A year after opening Chiltern Firehouse is still on everyone’s bucket list. It’s still the place to be seen, and it’s still just as difficult to get a table.
André Balazs’ properties tend to have this in common. He’s found the formula for generating the hottest places in town, attracting the well-heeled and far-famed like moths to a flame, and has watched his empire grow with rip-roaring success. Chiltern Firehouse is no different. It’s been ablaze ever since the hotelier turned his attention to London and transformed Marylebone’s beautiful old fire station into the most happening spot in West London.
It’s created such a buzz that the building’s gates seem permanently besieged by the paparazzi. As such it’s never out of focus for too long. Its popularity amongst the great and the good means that unless you’re Joan Collins celebrating her recent damehood (she was hosting American pals on the big table next to us), you’re unlikely to get a booking unless you beg on your hands and knees weeks in advance.
But once inside, you’d be forgiven for slipping into celebrity mode yourself. You’re hosed down with equal quantities of charm and bubbly; plied with cordiality until you’re enquiring into a room for the night – there’s none for you, fool.
The food ceases to matter because your rubbing shoulders with an A-lister has you unduly excited. You just have to let people know you’re there. A shameless selfie in the toilet mirror defaced with the trifling phrases ‘Cigarettes and Men’ and ‘Wine and Women’ becomes the priority. If your feeling less egocentric, a snap of the table’s kissing dog’s – their distinctive salt and pepper pots are canoodling canines – offers a more cryptic, but no less deliberate clue to one’s whereabouts when plastered on Instagram.
So what comes out of the kitchen? Other than little crab doughnuts, which have made a name for themselves on social media as that kind of pretty, girlie, finger-friendly snack that lends itself nicely to hashtags, does anyone really know? We’re all familiar with who stumbles out of the exclusive Laddershed club on a Friday night, but Nuno Mendes’ food dished up some brilliant surprises.
To go with the doughnuts, venison rolls kissed with a smoky ketchup and cornbread fingers poked in sweet chipotle butter delivered comfort by the barrel-load. Likewise, other starters were totally familiar but rehabilitated into something better than expected. Steak tartare came with with a myriad of finely diced trimmings and an egg yolk, waiting to be mixed Japanese-style with two wooden paddles. It’s crisp breads and fiery hot sauce added texture and punch. A good Cesar salad finished, a near perfect spread.
Chargrilled Iberico pork was enthusiastically received and gilt head bream with romanesco was extraordinary considering it promised very little in writing. A slightly underwhelming bowl of lobster noodles was the only dish that didn’t wow – the plated mains were much more appealing – but it was perfectly fine with plenty of chilli heat.
Abundantly sweet desserts of milk and honey and key lime pie were just two of several reinvented staples on the pudding menu. But what really shone were the recommended sweet wines – discoveries the sommelier gladly noted down.
Although the quality of the food was a pleasant surprise, it was a trifle in comparison to everything else – the game of celebrity safari, the pouting and the coquetry, the army of immaculate waiting staff, the simmering ambiance and its exclusive air.
The room itself is stunning. The Paris design company, Studio KO, has done a brilliant job on the room. Its pristine mismatch of styles and array of nic-nacs give it a relaxed, living-room feel that glows with warmth as if digitally filtered in Valencia (you Instagrammers will know what I mean). And the people are just as beautiful. You’d like to think you’re one of them. If you are, take a picture in one of the many mirrors that amplify the dining room. If you aren’t, the kissing dogs will do just fine.