On a depressingly grey London day I came to the very impressive (in a good way) Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. Foliage, the Hotel’s restaurant was designed by Adam Tihany and is now the realm of Chris Staines. Staines worked with Marco Pierre White and with Nico Ladenis before coming to Foliage in the early 2000′s.
During the last few months one didn’t hear a lot from this restaurant and Food Snob and I decided to see what they had on offer. At 12h we enter the room, are the first to be there and directly greeted by the excellent manager, Arno Liebscher. After having been seated, we decide to let the chef decide, as we wouldn’t have been able to decide on what to have anyway.
To accompany our champagne we were served some salmon with ponzu jelly. Very good quality salmon, cut from the heart of the fillet slipped into a sheet of Ponzu jelly. A most pleasant little bouchee, which lets you see the philosophy behind Staines’ cooking: Very good products, faultless technical execution, clear, often strong flavours and very clean presentation.
Bread is delivered by Poilane, butter by Jean Yves Bordier from Saint-Malo, who also counts Passard, Ducasse and countless others as his clients. Both were very good, except for a walnut bread, sliced extremely thinly and a mediocre baguette.
The amuse bouche consisted of a lentil ragout, with shredded Peking duck, a cream of potatoes and croutons. Here again you had very clean, strong flavours, precise seasoning and a nice interaction between the individual elements.
The first course of our menu was Scallops/Orzo / Squid ink / Thai Curry. Hand dived scallops, perfectly cooked, with lovely firm texture sat on some delicious orzo pasta, cooked in squid ink in which some small squid pieces swam. It was accompanied by some almonds, who didn’t necessarily add much to the dish and a Thai curry foam. This was one of the best dishes of the day, the only point that isn’t quite to my liking is the fact that the scallops are cut in half. I only find this in England and don’t see the point of it. An excellent, comforting dish, that is just very pleasant to eat.
At the same time Food Snob was served Haddock Raviolo / Leeks / Herring Roe / Lobster Sauce. Notice that this is one of the few restaurants that knows that a single raviolo is called raviolo and not ravioli. That alone deserves to be mentioned. The raviolo was filled with Haddock and egg yolk. It was crowned with some Avruga caviar and lobster sauce. All in all a very nice dish, were the only problem was the egg yolk, which was too present. Because of the richness of the Haddock, the egg yolk and the Caviar, a slightly acidic element could have been a nice addition. But on the other hand it was just a very indulgent dish, that made you forgot the depressing British weather.
The next set of starters began with Calves Head / Piccalilli / Watercress / Speck. Here calves cheeks were braised and pressed into a terrine, covered with Speck (a kind of bacon/ham from South Tirol) and accompanied by some quintessentially British Piccalilli and pickled vegetables. This was another dish bursting with very strong flavours. The slightly sour vegetables were a great counterpoint to the rich cheek. If this dish couldn’t live up the the (extremely) high standard of the scallop dish, it was still most enjoyable.
The highlight of the meal was one of the dishes, none of us would have ordered. Gnocchi / Mushrooms / Sage and Onion / Butternut Squash offered gnocchi of exceptional quality: Unbelievably light, fluffy gnocchi, which were nearly on par with some I’ve had at the Louis XV a few years back. To accompany them some fried onions and sage gave a crunchy note, whilst shimeji mushrooms gave a deliciously earthy flavour. To complete, parmesan added some salty touch. This was a real stunner, especially as we never had expected such masterfully executed gnocchi. Also, every element had a distinct role. With the scallops, the second dish that would have felt at home in most 3 star restaurants. Outstanding!
As fish course, we were served Sole / Parsley / Brown Butter / Capers. Here lemon Sole was steamed, which resulted in a very soft, flaky texture. It was then covered with some buttered breadcrumbs, which gave it an amazing richness. The sole package lay on a disc of white balsamic jelly and spinach. Around it were served crispy (excellent) capers, a very good beurre noisette emulsion and confit potatoes with trompettes de la mort. Another very mature dish, which, again, proved to be excellent. The only thing that I personally don’t really like is when Sole is slightly soft, but that is a matter of personal taste.
The second fish dish was Lobster / Curry Sauce / Mango Chutney / Pilau Rice. Here, perfect lobster sat on pilau rice, covered with red onion crisps and curry sauce. Mango chutney and sauce gave the whole a lovely, fruity freshness. The magnificent lobster was the star of this dish, the rice didn’t impress us particularly, but then, we both don’t really like rice that much. As long as it isn’t a risotto or paella of some sort. What was very nice, was the interplay between the firm, powerful lobster, the curry sauce and the slightly sweet, refreshing mango chutney.
For mains I started with Pork Belly / Macaroni Cheese / Spiced Pumpkin / Black Pudding. Now this was another highlight. A (unfortunately) small piece of braised piglet, with a divine crunchy crust was served with black pudding, spiced pumpkin puree and an interesting play on macaroni and cheese. Certainly very different from Heston Blumenthal’s macaroni and cheese, which he serves with his pork dish, this version was cold, with a very good jus and some buffalo mozzarella. All in all this was another stunning dish. As I’m a big fan of crunchy things, this pork was just heaven on earth, or very close to it.
At the same time Food Snob had a most interesting dish, of which he generously let me try some bits. It was Lamb Neck / Olive Mash / Sweetbreads / Pepper. Here again, one saw the interest Staines has in offal or not so common products. It was one of those very satisfying dishes, which surely don’t attract everyone, but do reward those who know the good things in life. Braised lamb neck, sweetbreads were the main protagonists in this play, in which the sweet/sour peppers and olive mash gave a feeling that you are somewhere closer to the sun. (No photo for that, sorry)
As third main, we had Chicken / Mushroom Puree / Broccoli / Gewürztraminer, which was another great dish. In this case I really enjoyed the very full flavour of the (British!) chicken and the remarkable mushroom puree. The chicken was served in two preparations, once the breast and the rolled leg, both with rich flavour and amazingly tender. Another outstanding dish.
To begin with the sweet world, as Ferran calls it, we had a Hazelnut Daquoise / Chocolate Mousse / Blood Orange and Cardamom.
The idea behind this was a deconstructed trifle. An excellent orange and cardamom sorbet and the hazelnut emulsion were the elements that stood out. It was a nice dessert, but not on the same level as the savoury courses we had enjoyed so far. Maybe there was just too much going on on the plate.
Finally, to conclude our meal, Food Snob had asked for Rhubarb Souffle / Pannacotta / Ginger / Streusel. Now, coming from "Europe" as the British call it, I find it strange to have rhubarb in January. Food Snob however, told me that in England one has found a way to grow winter rhubarb. The souffle was lovely, with a thin layer of Streusel and some interesting bits of rhubarb (?) in it. The sorbet, also rhubarb, wasn’t that successful. All in all I did enjoy this dish, even though it still didn’t fascinate me.
As petit-fours we were given some of the best madeleines I have coma across. The chocolate and lemon, vanilla and honey ones were so delicious that we asked for a second round.
All in all, I went to Foliage without very high expectations, wrongly so as I remarked after this remarkable lunch. This meal was definitely one of the best I’ve had in London so far. On the same level as ADAD, Pied a Terre and Darroze, maybe even more interesting in some points. Throughout the meal, the service was excellent, which certainly helps you appreciate the whole lunch. The only "weakness" would be the desserts, which didn’t seem to fit in with the clear, very well thought out savoury dishes.
This is definitely a place to visit when in London, even if not as popular as some other places. One will certainly hear a lot of Staines in the future, as this was a most promising meal.