It is very easy to smile when sweeping into the foyer of a luxury hotel, shaking off the inevitable droplets of London rain and heading into the stylish dining room for some delicious cuisine. The Berkeley hotel, in London’s Knightsbridge, has seen it all before. The gentleman who took my coat held it at arm’s length to avoid transferring any water onto his smart uniform and didn’t raise an eyebrow at my gleeful grin. Gleeful because we were to sample the delights of the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley.
Marcus Wareing, who also oversees The Gilbert Scott restaurant at St Pancras, is a familiar face on UK television cookery programmes and his career has seen him working under the likes of Albert Roux and Pierre Koffmann to develop his French-influenced, modern European cuisine. The restaurant, which has been open at The Berkeley since 2008, is a serious looking room, with dark wood furniture and only hints of more modern design in the white, latticed shutters and the strings of glass balls beside the kitchen entrance that reminded me of a huge abacus.
Situated amid London’s most luxurious shops and offices, the Berkeley gets a steady flow of lunchtime custom and the restaurant was buzzing with business people, couples and groups, all wearing a smile similar to my own. Celebrity or not, it’s important to remember that behind – or perhaps in front of – every great chef is a great team. The restaurant manager, Dimitri, personally welcomed us and showed us to our seats, winning our hearts at once with polite but genuine humour, succulent skewers of pigeon with apple, slightly spiced fish croquettes and two glasses of Champagne (what else?).
At lunchtime, there is a three course set menu, with the option of a cheese course, but we were lucky enough to be able to try more than one option from each course. The bread selection circled the room and arrived at our table with two types of butter (the standout favourite of which was caramelised butter with rock salt), just before our amuse bouche arrived. This cauliflower soup with parmesan foam was rich, full of flavour and the perfect antidote to the chilly weather. Our first plates and cutlery were removed with speed I have rarely witnessed and sommelier Antoine came over immediately to discuss his wine selections.
At any dinner, at any restaurant, there will always be a standout dish. At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, mine was the pumpkin agnolotti, sweet bulbs of filled pasta, in a salty, shellfish bisque. This was a very light dish – just three agnolotti sat on a bed of leaves with slivers of almond scattered over the top and the bisque was added at the table. The contrast between the pumpkin and the shellfish was intriguing and delicious and Antoine’s first wine choice, a floral Torrontes Tillia 2011 from Argentina, was a great match.
The second wine, a Grenache Gris Lafage 2011, had a crisper, citrus taste. It was another good choice alongside the sneaky, second appetiser we managed to try. This was grilled mackerel with apple, rocket and chorizo, which meant an explosion of strong-flavoured ingredients that were somehow artfully balanced and the deep fried rice grains created an interesting and crunchy textural experience.
The wine for the main course swiftly followed, but Charlotte and I had to plead for mercy and to be allowed to wait a moment before plunging into the next dish. Veterans of the many course menu, it seemed that the speed of a lunchtime service had taken us completely by surprise. Of course, when one is passing by and stops for lunch, one is happy if the service is speedy and efficient. Later, I am sure, diners are allowed a little longer to linger over their dinners.
We, however, were in a lingering mood and this prompted Dimitri to suggest that we might like a tour of the kitchen. We accepted and, moments later, were introduced to Chef Wareing and his Head Chef, Mark. Dimitri also took a moment to show us the Chef’s Table, an alcove where up to eight diners can observe what goes on in the kitchen, while enjoying a specially designed feast of their own, each course of which is personally explained to them by the chef that has put it together. As usual, it only took a few moments in the kitchen to whet the appetite again and we headed back for the main course.
The wine, which had been waiting for us, was an Alisios 2010 Tempranillo, Tourigua, Brazil. The food, oxtail with pommes puree, carrot and kale, tasted hearty but still managed to appear colourful and delicate. The sheer meatiness of the oxtail was impressive – salty and warming, it was nicely enhanced by the oaky and red berry flavours of the wine.
Another member of the excellent front of house team was Aurélien, a cheese expert amongst other things, who presented us with a cheese course when we admitted that we were big cheese fans. This was a composed cheese course, decided upon by the kitchen and presented as any other course would be, rather than allowing the guest to select from the trolley. Served on a slate and accompanied by rye and raisin bread, we had a slice of Coulommiers, crushed walnuts and clementine. Unfortunately, the cheese had not quite reached room temperature and so some of the flavour was lost where it was still firm and unripe in the centre. The soft edges, on the other hand, were divinely truffly and irresistible. A few minutes longer would have made it perfect and we, perhaps, must admit some culpability because we had demanded cheese that was not part of our menu!
The dessert options were both light, which made them perfect for lunch. The first was a white chocolate dessert with oats, against which the accompanying blood orange really stood out. The second also featured a similar contrast of sharp and creamy in the combination of rhubarb and panna cotta with a hint of ginger. We finished with petit fours of heavenly Dominican Republic dark chocolate and a tiny, tasty piece of Wareing’s now famous custard tart.
During our dinner, the dining room had cleared. Shoppers had gone to Harrods, business people to work and groups had parted company to continue with their separate afternoons. Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley is perfect for lunch, quick to provide excellent food without making you feel hurried. Sometimes, however, dining so well at lunch can result in an unwillingness to get back to the ‘real world’, and Marcus Wareing and his team are equally up to the challenge of making lunch a delight to be lingered over. Whether it’s a quick stop or a special occasion, make sure you plan as far in advance as possible. Not only are they sure to be fully booked if you leave it too late, but you can spend weeks smiling in anticipation.
Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
London, SW1X 7RL