People assume that dining in the City of London is all about macho ingredients and power-play cooking. Not Barry Tonks, executive chef at Bonds, the fine-dining restaurant at the luxury, boutique-style, 70-bedroom Threadneedle hotel.
"The City is full of men, yes, but they don't all want to be bursting full at lunch," he says. "People want to be more health-conscious these days, so you have to provide that."
Tonks's style, accordingly, is much lighter than that of other chefs in this part of the town. You won't find any offal, for example. What you will find are clean-cut starters such as a tian of fresh Colchester crab, topped with a little slice of smoked salmon and a dollop of Oscietra caviar (£16.50).
Tonks picks out the white meat for the tian then blends the brown meat with some breadcrumbs and Armagnac. The starch from the bread thickens the mix, which is passed through a drum sieve and served next to the tian with some home-made blinis and sour cream.
Another best-selling starter is a truffle salad, made with leaves and shoots from Secretts Farm, Périgord truffle and baby artichokes, which the kitchen prepares à la grecque (£12.50). "This stays on all the time," Tonks says. Come spring, he promises the dishes will feature far more edible flowers and shoots.
Even meaty mains are refined affairs, partly to do with Tonks's precise presentation and partly to do with his focus when it comes to saucing. For roast loin of hare with a pomegranate jus (£19.50), Tonks starts the stock off with the hare bones and mirepoix tossed in honey, adding juniper, cinnamon and plenty of Armagnac. This all gives a complex flavour base, to which he adds fresh pomegranate. And for the final intense sweetness, he splashes in some grenadine.
Tonks stresses that such tricks are vital if you are going to perfect your saucing - a piece of attention to detail which he learnt in his time as senior sous chef with John Burton Race at the Landmark. For example, he will reduce Madeira or Port right down to add a spoonful to sauces just at the last minute; or include lemon juice to add a zing; or jus from a vegetable nage.
A roast fillet of sea bass with a basil minestrone, potato gnocchi (£20) is no different. This more Mediterranean-style dish starts with bacon trimmings which are caramelised with carrots, onions and celery. This mix is then wrapped in muslin and put in water with borlotti beans, and gently brought to the boil to make a stock. Tonks then adds a little chicken bouillon to enhance it.
Next he uses a little of the stock to cook small balls of raw carrot and courgette. He adds a few of the borlotti beans, some diced leek, a little gnocchi and tomato confit, before finishing with home-made pesto and thinly sliced mozzarella. The pan-fried sea bass sits on top with basil cress.
Puddings take a more classical turn with, for instance, crème brûlée and soufflé. For a prune and Armagnac soufflé (£7), Tonks macerates his prunes for a week with cinnamon and tea bags in Armagnac, water and sugar. "I then purée the fruit with some of that liquor to form a fruit base for the soufflé," he says.
Interestingly, he gets the whole brigade to work shifts on the pastry section, so that everyone becomes an all-rounder.
As Bonds is in a hotel, Tonks also has to look after room service and a 40-strong list of bar snacks - for which there is a separate kitchen. Lunch also features a more simple selection - £25 for three courses - with chicken liver and foie gras parfait to start, say, followed by roast pheasant or salmon fishcakes with a tomato and fennel fondue. He also offers a seven-course tasting menu for £55.
Tonks won a Michelin star in his year as head chef at McClements in Twickenham, west London, and it seems City folk approve of the style he has brought with him. With 18 months under his belt, all he needs now is for Michelin to approve it too.
What's on the menu
- Roast scallops, smoked black pudding, garlic cream, parsley coulis, £15.50
- Terrine of Andignac foie gras and Jurancon wine, caramelised brioche cream, toasted Pain Poilane, £12.50
- Salad of buffalo mozzarella, pumpkin and sage bavarois, Jamon Serrano, aged balsamic vinegar, £12.50
- Roast loin of Denham Estate venison, pumpkin purée, braised chestnuts, morello cherries, chocolate sauce, £23.50
- Roast piece of cod, scallop and octopus daube, confit celeriac, potato purée, £19.50
- Classic apple tarte tatin, Calvados crème fraîche (two persons), £14
- Peanut butter parfait, caramelised banana, Tanzanian chocolate sorbet, £7
- Warm chocolate ganache, caramelised milk ice-cream, £7.50
I love using Armagnac and, for any game sauce, a quick dash of neat Armagnac gives it a little lift. It also works well for a shellfish bisque.