In London, a Textbook Definition of the Elegant Modern French Restaurant
In a world of ever-expanding culinary choices and restaurant concepts, it is nice to be reminded that the definition of classical, elegant dining still holds true. Of late, the definition has expanded to include classic standards of service and ambience with cuisine that reflects changing tastes and ingredients. To judge from the delicious food coming out of chef Florian Favario’s kitchen at Céleste in London’s elegant Lanesborough Hotel, the category is thriving. I was left with no doubt that the kitchen staff deserves their recently awarded Michelin star.
The opulence begins at the entrance to the Lanesborough. The marble-laid corridor from the front door leads past what amounts to a gallery of fine furnishings and artwork. (It’s hard to believe this was a hospital until 1991.) Oetker Collection took over management of the Lanesborough in 2015 and instituted its policy that each of its properties should reflect its unique European heritage. The Lanesborough succeeds as a paradigm of British elegance.
The Céleste dining room is rendered in a soft powder blue with inlays of classical reliefs, all vaguely reminiscent of Josiah Wedgewood’s iconic jasperware. The tables afford ample room for the glassware and flatware collateral that fine dining tends to involve and ample space in between for privacy. A good thing, since the clientele on the weekday night on which I dined involved several business tête-à-tête meals.
First up was an amuse-bouche of a three-stage deconstruction of fish and chips: small sardine filets tossed with sauce, accompanied with wafers. Make sure you don’t eat the base here. It is harmless, of course, but based on sugar, which has an effect like dousing the subtly counterpoised flavors with a firehose.
What could be more ostentatious than foie gras? How about a ball of it rolled, breadcrumb style, in black truffles and served atop the traditional brioche? Served atop the traditional brioche, this served as my appetizer. My guest, travelling light, ordered the cockles, smoked and served in a duck broth consommé infused with lemon grass, foie gras, and samphire. The nearly clear broth was dauntingly powerful with spice and vegetal flavors. It could be an example of subtlety and elegance to all preparers of soup in the world.
My belated gesture to the end of the game season was the wild roe deer saddle entrée, smoked with juniper and cleverly mounted on a disk of earthy glazed beets. Like fallout from the efforts of a Jackson Pollock wannabe, dollops of celeriac purée dotted the plate and made splendid wipe-bait for the carved slices of deer. With its demi-glace-like intensity and sinuous texture, the meat had a powerful, earthy taste.
My guest was drawn to the familiar and chose the beef cheek, braised with mushrooms and red wine sauce. Beef cheek may be a peasant cut, but it can be irresistible, and this beef just shredded at the lightest pull of the fork tines.
A traditional chocolate soufflé, topped with a quenelle of raspberry ice cream, left us both well served and impressed that such an elaborate operation could go off so smoothly.
The 50-page wine list, by head sommelier Pierre-Marie Faure, is expectedly comprehensive and impressive with long verticals in, for example, Bordeaux and Barolo. I was delighted to find that the two-page by-the-glass list’s quality was buttressed with extensive use of Coravin-preserved wines. My 2011 P. Baudouin Savennières therefore arrived as fresh as the day the bottle was opened.
I will happily choose Céleste again whenever I need to be reminded of the graciousness of service when dining, of architectural harmony complementing gastronomic harmony, and of a living expression of a finely-tuned team at work.