Please see update to this review at the end of the artticle.
The restaurant used to be The Perroquet, which lurked forlornly in the basement of the Berkeley Hotel. You can guess what its nick-name was... you've got it, a brand of weedkiller. Practically opposite, the Hyde Park Hotel had turned its restaurant over to Marco Pierre White, a sort of mini privatisation strategy that has been an enormous success. Now the Berkeley has done the same, and the New York restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, of Alsacien origins is its inspiration. Vongerichten's number two in Big Apple is now in charge in London, and I watched this new head chef at work through the soundproof plateglass screen that separates the restaurant from the kitchen. With his dark close cropped hair, he looks like a latter day Ignatius Loyola and he shows just as much passion as he peps up his keen young kitchen brigade. His name is Tom Dimarzo, and there can be few chefs who have made such an impact in such a short time.
"I would like to have built up a little more gradually", he said disarmingly, fully aware that such rapid success carries a certain degree of risk. Will the trendy, rather smart people who are packing in soon get bored and move on? I doubt it, not if the current attention to detail and creative flair is anything to go by. And as long as the prices stay stable. At the moment Vong is reasonably priced for food of such quality, in such surroundings and in such a location.
The dining room is simple rather than minimalist, with clever use of mirrors and lighting. The acoustics are bright, mercifully there was no background music as the buzz of conversation was already more of a roar. For a dinner a deux, it's more a place to show off a new partner than to chat one up. The tables are topped with oatmeal stone, and imaginative use is made of a harlequin service of strong colours. Paler food comes on dark blues, whereas a lime green ceramic lends added vibrance to a crab spring roll or to the prawn satay.
The starter of grilled squid comes with wonderfully crisp tentacles climbing up a vertical wooden skewer. The satay was made from huge juicy tiger prawns covered with the nice bit that distinguishes a good prawn toast from a dry one. Starter of the day was peanut crusted sea bream with roasted pineapple and chillies. So unusual was this garnish that it threw me completely for a moment and I couldn't think what the hell the flavour was! Roast pineapple made savoury is fantastic! The bream was tasty but a bit tiddly and it looked rather lost on a big oatmeal coloured plate. "27 vegetables simmered in their own juices" is rather a challenge. We lost count at about 19, but we weren't complaining. Individual flavours, colours and textures were faithfully preserved and our genuinely vegetarian guest was ecstatic.
The starters all cost about Stg 6.00, except for lobster and daikon roll, and sauteed foie gras with ginger and mango, Stg 11.50. This is reported to be excellent, but I didn't try it on this occasion, out of consideration for the anti-carnivorous scruples of my neighbour. We drank a beautifully crisp and goosebery flavoured Chilean Sauvigon Blanc from Santa Carolina with our starters for a very reasonable Stg 13.95.
Our main courses were quite substantial with integrated vegetable garnishes, helped along with a portion of Phad Thai noodles and another of steamed greens which shared out quite sufficiently between the four of us. Additional vegetable portions cost only Stg 2.50 each, less than at our local takeaway. Mind you the Sea bass in sweet and sour mushroom broth costs Stg 17.50, but it's at least five times as good as anything on offer at the aforementioned takeaway. It comes in a huge, elegant, elemental shaped bowl and the reduced broth had flavour that was fresh and concentrated.
Fish is definitely one of Vong's strengths, and their baked monkfish, Stg 13.75 was also excellent. A squab resting on a wondrously savoury crunchy noodle nest was crispy outside and pink within. The waiter did say the bird would be rare, which we liked, presumably we could have asked for it to be overcooked if desired. I had the main dish of the day: sauteed calves liver on a purée, not of potatoes but of taro, an oriental root vegetable. The liver was topped with onion soy marmelade, intensely dark and caramelised. This inspired me to try making some myself at home the next day. I blundered into a moderate degree of success, but I will try to get the proper recipe off Tom for you. By this stage of the meal we were drinking a pleasantly fruity Zinfandel from Sutter Home at Stg 16.00.
A recent visit to our local (quite good) Thai restaurant only served to confirm the generally held view that most run of the mill Oriental restaurants don't hold too much store by desserts. Not so at Vong. This is where perhaps above all the marriage of East and West produces the greatest satisfaction. At least it does to Western palates. Sticky rice with mango and coconut milk was a work of art worthy of the new Tate gallery. Perhaps the most genuinely oriental pudding of the lot, it combined colours, flavours and textures into a harmonious and satisfying whole. There's barely a nod towards the east in the warm Valrhona chocolate cake from whose comforting centre gushed forth molten chocolate sauce to mingle and melt with the sesame and caramel ice cream. I washed this down with a glass of Lindeman's excellent Botrytis Semillon, but an Alsace vendage tardive Gewurztraminer would have been a more authentic match. My fault for not chosing it, since there is an excellent selection of Alsace wines on the wine list.
The service was friendly, efficient but pretty busy: I do wish ice buckets could be placed within reach of the table. One's moment of need always comes when the waiter is genuinely up to his ears and I really don't mind kelping myself on these occasions! Dress is smart casual, but wrap up - the air conditioning is quite fierce!
The only thing to mar a splendid evening - through no fault of Vong - was coming out to find a parking ticket on our car - at night?! We'd parked in a legal spot, but as the road was narrow we thought we were doing everyone a favour by planting our nearside wheels on the pavement (sidewalk). Remember, it's OK to block the traffic next time you visit a London restaurant, but not the pedestrians!
It is a restaurant that evokes strong feelings: if you insist on bread, if you abhor meat mixed with meat or fish, if you want potatoes with everything, stay away. But if you appreciate interesting, highly flavoured dishes, almost invariably perfectly cooked, then it's for you. Oh yes trenchermen might be better off elsewhere, becasue portions are, let us say, delicate. One of my co-diners who really enjoys his food insisted on two starters, at my suggestion.
He began as did my other guest with sautéed foie gras with ginger and mango - probably the best starter available in London and a welcome retention from the old menu. I had the salmon slices with green peppercorn and scallion pancakes. The salmon was faultless, though the pancakes were flabby and did not really complement the salmon.
My trencherman friend had the crab spring rolls with tamarind sauce, which I tasted and were delicious both in flavour and texture.
The rabbit curry, with braised carrots and rice in a light Thai sauce, was tender and flavourful (so often rabbit is disappointingly dry). Spiced cod with curried artichokes was a delicate combination even if the cod was slightly overcooked. No complaints about the tamarind duck breast, an unusual idea that worked very well.
Bearing in mind the restaurant was full, which must impose burdens on the kitchen as the menu demands perfect timing, the overall result was still nearly impeccable.
The basic wine list is both reasonable and catholic in its wide diversity. There is also a reserve wine list which is much more expensive, but contains some excellent bottles.
We spotted Greta Scacchi and Ulrika Johnson, so there are other compensations as well as the food and the attentive service! - Jem Miller
Vong, Knightsbridge, London. Tel: 020 7235 1010
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