Kitchen W8 and Library Bar

May 30, 2011

Kitchen W8

In the The Gilbert Scott and Kitchen W8 I could not have picked two more different restaurants to juxtapose.  Where The Gilbert Scott vomits grandeur in its enormous setting at St Pancras, Kitchen W8 is a small and unremarkable space lurking down a quiet street in Kensington.  Where The Gilbert Scott is marred by impressively poor quality of service, the staff at Kitchen W8 are generally (with one or two exceptions I will mention in a bit) extremely responsive, well spoken and discreet.

It is in the cuisine that I found the two places not so far apart.  Although my meal at Kitchen W8 was presented with superior artistry, it tasted ordinary for its class (1 Michelin star awarded this year).

The first thing you will notice when you visit will be the prices.  Our three course set lunch set us back a barely perceptible £19.50 per head.

Wines are reasonably priced, although only a few whites are available by the glass (the rest by bottle only), which could prove restricting for a lone diner.  Thankfully there were three of us on this occasion, and we picked a bottle of Gruner Veltiner (£38.00) from Wagram, Austria, to share.  The set lunch menu, with its fish and poultry, seemed to recommend a white.  The wine was above average with floral notes on the nose and faintly sweet on the palette.

Brother, mother and I all found our starter, a raviolo of ham hock in a pea veloute, pleasant.  The ham hock stuffing bore a taste and texture not too dissimilar from a well cooked sausage.  Thin ribbons of cabbage added a nice hint of crunch.  Overall this course was very easy to eat.  There was nothing awkward about it and none of the flavours clashed at all.  But that’s as far as it went.  None of the ingredients packed any punch, especially the veloute, which only contributed essential moisture.

My main course, a jambonette of chicken with herb spatzle, girolles and an almond and truffle pesto, did not wow me either.  Like the ham hock in my starter, the dominant flavour here came from a single component – the chicken, which was tender, juicy and moreish.  The rest of the dish was neutral and earthy, which again left me wanting.

Brother and mother’s main course of haddock, crayfish and crushed jersey royals was the best presented dish of the day, finished with an obvious flair.  Both seemed to enjoy it.  I began to suspect that I had either picked the wrong dishes, or my taste buds were malfunctioning.

Up to this point, the restaurant was almost empty, but slowly now, more diners began to trickle in.  The speed of service very quickly and irritatingly slowed, almost to a halt.  It seemed there were simply not enough hands on deck.

My dessert of strawberry and elderflower soup finally delivered a straightforwardly fruity kick to the tongue, and was unveiled by the waiter with a smooth pour of the soup over the ice cream, which was at first alone in the centre of the wide bowl.

The soup licked at the sides of the ice cream and swirled to form a sparkly marble effect.  This course was incredibly refreshing, but, once again, lacked pizazz.  The triplet of madelines on a side plate were a complete waste of effort, especially as I find the texture of spongy puddings like these absolutely revolting.  I forced myself to swallow one, then ignored the others.

Brother and mother seemed delighted with their vanilla panacotta served with shortbread, assorted berries and a scoop of basil ice cream.  I tasted a small spoonful and agreed with brother that the combined tastes were redolent of a herb scented garden.  I tested these remarks this morning by picking a sprig from a geranium (just past first flowering) and eating it.  The test results were far from positive.

To conclude our lunch we partook of tea and coffee.  My cappuccino and brother’s americano were satisfactory, but mother’s english breakfast tea, she said, was much too weak.  Chocolates, served on a saucer, were deliciously gooey on the inside, with an acceptable nuttiness.

I twice tried to hail a waiter for the bill, but either because of my timid mouse-like nature or because they weren’t paying attention (the place was rather busy by this point), I failed.  We waited a full ten minutes in a mood of moderate frustration before I commanded brother to “take care of it”, at which point we were noticed, and served shortly thereafter.

As snail-like as the service became later on, I don’t hold a grudge.  In fact my lasting memory of the staff will be of their generally excellent attentiveness.  They just need one or two more waiters on station during the lunch hour.

It was the food, I felt, that really let the experience down.  In this aspect Kitchen W8 is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, just barely worthy of its star.  There was nothing bad or offensive about what was on offer, and ultimately it does represent supreme value for money, but I wasn’t blown away at any point.

Library Bar

From the restaurant we sojourned through the expansive and beautiful Hyde Park.  A dog with shaggy black fur (I’ve no idea what breed) approached us and greeted us warmly.  I thought this was a nice touch.

Anyhoo, Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel had been on my list to visit for a long time, ever since I read some glowing reviews of it online at World’s Best Bars.  The venue did not disappoint.  The Lanesborough’s lobby and long halls are opulently furnished with luxurious sofas, armchairs and statues.

We were directed to the bar, which is immediately to the left as you enter the main hall.  The walls of the bar are decorated with books, or at least what seemed to be books – we couldn’t tell for sure whether we were, in part at least, being given the IKEA fake book treatment.  There are some neat little alcoves too, but we chose a table by the window.

The service was a tad slow, but we managed to fit two drinks each into an hour, or thereabouts.  My first was called The Godfrey – a sweet combination of grand marnier, cognac and creme de mure.  It went down very smoothly, but I found it hard to detect the alcohol content.  A good start but in need of some inspiration, I thought.

Brother’s Space Race—a pretty mix of vodka, lychees, cointreau, guava and cranberries—also came off of the Library Bar’s own collection of recipes.  It was dry and hefty compared to The Godfrey.  It was more up my alley, and I felt like asking for a swap.

Mother’s more expensive champagne cocktail, which I cannot remember the name of, did not meet with approval.  I had a sip and concurred that it was no good.  I have yet to enjoy a champagne-based drink other than plain champagne, but will of course keep you posted if and when it happens.

Second drinks included a respectable ‘classic’ daiquiri, an attractive non-alcoholic invention called the Strawberry Field, and my own first try of a caipirinha (pictured above), which was a success – delivering a welcome dry bitterness and a strong punch of lime.

All of this came with some decent nibbles, including some very large olives.  Brother’s cocktails, and mine, were priced £13.50, a pound or two too high if you ask me.  If you don’t ask me, I’ll just carry on eating my nibbles.

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The Gilbert Scott, Montgomery Place, Thor at Vue Westfield

May 14, 2011

The Gilbert Scott

Google Maps has no idea where The Pancras Renaissance Hotel is.  It finds the right city, London, and the right road, Euston, but beyond that it doesn’t care much about being precise.  As far as it’s concerned, anywhere along that road will do.

The clue, of course, is in the name ‘Pancras’ – something that hadn’t quite clicked in my head until we arrived.  And so, after enduring a thoroughly unpleasant hike and tube journey from Regent’s Park (where Google thought it was located) to St Pancras, which almost made me leap in front of traffic out of frustration, I vowed never to rely solely on Google to direct me to a restaurant again.

The restaurant in question was the newly opened The Gilbert Scott, backed by Marcus Wareing and managed by someone called Chantelle Nicholson.  Chantelle actually appeared several times during our meal (I recognised her from a photograph online), striding affirmatively back and forth, presumably seeing to various management tasks, such as telling people what to do and counting money.

Regardless, the restaurant was indeed located in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the building in which the hotel and station are located is indeed bloody impressive.  I had read beforehand that Sir John Betjeman, supposedly a poet of some renown, had campaigned vigorously against calls for the building’s demolition.  I can appreciate why.  This is a building with spires and grand arches, large windows and so on – something to stand and stare at for a full minute at least before you have lunch.

Since we were already twenty minutes late for our reservation however, lunch could not wait, so standing and staring were postponed.  We proceeded through the main entrance to the hotel, spotted a sign directing us to The Gilbert Scott, and followed it, as you do.  Sadly this was where the management had made its first mistake, by hiring a moronic oaf to guard the hotel.  Rudely, and with an almost incomprehensible foreign accent, he instructed us to about turn and find a separate entrance.

Though we protested (in a state of sheer disbelief at this point), he remained, bouncer-like, insisting that we move along.  I was on the verge of whipping out my rapier and challenging the man to a duel when brother, seeing the mad rage in my eyes, swiftly wheeled the party (mother had also joined us for the day, making it a party rather than a duo) out the door.

Round we went to another corner of the building, and found the staff on this side infinitely more welcoming.  A charming lady escorted us through to the dining hall, an obviously grandiose place, with high ceilings, enormous paintings and gold leaf decoration.

Continuing the string of annoyances, we were seated in perhaps the worst position in the hall – scarcely two metres distant from the counter on which the waiters and waitresses carried out all their clumsy tasks: shuffling through cutlery, cracking open bottles of wine, processing payments on their register machine with touch interface, the usual.  None of these are things I want to see during my lunch hour.  A simple screen erected between our table and their workstation would’ve been a straightforward solution.

From start to finish the service was pretty poor.  Our menus and still water took an unusually long time to arrive, despite the fact that we were among the first diners to be seated and there were young waiters and waitresses standing to attention, seemingly with nothing to do, at the counter.

A peculiar blunder took place with our wine, when after having requested it, we waited a full five minutes only to have two glasses (one absent) with wine already poured into them (strange) hurriedly placed on our table.  This task had clearly been entrusted to a simpleton, who returned a few seconds thereafter and apologised.

Eventually I was presented with the bottle in the manner I’m accustomed to.  It was a Chardonnay from Tuscany called Al Poggio.  The wine was poor value for money at £60 – satisfying and suitable for our fish courses, but in no way remarkable.

We all chose a la carte options, and all picked the same starter: a crab salad containing pear slices and hazelnuts.  This was a decent course—the nuts and crab a fine match—but I was reminded of the similarly styled, and unquestionably superior, asparagus salad I had at Pied a Terre.  The quality of food continued in much the same vein: pleasing, but not extraordinary.

Next was an excellently poached piece of Scottish halibut with mussels (these lacked somewhat in flavour) drowned in a tasty Camel Valley Brut sauce.  I liked the texture of the fish, which was soft and chunky.

I scavenged from mother and brother’s vegetable side-dishes of asparagus (lovely – I’m a real fan of asparagus) and spinach.  The spinach was perfect for the halibut.  Again, everything in this dish was cooked with above average competence, but none of it surprised me or made me hum with pleasure.

Brother had Cornish sea bass, with something called Cullenskink, and seemed mostly happy.  Mother’s ‘Soles in coffins’ came not in coffins, but in a bowl, and were also judged as “ok” overall, although the so called crispy potatoes, in fact very creamy, were remembered fondly.

From the extensive dessert menu I picked the ‘Orange marmalade Jaffa cake’, which was impressive looking (very orange) and accompanied by a scoop of earl grey ice cream.  At least it was meant to be earl grey ice cream – I could not detect even a hint of tea in it.  The cake itself was rather dry, but this was counter-acted sufficiently by a glob of chocolate sauce hidden within.  ‘You can’t go wrong with chocolate’ as they say.  At least, I think that’s a saying.  People say it.  I say it.

Mother’s strawberries, served in a glass with clotted cream, meringue and some weird cider called Polgoon, were not appreciated at all.  The strawberries were reported as overly sharp in flavour, and the other ingredients lacklustre.

Brother partook of a baked apple sponge—something I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole if you paid me—crowned with yet more meringue and accompanied by a nice bit of clotted cream.  Apart from the presentation, which he considered crude, he liked it a lot.

We ended with coffees.  My cappuccino was very well done, and we speculated that there must be someone with an interest in coffee exerting their influence behind the scenes, picking some quality beans and such.

I certainly don’t regret dining at The Gilbert Scott.  It’s just being let down at the moment by poorly trained staff and a lack of flair in the presentation.  I won’t say I’ll never eat there again, but if I do it will only be to check in and see if they’ve improved things.  It’s not a place I desperately want to revisit.

Montgomery Place

With seats booked to see Thor later in the afternoon, we decided to sample just one watering hole.  Montgomery Place was en route, in the Notting Hill area, and well spoken of on the web.  Kensington Park Road was alive with activity, with tables lining the pavement and people sipping their cocktails and digging into chocolate tart.  It’s possible the locals were celebrating something.

There’s a squirrel climbing along the trellis in my garden right now.  Totally irrelevant.

The bar itself was not at all busy.  We, a couple of chaps and a vaguely oriental bunch were the only bodies there, but that wasn’t off-putting.  The place felt very casual, almost pub-like, but unlike a pub, clean.  You have to come here just for the toilets – they have music playing in there and the sinks are filled to the brim with pebbles.  This was a welcome change from the Gilbert Scott, where the toilets were stupidly designed, and also crap.

As for drinks, I was on the brink of breaking a sweat and picked ‘Thrilla in Vanilla’, a special take on the mojito with vanilla infused rum and cherries.  It hit the spot, exhibiting the refreshing mintiness I expect from a mojito, but its flavour vanished as I reached the bottom of the glass.  This was only slightly better than a variant I make at home.

Brother’s ‘Thai Flower Cooler’, a vodka, elderflower and bitters mix served in a tall glass, and mother’s ‘Dark and Stormy’, a blend of rum, lime juice and ginger beer, were both well received.

I voted to relocate to a second bar at this point, but was overruled.  Instead we picked second cocktails.  Mother had, like a bird of prey, spied two ladies outside with iced coffees, so she had one of those.  An iced coffee, I mean, not one of the ladies.  The waitress mumbled something under her breath about the bartender not liking this choice, which I thought was a tad out of order.

I resigned myself to a ‘Missionary’s Downfall’ which was a great deal more impressive than the mojito thingy, not least because it was served in a thick glass goblet with a design on one side that seemed to be a fat man’s grinning face.  The drink was made of rum, honey, peach liqueur, pineapple and mint, and was delicious.

Brother had a classic daiquiri, which—and again I flatter myself—was about is good a daiquiri as I can make.  This isn’t to say it was badly made, you understand, just not spectacular.

Thor at Vue Westfield

With little time to spare, we hastened to the Westfield Shopping Centre, which mother was very excited about.  I was only excited about seeing the film, and found the shopping centre an abysmal minefield of cretinous children and other assorted ingrates.  There was even a tarot card and palm reading session going on.  Sadly we lingered for far too long around the shops after the feature, against my express wishes I might add, which once more submerged me into a suicidal malaise.

The Vue cinema is a big one, adjacent to a slimy tapas restaurant and some other hell hole specialising in serving beef.  I should say I had promised myself a long time ago, soon after seeing The Dark Knight in fact, that I would never go to a cinema that didn’t have an IMAX screen again, so the decision to come here was not taken lightly.  As expected the foyer was crowded with fat people, more children, and general pestilence, so I grabbed our tickets and bottled water as quickly as I could.

Once we passed the ticket checkpoint though, the ambient temperature dropped and a soothing quiet descended upon us.  This was much better.  The screen itself was slightly below average in size, and the sound setup was underwhelming, but we had nice VIP seats in a perfect central position, and no one else was sat anywhere near us.

Thor was better than I had expected it to be.  But I had expected it to be a major screw-up for the Marvel superhero film franchise, with Iron Man and its sequel being as superb as they are.  What you get with Thor is solid entertainment, an enormous whack of special effects on a galactic scale, and something unforeseen and totally indispensable: comic relief.

The first twenty minutes consist of an extremely dry mix of high fantasy, deadly serious dialogue between the gods and demigods of Asgard, and thumping battle sequences.  This is worth watching, and provides needed context for the rest of the story to proceed, but would, if prolonged, ultimately bore any audience.

After that twenty minute mark you’re brought crashing (literally) back down to Earth, and repeatedly treated to joyous and highly poignant moments of contrast, between Thor’s world of good versus evil in the heavens, and the messy, smelly, frequently amusing world of modern day America.

Kat Dennings is cleverly cast in the role of a dopey, impulsive research assistant, working under Natalie Portman’s higher ranking physicist.  Portman’s character is of course the romantic interest, which might have been acceptable were it not that she suffers from being totally besotted with Thor (played adequately by Chris Hensworth) from the moment she meets him, which was a bit hard to believe.

Without its humorous core, Thor would’ve been a huge train-wreck.  As it is, I’d recommend it to any fan of what one can I believe now call the superhero ‘genre’.  Also it’s a must see for anyone who wants to follow the entire story leading up to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.  Now I wait for Captain America to reach the bar set by Thor, or better yet, exceed it.


Mass Effect 3 to be better than Mass Effect 2!

May 6, 2011

Ok so Mass Effect 3 has been substantially delayed.  That’s bad in an unambiguous way.  But now Bioware come out with an announcement that—and I’m reading between the lines here, but I think with some justification—there will be no space mining mini-game bullshit this time around.

Ok, so the exact language, conveyed by The Escapist, is “We don’t want to have any meaningless behind-the-scenes stat games”.  What I do here at One More Turn is take the official message and translate it into something that, while strictly speaking not entirely based in fact, makes more immediate sense to you, the reader.  You’re welcome.