The Square, a restaurant run by Philip Howard and Nigel Platts-Martin, has one of the most accurate descriptions for it’s own cooking: Howard claims to serve refined comfort food. You can hardly blame him for being pretentious. The restaurant itself lies opposite the local Brioni shop a stone’s throw away from Bond Street in the heart of Mayfair, just to give you an idea of the people you might find there. Apart from the beautiful Russian expressionist plates and the elegantly dressed tables, the room isn’t the most striking in terms of design and doesn’t do the cooking justice. For those interested in more background info, you’ll find the best resume on my friend’s site, who along with Andy Hayler joined me for this little escapade.
Service throughout the meal was faultless: attentive, friendly, always present when needed and very knowledgeable.
Bread is baked at the restaurant, which is a rare luxury in London, which even Ramsay is not able to offer. Of the three offered types the raisin and hazelnut was the best, brown the least interesting. Butter was from Brittany and very decent.
To start the meal Howard served us one of his signature dishes: Saute of Scottish Langoustine Tails with Parmesan Gnocchi and a Potato and Truffle Butter. Now, despite Britain being an island, most restaurants still don’t manage to source and serve decent langoustines. Here however, the story is very different. I challenge anyone to get me better and fresher langoustines. These were of marvelous quality and were cooked as good as humanly possible. On par with the greatest restaurants in Europe. The Parmesan gnoccho (it was one), truffle emulsion and mushroom puree complemented the langoustine in a very harmonious way, turning it into a most delicate and greatly enjoyable dish. Here the (very) refined comfort food Leitmotiv is spot on. If there is one dish that I’ve had in London which came close to blowing me away it must have been this one. Outstanding!
Next up was a Red Mullet Escabeche, Red Mullet Soup. A soup made out of red mullet, somewhat reminding me of a light bouillabaisse encapsulated the essence of the mullet’s flavour. The escabeche (a marinated piece of fish, originally from Latin America) showcased, yet again the pristine quality of the ingredients Howard uses. In France rouget is rightfully known as the Becasse de la mer, as it is a richly falvoured but extremely delicate fish. The fact that it was served in an escabeche here, let the clean flavour stand out and resulted in a most pleasant texture.
The third course was a Ballotine of Chicken, thinly sliced with Jerusalem Artichokes, Charlotte Potatoes and Mushrooms. This was the only weak dish I tasted during this meal. Whilst all elements were well prepared from a technical point of view, the overly strong flavour of an acidified cream dominated the dish and did not let the chicken stand out. Also, the ballotine was sliced very thinly, maybe too thin.
Poached Irish Rock Oysters with a Coriander Mousseline, Pomegranate Dressing and a Light Curry Cream got the meal back on the level we encountered at the start. Beautiful, meaty oysters sat in a subtly seasoned curry cream with some pomegranate seeds providing a textural counterpoint. The curry was a very interesting pairing with the oyster, that created a very rich taste-spectrum, ranging from the iodic, salty oyster, the rich coriander mousseline, to the sweet pomegranate and the refreshing slightly spicy curry cream. Again, this dish featured great products, perfect execution and no unnecessary complication. Excellent.
Main course was a Roast Duck Breast with Spinach, Tarte fine with Endive and Blood Orange Sauce. This was the third dish from the lunch menu (35£) and was just as good as the sweetbreads or turbot from the a la carte (75£). Tender, nicely cooked (I like it a little more bloody) duck, amazing spinach, a very good duck jus, the slightly sweet endive tarte fine created a very complete dish. The blood orange puree (which features also on a foie gras dish) didn’t really add much to the whole dish, but might be a hint to canard a l’orange and did in no way disturb. One can hardly do anything but simply enjoy the food, which, here again is just as good as it gets in England.
Cheese was decent, a relatively big selection, which did not really impress. The only one that stood out was a Blue Monday, which they source from Paxton and Whitfield.
As time kept flying by, we eventually got on to the sweet part of our meal. The first dessert we tried was a rice pudding with rhubarb. a generous portion of heavily vanilla-ed rice pudding, which was topped with some rhubarb jelly, poached rhubarb and some sort of crumble. All in all very decent, a bit in the style of the riz au lait Thierry Breton serves at Chez Michel in Paris. This was another case where refined comfort food offered a very accurate description.
The second dessert featured various banana preparations. A banana beignet, mousse with some praline feullantine based crumble, cylinder filled with vanilla parfait or ice cream and marinated crushed banana. This was much better than the previous dessert, mainly because it featured every possible texture: Creamy, cold parfait encased in the crunchy cylinder, the hot, crunchy and rich beignet and the refreshing mousse. Very good dessert where one can hardly criticise anything.
A Black Forest Souffle proved to be another very pleasing dessert, where the airy souffle was studded with cherries and some chocolate bits that gave it an interesting twist. However, whilst being airy and not too sweet, a stronger chocolate could have made it more intensive, taste-wise. The star of this dessert was a small roulade of black forest gateau, which was terrific (unfortunately the portion was very small).
Another dessert was the real star of the sweet part of the meal. Just as good as the langoustines. Not surprisingly this too is one of Howard’s signature dishes. Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with Passionfruit, Mango and a Citrus Terrine. I can hardly say anything about this dish other than it being divine. The only cheesecake of that quality is Pierre Herme’s and that is as good a compliment as one can make. The lime ice cream coming with it was wonderfully refreshing, with some pieces of zest giving it a strong, clean flavour. The base of the cheesecake was just the way it should be, far from being soggy, it still had the crumbled pate sucree’s crunch and complemented perfectly with the mango puree. The only element that didn’t add to the dish was the spherical citrus-fruit ball and it’s base. Still I would say this was divine.
Another dessert with truffled cream, Earl Grey jelly and some canneles and financiers was a dish which none of us really liked. It certainly was very interesting, but on the other hand, it did not really give you any pleasure eating it seeing that it consisted only of a jelly a cream and some little cakes on the side, which did not have a relation to the dish. This just seemed a little odd, as all of the other dishes seemed very well thought-out.
Petit-fours and coffee are perfect. The home-made nougat was simply to die for, creamy, rich.
Overall, the Square must be one of the finest restaurants in England. Out of the 20 or so dishes we had, only very few weren’t at least very good. The only technical problem was a slightly over-salted sweetbread and, if you can call it a technical problem, a beautiful scallop which was (as everywhere in England) cut in half. WHY? Having a huge scallop sit in front of you is a hell of an experience. Why do the Brits have to slice their scallops in half?
Apart from those minor problems some dishes were easily on three star level: The langoustines, the cheesecake and possibly the scallop (had it not been cut in half!). These were dishes that provoked some emotions, something I haven’t had in a British restaurant before. With exception of the chicken, all others were very solid 2* and judged by the 3* Ramsay holds even 3*. Howard just has a much more original style that one can recognise instantly and seems very mature in that it doesn’t have a mess on each plate (something all to many British chefs do). Here every element has it’s role in the dish, which must be the definition of a good kitchen. We spend some very pleasant hours at the Square, chatting, eating, drinking, enjoying life, forgetting about it’s troubles. I can hardly imagine another place on earth other than a restaurant or, where you sit down for nearly five hours and just completely let go of everything. Pierre Gagnaire once said that a meal is the only time of the day, when people sit down for a few hours and just enjoy themselves. The Square fits this description just perfectly.