Thursday, 21 July 2011

Roganic, Marylebone

Roganic is a bit of a silly name, isn't it? So go ahead, have a bit of a chuckle, by all means allow yourself to be amused by the rather clumsy pun and get it out of your system. Roganic! It's kind of like Rogan (Simon, head chef) and organic! See what they've done there? Roganic! HA HA HA. And then, once you've done that, pick up the phone and book a table. Because there is absolutely no way on earth you should dismiss this astonishing new restaurant based on its silly name, and if you don't pull your finger out and get yourself a place soon, you run the risk of not ever being able to; I confidently predict that in a very short space of time availability at Roganic will be as rare as anywhere in London.

In common with many of the more ambitious (note "ambitious" does not often mean "best", though strangely it does always mean "expensive") places to eat these days, the only choices you make regarding food at Roganic is between a 3-course (£29), 6-course (£55) and the full Monty 10-course blowout (£80). No prizes for guessing which one we went for, but it's worth saying that even though our meal ended up the wrong side of £250 for two, you could go for the 3-course option and drink tapwater and just about get away for under £35 a head. And I am sure even the cheaper menus would have been as startlingly original, breathtakingly presented and - the clincher - wonderfully tasty as the succession of ten (and then some) theatrical plates of food we enjoyed on Saturday.

And like all great theatre (this metaphor is in danger of getting stretched but please bear with me), the first course gently introduced us to the character and style of the place without hitting us too hard with complex or unusual concepts. Roganic apparently try not to use any ingredients from outside the British Isles, and many of the rare foraged elements were completely new to me, but the use of hyssop (an aromatic herb that tastes a bit like mint) as a subtle back note to fresh curd in a broad bean and beetroot dish was just familiar enough without being dull. Pretty as a picture it was too, with the strong dark greens and reds and spiky fresh herbs. Then, a plate of baked turnip, sea vegetables (definitely samphire amongst God knows what else) and wild mustard arrived with a fudgy, slow-cooked smoked egg yolk, again all just the right side of accessible but still innovative - the yolk in particular provoking giggles with its strong wood-smoked aroma.

Then from here on, every bit of food produced wasn't just brilliant, but groundbreaking. "Seawater-cured Kentish mackerel" was so beautiful it seemed a shame to eat it at all; three bonsai trees of crispy fried broccoli were planted in neat dollops of earthy pea purée, framing a meaty fillet of mackerel with an expertly crispy skin. And the blobs of honey surrounding it all came from Hyde Park - beat that for localism. "Shredded ox tongue, pickles and sourdough paper" also managed to be just as pleasing to the eye as it was on the palate, the gently pickled vegetables providing a sweet counterpoint to a sandwich of lovely smooth ox tongue that brought to mind a variety of Heinz sandwich spread - in a good way.

Halfway through the meal, and the quality showed no signs of dropping with a dish of crab and raw squid, in which texture was provided by clever little nuggets of toasted squid ink, plump sprouts of some kind of succulent and deliacate cubes of "compressed" (don't ask me) cucumber. It smelled of the ocean and of windswept cliff top walks. Then back inland again for potatoes in onion ashes (sort of a salty, edible sand) and lovage sprouts. If I'm to take my head out of the clouds for a second, I could probably say that the lovage didn't do much for me - it's an awfully strong plant, and the unpleasant metallic aftertaste lingered far longer than it should, but you still have to admire the idea.

Reaching the climax of our play now, roasted Brill with chicken salt and clams was all kinds of amazing. The tender nuggets of fish had been "breadcrumbed" in chicken salt and sat on top of dark chard and a selection of silky wild mushrooms. Dotted around the plate were blobs of the most unbelievably intense mushroom paste, a flavour so powerful it would in anyone else's hands been too much but here was astonishingly successful. I couldn't get enough of it. The next course, though, managed to be even more mind-blowing; tender pink hogget with sweet artichokes and chenopodium (I know) leaves, and two undeclared chunks of crispy-on-the-outside-silky-within, perfectly cooked sweetbreads.

Following a very decent cheese course (in which I discovered a great new washed-rind cheese from the makers of Stinking Bishop called "Nuns of Caen" - they sell it at La Fromagerie if you want to try it for yourself if you don't mind putting up with their surly service), a dessert of sweet ciceley (what?), strawberry, buttermilk and verbena (eh?) turned out, predictably, to be excellent. The strawberries in particular had been mashed or concentrated or treated in some way and were incredibly flavoursome. But the show was nearing an end, and we only had one more dish to go, so would Roganic play it safe and give the audience what they wanted, or would there be a final twist to keep us all on our toes?

I should point out that my friend really did not like this dessert. Although (unlike some of the other dishes above) on paper it seemed relatively harmless, the combination of "warm spiced bread, smoked clotted cream, salted almonds, buckthorn curd" produced a startling effect, "like bacon, and not in a good way" my friend described it. The thing is though, I loved it. Really loved it, salty and sugary and fatty and cold and warm and sweet and sour: mind-boggling it definitely was, but I really thought it - only just mind you - worked. Our waiter described it as "Marmitey", which I think means customers either love it or hate it, although I wouldn't be surprised to discover it actually had Marmite in it.

There was still more to come. An encore of Douglas Fir "milkshake" was - needless to say - nigh on perfect, "like drinking Christmas". Who cares if it's July. And finally, two teeny petits fours, ethereally light spongecake topped with sweet fresh raspberry. Divine, of course.

It is a risk, at least it should be, putting yourself into the hands of a chef and handing over any choice over the elements of what is, by anyone's standards, a very expensive lunch. And God knows, in lesser hands it can easily go wrong - Viajante wasn't exactly bad but of a similar number of courses only about half were worth shouting about, and it cost just as much. Roganic is a triumph not because a chef with a handful of wacky ideas and bizarre foraged ingredients is trying something new, but because everything produced is worth eating. And if you don't like lovage, or thought the dessert tasted of bacon, then at least you didn't like them for a good reason, not just because they were bland or formless or weren't seasoned properly. I only worry even with such gushing prose that I haven't done the place justice; there's far more to talk about - the friendly service, the hot house rolls and artisan butter spread on a pebble on the table in front of you - but I'm already way over my word limit. In short, if you love food you'll love everything about Roganic, and will do everything in your power to go. A uniquely creative and exhilarating restaurant.


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