Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Is there ever anything inevitable about the success of a restaurant? Reflecting after the fact, it's tempting to declare places like Pitt Cue or MeatLiquor or Burger & Lobster were always destined to be wildly popular; after all, who wouldn't think somewhere serving burgers, buffalo wings and cocktails until 1am would draw the crowds? Why on earth wouldn't the promise of a tray of sticky St Louis Ribs and a pickleback get them queuing round the block? An entire steamed lobster for twenty quid? In Mayfair? Good luck getting a table there. But of course, we know all this now - how easy it is to forget the huge gamble the people behind these culinary megastars took, and how it just as easily could have ended differently. Just ask poor old Bjorn van der Horst, whose restaurant Eastside Inn served great food, garnered a handful of fantastic reviews, and closed in just over a year. That's life, and that's the fickle London public for you.
So you may look at Dabbous, at the supremely accomplished food coming out of the kitchens, the trendy industrial interiors, the polished (if slightly odd - more on which later) service, the central location, and think its wild success was a sure thing. Perhaps it was. But quite how much this particular restaurant has caught Londoners' imaginations must have taken even them by surprise. Tables at Dabbous are now backed up until October - that's six months booked solid - and a dinner reservation has taken on the rarefied air of a winning lottery ticket. It's the real-life 2012 equivalent of the mythically exclusive, fictional Dorsia in Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, except with smaller mobile phones. And perhaps not quite so much graphic, cold-blooded murder.
The Dabbous tasting menu consists of seven courses at a shockingly reasonable £49 (plus £9 if you want cheese). They also offer matched wines starting at £35 a head - also very reasonable - except they did themselves a bit of an injustice when one of our party wanted to push the boat out and have a selection of something a bit more pricey. The sommelier, a rather severe and taciturn individual, refused to serve different wines to just one person and so we all ended up having the £35 option. Surely it wouldn't have been that much of a hardship to be a bit more flexible on this? The wines were all served by the glass anyway, and it's not like the friend concerned wasn't willing to pay the extra. A minor niggle all things considered, but it did seem a bit odd.
The first course, after some decent house bread served in a paper bag for some reason, was a plate of asparagus, mayonnaise and hazelnuts. There was no cutlery, and you were encouraged to dip the asparagus tips first in the tangy mayonnaise and then coat it in roasted hazelnuts. It was all perfectly decent - just as you might expect of asparagus and earthy fresh rapeseed oil mayonnaise, but was only that - decent. Plus I'd have liked it to be my decision whether or not to get my fingers dirty (fingerbowls were provided, but that's not the point).
The next dish, however, was absolutely stunning. "Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion" sounds dangerously vegan on paper, but the flavours they had coaxed out of these seemingly innocuous ingredients - two types of onion, some kind of clear vegetable consommé and spots of basil oil - was just breathtaking. It's a very pretentious "foodie" thing to bang on about umami but this had it in spades - a deep, rich, satisfying savouryness that gave your tastebuds a big warm hug, and an absolutely masterful command of technique that produced something almost magical. Sorry if I'm getting carried away, but I don't think I've enjoyed a plate of food as much as this in many years. It was also, if I can be momentarily cheeky, a million times better than anything Hedone can do with an onion. There, I've said it.
"Coddled" (what a lovely word) egg was up next, and is best described as God's own scrambled egg. The egg itself (one of those fancy rare breed ones I should imagine) provided a powerful base, but the real fireworks came with the addition of earthy wild mushrooms and a hint of fireplace from the smoked butter. As well as tasting so good we couldn't stop giggling, it was very prettily presented in a half-shell nestled in hay and coloured by a few teeny bits of chopped chives. Dabbous had most definitely hit its stride, and we were helpless to resist.
A pristine wedge of monkfish, as meaty and flavoursome as any beefsteak, came dressed with some subtly dressed greens and a slice of beetroot. Again, this was masterful cooking - the monkfish in particular having not a trace of dryness in the flesh and rolled in a spice mix of some kind that seasoned the protein without masking its natural flavour. More giggles and groans of pleasure, more plates licked clean.
This is a piece of Iberico pork. I'll give you a second to stare in disbelief at the picture for a little while. Yes, I know José in Bermondsey do rare strips of the World's Finest Ingredient(TM) but I've never seen pig looking anything like this - precisely rested and blushed like the finest lamb fillet, and served on top of a vaguely Asian-inspired sweet sauce that contained (cleverly) some of the acorns that these majestic beasts feast on during their privileged lifetimes. A neat dollop of pickled apples on the side finished off yet another brilliant course.
The cheese course, consisting of only British Isles specimens, was also very well done. Lancashire bomber lived up to its name with a salty, cheesy explosion of taste, and a perfectly kept goats cheese was creamy and nutty without a hint of chalkiness. That on the side was some kind of pickled pear I think.
Not being the world's greatest lovage fan (I once made myself sick eating from the lovage plant that grew in our back garden up in Liverpool and I've not been able to stomach the stuff since) I'm not sure I can objectively rate this bowl of "Iced Lovage", but I'm afraid it didn't do much for me. As someone pointed out on Twitter, it's a bit like lovage-flavoured toothpaste, and I think I prefer Colgate. However, my friends polished theirs off.
Photos of the Dabbous chocolate ganache didn't come out, but the presentation was equally as arty as the other courses - a neat square of chocolate, a dollop of utterly brilliant sheep's milk ice cream and a pile of clever basil 'moss', all of which were lovely. I just wonder whether a painterly swirl of pungent sweet dill sauce really added anything - this was a touch of the dreaded savoury dessert (he says retching at the thought of Tom Aikens' beetroot meringue and Vanilla Black's parsnip marshmallows) and was best avoided. Which indeed I did.
But as with any experimental restaurant, you put up with the odd bum note if the highlights are worth the effort. And believe me when I tell you, the highlights of this meal - every course from the coddled egg to the Iberico pork inclusive - rank up there with anything else you can pay for in London. As you may have picked up by now, I loved Dabbous; even though not everything was perfect the best bits were worth a six month wait and then some. Which is just as well, because when you book a table yourself - and you should, and you will - that's how long it'll be before you sit down and eat. Don't worry though, it's worth the wait. I bet the food at Dorsia wasn't as good as this.