27a Hay’s Mews, W1 W1J 5NY, tel: 020 7499 3331
Cost per person without wine: £90
LONDON is abuzz with noisy, no-reservations joints, opening in droves in Soho. The best barbeque in town, the best burger in town, the best ceviche in town…but you’ll have to wait for it, and once you’re in, you’d better not mind the presence of other people’s elbows very close to your neck.
So at a time like this it is easy to forget – but mighty pleasant to remember – the enduring presence of proper fancy restaurants, French-style, with impeccable service, rich tablecloths, architectural sophistication and effortful, virtuoso food. The type where you not only can, but must book, and where you sit in splendid spaciousness with nobody’s elbows but your own to get in the way.
The Greenhouse, one of Lebanese restaurateur Marlon Abela’s signature establishments, is the epitome of an elegant fine dining room (Abela also owns member’s club Morton’s and Cassis in London, and A Voce and several others in New York and Boston). It’s in deepest Mayfair, tricky to find, giving it a whiff of exclusivity – perhaps largely because walking from the Tube takes ages, correctly suggesting that this is the sort of restaurant most people pull up to in cars.
It is secluded and lush – you clop over some wooden clapboards, like a terrace on a tropical retreat, past sculpture and greenery, and enter a low-ceilinged, tranquil space. We were seated by some French windows leading to a garden – it could have been the Caribbean.
Except more refined. The Greenhouse is known for its wine list – one of the biggest in Europe – and its former chef, Antonin Bonnet, garnered it a star in 2004. Now, ripples are being felt across fine dining land with the import of Arnaud Bignon, from Greece’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant, Spondi (Bonnet is off to Paris to start his own business).
The new menu remains European but with Asian flourishes – rather audacious ones, too. Bignon is going for it. Everything is interesting and raises an eyebrow if not a grin, so you might as well have the tasting menu. At £90, it is pricey but not extortionate. And, if you like challenging haute cuisine, it’s worth it. As for the wine – the encyclopedia that is the list requires advanced navigation, so leaving it in the sommelier’s hands (a perfectly approachable, almost casual-seeming chap, nothing stuffy) was a good move for us. We would never have chosen an absolutely delicious Catalunyan wine called Castell D’Encus Susterris, nor the range of straw-coloured Rhones, if left to our own devices.
Foodwise, all the usual suspects are here: foie gras, lamb, scallops, but they’re presented in stranger, more imaginative ways than normal. The liver pate was as dense and silky as you’d expect: with its confit, dates, lemon and dab of pearl millet, it took on angles of fruity richness tempered by citric notes. Highland scallops were great fleshy lobes served with – of all things – a tandoori flavour, cabbage, a dusting of garam masala and lemon confit. We pinched a Cornish crab with Granny Smith apple, mint jelly and curry off the a la carte menu, and it was the most unusual parcel of flavour: zingy, silky, spicy, fragrant, oceanic…you need to try it for yourself.
Dessert, I always feel, is a waste in such places – too delicate and fussy instead of the shameless slab of richness the heart desires. So head straight for the cheese trolley with its ancient Comte, along with a really lovely selection of French fromage. The groovy, crowded no-reservation places in Soho are great, but sometimes you want quality, elegance, and a stonking cheese trolley (or at least, I do). That’s what places like the Greenhouse are for, and now Bignon is adding a clever bit of spice to a very neat formula.