Phoebe French heads to Michelin-starred Alyn Williams at The Westbury for oysters and dill granita paired with Helles lager, and squab pigeon with beetroot ketchup accompanied by milk stout.
The concept: Housed within Mayfair’s Westbury Hotel, Alyn Williams opened his eponymous restaurant back in 2011. Just 10 months later it was awarded a Michelin star. Using classical French techniques, with influences from further afield, Williams has been praised by his contemporaries for his ability to marry flavours, whether they be delicate and subtle, or bold and intense.
From a first job as a trainee hairdresser, Williams has had stints at The Greenhouse, Zafferano, Chez Bruce, Pétrus and Claridge’s, working under the likes of Michel Perraud, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. He was was head chef for Wareing at Pétrus when it won its second Michelin star in 2007.
From day one, in addition to a classic tasting menu, wine pairing option and à la carte offering, Alyn Williams at The Westbury has proffered both a vegetarian menu and a tasting menu paired with beer. “You could say we were a bit ahead of our time,” Williams says, with a smile.
The use of seasonal produce, specifically vegetables, has particular potency for Williams. Growing up in the 1970s in east London, he was, unusually for the time, exposed to fresh, home-grown vegetables through his father, who served up dishes packed with fresh produce from two allotments and his back garden. Williams, however, credits his wife as being the main inspiration behind the meat-free menu. Being a vegetarian, at restaurants she often suffered as a result, with meat-free dishes often treated as an after-thought. Fast forward to 2011, Williams promised he would put vegetables front and centre at his restaurant.
Alyn Williams at The Westbury is also one of surprisingly few fine dining establishments in the UK to pay due attention to beer. Conducting regular tastings with the team to establish pairings, Williams initially enlisted the services of celebrated beer writer Melissa Cole to help with the restaurant’s selection. The beer list now features 24 different brews, with a strong showing from the UK.
The decor: Opened in 1955, The Westbury was the first luxury American-built hotel to grace the capital. Taking over a section of Mayfair that was badly bombed in the Second World War, it was the brainchild of the polo-playing Phipps family, who built the first Westbury in 1927 in New York City.
The restaurant itself is dominated by rosewood panelling, muted by the camel tones of the chair coverings and carpets. Alternating coloured mood lighting and Williams’ prized green, back-lit plantariums break up the brown theme. Undoubtedly the most dominant features in the room are the impressive floor-to-ceiling wine fridges that also function as room dividers, separating off a private dining area from the main restaurant.
While the restaurant interior is perhaps lacking in personality, both the food and service are anything but.
The food and drink: On my visit, we chose the classic tasting menu paired with a beers, which is priced £20 beneath that of the wine pairing option. Greeted by a warm loaf of brown soda bread, with two types of butter, the meal began with a trio of small dishes: a scallop and nori tartlet; oyster, creme fraiche, cucumber jelly and dill granita and glazed langoustine skewered on a twig, with fennel pollen mayonnaise.
Cleverly designed to increase in flavour intensity, the freshness of the granita proved the perfect palate cleaner for the scallop and nori tartlet, and the well-seasoned, sweet langoustine tail, skewered on a twig, and slathered in a light aniseed-flavoured mayonnaise. This was paired with an organic Helles lager from Staffordshire’s Freedom Brewery, which I initially thought would overwhelm the likes of the delicate oyster. Quite the opposite. The pairing turned out to be my favourite of the evening, with the acidity and fizz of the beer pairing, dare I say, better than the usual match of Chablis or Champagne.
The Cornish halibut, served with celeriac, onion, chicken jus and truffle slices was accompanied by Somerset’s Wild Beer Co.’s Sleeping Lemons – a gose beer with flavours of preserved lemon and salt. The tart beer cut through the rich sauce accompanying the fish, acting as additional seasoning. Also pairing well was the chicken leg, maitake mushroom and mushroom broth with Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA. The beer, which at 7.2% ABV is strong with a slight cloying sweetness on its own, matched well with the intense umami flavours of the dish.
One of Williams’ real strengths is the positioning of light, palate-cleansing dishes throughout the menu. The first came in the guise of a house salad, lifted with slices of preserved lemon and a clever, crispy potato mesh. This was matched with Brasserie Lefebvre’s Blanche de Bruxelles, a light wheat beer with flavours of orange and coriander. The second was a yoghurt sorbet, draped in a blood orange jelly shroud with hidden bursts of white chocolate – a welcome measure of acidity and freshness towards the end of the meal.
The final dish, entitled rhubarb and custard, featured sour slices of the vibrant pink stalks beneath custard, encased in crisp, sugared brick pastry. Both desserts were accompanied by Hawkes’ Dead and Berried mixed berry cider, produced in London’s Bermondsey. Made with strawberry, raspberry and blueberry, the cider provided the right degree of sweetness, but slightly overpowered the delicate rhubarb dish.
Signature dishes: Williams does not have any fixed dishes on his menu, but rather favoured ingredients that regularly make an appearance when in season – turnips being one such example.
The highlights of the tasting menu were the lobster tail, served with caviar and sauce Jacqueline – this version being an intense lobster sauce flavoured with carrot. Once again, with the addition of the caviar, which arrives served on ice in a restaurant branded tub, Williams uses an additional ingredient to create an extra flavour dimension. Our waiters advised us to mix the caviar into the sauce, the saline black pearls bursting in the mouth to temper the robust cream-based sauce. This was paired with Aberdeenshire’s Six ° North creamy Wanderlust Wheat beer, its mellow flavours complimenting rather than competing with the dish.
The second stand-out plate was the squab pigeon adorned with grape scales, served with roasted beetroot and glossy beetroot ketchup and accompanied by a miniature copper saucepan, filled with pommes soufflées. Paired with the Milkshake milk stout from Bristol’s Wiper and True, the powerful earthy accents of the pigeon and beetroot paired beautifully with the creamy, malty, chocolate and vanilla sweetness of the beer. The pommes soufflées, notoriously difficult to make, were wonderful, crunchy, salt-laden puffs that provided an extra textural quality to the dish.
Who to know: Known for his hospitality, it doesn’t matter who you know, or indeed who you are, at the Williams’ restaurant, everyone is treated well – a mantra his former-mentor, Gordon Ramsay, has championed for many years. Seven different members of staff, including Williams himself, waited on our table, each one providing a level of service that merited the cost of the food alone.
Don’t leave without: scooping every last bit of caviar out of the pot. It greatly amuses the staff, to the extent that they’ll even wash the pot out for you to take home as a keepsake…
Last word: Located within a hotel without its own on-street frontage, it can be easy to pass by Alyn Williams at The Westbury. To do so, however, would be a mistake.
The food is worthy of its Michelin star accolade, and the service turns a trip to the restaurant into a proper experience. With vegetarian menus all the rage, chefs are now starting to do what Williams has done for the past eight years. The beer pairing menu, Williams tells me, is popular, particularly at the weekends when several tables usually opt for it. Introducing fine dining to beer and well-thought through vegetarian dishes is definitely something to be championed.
A word of warning: go easy on the bread and beer. If opting for the beer pairing menu, a bottle between two works well, any more and you’ll struggle to finish. While proving a great challenge, this will ensure there’s room at the end for the petit fours. I had to ask for a doggy bag.