james debate
james debate

Friday 7 March 2014

Head Chef Nuno Mendes
Style American Fusion
Address 1 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7PA
Telephone +44 (0)20 7073 7676

new london restaurant chiltern firehouse nuno mendes viajante michelin andre balazs

For anyone reading up on the restaurant scene in London, the past few weeks will have seemed a constant bombardment of hype regarding The Chiltern Firehouse. From the Telegraph and the Guardian to Timeout and the Londonist, you can't look anywhere without seeing it mentioned. The aptly named restaurant is quite possibly the hottest thing in town right now.

There are two main reasons to justify the existence of such hype before anyone has even tried the food: André Balazs, and Nuno Mendes. The former is the noted American hotelier with a penchant for the glamorous and surreal, while the latter is one of the hottest up and coming chefs in world cuisine, who earned two Michelin stars on his first attempt with former restaurant Viajante.

For Balazs, The Chiltern Firehouse represents his first hotel opened outside the United States, the culmination of a drawn out process which almost saw him purchase a site on Saville Row some seven years ago. While the hotel itself has yet to open one can already appreciate the quality and level of detail that has been put into its design. While the Victorian-gothic converted firehouse and gleaming brass kitchen fittings lend an authentically industrial feel to the room, its predominately wood fixtures and lavish furnishing create a suitably warm and rustic feel. The calmly lit room is instantly comfortable in its retro surroundings.

So while Balazs brings his trademark impeccable style to the decor and atmosphere, Nuno brings his to the kitchen. In many ways the style of the Chiltern Firehouse is a drastic departure from Viajante, no set menus, relatively affordable prices (£50 per head vs £150), and a heavily American-influenced menu. But what people adored most about Viajante was the creativity and playfulness of Nuno, each meal treated almost as a carnival of food, and that same flair is apparent throughout the Chiltern Firehouse's menu, creating an array of dishes that are truly unique, and completely unlike anything you will find elsewhere.

The place to be seated is at the counter surrounding the kitchen, taking a page from the "workshop" concept of Joel Robuchon's L'Atelier. Here one can see every action within the buzzing kitchen, offering a truly fascinating look at the care that goes into crafting something artistic from simple ingredients. Sitting here also means you're going to be seeing a lot of Nuno himself, who likes to greet guests and discuss his work openly. A brief chat will be enough to demonstrate just how passionate he is about food, and how seriously he takes the restaurant business.

Through such discussion we learned that the departure from set menus was a very deliberate decision to avoid comparisons with Viajante, and hence the decidedly more reasonable price tag. That £50 per head price we quoted earlier will get you one bar snack (£1-5 each), one starter (£7-12), one main course (£17-30), one side dish and one dessert, a very reasonable return from any central London restaurant, let alone such a prominent one in a trendy hotel with the hottest chef in town. Equally it is entirely possible to get a simple starter/main combo for as little as £25-30, not especially expensive at all by London standards.

As for the food itself (the menu is still being tweaked as we understand), everything comes with a distinctly American twist. The bar snacks menu includes dishes such as crab doughnuts, fried chicken with bacon and maple infused ranch dip, and cornbread fingers. The starters include various types of crudo and squab with grains, chicory and redcurrants, while the main courses include maple-glazed salmon, monkfish cooked over pine with puff barley and fennel, and The "Firehouse" Caesar salad. Meanwhile as a side dish you can find maple-bourbon sweet potato.

The Ephemeric's duo of researchers ordered between them the following:

Bar Snacks
Crab doughnuts
Crispy beetroot blunts
Squab with grains, chicory and redcurrants 
Steamed scallop special
Chargrilled Iberico pork with roasted garlic and lemon
Maple-glazed salmon with crispy skin and beet risotto
Maple-bourbon sweet potato
Chocolate torte with vanilla
Apple panna cotta with herb granite and dried meringue

Aside from an overabundance of beetroot it's hard to find a single misstep in the menu. That all dishes are beautiful to look at is a given, but it's the bold flavours and playful combinations that make them memorable. The crab doughnuts are inspired, the squab is served shockingly pink and succulent to the taste while the mixed grains provide the perfect contrast. The scallop is beautifully served in the shell, and the Iberico pork. an homage to one of Viajante's signature dishes, comes close to achieving the same greatness of its inspiration. But particular note has to be made of the maple-bourbon sweet potato side dish, which was so divine that even days later the taste is stuck in The Ephemeric's head.

With the Chiltern Firehouse Nuno has gone to great lengths to create a distinct experience from his previous restaurant, but without doubt anyone who loved Viajante will find themselves equally enamoured here. The same atmosphere of fun and celebration permeates the setting, while the more casual style ensures comfort; the entire experience is a joy from start to finish, and for barely an above average London price it simply can't be beat. The menu is diverse and of a high enough quality that The Ephemeric is already eagerly anticipating our next visit. The Chiltern Firehouse may be the hype restaurant of the moment, but all signs point towards a new permanent fixture in London, one that will be around for years to come.

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