Thursday, 27 September 2007

Saving The Best For Last (And About Time, Too!)

Three weeks ago I enjoyed my last supper at The Providores - the last decent meal out before leaving London for Barcelona. Well, that was the idea, anyway. A week ago I had another last supper with fellow foodies at L'Osteria dell'Arancio in Chelsea. An enjoyable way to finish my experiences of London food. Until, that was, Howard and Ben surprised me with an invitation to a last supper at newly-opened French brasserie Angelus in Bayswater. Thanks guys for an enjoyable evening. So... that was it.

Well, not quite. The truth is that I'd been feeling a bit guilty for ages about a certain local restaurant that I'd previously written about, but never visited. So when dad suggested a quiet dinner one night this week, I had no hesitation in nominating Bacchus, in Hoxton. It was the perfect opportunity to enjoy a meal and make amends for having ignored the best restaurant in my part of London.

I sent an email, requesting a table for two, apologising for the short notice. What I didn't anticipate was the response from Managing Director Phil Mossop: "I've been wondering when you were going to pay us a visit. I read your blog with interest and have done for about a year, following your journey through college. In fact, I saw you earlier this week at the Ratatouille screening but didn't realise it was you until afterwards. I've made the reservation... I'm sure chef Nuno will be delighted to hear about your plans."
Formerly an East End pub - now Hackney's contribution to molecular gastronomy
And so Nuno Mendes did on Tuesday night, as we stood chatting at the kitchen pass at midnight after an evening when I ate the best food I've experienced in my life. Now I may not be London's top food critic, but I know perfectly well what classic 2* and 3* Michelin restaurant food tastes like and this simply blows it all away. Nuno's 9-course tasting menu was... gosh, how do I put this?... phenomenal! I know there are some hostile reviews to be read out there on the internet, amongst the many positive ones. I simply cannot begin to understand what goes on in those people's heads and mouths. Perhaps I'm being too hard. A year or two ago I wouldn't have understood what Nuno Mendes is doing, either.

Casual dress code, but nothing casual about the food and wineOur tasting started with sensational bread and amuses. Moist-centered, melt-in-the-mouth bread rolls that were so good I felt I had to ask how and why. And the answer: they were cooked à la minute. Served with a decadently umami-sweet wild mushroom caramel. The other highlight was crispy "waffer-thin" bread tuiles, speckled with fragments of wonderfully bitter coffee.

We were served two amuses: a tiny, perfectly salty seaweed salad followed by a creamy seafood mousse with piri-piri oil.

The first course proper was a piece of tuna loin delicately melted onto an identically sized slice of "toast", which I've put in quotes to emphasise its gastronomic distance from Kingsmill sliced. Perched on the stylishly-constructed dish was a small pile of intensely flavoursome cherries in their own juices, a small salad of hijiki seaweed and fennel (a perfect balance of anise and saltiness), a cube of ginger sponge so light it could have floated back to the kitchen of its own accord, and a little sprinkling of fragrant, crumb-like rosemary gomasio that completed the balance of textures in this gorgeous dish.

Close your eyes and you're in a fishing villageNext up was a radical shift of scenery - from a dish evocative of a country garden to a dish redolent with the tastes and textures of the sea-shore. Lemongrass gel draped itself across crabmeat, reminiscent of seaweed on a beached shellfish, with waves of herbal broth lapping against tobiko flying fish roe and coral crumb sand. The crab was enhanced with yuzu - a SE Asian citrus fruit that brought out flavours from the crustacean I never even knew existed.

The third dish to arrive had an instantly calming effect, after the excitement of the earlier courses. The Calamar a la Plancha offered soft tentacles of squid in their own ink porridge, with a subtle pinch of lime leaf powder and oil, coconut and a foam that added essences of Thailand. A delicious down-to-earth respite between the punch of the earlier sea portrait and the sublimity of the coming masterpiece. And a masterpiece of flavours, textures, colours and temperatures it surely was. It didn't sound particularly thrilling - confit potatoes - but it turned out to be the most beautifully balanced combination of unlikely components I've ever eaten. Slices of potato in their own confit juices made a comforting platform, instantly challenged by coffee-sprinkled yoghurt foam with its bitter-creamy twist. And black olive paste achieved a parallel effect in partnership with 25-minute sous-vide poached quail eggs on the same plate.

Michelin expects every chef to do his dutyWe could both have skipped course number five for the same two reasons. Dad and I share a political objection to force-fed goose liver, but in truth neither of us actually enjoy the taste or texture of foie gras in any case. But we weren't going to send back a dish that orchestrated sweet mango with fiery Szechuan peppercorn on a green papaya gelée and the unmistakeable taste of macadamia in the form of a nutty purée. That was just poetry. I shouldn't criticise a component that I didn't eat, but for what it's worth the foie hadn't been sufficiently deveined.

By now the pattern of service was becoming a delightful experience. With a pause just long enough to enjoy the lingering flavours of each devoured dish, the detritus was whisked away to be replaced by the next offering, its accompanying wine having been served moments earlier in fresh glasses. I learnt something here that I hadn't really experienced before. I understood the importance of matching drinks with food and there was no doubting the brilliance of Restaurant Manager/Sommelier Derek's pairings. But whereas moving directly from wine to wine was sometimes uncomfortable, as soon as you'd taken the first mouthful of each new dish the matching wine felt completely natural. By this stage we were so confident of Derek's choices that we were calling the wines before they arrived, simply by reading the food menu. Something drier but with character for this course, a fuller bodied demi-sec for this and a rich red with a tannin edge with the next. No wine experts, either of us, but we were starting to learn.

A truly exceptional combination of flavours and texturesIf I'd skipped the protein content of the foie gras course, plate six more than made up for my loss. This was my second favourite dish of the evening - succulent sous-vide sea bass sitting above crunchy slices of mange tout and below crispy and salty kogiku leaves. Had the roasted lemon strips been shaved razor thin they would have perfectly complemented the bass, whereas excess thickness detracted somewhat from the overall textural balance. But this trivial fault was instantly forgotten after a single spoonful of the exquisite, pure-flavoured smoky aubergine consommé.

By this stage in the proceedings, dad and I were smiling across the table with smug self-satisfaction. With sufficient shots on the memory card for a subsequent write-up, the camera was abandoned as an inconvenience obstructing the immediacy of consumption. Which was a shame, as the dish that was to follow was (if my Portuguese-born Spanish-trained chef will forgive my French at this point) la pièce de résistance of the tasting menu. Melting suckling pig, slow cooked whole and neatly shredded, sitting beneath a crackling of jamón ibérico. Two textures of fig - roasted and fresh - with the crunchiness of the seeds transformed into an al dente delight by citrus curing. A smear of mascarpone adorned with soy paint - creamy and salty, white and black. An ingenious combination of flavours and textures that endowed this innovative creation with the characteristics of a tried-and-tested classic dish. I was blown away and dad had a tear in his eye.

Pistachio custard - comfort food, but still challengingOur penultimate tasting neatly bridged the gap between the "savoury" dishes and the final, sweet dessert. Slices of roasted nectarine lay across a champagne gelée that was set so delicately it seemed to float between solid and liquid states. A quenelle of brilliant white fromage sorbet with a pleasantly grainy taste completed an excellent contrast of flavours and textures. Heralding the evening's final course and the only truly sweet dish on the menu - pistachio custard. A rhubarb compote set onto pistachio custard, with a milkskin topping and a sprinkling of cinnamon, plus a rich smear of pear syrup. And you couldn't really stop there, could you? So there were petit fours for each of us - a classic crema Catalana plus a radical white truffle financier.

But wait... there was one final and very pleasant twist - a reminder that great food should always surprise you just when you least expect it. A white chocolate truffle, dusted with dark chocolate, ready to pop into the mouth whole. But paying attention to its orientation, because the taste experience was taken to an entirely different level by a single crystal of salt. Different ways up, this hit the tongue either before or after the chocolate, leading to equally great but quite different effects! Discussing the food afterwards, I explained to Nuno how I thought the flow and progression of his tasting menu could be compared to a boxing match. By which I meant he had a natural understanding of when to hold his guard with a more "down to earth" dish such as Calamar a la Plancha, and in which rounds to punch with the intense contrasts of a dish such as his Warm Tuna Toast.

A truly great chef is a jazz musicianA good chef's menu will be evolving all the time - to me great food should combine the precision of classical music with the inventiveness of jazz. Each time a dish is prepared it will be slightly different, reflecting the mood of the moment and according to how each component has turned out on previous occasions. A dish will never be exactly the same twice, and I don't think it should be. Nuno takes this a step further - literally evolving his dishes as he creates them. I even witnessed some small but significant changes on the night, as he served the same dish first to us and then to other customers!

It's also important to understand that the overall philosophy of today's contemporary gastronomy is reconstructivism. In seeking to advance and perfect a classical dish (or even a more modern one), you deconstruct it to its component flavours and textures and then devise the most effective way to reconstruct those components in such a way that everything maintains clarity and separation, both in space and time. So the way that textures and flavours turn out each time dictates the different way in which the dish will be constructed on each occasion. If Nuno's olive migas has a grainier texture or his Szechuan pepper paper has more fire to it on a given day, he will change the dish to suit these differences - sometimes literally as the dish is being plated at the pass. If something feels right, it feels right. As both artists and scientists, we shouldn't try to make everything identical every time, even if - as is unfortunately the case - consistency is the top evaluation criteria for Michelin inspectors. Consistency creates monotony, whereas creativity is the enemy of complacency.

Nuno Mendes - "one of the best chefs you've never heard of"At the end of the meal, for once in my life I was completely lost for words to describe the pleasure I was feeling. I guess the age-old cliché applies here, that a picture paints a thousand words. The expression on my face said it all. Restaurant Manager Derek looked exhausted, but relieved. I guess we hadn't been the easiest of customers - constantly wanting to engage him with comments here, constructive criticisms there. My dad got so carried away with the food that at one point he announced his intention to come out of retirement and set up his own gastronomic competitor down the road. Fat chance!

I can't imagine a restaurant more friendly, engaging and receptive to comment than Bacchus. They had nothing to fear from our table. As I remarked at the time, when it came to minor criticisms "it's not a case of adding to 0, but subtracting from 100". On Tuesday night there were very few subtractions.

So that's it, then. That really was the ultimate, final, terminal, concluding, definitive swan song of a last supper. I shan't be eating on the plane.


Chennette said...

Trig, I don't think I commented on your previous "last dinner" posts, but I read them all. And I think it's fitting that the food at the very last was so inspiring and indeed poetic! Good way to set off for Barcelona. Where we'll look forward to more of the culinary eloquence :-D ¡Buen Viaje!

Trig said...

Thank you Chennette. I'll try hard to keep posting. There's some interesting politics in Catalunya, with the left having made significant gains at the expense of the right at the last elections as a result of Spanish involvement in Iraq. But it's not for me to engage in the politics of other countries, especially those gracious enough to offer me a home and training.

Karen said...

Wow, that looks so good. I just love it when food has such a delicate presentation. I mean, you eat with your eyes first, right? I have to start going out more.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Not sure how to type REALLY BIG in a comment but the boys said their final and very loud... GOOD LUCK AIDAN!

Wonderful write up of your last, last meal and I love it that it was just with your Dad.

ros said...

Thanks for yet another excellent review, Trig. Bacchus is a definite contender for Andy's birthday which is coming up in a fortnight.

Jeanne said...

OMG how wonderful that sounds! They are not that far from my office and I don't know why I haven't been yet! Best of luck on your journey - I look forward to reading all about it.

L said...

I took my boyfriend here for his birthday. From the very beginning, the meal was an assault on the senses - absolutely fabulous. I was befuddled by the bad reviews I've seen, but clearly some of us have better taste ;-)

Trig said...

I think so, L - I just can't understand the bad reviews. I made some minor criticisms, but basically the food at Bacchus is fabulous as you said. And so much better than the food in many Michelin-starred restaurants.

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