Phil Howard, chef and co-owner of The Square in Mayfair, has much of which to be proud. Since 1991, this largely self- taught chef has presided over one of London’s most consistent high end restaurants, gaining numerous accolades of which two Michelin Stars is the most prestigious. Part of the secret of his success lies in his genuine passion for cooking and eating, (although his slim build would suggest he exercises well!) Shunning the glamour that could so easily be his if he opted for a higher media profile as a celebrity chef, Phil has devoted himself to his kitchen, rarely missing a service.
The Square exudes sophistication and elegance: entering through a small bar area, the large room is high ceilinged, parquet floored and spot lit, being decorated with colourful abstract art canvasses and frame beveled mirrors. Gilt silk curtains line full drop windows which are half screened off from the gaze of outsiders. The walls have a marble gold effect which adds to the luxurious feel. Generously sized tables are well spaced, with heavy floor length under-cloths topped with crisp linen. Dark brown and checked upholstered arm chairs make for a most comfortable dining experience.
Menus change with the seasons, with adjustments in early and late summer. Quality is impeccable, with the finest and freshest ingredients showcased across the three courses of the carte. Sustainability and distance from London are also major considerations when choosing suppliers. The nine choices for starters and main courses give an unusually generous choice, with fish featuring strongly: Icelandic cod, Cornish sea bass, halibut and turbot all appear on the autumn menu. As an alternative or addition to the six desserts, cheese is offered for a supplement, modest compared with other restaurants of this level. An eight course tasting menu (£100, £155 including wines) is also available for those who cannot choose amongst the embarrassment of riches on the carte ( £75 for three courses).
Whilst luxuries abound, the carte might also surprise with the inclusion of imaginatively prepared humbler ingredients: tartare of mackerel, emulsion of chicken wings (both starters) and caramelized pork belly with glazed trotter all feature on the autumn menu. The bargain lunch menu (£35 for three courses) is more likely to offer less expensive yet equally flavoursome ingredients, such Cornish anchovies and pigs’ cheeks.
Dishes often comprise several elements, yet the overall effect being one of a delicious harmony of tastes and textures. Quirky combinations are avoided yet creativity is retained: witness a starter trio of game consommé, with playful garnishes of wild duck club sandwich and a grouse and venison Scotch egg. Presentation is attractive, the clean lines lacking the contrived daintiness often associated with designer led compositions. Squiggles and smears are avoided, with puree garnishes being large enough to recognize the ingredient. Flavour and taste are, as always, paramount, with appropriate classic French cooking methods – largely eschewing faddish techniques – being employed.
Phil Howard claims he cannot live without langoustines; nor can many of his diners, who have made his starter a best seller. Three plump tails – the largest seen by this reviewer – are gently sautéed to retain sweetness and succulence, their soft texture being complemented by a parmesan gnocci and pumpkin puree and contrasted by onion rings and trompettes de la mort. The whole dish is lifted by the judicious addition of truffle, to produce a gastronomic tour de force.
Equally popular is another signature starter: discs of ultra thin spinach lasagne are sandwiched with delicate white Dorset crab meat and surrounded by a rich shellfish and champagne cappuccino, the lightness of which succeeded in complementing, not dominating the main element.
Other starters include a generous lobe of roast foie gras, the richness cut with a sweet and sour glaze, and textural contrast supplied by semi dried pineapple, honeycomb, puffed rice and confit of endive.
Fish cookery is triumphantly exemplified in a main course of roast turbot with red wine sauce. Again, what might initially seem to be an excessive number of elements – cauliflower, parmesan and almond salad, truffled cauliflower puree, and a vacherin croquette – all proved compatible and pleasing bedfellows.
Autumn menus exhibit the joys of game cookery. A gentle, rather than pungent flavour pervades these dishes, whether in starters of game consommé and pigeon ravioli or more substantial main courses. Breasts of grouse are poached before roasting to produce a melting tenderness. Contrast is provided by a croustillant of farce meat, the whole dish being brought together by a luscious elderberry sauce.
Roast saddle of Lincolnshire hare was timed to a perfect medium rare which maximized its taste. A deep red wine sauce, a tarte fine of pear, and a celeriac puree, enhanced this rich, indulgent main course.
Desserts maintain the same excellent standards of composition and execution. Consider, for instance, the mille feuille: crisp rounds of feuillantine pastry are sandwiched by caramelized balls of apples and pears, the whole being topped with fine prune and armagnac ice cream. Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is rich but light, benefitting from the acidulation of passion fruit and lime. The only discordant element in all of the dishes sampled was the sauternes jelly – possibly too acidic – which surrounded a classically rendered crème caramel. The Florentines and chestnut financiers, on the other hand, were faultless.
Incidentals, from the salted and unsalted butter, the bread, the amuse bouches to the excellent coffee and petit fours, all show the quality and attention to detail that make The Square such a special restaurant. The impressive wine list – winner of the Good Food Guide Wine List of the Year in 2008 – ranges over the globe, but is particularly strong on Burgundies. Wines by the glass start at £5.75 for Sauvignon Blanc and £7.50 for a Sicilian Cerasuolo, although there are few bottles under £30. The Sommelier expertly matches wines to dishes for those who need assistance.
Service is helpful, unobtrusive, knowledgeable and slick, like a well oiled machine, but one with personality and humour. Restaurant Manager David O’Connor oversees the operation with a gentle charm yet firm grip, this being essential given the large numbers of waiting staff.
Superlatives should be used with caution in reviewing restaurants, but no apology is made here in saying that a meal at The Square is a total experience, excellent in every respect. Phil Howard insists he will remain at the Square, which is reassuring to his devoted and loyal clientele. That his efforts and those of his team should be rewarded with a third Michelin star is well overdue.
By Daniel Darwood, 6th November 2009