Chiltern Firehouse in London’s Marylebone only opened 7 months ago but it was, without a doubt the most talked about restaurant in London this past summer. The combination of slick American hotelier owner (Andre Balazs) and veteran London chef Nuño Mendes has seen everyone from Bill Clinton, George Clooney and David Beckham dine there and scarcely a day goes by without paparazzi images of the previous night’s guests turning up in the tabloid press, so when I managed to snag a coveted table for 6 during my brief visit back to London friends reactions verged on incredulous to down right jealous.
I was delighted to be able to invite the lovely http://intothefworld.com/ and her boyfriend along to join us for dinner as I know what big fans of Nuño they both are and it is safe to say that we were all far more excited about having the opportunity to enjoy Nuño’s cooking than the potential celeb watching on offer. By the time we arrived at 830pm on a Tuesday night the restaurant was positively humming and I was pleased to see we had been given one of the booths in the main room facing towards the kitchen so that we could see the restaurant in action, although it must be said that it took a while for me to be able to so as although the table had been set for 6 it was minus a chair and it took them a surprising amount of time for them a) to notice and b) manage to locate one for me (I’m sure Beyoncé never encounters such issues!)
Once happily ensconced, I was impressed to see that the wine list had a surprising number of wines under £35 (starting from £6 by the glass) although that didn’t stop me pushing the boat out and ordering a bottle of R de Runiart champagne (£72) for us to start with, along with 3 of their much lauded bar snacks while we looked at the menu. Much has been said about their “Crab doughnuts with coral dust”, mini choux pastries filled with sweet white crab meat and fresh herbs, personally I found them a little bland and far preferred the “Cauliflower florets with spicy truffle sauce” which were served stalk up (perfect finger food) in a creamy truffle dip and the fancy “Fried chicken” served karaage style with a tangy, smoked ranch style dipping sauce topped with fried bacon.
The menu offers 9 appetizers and 8 main courses (appetizers start from £11 and go up to £16, mains are from £19 – £36 with most being £30 or under) although by the time we got around to ordering they had sadly run out of the “Chargrilled Iberico Pork with raw and roasted turnips” and the “Wood Grilled Aged Rib Eye” had been substituted by a fillet (although surprisingly this incurred no extra charge) and in order to get a better over view of the menu (ok eat more!) Serena and I decided to share our appetizers to help us to narrow it down and finally make some decisions.
The standout appetizer was definitely the “Red prawns with almond milk and smoked grapes” which bore more than a passing resemblance to ajo blanco. The sweet, raw prawns were melt in your mouth tender, with a little kick of spice from the drizzle of chilli oil and a nice acidity coming from the smoked grapes. “Roasted new season carrots with chervil and brown butter” were also delicious and notable for their simplicity, but with such tried and tested flavour combinations it was always going to be a hit, especially with such quality ingredients, careful preparation and attractive plating.
J chose the “Steak tartare with pinenuts, chipotle and firehouse hot sauce” topped with a vibrant orange egg yolk. The beef fillet was chopped in a good sized dice and was served partially prepared with the additional condiments from anchovy to shallots, fresh herbs and cornichons around the side of the dish to be added in as and when necessary. The Firehouse hot sauce, served on the side with wafer thin croutes was definitely a welcome addition to the dish.
It must be said that they seem to have taken everyone’s feedback to heart as I noticed several (minor) changes from what we were served to the meals I had read about in the food critic columns, something that says a lot about the caliber of restaurant and their happiness to cater to guests as opposed to sticking with what they think works regardless of the comments they receive.
As a few of us had doubled up on the prawns, the last of our appetizers was the “Chicken wings with slow cooked egg, rice broth and pistachio” showing more perhaps of Nuño’s experimental approach, we agreed that the other dishes were designed to be more crowd pleasing. That said, it was probably the dish that impressed least (my soft boiled egg at Lyles later in the holiday was far better) but then with a table used to eating Singaporean style soft boiled eggs on a regular basis maybe we were always going to associate this more with a kopitiam than fine dining restaurant.
Onto the mains, with K choosing the “Pan roasted chicken bacon and mushroom panzanella” with both raw cremini and sautéed girolles in amongst the wilted leaves and juicy chicken breast whilst P chose to go vegetarian with the “Roasted celeriac with sprouting broccoli, pearl onions and walnuts” an interesting and highly respectable vegetarian option which is always nice to see on menus.
Whilst the substitute “Wood grilled aged beef fillet with Isle of White tomatoes and chimichurri” certainly looked impressive, on the whole we remained mostly unconvinced and Serena was much more taken with the sweet summer flavours of J’s beautifully pink “Spring lamb with goats curd, black garlic and grilled lettuce” (although that didn’t stop J from hungrily eyeing the chicken panzanella!)
Overall, it was the fish dishes that really impressed, Serena’s “Blackened salmon with cavolo nero, crispy skin and trout roe” was beautifully succulent with little bursts of salinity coming with each mouthful from the trout roe but I declared myself the clear winner with the “Roast turbot with seaweed fregola, cucumber and crème fraiche”. The sweet, grilled cucumber and crème fraiche played perfectly with the delicately handled turbot and the nutty, umami rich fregola gave a pleasant extra “bite”. It must be said that this was one of my favourite dishes of the holiday.
None of the dishes really needed additional sides but the “Maple bourbon sweet potatoes” and “Smoked creamed corn” looked too good to pass up on and we were soon eating them straight off the spoon rather than adding them to our plates – the maple bourbon sweet potatoes were so good I could have happily eaten a portion for dessert!
Desserts were more consistent than the mains and all of the three desserts we shared amongst us impressed greatly, from the deliciously verdant “Frozen apple pannacotta with herb granite and dried meringue” to a rich, impossibly smooth “Dark chocolate tart with toasted hazelnut ice-cream” and “Roasted & raw cherries with fresh almonds and brown butter”. We especially loved the intensity of the herb granite which really turned the pannacotta into something quite unexpected and extraordinary.
I can certainly understand why the restaurant is attracting so much buzz, not only is it beautifully designed but the ambience is spot on – lighting for example is considerably higher than in many London restaurants but the flattering, warm glow that they envelop you in is perfect for ensuring that everyone can “see and be seen” and the clever use of differing table styles, booths, partitions and foliage make it even comfortable for the diner. It must be said however that service was a little hit and miss, our sommelier was great but some of the other staff were over anxious to top up our glasses and open additional bottles of water even though we had requested them not to and I was left waiting for them to find me a seat like a bit of a plum at the beginning it must be said.
Having said all that, overall the evening was extremely enjoyable and had much in common with Balazs other properties that I have eaten in (like the Mercer in NYC where we were sat around the corner from Halle Berry and her then model boyfriend) The ambience was amongst the best I have experienced and whilst I may have lucked out with my menu choices over some of the others, I found the food to be very interesting indeed and would happily return to eat there again and again. We had so much fun over dinner (and with the excellent post dinner cocktails) that it was with quite a shock that I eventually got around to checking the time and realized we were going to have to make a mad dash back to St Pancras in order to catch the last train, always the sign of a great night out!
*Don’t forget to check out the secret outside smoking area accessed through the mirrors in the ladies (and I’m guessing the men’s) bathrooms.