dines at Axis...

It's best if I declare that I've been talking to Tony Fleming, the Executive Chef at Axis, for months now. In those conversations we've established that over the years I've been following Tony around London. I've eaten in almost every restaurant he's has cooked in, and that list includes the Criterion, the Oak Room, Escargot, Richard Neat and the Great Eastern Hotel. When we did finally speak, it was because Tony appeared on ITV's Britain's Best Dish cooking a blackberry soufflé... Well. I'm a bit of a soufflé obsessive, so it was inevitable that this would be the thing that would draw us into conversation.

Since then I've been meaning to get into Axis to try Tony's food circa 2012. As well as running Axis, the fine dining restaurant at No. One Aldwych, he also runs Indigo, and all of the food within the hotel. This is a daunting task given that the menu at Axis is updated frequently, and the hotel has a number of regular guests who would spot any repetitiveness.  Fortnightly there's also the monthly Movie Night, where you can watch a film in the hotel's private cinema, and then have a fixed menu dinner in the restaurant - the menu changes each time and is seasonal.

You enter Axis on the very corner of No. 1 Aldwych, then descend down the giant marble spiralling staircase, down into the rabbit hole... On one side there are large metal tree trunks running along the side, and there are eating areas on two levels, in two giant circles echoed by the circular balcony.   I like the space, though I don't like the decor - that Art Deco interior would be the absolute ideal setting for some fabulous smoke filled Poirot set - but I digress...

We ate from a menu that was just a few days old, and following some consultation about what was proving popular. To whet our appetite we were given a tiny tartlett of goats cheese with anchovies, tangy, sharp, piquant anchovy with rich and savoury onion. There was also a plump langoustine served scampi style, like the scampi you always dream of, but rarely find, served in a little pool of intense tartare sauce.

The Hubby chose the scallops first, plump little spheres served on a chunky strip of Asian style pork belly. This sits on a cauliflower purée, with fine slices of raw cauliflower dressed in rock salt and olive oil. The pork belly is marinated in soy sauce, honey, citrus, cinnamon and 5 spice.  It's then finished in the pan with the sticky sauce drizzled over the dish. I was quite torn between that dish and my own...

I ordered the duck egg with truffle soldiers. The egg is served on a bed of onion jam - it had that savoury cheek-sucking intensity that can only be achieved through long and slow reduction, in this case in brown chicken jus. Around the dish were scattered shemiji and pied bleu mushrooms, with peppery intense watercress. And the piece de resistance, the perfectly fried duck egg was placed on the top of the disc of onions, and then scattered with shaved truffles. To the side were crisp brioche soldiers, with a duxelle of mushrooms, topped with winter black truffles, and chives. The duxelle proved the perfect vehicle for the truffle, drifting the scent through the dish, without dominating it.  I loved this dish so much, within a few days I'd made it at myself, albeit a poorer home version.

Himself had the lamb barbecue lamb ribs, baked glazed shallot, grilled spring onions, onion purée and a shepherd’s pie croquette. I'm not a huge fan of lamb so he chooses it when he can. He thought it was the best lamb he'd eaten in years (it was Herdwick incidentally, from the lake district).  The croquette was made with the shoulder, before being mixed with mash, crumbed and fried.

I chose the butter poached loin of hare, jugged leg, root vegetable purée, game chips and watercress - a witty take on the hare and his daily diet.  The loin of hare is coated in dehydrated trompette de morte, which adds a piquant layer to the dense and soft meat.  I haven't eaten hare for some time, and it's delicious.  The texture is that of very good venison, but the flavour is much lighter, and has a grassy quality, it's actually rather a delicate taste.  The root vegetable purée (made from separately roasted parsnip, celeriac, swede and carrot) provides a sweet and creamy hit to contrast to the peppery watercress and crisp chips.  The jugged hare has the texture of pulled pork, but is much more intense.  Marinated in red wine, then braised in stock and the marinade, it's  thickened in the final moments with the blood from the hare - an intense little morsel.  The green watercress purée compliments the grassiness of the hare.  Hidden amongst the dish are cubes of pommes Anna, the potato scented with thyme, and is genuinely the best pommes Anna I've had.  Given that I make a truffle scented one, I don't make that statement lightly.

Of course I was going to have the soufflé, it was inconceivable that I'd have anything else, except there were some amazing alternatives on the menu: morello sorbet with pistachio foam (with the chocolate tarte), and  on the specials a textures of rhubarb: jelly, foam, sorbet, crisps and crumble...   The soufflé was perfectly cooked, of course, I would expect no less of Tony.  I wasn't utterly convinced about the balance of the spices in the soufflé itself, but when I discussed it with Tony, neither was he.  The Hubby felt the nutmeg was slightly too prevalent, but as the dish has only been on the menu for two days, it's still a work in progress.  I've also documented elsewhere my dread of cooked banana, but actually the banana ice-cream was fine and came with a crisp shard of sugar craquelure, and a delicious swirl of salted caramel which complimented it perfectly.  I look forward to eating the final version.

The Hubby, feeling particularly generous after his two perfect dishes, decided to indulge me and order the dessert tasting plate containing my morello cherry sorbet. Beautifully sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream, and toffee sauce; cookies and cream parfait, mocha cappuccino, warm berries and dark chocolate cookies; and the bitter chocolate tart, pistachio foam, morello cherry sorbet. Each element of the dessert was a tiny dense hit of very intense flavours. I tried the tart which has such a high cocoa content you could fly to the moon on that tiny wedge, but is lightened by the pistachio foam - lovely.

During the course of the evening we took time to look at our fellow diners, and there is an amazing mix in the room. From the family in the corner, to the suits in the other half of the room, the entire space was packed. On the table next to us was a chap on his 71st stay, and he was greeted like an old friend by the head waiter Henry Knight. Henry brought him things he thought would interest him and they chatted with a familiarity that comes from a long and genuine relationship.  I don't think I've considered the relationship a hotel restaurant has with its regulars before, especially when it comes to keeping the menu seasonal and interesting.

I have to say, even though I had eaten Tony's food before over the years, I was genuinely, genuinely impressed by his menu. How is this place not a destination restaurant?  I spoke to a well known food blogger and we discussed how, particularly in with hotel restaurants,  good restaurants can fall through the 'word of mouth' cracks.  With a regular stream of hotel guests, they're not quite as reliant on that kind of business.  However, this is as accomplished as many of the restaurants we eat in, in you can see from my list, that's pretty good company to keep.  Next time you want to try something new, get down to Axis.  I've already been back to the Lobby Bar, the Hubby has already booked himself in for a business dinner with clients.  This place is going straight onto our favourites list.

Addendum: I really wanted to try that rhubarb dish before it went off the menu, so I popped back to Axis - the best £8 I've spent in ages - what an absolute delight!  There's a delicious little pot of rhubarb crumble, scented with vanilla; a rhubarb purée; a beautiful rhubarb foam made of rhubarb purée, sugar and gelatine; delicate mounds of intense jelly; sorbet, and dehydrated rhubarb crisps.  The combination is light, absolutely mouthwatering, and very refreshing.  The absolutely pièce de résistance are apple blossom flowers.  What an absolute revelation - they are mouthwatering, crisp, zingy, scented - who knew? I'm going to be going around my garden raiding those trees that have a great abundance of blossom.  Only on for another week, get it while you can - a scent'sational dish!

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One Aldwych

Starters  £9
oxtail, wild mushroom and horseradish
consommé, spring onions, parsley
welsh rarebit on toast, plum tomato salad (v)
chicken liver parfait, pickled radish, poached quince, hot brioche
roast beetroot, baby carrots, English mozzarella, bitter leaves, lemon thyme dressing (v)
deep fried pig’s trotter, braised head, celeriac purée, lentil jus
endive salad, roast walnuts, blue cheese, honey mustard dressing (v)(n)
selection of english charcuteriepiccalilli, garlic toasts (£3 supplement)
fried duck egg, onion jam, mushroom and truffle soldiers

seafooD  £13
lobster ravioli, salad of sea vegetables, basil oil (£2 supplement)
dressed crab cocktail, watercress salad, Granny Smith apple, crab bon-bons
seared scallops, oriental braised pork belly, soy sauce, cauliflower and coriander
smoked and poached scottish salmonavocado and lime mousse, pickled baby vegetables

Light Main courses  £14
potato, caramelised onion and goat’s cheese tatinsautéed spinach, tomato and coriander dressing (v)
steamed fillet of sea bass, stuffed with crab and soft herbs, cucumber, fennel and dill salad, raspberry vinaigrette (£4 supplement)

side orders  £4
tomato salad                                    green beans and shallots
french fries                                       crushed charlotte potatoes
wilted spinach                                  purple sprouting broccoli

main courses  £19
roast cod, parsnip and honey purée, home-smoked cod kedgeree, spiced fish velouté
loch duart salmon, crispy smoked pork belly, braised kale, bittersweet onions, red wine fumet
roast halibut, smoked duck gnocchi, purple broccoli, jus gras (£4 supplement)
slow cooked celeriac, cumin fried spinach, lightly spiced vegetables, lentil dahl, green chilli and cauliflower bhajis (v)
roast chicken, truffled macaroni, crispy Worcestershire cured ham, figs, Madeira shallot jus
braised beef bourguignon, smoked bacon, mashed potato, red wine sauce
roast rump of herdwick lamb, barbecue lamb ribs, baked glazed shallot, grilled spring onions, shepherd’s pie fritter (£4 supplement)
char-grilled 35 day aged galloway rib-eyeslow cooked tomatoes, button mushrooms with dauphinoise or beef dripping chips and peppercorn sauce or béarnaise (£5 supplement)
haunch of denham estate venisonred wine apple purée, creamed cabbage, braised shank boulangère, chocolate oil (n) (£3 supplement)
butter poached loin of hare, jugged leg, root vegetable purée, game chips, watercress (£4 supplement)

dessertS  £7
tarte tatin of apple, butterscotch ice cream, cinnamon and raisin caramel
floating islands, vanilla custard, honeycomb
gingerbread soufflé, banana ice cream, caramelised bananas
cookies and cream parfait, mocha cappuccino, warm berries and dark chocolate cookies
bitter chocolate tart, pistachio foam, morello cherry sorbet
sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream, toffee sauce
lemon tart, confit lemon

selection of british cheeses  £9

with oatcakes and Granny Smith

dessert sampling plate  £11

Sticky toffee pudding, clotted cream, toffee sauce
Cookies and cream parfait, mocha cappuccino, warm berries and dark chocolate cookies
    Bitter chocolate tart, pistachio foam, morello cherry sorbet