Finding home again. My time working and dining @ The Ledbury

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tell Brett and the guys we said hi!

Josh and Jess

Dined November 2013
The Ledbury
127 Ledbury Road London, England
http://www.theledbury.com

Sheer opulence. A decadent dinner @ Eleven Madison Park

Sheer opulence. A decadent dinner @ Eleven Madison Park

When Chef Daniel Humm first took over Eleven Madison Park the, forgive me, “hum” set through New York City. Eating here has been on my dream list since I first flipped through the pages of Humm’s incredible cookbook. Tonight I get to live my dream of dining at the number five restaurant in the world. Tonight we dine at Eleven Madison Park.

We dress up in our loveliest frocks and jump in a cab. The restaurant is of course located on Madison Avenue and though our russian cabbie had no clue where we were headed we got there safe in the end. Stepping through the front doors we realise just how enormous this restaurant actually is. Glorious high ceilings and extravagant decor. We are greeted by a team of expert waitstaff and escorted to our table. Champagne for me to start and cocktails for the girls.

We begin the grand tasting course, Jess’s camera poised at the ready for some serious food shots, a savoury black and white cookie with flavours of cheddar and apple. The black and white cookie is distinctly New York and the inversion of flavours is wonderful. The cheddar is sharp and the apple adds a lovely sour tang. First course is downed in a single delicious bite.

image This is followed by sea urchin snow with smoked cantaloupe and yoghurt. The oceanic mineral flavour of the urchin is lightened with the addition of yoghurt. Usually urchin has quite a challenging texture for many diners but this snow was light and powdery. Combined with the smokey cantaloupe made for an interesting combination that I really enjoyed. Jess isn’t an enormous fan of urchin but enjoyed it in this form. As I’m writing this review I realise just how huge it is going to get so i’ll do my best not to waffle on too much.

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Our next course is served on a bed of sand, a perfectly clean and shiny surf clam nestles in amongst the dune and we dive in to a delicious dish. Surf clam, tomato, beans and savoury. The tomato comes in a form of a lighter than air foam and the savoury is a rich smokey bacon. This was a delight to eat, the beans added a great creaminess and the tomato rounded out the smokey flavour.

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Continuing on in the seafood surprises our next course is a good old fashioned American Clam bake! A teapot filled with a wonderfully savoury tomato tea arrives at the table alongside several preparations of little neck clams, razor clams and scallop. Dubbed the “manhattan chowder” this dish was pure class. Perfectly cooked seafood, a crystal clear tomato tea and a savoury cracker shard that was crisp and crunchy. Humm’s nod to American cuisine is ingenious without ever losing direction or purpose.

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Our next dish was a dish of decadence. Lobster, in serious amounts. On the menu the dish reads tomato confit with lobster salad and bonito but to me this dish was all about the creamy crustacean. Claws were stuffed with a mousselline of lobster meat, topped with a tomato espuma, the confit tomato was stuffed with more lobster and this dish screamed summer seafood. We’re five courses in and my mouth is demanding more.

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Now the lobster was decadent but the next course is just lush, opulence and all things yummy. Foie gras brûlée with summer berries and beets. The foie is so light and caramelised on top like a perfect free form creme brûlée, the berries add little pops of acidity to balance all that creaminess and the beet gives just a touch of earthiness to tie everything in a neat little package. Yum! I devoured this course and most of the girls.

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Suddenly a meat grinder is attached to the table. Have we done something wrong? Is chef coming out to grind our fingers due to our offence? No, in fact he is preparing our next course. Carrot tartare with rye bread and condiments. This dish put the diner in control. The carrot was ground down and we were able to choose the flavours. There was plum mustard, horseradish, pickled quail egg, mustard seeds, chives, the list goes on and on. With every flavour combination the carrot was altered in a different way. I thought this dish was a great expression of a humble ingredient.

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Now we’re moving through courses. This is Tanya’s first fifteen course gastronomic experience and I don’t think she knew quite what she was getting into because the eyes are starting to bulge! Jess and I have become well seasoned eaters to say the least and the next course was a great display of chefs skill. Black bass poached with zucchini and squash blossoms. The delicate piece of bass had been “rescaled” with perfect rounds of zucchini, the squash blossom was filled with ratatouille. This is precision cooking, wonderfully soft fall apart fish, a perfect brunoise on the ratatouille the chefs here take everything they do very seriously. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy.

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We are officially half way through the dining experience so you are half way through this insanely lengthy review. Hang in there because the food just kept getting better and more incredible with each dish. Next we’re served an enormous ostrich egg, this is the inspiration of our next dish. Ostrich egg with corn pudding, truffle and buttermilk.  The corn is sweet and served in many textures with the eggy richness pairing with wonderfully earthy black truffle. Did I mention this place was decadent?

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Now it’s time for some meat! It arrives in the form of a whole roasted duck, filled with fragrant lavender and crusted in intensely floral Szechuan pepper. This dish was an incredible treatment of the duck. Perfectly pink, the Szechuan gave the skin gorgeous crackle that snapped under tooth before biting into the juicy flesh. Just thinking about it again is making me salivate. The duck was served with a roasted, fermented apricot which gave a kind of sweet sour note and some roasted fennel. As a side dish we also get the perfect one bite, a tantalising mix of confit duck rillette and foie gras. As if this dish wasn’t good enough already!

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Next we go on a picnic in the park, Greensward washed rind cheese, pretzel, mustard and green tomato. A picnic basket is delivered to our table which we unpack like hungry children. Leaving it up to Jessica, she makes our table look pretty and neat. The unusual part of this dish was not only the picnic but the fact that the cheese and the beer served alongside is made specifically for Eleven Madison Park. The washed rind cheese is soaked in the beer and aged for two weeks, this gave it a very wheat characteristic that I loved its the sour bite of washed rind. The beer was also used in the pretzel dough which accentuated the malt characteristics. The entire dish worked well on such a grand scale that I was blown away. A perfect end to the savoury part of our menu.

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The next dish excites Jess because here comes dessert. It begins with an egg cream. Shaken together table side for all of us with flavours of malt, vanilla and seltzer. It’s delightfully fizzy and sends a rush of bubbles straight up my nose. Lots of fun and freshens the palate wonderfully.

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Now the actual dessert begins with sassafras. The primary flavour in root beer comes here served as a sorbet alongside banana cake, caramel and vanilla. The sassafras has an extraordinary vegetative quality that I thought brought this seemingly simple dish into another realm. Jess enjoyed it thoroughly as it was gone in around 4 seconds.

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Our final dessert arrives with a show, initially the dessert consists of red pepper sorbet, cheesecake with strawberry and cashew. However our lovely waitress brings a deck of cards, each with specific flavours. Tanya cuts the card deck and she assigns us three individual cards. Each with the flavours mint, orange and lime. Lift up our plates and hey presto for me a mint chocolate, for Jess a lime and for Tanya the orange. Not only can this guy cook. He is a wizard! A kind of comic play on the millions of street performers within New York, we thought it was great. The dessert itself was a great sweet and savoury end to the meal with the capsicum flavour being cuddled along with strawberry and cashew.

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We grab the check and with it our true final course some chocolate covered pretzels and an original black and white cookie. To finish with these iconic New York snacks just brought us back into the beautiful city of New York.

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 To say that Chef Daniel Humm’s food is incredible is an understatement. For me his food screams of the city of New York. A city of decadence, opulence, bright lights and big sights. This meal is another one on our quest for perfection and it was a perfect New York experience. Service is warm, relaxed and friendly with all the little extras thrown in and the food took me to the city streets, in a way that I have never felt before. We usually associate terroir with wine but the meal at Eleven Madison Park has New York terroir, with all the fine trimmings and just a little bit of attitude.

Start spreading the news, I wanna be apart of it.

New York, New York.

Josh and Jess

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave Manhattan, New York USA
http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com