Our London correspondent, Alistair Scott, is in the trenches at The Ledbury braving several visits and duress on his constitution and affirming this is rightly one of the most highly-regarded eating places in Britain.
In August 2011, as rioting unfurled across the UK and parts of London went up in flames, a group of bullies and batty boys invaded The Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill and demanded jewellery, watches and wallets from the diners.
Big mistake, especially as many of them eventually ended up in jail. Their time would have been more usefully spent reaching for a fork and learning what great food really tastes like – who knows, for some it might have led to a Damascene conversion.
As it was, the staff of the restaurant grabbed kitchen implements and bravely drove the rioters back onto the streets before offering drinks to the traumatised diners. Above and beyond the call of duty, maybe, but in a more modest way The Ledbury seems to be doing that every day.
While Notting Hill is now synonymous with hedge funds mavens and their sutured spouses, The Ledbury sits on the northern, less fashionable end of the enclave on a not particularly large corner block. The lack of space means that the dining room is not cramped but does have a limited number of tables; this is not a big restaurant.
The kitchen is remarkably small considering the quality of the output, putting a premium on teamwork and the personality of the chef, the generally even-tempered Brett Graham.
The décor is undemonstrative and cool – white linens, good glasses and a few draped mirrors on the walls to increase the sense of space. In summer, that laughable English concept, the front windows open onto a limited terrace, good for a slightly noisy gargle before heading in for your meal.
This straight-forward, unpretentious appearance and approach may not suit everyone’s needs when fine dining but it works for me, and means that unnecessary flummery, very present in a number of other Michelin starred London joints, doesn’t get in the way of the food.
And that food is delightful. Having now eaten at the Ledbury half a dozen times I recall no disappointments and many moments where the guests buried their noses in the plate and sighed.
Graham, the chef/owner is Australian and many of the dishes show a characteristic willingness to try unusual combinations, though with limited use of the dreaded mousse and foam and a respect for classic cuisine.
One lovely example recently was a salad of green beans, fresh almonds, apricots and foie gras. The great touch here was that the foie gras had, I think, been frozen then grated onto the salad – as it warmed, the other ingredients were glazed by the melting foie gras.
Other notable combinations include beetroot salad with smoked bone marrow and a Dover sole with cauliflower, herbed milk skin and mussels, where the textures intrigued almost as much as the taste.
On the meat side, portions are decently sized, a blessing for a glutton such as I, and on many occasions steal the show. The core product is not messed around too much but well-cooked and brilliantly accompanied. A highlight from this week’s visit was a loin and shoulder of lamb – one part pink succulence, the other crispy tenderness – with an aubergine glazed in black sugar and garlic, which was almost Japanese in its smoky, slippery sweetness.
Add into the mix a fine selection of amuse-bouches, homemade bread and desserts, plus petit fours aplenty and you have lots of happy campers. This is a restaurant where the chef is in the kitchen not at book signings, and it shows.
On the liquid side, it is a grim fact of life in London that drinking out means full mark ups on the bottle, and the Ledbury is no exception. Here you have a serious wine list but, fortunately, sympathetic sommeliers, the fragrant Anja being a favourite of the well-watered middle-aged gent.
The wine list ranges far and wide, with a very proper list of heavy-weight old world names complemented by a strong New World showing, and has wines by the glass starting at a painless £7.
Listening to the staff here rather than posing always has its benefits – looking for a sweet wine at a recent lunch we were steered towards a lovely 2007 Ruster Ausbruch from Burgenland, a very reasonable alternative to the Sauternes and Rieslings peppering the upper end of the list.
For those with serious bottles in the cellar, it is also worth talking to the restaurant about BYO.
So, excellent cooking with attentive staff in sympathetic surroundings; The Ledbury has 2 Michelin stars but I wonder if it will be quite fancy and flamboyant enough to move to a third. From a selfish point of view, one worries about ever getting a table if the third star appears – no-one without a PA whose finger is calloused from the redial button can expect to eat at Heston Blumenthal’s joints nowadays.
Until then, this is rightly one of the most highly-regarded eating places in Britain…and I’m going back twice next month. Tough life, isn’t it?
Pictures by Phil Wilkins