Many know Tom Aikens as the volatile head chef who allegedly pulled a knife on a member of his brigade in the kitchens of Pied à Terre, where he first made his name. Or more recently, for declaring bankruptcy leaving a trail of fuming unpaid suppliers (some of whom had to fold themselves as a result) in his wake. Regrettably for Aikens those incidents will forever be associated with his name, casting a shadow over his undeniable talent – he was after all the youngest British chef (at 23 years of age back in 1996) to attain 2 Michelin stars, which he held for the entire period of his 3 year stint as head chef and co-owner of the aforementioned Pied à Terre.
A decade ago, the London restaurant scene was nowhere near as exciting as it is now. And when Aikens opened the original incarnation of his eponymous restaurant in 2003 he was doing some of the most innovative cooking at the time. It was our go-to restaurant for out of town visitors (much like The Ledbury is for us now), and every meal we had there in the early days was an elaborate affair, with every course made up of numerous impeccably executed components.
The current Tom Aikens, reopened in January after a six-month refurb, fits right in with the new wave of low-key eateries. Gone are the pressed linens and chic monochrome colour scheme, replaced by concrete walls, bare wooden floorboards and Noma-esque furnishings. Aside from a few suited senior front of house, the young staff swan about in relaxed outdoor attire, in keeping with the casual feel. The food (prepared by head chef Lee Westcott, with Aikens overseeing most services) has also been scaled back, but retains the same level of detail and precision, and enough bells and whistles to keep the customers happy.
Breads arrive piping hot in a rustic sack filled with heated beans to keep the homemade rolls warm. All were delicious, especially the flaky onion brioche which I slathered with the marjoram and bacon butters.
An amuse bouche of Duck Cassonade was an excellent opener – silky savoury custard, fragrant from black truffle shavings. Canapés to share followed, and in the name of fairness we painstakingly split each tiny morsel to taste them all (how many canapés would a group of three receive I wonder).
Nibbles done, we moved onto the 8-course tasting menu proper. The Beetroot Fondant was a vibrant medley of raw and cooked jewel-hued beetroot interspersed with blackberries, goat’s curd and salad greens. It would have been a harmonious dish had it not been for a chunk of floral Regent’s Park honeycomb – the root vegetables had enough sweetness to them that made the extra hit of sugar superfluous.
Pigeon Consommé, poured table-side over a plate of seared pigeon, foie gras, pigeon cassonade, chocolate smears and several piles of mysterious powders (I think dehydrated tomato was one of them). It was very clever – the various elements came together as we ate, flavouring the consommé and saucing the game at the same time.
The Hand-dived Marinated Scallop in contrast, disappointed. Although bouncy raw cubes of squid, tart apple slivers and squishy tapioca added interest, the scallops lacked typical sweetness and were too finely sliced, leading to the supposed star of the dish being eclipsed by the ribbon of salty lardo crudo.
Presumably the kitchen intended to serve the Braised and Poached Leeks crunchy but we were hoping for a more soft silken texture, characteristic of braising. That said, the flavours did work and the garnish of shaved sauternes foie gras added depth and a certain richness, while keeping everything relatively light.
Chorizo Baked Cod was a great play on textures – moist fork-tender fish, softly elastic 24 hour cooked squid and a crunchy curl of crisped skin, all resting in a milky pool of cod soup.
Piglet, served with roasted gem lettuce, pineapple and sage, was a tale of two halves – the rack was pink and succulent with a beautiful crisp skin, but the porcine roll on the side was dry and stringy. The pineapple fondant was also too sweet to counter the fattiness of the meat – something with a little more acidity (like the more traditional pairing of apple) would have been a better match.
Portions were generous, and by the time our cheese course hit the table we were pretty much ready to burst. It was a good selection though, complimented well by a side of poached pear and various toasts and fruit preserves, and we found ourselves polishing it off with the remainder of our wine – an intriguing South African Chenin Blanc, Testalonga “El Bandito” which was beautifully complex and conjured an image of apple brandy barrels.
The Carrot Granité featuring sauternes jelly, carrot juice, pickled carrots, carrot cake and toasted seeds was very similar to a dessert I’ve eaten at Aikens in the past. All a bit too carroty for me and I’d imagine not everyone’s cup of tea – possibly not the best choice for the sole dessert in a tasting menu.
Defeated, we skipped coffee and asked for our petits four to go (the waiter happily obliged). Sipping a mug of tea and picking at the contents of our takeaway box the next day, we recounted our meal and noted how it felt like a diluted experience of the former restaurant, pre-financial woes. However it wasn’t a bad meal in itself, and for those new to Tom’s cooking, it would be worth a try.
43 Elystan Street
London SW3 3NT
t. 020 7584 2003