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Pearl Restaurant & Bar, 252 High Holborn, London WC1

Clifford Mould enjoyed some superlative cooking with fine wines

It's amazing the range of fine old buildings that have recently been converted into rather grand restaurants. There have been banking halls, libraries and even court rooms. Pearl Restaurant occupies part of the old Pearl Assurance's headquarters in Holborn, a paragon of Edwardian architectural splendour that was designed to make a visible and tangible statement of the company's probity and standing. The room is lofty and airy, the moulded ceilings supported by marble columns, but it has been sympathetically modernised to great effect with literally millions of suspended pearls to create room dividers and to adorn modernist chandeliers.

The head chef is Jun Tanaka, who happens to be Japanese,  but has worked for over ten years in some of London's top restaurants, seven of them Michelin starred. I'm always intrigued by the way many Japanese can get right inside our culture and then excel in its execution. One has only to think of great Japanese classical musicians: conductors, pianists, violinists, for instance. Or in the literary field, with authors such as Kasuo Ishiguro, who in The Remains of the Day teased out the essences of the English class system and its obsessive reticences. If there is a Japanese accent in Jun Tanaka's cooking, it is as muted as the Japanese accent in his speech.

I went along with a friend at midday, when there is a pretty comprehensive lunch menu, two courses for £23.50, three for £26.50.
After a substantial amuse of a trio of little pâtés, we began with a well made raviolo of confit duck  in a consommé also of duck, the whole thing topped off with seared foie gras. This was a particularly satisfying dish, both visually and on the palate. The filling of the raviolo reminded me a little of dim-sum, and the Marco Polo legacy of an earlier culinary diaspora sprang to mind. The crispy pig's trotter was a masterpiece of expert cuisine: the trotter was first boned out, then stuffed, then rolled into a sausage, then cut into segments, finally coated in fluffy breadcrumbs and sautéed. It came with celeriac remoulade and little cubes of caramelised veal tongue, looking like lardons. I really enjoyed this dish!

Meanwhile the avuncular wine director Michael Davis, an American whose enthusiasm has a sophisticated focus, was plying his wares. He has a high tech nitrogen system for keeping open bottles fresh, so that he can offer some really interesting wines by the glass - yes, even Pichon-Longueville! Each of us had something different to eat, so each of us had a different wine to drink, carefully chosen to complement our food. With the trotter, Yalumba's "Tri-Centenary Vines" Grenache, and with the duck a slightly grippier Gigondas from the Chateau du Trignon.

We were in bullish mood, so two substantial dishes on the lunch menu were chosen. I ordered the rabbit paella with gratinated king prawns etc. I always think it's tempting fate to put traditional dishes like paella on a menu, because if you do clever things with them, there will always be some even more clever bastard who'll moan that it isn't the way it should be. So here goes: the rice was nice, but too much like a risotto. For me, paella rice should have congealed into a sticky mass that is scraped off the bottom of the pan, which makes it go all caramelised and shiny. Having said that, this version scored ten out of ten for presentation, and it tasted delicious - the rabbit was tender and tasty, the prawns were coated in a delicate green salsa and the risotto was pretty good too! It's paella, Jim, but not as we know it!

The braised oxtail "bourguignon" looked amazing - just like one of those fillet steaks sitting on the plate like a top hat. Again, it had been boned and rolled, and sat on confit red cabbage, (one of my favourites). This was another exuberant display of culinary expertise that more importantly shows a respect for the beast, in that the most tender care is lavished on what might be considered the least important part, the tail. With the paella came an excellent choice of Pinot Noir from New Zealand, a thoroughbred from the Ata Rangi stable. Penfold's weightier Bin 389 Shiraz-Cabernet did justice to the oxtail without  ruining the rest of the day for my guest.

Head pastry chef Ben Knell is quite an artist, creating exceptionally pretty dessert dishes. Nevertheless with great gusto, my guest tore into his lovely gingerbread semi-freddo decorated with rhubarb foam and I lost no time in wrecking a delicious espresso coffee parfait which came teamed up with a perfect square of intensely flavoured lemon tart. The pastry was a bit soft, but the brûlée topping was as crisp and thin as cat ice.

This was a really marvellous lunch and I can't wait to return to try the full a la carte menu which costs £39 for two courses, £45 for three. There's also the six course tasting menu, priced at £55.00. Sommelier Michael Davis will I'm sure rise spectacularly to the challenge of matching wines to each course. Details of Pearl's menus and wine lists can be found on their website, see link below.

Clifford Mould, March 2006

Dine Online Highly Recommended

Pearl Restaurant, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN
Tel: 020 7829 7000

Web http://www.pearl-restaurant.com

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