The last time I was at Tom Aikens in Chelsea, it was for the reopening party. Despite its marking the opening of a restaurant, it was one of those typical London ligs where there’s everything in the world to drink but hardly anything to eat. I spent much of the evening – along with many other guests – drunkenly mocking the horrible food-themed quotes writ large on the walls. The room was too cold and too bright. There were, as I remember, no curtains. It was all weirdly All Bar One.
Fast forward one year, and I finally got around to visiting for dinner. The writing on the wall has been wisely painted over, and the room is dimmer, warmer and infinitely sexier – albeit only half full on a Tuesday evening. Viewed from the street, through the restaurant’s archi-goth black façade, you can see pools of light glowing on Scandic table tops in an otherwise pitch dark room. It’s the sort of downward, circular lighting that casts unforgiving shadows: look across the table at your dining companion and all you get is nose and forehead. Message: this is a serious restaurant.
If the room says sepulchral kaiseki by way of Copenhagen, the crowd says Chelsea money. This is a neighbourhood restaurant for polished Sloanes and for nomadic businessmen and their families, fresh from their last annual posting in Zurich or San Francisco. At the next table: an impeccably well-behaved small boy with his parents. I couldn’t work out what he was eating, but he looked continental, so the whole table may well have been mid-tasting menu, pondering the qualities of the marinated foie gras with compressed pear and Gewürztraminer jelly.
If the room says sepulchral kaiseki by way of Copenhagen, the crowd says Chelsea money
Mr Aikens is known for several things. His business hiccups; his temper (fiery), his red hair (hot) and his molecular shenanigans. Sadly, the business hiccups rather got in the way of an ascendancy that seemed guaranteed. I have no idea how fiery his temper is these days, but his fondness for the molecular is undampened, and indicates a skill that most chefs can only dream of. As I tasted my first spoon of lush langoustine custard, scooped out of a hollowed out hen’s egg, served in a bed of straw, I thought two things. Firstly: clever. Secondly: delicious.
Aikens occupies a world that couldn’t be more far removed from Soho’s “no reservations”. He works his dishes to within an inch of their life. Sometimes it feels like there’s too much science, and the process is the point: he’s doing something because he can, rather than because it brings flavour. But then there are those things that have clearly taken painstaking hours to perfect, and are worth the palaver: turning horseradish into snow, for instance, to give a different mouth-feel.
The eponymous Tom Aikens is a very good restaurant indeed, albeit with some flaws and odd quirks. When I visited, it was winter, but Aikens seemed in thrall to pineapple. It appeared with a roast scallop and pork belly dish, and then in another meat course. It seemed an odd flavour to experience while (real) snow fell outside. But, on balance, it was the sole curious aspect of an excellent, straightforwardly unstraightforward menu.
“I wonder when this sort of food will finish and what will happen after it?” asked my dining companion, as our jasmine-cured smoked salmon arrived at the table, in a bell jar full of fragrant smoke. Both of us had first encountered salmon presented like this five years ago at Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm. Back then it seemed radical. Now it’s all been done, to death. We’ve seen something similar in countless restaurants – it’s the liquid molten chocolate volcano pudding of the seafood world. And as is the way with what is essentially novelty, it’s not novel anymore.
It will be interesting to see where Aikens goes next. He was, after all, a pioneer, and is still in the top ten most talented chefs in the country. Will he continue creating his beautiful, abstract jellies and nutty professor dishes, or move on, or away from that territory? To many, the era of spherification and the sous vide bath is already very much over, replaced by the clipboard and the queue for a ceviche burger with a side order of angel dust popcorn outside a bombed out student union bar in Haggerston, all because the Evening Standard said it was hawt. But hell is other people and the many are imbeciles. C
Tom Aikens, 43 Elystan Street, London SW3
020 7584 2003; tomaikens.co.uk