Skipping the light fantastic

Prepare to be wowed by the food, and fellow diners, at a new restaurant in Notting Hill

Eating Out

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Table-hopping used to be a thing, something you read about in Tom Wolfe novels. Park Avenue people rubbing power shoulders at Le Cirque or Lutece, a merger here, a movie deal there, in between who was skiing in Aspen or summering on Nantucket. It always sounded so glamorous, in an Eighties kind of way, but I’d never seen it done until I lunched at Dorian.

Opened last year on Notting Hill’s Talbot Road, the restaurant aspired to be “a bistro for locals” so given its location in the postcode that’s been living its best life since 1997, I had high expectations of both the premises and the crowd.

Whoever did the lighting deserves an Oscar

The room is charming and simple — ubiquitous green banquettes, wrap-around bar with a view to the open kitchen, confident plate-glass windows giving onto the street — but whoever did the lighting deserves an Oscar. Much has been made of the restaurant’s name, with wry comments about portraits in attics, but I wonder whether the reference is less literary than luminous.

Everyone looked as though they had been delicately gilded, sprinkled with a softly refulgent patina of gold dust. And that was just the blokes. The women: oh such radiance, such clouded weights of cashmere, such artfully shrobed pale coats. The group at the next table had ordered the wood pigeon, dark claw artfully attached; they might have come from Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. I felt like an orc amongst elves until a scramble through the crowded tables to the bathroom mirror showed that I too had been translated, into the gleaming, unlined self I could have been if only I’d had the sense to marry a banker.

And how they hopped, the chosen ones! How they shimmied gracefully between the servers, sharing a joke, an air kiss, a tip on a brutalist villa in Tulum. Somehow Dorian makes all its customers look and feel like players, to the extent that they could be serving Pop Tarts and the place would still be rammed, but the food is even better than the atmosphere.

Owner Chris D’Sylva opened the hugely successful Notting Hill Fish Shop and the Supermarket of Dreams before embarking on a restaurant. His first great strength is the quality of his suppliers. Fish, game and vegetables have equally impressive pedigrees, though mercifully one is not obliged to read about them.

Add that to a fantasy squad of staff including head chef Max Coen, formerly of Ikoyi and the three-star Frantzén in Sweden alongside barman Ale Villa, previously at Clare Smith’s three-star Core nearby and D’Sylva’s “bistro for locals” has set a new bar for London dining.

Dorian doesn’t offer a menu so much as a list of ingredients divided by portion size — how things are prepared is up to the kitchen on the Japanese principal of omakase, which essentially means “up to you”.

Dorian doesn’t offer a menu so much as a list of ingredients divided by portion size

Tiny potato rosti topped with crab or artichoke came crisp without and unctuous within (we ordered them three times), while the unprepossessingly-described “liver toast” appeared as a treble clef of velvety pate whose shy pallor concealed a dense thud of ferrous flavour.

A glistening, buttery slab of roast turbot came with nutty ratte potatoes, the pigeon in a sweetly intense wine sauce. Two salads, bluntly offered as “greens” and “winter tomatoes” would have been good enough as standalone mains; even better smooshed through the pigeon juices.

Dorian is not faultless, indeed it could be unbearably smug if it were not serving such skilful food. The acoustics are a bit tinny, the tables undersized and quickly crowded with plates and despite the claim to being an “anti-
Notting Hill” restaurant, the prices are unashamedly W11. In fact, they’ve obviously hired a pillock to write their press releases, since a “subversive, clandestine dinner destination” it emphatically is not.

However, these are quibbles when compared with D’Sylva’s truly fresh and innovative achievement. The demise of what used, wincingly, to be known as “fine dining” has had too much gleeful attention. While it’s true that both gastronomic theatrics and hushed formality feel tired, few recent openings have managed to attain the sweet spot between impressive modern cooking and conviviality. Dorian proves that it’s possible to serve properly stellar food without tweezered piles of prinky nonsense or hectoring customers into self-conscious whispering.

Dorian is not faultless, indeed it could be unbearably smug if it were not serving such skilful food

This was the space occupied so successfully for decades by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King until the accountants ate the Wolseley; impeccable food, unfussy yet accomplished service, a sense of luxury without pretension. Yet Dorian’s kitchen is working at a much higher level than offering the reliably delicious. There is a boldness, flair and polish here which sings above the unassuming presentation.

Unsurprisingly the place was rammed, though there is an admirable policy of keeping back some tables for neighbours, who are also welcome to bring their own wine to be sold on with a cut for the house.

And yes, there were £3,000 bottles casually produced from tote bags, the necessary brush of scuro against such abundant chiaro. D’Sylva understands his customers very, very well and Dorian is none the worse for it.

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