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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Chapter One

The day: 26th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: Farnborough Common, Locksbottom Kent BR6 8NF (tel. 01689 854 848)
The venue: Chapter One
The food: modern Anglo-French
The drinks: Good list, good range of prices, mainly French, also by the glass and half bottle.

When you read the address, you think it must be impossibly far. But we trust technology, and indeed it takes us about only 45 minutes to drive there from East London, with the Blackwall tunnel and all. We blindly follow the machine’s instructions, twisting and turning in unknown areas of the great capital, and we finally get to an obviously wealthy and leafy suburb. There is the elegant and very spacious room of Chapter 1. The place is heaving with customers.

We don’t like seating in small square tables a micron away from our neighbours’.

The waiter leads us to a small square table a micron away from our neighbours’.

But…thanks to the wintry wind blowing from a blasting air conditioner – what can we do, we like to be hot in summer-, we are upgraded or downgraded, depending how you see it, to a larger round table in a corner. There is a noisy party in the vicinities, true, but it’s nearing the end, as we guess from the demeanour of some customers…This is the aftermath:

Tables are well appointed, with proper tablecloth in the stark and elegant interior, with white walls. Mind you, ‘ambience’ here is taken perhaps a step too far, and it is dark, so it is not entirely our fault if you cannot see much from the picture.

The menu offers are eight starters to choose from, and as many mains. And for the Italians among you, as is quite common outside Italy you will find “primi” both in the starters (Risotto of girolles and green peas with crème fraiche and parmesan) and the mains (Roast gnocchi with asparagus, pickled girolles, artichokes, rocket and parmesan foam) sections, the difference in position presumably depending on the portion size. The pricing structure is easy, 3 courses for £29.50, however some dishes come with a supplement, e.g. add £3.50 if you want seared diver caught scallops with cod brandade, cauliflower purèe and a light curried veloute’ as starter, or £5.95 for the Poached rump of Welsh black beef, white onion purèe, ragout of salsify, Jersey Royals and foie gras with Bordelaise sauce as a main.

Bread comes in two types, brown or white: there is a ‘bottomless plate’ policy, but to be fair this is nothing to write home about (just to remind you how intolerably picky we are with bread):

We decide to begin with:

- ravioli of lobster and king prawn with spiced white cabbage and a veloute of lobster and cognac (£3.95 supplement);

- Mussel saffron soup with a paysanne of root vegetables

The Mussel and saffron soup was generous, with twelve buttery, juicy mussels floating in a delicate soup. Unfortunately, though, they were not as flavoursome as their appearance and texture suggested: some of the flavour had infused the soup, but the rest might have been evaporated somewhere up in ether; anyhow wherever it was, it was not in our plate. The (parsley) too had suffered a similar fate, and where was the full saffron fragrance? Overall, a pleasant and correct soup, but not wowing.

The lobster and king prawn ravioli was on an altogether different level: quite stupendous, with the sweet, smoky scent and flavour of the cognac issuing a nice punch to this thick, rich, velvety and balanced ravioli bursting with seafood and flavour. Here, too, a little problem though: the “raviolO” ending is not a grammatical mistake, you do indeed get just a single specimen all alone in that whole wide plate…

But hey, no time to linger, the mains are already upon us:

- Poach and roasted quail with foie gras, smoked bacon, braised red cabbage and raisin juice;

- Braised breast of lamb with roast new season Welsh canon, confit garlic, tomato, artichoke and lamb juice

The quail is fantastic, the saltiness and fat of the bacon wrapping exalting the quail and matching perfectly the sweetness from the red cabbage and the raisin reduction. And did we tell you how sumptuous the foie gras was? Of course, with good foie gras it is very hard to go wrong, but this was a classic, a truly excellent dish expressing very robust and clear flavours.

As for the lamb, the breast had been stuffed and was covered in crusty herbs and was unbelievably tasty, while the canon (very tender loin) looked simply roasted and was so tender and moist and succulent. There is a sense in which this is similar in conception to the quail dish: the richness of the meat fat and the sweetness of the accompanying vegetables. A marvellous ‘simple’ dish, harmonious, with deep and memorable flavours, and very beautiful… if you could see it, that is ;).

Finally, the third course of our menu:

- Pave of Valrhona chocolate, sugared pistachio, honey comb and caramelised pear purèe;

- Banoffi pie

Man is a bit resentful of the sugar on the pistachio, muttering that it would be oh so much better to get some good pistachios from Bronte, say, and let them speak unhindered by the sugar. The mousse is just fine. Oh but wait, the pear puree is beautifully intense, surely the best component in the dish. And the dark chocolate “cannolo” with white chocolate stuffing is a serious contender for attention, too.

The Banoffee: the banana-and-toffee bit is nice and served in a parfait kind of form. But the absolute showstopper must be the chocolate ice-cream. Easily one of the best we have ever had. Ever. We cannot swear it was the best, but if perfection exists, this came close to it: it was almost moving. And what more does Man make of this? Who knows, the petit four arrive even before the dessert dishes are taken away. But they are beautiful, have a look:

We skip coffee as usual, so with water at £3.00, a half bottle of white Tamaya Sauvignon blanc 2006 at £9 and half a bottle of Domaine de Coyeaux Cote du Rone, Beaumes de Venise 2003 at £15.50, our overall total came to 101.76 (which includes the optional 12.5% gratuity and the £3.95 supplement for the raviolO), just around our £100 rule.

Service was courteous, correct, but too fast (though we seem to have been unlucky, as the front room line is to offer a relaxed service, as we discover later chatting away with the charming and impressive manager Laurent Gillis). Save for our usual mean nitpicking, we had a great dinner, with top ingredients, skilfully prepared to bring the best out of them. Andrew McLeish is clearly a very accomplished chef who is able to express great personality and deliver direct, potent flavours in his relatively simple (but how much skill in them!) dishes. And he must run his kitchen (a brigade of eleven) like clockwork to serve food of this quality, at this pace, for a large number of covers. To go back to nitpicking for a second…we cannot fail to note that portions, let’s face it, are rather mean. The philosophy reminds us (very vaguely) of places like Arbutus: offer very well executed fine cuisine, and keep the costs down to the minimum by limiting the freebies as much as your customers can tolerate (but unlike Arbutus, here you have proper tablecloths, proper service, petit fours and an elegant ambience), skipping amuse bouche, and above all driving portions down to the minimum. Some items are used repeatedly in the dishes (the roasted gnocchi, the ratte potatoes, the artichokes), and supplements are attached to several dishes. Nevertheless, we did have a splendid time, and, sadly for our waistlines, we have added Chapter One to the short list of those fine establishments that we hope we will be returning to. We suspect the star McLeish lost a couple of years ago will return, too.

(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us - they have just awarded a star to Chapter One)



Loving Annie said...

Man-Woman.... I will be visiting Hever Castle in Kent.
For lunch, if you were to choose between Chapter One, Apicius in Cranbrook and Thackeray's in Tunbridge Wells - which would your preference be ? It sounds like this one, but wanted to double check with you...

Man-Woman said...

ehm... we must confess we haven't been to any of the other two you mentioned, so we cannot really compare. So Chapter One is definitely worth a visit, but if you opt for any of the other two, we'd be delighted to read your own impressions, and that will spur us to fill this gap in our knowledge!

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