When people said Tom Aikens’ new restaurant was pretentious, or even “the most pretentious restaurant in Britain”, I didn’t view this as necessarily a bad thing. Pretentious takes many shapes in the eye of the annoyed. It can mean stiff, formal and “reet up itself” to the point of joylessness. That, I’m not a fan of. Life is far too short.
Pretentious, can, however, also mean eccentric, incomprehensible, wilfully weird and wholly unique. I like this type of purposeful bewilderment much more; it makes life feel much longer and fuller. I could watch people ranting about why Tracey Emin’s bed is not art all day long; or why Bang Bang It’s Reeves And Mortimer isn’t funny. When my glorious reign begins, the national anthem will be Kate Bush’s 26-minute conceptual piece The Ninth Wave, in which she screams her way through a sea rescue featuring helicopters and an Irish jig.
In this vein, I also had much openness for Aikens’ Muse, a small, odd, bolshy but emotionally fragile new opening in Belgravia, London, with exorbitant prices; you even have to wire a £200 deposit to them before your booking is honoured. The word doing the heavy lifting there is “deposit”: dinner for two – 10 courses, with a cocktail and a couple of glasses of wine each – will easily come in at £400-plus.
Muse has 25 seats, and a handful of kitchen crew and front-of-house. The decor is the meeting point between a Mad Hatter’s womb-like retreat, an Israeli art-deco boutique hotel and a community centre climbing wall. When I arrived slightly early, I peered through the downstairs window into the lounge area to see Aikens himself, the first guest at his own house party, standing there alone. Feeling invasive, I retreated to the pub next door to kill time.
From the outset, Aikens offered no precise menu for Muse. This was catnip to critics, and we longed, despite ourselves, to know what his “experience-led” journey inspired by “nostalgia and pivotal moments” was really about. And when we learned that the menu was not remotely a menu at all, but more a collection of, well, musings, with courses given titles such as “Conquering the Beech Tree [below]. My first memory as a child was a sense of fearlessness; I was always taking risks and looking for challenges. We had a very tall and beautiful copper beech tree in our garden that I would climb again and again. As chefs, we must always challenge ourselves”…
Well, at that point, a great clucking and flapping broke out. The food world genuflects all day long at the brooding yesteryear bonkersness of Marco Pierre White, and then someone such as Aikens dares to be that type of wild-eyed, self-absorbed iconoclast and onlookers very much don’t like it. If he had opened a place called Mooch and charged 200 quid for peelings he’d scrounged out of a bin to save the planet, this level of goody-two-shoes madness would be received rapturously.
Still, after the initial blowback over his “concept”, Aikens relented and added tiny descriptions to his “menu”. Thus, beneath that beech tree paragraph it now reads “(langoustine, pork fat, burnt apple)”. This gives very little away of the dish actually being langoustine tail braised deliciously in armagnac and served with rosemary-infused apple, langoustine custard and a ragout of fennel and artichoke. Oh, plus a little pop-up book with a beech tree.
“Neither Black nor White” is a glorious riff on cauliflower panna cotta, served with cauliflower ice-cream and pickled gold raisins, verjus and caviar. “Cows and Cornflakes” is a trip to Auvergne to drink fresh, rich cow’s milk with cereal; the dish is malty and popcorn-strewn.
Dissecting each dish in print feels churlish; Muse should be a surprise. One needs to feel the odd sensation of Aikens wandering over to the table to deliver performance art set-pieces on his mother’s love of pickling, his unruly love of fire or his wayward childhood on the muddy flats of the north Norfolk coast.
Few people are less suited than Tom Aikens to wearing their hearts on their sleeves, five times nightly, before absolute strangers. His compulsion, his arch determination to do this feels like being part of 10 courses of delicious talking therapy, or a Marina Abramović installation. Muse is a cathartic rumination on life with canapes of milk cured with chestnut cream, tiny cep tarts and London’s best homemade bread with chicken butter. I was less of a diner, more of an in-patient.
Muse is pretentious, yes, but it’s the sort of pretentious I live for. Set me a table in Pseud’s Corner: I’ve found my restaurant of the year.
• Muse, 38 Groom Place, London SW1, 020-3301 2903. Open lunch Weds-Fri 12.30-2.30pm; dinner Tues-Sat, 6.30-11pm. Set menus only, £95 for six courses, £145 for 10; lunch only, £50 for three courses, all plus drinks and service.