The Ledbury and Chilli Cool. Couldn’t be more different. I often have a little mental wrestle with myself about which style of food is ultimately more satisfying; is it the exacting refinement of fine dining or is it the generosity and un-fussed comfort of home-style? I find it seriously hard to answer that question.
The Ledbury is Brett Graham’s elegant double-starred restaurant in Notting Hill; Chilli Cool is a cheap, slightly scruffy and oil-slicked (literally, all over the floor – be careful on the stairs) Sichuan joint in King’s Cross. The sleek theatre of the higher-end restaurant is addictive, but there’s something about the less formal meal that feels so nourishing. It zooms in on your comfort zone and harpoons it, right at the heart.
My recent birthday lunch at The Ledbury was exquisite – squid in ravioli sounded weird but was just the right kind of bouncy, like an understated Thai-fish-cake-bouncy. Teeny ribbons of wild garlic peeped through skin thin pasta; crisp baby radishes bobbed in sweet squid consommé. It looked like a plate made for a princess. Duck was just the softest meat I’ve ever eaten, garnished with glassy slices of sweet and sour grape. A honey and gingerbread souffle was, well…just look at it. The most perfect tower of eggy fluff I ever ate; whipped through with nuggets of gingerbread, the honey waiting golden and sticky down below. Thyme ice cream steadily pervaded, perhaps a little too much. This was all the set lunch by the way (£27.50, 3 courses), although you still feel as special as if you’d ordered the tasting menu.
While The Ledbury coddles and cossets your belly to capacity, Chilli Cool hits it running. Crispy fried chilli pig’s intestines anyone? Tubular chunks of pork bomb, plain and simple. The best pieces crunch then yield to a gelatinous chewy interior. Contrast is everything in Sichuan cuisine. A typical table bears the weight of hot and cold dishes. Shredded raw potato is lustrous and slippery; dry fried beans, blistered and hot; chunks of grouper and tofu swim in the oil of a fiery hotpot while cold slivers of pork belly suck up a mashed garlic sauce which will stain absolutely anything indelibly. Fiery and numbing dishes buddy up with cooling cuke salad and wobbly fungus dappled with sesame oil. They do things with aubergines that make me want to shed a little tear of joy. Oh, and I’ve never spent more than £20 in there, including beers.
There’s no hint of pretension or ego, the food has serious complexity and above all it’s a blast. This is what my top two have in common.
Consider The Ledbury’s celeriac baked in ash – ceremoniously cut open at table before plating; an exciting little show. Bacon and onion mini brioche rolls are to die for and have that sugar and swine combination that makes me giggle with delight; think bacon doughnuts, or candied bacon ice cream. Their strawberry and hibiscus Bellini and doughnut at last year’s Taste of London was the dish that hooked me in; we giggled and chattered over it like a pair of excited monkeys.
So many places disappoint with the mundane. Food may be perfectly cooked and yet duller than the thud of the neighbouring fat cat’s wallet hitting the table. And don’t get me started on atmosphere; I don’t care how life-changing the food is supposed to be, if the place is stuffy, I won’t be visiting. I need it to make me smile. The best restaurants are playful but not gimmicky; confident and slightly cheeky. In the end I suppose I’ve managed to answer my question: it’s not really a case of preferring either style, but one of accessibility and heart and most of all, fun.
15 Leigh street
0207 383 3135
127 Ledbury Road
0207 792 9191