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For a moment I let my guard drop. From our advantageous and expensive window seat looking out over the back streets of South Kensington, I spotted a woman of a certain age. She had over yellow many-times bleached hair; severely tied back. I could only describe her make-up style as “slipped”. Despite her expensive hair, make-up and designer jogging gear, she looked every bit the elderly lady as she staggered past spent; jogging at this point was simply an aspiration.
“Blimey”, I blurted, “It’s Madonna!” The very correct wait staff didn’t quite manage to stifle his giggle. I knew at that very point that I was going to enjoy this place.
Our recent London weekend was a veritable classy experience; our four star docklands hotel was nice and spacious, the evening at the Royal Opera House lovely, the day at Hampton Court Flower Show exhausting and the boat trip back to Westminster beautiful. It thus had to pass that our Michelin Star restaurant meal at Launceston Place in Kensington would be exquisite. All in all, it was quite the weekend to remember.
The website for Launceston Place shows a rather straight laced brown and beige looking restaurant; the photos really don’t do the restaurant housed in a rounded corner house on the backstreets of South Ken any justice. The glasses, plates and cutlery are wonderful quality and the place very nicely furnished but understated.
The only thing letting the look of the restaurant down are the paintings, which reminded me of those “original art” paintings you can get imported from China for about £0.99 plus £30 postage.
Champers in the bar
On entrance, we were invited to linger a while at the bar before going to our table and where we sipped a couple of lovely glasses of champers while chatting to the maitre d’. Being fat scruffy middle aged Northerners we tend to be a little past
worrying about whether we are pristinely presented (particularly when it is 30 degrees outside), but we felt distinctly underdressed for Kensington; if in fact we were then the wait staff kindly made no indication of it.
The service at Launceston Place was as you might anticipate perfect. I personally don’t like overly attentive places (I remember one lovely restaurant in India where one of the wait staff stood behind me in the loos with a waiting towel while I was trying desperately to go for a wee), and the Launceston Place isn’t the kind of restaurant where people fuss over you tucking your napkin over your knees.
However on the other hand, they are incredibly attentive which means you never have to call them over; they seem to know when they are needed unobtrusively filling glasses, removing plates and the like.
Making a meal of the menu
Launceston Place recently gained its first Michelin Star and in my book it is well deserved; while I don’t regularly fine dine I’m not a complete stranger to the experience either. If you arrive early you can go for the “early bird” £30 for 3 courses menu (not that they are so gauche to call it “early bird”, the standard “market” menu is £48 a head and the tasting menu £65. Note there may be supplements for the more expensive dishes (the cheese course for example had a whopping £8 added, although the cheeses were to die for).
Unlike the previous chef at Launceston Place, Tristan Welsh who seemed to delight in “complicated” combinations of food, the current chef Tim Allen takes simple good quality food stuffs and does complex things with them. I much prefer this latter style. Look out for Tim Allen on Saturday Kitchen shortly (and he recently appeared in the quarter finals of Masterchef).
The interesting thing about the menu is that you have to wipe any previous experience of the dish from your mind; that poached pear isn’t going to be like the one your Aunt Hilda used to make you when you were six.
At last, the food
For my starter, I had the poached duck egg as I had heard a lot about the dish from someone who had visited Launceston Place before me. The presentation was exquisite and the egg yolk was perfect, soft but not runny. My egg was served with peas (again not the peas from the freezer, but baby peas, and pods, leaves and delicate flowers to eat; and all so beautifully presented; it almost reminded me of the weeds behind the painting of Ophelia by Millais.
My beloved meanwhile had smoked mackerel; a dish you might not get excited about, but she declared it the best thing she had ever eaten. I had a little bit, and the combination with the iced horseradish was perfect. The mackerel as you might anticipate was home smoked by the restaurant.
For our main courses we both chose the lamb cooked various ways, as it also had a small portion of cauliflower curry (together with vine tomatoes, peas and a rosemary jus), and as I knew Tim Allen is a Yorkshire lad I wanted to check out his curry prowess. It was beautiful and complemented the lamb (done in a fillet, dried and shredded in a way I’ve never had before, and a sweetmeat which despite my anticipation was again superb).
We neither have much of a sweet tooth, and in any case we had spotted the magnificent cheese board; a whole array of fresh cheeses at room temperature just waiting to be snaffled up. Hang the extra £8. The maitre’de spent a lot of time explaining each of the cheeses and as there were too many for me to choose I asked him for a random sample throughout the range, from soft, mild, goats, blue to strong. His beautifully arranged selection was placed in order of taste so no one cheese was overwhelmed by its predecessor. Simple water biscuits and a few grapes were really the only accompaniment required.
Between our courses we had various nibbles (or amuse bouche as they say in South Ken); I liked the detail in the little pastries, but my favourite was the clever little pot of mousse made from tomato, basil and olives. At the top the pot was warm and so so delicate, at the bottom cold and roughly chopped. That one dish gives some idea of the attention to detail in the meal.
With our main meal, we ordered almost the cheapest bottle of Red wines at £35 for a bottle. Although the wine list runs to 26 pages in length, we found it was easy to choose as we tend to avoid French, and so went for one of the select group of Spanish wines after considering the Italians. It was a good choice for us and we enjoyed it perfectly.
A tip at 12.5% is automatically included and our meal for two came in at around about £175. Even my beloved (who is normally content with a plate of egg and chips) concluded it was well worth the experience once in a while.
I resisted taking photographs of the works of art on our plates; after all when you are paying this much for a meal there should be an element of mystery to proceedings.
I will say that I was a horror with my meals for the week after our experience; the local sandwich shop just didn’t cut it!
While I’m not a complete alien to fine dining, we do it rarely enough to feel really disappointed if it doesn’t quite meet our style or expectations. No such worries at Launceston Place; the venue is lovely, the wait staff excellent (and human) but not over stuffy and the food is a million miles from what I might achieve at home (on cooking terms, I can give a good pub a run for its money though).
Those worried about not getting enough food; don’t panic. Even our healthy appetites were sated, and we had no desire to nip off for a burger before catching the tube to our hotel.
We ate rather extravagantly (but if you are on a splurge why not enjoy what you want) and had we chosen from the early evening specials and avoided the cheese then it would have come in at about £60 cheaper. Given that we enjoyed the skills of a top, internationally recognised chef and had a real evening to remember I didn’t find the bill to be excessive at all.