Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Tom Aikens

Two of the greatest cricket writers ever to grace the page, Neville Cardus and John Arlott, could never agree who had the better job: Cardus, who ascribed his good fortune in becoming both the cricket and the music correspondent of the Manchester Guardian to 'no less than an act of providence', or Arlott, whose writings on wine are held in inestimable esteem by perhaps the best known of contemporary wine writers, Jancis Robinson. Cardus, perhaps apocryphally, settled the argument by telling Arlott of his dalliances with attractive violinistes, before asking if Arlott had experienced any similar success with winemakers.

The combination of music and cricket, and cricket and wine, seems a natural fit. All three are pursuits in which dedication - to the point of obsessiveness - is crucial, and where an attention to the finest detail lies at the heart of the difference between success and mediocrity. The same is true of restaurants: in cooking, as in music, cricket and wine, the gulf between mere competency and genuine excellence is unbridgeable by all but the most talented. A amateur performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, a county cricketer's cover drive, or a Cru Classé Bordeaux may all be described in glowing terms and may satisfy our hopes and expectations, but each is blown out of the water by du Pré, Vaughan or Mitjavile.

Just as my cricketing hopes are dashed every time I watch Michael Vaughan crack another boundary between two despairing fielders, so my culinary ambitions take a knock every time I visit Tom Aikens. His eponymous Chelsea restaurant, now the flagship to a burgeoning empire that encompasses the full range of styles from Michelin-starred 'Modern European', through no frills British cooking at Tom's Kitchen, to good old fish 'n chips at Tom's Place, is quite the finest demonstration of the gap - in ambition, talent and skill - between good home cooking and the kind of whizz-bang perfection that seduces the Michelin inspectors.

I've now eaten there three times: the first eighteen months ago, on a winter's day just before Christmas, with a friend destined to become the kind of Yummy Mummy - with four children and as many labradors - at whom Tom's Kitchen is perfectly targeted; again last Valentine's Day with the Blonde; and again last week with the Teuton, who despite his ice-cool exterior becomes passionately animated on his twin favourite subjects of fine food and finer wine.

Our lunch - always lunch - began with an amuse-bouche of tomato jelly, tomato foam, basil oil and lobster. As an opening gambit, it was the Michelin equivalent of a sharp bouncer in the first over, delivered not so much to close the deal as to show exactly what its progenitor is capable of. The remarkable aspect of the dish - aside from its improbability - was the intensity of the flavours: the tomato foam began with the sweetness of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes before giving way to the greener stalkiness of the vine itself; the basil oil gave a pure, breathy hit of basil that lingered throughout, and the lobster appeared at the bottom of the glass like a forgotten pearl. As culinary theatre, the amuse bouche is unsurpassed: it doesn't have to fit any concepts of what constitutes a dish, it doesn't have to be 'substantial' or 'filling', and it certainly doesn't have to make sense. What it does is to exhibit the skill of the kitchen in microcosm: like Tiger on a pitch-and-putt. or Pinter on a postcard, talent is squeezed into the smallest of formats as if to boast that supreme skill can flourish on any canvas, and is perhaps at its best, like a Fabergé egg, in miniature. Such was the pyrotechnical perfection of the very first dish, the bar was set mightily high, and I feared - as William Boyd would have it - that my sky-high expectations might ruin my (because one cannot, before lunch, lunch) lunch.

I needn't have feared: each course of the Aikens lunch menu (of which we tasted all six dishes) matched the standard that had been set so high. Our starters played perfectly to the gallery: a terrine of foie gras, with celeriac rémoulade, parsley, chopped truffle and honey truffle emulsion, once again demonstrated the technical skill of the kitchen, although - if I were to be picky - the terrine (somewhat like a foie gras Carambar) somewhat diminished the sheer richness that is rather the point. It was matched superbly well by our sommelier with a Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling, Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2002, which provided the clean acidity to cut through the foie gras whilst giving a delicious hint of sweetness.

The Teuton's starter was Crab meat with lemon purée, avocado dice, pasta sheet and lemongrass foam. At the risk of being too prescriptive, I issued instructions across the table to take the tiniest fleck of foam, awaiting the wide-eyed appreciation at such an expanse of flavour being contained in so little: the appreciation duly came, beginning with a twitch of the corners of the mouth and ended in a full-throated exclamation of approval, and from then on we knew we would not be disappointed. After lengthy perusal of the extensive wine list, we had settled on a glass of Rully 'Maizières', Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial 2005 to accompany the crab. The selection of white Burgundy explored the alternative food matching strategy to that of the foie gras/Riesling combination (in which the flavours, through conflicting, boost one another) by providing a clean yet richly textured base on which the delicacy of the crab could shine.

Our main courses sustained the standard, with a dish simply dubbed 'Turbot', which had been poached in pea soup, and arrived accompanied by truffle mash, crushed peas and pea purée, and one called 'Pigeon', a roasted pigeon breast with confit leg, onion Lyonnaise, onion purée and spring onion. We further indulged our Burgundy fixation with a half bottle of Morey-Saint-Denis Domaine Arlaud 2004. The Blonde and I had tasted the 2002 vintage on Valentine's Day last year, sparking a year-long Morey hunt, and whilst I found the 2004 - somewhat typically of the vintage - to be slightly reticent and acidic, the producer's class was evident in a difficult year and it proved an excellent accompaniment.

The lunch menu's dessert du jour was a roasted apricot with caramelised almond, pistachio mousse, apricot sorbet and vanilla honey glaze, which was at once a piece of showmanship and a delightfully intricate dessert. I ignored desserts in favour of one of the most magnificent cheese trolleys I have ever seen: I remember few details about the cheeses themselves, except to say that the waiter who served them was comprehensive in his knowledge and spot-on in his advice. After his patient yet schoolmasterly insistence that 'Vacherin is out of season', he delivered a superb selection which began with two goat's cheeses, moved on through a smoked cheddar and a soft, Brie-like creamy cheese and finished with a teaspoon (presumably it would have taken a blow-torch to remove it) of a cheese so strong that Customs would close the ports.

We considered opening the Port to accompany our cheese, but it being lunchtime and there being a Twenty20 match at the Oval not to fall asleep in front of, we asked the sommelier for advice on a lighter alternative that would complement our cheese and finish our lunch on the right note. His suggestion of a Apostoles Palo Cortado Muy Viejo was perfect: until he suggested it, I hadn't realised that it was exactly what I wanted; when he did, I knew. Its dry, raisined nuttiness was the ideal conclusion to an excellent lunch.

Next time I decide to pull out all the stops, I can only dream that I would sound a note so sweet as Aikens: his is a kitchen on top form. If Aiken's brigade were a cricket team, they'd be the Australians of Steve Waugh's sixteen victories, modern and inventive yet ruthlessly, efficiently supreme: if Cardus and Arlott were to venture down Elystan Street for one last celestial lunch before finally ascending to the Long Room in the sky, perhaps they'd discover the inspiration to add yet another string to their bow.

Tom Aikens
43 Elystan Street, London, SW3 3NT
020 7584 2003

Food: 10
Drink: 9
Service: 9 (one point docked for topping up our water glasses every 3 minutes)
Atmosphere: 8
Total: 36

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