Launceston Place has been around for quite a while, feeding Kensington's lunching ladies unremarkably for years. The restaurant was said to be a favourite of the late Princess Diana, whose former home at Kensington Palace is just up the road. In 2007, D&D (formerly Conran Restaurants) bought Launceston Place and embarked on a refurbishment project, installing the then 28-year-old Tristan Welch as head chef in the process. Although young, Welch has cooked at some top restaurants, gaining experience at Aubergine and Le Gavroche in London, and at Alain Passard's legendary three-Michelin starred restaurant, L'Arpège, in Paris. Before starting at Launceston Place, Welch was working at Gordon Ramsay's two-Michelin starred restaurant Pétrus under its then head chef Marcus Wareing. (Update 09.02.12 It was announced that Welch has left Launceston Place and Timothy Allen from the two Michelin-starred Whatley Manor would be his sucessor).
Launceston Place is located in a quiet residential area of Kensington, and inside it feels very intimate and cosy. The restaurant comprises of different rooms, so it never feels crowded. Dark walls and floors add a little moodiness without being overly gloomy, while pristinely laid tables are well-illuminated by strategically placed lights. The odd candle here and there adds a welcome touch of cosiness. It is the quintessential perfect date place (probably not first date, mind) – quiet enough that you can hear each other speak, but with a pleasant surrounding buzz of conversation so you don't have to worry about being overheard.
We're seated promptly and presented with menus for our dinner. The menu here is a showcase for Welch's unique interpretation of British food, and it is a real dilemma choosing from it; everything sounds good. At £58 for six courses, the tasting menu seems like decent value, so we opt for this. The only slight distraction was the fact that given it was still the Alba truffle season, there were white truffles to be had! Sensing my interest, the waiter quickly brought over a fine smelling specimen for me to marvel at. For a suitable supplement you could have truffles sliced over any dish, probably even over yourself if you paid enough. But more on this later.
The first food to arrive was a little snack of spiced crisps, tied together neatly with a ribbon. They looked fantastic and tasted of...erm...crisps.
You know those Alba truffles I mentioned? Well, it transpired that I may have agreed to have some. Apparently, the previous day's consumption of unholy amounts of white truffles at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught had done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for more of those pungent white diamonds. We decided to have just one of the courses topped with the Alba madonna for a reasonable £10 supplement each. The obvious dish for this was, of course, risotto. The tasting menu listed a cep risotto with Spenwood cheese, but we were also offered the possibility of having a 'plain' white truffle risotto instead (how can anything with truffles be called 'plain'). In a classic fit of indecision we ordered one of each to share and hedge our bets, which turned out just fine; I got the white truffle risotto and Mrs. Nibbler the cep risotto and n'er the twain would meet, as we were both reluctant to relinquish our plate to the other.
Unlike at Hélène Darroze, here the white truffle was sliced over the risotto tableside. It's such a spectacular piece of culinary theatre, and I will never tire of seeing it. The waiter pulled a trolley over to our table, upon which lay a truffle grater and a solitary Michael Jackson-style white glove (hee-hee, shamone!) He then proceeded to slice oodles of the magical stuff over our risottos. It was, without doubt, the finest risotto I have ever had – rich and creamy with an oh-so-perfect consistency, full of that intoxicating white truffle aroma – I shall be having warm fuzzy dreams about this dish for a long time to come.
Based on my meal at Launceston Place, I find it rather bizarre that the Michelin people haven't bestowed this place with one of their stars. OK, Michelin stars are certainly not the ultimate arbiter of quality, but still, this sort of place is exactly the kind that gets starred. Did Tristan Welch say something unkind about Bibendum's weight and hurt his feelings? It's almost as if Michelin have gone out of their way not to star this place. Oh well, the world works in mysterious ways. (Update 27.09.12: Michelin announced that Launceston Place had finally been awarded a star).
Launceston Place is exactly the sort of local restaurant you'd want in your neighbourhood: small and intimate, and serving exquisite food without costing an arm and a leg. It has just enough fanfare to make it special, but not too much that it becomes a chore to eat there regularly. Judging by the various reviews that have been written in the last couple of years, Welch's cooking and Launceston Place seem to be on a rapid upward trajectory. Surely, as a chef, Tristan Welch is just getting into his stride, and I'd expect even greater things to come from him. Go now, and see for yourself.
Food: 8 / 10
1a Launceston Place
London W8 5RL