Monday, 11 March 2013

Wild Honey, Club Gascon & The Chancery: Pitting 3 Fine Dining Restaurants Against Each Other

This week I went to 3 'fine dining' restaurants, for various reasons - a celebration, catching up with an old friend and a date. It's not normal for me to go to three of these in a week, and it struck me it would be a good opportunity to compare and contrast. They were Wild Honey, Club Gascon and The Chancery.

It's easy to assume that 'fine dining' restaurants will be perfect for any occasion, but some are more romantic, some are better for groups and it's not something you can necessarily find out until you arrive at the restaurant, in which case it's too late.

Two had Michelin stars and were French, one was English and didn't. I had a great time at all of them, but in terms of value for money, they varied widely - I couldn't believe how much the price vs my experience of the place differed, because they didn't necessarily correspond.

Wild Honey

We were one of the first tables in - and we were seated by the door. Not off to the best start. One of the first things that was made abundantly clear was the lack of music. If you've been in a near-empty restaurant with no music, you'll know how bloody uncomfortable it is to talk in anything above hushed tones, for fear of being too loud. Staff seemed to be a bit inconsistent - whilst most were smiley, we were opposite the hostess' greeting desk and she didn't seem to be particularly happy. The food is expensive. From £15-£20 for a starter and £25-£35 for a main course, I hoped that my mother never found out I'd been here (she is the epitome of frugalness and would be horrified). The problem with a la Carte menu is that it's much easier to see what you're spending on what - somehow if you're spending the same amount on a set menu, it always somehow appears to be better value.

The smoked salmon starter was cooked to perfection, if not a little predictably paired with beetroot. My tomato and octopus salad was possibly one of the most boring dishes I've ever had: under-ripe anaemic-looking tomatoes and the tiniest smidgens of sauces. As starters were served, I noted that we still had butter knives and butter. Unfortunately, no bread (which they remembered as they served the main courses). My cod was nice enough, but I couldn't help thinking it was a bit under-seasoned and soggy. The highlight was the dessert - rhubarb granola - beautifully silky, tender pieces of rhubarb with rhubarb jelly, seeds and mascarpone sorbet. And of course those decorative pansy leaves chefs are so very fond of which no doubt made it more attractive but didn't really add anything to the taste.

Rbubarb 'granola'

The bill was £145 for 2 starters, mains, desserts and a bottle of house white. There was a considerable wait for coats as they disappeared into the back of the lengthy room - message received. They don't have to try and impress us any more. Most of the service was pleasant but it all smacked of the bare minimum. I wouldn't go back there. I've heard Arbutus isn't all that much cop these days either.

Club Gascon
Playing in the background was tinkling piano, typical loungey music. As my friend sat down she remarked on how romantic the atmosphere was, which was true - ideal for a catchup with a friend, right? The sommelier was very helpful (and good-looking with great hair, just FYI) and helped us choose a glass of wine that matched with our meals and dessert - not trying to sell us a ridiculously expensive glass of wine. There's nothing more embarrassing than being upsold wine and having to ask for a lower-priced one. He did explain in more detail than we needed (just tell us which one! I don't know how this wine is 'fun'!).

Sea urchin veloute with cauliflower
The chefs' menu is incredibly good value for a dinner at £28 for 3 courses. There is an a la carte option but it works out as far more expensive. And it mostly very good. The amuse bouche was a bit weird, and I didn't really know what it was due to my French waiter's slightly unintelligible accent (the language barrier was a problem at a few times during the evening). I should mention that there was a hateful portmanteau on the menu: 'quinotto' (quinoa risotto, I presume). I did not order it. Things were equally as weird moving onto the starters. There was a sea urchin veloute with cauliflower and crisps on the menu, so of course I had to try that as the weirdest looking thing on there. It was, also, weird. I think perhaps it is an acquired taste and it was definitely interesting, but I couldn't really say if I enjoyed it. It felt more like an exercise in different textures as opposed to taste. On another note, the 'crisps' served with it were the exact colour and consistency of fish food.

Pastrami onglet

Main courses were more promising. The cod was firm and went a dream with the butternut squash puree. The beef pastrami onglet was tender and due to the curing, with so much more flavour than a normal steak. Things fell a bit when it came to desserts - the mango soup with mojito sorbet (I ordered it out of perverse curiosity and am still at a loss as to why restaurants serve a soup for dessert). It was alike to a fruity drink that you might drink by the pool. Coffee came with petits fours, which were the usual chocolate affair - truffles, chocolate-covered almonds and chocolate covered papaya.

Mango soup

This was my favourite in terms of experience - the staff looked after us beautifully well - not a dropped napkin, not a look went unnoticed. The food fell a bit short sometimes, but at the end of the night I had a huge smile on my face: testament to the fact that good service can make up for, not awful, but a bit weird, food. The bill was £90 for 3 courses each, 2 glasses of wine and 2 glasses of dessert wine.

The Chancery

I don't know why more people don't talk about The Chancery. It's central, it serves food that's inventive and interesting and it's fairly good value. But oh, I forgot - it hasn't got any 'quirky' dishes or interiors (well, the interior could perhaps do with that, but more on that later).

The service leaves a little to be desired - it's a little unintelligible sometimes and there were a few instances when it was a little slow, including the fact that they forgot about our remaining wine in the bucket until we had finished our meal, but it was incredibly warm and friendly so these things can be forgiven to a certain extent. The room is a pretty weird sludgy colour and a pretty weird room, being split up into two parts, which at first made me feel quite uneasy for some reason - perhaps because it all seemed so… formal.
Parsnip soup (after that my battery died)
I soon forgot about that when the food came, though. At £35 for 3 courses, the set menu was nearly as good value as Club Gascon. There was more choice there, but I'm never sure if more choice is necessarily a good thing. Amuse bouche was a parsnip soup topped with flaked almonds - a great, simple way to start. The starters were varying: the lobster cannelloni (I think it was blackened with squid ink) was a few small bites of decadence, the coriander playing off against the subtle lobster, well worth the £4 supplement. The cod cheeks were a little cold but the accompanying cornichons and aioli were a great match for it nonetheless. Main courses were better than anything combined - the Cornish plaice with razor clams and glazed parsnips was perfectly cooked and the apple smoked pork was brought to a new level of smokiness by the fact that it was rolled in ash. Desserts were both very pink, the rhubarb panna cotta was creamy and the jelly surround was a great contrast but the tiny custard doughnut and liquorish sorbet didn't quite work so well, sadly. The blood orange cheesecake's turkish delight ice cream was a much better.

This was not necessarily the best experience but the food was better here than either of the two places - I still walked out grinning. The bill was about £120, with 3 courses, with a bottle of wine and 2 glasses of dessert wine.

Price wise, Wild Honey the dearest and Club Gascon the cheapest (perhaps owing to our not being charged for dessert wine, though) so this came in at the middle. If it's experience and expert service you are looking for, Club Gascon. If excellent food, The Chancery. If paying through the nose for a fairly pleasant but unremarkable experience, Wild Honey.

Wild Honey
12 St George Street, London, W1S 2FB
Wild Honey on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Club Gascon
57 West Smithfield, London, EC1A 9DS

Club Gascon on Urbanspoon Square Meal

The Chancery
No. 9 Cursitor Street, London, EC4 1LL

The Chancery on Urbanspoon Square Meal

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