I’ve really got to stop going out the night before attempting the gastronomic luncheon marathon. As soon as I put pen to paper on this review, I reminded myself of the state I was in before dining at another one of my favourite chef’s new outlets: that being the brilliant Claude Bosi at Bibendum. Once again, the sun was shining and the birds were singing, in addition to a multitude of other wonderful superficial factors designed solely to exponentially skyrocket the severity of my hangover and consequential shame. At least I’d managed to wash off my tramp stamp completely this time.
Visiting Notting Hill, alas, often brings back memories of similar or worse states of being. My only visit to Carnival, many years ago now, was nothing short of a weekend-long cyclone of (mostly self-inflicted) horrors descending to depths almost as far south as Cocytus. Fortunately, a pre-prandial stroll around Portobello Market, followed by a swift half of OBB at a Samuel Smith’s establishment, successfully eliminated the aforementioned demons enough to whet one’s appetite for what was about to transpire.
Staggering distance from the pub, around the corner on Kensington Park Street, lies a very subtle, well-blended into the neighbourhood, first solo venture from Britain’s first female chef to hold and retain three Michelin stars for Gordon Ramsay at his flagship outpost on Royal Hospital Road. Clare Smyth’s new restaurant couldn’t be more different aesthetically. The Notting Hill townhouse feel runs throughout the bar – where I had a sublime Manhattan before service (the pint of Sammy Smith’s didn’t quite take the edge off) – to the glass-walled open kitchen, with the other side of the transparent divide being the chef’s table and into the dining room. Contemporary, stripped back, almost a Scandi vibe, and semi-rebellious (against fine dining) feel with no table cloths, a curious concoction of rock music over the airwaves and serious amounts of woodwork and natural light oozing into the room. You can tell this really is a breakout from the Ramsay Empire. A statement is being made – and I liked it.
I’d expected this to be a straightforward, reasonably priced set lunch affair; a few glasses of wine and bugger off. I was wrong. The menu choices were, to be honest, perplexing. A five-course tasting menu at £80 is option number one. Option number two is the seven-course tasting menu at £95 which also advertised the three amuse-bouches and pre-dessert. Upgrade for fifteen quid, sir? It was the entrapping upsell of the century and I couldn’t imagine anybody passing on that swindle. The à la carte at three courses for £65 didn’t stand a chance and neither did my wallet when perusing the wine list. This may be a new restaurant; however, the prices would have you think you’re still dining in a dizzying galaxy of three Michelin stars. Bottles under a hundred a pop were scarce or simply non-existent if you’re a staunch beast of Burgundy like myself.
So, the full works and wine (by the glass) it was to be. I was excited by the amount of fish dishes on the menu as my favourite dishes I remember from the Ramsay years were the fish offerings. Dainty, very pretty, floral, and beautifully presented plates were thankfully, still very much on the agenda. The crab royale, Isle of Mull scallop cooked over wood did the job; however, I was thrilled to see skate play the part of the main fish course, as it’s a generally underrated fish but certainly one of my favourites when treated with respect and simplicity. Dressed with Morecambe Bay shrimps and brown butter certainly ticks those boxes. A standout dish of the experience had to be the Charlotte potato with dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. Visually stunning, and overall I liked the originality and presentation the most. At the end of the day, however, it was not much more than a buttery potato. Butter plays an intrinsic part in the criteria as a general rule for attaining three stars in the UK, unless you’re Heston. The dishes on a menu of this style may look light, yet many are just ingenious ways to disguise butter in as many flamboyant ways as possible. The lamb-braised carrot was a throwback to when Noma came to Claridge’s in 2012 – especially with the sheep’s milk yogurt on the side. It fitted in well with the semi-Scandi theme in the restaurant, yet made a weak meat dish as the final chapter before pudding.
A take on Cherry Bakewell pre-dessert was a delicious warm up before being presented with possibly the prettiest wee pud I’d ever indulged in. An open bombe-like fresh pear and verbena dessert laced with my favourite eau de vie, Poire Williams, was almost too pretty to eat. Being such a Poire fiend, all I would ask of it would be to give a bit more of a boozy kick – but that’s it.
Being very conscious that this is a new venture from one of our most talented chefs and the time of eating was during the opening week of service, I should probably mention the service too. The team were fantastic, especially a few friendly faces previously from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught mixed into the front of house. On the whole, I very much enjoyed the lunch; it’s a question of tweaks as opposed to overhauls needed here when it comes to the food itself. The main bones of contention being the unorthodox menu layout and the hefty mark-up on the wine list. I see a bright future for Core and I’ll definitely be back in future, accompanied by flashbacks of excellent dining and (hopefully) no self-loathing and inter-course Nurofens which gladly, weren’t listed on that menu.
Core by Clare Smyth 92 Kensington Park Rd, London W11 2PN 020 3937 5086