I’ve been meaning to visit Theo Randall at the InterContinental for ages now. He’s been sitting on my list and every week I’ve looked and thought “hmmm yes . . . absolutely”. Randall’s a diffident chap who doesn’t appear on many lists of “celebrity” chefs, but each week it crosses my mind that here’s a guy who pre-dates all the madness.
Our present Food Renaissance kicks off around the turn of the century, when Gordon and Jamie first popped on to our screens, all flashing knives and enthusiasm, but we forget that by then, Randall was already head chef at The River Cafe. He had joined in 1989, risen through the ranks, created many of the dishes that made it one of the most significant restaurants in the history of UK hospitality, spent a year working at Chez Panisse in California and then come back as partner in the business to train the promising apprentice, Jamie Oliver.
In 2007, Randall quit to set up on his own at The InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane, and he’s still there. I don’t mean the restaurant, I mean him, Theo, the bloke himself. Still in the kitchen, leading a fresh-faced young brigade, personally plating your dinner and showing every sign of being happy to be doing so.
To be honest, I don’t really know where to go with that. It’s completely humbling. I mean, it shouldn’t be a shock to see such an important chef still loving to cook, but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty astonishing. It’s like booking months in advance to get into a David Hockney exhibition and finding the guy sitting on a stool in the corner of the gallery, cheerfully knocking out paintings for the crowd.
It was one of those menus where you want everything, but the first thing that jumped off the page and grabbed me by the throat was “Sformato di fontina. Baked fontina cheese soufflé with Italian spinach, cream and Parmesan 590kcal” (sic).
Oh yes. Precisely that. I finally got to Randall’s the day the new calorie-labelling regulations landed. Just let that sink in for a second. I’d spent months getting here, thinking about the pleasure, considering the kind of thing I’d order. I’d skipped breakfast. I’d got there, sat down, been drawn naturally to a baked cheese soufflé in a cream and cheese sauce. Does anyone, anywhere, honestly think I give a monkey’s about the calorific value?
It tasted exactly as good as it sounds. No . . . better. There’s no way you could describe, in the confines of a menu, precisely how good the insubstantial mousse of the soufflé was, bound to the earth by the rich cloak of cream. The shamelessness of their union, the delicacy of Randall’s touch — 590kcal, my arse! If it had been 10 times that I’d have eaten half, paused to call for a defibrillator and gone back in with a song on my lips.
Tartare di tonno with pangrattato, chopped rocket, capers and Amalfi lemons frankly seemed an absolute steal at 145kcal, so I had one of those as well, and I’m glad I did. The tuna was dressed with restraint, topped with a flurry of fresh leaves and sat on a substantial base of pangrattato — like a cheesecake on biscuit crumbs, but he’d somehow kept it crunchy. It sounds like a tiny detail, literally “turning the dish upside down”, but caring that much about the texture, and having the skill to make it happen, marks a cook who’s still firing on every creative synapse after decades at the pans.
Risotto di mare with clams, sea bass, mussels, prawns, tomatoes, chilli and parsley was worth every one of its 315kcal, pulling off that very rural Italian trick of making a simple starch taste as sophisticated as cream by the manipulation of texture. But fishy bits ennobled it, floated through it like jewels, each distinct in flavour. Filetto di manzo wrapped in coppa di Parma with Amarone sauce had a touch of Il Gattopardo about it. A great, brown, meaty set piece. Very fin de siècle. Very decadent. There was salsa verde, you know, for health, but I wonder what Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa would have made of the gutless protestation of “515kcal”.
As I have made absolutely clear previously in this column, if there is a lemon tart with crème fraîche on the menu, I’m having it. As God is my witness, Randall’s was the finest one I’ve had, but I don’t want you to feel short-changed (and it was only 274kcal), so I plunged back in, fearlessly, and spent my last 646kcal — on your behalf, dammit — on panna cotta with rhubarb poached in orange syrup and almond croccante. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You’re correct to observe that this is a well-worn combination of elements, but then you could say the same thing about the Aria da Capo from the Goldberg Variations and it doesn’t stop it being your favourite, and Randall plays it like Glenn Gould. Pure, clear and very obviously humming happily away throughout.
There’s one other thing you should know. These days, you have to be careful when writing about chefs in the public eye. You do a little informal “due diligence”, checking out whether someone is a tyrant, a loon, exploitative or just generally rotten. You ask around a bit just so you don’t run a gushing review the same weekend the chef ends up on the front page doing something unspeakable in the walk-in. I couldn’t find anybody in the industry with a bad word to say about Randall. Not a sniff. A thoroughgoingly nice bloke, talented and modest, who could retire from the pans any day, relaxed, respected and with an unimpeachable legacy in the history of British hospitality.
But fortunately for you, he won’t. He’ll be there tomorrow, an authentic food hero, banging out brilliant dishes for the crowd. I suggest you get down there. Quick.
Theo Randall at the InterContinental
1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane W1J 7QY; 0207 409 3131; theorandall.com
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