Friday, 5 March 2010
Popup restaurant for Haiti, Putney
Reviewing a "popup" restaurant can seem at best pointless, at worst almost cruel. With such limited availability you're very unlikely to be able to use the review as a guide to eat out, and there's a danger the whole post could just seem like a protracted "look what you missed out on" taunt. But A quick glance at the calendar over at the Putney Popup website reveals not only a few very tempting evenings still yet to sell out, including Atul Kochhar's Benares and Rowley Leigh's Le Café Anglais, but also a second date for Phil Howard of the Square, whose cooking I was lucky enough to enjoy last night.
I hadn't visited The Square since early 2008 and yet the memory of that wonderful meal still seems as vivid. Put simply, I believe it to be the best fine-dining experience it's possible to have in London, even though these days it has strong competition from both its sister restaurant The Ledbury and the still scandalously unstarred Launceston Place in Kensington. A charity popup restaurant isn't perhaps the fairest situation in which to assess Phil Howards team, who after all are trying their best in a different surroundings and with little to no 'bedding-in' time, but as I discovered last night, The Square at 80% is still a very satisfying experience indeed.
Two dainty amuses were the first to arrive, one a tiny cone containing what tasted quite like taramasalata, and another which looked like a small black bread roll and contained some sort of seafood paste (possibly squid). Clever cooking techniques and robust flavours - even more impressive in a temporary kitchen.
Beetroot and goats cheese is a tried and tested combination almost to the point of cliché - it seems every restaurant in the country has used these ingredients together at some point. But here, lightened with a clever balsamic 'cream' and using various different types (and colours) of beetroot it was lifted above the average. The vegetables were sweet and juicy, and shavings of parmesan added an umami kick.
It's no real insult to say that the "ravioli of scallops and langoustine claws" wasn't quite up to the level of the truly mindblowing "Cornish crab lasagne with basil cappuccino" I was served at The Square a couple of years ago - after all, I think that crab is probably the single nicest dish I've ever eaten in my life. But their skill with top quality ingredients was still stunningly evident, from the sweet, clementine-flavoured champagne foam to the lovely course texture of the seafood mix inside the perfectly cooked pasta. I suppose it could be argued that this wasn't the most attractive of dishes, but what it lacked in visual appeal it made up for in heady, velvety freshness.
Main course of smoked venison loin was even better. Sweet, impeccably cooked venison was arranged neatly on gorgeous creamed cabbage, and an interesting selection of root vegetables provided extra texture. It was all surrounded by a reduced sauce which was as good as any I've tried and provided a deep, silky bed for the venison and vegetables. This was most certainly a two Michelin star dish and all the more impressive for having been constructed in deepest Putney.
A pre-dessert was reminiscent of the Ledbury's famous summer fruits Bellini, which immediately begged the question, where did they get their summer fruits from? However all was forgiven on tasting it - perfectly balanced red fruit purée beneath a rich pink strawberry mousse, topped with a single light doughnut.
I had decided to go for the cheese course, and although I was perhaps slightly disappointed they hadn't brought over the complete cheese trolley from the mothership, they had nevertheless selected a very interesting plate of cheeses. Comté, Stinking Bishop and Tomme de somethingorother were as tasty as always, but were overshadowed by a simply stunning piece of Camembert, definitely the best Camembert I've ever tried. All the cheeses came from Paxton and Whitfield, so I'm going to make it my mission to track down some more for myself.
With petit fours of excellent nougat and a cup of fresh mint tea, we were done. The evening would have been worthwhile even if the food had not been delicious - the fact that it was also the best meal I had enjoyed in some time was a delightful bonus, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't just the smug sense of charity do-gooding that made it taste better. There's still time to snag a table for the next Howard evening on the 18th, so what are you waiting for? It's for a good cause, after all.
The meal at the Popup Restaurant in Putney cost £60 not including service and alcohol. Many thanks also to Rejina, my charming date for the evening.