I confess I’m new to this. Jonesy’s a seasoned pro when it comes to reviewing the restaurants for The Arbuturian but, once the shortlist for the next luncheon had been drawn up, I asked the chaps if they wouldn’t mind if I had a pop so, in the spirit of benevolence that befits the team, as we cracked the starch on the serviettes I couldn’t very well back down when Jonesy then barked, “You’re doing this one, aren’t you?” No going back there then. So, humour me, dear readers, I knew I may misinterpret the menu, pismronounce some key points, and misunderstand the waiter but, be advised, you shall at least have an honest appreciation in what you’re about to read, if not the most learned.
A good start, it didn’t help that not fifty feet away, I had to call and find out where The Greenhouse was. You may think this is to its detriment but, au contraire, consider that a good restaurant shouldn’t have to showboat itself, loud and clear in the centre of the action; the best often nestle discreetly in a side street, avoiding passing trade and remaining known only to those in the know with an unpretentious façade and a small sign as the only clue that you’re in the right place. If that’s the first indication that you’re in for some fine cuisine, then The Greenhouse is ideally placed.
Tucked away in a Mayfair mews, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d just walked into someone’s garden. I say garden because I still wasn’t convinced that we were there even as I found the chaps sat at a bench among tall, lush foliage and lengths of decking, thinking that this had to be the meeting point before we went on to the restaurant itself. But down the decking we walked, alongside the glass front catching our first glimpse of the venue. And it was this which gave me the second indication that we may be on to something. The simple, minimalist décor with its clean lines and polished surfaces indicated that most of the attention here likely went on the food.
Ushered to our table, menus presented, it wasn’t long before the wine list arrived. Well, I say wine list, this leather-bound tome weighed in at the equivalent of a first edition of War & Peace and, at a hundred pages, required a similar constitution to wade through. An epic, indeed, but unsurprisingly so since The Greenhouse prides itself on its cellar, the sommelier approached me not once, but twice, to see if I’d made a choice. I nearly dismissed the volume in favour of one of the four recommendations with the day’s menu but, since Jonesy was driving and Stirling was still in training, we opted for ‘by the glass’ and the choice was made. A Rioja-like Bierzo, El Castro de Valtinille, for Jones and, as ever, a Pinot Noir for myself but with a slight deviation: I elected a Californian, La Crema, from the Russian River Valley.
I should mention that while I battled Tolstoy some amuse bouche arrived. An apple and basil jelly ‘balloon’ – these seem very much in vogue these days – with olive dust and served like an oyster in a shallow ‘shell’, and a simple almond and cheese ‘cracker’ with citrus-infused cream cheese and chive filling. Both served their purpose, our mouths were tempted and appetites whetted.
While conversation turned to matters for the journal, the wine arrived. Once it had taken a breath or two, its nose pleasant and enticing, it transpired that the Bierzo perhaps paled to its Riojan cousin, being fairly unremarkable on the palate, even a little tart. The Pinot Noir, meanwhile, showed its Californian roots. It was uncharacteristically earthy, drier, even spicier than its French friends. A young pretender, perhaps, to the gentler Gallic counterpart.
As we went off piste on the wine list, we stuck to our principles with the food and selected from the set lunch menu (£29 for three courses), tempting as it certainly looked and our starters no doubt demonstrated the chef’s flair for detail; Jonesy and Stirling both opted for the terrine of oxtail and beef tongue – a bold, meaty choice for a warm Spring afternoon, you may think, but dressed with wild herbs, horseradish cream and a smear of basil puree it proved a surprisingly light, summery, well-balanced dish. Wild herbs made the theme for the starters as I opted for a warm artichoke salad, with the aforementioned foliage. Different, certainly, but I wasn’t sold on quite the variety that was offered. If you enjoy a consistency of flavour with each bite of your dish, this perhaps is not for you; in this instance the herbs gave each mouthful an erratic, certainly wild, flavour.
To the mains; Jonesy joined me in the delightful monkfish with baby asparagus and samphire. Perfectly cooked, and complimented by a subtle jasmine foam, it made a fine main act to the aggressive, attention-grabbing opening salvo. Monkfish’s fleshy texture seemed equally well-suited toning down the terrine or, in my case, having the artichoke’s ante upped.
I think the chaps will agree with me that desserts are window-dressing. Perhaps that’s why the Arbuturians usually opt for the cheese board. My millefeuille only confirmed my ambivalence towards puddings but there was a fine coupling of ginger ice cream and pears that came with it. Two mouthfuls into his and Jonesy was reminded of a similar incarnation in days gone by, a ‘deconstructed’ Snickers not unlike at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. Tasty, though, by all accounts. Only Stirling chose the cheese. Rather, I should say that he had no choice since neither dessert agreed with his nut allergy. Our waiter, evidently now self-conscious of Stirling’s predicament, when asked if there were any ‘notes’ with the cheeses, reassured us that none contained ‘nuts’. Semantics and accents aside, it is perhaps one minor criticism to an otherwise fine meal that the cheese ‘board’ was neither presented with explanation nor was there a board to speak of, merely a selection (albeit a generous one) presented with customary biscuits (and a generous range of those, too, in fact).
As ever, it’s the little things that really count, that really make the moment. The Greenhouse has the little things in spades; the choice of bread (sumptuous pumpkin and blue cheese, and curious walnut and coffee rolls, to name but two), both salted and unsalted butter served, the selection and decisions of the crockery, these little touches are memorable and matter.
Speaking of little touches, our meal was rounded off with petit fours which, like the wild herbs that began the meal, proved just as wild and erratic. Let me assure you, though, this is a good thing. It’s daring giving a spin to something that’s traditionally chocolatey, often bland, and added as a cursory addendum to raise the stakes of an otherwise mediocre meal. The attention to detail in The Greenhouse extends to the creation, even reinvention, of the humble petit four. In this case, accompanying a pleasant lemon and coconut macaroon and a praline dusted with gold we fended off an eye-watering passion fruit ‘tartlette’ and a curious, sugary ‘Coke’ marshmallow. Daring, indeed.
All told, a fine meal. Some subtle, sumptuous creations and a few surprises thrown in for good measure. As we noticed ourselves to be one of the last to leave, we were delighted to be graced by an appearance from the head chef, Antonin Bonnet, and the meal certainly gave us a few talking points – isn’t that the mark of a good restaurant?
The Greenhouse, 27a Hay’s Mews, Mayfair, London W1J 5NY. Tel. 020 7499 3331.