It has been a long time coming, but May finally saw the launch of Bjorn van der Horst's restaurant in Clerkenwell, 14 months after parting with Gordon Ramsay Holdings. Tom Vaughan reports.
Bjorn van der Horst is clearly enjoying himself. His personality - his very career - runs through the heart of the menu at his new restaurant, the Eastside Inn, in London's Clerkenwell. In his former guise working the kitchens of Marlon Arbela and then Gordon Ramsay you could hardly imagine him serving up foil-wrapped segments of Laughing Cow on his cheeseboard because it was a childhood treat. But this is clearly van der Horst's and wife Justine's restaurant, and his character runs through it.
"It's the first time Justine and I have really worked together on a restaurant and I hope people can see that we're enjoying it," he says.
Split into two parts, the restaurant is half 50-seat French bistro, half 34-seat fine dining. The bistro is the informal side of the operation; all regional French classics and jazz-band backed appeal. The baby squid à la basquaise with smoked paprika and lime vinaigrette (£9.95) and Toulouse cassoulet (£15.95) have proved the most popular, but there's every box ticked, from soup à l'oignon (£5.95) through to spit-roasted short rib of beef with salad of baby gem and herb vinaigrette (£17.95) and plats du jours.
However, it's the fine-dining side that comes across as closest to van der Horst's heart, with references to his own experiences littering the menu. Three amuse bouches come out in rapid succession at the meal's start and introduce van der Horst and his cooking. Taking their names and themes from cities that Justine and he have lived in, there's Toulouse, two slithers of salt-cured foie gras on toast; a thin slice of raw hamachi with reduced citrus juice and radish called New York; and Paris, a teaspoon-sized piece of veal head terrine with caviar.
"It's a way of introducing people to who we are and what we like," he explains. "They're also designed to be conversation starters - it's essential that you encourage that conviviality."
If it's strings of conversation van der Horst is trying to manipulate from the kitchen then the menu surprise will also do the trick.
As well as the normal selection of six starters and six mains, customers can opt for the chef to surprise them with three or seven courses (£45/£65). This might be a selection of dishes from the à la carte or, if he feels like it, van der Horst might go "off-piste" and serve up a dish he is working on.
"I used to do it at Greenhouse where I'd offer a selection of surprise dishes but it got a little bit crazy," he says. "I've grown up a bit now, though."
How popular is it proving? "At the moment about a quarter of the diners in the fine dining go for it, but as people get to know me I hope they'll go for it more."
Can the kitchen handle the extra pressure on top of dealing with a bistro and a restaurant? "Sometimes a little added pressure is a good thing," he says.
It's the menu surprise that separates the Eastside Inn from the pack. It's a gamble: if you make a bad choice, you blame yourself; if the chef makes a bad choice, you blame him. So to make sure there are no obvious gaffes the waiting staff confirm food allergies or dislikes before van der Horst sends out the food. But the gamble pays off.
We ate the watermelon salad "Matthew Norman" with a tempura courgette flower, feta and tapenade - named after the Guardian's food critic who once labelled the dish as being born of "maniacal pretension" - and an almond gazpacho with smoked paprika prawns and tomato sorbet. Both were light and summery, with the salad's tempura and the gazpacho's sorbet lifting the dishes to a first-class height.
For the mains we had roasted pigeon with gooseberries, swiss chard and girolles - a dish that didn't bury or weigh down the sumptuous leg and breast meat - and scallops niçoise, a dish from the à la carte which, van der Horst says, showcases excellent scallops.
The desserts maintained the high standards. I had a sort of home-made "Kinder" egg - a gold sphere of layered white and dark chocolate - filled with toffee covered popcorn and milk sorbet. My friend's sphere of meringue filled with raspberry and hazelnut sorbet is lit at the table.
It's not every chef you'd give carte blanche to, but in van der Horst London has a serious talent on its hands. With shows like this in a restaurant oozing personality, word should spread further.
Eastside Inn, 40 St John Street , London, EC1M 4AY.
Tel: 020 7490 9230
ALSO ON THE MENU
- Foie gras, espresso syrup and amaretto foam (restaurant)
- Raw diver scallops, sea urchin vinaigrette (restaurant)
- Niçoise salad, tuna confit and shallot-caper vinaigrette (£11.95, bistro)
- Raw and roasted beetroot salad, goats' cheese, walnuts and watercress (£8.95)
- Poached wild turbot, Jersey royales, snails confit and beurre rouge (restaurant)
- Aged rib-eye of beef, ratte mash, escarole and pecorino salad (restaurant)
- Roasted skate wing, lemon and caper brown butter (£12.50, bistro)
- All cremate, prawns, chilli and garlic (£17.95, bistro)