Tuesday, 22 February 2011

A Date with Gauthier at Soho

We kept narrowly missing each other.  Given its recent Michelin success, I can’t defer this any longer. Finally, after months of rescheduling/refurbishment, I was ringing the bell at the doorstep of Gauthier Soho. There was no grand entrance on the hushed Romilly Street, just a firmly closed black wooden door. I found myself quivering slightly, more to the wintry February chill than excitement, but it did feel like visiting a date’s pad for dinner.

We were greeted warmly after a couple of minutes wait, and had our coats looked after at the narrow atrium before shown to our table on the ground floor.  There were 4 tables on our side of the dining room, and possibly another 3 on the other. Minimal adornment; a round mirror made with folded magazine pages on cream walls, trimmed crimson roses and a candle on the table, red cushion on chairs. It was homey.

First was the small talk, the canapés, introduced by the strikingly handsome French server, with the most engaging eye contact. Quail eggs, smoked salmon mousse and almond brittle with avocado & pumpkin dip.
Quail egg yolks were suffused with mayo and the lemon sauce smeared with salmon worked well as an inviting tingle to our palate. A hearty splurge of olive oil blended the dip, which was too weighty and spoilt the delicacy of the other two canapés. I can’t say these were the most innovative creations, but one shouldn’t moan about freebies.

We were handed the menu, with a choice of 3-5 courses or the 8-course tasting menu. Cynthia was tempted by the venison exclusive to the tasting menu, which was probably better value given the truffle risotto was included without supplement charges. But she was hesitant since Mister and I were opting for the more reserved menu. Then Damian came to rescue as he took our orders, offering the venison as Cynthia’s meat course so she didn’t have to tear her hair out. He added, “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” So far so good.

I suggested an older red from Chateau de Ricaud, the sommelier approved. We were presented both salted and unsalted butter, while another server came round with a selection of bread on a silver tray. Among the olives, raisons, rye, chorizo and cheese, I went for the slightly gristly mini baguette.

Amuse Bouchée - Red Bell Peppers Ravioli with Chicken Foam
I shan’t share my view on what this looks like. The peppers were in the form of jelly, sandwiched between two ultra thin, stock immersed pasta sheets. The combination of textures was interesting, airy foam, bouncy peppers and chewy sheets, but the flavours were somewhat ordinary.

Premier Plat
Black Truffle Risotto jus de Roti & Brown Butter (£18 supplement)

I have stopped pondering what risotto was doing on French menus ages ago. I didn’t smell the waft of truffle until it landed on my table. The risotto first arrived with patches of truffle oil floating on its surface, the familiar distinctive fragrance finally hit me. But the ultimate knock-out was seeing a whole truffle freshly and generously grated before my eyes, sending waves after waves of truffle perfume my direction. I took it all in with my eyes closed, inhaling deep breaths, before digging in. Hmm… I had a comical vision of floating on a humongous truffle with little ones dancing around me… Ahem. Hysterical, intense and nutty, pure extravagance.  It wasn’t all praises, however, the risotto was slightly overcooked to resemble a rice pudding, even to the consistency of a velouté, which gave away the chewiness of a classic al-dente rice dish.

Scottish Scallops, Williams Pear

I would hate to under-credit this dish. Despite the overpowering black truffles, the heady scent of grilled scallops broke through. Mister thought the pear slices were unwarranted, as he’d prefer a mouthful of creamy scallops without the crunchy intrusion. I, however, thought the natural crisp sweetness of the pears complimented the fleshy scallops beautifully.

Second round of bread was offered, with a different selection. The rosemary & cheese twist was scrumptious, and so was the tomato & basil roll.

Deuxième Plat
Soft Cod Cooked in a Pot, Wild Mushrooms, Crispy Pancetta, Salsify & winter Kale, Chicken Jus

It arrived in a silver pot, expertly transferred onto my plate, hence the faintly distressed appearance. And I say ‘expertly’ because ‘soft’ doesn’t justify the fragility of the fish. It was slippery on the tongue. The fish and mushroom have soaked up the jus, which brought all the ingredients together. Sensational cooking.

Soft Filet of Dover Sole, Clams & Baby Squid, Garlic & Parsley, Classic Fish Jus

Dover sole is dull fish, and regrettably the kitchen did little to revive it. Mister was under-whelmed to say the least. On the other hand, the crafted shallot-encased clams were intriguing in texture, and the baby squid was succulent.

Pan-fried Daurade

This was very fishy, nonetheless perfectly cooked and moist. Its accompaniments didn’t quite come together, though. I thought this recipe a little odd.

Troisième Plat
Grilled Guinea Fowl, Wild Mushroom

Now this is when I felt the date was running out of steam. While the fish course was wet and flirtatious, this was sloppy. It was more or less the same wild mushrooms and same jus with a massive slab of guinea fowl breast, which lacked character and contributed so little flavours to the dish. Even though this could be the least parched breast I have ever tasted, I still didn’t like it. Maybe I was hoping for some silken tender meat? I don’t know. I should have gone for the beef. A bit of an anti-climax really.

Rosemary Scented Cuts of Lamb, Leg, Loin & Shoulder, Parsnip

I was given a bit of the leg to sample, which Mister described was the best of the lot. Tender and juicy with only a hint of rosemary to bring out the lamb tang. Loved it. Mister did stressed that was the best part of the entire plate.

Cuts of Wild Scottish Venison, Celeriac Cream, Pumpkin & Beetroot

Now this was totally worth asking for. And I am not surprised Damian was so eager to show off this dish. So raw and crimson in the middle, yet so refined in taste, reining the wild deer in until its meatiness is unlock with each chew. A true winter dish.
(Note to Cynthia: could you please add more angle and a bit of focus to the dish next time? pretty please? :P)

We skipped the masterly Louis XV. A melting coat of dark chocolate enveloping chocolate mousse and a praline hazelnut base… sounds ever so sexy and tempting. I won’t succumb to it just yet. In hindsight, I should have swapped the meat for dessert.

I didn’t walk out of the restaurant thinking I had an astounding dining experience. But as I am writing about it now, most of the evening was pretty damn good. It was intimate and relaxed, and we were looked after by a handsome team of staff, which was accommodating, efficient and charming. Despite the guinea fowl, most of the dishes were flawlessly executed with a well thought-out recipe. Perhaps we haven’t quite connected on all levels, but we can work on it.

21 Romilly Street
Tel: 020 7494 3111

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