Friday, 3 September 2010
Ben Greeno at Tudor Road, Hackney
Of all the strange fads and trends that sweep through the Twittering classes of London, I never thought the concept of the underground restaurant would ever catch on. It seemed like such an odd idea, paying someone to host a dinner party and being forced to make small-talk with a bunch of people you'd never met; and after all, if I wanted to pay £20 for my dinner aren't there enough overground restaurants in London to take your money, and provide a bigger menu and a nice quiet table for two by the window into the bargain?
And yet, persuaded by more open-minded and enthusiastic people than myself (hard to believe such people exist, I know), in March last year I found myself knocking on the door of a handsome Victorian townhouse somewhere in Kilburn, and ushered into the front room of Ms Marmite Lover's original Underground Restaurant along with 20 or 30 others. And far from finding the whole experience oppressive or weird, I absolutely loved every minute of it - the food, the slightly illicit shared sense of occasion, the interesting people, even the impromptu drunken singalong around the piano at the end of the night. Since then, I have visited perhaps a dozen other similar enterprises, and whilst the standard of the food served has varied quite dramatically, I have never had anything less than a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
But this is the first time I've written any of them up. The problem is, underground restaurants are so focussed and intimate (and liberally supplied with alcohol) that often by the end of the evening you've made a handful of new best friends and shared your life story with the person you're paying to cook your dinner. And given that I would inevitably not always consider the food served to be brilliant, I could either be brutally honest and write them all up, and risk severing a few new friendships, or just keep schtum. Despite the openly commercial nature of these evenings, by writing a straightforward review I was terrified I'd come across as boorish and ungrateful, which is odd because I have no such hangups about slating anywhere else in London charging me for food. But underground restaurants are about much more than dinner - they're so often exciting and enjoyable despite what's put on the table in front of you, not because of it - and I was never confident I could convey that on a food blog.
Fortunately, Ben Greeno's supperclub is all about the food. Sure, it's a lovely little flat, Ben himself is a charming host and the group of people gathered last night were interesting and pleasant and clearly enthusiastic supperclub fans, but as you would hopefully expect from a professional chef who's worked at the Loft and Sat Bains, the food is a cut above what you might expect from a home cook. For example, the first thing I noticed on arrival was a huge water bath machine on the kitchen top, slow-cooking a couple of dozen eggs at a precise 62 degrees. This is clearly not someone who learned his stuff from Delia Smith.
Events got off to a flying start with my favourite dish of the whole night, raw mackerel fillets with gooseberry and nasturtium. The fish was as fresh and moist as the finest grade sashimi, and the citrusy nasturtium leaves perfectly complimented the fatty mackerel. Not only was it exciting and unusual in terms of presentation and ingredients, it tasted absolutely brilliant.
Next, leeks with cob nuts and brown butter. Despite the vegetarian ingredients this dish was almost meaty in its depth of flavour, helped I'm sure in no small part by the very seasonal roasted cobs. I loved the crispy charred skin on the leeks too.
Here we finally got to try the slow-cooked eggs, delicately flavoured with a couple of slices of summer truffle and some buttery new potatoes. The egg itself was a remarkable texture, gelatinous and ethereally silky, but it was a shame the truffle didn't have much (in fact any) flavour or aroma. Perhaps they were slightly past their best.
A neat rectangular slice of lamb belly was served with a couple of sharp leaves of endive, and a little nugget of sweetbread. The lamb, layered and delicate as a savoury millefeuille, cut easily and satisfyingly with a normal table knife, and the sweetbread was crunchy outside and creamy within. Those dark spots on the top of the lamb by the way are elderberries - another unusual combination but one used to great effect.
I don't know what Ben had done to these raspberries but they tasted astonishing - either they had been concentrated or treated somehow to massively enhance their flavour or they were just the greatest raspberries on the planet. Either way, they were a joy to eat. Mixed in with them were a couple of broken pieces of meringue for texture and - interestingly - some tiny pine buds which Ben had apparently picked a few months back in Scandinavia then frozen. They added a heady aroma of a mountain forest.
Finally, these bitesize salted caramel truffles, dusted with chocolate powder, went down an absolute treat. Unusually perhaps for a chocolate truffle, they were quite cold, and whether by accident or design the temperature only added to the appeal. I'm still yet to dislike any food item involving the words "salt" and "caramel", and I doubt I ever will.
So a fantastic evening, then, and an absolute bargain at £35/head. In many ways this is a meal that could only really happen - at this price at least - in a supperclub, where one chef, unencumbered by overheads, staff, markups and legalities, is free to persue his own ideas and experiments to a captive audience of fellow obsessives. And I'm also fairly sure it can't last - Ben will either be snapped up by a wiley restaurateur or launch an "overground" place of his own, and before too long earn himself a proper - and fully deserved - living. But then that's the nature of these places - exciting and unpredictable, appearing and disappearing according to whim, as individual and esoteric as the people who run them. So until Ben Greeno follows his own path into the culinary spotlight, I urge you to book yourself in for an evening.
Ben Greeno at Tudor Road can be booked via his website.