The mature, accomplished dishes at Mark Jarvis's restaurant defy the young team behind them. James Stagg pays a visit
The 50-cover restaurant is led by two bright prospects: Sam Ashton-Booth, who worked with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park and more recently with Tom Sellers as head chef at Restaurant Story, and general manager Emma Underwood, who left a promising academic career to join Gary Usher at Sticky Walnut in Cheshire before becoming general manager at Where the Light Gets In in Stockport. Undoubtedly one to watch, Underwood is working with Ashton-Booth to create an accessible atmosphere that provides the best platform for the modern British dishes.
"Sam and I work closely and one aspect of our ethos that fits together is that we have a strong focus on the guest," she explains. "It's not about what we want to give them, it's what they want to eat. We listen closely to feedback. One thing that Sam said to me at the beginning was that he likes to feed people, which is rare. Many chefs just want the food to look great."
d chef Ashton-Booth adds: "We obviously want it to look great but, for me, food is all about flavour. You can work on presentation and always make it look nice, but the skill of the chef is to make it taste nice."
He is keen for the experience to be memorable and flavoursome from the first bite, which is why Ashton-Booth and his six-strong brigade make bread on-site every day.
"That's number one for me, as it's the first dish a guest receives," he explains. "If your bread and butter isn't good, you're always playing catch-up. I worked on the bread recipe for months, and we're still tweaking it now. I used a starter from my friend's mum, who'd had it going for 15 years, so we had a head start."
The sourdough is a complimentary part of any meal, whether diners go for the keenly priced tasting menu (£60), vegetarian tasting menu (£40), Á la carte or set lunch (£24.50).
"The ethos at Anglo is value for money and it's what we want here, too," Ashton-Booth says. "It's key these days and it attracts a great variety of people."
A dish that hits the brief for being both cost effective and delicious is a starter of white onion soup (£6.50), where a rich and creamy broth is served with a generous slab of sourdough topped with Winchester cheese. "I just love taking a humble ingredient and turning it into something good," says Ashton-Booth. Another dish that has survived a few incarnations since Stem opened in April 2018 is a starter of baked celeriac with smoked burrata and brown butter (£8). Here the burrata is smoked over hay and rosemary before being combined with lemon oil and served inside celeriac sheets, rather like cannelloni, along with a stock made from celeriac trim and tarragon. "I find celeriac as a vegetable carries its flavour well, so that you can pair it with something creamy like burrata," Ashton-Booth says.
oughout winter, fish and game feature heavily on the main courses. A crowd-pleaser is the haunch of venison with red cabbage, chanterelle mushrooms and lavender (£22) which, like the celeriac, makes use of a flavoured oil (the lavender) to lend a delicate herbal earthiness. The venison is lightly cooked and served with red wine garlic purée, date purée, and red cabbage.
"I'm a big fan of oils," confirms Ashton-Booth. He employs another in the Cornish cod cooked in onion oil with radish and smoked eel cream (£16.) "The cod is poached in onion oil in a water bath," he says. "The caramelised oil has a wonderful flavour that really carries."
All dishes are paired with wines selected by Underwood, though the list has been a process of evolution. "At Where the Light Gets In we only used organic, natural and fairly funky wines and I have continued my relationship with those suppliers, but some people have been quite surprised, so I've had to learn the diners' palates," she explains. "I like wines that are elegant with some structure and a bit of lift, which tend to work well with Sam's cooking."
There's no doubt that with their guest-centric approach and technical skill, Ashton-Booth and Underwood form a formidable pairing.
From the menu
Roast duck leg with chicory and orange £9.50
Poached Devonshire oysters, swede, parsley oil and beef fat dressing £10
Roast plaice with confit king oyster, grapes and grilled kale £21
Mallard with white beetroot, pine and Bramley apple £20
Pear and tonka bean tart with Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream £9
Poached quince with Earl Grey ice-cream and butterscotch £8
5 Princes Street, London W1B 2LF
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