the UK Dining Guide
I shall make no bones about it, The Conservatory is one of my favourite restaurants.
Salad of Sea Bass, truffle and parmesan -
1er Cru Chablis
Granite of celery and lemon thyme
Canon of glazed lamb ribs
Lavender parfait, warn rhubarb and strawberries - Fortified Shiraz d'Aremberg, McLaren Vale
Coffee and petits fours
The cuisine is under the direction of Paul Gayler, who is undoubtedly one of this country's most talented chefs. He is no stranger to the media, and his eighth and latest book Flavours of the World will be out this Autumn. He is well known for his innovative ways with vegetables, and his book A Passion for Vegetables won the 1999 Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year.
Paul cooked a special banquet for us - a succession of brilliant dishes offering both contrasts and twists of originality, but with sufficient restraint to ensure that we were never overwhelmed. Each plate was beautifully presented to be sure, but the these artworks were not an end in themselves. There is currently a move away from unnecessary elaboration particularly from such well established chefs who no longer feel obliged to jump through every conceivable culinary hoop to prove themselves.
Our palates were immediately put on the alert by a glass of the house Champagne - Taittinger brut reserve at £9.50 a glass - and charming little roulade of smoked salmon topped with caviare for an amuse bouche. We began the meal proper with an exquisite terrine of marbled foie gras, meltingly smooth, with praliné chestnuts and preserved fruits to give contrasting texture here and there. This was accompanied by the most utterly delicious Sauternes: Filhot 1990. I wanted time to stand still, like a fly caught in amber. It was a wonderful way to start a meal!
Next came a perfectly seared piece of sea bass on a crunchy rocket salad with intensely green broad beans infused with truffle oil. Restaurant manager John Davy seemed to be enjoying himself nearly as much as us in his quest for glasses of wine to match this culinary kaleidascope. He produced a lovely little known white Burgundy - Macon d'Aze Domaine La Garenne from the excellent 1995 vintage. By the bottle, this wine with its high notes of creamy oak costs £23.00. After a little pause we were each brought a shellfish raviolo. I adore things that are essentially a surprise. You cut gently into the pasta to reveal tender generous sized prawns in a ginger sauce with finely sliced wild mushrooms whose flavour was at once nutty and fungal. With this we were offered the perfect partner for spicy fish, a glass of 1995 Gewurztraminer from Schlumberger. Sheer rapture!
During all this an extremely competent pianist was turning out Mozart sonatas. Later in the evening he treated us to his own jazz inprovisations on standards by Cole Porter et al. His name is Dominic Aldiss and he has a web site. He plays at parties and dinners, but I'm not his agent. To show I'm not biased, it turned out that his father was a well known fixer of singers - he was not impressed when I auditioned for him many years and careers ago. I got my own back by requesting Sonata K338 which in the half light of a restaurant is a bugger to play. Dominic very sensibly took the finale at about half speed.
We were truly honoured to have the main course brought out to us by the maestro chef himself. It was a Gressingham duck whose legs had been slow cooked confit. At the last minute the breasts were rapidly blasted so they were pink and rare inside a caramel crisp skin. With Gayler's cooking it is often the quality of the accompaniments that make just as much impression, though this is not to underestimate the delicious duck which rested on a puree of parsnip. Not any old puree but a creamy concoction that was smoother than the inside of a Spice Girl's thigh. Thank you Paul, that's the nearest I'm ever likely to get! There was also some glazed apple to give a bit of tart contrast to the duck and its unctuous muscat sauce. We drank a glass each of a pleasant domain bottled Merlot from La Grave in the Minervois region, £4.90.
My greatest compliment to a really interesting dish in a restaurant, is that I want to rush home and try my hand at cooking it. Saturday's dinner guests got the duck and the puree, but not the Spice Girls. They said they can't wait to try it at The Lanesborough - I wasn't quite sure whether this was a compliment or not.
To finish, we were brought a voluptuous selection of desserts for us to try. The chef patissier is the aptly named Stuart Pate, whose oeuvres, right, are in great demand at teatime. His chocolate fondant was so light, deceptively concealing the richest molten dark valrona chocolate. Another tour de force was a marvellous caramelised banana tatin, served with - wait for it - curry ice cream. There was a charming Indian waiter at our table who earnestly clained that this was invented by his grand mother in Bangalore, but it turned out to be a braggadocio. But seriously, this curry ice is stunning, the spices are delicate, with subtle hints rather than tonguebusters. I was rather hoping for another go at the Filhot, but John Davy's choice of a Muscat de Baumes de Venise was rather more appropriate by this point in the evening. By the way, Davy's waiting staff are a very jolly team who are highly professional, but they don't take themselves too seriously. They seemed to do an excellent job without fussing round, and of course no one said everything alright sir with the desperate defensive air of one who dreads a negative reply.
Vegetarians can eat extraordinarily well at the Lanesborough, where Paul Gayler has made a great reputation for his vegetable dishes that can be equally enjoyed by omnivores. For about twenty pounds veggies could have both a starter and a main vegetable course. Two omnivorous courses from the carte average around thirty pounds. There's a good set menu - three courses for £29.50 including coffee and petits fours. If you talk nicely to John Davey, you can arrange a special tasting menu like the one we had.
From time to time there are exciting gourmet events at The Lanesborough:
The Conservatory Restaurant, The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner,
London SW1 Tel:020 7259 5599
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