Experiencing The Ledbury in London is like taking a hike in the wild. For one, traveling there takes you out of Zone 1 and into raw Westbourne Park (or Notting Hill, depending on which line you’re taking), where the streets are mercifully quiet and the grass in the gardens of the low-rise housing developments is untrimmed. For another, the typically cheery London weather (read: rainy with biting winds) made my girlfriend K and I look like a pair of inept hipster hunter-gatherers after the brisk walk from the tube station to Ledbury Road. Then there was the food itself; each of the eight courses on our lunch tasting menu took us on a sojourn, past bubbling rivers, through pungent loam, into the very heart of some unnamed countryside.
I’d like to say that The Ledbury serves distinctly British cuisine, except I don’t quite know what the phrase ‘British cuisine’ means, exactly. My guess is it’s hearty, deeply engaging, almost rustic, as is befitting a country – and city, in London’s case – with such textured history. That’s what my meal that wet March Thursday felt like, though. If my dinner at Le Sergent Recruteur in Paris was amusingly cerebral, The Ledbury was an entirely different animal; earnestly and raucously so.
Quintessentially British? Perhaps, but Brett Graham isn’t a typical British chef, mostly because he’s Australian. Not that he doesn’t have any local cred. After a great start to his career in Newcastle (the other Newcastle) and Sydney, he moved to the less sunny pastures of England, where he’s been based for more than ten years now. It’s a well-oiled machine he’s running at The Ledbury – the restaurant earned the first of its two Michelin stars about a year after it opened in 2005, and was ranked 14th in last year’s San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
My tasting menu was low in pretension, but bursting with big-bellied flavor. Chef Graham’s technique is, as expected, faultless, but at all times he prefers to keep things understated to the point of anonymity. You don’t think about the beautiful knife-work when eating a delicate tartare of oyster, horseradish and dill, even though it was his idea to turn the slurptastic bivalve experience into something infinitely more refined; you don’t marvel at the masterful flame-grilling of mackerel, nor at the perfectly pickled vegetables on the plate, because you’re trying very hard not to eat the entire fillet in one glorious, oleaginous mouthful.
Other dishes, such as the curd of Buffalo milk from Hampshire (pictured above), let you appreciate the beauty of British produce. Wildly creamy, the curd sat below a thin layer of warm onion broth, which itself sat below a forager’s trio of mushroom, dill and onion, and was accompanied by thin fingers of toast with Saint-Nectaire cheese (see second image) from Auvergne and shaved black truffle. Quite simply the most outdoorsy dish of the meal, it was also my favorite. It reminded me of the garden of a family friend’s suburban London house I stayed at when I was ten, mossy and vibrant with all kinds of fungi and herbs.
Besides the occasional cheese and vegetable, chef Graham doesn’t venture too far from his current home country for inspiration. Sam, the excellent head waiter, was almost apologetic when he told us that the brilliant mustard-coloured leek that came with our grilled turbot (pictured below) was not from the United Kingdom, as is normally the case, but from France, due to issues with the crop quality at the time. He was less remorseful when he presented me a plate of medium-rare Berkshire muntjac daubed with a sauce of blood-red rhubarb. “You know Bambi? Well, that’s the exact breed of deer this is,” he told me, not without a slightly worrying hint of glee. I felt like an unpardonable carnivore as I wolfed down the thick, juicy ovals; a feeling compounded by the rather accusing eyes of K, who had ordered the vegetarian tasting menu. Nevertheless, it was a great unusual dish, a bestial shock to my beef-jaded palate.
The tail-end of my meal brought with it a series of treats. First, a complimentary glass of Recioto di Soave from Veneto, courtesy of our sommelier, who had persuaded me – rightly so – to take the plunge and order a glass of savoury Austrian Saint Laurent to keep me going through my lunch. Second, an additional dessert, a brown sugar custard so bloody good it made our previous one, and indeed, almost all other desserts, seem inadequate in comparison. And third, a quick chat with chef Graham himself in between preparations for dinner service. Chummy and completely egoless, he seemed genuinely interested in the restaurant scene in Asia, but work had foiled any attempts for an extended holiday. “I’m just too bloody busy, you know?”
Given The Ledbury’s success, it isn’t surprising. It takes a lot of time to source the best ingredients and mould them into a menu as chockfull of character as London showers and Sir John Soane’s Museum. It takes a lot of time to be an invisible guide, taking diners on a massively curated tour of the local and continental taste landscape, bringing them to all your familiar haunts, then stepping back to let them enjoy the moment.
Quintessentially British? Maybe.
127 Ledbury Road
Notting Hill, London, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7792 9090