The Westbury: 'The cooking has a subtlety as well as power.' Photograph: Neil Setchfield
Few trades these days are quite as guild-like as cooking. One of the main ways this works is that chefs start by putting in time working for someone else, often cooking in a restaurant that has the other guy's name over the door. Put in those years and eventually you get your chance to hang up your own sign, often with your former boss's backing and blessing. You learn the trade, pay your dues, then get your own shop.
- Alyn Williams at the Westbury
- The Westbury Hotel, Bond Street,
- W1S 2YF
- 020-7078 9579
- Open lunch Mon-Fri, noon-2.30pm, dinner Mon-Sat, 6-10.30pm. Lunch from £24 for three courses, dinner from £45 for three; tasting menus from £55.
Alyn Williams is a perfect example of this process in action. He spent five years as head chef at Marcus Wareing's restaurant in the Berkeley hotel, cooking some of the best food in England. Which isn't to say it's the most fun restaurant in the country: it is hard to liven up a hotel dining room, and Wareing's restaurant doesn't really try. It goes for an atmosphere of seriousness and reverent attention to what's on the plate. Temple of gastronomy – that's the ethos.
Williams's new restaurant at the Westbury hotel has his own name over the door, and this isn't the only similarity with his last place of work. The new venue is also a temple of gastronomy; it, too, has a muted hotel atmosphere, and an unembarrassed emphasis on "fine dining"; and it, too, has first-class cooking, which isn't surprising, given that it was Williams at the stove at Wareing's restaurant. The food is enjoyable but the room isn't: the panelling and soft-furnishing and exposed wine coolers somehow add up to a mortuary calm.
By now, you may not be thinking, cor, I must give that one a go, but there is one powerful incentive to try Williams's restaurant in the near future: the price, which ranges from a three-course set lunch at £24 to a seven-course tasting menu at £55. That might sound a lot, but the man's cooking earned two Michelin stars at his last place of work, and the new restaurant is at a very similar level – which makes this, especially given the Mayfair location, something of a bargain. Once the guides have finished festooning him, those numbers are going to go up.
The food is definitely festoonable. We had the normal tasting menu and the vegetarian one; Williams came out at the end and seemed genuinely curious about whether we'd liked it. I got the impression he enjoys the intellectual challenge of making the vegetarian menu match the conceptually less taxing meat-and-fish version. It's a challenge over which he triumphs, with dishes such as an amazing smoked egg with soldiers of fried brioche smeared with truffle and with a bit of celeriac underneath for crunch. Leeks come with vacherin, a show-stopping dish of great, deep, umami flavours, and more than a match for the chilled fingers of foie gras on the meat menu.
The cooking has subtlety as well as power. Cauliflower panna cotta is light and fresh and delicate, and comes with crisp wafers of cream cheese, for texture and sharpness, and with slivers of acorn. I'm not sure the acorn added much, but it was fun to try. A single fat scallop comes with a Mersea oyster on top and is dressed with a beautifully light apple and cucumber broth. When people say something "tastes of the sea", I tend to think, why on Earth would you want something that tastes of the sea, full as it is of diesel fuel, dead people and fish poo. This "tasted of the sea" in the sense of being delicate, faintly salty and appetite-sharpening. In a richer vein, but also very impressive, was a tiny dollop of onion soup with a miniature wafer of gruyère and finished with the inspired addition of crabmeat. It was everything you want from an onion soup packed into one small flavour-bomb.
Service is a strength. The wine waiter gives advice you can rely on, and the crew is mostly excellent, though one knew quite a bit less than the others (including not knowing what a "sea vegetable" is – admittedly a question that doesn't feature on the UK citizenship test). Put all this together and I can unreservedly recommend Williams's cooking, as long as you can handle the old-schoolery of the setting.
• Alyn Williams at the Westbury, The Westbury, Bond Street, London W1, 020-7078 9579. Open lunch Mon-Fri, noon-2.30pm, dinner Mon-Sat, 6-10.30pm. Lunch from £24 for three courses, dinner from £45 for three; tasting menus from £55.