Popular culture can be a depressing economic barometer. In the 90s and early 2000s British music was all working-class, boy-done-good swagger. It didn’t seem weird that Noel Gallagher had been invited to 10 Downing Street, or that he’d agreed to go.
Today, two thirds of chart acts went to public school and the chances of the Rizzle Kicks sharing afternoon tea with David Cameron are slim. A decade ago British art was still reverberating to the sound the Young British Artists – all loud colours and louder ideas. Last year’s Turner Prize winner, Martin Boyce’s Do Words Have Voices, consisted of geometric shapes carved from bare wood and concrete. He narrowly pipped George Shaw’s paintings of decaying Midlands suburbia.
When Tom Aikens Restaurant (no apostrophe) opened in 2003, it was a minimalist sea of starched white table cloths, deep mahogany floors and deeper-pile carpets. White roses adorned the tables and heavy blinds shielded diners form the outside world. It was a statement restaurant – and the statement was: “I have a lot of cash”.
It worked. In 2005 it placed eighth in a list of the world’s best restaurants and Aikens was recognised as one of the foremost chefs of his generation. But the 2000s had a cruel sting in their tail and in 2008 Tom Aikens Restaurant slumped into administration.
It survived and over the summer closed its doors for a major refurbishment, finally reopening, unrecognisable, last week. You won’t see any white or mahogany now – the walls are dull, mushy-pea green, stenciled with famous quotations like Socrates’ “Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat”.
The atmosphere is more “make do and mend” than “make loads of money,” right down to the wine list glued into the pages of a vintage “wines of the world” volume and the hand-crafted crockery. There is an earthy, Scandinavian feel to it; not the fly-away minimalism of Ikea, more like a cabin in the hills, or a second hand bookshop.
The menu was delivered in an envelope, inside of which was a complex system involving coded columns, which we needed to have explained to us twice. The tasting menu seemed like the simplest option (you can have six, eight and 10 courses) and turned out to be a shrewd decision.
The pigeon consomme was a tender sliver of breast served beside islands of powder – seven or eight tiny hills, including one of dried carrot and another of bacon – which melted into the consomme when it was added at the table.
The scallop (singular) was cut rizla-thin and served with various iterations of apple, creating an earthy woodland scene that would have been made complete by a red squirrel peeking out from behind the deep-green sorbet.
The chorizo baked cod, topped with an impressive flourish of crispy skin, was a little heavy six courses in, which wasn’t something the perfect rectangle of piglet that followed could be accused of.
The beetroot fondant featured a comprehensive who’s who of the beet world – a very fashionable root at the moment – with slices and rolls and jellies, all nestled besides dark berries. It was typical of Aiken’s food – fiddly but fascinating.
The desserts were no less painstakingly constructed. The pistachio brick looked like a glacial mountain, with clear shards of caramel towering above a mossy-green covering of nut.
By the time the cheese was polished off, we’d been in the restaurant over four hours (the fact I was sat in front of a mirror, meaning my guest could spend half the evening peering at her own reflection rather than looking at me, may, have given the night extra mileage). Tom Aikens Restaurant is the way great food should be served in these post-recession times – without stuffiness or ostentation. It comes very highly recommended.
First published in City A.M.