Posted on Tuesday, 7th December 2010
Back in March I went to Apsleys, a one Michelin starred restaurant, and had the five-course tasting menu. Apsleys is the London outpost of Heinz Beck, a chef who holds three Michelin stars with his restaurant La Pergola in Rome. I had therefore expected good things. Instead, I left the restaurant feeling a little under whelmed. It wasn’t a bad meal per se, but my tortellini pasta was a bit overcooked and there were inconsistencies in the presentation of the food. I also found the tuna tartare dish with herbal infusion and green tea sorbet slightly odd.
Somehow the restaurant got hold of my post. Perhaps they had a point to prove because they contacted me several months later to invite me to dine at Apsleys again, saying that things had much improved. Interestingly, The Critical Couple wrote of an underwhelming first experience followed by a much more positive one at Apsleys. I was therefore sufficiently curious to try it again.
To start was a trio of seafood amuse bouches. From left to right, tuna tartare sparkled with the gentle hint of orange pieces. Next was a seabass tartare with cauliflower and candied lemon mounted on some finely chopped cantaloupe melon. The sweetness of the fish contrasted wonderfully with the fruitiness of the melon and the acidity of the lemon. Finally, a stunning sliver of thinly sliced scallop marinated in olive oil and lemon was served on a bed of creamy amaranth (a black corn stock).
Breads were delicious and included schiacciata fiorentina, a classic bread from Florence; integrale, a bread made with dark malt and whole wheat flour; ciabatta; strega, a flat crisp bread made with a little honey; and grissini breadsticks made with malt and a little pecorino cheese. The breads were well seasoned, crispy and soft in the middle where appropriate.
To go with the bread, I was presented with some olive oil from Tuscany and two types of balsamic vinegars, one aged for 18 years and another aged for 40 years. Wow! I have never tried such prized balsamic vinegar before. There was a syrupy, delicate sweetness to the aged balsamic vinegar which was astounding.
The restaurant prepared a degustation menu for us which included a tasting selection from the normal à la carte menu. The prices listed below are the à la carte prices. Langoustine carpaccio from the North Atlantic (£17 and £70 with caviar) was wonderful for its freshness and beautiful sweet flavour. Topped with little beads of perfectly formed Sturia Prestige caviar, and garnished with crispy, buttery red croutons, this was an exquisite dish.
Foie gras terrine (£25) cured with white port and Madeira was accompanied by soft quince and apple puree, and finished with a sprinkling of amaretto crumble. The foie gras was silky and smooth, with a hint of crunchy sweetness from the amaretto. There was a nice balance of acidity with the quince and the apple puree.
The carbonara fagottelli (£17.50), a Heinz Beck signature dish, was reportedly Michelle Obama’s favourite dish when she visited La Pergola in Rome. Let it be known that I too thought this was divine. Biting into these little pasta pieces filled with a creamy Romano pecorino cheese sabayon was like eating float-y pieces of cloud. To garnish was some white Alba truffle, some of which were shaved onto the plate at the table for a touch of drama. Nutty from the truffle, and delicate and creamy from the pasta – this was the most complete dish in everyway.
Monkfish spaghetti with red peppers and courgettes (£17.50) was a marriage of wonderful homely flavours. The monkfish was firm, meaty and perfectly cooked. The al dente spaghetti was intertwined with the sweetness of the veg and a rustic tomato based sauce. This was a delight to eat.
Poached black cod (£29) from Alaska was topped with a crispy onion confit which created a lovely textural contrast. The fish was accompanied by a delicate red pepper jus and al dente green vegetables, including asparagus and brussel sprouts.
Pigeon crepinette, foie gras and mustard seed sauce (£38) was simply stunning. The pigeon was both flavoursome and incredibly tender. Spinach leaves were used for the crepinette wrap. For a rich, sweet effect, a silky side of foie gras had been caramelised in a mixture of brown sugar, 18 year old aged balsamic vinegar and cinnamon. Rounding of the dish was a mixture of seasonal vegetables and a parsley mousse.
To puddings, and the highlight was a ‘chocolate variation’. A dessert not listed on the menu, this was highly complex in both preparation and composition. The variation included a delice containing seven layers of deliciousness. On top of the biscuit-y base were alternating layers of cereal and hazelnut praline, chocolate mousse and hazelnut Bavarian cream finished off with a chocolate glaze. The decadent richness of this creamy and slightly crunchy slice wowed.
Also on the plate was a chocolate ganache dome over a base of crushed crispy rice. Made from Amadei Chuao chocolate, this was wonderful with its powerful taste and silky texture.
Other delightful elements in this dessert include a chocolate tube filled with liquid raspberry sauce; chocolate ganache; a chocolate bar filled with aromatic coconut ice cream, and pistacchio ice cream.
Second and third desserts included an ‘apple and chocolate gianduja’ (£12.50), an apple dessert layered in between buttery sheets of biscuits, topped with lemon meringue peaks and served with gianduja chocolate ice cream; and a pleasant ricotta soufflé with passion fruit and chocolate (£14.50) which was gently tangy from the passionfuit.
Petit fours were delicate, tasty and skilfully made.
Even though Apsleys is a one star, this meal was on par, if not better than some of the best two star meals I have ever eaten. The ingredients were exquisite – the wonderful sweet, sweet langoustines were particularly memorable, as was the meltingly tender pigeon and the magical 40 year aged balsamic vinegar. Certain dishes were inspired, particularly, the wonderful carbonara fagottelli and the chocolate variation.
Everything was meticulously and flawlessly cooked, and the dishes were composed with balance, care and finesse. I could not find fault a single thing. With the attention to detail being second to none, this was in every aspect, a perfectly cooked meal. Apsleys is pricey with mains that go up to the £38 mark. But knowing the quality of the ingredients that go into making the meal, it’s easy to understand why it’s priced as such. The service was also impeccable.
This second meal outshone my first at Apsleys and leaves me to conclude that either (1) the restaurant is inconsistent or (2) the kitchen has been seriously fine-tuned in the last eight months. I would like to believe it’s the latter (although I would still not recommend the tuna tartare on the tasting menu). Apsleys set out to impress me, and impress me they did. But it would be too simplistic to say I had such a good meal because they simply wanted to make an impression. If you can’t cook, you can’t cook, and no amount of good ingredients or wanting to be able to cook will make any difference. Hand on heart, I experienced culinary abilities of the finest order – skillful, delicate and precise.
My meal was unique, and what I know is this – that this was one of the most memorable meals of my life, one that I feel very honoured to have had the pleasure of experiencing. What I also know is that head chef Massimiliano Blasone, who has worked at a string of Michelin restaurants including La Pergola (3 stars), Residence Heinz Winkler (3 stars) and Palazzo Sasso (2 stars); and sous chef Marco Calenzo, who has also worked at a number of Michelin are two damn talented chefs who really know how to cook.