Eating Out

Unobtrusively superlative

A quietly brilliant Chelsea staple where the food practically tap dances off the fork

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Putting fun festive activities aside for another year might come as a relief to many of us, but I’ve always enjoyed the Christmas holidays as an opportunity to catch up with what the youngs are into.

About a minute ago this seemed to involve setting up slightly risqué tableaux with Sylvanian families, but this year my teenage daughter and her cousins spent most of their time hilariously stalking their friends’ profiles on the Hinge dating app.

Hinge promises “impactful” hook ups, which sounded like something Uncle Badger might get up to with Mistress Mouse, until they explained that Hinge helps users along by providing conversation starters, just like the ones you still get in crackers. Sample prompts included “What do you do on Sundays?” and “If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?”

So apparently Gen Z interact by exchanging the kind of information provided as filler by minor celebrities in what’s left of the weekend newspapers.

Except obviously it would be desperately risky to offer an actual personal opinion, hence they use template responses from Chat GPT. At which point why bother being actually alive, I asked? If your phone is doing the flirting for you, what would you do in the event of meeting your fantasy dinner guest — set it to ask Timothée Chalamet his top three brunch items?

Obviously I don’t get it, but I feel that the threat of world overpopulation may have been greatly exaggerated. Until the last mineral components have been extracted by the wretched workforce of the Congo mines, this lot aren’t going to be doing anything more impactful IRL than pointing their devices at one another.

Plus, dinner guest dead or alive, what a horrible proposition. For a start, everyone always lies. No one really wants to have dinner with Virginia Woolf or Albert Einstein, and do we honestly imagine ourselves swapping dazzling quips with Oscar Wilde? Jane Austen would be slyly scribbling away under her napkin and by all accounts Marcel Proust could have lit his asthmatic’s cigarette off Bertrand Russell’s halitosis.

If, however, one were planning on hiding history’s top ten feet of clay beneath a table, I can think of no better place to do it than Elystan Street, which has been doing its quietly brilliant thing in Chelsea for the last seven years.

The restaurant was opened by Philip Howard and business partner Rebecca Mascarenhas when the former left one of London’s most influential restaurants, The Square, in 2016. Howard has been a discreetly heavy hitter throughout his cooking career, which began at Marco Pierre White’s epoch-defining Harvey’s before moving on to Bibendum under Simon Hopkinson. He won two Michelin stars for The Square and obtained another for Elystan Street within a year of opening. But despite successful books and television appearances, Howard’s focus has remained firmly on the stove.

I suspect he’d be lousy at app-based convos, since he’s a man with nothing to prove. Unobtrusively superlative is an almost impossible thing to pull off in a restaurant, but Elystan Street achieves it with a combination of flawless food and a space that makes everyone feel wittier and prettier.

Outside, it’s discreet and smartly unassuming, inside glowy, spacious and urbane. Someone has thought hard about the lighting and the distance between the tables, obviating crowded shoutiness but retaining a sense of neighbourhoody conviviality. It attracts a very mixed crowd, but they’re all the type of people you want to look twice at without quite knowing why.

We began with a thinly sliced haunch of venison with pickled walnut, rosehip reduction, turnip oil and a smoked truffle cream and a tartare of langoustine and Cornish bream with apple and lovage, both dishes mosaics of complex flavours that retained the pure sensory hit of the primary ingredients.

Chestnut gnochetti with a ragù of grouse, partridge, smoked bacon and sherry was an equally dashing blend — original in the description, but once tasted so obvious that they had been waiting for one another all their lives that they practically tap-danced off the fork.

Aged cheddar soufflé with melted leeks, button mushroom and truffle was exactly as unctuously perfect as it sounds, whilst Iberico pork with hispi leaves, potato cream, plum purée and hot honey was gloriously rich in contrasts, the varying levels of sweetness enveloping the bosky thrum of the meat.

That’s a lot of adjectives, but deservedly so, in that Elystan Street’s food is so sharply sophisticated yet so unassumingly generous that it’s worth investigating quite how it works so exceptionally well.

Perhaps it has something to do with the balance of talent between kitchen and service, but it feels like everything and everyone here is working hard to make eating here truly pleasurable.

Paring back the fussy conventions of that dread concept “fine dining” is only worth doing if what is spared is up to the job. That the food here is some of the best presently to be had in London is unarguable, but what makes Elystan Street so special is the harmony and confidence of the whole experience, one as far removed in its self-confidence from frantic and joyless attention seeking as a hand-written love letter from the slurpy emoji.

Elystan Street: 43 Elystan St, London SW3 3NT

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