Monday, September 25, 2006

The Conservatory at the Lanesborough, London

The Lanesborough,
Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA

While on holiday in Australia earlier this year, I came across a cookbook called Pure Vegetarian by Paul Gaylor. The recipes are amazing and I'm using one of them in my Cordon Vert Diploma finals. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Paul Gaylor is the executive chef at the Lanesborough Hotel in London, and so a visit there sometime was arranged.

The Lanesborough hotel is easy to find, towering, as it does over exit four of Hyde Park Corner tube station. We had arrived early, so after checking our reservation time, we went to the Library Bar where my wife had a G&T and I had a rather splendid port-finished Glenmorangie. We tucked into the nuts, crisps and little snacks that were served to us while we drank - including a splendid little snack of two pieces of penne stuck together with cheese with a tomato paste on the top. This was served in one of those Chinese soup spoons thingies. Sounds simple, it is, and tasted really nice.

Once we'd finished the drinks, we made our way to the Conservatory restaurant. The setting is lovely. A lovely high vaulted glass ceiling, wall fountains and greenery everywhere. Upon a small stage was set a piano, double bass and jazz drum set. We were led to the centre table, just off the dance floor (oh yeah, the Lanesborough does tea and dinner dances) while soft music played in the background.

The menus had a fine choice for all tastes. What was nice was that the menu was mixed so the dishes that were suitable for veggies were only highlighted by a small "v" not tucked away in a section at the back or on a separate menu. There were about three "v's" in both the starters and main sections.

For starters I chose something marked "Artichoke" This was, apparently a combination of soft, crispy and creamy artichokes. Sounds interesting, I thought, and I like artichokes.

Then we were presented with a choice of breads (and a choice of salted or unsalted butter) and an accompanying tomato tapanade.

Then the waiter turned up with two tiny mugs. An amuse bouche, we were told, from the chef, of Cauliflower Veloutte and Pecorino sticks. T'was lovely. To describe it as a cauliflower soup would be doing it an injustice, it was really nice.

So, then the starters arrived. Both were beautifully presented and the scallops and squid, which my wife had chosen, were excellent, I was told. "Artichoke" was a small, artichoke-sized mound in the centre of the plate topped with some salad leaves. Upon futher investigation, the mound was constructed thus. The base was the base of an artichoke, probably boiled (soft). It was the sliced into quarters and re-assembled. Into this base was placed grated, or very finely sliced, artichoke mixed with mayonnaise (creamy) On top of this was balance two pieces of a tempura of the softer artichoke "petals" (crispy). On top of this structure were the aforementioned salad leaved. Tastewise and texturewise it was excellent. And what a brilliant idea for doing something interesting with a single ingredient!

Sometime around now, three elderly gentlemen made their way onto the stage and took their places at the instruments. After a brief intro they began playing songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and the like. A few of the older diners got up and danced. We considered it, but weren't quite brave enough and were quite content to listen. Now, I realise that this kind of thing wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but it seemed to fit the place perfectly and it wasn't intrusive or over load at all.

So, onto the main course. The choice for me was between a portobello mushroom dish, an aubergine dish or Thai green vegetable curry, all of which sounded great. Now, I'm a sucker for mushies, and I always have them on the menu, so I decided for once, no to. I wasn't really in a curry mood so I opted for the dish labeled simply "Aubergine".

"Aubergine" was aubergine croquettes served with sherry-glazed vegetables and garlic aioli. Once again both dishes were presented beautifully. Upon dissection, the croquettes were very thin slices of aubergine coated with what appeared to be a pepper and tomato sauce and mozzarella. These were then wrapped up in deep fried in breadcrumbs. Very, very tasty, especially with the aioli.

Unfortunately my wife, who is a great lover of fresh fish, found the John Dory rubbery. Now, this may be because it's supposed to be like that, or that it was cooked wrong - I've no idea. The Head Waiter enquired as to why she hadn't eaten it and took it away. A moment or two later the waiter appeared again and said that desserts and coffees would be on the house! No protestations that it was cooked fine or anything - just a great "The customer is always right - keep them happy" attitude that means that a dodgy dish (either by choosing the wrong dish for your taste, being badly cooked or whatever) didn't spoil the rest of the meal.

And now, the desserts - which were of course, free. I was praying that there wouldn't be a brulee on the menu, as nice as I'm sure it would've been, I wanted to try something a little more interesting. Luckily, there wasn't. The menu was split into two sections - "Fruit" and "Chocolate". My wife chose a dish from "Fruit". It was a lemon parfait served with lemon mousse and various citrus fruits. When it came (again beautifully presented) she said it was really interesting as there was nothing "sweet" about it. I tried the lemon mousse and it was very light and refreshing. The lemon parfait was a bit too lemony for me.

I chose from "Chocolate" and had a peanut parfait with chocolate mousse. It was as nice as it sounds.

My only reservation about the place is some tiny print at the bottom of the menu that says "service charge included". When you get the bill, you just feel compelled to leave a tip (which we did) as the service was superb throughout, which effectively means that we did end up paying for dessert anyway. Apart from that little niggle, it was brilliant - I'd recommend it, and would love to go back. I'll just have to start saving those pennies...

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