A version of this article is published by The Financial Times.
An American couple, long resident in London, arrived for supper with us enthusiastically dispensing advice on their favourite pastimes of basketball, skiing, food and wine.
To indulge the first of these, whenever they are back in their hometown of San Francisco, he insists on staying at the Four Seasons as this particular hotel comes with its own basketball court. For her, any trip to the Alps begins at City airport rather than Heathrow as the warmer outside temperature minimises the risk of early morning cancellations. Perhaps recognising that we are too old for either sport, these bon viveurs then passed on that they had recently enjoyed two very good meals cooked by Rob Weston, who for the past two years has been the Head Chef at La Trompette in Chiswick, west London.
This struck a particular chord because this restaurant is one of half a dozen under the aegis of Nigel Platts-Martin, who, since a trip through Burgundy 25 years ago persuaded him to abandon his merchant-banking career, has adopted a very particular approach to building his restaurant collection.
Platts-Martin has spotted talented chefs, made them partners and then encouraged them to encourage others. Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce, Wandsworth, and Phil Howard at The Square in Mayfair were the initial partners. Brett Graham came on a scholarship from Australia to work with Howard before opening The Ledbury in Notting Hill Gate, while Weston has spent over a decade as sous chef alongside Howard.
Our evening at La Trompette was to reveal, however, that any successful restaurant needs more than one set of partners. And while the partnership between Platts-Martin and Weston is obviously male and never on show, what really impressed me was the dynamism, warmth and force of personality of two women who never left the floor during the three hours we were there.
The first was Laura Rhys, a Master Sommelier who combines charm with a great depth of knowledge that she wears lightly, traits that she learnt from her original wine professor, Gerard Basset MS MW OBE at his Terravina Hotel in the New Forest, Hampshire. Happily, the recent advances of one of New York’s most successful restaurant groups to lure Rhys across the Atlantic came to nothing.
Alongside Rhys, well in fact everywhere and anywhere on the floor, is Adele Stebbings, who displays all the physical and personal charms it requires to be the general manager of a busy, classy restaurant.
Eyes on stalks are one important asset, to notice customers walking in through the front door while simultaneously watching the waiting staff come through from the kitchen directly opposite. An ability to speak firmly but clearly out of the corner of one’s mouth is another, so that instructions can be passed on to the waiting staff as they approach the customers to ensure the correct plate is set down in the right place and, crucially, that these instructions are not overheard. So too is displaying infinite patience standing by a table, pad and Bic in hand, as customers dither about what to order. 'Sometimes I do feel like a bully', Stebbings confessed, but no bully would really admit to that.
These duties are made considerably easier by the strings being pulled behind the scenes by Platts-Martin and Weston. The former has long compiled some of the capital’s most engaging wine lists and with two Frenchmen around the table, and on the night of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we decided to drink one bottle of this country’s finest and with it to toast ‘la belle France’. A quick look at the burgundies brought us to a bottle of 1999 Gevrey-Chambertin from Hubert Lignier at £125. Still youthful and refreshing, this wine had an elegance winemakers from the rest of the world would love even to come close to.
Weston’s approach to creating a menu that will generate even more pleasure for the customer – at the expense of Stebbings having to wait as they overcome their indecision – is to compile a string of dishes that grow more complex as one reads them. A Jerusalem artichoke soup sounds pretty straightforward until the extra ingredients – some roast teal, a venison scotch egg and chestnuts – are factored in.
But it is these small extra ingredients that have a strong impact. I was drawn to a first course of crisp Cornish mackerel with grilled squid by the mention of the bonito cream, made from the fish that is a Japanese staple. But it was the slices of pickled cucumber that lay underneath that added the requisite bite, freshness and acidity.
There was the same success with the balance in the main courses, if perhaps a touch too much salt on the meat: the leeks, chanterelles and spätzle were an excellent foil for the guinea fowl; the pearl barley and brown shrimps with the loin of cod; and the unlikely combination of hispi cabbage, parsnip and burnt orange worked most successfully alongside the caramelised suckling pig. One Frenchman made a mockery of the £5 supplement for the cheese course by ordering and finishing more than a dozen different cheeses, while the other, having declined a dessert, polished off the banana soufflé with passion-fruit ice cream.
These distinct but highly complementary team performances ensure that La Trompette, about to enter its fourteenth year, should run and run.
La Trompette 5-7 Devonshire Road, London W4 2EU; tel +44 (0)20 8747 1836. Dinner £47.50 for three courses.