At the high end of gastronomy, it is tempting to think of restaurant chefs as football stars, especially when it comes to what might be called the “transfer market”, where gossip is as rife as it is about Ronaldo and company: whispers of Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm taking over the restaurant at Claridge’s, vacated two years ago by Simon Rogan, for instance, started months ago. (And they were correct: called Davies and Brook, it opens this summer.)
Last year, everyone was speculating about who would take over from Arnaud Bignon at the two-starred Greenhouse in Mayfair. The signing of Alex Dilling, Hélène Darroze’s executive chef, caused more ripples than a raspberry ice cream: nobody doubted his mastery of technique or his dedication to the job – holding two stars at The Connaught while also overseeing Darroze’s Paris restaurant speak to that – but did he have the creative skills to dazzle his new Mayfair clientele?
The Greenhouse is a lovely restaurant, hidden at the end of a foliage-fringed path in a quiet mews; lime-green upholstery and leafy etched glass reinforce the rus in urbe ambience. Dilling’s menu, by contrast, is anything but rustic: he sets out his stall with amuse-bouches of brioche flavoured with Comté, black truffle and smoked juniper; smoked-salmon rillettes with sorrel and caviar; a delicate little squid and chorizo cracker; and a crisp cylinder of pastry filled with vitello tonnato, given extra crunch with toasted hazelnuts. It is undeniably luxurious food. A dill- and ginger-scented crab salad hides under smoked-sturgeon mousse and is topped with excellent caviar; a perfect egg shrouded in black truffle – a signature dish – could have been decorated by Fabergé; a tranche of turbot (from an estimable 7kg fish) boasts more truffle, its glorious sauce made with morels, peas and Arbois wine, reminiscent of the classic poulet au vin jaune.
Dilling has a neat touch with humbler ingredients too: witness the turnip that accompanies his beautifully cooked Challans duck (from Maison Burgaud, which also supplies La Tour d’Argent). Variously prepared – raw, buttered and fermented – the turnip gives an earthy, salty savour to the rich meat, ponzu adds a squeeze of citrus to the sauce, and long pepper a prickle of heat.
The presentation of every dish is striking and immaculate – black and white is a favourite theme – but the superficial simplicity of the plating belies the stellar technique that underpins Dilling’s cuisine. It has the serenity of a swan gliding over a lake: that its legs are going like the clappers underneath is of no concern to diners. All we need to see is a pristine plate – more Messi than messy, you might say.