Martin Hadden took over as head chef at the Room at the Halcyon in London’s Holland Park at the tender age of 24,an appointment he attributes in part to being the youngest ever winner of the Roux Diners Scholarship.
At just 19 he won the coveted cooking competition. Now that the age of entry has been raised to 21, it’s a record that cannot be beaten.
Subsequent positions at a diverse range of Michelin-starred establishments – including Jacques Pic’s three Michelin-starred restaurant in Valence, France, Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, and Chez Nico at Ninety Park Lane, London – provided him with an enviable CV.
Two years on, Hadden has every intention of bringing a Michelin star to the 50-seat basement restaurant at the town house hotel. By producing good food consistently, he says, he’s now confident of achieving that ambition.
Nico Ladenis gave him a rollicking for not gaining a star in this year’s Michelin guide. But, as Hadden explains, the Halcyon has only been serving what he would call “Michelin star material” during the last few months of 1994.
By reducing the number of dishes offered across the restaurant’s wide range of menus, he says the kitchen can now maintain consistency.
Hadden has just streamlined the menus for the second time, but adds: “This will probably be the final tweaking. We will be concentrating on cooking fewer dishes, better.”
The à la carte menu, served in the evenings, has kept its usual format of eight starters, eight main courses and nine desserts. The set-dinner menu, £21 for three courses, has, however, been reduced from three to two options per course.
The choice on the vegetarian à la carte menu has been halved from four per course to two.
Aided by a brigade of six, Hadden’s dishes have one thing in common: strong flavours, the components of which complement each other well. “We work hard at the flavours,” says Hadden.
A typical method Hadden uses to cook or finish off ingredients so they retain maximum flavour is by wrapping items in cling film and steaming them, essentially poaching them in their own juices.
The stuffed pig’s trotter is braised for three hours, then wrapped this way, and steamed to gently cook the mousse stuffing. “It helps the trotters keep their shape so you don’t end up with bits poking out when you’re ready to serve.”
Dishes on the à la carte menu range from Thai-spiced chicken and coconut milk soup, flavoured with lemon grass and lime leaves (£5) to steamed fillet of Cornish sea bass with glazed dill sauce, scallop mousse and confit fennel (£16).
The Thai-spiced soup is similar to a dish served by Shaun Hill when he was at Gidleigh Park. Hadden’s version, however, is sweeter and not as highly spiced as Hill’s. Hadden uses less chilli too, preferring to bring out the flavours of the ginger and lemon.
One of Hadden’s favourites on the current à la carte menu is roast squab pigeon with a morel mushroom sausage, broad beans, smoked bacon and sage (£15).
The squab is roasted medium-rare, taken off the bone and placed on a bed of spinach. A piece of morel mushroom sausage, which Hadden bases on the boudin blanc method, is placed on poached strips of leeks and wild mushrooms. Broad beans and strips of smoked bacon are served with an olive oil sauce.
To make the sauce (another Hill creation), lemon, garlic and Parmesan is cooked in stock and blended together. After adding crème fraîche, and while it is still blending, olive oil is poured in to thicken the sauce. “As long as you use a good olive oil, it produces a great sauce.” The pigeon is served with its own jus.
In addition to the à la carte menu, which changes roughly every five or six weeks, the Room offers a set-lunch menu (£18 for two courses), which is often used to trial future à la carte dishes, and a six-course “menu degustation” (£32).
Restaurant manager Suzie Curruth says covers range from 30-50 for lunch and 35-60 for dinner. Average spend for lunch is £25 including wine, while dinner averages about £26 excluding wine.
Customer make-up has a high proportion of local residents plus some business people.
A note at the bottom of each menu draws attention to Hadden’s interest as a freshwater fisherman – a donation of 30p per cover is made to the Foster an Angler charity (soon to be renamed) for under-privileged children. The charity takes homeless, poor and abused children from the city into the country to teach them how to fish.
“What could be nicer than putting them in an environment where they are surrounded by fields, swans and herons?” asks Hadden.