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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alyn Williams at the Westbury (London):enigmatic

(Visited Feb 2012)

This place begins with a lie: it insists on describing itself as being located in Bond Street, while it isn't. Resign yourselves guys, you are not in Bond street, we are not in Bond street, you at least are near it and Conduit Street where you really are is prestigious enough in our book :)

Everything in the newly refurbished room oozes luxury. Windowless, square, hushed luxury, to be precise. Personally we are phased by neither windowlessness nor squaredness nor hushedness, but some might get that slightly claustrophobic feeling of being in one of those joyless temples of gastronomy whose sole function is to allow the adoration of the chef (now who used this phrase already?) rather than to please the customer.

Well, some nibbles of Fourme d'Ambert gougeres as well as the bread threaten to immediately enrol us among the worshippers: they are wonderful. The gougeres have an extraordinary texture, at the same time airy and substantial, with an intense cheesy flavour. 

And the bread is made really, really well (a potato sourdough, a Guinness and star anise one, and a crispy flatbread similar to 'cartamusica' perhaps in appearance, though in fact totally different).

With such a spectacular beginning perhaps we set our expectations too high.

Yes, a Langoustine/fennel custard skin/cider apple/chestnut/smoked eel starter was very fresh and aromatic, the sweet flavour of the large langoustines matched by the more robust eel. But we felt it was served far too cold, especially the already rather timid bisque. A waiter assured us in very decisive fashion that this is how Chef wants it. We are perplexed. 

Chef is, by the way, but you probably have guessed it already, Alyn Williams of Marcus Wareing restaurant fame, somebody with such an eminent pedigree that we hesitate to proffer our ignorant criticisms. Yet we are the customers and the supposedly ultimate goal of his existence: so we will persist.

A Veal sweetbread/artichokes/celery/sherry is lonely, but cooked to perfection, with an amazing texture, nicely supported by the sherry, a real feat of cooking unachievable by mere mortals. So why is the artichoke puree merely nice and a little tame? The circle of vegetables around the lonely sweetbread is pretty, and prissy.

 Grilled brill/squid ink/ricotta/cuttlefish/Puntarella/smoked lardo is finely cooked with a nice charcoal note, however (and we are beginning to notice there is always a however) the diced cuttlefish while pretty is unexpectededly a little rubbery, and its ink, salty (we guess, it was cooked by a different, less gifted hand than the god who produced the sweetbread). A nice, imperfect, good, unspectacular dish.

In the other main of Salisbury plain Venison/barley malt/acorn/choucroute/mandarin the sliced venison was excellent, with deep flavour and sous-vided to nice elastic tenderness. The microbits of mandarin seemed a little pointless in the grand scheme of things, but we don't doubt there was a deep cheffy reason for their presence, as well as for all the other ingredients small and large, among which we found the krauts, sorry, choucroute which sounds far more refined, very pleasant. 

A pre-dessert of Crème Catalan/pear granita/pine sugar does not work in our opinion, too much contrast between the two main components, and the pine fails to shine (ask this guy for how to extract flavour from pine, we still remember his aromatic and balsamic pannacottas after years!).

Turning to desserts, Banana/Lapsang tea/Coconut/saffron/condensed milk had a very delicate Lapsang flavour, we'd have expected it to be more assertive. It was a very good and beautiful dessert, and well crafted, yet lacking a killer punch.

The other dessert is a sumptuously vertical Walnut whip, with an icecream that isn't too convincing for us, while the 'mousse', let's say, of the main element and its base jump at you from the plate.

Truffles follow as petit fours. Now these delivered the (PX) killer punch!

The (overstaffed) service, which struck us as slightly stiff in the beginning, is in fact composed of good chums; they just have a French style, poor guys :). All very competent, except a young and clueless waitress who, when asked about the cooking of a venison, spent about ten seconds muttering 'the venison...the venison...let me think...' and then struck by a sudden inspiration came out with: 'I think it's finished sous vide'. Now that's an idea. She promised to ask somebody but she never did. It was clear that she didn't give a toss about the dishes and we think that for this reason she should not be allowed to go near the customers.

Three courses are (for now) £45, with the option of a fully vegetarian one, and there are tasting menus at £55. So, price-wise, Alyn Williams is a clear winner on most competition at this (high) level.

Yet there is some skimping on some ingredient amounts, we feel, which may partially detract from the fullness of the experience, and explain our strange feelings about our lunch. We ask ourselves: did we like everything? And the answer is yes. Not one poor dish (and by poor we mean Michelin-star standard poor). Was anything banal? You're joking. The level of technique and inventiveness here is high indeed.

And were we well-treated? Extremely.

But what was truly memorable? Honestly, only the nibbles, notably the gougeres and the petit fours, and the sweetbread. All the rest was clever, ingenious and very cleanly presented. The desserts especially, but everything really, showed exquisite technique. But for us most flavours were simply too polite. Even the temperatures were too timid. So, admirable, yes; memorable, no, at least for us and least on this occasion. Perhaps what we missed here was the directness and clarity we found for example at Petrus, a recently visited restaurant of similar class that also delivers highly accomplished cuisine. Anyway, we definitely feel we should return to try other appealing dishes by Alyn Williams (his menu is a pleasure to read), and also to get to the bottom of why such well-crafted creations failed to elicit screams of pleasure from us. Sometimes it happens that one only 'gets' it the second time, especially when the cooking is as subtle as this, and let's not exclude the very real possibility that we are a bit slow of understanding.


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