Leaving the hum of Sloane Street, a descent into Canvas feels more like entering a subterranean Soviet spy den rather than an establishment of fine dining in Belgravia. High ceilings, particularly for a basement, a monochromatic palette and a lack of ostentatious decor give it something of a blend of Romanov grandeur and Muscovite minimalism. This is made all the more unnerving as Larman and I find ourselves the only diners but, this being mid-week and early evening, it would stand to reason we may be the first.
It being quiet, the maitre d’ gave us his full attention. “Should you wish, we would like to offer you a range of surprise plates,” he suggested. I looked at Larman. “Very well, we shall place ourselves at the mercy of Herr Riemenschneider,” Larman replied, with a conspiratorial hint. The maitre’ bowed and turned away, and I could have sworn he wringed his hands as he left. Dinner by misadventure. “Is this wise?” I asked Larman. He gave an exaggerated shrug. “He’s never failed to impress me before…” He must have been in on it.
The venue may have been empty but it wasn’t devoid of ambience. A booth, obscured by a floor-to-ceiling diaphanous drape swaying behind us, was emitting boisterous revelry. Then again it could have been a guide track in a sound recording studio, intended to make us feel unsettled. I was starting to feel like Michael Caine in The Ipcress File. And, wait, those didn’t sound like English voices. Georgian? Belorussian, perhaps? Before long, a fleet of waiters emerged from the pass; water was poured, bread placed, wine glasses laid, and the first of the chef’s creations arrived.
We were there for the ‘tasting menu’, that preserve of any fine dining establishment that intends to announce its credentials, but not only was ours not on a menu, we weren’t even being told what to expect. The intrigue mounted. A mushroom and cognac veloute for an amuse was a subtle overture, aided more by the glass of Ruinart the sommelier used to lure us in. But, as we began proper, the duet between chef and sommelier began to fill the room. And, by Jove, what clever touches. If, as in my imagination, we were to be made to talk, then the instruments of our undoing would be the pan and palette knife, and by a man who would make Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man look like Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen in a Habitat showroom.
The first course: halibut. Here, the sommelier came into his own. The minerality of a Spanish Terras Gauda brought out the delicate flavour of the fish but it was its subtle creamy undertones complimenting a panacotta accompaniment that gave it depth. This was a dichotomous dish that shouldn’t have worked but, designed with a double-sided wine in mind, it proved sublime syncopation. It was a theme that would continue through the meal. We were eating in two’s and often in extremis.
The second ‘starter’ was even better; have you ever combined pork and lobster? Well, you will now. Lobster shards served on a bed of pancetta with a pork stock reduction. Our waitress teased us with a drizzle, but she left the serving jug and we drowned the rest in it. Again, the sommelier had gone to town, with a plum-rich South African chenin blanc: The FMC. An acronym that could have suggested something far more salacious than, simply, the name of its provider, Forrester Meinert.
By course three, we were given a curve ball. And still we were the only diners – I think they must have locked the door – and by now I was prepared to sing like a canary. Duck with foie gras; innocent enough…but the wine, ye gods, the wine. A South Australian, a young pretender. Something that should never have made it across the shore. Simply labelled Domaine Lucci Red from Lucy Margaux vineyards. Our maitre d’ goaded us, asking us to try it first, hovering with an inane grin while we sipped. An ill-fit with the foie gras perhaps but it may come into its own with the duck – and could we name the grape. We were on trial here, it seemed, not the restaurant. “It’s peppery, cherry. A Shiraz, surely?” I proposed. Not so. Merlot, he said. Merlot? But, yes, and then about fifteen other grapes. “Mostly merlot, about 45%,” he said. “Then your shiraz, plus cab franc, pinot and about 7% chardonnay.” Chardonnay? In a red? No wonder it worked with the paté. Those clever Antipodes, they get us at every turn. The vinous fusion aside, the plate was a panoply of textures. There was something scattered to one side, too. I was certain the waiter said it was ‘popcorn’, but it was curious and granular, more like popped quinoa. This wasn’t a meal, this was an assault on the senses.
Only now the main and, after that last course, it took a lot of beating. But it did. We were presented with two plates: braised beef cheek and a ravioli. So much for five courses, with each course now comprising two plates, this was going up in scale. Again, the Petit Syrah du Mas Montel that accompanied each seemed to defy logic. The Syrah with the rich beef was one thing, yet it worked just as equally with a creamy ravioli, adding more layers to it. We could barely manage dessert; it passed in a haze of pleasure; again, there were two, with two wines. A teutonic riesling cut through something involving a custard and crisp biscuit and, naturally, a Sauternes; this one a 2005 Castelnau complimenting a trio of chocolate.
I was spent. They had me. There was a plot at Canvas that evening and we were the ones assailed. But brought to bear in a den of sybaritic pleasure, masterminded by a Blofeld in an apron and his henchman captivating us at the table. A chef and a sommelier working as a pair; dual-palette wines, two dishes per course, two textures per dish, a pair of opposing ingredients. I always thought three was the magic number – or 42, depending on your source. But it’s neither. It’s 2. And it resides in a basement just off Sloane Street.
The ‘surprise’ 6-course tasting menu at Canvas is £70 per person with £65 for matching wines. For more information and a sample of what to expect, visit http://www.canvaschelsea.com/#!menu/c15ma
Since Larry and Larman dined there, Michael Riemenschneider scooped three AA rosettes but has, sadly, left Canvas. Rest assured, however, we shall keep our readers up to date with his next (ad)venture…