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Royal Albert Hall + Aquavit St James’s London

Last Night of the Poms | School for Scandi  

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that life is better experienced from inside the box. Especially if said box is the most columned, curtained, cushioned, closeted, contained and catered for one at the Royal Albert Hall. “Anyone for sheep’s milk ricotta and elderberry jelly on potato tuile or sweet garden pea soup with poached quail’s egg and truffle foam?” asks our in-house in-box in-the-know waiter.

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A few days later, suddenly, sharing a waiter with other guests seems rather déclassé, or would be if we weren’t dining in classy Aquavit. Lady Diana Cooper once described Vita Sackville-West as “all aqua, no vita”. Not so this restaurant: aptly named after the Scandinavian spirit, it’s full of life. We’re here, for starters. Not just desserts. A Nordic invader of the New York scene in the 1980s, sweeping up two Michelin stars, it opened an outpost in Tokyo and has now come to Mayfair.

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Shepherd Market is the foodie haven west of Piccadilly. St James’s Market, Aquavit’s address, is a new or at least reinvented Shepherd Market hopeful east of Piccadilly. It’s a discreet location on The Crown Estate, but more luxury restaurants and flagship stores are due to open shortly. “The location is coming,” we’d been told. Cultural additions to this heralded “new culinary hub” include a pavilion opposite Aquavit styled like a cabinet of curiosities. The disembodied voice of Stephen Fry reading an 18th century ballad “The Handsome Butcher of St James’s Market” floats above stacked dioramas.

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In 1989, Country Life reported: “Until quite recently London lacked continental style brasseries. There has always been a wide choice of restaurants but the alternative to an expensive meal has been the ‘greasy spoon’ café, the pub or various questionable ‘takeaways’. Traditionally the City provided dining rooms, now almost extinct, together with a diet of boisterous restaurants such as Sweetings, the catering world’s equivalent of the floor of Lloyds or the Stock Exchange. But greater sophistication was demanded by a new generation keen on modern design, New York and cuisine, as opposed to cooking.”

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That all changed with the arrival of Corbin + King and Richard Caring who have filled Mayfair and beyond with brasseries. Aquavit fits into the higher end of that mould. CEO Philip Hamilton says, “Our aim is to create a relaxed morning to midnight dining experience.” Handy, as we – the Supper Club (Lavender’s Blue plus) – all have Mayfair offices, from Park Lane to Piccadilly Circus. Scandi style has been ripped off so much by hipster hangouts but this is west, not east, London. Pared back lines allow the quality of the materials to shine (literally in some cases) through: marble floors climb up the dado to meet pale timber panelling, softly illuminated by dangling bangles of gold lights.

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The airy double height interior with two walls of windows was designed by Swedish born Martin Brudnizki, the creative force behind Sexy Fish, and showcases works by Scandinavian designers such as Olafur Eliasson. Furnishings are by Svenskt Tenn; photographic art by Andrea Hamilton; silverware by Georg Jensen; uniforms, Ida Sjöstedt. Wallpaper* meets Architectural Digest. We’d been warned that “it’s a bit of a fishbowl” but we’re down with that. See and be seen. Duchamp shirts and Chanel dresses at the ready. This glass box is Nighthawk without the loneliness; The London Eye minus the wobbliness; Windows on the World missing the dizziness. A mezzanine over the bar contains two very private dining rooms named ‘Copenhagen’ and ‘Stockholm’.

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The menu is divided into Smörgåsbord | Starters | Mains | Side Dishes | Desserts. It’s tempting to overindulge on the smörgåsbord – really, a return visit is required for that course alone. So it’s straight onto the starters. Scallops, kohlrabi and lovage (£9.00) in a light citrus dressing demonstrate Nordic cuisine does raw well. Dehydrated beetroots, goat’s cheese sorbet and hazelnuts (£9.00) – we’re getting citrus, nectarine and dill – prove there’s life beyond seafood.

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Sourdough bread and knäckebröd (Swedish rye crisp bread with a hint of aniseed) come with whey butter. “The whey butter is from Glastonbury,” explains our waiter. It’s all singing all dancing. Chillout music is playing in the background. We’re experiencing what the Scandinavians call ‘hygge’, that cosy relaxed feeling you get when being pampered, enjoying the good things in life with great company. All the more reason to sample Hallands Fläder (£4.50), an elderflower aquavit. A continuous flow of sparkling water is (aptly) plentiful and reasonably priced (£2.00). Ruinart (£76.00) keeps our well informed sommelier on her toes.

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Monkfish in Sandefjord Smør (Hollandaise type sauce named after the city) and trout roe (£28.00) tastes so fresh it transports us like a fjord escort to the Norwegian coast. Landlubbers be gone! Purple sprouting broccoli and smoked anchovy (£4.00) is a sea salty side grounded by the flowering vegetable. Chestnut spice cake with salted caramel ice (£8.00) is a slice of perfection revealing tones of vanilla and orange. Swedish hazelnut fudge provides a waistline enhancing end to dinner.

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Right now, Aquavit is hotter than Lisbon in July and cooler than the Chanel party in Peckham. And that’s just the beautiful staff. It shares Executive Chef Emma Bengtsson with the New York site and Head Chef is fellow Swede Henrik Ritzén, who previously cooked at The Arts Club in Mayfair. Emma, who is visiting England for a television appearance, believes, “Everyone has their own flavour profile – how they like things. I’m very intrigued with keeping flavours to highlight the produce itself. It’s very pure. The flavours are understandable… You gotta keep trying. Never stop trying.”

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Aquavit isn’t cheap but this is a high end establishment in Mayfair with form. It’s The Telegraph’s How To Spend It territory. After all, the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good meal, must be intolerably stupid. And as Lady Diana Cooper once quipped, “money is fine”. Blink and you’ll miss daylight but that doesn’t mean January has to be dull or dry. We’re full and full of the joys. It’s not a school night and round the corner in Soho, Quo Vadis isn’t just a restaurant… Time to cut loose under a garish sky.

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Our dedication to reportage ever unabated, is it a dream sequence or the following day do we return for a smörgåsbord of diced and smoked mackerel tartare, sorrel and lumpfish roe (£7.00) in a salad bowl, sitting at a timber table on the polished pavement? Not forgetting the unforgettable Shrimp Skagen (£9.00)? Skagenröra isn’t just prawns on toast, y’know. Named after a Danish fishing port, other essential ingredients are mayonnaise, gräddfil (a bit like soured cream) and some seasoning. Grated horseradish, in this case, adds a bit of spice. Best crowned with orange caviar. It’s Royal Box treatment all over again as we have a dedicated waiter to our table. Or maybe that’s because we are the only alfresco brunchers braving the elements outside the box. By Nordic winter standards, it’s a positively balmy morning. We’ve a love | hate relationship with Aquavit. Love here | hate leaving.

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Belcanto Restaurant Lisbon + José Avillez

When the Hallelujah Chorus Sang

Rt Hon Jacqui Smith and Tessa Jowell © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“I’ll eat when I’m dead,” quipped Daphne Guinness, heiress-turned-chanteuse. We haven’t cooked since the war but we’ve certainly dined out on that. Quo vadis? Quo Vadis. Hello Kitty Fisher’s. Blue Fin seafood. Annabel’s. The incredibly Social Eating House. Intertwining wining and dining otherwise known as ‘spending the nephew’s inheritance’. First there was the Astrid Bray hosted Christmas party at Daphne’s. Next came the Launceston Place midsummer soirée with good stock (company and gravy) and theatrical staff. Epigram anyone? Yep, both Princess Diana haunts. We’re following in her footsteps, even photographing Prince CharlesLe Caprice to go. Completely up our own rue.

Belcanto Lisbon Exterior © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Provenance matters, whether antiques or antipasti, dated or stated or possibly slated. So it was good to indulge in whipped Elveden beets at the MABA (Middle Aged British Artists) adorned Hix Soho. The farm shop on the Guinnesses’ Elveden Estate is a destination in itself. For the carnivorously inclined, Glenarm Estate produce pops up several times on Hix’s menu. The walled garden at Glenarm Castle is a destination in itself.

Belcanto Tuna Tartar Cone © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Escaping what Lord James Bethell called “the chilling effect of the referendum on social calendars” at Westbourne’s groovy fifth inaugural garden party, waving goodbye to The Right Honourables Tessa and Jacqui, we’re off to hot hot hot Lisbon. Well, not before stopping for nocturnal wanderings in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum. It’s not every night we get to enjoy noirish canapés next to the mesentery of a sheep with several globular cysts attached to the tissue by long pedicles.

Belcanto Amuse Bouche © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

With the rhetorical daring of Mrs Merton’s interrogation of the millionaire Paul Daniel’s wife Debbie Magee, what first attracted us to the lovely Belcanto? Answer: wherever there’s a Michelin star there’s Lavender’s Blue. Make that two and we’re there with bells on ding-a-ling. Belcanto is the first restaurant in Lisbon to receive two Michelin stars. José Avillez is the first Portuguese chef to achieve this accolade. The hot to trot 36 year old has created a paradise for pescatarians with sophisticated palates. He does, after all, have over 1,000 miles of coastline to explore. Piscean provenance ain’t ever a problem. In his own words:

Belcanto Starter © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“My life is cooking. Because of that, many of my memories are tied to tastes. I was born and raised in Cascais, near the sea. The memory of being that close to the sea is very strong and is really a part of me – it defines me. I truly love cooking fish and seafood. Let me say I believe that in Portugal we have the best the sea has to offer in the world. I love creating dishes with the taste of the sea. At Belcanto, we use algae codium which has a very strong taste of the sea. I loved eating it on the beach at Guincho.” Such joy, joy, joy.

Dip in the Sea Belcanto © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belcanto Sea Bass © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belcanto The Garden of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belcanto is in Chiado, Lisbon’s most exhilarating neighbourhood. Chiado is a cultural mix of the old and new, the traditional and the adventurous, a distillation of the best. Easily a metaphor for José’s cooking. Outside may be sweating 30 degrees but inside a coolly slick gastronomic and sensory performance is underway. There are just 10 tables for the chef to impress with his pedigree. Table to tableau. Thank goodness for the high waiter to customer ratio as we eat more courses on the tasting menu than Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis has had film versions. The bill comes to €759.50. Say bon. Not exactly cheap as frites, but it’s a special occasion, a Lisbon treaty.

Belanto Red Mullet © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Behind an unassuming white exterior lies the understated white interior. A blank canvas. It’s the food that delivers the colour | shock | humour | art. Palette to palate. An exploding olive, “a tribute to the great chef Ferran Adrià” explains our waiter, sets the scene. José trained at elBulli, Ferran’s legendary triple Michelin starred Catalonian restaurant. Said olive is served in a 2cm diameter frying pan. Similarly, caviar topped edible stones crack open in a flow of volcanic lava. Textures and tastes and experiences and expectations are reinvented. Foraging in flowers for tuna tartar cones for starters. “You tell me!” smiles our waiter when asked what the indefinable taste is in the pudding. “How is your mushroom?” he later laughs. Rosemary ash butter tastes like fag butt ends. This is haute haute haute cuisine. And we’re loving it. All 3.5 hours.

Belcanto Pumpkin © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Belcanto Pudding © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Birthplace of fashion designer Cruz Bueno, it’s good to see the cool cool cool citizenry of Lisbon that have hung around in the sizzling heat live up to our soignée sartorial expectations. And there’s not a pickled dead sheep in sight. There’s more art in simply eating. Portugal is having a fashion moment according to Knightsbridge’s top kitchenware store Divertimenti. This Christmas’s essential stocking filler is a cabbage bowl designed by Portuguese artist Bordallo Pinheiro. Caldo Verde, cabbage soup, is a national dish. Our Divertimenti bowl is purely ornamental, unused of course. Bathos to pathos.

Belcanto Mandarin Sorbet © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley