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Chef-Patron William Drabble keeps the flag flying high
William Drabble must be a bit of a visionary, or very brave, or even a bit reckless to have taken on this famous destination restaurant that was strangely and abruptly abandoned by its crew. Drabble told me it was like the Marie Celeste, virtually left with food on the tables and open bottles in the ice buckets. Now almost three years on he can be proud of its reincarnation. The kitchen is a happier place, and so is the front of house under the watchful eye of general manager Christophe Thuilot, a former sommelier. As you might expect, the wine list is formidable, though happily for less wealthy patrons there are some nice bargains hiding behind the heavyweight classics like the 1945 Chateau Margaux. You can buy that piece of history for about the same price as a 1992 Ford Sierra, and who the hell wants one of those? More of the wine later.
Aubergine is an intimate sort of place, just off the Fulham Road, (which thoroughfare seems almost wholly given over to looking after the stomach). The tables are beautifully laid with chargers decorated with the eggplant theme which extends to some fine French cutlery with miniature bas-relief eggplants on the handles. We were brought an amuse bouche on handsome silver spoons and we began the imbibing with a bottle of Gaillac which offered robust rural flavours, both herbaceous and aromatic.
There is a new Menu Gourmand, of seven courses plus chocolates and petits fours for £65, or £115 to include six interesting wines chosen by the Head Sommelier. Noticing that five out of the seven courses were fish, we decided to go for the £48 three course dinner menu. Here there was a cornucopia of foie gras, sweetbreads, morels and other more carnal delicacies. The culinary style is modern classical French, in the sense that classical techniques are used with imagination, but not paired with over exotic or untypical ingredients. Portions are generous, and the dishes are integrated (with what were once archly called garnishes) and have a clear rationale, with no need for additional side orders. Saucing is rich and comforting with bold splashes of dark colour to enhance red meats. Lobster and chicken is teamed with creamy but miraculously light sauces.
Starters were almost worthy of main course status: Seared scallops were sweet and perfectly caramelised, with a pea puree providing an intriguing supporting role. Of the starters, only the Germiny of lobster carried a £5 surcharge. Worth every penny, my friend said, as she savoured every tender mouthful as though it might be her last. Apparently a Germiny is a kind of cream enhanced consommé. The Sauté of foie gras came on a confit of beetroots, whose earthy sweetness and deep red colour made a perfect foil for the liver. A "salad" of quail, foie gras and sweetbreads was a triumph. The tiny quail legs were given the confit treatment and the breasts and the pieces of veal sweetbreads were both meltingly tender, each morsel sitting on a bed of black hued morels. This was not your usual green leaf salad dotted with tiny fried up bits of gesier, but a substantial dish with a proper sauce.
At this point, we transferred our vinous attentions to a young vibrant red wine from Collioure, that lovely Mediterranean fishing port almost on the Spanish border (Domaine Piétri-Géraud £23.00). This went specially well with the best end of lamb. Drabble gets his meat from the Lake District (where he won his first Michelin star at Michael's Nook). A farmer friend sends his animals in small batches to a local slaughter house involving minimal transportation and waiting around. The stock are despatched in private, one at a time in a stress free situation and the result is succulent meat that needs the minimum of culinary fuss. The chicken breasts with asparagus came in a foie gras velouté that was silky smooth and contrived not to be too rich. Roasted veal sweetbreads were offered with a marvellous casserole of peas onions and bacon. My assiette of duck featured three different canard preparations. Pink centred magret, foie gras, and stuffed neck. The work that must have gone into that neck is prodigious - and well worth it. The farce is made principally from a confit of the leg and a smidgin more of foie gras - I awarded it a maximum quack factor of ten. Even the little accompaniments were a joy, especially the glazed baby turnips and the cabbage sautéed with lardons of bacon.
We queried Christophe as to why the French cheeses really justified a surcharge of £8.00. He vanished abruptly, reappearing seconds later with a large trolley and the chef fromagier (I made that up) in attendance. The cheese waiter explained the amazing range of unpasteurised cheeses, arranged form a mild goat cheese to the very powerful Munster, with a separate section of hard cheeses. All of them are a point, and their shelf life is therefore very short - hence the price. We shared one portion between four, and it was an experience not to be missed.
The star of the puds was a seasonal assiette of cherries done three ways: a chocolate cylinder filled with cherry yoghurt mousse, a delicate cherry jelly and a fabulously light beignet stuffed with the fruit. The so-called lemon chiboust (where do chefs find these abstruse names? - it's not in my Larousse!) was sheer essence of lemon - an ideal pud if you're not quite sure if you have room left.
All four of us went away from Aubergine very happy indeed - the cooking had been spot on and we had been looked after impeccably (though a little ice and lemon in the carafe of eau de Londres would have been a thoughtful touch).
Clifford Mould June 2001
Dine Online Highly Recommended
11 Park Walk
London SW10 0AJ
Tel: 020 7352 3449
Lunch: 2 courses £20, three for £25
Dinner 3 courses £48, Menu gourmand £65, or £115 including wines
Closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday
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