Contemporary Fine Dining in Notting Hill at Caractère.
A stone’s throw from The Ledbury, owners of Caractère, Emily Roux and Diego Ferrari say that they have aimed to create the kind of place where they’d like to eat themselves. Without a mouthful of food, I’m convinced that this comfortable warehouse-style restaurant, with jewel-coloured velvet chairs and banquettes, elegant lighting and rough brick walls with a cement ceiling is the kind of place I’d like to eat too.
Emily, third generation Roux family, met her husband Diego when she was working in Monaco at Alain Ducasse’s three Michelin starred restaurant, Le Louis XV. And although the pair both have a training in classic French fine dining, Caractère is strongly influenced by Italian cuisine too.
It’s clear from Emily’s enthusiasm that the restaurant is very much their story – the menu a reflection of the food they love to cook and eat themselves. Is it fine dining? Well although the roots of many of the dishes originate from simple French and Italian food, everything here is elevated to such an extent that for me this is definitely a destination restaurant.
We started with three little amuse-bouche – a bourbon biscuit with sardine butter, a tiny tigella roll from Emilia Romagna stuffed with ham and parsley and a wafer of polenta crisp topped with smoked ricotta. My favourite for all the wrong reasons was the bourbon biscuit with a delicious crumbly texture and light fishy filling. It made me smile – and that’s always a good way to begin a meal in my book.
Navigating the unusual menu layout was made easier for me by the fact that I was in the company of the pescatarian Hedonist. And, such was his enthusiasm to try everything he could that we ended up choosing fish or vegetable options from the ‘traits’. The Hedonist resolutely told me that he’d done his research and we had to try the ‘Acquerello’ risotto, with reduced Marsala, pink peppercorn and black crumble.
I’ve struggled to plate risotto at home and was stunned by the creativity here. While it may be a clichéd comment, the phrase picture on a plate really does apply. I was also intrigued by Emily’s explanation that the risotto used water and cheese rather than a meat or fish stock. The intention, to showcase the rice itself was achieved with perfectly al-dente nutty rice garnished with a delicious mixture of crushed pink peppercorns, black biscuity crumbs and a Marsala reduction. The lighter cheese base for the risotto was delicious and definitely warranted a ‘subtle’ trait.
I’m guessing that the name of the dish comes from the producer of the rice used. Acquerello grows a specific type of carnaroli called Riso Lungo A. The rice is aged for at least a year which strengthens the structure of each grain, helps it absorb liquid without breaking down and also means that very little of nutritional value is lost during cooking. Whatever it was worked perfectly and I didn’t miss the stock a bit.
Our other ‘subtle’ dish was Celeriac “cacio e pepe” – a vegetal take on a classic pasta dish with pecorino, topped with extra-aged balsamic vinegar. I love celeriac and, presented here as tagliatelle ribbons with a delicate cheese sauce, it was delicious, firm and toothsome, with just a hint of celery. I’m getting my spiraliser out to see if I can make something approaching this at home. I loved the sweet sticky balsamic topping, but I’m already somewhat addicted to the stuff. I have a tiny bottle in my larger which comes out on special occasions when I treat myself, drop by drop. This kind of balsamic is as expensive as truffles to buy and for me has just as much of a flavour benefit.
We enjoyed a glass of fresh Réserve Mont-Redon 2016 Côtes du Rhône Abeille-Fabre. Fresh and lightly fruity, this wine is a blend of Roussanne and Viognier. The wine list at Caractère is a French/Italian battlefield, with a good selection by the glass. This is the kind of menu where I’d definitely ask for help in picking the right wine and our pairings were ably selected for us by the front of house manager Eugenio Simonelli, also ex Le Gavroche.Moving on to the next section of the menu, there are three fish options with the trait ‘delicate’. Grilled monkfish with sprouting broccoli, piquillos and cockle jus was a vibrant plate of food both in terms of appearance and taste. Perfectly cooked monkfish dressed with a punchy cockle jus was nicely paired with the broccoli and piquillos peppers.My money though goes on the Steamed Turbot which was perhaps more deserving of the ‘delicate’ trait, A stunning plate of perfectly cooked fish complemented by baby leeks and florets of cauliflower and broccoli, topped with micro herbs and amaranth. I didn’t really want to share this one.
Our pairing for the ‘delicate’ courses was a light, peppery glass of Les Montées, Côtes de Saint Lay, Pinot Noir, Côtes de la Charité 2015. Once again I’d never have spotted it and it was perhaps just a little too much for the Turbot. But perfect with the richer Monkfish dish.
If I have any criticism of the traits it is that not all fish is delicate (and for that matter, not all meat is robust). For me, while I wouldn’t describe the monkfish as robust, it certainly wasn’t delicate either.
We skipped the ‘strong’ Gorgonzola and made straight for ‘Greedy’ desserts. A fine decision. I loved the Ariettes Mille-Feuille with perfectly cooked morsels of seasonal pink Yorkshire rhubarb, delicately sweetened diplomat cream and rhubarb sorbet.
My companion seemed to take possession of what was described as ‘chocolate cake’ but was so much more. A luscious mixture of dark chocolate with pecan praline, salted caramel sauce and mascarpone ice cream. Spooned into his bowl from a small pan it was a rich gooey deliciousness with the piquant mascarpone ice cream a good balance for the excellent quality dark chocolate of what was honestly more a complex pudding than a cake.
We finished with coffee and a pan brioche crème Fraiche.
We both loved our lunch. For me, beautifully cooked food, carefully paired wines and attention to detail that is both quirky and effective, with different styles of cutlery for each course, for example, made this place very special. It feels almost like an invitation into the private world of Emily and Diego – one where their obvious passion for excellence in food is complemented by an almost whimsical enthusiasm for building their own style. That’s something quite unique.
209 Westbourne Park Road
London W11 1EA
T 020 8181 3850
Looking for something different in Notting Hill? We loved the excellent Japanese food at UKAI, a stylish gastropub in Notting Hill. And, we’ve always loved the Gladwin Brothers restaurants – especially their first (and our first experience!) The Shed, close to Notting Hill tube.
Disclosure: We dined as guests of Caractère – all content is editorially given.