After a flying lunchtime visit to Launceston Place a few weeks ago I was left flabbergasted by the food incredible would not come close to doing it justice. Amuse-bouches and pre-desserts, spectacular presentation (a crab risotto came adorned with an entire spider crab shell), perfectly balanced mains and beautifully balanced desserts. And all this for a rather embarrassing £18.
Somehow, this didn’t seem quite right such phenomenal effort had gone into this stunning lunch, it seemed rather a steal. So I scarpered, sharpish, in case someone noticed that actually lunch shouldn’t be this cheap and decided to get me to work off my food by washing dishes in the kitchen. I double-checked at a later date and yes, there was no tomfoolery involved, no trickery and no magic. And, fortunately for me, no washing dishes.
Eating a set lunch is amazing value but, more often than not, one might have a look at the à la carte (which is handily placed right next to your prix fix) and be a bit miffed that this or that doesn’t feature, a little like one is getting second best, the dishes the chefs aren’t too mad about. Not so here given the option of either, I would have gone for the set courses, with not a thought to what I might be having. Opulent, showy dishes that boldly deliver flavours and sensations also look the part. Truly British food is served in interesting and lovingly crafted ways a dish of roast poussin came with its own carving board for you to go to town on, along with quite the most delightful gravy ever. Better than one you make yourself from the trimmings of a fore-rib of beef, a good glug of a fine red wine and a splash of seriously gelatinous beef stock. Crushed potatoes were elevated to a higher plane of existence with a hint of God knows what just something meaty and rich that took them from plain old spuds to crumbly, unctuous, more-ish ambrosia.
At the heart of this culinary triumph is Head Chef, Tristan Welch. I’ve met Tristan a few times and he is, without doubt, one to watch out for. Formerly a winner of Ramsay’s eminent ”Scholar Award” for young chefs, he left a position at the prestigious Glenapp Castle to join Marcus Wareing at Ptrus. Whilst there, he helped the restaurant attain its second Michelin star in January of 2007. Keen to be regarded as a standalone figure in the food world, Tristan left to head up Launceston Place, overseeing a complete makeover and revamp (for the nostalgic amongst you, unfortunately, the sticky red carpet had to go).
He runs a tight but underwhelmingly calm kitchen, with only the occasional Ramsay style expletive but rather lacking his famed theatrical outbursts. He is even-headed amidst the hundreds of processes going on around him and his team are the same. Every member works together in a quiet, understated way with a single mindset mentality, focusing on producing gastronomic delights to astronomic levels. They seem to be in perfect harmony, everyone knowing exactly what they need to do it and exactly by when it needs to be done. And how might I know what the inside of the kitchen looks like and how it runs? A recent visit cried out for something a little grander than a set lunch for two and wanting to treat myself, I opted for the Chef”s Office, the chef’s table equivalent at Launceston Place.
Situated in a sumptuous room, lavish with dark wood and soft leather, it is slap-bang next to the kitchen. And this is how they like it: the occasional clanging of pans, calls of ”Yes Chef” and more gorgeous smells than you can shake a stick at come floating out of the kitchen. A flat-screen TV mounted on one of the Office walls offers up a visual feast too; a camera mounted in the kitchen allows you to see what is going on who is stabbing who, which sous-chef is setting fire to another, well, you get the idea.
You can actually watch your food being prepared step by step and this is a real treat. The kitchen runs like a well-oiled machine and this is further evidenced here. Tristan invited us into the kitchen and chatted to us while those all about him, white-coated boys and girls, scurried here and there putting the final touches to things, saucing and swirling, spooning and styling. He is confident and with good reason. His food is elegant, probably massively complex but appearing simple and, more importantly, honest. Fabulous, seasonal ingredients cooked to perfection. Does it get better than that? Only when there are seven courses. Matched with an array of heavenly wines, all presented by the chef himself.
The evening kicks off upstairs with a glass of champagne and ”chips and dip” wafer-thin hand-made potato crisps served with a smooth, unctuous cheddar cheese dip. A little piece of kitchen theatre was to follow a salad of smoked salmon, pea shoots and flowers set amidst a fog of swirling wood smoke. And the meal hadn’t even started yet. We were taken down into the bowels of the restaurant to the Chef”s Office. Subtly lit, the air was filled with the heavenly smells escaping from the kitchen.
Wine was chosen to specifically match each course specifically a beautiful Terras Gauda Alberino accompanied a Virgin Mary mousse, garnished with Ragstone Goat’s Cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy. Half way through I hit gold, with the most spectacular, crisp, crunchy, light-as-a-feather crouton imaginable. This was going to be good…
A single fat scallop roasted in its shell followed. Tristan uses an inspired cooking technique here, pan-roasting the scallop in it’s up-turned shell so it steams while cooking. A sauce made from the skirt and a scattering of samphire on top this just spoke of the seaside.
Presentation is an integral part of the feast here and it’s the little touches that make all the difference. The next course was sheer genius. Tristan has a wonderful talent for creating nostalgia in meals although seriously high-brow, they are accessible, recognisable and somehow familiar. A duck egg-shell rested on arborio rice and was filled with a soft poached duck egg yolk and a Somerset truffle risotto. This was all about rich, oozy, smooth deliciousness. Somerset truffles are a rare treat too: only 10kg are found a year. A little soldier sat on the side, which was, of course, that perfect balance of crunch and chew.
A Palo Cortado de Jerez accompanied the next course, a glorious cobnut and lobster soup. Cobnuts are a very British ingredient and friend of the forager, growing wild through most parts of England. A cool lobster sorbet sat in the bottom of a rather retro bowl (a hark back to the classic lobster bisque) which contrasted wonderfully with the hot soup. A slice of dense, rich lobster garnished the soup as a last mouthful pleasure. The whole dish was smooth, not over-powering and peanutty in exactly the right way.
Then simplicity a piece of Cornish mackerel, the skin breadcrumbed to give it that beautiful combination of crisp outer and soft interior. Set atop this was a first for me, a baby cucumber and flower and by baby I mean an inch long. It did taste of cucumber, but as if someone had turned up the volume by about a million percent. Pickled onions, hidden around the dish, provided a little extra crunch and a hint of tartness from the vinegar.
Next – probably one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. This one ticks all the right boxes for me Dorset suckling pig with the crackliest crackling, sweet carrots gently cooked in carrot juice, the weensiest new potatoes, pea shoots, crispy smoked ham and pea pure combined to make a dish that summed up how August should be, on a plate. Next time, sod going to the park come and eat this when you want a little sunshine.
A pre-dessert of a set egg custard served in an egg-shell was topped with a praline-hazelnut-crunchy-chewy layer. The second time I’d eaten this dish and it was just as good as I remembered, silky, wobbly and downright as perfect a custard as you could get. And just enough to be right. Portion control here is well calculated so often with this many courses you could end up feeling like you were ready to pop but the balance here is just right. A bottle of Jurancon Au Capceu was pure sultanas and toffee. Pud was a raspberry and pistachio millefeuille, elegant and decadent, a magnificent end to a banquet fit for kings.
As he is one of the rising stars of the UK cooking scene, we thought it would be appropriate to ask Tristan a couple of questions;
What or who are your greatest food influences?
I think most people’s food influences stem from the home. I had a very food orientated family, my mother is a great cook and used to do it professionally. My nanny was a great cook, my mother’s grandmother was too. I’m the probably the first male in my family though.
My family taught me a love and respect for food we used to grow our own vegetables, raise chickens you get the idea. Mother Nature is my greatest influence. When I’m looking at new menus it’s what’s in season, what’s local and what’s local to that product. Take our scallop dish for example – we serve it simply roasted in the shell with a sauce made from its skirt and some samphire ingredients that go hand in hand.
So it’s what’s local to the product, not what’s local to us which actually makes a lot more sense…
I try and look at British Regionality and by that I mean you get your suckling pig you think of a farmyard, you think of some peas growing in the fields, potatoes, earthy ingredients and you try and pair the suckling pig with those ingredients. We try and give it a natural undertone.
Do you have a favourite food destination? If there was anywhere you could go to to eat not necessarily a restaurant where would it be? We talked about the North Norfolk coast, the south of France…
Wow, that’s a tough one. There are different places for different things. Most markets, to be honest, as long as they aren’t car boot sales selling knock-off DVDs!
If you could pick the single best meal you’d ever eaten what would it be?
I could give you twelve examples of fantastic meals right now I’ve eaten out in lots of top restaurants, not just in the UK. One of my most amazing eating experiences was sitting in Thomas Keller’s office in The French Laundry and have Thomas Keller cook for me, personally. It was just me sitting in his office it was out of this world. It wasn’t just the sheer quality, the cooking, the balance of the dishes but the whole effort that had gone into it, the hospitality and Thomas Keller saying I’m going to cook for you tonight. But, then again, we found a little bar in the north of Italy where we just ate cured hams, pickled mushrooms and incredible bread simply stunning. In Sicily – melon, Parma ham and mozzarella we bought them from the market, went back to our flat and made this amazing salad. I can still taste the melon to this day.
Your food is all about honesty, simplicity and ingredients and doing those ingredients justice. What do you think of molecular gastronomy you do a smoked salmon starter with a lid, and when the lid is removed out floats all this wonderful wood smoke. Theatre, I suppose.
Molecular gastronomy is all very good in context but it’s not entirely food for eating. It’s food for showcasing and it’s more of a circus than a dinner. Here we are a restaurant that serves food to be appreciated by its customers. We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel; we’re just cooking what we are passionate about. Personally I’ve eaten in molecular restaurants, both here and in Spain and I think it’s absolutely amazing but to eat it’s the biggest pile of shit! And it makes you feel sick…
Good answer! Your food appears very simple, but there are lots of elements going on. You’ve got all the different parts to a dish, but where does the initial idea come from? How does it develop?
It’s difficult to say where things come from. It all stems from Mother Nature. The most important thing that we do, that most of these molecular places don’t do, is sit down and try our dishes ourselves. It’s so important that a chef tastes the dishes from start to finish and feels that whole experience that the customer will feel.
Does it build up with layers? Does it start with the roast suckling pig and then you think about the vegetables, the garnishes?
Absolutely. This dish actually evolved in reverse all the items came together without the suckling pig the carrots, the shallot confit, the pea pure, the thin slices of smoked ham. We thought we had a dish right there, and we were perfectly happy with it. Full of flavours, it really spoke of the summer, very fresh. But unfortunately it wasn’t enough of a dish. You can’t really serve up a plate of peas and carrots no matter how good they taste! We thought about adding the pig and how we could cook it to compliment the rest of the dish. It all ended up going together well, and is now one of our most successful dishes.
Finally, could you run me through an average day in your kitchen?
Everyone’s in at 8. I get here at half 7, as I’m a stickler for people being late. I like getting my bits and bobs done before everyone arrives. It’s madness up til 11 o’clock then at 11:30 I have a taster of every single dish in the kitchen. Every sauce, every pure, every mousse, every jelly, every cream, every parfait so I know exactly what everything is going to taste like that day. At 12 the first canapé go up to the restaurant. Then it’s the full on lunch service and later at 6:30 dinner service starts. 10:30 will be the last check on the guys will be cleaned down by 12, and out the door by 5 past. But that’s four days a week. I’m normally in 5, 6 or sometimes 7. My rota’s a bit screwed up that’s the restaurant business for you!