I had booked The Greenhouse for my boyfriend’s 26th birthday at the end of January. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it much past New Year. Still, lovers may come and go but a two-star reservation is something you really want to hang on to, so I took my dad instead. Mainly because the last time I told him about a break-up, he asked me if I fancied a pork pie.
Unlike many of the restaurants in the billionaires’ slum of Mayfair, The Greenhouse is actually all about the food, which makes for a lovely atmosphere; no footballers, no screechy desperate women in Alaïa corsetry, no roaring hedgies. The restaurant feels wonderfully hidden, approached along a quiet mews and a wooden walkway in a peaceful Japanese-style courtyard. Diners’ moods range from happily expectant to barely-contained glee, décor is simple without being stark, whimsical wood and leaf features gesturing to the secret-garden feel. Once the plates start arriving though, you begin to feel as if you are in Narnia.
Arnaud Bignon, now in his fifth year at The Greenhouse, is a supernova of a chef. After seven years under Eric Frechon at Le Bristol in Paris, he moved to Spondi in Athens, for which he won a second Michelin star, a feat he has replicated in London. Bignon cites the influence of his French grandparents’ garden in his cooking, as well as his early training in cuisine bourgeoise, which allowed him to amass the “building blocks” of gastronomic technique, upon which he has constructed a style of extraordinary creativity and intelligence. Precision and lightness of touch might be his watchwords, but Bignon is too modest about his aesthetic talents — the subtlety and skill of his presentation renders his food as exquisite to look at as it is to eat.
Pa and I began with a glass of Alcarva Pinot Gris, from one of New Zealand’s southernmost vineyards, zinging with apples and smoky lava. This accompanied the amuse-bouches of chorizo marshmallow, smoked duck on a spelt crisp with aioli and a “bouillabaisse tart”, constructed on the same principle as the Chinese soup dumplings xiao long bao, an exploding mouthful of Marseilles waterfront. The pre-starter, avocado and ponzu jelly with sea lettuce mousse and coconut and turmeric ice cream, was as surprising and vivid as the preceding trio, a perfectly orchestrated contrast of distinct texture and exuberant flavour. “Pretty ace,” said Pa.
As I was nursing a broken heart, we pushed the boat out on the wine, a Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru from Ghislaine Barthod, which tasted exactly as a good Burgundy should, that is, like an expensive tart’s armpit. (Though it was a bit eye-watering; I’m told one can have a similar experience, though without the wine, for about half the price at certain establishments nearby.)
Then we ate Cornish crab in Granny Smith jelly with cauliflower foam and veal sweetbread with sea beet and shavings of an intensely sinister fruit, the Thai Buddha’s hand, which does indeed resemble a mummified yellow hand, but tastes more lemony than any lemon has ever aspired to, and langoustine in two servings, first with Greek yoghurt and mint, then from a wizard’s alembic which bubbled broth through the raw shellfish at the table. The treatment of all these dishes is complex, but the result is an intense clarity, a discrete layering of sensations over the palate which is positively exhilarating. If I’m on a one-way trip to Pseud’s Corner here, wait for the main course. Pa had venison, as rare and velvety and perfect as any either of us had tried, but in its way relatively conventional. I chose the veal with oscietra caviar, which was very much not. I wasn’t even sure I liked it, but it left me wanting more and more. A bit like the boyfriend.
I’ve tried and tried to think of the right way to describe this dish. I’m bracing myself for the accusations of being a pretentious tosser, but the best I can do is say that it was, maybe, like hearing Stravinsky for the first time. In that you get the principle (the combination is akin to the Italian classic, vitello tonnato), but what’s being done to it somehow seems madly wrong. Even rather unpleasant. And then you eat another bite and it’s revelatory. And then wondrous. Something entirely new is being made of something you thought you understood. Even writing about it a week later I can still taste my own astonishment. Cream, salt, blood-elemental tastes, simple, sensuous — yet alchemised in a manner which I’d never experienced, into a pleasure I hadn’t imagined existed. It’s that good. And that’s why I’m depressed about the inverted snobbery which currently surrounds the kind of food Bignon produces. Haute cuisine gets a bad rap — it’s viewed as fussy, old-fashioned, governed by arcane etiquette and smothered in its own heavily-sauced conceit. Yet strip away the domed platters and the velvet draperies, as The Greenhouse does, let the food sing, and it can be transformative.
The question of whether or not food can be art is fatuous. It’s art if it’s made by an artist, and Bignon is an artist. I recently read a review of the Osteria Francescana, the Modenese establishment of Massimo Bottura, which won World’s Best Restaurant this year. Commenting on a dish named “Lentils Are Better Than Caviar”, the critic claimed, “I think I may have preferred a simple dal.” To which the correct response would be “Then eff off to Brick Lane and have one.” It’s ignorant and dishonest to suggest that simplicity is somehow more authentic than complexity, even if anyone can actually define what authenticity is in context. Comparing like with unlike is witless — you don’t go to the Bolshoi and complain that there’s no sign of Ed Balls attempting the tango. Art is hard. Not everyone can do it. It can require years of sacrifice and effort and pain, first in the acquisition of the technique and then in rendering it invisible. No one wants to go to the Bolshoi every night, and I wouldn’t want to eat at The Greenhouse very often, it’s too special for that. And it is not cheap, but I think magic is worth saving up for.
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