London's most keenly anticipated restaurant opening. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The recent opening in Claridge’s hotel of Davies & Brook restaurant by the Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm (pictured), who made his name in the US, was six months later than expected.
In an industry where restaurants have less-than-scientific opening dates, six months is a long and expensive delay. Openings are set by a combination of different factors, mainly when the builders finally move out and when the restaurateur believes he, or she, will run out of money.
Such a long delay as at Davies & Brook could only have been sustained by a deep-pocketed hotelier rather than an independent restaurateur, and was presumably tolerated only because the onus on both parties was so great. This opening, first whispered about to me at least seven years ago, is vitally important for both parties.
For Claridge’s this union marks their third ‘marriage’ with a chef after Gordon Ramsay and then Simon Rogan quit the same space on the corner of Davies and Brook Streets. Humm is a better chef than either of these two but he is best known for Eleven Madison Park in New York, where there is only a tasting menu, and the restaurants in the Nomad hotels in New York and Los Angeles.
For Humm this opening in the hotel where he first cooked aged 15 is a particular challenge. Having established himself in New York alongside his long-time business partner Will Guidara, he saw this partnership disintegrate six months ago. He now faces this transatlantic challenge on his own.
Both sides in this new restaurant began what can be an often fractious arrangement by starting from scratch. So much has changed in this airy space (see below before service) that for the first few minutes I sat there wondering whether it could possibly be the same as the one occupied by the former British chefs.
The colours are far lighter. The sight lines seem much improved. The light grey colour that permeates the space has been dictated by the 40 decidedly muted photographs of Icelandic hillocks taken by Humm’s friend Roni Horn that adorn the walls. Everything in the kitchen, with a tour provided of course, is white (see top right).
The menu, bound in grey, arrives and we open it to find a clever variation on the standard menu. It is divided into three – cold starters, warm starters and main courses. One choice from each of these, plus dessert, is £98 a head.
A waitress arrives with two rolls and our amuse bouche, a variation on scallops: thin slices of scallop topped with horseradish and apple and a bowl she quickly fills with a delicious scallop broth. The same process repeats itself with our next course.
A ceviche of sea bass, noted as coming with avocado, cucumber, and shrimp oil, is enhanced by the carefully seasoned avocado sauce our waitress pours around it. My yellowtail has been marinated and then given spice and crunch by the addition of toasted amaranth seeds.
For the warm starter course (portions are moderate), we went our different ways, Jancis choosing an aubergine dish with roasted garlic that was good, if not particularly distinctive, while I chose perhaps the best dish of my meal. Described as winter minestrone with vegetables and kombu (dried kelp), this soup hit all the right notes for me: appetising, salty and restorative. It had all the refined flavours, as well as the colourful appearance in the carefully prepared and arranged vegetables awaiting their broth that I would expect from a top professional kitchen.
From a menu obviously turning its back on red meat (neither lamb nor beef are on offer), we both chose fish: a black cod, sweet and moist, with Napa cabbage for Jancis and fillets of John Dory with a porcini ragu for me, pictured below. Both were excellent.
Our waitress then approached our table again and, when she heard that neither of us wanted cheese, began to recite the desserts on offer. This approach was original, slightly disconcerting at the outset but ultimately successful in creating a closer bond between her and us. One dessert of mandarins, with slices of the fruit on top of mandarin ice cream, cream and thin biscuit was particularly successful.
This bond, this policy of raising the waiting staff from plate-carriers to being an integral part of everyone’s meal, is a hallmark of the Guidara/Humm approach to hospitality that has proven so successful at Eleven Madison.
Our Polish waitress told the American couple sitting at the next table after they spilt something, ‘If you don’t make a mess, how would I know whether you had had a good time?’
Then there was the theatre provided by the knowledgeable French sommelier, Gabriel Di Bella. When a nearby table ordered a bottle of Château de Beaucastel 1998 (£250), he approached with a trolley laden with tongs and a flame. As though it were a bottle of vintage port, Di Bella proceeded to heat the tongs and then place the tongs around the neck of the bottle to crack it open before decanting.
When I quizzed him about this, Di Bella explained that most bottles over 15 years old are subjected to this palaver, admitting, ‘It brings an extra bit of theatre into the dining room.’
This immediate confidence in the kitchen and in the service may well be due to training and practice – thanks to the delay in opening.
Davies & Brook Claridge’s Hotel, Brook Street, London W1K 4HR; tel +44 (0)20 7629 8860