I rang the doorbell not knowing what to expect. Little did I know then that I would be experiencing the gastronomical event of my life. I had entered a world of Michelin-Star Chef Alexis Gauthier, where the idea of fast food simply doesn’t exist. The food inside this unassuming townhouse in London’s Soho district was not simply cooked, assembled or prepared; instead, I was sitting down to a meal whose every dish had been carefully crafted like a piece of art. The patrons were few, the decor minimal and the waitstaff was not only familiar with the ingredients of each dish, they also knew the process in which each delicacy, which reached my little table, was created.
A friendly staff member answered the door quickly. I gave my name and was ushered to my table for one. The surroundings seemed understated and elegant. This upscale French restaurant, in the heart of London’s Soho district, was housed inside a townhouse. It is this familiarity perhaps, coupled with friendliness and attentiveness of the staff, that caused me to feel at home. The white walls and white tablecloths made me feel like I was part of a canvas that was about to experience art. The unassuming ambience gave me the impression of “let the food speak for itself”.
My waiter’s name was David Havlik, who is from a small town in the middle of the Czech Republic. He is vegan and happily explained the history of Gauthier Soho. It opened in 2010 as an upscale French restaurant. In 2016, Chef Alexis Gauthier became vegan stating the following:
“I believe it is our duty as human beings to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, and a very good place to start is addressing the impact we make with our needless and selfish consumption of animals.
I am a classically trained French chef who held Michelin stars for 12 years and the thought of someone like me being vegan would have been insane five or ten years ago. But now the world is waking up. This is the future.”
I couldn’t agree more. And apparently, I’m not the only one. Noticing that a large amount of people were coming to his restaurant for the vegan dishes, he decided to make his restaurant solely vegan. And business is booming. I felt lucky the manager, Pierre Dumoulin, was able to accommodate my rather late request. Many of the servers are also vegan, although it is not a requirement to work there.
Gauthier offers two prix fixe menus that change with each season. At 5pm the petit dîner in on offer and at 7:30pm the grand dîner experience begins. I had reserved a spot for the full menu, which included ten courses. While reviewing the table d’hôte online ahead of time, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw “vegan for the animals” at the very bottom of the menu. I also happened to be dining on opening night of Gauthier’s spring menu.
The first item to reach my table was a shot of chilled watercress broth designed to refresh the palette, no doubt preparing it for the array of dishes to come. The rich green liquid arrived in a cloud of dry ice. What a way to start the evening!
The second half of the first entree was a potato vol au vent canapé topped with kelp caviar. This dish consisted of mille-feuille pastry (which translates to 1000 layers) with potato beaujolais and potato cream. The kelp caviar was made from agar agar and charcoal. I found this adorable single bite rich and creamy and it quite literally melted in my mouth.
The second course also consisted of two parts: wild garlic and rocket focaccia aigo boulido (boiled garlic). I found the focaccia, which was served on a bed of polished stones, soaked with flavor. The softness of this dish balanced nicely with the crispiness of the reindeer moss, which my waiter David informed me came from the English countryside. I overheard him reassure patrons at neighboring tables that it was indeed edible, perhaps anticipating some concern. These two dishes complimented each other nicely.
Before the third course was served, the waitstaff brought cutlery for the first time. The waiter brought the confit Jerusalem artichoke and artichoke crisps to the table before pouring the artichoke and black truffle velouté over the dish. He then proceeded to shave black truffle onto the plate. I was told that all parts of the artichoke was used, giving it the “fizzy” sensation. This dish was topped with slivered almonds.
This course was sensational! The layers of flavor of this dish systematically unfolded against my palette. The crisp almonds pared perfectly with the rich creaminess and earthy flavor. If I could have, I would have licked the bowl.
The fourth course consisted of early season British green asparagus with miso hollandaise and sesame seeds. In contrast to the previous dish, I found this course quite colorful with the yellow of the sauce adorning the bright green asparagus. Again, this dish exhibited a great mix of flavors. My mouth first experienced the sweetness and the slight crunch of the perfectly cooked asparagus followed by a slightly sour lemon flavor of the hollandaise, made with tahini and miso. No taste overpowered; instead the sweet ushered in the sour. My taste buds personally thanked me for this one!
The fifth course was the most colorful of the night with its tender pearl barley, buttered peas, broad and runner beans, preserved lemon and flaked almond. The barley, which was perfectly al dente, was cooked in risotto style. Again, the flavors seemed to roll out systematically, and I opine that it was the preserved lemon that really made this dish work so well. I also enjoyed the mix of cooked and raw ingredients, as well as the smokiness of the flaked almonds. Definitely a dish to write home about.
Course six included young alexanders stem with pistachio and light aniseed royale and jus de legumes. The most interesting ingredient in this dish was without a doubt the alexanders stem, which was once highly valued in northern Europe as an early vegetable due to its readiness at early as February or March. I was told that this wild-growing plant in course six was local and having been only recently harvested from the English countryside. While the waiter compared its flavor to Japanese fennel, some claim it to be an intermediate in flavor between celery and parsley.
I loved the uniqueness of this dish, certainly the most experimental on the menu. The creamy pistachio and light aniseed royale was nothing short of mouth-watering. The initial taste was sweet that led to the rich pistachio flavor, making the dish quite dimensional. I would be quite happy to experience this dish again.
Course seven consisted of white asparagus and calcot onion and stewed morels (considered a foraging mushroom) and creamed sauce topped with a long palmito (heart of palm). The base of this dish was a gelled duxelles, the sauce included cream of mushroom with smoked tofu and it was topped with a branch of puff pastry. The waiter told me that the combination of white asparagus and morel mushrooms is quite common in French cuisine as they both are harvested at the same time of year – spring.
Not surprisingly, this course was very hearty with earthy flavors, but was my least favorite on the menu. Despite what I am certain to be a lot of effort that went into this dish, I found the puff pastry didn’t add anything to this dish, as it was flavorless, other than texture. Although this dish grew on me during consumption, I found the asparagus what challenging to cut and I was left with an unpleasant aftertaste, which might have originated from the gelled duxelles.
The eighth course was perhaps the most interesting-looking. This dish was a vegan version of petit pois a la Française. Gauthier’s take on this common French dish included vegan parmesan, pickled onion, charred cos lettuce and smoked granite, which was added at the table. What an interesting mix of flavors! I very much enjoying the chilled peas as well as the texture of the cos lettuce.
I quite enjoyed this dish, but I couldn’t help but feel that patrons who were familiar with the meat version of the dish might get even more enjoyment out of it. For me the smoky flavor dominated, but most likely because it was unfamiliar, whereas others might be more adapted to enjoy the combination of flavors.
The pre-dessert course was a rhubarb float with pomegranate spritz and was designed to refresh the palette. The red spritz was added at the table. I loved this dish and found it very refreshing indeed! I first tasted sweet, then the slight sourness of the rhubarb – just what was needed at this point in the meal.
The final course was the most surprising of the evening. This dish was a dark chocolate tart with a chocolate genoise filled with black olives and kalamata olive oil. The dish included tonka beans and crystallized shards of vegan chocolate, which was made with oat milk.
Never in a million years would I have expected black olives to work in this hearty dessert (or with chocolate in general) and yet it very much did! What a great way to end the evening, with a truly successful invention.
I have found the condition of a restaurant’s bathroom indicative of the cleanliness inside the venue’s kitchen. With high expectations, I entered Gauthier’s restroom on the second floor (British first floor) and found it to be modern, clean and spa-like with hand towels and liquid soap that leaves your hands soft. The foyer of the facilities included hand lotion and even hairspray. I left the restroom feeling quite refreshed.
A pre-determined menu can be likened to a concert. While each piece is important, a victorious concert must also have an overarching completeness to it and the correct progression of presentation is vital in achieving such success. Not only was each dish well composed, but also the entire evening was very well-orchestrated. And what a performance! My three hour gastronomical experience was a highlight of my trip to England. If you find yourself in London, do not miss the opportunity to dine at Gauthier Soho.