THE BLOG

This Week I Ate... Chiltern Firehouse

04/04/2014 16:35 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

The finest, but not necessarily the longest, lunches I had during my sojourn on the Sunday Express in my early 20s were in an old fire station. It's still there, the Fire Station near Waterloo, and I remember a colleague called Sophie Lance shedding gentle tears over a fish dish because she thought it was so good.

So I have a predisposition to liking old fire stations turned into restaurants. The most recent you may have heard chat about. It's in Marylebone and is part of a hotel called Chiltern Firehouse. Word on the street and on-screen has been riveting. Friends at work mutter about futile attempts to get tables, but I manage to muscle one in.

Firstly, I hadn't realised how chi-chi Marylebone had become, or at least Chiltern Street. Actually that's a little mis-leading as I'd never been down Chiltern Street. But I'd never imagined there were streets in Marylebone where every brick look sandblasted and every wooden door, window frame and lintel was painted in some shade of taupe.

It feels like someone interior designed the street. They even put a Monocle café in the middle to give edgy gravitas to the mood board. But all eyes now fall on the grand red-brick building at the southern end.

There's a man in overcoat and hat who greets you off the street and ushers you through the wooden gates. Around a courtyard you walk to another man, who opens a door to the restaurant. You turn right and a girl dressed in some kind of ball-gown you might wear on the Starship Enterprise (long, pointy, gauche, glow-in-the-dark colours) takes your coat. Then it's left and you're in the room. There's a serious buzz and big noise and four people at a high desk greet you.

You get taken to up to a raised level where small tables line a long banquette. Shit, you think, I'm going to be crammed into a small table inches from other people and I want to do a Michael Winner 'I want my table for two to be a table for four' moan. And you fret about having your back to the room because you hate that. But you take in the busy bar scene, you see the mirror in front of you nicely angled so you needn't catch unnecessary glimpses of yourself just the action in the restaurant. There's enough noise so you wnt' have to worry about sharing your chatter with that couple inches from you, and a small tiny, elegant menu card advertising dirty little cocktails and nibbly starters is proferred by a friendly beardy man. And you calm.

The cocktails come quickly, yours has tequila, aperol, other dryish Campari-type things; it's perfect. You're on a dry Punt-a-Mes-on-the-rocks thing right now; the zeitgeist is with you.

Here comes those nibbles: slender stalks of cauliflower upside down in something good with crunchy bits (you should write menus), soft mini cornbread baguettes with butter inveigled with syrup - naughty, wow; demolished.

You look up at the ceiling. Someone has woven material together on what look like seat-covers and stuck them up there. Cool, weird, clever, pretty.

Along comes some squab. Tender, soft, pinkish, it's with bulgur wheat stained with spinach juice. Amazing, it's like someone invented a new vegetable. It has the texture of al dente broad bean, but it's far nicer. Main course swoops in - the beardy man is never far away. This place is stuffed with staff. God knows how the numbers stack up.

You're having pork which looks like beef and is pink. You've no idea how this happened, but you want to tell the world about it, it tastes so good, so juicy; the feel of perfect beef, the flavour of pork. It comes on a pretty round wooden plate. There are little bowls of friendly things to eat with it: a beetroot risotto, long stringy veg a bit like samphire that the beardy man said was called beardy monk something. It's good, there's iron in it, it's tasty. There's your favourite vegetable of spring too, purple sprouting broccoli, as well as French fries, just to remind you you're on Planet Earth.

Pudding includes soft chocolate tart on a frisky base; just the right, high percentage of cocoa and cooled with hazelnut ice cream. Every course, you reckon, has been mastered.

You nip to the loo, get lost, then find it downstairs and see people walk through the room and through a secret door. This is where the smokers can hang. It's some kind of sexy underground smokey hangout. It makes smoking seem cool, which is seriously naughty.

Back you go upstairs and before you leave you walk round the restaurant. You eye up the seats by a bar that overlooks the kitchen. That's where you'll sit next time. The open kitchen seems bathed in copper light, like a sepia haze. The chef Nuno Mendes is there with his longish dark beard, longer than most beards worn by chefs.

You wonder if it's this strange light that covers the cooks in a magical haze that helps them turn out the dishes they do. You have come to a mecca of great cooking, where the technique isn't showfully emblazoned all over the plate, where it is all style and all substance. You have no doubt that the skill and technique that was employed to deliver the dishes you scoffed was immense, but it was strong flavour that shone through. Dishes were perfectly balanced and naturally presented. Every narky criticism you may have uttered recently becomes justified when you witness what happens at the Chiltern Firehouse.

This is some of the most delicious food, served in the coolest place. You hope you'll return very soon so you can pinch yourself and glory in the fact that some of the best nosh on the planet is being cooked by a man called Nuno in Marylebone; that one-time sleepy half-way house between all points on the compass, that actually now makes it quite the very centre.