Tom Aikens is one of the most talented chefs in Britain – but if his restaurant is anything to go by he's probably also one of the loudest, as James Fisher warns after a visit to Tom's Kitchen.
Well, it’s definitely a kitchen. The food preparation area is on view for all to see at Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea, with the result that the noise and scents of cooking are in a constant battle with one another as to which is the most overpowering. Call me a cynic (it happens a lot), but, is this is an act? Can a head chef be so constantly, unbearably, angry with his staff?
The head chef in question isn’t Aikens himself, since the eponymous Tom who owns this restaurant – and its sister venues, which form a mini-chain – wasn’t on site during our visit, but his intensity of spirit shines out. He made his name a generation ago with Gordon Ramsay-style pyrotechnics both on and off the plate and though he’s since mellowed, dining to a soundtrack of roaring invective is part of the experience here.
I understand that it is supposed to add an air of authenticity, even theatre – and my dining companion admittedly found it quite thrilling. But there must be a line between continental flair and someone howling unsavoury insults as you try and ask your date how their day was. Much in the way that you enjoy reading Country Life, you likely wouldn’t care for the (ahem) coarse language occasionally employed in its construction. Particularly if bellowed by people standing next to you while you were settling down to read My Favourite Painting.
Despite this, what falls off the end of the conveyor belt of rage that is Tom’s Kitchen’s kitchen are delicious plates of calm that seem at odds with the furnace of fury in which they were forged. Starters are small plates for sharing; delicately prepared little morsels with sharp flavours that set aside a full-day’s hunger, but leave plenty of room for the more wholesome mains.
I began with a tuna tartar with crushed avocado, coriander, pickled mouli and wasabi mayo – not much can go wrong here, and it didn’t. The tuna was fresh, the mayo a nice balance, and my only concern was that there wasn’t more. Next up was a Brixham crab on toast with lemon purée, mayonnaise, avocado, rocket and basil that added some much needed texture and crunch, although the crab itself was a little muddy. Last to arrive was a house cured beef bresaola with butternut squash, sage and pumpkin dressing. Here was the highlight – it was deep and wistful, like a countryside pub on a December morning before the smoking ban.
Design-wise, Tom’s Kitchen Chelsea clearly leans into its former life as the Bleinheim Pub. There’s a generously sized circular bar, with glasses hanging above the red stools and the usual array of hard liquors against the wall. The main space is more formal though, with square tables lined up to occupy almost every centimetre of space.
White tiling and mirrors add light and the trend for rustic fittings has not been missed either, with brass bits and pieces adorning walls. The atmosphere feels casual, assuming the chef and his minions got up on the right side of the bed that morning.
Main courses are a classical affair, with traditional favourites such as fish and chips, schnitzel, wild-mushroom risotto and a chicken burger, to name a few. It’s comforting pub food that’s been elevated, and is yet another vivid example of how far classic British dishes have pulled themselves from the tasteless murk of the 1980s. Anyone who is worried about whether or not this country will be able to feed itself after March 29 can take solace in the diversity of this menu, even if the prices add weight to the argument that perhaps locally-sourced English fare might not be so financially viable for all.
The real magic, though, lies in the grill. Steaks of just about every shape and size were on offer, from a 600g Cumbrian côte de boeuf – that’s a pound and a quarter of meat – all the way down to spatchcock chicken and salt marsh lamb rump. I landed upon the Bodmin Moor venison steak, with kohlrabi and hazelnut remoulade, juniper salt and game sauce.
As someone who is no more than an occasional deer eater, I was hoping to be impressed. And I was. The venison was perfectly cooked and a good size, and the trimmings injected rays of flavour into the storm cloud of gamey meat. Truffle fries as a side were the perfect bourgeois indulgence and if I hadn’t had my arm twisted fully behind my back by my waiter, I would have certainly not had room for dessert.
Thank goodness he did. The joy of dessert was evidenced by the almost brutal nature with which I tore into the hot chocolate fondant with vanilla ice cream: it was rich and alarmingly dark, and left me with that contented feeling of decadent excess.
Aikens has carved himself an interesting niche with his Kitchens. The food is unmistakably English and eminently approachable, but to describe it as pub fare would do a disservice to the quality of the cooking and the décor. It exists in the void between your local Goat & Boot and Le Gavroche, serving food that is comfortingly familiar but with enough of a twist to warrant waiting for a table. Perfect for the fussy eater in search of finer dining. Just don’t sit near the kitchen.
Tom’s Kitchen, 27 Cale Street, Chelsea – á la carte starters £6, mains £18-£32; lunch menu £18/£22 for two/three courses – see tomskitchen.co.uk/chelsea-restaurant for details.
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