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Core values
December 2017 / January 2018

Jellied eel with seaweed and malt vinegar at Core by Clare Smyth (©CORE BY CLARE SMYTH)

My first dinner with Swedish Deirdre involved tinned peaches, clams and Patak’s curry paste. After we’d recovered from that we began an annual tradition which has endured for 20 years — we put on proper party dresses and take ourselves for dinner somewhere really fancy. Our first outing was to the then recently-opened Gordon Ramsay restaurant at Claridge’s. I can still remember the slow-cooked belly pork we ate that night, as well as Ramsay’s take on bread-and-butter pudding with Bailey’s. An epiphanic dinner, which we must have been swallowing  in reverent, ecstatic silence at about the time Clare Smyth began her career at Ramsay’s eponymous three-starred restaurant on Royal Hospital Road in 2002. Ms Smyth has cooked with the greats, including the Roux brothers, Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, and her stellar talent was swiftly recognised by Ramsay, who made her head chef in 2007, at a time when of 121 Michelin-starred restaurants in Britain, only seven were headed by women. Core by Clare Smyth in Notting Hill is her first solo venture.

Our ritual begins with a glass of Krug and ends with a shared, precious sip of Chateau d’Yquem.  At Claridge’s we got so exhilarated by this ambrosial wine that the maitre d’ came over and scolded us for giggling. Two decades on, chastened but suitably beribboned, Deirdre and I read the menu with greedy excitement. For this end of the market, the prices are very neat indeed — a five-course and a tasting menu for £85 and £95 respectively and a three-courser with choice at £75. We were blown away straight out of the gate with one of the canapés, a toast of jellied eel with seaweed and malt vinegar, the transparent jelly cool to the palate like drinkable seawater, unctuous anguilliform and a hovering aroma of vinegar. Another taster of smoked duck wing with burnt orange and spices arrived under a mysterious glass fez which released dirty, sexy smoke into the crisp, chewy flesh. My first course of Isle of Mull scallop was perfectly delicious, but Deirdre’s Charlotte potato with herring and trout roe was another diva of a dish, all the flavours singing cleanly yet harmoniously.

One of Core’s great strengths is that it doesn’t rely on old-school luxury flavours for effect — there’s no risk of drowning in truffles and foie gras. Rather, Ms Smyth takes simple ingredients and conjures them into marvels, as was the case with the Roscoff onion stuffed with oxtail, which was as plump and savoury a delight as Deirdre and I have ever quarrelled over. Venison with whisky and smoked chestnut was again beautifully executed without quite achieving rapture, and the puddings evinced a similar duality. I’d clearly drawn the short straw, as my chocolate and hazelnut crémeux was merely extremely nice, whilst Deirdre’s pain perdu with fig, honey and verjus was a crunchy, caramelised orgasm of squish.  Perhaps this says more about the relative youth of the restaurant than the accomplishment of the cooking. The food here is very, very good, but it will take time for Ms Smyth and her brigade to relax enough to really let rip. There is no doubting the assurance and dexterity of the cooking and in a year, I think, it will be perfect.

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