Splitting opinion in the food community like a oyster, Tom Aikens' Chelsea restaurant has recently opened with a brand new facelift. Hot Dinners went along to check out whether this particular comeback kid could really pull it off.
What can you tell us about Tom Aikens?
Having been closed since summer for a makeover that included both decor and the approach of the kitchen, Tom Aikens has a lot to prove. Opening its doors with a studiedly hip, studio-like dramatic decor and a souped-up menu with decorative flair, Tom Aikens' newest venture is all dressed up for the occasion. Previously leaning towards a more classic French menu, we were excited to try out a menu full of daring - the perfect vehicle for a chef starting over.
Where is it?
Tucked away down a quiet street off the main cosmopolitan drag of Chelsea, it's not an obvious spot for passers-by, but we don't doubt that this newly reopened spot will have its fair share of visitors.
Where should I meet my friends for pre-drinner drinks?
We like Hot Dinners favourite Joe's nearby for a casual drink (although you may be tempted in for their menu too) - or you could try out one of the well-heeled pubs around South Kensington
Who's it suitable for?
Come along if you want some Noma-style fuss with the smaller details - but beware: the intricate menu and plates may not be for everyone. The gentleman next to us felt compelled to explain to the waiter - at length - why a show presentation of petit fours in an antique tin just 'wasn't for him'.
Where should we sit?
It's a roomy dining space, purposely made to feel as 'informal' as a former Michelin star can ever be and dispensing with tablecloths in favour of rustic wood and dramatic dim lighting. The stencilled quotes which filled the walls were thoughtfully chosen, even if (dare we say it) a little pretentious.
What would you recommend ordering?
Our first hurdle was to choose two courses from the a la carte menu - although we could also have chosen from a six, eight or ten course menu the waiter fussily informed us. For 40 for two courses, and 50 for three and tasting menus starting from 55, it's not a budget breaker for this part of town.
The first thing to hit our table promptly after sitting down was a selection of amuse bouche, including a cracking fried chicken skin and a rich duck and truffle soup, accompanied by a kind of candied red pepper roll - the first showily dramatic twist of the meal.
We delved more into the theatrics with our entrees, starting with a salt-fried Clarence Court duck egg, served sizzling on a large block of salt topped with sourdough crumbs , duck crumbles and sour onions. Although beautiful, ultimately the concept overshadowed the execution and the egg soaked up a little too much of the salt it sat on - leaving us grasping for water. Over on a more conventional dish, the roast langoustine was served with a lively herb mayonnaise and black olive crumb.
Mains balanced theatrics and basics with grace - the plump piglet came with two different types of caramelised squid and a citrus pineapple fondant, while the lamb came in perfectly pink blocks on a blob of ewe's cheese and a battered anchovy.
For desserts, it was back to the creative whiteboard with an entirely separate menu, featuring a much remarked-upon candied beetroot featuring sweetened beets. We settled on a confit butternut, which transformed the familiar root three ways into praline, cake and ice cream, and a white chocolate creme dish which featured an all-star cast of white chocolate powder, creamy confit and peppered slabs. A finishing touch of petits fours - including a suprisingly delicious beetroot meringue - came sweetly presented in a vintage Oxo tin (although this may have angered some fellow diners, see above!)
Is bread included?
Oh yes indeedy - and those who might be January detoxing might want to avert their eyes now. A varied mini sack of warm rolls, comes, thrillingly, with a trio of butter - including a creamy salted version and a (swoon) bacon-studded star of the show.
What about drinks?
As you'd expect from a dyed in the wool French traditionalist, even when adopting new spots, the wine list is welcoming and long - although wine pairings aren't listed on the extensive taster menu.
It's clear that Tom Aikens and staff have their sights firmly set on putting the past behind them and taking fresh inspiration - but the menu still seems to work best when classic dishes don't stray too far into the avant garde. Somewhere in between Fat Duck and a steady French foundation lies the perfect sweet spot for this comeback kid.
Hot Dinners were invited to eat at Tom Aikens. Prices are correct at the time of writing.