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Thursday, 3 January 2013
Phillip Howard opened his restaurant The Square (just off Berkeley Square) 21 years ago. I can think of few restaurants that have traded for so long, particularly in such a volatile industry (and times), and can think of even fewer that have held 2 Michelin stars for 15 consecutive years. He is also the co-owner of the hugely popular Notting Hill restaurant The Ledbury, Kitchen W8 in Kensington, and Sonny's Kitchen in Barnes.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Phillip Howard concentrated his energies on retaining the quality standards in his restaurants rather than becoming a celebrity chef or serial book writer, which is very good news for us diners. His cooking style marries seasonal produce with modern French techniques to create his award winning cuisine.
He started his cooking career with the Roux family followed by some time with Marco Pierre White at Harvey's (now the site of Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, one of my favourite London restaurants) before opening The Square.
The year 2012 was a great one for Phillip Howard - not only did he publish his first book, The Square - The Cookbook, Volume One: Savoury, he was also named the Chef's Chef of Year at The National Restaurant Awards 2012.
His cookbook, published by Absolute Press, is a 528 page homage to his 21 years at The Square. As the name suggests, it concentrates on savoury dishes only (Volume Two: Sweet is due out in June 2013). This is a fine-dining cookbook which requires skill, attention to detail and careful planning before any of its recipes are attempted. Having spent a year at Le Cordon Bleu, I find his recipes call on all the skills I learnt during my course and a few more beyond. This is certainly not a cookbook to be dipped into mid-week when looking for inspiration for the left-overs in your fridge, but rather a book to inspire you to excel in the kitchen. This is a book for those who are interested in haute cuisine and are not put off by unusual ingredients like soya lecithin (foam stabilizer) or Sosa gelespessa (thickening agent). A supplier's list of these hard to track down ingredients is given on page 516.
Each recipe starts with a photograph of the completed dish and is spread over 3 pages broken down into sections headed "overview", "focus on", "key components", "timing", "ingredients" and "method". I am impressed by the level of detail in each recipe, enough for anyone to attempt them with a reasonable likelihood of success. The book is priced at £40 and is one of the most sophisticated cookbooks I have come across. Finally, a fine-dining cookbook whose recipes are genuinely achievable.
His recipe for "Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Mussel and Salt Cod Beignets and Whitebait" on page 121 sounds absolutely fantastic and is the one I will be attempting. Phillip gives two different cooking methods for the octopus, one being sous-viding it at 82C for 10 hours, which I am keen to try since acquiring my Sous Vide Supreme (reviewed here).
While I get my act together to attempt my first Phillip Howard recipe, I was lucky enough to visit his restaurant for a spot of lunch. Given The Square is a two-Michelin starred restaurant, the lunch menu is excellent value at £30 or £35 for two or three courses respectively. Commendably, the lunch menu read just as excitingly as the current a la carte or tasting options. I am often disappointed by restaurants which offer inferior options for their "good value" set lunch menus.
Dr G and I went for the 3 course option, and since there were 2 choices for each course, we ordered the entire menu:
Squid Ink Linguini with Langoustine Claws, Spring Onion, Lemon and Chilli
Veloute of Celeriac and Pear with a Game Terrine and Sherry
Fillet of Stone Bass with Pumpkin Gnocchi, Jerusalem Artichokes, Salsify, Cockles and Parmesan
Glazed Shin and Roast Rump of White Park Beef with Smoked Creamed Potato and Red Wine
Roasted Pear with Date Cake and Sherry and Raisin Ice Cream
Cardamom and Vanilla Yoghurt with Passion Fruit Jelly, Mango and Mint
There was also an option for an additional cheese course for £15 or £10 supplement as a dessert choice, but by that time, we were so full, we decided to skip cheese sadly. The a la carte menu is priced at £65 and £80 for two or three courses respectively and the 9-course tasting menu costs a reasonable £105 per person (or £175 including wine).
It is not often that I come out of a restaurant having enjoyed every single dish and wine matching, but The Square is definitely one of these rare finds - all the dishes were beautifully made and presented. Surprisingly, my favourite was the one I thought was the least appealing on the menu - the passion fruit jelly, mango and mint dessert - I loved the zingy and refreshing combination of flavours of this dessert and having now tried it, cannot wait to get hold of his second book "Sweet" to be published in June 2013.
The sommelier Mohammed was spot on with all his wine matching, below are some of the amazing wines that he served us through the meal, ending with a 12-year old Calvados to accompany the selection of petit-fours and coffee.
I had the opportunity to interview Phillip Howard but unfortunately due to my Cordon Bleu commitments at the time, I was unable to do so. Very kindly, he recorded the answers to the questions I submitted regarding filleting fish which you can see in the video here.
Or if you would like to learn how to make Phillip Howard's squid ink pasta dough (as in the starter we tried at The Square), you can watch the video below.
Cost: £35 for a 3-course lunch menu (excl. wines)
Likes: best lunch menu in London for both value and quality of food, the passion fruit jelly, mango and mint dessert was a winner, fantastic wine matching by sommelier Mohammed, friendly service
Verdict: my new favourite set-lunch menu spot in London, at £35 for a 3-course lunch this is great value for the outstanding food on offer, an elegant restaurant with impeccable service in a very central London location. I cannot recommend it highly enough!