Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley

Celebrating our first date night in many weeks, Carolynn and I went to the restaurant formerly known as Petrus.  Head chef Marcus Wareing was the man in the kitchen when Petrus was awarded its second Michelin star, and when the lease with the hotel expired, they chose to give it to Wareing.  The new restaurant, now named Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, is arguably the same place without Jean-Philippe Susilovic as the mâitre d’hôtel and without answering ultimate to Gordon Ramsay Holdings.  While I never dined at the restaurant under the old name, my guess is that the food continues to be at the same level if not higher, given that Marcus is now working for himself.

The restaurant is not large (the dining area doesn’t seem to have much more square footage than the kitchen, which I’ll discuss later), and seats about 70 people.  There is a table for up to eight people in the kitchen, and a private room off the main dining room than can hold up to 14 people.  The decor is dark, fairly conservative, and even when the restaurant was full, it was still an enjoyable dining experience in terms of being able to converse.

We seemed to wait a fair amount of time between being seated and having anything such as a menu or a drink.  Eventually the Champagne cart guy came over and I started off with a glass of 1999 Bollinger Grande Année.  Carolynn’s pregnant so I was going to be the only one indulging, and she ordered a cranberry juice.  (In one of the few service missteps, this didn’t arrive until I asked for it again 15 minutes later.)  We waited quite a while again before the first amuse bouche came, but it was quite good.  There were three items–a pâté sandwich, a crab meat tartlet, and a smoked tomato spread served with croutons.  The pâté was silky, the tartlets were intensely “crabby”, but the spread was truly amazing.  Not the kind of thing that sounded appetizing, but I could have eaten a bowl of the stuff, using the honey potato bread to sop it up.  The bread, by the way, was fantastic on its own, and even better with the butter, but when the butter first arrived it was rock hard and unspreadable–this was the second big gaffe we encountered.)  We were next served a nutmeg velouté with some nutmeg breadsticks.  Sipped, it was warm and flavorful, with just a hint of nutmeg, and the breadsticks, over a foot long and pencil-thin, were fun to eat with our fingers.

The first course was pan fried foie gras, peach, fresh almonds and honey, amaretti and black olive.  There was an olive meringue on the side which was amazing, and it was an interesting pairing with the foie gras.  As Carolynn said, it’s pretty hard to beat a piece of seared foie gras by itself, but I don’t think people go to restaurants such as this one to get a simple slab of foie slapped on a plate.  The chef finds himself in a tough position (we discussed this same issue during the meat course later on) in that the main ingredient is arguably best by itself, but he would be lambasted for serving it so in a restaurant.  This was paired with an Austrian TBA the producer of which I did not write down (like the other wines of the evening), and it was a perfect match.

This was followed by honey soused sardines, burrata, Piquillo peppers and heirloom tomato.  The fish was fairly strong by itself, and not the typically oversalted stuff you’d find in a can, but rather dense and meaty, with a fresh taste of the sea.  Combined with the other ingredients on the plate I thought it was an amazing combination, that elevated every element to something higher.  The Gruner Veltliner was a great match, with the food bringing out some of the fruit in the wine, and the wine helping to meld the food together even more.

The next wine was a red Burgundy (yeah, yeah–not exactly narrowing it down much, am I?) and it was awesome with roasted and marinated quail, white onion fondue, courgette and basil, and baked potato.  The bird and the Pinot were wonderful together, and I made the mistake of enjoying these two that I ended up with the “leftovers” to eat without the benefit of the quail.  They were very good, however, and I’d imagine, if this plate worked like the others, that all the flavors together would have been even better.

At this point, the sommelier had mercy on me and stopped bringing wine pairings.  Carolynn and I think that it may have been a misunderstood question on my part and that I actually said I don’t want anymore, when I thought I was simply being asked about a nearly-empty glass being taken away.  Nevertheless, I had some of the Burgundy still when the Scottish scallop, dressed with sweetcorn and chorizo and drizzled in a red wine vinaigrette arrived.  Not a good match, but wow, what a great dish.  This was the dish that helped me see what this kitchen is about.  Unlike the theater and whimsy of the Fat Duck, or the incredible precision and propriety of Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road, this has a bit of adventure without being off the reservation.  Some of the dishes on paper and with the staff’s explanation seemed to be pushing the envelope, but everything really worked in harmony together.

The “main” course was a choice between two, so we each had one and shared.  Carolynn had the Cumbrian lamb, smoked aubergine, black beans, braised belly, and crispy lamb bacon.  The lamb bacon was another taste sensation that should be its own meal.  Incredibly small and crispy bits of lamb that taste like bacon with a bit of game that sets the flavor apart from the rashers you would find at the store.  The braised belly, too, was incredible.  The main bit of lamb was completely fine, but this gets back to the point we discussed earlier.  It is hard to beat simple rack of lamb, done at home, with the perfect red wine and the ability to eat it in ones pajamas.  But going out to a restaurant of this caliber, I think we would scoff if that preparation was placed in front of us, so we have essentially created a no-win situation for the chef.  The other dish during this course was Anjou pigeon, poached and roasted, with summer truffle and pigeon casserole.  The pigeon casserole was like a bit of sausage, and I would have traded the rest of the tender, medium-rare pigeon for one more bite of this savoury-sweet nibble.  I’ve only had pigeon a few times, and this is arguably the best preparation I’ve had–it didn’t suffer any of what I consider a bit of off flavor that seems to come through in this bird.

As always, we were more than full at this point.  A bit of a break and we had a “pre-dessert” consisting of passionfruit jelly underneath a lime ice.  I love passionfruit, and the citrus of the lime ice made for a nice counterpoint.

Dessert was again a choice between two, so we were able to have both.  Carolynn took the warm chocolate and salt caramel moelleux, with banana jelly, and banana cacao ice cream.  Hard to argue with this or say anything other than yum.  I took the one that I would have never ordered otherwise–Granny Smith apple crème with spiced brioche chips, popcorn, and salted caramel ice cream.  I should state that it all sounded good except the apple part–I’m not a huge fan of green apple flavors.  Thankfully, Wareing’s pâtissier made this a dream to eat.  The apple flavor was there, but in a crème it was softened and sweetened, the toasty, nutty discs of brioche gave a nice structure, and the crushed popcorn and salted caramel ice cream further played the foil between sweet and salty.

We finished with some homemade chocolates.  After we paid the bill, I asked for a copy of the menu, and the mâitre d’ said sure, and would we like to have a tour of the kitchen and meet the chef?  The kitchen was quite large, housing not only the aforementioned dining table, but also a hot pass, a cold pass, and a stairway leading to another cooking area.  It was a bit noisy, with 8 guys still sitting around the chef’s table, clearly enjoying themselves.  Marcus was working the pass, coming up with creations for the chef’s table (by this time, the main room was working on desserts), and he graciously signed our menu and thanked us for coming.

I had high expectations, and they were met on a food level, and very close on a service level.  I will say that every single person we came into contact with was very pleasant.  When I left to use the restroom, the door for the restaurant was opened on my way out, and on my way back, impressive given that it’s a frosted door.  Even the valet service was outstanding–I gave my key to a guy with an umbrella and 4 hours later he remembered me when I walked outside.  I think this has 3-star potential if they can dial in things like the butter temperature, the service, and if Chef Wareing is able to address things like providing what is expected from 3-star food without overdoing the simple pleasures.

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