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.