13 January 2016
Following the disappointing experience we had had at Gagnaire’s Rue Balzac branch, we had put off eating here and were almost half hoping that we would find Sketch to be somewhere that we wouldn’t want to return to - if it turned out to be yet another two-star restaurant in Mayfair we liked it would be overegging the pudding; so perhaps we might have been looking for things to criticise. Nevertheless, from the welcomes to the goodbyes, we were pleasantly struck by the show of professional yet relaxed expertise at all levels, in the kitchen, front of house and wine selection, with the one minor drawback for us being the rather over-designed dining rooms and the dark stairway leading up to them. We still think that the tasting menu is the best way to judge a chef’s talent over the whole range of dishes, and the youthful head chef, Johannes Luding, didn’t disappoint, even with the modest size of the kitchen available to him. A good selection of fizz heralded the impressive wine list, which cannot be consulted on line, and a glass of Rémy Le Mesnil made a suitable companion for some very good canapés - Martini vodka jelly, tarragon croquettes, squid ink wafers with goat’s cheese, chorizo with crunchy beetroot, and, just as delicious, some warm little Parmesan biscuits. We were now well and truly ready to take on the first dish. I am partial to the bold taste of hare, and the terrine was bolstered with judicious amounts of foie gras and truffle and neatly balanced against red cabbage, redcurrant and cubes of quince jelly, all laced with Guinness. There seems to be an inevitability about scallops being on menus at the moment, but the top chefs are succeeding in caramelising them just perfectly and here they were cooked just right, like pommes anna and bathing in a light curry sauce with leeks and celery. An absolute stonker of a dish “From the sea” followed: a Gagnaire original called bouillon Zézette, a wonderful mushroom and coconut sauce, offering up a superb oyster, an artichoke cream worked up to something special, top-class smoky black garlic with cauliflower, tender razor clams, prawns, caramelised salsify, and even the humble Paris mushrooms were a step above the norm. Next came poached and grilled wild bass with a brilliant coating of mimolette, a star anise-perfumed pumpkin velouté, Italian pumpkin because of its particular qualities we were informed, soya bean sprouts, grapes, chicory and walnuts. No question of local sourcing with the main course either - the lovely pigeon was from Angers, roasted whole after marinating in lemon and cumin, which accounted for its tenderness and its not-too-gamey flavour which found a counterpoint in a terrific Puy lentil, physalis and daikon mix with a portion of proper sauerkraut to round it off. A word here about the accompanying wines, which were good to very good at the price, especially the amazing Ch Figeac 1970 with the pigeon and the Ch Rieussec with the Grand Dessert, the latter another Gagnaire signature combination comprising a sequence of six small desserts, all of them quite sublime: a kind of deconstructed Linzer Torte with cinnamon and pomegranate, a coconut velouté, passion fruit and sorbet, pineapple crisp with a deconstructed (again) toffee (pine)apple and cream, and chocolate crisp with tangerine segments, all this and delightful petits fours. Altogether a very worthwhile experience and one that we look forward to repeating. So, just one more two-star venue to go; there is in fact another one that we have not tried, The Araki, but we are discounting it on three points of principle - firstly, its dismissive unwillingness to accommodate dietary requirements, secondly, we refuse to pay £300 per person for the privilege, and thirdly, we find its immediate award of two stars difficult to swallow when there are still genuinely classy restaurants without any star recognition after many years of producing the goods at a price we can afford.