Galvin at The Athenaeum – Perfectly Poised Hotel Dining:
I have a soft spot for The Athenaeum, a five-star hotel on Piccadilly. You may well have noticed it because of the astonishing living wall, a festival of greenery on a stone-faced street. I’ve been a few times over the years – most recently to sample an afternoon tea and on a separate occasion to learn how the living wall was created and is maintained as part of the Chelsea Flower Show fringe. Since my last visit, there’s been a major refurbishment on the ground floor – even the entrance has moved. And, catering at The Athenaeum has been passed to Michelin-starred London chefs Chris and Jeff Galvin.
It’s an interesting move and one which I’ve noticed with increasing frequency in London. Here, unlike many Capital Cities around the world, hotel restaurants don’t generally have a great cachet. Of course, The Galvin Brothers already have a track record, with one well-respected hotel restaurant – Galvin at Windows at the Hilton on Park Lane. And, there are other great examples – Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and Roux at the Landau. It does seem that without the stamp of a chef with an existing reputation, our hotel restaurants are unlikely to succeed.
Opened in June 2016, Galvin at The Athenaeum is an elegant space with parquet flooring and stunning ceiling lights giving a retro feel, while the comfortable banquettes and chairs are more contemporary. The menu takes a step away from the typical French-inspired menus you’ll find at others of the Galvin Brothers restaurants. There is a definite British twist, with locally sourced ingredients and with English wines on the wine list. And, they’ve introduced a selection of good quality wines on tap – the wines are transported in 25-litre kegs, which saves on bottling costs, removes the possibility of corkage and, perhaps most significantly, allows the brothers to work with boutique wineries and create their own cuvees. We tried both the chardonnay and the port and were really impressed.
While we picked dishes from the menu we enjoyed ‘wheat bread with Netherend Farm butter’. The bread came as a single twist, with a perfect crust and soft warm centre. I try my best to avoid the bread basket for the sake of my waistline. But this was one not to miss!
We tried a mouthful or two of one of the English wines, the Kingscote Bacchus. I’ve tasted and not enjoyed Bacchus in the past, though from a different vineyard. This one was crisp, acidic and full of elderflower. And, a lovely aperitif. Bacchus is a recent varietal created in Germany and very popular there. When grown in England (and it is increasingly popular here), it retains a higher acidity and tastes a bit like a Sauvignon Blanc.
For starters, I chose the Galvin cured smoked salmon with blini, sour cream and caviar. A light smoke combined with a small blini, a generous dollop of sour cream, caviar and dill garnish made this dish stand out. Paired with the Galvin Bourgogne Chardonnay Terroir Noble 2014, it was a delicious way to start the meal.
Food envy set in quickly, though, when I spotted my companion’s Lasagna of Dorset crab with Nantais butter sauce, chives and lemon. Nantais sauce is a beurre blanc with a little cream added to help stabilise the sauce. Here, my companion raved about the delicate, lemon fragrance and the light crab mousse filling of the lasagna. If you eat one thing from the menu, this should be it. His pairing, a Beaujolais Blanc Maison Coquard, Burgundy was an aromatic and floral mouthful.
I was trying my best to order healthy food, so picked the pan-roasted cod with cockle and potato chowder for my main course. There is an excellent selection of meat dishes but, by sticking to the pescatarian options, I was hoping to have enough room for dessert (!). A simple enough concept, the dish was beautifully executed with perfectly flaky fish, a crisp skin, tender and tasty cockles and a rich buttery sauce with a foamy potato chowder that was far lighter than I expected. Paired with the Elegance Rose, Carteron from Cotes de Provence, it was everything I expected and more.
My companion, meanwhile, was intrigued by the yellowfin tuna burger with white cabbage slaw and avocado. He IS a pescatarian and I think the idea of actually being able to order a burger caught his eye. It also meant he could order the triple cooked house chips with spiced mayo. He ordered it rare and, while it was perfectly cooked, he commented on the temperature of the dish which was closer to cold than hot. Perhaps one to keep for the summer?
That said, he was also rather busy raving about the chips and even sent the restaurant manager, William Gambarini, back into the kitchen to find out what variety of potatoes were used (Maris Piper). He loved the pairing of Crimson Pinot Noir, Ata Rangi, Martinborough, New Zealand 2014.
Despite picking the lighter options, we still needed a short break before dessert. For me, a very indulgent sticky toffee pudding with Cornish clotted cream was paired with Nectar Pedro Ximenez. I loved the pudding, the sort of thing I try my best to avoid but, when done well, REALLY love. Forbidden fruit does taste sweeter – or even forbidden sticky toffee pudding!
My companion loved his signature caramelised apple tart with cider brandy ice-cream, which was paired with a light, caramel tasting Domaine des Chenes Rivesaltes Ambre, 2006
Then, a coffee for me and a small glass of the Galvin 10-year-old tawny port, which was delicious and a fitting end to a splendid meal.
My take – I think this is spot on for the Athenaeum. The food is fabulous and that’s without the pomp and circumstance of a fine dining restaurant. Starters here are around £10-£15 and main courses around £20, so while it’s not cheap, nor will a meal here break the bank. The menu has plenty of straightforward dishes which might suit a jet lagged hotel guests, but there are options closer to fine dining which should make this a worthy destination restaurant. I liked the not-quite-private dining room, which can be curtained off for a group, I enjoyed all the food and service was spot on.
We dined as guests of Galvin at the Athenaeum