Clare Smyth finally has her name hanging above the door of her own restaurant – on three different signs to be exact. The former Chef Patron of Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road flagship and Michelin’s Female Chef of the Year has branched out on her own and opened CORE on Kensington Park Road. Unlike many who have come before her, she has the full support of her former mentor. That Smyth commands the loyalty and respect of her staff is evident; many have followed her from Royal Hospital Road (and recognised this writer as a repeat customer!).
CORE is situated in a townhouse in “residential” Notting Hill – I use this phrase with mild scepticism as few could realistically afford to live in a residence with this postcode. Upon entering the premises we were first invited to have a drink in the bar. The décor is minimalist with cool blue-grey walls, dark untreated wooden flooring and simple furniture. Taking a seat at the 6-person bar, the bartender offered still and sparkling water while we waited for our wine. There were also tables in the bar area which presumably acted as a spillover area for diners who did not get a reservation in the main dining room. The whole room smelled like a new car and should have been masked with some sort of fragrance though I could forgive them as it was their second day of opening. The smell of paint and lacquer lingered in the 50-odd cover dining room, separated from the kitchen by floor-to-ceiling glass walls. In the gleaming kitchen, Clare herself led the kitchen brigade.
I couldn’t help grinning through the meal, not just because the food was amazing, but because this restaurant convinces me that the tide is changing, and we are on the right track to becoming a nation that enjoys food
Before I could take stock of my surroundings a selection of canapes arrived. These were remarkably consistent and carefully thought through to comprise a set. First up was a jellied eel tart and malt vinegar sprayed from a classy atomiser. A bit Heston, but it’s a good start. Tomato and basil gougeres were warmer and finally a crispy spiced roast duck with an orange glaze fully roused my palate. This bite-sized mastery of temperature variation testifies to Clare Smyth’s talent as a chef and I couldn’t help smiling to myself throughout that experience. Starters arrived an impressive 20 minutes after our orders were taken. I had a crab royale – pieces of perfectly cooked nuggets of crab on a crab custard. This was served with accompaniments of a fried doughnut topped with crab and a champagne flute of crab consomme that I was instructed to finish last. This style of service is reminiscent of Royal Hospital Road, having originated from Ramsay’s own mentor Guy Savoy in Paris and it was heartening to see the culinary lineage in my food. My companion’s Isle of Mull scallop served in its own shell was seasoned perfectly but slightly deficient considering the size of the shell; negative space on that plate mirrored the dining room’s walls devoid of artwork.
My main course was a beef short rib and a Roscoff onion stuffed with sauteed onions and oxtail. The waiter took care to explain the centrepiece of the dish was the onion, with the intention of elevating vegetables to the same level of regard as meat. Perhaps Clare Smyth finds the onion infinitely more interesting than the shortrib? My companion’s chicken breast with a corn and buckwheat veloute was accompanied with a small salad with chicken skin and gizzard. A bit gruesome in writing but utterly delicious in person. Up until this point not only has the food been excellent, the pacing of the meal deserves a good shout as at no point did I feel rushed or hungry.
Finally, the meal ended with a re-invention of the lemonade parfait dessert she used to serve at Royal Hospital Road. One of my favourite dishes of all time, it combines a textured “paper” of caramelised honey with the tartness of a lemon sorbet and the richness of salted caramel ice cream. The new iteration here emphasises the honeycomb without compromising the balance between the flavours. I actually like this version more because it’s less finicky and easier to eat with a spoon. This dessert pretty much summarises for me the goal of CORE – to make fine dining more accessible and enjoyable to the middle classes. Like it or not, Clare Smyth cannot shake off her association with her ex-boss and the restaurant that bears his name. As much as I try, I inadvertently compare my experience here with that of The Other Place. Happily, the experience at CORE is at least on par with Royal Hospital Road with the exception of the bread where instead of an endless parade of bacon-filled brioche, a limp sourdough is served instead.
Although the signature offering is a 10 course tasting menu, the £65 a la carte menu, including canapes, amuse bouche and a pre-dessert of cherry bakewell is great value in a restaurant of this calibre. My colleague and I both prefer proper-sized courses compared to the “canape party” of a tasting menu and to this end, CORE ticks the right boxes by offering this option to diners. The wines by the glass are well priced and with the sommelier’s help, designed to pair with individual dishes. Given it was the restaurant’s second day of trading the service was surprisingly good, albeit not without its kinks. The sommelier was overly eager in attempting to clear our glasses; perhaps he was thirsty! That being said the rest of the service staff were friendly and approachable. I quite like the concept of having chefs present the main course to diners, breaking the divide between front and back of house though I can’t imagine chefs handling the inevitable difficult clients.
This dessert pretty much summarises for me the goal of CORE – to make fine dining more accessible and enjoyable to the middle classes
The sound of waiters prancing about on wooden boards and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” blaring on the stereo may be intrusive to some, but this is not the sort of restaurant where I go in expecting to be the only one not on a pension. The younger clientele at dinner seemed to welcome the relaxed atmosphere, trading in gold-buttoned navy blazers and evening dresses for more casual attire. Going back to my earlier point about accessibility, I do not want to come across haughty and say that everyone can dine here. This is not a canteen. But this is one of a growing number of recent openings that tries to convince young professionals to go out and enjoy their dinner. I’m convinced that CORE will succeed in setting people on a journey of culinary discovery. I harp on about this point every so often because I know we are not a nation of food lovers. To paraphrase David Mitchell, there are some of us who treat eating like trainspotting – a hobby for hardworking enthusiasts while the rest of us eat “pot noodles and peperami”. Yet when I dined at CORE I couldn’t help grinning through the meal, not just because the food was amazing, but because this restaurant convinces me that the tide is changing, and we are on the right track to becoming a nation that enjoys food.
92 Kensington Park Road
by J Khou