Somewhat uncharacteristically for me, this post only contains one photo, but happily it was a photo of the best thing we ate at The Chiltern Firehouse. Have you heard of it? It's André Balaz's new place; he of Chateau Marmont, The Standard, The Mercer, all heavy hitters State-side. It's his first venture outside of the US, and it's an instant hit. It's the new hangout for stars like Rita Ora, Kate Moss and Cara Delevigne and it is very difficult to get a table. When I emailed to ask when I could have a dinner reservation I was told 'weekdays, 5pm'. That is not dinner time. It is also an hour before I'm contractually supposed to finish work. I am told they are now in 'reservation lockdown' until September.
So, I gave up and moved on with my life, and a few weeks later I was invited to a work lunch there. Set behind a gate, a lovely umbrella'd garden was verdant and inviting, despite the dripping rain. Inside, the six of us were seated at a round table near the back, slightly raised, enabling us to observe the action. Previously a fire station, our table was punctuated with a fireman's pole running down the centre. Lightbulbs hang from black cords, casting a soft yellow light across the crowded dining room. Towards the back, an open kitchen is the place to sit by to observe the action that's always interested me more than star-spotting: the chefs at work. Nuno Mendes, formerly of Viajante, heads up the kitchen here; I know well his calibre, having been to Viajante and his first restaurant, Bacchus, way back in the mists of time.
All the reports you may have read about the serving staff are true. Model-esque in looks, some looking impossibly young for their roles. But we were assigned a waiter who had clearly lost his humour that day. The oft-talked about - perhaps signature? - dish of crab doughnuts were sold out, even by lunchtime, and we joked and pleaded with him to ask the kitchen to rustle us some up. Our pleas fell on deaf, stony ears. We get it. They've run out. But the merest mention of them in jest was met with a glowering grimace.
We ordered all the starters available to us to share, and of these the steak tartare with 'Firehouse hot sauce', to apply yourself, was smoky and sweet, lacking in chilli heat but adding a fruitiness otherwise. Burrata with tomatoes was as you might expect, though enlivened with a parmesan crisp. Green and white asparagus, sourced from France, was draped with a cured ham and overshadowed by a nutty, mayonnaise-like sauce. Star of the show, though was cured sea trout in yellow mole (top picture) - traditionally a Mexican sauce made from guajillo chillis and tomatillos - which was garnished with roe and cucumber, a faint flavour of coriander coming through. The fish was firm and meaty, tart and spicy, tiny cubes of pineapple lifting the flavour of the seafood. Two lots of bread, charged at £4 per portion, arrived although we didn't order it. When mentioned, another waiter told us to have it anyway as a gift. It appeared later on the bill.
My main course of char-grilled Iberico pork with raw and roasted turnips arrived on a cast iron plate, nestled within a wooden board. It was a mess of turnips halves, turnip slivers and green sauce, and I had to do some digging to find the meat. The thin slivers of pork, though tender and cooked to pink, were so over-whelmingly smoky it tasted like I was eating bacon. It seemed a shame to treat the usually flavoursome Iberico breed in such a way. For £26, and an additional £5 for necessary sides of either fries, green beans or lettuce hearts, it seemed a little steep.
Things recovered at dessert stage. My frozen apple panna cotta was not a panna cotta, but rather a torched golf ball of meringue, with ice cream within. It sat on a sponge base, surrounded by apple jelly and a very fine granita of vividly dark green apple and basil. Refreshing and light, it swiped the lingering and slightly acrid taste of smoke from my mouth.
So I left The Chiltern Firehouse, having had a lovely time with the people I was with but pretty certain I won't be returning. I wouldn't be able to get a table, for a start. Other than that, sure, it's a beautiful room. It's glitzy, glamorous and lit well, to show you off in their best light. But the inventiveness and prettiness of dishes that I had associated with Mendes (see, for example, roasted broad beans in their pod, or textures of beetroot with crab) weren't there; instead, safer dishes like steak with onion rings that you can get better elsewhere. You might spot a celebrity or two (I didn't) but unless the food is up to scratch, it's not my bag. Haphazard and, at times, actually quite rude service cemented this feeling.
1 Chiltern Street
London W1U 7PA
020 7073 7676