I got myself in a bit of a predicament earlier this month. It was my mom’s 60th birthday and we were spending it in beautiful (and terribly expensive) London. We had booked ourselves into the Thistle Marble Arch hotel for a couple of nights and were busying ourselves taking in the sights and sounds of London.
Naturally, for me, this included taking in some food and some drink as well and I’m happy to report that British food culture, or London food culture at the very least, was a lot more interesting and diverse than tourists sometimes give it credit for.
But it was also the London food culture, that momentarily had me in a world of worries…
See, on the night before my mom’s big day, possibly under the influence of half a decent bottle of wine, I made the promise that I’d take her out for dinner on the evening of her birthday, you know, to celebrate the big 6-0.
Now, I probably know a thing or two about food and fine dining, but I knew absolutely nothing about the London dining scene and here I was with half a day in which to find a good spot to eat, no idea of where to start, a budget of around £200 and a mom who may not be a fan of haute cuisine but had still taken my invitation to mean something along the lines of “I’m going to take you somewhere really nice, sort of posh and quite special!”
In other words: my task was to find a nice, special place with good reviews and a lavish yet not outrageous menu that would offer top quality food while not being Michelin-star expensive, and have an open time slot the very next evening… And I’d have to find that place before the end of the night as we were heading out to see the town first thing in the morning. No pressure, right? Whatever was a boy to do?
With a little help from my friends… at Tripadvisor.com!
Well, I did what I always do in these sort of situations. I fired up my trusty Tripadvisor app, also known as my favorite companion for finding good eats or drinks in strange, far-away lands or cities. I then fed the search function with my criteria: highly rated, reasonably affordable restaurant within walking distance of Marble Arch, London… And came up with about a couple of thousand results, of which I browsed maybe hundred, deciding that I could either not afford them, they were fully booked or, in most cases, both of the above. After a while, I simply gave up, went to bed, slept a million miles an hour and woke up well before the alarm clock went off on the morning of my mum’s birthday.
Following my utterly embarrassing defeat the night before, I decided first thing in the morning (after an in-room espresso) to give it another shot, fired up Tripadvisor again and stumbled within seconds upon a listing for Picture; #81 out of 17,193 restaurants in London according to Tripadvisor users, recommended by Guide Michelin and located a convenient 1.2 kilometers from Marble Arch. “Huh,” I thought while browsing the overwhelmingly positive reviews spinning tales of tasty, beautiful and affordable dishes to locate the Find table button. When I located it, I was astonished to find out that not only could I indeed get a table for the night, I could also get a web special promo offering a six-course tasting menu and a Champagne cocktail for £35 per person. No, you read that correctly, six courses at a Michelin-recommended restaurant in central London for £35!
The drawbacks, you ask? Well, unless you really want to count the earliest available time slot being 9:30 PM as a major drawback, there were none! Needless to say, I clicked book in a millisecond, made myself another espresso and then headed out to meet the day with a sense of fear and wonder…
We were in a crazy expensive town after all, could a £35 pp tasting menu really be worth sinking your teeth into? To find out we need to fast forward a few hours…
Picture: First impressions
My mum and I arrived at Picture on foot at around 9:25 PM. Aside from the lighted sign above the door, and the large street-facing windows offering a glance inside, the place made little impact from the outside where it laid nestled amongst the endless array of offices, shops and residential buildings of Great Portland Street. A quick look inside revealed, though, that despite the relative late hour, the place was absolutely buzzing.
Once inside, Picture takes the shape of a long, narrow dining room with much of the space taken up by the long bar counter and a plethora of small tables strewn across the rest of the space. The look and feel is laid back, urban, hip and young with a potpourri of beats and lounge music playing notably but not too loud. Luckily, though, it wasn’t the sort of young and hip to make my mother at the ripe age of 60 years young feel out of place. With the limited space available, the kitchen – interestingly and fortunately enough – is located in the basement and food is transported to the wait staff upstairs by way of dumbwaiter. This robs you of the open kitchen dining experience but opens up much needed space for bar guests, diners and staff to scurry around.
Speaking of staff, we were welcomed by one of the overall warmest, most welcoming and attentive bunch of people I have ever met. They were young, humorous and smiling, leaving no doubt that they absolutely loved what they were doing and wanted to do their utmost to please and impress, even at the relatively late hour we arrived at. From the charming and chatty maître d enquiring about our time in London and telling tales about his three-year stay in Copenhagen and poor Danish skills, over our smiling female waiter to the young girls who cleared our plates and kept our cups replenished and cutlery in place, the service was pretty much impeccable and as friendly as could be.
How impeccable? Well, tell you what… Most places with tasting menus will politely and discretely ask you about any possible allergies to be aware of when preparing your food so that they may make substitutions. At Picture the corresponding question was “could we please know if there is anything on the menu that you can’t have, or do not particularly care for, so that we may make substitutions?”
How kind of you to ask: Restaurants don’t just ask you about preferences and allergies as a courtesy. Food allergies can actually be very serious business as became evident during my visit to Munich’s Rilano no. 6 where not asking nearly killed an unfortunate co-diner of mine.
And if that’s not service for you, how about this: When I asked our waiter if she could recommend a white wine from their wine menu that would go well with most of the menu, she not only asked a few follow-up questions to pinpoint my taste, she also made an expert recommendation – after which she excused herself to go pour me a half glass of the wine in question so that I might have a sip before shelling out the otherwise more than reasonable £24 asking price for the entire bottle.
Her recommendation, by the way, was spot on containing everything I look for in a young Sauvignon Blanc and did a damn good job matching most of the diverse flavors of the tasting menu to follow. Oh, speaking of which, let’s have a look at the menu which started rolling in not long after we took our seats and ordered our wine.
Off we go: Bready bites!
Bread has become pretty much the go-to appetizer of restaurants around the world. And Picture, as you may have guessed, is no exception. Here the bread comes in the shape of baguettes which has also been done before, but what hasn’t been done quite as often before is the size of the baguettes: At Picture, we were served perfectly proportioned, crusty mini baguettes made from sourdough and served with a spread of cream cheese. They were crusty and chewy as proper baguettes should be, but less than a tenth of the size of a regular baguette meaning that you could comfortably eat the entire thing without committing the rookie mistake of filling up on bread before your meal.
With our miniature baguettes, we were served a beautifully crafted Champagne cocktail laced with citrus and sporting a single floating, edible flower per flute.
The pairing of the slightly sweet yet tart and fizzy cocktail with the yeasty bread and cream cheese confused me a little to tell the truth, but each were delicious on their own. I couldn’t quite figure out if we were supposed to have drunk the cocktail before the appetizer, but with the rapid succession of dishes and a bottle of wine to share between us, that seemed a pretty hazardous idea. Either way, I didn’t have time to wonder much as distraction soon arrived in the shape of the first real dish of the evening.
First course: Chilled red pepper soup
One thing to note about Picture, if you’re one of those idiots that enjoys snapping pictures of everything you eat, is that the light (or lack thereof) isn’t particularly suited for iPhone 4S photography, so you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that this dish tasted a lot better than it looks.
A rich, very creamy red pepper soup spiced up with a bit of heat and cumin served chilled in a shot glass. In style and shape it sort of reminded me of a French summer favorite of mine, Vichyssoise, but with a lot more character and slightly spicy heat to match the change in weather we are unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look on it) starting to see. Moving with the seasons, brilliant, I like that! And I liked the two warming mouthfuls of peppery brilliance that the first course provided, though they were pretty quickly overshadowed by what arrived at our table seconds later…
Second course: Tenderstem broccoli, plum tomatoes, goat’s curd and capers
I’ll be honest here, for the two of you who hadn’t already deducted so from following this blog: I’m a passionate meat eater! I like vegetables as much as the next guy, I think they make great sides for the star player of any dish; meat! Strictly vegetarian dishes? I normally wouldn’t dream of ordering them… But maybe I should! The second serving at Picture was not only strictly vegetarian, it was also one of the major highlights of the evening!
On a sweet, tangy, salty bed of chopped wine-ripened plum tomatoes mixed with capers and herbs, we were served perfectly grilled and ridiculously tasty baby florets of tenderstem broccoli, topped with crispy and remarkably thin crouton flakes to add a bit of contrast and crunch to the otherwise soft textures of the dish. To offset the general tangy flavor profile of the dish, a scoop of fresh, creamy goat’s curd had been added for to provide a soothing, milky creaminess. These un-aged curds, interestingly enough, had none of the twang that is oh so typical of goat’s cheese but rather served to create balance by offering a soothing contrast to the intense and tangy flavors of the generously seasoned tomato components of the dish.
It was this perfect balance of textures and flavors that served to reveal and underline the true concept and silent brilliance behind Picture and their £35 tasting menu: That exceptionally tasty and nuanced dishes can be made using few, relatively simple and relatively affordable ingredients – as long as these ingredients are of absolute top quality, treated just right, seasoned well and combined in new and interesting ways… And some concept it is. I mean, if you have a passionate meat eater singing the praise of a vegetarian dish, you’re doing something right, inexpensive ingredients or not.
Still, a man does not survive on vegetables alone, and I was pretty happy to see the next dish landing in front of us containing a bit of meat.
Third dish: Lightly smoked pork cheek, toasted bulgar wheat, beet root and endive
I’d be hard pressed to find a cut of pork I love more than the cheeks! Belly? Maybe, if cooked correctly. Shoulder? Possibly, but usually overrated. You can keep your tenderloin and your chops, for all I care. No, if you ask me, nothing really beats the incredible tenderness and flavor you get from the largely overlooked and extremely affordable part of the critter that is the cheek. But then again, I do have a fascination with odd cuts which probably goes to explain why I was practically jumping for joy in my seat when our third dish of the evening arrived while my dear mother who had never had cheek in any way, sort or shape before remained a little more silent and skeptical.
Her skepticism, however, quickly turned to wonder and pure enjoyment as she had her first taste of the wonderful, succulent, tender, smoky and spicy cube of pork cheek that was the star player of the plate. Within seconds, she, too, was a fan. The spicy and smoky pork was served on a bed of toasted, nutty bulgar wheat that looked like some poor soul had actually spent quite some time and a pair of tweezers arranging it in a seemingly random pattern. Joining the mix were flavorful micro greens, sweet baked beet roots, a beet root reduction and a couple of crispy endive salad leaves. Another small work of art in terms of composition and taste.
Now, I’m not entirely sure how lightly smoked the pork shoulder was as the smoke flavor was quite dominant, but then again, I like me some smoke so who am I to complain when there’s fall-apart tender smoked pork on the menu? I’d be a sucker to complain any way. This was, quite simply put, another little masterpiece in terms of composition and balance: The meaty, fatty and foremost smoky flavors of the pork cheek was perfectly kept in check by the sweetness of the roasted beet root, while the endive (an exceedingly bitter leafy salad) added a bit of crunch and a much needed punch of bitterness. In a strange kind of way, the dish as a whole reminded me of some of the better BBQ I so enjoyed on my Summer trip through Dixie, only about a million times more complex and a lot more reasonably proportioned.
Fourth dish: Sea bream, puy lentils, fennel, white turnips and dill
I don’t know if it’s the viking influence still shining through (probably not), but the fourth dish of the evening combined two things that Scandinavians love: dill and seafood. Not in the way that Scandinavians usually do, by combining dill with either crustaceans or cured salmon, but rather by infusing dill flavor into tender cubes of turnips and using it as a bed for a steamed filet of sea bream along with my absolute favorite from the world of lentils, the French green goddess, Puy lentils. Joining the party was a bit of what looked like pea purée
If it all sounds a little weird, it’s probably because it was. Yet somehow it still came together as an enjoyable experience. They take gambles and toss things up at Picture, and apparently it usually pays off. In the case of this dish, the dill flavor was mild and not too overpowering and blended well with the sweetness of the white turnips and earthiness of the lentils. The sea bream, while a couple of seconds overcooked, was moist, flavorful and plentiful.
However, with this, the fourth dish, we saw the first and some of the only flaws of the evening. My mother and I both agreed that while wonderfully tasty and cooked nearly to perfection, the sea bream portion was simply a little too large. Also, my filet had broken apart during cooking and was served broken up in two pieces which kind of ruined an otherwise beautiful presentation. In a perfect world (and in a much less affordable setting), the latter should not have happened, but as part of a £35 tasting menu, I couldn’t complain. What I’m really trying to say here is that during our visit, the mistakes were so few and so far between that even little things such as these stuck out. To put it quite honestly, by this stage of the meal, I was seriously starting to wonder why this place wasn’t rated even higher amongst casual diners, reviewers and the powers that be.
And then they went and completely blew me away…
Fifth dish: 28 day dry-aged beef, Swiss chard, carrot and cumin
Now, in case you hadn’t figured it out from my introduction above, let me just once and for all point out that Picture is a pretty buzzing place: there’s music, there are people, there’s drinking and there’s laughter. It’s a wonderful cacophony, but it also makes it hard to pick up conversation, so when our lovely waitress showed up to properly introduce the main course, all I picked up was the tall tale being related by a vocal young man sitting next to me.
So, yeah, I ate a main course at a Michelin-recommended restaurant without knowing the details or really being able to pick them out. I know it’s gonna cost me some street credit, but I might as well go out on record and admit it: I had no idea what I was eating here other than what the description on the menu said and the fact that it was one of the best things I had eaten in ages.
The beef, whichever cut it may have been (hanger steak?), was red and juicy and bursting with flavor to a point where it nearly knocked me backwards in my seat while every other element of the dish, even the Swiss chard, was dripping with umami flavors which helped elevate the beefy flavors of the steak and the intensely reduced sauce to entirely new levels. The carrot element of the dish, on the other hand, was made up by a beautiful yellow heirloom variety that was prepared both perfectly sautéed, and as a purée. Both incarnations had been lightly infused with cumin for a strange, new but not at all unpleasant earthy and perfumed note. Strange, but wonderful. The sauce that covered every element of the dish? To die for. That is all.
To compliment the beef, I offered a couple of glasses of red wine from the excellent wines by the glass section of the wine list: A beautiful, flavorful deep red from the Puglia region of Italy which, at around £5 per glass was about as mind-numbingly affordable as everything else on the menu.
Consuming this dish, by the way, helped further intensity one prejudice I hold against Brits: they love knives! Instead of just any old steak knife, we were offered quality Laguiole knives for our steak – just as we had the night before at another establishment. And while I have always thought of this as a bit of a gimmick, the sharp knives actually came in handy this time as the beef was definitely a lot more flavorful than it was tender. I don’t mind sacrificing tenderness for flavor, but when about a fourth of your serving is made up of tough, inedible silver skin, I’m just not going to be an entirely happy camper, no matter how flavorful the dish.
So shame on you for that one, Picture. Luckily, you more than made up for your mistake minutes later.
Sixth dish: Selection of British cheeses
At this point in the meal, our smiling waitress came up to ask if we would care for cheese before our desserts. Faced with the dilemma that tasting menus often bring, I had no choice but to tell her straight up: “We’d love to,” I said, “but I think we’re just too damn full!” – “Oh, no problem,” she smiled, “we can trade out your desserts for cheese if you’d like?” – “We’d like!” I said, to which she nodded, smiled and left.
A few minutes later, she returned bearing a wooden cutting board containing three samples of soft, creamy and perfectly tempered cheeses from around the UK: a brie from England, an Irish cheddar and a Scottish blue. All were wonderful and full of taste in their own little ways and I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed dining at places that have the confidence to chose bold and flavorful local cheeses over the much easier choices of imported European ones. That being said, being from a proud cheese-producing nation myself, I’d probably be lying (as well as committing some sort of national treason) if I said I didn’t have a better cheese tray at the hands of the Lieffroys back home in jolly, little Denmark.
At any rate, I didn’t have much time to contemplate the differences in quality between Danish and UK cheeses because mere minutes into our cheese-eating experience, the bomb dropped.
Seventh course: Chocolate mousse, English blackberries, peanut butter cream
That’s when, literally out of the blue, the maître d arrived at my mom’s side carrying a single, generous serving off the dessert menu: a decadent chocolate mousse and peanut butter cream combination on top of which sat a single lighted candle.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, kneeling down and placing the dish in front of her, “we just wanted to wish you the happiest birthday on this your 60th, and thank you for celebrating it with us.” – “I, uh, thank you,” she stammered in response, visibly moved. – “Hah, gotcha!” I cried gleefully. – “Excuse me,” said the young bloke at the next table loudly, patting me on the shoulder, “are you not even going to sing happy birthday to her?” – “As a matter of fact I am,” I said, “and I will! And you’re all gonna help me!” – “Of course we are,” he said cheerfully… and just like that one of London’s Michelin-recommended restaurants, guests and staff alike, broke into an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” followed by cheering and clapping and a teary-eyed mom rising to take a bow.
“I guess it pays off to tell them you’re celebrating a birthday when booking,” I said as the noise finally died down again. “You got me there,” said my mother, piling half of her extra dessert onto my plate. As it turned out, apparently you can’t not have dessert on your 60th birthday and the staff at Picture had take it upon themselves to show us the error of our ways. All while showing a bit of extra warmth and courtesy towards their guests. Most moving.
How was said dessert, then? Well, the food critic in me would want to say that it was too heavy and that the combination of chocolate mousse and peanut butter was a little too much. The newly awakened happy child within me, though, wanted to say that the chocolate mousse tasted exactly like the one my now 92 year-old grandmother used to make and that peanut butter is a gift from the Gods! My final verdict is probably somewhere in-between. While incredibly heavy and lacking a bit of freshness and acidity to cut through it all, the dessert was indeed tasty, it reminded me of childhood dinners and my gran’s cooking, and it was served with a candle, a smile and a song.. Those few factors alone make it one of the most memorable desserts in recent history before even taking into consideration minor details such as composition, appearance and taste.
We tend to forget, on the gastronomic level I sometimes frequent, that food is first and foremost about emotions and not only flavors and composition. Picture, on this evening, reminded me of that and for that I thank them. While heavy and over the top, it had been a most perfect ending to a nearly perfect meal. As the clock approached midnight and every party but ours broke up and headed out, making sure to wish my mom a happy birthday as they did, we finished whatever little bits of pieces of our double desserts we could manage and eventually threw in the towel. We then finished up our wines, paid the bill, said our goodbyes to the wonderful staff, kindly declined the offered taxi and walked back into the warm London midnight air: full, happy, slightly tipsy and completely overwhelmed ready for our 1.2 kilometer stroll back to the hotel to digest the experience.
Yes, you apparently can get a six-course £35 tasting menu in London And not only that, if you opt for the one at Picture, it’s quite good indeed!
In conclusion: Stars within reach?
Picture blends great eats and great drinks with great attitude and playfulness in lush and trendy surroundings. Using affordable ingredients, a lot of passion and a willingness to play around and experiment, they create flavorful bites and strange yet appealing creations that sound and look anything but affordable. These creations are served up by a friendly and evidently passionate staff who go out of their way to help and please in a manner that most restaurateurs wonld give their right hand for.
I’ve been lucky enough to dine at a lot of top restaurants around the world in the last few years, some Michelin-recommended, some Michelin-starred others just “plain” gourmet restaurants. All have been mostly amazing experiences in their own little ways, but with some of them I have, quite honestly, caught myself thinking that maybe the good folks at Guide Michelin had dropped a star or a recommendation by accident. With Picture it’s sort of the other way around. Picture is very, very worthy of its recommendation and the mistakes committed here are few and far between. They become noticeable only because the general level of excellence is incredibly high, yet you tend to sort of look the other way when small mishaps happen simply because the price is right, the spirit and intentions are there and everybody from front to back are doing their damned best.
The Michelin system leaves no room for mistakes, of course, and that might well be why Picture is not quite ready for a star yet. But they could be in the future. These guys are going places and the spirit is there. Should they keep up the good work (as I’m sure they will), clear out a bit of the confusion and minuscule mistakes, and work a little harder still with their plating and attention to detail, I would not be surprised if London had a new star (in the Guide Michelin, that is) within a few years.
Whether or not that will happen, one thing is certain: You’d be very, very hard pressed to find a better deal than the £35 tasting menu at Picture – in London or in any other citiy in the world. We were treated to six courses each, two Champagne cocktails, a bottle of white wine, two glasses of red and a complimentary dessert – all for £117 – gratuity included! How’s that for value?
For this fact alone, and the fact that they gave my mother, in her own words, her best birthday ever. I have no problems what-so-ever giving Picture Restaurant my highest recommendations. If better value for money exists, anywhere, then by all means show me!
Thank you, guys, for making my mum’s 60th a truly memorable experience!