Playful, satisfying and occasionally baffling, there is lots to love at Emily Roux’s new restaurant
Having the name Roux hanging around your neck must be a mixed blessing. It’s terrifically handy, I’m sure, when you’re starting a new restaurant and want to attract attention, as Emily Roux, daughter of Michel Jr and grandchild of Albert, proved last October when unveiling Caractère in Notting Hill, west London. Still, the name Roux also means Le Gavroche in Mayfair, a dining spot that will be cited time and again by chefs and experts as not merely a restaurant, but therestaurant. Le Gavroche is a chintzy Mecca for stuffed shirts, and it’s catnip to moneyed baby boomers who want a real occasion that involves highfalutin but ultimately identifiable French classics – filet de boeuf, mousselline de homard – and impeccable, forlock-tugging service. These people will be disappointed by Caractère, however, because it offers neither of these things.
This Italian-French joint took the place of a branch of Bumpkin on a corner of Westbourne Park Grove, and has Brett Graham’s The Ledbury and Clare Smyth’s Core close at hand. But Caractère’s menu is set out in such an opaque manner – split into six sections marked “curious”, “subtle”, “delicate”, “robust”, “strong” and “greedy” – that the server immediately caves as he hands over the list, explaining which ones are starters, mains and puddings. He needs to, or else nobody would get fed. What makes a fancy braised leek tart or scallops on radicchio “curious”? Or roast jerusalem artichokes on beurre noisette “subtle”? And if you’re paying 11 quid for a bowl of chocolate pudding, do you really want to be called “greedy”?
Caractère is the only time in dining history that I’d have seized upon the waiter’s “Can I explain the concept?”, had it been offered, with great glee and purely for the ride. People with English literature MAs specialising in magical realism could not decipher this “concept”. Even so, those jerusalem artichokes are utterly delicious, served on a pureed patch of their own innards with slivers of hibiscus flower and a crisp layer of compressed wild rice. Chef Diego Ferrari, the other half of both Caractère and Emily Roux, and a man with a name like a heartbreaking polo player in a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster, was head chef at Le Gavroche for three years. It is beyond doubt that he can cook but, more than that, he is some sort of zen master of flavour. These two things are not mutually exclusive in pricey restaurant world. Emily’s dad’s Roux at the Landau left me as cold as a sorbet after a succession of sous vide-tormented items in consommé were delivered with multi-bodied fanfare.
Caractère, however, is much more of a trip, a place where Ferrari has thrown off the fine-dining shackles and started serving a playful, satisfying bale of cacio e pepe “pasta” formed from celeriac. (So playful, in fact, that I read a great online kvetching session in which one diner moans that his pasta was far too al dente.) Before that, lest I forget, came a pre-dinner, complimentary “snack” of a mock Bourbon biscuit – larger, slightly salty, embossed with the word “bourbon” and piped with sardine paste. It was the culinary exploration that literally no one with tastebuds was crying out for. Not delicious, yet not wholly offensive, leaving one rather proud of one’s inner mettle for finishing it.
I had no such uncertainty about the perfectly sating marsala risotto made with acquarello rice – a type of aged carnaroli – and strewn with pink peppercorns. It’s a pink, wobbly blob on a plate, not dissimilar to something you’d see while flicking your TV remote past a show about surgery but, taste-wise, it’s quite breathtaking, with blobs of almondy praline and sticky, reduced wine.
There is lots to love at Caractère – even if the unisex bathroom means you have to powder your nose beside a steady flow of confused male Notting Hill old guard jumping out of their skin, double-checking the door and barking, “Is this toilet transsexual?” To which the only answer can be, “Yes, sir, it is presently identifying as genderqueer.” And even if the winelist gives a quick nod to £30 plonk, heads swiftly into the 75-quid range, before hurtling into £300-£400 territory.
Service was a car crash, though: dinner took three hours, and that chocolate pudding arrived as I was taking out my contact lenses and applying Sunday Riley Luna Oil. We had fallen into that Arthur C Clarke Mysterious World of diner invisibility, and I was still begging for the bill as the kitchen staff donned anoraks and left via the front door. This Roux joint is not Le Gavroche, and it has a caractère all of its own. Like its starters, I remain curious.
• Caractère 209 Westbourne Park Road, London W11, 020-8181 3850. Open Tues-Sat, noon-2pm, 6.15-9.45pm. About £55 a head à la carte, tasting menu £78, set lunch £39 for three courses, all plus drinks and service.
- Grace Dent’s restaurant reviews appear in the award-winning food magazine Feast, along with recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi and more top cooks, with the Guardian every Saturday.