesting and I am reaping the benefits of this blog. I LOVE watching chef’s cook. I am spellbound looking at them put pieces of a dish together, it is my own entertainment and perfect magic show. I could not ever be that creative so I have the utmost respect for them when I get to witness it in person. Ledbury gave me that gift. I was not only given the mushrooms dish in addition of my order but the best part of it was that I was allowed to the kitchen to see chef put the dish together himself. I have included the video below but let me tell you about it. The preparation of the dish starts with two plates, on one plate is a platter of smoking rosemary and on the other is a flat white empty plate sitting below the heater. Chef pours some potato emulsion on the plate which as he describes it, he went for the consistency of the a thin mayonnaise but made with potato and associated stock. He then bangs the plate on the counter a few times to spread it out. For those who bake, this is similar to what you would do for the air pockets in cakes. What came next was the sprinkle of a spice that I did not quite get the name of on top of the emulsion and across the plate. Another layer that was put on top of the emulsion, this time in the center was some dried yeast then a little amount of garlic and chive oil was squirted on the side of the emulsion. I was beginning to wonder if chef was creating a painting as he carefully plated each of these pieces, each more colorful than the last onto the plate. The next was the main ingredient of the plate, the hen of the woods mushroom which had been pan roasted in rosemary and garlic but first marinated in a wet marinade. I wish I had asked him what was in the marinade but I really did not want to take up too much more of his time. Atop the mushroom was placed some aged beef fat, a curing process of meat fat usually done with pork but this time with beef. Some more rosemary was sprinkled atop that and it was put into the oven for nothing more than ten (10) seconds to melt the fat. Out of the oven it comes and placed right on top of the smoking rosemary and voila my dish was ready to serve. He took the time to have a conversation with me and show me the process all the while running the kitchen for the full dining room upstairs and this is an experience as such that I will never forget. The mushrooms after this preparation no longer tasted like mushrooms, they tasted like beef. If not for the texture, I would swear that I was eating some cut of beef if I had been blindfolded and offered this plate as a taste test. Mushrooms are naturally meaty which would probably be an addition to this mind game of the combination of these ingredients. You are chewing on tender mushrooms but salivating as though you are eating a tender cut of filet mignon. I cannot believe that they are only number twenty seven (27)! This dish reminded of the feeling of being a young woman, longing to get a call back from a guy that she likes, checking her phone endlessly, in hopes that she would finally taste the mushrooms that she was promised. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit… a lot… but you get my point. Ultimately, what this plate boils down to is a plate full of mind games and studied ingredient mastery and transformation that should not be missed.
I have been raving about every dish and they each deserved it. This last plate though was my least favorite. Iberico pork is a different experience when it is not cured, an experience that I truthfully have not had before. Iberico pork, as I had mentioned earlier, is a type of pork from black Iberian pigs. They are generally from the Iberian peninsula of Spain. The pigs are generally fed a diet of acorns and there are several levels of prescribed quality of the pig, pata negra being the best categorized. The pork was cooked to a medium temperature placed on an earl grey sauce with a dollop of prune and hispi cabbage to side. The hispi cabbage was interesting as it is naturally sweeter than regular cabbage sometimes colloquially known as the sweetheart cabbage. Its flavor and texture mimicked blanched lettuce with none of the bitter undertones that you can sometime taste in cabbage. For me, the sauce was the most successful item on this plate being a blend of very prominent earl grey tea and pork jus. It brought up a memory of sipping a cup of hot tea by the fireplace with a side of pork broth to heat up. That is probably not the best explanation of the flavors but I guess you can simply draw upon your most comfortable feeling of heating up on a cold night by the fireplace and that is the feeling that tasting this sauce gave me. The dollop of prune in the middle of dish was not to be missed as it lent the unusual sweetness of the fruit and a date like almost jammy texture to the plate. A quite enjoyable way to eat the prune was to spread some of it on the pork so you have an interesting understated balance of sweet and salt. For that flavor, imagine spreading cranberry over turkey at Thanksgiving and you are spot on with the flavor experience that I am describing here. Also on the plate was a firmer textured protein which I assumed to be another cut of the pork topped with some dried bits and herbs. Personally, I have a tough time eating pork in generally if it is not cured or a tenderloin prepared with asian flavors so I probably am not the best person to discuss the quality of this plate. At this point, I would generally describe what I think could possibly make this dish better but in this case I honestly have no idea.
The pork was the last of the savory dishes before the two dessert dishes on the menu. The first was a passion fruit curd with sauternes, a sweet white wine, olive oil and a citrus donut. I got a flavor of tangerine from the little orange bubbles that were placed in the top center of the curd. The perfectly rounded spheres were another distinct attention to detail that I was impressed by. Their citrus flavor which combined nicely with the citrus made me ever so curious of what they were and how their shape was achieved. The curd itself had a velvety smooth texture, almost like a thin mousse with the flavor of peach surprisingly at times. On the donut which was a standard non-greasy donut was dusted with sugar that “sparkled” and made me smile. I would probably be going overboard if I say that it reminded me of a diamond twinkling in the light but it is what it is. The sugar was quite fine but not to point of confectioner’s and not as grainy as traditional sugar what type it was is another question there remained for me.
And with that, I sadly came to the end of the meal with the final dessert, the brown sugar tart with steamed ginger ice cream and muscatel grapes. I have to spend a little time describing this plate before I go into how it tasted as it is one of the beautifully crafted desserts that I have seen in a while. The plate itself was engraved with a tree and the tart had been placed at the top of the trunk of said tree. It is fitting that the color of the tart was brown enlivening the image of a tree of long age on the plate. With branches of the tree stretching their arms forth atop and to the right of the plate, there was ice cream placed on the rightmost ends of the tree. You could liken this to a tree in the winter, heavy with the covering of snow all the way to the tips of each branch. The grapes with their deep ruby red color almost mirrored the color of dark cherries and you could see that as the fruit hanging heavy on the branches of the tree. I had always thought that grapes of the Muscat varietal were green given their popular usage to make sweet and fortified white wines. My research proved me wrong here as there is a category, Muscat Hamburg that can be colored to near black. The color of these grapes were a deep ruby red and they appeared to have been peeled. The prep work and precision required for this one item can certainly not be one small feat. Quite a bit of skill, time and mastery of a knife would be required here. The ice cream in this dish was not extremely creamy but instead it highlighted the ginger allowing it to be the fore front in this piece of the dish. The sweet of the grape combined with the spice of the ginger was an interesting play of flavors as you might well imagine. The tart had a more nutty flavor than brown sugar and I thought to shake my head as it appeared that chef appeared to enjoy making the unexpected happen. Think about it, it is a brown sugar tart but instead I get nutty and then it should be creamy ice cream but instead I get ginger. My only sweet is coming from the grape which is similar to what he did with the bantam egg and iberico ham. A very interesting dessert to say in the least. Combining the tart with the ice cream, I would have expected the ginger to overwhelm but it actually fell to the background of the nuttiness of the tart. Final impressions and comments on this dish, do not change a thing, it is an exercise in perfection and mastery of a dessert.
At the end of the meal, I was presented with the traditional finishers and going away presents of a juniper caramel stick and an eucalyptus truffle. The eucalyptus truffle chocolate tasted like single origin dark chocolate with tobacco as a lingering flavor possibly enhanced by the bitter flavors that eucalyptus naturally evoke. The caramel stick was delicious but far too sweet for me so I did not really have more than a bite of it.
In the end, I can summarize my meal as an inventive and fun experience that would make everyone a vegetable lover. Simple transformations and slight of hand ingredient games leading to complex flavors which can still be dissected to reveal their innate simplicity. Even with the one or two bites that were not my favorite, I would still not change a thing. This is a dynamic environment and a fun meal that has molded itself into a fine dining experience. Brett Graham is quite the wonder in how he can take one item as the highlight of the dish and then breathes life into that item with nothing but dots of the supporting ingredients. The balances he creates with his plates are thought provoking and at many a moment had me aching to know more to the point of sometimes emotional upheaval. My passion for food is unparalleled but I may have met my match with this restaurant.