I've been a bit spaced out lately, preoccupied with work and general malaise. So much so that I hadn't got round to organising anything for my husband's 30th birthday. He said he didn't want a fuss, but I felt like I should do something to mark the occasion (fireworks! a rocket trip!) and I pressed him until he simply said "Can we just go somewhere nice for dinner?"
Me being the excellent wife that I am, I promptly forget till a few days before the big day. "Arse, no-one's going to let me book a Friday night at this short notice" I think to myself. So I decide to chance my arm and pester directly. Launceston Place is my victim; I send a Twitter message hoping they'll take pity on me. Astonishingly, they do - despite being fully-booked, they promise to squeeze us in at 6pm. Result.
The next day, Launceston Place tweet about an Evening Standard piece on their Secret Chef's Table - described as the most exclusive table in town, you dine right in the middle of the kitchen. I immediately decide to push my luck and ask if this Secret Table is free, but alas and of course it is already taken.
Friday evening, hubby and I are trotting along in the freezing cold trying to find the restaurant. Do not trust Googlemaps - it's not till you zoom in pretty close that you realise that Launceston Place isn't actually off Cromwell Road at all, but starts off as Grenville Place. Five minutes late, we burst red-faced through the door to be greeted by a couple of lovely ladies who take our coats and bags and lead us round the corner to the cosiest part of the restaurant where a beautiful flickering candelabra perches next to our table.
Launceston Place is a plus sixty cover restaurant, but the rooms are laid out in a way that it manages to feel quite intimate wherever you're sitting. Plus the lighting is perfect - bright enough that you don't spend your time wondering what exactly you have on your plate (and can take discreet flashless photos), but still retaining a relaxed atmosphere.
It's still only 6.15 and we're the only diners in the restaurant, and I'm torn between feeling special and being slightly freaked out by the silence. Thankfully, another couple arrives shortly afterwards and is seated near us, so we feel less alone. They're on the periphery of my vision, but I see that they're both dressed to the nines and I instantly feel dowdy. Swings and roundabouts.
Mickey Narea, the sommelier (who I've met before, along with head chef Tristan Welch) comes to our table with the wine menu and asks us what we'd like to drink tonight. Hubby and I make embarrassed faces and say "Um, we don't really do wine". Mickey's not fazed though, and happily brings us still Belu water instead - though he leaves us the wine menu just in case (and in the end hubby does at least order a Curious Brew Brut, a Kentish lager made using wine yeast).
Our charming Gallic waiter for the night then appears with two tiny canoes of devilled parsnip crisps - with a good kick of cayenne, these are spicy, savoury and more-ish and serve to sharpen my appetite.
Meanwhile I'm beginning to wonder if the couple beside us are indeed a couple as despite being of similar sizes, the girl sounds a bit like Violet Elizabeth Bott.
Next our waiter returns bearing a basket of sourdough and granary bread. It's only then that I notice a pebble on our table topped with a Trivial Pursuit-sized wedge of salted butter. Said "butter stone" seems incongruous and makes me collapse into giggles, even as I'm chomping on the bread.
And it's whilst I'm still giggling that head chef Tristan Welch turns up to welcome us. This is bad - I'm slightly hysterical and my only response when he holds out his hand is "I'm sorry, I'm covered in butter". Somehow Tristan manages not to stare at me like I'm a lunatic.
In fact, instead he tells us with a smile that we are Launceston Place's "very first Twitter table" and I feel crumbily proud for being such a trailblazer. He wishes hubby a happy 30th birthday and we chat for a bit, before Tristan says that he has a treat for us - the people who were meant to be having the secret table are coming in a little later, so he'll take us downstairs to the kitchen for two of our courses. Joy! And I can actually feel the eyes of the couple next to us boring into our necks with jealousy.
Then Tristan dashes back to the kitchen, while our neighbours stare mournfully after him. The male harrumphs and then starts talking very loudly about How He Knows Gordon Ramsay and then when the waiter comes to take their order, he grumpily barks "Foie Gras and Lamb and she'll have the same".
The tasting menu we opt for has six listed courses, but the first thing we get to sample is unbilled. I can't remember exactly how the waiter described this amuse-bouche, but it's a smooth, creamy cauliflower soup topped with creme fraiche foam and rich, intense truffle oil.
We're told to sip it as if it were a teeny cappucino, but it's very, very hard not to neck it - it's that irresistable. Cauliflower soup is not something I would have willingly chosen myself (usually resembling fart in a cup), but this is ambrosial.
Next is the first course proper, "West coast scallops roasted with aromatic herbs from the coastline". The beautifully caramelised, meaty scallops go well with the delicate pesto, all together oozing buttery heaven - it's hard not to lick the shell.
And look, they're nestled on a pretty shingly bed on a piece of driftwood - I am Prue Leith.
Second course is "Denham Estate venison tartare, Walnuts, watercress, quail egg". Channelling the Rouxster, it's as pretty as a picture, and I almost can't bring myself to eat it. I've never had tartare before, though I've enjoyed many a yook hwe, the Korean equivalent made with steak and nashi pears.
Launceston Place's interpretation is an explosion of flavour - the raw venison a revelation of sweet meat, the tiny shallot rings and mayonnaise providing just enough zest, the quail egg quiveringly lush. The little chunks of caramelised walnuts are the proverbial icing on the cake, bringing bite and nuttiness into the mix - and not a trace of the bitter you so often get with walnuts.
The only thing that's marring my enjoyment is the couple next to us who are now mocking the waiter's pronunciation of "watercress" by mimicking it back to him.
The third course is Launceston Place's Stargazey Pie. An old Cornish fish dish, Stargazy Pie is most notable for having fish heads poking out of the top, "gazing at the stars". LP's version is pleasingly traditional - a single sardine's head and tail poke out of either end of the pastry lid (link to recipe below).
The pastry is light and crisp, the fish inside is moist, and the bacon lardons and braised spring onion bulbs are sweet and delicious. But overall, it's too sharp and pungent for me so I'm not too keen, though hubby absolutely adores the creamy mustard sauce and finishes the lot.
I'm already beginning to flag a little, but we haven't even had our mains yet. Suddenly Chef Welch reappears at our side and says, grinning, "Are you ready to come down into the kitchen?" Those words are like Pro Plus and, revitalised, hubby and I skip downstairs.
First we're led through the Chef's Office, which I had known about before, as it's promoted on the Launceston Place website, unlike the Secret Table. The Chef's Office is a small, private dining room which is linked up to the kitchen via a plasma screen TV so you can watch all the action live. But the Secret Table goes one better and puts you right in the thick of it.
We go through another door and suddenly we're in a bright, buzzy, busy and frantic kitchen dominated by a long prep island. It's hot and there's little room to manoeuvre, and I feel very much like we're in the way.
Tristan points at one end of the island where some napery has been laid and says cheerfully, "There's your table - please sit down".
We perch ourselves on two bouncy bar stools and Chef Welch begins to introduce the kitchen crew to us. There's Alan Stewart, his second-in-command who gamely poses for pictures at the same time as creating countless beautiful dishes.
There's Carlos and Ivan and a whole host of other names which unfortunately I can't recall - but all of them are smiley and chirpy, seeming not remotely put out by this massive intrusion by us, the gawking outsiders. They carry on working whilst we eat, and it's utterly, utterly surreal.
And as we gaze in awe, Tristan works and chats to us simultaneously. Attention to detail is astonishing - those parsnip crisp canapes? Chef Welch checks every single one before letting them go out.
I think Tristan realises our concerns though, as he explains that it's basically a deconstructed Waldorf salad and urges us to take a bite.
I'm so glad I do. The sorbet is a herby, refreshing, fleeting kiss - combined with the whipped walnut mousse and the crisp, zingy apple matchsticks, it embodies the best Waldorf salad ever. It's crazily thrilling to experience all those different flavours delivered in such an odd way, like Violet Beauregarde chewing the three-course meal gum
("It's amazing! Tomato soup, I can feel it running down my throat! It's changing... roast beef and baked potato. Crispy skin and butter!")
And as we're scraping up the last of the sorbet and sucking our spoons, Mickey the sommelier reappears. "I really want you to enjoy some wine with your meal," he says, "This is what I do - please would you try some?"
We relent and, delighted, he explains to us the background behind the 2006 Seleccion Especial, Sardon de Duero from Abadia Retuerta. I copied that from their menu because actually we have no idea what he's on about. He might as well have been talking Latin to us, poor guy.
Anyway, he pours us a glass each to complement our lamb, which Tristan, Alex and the others are just finishing making for us (seriously, everyone is so hands-on, it's proper teamwork).
This fifth course is "Salt marsh lamb, sea beets, crackling and salt baked potatoes".
Tristan explains to us that the salt marsh lamb is deliberately served with sea beets as these wild marsh plants are what the lamb actually graze on.
The potato is packed in a salt bed and baked in a little pocket which is then snipped open by a chef in front of us so the steam puffs out prettily.
And after Tristan pours a dinky jug of gravy over both our plates, we tuck in. The lamb is juicy and packed with grassy flavour, the potato more delicious than a baked potato has any right to be. The sea beets, a new one on me, are spinachy, sweet and tender.
What really lifts the dish into another dimension though is the wonderfully citrussy wild sorrel and the divine lamb crackling. Yes, I said lamb crackling. Why is this not on every menu around - the stuff is pure crunchy genius.
All too soon we've polished off the lamb, and it's time for us to leave the kitchen and return to the restaurant upstairs.
We're loath to go as it's been a blast in every sense (we're seated next to an open oven - these really are the hottest seats in town), but the people who actually booked the secret table have arrived.
Chef Welch quickly shows us around the rest of the kitchen and introduces us to even more staff and then we thank him and wave goodbye.
We're not sad for long though, as a pre-dessert of "pear sorbet and mulled wine mousse with spiced orange" arrives in tiny glass cups (our second unbilled, bonus course). This is a brilliant palate cleanser - not too sweet, not too strong, and just the right hint of warming spice.
The place is heaving now, but service is still unrushed and friendly and everything seems easily under control.
Next up on the tasting menu should be rice pudding souffle, but I'm not really feeling it today, so I ask if we may choose from the main dessert menu and they happily oblige.
I choose "Apple parfait, toffee, walnut for myself and "Set custard cream, caramel and praline,
malt ice cream" for him.
At this point I decide to go to the ladies and I bump into the girl from the horrid couple who were next to us. I note that she is legal, and also that if looks could kill I wouldn't be writing these words right now.
Back at the table, a slate platter of sweet wonders arrives for the hubby and what looks like a lonely Scotch Egg arrives for me, and I promptly descend into another fit of giggles. Even my husband laughs this time.
It's all ruddy magnificent though, especially hubby's set custard which I fight him for and steal when he's not looking.
My apple parfait is maybe a bit too intense, and I fail to eat more than half, but the husband willingly takes over.
I'm this close to falling bloatily asleep when a waiter arrives with a little test tube packed with shards of dark chocolate and pistachio. We can't not eat this, it'd be rude, so I open it up and divide it equally between the man and me. Somehow we don't explode like Mr Creosote.
Wary of what happened the last time I came to Launceston Place, the husband and I decide we ought to start making tracks as we've been here nearly four hours.
There's just enough time for one last drink, so hubby orders a Royal Coffee and I order a Cosmopolitan. The latter is deceptively smooth and I relish it until we finally gather our belongings and up sticks, but not without one last present from Chef Welch (see picture at top).
So did the hubby enjoy his 30th birthday treat?
Put it this way - my husband isn't a particularly over-emotional kind of guy, but I have never seen him so excited about a meal in my life.
In fact we liked it so much, we've gone a bit evangelical and are sending my brother-in-law and his girlfriend to lunch at Launceston Place for his 24th birthday this Friday - for some reason their parents had all three kids at the same time of year ...
1a Launceston Place
London W8 5RL
020 7937 6912
The Secret Table is £55 a head
The Tasting Menu is £60 a head
20/02/10: Edited to add that Tristan Welch is on Saturday Kitchen making Stargazy Pie
Launceston Place Stargazy Pie Recipe (from BBC Saturday Kitchen website)