This article is also published by the Financial Times.
My decision to book a table for four on a Saturday evening in early May at Simon Rogan's restaurant Fera in Claridge's Hotel was not taken easily.
Our guests were to be a particularly sophisticated couple that had bid for the privilege of dining with us at a charity auction. She is extremely knowledgeable about London restaurants while her partner is a wealthy businessman, South African originally. The restaurant had to be central and smart, the cooking of a high standard.
They seemed thrilled with our choice. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that he, many years ago, had lived in this hotel and could recall the dining room as it used to be. 'The ex King of Greece used to sit over there', he pointed out, having taken his seat and looked around the extremely comfortable dining room with excellent acoustics.
I remained more sceptical. Twelve years ago, we had dined at L'Enclume restaurant in Cartmel, Cumbria, where Rogan's career had begun, and the pretension of that place, and particularly the service, had coloured my feelings about this chef. Not that this had stood in his way. En route south his empire grew to encompass the restaurants in the Midland Hotel in Manchester and then almost three years ago he moved into this prime site in Claridge's, previously occupied by Gordon Ramsay.
On this performance, there was not a hint of pretension about the service, in fact quite the opposite. The waiting staff, of numerous nationalities, were exemplary and, above all, extremely hardworking. It was, in retrospect, the cooking that disappointed.
On our way in via Davies Street, my wife had stopped at the menus by the entrance to the restaurant to look at the menu. Her comment had been that these seemed quite confusing. Once shown to our table and with the wine list and menus in front of us, this feeling was confirmed. There is no à la carte menu on a Friday or Saturday evening, just two tasting menus, one of four courses at £75 the other of seven courses at £110 – although far more than four or seven courses are listed. We settled, happily, for the former.
As my wife and our South African guest on one side of table 10 became acquainted with each other, and with the restaurant's impressive wine list composed by Raphaël Rodriguez, just back from trips to the vineyards of Galicia, Austria and Hungary, I kept one ear and eye focused on my attractive guest. But I have to admit that the view from my seat was too fascinating professionally to ignore.
Straight ahead of me was the brightly lit entrance to the kitchen while off in the corner were the swing doors through which the waiting staff took the dirty plates and cutlery and the computer terminal that linked the two. It not only brought back memories of what a lot of hard work is involved in all this but also provoked the more important question: would, at the end of the evening, it all have been worth it?
Having settled on two new-wave wines from Swartland in South Africa, a Testalonga Cortez El Bandito Chenin Blanc 2014 (£80) and a 2013 Intellego Syrah from Jürgen Gouws (£63), each combining great character with low alcohol levels (11.5% and 12% respectively), we settled back to watch the menu unfold.
First up was a series of appetisers: a delicious mouthful of rabbit with lovage; a seaweed cracker filled with a thin slice of scallop; and a small bowl filled with an extremely rich, creamy mixture of warm Tunworth cheese topped with diced nuggets of duck meat.
Then came the first two of our principal, four courses that were differentiated more by their accompaniments than by their appearance. A half of a breast of Norfolk quail topped with grilled cabbage and hen of the woods mushrooms was followed by a cube of cod, enrobed in pine oil with a puree of Jerusalem artichokes on to which a clear broth derived from the same vegetable was poured.
Our main course then appeared, a half a breast of Goosnargh duck with two of today's most favoured vegetables, caramelised cauliflower and pieces of smoked beetroot. Here was the first sign of a kitchen under pressure as the meat was undercooked - too much this side of pink to be enjoyed. There then followed an 'avant dessert' which the waiter pronounced as a combination of camomile and chocolate malt with a hidden ingredient, which we guessed as small cubes of celery thanks to the menu kindly left on our table. This was followed by a dessert of a cube of rather dried-out cake, made from the herb meadowsweet, topped with celeriac, apple and burnt honey.
The cooking was intricate, if unbalanced, the ingredients first rate and the service highly professional. But did the meal pass the ultimate hurdle of making us want to return? As we walked out of the restaurant at 10.30pm past tables that were now occupied by a second set of customers, I realised that this may be the wrong question to ask. Fera is, rather, a striking example of what it takes to prosper in the West End today: it is slick, attractive and highly polished. You pay your money, £518.63 for four including service in my case, and you take your choice.
Fera at Claridge's Brook Street, London W1K 4HR; tel +44 (0)20 7107 8888