André Balazs is one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, with a net worth estimated at $450 million. But rather than follow the example of George Best (who once said ‘I spent 90 percent of my money on women, drink and fast cars; the rest I wasted’), the Hungarian-born US citizen has set about building a hotel and restaurant empire, starting with Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and progressing through The Mercer Hotel in New York City, among many others.
Chiltern Firehouse is Balazs’s first hotel outside the US. A lovely 1889 Grade II-listed Victorian-gothic fire brigade building has been rebuilt from the inside out, and now boasts a discreetly gated garden as the entrance. The staff’s aura of professionalism and sincerity hits you immediately: they’re uniformly well drilled and rarely go off-script. Checking in feels a bit like arriving at a Scientology meeting.
The best seats are at the kitchen counter, where you can watch the chefs at work in their lavishly appointed huge open kitchen. Nuno Mendes – formerly of Viajante – is in residence, creating a menu that reflects current trends in top international restaurants.
The kitchen can do fiddly and pretty, exemplified by stunning appetisers such as the tiny, slider-like ‘doughnuts’ filled with crab meat. But pretty’s only part of the story here. Good flavour combinations and modern cooking techniques are also to the fore. We watched as our squab starter was expertly carved, the pigeon meat shockingly pink but the skin crisp. Assembled with braised chicory and a herb-infused barley risotto, it was a stunning dish.
A main course also greatly exceeded expectations. Monkfish was cooked in a sealed pan using hot charcoal and fresh pine – similar to the French technique of éclade, with the pine aroma infusing the flesh. The monkfish had a lobster-like tenderness that needed little more than some fennel and small dollops of moist puffed barley to make a dish.
Inventive, but not overplayed details are a theme here: a slick of smooth roasted aubergine purée with perfectly tender grilled octopus or a dense jus reduction with slow-roasted beef short ribs.
The desserts are equally simple, equally clever. A ‘panna cotta’ was more like a baked alaska, the ice-cream below the grilled swirl of meringue kept cold by a moat of frozen green granita. Of course, such skill and such a swanky setting don’t come cheap, especially with a tempting list of wines and cocktails at premium prices.
Ask for a tour of the hotel if you’re visiting, as it’s illuminating to see how the rich travel; the 26 suites are stunning, and a trip up the firehouse’s watchtower to admire the view is a treat. In fact, our only reservation was our reservation: it took us three refusals from the booking desk’s email, then three visits in person, to secure our dinner table. Firehouse is so hot right now.