A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
There was an era when the best London restaurants served only French or Italian food. When the husband was in the kitchen and the wife was the front of house. And when most of these restaurants, if not all, were in west or south-west London.
Then, lured by more interesting spaces as well as cheaper rents, the city’s population moved east, a movement copied in New York as Brooklyn has been rediscovered. The pendulum had to swing back.
And although there has always been Clarke’s, almost 35 years young, so it did, initially with Brett Graham’s brave opening of The Ledbury in nether Notting Hill almost 14 years ago, followed by Clare Smyth’s Core, a reworking of what was Leith’s restaurant, a couple of years ago. Then six months ago Emily Roux and her husband Diego Ferrari opened Caractère a block or two north of The Ledbury.
The pedigree of this couple is irreproachable. Emily is the granddaughter of Albert Roux, who opened Le Gavroche, and is the only child of Michel Roux Jr, who has managed to preserve its very French nature while adapting it to the more modern, lighter tastes of today’s customers. She met Ferrari, formerly Le Gavroche’s head chef, while cooking there before they both worked in Paris.
Love, coupled with the determination to open their own restaurant, led them to this corner site that was previously one of the small group that traded as Bumpkin. It is a building that comes with inherent advantages and two major disadvantages.
The more structural disadvantage is that the kitchen is in the basement, down 13 steps with two nasty turns, and so it is visible to customers (who may also overhear Ferrari’s instructions) only when they are on their way to or from the lavatories. This means that every dish has to be carried up, although the two young men to whom this task fell on the night we ate there did so with great charm. Emily’s mother, who I was told also helps out when the restaurant is very busy, does this job just as willingly, apparently.
The second disadvantage is its location. There is very little custom at lunchtime, although Roux explained that this was the case at The Ledbury nearby for its first four years, and that they plan to persevere. And in the evening, there tends to be an 8 pm rush when people get home from the office. There is no pre- or post-theatre crowd, nor even a cinema nearby.
The menu, which clearly reflects the owners’ French and Italian roots, is broken down into six, slightly oddly named categories: Curious, Subtle, Delicate, Robust, Strong (a category that includes a single plate of Gorgonzola with a salad), and the unfortunately named Greedy, which includes three desserts, one of which provided a fantastic finale to our meal.
But our appetites had to be whetted as this kitchen feels it is incumbent on itself not to let any customer leave feeling hungry. And so, while we were considering the menu, up came a smart plate carrying three very distinguished amuse-bouches. Gnocco fritto is an Italian fried ball made from flour, yeast, a pinch of lard and salt, topped with melted red Leicester cheese; tigella is a small roll from Emilia Romagna stuffed with coppa; and they were supplemented by a crisp filo pastry with smoked cods roe.
From the Curious section I chose a dish of confit chicken oyster, meat from the underbelly of the bird, with a smoked parsnip purée pictured above right, while Jancis chose their signature dish, described as celeriac ‘caccio e pepe’, a version of the famous pasta dish but made with strips of the root vegetable instead of tagliatelle. Both were excellent and highlighted the very reasons for relishing restaurants such as Caractère – the best produce fashioned into the kind of dishes so technically accomplished that even the most skilled amateur chef could never replicate them at home.
My dish consisted of several pieces of chicken around a mound of thinly sliced potatoes, the whole held together by an intensely reduced chicken jus. The celeriac dish arrived as a mass of white, the celeriac having been cut into long strips on a Japanese mandoline before being blanched and then topped by our Italian waitress with a few drops of 25-year-old balsamic vinegar.
Our main courses were a mass of contrasting colours. The white of precisely roasted halibut alongside the varying greens of cauliflower and parsley and red amaranth, the whole very different from my wife’s dark yellow ravioli stuffed with pale cipollini onions and an unctuous veal jus. We chose a 2016 St-Joseph from Maison Les Alexandrins that cost £52, making a total bill of £162. (The wine list is, unusually, dominated by France and Italy.)
We finished with an arlettes mille-feuille, three thin pieces of puff pastry enriched with cinnamon, holding together pieces of succulent Yorkshire rhubarb, some diplomat cream (a combination of pastry and whipped cream) alongside some rhubarb sorbet. This was a dish that showed off the kitchen’s pedigree and confidence with the pastry cooked to absolute perfection. A further even 10 seconds and it would have been burnt.
Two other factors distinguish Caractère. The first is simply watching Roux, who works in the kitchen during the day but acts as maitresse d’ during the evening. Here is a woman obviously in love with her husband’s cooking and who combines the essential criteria for a restaurateur – someone who loves food, wine and people.
Then there is the restaurant’s name. ‘Diego and I have often been told', Emily explained, ‘that we have a lot of character. Or that we are rather stubborn.’
Caractère 209 Westbourne Park Road, London W11 1EA; tel +44 (0)20 8181 3850