I sat there, crafting a Venn diagram in my head of my fellow diners. Was the true identity of Chiltern Firehouse located somewhere in the common ground between Jefferson Hack, Rifat Ozbek and Tamara Beckwith? Or should I throw into the equation that 70-something woman at the other end of the room — the one with the fabulous, armour-like, whole-can-of-Elnett “international hair”? Perhaps the real story was at the bar, where wealthy men in cheap shirts were stalking women who had spent a lot of money to look like a bargain. Chiltern Firehouse is a Transatlantic, impeccably groomed melange of sexy lighting, big bills, Hollywood industry, the Mayfair Birley set, jetslags and rubberneckers. “Look at everyone, trying not to look around to see who’s here,” said someone at our table of six, crammed around a knee-punishing corner booth designed for three. We had every sense of our own ridiculousness, and we hated ourselves for being there, but we were still having a whale of a time.
By now, you will no doubt know the following: Andre Balazs has finally opened his hotel in Marylebone; it’s called Chiltern Firehouse; Nuno Mendes is in the kitchen; getting a table is a total palaver. “Oh it looks so L.A.” and “It’s very New York” is what people have said. But I don’t get that all. It looks very London 2014. It could be a Nick Jones operation. Swap some slightly knackered butcher’s tiling for the white wood panelling, do the whole thing for about £250k less, shift it five miles east, squint a bit, and it’s all much of a poshed-up-canteen muchness. The dishes even come on those oh-so-over miniature wooden cheeseboards (who started the whole ridiculous breadboard-as-plate thing? And why? What’s wrong with Royal Doulton?!). Okay, so this isn’t just another smash and grab at Lee Broom and Lassco, but iconoclastic it is not.
They were delicious, gone in a bite, and – “ta dah!” – slapped forty quid on the bill before we’d even picked up the main menu
The biggest surprise about Chiltern Firehouse is the lack of culinary edge. There’s none of the adventure and peculiarities of Nuno Mendes’ work from his previous restaurant, Viajante, in the kitchen here – he’s employing a pared-back, accessible style. I’d always seen Viajante as Bethnal Green’s answer to Mugaritz: I hated as many dishes as I loved, and it was always a challenging as much as memorable experience. Here, the menu is all about souped-up comfort food.
Everyone at my table wanted to try the much raved about crab doughnuts. They were delicious, gone in a bite, and – “ta dah!” – slapped forty quid on the bill before we’d even picked up the main menu. A steak tartare dish with a dash of chipotle came across like low brow, super salty, smoky bacon crisps, while a grilled octopus dish was lush, soft and tasty. The friend who I begged a bite off was unmoved, but I’d have relished a jumbo portion of it. Roast Lebanese Cucumber was under seasoned, unexceptional and felt like something that could have served as a pickle on the side of a fancy burger plate in a different restaurant.
I went halves with my neighbour on two main dishes: chargrilled Iberico pork with roasted garlic, and a slow roasted short rib with hazelnut puree and bone marrow. The pork was served pink and rare, and was very similar to something I’d eaten at Mendes’ Corner Room several times. The latter was a tiny portion of rich, dark, soft meat; big on flavour and perfect in terms of texture. It was far from the most innovative thing I’ve ever encountered, but it was absolutely fantastic. A side order of maple-bourbon sweet potato was an insanely sweet fondant that I would have served it as an alternative to custard for a pud, but maybe the Americans in the house appreciated the sugar explosion with their mains. We ordered every dessert on the menu and passed them around the table after trying a mouthful. All were at least adequate, and I adored a poached rhubarb and cream dish – but then you have to go out of your way to ruin rhubarb when it’s in season.
Mendes is a really excellent chef. And it’s difficult not to be impressed by Balazs. From the Marmont to the High Line, he has the golden touch with hotels in the US. The only bad Balazs hotel that I’ve stayed at was the Raleigh in Miami, and he flogged that back in 2009 (hopefully after drowning all of the godawful staff in its one redeeming feature, the fabulously ornate pool). Chiltern Firehouse is going to be a sensation, but it will be interesting to see how long the restaurant stays “hot”. It’s not a tiny dining room by any means. And if those hedgefunders in cheap shirts start colonising it, it’ll die the death, even if they do keep it ticking over at around £90 a head a visit. I’m still not sure quite what to make of the place. One of the things my table liked most was our sommelier – a wonderfully entertaining chap who could have been the lead singer in a Scandic indie band on his way to supper at Downton, or Hamish Bowles channeling a young Yves Saint Laurent. I’d be delighted if, somewhere in that mix, lies the Venn diagram that proves to be the long term identity of Chiltern Firehouse. C
Chiltern Firehouse, 1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 7JA
020-7073 7676; chilternfirehouse.com