Expectations were high as 18 of us arrived at One Blenheim Terrace across the border in NW8.
The chef had been tweeting about us coming, the restaurant was giving us a 30% discount on the food, and we were hungry after yet another day of dodging rainshowers.
One Blenheim's modern and stylish interior with spotless wine glasses and linen tablecloths immediately suggests that its aspirations extend beyond nice neighbourhood restaurant. The menu's concept is "retro with a twist" as familiar dishes are reimagined in very modern ways.
It took a while for the staff to take our order, and even longer for our starters to arrive. In the meantime an amuse bouche appeared. Although the waiter didn't actually tell us what we were having (a pet hate), it was very obviously tuna tartare on what I guess was a tuile "scoop". Aside from the fact that the scoop was too soggy to be effective, so cutlery had to be deployed, this was refreshing, zingy and I think a universal hit. Everyone on Nicky's table said it was "yummy", and when gently prompted to up their critical game, they came up with "delectable", and "light and fresh". "I could eat a whole bowl of it" said Caroline.
By the time the starters arrived, most of us would happily have eaten a bowl of anything. The "hands off" service was really the main criticism of the evening. The starters very much set the tone of the food - playfully presented with strong flavours, they were a good talking point. Not that we were short of conversation once Dominic had begun regaling us with tales of dubious activities he'd witnessed in Brent car parks.
Two starters stood out for presentation. The hand-dived baked scallop, served with sea vegetables and edible sand came to the table in its shell, sealed with pastry. Not everyone found this the easiest thing to break into, but once opened it looked even more delicious. The edible sand was perhaps less successful, reminding some of a crumbled vegetable stock cube, which probably wasn't the idea. Nevertheless, I'd order the scallop if I went again.
The other starter that immediately brought a smile to people's faces was the picnic basket, which came filled with a scotch egg, coronation chicken crisps, and corned beef. This was straight off the pages of an Enid Blyton book. "Excellent presentation", said Mark, while James said it was "entertaining" with very good piccalilli sauce on the side. Only Emily was unmoved by the mini baskets, "you still have to move everything to your plate", she said. However, she perked up on trying the coronation chicken-flavoured crisps. "They're like you get in Spanish supermarkets!", which apparently was a good thing. The scotch egg stole the show and triggered picnic planning among Nicky's table.
One of the odder sounding starters got mixed reviews. Smoked salmon with a poppy seed macaroon and potted salmon looked delightful, but Louise and Richard were both unconvinced by the almost chocolatey sweetness of the macaroon against the oily smoked salmon. I tried some of this with my most sceptical face, but I actually loved it. Richard said he wouldn't order it again, but for me it would be vying with the scallop for first choice. As Susan pointed out "I had petals, that's all that needs to be said".
The salmon was certainly better than my own starter of asparagus, olive soil and salad cream. The asparagus was slightly overcooked, the olive soil lacked a punch of flavour and there was far too much salad cream. I'd been intrigued to see how a high-end restaurant would use salad cream, but the answer seemed to be "put it in a bowl." I'll stick to melted butter or hollandaise next time.
Phil and Adrian seemed happy with the beef carpaccio, if momentarily confused about the existence of 'yorkshire pudding croutons'. Nimet tried the Dublin Bay Prawns, with a dressed crab cone, prawn cocktail dressing and tartare sauce. The langoustine (singular) was presented creeping out of a seaside pink & white striped paper bag, but aside from looking quite pretty the dish didn't have a wow factor.
Happily, portions are a decent size at One Blenheim so our appetites were reasonably sated as we waited for the main courses. These are generally more straightforward than the starters with the entertaining touches kept to a minimum. The "lamb & mint" was a popular dish. The lamb was well cooked, but the pea mousse was the star of the show, it would be a tremendous accompaniment to almost any dish. We had a couple of takers for the enormous sirloin steak, cooked on the bone. This is the most expensive main course at £24.95, and at that price you'd want perfection. Sadly, Richard's was cooked a little more than he'd wanted - and it's always harder to send back an overcooked steak especially when you've already waited a while.
At this point, James leaned back in his chair to nick a menu from another table. "Was my Tuna Niçoise described as a salad?" he asked. It was not. The dish was a deconstructed / reimagined salade Niçoise - think anchovy beignet, rather than a garnish of tinned anchovies, and a poached, rather than boiled, egg. Phil was happy to find the tuna perfectly cooked and "delicious", but found the rest of the plate "a bit bizarre" - all in all he didn't feel it added up to a coherent dish, while James said that although the component parts were good he didn't actually enjoy it.
The best smelling dish was undoubtedly the Bombay cod with raita ice cream - it was a popular choice and everyone liked it. The cod was perfectly cooked and the spicing well-judged, allowing the flavour of the fish to shine through. It came with spiced lentils, a fried courgette flower and a deep-fried scoop of minty cucumbery ice cream goodness - a perfect contrast to the heat and richness of the rest of the dish. "Amazing", was one reaction although one dissenter wondered whether the ice cream wasn't just a bit too cold for the rest of the dish.
Emily went for mussels in beer served with beer bread and a shot of ale on the side. Nice presentation, though she wondered whether it was more 'gastro pub' than fine dining. Mark ordered the sole meunière at the mysterious "market price" (£21.95), which was exactly what it purported to be: a very nicely cooked piece of fish. We found the side orders (£7.50 for a set of three - and both tables shared three each) to be a bit superfluous, the main courses are well designed as stand-alone dishes, perhaps only the sole and the steak needed something extra.
Before desserts, a word on the wine list from our very own wine expert, Caroline:
"The wine list was concise and precise, with a large selection of wines available by the glass (12 out of 17 for the whites, and 10 out of 19 for the reds). It contained the familiar Old and New World classics one expects on a wine list these days, as well as plenty more interesting options for those tempted by something slightly different. The least expensive red and white are both under the Peyrasse label from the south of France. At £17.50, both wines were perfectly nice and refreshing, and generally thought to be good for house wines. We particularly liked the red, which was very fresh, fruity, juicy and light. We followed with Picpoul de Pinet at £21 and the Argentinian Malbec at £24. Picpoul de Pinet, also from the south of France, is always a fun choice because it tends to be cheap and very good. This one delivered perfectly, with ripe stone fruit and citrus flavours, a zingy, almost spicy palate and lovely freshness. The Malbec was somewhat of a let down, failing to deliver the rich, juicy ripeness that makes Malbec so popular. I also tasted the Pehhcora Pecorino from Italy (white, £25 a bottle) and the Cerejeiras Colheita from Portugal (red, £28 a bottle). The former was recommended by the head waiter, who was knowledgeable about the list and happy to offer his advice. A quirky and unusual white from Italy, it was absolutely delicious. The Colheita was also very tasty, very much a wine to be drunk with meat.
I felt the list represented a cool mix of known classics and adventurous offerings. The wide range of wines by the glass made it easy to have a full wine experience with your meal, without being bombarded or confused by an enormous list. The pricing was entirely reasonable, with most bottles coming in under £40, but also with a few special Fine Wines for those out to impress. Overall, the wine list fit in well with the atmosphere and food of the restaurant. It was thoughtful and interesting, with plenty of variety and something for everyone."
Thanks Caroline (my table went with the house white and the Barbera Del Monferrato (red, £19), and we were very happy with both).
Before desserts, we had another little amuse bouche (I don't think a marshmallow with chocolate fondue can ever be described as a palate cleanser). Nicky's table were debating just how "fine dining" the restaurant was, but Adrian' reaction to the chocolate put an end to the discussion: "Not so fine dining that we can’t lick the bowl".
Onto desserts. Even with the generous portions, plenty of us found room for desserts, which included a bakewell slice (or "slab" as it turned out), profiteroles, cheese and a mini pavlova. These were all decent but nothing to get us over-excited, and they weren't as interesting or imaginative as the starters had been.
The meal had been a success. There had been plenty of high points and mercifully few lows. And, of course, it was another great chance for locals to meet and chat over some good food and wine. It's true that service had been slow and a bit too passive, especially early on. Although carefully crafted food naturally takes a bit of time to prepare, and we were two tables of 9 in a restaurant with another 20 or so diners, it wasn't as if they didn't know we were coming. It felt as if the front-of-house manager needed to take the service by the scruff of the neck and get it moving.
The food did generally hit the mark with some delightful touches and good strong flavours coming through, even in the more unusual combinations. My table's bill (3 courses each, 5 bottles of wine) came to £40 a head and would have been £53 without the discount. The feeling was that the service would need to be slicker to justify the full price, and mistakes such as the overcooked steak wouldn't be acceptable.
Perhaps the challenge One Blenheim faces is trying to straddle the two worlds of upscale dining and neighbourhood restaurant. "It looks, sounds and smells like fine dining," said Adrian, "but isn't quite there." The couple on a date who were sandwiched between our two tables were running out of conversation. Is it a good date destination? Opinion was divided - it has a casual but classy vibe, and the lighting and décor are conducive to a romantic but relaxed evening. But when the restaurant is quiet then it's perhaps a bit too formal.
Overall this was a good meal and a very enjoyable evening. I would recommend trying One Blenheim midweek, when there are some deals to be had. Chef patron Ed Shaerf has worked at Claridges, the Fat Duck and The Ivy and this strong pedigree comes across both in the creative menu and the careful execution. There's nothing quite like One Blenheim in the area, and it should be applauded for trying something different and for combining imaginative food with proper neighbourhood restaurant portions. Long may it prosper.
Nicky's table: 7.5
Jonathan's table: 7.6
One Blenheim Terrace
London NW8 0EH
T: 020 7372 1722
Photos courtesy of Nimet and me
Thanks to Nicky for hosting a table