‘On my radar’ is a stock response I have developed for any PR who emails me with the details of a restaurant that they believe I must review. The phrase is polite, accurate and flexible.
But radar itself would have been useful as we walked south from Chancery Lane tube station to have dinner at The Chancery, a restaurant I had been informed was 10 years old but I had never heard of before, and which recently appointed the highly enthusiastic, talented Graham Long as head chef.
The restaurant is located on a narrow, pedestrianised lane, Cursitor Street, just off Chancery Lane and the approach is currently underwhelming. Between the forbidding exteriors of Lincoln’s Inn and innumerable legal chambers is the turning left into Cursitor Street, currently a large building site that means it is single file for the final 200 yards.
By day there is the noise of drilling and skips being filled, while by night there is a somewhat desolate air to these narrow streets. But by the end of March, the scaffolding should be down, revealing the light-grey Roman marble surrounding the new five-storey headquarters of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and by the autumn this street will be teeming with their staff. All of which will bring an even bigger smile to the face of Zak Jones, The Chancery’s owner, who politely described the last three years in such close proximity to these builders as ‘pretty difficult’.
Jones, who worked at L’Escargot in Soho for six years (long after my time there) before opening The Clerkenwell Dining Rooms (now sold) and The Chancery, has sensibly been planning for a much busier, and more demanding, future.
Although a worrier, like every concerned restaurateur – he broke off in the middle of our chat to climb up the stairs to the dining room to make sure that the service was running smoothly – he explained how he was moving away from the day-to-day management to concentrate on the business as it expands. In Sylvain Gergeaux, 28, his maître d’ and formerly the sommelier at Petrus, and Long, 30, he seems to have found the basis of a strong Anglo-French brigade.
This is fitting because although this location is very English, with Charles Dickens House just round the corner, the restaurant itself has a rather Parisian feel about it in that its intimate 14-table interior is quite stunningly neutral. The black banquettes, the mirrors, the lighting, and the need for a touch of paint here and there all contribute to the sensation that the focus of any customer’s attention must be on the food and wine, items which Gergeaux and Long deliver in distinctly different styles.
Gergeaux, suave and skinny, moves elegantly from the table on which he keeps an impressive range of recently opened bottles to serve by the glass including, most conspicuously, a 2009 Barolo from Andrea Oberto at £18 per glass and a 2008 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru from Sauzet for £20. Most of the list is broken down into two enticing sections, Secret (including a German Pinot Noir and a Shiraz made in Australia by Austrians) and Treasury, including a 20-year-old Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet, at highly competitive prices.
Long is bearded, more portly, with a voice hoarse from calling the orders, he explained, and is obviously relishing the role of being in control of his own kitchen after years under Shane Osborne at Pied à Terre in London and Betty’s, Hong Kong. He describes his food as ‘super-seasonal’, as it should be, an approach facilitated by its brevity of five starters and five main courses.
Three first courses were distinguished by their freshness and colour: a tartare of Holstein beef with English wasabi, capers and cured egg yolk; marinated hand-dived scallops with cucumber jelly and avocado cream; and a minestrone of squid and red mullet with gnocchi and herbs. This final dish was a clever reworking of the original with a thin, intense soup being poured over a bowl of finely diced, pale white, almost translucent, curls of squid.
The main courses pack more intensity of flavour. A round of halibut with spiced cockles and roast cauliflower (a vegetable now so popular with chefs that it has shot up in price); a particularly rich combination of pigeon, breast and braised leg, with pumpkin and pickled mushrooms; and cod with wild alexanders, sea cabbage and tarragon. And, as a rhubarb enthusiast, I was particularly impressed by his pairing of the highly seasonal Yorkshire variety with a mousse of crème fraiche. Just about all of these careful combinations of flavours and textures worked.
Over the past two years, Jones has been scheming to stretch this talented duo further. The opportunity became available to take over a basement a hundred metres from The Chancery’s front door and this has now been converted, over £100,000 later, into a private dining room that can seat up to 30. Instead of turning left from the kitchen to serve their customers in the restaurant, Long and his team will now have to turn right as well.
The consequence of this for Jones is a new challenge: how to integrate the demands of the business that will be attracted to this new addition with his chef’s ambition for even higher culinary recognition. But, having lived with builders for so long, Jones is quick to point out that this new challenge should be a much more enjoyable proposition.
The Chancery, Nine Cursitor Street, London EC4A 1LL; tel +44 (0)20 7831 4000