20 December 2010

Launceston Place, London - Restaurant Review

I am a relative newcomer to Launceston Place. I first heard of the restaurant when I watched one of their former chefs, Steve Groves, win the BBC's Masterchef: The Professionals 2009 TV show – you know, the one that introduced the fabulous and terrifying Monica Galetti to an unsuspecting world. My interest in the cooking of Launceston Place's head chef, Tristan Welch, was piqued, but it's taken me this long to actually eat there. But as a worried teenage girl might say, better late than never.

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.
Next, some bread that was presented with salted butter and pickled herrings, served in a ubiquitous kilner jar. I'm not a fan of pickled herring; all that fishiness and acrid acidity is just wrong. Look, I live in Scandinavia – the home of the pickled herring and source of the best examples – and such is my dislike for them that I avoid them at all cost. So believe me that when I say I was totally stunned by how good the pickled herrings were here, I really, really mean it. Here was a delicious meal in its entirety; soft, plump pieces of mildly pickled herring served with warm, chewy bread, and luxuriously rich butter. Oh là là, what a way to start!
The amuse bouche was next, and this was a sort of deconstructed Waldorf salad. Celery sorbet was served with thin apple batons, candied walnuts, and a dollop of whipped cream. I took a bite and ... fireworks! It was a fantastic mix of these classic flavours; the cool sorbet almost fizzing on your tongue, with fresh tartness from the apples and a touch of sweetness from the candied walnuts. Every mouthful seemed to be accompanied by involuntary chuckles of delight.
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.
The next dish was "West Coast scallop roasted with aromatic herbs from the coastline." A single, but plump scallop had been cooked to perfection and served in its shell with a herb butter sauce. I'm not quite sure what the herbs were, but they apparently change according to what's available at the time. With stunningly fresh seafood such as this, a light touch is required to let those fresh flavours shine, and that's exactly what this dish provided.
Next up was a regular feature on the Launceston Place menu – truffled duck egg on toast. Here, a soft boiled duck egg was served with some grilled bread, truffle purée, and slices of Somerset truffle. I loved the simplicity of this dish, but thought the execution was just a little off target. The duck egg had perhaps been cooked a fraction too long (but I suppose people's preferences vary) and the dish was barely lukewarm when it arrived. Also, while pleasant enough, the Somerset truffles are no match for the pungency of their Italian rivals. Don't get me wrong, though, this was still a very fine dish.
The next course was baked lemon sole, served with shrimps, coastline vegetables and early potatoes. A beautiful fillet of lemon sole was a lesson in how to cook fish, and the accompanying brown butter was a delicious addition. The tiny prawns provided lovely bursts of shellfish sweetness.
For the main course, we chose Tamworth suckling pig, which came served with roasted radishes, potato purée, wild chervil, and an onion purée. A "suckling pig" sauce was then poured over the top tableside. Two different cuts of the pork were served: loin and belly. The former was fork tender, while the latter had a glorious layer of crisp and fatty crackling. This was a perfectly conceived and executed dish. I particularly loved the little thumb-sized radishes, which had a pleasing mild pepperiness to them.
For our pre-dessert, we were served a red wine mousse served with pear sorbet and ginger. Appropriately, given the season, the dish was full of those spicy Christmas flavours such as cinnamon, star anise, ginger and cloves – a fun take on stewed pears.
For dessert we had rice pudding soufflé served with raspberry ripple ice cream. As a nice little touch, the ice cream was presented in a little jam jar, from which the waiter took a scoop and transplanted into the warm soufflé. When I first saw this dish mentioned, I was curious as to how it work; a soufflé should be feather-light, while rice puddings can be pretty stodgy. In the end, the effect was magnificent. The soufflé was spectacularly airy, while still giving your teeth something to chew on. The raspberry ripple ice cream slowly melted into the dish to provide a glorious sauce.
As if we weren't stuffed enough, some mini madeleines were brought out with the coffee. I thought I was too full to have any, but then I took a bite. Oh. My. Goodness! They were powdery soft, yet still moist, their residual warmth releasing a sweet vanilla fragrance across the table. We dipped them in the accompanying pot of cream and ate them in stunned silence. It was a beautiful way to finish the meal.
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
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  9 / 10

1a Launceston Place
London W8 5RL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7937 6912

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. We went to LP for my birthday (and my friend's birthday too) at the end of September and we too opted for the tasting menu --- some dishes in common with you and some changes:

    Food and service and ambience really are excellent aren't they, even more so at this price point.

  2. Actually Kavey, it was that very review of yours that prompted me to finally pull my finger out and make a reservation. So glad I did, as it was such a fantastic experience. It's one of those places you feel like coming back to time and time again.

  3. Sounds like we had a very similar experience. Glad you enjoyed it. The rice pudding souffle is one of my favourite dishes for quite some time.