A quick tour d’horizon of the creative world’s loin seeds proves that celebrity parents are hard acts to follow – like Sophie, after her father, Terence, or Colin, after his father, Tom.
In the case of Emily Roux, with her esteemed père ubiquitous on British televisions for the last 10 years, has arguably one of the largest tasks in being a leading chef on her own merits rather than “Michel’s daughter”. While not inheriting dad’s poppy-eyed stare (handed down of course by Albert), Palate sought to discover whether Caractère would indeed make our own eyes widen.
Set within a northern neighbourhood of sheeshy Notting Hill (not far from Westbourne Park), Emily and chef husband Diego Ferrari surely expected to attract discerning customers of a certain pay grade. An evening there, as I came to find out, was an exercise in white privilege – the clientele being about as diverse as a Bullingdon club dinner. That is not to besmirch the restaurant – it cannot help its natural pull.
A relatively difficult entrance comprising a large, velvet curtain (which might have been resolved since) makes for unusual access to the venue. Unless, of course, there is some intentional ode to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. With joyful timing, the first bod I encountered on the other side of the vast drape was a diner with wild, spiralling hair who could have forged a career as a Mick Hucknall double – as if I’d been greeted by Aslan himself.
The decor within is a melange of scandi, East Asian chic and opulism, achieved though the use of fine woods, luscious upholstery and designer lighting (being frank, the lighting is OTT).
Initial service was a bit haphazard, towards disorganised. Credit though to the waiter who, as the evening progressed, found his stride. Perhaps he just needed to warm up and settle in as would a rusty public speaker or fledgling stand up comic. Suffice to say, service became really very attentive.
An aperitif of Negroni was a little disappointing owing to the use of a peppered gin in its preparation. A classic had been tampered with. I’m all for innovation and surprise but the pepper taste overpowered the drink. It was at this point that the coat stand by the curtained doorway fell for the first time. How it was allowed to become so crazily overloaded is beyond me – we’re talking twenty odd coats on a flimsy pole with hooks. It reminded me of a video I once saw on Instagram where a man scoops flood water over the top of adjacent railings…
The food menu is sorted by qualities (character, I suppose), to include robust, greedy and curious. I was happily spared “fruity and spicy” or “bright and breezy” like a mid-tier pub’s wine list.
Good sourdough bread arrived alongside quirky butter dish and knife. Straight into a starter (again twisting the recipe) of celeriac cacio e pepe, with sumptuous pecorino sauce. The waiter applied droplets of 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar which tasted divine and which lifted the entire dish. At this point a nearby waiter also lifted the coat rack, which had again crashed to the floor. It fell halfway in my direction and I wondered if I might shortly be googling: “personal injury lawyers”.
Evidence of Franco-Italian fusion (Emily’s Franco is in the blood, after all; Diego is from Milan) appeared in the main course of venison tortellini. Unlike many comparable dishes elsewhere, the ravioli was packed with meat – perfectly cooked and tender. Over these fine parcels was a rich, glossy jus that conferred further meaty, savoury satisfaction. The kitchen served autumnal vegetables as an accompaniment – providing colour and firm bite that simultaneously gave contrast and complement to the tortellini, and in keeping with the changing season. I can also vouch for portion size which, considering the nature and location of the restaurant, was a happy surprise.
With tedious inevitability, the coat rack fell several more times until a useful staff member – like Darwinism happening before my very eyes – moved the coats to the banquette seating so as to relieve the rack of its fabric mountain.
In the not unusual, parabolic journey of restaurant dining, a dessert of choux pastry buns with hazelnut cream lacked the wow factor possessed by the main. Sure, it was sweet, good and assembled well. There was, however, nothing to have me scribbling in my note pad of strident flavours and culinary revolution.
How can I sum up? It isn’t Michel’s Le Gavroche, and could never be. It’s like comparing a classic, top-end car to a solid Audi. Emily clearly has ability – and Lord knows talent is coursing through her genes. Caractère serves very, very good food and, given the postcode etc, it doesn’t come cheaply. I expect the restaurant will prosper and be propped up by the hedge fund patrons who live locally and who no doubt appreciate the Roux brand’s presence on their doorstep.
209 Westbourne Park Road
by C Ley