One of London's most traditional restaurants has brought in head chef Andrew Turner to try to tempt regulars - occasionally - away from the famous fish and seafood fare. James Stagg reports.
Wiltons has rarely been associated with the word experimental. Since 1742 the iconic restaurant has been renowned for its traditional treatment of fine English cuisine, served with precision in elegant surroundings. So some eyebrows may have been raised when Andrew Turner was appointed head chef at the end of last year.
Hardly a traditionalist, Turner has had stints at Browns hotel and the Bentley Kempinski in London, Pennyhill Park in Surrey, and more recently the Landau restaurant at Langham hotel, building a reputation for excellence and cutting-edge cuisine. The Albert Roux protégé has been brought in to add some sparkle to a tasting menu that, prior to his appointment, had failed to rouse the regulars from Wiltons' traditional oysters, fish and game.
Set on London's Jermyn Street and surrounded by gentlemen's outfitters, it's perhaps unsurprising that Wiltons still insist that gentlemen wear jackets. But inside the restaurant diners are greeted with surroundings that are more sumptuous than stuffy. The eaterie is as elegant and refined as you would expect of one of London's oldest restaurants, combining an oyster bar with an 80-seater restaurant space.
The fare for which Wiltons is famed remains as exclusive as ever, with fish favourites including Dover sole (served grilled, meunière, poached, or as goujons) and lobster (served cold, thermidore, nuberg or grilled), alongside seasonal game. But these expertly prepared classics are now accompanied by more challenging choices for those willing to go beyond the best of British. "All the wild fish is very popular," Turner explains. "We buy only the very best so we sell a large proportion. We can go through 30 lobsters a day."
In addition, he and his 14-strong brigade of chefs are now serving between 12 and 14 tasting menus daily. "We have had nothing but positive feedback," he adds. "Of course there are regulars that wouldn't even look at the tasting menu but that's what makes Wiltons special - they can still have the best grilled sole. But the fact that we're selling more than we've ever sold tells its own story."
Though described in pared down, traditional terms on the menu, the five courses (£80 or £150 with fine wines) certainly take the diner beyond the realms of the conventional. "I don't think it's experimental," Turner says. "It's driven by custom and we are mindful enough to know our audience."
The tasting menu is delivered with enthusiasm by a front-of-house team well versed in the composition of the dishes and the accompanying wines. A good thing, too, as the simplicity of the description on the menu belies their complexity.
The opening fish dish features barbecued smoked eel pressed with leek and served with white balsamic jelly alongside a pancake basket filled with a subtle horseradish mousse.
This is followed by what Turner describes as "my version of fish and chips". His contemporary take on the humble classic includes a fillet of herb-crusted wild sea bass served on a bed of wild mushrooms, accompanied by garlic chips and a Madeira sauce whipped through with garlic butter.
A grilled cutlet of lamb comes with a nugget of sweetbread on top, and is joined by a crispy pan-fried pommes anna with a confit of lamb running through it, subtle lamb jus, and creamy cabbage with cumin. The accompanying mint hollandaise sets off the tender, medium-rare meat.
Next is new season rhubarb, yogurt and spiced butter bread, presented as though it were a poached egg on toast. When the rhubarb yolk is broken the sticky contents spread over the bread, taking with them the popping candy set up as sea salt on the egg. "We tip a scoop of yogurt into an alginate water bath, creating a natural jelly around the outside," Turner explains. "That's washed off and what's left is a ball of yogurt with a rhubarb yolk." It's what he describes as a "blood egg", though wisely not on the menu. "I find it put's people off," he says.
The creative classics conclude with a rum baba with poached pear and raisin ice-cream.
Wiltons has built its reputation on serving the finest seafood - and that remains - but with his tasting menu Turner has added some flare to the established à la carte. Only time will tell if he can convince the splendid restaurants traditional clientele that gels and foams should accompany their fish.
55 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6LX
Tel: 020 7629 9955www.wiltons.co.uk
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Secrett's Farm leek, smoked eel, horseradish, tomato salsa
- Fillet of Atlantic sea bass, wild mushrooms, herb crust, Madeira garlic butter sauce
- Cutlet of English lamb, braised shoulder, creamed cabbage and mint
- New season rhubarb, yogurt and spiced butter bread
- Poached pear with cinnamon rum sponge and raisin ice-cream
(£80 for five courses, £150 with five wines)