It was a sunny August day and I was walking along the streets of South Kensington, when I spotted a building on Harrington Road that I vaguely recognised. It used to be a dark and dingy hotel, one of those places where even the most curious of people wouldn’t want to step foot in. Now it had been transformed back to its original Victorian grandeur, with its newly fresh-painted façade open for business – this time as the Ampersand Hotel.
True, 111 rooms and suites sounds a large number for a boutique hotel, and yet walking through its doors is like entering into a welcoming home – elegant but cosy at the same time. The overall design combines the five scientific concepts of botany, music, geometry, ornithology and astronomy; reflecting South Kensington’s past and present-day heritage. Remarkably, they all connect extremely well.
Last December, I booked to stay an entire week while celebrating my wedding in London. So it really was a real delight to enjoy the delicious comforts of Head Chef Chris Golding’s Mediterranean-style cuisine at the hotel’s Apero restaurant for the whole seven days.
Tucked away in the hotel’s lower basement floor, the restaurant combines both sophistication and a laid back, easy going vibe. Under the brick exposed coves, there is a charming hide-away area called ‘The Snuggery”. Here you can treat yourself to an intimate dinner, curtained off from other customers, and enjoy some precious privacy.
There’s a ‘wear what makes you comfortable’ attitude, with no obligation to wear six-inch Christian Louboutins or a smart jacket. Of course PJs and Ugg boots might be pushing it, but I don’t think Chris would even blink an eye. “We want our guests to feel comfortable and have a good time,” he says. “There are too many hotel restaurants that are stuffy and expensive.”
During my stay, I sampled practically the entire menu – in large quantities I might add - but the dish that got my taste buds in a twizzle was the sharing menu. I was able to taste most of Chris’s signature dishes without feeling the ton of guilt at the end.
One dish particularly worth highlighting is the stone bass, sumac and beetroot risotto. He must be pulling my leg, I thought. Beetroot risotto? It doesn’t even exist in Italy! But low and behold, the dish was splendorous. Cooked to perfection, al dente and smooth. The sweet, relucent pink juices of the beetroot gently coating each rice grain. Even my Italian in-laws were flabbergasted with how good it tasted.
So how did Chris end up in Apero I wondered? I was interested to hear his story.
“I started working in kitchens when I was 13,” Chris explained, “washing dishes in a restaurant where my nan was a waitress.”
At the age of 17, he moved to London. Despite having no formal qualifications, his passion and determination got him a job at Marco Pierre White’s Criterion in Piccadilly. From there, his learning curve continued with invaluable experiences at some of the most renowned restaurants in London, including the Square, Mirabelle, Nobu, Nahm and Zuma. When he was approached to head up the kitchen at the Ampersand, Chris felt a strong connection with both the general manager, Roberto Pajares, and the restaurant’s vision and concept.
When I ask Chris why he loves working at Apero, he replies: “I have the freedom to change the menus when I like, and experiment when I like. I love seeing our customers happy and surprised when they discover Apero and realise that hotel restaurants can be fun.” And with a price tag that’s affordable, you walk away feeling you’ve definitely got your money’s worth. This is Chris’s absolute goal, to offer value for money to his guests.
There is another secret to a successful kitchen — the team that you create and then work so closely with. And I truly believe Chris has been able to achieve this important combination. Ji Sun, Chris’s pastry chef, has a renowned career history. Having worked most recently as Pastry Sous chef at Nobu London for 5 years, she now designs afternoon tea menus and makes all the pastries in the hotel’s drawing room. I’ve experienced many a scone and cucumber sandwich in my time, but Ji Sun delivers a display of delights with a very chic and elegant twist. She also has the freedom to experiment and can be as creative as she desires, to her heart’s content.
So I wholeheartedly recommend that you check out her Valentines afternoon tea menu, which starts in a couple of weeks. It’s also well worth taking a good look at Chris’s blog to catch a glimpse of what Ji Sun has up her sleeve, as well as discover what goes on behind the scenes with the rest of the Apero team.
Chris’s final words to me are: “We have a great team here at the Ampersand, we are all very passionate about the service we provide,” and he says it with complete sincerity. And that’s what I love about Apero, the sincerity and a high-end dining experience, without all the pretentiousness.
So keep that beetroot risotto on the menu Chris, until I’m next back in London!
The Ampersand Hotel: 10 Harrington Road, London, SW7 3ER, UK
Member of Mr & Mrs Smith Hotels
I stayed at the Ampersand Hotel at my own expense and the opinions expressed here in this article are my own.
Photo credit (facade only) – © Frank Van Delft
Photo credits – © Amy Murrell