The Ledbury

When Dr Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of Modernist Cuisine, started
making cooing noises at The Ledbury, I realised that the ceviche of
scallops with seaweed and herb oil, kohlrabi and frozen horseradish
had hit the spot. It was the first course of a nine-course menu that
Brett Graham served up, during which Dr Myhrvold did quite a lot of
cooing.

Brett Graham and The Ledbury aren’t exactly unknown quantities in the
restaurant universe. Two Michelin stars. More awards than you can
shake a stick at. Cracking wine list. Front of house as lauded as the
food coming out of the kitchen. And so on and so on. You might have
thought that such a place would be a temple of high gastronomy, all
mastication and murmur, hush and plate-scraping, the reverence broken
only by the flash of digital cameras and mobile phones.
Not a bit of it. The Ledbury is a senior restaurant. It has the heft,
smoothness, ease and texture of a senior restaurant. And the service
is just lovely. Jeremy King, the Obi Wan Kenobi of restaurant service (vide The Ivy and Le Caprice in their glory days and The Wolseley now))  once
defined great service as being picked up in a smile when you come
through the door and being held there until you’re gently deposited
back on the pavement outside the door when you’re done. That’s what
eating in The Ledbury is like. It isn’t in the least bit poncy or up
its own bum or precious or po-faced. It’s built for pleasure, for fun
and for laughter.

And for eating. Let’s get back to that ceviche, because it put down a
marker for what you get when you eat Graham’s grub. Try to imagine for
a moment the soft floppiness of scallops, so lightly cured that their
gentle sweetness shimmies through your mouth. Then add to that the
meaty hit of umami from the seaweed, the breath of herbs, the neutral
crunch of raw kohlrabi and then the touch of genius – not a word I
employ often – the frozen horseradish, which is shockingly cold and a
brilliant vehicle for the refreshing, and contradictory, mustard heat
of the root. As a dish, it looks quite subdued on the plate, if
purposeful, but when it comes to eating, well, there’s a kaleidoscopic
complexity, with an underlying structure to give it a purpose, a
focus, a narrative drive if you like.

I know that all this may well get me into Pseud’s Corner, but I don’t
care. It’s not often you come across food of this virtuosity or
intelligence, cooking that combines technical thoughtfulness and
intuitive brilliance.

Take buffalo milk curd with St Nectaire, truffle toast and broth of
grilled onions. It reads like one of those weird accidents concocted
after a clear-out of the fridge (with the possible exception of the
truffles). What you actually get illustrates the transformatory magic
of  great cooking. The curd in a glass has a trembling delicacy that
disguises the richness of the base milk. This is tempered by the
gentle, Bovril-on-toast depth of the grilled onion consommé that sits
on top. Individually, they’re quite simple flavours, but their
textures and flavours merge into one another with seductive subtlety,
and their inherent bosky tone is pointed up by the grated truffle and
molten St Nectaire on crunchy toast fingers. As vegetarian courses
goes, it’s up there with Heston Blumenthal’s cauliflower risotto with
chocolate jelly of blessed memory.

There were similar felicities about a salad of heritage tomatoes with
goat’s cheese, dried olives and herbs; flame-grilled mackerel with
avocado, Celtic mustard and shiso; roast sea bass with watercress,
cauliflower and potted shrimp butter; breast and leg of partridge with
chestnuts, Iberian ham and cep; saddle of roe deer baked in Douglas
fir with white beetroots, dried blackcurrant and bone marrow; and pavé
of chocolate with milk purée and lovage ice cream to give you the full
line-up.

The leg of the partridge had been braised in duck fat, which added
that lingering, rich, roasted note that even a properly hung bird
doesn’t have without help, while the breast was plain roasted. The
bone marrow gave the fat-free venison a crucial element of
lubrication, offset by the searing sharpness of the dried black
currant. Even my personal hate, “heritage” tomatoes were redeemed by the ripeness and contrasts in sweetness and acidity between the individual fruits. And so on and
so on. It would take several volumes to enumerate the happy beauties
of Graham’s dishes.

Graham is Australian, and yet his cooking seems to me to be rooted
firmly in the produce and traditions of this country. This is partly
down to the fact that he takes great care over sourcing his primary
ingredients. In fact, to call him fanatical on the point is to
understate the case. At the drop of hat he will give the source,
provenance, characteristics of a tomato, beetroot or piece of beef. He
prefers to shoot the deer that feature so frequently on his menus. He
brings in the herbs and flowers that give such brightness and sharp
flavours to a good many dishes.

More, the way he constructs each dish, bringing together multiple
elements, which if you think about it is a fundamental quality of
British cooking, but through careful balancing and synthesis of
flavours, texture and temperatures brings a rare refinement, wit and
imagination to our frequently derided culinary culture. His dishes
don’t astonish in the same way that Blumenthal’s do at the Fat Duck,
which may challenge and expand what we think of as a dish. No, Graham
astonishes through the logic and complexity of the gastronomic
argument he presents.

Above all, though, Graham is his own man. There is no one else cooking
the way he cooks. There are who take their inspiration from similar
sources, but none who uses them with his taste, originality and
finesse. His food isn’t egocentric or flashy. There’s nothing on any
plate that doesn’t have a point and a part to play in the whole, that
the absence of which would not reduce or change the direction of the
dish. I’m not saying that everything is on the same level of
inspiration and achievement, that things can’t get better still. But
already Graham has gone up several gears in the time he’s been at The
Ledbury, and you get the feeling there’s more gas in the tank yet.
The Ledbury
19 2.5/20
127 Ledbury Road, London W11 2AQ, +44 (0) 20 7792 9090,
http://www.theledbury.com

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About Matt

Food writer, television presenter and big eater.
This entry was posted in Eating Out. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Ledbury

  1. Great review, now quite motivated to visit The Ledbury on our next trip to London. At least we know the food is excellent as well as the place being fairly riot-proof.

  2. Lovely writing. I look forward to your posts, and devour them when they arrive.
    It feels about as close to eating there as you can get without actually being there.
    Thank you!

  3. dayo says:

    Brilliant review!

  4. Ruki says:

    Mathew, your writing is such an inspiration. The moment I start reading, I feel as though I’ve been transported by portkey to the scene of your culinary experience. I am dying to attend one of your Gaurdian masterclasses! Looking forward to your next installment already.

  5. Have been to The Ledbury a couple of times with the kids for family celebrations. The combination of outstanding food and relaxed atmosphere was striking as was the friendliness of the staff towards the children. They brought food, as yet uncooked, to the table for the kids to examine, made special happy birthday dessert plates (at no extra charge), and generally initiated them into fine dining. As a mother concerned with the education of the younger generation’s palate, I felt that my boys had mastered the nursery slopes.

  6. I never knew how much information there was out there about this!

    Thank you for making it simple to understand

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