Well, stone me. All is changed, changed utterly. Tom Aikens. The restaurant, not the man. Gone the suave polish of a French-inspired restaurant, the rich carpeting and heavy linen tablecloths, the weighty cutlery and waiters uniformed in black and white. Gone, too, that sense of luxury and expense and formality. Everything has been stripped back, pared down, reduced, not quite to basics (unless your basics are of the expensively-tailored kind), but to an essence that is only achieved by a great deal of thought and a good deal of money.
Outside the shrubs marking the entrance have vanished, and almost all exterior branding. There’s a small, discrete, almost spidery ‘Tom Aikens’ above the door. The meaningful matt black exterior serves as a stern warning of the bareness inside – bare oak floor boards, bare oak tables, bare oak and wrought-iron chairs (pretty comfortable). Actually, they have an almost sculptural quality. The walls are what appear to be concrete, into some of which have incised pertinent quotations from the likes of Marilyn van Horne (who? I had to look her up, and so you will, too), Mahatma Gandhi, Miss Piggy and Tom Aikens, himself. There are a few artfully placed mirrors to add ghostly reflection. The only colour comes from small sprigs of flowers on each table, which sit in curious vases with rounded bottoms, which roll around like drunken sailors but never fall over. Overall, it comes across as a kind of industrial, metro-rural chic. It has the sharp shock of a roll in the snow after a sauna.
Tom Aikens (the chef, not the restaurant) has never been the man for the half measure. The menu and the style of his food, has been re-thought with the same thoroughness as the room. Indeed, it would make nonsense of the whole exercise if he had not. He has erased virtually all trace of the French culinary influences of his past, the deep pile sauces, the hard-driven flavours, the piling of effect on effect, and focused instead on the principle (British) ingredient, working to bring harmony to dish, rather than the rather rococo pyrotechnics which marked his dishes formerly.
Instead, there is a new clarity and sense of focus.. There is an apparently uncontrived naturalness to the dishes. But it is only apparent. Beneath the artless arrangements there is complexity as well as technical mastery. All the elements are superbly cooked. Multiple textures and flavours are handled with rare finesse – floppy leaves of Romaine lettuce, crunch breadcrumbs, firm meat; burly lamb, sweet lettuce, sharp anchovy, musky ewe’s cheese, toasty breadcrumbs, rich, pure gravy. This is actually pretty thrilling stuff.
He can do the light and delicate touch, too. There’s a dish labeled as raw turnip salad. Not exactly a sexy come-on, more hair shirt than plush velvet, you might think. What you actually get are thin, crunchy slices of turnip, pale turnip juice, bitter, mustard leaves; sweet chestnut cream; small soft rolls of chestnut and little cubes of jelly (turnip?). The appearance is carefully uncontrived. The effect is clean, light, and intriguingly complex.
A number of major chefs have managed to do wonders with cauliflower. Joel Robuchon teamed it with caviar. Heston Blumenthal created a cauliflower risotto in inimitable fashion. To the roll of cauli-lovers we can add Tom Aikens. He has teamed it in various forms (creamed, roasted, raw slivers) with roasted John Dory and a light dusting of cumin.
I could go on through each course, but you’d probably get fed up with my lip-smacking indulgence, so I’ll stop there. It easy for the forensic critic to forget that most people go to restaurants to have a good time, not to sit in hushed silence, painstakingly parsing each dish as it arrives. Let’s just say that there was plenty more to admire and indulge in.
Tom Aikens (the man, not the restaurant) has taken a gamble re-inventing himself so completely. He risks alienating a sizable following who liked the full-blown opulence of his French days. He risks people finding the new austerity a little too serious, even monastic. Above all, he risks be labeled as Noma rip-off.
But it’s simply too easy, and facile, to say that Tom Aikens has taken his inspiration and style from the great Scandinavian revolution. No doubt there has been some cross-fertilization. However, I’m not convinced that the Scandinavian revolution is quite as revolutionary as all that (cf Marc Veyrat and Edouard Loubet a dozen years ago). And there were elements of Mr. Aikens earlier style that were clues to the direction to which his culinary thinking has turned – those vast salads of all kinds of weird leaves and other bits, the careful sourcing of British ingredients with very particular gastronomic colours and qualities.
Instead, I’d say that the new approach is the mark of chef who is mature and confident enough to take a completely fresh direction, and one skilled enough to pull it off.
Tom Aikens, 43 Elystan Street, London SW3 3NT
020 7584 2003
There is the a la carte, a 6-course tasting menu at £55 and an 8 courser at £80, plus a lunchtime menu at £24). That gives plenty of entry points for curious eaters. I had the 6-course menu at £55. My final bill came to £101 for just me. But then I did drink rather well.