Pop-up restaurants have become as much a part of the London dining scene as obscene salaries in the Premier League. But when a chef as iconic as Thomas Keller decides to “pop-up” at Harrods, it’s a whole different ball game.
With a £250 price tag for the food and everyone wondering whether the US chef is testing the London waters, it has been THE topic of conversation among food enthusiasts, restaurant critics and industry professionals alike.
How would Keller be able to translate his three-Michelin-starred restaurant nestled in the leafy Napa Valley in California to the gigantic department store in Knightsbridge? How would he be able to replicate his famous dishes so dependent on his US producers and indeed the French Laundry garden next door?
The French Laundry pop-up occupies a corner of Harrods' vast Georgian Restaurant on the fourth floor. A special bar area has been constructed featuring the façade of the original restaurant in Yountville, while the 70-seat dining room is draped in white net curtains closed off from the hustle and bustle of the busy store.
Next to a host of ingredients, fittings, fixtures and tableware have been flown in from the USA, as well as an army of staff from across the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, plus Keller alumni, including former Marcus Wareing head chef James Knappett (ex-Per Se) and pastry chef Claire Clark (ex-French Laundry).
Of course the food had to be a showcase of Keller’s signature classic French cuisine with that special American touch, perfectly portraying his philosophy and culinary ethos. “We wanted to feature a selection of dishes that represent us and some of our favourite purveyors,” explains Keller.
Things kick off with the French Laundry classic of salmon cornets as well as the Per Se signature gruyère gougères. These are followed by a selection of canapés, including a miniature BLT sandwich made up of braised pork belly, lettuce and truffle; and a freeze-dried baby tomato flown straight in from the French Laundry garden.
Then the serious dining begins, with Keller’s most celebrated dish, oysters and pearls, sabayon of pearl tapioca with Maldon oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar from Sacramento, California. “We had to have this dish on the menu. There’s no way we would’ve got away with not serving it,” Keller says.
His menu alternates between rich, indulgent dishes and lighter options, including a beautifully presented salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm, served with Medjool date, candied pili nuts and French Laundry garden carrots and red radish. A dish deeply rooted in classic French cuisine, it’s been reinvented by Keller, who sources the palm hearts from a sustainable farm in Hawaii, and has given it an exotic makeover by incorporating flavours of young coconut and Madras curry.
Prime Midwestern calotte de boef showcases a cut largely unknown in the UK, the cap of a prime rib cut. “For me this is the best cut of meat and after two years of working with my supplier [the Newport Meat Co] he now sells this separate to me,” Keller says. The meat – perfectly cooked medium rare – was served with braised brisket, black trumped mushrooms, sauce Bordelaise and pumpkins and fennel from the French Laundry garden.
A duo of desserts follows: the refreshing huckleberry sorbet – a blueberry indigenous to the US West coast – with huckleberry muffin and verbena; and the deliciously rich S'mores, a nod to the traditional campfire treat of roasted marshmallow and a layer of chocolate sandwiched between crackers. Keller’s much more complex concoction combined caramel delice, peanut butter pavé, Tahitian vanilla marshmallow, Graham cracker and popcorn sherbet.
Finally, the petits fours, entitled 'A Night at the Movies', are served on a UFO-like plate including a coca-cola-flavoured sweet, a crisp and root beer chocolate.
Keller is hailed as the top chef across the pond and his pop-up in London certainly proves why. His faultlessly executed menu at Harrods brilliantly exhibits his mantra of finesse. If he decides to follow up with a permanent restaurant, London will no doubt be the winner.
Oysters and Pearls
Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Maldon oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm
Medjool date, young coconut, carrots, red radish, candied pili nuts and Madras curry
Sacramento river sturgeon, razor clams, sweet corn, celeriac and applewood-smoked sturgeon bacon
Beets and Leeks
Sweet butter-poached Maine lobster, Heirloom beets, leek mousseline, la ratte potato and red beet essence
Poularde en Brioche
Moulard duck foie gras au torchon, warm sauternes gelee, Tokyo turnips, green apples and Périgord truffle coulis
Prime Midwestern Calotte de Boef
Langue de boef, braised brisket, black trumpet mushrooms, musquée de Provence pumpkin, fennel bulb and sauce bordelaise
Monte Cristo Sandwich
Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Iberico ham, garden figs and Noble maple syrup
Huckleberry muffin and verbena
Caramel delice, peanut butter pavé, Tahitan vanilla marshmallow, Graham cracker and popcorn sherbet
£250 per head
The French Laundry at Harrods runs until 10 October.