We’ve been at the table, on top of the table, under the table, but never in The Table. Till now. Ironically, we’re sat at the bar, not a table. What the Dickens? We worship in the church where the novelist got married (St Luke’s Chelsea) and party where he lived (Rochester) so it’s high time we ate in his favourite seaside resort (Broadstairs). We’re Grooving to Armada: “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air | Quaint little villages here and there.”
The Table is blessed with large windows embracing the street front. It’s very intimate: just 14 covers including ours propped up at the bar. Owner Joe Hill is assisted by three cheery staff in the open kitchen on the other side of the bar. Cosy. “I originally opened here as a wine and cheese deli and it grew from that,” he explains. “I’m a chef by trade. I’ve three young children and wanted to escape the rigmarole of working in London. I’m London born and bred: I’d never heard of Broadstairs till about three years ago! I’ve mates with businesses in Margate though.”
Sunday afternoon cricket on Wandsworth Common makes for a bucolic tableau. It’s like a Lowry painting negative: starched white figures against a deep green, the working class city swapped for middle class suburbia. Or perhaps a Surrey village scene. Two centuries ago it would’ve been a Surrey village scene. Wandsworth only became a London Borough in more recent times. In the midst of the Common is a building locals refer to as “Dracula’s Castle” with good reason – its history is as dark as its slate roof.
“My Dear Sir, If the Patriotic Fund Commission should select my ground to found their Institution on Wandsworth Common I should be willing, in consideration of the national object, to take on half the price Mr Lee has fixed on the value viz: £50 an acre… I do not wish to encounter any difficulty with the Copyholders, and the Commissioners, if they entertain any position of land, must take all risks of those difficulties. Yours faithfully, Spencer.” The Committee accepted the Earl’s offer and bought 65 acres (26 hectares) for £3,700. Nearby Spencer Park, where Chef Gordon Ramsay has his London pad, is a reminder of the Northamptonshire aristocratic connection.
The building may also look like a Victorian madhouse but that’s about the only use it hasn’t been even though it was originally called the Asylum. Now for a countdown through the decades: 1858 orphanage; 1914 hospital; 1919 orphanage once more; 1939 reception centre; 1946 training college; 1952 school; 1970 vacant; and of late, 27 apartments, 20 studios, 15 workshops, two offices, a drama school and Le Gothique bar and restaurant. Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins lives in one of the apartments. Past residents have included Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor and Charlotte Jane Bennett. The latter was an unfortunate schoolgirl who burned to death in 1901 on an upper floor – her ghost is said to prowl the interior as night falls.
What on earth is a ‘reception centre’ or to use its full name the London Reception Centre? It is a somewhat euphemistic term for a refugee detention headquarters. Following the collapse of France and the Low Countries in 1940 in World War II, a flood of refugees entered Britain. Those from Germany and the Axis countries were usually interned while non enemy aliens were interviewed by immigration. MI5 decided to create a reception centre and where better than the highly adaptable Royal Patriotic School as it was known in its latest guise. Refugees from Occupied Europe had to pass through the reception centre – a sheep from the goats process. An average of 700 refugees were processed each month. Several spies were unmasked and hanged at Wandsworth Prison across the Common. It is rumoured that the Nazi Rudolf Hess was interrogated in the reception centre.
Major Rohde Hawkins was the original architect; Giles Quarme, the restoration architect. The 17th century George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh designed by William Wallace was the inspiration for the design. Major Hawkins sought to omit some of the ornamental details “to carry out which it was found would absorb too large an amount of the surplus at the disposal of the Commissioners”. Opening the orphanage, Queen Victoria declared it to be “beautiful, roomy and airy”. Recounting the day’s events in her diary that night, Her Majesty ended the entry with an entreaty: “May this good work, which is to bear my name, prosper!”
The Building News praised the new orphanage as being “bold, picturesque and effective”. Later royal visitors would include King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, Princess Victoria, and Queen Amelia of Belgium. Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell recognises the influence of municipal Flemish works in the architecture. “This is a secular gothic rather than ecclesiastical gothic influenced by buildings such as town halls in Florence and Bruges. There are also tones of Scottish baronial. The rhythm of a central tower with balancing towers either end of the façade was very popular during this period.” A corresponding orphanage (now Emanuel School) designed by Henry Saxon Snell was built for boys slightly to the north of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum.
“Built as a school for orphaned daughters of servicemen, 1857 to 1859, by Rhode [sic] Hawkins,” summarise Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry in The Buildings of England London 2: South (1983). “A typically pompous Victorian symmetrical composition of yellow brick, with coarsely robust gothic detail. Three storeys with entrance below a central tower; lower towers at the ends, corbelled out turrets and bow windows. Statue of St George and the Dragon in a central niche. Separate chapel. Low concrete additions of the 1960s to the north.”
Amongst the flourish of turrets, spikes and spires is a crocketed pinnacle with what appear to be mad cows nosediving off it. “It is strange that the gargoyles are in the form of hounds or lambs in lead!” observes heritage architect John O’Connell. “The Major designed this architectural element in timber and lead when it should all be in stone.” The orphanage Commissioners noted in their 1869 report that “from the size of the building and its peculiar construction and arrangements, it is a most expensive one to manage and keep in repair”. So much for Major Rohde Hawkins’ value engineering efforts! That’s no surprise. It is a complex complex with the main block built around a north courtyard and a south courtyard separated by a dining hall which is now used by the drama school. Both courtyards are surrounded on three sides by ground floor cloister type corridors. A rear courtyard cloistered on one side extends to the east and to the northeast is a standalone chapel.
Master of the Gothic Revival architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin’s preferred builder George Myers constructed the orphanage. His tender of £31,337 also happened to be the lowest. “George Myers had an enormous works along the South Bank in Lambeth,” explains Dr O’Donnell. “Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Colney Hatch, Barnet, was his largest project.” The contractor made one change to Major Hawkins’ design, replacing a clock with a statue of St George and the Dragon – which as a skilled stonemason he may have carved himself – on the top floor of the entrance tower. Innovative construction methods included off site prefabrication of iron window frames, decorative leadwork and stone dressings. This allowed construction to be completed in under two years. Mark Justin, founder of Le Gothique relates, “This was the first building in the UK to have pre stressed concrete and mesh floors.” The restoration of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building would take three times as long.
“This building has a colourful history!” says Mark with more than a hint of understatement. He manages the bar and restaurant with his son Andrew. “Le Gothique is masculine not feminine because it’s named after the era not the building. I’ve been here for 35 years – I’m the longest serving landlord of a venue in London. Jean-Marie Martin was our French Head Chef for the first 25 years. Our Head Chef is now Italian Bruno Barbosa. If I’m asked for a description of our food I’d say ‘modern European’.”
Mark confirms the Rudolf Hess story is more than a rumour. “He came here in 1945. Why did he come to the UK though? On a whim he crash landed in the Duke of Hamilton’s estate in Scotland. He seemingly thought he could arrange peace talks with the Duke who was involved with the British Government’s war policy but he misunderstood pacifism here. Churchill went ballistic and he was arrested. But why did he come? He was invited by the Royals, specifically King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Hess spent three days in the reception centre. The Government papers were due to be released but have been classified again until 2035. It’s all to do with Rudolf Hess and the potential downfall of the monarchy.”
“The restoration and conversion were featured in a 24 page spread in Architects’ Journal. Architect Eva Jiricna did the apartment interiors. She replaced the wooden beams with high tension steel wire and added glass staircases to mezzanine bedrooms.” Mark finishes, “Businessman Paul Tutton bought the 3,700 square metre derelict listed building from the Greater London Corporation for a pound. It was pigeon central! He restored and converted the building incrementally. Geoff Adams bought flat number one in 1985 for £24,000. Geoff died last year.” Gnocchi with butternut squash velouté followed by tart aux poires with vanilla ice cream, modern and European and delicious, are served alfresco in the north courtyard. Upstairs, a figure darts across one of the windows. Could it be Charlotte Jane?
Crowned the world’s best female chef, even before she rustled up the wedding supper for Prince Harry and Baroness Kilkeel, it was only a matter of time until Northern Ireland born Clare Smyth MBE would put her own name above the door. “For about 15 years of my life I’ve spent working in three Michelin star restaurants,” Clare recalls. “The last 10 years I spent heading up Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant – I was a partner with him. It was a very traditional style of cooking with beautiful ingredients. I just had a burning desire to do something new, a new challenge for me, and it became Core. Core meaning my heart, the seed of something new. It was a very special moment for me.” Previous experience included working for Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal and the Roux Brothers.
Core by Clare Smyth is in the heart of Notting Hill. Kensington Park Road bisects this stunning stablished stuccoed world of terraces and crescents and circuses. “People offer you glass boxes in the City but I wanted something with character,” she says, “I’ve always had a passion for neighbourhood restaurants.” Her space occupies the ground floor of a block of three terraced houses. “We found a building that was built in 1861,” she explains. “It had lots of Victorian character but it was a shell; it was a mess. We had to do so much work to the building; it was a disaster, but a great journey! Inside, it had lots of beautiful features but as we started to pull it apart, the foundations crumbled, the drains fell in. It got very very delayed. This was my first project. It was a big project to take on. I started this from writing the business plan myself all the way through to going to the bank – concept, everything.”
As far as neighbourhoods go you don’t get much better than this. Next door to Core is St Peter’s Notting Hill. Like much of this swanky area’s architecture, the Grade II* Anglican church (designed by Thomas Allom) dates from the mid 19th century. It’s still an active contributor to the community. Vicar Pat Allerton says, “Whether you’re a lifelong Christian or just asking questions, you’re really welcome. We’re a church family doing our best to follow Jesus Christ, love one another and offer hope to our local community.” Jonathan Aitken, MP turned Prison Chaplain, recently preached at St Peter’s.
A more recent architectural addition to Notting Hill – not that you’d guess it at a glance – is architect Demetri Porphyrios’s residential building behind Core. Chepstow Villas, as you’d imagine, are chunky detached houses and Demetri’s infill looks like its neighbours, both in scale and style. Number 48 is stuccoed with two chunky bays rising through three lofty storeys to prop up an open pediment. But it was only completed in 1989 and is actually a block of purpose built apartments. Then of course there’s Portobello Market… so little time, so many distractions… but we’ve swashbucklingly swept into W11 for the Portobello mushrooms.
Booking three months ago, the last available table was for noon. Maybe that’s what happens when a restaurant’s so current it swoops up two Michelin stars a year after opening. And now she’s the star of a Netflix series, Clare Smyth has swiftly migrated from a name to those-in-the-know to the household variety. She’s upbeat about her industry: “The culinary scene’s phenomenal. Right across the UK we have brilliant world leading restaurants and we have a generation of chefs that have really made it their own.”
Clare has certainly made it her own. “I’ve worked very hard, it’s not just happened overnight. I don’t pinch myself and think ‘I’m lucky’. I think ‘I left home at 16 to become a chef and I worked for it’.” Indeed. “You want to be successful, you want your business to be successful, so you’ve always got to make sure you stay ahead of the game. I try to be better every day.” As to be expected at three figure prices per head, there’s a high sommelier to consumer ratio and even higher waiter to waited on quota. It’s a 54 cover dining room. We’re at Table Five: there is no Siberia. The beautiful people are here and there are some quite attractive couples at the other tables.
Upon arrival, Clare herself – tall, blonde, elegant – stands smiling waving at us from behind the kitchen window. After lunch we will chat to her in the kitchen. Like everything about Core, the menu is beautifully presented with great contents and a personal touch; it’s signed by Clare and her Chefs. The plates are decorated with her fingerprint, reflecting the Marc Quinn giant fingerprint pictures hanging on the walls. Naturally lit by two arched windows, the dining room is comfortably luxurious and luxuriously comfortable.
And so to the menu. “The beginning: lobster and black truffle thermidor gougères. Pepper and olive tart. Veggie Core Fried Chicken and caviar. Core Caesar Salad.” The tart shell is made of crab stock. “Colchester crab: black truffle, celery and red apple. Potato and roe: dulse beurre blanc, herring and trout roe. Seabass: oysters, cucumber and caviar. Celeriac: roasted over wood with black truffle and hazelnut. The other carrot. Snow ball: chestnut, vanilla, pine, eggnog.” The seabass is line caught from Cornwall. The celeriac is soft baked for four hours. The other carrot is posh carrot cake in the shape of a carrot. “The end: white truffle and hazelnut choux. Champagne jelly.” Shoot the moon, the food is fabulous, utterly knockout! It surpasses our wildest expectations and our expectations are pretty wild. Culinary art beautifully sculpted.
Clare hales from a farm near Bushmills, County Antrim. The north coast has two native delicacies: yellowman and dulse. The former is a chewy toffee textured honeycomb. The latter is a purply edible seaweed. Yellowman might not make an appearance on the menu – “I’ve made it once!” Clare admits – but dulse does. In fact, dulse beurre blanc is part of her signature potato dish. It’s good to see that a chef of such international standing hasn’t forgotten her roots. When Michel Roux Junior had Clare’s “potato and roe” he called it “divine”.
In fact Clare declares, “Core is all about being British as much as we can right through to the core, so I really wondered why in my career we were using everything coming from France? I really questioned everything before we opened. I thought, well, why can’t we use British plates? Why can’t we use British designers? We had a 300 year old tradition of making the finest bone china in the world in Stoke-on-Trent but when you go there now there’s huge unemployment and those cultures and traditions have almost died out.” She’s on a mission: “So I was like I’m going to have them make my plates; I’m going to use Sheffield steel; I’m going to use British wood. We source our scallops from The Ethical Shellfish Company on the Isle of Mull. The millers than make the flour for our bread, Wessex Mill, are a fifth generation family owned business. So Core is very much a project from the heart.”