This article was also published in the Financial Times.
My first and last sightings over dinner in the restaurant of the Chiltern Firehouse, the reincarnation of the former fire station on Chiltern Street, Marylebone, whose 26 suites will open in late May, probably constituted the most unlikely combination I have ever seen in such a setting. But both go a long way to explaining the individuals behind this exciting addition to London as well as the level of detail required to make the restaurant of a hotel independently successful.
The first was the sequence of what were once the red and white hoses used by the firemen that have now been woven together to line the ceiling. These now form a most effectively absorbent acoustic system for the restaurant, and presumably prevent the noise from the bar percolating upstairs.
The second was the brief glimpse of two cut logs brining in a sink at the corner of the kitchen. These had originated from Mark Parr, whose London Log Company now supplies many top restaurants. Once conditioned, they would soon be burning under the massive grill shipped here from Grill Works in Michigan, a company started by Charles Eisendrath, whose tours of duty as a foreign correspondent around the world for Time
magazine led him to appreciate the thrill of the grill.
This restaurant, of which these are just two small details, has been created by two equally passionate and experienced individuals, hotelier André Balazs and chef Nuno Mendes (pictured above by Nicholas Kay).
Hungarian-born Balazs already has several renowned hotels across the US to his credit, from Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to The Mercer in New York, but this is his first venture in London after numerous rumours that he was going to open in King's Cross.
This once-quiet street, now a hub for several independent fashion shops, offers a wider and calmer canvas for his talents. The forecourt, home for so many years to the fire engines, is now an elegant garden and although the corridors and passageways inside are rather narrow, there is an immediate sense of being in a particularly atmospheric building.
Balazs and his team have accentuated this sensation by paying close attention to the restaurant's interior. The sight lines across the room are good. A thin, white candle is lit once the customers sit down at their narrow table, somewhat precariously as the tables are very close together, a situation that prompted me to ask the waiter whether a real fire engine is still at hand. There is an elegant gradation in uniform from the waiters in a light blue cravat to the station managers in pristine white jackets, reminiscent of quintessential chic of the Italian Riviera. And the young woman, notebook in hand, who has the unenviable task of squeezing past the tables to spot the progress of each table and report back to reception, never lets her smile drop. The small drinks and nibbles list tucked into the folded napkin on the marble table is another elegant touch.
This setting seems to have had a calming and inspirational effect on Mendes, a Portuguese chef who first made his impact in London at Viajante, in another reincarnation of a Victorian building, a former town hall in east London.
But while Mendes's food at Viajante seemed to be overly ambitious, here he has quickly settled into a much more relaxed mode, accepting that the last sensation any customer wants to feel is that of being aggressively challenged, either in terms of ingredients, language or taste.
Mendes's task is made considerably easier firstly because the restaurant is currently open only for dinner, with breakfast and lunch to follow once the suites open, and secondly because the single-sheet menu is such a model of clarity. The logo of the red fire box is eye-catching while the use of heavier black print to highlight each dish's main ingredient makes for instant legibility.
His interpretation of thin slices of raw scallop, turnips and tiger's milk (a Peruvian citrus-based marinade) as a first course was exemplary, not so much for its technique or its appealing colour as that it was precisely spiced and served at just the right temperature (cool but not cold) to enhance all its flavours. The array of tiny mushrooms that surrounded our other first course's principal ingredients, grilled octopus and marinated aubergine, was another highlight.
While the chimichurri sauce smeared on the fillet of beef was tamer than the Argentine original, this was still a combination that worked well. More appealing, however, in terms of eye-catching appeal and flavour, were two fillets of turbot covered with broad ribbons of dark and pale yellow heritage carrots with a dark-red carrot puree underneath. And I cannot remember when I last saw turbot, widely recognised as 'the king of fish', on a menu 15% cheaper than the beef.
The flavours of these two very different dishes were further complemented by the sommelier, Romain Audrière, ultimately recommending a 2008 Pinot Noir from Domaine Guillaume in the Jura, one of France's leading nurserymen. This was a pure, precise and appetising rendition of the grape (£90). Audrière has put together a fascinating list with a particularly interesting range of American wines.
There were quibbles. The waiters announcing the specials ought also to mention their prices and, however crowded the room, should desist from touching customers, particularly women. Unless of course, in the event of an actual fire, they are called upon to offer a fireman's lift.
1 Chiltern Street, London W1U 7PA; tel +44 (0)20 7073 7676