Tom Aikens - a little bit sad... [London]
I think, given all the 'you stole a spoon! I will brand you with a pallette knife! I will send all my suppliers into bankruptcy!' controversy surrounding Tom Aikens the blogosphere has kinda ignored him. Which is sad, because he is a huge talent. And it's not as if ear-cutting stops people buying Van Gogh...
So we gave him the benefit of the doubt. That he was a talented chef, with a slightly hot head, but that there are always two sides to every story and he had been unfairly consigned to culinary Antarctica. Possibly.
His eponymous Chelsea restaurant is a very handsome place. All dark wood, cool orchids, restrained colours, spaced tables. With VERY smart service.
But it was half full, on a Friday evening, and the tables that were occupied were 'Chelsea does date night'.
Reasonable dirty martini to start, then the amuses were a parmesan beignet, an olive jelly reformed into an olive, and a truffle consomme thing...all gorgeous. The bread selection included cep, bacon and onion, buttermilk...very nice.
A lively Sancerre to start and into the starters. I won. Poached lobster with pork belly and apple slices and pearls of (candied?) apple, in a tomato and apple consomme, with maybe a hint of ginger? It was lovely. Really lovely. The lobster was generous, and despite sitting in the consomme the pork retained its crackling.
This was from the ALC - which is divided into Tom-style dishes which are more complex and then 'classics' formed around a single ingredient, so my partner had a langoustine risotto which was fine, but. Like I said, I won.
But then it went downhill.
My main was loin of Romney Marsh lamb. Cooked perfectly, it was meant to come with dry olive powder which I had thought sounded interesting. But it was like a sous chef had gone beserk with it, so a really thick, bitter layer which rended a lot of the lamb inedible. I was also disappointed by the aligot. I LOVE ALIGOT. Am sure there are some of you out there who choose a dish based on the accompaniment...Made properly it's potato, cheese and garlic whipped to such an extent you can draw it up feet from the table in strands; here it was just a lump of garlicky mash with some parmesan on top. Hm. He did much better with the suckling pig which came with roast pineapple.
To accompany we had a velvety and reaonsably priced bottle of 2006 Cahors Chateau du Cedre - recommended, as is the charming sommelier.
For pudding I chose a truffled panacotta. Again, hm. It looked exquisite, all frills and furbelows. But the sous had been heavy handed again, so the white chocoalte tuiles with black pepper to accompany were inedible as they were almost have black with pepper, the various sorbets/panacottas/icecreams/snows on the plate were just (never thought I'd write this) too generous with the truffling.
Cheeseboard was goodish, and the petits fours included some heavenly madeleines.
I'm marking it down as an admirably courageous failure. He's so talented and has some amazing ideas but am guessing he wasn't in the kitchen last night, hence the truffle/pepper/olive frenzy. But I think what's more sad is I can't see the place surviving at the occupancy level.
Sadly I have the same opinion as yours. Once this chef was very talented but at this moment it is a sad story. Below you find my review I placed on my blog but I'm even more critical...
Tom Aikens was the UK's most promising chef a few years ago. His restaurant was fully booked long in advance, his dishes applauded by the critics and everything seemed to do well. Until he ran into major financial problems, which brought many others with them.
If you go to his Chelsea restaurant now, you will probably not feel much of these problems. He has kept his place, the absolutely gorgeous decor and all the rest. The only thing that has suffered a lot are his relationships with the city's best suppliers. It is said that he was unable to meet his payments to most of them, and therefore has to rely on lesser produce nowadays.
To be honest, the mediocrity of the produce can be felt everywhere in his cooking. His style is something you could define as controlled chaos. Some plates look like a mess, but make perfect sense when being eaten. The only problems they have are the bad produce and the portion sizes that are very much on the stingy side.
A scallop dish of his is a picture on a plate. It could be called a study in red, and even delivers on the palate. It is tasty, with a great mix between sweet, sour and intensely salty flavours. In this, the scallops are the only, major weakness. They are of such poor quality that they have a texture nearly like a bouncy jelly, not a firm, meaty, fleshy scallop. That makes a potentially very good dish much less interesting.
In a way the same is also true for a pigeon dish of his. It is served with a herb puree, a very sweet pigeon confit and some grains. Visually, again it is a beautiful composition, but unfortunately this one can't deliver in terms of flavour. It is an overly sweet dish, in which the most prominent component, the pigeon confit, is so sweet that you could imagine it would not look bad in a dessert. The breast, one per a la carte order, is trimmed so much, cut so thinly and so overcooked that you hardly get to feel it. All in all, this dish is quite simply sad. It is badly conceived, suffers from poor produce and seems awfully stingy for a main course.
Funnily enough, the same can be said for most of the other dishes he serves too. A sea bass is uninspired, bland, on the smaller side of things and accompanied by not much of interest. The only area where this kitchen still delivers are the desserts.
A pistachio one is simply beautiful, with a whole lot of very rich flavours and varied textures, it brings you pretty much all you could want from such a dessert. The only issue here is that it lacks freshness or acidity.
Tom Aikens certainly is a good cook, but even a very good or excellent cook cannot even hope to serve decent food without proper ingredients. In this case not even the beautiful can make up for it. It is a place that seriously disappoints. If you go, at least don't order his "classics", where it is claimed that the best seasonal produce is served in a simple manner. If the best of it is also used in the other dishes, then such simpler creations must be even less appealing.
For pictures you can look at my blog qliweb.com
my recolection of the exact bits and pieces we ate back in January gets hazy but your report totally matched our experience. meal started great especially the breads which were amazing, but took a steady decline throughout. we had a pre desert combining curd cheese, ice cream and somethng very fruity which i ate for the flavour experience but didn't enjoy and the gf couldn't eat at all. desert was so covered in a desicated chocolate powder that it was also hard work - the sous chef's heavy hand again.
another tell for a restaurant in trouble, i guess, is the fact we were there on a voucher and not paying full full price. fact we still left dissapointed is well - dissapointing.
My wife and I had the tasting menu at Tom Aiken last year, and came away fairly unimpressed. Nothing awful, but the sweetness of some of his ingredients (a lemon confit with scallops IIRC) really dominated their dishes, and overall it all felt a bit uninspired.
I really couldn't recommend it over half a dozen other places in London doing similarly modern, european-style food.