- Food & Drink
2011 has been the year of the forager. There barely seems to be a stretch of hedgerow or a strip of grass that hasn’t been picked over by über local food enthusiasts in search of a fashionable meal. Restaurant menus, following the lead of moss-bothering master chef René Redzepi, haven’t been slow to show off their on-trend, hunter-gather credentials either.
Another new recruit to the countryside rummagers is The Capability Restaurant in the Waldorf-Astoria’s swank new outer London hotel, located in the grounds of Syon Park. Executive Chef Lee Stretton has been given the run of the estate’s grounds by the Duke of Northumberland and several weeks ago I was invited to join him and a party of bloggers in a forage around the hotel.
Mother Nature, however, had different plans. Miffed by the amount of pillaging our agrarian society has recently been engaged in, she ensured enough torrential rain fell to render the grounds far too slippy / dirty for us soft London foodies. The foraging was therefore limited to eating a leaf from a tree, which Lee told us was nice in salads earlier in the year but a bit too old and woody to be eaten now. He was right.
So instead of gathering berries and twigs, Lee took us on a tour of the vegetable and herb gardens landscaped around the hotel. The bar terrace is beautifully ornamented by an impressive stretch of herbs, while hidden around the back is a kitchen garden on a grand scale. It’s a lush patch of vegetation that Lee enthused over, very nearly inspiring me to give gardening another go (I’m a first class plant killer).
Back in the slightly fusty restaurant, we sat down to a tasting menu that began with a shot of chilled watercress soup. A refreshing sip of greenery, it was the gentle prelude to starter number 2: Dorset snails with black pudding, wild boar bacon and garlic butter.
The little copper pans caused a murmur around the table as they arrived. Half the diners proclaimed their love for snails and the other half timidly poked the arthropod as if they expected it to rear up out of the pan and bellow mucous at them.
I’ve always been suspicious of snails. Any moderately obscure, expensive or slightly distasteful food that people bang on about (“No, really. You must try the brains – they’re divine”) is almost always going to be a disappointment. The legendary deliciousness is usually down to the food’s rarity or the ostentatious urbanity of eating it.
My snail was nestling in garlicky nest of properly offally black pudding and salt-sharp bacon. Both these accompaniments were delicious, while the snail itself was fine. A tender protein sponge that soaked up the strong flavours it swam in. But it didn’t quite convert me to the blissful joys of eating slugs with houses.
The snail was followed by Waldorf salad, which Lee observed they had to serve, given the restaurant’s location. A handful of celery sticks and apple slices with a slither of pickled walnut, it was well-executed but I don’t really understand how Waldorf salad has snuck onto the Classic Dishes of the World list. It tastes like a dieter’s idea of a wild spree and should be retired from service.
A curl of smoked salmon on shaved fennel was next. The salmon is cured in the restaurant with salt and brown sugar and a delicate, moreish sweetness pervaded the whole dish. The final starter, a salad of heritage tomatoes and Lancashire cheese, was a traditional match that easily outclassed the Waldorf salad.
The parade of starters complete, we moved onto our main courses. First was Cornish silver mullet with a mussel architecturally perched on it and a wave of samphire curling over the top. It was a lovely slab of fish while the mussel confirmed my opinion of the snail. If you’re going to eat a lower life form that lives in a shell, eat a mussel.
The kitchen’s grill was put to good use producing chargrilled 28 day Aberdeenshire sirloin and chargrilled marrow with Yorkshire pigeon perched on top of it. Both the meats were excellent while the marrow achieved an extraordinary thing for marrow: it tasted of something.
Before dessert we took a constitutional stroll down to the greenhouse, which acts as a private dining room. Lined with tomato plants and an old butchers block at the centre as a table, it’s one of London’s more romantic dining spots.
Back in the restaurant, we finished our meal with Bakewell tart – the only disappointment of the meal. It was a little dry, a little stodgy and a little plain. The last restaurant I ate Bakewell tart in was Hibiscus, and it was boring there, too, so I blame the dish rather than the kitchen. Bakewell pudding would be nicer.
A board of high-end British cheeses with Meantime beer syrup and passion fruit truffles finished the meal. All of this was washed down with a tangy Sauvignon Blanc Domaine du Pont de Livier 2010 (£36), a sinuous Spy Valley Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009 (not on wine list) and a structural Alamos Malbec 2010 (£31).
I’m giving you the wine prices because I can’t tell you how much the meal would cost. I ate for free (hurrah), but the price of a tasting menu like this is TBC. The restaurant menu on the website downloads to a blur, so I can’t even give you a hint of what a main course would cost. However, given that crumpets and Marmite are £6.75 at breakfast, I’d suggest you go with deep pockets.
What shone throughout the meal is the quality of the produce, and Lee’s enthusiasm for growing (and curing) as many of the ingredients as possible was expounded on roundly and entertainingly over dinner. It gives the restaurant, in spite of its high-faultin’ luxury hotel ways, a touch of the country house kitchen. For those who’d like a break in the countryside without the trouble of actually leaving London, Syon Park could fulfill their bucolic needs.