Raffles London is, after all, all about firsts. It is the first time the extraordinary Old War Office has been open to the public and the first Raffles property in London. The OWO, situated in Whitehall, was built in 1906 and later served as Winston Churchill’s base during World War II. Built at the peak of Britain’s empirical power, it is grandiose in both scale and style.
After falling out of use, the UK’s richest family, the Hindujas, bought a long lease from the Ministry of Defence and spent close to $2bn turning it into what it is today. Everything about the project shouts unrestrained ambition from the million-dollar chandelier adorning the lobby to the 27,000-sq-ft, four-story subterranean spa.
Convincing Colagreco, the gastronomic genius behind three-Michelin-starred Mirazur, to open not one but three restaurants inside the hotel, is another indication of the project’s limitless budget. Along with his eponymous restaurant, Colagreco has also put his name to all-day brasserie Saison and the exclusive 20-cover Mauro’s Table.
Known for his love of locally produced vegetables (he calls himself a ‘gardener in chef whites’), Colagreco faced a tall challenge adapting his reliance on the Cote d’Azur’s abundance to the UK. The Argentinian chef worked on the concept for over 18 months, traveling to producers from Cornwall to the Cairngorms in search of the best of British produce. It’s a brave step, but one he has not taken lightly.
Whitehall is not London’s most vibrant neighborhood. It is home to numerous government buildings (Downing Street is a short walk away) and lacks the buzz of Mayfair. But with two bars (one secret), nine restaurants, a huge spa, a swimming pool and a collection of stunning rooms and suites starting at $1,400 per night, Raffles London is a destination in itself.
Once inside, you don’t need to leave. The Guard’s Bar is already proving popular with Members of Parliament and civil servants. The unmarked Spy Bar (good luck finding it) is a late-night speakeasy for those in the know.
Mauro Colagreco, the restaurant, is easier to find but isn’t immediately identifiable as a restaurant. Its living-room style furnishings (plush carpet, thick drapes and plump sofas) make for soft acoustics. Restaurants usually amplify the background noise, here they seem intent on suppressing it. That’s helpful when you need to hear about the canapes, less so when you’re looking for atmosphere.
Still, you’ll want to hear what the accomplished staff, who have been snapped up from the likes of HIDE and Trivet, have to say. From the champagne trolley to the petit four, everything comes with a fascinating backstory.
With Colagreco charged with running a restaurant empire spreading all the way to Beijing, he has left long-time protege Leonel Aguirre in charge of the day-to-day running of his Raffles London operation. Aguirre has worked with Colagreco for eight years, including two at Mirazur.
A fellow Argentinian, it’s likely Colagreco sees some of his young self in Aguirre. Before stepping into Colagreco’s kitchen, Aguirre gained experience at Tegui, once widely regarded as the best restaurant in Argentina.
Colagreco and Aguirre share a passion for biodynamic and sustainable ingredients, mainly vegetables. Together, they have produced a menu that puts greater emphasis on the greenery, with the meat being the complementary ingredient.
Aguirre traveled with Colagreco around the UK, going to great lengths to find the best versions of everyday staples such as carrots, lettuce and Jerusalem artichokes. With vegetables secured, they then designed a five-course menu that put them front and center of the show.
Evening menus come in either three- or five-course form. Assuming you’re not here on a budget, the five-course tasting menu (£165 / $205) and the Exploration Route wine pairing (£125 / $155) is the recommended path.
In these early days, the menu is still in flux. Two of the dishes we tried on the night were new to the menu. But the philosophy is very much set. Vegetables are the stars of this show. The opening canapes are vegetarian and include a mushroom parfait and celeriac tacos.
Before each course arrives, you get a beautifully illustrated card telling the history of its hero ingredient. Did you know the UK consumes ten billion carrots per year? With an abundance of it on the first dish, served with sea bass sashimi and sea vegetables, we added at least one to that total with the first course.
The second course came with a brief presentation of a hen of the woods mushroom, about the size of a small dog – if the dog fell into a mincer. Considering everyone in the restaurant was having the same menu, we watched this ungainly creature make its way in and out of the kitchen a dozen times. Fortunately, it was worth the dish, served with a sesame cracker and a rich mushroom sauce – the best sauce of the evening.
With the main dishes, the focus on vegetables seemed to waver. I question the focus on a leaf of Swiss chard, wrapped around a piece of beautifully cooked turbot and dressed in a delicious sauce inspired by Thai green curry. The turbot gave its life and now finds itself sitting second chair to leafy greens. The proof is in the eating, of course. And just because the card tells the history of Swiss chard, doesn’t make it the hero.
A similar story presents itself with the venison, which is both locally and sustainably sourced, cooked to perfection, and then dressed heavily in radicchio and beetroot sauce. The bitter leaves work well with the sweet sauce, but the venison provides the texture and depth of flavor.
Then, it’s on to the optional cheese trolley. Again assuming there’s no budget, there is no optional about it. The cheese sommelier wheeled it around to almost every table, presenting diners with a choice of 14 British cheeses (and one French) meticulously sourced from around the British Isles.
Thoroughly impressed by the level of knowledge when I asked about every cheese (sorry again to that kind man), we found ourselves with a selection of eight British cheeses and a generous glass of 30-year-old Tawny port. Unsurprisingly, memories (and notes) fade at this point.
We finish with a black lemon ice cream with a crispy ‘ravioli’ top. It is delicious, but having got this far, it seems a strange time for Colagreco to revert back to his Mediterranean terroir.
Like everything in Raffles London, Colagreco’s restaurant has been thoroughly well thought out and excellently executed. But like every restaurant, it will need time to reach its full potential. It is likely to enter into the Michelin Guide at the first time of asking.
The quality of service and of food – not to mention Colagreco’s influence – is too high to ignore. One star is a virtual guarantee, but the scale of the operation suggests they have eyes on two. Is it there yet? Arguably not. Will it get there? Undoubtedly.