Last year, my sister and I enjoyed a wonderful meal out for our birthday. We decided to do the same again this year.
Jun Tanaka has appeared in a number of TV cookery shows and I have always been impressed by his quiet, focused energy and his creative cooking style so this year my sister and I chose Tanaka’s Pearl restaurant, located within the Rennaisance Chancery Court hotel near Holborn tube station.
On booking, I mention that the meal was a joint birthday celebration for my sister and I and ask whether we might be able to have a brief peek in the kitchen, if it is not too busy or inconvenient. They make a note of the occasion and of the request, which will depend on how busy it is on the night.
Arriving early I am warmly greeted by reception staff, including manager Russell Cock. He invites me to have a drink in the attractive bar. It’s a lovely, elegant, bright space and I particularly like the way individual spaces are separated by pretty glass-beaded curtains and lights.
From the extensive drinks menu I order a raspberry rocket, a non-alcoholic cocktail with raspberry cordial, mint leaves, lime juice and ginger ale. It brings to mind, as I hoped it would, a refreshing mojito, an enduring favourite of mine. With my drink I’m served a generous dish of mixed nuts. My sister arrives not long afterwards, orders her own cocktail and we catch up about our birthday celebrations and gifts so far.
In one of those strange but delightful little coincidences that crop up in life, my sister was born exactly 3 years and 5 minutes after me. I really love that we share our birthday, though I guess I’ve never known any different. Perhaps if we weren’t so close, I’d feel quite differently! The good news is that as well sharing our birthday, we also have a very similar taste in food. An evening of fine dining such as this is a perfect mutual gift for us to give to each other!
The time of our booking comes and goes and no-one comes for us, so eventually we ask a barman to check and are soon shown to our table, my unfinished drink taken through for me. The restaurant is surprisingly empty, and doesn’t get much busier through the evening. This doesn”t bother me – whilst I prefer not to be the only diner in a restaurant, I don’t need it to be heaving just to provide me with a buzzy atmosphere.
Having been presented with the menus, a selection of canapés is served. I’m afraid I dig in before I remember to take a photo, so the canapé nearest to you (in the photo above) – an unbelievably smooth and rich chicken liver parfait served with two tiny toasts and a dollop of chutney – is half-eaten! (Yes, we do share each of the canapés!) Next is a little quenelle of salmon rillette, a perfect melting mouthful. Behind that is a breadcrumbed ball of mushroom risotto – what I’d call an arancino – creamy with earthy funghi flavours. And in the farthest spoon holds mackerel and vegetables escabeche– pickled with a light touch that allows the fresh fish and produce to shine.
Spoilt for choice on the menu, we realise we are both dithering over the same two starters and two mains so agree to order one each – I choose which of the two mains I’d prefer, my sister chooses which of the starters she fancies most. Whilst the main menu is, in my opinion, very reasonably priced (at 1 course for £32.00, 2 course for £47.00 or 3 course for £55.00) the wine list is rather expensive, with very few choices in it’s many, many pages for anyone on a budget. My sister orders a glass of red wine, and some tap water for the table. I stick with my cocktail.
Oddly, as my sister gives her wine order, I’m asked the rather strange question of whether I’m drinking alcohol at all this evening. Not whether I’d like to order any wine, but specifically, whether I’m drinking alcohol. My sister and I are a little bemused by the question… until the staff serve us with a complimentary glass of champagne for my sister, and a (different) non-alcoholic cocktail for me. What a lovely gesture this is and sister and I beam at both the birthday wishes and the drinks! (My sister’s red wine is not brought to the table until she’s finished her champagne).
Next to arrive are plates bearing an amuse bouche of roasted root vegetables with shaved chestnuts, sage and onion foam and onion rings. Delicious, and quickly polished off!
Before the starters, we are offered bread. I think the one we both choose is a rosemary foccacia. Certainly the savoury zing of rosemary comes through clearly.
My sister’s starter of curried scallops with parsnip puree, apples, cauliflower and semi dried grapes is beautiful to look at; a real work of art on the plate! Any thoughts that the punchy spices might overwhelm the delicate sweetness of scallop are quickly dismissed. Each component is distinct and delicious, and yet they blend together very well.
But I love my poached langoustines with buckler sorrel, chilled pumpkin and ginger soup even more! The soup is not only visually vibrant but wakes up the taste buds too. The langoustines are soft and sweet. I’m not sure what the darker drizzles are, but they add both another texture and a sort of sweet sour flavour – perhaps tamarind based? I reckon I could happily eat this dish every day for a month and still be just as pleased with it.
My sister’s roast loin of marinated lamb with pastilla, couscous, greengages and cobnuts, yoghurt dressing is beautiful, with the lamb itself tender, flavoursome and cooked pink, as expected. But whilst both of us like this dish, we don’t love it. The pastilla spices seem to bear no relation to those used in the Maghreb; certainly I can’t detect any of the traditional cinnamon warmth and sugary sweetness we so fell for when enjoying pastilla in Morocco. Infact, it may more accurately be described as a samosa given it’s flavourings. While I expect and even appreciate the way that innovative chefs put their own twist on existing dishes, if they choose to use names belonging to traditional dishes, I do think their creations should bear some similarity to the originals! The couscous provides a carbohydrate filler rather than anything exciting in terms of taste or texture basis; nothing wrong with it but nothing to sing about either. And the yoghurt dressing gives a refreshing but not particularly luxurious finish to the dish, perhaps more suited to the warmth of summer than the cooler days of autumn.
I am happier with my main of guinea fowl and lobster fricassée with tarragon, macaroni and quince puree. The various cuts are well cooked and deeply meaty, bolstered by the generous, dark gravy pooled at the bottom of the plate. Much umami pleasure that has me mmm-ing and aaah-ing until my sister glares at me! I can’t discern much flavour in the pretty orange pasta tubes but I like the firm texture and autumnal colour they provide. The flavour of the lobster is a bit lost in this dish, next to the robust showy taste-bud dancing of the guinea fowl, and it is also too soft for my taste – not quite mushy but certainly lacking any firmness or bite. Nevertheless, I really love this dish and even ask for a spoon so I can scoop up the last drops of gratifying gravy!
We deliberately take our time placing our dessert order, to give us time to relax and chat, though I’m sure we could have ordered and asked them to hold. Before our chosen dishes we are first served with a pre-dessert of muscat grape shot topped with muscat foam. Served in a shot glass with a small straw provided, the dark red liquid is intensely sweet, heady essence of muscat grape. In contrast, the pale pink foam is mouth-puckeringly sharp – I wonder if they’ve made the foam using an extract from the bitter skins of the grapes and juiced the flesh for the main liquid?
Tiramisu is just tiramisu, right? Wrong! My sister reckons this is one of the best she’s had, and likes the crumbled amaretti biscuit topping as well as the elegant presentation. The amaretto ice cream is heavenly and has a lovely, granular texture – my guess is that it contains both amaretti biscuits and amaretto liqueur. A simple dessert elevated to a higher level.
Again, I’m thrilled with my choice of caramelised apples with salted caramel mousse, thyme ice cream and honey jelly. The amber spheres of apple are perfectly cooked and caramelised, retaining a nice bite without being too hard. I’d expected miniature toffee apples but these are so much more refined than that! Salted caramel mousse does exactly what it says on the tin; the hard salty flavour at odds with the silky light texture in the most delightful way. Thyme ice cream adds an unusual and surprisingly successful savoury component to the plate, and I like that it’s not overly sweet. And finally the honey jelly; so strange to taste pure honey in a gelatinous format! It’s a well-chosen honey too, a strong and distinct one. Whilst the narrow biscuit sticks make the dish look even better, and no doubt add another texture to the mix, I don’t like them at all so leave them to one side.
Throughout our meal, service has been excellent. Our main waiter, Teddy, has been attentive, helpful and friendly as have the rest of the team looking after us. At one point, Teddy brings over a show copy of Tanaka’s recently published book, Simple to Sensational, which I have asked about. Whilst we’re flicking through it, restaurant manager Russell pops by and chats to us about it, pointing out a few of the recipes he’s personally tried at home. He also lets us know that he’d be happy to give us a little tour after our meal to show us the wine room, the kitchen and the private dining area.
I really like the book and will add it to my Christmas wishlist. I’ve not come across the concept before: Tanaka presents a simple dish such as tuna niçoise and alongside it, a sensational version that turns it from a good everyday meal into something rather more special. Both the simple and sensational recipes look eminently achievable for the home chef and there are several that catch my eye.
Our bill paid, Russell arrives to talk to us about the restaurant and take us on our tour. One of the nice features of the dining space – as well as the high ceilings, beautiful lighting, well-spaced out tables and calming colour scheme – is the modern, walnut-clad wine cave in full view of the diners. Not only does it provide an attractive focal point, it also allows the sommeliers to retrieve customers’ orders quickly, without a long trip to a far-away basement.
The kitchen is surprisingly small given the size of the dining room, and is a hive of calm, focused energy when we’re taken inside. Russell confirms how seamlessly the kitchen team work together and how much respect they (and he) have for Tanaka’s leadership, creativity and skills as a chef.
Lastly, Russell shows us the private dining area, in what was once the entrance lobby of the former bank in which this rather grand hotel is housed. It’s a listed building, which greatly restricted what they could do when creating the restaurant a few years ago (and why they were unable to knock down any walls to make the kitchen any bigger). Happily, I can report that they’ve created a beautiful restaurant in the space; one that shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere “restaurant hotel” and all that implies.
Russell again wishes us a happy birthday as he walks us back towards reception. The tour is a lovely end to a wonderful evening.
Happy birthday, sis!