Fine dining detail (Aston Martin magazine)
On the way to The Herbfarm, a 45 minute highway trip out of Seattle into a rural Martha Stewart fantasia, your driver will ask you what time you want to be collected. If you suggest any period shorter than four hours later, he’ll correct you: you simply won’t be finished. An evening at The Herbfarm is an epic performance, from the pre-cocktail tour around the herb garden to the velvet curtain that pulls back on the kitchen for the introduction of every staff member. And all this before the amuse bouche. The milieu may be classic country cottage, but the evening is a study in contemporary dining, where the food is but a single component in a far bigger event.
“It’s a myth that restaurants are all about food,” says Jennifer Sharp, one of the UK’s most celebrated restaurant critics. “Just as important is the space and ambience, whether it’s balletic luxury at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, the cramped, noisy cheerfulness of the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, or in Madrid, nearly 300 years of roast suckling pig from the wood-fired ovens at Botin. Every meal, every service, is a performance and the diner is both actor and audience.” Sometimes the elements are obvious, but sometimes they are more offbeat, like the smell of woodsmoke that Mathias Dahlgren traps beneath serving bell jars at his restaurant in Stockholm to evoke childhood memories of nearby forests, or the way fellow Swede Magnus Nilsson has his staff saw shinbones in half in the centre of the room at Fäviken before serving up the marrowbone.
The slick ambience at Vue du Monde, the dining room that relocated 55 floors up the Melbourne skyline this summer into the Rialto building, and which remains perhaps the greatest restaurant in the Southern Hemisphere, is the antithesis of the bucolic twee of The Herbfarm, but it has a similar attention to detail. There’s a radical, molecular, Willy Wonka-goes-classical-French kitchen here, but it’s also decidedly Australian, from the ingredients to the service and the sense of humour. There’s a “post-bushfire regrowth smoking balcony”, as chef Shannon Bennett puts it, with surfaces made from charred and lacquered wood, while the toilets are refined versions of the “outback dunny” and the tables are covered in kangaroo hide.
Design is integral to the way the dining experience works, as anyone who has suffered an evening in an ill advised “pop up” venture knows. The frisson of excitement that you get from a guerilla operation can’t compete with the sense of occasion that, say, a Friday night at the Ritz in London can still deliver. There remains a world where jackets are required and septuagenarian couples foxtrot, while elaborate salads and tartares are crafted at table side, flanked by the kind of refined, charmingly unreconstructed Belle Époque grandeur most frequently seen these days in an episode of Doctor Who just before something explodes.
If there’s one dominant “new look” for fine dining, it’s a return to heavyweight, moneyed, tony glamour. Designer David Collins is a master of it. Restaurateurs who can’t afford him frequently rip off his look with lashings of marble mosaics, croc-textured banquettes and deco-meets-disco flourishes but they just can’t pull it off: it takes a master stylist to get it right. Massimo, the restaurant at the new Corinthia hotel in London, is a largely monochrome, maximalist space that’s a paradigm of the Collins canon: theatrical pillars, sparkle, slightly steampunk jazz-age lighting details and an overall sense of The Special. The charismatic, bespectacled Massimo Riccioli, celebrated for his muscular, boldly prosaic Italian seafood, loves how the space works with his menu. “It’s a great mix, because my food is quite stripped down,” he says. “And the room gives it a balance.” The detail is ravishing, from the oyster bar to the wall lights based on oars – a near subliminal nod to rivers and oceans. It’s a big-budget Busby Berkeley musical of a dining experience, with subtlety restricted to the kitchen.
“If something is difficult, expensive or heavy, it’s usually very good,” says LA-based restaurateur Mr Chow, and that’s a truism for eating out. It’s difficult to get a reservation at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, it’s certainly expensive, and before you get into the inner-sanctum of its dining room, you pass through a door with theatrical heft that keeps the inside invisible from the hotel bar outside. It makes you feel as if you’ve passed into Narnia, albeit a dimly lit one designed by the aforementioned Mr Collins. It’s grand, intimate, and terribly grown-up, yet playful at the same time – just like its chef patron’s revelatory cooking, which remains among the most masterful in Europe. “I like warmth and darkness,” says Wareing, “So David created an interior to feel like being inside a bottle of Bordeaux.” This is where Chris Bailey, creative director of Burberry, dines with his partner after his show, rather than celebrating in the throng of London Fashion Week. It’s a destination dining room but also a casual canteen for the stratospherically successful.
If Wareing’s dining room is a bottle of Bordeaux, then Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is a flute of Champagne. From the silver in the colour palette and the effervescent circular gaps in surfaces – as if caused by bubbles – the room is cool and sharp. It’s thawed a little since its opening, but when it launched it was almost conceptually glacial – waiters wore eyeliner and seemed to glide around the hushed space, arranging forks face down.
ADAD – as Alain calls it – is one of numerous Ducasse restaurants designed by Paris-based designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku. For the 540 seater, 43rd floor miX in Las Vegas, the couple produced something suitably super-flashy, but were also inspired by the organic nature of a place that, as Jouin says, “inhabits the space between desert and sky”. At Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée restaurant in Paris – totally refurbished last year – the starting point was the idea of freezing time while acknowledging the OTT palace status of the hotel. It’s a grander room than at the Dorchester, but with similar touches of futurism. If pushing the door into Marcus Wareing’s restaurant at The Berkeley lets you in on a plush, dark and textural secret, then making your way through the larger door at the Plaza Athénée is like a trip through the looking glass. Painstakingly hand-embroidered panels surround the space which is dominated by an immense “exploded” crystal chandelier, hundreds of its tears suspended by invisible means around the main structure, as if in mid-blast. When Ducasse decided he want to “simplify” the menu with a relatively reductionist approach to ingredients, he wanted the room to change with it. The table setting is at first stark, and then slowly builds up and up, until it’s time for the tea trolley to come around, with potted plants from which your leaf of choice is cut. “We wanted magic to happen,” says Manku. “We suspended time with the exploded chandelier, so you wonder how long you’ve been within the space… it could be one or four hours.”
Manku and Jouin serve as choreographers as much as decorators. “You can sculpt emotions,” says Manku. “You can have a vast space and make it seem intimate.” Their latest project is the interior of Sur Mesure at the new Mandarin Oriental in Paris, now HQ for chef Thierry Marx. Marx does sublime things in terms of taste while deconstructing and arranging ingredients into visually dazzling concepts, adorned with edible flowers and bold brush strokes of colour. Sur Mesure is spacey, in a 2001 way. It’s dressed entirely in white cotton fabric, with abrupt folds and eruptions in strategic points. “You enter through a curved passageway, which slows you down and makes you unsure about what’s around the corner,” says Manku. “We wanted to create something celestial, not above or below the earth; avant-garde – to reflect the food – but comfortable. Conversation has to be possible. Too often restaurants are hyper-focused on the cuisine, so if you laugh too loudly or drop a fork, it makes you tense. We wanted to create the Parisian palace hotel dining room of the 21st century. Remember, when Versailles was created, the Hall of Mirrors was radical and audacious.”
A visit to the Lecture Room & Library at Sketch, London’s most ambitious art/theatre hybrid warren of bars and restaurants for over a decade, is an operatic and multi-layered experience. The maitre d’ leads you up the now iconic faux molten-chocolate staircase in her fetish-high heels, past staff in retro black and white French maid’s uniforms, into a room that blends a lavish MGM Hollywood sunrise setscape with contrasting Moorish aspects. Then Pierre Gagneau’s exquisite tasting menu starts rolling out: warm stone bass carpaccio; veal and morels with pear and gorgonzola sorbet; five lavish desserts all at once… The most fabulous thing about Sketch – food aside – is the undercurrent of the sci-fi sinister, or even macabre, along with the glamour and haute cuisine. There’s a Peter Greenaway, or perhaps Matthew Barney, element to all the costume drama, and an ethereal tone too – two huge portraits of a boy and a girl hang at either end of the room, painted white on white, appearing blank at first, and then slowly appearing as the aperture of your eyes adjust.
At the other end of the style spectrum, there’s a very self-conscious kind of modernist movement in certain kinds of dining, championed by the likes of Fergus Henderson and typified by his first St John restaurant. A stark, whitewashed ex-smokehouse with connotations of unprepossessing artisans and the Bauhaus, St John fits neatly with the cult of Labour & Wait styling and Gil Sans typography, while Viajante, another east London fashion and art crowd destination, follows the same food-first philosophy but takes a more rarefied approach. Like Henderson, chef Nuno Mendes has attracted a slavish following, but his food is more alchemical, throwing together offbeat combinations (mackerel and cherry granita served in a cloud of dry ice) and emphasising curious textures (“skin”, generally, is a fixation) for often amazing results. Viajante is 21st century modernist and fabulously Bethnal Green: Mendes himself has arms tattooed with mysterious dots and lines “to represent all the lives I’ve lived while travelling”, while his staff wear black denim and present a wine list glued roughly into a copy of Stuart Pigott’s Planet Wine. The kitchen at Viajante is fully exposed and the focal point of the room. “We don’t like to show people a menu,” says Mendes. “We like to take them on a journey. And the building we’re in, the old town hall, is luxurious in itself, so I created a room that’s minimal. In terms of the way the food looks, I start with the product, the dish evolves and then we find the perfect layout. We use simple plates, so it’s like a blank canvas, and I like to work with negative space, and texture.”
The final, and perhaps most important detail of any restaurant is the corps of diners that actually keep a restaurant ticking over. They can make for quiet background ambience or show stopping entertainment. At Daniel Boulud’s three Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant, Daniel, the room is posh beyond posh and arranged like a sunken theatre in the round, with tables for two on a balcony encircling the outside. From here, many guests enjoyed the sight, one evening, some years ago, of a man and woman dining in the middle of the room, getting steadily drunker, until mid-meal when the latter dropped facedown into her fish course. The man carried on eating as if nothing had happened. Sometimes, the most memorable kind of dinner-theatre has nothing to do with design, service, ceramics or background music because ultimately, dining out is all about people watching.