Finding home again. My time working and dining @ The Ledbury
Well this is it, the reason why I’m here. It’s been a long year of saving, trip planning and travelling but I am standing outside the number thirteen restaurant in the world. My backpack heavy with my knives, aprons, clogs and notebook. Notting Hill drizzles with rain, a solitary milk truck makes its rounds behind me. The streets are empty at 8am and there is an air of calm about the place. Time to get to work.
So this is a dining review of Brett Graham’s incredible restaurant, The Ledbury, but as I’ve been working here these past few weeks I thought I’d give you a little insight into what actually goes on at one of the best restaurants in the world. This is what started our journey and it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Rain seeps down the stairs as I head down and introduce myself to the chefs, each of them are furiously prepping violet artichokes, they’ll be on for lunch today with fresh walnuts and grated foie gras. “Grab a peeler.” I’m home. Fish arrives at the back door. Oceanic, bright, caught this morning. Turbot slips past me and onto the fish section where Billy thoroughly inspects the quality. This is The Ledbury if it’s not perfect, it’s not being served. Turbot passes inspection, mackerel on the other hand gets a check from Sous Chef Greg, “yesterdays weren’t that bright, we sent them back.” Today the silver, shining fish stare back almost still live, inspection passed.
Suddenly I’m slapped on the back. “You’re Troy’s boy aren’t ya!” Holy crap it’s Brett Graham. I manage to stutter out a “nice to meet you chef, yeah I worked for Troy.” “You’ll fit right in here than.” He charges through the kitchen checking prep, tasting sauces and ensuring everyone is ready for lunch. I’m on canapés today so I quickly head over and check my section; gruyere mousse, wafer thin tart shells made from brick pastry and dehydrated olives. The fridge is also used for garnish so my drawers are stuffed with black truffles from Wiltshire, foie gras mousse, painstakingly picked wood sorrel, quail eggs wrapped in katafi and other woodland greens.
Service is like watching a well oiled machine, there are chefs that have been here for years, others that have just started. The pace is hectic, dockets fly in for tasting, a la carte, special menus and the food they pump out is something truly special. After I take a quick punishing on canapés trying to keep my damn hands from trembling I get thrown onto starters. Flame grilled mackerel with pickled cucumber, Celtic mustard and shiso. My first real plate at The Ledbury, I am plating at one of the best restaurants in the world, this is incredible. “That swipes not clean enough Josh, we’ll start that one again.” Damn! Well I’m here to learn and the rest go out without a hitch. The pace is addictive, Brett charging forward with the service yelling jobs at all his crew. “Go on two deer Jules!” “Foam this velouté,” “pull plates for curd” this is unbelievable. The team work so well together and the energy is infectious.
Lunch is finished and we scrub every possible surface from top to bottom, prep is pulled. Dinner looms. Brett has something that is truly unique, his ever changing menu allows him to fully utilise the produce that is best at that moment. Nothing is wasted; jowls of pigs are slow cooked to perfect, rich deliciousness, scallop corals are infused in stocks to make sauces, mushroom trimmings become silky purée. It is a wonderful way to cook and has made me think so much about my own cookery and how I want to emulate this style. Now I could talk about working here forever it was such great experience but I think it’s time we get to food.
So here we go.
Jess and I are dressed to impress and look incredibly out of place on the tube bound for Notting Hill. The Ledbury calls, after working here for these past few weeks I just cannot wait to eat. Yes I’ve been tasting as much as I can along the way but it’s nothing compared to experiencing the full dining room, the stunning decor and the wonderful service from our host Darren.
We’re seated and drinks are poured, a little champagne from Brett, thanks chef! We are sitting back and letting chef Greg do our menu for us. So no agonising choices to make, just relax and let the team do what they do best. Our canapés arrive, those little bites I’ve now prepped like a thousand times. Goat’s cheese mousse, spiced brick pastry, dehydrated olives. The goat’s cheese is whipped till light and fluffy and the lightly spiced tart crunches fantastically. A great little bite. Let’s eat.
Cevice of hand diced scallops with Tokyo turnips, seaweed oil and frozen horseradish. It’s cold here in London but this dish is oddly warming, the creamy scallop and the heat of horseradish tempered by umami rich seaweed seems to warm the cockles. The dining room here is softly lit, stag horn centrepieces and rich copper tones also make the space feel wonderfully warm. The scallop is incredible quality, I helped prize these beauties from their shells, and the little pops of spherified apple freshen up the dish.
Next a lump of clay is brought to our table, inside, a roasted beetroot. Our waiter cracks through the baked shell and releases earthy aromas throughout the restaurant. For your next course, beetroot baked in clay with smoked eel and dried olives. The dish arrives looking picturesque and smelling fantastic. Deliciously soft beetroot takes an even earthier note from the clay, the smoked eel brings a lovely taste from the water that pairs well with the bitter olives and sweet beets. This dish is fantastic, a great treating of the humble beetroot truly making it sing.
Quail egg in crisp katafi, cauliflower and truffle. This is a dish that really speaks of The Ledbury, an ingredient they use insanely well is our friend the black truffle. The egg is oozey and soft, diving into the bright white cauliflower purée and covered, and I mean covered, in black truffle. The katafi pastry is fried to crisp golden crunchiness and a little vinaigrette of cep works to balance all that richness. What a dish, simple yet executed perfectly.
Next boudin of pheasant, chestnut and thyme velouté. Using the pheasant in a boudin is clever as the meat can sometimes dry, here it is mixed with a little fat and gently poached keeping the whole thing moist and delicious. The chestnut and thyme work so well together giving everything a note of the forest, the thyme velouté is frothed lightly over the dish and cuts through rich chestnut and moorish boudin. Jess and I loved this dish, so much more than just pheasant, the food here allows the ingredients to shine. Brett and his team ensure this by only using the highest quality of products and treating them with the respect they deserve.
Another great combination arrives, halibut with pumpkin, crispy ginger and mandarin. The fish is roasted beautifully, the pumpkin appears in a few forms; a soft froth bubbling in and around the fish like the lapping of ocean waves, some roasted spheres and a purée mixed with the tart mandarin. Fish cookery at its finest, it is light, delicate and flakes apart at the lightest touch. The ginger and mandarin brought an almost asiatic vibe to this dish that was refreshing after what can only be described as incredibly modern contemporary british food. Brett being a fellow Aussie is more then used to the melting pot of cultures within cuisine and here is a great example of his own interpretations.
Jess and I have debated and argued over this next dish, we cannot decide if it was our favourite amongst so many other amazing courses. Celeriac baked in juniper ash with hazelnuts, lardo and roasting juices. I can only begin to describe the taste of this course. The ash gave a smokey floral taste to the celeriacs somewhat bitter flesh. Lardo and hazelnuts brought the luxury to an almost peasant dish. To use an ingredient so simply and create something so divine is the mark of true talent, I loved this dish. I cleared my plate and was eyeing of Jess’s like a crazed maniac, lucky our next course arrived and I fell in love all over again.
Roast breast of pigeon with Victoria plums, red vegetables and leaves. Brett and his team cook everything fantastically but their standout performances come to game, it is something Brett and I have in common, we both love cooking and eating game. This dish was a wonderful, succulent breast of wood pigeon aged in hay before being roasted to perfection. Plums being a lovely partner to game with beets and wilted red leaves bringing everything to earth. A little dot of foie gras mousse gave another level of creamy decadence. Game birds have such amazing flavour and yet they don’t seem to be utilised as much back home, here they stand up proud.
Now for some meat, and I mean probably some of the best quality beef I have ever eaten, no it’s not wagyu, I find that the flavours of great beef tend to be found in grass fed, well aged cuts. Fillet of belted Galloway with crisp potato, smoked marrow and burnt onion. This meat tasted of true beef, now I sometimes think fillet, being an under-utilised muscle can lack flavour, here the ageing process and the addition of smoked marrow made the grass and umami flavours explode. Sweet onions, a sauce of juniper and a purée of parsley combined in meaty harmony. I cannot rave enough about the level of skill the chefs have here, their cookery is what makes them one of the best restaurants in the world and the food showcases their talents.
Stomachs filling it is time for the sweet finish, we begin with a pre dessert of sea buckthorn curd, meringue and mandarin granita. So refreshing, sea buckthorn is a tart little berry found along English shorelines, the sour balanced by sweet meringue and light fluffy mandarin. Following the beef this course completely cleansed the palate and readied us for desserts.
Speaking of desserts what follows is an onslaught of wonderful calories, thank heavens the queen of desserts is here with me or I would have struggled. First another little pre dessert taste, fig leaf ice cream, salted caramel and beignets filled with fig jam. Wow, the fig leaf ice cream tastes vividly green, wild and herbaceous. The caramel is dark and salty bringing great toffee notes playing with the ice cream. Finally who doesn’t love doughnuts, light and puffed, filled with an intense fig jam. This taste was finished in about four mouthfuls.
Next a banana and chocolate malt tartlet. Simply presented yet beautifully complex in texture. Crisp, short, chocolate pastry is filled with caramelised banana, banana ice cream and topped with a seriously dark, decadent chocolate espuma. Finished with some malt crumbs this dish brought new force to choc banana. The pastry was like a whisper, the mousse like a cloud. A lovely dessert of textures and tastes.
As if the chocolate wasn’t rich enough, brown sugar tart with poached grapes and stem ginger ice cream proves to nearly push me over the edge. However the insanely buttery tart is cut down by the cleansing ginger, a great flavour combination made better by the knowledge of just how much work goes into this dish. The perfect timing of the tart in order to set it with that sexy wobble, the agonising chore of peeling grapes and so many other elements that make up this pastry prima ballerina.
We have reached the end. The end of our dinner and the end of my time at The Ledbury, we head down to the kitchen to say goodbye to the guys, we’ve been here for hours and the chefs are deep into the scrub. It’s strange but although I was only here working for a short time I feel like I bonded with the team and they each taught me so much, about food, about becoming a chef and about myself. The entire team at The Ledbury is so dedicated to achieving perfection that it truly infects each and every person who walks through the doors. It shows on their plates, it shows in their fantastic floor staff, every detail is taken care of because giving anything less is just not an option. An inspiring place to work and I still can’t thank the guys enough for letting a starter like me become a part of their team.
Goodbyes are said and we finish off upstairs with petit four, a juniper flavoured biscuit with caramelised cream, apple jellies and eucalyptus chocolates. The final bites to what has been an inspiring meal and the end of an amazing experience. When in London this would be my number one recommendation because the place is truly awesome. Brett and his team create something special every service and will continue to drive the food of London in new directions. Get yourself through these doors.
Tell Brett and the guys we said hi!
Josh and Jess
Dined November 2013
127 Ledbury Road London, England