After a decade behind the stove at Aubergine in Chelsea, chefs' chef Billy Drabble has exported his high standards to a sister site in Marlow on Thames. Tom Vaughan reports
Recognised by those in the know for maintaining the level set during Gordon Ramsay's tenure at Aubergine this past decade, there's little surprise in the news that executive chef Billy Drabble has transferred these high standards to the newly opened Aubergine at the Macdonald Compleat Angler hotel in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
What does come as a surprise is that, in a year of high-profile late openings - Soho's Bob Bob Ricard and Bucco di Lupo, to name but two - Aubergine was up and cooking just two months after holding company London Fine Dining signed the lease.
Headed up by Drabble's former sous chef at the Chelsea Aubergine, Miles Nixon, the first-team players are also alumni of the London site, such as restaurant manager Matteo Scarabozzi. The five-strong, mainly east European kitchen team, however, were recruited in the two-month set-up period.
The menus run very much in tandem, with Nixon assembling Drabble's dishes by proxy. The simple French cuisine applied to high-end produce that marks Drabble's cooking is replicated in Marlow but, with lower overheads and the need to compete in a restaurant-heavy town, £10 is shaved off the menus compared with Chelsea, with two courses down to £45, three courses to £55 and the tasting menu to £65.
However, the different price point doesn't dilute the preference for luxury, and Aubergine's tasting menu is a masterclass in bringing the best out of well sourced top-end produce. Dishes such as lobster tortellini with cauliflower purée and truffle butter sauce, and seared foie gras with marinated figs are perfect examples. No white fish is added to the lobster mousse inside the tortellini, just cream and butter, while the shell and bones are simmered down to make a lobster stock for the sauce. The wine pairing is with a sublime Domaine Milan 2002, a biodynamic white from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Even simpler than the lobster is the foie gras dish, which avoids the temptation to parfait or disguise the star ingredient and, rather, offers it pan-fried with marinated figs and a glass of the sweet but not overpowering Banyuls Sept Ans from Clos Saint-André in Roussillon.
The main difference between London and Marlow, says Nixon, is the custom of a more learned breed of foodie. While Londoners might shy away from, say, crispy pig head, roasted langoustines, shallot and caper dressing, or the lunch menu dish of pike quenelles, the older, more adventurous Thames Valley residents are eager to experiment.
The slightly decadent dinner menu - most dishes are given added luxury, be it with scallops, langoustines, John Dory or lobster - is tempered for lunch. The simple treatment of good ingredients remains, but in comes more cost-effective produce, allowing the kitchen to hit GP on the price of £28.50 for three courses. Pollack fillet is served with beurre noisette, lemon parsley and capers shoulder of beef is braised in red wine with root vegetables and banana tarte tatin comes with walnut praline ice-cream.
While Nixon is hoping to source game from a local shoot and dig out other local suppliers - Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery, for example - a lot of the produce still comes from the same suppliers as the Chelsea site. Channel Fisheries provides the seafood and Cornvale Foods the meat, including some of the finest lamb Nixon claims to have tasted. He serves it on the tasting menu with a fondant potato cooked and sealed in lamb fat, garlic purée and a slice of lamb's tongue.
There's a lot to be taken from the operational side of the new Aubergine. The superlative French cuisine from Nixon's kitchen is just one part of its success. Touches like the daily roast from the carving trolley the balance between expense and luxury the simple, well executed dishes - the seared foie gras is a lesson in the art of respecting ingredients and not overloading the kitchen with prep - and the business acumen in differentiating between lunch and dinner customers all play a part in making Aubergine a welcome addition to a foodie town.
Aubergine at the Compleat Angler, Marlow, Buckinghamshire SL7 1RG. Tel: 01628 405405. Website: www.auberginemarlow.com
What's on the menu
● Pan-fried red mullet , caramelised fennel, orange and tarragon
● Snails braised in red wine, with root vegetables and bacon
● Boudin of wood pigeon
caramelised turnip, Madeira jus
● Fillets of John Dory, fricassée of girolles and watercress
● Roasted fillet of sea bass, braised Jerusalem artichokes, parsley purée, red wine reduction
● Breast of mallard, confit leg, foie gras and Madeira
● Bramley apple mousse with a blackberry
● Clementine soufflé, dark chocolate sauce
● Piña Colada bavarois with poached pineapple