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Sketch Lecture Room & Library
9 Conduit Street,
London W1S 2XG
Tel: 0207 659 4500

Food type: Modern French/ Fusion

Food rating: 7/10

Nearest tube: Oxford Circus

Website: Sketch

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Assiette fr. noun – an assortment or selection

Dining at Sketch is a surreal experience. There! I’ve said it. From the moment you walk past the concierge and you are greeted by the host – a very pleasant gentlemen with an air of Agent Smith (you know, from the Matrix) about him. Following a short flight up the red carpeted stairs and being introduced to the housekeeper (dressed in classic French maid outfit no less) we soon arrived at a huge wooden double door. A heaving push later, and there we were – Sketch: Lecture Room & Library in all its surreal glory. Being first to arrive, we were greeted by the whole team – the maitre’d, our hostess for the night and the head chef himself, Jean-Denis Le Bras.

“Our chef patron is Pierre Gagnaire who has restaurants in Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, Dubai and Hong Kong” stated our host with great pride.
“So madame where are you from?” referring obviously to J.
“Oh, I’m from Hong Kong”
“Yes then do you know about Pierre’s restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental?” our host asked obviously surprised we even knew about Gagnaire himself.
“Uhuh! In fact, we visited Pierre’s restaurant last summer!”

Now the reason I have decided to throw in this quirky bit of info is because if you have never been to any of Gagnaire’s restaurant or at least heard about his food concept, you are in for a bit of a surprise. There is no run-of-the-mill three courses that’s for sure. To state that Gagnaire’s cooking style is ‘fusion’ is would be a huge disservice to the man who has invented a whole new meaning to that term. If you have watched the Japanese TV cooking show ‘Iron Chef’ (or even its cheap American spin-off) you will be half-way towards understanding Pierre’s cooking. Don’t know what I am talking about? Each course is based around a theme or key ingredient allowing the chef to showcase the different possibilities. Hence, when you explore a theme based on smell (amazingly enough one inspired by Gagnaire’s favourite perfume ‘Terre de Hermes’) or an ingredient as unique as Seaweed, you will be brought three to five individual dishes.

I think it is only fair that I talk about the chef patron himself. Born in 1950, Pierre Gagnaire is the first to confess that he never enjoyed cooking when he started off. Pretty shocking words coming from a chef who would go on to hold 3 Michelin stars and define an entire genre of cuisine for himself. Like many French chefs, he spent the first 10 years of his career working his way up through the brutal system (as he puts it) in Paris, Lyons and even the US before returning to Clos Fleury to work with his father. However, in 1980, Gagnaire decided to break free from the chains of old-school cooking. As a chef, he needed to spread his wings and express himself in his own way.

“First I learnt how to cook. Then I cooked. And now I love cooking.” – Pierre Gagnaire

And so, with his on take on the concept of nouvelle cuisine, Gagnaire began his meteoric rise. His first Michelin star came within 2 years and by the early 90s he had garnered the maximum three. Unfortunately for Gagnaire, 3 stars does not necessarily make a successful restaurant and in the mid 90s, the concept of nouvelle cuisine reached exhaustion – many chefs indeed returning to cuisine-classique style of cooking. Gagnaire’s restaurant, located in an obscure provincial industrial town that was undergoing a recession, could not attract punters and his business folded – a sad story highlighted in an episode of Iron Chef Japan.

In 1996, Gagnaire decided to move to Paris and open his eponymous restaurant at Rue Balzac. He regained his three star status within two years of opening and has held on to that accolade ever since. His restaurant is currently placed 9th in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

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The dining room in the Lecture Room & Library has a bit of an Alice-in-Wonderland feel about it. By that I mean, everything is over the top in a mish-mash of East meets West. Velvet sofa chairs are accompanied by overhanging red lanterns to give the impression of a Chinese opium den in the eyes of a French aristocrat. Above, the glass panelling allows plenty of natural light to fill the room. Tables, draped in the customary white clothes are well spaced and large – very important for Gagnaire’s style of cuisine.

When Sketch opened its doors to London in 2002, it grabbed headlines for being one of the most expensive restaurants in London. Today, in 2009, most of its prices have stayed the same if not fallen a tiny bit although still very high. Starters cost between £21 – £44, Mains £28 – £55 and Desserts £11 – £35. The tasting menu probably represents the best value at a ‘mere’ £95 for 8 courses (or £70 if you go greens). In short, if you are looking for a bargain you most certainly are looking up the wrong alley. Mind you, you will be paying similar, if not more expensive, prices if you were dining in any other of Gagnaire’s outposts. Followers of Gagnaire will tell you that if you want to experience his style in full it is best to stick to ordering ALC instead of the tasting menu.

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Tomato Gazpacho, Cherry Tuile; Cumin Crackers, Tuna Cream; Ginger ‘Shortbread’; Fennel Beignet; Mango, Colombo Spice & Goat’s Cheese ‘Sandwich; ‘Bloody Mary’ Jelly; Black & Green Olive Tart

A dazzling array of canapes were brought to us before we even had a chance to sneak a peek at the menu and sipping on our champagne. In most one star restaurants, you would be lucky if you were offered two canapes, so to be served seven separate nibbles speaks volumes about the level of ambition of the restaurant. Apparently, as I was told later by our server, the restaurant is really gunning for their second star this year. First, was a small cup of cold tomato gazpacho – its sweet, refreshing notes complemented by the acidity of the crisp cherry tuile. (6/10) Next, some crackers, all symmetrically shaped, spiced with a touch of cumin and embedded in a bowl of cassava powder, was paired with a unique tuna cream. The balance of the cracker-dip combination was astounding with the gentle hint of the spice coming through without overpowering the subtle taste of the tuna. (7/10) Even more enjoyable was a unique combination of mango & Colombo spice ‘sandwich’ with some mild, creamy goat’s cheese – the meringue having good flavour of the fruit and spice and the pairing inspired. (8/10) Other nibbles included a very capable ginger ‘shortbread’, a delectable fennel beignet, olive tart and finally a unique ‘bloody mary’ flavoured jelly. (6/10 overall for canapes)

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Bread

Bread is made in house and a selection of baguette, chestnut, white roll and brioche, served with excellent Bordier butter. The baguette in particular was of very good quality, probably one of the best baguettes I have eaten this year – ultra crisp on the outside yet soft and fluffy inside with good amount of seasoning. (8/10) Less convincing was the brioche  which was dense and heavy. (5/10)

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Red Tuna Sashimi, Cauliflower Cream, Salmon Roe, Raw Cauliflower Pieces, Bonito Flakes

A second nibble was brought to us before our meal proper began. This, a very Japanese inspired dish of Red Tuna Sashimi drizzled with a little olive oil with cauliflower cream, salmon roe and shaved bonito flakes. The tuna had incredible flavour (a vast contrast from the pretty tasteless tuna I had at the Ledbury just a couple days ago) with the salmon roe providing saltiness to the dish. Even the cauliflower, one of the most mundane ingredients, had intense flavour, with the ubiquitous taste of the vegetable coming through. The addition of the bonito flakes were a nice touch, adding umami goodness and elevating the overall dish. (8/10)

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Langoustines {Addressed in Five Ways}

For starters, I explored langoustines – this particular dish is also on the menu at Rue Balzac and is the chef’s signature. When the dishes were brought out, it was instantly clear why a large table was mandatory. A langoustine tartar was not so much finely chopped shellfish as it was a sashimi of the key ingredient. By pairing it with lemon and a mild vodka jelly the wonderful taste of the langoustine was allowed to express itself on the plate. (7/10) Equally as good were a pair of langoustines roasted in garlic oil, topped with chopped chives, with a chervil and courgette veloute and bouillabaisse sauce on the side. The langoustines were particularly good and I could have easily eaten a dozen of these. (8/10) Third was langoustines, flattened and pan-seared ‘a la plancha’ sandwiched between a thin strip of lardo di colonnata (kind of like parma hand made from lard) and crisp potato pancake. In this instance, I felt that the saltiness of the lardo overpowered the langoustine although I could appreciate the technical execution of the dish. (5/10) An interesting spicy jus with carrot puree, crisp raw carrots and langoustine dressing brought a smile to my face. This component did not contain a single piece of langoustine, yet the essence of the langoustine was floating around the mouth with each bite of the sweet-spicy concoction of carrot and jus. (7/10) Last but not least, a langoustine mousselline mixed with a ragout of sweet clams, leek and saffron risotto. The rice here was cooked too long – too soft with no bite present, although I appreciate the combination of flavours present. (5/10)

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Sea Garden no.4

J went with the thematic ‘Sea Garden no.4’ (anyone has any knowledge about what happened to no. 1, 2 and 3?) which was a combination of different seafood dishes aimed at giving you a taste of the sea (or different tastes of the sea). And is there anything as ubiquitous as ‘taste of sea’ as red mullet bouillabaise? Here, Gagnaire puts his unique twist on this well known French dish with the addition of raw baby artichokes marinated with Kerala pepper adding texture and bite. (7/10) Another classic, poached dover sole was also given a modern twist sitting on top of its champagne bouillon jelly. The fish had a nice delicate flavour which was a stark contrast to the bolder, muskier red mullet. (6/10) Another dish played on the surf and turf theme – crab jelly and foie gras chantilly and cuttlefish carpaccio, although I did not sample this. (I am allergic to crab) The last part was a very weird combination of basmati rice, aloe vera in a Vialone Nanone rice soup with sake, mirin and salmon roe. Unfortunately this combination simply did not work for me at all tasting like a combination of dishwater and a smelly old sock.

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Beef

Things got back on more sensible terms with my main course of beef, three ways. The beef tartare was a revelation for me – sitting on top of a razor clam jelly and mixed with some wafer thin slices of black radish, the coarsely cut beef was combined with a helping of diced razor clam, carefully tipped into the bowl at table side. I was quite wary of this unorthodox combination but the sweetness of the clams worked in harmony with the beef, with the unexpected addition of chilli giving it a kick. (8/10) A classical roast fillet of beef was as close to ‘normal’ cooking as you can get here. The bovine, a luxurious piece of Bavarian Simmental fillet cooked very rare, having good flavour, but no where near as tender as I would expect from such a fine piece of meat. Beneath the beef was a single slice of black wheat pancakes and a morel stew which had surprisingly good flavour. (6/10) The final component was a ‘beef stew’ – a red wine daube of beef with sweet candied tomatoes which again had good flavour but could have benefited from longer cooking time to allow the beef to soften a fraction more. (6/10)

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Scallops and John Dory

For mains, J continued on the seafood theme with scallops and John Dory – a course which only comes in two components.. shock, horror! The main dish, roast John dory in rich Espelette butter was paired with a magnificent king scallop, roasted with ‘Terre de Sienne’ (the scallop thankfully kept whole as it should be). This dish was all about the seafood itself with artichokes, spinach and radish providing some distraction. Often, John Dory can be, and often is, overcooked, resulting in a piece of dry, firm fish. Yet here the fish was timed beautiful, taking on a firm texture but remaining succulent, no doubt in part due to taking on some of the butter it was cooked with. (7/10) More scallops came at the side – both as a mousseline and grilled, sitting on top of a green velouté mixed with pearl barley. The refreshing notes of parsley and scallops are a natural pairing and this lighter take on scallops made a lot of sense given its richer counterpart. (7/10)

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Cheese par Bernard Anthony

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Sarasson Cream, Mostarda di Cremona, Crackers, Grapes seasoned with Olive Oil and Maldon Salt

Cheese here is an entire board supplied by Bernard Anthony of Alsace who is, in my opinion, the best affineur on God’s green planet. Anthony only supplies certain 3* restaurants in France and a select few restaurants in England – Alain Ducasse, Helene Darroze, Hibiscus, Capital and Sketch. Most of the restaurants in England only carry a select few of Anthony’s cheeses (a pitiful three at Darroze being a prime example), so to have an entire cheese board composed of some of the finest cheese was remarkable indeed.  Of these, we tried Comte (aged 1 year),  Soummatrain, Coulommiers,  Fourme d’Ambert and Epoisses which came with some mustard fruits, grapes seasoned in olive oil and Maldon salt, Sarasson cream and more cumin crackers. With the exception of the under-ripe Epoisses, all the other cheeses were in stellar condition. (9/10)

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Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert: A Combination of 5 Miniature Desserts

No pre-dessert, but honestly at this point I didn’t want one – the portions of food so far has been more than generous and I had Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert (a combination of 5 ‘miniature’ desserts) to come. Unlike in Hong Kong, this was done in two services which was understandable given there were a number of cold components in the dessert. First up was a seasonal bowl of strawberries and cream. But in true Gagnaire style, this was wild strawberries with mascarpone cheese and a strawberry and raspberry sorbet – very refreshing with the delightful perfume of the wild strawberries flooding the palate. (7/10) Moving into the more experimental realms was a cup of panacotta with rhubarb compote, kerala pepper macaroon (!), cubes of apples and a crisp rhubarb tuille. As weird as this sounded, I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert – the macaroon in no way offensive and the rhubarb’s tartness carefully balanced. (8/10) The third component was a variation on blackcurrant composed of its jelly, sorbet and tuile which had very intense flavour of the fruit. (7/10) Just as well because a weird combination of pudding, mango jelly and goat’s cheese ice cream was an experiment too far for me. (4/10) A final chocolate dessert – a cake consisting of chocolate brownie, mousse and tempered chocolate alongside a bittersweet Guanaja chocolate ice cream was very good. Maybe not as good as say the Louis XV but definitely very satisfying indeed . (8/10) [I do apologize for the lack of photos here because the truth is I was so engrossed eating that I completely forgot about the second serving of desserts]

Absolutely stuffed, we were given some time to rest before being ambushed with a final flourish of petit fours with a special message from the chef. All very good but none to memorable I’m afraid. (5/10)

Service was absolutely brilliant (10/10) – our servers taking a personal interest in getting to know us and looking after us well throughout the entire evening. This was despite a very annoying table next to us – a young gentleman and his mates who definitely fall into the ‘me-too’ category with a little time (and too much money) to spare before the club downstairs opened its doors. Indeed, the only time that I have experienced service of this level was at Pierre, Hong Kong.  A very good touch was that they offered me a copy of the menu without prompting when I requested for a copy of the menu to be placed by my tableside to refer to the various components of each dish during the meal itself.

So what can I say? Dinner at Sketch was an experience. A journey. And like all journeys it had its ups and downs. This was certainly a better meal than the one I had at Hong Kong but perhaps not quite at a 2* level just yet, although some parts of the meal were certainly there (but hey, funnier things have happened e.g. L’atelier gaining 2*s). If there was a score of 7.5 this would most certainly be it. This is certainly not a restaurant for the ‘me-toos’ and ‘star collectors’… you know those rich prima donnas who visit Michelin starred restaurants just because they can (despite not having any appreciation for food). If you are in the latter category, I can guarantee that you will hate this place. What I liked was that throughout the entire meal, the unusual combination of ingredients were thought provoking and challenged pre-existing conceptions as to what can or cannot/ shoud not work. Sheer brilliance or absolute lunacy? Only you can decide.

(Note: From my understanding, the kitchen is now led by head chef Jean-Denis Le Bras – I wonder where Pascal Sanchez has headed to or if he still holds a role in the kitchen.)

p/s I do apologize for the crappy pictures. This is what happens when you bring your camera but forget to replace the memory card thus resorting to a camera phone.

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