Where… ‘Everybody is treated the same!’
1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1 7PU
Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 5 stars on Saturday night
Service: 4.5 stars
Design: 4 stars
Price/Value: 3.5 stars
Overall: 4 stars
Chiltern Firehouse is so talked about and its gates so photographed at the moment that I am getting palpitations from my FOMO (fear of missing out), fuelled by my frustration and jealousy that I still haven’t been since the opening a few weeks ago in February. Already, they rejected my first email reservation demand with an automated response in January pre-opening, turned down my ‘table for 6’ reservation in February, and finally I am allowed a 6:30pm reservation on a Tuesday night in March. I wonder if they have a log of all my pleading and desperate emails and phone calls and whether they will hold it against me. Yes, I am pathetic, and seemingly have nothing else to do, but let’s face it, I am not Bradley Cooper or Kate Moss or Guy Ritchie or Noel Gallagher or Bono or Stella McCartney or Andre Balasz himself. I have no VIP pull whatsoever, but merely a persevering and determined attitude that can take you a long way in America, which is where Andre Balasz found his fame as a hotelier.
Andre Balasz, the mastermind behind the glitzy and glamorous hotels Chateau Marmont in LA, the Mercer in New York, and all the Standard Hotels (one which houses the infamous Boom Boom Room), just to name a few in his collection, will now prove whether he has the Midas touch in Europe as well (unlike Keith McNally’s rather spectacular failure of bringing Balthazar to London which you can read about in Giles Coren’s review of which London restaurants should be shut down). So far, the midas magic is working. He has attracted every A-lister and tamed the biggest lions of the foodie world, with MC (master critic) AA Gill giving it 4 stars for both food and atmosphere, akin to getting a First in Chemistry by a beady eyed, unsmiling Oxford chemistry professor. But it is his collaboration with Executive Michelin starred Chef Nuno Mendes that may be the key to the success behind the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant. Nuno, the hirsute experimental ‘food artist’ who trained for years in the US, is known for offering diners a unique culinary experience, both in the carefully prepared and invented dishes, but also in the entire dining experience. Here, he says that it is a place to have ‘fun’ and ‘about the experience as a whole and the social experience of being in this room.’ It is with this vision that Andre found the right chef to head his kitchen in his Marylebone boutique hotel.
Marylebone is an interesting choice of location for this new restaurant and hotel, but upon further inspection, may prove to be a very canny and strategic move. Chiltern Street is now becoming a very chic, discrete, and cosmopolitan destination helped by Portman Estate’s financial injection and Chiltern’s arrival. As I arrive early evening on Tuesday, I discover independent boutiques and cafes lining the street, which would be favoured by A listers choosing to stay in the hotel. I am greeted by a cheerful and courteous doorman in a top hat and fancy coat standing by the gates who, unlike red-velvet rope-keepers who usually thrive on their power trip, welcomes me to a ‘home away from home.’ Once past the gates protecting the impressive pre-war Gothic fire station, I find myself in a beautiful courtyard full of daffodils and spring flowers in large terra cotta pots, a Garden of Eden, which will become the jewel in this hotel’s crown this summer.
Once inside, I am greeted by a lovely, ‘modelesque’ hostess with Nyong’o Lupita looks and another pretty hostess milling around, looking pretty. Both are almost too nice, but it comforts me into thinking that I really do belong here. It is as if all my hard work and dedication has paid off and the red velvet rope has been lifted, finally letting me in the club. I immediately head to the bar and am surrounded by ‘rah rah’ handsome city boys and foodies who have snuck in without a reservation desperate to taste Nuno’s nibbles at the bar. I order a ‘Dashamour,’ their signature non-alcoholic drink (now called a Green Goddess), which immediately becomes a firm non-alcoholic favourite with its refreshing apple and mint combination. The bar waiter with chiseled features out of GQ magazine is forgiven for looking clueless and inexperienced when I ask about my reservation because he is so easy on the eye. There is staff everywhere, ensuring everyone is well catered to, but in a charming rather than overbearing way. Andre is already scoring points with the impeccable, attentive service and good looking, enthusiastic staff. He has created a ‘model’ service imported from New York and London restaurants have a lesson or two to learn from it.
While waiting for my darling French friend A who is joining me for dinner, I ‘up-and-down’ the dining room, which is slightly a puzzle to me. I agree with AA Gill’s description of ‘weird.’ My first impression is that the main dining room manages to feel small and homey despite its multiple levels and brasserie-meets-warehouse-in-NY feel, but I don’t like the upholstered ceiling, looking up makes me think I am in a psychiatric padded cell, so I decide not to look up for the rest of the evening, which thankfully doesn’t deter from my ‘experience.’ The dramatic open kitchen is elevated above the main dining room with counter seating for the foodies to salivate as they watch bearded chefs create food magic. There are indoor trees along the back of the booths adjacent to the bar which adds to the ethereal and mystical appearance of this dining room. Groups of people wander towards what I later find out to be the kitchen and loos, both to worship the almighty Nuno, and then to escape through the magic doors in the loos to a secret smoking den.
A, whose famous alter ego is Angelina Jolie with her luscious lips and Jessica Rabbit eyes, is already being charmed by the waiters as we sit down, who all seem to be French. We hear a lot of ‘Mademoiselles’ and feigned disbelief that we are both married and yummy mummies. They know how to speak to women, these Frenchmen. The experience continues when we read the menu, which is casually printed on paper, and has words like ‘tiger’s milk’ on it. I see round, wooden plates delivering the food, realising that the whole ‘experience’ is rather casual for a Michelin star chef, which is a refreshing break from starched white tablecloths and forced-stick-up-the-ass waiters. Like a docile sheep, I copy AA Gill’s dinner order and ask for the Crispy Chicken Skin Caesar and the Shortrib with Hazelnut puree and Marrow. The caesar salad is good, although the dressing is a bit on the thick and sticky side and the chicken skin tastes like chicken stock crackling, not displeasing, but overall it is not the best caesar I have ever tasted. The shortrib is melt-in-your-mouth tender and succulent but is too heavy for me to finish. My apple granita and panna cotta is light, sweet and tart and is my favourite dish of the night. Nuno Mendes is at the helm tonight and makes an appearance, scanning the dining room from his kitchen perch, but does not look very relaxed, too pre-occupied with giving his foodies the spectacle they have come for.
The problem with restaurant reviews is that they are dependent on a) what dish the reviewer chooses, b) what the reviewer likes and c) whether chef is having a good ‘chef day.’ I decide that the meal has been very good, but perhaps not as mind-blowing as I would have expected from all the reviews and press. I decide that I need to come back to ensure I am providing an accurate review of the place. After dinner, we meet the charming maitre d’, Darius, and A tries to use her charm:
‘So, what do we have to do around here to get priority booking?’ She winks and he starts laughing and we know this isn’t going to end well.
‘Ah, the magical question I get asked every day. We treat everybody the same!’ he laughs away with a friendly, apologetic but poker face. We all laugh together knowing this is an absolute lie, but we understand the unspoken. Even if you look like Angelina Jolie, you still won’t get the A list priority booking telephone number.
Luckily, I know an M.I.P. (more important person than me) who uses his obscure LA connections to get us a booking on a Saturday night, albeit at 6pm, but for 6 people, another impossible feat for mere earthlings like you or me. The vibe on Saturday is somewhat different. Tuesday was filled with a majority of foodies, and a glamorous, eccentric, slightly older crowd, whereas the age range has dropped by a decade on Saturday and the beautiful people have arrived, flitting around, buzzing like bees on flowers in search of Nuno honey. We are seated in a booth with a view of the kitchen in the background and when 6pm turns into 8pm, Lilly Allen is sitting in the booth next to us, Louise and Jaime Redknapp sit at 2 o’clock from us, Billie Piper is behind us at the bar, and David Beckham is waiting for our table. We are sitting in prime real estate and Chiltern is a ‘who’s who’ of London. For a small moment, I am convinced that I am a VIP, drunk on the vibe which feels like I have been let in a member’s club exclusively for celebrities and sometimes allow NVIPs (not VIPs).
Dinner this time is a revelation. I have the crab doughnuts which are good, but it is the grilled octopus and wild mushrooms that I have been looking for. Delicious, divine, and delectable. The monkfish is also very good, but the rhubarb sundae dessert to me is another standout dish. The words ‘rhubarb sundae’ makes me think of a TGIF in the middle of the Cotswolds and those words don’t come close to describing what the dish represents. These are the dishes that have made Nuno famous and a Michelin star chef, and make you scramble for the telephone as soon as you leave to make your next reservation, so addictive they are. And as I leave the gates of heaven at the end of the night while my MIP friends are chatting up and getting a selfie with David Beckham, I am dreaming of trying the fried chicken bites, the DIY Japanese style steak tartare, and the Chargrilled Iberico Pork.
Andre has scored a ‘home run’ with Chiltern so far, as they would say in ‘Noo Yawk.’ He has scored the right chef, the right location, the right henchmen, and the right PR machine to create a dining room that is becoming the Chateau Marmont of London. The next day, I call for a brunch reservation thinking they may be more generous with their daytime reservation handouts and hoping to get a courtyard table, but can only get a 1:30pm Sunday reservation in two months time with no outdoor seating guaranteed. Other friends looking for an evening reservation only manage a 6pm booking on a Monday in July, when all the VIPs fly off to Club 55 in St. Tropez for the summer, reminding us that we are still merely just NVIPs. On our way out, Darius tells us not to worry, the frenzy will eventually die down, but from what I had ‘experienced,’ there didn’t seem to be anything that could slow down what is turning out to be the biggest restaurant opening in the decade. For once, my FOMO was justified.
Once Upon a Time, there was a young girl who dreamed of meeting Alpha Dad her whole life. She hung out at the Westbourne Pub in Notting Hill on Sundays, Eclipse on Walton Street in Chelsea on Tuesdays and at Tramps in Mayfair on Thursdays. Alpha Mum went to a very good university and graduates with a 2:1 and then finds a very good job until she meets Alpha Dad. Alpha Mum is not beautiful, but cleans up well with some makeup, a few designer dresses and is pretty enough to catch Alpha Dad’s eye in order to be a ‘presentable’ wife. Meanwhile, Alpha Dad has been working on his career of being a millionaire at 28, Managing Director at 30, and making Partner at 32 in a Hedge Fund/Goldman Sachs/Private Equity shop. His favorite words are ‘P&L, EBITDA’ and ‘Bonus’, his favourite car is a Porsche 911 Turbo, and his handsome arrogance has already gotten him far with the girls and a seat in the Executive Boardroom.
Alpha Mum and Alpha Dad fall in love after a whirlwind romance in St. Barth’s, Venice and a safari in ‘exotic’ South Africa. They marry at the Villa Ephrussi Rothschild in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, Cote D’azur, France, she in Vera Wang, he in an Armani suit, surrounded by 400 of their closest friends, colleagues and family friends. Everyone comments how beautiful they are as a couple, only to mutter under their breath that ‘money helps’. They return to London and find a beautiful white, stucco house in Chelsea/South Ken/Notting Hill and settle into married bliss. She rarely sees Alpha Dad who is traveling most of the week to New York/Frankfurt/Hong Kong for his ‘Global’ job, but she jokes with her friends that it is better that way, since they quarrel constantly if he isn’t traveling 50% of the time. In between his travels, they manage to conceive at the Sandy Lane Hotel, Barbados when she manages to ‘lose’ his Crackberry in the sand.
Baby Oliver is born on September 23rd and Alpha Dad is waiting at the gates of Wetherby, application in hand, to ensure his son’s entrance into the prestige school. They also have the applications for nurseries ready with Minors as first choice, Strawberry Fields as second and Acorn as third (more on nurseries in another post). Alpha Mum has done her research and after hiring a ‘school consultant’ knows exactly the educational trajectory of her son: Minors Nursery, Wetherby Pre-Prep, Colet Court, then St. Paul’s (or Westminster will do), culminating into an admission into Oxbridge.
Alpha Dad is not involved in the baby period, as he doesn’t feel the need to bond with the baby. Luckily, Alpha Mum has a maternity nurse that stays on for 6 months and Alpha Mum privately thinks that a nanny and maternity nurse are more important than a dad in raising a baby. When she confronts Alpha Dad for not spending enough time with baby O, he responds curtly ‘You can’t recut the deck, the cards have been dealt.’ It was always clear to him that Alpha Mum would run the household and the kids, while Alpha Dad would be earning the money for their luxurious existence of a Bugaboo pram, a black Range Rover, a second home in St. Tropez, flying business class, and their £8.5 million home backing onto a lavish Notting Hill communal garden, with its own private playground.
Having sent cookies, photos and cards to Minors every month before the year of entry, Alpha Mum is delighted to receive the ‘phone call’ accepting little O into Minors Nursery. Her favorite question now to all her mummy friends is ‘Where’s your little one going to nursery?’ then smugly telling them that Little O has gotten into Minors and Wetherby when they stressfully admit that they still don’t have a place anywhere.
Once little O has been accepted to nursery, Alpha Mum is ready for her next project, Project Olivia, O’s little sister. She pins down Alpha Dad after he has come home drunk after a day of making £45 million for his Hedge Fund/Private Equity/Goldman Sachs and his testosterone levels are at their highest. Luckily, little Olivia will have a place at Minors and with luck will get into Pembridge Hall, since Alpha Dad has been prepped of his most important post-partum duty of dropping off the application in person the day Olivia is born.
Olivia is a beautiful little girl. All the mums know that she is a quick learner, walks earlier, speaks earlier, and whines earlier than all her baby friends. Alpha Mum has already signed her up for swimming classes twice a week, dance lessons, piano lessons, French lessons (‘so she can read Balzac, Victor Hugo and Camus in its original form’), and Mandarin Chinese ‘for the future’. By the time Olivia is at nursery, she has activities every day of the week, including gymnastics lessons given only in Mandarin therefore has no time for playdates. Oliver is now at Wetherby and is already being tutored to ensure he will get into Colet Court. Alpha Mum doesn’t tell the other mums that he is being tutored because it is not the ‘cool’ thing to do, but she is found out when another mum asks the nanny to do a playdate with Oliver, and the nanny says he can’t because his tutor is coming over.
Alpha Mum is preparing Oliver for his entrance exams but poor little Oliver is starting to lose his hair and isn’t sleeping well at night because he is stressed and anxious of letting Alpha Mum and Alpha Dad down. He knows how much it would mean to Alpha Dad that he goes to Colet Court, St. Paul’s and Oxbridge, and thinks that perhaps if he got into those schools, Alpha Dad would finally notice him. Alpha Mum is really stressed because Oliver’s exams are coming up and she has a meeting with Olivia’s headmaster because Olivia has no friends and is hitting all her classmates at nursery, pushing them, telling them they are stupid (which she heard Alpha Dad telling Alpha Mum one Saturday he was home). Olivia has become very aggressive and constantly on edge. The one time she is invited to a playdate, she tells her friend that she doesn’t want to go to her house because she doesn’t have her own playroom.
Alpha Dad is not very involved in Oliver and Olivia’s schooling, except for Sports Day, when he gets to ogle supermodels and yummy mummies, and show his ‘competitive spirit’, determined to win all the races in front of all the dads. Alpha Dad is very competitive, not only in his work, but also competes with his peers by having the biggest house, the flashiest car and owning 4 polo ponies. Alpha Mum is tired of Alpha Dad never being home these days, he is either traveling to Dubai/Shanghai/Moscow for business (‘that’s where the real money is these days’), playing polo as the patron of a polo team at Guards, sleeping with escorts or seeing his mistresses in New York or Miami. They rarely argue as she has learnt that it will only end in her tears and that his aspirations to rule the London financial scene is more important than her needs.
Finally, Alpha Mum has had enough of his philandering/work obsession/polo hobbies and asks for a divorce, after ensuring Fiona Shackleton is free to take her on. She takes him out for half of his £25 million fortune, including the house in St. Tropez. Alpha Mum moves away from Notting Hill, once the mums now stay clear of her afraid that she will try to steal their husbands, and closer to her parents. She never has to work again, vacations in St. Tropez, where she meets an artist who ‘prioritises her.’ The kids go to the local school and have become polite, well adjusted, and happy. They see Alpha Dad every other weekend, which is more than they ever saw him growing up. Alpha Dad has adopted a 22 y.o. model to make up for never spending time with his kids when they were young. And everyone lived happily ever after.
Flowers on rooftop of Boundary Hotel and Restaurant
Fanakapan graffiti-painting on the wall of a Thai restaurant, KinKao, on Brick Lane. The elephants symbolise Thai culture’s sacred elephant.