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db Eats: Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal

Douglas Blyde visits Alex Dilling’s establishment at Regent Street’s Hotel Café Royal. While there, he discovers how “perpetually positive” head sommelier Giuseppe Grasso has developed the restaurants list, and finds one dish that evokes “very posh Marmite”.

“Having opened only in September 2022, it has soared to the top of the UK restaurant charts, gaining two Michelin stars,” wrote The Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs of Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal in April, while Square Meal praised the “peerless cooking” at this “instant classic”.


In contrast to the grand Grill Room below, the light, minimal interiors on this mezzanine floor are intelligently envisioned by Grace Sheppard, sister of Victoria, the owner and founder of this restaurant and deluxe coffee specialist, Queens of Mayfair. With views through a glazed wall of wine to the hugely crewed kitchen, the bar is framed by two suede panels commissioned by textile artist, Aiveen Daly, their flowers depicting Dilling’s signature clam chowder dish in hand-wrought beadwork, pearls and bronze. In the 36-cover dining room adjacent, where low ceilings are mitigated by warm tinted mirrored panels, there is a small library of vintage Michelin guides. Deep windows inhabited by LED-lit reindeers on our visit overlooking Regent Street and Air Street. The quartet of banquettes at the room’s centre offer the finest seats. A sometimes perplexing soundtrack, perhaps intended to put guests at ease, cuts from “Sunny” (feat. Pandrezz), to “Thank U, Next” (Vitamin String Quartet), and “Magic Hoodie” (Jazzinug). Fellow guests tonight ranged from supermodels from Shanghai in Chanel, to a chirpy Tom Booton, being the head chef of the eponymous grill room at The Dorchester.


In the role since the first of July, the perpetually positive head sommelier and buyer, Giuseppe Grasso rose from senior waiter at the nearby Brasserie Zédel to head sommelier at London’s once leading Japanese, Umu. There, off Bruton Place, the Sicily-born Grasso savoured his time alongside head chef, Yoshinori Ishii, a multipotentialite involved in the restaurant’s every aspect, from fashioning crockery by hand, to flower arranging, as well as directing the fishermen at his command to dispatch their catches faster using the more humane, and potentially flavour enhancing, “Ikejime” method. During his tenure at Umu, Grasso undertook a ten-day tour of Japan, led by an interest in sake, hence expect sake to make its debut in this dining room shortly.

Having inherited a spreadsheet-like wine list, Grasso, who is studying to be a Master Sommelier, wasted little time in dealing with the document, going so far as to take the project with him on holiday. Rather than egotistically forge his own vinous path, putting on labels which foremost excite his palate while potentially neglecting the diner, Grasso is determined “to represent the restaurant and work towards the aim of Alex” which is unmistakeably to gain a third Michelin star, while “ensuring there is something for everyone.”

Displayed on a trolley, and poured high at eye level so the action is closely mirrored on the ceiling, sparkling wines might include Ca’ del Bosco’s Cuvée Annamaria Clementi Reserve 2014, and Telmont, this being a flagship restaurant account for the environmentally hyper-aware Champagne marque led by “greenmaker”, Ludovic du Plessis. Other wines on pour include an example of the lesser-spotted white Crozes-Hermitage (Domaine des Remizieres Blanc’s Cuvée Particuliere 2020), Weingut Stenner’s Spätburgunder Hechtsheimer 2019, and the august 1986 Intorcia Marsala Vergine Riserva Secco.

By the bottle, options range from Chateau Musar’s Jeune Blanc 2020 at £60 to, at approximately double markup on retail, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Echezeaux 2015 at £8,500. An option from outside Europe is Timbervine Syrah 2013 from Radio-Coteau, a producer from Russian River which Grasso fondly recalls from his days at Umu. English wines, like sake, are in the pipeline.


The kitchen is led by executive chef, Alex Dilling, and head chef, Pierre Minotti – a duo which worked together for several years. Dilling’s culinary career began in New York at Alain Ducasse’s Adour (RIP) then Caviar Russe, while in the UK and Paris, he worked with Hélène Darroze as Executive Corporate Chef. He later became head chef at The Greenhouse (RIP), earning two Michelin stars for precise, distinctive dishes served in a zen-like setting.

To open the curtains on today’s performance, Grasso poured a Zalto of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs which was soon eclipsed by the display of impeccable canapés. Amberjack tartare, encased in a wafer-thin taco, featured a gently building cep bavarois, warm sashimi of mackerel, a fish which used only to appear on set lunch menus, was swathed on a crisp brandade sphere with supple aioli, a cube of warm bacon and truffle bread with Comte evoked very posh Marmite, while a red curry sabayon in a petite glass, topped with bacon bits and chive, seemed to define umami. Finally, a superfine chickpea tart encapsulated a crayfish cocktail with dill and a silky Marie Rose-esque sauce. Bread included a beautifully woven, croissant-like cylinder of black olive and sardine tapenade, served with a soap-shaped butter impressed with Dilling’s initials.

Dilling himself topped the first course – a particularly pretty raw Scottish langoustine tart with crème fraiche and pink peppercorn resting on a cream of Hess avocado – with a decent spoonful of three-month mature Kaluga caviar. While “Champagne would have been the safe option,” Grasso instead deployed Rudi Pichler’s ripe lemon, peach, and apricot 2020 Red Hochrain Smaragd Riesling from Wachau. “With the salt of caviar, we needed body and acidity from the wine,” he adroitly reasoned.

Modestly introduced as “Pâté de Campagne”, sliced as if by a scalpel into a trio of cubes, their tiers formed of chicken liver, and pork shoulder with pistachio, were topped with mushroom jelly. Looking like a pretty, jumbo woodlouse, a filigree, flaking, truffled croissant, sweet and sour pickled cucumber rosette, and just tart enough honey mustard, accompanied the implausibly light dish. Rather than sweet wine, Grasso chose Girolamo Russo’s ‘a Rina Etna Rosso 2020 led by almost century-old Nerello Mascalese vines from Etna’s north slopes, to bring fresh wild strawberry notes, maraschino, and iron from the volcanic terroir. Elegant.

Poured via Coravin into a glass jug which, when tipped, looked like the interior of the Michelin man mascot, Grasso went next to Burgundy. Similarly lithesome to the Etna, Domaine Philippe Livera’s Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Village 2021 accompanied a dish Dilling introduced as a “new one on tonight.” A canon of Devon skate wing, its flesh as juicy as porchetta, was finished in a Madeira and Port sauce. “I don’t think we need a white wine in this case,” said Grasso, while our fellow diner praised the dish as, “This is what you come to restaurants like this for.”

Grasso journeyed across the Atlantic for the next pairing. With honeysuckle, marzipan, and coconut notes, Shafer’s luxurious Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2019 from Carneros is so-called because red-shouldered hawks apparently hover over the vineyard, keeping populations of gopher and their ilk under control. This hedonistic wine worked with splendid turbot from the waters of Plymouth, heated over Japanese coals, with a sort of lily pad of raw pink shrimp, confit potato, caviar, and very richly saffron-enriched bouillabaisse.

Not often seen on an upmarket wine flight, Carménère, in this case, Tres Palacios Gran Reserva 2020 from, Maipo showed clear varietal character, including coffee notes, and even Padron pepper. “When I get Carménère in a blind tasting, I thank God very much,” said Grasso of the easy-to-spot grape. Not being overly bulky, it accompanied fine Limousin sweetbreads with a viscous veal jus, “which is why I chose a wine of this weight,” said Grasso. A trio of three miniature boudin blanc were topped with discs of Morteau sausage from Franche-Comté, upon Comté itself.

Complete of profile, unlike several second wines of Bordeaux, La Dame de Montrose 2015, with black pepper notes, met Creedy Carver duck. This had been salt aged for eight days before being roasted on the crown for two hours while being “moisturised”, said our server, as if talking of a fowl-friendly spa, every few minutes with light honey. This was served with a farci, “which is basically a faggot” said our guest, of thigh meat and cep.

Served without wine to allow a little breathing space, dried meringue held a citrus and vanilla cream, and was finished with rousingly fragrant clementine zest.

Grasso served the last drink of the meal blind, not in an attempt to catch his guests out, but to prevent them from bringing a potential sense of prejudice. A remarkable Ethiopian coffee sabayon, “which is not the kind of dessert which needs sweet wine” met Mira Le Mar’s surprisingly acid-high, caramel-like, Amontillado, which prolonged the taste of the coffee on the palate. “It is one of the most beautiful blinds,” said Grasso.

Last word

This hotel has a history of putting its restaurants in unlikely places, initially penning guests amidst monolithic poles of sorts in the reception area, before moving them to a desolate grill-type operation on the draughty-seeming balcony above. Meanwhile, it relegates its most grand of spaces, the Grill Room, to afternoon tea use. And today, one of the world’s most exciting and focused chefs has been allocated a half-height space contrastingly reached via a grand staircase. Regardless of the constraints of the venue, returning a year and a month from first dining here on opening day, when the team had only just got into their official kitchen, having had to conduct previews from a breakfast kitchen, the quality of dishes, all of which were new to us, showed ever greater skill and flair, and depth of flavour. Adding to the mix the likeable Grasso, and the liquid assets should continue to be bolstered in line with the determinations of the masterful Dilling.

Best for

  • Caviar and truffle
  • Sauces (hence the presence of sauce spoons)
  • France and Burgundy
  • Sparkling wine trolley

Value: 92, Size: 93, Range: 91, Originality: 96, Experience: 99; Total: 94.2

Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal – 68 Regent Street, London, W1B 4DY; 020 7459 4022;;

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