Babylon at the Roof Gardens
99 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SA
Babylon was, for us, literally a much sought-after restaurant – it took a few circumambulations of blocks of shopping arcades in Kensington to find it, tucked around the corner as it is, rather than actually being on Kensington High Street as expected. Reached through a concierged building, it is up on the seventh floor, looking out over London, with a variety of famous landmarks visible between the trees. The lift takes one straight to the restaurant reception desk, where the welcome is extremely polished and professional, yet friendly, with a waitress waiting to take one straight to the designated table. The restaurant takes the form of a long thin room, with booth seating on the side furthest from the window, a long row of tables consisting of banquette and chair seating in the middle, before square and circular tables looking out over the balcony and affording a splendid view out of the long, floor-to-ceiling window. The tables outside bear lanterns – but not, on the rainy, cold October day we visited, diners.
Babylon’s decor is smart but not overly-ornate – a wooden floor and a palate of different shades of green, from lime to olive, in the striped dappled wallpaper, the chairs and the screen-print-type paintings that adorn the walls. The tables are dressed with starched white tablecloths, elegant and stylish cutlery, a candle and a flower in a silver container. Golden hemispheres adorn the ceiling and discreet spot lights provide the main lighting, with small glass chandeliers over the individual booths.
Bread was brought within seconds of our reaching the table – rather delicious, very fresh and distinctive-tasting white baguettes, with a wholemeal and a black olive roll as well, and served with butter and a small bowl of olive oil with cider vinegar.
Water and an aperitif were offered at the same time as the bread appeared – a glass of champagne and a dry sherry did us for the latter – the champagne rather fine and elegant, with tight bubbles, and the sherry served at an appropriate temperature for the very rounded flavour, generating a welcome feeling of warmth on the all-too-chilly evening.
The menu opens with baked cheeses – all of them immensely tempting; and around eight starters main courses, with a good mixture of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes; all of them appearing well-thought-out.
The wine list was very impressive indeed, with an excellent range of wines from different regions and at a good variety of prices. I decided to go for the La Picoutine 2013 – a very light pink rose, with a dry nose tempered by its hint of strawberries. The flavour was very delicate but also extremely sophisticated – an initial dryness lead into a burst of strawberries and other red berry fruit yet with a slightly citric acidity balancing the juicy berries, and some straw and also spice to give a final bite.
I started with the autumn truffle risotto with parmesan, and was presented with a very sensible-sized portion, which nevertheless left me very replete. The rice itself was immensely creamy and well-cooked – neither too soggy nor too al dente (as risotto can all-too-often be). The creamy parmesan lent a savoury flavour, whilst the autumn truffles, shaved on top, added their own, exquisite, musty flavour.
My husband’s Leghorn Egg was also excellent, although perhaps a touch blander than he had expected. Both the interesting variety of textures and the flavours complemented each other well, and he found it a substantial portion that nevertheless left enough room for the main course to follow: in Mr Marshall-Luck’s case, the braised pork cheek and fillet, which he deemed superbly flavoured and wonderfully tender. It was served with crunchy kale and granny smith apple balls, the sharpness of which complemented perfectly the flavour of the pork. The accompanying apple sauce was superb as well, and he noted that this added an interesting extra dimension to the dish, being a very different flavour from the apple balls. The size of the portion was perfectly judged, leaving one feeling satisfied but not overly replete.
I had been entranced by the list of baked cheeses, and after much heart-searching went for the Ogleshield, which was served with new potatoes, pickled baby onions, gherkins and bacon. The cheese itself was very similar to raclette (hence working so very well with potatoes) – rich and intensely flavoured. The bacon was extremely meaty-tasting and added a further deep and intense savoury flavour to the dish, whilst the onions and gherkins lent a sharper, more acidic note as well as a crunchy texture to cut through the cheese. The dish was accompanied by a large basket full of sourdoughs, walnut and raisin breads and breadsticks, which were good for scooping out the final gooey strings of molten cheese from the dish. The only element of Ogleshield which disappointed me was the potato, which was a little too crunchy and firm and lent resistance to a dish that I would have preferred softer and crumblier.
I’m not entirely sure how we found room for desserts; but we managed somehow. My husband’s dark chocolate baked Alaska was very good, although he was put off by the inclusion of desiccated coconut (a bête noire)! However, working around it enabled his full enjoyment of a wonderful dessert: the rich, dark chocolate was surrounded by a delightfully light meringue-type coating – just enough to highlight the chocolate without in any way becoming the featured artist. Complementing mango and passion fruit set off the chocolate very well – a tried and tested combination, of course; but both fruits were of excellent quality and intensely flavoured, which raised the dessert above mere cliché.
My Velharona chocolate pave, meanwhile, was easily one of the best desserts I’ve ever had the fortune to experience. It wasn’t really a pave as such – more of a rich milk chocolate mousse covered with chocolate crumbs, with pistachio nut topping, the occasional flake of sea salt, a very thin roll of chocolate flakes (that weren’t flaky so much as crunchy), and a dark berry sorbet on top, the berries of which were sharply distinctive without being overpowering. It was most certainly the flakes of sea salt that raised this dessert to an art form, and one found oneself eagerly awaiting the saltiness as a foil to the rich sweetness of the chocolate. Perhaps a slightly increased dose of the salt flakes would have enhanced the pleasure of this dish even further; but it was mightily good as it stood.
Tea, coffee and petit fours were also excellent – the latter offered a selection of a salted caramel chocolate truffle that had the slightly darker notes of possibly coffee or carob; what appeared to be a lemony cross between a meringue and a marshmallow; a tart fruit jelly coasted in contrasting sugar, and a little almondy cake with a chocolate sliver in the middle. All delicious.
Only two aspects of the “dining experience” dampened our enjoyment of a quite superb meal – the irritating popular music present throughout the evening, and our fellow diners – the latter, of course, not the establishment’s fault! We seemed to be beleaguered by loud and raucous office parties, with drunken, football-hooligan-style bellowing punctuating the latter part of the meal. We were also treated to the apparition of a telephoning buffoon who, in artistically creased chinos and casually rumpled shirt, paced, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to and fro on the balcony, obviously desperate to prove to all in the restaurant what a terribly busy and important man he was, so indispensible that he was forced to take long, involved phone calls (using, inevitably, an extremely elaborate hands-free kit) even in the middle of a social occasion.
Do not be put off by Trip Advisor reviews stating that the service is “chilly” – this is emphatically not the case – one suspects that these reviews are written by people who are used to being addressed in restaurants as “you guys” (and, moreover and unaccountably, are comfortable with – nay, even approving of – this mode of address), rather than the entirely more appropriate “Sir” and “Madam”. The service is pretty close to perfect; as are most aspects of this restaurant.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s restaurant and wine critic