Thursday, 10 May 2012
Anissa's Nose to Tail Lamb at the Dock Kitchen, Notting Hill
If I was feeling slightly less than charitable, this post would be about Colchis, a Georgian restaurant in Bayswater. I went with a couple of friends on Sunday and suffered the kind of incompetence that makes the job of writing it up a breeze - the wrong wine brought twice, dull food weirdly presented, and the saltiest dumplings in Britain. I could have rattled a condescending review off in record time and had the afternoon to find somewhere else to hate while the comments racked up.
But you know what, there's been far too much Schadenfreude around these parts lately. I know bad meals make good reading but while I don't mind laying into a Jamie Oliver cash cow or cynical tourist dive, I am less comfortable with beating on yet another mediocre-but-hardly-disastrous meal from people whose intentions may well be misguided but hardly evil. Not everywhere can serve the best food or be incredible value, and it's far, far to easy to pick fault in somewhere that isn't perfect than it is to appreciate that actually, we have it pretty good most of the time. So, from now on, I'm going to try and be more positive.
Anyway, the reason I've been in such a conciliatory mood lately is largely due to a meal I had at the Dock Kitchen in West London earlier in the week, a special one-off event and the brainchild of Syrian/Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou with the assistance of Dock Kitchen chef Stevie Parle and his team. Ordinarily writing up one-off events is the least useful thing a food blog might do - it's not like anyone reading this will be able to book themselves in for similar any time soon - but this meal was just so ...unusual, that I thought it deserved a proper report. There are two points to be made before I go any further - firstly, the meal was titled 'Nose to tail lamb', and as you might expect contained bits of a sheep you wouldn't ordinarily see on a restaurant menu. If you are feeling a bit delicate and your idea of a difficult dish is a haggis, then look away now. Secondly, despite containing some of the most challenging items I've ever paid to eat, it was worth every penny even despite the fact there were some bits I will never ever go anywhere near again. Ever.
It all started innocently enough. Chicken wings, marinated I think in pomegranate molasses, were straight from the charcoal grill, salty and sweet crispy on the outside and silkily smooth within. The house bread also deserves a special mention, this presumably being Stevie Parle's work, with the soft, stretchy texture of the finest tandoor-cooked naans.
This is a lamb's tongue. It's not pretty, is it, but surely that's just a few decades of social conditioning talking - objectively it can't really be more obscene than a salami. It tasted salty and soft, not very offally in fact but rather like dense paté, and if you closed your eyes would almost pass as straightforward. Almost.
This roast potato contained a whole kidney seasoned with butter and thyme, and I was on safer ground here as I'd had kidneys in the past. Admittedly, I didn't like them much when I had them before - it was in Canteen in Spitalfields and I remember them tasting like, well, for want of a better word, like piss... actual piss - but here they were much more palatable, soft and meaty and with no unpleasant urine tang, just a vaguely musky tinge of innards.
Finally, our favourite of the starters - another soft and crisp flatbread topped with lamb's fry (liver), sweetbreads and kidneys, and chicken hearts and livers. All delicately spiced (allspice, I think) and perfectly seasoned, this Mixed Organ Grill was great fun to pick your way through - my favourites, as in the past, were the chewy chicken hearts and the creamy blobs of sweetbread. It was enough to forget I was working my way through minor lamb glands and let my guard down. Big mistake.
"Tandoori sheep's head interlude" sounds like a good name for a band, but is actually, as you can see from the X-rated photo above, an actual entire sheep's head, eyes and brains included, on a plate. To eat. Anissa gave a brief demonstration on how to *gulp* split the skull, *wince* scoop out the eyes and *aargh* fish out the brains with our fingers, during which I attempted to appear polite and pay as much attention as possible whilst simultaneously fighting the instinct to run out of the room screaming. Since a humbling trip to Japan earlier in the year, involving raw squid and cod's sperm, I no longer consider myself the brave Mr. Mange-Tout I once did, but even so, I surprised myself at how unnerved I was, staring into the dark, sunken eye sockets of a roast animal skull.
I first tried some cheek - "hmm, not bad" - then graduated to a teeny morsel of brain - "eek, well, OK" - but it was really the eyeball that I was most worried about. I stared at my dinner, and it stared back. I took a few deep breaths and, as instructed, sliced off the dark iris with a knife and fork. The two sections wobbled apart looking like nothing that should ever be eaten. I should say that my friend, much more brave and level-headed than me, was tucking into her side of the head with gusto - not only did she pop the entire eyeball into her mouth as if it was nothing more offensive than a marshmallow, but she also ate most of the tongue and was tearing at the brain with her fingers for as long as the front of house left it on the table. Eventually, under extreme peer pressure I should add, I tried a tiny bit of the eyeball. It tasted like salty lamb blubber, perhaps very slightly less hideous than I'd expected but still not enough to get me rushing to my nearest halal butchers and buying them out of whole carcasses.
After that, a whole stuffed stomach was almost prosaic. Gently pungent tripe, ballooned with spiced rice and herbs, sat in a clear vegetable broth containing garlic and lemon and crispy asparagus. I can't decide whether it was over-eating or shell-shock but I'm afraid I couldn't manage more than half of it. Very tasty though, I assure you.
Rose water sorbet and Lebanese wild orchid root ice cream provided some kind of light relief at the end of the meal. I ate them feeling like I'd just been bungee jumping, or white water rafting - a combination of having broken some personal limits and delighted I'd even eaten as much as I did. And yes, I struggled with some bits of the meal, as I imagine many others would too, but I can't remember the last time I've finished a meal feeling such a sense of a achievement - pathetic really, as there must be people all over the Middle East tucking into a whole sheep's head like you or I might a Cornish pasty.
So, thank you to Anissa and Stevie for having the balls (which reminds me, I guess it could have been worse) to do this, and for treating me and my friend to a completely hilarious, terrifying, delicious and utterly unforgettable evening. I'm never going to be the world's biggest fan of the strange collection of objects that lurk inside a sheep's skull, but by cooking it all so well - always delicately spiced and perfectly seasoned, not a single mistake in any element of any course - they have at least convinced me that this is as good as this stuff gets, and I can safely now stop trying. And I can't tell you how much of a relief that is.
Edit: Apparently lamb's fry were testicles after all, not liver. So I did better than I thought.