Alyn Williams, formerly head chef at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, was sick of being the bridesmaid. You could tell how desperate he was to be the bride – he’s been wearing white for years (sorry).
Now he finally has his name above the door at The Westbury’s flagship restaurant. But getting the job you’ve always wished for isn’t without its pitfalls – just ask Gordon Brown. He’s cooked for me once before (Williams, not Brown), at a chef’s table at The Berkeley: a gluttonous, 12 course tasting menu, which would take some beating. So much beating, in fact, that he didn’t beat it – but it was pretty close.
This time we ordered two tasting menus – one vegetarian – each with seven courses. The fourme d’Ambert gougers (bread-balls filled with cheese) were so light I had to stand on the table and chase them around the ceiling. The cauliflower panna cotta with acorn, served in a martini glass, was almost spectacular. The Dorset snails slithered down a treat, far exceeding the (admittedly fairly low) expectations set by the menu, which promised “snails/soil/weeds”.
The pace was flawless – just enough time to reminisce about the passing of one course before another arrived. Some restaurants never nail timing like that: Alyn Williams has done it in just two weeks.
For the main course – the only choice on the set menu, although the chef will vary the other courses it if you ask him nicely – I went for the Cotswold chicken with smoked egg and charred leek (over the Devon beef sirloin). It was a dusky, Constable-esque landscape, with murky greens lurking around the edges of a globular terracotta egg yolk, which oozed satisfyingly when lanced with a fork. I would love to tell you how good the gnocchi was, but it had disappeared from my guest’s plate before I got a chance to taste it. She assures me it was very good.
Order the cheese and you’ll be treated to the sight of two waiters heaving a gigantic bureau – less a cheese trolley than a cheese wagon. Even The Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would have failed to sling this thing through a window (although if they had been ordering cheese boards it would have been a very different movie).
The dessert – tiramisu with nutella brioche and limoncello “slush” – struggled to compete with the ferocious aftertaste of the cheese, proving to be the weakest link in an excellent meal.
Given the quality of the food, it seems churlish to take umbrage with the décor, but here we go… There’s a chapter in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman, at some point between murdering prostitutes and exchanging embossed business cards, meets his younger brother Sean for lunch. In Alyn Williams (the restaurant, not the chef), The Westbury has painstakingly recreated my mental picture of this scene. Enormous, glowing glass bowls loom over the booths, jarring with the dark wood paneling. The carpet is worse: it sparkles. At first glance it looks like a gigantic hen party has trouped through, shedding tinsel and broken glass and tears in its wake. The seats – hailing from a more somber ilk – seem embarrassed to stand in it.
The overall effect is something akin to a 1980s nightclub – not necessarily unpleasant but verging alarmingly close to gauche. One redemptive feature is a wall filled with a bank of back-lit terrariums, self contained eco-systems filled with weeds and herbs found in Williams’ food. From a distance they look like tiny aquariums, which fits with the nightclub ambiance.
But décor is décor and food is food. Williams is a master of his game; he makes complicated dishes seem effortless. And, while £55 for a tasting menu is hardly pocket-change, neither is it wildly unreasonable. Williams is finally the blushing bride; take along some confetti to celebrate – don’t worry about the mess, it’ll blend in with the carpet.
First published in City A.M.