Clare Smyth has just opened her new restaurant and she has a mission to place the vegetable centre stage, writes Hannah Solel
Barely a month old, Clare Smyth’s first solo venture Core is on Kensington Park Road – a gentle five-minute stroll from Notting Hill Gate through quiet, town-house-lined streets.
Inside, the visitor will find a bright bar area. I am struck rightaway by the quirkiness of the cocktails: a ‘Knottyng Hull’, consisting of nettle vodka, Escubac, jasmine and wine, is a particularly humorous nod to the locality. Champagne-refreshed, I am ushered down a corridor to behold the restaurant’s kitchen: designed with a glass front wall, diners are invited to observe the chefs at work, like a sort of culinary aquarium.
And happily, Smyth herself is here: she stands in her new kitchen, and is noticeably serene despite being an hour into a close-to-capacity dinner service. She grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland and is the first female chef in the UK to hold an unprecedented three Michelin stars, a feat she achieved during her previous tenure as Chef Patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in Chelsea.
Here she is then, an empress glimpsed in her kingdom. Dark-suited waiters carrying food on wide trays parade past Smyth, and she expertly approves each plate – right down to the smallest slice of malt bread – before they are permitted out of the kitchen. And I will later find that such perfectionism serves her well.
I take my chance to ask her what inspired her to create Core. Smyth explains how she uses predominantly British, seasonal ingredients, to make vegetables the main component in a dish. ‘We’re flipping the meat and the fish and the veg around. We’re making the vegetable the star,’ she explains. And then she’s back at work, while I move through to the relaxed elegance of the dining room.
Straightaway, our entrées show us what Smyth might mean. There’s a slightly sweet duck wing, cooked with surprising spices and orange; tomato and basil gougères are proud and snug inside ramekins; and a gazpacho-flavoured – but warm – tart is sprinkled with delicate olive seeds. But perhaps the highlight was the crunchy seaweed cup, topped with puffed and toasted wild rice grains. That said, everything at Core is made to be special: the whipped butter, for instance, contains an astonishing three times the number of flavour compounds of other butters – and that’s because Smyth retains the buttermilk.
But Smyth’s imagination almost amounts to a kind of cunning, and it couldn’t be expected to stop there. The Norfolk crab was steamed with lemon leaf inside its shell, and topped with Malabar spinach, oyster leaf, sea fennel, oxalis and dill. After that came an ode to celeriac: a salt-baked slice of that vegetable astride celeriac tagliatelle, and – you guessed it – celeriac purée. It’s a fine and subtle dish: notes of hazelnut hint at the ending of summer – or at any rate, autumn’s first root vegetables.
These were all neatly paired with wines chosen by the understated but quietly authoritative sommelier Gareth Ferreira: a crisp German Kremy, Weingut Stadt Kremy, 2016, Lossterrassen; a Greek Santorini wine from the Estate Argyres; and finally the enjoyable full-bodiedness of a Pinot Grigio Alsace.
But Smyth was only just getting going: next came a Charlotte potato with a topping of herring and trout roe, micro herbs and edible flowers. Three miniature, fermented crisps are slotted among the roe, reflecting Smyth’s longstanding fondness for salt and vinegar crisps. And it’s nicely paired again by Ferreira with a Dominique Lafon 2015 Bourgogne burgundy.
The marvels kept accumulating. After that came a skate with Swiss chard and a brown butter sauce. That was followed by a lamb-braised carrot with a sheep’s milk yoghurt, and an individual square of brioche-type bread with the lamb tucked inside. There was nothing to do but marvel at the invention.
For dessert, there was a simple cherry bakewell, then a Poire Williams pear sorbet with verbena, and meringue. A German Reisling – as easy to drink as apple juice –perfectly complemented these. Passionfruit and red Kampot mountain pepper jellies concluded what had been four hours of unbroken surprise and delight.
This was an interesting and enjoyable evening. Smyth is obviously animated by the arguably quixotic wish to assert the possibilities of that overlooked anti-hero the English vegetable. But she is equal to the challenge: Core is one of the finest evenings in London right now, and not to be missed.
Hannah Solel is a researcher at Spear's