A beyond-fabulous offer from work leads me to this Michelin-starred, glass-ceilinged restaurant. One word: incredible.
From the moment we walked into ‘Apsleys – A Heinz Beck Restaurant’ in the sumptuous Lanesborough Hotel, it felt impressive yet welcoming, extravagant yet homely. A wide, glass ceiling and a trio of sleek chandeliers sparkles in the light against a modern-style Italian fresco, while a deep carpet and comfortable chairs and sofas lend the room a living-room feel, albeit a very well-appointed one.
The London home of three-Michelin-starred German chef Heinz Beck, who won his stars at Rome restaurant La Pergola, Apsleys promises much, and I must admit, I wasn’t sure whether it would live up to its reputation. In my limited experience, “top” restaurants can get caught up in their own hype, and so believe in their superiority that the actual food gets lost among lacklustre sauces or regrettably slipshod front-of-house staff.
About two months ago, I had my birthday meal at another Park Lane hotel restaurant, which shall remain nameless, and it felt like a below-par exercise in mediocrity, with too-low lighting, sterile atmosphere, soggy vegetables, hovering yet inattentive staff and a lobster and tomato sauce pasta dish that I can only remember for its distinct tomato ketchup quality. Food that was trying its best was ruined by staff barely better trained than the waitress at your local Pizza Express (and there you get a smile and two decent courses for a tenner and a five).
No such complaints here.
We were lucky enough to be offered a variation on the tasting menu, including matching wines, and from our welcome glass of sparkling wine to just-warmed bread, to final coffees, I felt that the front of house staff were attentive yet discreet, polite and informative without being intrusive, with no awkward moments.
It’s the nature of a high-end restaurant that you can’t natter away for hours without anyone coming to your table (as you might at a chain place), but when done like this – a quick topping up of a water glass, a softly-spoken yet unpretentious summary of the next dish or wine, a prompt removal of an empty plate and new dishes arriving at a regular, pleasant pace ‒ the slight interruptions are almost welcome.
Food, glorious food
Front of house wonderful, we turned our attention to the food. And wow, the food. It’s a sad failing of mine that my memory only just outlives that of a flea, and frankly, at most restaurants I go to, high-end or low, I manage to forget the main, sometimes remember the starter, and perhaps half the time recall the dessert a day later. And yet with this, we were hooked from the word go.
A crisp amuse-bouche of lightly-fried cod brandade on perfectly-cooked barley rice came first, followed by a soft and refreshing tuna tartare with basil, tomato and olive puree. Served on a Perspex disc balanced on dry ice, the waiters simultaneously poured a kind of mint jus around both our plates, sending perfumed steam wafting into the air. The tuna itself was beautiful – small chunks of rose-coloured flesh that almost melted on the tongue.
Next came one scallop on smooth green peas and asparagus spears, with soft artichoke and crisp mushroom flakes, garnished with sprigs of herbs and a single petal. It’s easy to criticise chefs who mess about with petals and much-maligned parsley sprigs, but as each mouthful was alert with contrasting texture and flavour, there was no such slight to make. The scallop teetered on the edge of cooked and uncooked – exactly as it should ‒ while even one drop of the liquid it came in delivered a warm burst of deep flavour.
The next course, fagotelli carbonara, is Heinz Beck’s signature dish, and the plate I was looking forward to most. Italian food is indisputably my guilty pleasure, and nothing fits that bill quite like a plateful of creamy, salty, smooth carbonara (although woodfired pizza comes a close second). Even a hastily-whipped up home version gets me all excited, and my boyfriend’s green chilli version is one of life’s great triumphs. Beck had large shoes to fill.
No surprise that he succeeded admirably. Daintily-wrapped parcels of silk-smooth pasta, decorated with tiny squares of buttery cucumber and crisp bacon, cleanly concealed a luxurious, cream sauce, cheesy and liquid as it burst like a ripe tomato upon first bite. We quickly learned that the cleanest way was to take each fagotelli in one go, which happily allowed the flavours ample time to coat the mouth with the sharp yet nutty flavours of a seriously good Parmesan. The saltiness threatened to overwhelm, but the sweet lemon freshness from the accompanying Italian wine thankfully cut through with tastebud-tingling balance.
We looked at each other with the satisfaction of two people whose pasta is not just al dente, but utterly resplendent. It’s a testament to how much I loved it that I awarded it joint-first-carbonara-prize with my boyfriend’s home-cooked version (which I still reckon is as close as you can get to a hug on a plate).
Next came salt-crusted seabass on a bed of saffron potatoes and squid ink puree – with the two just-cooked, succulent fillets plucked at-table from a golden salt-crust pillow ‒ beautifully served in deft, practised strokes from a waiter who managed to administer the entire thing on a table that appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as fast. I’ve been in many a restaurant, and never have I seen table-side serving done with quite so much ease.
I admit, the pungent smell of saffron didn’t quite translate to the taste, and this was probably my least favourite dish (no big deal when they’re all unbelievably good). I am a big advocate of saffron, having grown up in a household where paella is less dish, more institution, and expected seriously big things. The smell was expectedly glorious, but I didn’t feel that the taste was as colourful as the yellow suggested.
More artichoke gave a feel of filler, rather than perfectly-chosen veg, while the puree tasted a little too muddy for my liking, although I really am picking, to be completely honest. My boyfriend loved it, and I have to concede that the smooth sauce and soft potatoes, together with the flakes of tender fish, crushed pleasingly in the mouth.
Just when we thought we’d had our fill of savoury flavours, we remembered the promised pigeon breast, and sighed as only diners halfway through a ten-course meal can; tiredness mixed with gluttony with satisfaction. For a moment we contemplated booking the hotel’s cheapest room for the night and surrendering to the steadily-growing crowd of wine glasses on the table, yet for obvious reasons – mainly bank-balance-related ‒ decided against (I can only blame laziness and the false sense of wealth lent by such epicurean extravagance for our momentary wonderings).
Time for pigeon. Banish all thoughts of Trafalgar Square pests; this was chestnut-coloured and rich, with hints of duck and liver, deep and earthy without being muddy; slivered artwork on a plate that also included a round chunk of nut-coated meat on a clean, thin bone ‒ impossible not to eat like a very chunky lollipop. Corn puree sat in fat spoonfuls on a pungent jus, as popcorn – yes, popcorn ‒ jumped out in every bite. Sweet kernels and powdered, chocolately coffee shouldn’t work in a meat dish, but somehow, it managed not to be overwhelming (if remaining ever-so-slightly gimmicky).
The only red wine of the meal gave a tough backbone to the entire dish, even if my total inability to finish one glass of wine before the next one arrived continued to amuse me, much to the dismay of the ever-pleasant sommelier, who kept presenting new liquids even as disappointment leaked from his eyes. (I just happily collected wines like a magpie does sweet wrappers, and actually ended the meal with a mouthful of each, especially of the dessert wine, which tasted like sweet orange nectar.)
Too much wine!
I’ve never been a huge drinker, and have only recently come to appreciate how wines can transform a dish (and a good G&T turn a crap day into a great one) so there’s no way in hell I’d have got through six glasses. My boyfriend was more than happy to try, but even he couldn’t quite do it, especially with an hour’s train ride ahead to remain upright for. Smaller glasses, maybe, Heinz?
At this point, I was in dire need of a sorbet, or at the very least, a wet wipe. There had been a rose-petalled finger-cleaning bowl and brand new napkin, but I felt a little more refreshment and repose was needed after such an mind-boggling array of courses.
I should have known it was all under control – the restaurant had mastered the art of dimming the lights slowly by the hour, until the early-evening’s brightness had merged imperceptibly into a night-time cocoon, tinkling glasses and laughing guests included, so it’s no surprise they also had more than a hold on the sorbet thing.
Blackcurrant, bold and beautiful, it came served in painterly strokes, with cool spheres of fromage frais nestling with oaty biscuit bites and juicy half-blueberries. Described by the waiter as our ‘pre-dessert’, it hit the sorbet spot and made us long to see what came next.
You’ll be in no way surprised to hear that it was just as masterful; a small dome and thin pillar of shiny chocolate, lightly dusted in cocoa powder, with silky cream inside, melting in the mouth as only good chocolate can, mixing with the coconut cream and quenelles of sharp pineapple sorbet that added a welcome piquant to the layers of milkiness; just enough to finish an already-enormous meal.
We were just contemplating coffee when the next thing I know, a little man with creases at the eyes and a weary yet affable smile is standing in front of our table, asking if we enjoyed the food.
It takes me exactly three eights of a millisecond to realise that this bald-headed bloke in chef’s whites is three-Michelin starred, head chef Beck, who is, for some perplexing reason, looking searchingly at US, yes, US, to check if his near-flawless cooking had done the job. Understatement.
I reach over, shake him by the hand, and inform him in no uncertain terms that this has been up there with pretty much the best restaurant experience, and most incredible meal, that I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. He looks pleased, and nods anxiously.
When I tell him that the fagotelli was my favourite course, he replies that as it’s his signature, and since he was in the kitchen tonight (he isn’t always), he decided to serve it to us (it normally only appears on the a la carte menu, not the tasting one). I beam with delight.
“It’s been a pleasure to have you here,” he says, and then he’s gone. My boyfriend and I blink at each other across the table as we process what just happened – personally, I can’t believe I’ve just shaken the hand of someone with three Michelin stars (even if they are for another restaurant…!).
A line of jewelled petit fours, and an tiny espresso finished me off – as I popped the little chocolate bites and precision-cut jellied cubes into my mouth I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t ever feel hungry again.
It might sound sycophantic, ridiculously over-the-top and jaw-droppingly far from any kind of reality or modicum of perspective, but I can report that having eaten there not quite knowing what to expect, it fulfilled its promise tenfold. I don’t know where Guardian critic Marina O’Loughlin was eating when she gave it 2 out of 5 in the Metro newspaper back in 2009, but I can only assume that both she and the chef were having a seriously bad day.
You couldn’t eat like this every day, and I wouldn’t want to – the delight in such an evening is in its rarity, not to mention I can hardly feel any ownership of the experience, as I was only able to go thanks to a fabulous, unexpected offer from work.
Heading home via the doormen-staffed exit, we left it what we imagined might be a socially-acceptable amount of time and distance before bursting out laughing at just how good it was, and at our luck at meeting such an accomplished chef.
Not an ounce of cool between us on that score, but I couldn’t care less ‒ indeed, it would be a sad day indeed to realise you’re ‘used’ to this kind of thing. I’m the first to admit that I’m a spoiled brat when it comes to restaurants and food, having eaten at a lot of great places – there was even silver service on a regular basis at my Uni, for goodness’ sake – but I wouldn’t ever want to get blasé and petulant about this level of skill.
Yes, it’s extravagant, ostentatious and more than a little indulgent, (not to mention that, if I had been paying, devastatingly above any sort of personal budget).
But it was also a complete joy.
It’s something of an understatement to conclude that as Monday nights go, you couldn’t do much better.
Apsleys – A Heinz Beck Restaurant, Lanesborough Place, London, SW1X 7TA
Hyde Park Corner tube station
0207 333 7254
Italian with a Mediterranean Flavour / Smart Casual / Lunch 12:30 – 14:30 / Dinner 19:00 – 22:30