I have known Roberto for more than ten years, ever since he was working for John Burton-Race at L'Ortolan and I was working for Pierre Koffmann at La Tante Claire. I sincerely believe he is one of the best sommeliers in London, yet goes about his work in his imitable and humble way. Without question, after spending eight loyal years as Head Sommelier at Roussillon with Alexis, he moved with him straight away to head up the restaurant team.
It is typical for most restaurants within London, especially the more 'high-profile' ones to have a few days of 'soft openings'. Usually, it is an opportunity for friends, family, perhaps even work colleagues, and, of course, the usual suspects of restaurant critics doing the rounds to experience the food, wine, service and hospitality. Having been involved in restaurants for many years and have participated in a few openings myself, I understand the true value of the experience. It provides a useful situation to provide genuine feedback, constructive criticism and for any snags in timings or service to be ironed out. Restaurant openings can be busy, stressful and very exciting. They are not for the faint-hearted, especially from the inside, even though they may appear extremely glamourous from the outside.
After around thirteen years, having been in Pimlico as chef-patron of Roussillon restaurant, Alexis Gauthier decided it was time to up chef's knives and apron and open up his 'own' restaurant. He chose the wonderfully-central location of Soho to establish his eponymous restaurant GauthierSoho. In fact, the site is Lindsay House, formerly run by chef Richard Corrigan for many years and is also a listed building. The latter, and the fact that it is divided up into a few small rooms over four floors, including a basement kitchen ensured many challenges for Alexis and his team. If I had a hat, I would certainly be taking it off to them, as it must be a logistical nightmare. Teamwork is crucial to ensure a slick, seamless service. However, these guys certainly know what they are doing and they run a tight ship.
Gone are the days of the almost 'village-like' Pimlico enclave, a sleepy side street on the fringes of a Belgravia backwater and now he has entered a completely different world with its own more buzzy street vibe and culinary culture. It will take a little time to build up. For me though, Alexis has got it spot on. His timing and location could not be better. It is time for a heavyweight chef such as him to challenge the already successful chef/restaurateurs of Mark Hix, Anthony Demetre et al. However, as I mentioned to Alexis - "loyal people will always follow you, your good food, good wine and genuine hospitality regardless of wherever you are."
I was recently invited to have dinner at the restaurant. We were very warmly welcomed by the courteous hostess, who showed us through into the small convivial 'open wine cellar' so that charming Roberto della Pietra could greet us. It is a great idea. He would like to encourage guests to engage with him and the wines, whilst perusing the wine selection, but also by giving it a lovely, personable human touch. A gifted and experienced sommelier such as Roberto believes that in this way he will be able to take away the intimidation factor of choosing wines, by talking openly and will be able to build up more of a trust and rapport with his guests. Moreover, it would provide a little educational and entertaining experience.
Roberto took around one month to research and compile the wine list and build the cellar. He has started with a core range of a couple of hundred references and then it will evolve later. "We have to get things started." It is wonderfully constructed and has his personality all over it. It starts with a beautiful introduction, which really sets the tone and finishes with "Oenologically yours..." He has kept to his strengths, having a great passion, knowledge and experience of wines from the South-West of France, yet the selection is also interspersed with interesting vinous offerings from other parts, including Burgundy, Rhone, Loire and Alsace. In addition, he has a fine range of Champagnes. His homeland of Italy has not been overlooked either, as he has a good selection from some up-and-coming winemakers and regions.
Whilst Maureen and I sipped on our glass of NV Gosset Brut Champagne, we were treated to some mouth-watering canapes. The chick pea beignets, which appeared like grissini (those ubiquitous breadsticks that normally get plonked on the table in most touristy trattoria-style Italian restaurants in Soho) were absolutely delicious, especially when elegantly dunked into the savoury dip. I found it miraculous how something so simple could taste so amazing.
Moreover, I could pick up the genuine sense of pride of how the charming maitre d' Damian offered us the menus with "This is Alexis Gauthier's first menu". It had been split into two parts. Down one side were a series of 'plats' numbered one to four i.e from appetisers to main courses. Each section had a choice of three dishes, so there was plenty of flexibility with the menu presentation. These were then priced at 3 plats £27, 4 plats £36 and 5 plats £45 respectively. The right-hand column consisted of a Menu "Gout du Jour" - a twelve course degustation menu extravaganza for £70. We opted for the 4 course option and 'mixed-and-matched' with a dish from each 'plat' section. I had been to Roussillon many times and always had a great experience. See related blog post. In addition, Alexis had consistently held one Michelin star there since 2000. However, this evening there was a feeling of excitement and assured confidence, not nervous tension. For instance, almost as if an Oscar-winning actor had just returned to treading the boards at the Old Vic on opening night. We were in for a treat!
One thing I remembered about Roussillon was the bread. For me, it is one of the most important things in the restaurant business, as when you serve great, freshly-baked bread it never fails to make a good first impression. We were not disappointed, as the waiter who served us remarked that Alexis had brought his baker along with him. In my opinion, Alexis serves the best bread in London, apart from Tom Aikens and, of course, Pierre Koffmann when La Tante Claire was open.
With regards to the wine pairings, we gave Roberto free reign to pick tasters from his selection to match each dish. I love doing this with a sommelier I can trust implicitly, as he knows his wines and how they work well with the Mediterranean-inspired seasonal cuisine.
I enjoyed my 'premier plat' of green asparagus, morel and beef jus. The latter had such depth of flavour, yet did not overpower the delicate fresh asparagus.
Maureen enjoyed the poached duck egg, surrounded by a fresh green pea veloute (below). The fresh, crunchy, aromatics of the Sauvignon Blanc served by Roberto paired magnificently.
Our second 'plat' was a combination of seafood. Maureen chose the langoustines and tarragon, crunchy lettuce and pink pigeon breast (below)
I went for the roasted scallop, brown butter and lime, which was utterly sublime.
For the fish course I chose the perfectly-cooked smoked salted wild seabass, white asparagus, melba toasts and cep mushrooms. Maureen had the steamed fillet of halibut, parsley crust, fondant leek and pickled ginger. Both tasted wonderful, yet far too difficult to cut through the 'al dente' asparagus wrapped in crisp melba toast with a traditional fish knife!
I sampled a mouthful of the sweetbreads, morels, lettuce and veal jus ordered by Maureen and they were simply out of this world. Sweetbreads are those kinds of offal dishes which you find in swanky restaurants, but they are very easy to get wrong. These were delicate, yet flavoursome, with a delicious crust around the outside and the centre remaining moist and tender. This was precision and faultless cooking. The earthy flavour of the morels and veal jus was perfect.
My Angus beef, black olives, bone marrow (served on the side with a teaspoon), shallots and Swiss chard was absolutely delicious. The meat was packed with flavour and still mouth-wateringly moist and pink and everything was harmonised nicely with the piquant sweet black olives and peppery chard. In my opinion, Roberto came up trumps with the red wine - an earthy and spicy Primitivo from Puglia.
Cheeses are something the French are extremely proud of. The fine Francophile selection at GauthierSoho did not disappoint us either. We were served a plate of different types Valencay (Loire Valley, goat's milk); Fleur de Maquis (Corsica, ewe's milk and coated in rosemary); Brie de Meaux (cow's milk); L'Ami du Chablis (cow's milk washed in marc from Chablis) all served with plain baguette bread. Roberto stepped up to the plate and served three little tasters. Pineau des Charentes, which was a great combination with the Valencay and aromatic Fleur de Maquis, Jurancon Moelleux, especially with the Brie de Meaux and a Floc de Gascogne, especially with the stronger washed rind cheeses.
If that was not enough, we then polished off one of my favourite desserts - an individual Gateau Paris-Brest. The choux pastry was still crisp, yet light and generously-filled with the praline creme patissiere. A drizzle of the lightest of caramel sauces and a dusting of icing sugar put the finishing touches to the perfect pud. I enjoyed it with a taster of late-harvest Tokaji made by Disznoko in Hungary.