The Galvin brothers have cornered the market for refined modern British cuisine. To their nine restaurants across the UK, ranging from pubs to the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows, they have added a tenth, and their sixth in London: Galvin at The Athenaeum on Piccadilly. Tucked between The InterContinental and Sheraton, and in the shadow of the Hilton Park Lane where Galvin at Windows lives, The Athenaeum is one of those old five star hotels that is in the back of your mind but never springs forth when you think of the top hotels in the area.
Having played host to the likes of Marlon Brando, Kim Kardashian and Elizabeth Taylor, this hotel and residence has just undergone a complete refurb. The walls are lined with a well-curated selection of pop art, photography and multidimensional pieces, creating a modern, chic and relaxed atmosphere that’s more like the lobby of an expensive apartment building than an hotel. As part of the refurbishments, the Galvin brothers have taken over not just the restaurant but also the whole food and beverage operation at The Athenaeum, in the first such deal for them.
The warm pinky-cream marble of the entrance flows through to Galvin at The Athenaeum and is met with a dark wood parquet floor that is mirrored by the bare dark wood tables. Finished off with art works, brass detailing and chandeliers housing bare filament bulbs, the room is simultaneously classic and modern, calling to mind an all-day Parisian bistro. It’s a place to relax while you dine on food that reflects this design concept: classic dishes served with that signature Galvin refinement that lifts them above the norm.
The menu is certainly extensive – a more limited version is on offer for hotel room service – covering soups and salads, Galvin classics, lobster, caviar at £170, mains spilt into categories of meat, pasta and fish, sides, desserts and a prix fixe. It was not easy to choose what to have, not because of the extent of the choices but because the mains were, on the face of it, uninspiring. I was going to have the tartare and follow it up with fish but couldn’t as none of the fish really appealed – there is a tuna burger which I’m always a fan of but not for dinner. After I ordered, I noticed that many of those dining on fish were having the sea bream from the set menu, even after the hours of the set menu were finished, and I don’t blame them, as it was the best sounding fish dish.
So, with fish out the window, meat was the choice and I didn’t fancy the burger, curry or the pork, so it came down to venison or the rib eye steak. Neither of these was particularly attractive to my dining companion and I, given their lack of originality. But, with the decision to go halves on it all made, my companion chose the smoked duck to start and I, not wanting beef after beef, chose the equally unoriginal chicken liver parfait. Thank goodness the meal didn’t turn out to be as mundane as our order sounded.
The parfait was quite simply one of the most impressive, surprising and complex dishes I’ve eaten in a long time. Two buttery smooth and light quenelles of chicken liver parfait were served up with white and red chicory, blood orange and lemon curd. No bread or toast accompanied them and, despite being offered it (they charge for bread), I stood firm and didn’t have it and the dish was all the more faultless for it. The real key to the dish and surprise turn was the celery in the parfait. There was no sign of it – it was silky smooth – but it had a back note of celery seed that somehow had been infused into it, so that the light yet rich chicken liver transitioned to a bitterness which replaced the butter, elevating the parfait to another level. The blood orange then cut across and led through to the bitter chicory before the returning, bolstered by the lemon curd. When all the elements were combined, you were not dealing with flavours in balance and harmony, but instead were taken on a journey of tastes. At each successive stage, the last flavour was built on by the next. This dish alone made the meal worth it and will bring me back.
The smoked duck with pear and turnip remoulade was comprised of elements that on their own spoke of the high quality of the ingredients used and graceful touch that the kitchen has, but failed to marry well. The thin slices of duck were lost among the grainy, soft and sweet Crassane pear and the mustardy, peppery heat of the crunchy turnip remoulade. It needed thicker cuts of the duck so that it was more robust against the other ingredients. A new simpler style of plating also wouldn’t go amiss; currently, it looks messy with the thick reduction sauce drizzled all over it.
I tend to avoid steaks in restaurants unless at a dedicated steakhouse like 34 or Hawksmoor, where it’s what they do day-in, day-out. Steak is often just on the menu, like chicken, as a crowd pleaser. You’re far better off with another dish where the kitchen’s skill and creativity is displayed and, if you see the words “cooked on our Josper”, run the other way; it’s code for overcooked in ninety-nine percent of cases.
Here the steak was cooked without fault and was good quality but I’m sad to say it was tough, lacking any marbling and with the meanest eye of fat on the edge of it that was completely lacking in flavour, like the steak itself. A great shame, as I buy Highland rib eyes twice the size and half the price and packed with flavour, fat and marbling from a supermarket butcher. The star, though, was the green peppercorn butter and we both enjoyed the steak purely as a result of it. It was all we could taste and not due to its strength; it was actually light and delicate and the steak was a perfect vehicle for it. The accompanying chips were large, golden and crisp but too hot to actually eat without burning your tongue. They were also in need of salt to give any real flavour as none came from the frying fat.
The venison from the Denham Estate was served with the classic accompaniments of red cabbage, smoked potato and chocolate. The meat was rich and tender, served true medium rare with that eye of rare meat at the centre. Unfortunately, despite the tell-tale colour of the potatoes clearly marking them as smoked, neither of us could make out the smoked flavour; if it was there it had mingled so closely with the game that it was undistinguishable. The pomegranate seeds were a surprise and, while they didn’t take anything away from the dish, they didn’t exactly add anything other than a nice burst of sweet acidic freshness that just about complimented the red cabbage.
I followed up with the Galvin’s signature tarte tatin, a pastry base with thick, tart apples and a covering of soft caramel, the burnt bits sticking joyously in your teeth. One request though – much more brandy to the brandy cream, please. My co-diner plumped for the blood orange cheesecake and pronounced it top notch. The cheesecake and chocolate ice cream were independently good and worked together, and the unlisted inclusion of the rhubarb purée was a superb touch.
If you’re after a modern British all day menu, then you can certainly do worse. Galvin at The Athenaeum is not overpriced for the area and I can see it becoming a favourite dining spot for those who live and work in Mayfair. Though you can find cheaper and similar-sounding menus in London, they will not be serving food as clean and refined as here. If you’re a foodie in search of new flavours and ideas you’ll be disappointed, though (except by the chicken liver parfait): for that you want Galvin at Windows. This is a restaurant for an easy, comfortable, relaxing evening with good food and company that will leave you happy and content.