37 Conduit Street W1S 2YF
Tel: 020 8283 5036
Cost per person without wine: £65
Alyn Williams, who was head chef at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley for four years, was sick of being the bridesmaid. You could tell – he’s been wearing white for years.
Now he has his name above the door at The Westbury’s flagship restaurant: but getting the job you’ve always wanted isn’t without its risks – just ask Gordon Brown. He’s cooked for me once before (Williams, not Brown – that’s a story for another day), at a chef’s table at The Berkeley: a gluttonous 12 course affair, which would take some beating.
So much beating, in fact, that it didn’t – but it was a pretty close contest. We ordered two tasting menus – one vegetarian – each with seven courses. The fourme d’Ambert gougers (bread-balls filled with cheese) were so light I had to stand on the table and chase them around the ceiling. The cauliflower panna cotta with acorn, served in a martini glass, was almost spectacular, although it disappeared a little too quickly to be fully appreciated. The Dorset snails slithered down a treat, far exceeding the (admittedly fairly low) expectations set by the menu, which promised “snails/soil/weeds”.
I could list every starter but it would seem like showing off. The pace was flawless – just enough time to reminisce about the passing of one before another arrived. Some restaurants never nail timing like that: Alyn Williams seems to have done it in just two weeks.
For the main course – the only choice on the set menu, although the chef will vary the other options it if you ask him nicely – I took myself by surprise, ordering the Cotswold chicken with smoked egg and charred leek over the Devon beef sirloin. I was duly rewarded for my recklessness. Williams painted a dusky, Constable-esque landscape on my plate, with murky greens lurking around the edges of a globular terracotta egg yolk, which oozed satisfyingly when lanced with a fork. I would love to tell you how good the gnocchi was, but it had disappeared from my guest’s plate before I got a chance to taste it. She assures me it was very good.
Order the cheese and you’ll be treated to the sight of two waiters heaving a gigantic bureau – less a trolley than a wagon. Even The Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would have failed to sling this thing through a window (although if they had been ordering cheese boards it would have been a very different movie).
The dessert – tiramisu with nutella brioche and limoncello “slush” – struggled to compete with the ferocious aftertaste of the cheese, proving to be the weakest link in an excellent meal.
Given the quality of the food, it seems churlish to pick up on the décor. So here we go. There is a chapter in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman, at some point between murdering prostitutes and exchanging embossed business cards, meets his younger brother Sean for lunch. In an unexpected flourish, the Westbury has plucked Alyn Williams (the restaurant, not the chef) from my mental picture of this scene. Enormous, glowing glass bowls loom over the booths, jarring with the dark wood paneling. The carpet is worse: it sparkles. At first glance it looks like a gigantic hen party has trouped through the restaurant, shedding tinsel and broken glass and tears in its wake. The seats – hailing from a more somber ilk – seem reluctant to stand in it.
The overall effect is something akin to a 1980s nightclub – not necessarily unpleasant but verging alarmingly close to gauche. One redemptive feature is a wall filled with a bank of back-lit terrariums, self contained eco-systems filled with weeds and herbs found in Williams’ food. From a distance they look like tiny aquariums, which I suppose fits with the nightclub ambiance.
But décor is décor and food is food. Williams is a master of his game; his subtle flavours seem effortless; the sommelier’s wine recommendations were spot on (especially the 2008 Sancerre Rouge). And, while £55 for a tasting menu is hardly pocket-change in these troubled economic times, neither is it unreasonable.
Williams is finally the blushing bride; take along some confetti to celebrate – don’t worry about the mess, it’ll blend in with the carpet.