Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Wolseley: Grand European Elegance on Piccadilly

One of the most glamorous spaces in London, or anywhere, for that matter, is The Wolseley, an all-day brasserie in the grand European tradition located in London's fashionable St. James neighbourhood along Piccadilly. The great brasseries of France are the most obvious inspiration for this hugely popular restaurant, but there are few places in Paris that can match The Wolseley for sheer plushness. Originally a 1920s car showroom, it was built on such an extravagant scale that it bankrupted Wolseley Motors. Swift black-clad waiters glide across the gleaming marble floor, carrying groaning platters of fruits de mer, steak frites and lobster bisque between the pillars and archways of this Italian-influenced dining room. It has a reputation for being packed with celebrities at all times of day and booking a table is usually done months in advance, if you don't happen to be Kate Moss.

The Wolseley is a haunt of the rich and famous, renowned for its cuisine, 
its service and the splendour of its dining room

The theatrical Art Deco interiors were designed by David Collins Studio, the mastermind behind some of London's most stylish restaurants and bars. The glittering restaurant, which is open from breakfast to dinner since 2003, is the creation of Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King, the original owners of The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey. The pair are big on the personal approach and often one or the other can be found working the room at lunch, dinner, during afternoon tea or even in the wee hours of the morning for the ever-popular Breakfast at The Wolseley — there's even a cookbook!

With its vaulted ceilings and pillars, polished marble, huge chandeliers, and Art Deco interior, the Wolseley looks like an opulent evocation of one of Vienna’s fin-de-siècle cafés

Even the drawers of polished silver cutlery is something to admire

Breakfast starts at 7am with fresh baked croissants, pain de chocolat, 
eggs benedict or the 'Full English' if you're so inclined

The Wolseley Eggs Benedict

The gorgeous Breakfast at The Wolseley

Celebrated writer and restaurant critic A. A. Gill gives an insightful glimpse into the world of The Wolseley with his gorgeous book, Breakfast at The Wolseley, which includes recipes for all the best breakfast dishes, from the most perfect croissants to decadent Eggs Benedict. It presents a fascinating picture of the restaurant with all the recipes for serving the perfect breakfast. Beautifully illustrated with David Loftus' wonderful photographs, the book comes in a luxurious black slip cover. Next time we're in London, we decided that we have to come to The Wolseley for breakfast — what a way to start the day!

The restaurant is buzzing breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and evenings

With 8:00pm dinner reservations, we arrived at The Wolseley by black cab, to the courteous welcome of The Wolseley liveried doorman who opened our door with a "Good evening. Welcome to the Wolseley." With that we were ushered through the theatrically-draped entrance doors and into the spectacular vaulted Art Deco interior. It's impossible not to be overwhelmed. Two Maître D' greeted us as we walked in, asked us if they could hang our coats and confirmed our reservation. Friendly, courteous and not the least bit condescending, the senior host even took the time to compliment me on my scarf and commiserate about the appalling weather. I was smitten. 

The dramatic vaulted ceilings, ebony pillars, polished marble and 
enormous chandeliers of The Wolseley's spectacular Art Deco interior

We were asked if we would like to sit in the elegant and refined upper level of the dining room for a more intimate dining experience, but we chose to sit on the main floor, in the heart of restaurant's throbbing core. We wanted to get the full Wolseley experience — be in the middle of it all. And our table was perfect, nestled on a curve with a full view of the room's fashionable elite.

The Wolseley dinner menu

The menu was inspiring, with and extensive selection of Brasserie standards and sensational savoury plats du jour, such as Soupe de Poisson, Confit of Duck and Moules Mariniere to Plateau de Fruits de Mer and Beluga Caviar served with blinis and sour cream. I needed more time to salivate over the dishes on the menu so we ordered a cocktail from one of the liveried staff, a gentleman whose sole job was to cater to our 'spirits.' We each ordered a Martini and asked if they carried our favourite libations — "Hendricks, certainly Madam." "Ketel One, of course Sir". "Tanqueray 10, right away." As he disappeared, another gentleman arrived with a silver mint julep cup full of warm, plump and squishy breadsticks, and a silver tray of chilled butter.

Light, warm and chewy, even breadsticks get silver service at The Wolseley

A Hendrick's Martini with a delicate twist of cucumber

Unhurried, we enjoyed our martinis and perused the menu, considering our culinary options for the evening. With considerable difficulty, we finally decided on a selection of starters and entrées from The Wolseley's extensive menu. We chose to start with the Croustade of Quail's Eggs and Hollandaise, Seared Scallops with Jerusalem Artichoke Purée and Hazelnut Dressing, and an appetizer portion of Eggs Benedict. The Croustade with Quail's Eggs was extraordinarily delicious. Perfectly poached and nestled on a duxelle (finely minced mushrooms, onions, shallots and herbs sautéed in butter) filled croustade of golden puff pastry and bathed in rich and creamy hollandaise, the dish was finished off with a sprinkling of paprika and chopped chives. The combination of flavours was pure heaven. 

Croustade of Quail's Eggs and Hollandaise

Seared Scallops with Jerusalem Artichoke Purée and Hazelnut Dressing

A small Eggs Benedict starter

As entrées we chose the Seared Duck Livers with golden sultanas and sauternes jus, Rib Eye Steak Frites served with café de paris butter, gem heart salad and pommes frites, and one of The Wolseley's signature dishes, the Plat du Jour - Coq au Vin. My husband and I often make Coq au Vin at home during the winter months, so I was looking forward to trying The Wolseleys version of the French brasserie classic. I even told our server why I was compelled to try their dish. In short, it was outstanding. Rich and flavourful from being marinated in rich red wine, and lovingly braised with pearl onions, cremini mushrooms and generous slices of thick pancetta, the Coq au Vin was served with a slice of parsley crowned fried bread and bowl of silky smooth mashed potatoes, to soak up all of the delectable jus. When our server returned, she asked how it was. I told her it was exceptional - better than I'd ever made. She smiled knowingly, nodded and slipped away.

Seared Duck Livers with Golden Sultanas and Sauternes Jus

Coq au Vin, one of The Wolseley's signature dishes

Silky smooth and buttery mashed potatoes

Rib Eye Steak Frites served with Café de Paris butter, 
Gem Heart Salad and Pommes Frites

Gem Heart Salad and Pommes Frites

The notion of a dessert was too much for me but apparently not for my husband and stepson Harry, who opted for the Lemon Meringue Coupe with crushed meringues, lemon curd, lemon yogurt ice cream, whipped cream, flaked almonds and finished with two lavender langue-du-chat biscuits, and a Tart Citron. Well, if they were going to have a pud, so I jolly well would have one too, and decided to try the English classic — Bread & Butter Pudding with creme anglaise. Topped with a delicate crown of crispy and warm egg-soaked brioche, a puddle of braised apple and raisins were nestled underneath and finished with a lashing of warm vanilla bean speckled english custard. 

Lemon Meringue with crushed meringues, lemon curd, 
lemon yogurt ice cream, whipped cream and flaked almonds

Tart au Citron

Bread & Butter Pudding with Creme Anglaise

Mint tea served in The Wolseley silver teapot and cup

Fresh mint tea

The Wolseley is a haunt of the rich and famous, renowned for its cuisine, its service and the splendour of its dining room. But it isn't just that The Wolseley is exquisitely fitted out, heavily staffed and uncompromising when it comes to the quality of its food, it's that every tiny detail is of concern. The chefs know the farmer who supplies the free-range duck eggs, the white-satin ribbon used to tie the muslin wrapped lemons is subjected to the closest scrutiny, and nothing is bought in, not even marmalade, that could possibly be made on the premises. This attention to detail and commitment to culinary excellence, is what makes The Wolseley one of the ultimate dining destinations in London. Sorry, am I gushing? Good. 

The Wolseley Smoked Haddock Fishcakes with Poached Eggs
Serves 4

8 oz/250g undyed smoked haddock, skinless and boneless
1 cup/250ml milk
1 onion
3 bay leaves
2 cloves
4 oz/125g smoked salmon, cut into strips
4 oz/125g waxy potatoes, boiled in their skins then peeled and mashed
1/2 cup/125ml mayonnaise
25g capers
3/4 oz/15g finely chopped dill
3 egg yolks
5 tbsp/75g shallot, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
7 oz/200g panko breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil, for frying
Good dash of white wine vinegar
3/4 oz/20g chopped chives

4 large handfuls baby spinach, steamed - optional 

Hollandaise sauce:
3 large egg yolks
1/2 lb/225 g unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 tsp/25 ml fresh lemon juice
Salt, to taste

Place the haddock in saucepan with the milk, onion, bay leaves and cloves. Bring to a gentle simmer and poach until the fish flakes easily, about 5 minutes. Remove the fish, flake the flesh into a large mixing bowl and leave to cool. Add the salmon, potatoes, mayonnaise, capers, dill, egg yolks, shallot, lemon and half the breadcrumbs. Allow the mixture to rest for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.

To make the Hollandaise: in a small saucepan set over low heat, whisk 2 egg yolks into a 2 tablespoons of the melted butter. Continue whisking the butter into the egg mixture, 2 teaspoons at a time, until all the butter is thoroughly incorporated into the sauce. The sauce will be thick, smooth, and glossy. Whisk the lemon juice and salt into the hollandaise sauce, and then continue stirring it for 1 minute. Remove the sauce from the heat and serve it immediately, or keep briefly on a low heat covered until needed.

Shape the fish mixture into 75g (2-3 oz) cakes then roll in the remaining breadcrumbs. Heat some oil in a large frying pan and fry the fishcakes until golden on each side and cooked through. Meanwhile poach the eggs in simmering water with the vinegar stirred through. Serve the fishcakes with a poached egg on top, scattered with the chopped chives. Can be served with a little Hollandaise sauce on a bed of steamed spinach for the ultimate Wolseley experience...almost!

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