43 Elystan Street,
London SW3 3NT
Tel. 020 7584 2003
Food type: Modern French
Food rating: 7/10
Nearest tube: South Kensington
Website: Tom Aikens
Note: Tom Aikens has now permanently closed and the site is now home to Phil Howard’s new venture, Elystan Street.
Well it is a bit of a relief that after all the hassle of exams the ‘preliminary’ results list has been released and I am not one of the students on the resit list. That does not necessarily mean I have passed though. I find it very difficult explaining to people what this means. In essence, students who have not done as well as they would have hoped in the practical exams are asked to do a ‘resit’ (although the uni vehemently denies that this is a resit but instead an extended exam… whatever). It is interesting to note that the definition of ‘not done as well as they would have hoped’ does not mean that you have failed – ie. students who have achieved a borderline (or weak) pass along with people who have narrowly failed will be asked to do the extended exam. So why did I go to great lengths explaining this? Basically, even though one’s name is not on the resit list, you could have failed the exam so badly that you do not deserve a resit, or failed the writtens altogether. All said, I will have to wait until June 25th before I receive confirmation as to whether I am officially a doctor.
Still, the fact that my name is not on the resit list is a cause to celebrate (as 99.9% of students pass their exams)… and J is finally done with her exams. We decided to give Tom Aikens a shot. For those who have not been following the restaurant scene closely, you may be well aware that Aikens’ restaurant went into administration sometime last October. His restaurant was subsequently acquired by management buy-out team, TA Holdco Ltd. All well and good until you realize that the TA stands for Tom Aikens. Of course, during this whole transition, there is the small matter of suppliers being completely shafted. As a result, many small suppliers supplying him went bust and many others who got badly burned have stopped supplying his restaurant. Remembering the age old adage of ‘you can never make 1st class food with 2nd rate ingredients’ I shied away from dining here for quite some time.
Aikens himself has never been one to shy away from controversy. Born in Norwich in 1970 to a family of wine merchants, Aikens quickly completed his Advanced Catering Diploma in 1989 before moving to Eastbourne where he worked at Mirabelle. After a stint at Michelin-starred Cavaliers he then worked under Philip Britten at the Capital hotel and the legendary Pierre Koffman at the 3 starred La Tante Claire. Aikens had two stints at Pied à Terre – as sous chef in 1993 (under Richard Neat) and as head chef three years later. In between that he also spent some time abroad at Robuchon’s (Paris) and Les Grayeres (Reims).
As head chef at Pied à Terre, Aikens managed to hold on to the restaurant’s two stars and in doing so became the youngest British chef to earn two stars. His stay at Pied à Terre was short-lived – in 1999, he grabbed the headlines for branding a commis chef with a hot palatte knife. Aikens himself has often pleaded his innocence claiming that the whole incident was a playful tap which had been horribly misinterpreted. However you want to look at it though, he was subsequently sacked. After remaining quiet for a few years, Aikens opened his eponymously named restaurant in 2003.
“Theft is a huge problem. Every restaurant has things stolen from it, I’m not an exception but the costs add up. It’s not fair but it happens.” – Tom Aikens
In November 2004, Aikens was yet again grabbing the headlines – this time accusing a customer for stealing a £16 silver spoon. The customer in question, Sarah Roe, who was entertaining some business clients, had just paid her bill and about to leave when Aikens himself burst out from his kitchen and blocked the group’s exit, accusing her of stealing one of his custom-made teaspoons. After a brief confrontation, with Aiken refusing to back down, a waiter found the spoon on a neighbouring table. Aikens then intimated that Ms. Roe had hidden it there.
As a chef though, Aikens talent could never be denied. His restaurant earned a star within 10 months of opening. Perhaps a victim to his own success, he opened a second, and then third restaurant – Tom’s Kitchen and Tom’s Place, in an attempt to expand his business empire. Tom’s Place was unfortunately a short-lived affair. Whilst it was praised for its commitment to sustainability, critics were not convinced about the pricing and the restaurant closed in August 2008, only six months after it had opened. Then of course, two months later his flagship restaurant went into administration. Putting aside all these issues behind, one thing is clear- Tom Aikens the chef can indeed cook. He has been tipped by Michelin as a rising two stars (or espoir) two years running now.
The first thing you will notice when stepping into the restaurant is the simplicity of its design. With its bold tones of black and white, the dining room has an understated elegance about it. In fact, the black and white theme is prevalent throughout – from the walls to the leather seats, not sparring the flowers placed on the table or the menus presented to us.
Speaking about the menu, it certainly makes for interesting reading. Many of the dishes on offer has Aiken’s signature about it. For example, you will find that many fish dishes which contain meat on the same plate. This may limit some of the things that vegetarians or pescitarian (fish only eaters) can enjoy. Three courses are priced at £65 while a tasting menu is available at £80 (£140 with matched wines). Lunch is of course a cheaper affair with 3 courses priced at £29.
Parsley Foam & Scrambled Eggs, ‘Red Pepper’ Tuile, Celeriac Mousse & Truffle Beignet, Salt Cod Brandade & Tomato Powder
A few nibbles were brought to us while we were browsing through the menu. A small shot glass containing parsley foam and scrambled eggs was refreshing – the scrambled egg contributing more texture than flavour. (6/10) Better was a Red Pepper roll which was as light as a feather but packed full of flavour. (8/10) Even better was a wonderful beignet of Celeriac and Truffle Mousse – the little fried ball had good depth of earthy celeriac flavour with a hint of the truffle coming through. (8/10). My favourite of the lot was a small square of salt cod brandade dusted with some dehydrated tomato powder. The sweet and sour powder was a clever idea as it gave an extra dimension to the cod. (8/10) This was a very strong way to start the meal.
Bread was made on the premises – an increasingly rare thing nowadays – with a choice of French baguette, buttermilk, sour dough, black olive, semolina and bacon & onion brioche. These were of very high quality with the best of the bunch being the bacon & onion brioche which had plenty of bacon bits and its smokey flavour. I was also pretty impressed with the seasoning used in making the bread. Often I find that some of the best made bread are let down by inadequate seasoning. (You will be surprised how much salt you need when making bread) (8/10)
Pollock, Lemon Grass foam, Tarragon Oil & Sweet Wine Jelly
Another nibble was brought to us consisting of a queer combination of poached pollock and lemon grass foam with a little sweet wine jelly at the bottom. For me this concoction did not work – pollock is a very bland piece of fish, so the idea of using bold elements such as lemon grass and tarragon is not far fetched. Unfortunately, in this case, the lemon grass foam was so aggressive that the pollock was lost in the midst of everything. (4/10)
The first course to arrive pretty much sums up what Tom Aikens is all about. A lovely plate of lobster and rabbit with more elements on the plate than you can shake your fist at. Along with the promised confit lobster tail were the claws and a nice piece of fillet of rabbit poached in vanilla butter. Lobster and vanilla butter has always been a marriage made in heaven, and the inclusion of a relatively neutral element in the rabbit added body and texture to the dish. All these elements sat on top of a circle of micro gnocchi and spring onions – its grassiness much needed to balance the rich elements on the plate. (8/10)
Roast Langoustine and Beignet with Braised Pig’s Cheek and Ginger Sauce
Langoustines is amongst one of my favourites and here it was handled superbly. The little crustaceans were presented in two ways – two perfectly roasted langoustines wrapped in a thin sliver of ham (cordo lado) and a crisp and light beignet. Once again, Aikens does not stray away from his love of surf n’ turf with the addition of two cuts of pork – cheek and trotter. All of these elements were tied together with a ginger sauce which had the sweetness and a slight piquant heat to lift all the flavours on the plate. (8/10)
Salted Foie Gras with Confit Fruit, Pickled Radish and Spiced Bread
My favourite dish on the night was a simple plate of salted ballotine of foie gras served with confit apple, beetroot, pickled radish and some spiced croutons. The dish itself was prettily decorated with various leaves and flowers in keeping with the summer theme. The key thing about this dish was that the liver was served at the correct temperature allowing for a soft, silky, almost milky, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Once again, the seasoning was spot on. Followers of this blog will already know that one of my main gripes with foie gras is that chefs never use enough seasoning to allow it to penetrate it entirely. All the condiments at the side worked to balance the richness of the liver without ever stealing the show from it. (strong 8/10)
Line-caught Black Cod Poached in Black Olive Oil with Salt Cod Brandade, Black Olive and Basil Pasta
Perhaps after all the highs, I was left slightly disappointed with my black olive oil poached black cod. Black cod is highly prized for its sweetness and oilier flesh compared to the ‘regular’ cod. (Piece of trivia: black cod and ‘regular’ cod are completely unrelated species) While the piece of fish was timed perfectly, the delicate flavour of the cod was somewhat muddled in the Mediterranean sea of black olives and basil-infused pasta. A more delicate approach is needed to allow this undoubtedly high quality piece of fish to sing. Perhaps an acidic element in the form of sun-dried tomatoes would make sense to give more balance. (5/10)
Roast Turbot with Sorrel Leaf, Samphire, Confit Chicken, Chicken Jus and Olive Oil Sauce
Much better was roast turbot with confit chicken wing and chicken jus – another unorthodox combination which worked very well. The very seasonal samphire on the plate served as a gentle reminder that this was a fish, and not a meat, course. My problem with this dish has to do with the quality of the turbot. Don’t get me wrong, by no means was this a bad piece of fish, but it certainly wasn’t of the outrageous quality which would make the dish a knock-your-socks-off winner. I personally prefer my turbot firm and not have the gelatinous texture that it had here. Another issue I had is with the slight heavy handedness with the dispense of the salt – in all the other dishes preceding this, the level of seasoning had been bold but well judged. (6/10)
Roast Beef Fillet with Summer Truffle, Ratte Potato Mash and Truffle Sauce
Our obligatory meat course (not that we haven’t have had any meat to begin with) was a lovely piece of beef fillet paired with a ‘cheaper’ cut of stewed shin. The piece of beef, cooked rare as requested, had very good texture although being British beef, was perhaps lacking in terms of flavour. I guess the chef himself was aware of the limitations of the produce and as such adjusted the truffle sauce accordingly. The sweet, sticky, meaty, earthy sauce had the robustness lacking in the piece of bovine. On the side, some creamy mash garnished with even more unctuous bone marrow. (strong 7/10)
Chocolate Mousse, Grapefruit Foam and Granita
A little pre-dessert came in the form of a quenelle of chocolate mousse with grapefruit three ways – granita, foam and fresh grapefruit segment. This was a pleasant and interesting combination with the sweet chocolate mousse and the bitterness and sharpness of the grapefruit working well. (7/10)
Fresh Honey Comb with Greek Yoghurt and Poppy Seed Ice Cream, Confit Lemon, Pickled Fennel and Lemon Curd
Desserts continued to be a quirky affair. For example, a dessert of fresh honey comb with yoghurt, poppy seed ice cream, confit lemon, pickled fennel also contained a small slice of goat’s cheese on it. I don’t know whether the addition of the goat’s cheese (with a few thyme leaves) was intentional or a complete oversight on the kitchen’s part but either way its presence was unnecessary and stuck out like a sore thumb. A shame really, because I thoroughly enjoyed the perfume, fragrance and freshness of the honey comb while the lemon and fennel were well judged. (6/10 if I ignore the goat’s cheese aberration)
Chanterais Melon Marinated in Lemongrass and Lime, Melon Sorbet, Chilli Syrup
A refreshing plate of Chanterais melon was perhaps a better choice with less twists. A sweet melon carpaccio was gently perfumed with citrus overtones from the lemongrass and lime, topped with a melon sorbet. The addition of chilli syrup and thin julienned strips of chilli was a masterstroke as its heat gave more depth to the melon. (7/10)
Milkshakes, Lolly-pops, Chocolates, Jellies
Absolutely full after being well fed, we were offered a generous number of petit fours, brought to us on wooden blocks. These included 5 test tubes containing different flavoured milk shakes, with accompanying straws to sip them from. Some of the flavour combinations were a bit weird to say the least. Other treats include some delightful little lolly-pops containing space dust (you know those crackly poppy things from your childhood!), chocolates and a white chocolate and lime sorbet magnum. Overall, excluding one or two of the weird milkshake concoctions, the petit fours were of very high quality. (8/10)
Service was pleasant if lacking that final touch of polish. For example, when I asked the waiter handing me the menu how much each supplement course would cost, he had to check with his manager. I suppose with the portion sizes here being rather generous, not many customers find the need to go for additional dishes. Another small slip was that they brought out the wrong dessert, but to their credit, they noticed it before serving it to us – so no harm done there.
I had come to Tom Aikens with lowered expectations, what with all the supplier troubles and what not. I am glad to say that from my personal experience, this meal more that surpassed my expectations. With the exception of one or two less well thought out dishes, everything else put forth was a comfortable 8/10 level. Desserts were perhaps the weakest aspect of the meal, and while by no means bad, could definitely be improved on. Based on this meal, Aikens is well on the right track to winning (back) his 2nd star. If he can reign in the temptation to experiment too much with the desserts, I am pretty sure come January next year the Michelin man will come calling yet again.