We go to great restaurants in the hope of being transported
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.
Hopefully by then they’ll also have done something about the décor. I could see where it’s coming from — haute cuisine need not be intimidatingly haughty, and the effort to make it accessible, relaxed and democratic is to be applauded. (Myself, I’m a sucker for a spot of velvet and a cloche but that’s probably because I’m from the North.) We did appreciate the freshness of the wine list, which was serious without pomposity and didn’t, thank goodness, arrive in a huge leather album. Yet this food deserves a better setting than a space which resembles one of those fake rooms in the John Lewis homeware department. Bare wooden tables and an open glass-walled kitchen no longer feel particularly current, and spriggy moss and heathers instead of flowers are just twee. An aggressively Holiday Inn vase in Deirdre’s sightline put her right off her cherry Bakewell pre-dessert. There are two good Bridget Rileys in one corner, but the room just doesn’t know what it’s doing; neither minimalist nor opulent, cosy or austerely focused on gastronomic excellence. Not ugly, just pointless. And if Core were in any way a mediocre restaurant, I wouldn’t bother pointing it out at all.
But we don’t go to places like this because we’re hungry, or because we want a natter with the girls over a couple of bottles of white. We go in the hope of being transported, as we might go to the opera or the ballet: this is special, extraordinary food, which requires a special, extraordinary environment, one which augments and echoes the pleasures on the plates. Great chefs can survive horrible décor, as anyone who has eaten at Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons can attest, but a dull, bland room steals from their skill. It is a testament to Ms Smyth that hers held out — we gloated like Gollum over our golden Yquem and felt extremely pleased with our dinner, but we agreed that neither of us would want to bring a date there yet.
At present, there is nothing wrong with Core. The sommelier is brilliant, the staff are enthusiastic and beautifully trained, the choreography in the kitchen is compelling to watch, but they need to turn the lights down and lose the knick-knacks. Back when food was the new sex, we were all captivated by the expletive-dripping macho bad boys of whom Ramsay was the most successful exemplar. As a look, that’s now as tragic as Keith Richards’s leather trousers, and Ms Smyth is accurate in assuming that we want something different, more focused, more refined. But to achieve the recognition she undoubtedly deserves, her restaurant will need to possess what her food already has in abundance—a soul.