Sunday, 18 March 2007
There are few things more exciting than to go to a restaurant and find something on the menu you've not seen before. Whether an unfamiliar ingredient, an unusual combination of flavours or even a standard dish prepared in a different way, I am always thankful for the existence of restaurants and chefs that are prepared to be brave and try something new. In recent years, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Ferran Adria's El Bulli have become world-renowned for their deconstructive approach to cuisine, and challenge diners to experience flavour combinations that would traditionally seem bizarre or unpalatable - for example Snail Porridge or Bacon and Egg ice-cream. It's not for everyone, I imagine, this kind of food, but the worst you can say about it is that it is genuinely inventive.
Having said all that, unless you really are at the top of your game as a chef, just throwing together random ingredients on a plate and calling it 'molecular gastronomy' isn't going to work, and at the back of my mind there was the worry that at Bacchus I could end up eating something out of a Mike Leigh film.
Thankfully, the chefs at Bacchus know exactly what they're doing, which is just as well, as when presented with the menu I probably recognised only about 50% of the ingredients. Hon shimeki, dashi, eringe, milk yuba roll, pate de brique - these all just from the six starters - and I don't think I was alone in my bemusement as one of the waitresses first questions was "Is there anything about the menu I can explain for you?". Clearly she had seen the look on my face on others before.
The first thing we did order was a couple of house cocktails - from the list of just three - and which turned out to be very interesting. My "Bacchus Bloody Marvellous" was a herby, lighter take on a bloody mary, the only problem being a strange slimy piece of spring onion "garnish" which hung limply off the edge of the glass like a garden slug making a bid for freedom. Not very attractive.
After trying the tasty house bread with some very nice salty butter, an amuse-bouche of (I think I remember correctly) some sort of pork ravioli with a quince jus arrived. I loved it but I think some of my fellow diners weren't too sure.
My starter was described as "Rabbit mousse, potato leaves, cherries, hazlenuts, sprouts", but despite that long list the first thing that I noticed was the garnish of several pansy leaves. Very colourful, and actually the first time I'd seen these being used in a restaurant, despite occasionally spotting them on sale in Fresh & Wild for the dinner party set of Battersea. Perhaps when it's cold outside they scatter them in the garden and pretend it's spring. Anyway, the rabbit was less of a mousse than a pate, but had a lovely texture to contrast with the crunchy leaves, and the accompanying cherries were just bitter enough to complement the creamy rabbit perfectly. A great little dish with only a small amount more style than substance.
Next up was "Sesame crusted squab, cured fois gras, berries, milk skin", and was a fantastic dish. I am a big fois gras fan, and just a slab of this on a plate would alone be enough to send me into rapture (indeed the Greenhouse in Mayfair does exactly that), but here the delicate little circles of perfectly cooked fois were sandwiched inbetween crunchy flakes of sugar and salt which cracked delightfully as you bit into them. The pigeon was very rare, with the crunchy sesame coating giving up its flavours as you went for the tender meat beneath. I also think I noticed a very subtle base of bitter dark chocolate, which may have been just an extra flavour too much, but this was a minor downside to an otherwise superb plate of food. A New Zealand Pinot Noir washed it all down very nicely.
With the first two courses as spectacular as those, we could hardly resist a dessert, and indeed my "Polenta cake, mascarpone, orange granita, rosemary, cinnamon" was so delicious I completely forgot to take a picture of it.
Still, as you can see, I did enjoy it. That plate had a pattern on it when it arrived.
Service thoughout was as good as you can expect in any mid-range restaurant, and they also get extra points for a no-smoking rule. However this created one aspect of the place we didn't like - that every 5 minutes one cigarette-starved diner would get up for a smoke outside, allowing the chilly London air to blow in through the open door. Also, towards the end of the evening the noise levels in the echoey room rose to quite uncomfortable levels, not helped by the powerful sound system blasting out house music over the general din.
So a few minor niggles aside, this certainly was food worth making the journey across London for. The bill came to about the same as that at the Greyhound the other night (who should hang their heads in shame for charging so much for such mediocrity) and included a healthy amount of booze. All in all, this was exciting, theatrical cooking and proof that you don't need the budget of Heston Blumenthal to create genuinely innovative cuisine.