Core by Clare Smyth: the Classics

London: June 2021

Three Michelin stars. Experiences like this don’t come up often. The price and the difficulty to book a table tend to be the reason. Yet, when the opportunity presents itself, one is reminded of what those stars from Michelin can imply. The food, the wine, the service and the ambiance are simply flawless. In the elegant Kensington Park Road, next to the imposing ocre facade of St Peter’s Church, number 92 houses one of those culinary temples, Core by Clare Smyth.

Having worked in world-renowned restaurants as The Waterside Inn or Le Louis XV, and directing a three-star restaurant for ten years as a head chef, Clare opened Core in 2017 and led it to the three stars in 2021. Her food epitomises her strong culinary background. It’s clever, refined and focused on the best of the United Kingdom’s produce. That respect for ingredients and their terroir appears symbolically in her repertoire of dishes through numerous references to nature. From the naturally sculptured plating and the use of plant-based decorations for serving, to the generous use of herbs and flowers. Her Northern Irish heritage is also very present in her food. Some renditions employ humble staple ingredients (potatoes, carrots) to showcase their hidden potential while others propose creative flavour combinations, but always within the bounds of the British palate. 

She does not shy away from employing modernist techniques when needed. Gels, emulsions, airs or set foams make numerous appearances throughout the menu. Unlike techno-emotional driven restaurants, these techniques are not meant to surprise, but to merely build component by component a complex dish. It is this that stands out in her cuisine: complexity. A clinical attention to detail where nothing is aleatory. Sauces, textures, flowers and micro-herbs are layered and plated with painstaking precision. Yet this complexity is by no means overwhelming. In fact, it manages to float in a perfectly balanced sweet spot where the end result at the table is to provoke pleasure and surprise. 

Dealing with such involved dishes requires decoding them for the customers. Fortunately, at this level in the hospitality industry, our inner sybarites can smile with joy with the quality of the service. Friendly, attentive and knowledgeable, but never overwhelmingly patronising. Apparently, the chef takes them to the opera to study the movements of the performers. It seems to work as their swift and elegant moves around the tables do feel like a well choreographed dance. Watching them in action is oddly satisfying. 

Fellow wine lovers will be glad to hear that the wine list possesses all the attributes to deem it excellent: approachable, enticing and complete. First, the selection of wines by the glass is exciting to winelovers (grower Champagne, Jura, Burgenland) while remaining friendly to casual drinkers (Sancerre, Chablis, Bordeaux). To make matters even better in terms of approachability, the baseline quality of the offerings is high enough to let oneself be guided by the staff with confidence. All suggestions will be good, there are no boring Neri d’Avola here. Why complete? Well by the bottle, the selection is extensive and simply put, outstanding. Most regions and most prestigious producers are listed, allowing for any whims during a special occasion. Prices tend to have a markup that hovers between two and three times the retail prices. 

Beautifully designed maps introduce each of the bankers (classical regions, in blind tasting terminology) with the addition of a brief description and sometimes even a thought-provoking quote from winos like Hemingway or Sinatra. This transforms what is usually an unattractive list into an educational, entertaining and even aesthetically pleasing device. 

After being greeted by the staff and by the kitchen team on our way to the dining room, we sat at a table next to the window with views to the whole room. An advantage point from which to observe how the ballet of service takes place. Inside the clean and luminous space, with white walls over a dark wooden floor, large round tables populate the space. No tablecloths are used here, leather gives a modern and elegant surface instead. The same philosophy applies to the furniture, luxurious, but done with a modern finesse and taste. A fresher look when compared to Ramsey’s restaurant, which makes it feel less formal, less pretentious and more welcoming.

Being two, we opted to settle for both of their tasting menus, Core Seasons and Core Classics. This post will be devoted to the latter, a collection of Core’s signature dishes that should be the best way to describe the restaurant’s philosophy. 

The experience starts with a set of four amuse-bouches. 

Let’s start with the Pea and mint gougère, a classic English summer combination that worked well as a mixed with goat’s curd as a filling for the choux pastry. A comforting bite.

The Jellied eel, toasted seaweed and malt vinegar was another bite, but this one was packed with umami. A thin tartlet of toasted seaweed filled with ‘deconstructed’ jellied eel into dices of gel and pieces of fish.

Speared down in a brochette, the Crispy smoked chicken wing, beer, honey and thyme was simple, but utterly indulgent. The slowly rendered and smoked chicken wing melts in your mouth, leaving a lingering aroma of honey and thyme.

On top of some beautifully natural scenery came a couple of Foie gras parfait and Madeira tartlets with a thin and delicate shell. A cube of foie gras laid inside covered under a veil of sweet Madeira. A perfect pairing jellified into a dish (this wouldn’t be the last time that a gel of wine would make an appearance, see Sauternes and Banyuls below).

The bread arrived warm alongside a ‘virgin’ butter. Apparently this malted sourdough is made with a 18 year old starter from Bertinet. The taste was very decent, and the bread crumb seemed quite regular. However, it is not a style of bread that we particularly enjoy. On the other hand, the butter, from Isle of Wight, was quite special. It is made from a cultured cream which, after churning, is kept in its own buttermilk. The result yields a very curdled butter, resembling cottage cheese, yet very fresh and pleasantly acidic.

The tasting menu of Core Classics starts with Scallop Tartare and Sea Vegetable Consommé. The dish was served in a scallop shell surrounded by sea greenery. The scallops were delicate, tender and slightly sweet, while the saline flavour of the consommé enhanced the mild aromas of scallops, elevating the umami. It is an excellent dish. Classic flavours driven by quality ingredients. The scallops came all the way from the Isle of Mull in Inner Hebrides, where the mild oceanic climate creates a favorable habitat for thriving seafood.

One of the most awaited dishes was next in the line: ‘Potato and roe’. That is a very humble name for the dish that turned out to be one of the most elaborate ones. Let’s start with potatoes, specifically Charlotte potatoes. The potatoes are cooked sous vide with dulse seaweed and butter, which allows to ‘infuse’ their flesh and attain an immensely waxy texture. The second star of this dish was the roe, in this case trout and herring roe. The contrast between them was distinguishable not only in colour. Herring roe has a distinctive crunch, intense and saline tang. Whereas trout roe is recognised for its subtle, briny taste. Combining both of them makes a lot of sense, each of the roes provides interesting nuances in both texture and flavour. A fun addition was mini salt and vinegar crisps, which gave some much needed acidity and crunch. Meanwhile, the beurre blanc, infused with dulse seaweed, put the spotlight on the umami in the dish.

The next to follow was a dish of Roasted cod, Morecambe bay shrimps, Swiss chard and brown butter. We regret that we didn’t research more information about this particular dish beforehand. It turns out that Smyth was trying to reinvent classic British potted shrimps on toasts. For us, there was no cultural reference, thus we weren’t very affected. If we put our ignorance aside, the dish was very well concocted. The cod was succulent and impeccably flaky, served with brown shrimps and mini crackers. Similar to the previous dish, the fish was nappéed in a rich sauce of brown butter infused with sourdough.

Once again, Smyth surprises us with a modest locution: ‘Lamb carrot’, although it was not quite as simple as that. The dish sparked our interest a while ago, in fact we had already attempted to recreate it before we had had an opportunity to try the original version. The dish revolves around two main themes: lamb and carrot, of which each ingredient is presented in a few different ways. The carrot is slowly confited in lamb’s fat, until tender and juicy. Clare Smyth choses to use an inequitably underrated neck of lamb, which is pressure cooked with vegetables and spices. Cooking at high pressure helps concentrate the flavour of lamb yielding an aromatic and juicy meat. The meat is shredded and served on the top of the confited carrot, while the cooking juices are reduced to a rich glaze consistency. This duo is served alongside a quenelle of sheep’s milk yogurt which balances the carrot’s sweetness and the richness of lamb jus with its freshness. The dollop of green pesto of herbs and carrot tops, that you can appreciate on the yogurt, was a bright accent to the dish. A lamb’s fat bun, served alongside the dish, is there to polish off all the scrumptious juices from the plate.

The ‘Lamb carrot’ is a dish in which the sense of importance is inverted compared to what we are used to. The idea of the triumph of vegetables over meat reminds us of the very famous breakthrough that occurred in L’Arpège’s kitchen in the early 2000. Passard took red meat off his menu and replaced it with fruit and vegetables. A difficult and controversial step to take in fine dining, given that the gastronomy tradition is based on the celebration of meat. It is reassuring that the trends tend to reverse direction, especially visible in the oeuvre of chefs trained in traditional kitchens. 

At that point we were already blown away, not knowing that the best was yet to come. As a second main, we were served a surf and turf of ‘Beef and oysters’. Clare Smyth tries to present what the terroir has best to offer by combining native oysters from Porthilly (Cornwall) and wagyu beef as far as from Highland in Scotland. Analogously to the previous dish, each of the components is approached in three different ways. The first version focuses on pure raw flavours of both ingredients, and it consists of a poached oyster wrapped in a slice of raw wagyu. The second variation consists of a perfectly marbled piece of wagyu and a rich emulsion of oysters with a dot of Guinness reduction, which reminds us of a pearl in an oyster shell. The triplet is completed by a side dish with a very rich braised beef served in an oyster shell. Underneath lies a potato purée and on top, a tapioca cracker that resembles an oyster shell. The whole dish represents a theatrical play of textures and flavours, showcasing the interconnection between the ingredients from two divergent landscapes. 

As a pre-dessert, we were served the ‘Core apple’, a fun trompe-l’œil of fruit following the field of which Cédric Grolet has made an art. The apple is covered with a green-red gel that resembles a Granny Smith apple. While that brings to your mind the first association of a tart and acidic tang, the interior conceals an apple mousse and a sweet core of spiced apple compote in the middle. 

The last course of the evening was a modern version of a vacherin with English strawberry and lemon verbena. There is one very strange thing that we notice this summer on restaurant’s menus. Many chefs in London tend to call ‘wild strawberry’ a ‘English strawberry’ as if all English strawberries were wild. The difference in taste is substantial and it does not seem correct to use the names interchangeably. Apart from our linguistic animosities, the dessert was one of the best one we have ever had. The complexity of techniques, the quality of ingredients and the subtleness in execution composed a truly impressive dish. Let’s start with the components. The dessert resembles a pine cone which is made of a swiss meringue. The bottom hemisphere conceals dices of a light-green gel, perhaps flavoured with lemon verbena. A verbena crème diplomate and a refreshing strawberry sorbet rest on top. In turn, the ‘pine cone’ was covered with small discs of meringue arranged alternately with fresh wild strawberries and lemon verbena. The overall aesthetic effect conveys a symmetry that feels elegant and natural. On the palate, it was very skilfully balanced with a sensation of freshness that was accentuated by the ever changing wave of flavours coming from the fragrant berries and the herbal verbena.

The petits fours or mignardises conclude the meal with an indulgent touch. The Chocolate and lavender tart had a beautiful pâte sucrée pastry and a chocolate ganache infused with lavender. There was a playful touch too, with Sauternes and Banyuls as pill-shaped gels of the respective dessert wines (for more information, see Sauternes and Banyuls). Soft yet chewy, these were our first edible wines. They retained their characteristic flavour profiles, including their high natural acidity. 

The experience does not end there, but with a short trip to the main entrance on the way out. This requires passing by a beautiful view to the kitchen, which provides a chance to thank and say goodbye to Clare and the team. Although a small touch, it renders the relationship between customers and the restaurant more personal, less distant. When considering the complicated dynamics of a large kitchen, the presence of the head chef or chef patron to greet all customers is a substantial effort that proves the importance they place on creating a bond with customers and making the experience more laid-back.

All together, Core succeeds in its goal to provide a memorable and unique meal. Here one is served highly refined food, with abundant layers of flavour and meaning where UK’s produce is the star. The aim to showcase this great produce becomes clear in several dishes (e.g. potato and roe, lamb carrot or beef and oysters). Multiple variations of the same ingredient contrasted in the same dish permit to explore all its facets and evidence its versatility. This is all consistently wrapped in a seamlessly natural presentation that hides the conscientious use of tweezers to sculpt each dish.

With no lavish use of caviar or truffles, often unnecessarily included in other restaurants of this calibre, the tasting menu delivers very good value for the money. At £155, it is not cheap, but after such charismatic service by Rob Rose’s team you might not even notice the numbers in the bill. 

We would recommend booking three months in advance. In our case, with the COVID-19 pandemic, we booked in January 2021, were forced to rebook in March and finally managed to go in June 2021. The wait, nevertheless, is worth it.

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