London restaurants are expensive. Fact. Happily, we’ve come a long way since the days when British food was talked about with derision and visitors to the UK laughed about how the food matched the weather in its unpredictability. These days, the climate remains outside our control but the country’s cuisine has improved immeasurably.
There’s always a downside, of course. Whilst you can dine like a king any night of the week, far too often the prices are equally majestic. But there’s always, also, an exception – Pillars being a glowing example.
Based in Ealing, Pillars is a training restaurant which belongs to the University of West London and whose students cook & serve food from all over the world. This was my third visit: all have been excellent. The food, the service and ambience combine to make eating here a culinary treat.
Today is Friday and it’s a joy being out for the evening, knowing that there’ll be no need to set the alarm clock for tomorrow. The temperature outside may have dropped, but inside Pillars was inviting, cosy – and distinctly lively, the restaurant playing host to a number of 20-something groups – all of which, it would transpire, are connected to the catering students in some way or other.
I was here to catch up with two very dear friends, Mary and Ray, and we were afforded a very warm welcome by the charming staff. Although this is a catering college and the restaurant’s surroundings are informal, you could just as well have found yourself in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
It’s the kind of inventive menu you’d expect from a Michelin restaurant, too, with each course featuring one meat, one fish and one vegetarian dish. While were deliberating, our Amuse Bouches arrived: piping hot Parmesan Gougères which melted, gratifyingly, in the mouth.
The only disappointing element of my meal was the starter. The Pan-Seared Scallops (which Ray chose and enjoyed) featured a bacon foam that it wasn’t possible to separate from the scallops, leaving me with the vegetarian option of Beetroot, Fennel and Apple Salad with Truffle Dressing and Frisée Lettuce. It was, well…healthy. Very, very healthy – and must have accounted for at least three of today’s five a day.
Not to worry. What came next was far more enjoyable: Poached Halibut with King Oyster Mushrooms, Grelot Onions and a Vin Jaune Sauce. It was a triumph: the fish and vegetables were beautifully cooked and the sauce sheer perfection. Ray was equally satisfied with his Lamp Chops with a Spinach and Cavolo Nero Pearl Barley Risotto and Mary thoroughly enjoyed her Pork Belly served with Pomme Anna, Apple Purée and Port Jus.
And although I decided against the vegetarian main course in favour of the fish, I liked the sound of it: I would eat Freshly-Made Papardelle with Feves, Pea Purée and Parmesan any night of the week.
Next came a pre-dessert treat: an Aperol Spritz Granita. Colourful and enticing, it acted as the perfect palate cleanser.
Needless to say, we’d saved room for pudding: wouldn’t want to let down those hard-working students, after all. Again, it was a tough choice: I wavered between the S’mores Tart with Italian Hot Chocolate and the Elderflower & Gin Jelly, Pink Pepper Tuile and a Rosemary Cream: who doesn’t like the idea of what the students have nicknamed an ‘Edible G&T’?
In the end, the lure of the Italian Hot Chocolate proved too strong: I mean, just look at the photo below. A work of art – and delicious, to boot. Ray and I were delighted by our choice and Mary declared herself a fan of the Edible G&T.
This was a meal of the highest standard: it’s hard to believe that it was cooked by students. The prices were unbelievable, too: £15 for two courses or £20 for three. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a bottle of White Rioja on a restaurant wine list for £13.
I can’t recommend the Pillars experience highly enough. Great food, wine and service – and who knows, your meal may be cooked for you by the next Monica Galetti or Jamie Oliver. Wouldn’t that be something?