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Berkeley Square Cafe, London. Two Views (2004)

Posted on: July 11th, 2004 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Don’t Leave it to the Last Minute. by Simon Carter.

A mere 50 yard walk along the road from Berkeley Square Cafe will take you past a host of chauffeurs waiting patiently in luxury hardware, the pavement replete with tabloid photographers. No, they are not there for this restaurant, but for Cipriani – a place where the experience for the fashionable comes before food for the foodie. It is somewhat ironic that, in such proximity, Vince Power’s money funds the gastronomic Berkeley Square Cafe – Mr Power is a man more typically associated with The London Astoria and the Glastonbury and Reading Festivals.  Having driven to this part of Mayfair on a weekday evening, a sure plus is the choice of free parking around the square. This occasion was no different and we walked into the restaurant bang on time. This was to be our seventh visit of 2004, perhaps not due to The London Newcomer of the Year Award in The Good Food Guide, but more the Toptable.co.uk and Lastminute.com promotions.

Business must have been slow for Merete and Steven Black so at the turn of the year they had the marketing idea of offering the £45 three course Carte at significant discounts. After early Toptable.co.uk 70% discount before 7pm, they still today, offer Lastminute.com bookings with 50% discounts from the Carte.

Steven Black has a pedigree of cooking at up-market country houses – Thornbury Castle, Chewton Glenn and Eastwell Manor. The style is very much ‘respect the ingredients, respect the jus.’ Unnecessary enhancements, combinations or fusions are avoided – quality ingredients well cooked have flavours, textures and natural sauces that speak for themselves. A clean and refreshing approach in an age of complexity, over-elaboration and scientific cooking. For example; a generous fillet of Aberdeen Angus Beef with Cepes, Asparagus and a bunch of Cherry Tomatoes still on the vine; sweet, seared scallops (presumably hand dived) with a fine helping of melt-in-the-mouth pan fried foie gras.

The simply roasted Welsh Black Mountain Organic Chicken was my choice for the main course. The meat retained its moisture and the quality was evident from the burst of flavour that lingered on the palate. An open ravioli of confit thigh on the side was sweet and succulent.

Throughout the year the kitchen has noticeably stepped up in class and consistency; as has the front-of-house with the astute hiring of the Sommelier Benoit Gueret – formerly of 1837 and L’Ortolan – who is as good with customers as he is with the wine.

The restaurant was packed for the evening – at least 70 covers – testament to promotions backed by quality. In fact the cooking staff of eight have done well to retain high standards so effectively, working as they have in what can best be described as a galley kitchen. What is more, the puddings have demonstrated complexity and imagination as strings to their bow – The Tasting of Raspberries and Assiette of Banana provide a variety of tastes and textures in creative style. I went for my standard chocolate fondant and was more than satisfied.

As you might imagine £22.50 for three courses of such quality is irresistible, at £45 the menu would still represent value, and by the time you read this, that may be what you pay. Should the restaurant remain on the same path then I’m sure Berkeley Square Cafe will be a high climber in the 2005 1% Club, and if not next January then the January after, the Michelin Star will come, perhaps long after Cipriani has closed.

A Progressive Sort by Daniel Darwood

Davies Street, linking Berkeley Square and Oxford Street, was, until a couple of years ago, hardly the place to find restaurants of distinction. Yet now it has become the St James’ Street of Mayfair, attracting foodies to parts of central London usually reserved for estate agents, galleries and specialist shops for the upper classes.

Of the three major restaurants which can be found in this quarter of a mile – Gordon Ramsay at Claridges and Cipriani being the other two – Berkeley Square Café can claim to be the best in terms of innovative cooking, efficient service and value for money.

Steven Black, lately of Eastwell Manor, and his sous chef Richard Hugle (the latter having worked in several Michelin Starred kitchens), lead a small but dedicated team, producing dishes worthy of much larger establishments.

Front of house can be the delightful and welcoming Merete Black or the surly and distant Joseph McColgan. The dining room has well spaced tables, is subtly lit and exudes a sense of style. Don’t bother to have a drink in the downstairs bar which is ill lit and furnished with the most uncomfortable low back swivel bucket chairs. Instead, seek the advice of the engaging sommelier Benoit Gueret whose experience at L’Ortolan and 1837 has stood him in good stead.

On the a la carte menu, a bargain at £45, expect as an amuse bouche a tasse of intensely flavoured soup – gaspacho, tomato or lentil. The starter dishes which follow are amongst the most satisfying, combining measured creativity with maximising tastes. The Cornish Crab risotto with plum tomato sorbet and frozen olive oil exemplifies this perfectly: the sorbet and oil provided the contrast in texture and taste, whilst the generous use of brown crab meat added depth of flavour to the risotto itself. The seared scallops and foie gras with pea puree were perfectly executed if somewhat passé by today’s frantically changing standards.

Main courses include at least three fish dishes, beef, lamb and poultry. The roasted breast of Welsh Black Mountain organic chicken retained its moistness and gamey flavour. Its accompaniments – an open herb raviolo of confit thigh, carrot and tarragon salad and a light pea sauce enhanced the dish perfectly, although I must admit I could done with a little more sauce. This might also be said of the perfectly cooked Aberdeen Angus beef dishes, which have been garnished, at different times, with red wine dressing, foie gras, snails or cepes. This however, is a small grumble given the meal as a whole.

Puddings are a triumph of artistry and taste. The “tasting of raspberry” comprised a sable, parfait, mousse and the fresh fruit in an utterly harmonious combination that delighted both eye and tongue. Warm fondant of chocolate is amongst the best that can be found in London. The kitchen is also able to be flexible – on a previous visit, a request for something simpler produced a plate of exquisite, intensely flavoured sorbets.

The Café – a major understatement given its accomplished cooking – offers a range of menus to suit all pockets and tastes. Our last visit saw a crowded restaurant, indicating it is now receiving the recognition it fully deserves.