This recession has brought with it a few positives for food lovers. First, cooking from scratch at home is becoming trendy again as wallets are leaner, so the cookery book business is booming, and second, most the top end restaurants are trying frantically to get bums on seats and a buzz back in their businesses by offering affordable set menus. So, when we want to eat in, there's more than enough material online and on our bookshelves to inspire, and when we want to eat out, we can start trying out the fancy restaurants that would previously have bust the budget.
One of the many restaurants offering attractive deals is Launceston Place (among others: Quo Vadis, Bentley's Oyster Bar, Wild Honey, Modern Pantry, and Le Cafe Anglais). Granted, £26 per person for a 3-course set Sunday lunch isn't pocket money, but if value for money, wonderful produce, and a mastery for cooking bring a smile to your face, consider this a steal.
This old Kensington haunt is tucked in a beautiful residential village enclave. It was acquired by D&D London in 2007, owners of Coq d’Argent, Plateau, Sartoria, and Le Pont de la Tour, and is the stomping ground for Tristan Welch, former head chef for Marcus Wareing at Pétrus, and his junior sous chef Steve Groves, who has just won the BBC's MasterChef: The Professionals.
Our 3-hour lunch began with a warm welcome into the smart and intimate boutique-hotel-style interior: thick linen tablecloths, mirrors, black matte walls, taupe carpets, and suede chairs. It had been a while since we had caught up with our friends, so we were hoping the atmosphere wouldn't be hushed and sombre, as these fancy West London places often are. We needn't have worried. There was a gentle buzz, and the partitions and soft furnishings prevented our enthusiastic levels of conversation troubling anyone else.
We went straight for the £26 set menu, my vegetarian friend being offered an a la carte dish for her main to substitute the fish/meat course for no extra charge. A welcome surprise, once Nina had chosen a decent bottle of French white, was the attentive and friendly service. They even graciously laughed at Jon's jokes! (sorry, Jon)
The first amuse bouche, a gentle, light and delicate cold pea foam floating on top of warm vicchyssoise.The set menu offered a choice of three starters: Pumpkin soup, beetroot and Berkswell cheese, Crab risotto, garlic and parsley, and Potted foie gras with Maldon sea salt. The pumpkin soup was ceremoniously brought to the table in individual pumpkin shells, and poured gently into the warm bowls. The tart flakes of cheese and cubed beetroot, with sweet pea shoots, worked perfectly with the silky soft, sweet and earthy soup. A triumph.
The Potted foie gras. Time for a quip from Jon about the line of salt...
Helen's vegetarian offering for the main course was a work of art: Spinach and homemade ricotta, nutmeg, artichokes, and sage butter. Petite though the serving was, from afar the combination of tastes and textures looked delightful.
The set menu mains included: Gloucester Old Spot pork, Scottish girolles, cobnuts and quince, Devilled Cornish mackerel, braised onions and capers, and Traditional roast long horn beef with vegetables and gravy (£6 supplement). The rare beef, selected from two cuts before being carved into bread-thick slices, was enthusiastically devoured by my companions, and I went for the pork, a generous plate of ballotine stuffed with pistachios and a sliver of belly with divine crackling. The accompanying vegetables were the only low point of the meal: the cubed celeriac in a cream sauce was over-seasoned, and the roast potatoes were hard and tasteless, not crisp and fluffy as they should be. I sympathise with the kitchen: roast pots are notoriously difficult candidates for oven re-heating, and don't cope well with sitting around for hours under hot lamps. If I'm being tough, I'd say better the kitchen stray from the standard Sunday lunch components and serve mash/dauphinois/sauteed potatoes than offer sub-standard roasts.
Before dessert graced the table, another amuse bouche was offered. This time, raspberry mousse with pear sorbet and tiny slivers of crisp caramel. Another contrast in temperatures that revived the palate and was light enough to stimulate rather than rob us of our appetites.
Finally, dessert. On offer: apple tart with homemade clotted cream (for two), Banana sticky toffee pudding with Guinness ice cream, cheese trolley (£6 supplement). The sticky toffee pudding, enjoyed by all, was delightful. Not overly sweet, the deep hints of treacle complemented the savoury banana. However, with palates muddied by all the previous courses, I couldn't detect the Guinness. No matter. All plates were clean in minutes. The afternoon light had slipped into dusk and most tables were vacant. Rather than trying to chuck us out (it was clear we weren't in the mood for boozing, and hadn't consumed more than a bottle between 5 of us), the staff who had cosseted us all afternoon sweetly let us linger. The final bill was £212 between 5 of us.
The kitchen is clearly filled to bursting point with talented chefs. A little more focus, perhaps, on those veg, might just bring it its first Michelin star in 2010. It has the style, and more than a modicum of substance. In the meantime, make the most of the set menu offers while you can.