It’s unusual for Palate to review a place twice. Core, however, is a restaurant really close to my heart, so I decided to take a second look. After all, my first visit was on its second night of business back in August 2017 and restaurants streamline their operations after ironing out little problems. Since then it has won two Michelin stars on its first entry into the UK guide, meaning that it is now impossible to get a table until May. I managed to snag a 9.45pm sitting, a time only appropriate for a Madrid tapas bar. I certainly did not expect the Spanish Reservation.
As the receptionist took our coats, we were invited to sit at the bar – obviously our table was not yet ready. Happily, the bar situation has improved as the restaurant has figured out what to do with the space. Before, it was a spillover room for people to have 1964 Darroze with their desserts, but now the bar has its own snack menu, bespoke cocktail list and inexplicably addictive complimentary smoked almonds. We had a refreshing pear-based mocktail and a sherry while we waited. If it weren’t for Core being a fifteen minute walk from the Tube, I’d expect the bar to be a popular destination in its own right.
There were slight alterations to the main dining room too, rectifying some of the issues we raised in our first review, like the feeling of emptiness created by the plain white walls. As luck would have it, we were seated at the same table as before. Whilst the banquettes have since been replaced with more private crescent-shaped booths, this still proved insufficient to ward off the roving gaze of a customer at a table right in front of us – he stared at my date all night with only the occasional dish to distract him.
I liked the rock music back when Core opened, but now it is inaudible, drowned out by the chatter and noise in the restaurant. Maybe they were even playing Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” but I couldn’t hear anything. Then there’s the chef’s table. At other restaurants, it is a private dining room. At Core, it is just a table next to the glass-partitioned kitchen that everyone walks past to go to the toilet. Needless to say, I really wouldn’t recommend sitting there.
It is impressive when a restaurant bakes its bread in-house. But does it have to be sourdough?
The pitfalls of a late reservation were laid out before me when the canapés arrived. While the smoked and grilled duck wing was even better than I remembered, the pastries had been left out for too long and had gone a bit stale. Cold gougères and damp foie gras tarts are not the best way to start a meal and left me a feeling a tad cold and damp as well.
For starters we both had the langoustine and sweetbread, a piece of each arranged in an almost yin-yang fashion. I neglected to mention to my date that sweetbread is neither sweet nor a bread, but she took that in her stride. After all, it was perfectly cooked, and the earthiness struck a wonderful contrast to the delicate langoustine. Black truffle season had just started, so the famous G-Ram linguine with parmesan emulsion and truffles was put on the menu as an alternative starter. Props to our waiter, who recognised how much I love this dish, and offered to have the kitchen prepare it as a supplementary course instead.
Unfortunately, the sourdough is still cold and limp, with an overly acidic taste and thick, hard crust. I understand that it is impressive when a restaurant bakes its bread in-house. But does it have to be sourdough? Does it really? It’s a bit like torched mackerel – all well and good if one restaurant serves it, but not when everyone and their dog starts trying to shove it down our throats like it is the next big thing.
After they took away my date’s bread, the restaurant shaved off a thin slice and put it on her skate dish, probably as a cruel joke, because it didn’t add to the dish whatsoever. And that irked me slightly. It was a perfectly cooked piece of Cornish skate drowning (or floundering, if you would pardon the pun) in brown butter sauce. Was the sourdough crisp there just to provide acidic balance to an already overly rich dish? It felt like a desperate man on Tinder taking up the accordion in an attempt to be more interesting. I should think a kitchen of this calibre would have more confidence in their ingredients to let them shine.
The Roscoff Onion was still on the menu, with some new seasonal main courses. After all, this is Core, not Dinner by Heston. In Autumn there will be grouse, and morel mushrooms appear at the end of Spring. I had ample options to choose from, so I went for the duck breast. The duck itself was perfectly cooked; all the fat had been rendered leaving a thin layer of crispy skin and the flesh was pink all the way through. It was paired with a little tart of duck confit and topped with sliced grapes. Like the foie gras canapé earlier, the tart was a little bit stale, suggesting perhaps an off day for the pastry section.
Thankfully, the desserts still shone. Every bite of my favourite Lemonade Parfait brought back fond memories of the past five years. My date’s “The Other Carrot” was even more accomplished, managing to unite the strong ginger and carrot flavours in a really delicate dish. There was also a quenelle of carrot sorbet – a reminder of a carrot juice drink I used to love as a kid – but in ice cream form. Just as we paid and were about to leave, the petit fours arrived, a couple of wine gums and a chocolate tart that was so good it redeemed the pastry section’s past transgressions.
I am pleased to say Core has not sold out or degenerated into a money-making tourist trap
The 3-course menu is now £85, a full £10 more per Michelin star. Make no mistake, it’s still the best value-for-money 2* restaurant in the city. Not only are there canapés, the “Core Apple” pre-dessert and petit fours included as standard, the drink mark-ups are not completely insane by London standards. Furthermore, although the meal certainly wasn’t perfect, the little ups and downs brought a nice ebb and flow to the experience that made it enjoyable nonetheless.
It was gratifying to see that even though Core is now beyond popular, the people eating there on a weekday evening weren’t culinary tourists. There were ladies on a girls’ night out, families having a meal together, and strangely, a few cardigan-wearing Jon Richardson lookalikes and their partners on dates. Some elements of the restaurant are well-equipped to handle the additional strain that comes with the stars. The service has improved dramatically and the front of house staff we encountered were both polished and friendly, able to handle the odd cheeky joke without smiling awkwardly in response. The receptionist was able to remember everyone’s coats without the need for finicky tickets or tokens, which was impressive. However, the kitchen seemed to be barely coping with the full load and one of the chefs mentioned that they were taking on new staff to ease the burden.
Core does not feel like a restaurant chasing Michelin stars or AA rosettes, but rather doing its own thing and letting the accolades roll in. Clare Smyth clearly has no intention to game the system with outrageous ingredients, a 29-course tasting menu or cooking techniques that require a degree in chemistry to understand. Instead, she has the confidence to stick to a style of cooking that reaches out to a wider audience, more All Things Must Pass than Electronic Sounds. So, I stand by my original assessment of Core, and I am pleased to say it has not sold out or degenerated into a money-making tourist trap. I will be back, even if it means waiting a lifetime.
92 Kensington Park Road
by J Khou