Friday, 25 January 2013
The Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs&, Fitzrovia
From the moment it was announced that husband and wife team Sandia Chang and James Knappett, ex of Per Se, the Ledbury, Roganic and you-name-it of world-class restaurants here and abroad, were opening their own place, the buzz was deafening. When it was further announced that their first collaboration was to be a small bar in Fitzrovia specialising in hot dogs and champagne, well, some anticipation turned to chuckles.
I loved Bubbledogs. It was - still very much is - a serious cocktail bar that cleverly matches what, for the want of a better description, I'll call "gourmet fast food" with a brilliant selection of grower champagnes and a smart front of house team that never put a foot wrong. It was ludicrously busy from the day it opened in the way these places often are, but there are very few people who ever braved the queues and got a table that would have cause to complain. Tasty food, great atmosphere, and friendly service; a perfect neighbourhood bar.
Ah, but - the story went - the best was yet to come. Behind thick leather curtains at the back of Bubbledogs was to be Kitchen Table - chef James' pride and joy, a gleaming Rolls-Royce of an open kitchen surrounded by just 19 seats, where lucky diners would watch in awe as a 13-course tasting menu was prepared in front of their eyes, each dish presented by the chef who designed, sourced the ingredients and cooked it. A foodie and chef-groupie utopia, a personal chef "experience" that laid raw the creative process of cooking and represented the very pinnacle of achievement in modern British cooking. I was certain I'd love every minute of it.
And don't get me wrong, the food was frequently astonishing, as accomplished as you might expect from a chef with Knappett's pedigree and as good an advertisement for London's place at the top of the food tree as you could possibly imagine. And if it wasn't for a few bizarre minutes halfway through the evening, I would have skipped out of Kitchen Table singing its praises as much as every other Tom, Dick and Marina that's set foot there. But I'm afraid, in the end, my memories of that evening aren't as golden as I was hoping they'd be.
We can start in happier times, though. First course of raw razor clams, cucumber, horseradish and mint was very like something you might be presented at the start of a Ledbury tasting menu - fantastic fresh seafood, lifted by just the right mix of aromatic herbs but still tasting unapologetically of the main ingredient. Loved the presentation, loved the showmanship - a great start.
Sea bass was a cured, largely raw piece of fish with a skin that had been blowtorched over 'wood coal', which as far as I can gather is a state of being somewhere between wood and coal. The smell as these things were being prepared was amazing, like a log fire in a fisherman's cottage, and though the texture was unexpected - chewy rather than flaky - the extra bite just meant the flavours lasted longer in the mouth. That on top by the way is fennel marmalade - a masterful accompaniment.
The next course was chicken skin, rosemary mascarpone and bacon jam. Do you think anyone in the history of the world has never not enjoyed chicken skin, mascarpone and bacon jam? No. I wasn't about to be the first.
"Kale" was a clever thing, a parmesan-soaked sponge of raw kale, topped with flakes of pickled radish. When you bit into a particularly spongy bit of kale the sauce burst out like a kind of inside-out Caesar salad, smooth and salty and fresh.
Perhaps my favourite course of all, "Cod" contained the most perfect gyoza-like gnocchi dressed in cod's roe, topped with fresh shaved chestnuts. There wasn't much more to it than that, but it was crunchy, salty, rich and umami in all the right places and an absolute delight.
Then, just as the second glass of bubbly was having its desired effect and it looked like this was shaping up to be one of the most enjoyable evenings in a long time, it all went a bit wrong. Not with the food - that continued in a similar stellar vein - but with the atmosphere in the room. Halfway through my cod course I looked up and saw Knappett's face twisted into something halfway between anger and agony. I have no idea what had happened - as I say you wouldn't have known anything was amiss from what was presented to us to eat - but from the obscenities shot at his sous chefs to the way he was suddenly throwing plates and pans around, he was clearly not a happy man. In fact, he looked furious, the kind of rage I'd only previously seen from a man dressed in chef's whites on TV in a programme involving Gordon Ramsay, and the reaction from all around him was immediate - the waiters racing around wide-eyed, the juniors in whites chopping and slicing and prepping in an even more terrified and frantic fashion.
I looked around in astonishment to see if anyone else had noticed what was going on. On the face of it, they hadn't - people were chatting and enjoying their meals in much the same way as before, but then actually very soon, so was I - in the face of such an abrupt change of attitude, your first reaction is to pretend nothing's happening and hope it blows over, in case acknowledgement of the issue makes things worse. Even when one poor member of serving staff got called a "lazy c**t" (I don't think I'm paraphrasing) over the shoulder of a bemused Australian diner, nobody reacted. Could this be the kind of thing people were expecting?
Well, I wasn't, and I didn't like it. Call me a big old softie but I shrink when people lose their temper in any situation, never mind one in which everyone is taking part in the same interactive dinner, and I found the whole thing excruciatingly embarrassing. In a few minutes Knappett had gathered himself together enough to introduce the next course but by then the damage was done and I can't say I really found my appetite again. Which is a shame - for everyone - because food as good as this deserves an atmosphere suitable to enjoy it in, and front of house staff as good as those at Kitchen Table deserve to not have their efforts overshadowed by a head chef with a short temper.
So, in a thin semblance of normality, the evening continued. The calcots and cod dish, seemingly the cause of a kitchen meltdown, was wonderful - flaky cod fillet, smoky veg and a wonderful sharp homemade romesco sauce studded with toasted almonds.
Sous-vide mallard with blood orange and chard wasn't my companion's favourite dish but I am yet to not enjoy wild duck and thought the orange and olive combination, while definitely experimental, not wholly unpleasant.
Roebuck venison, served with roast cauliflower and damson yoghurt, was just about the best bit of bambi I've ever eaten - so full of flavour despite (we were told) not being hung at all, tender and fresh rather than gamey and bitter.
More venison came in the form of ragu under house pasta and smoked egg yolk, topped with panko breadcrumbs and tarragon. Again, lovely.
And a cheese course was a blob of unpasteurised Stichelton with some dainty curls of champagne-compressed apple.
Desserts, if not as wildly successful as those that had come before, still spoke of real skill. Alphonso mango purée (frozen when they were in season, they were careful to point out) and yoghurt ice cream was like a posh Solero (in a good way), lemon and cream cheese curd even survived the addition of beetroot ice cream (something I'd previously vowed to hate forever more) and finally a rhubarb "Tunnock's tea cake" was a clever and powerfully-flavoured last bite that contained a great mix of soft and crisp textures.
But what to make of it all? Perhaps much of my discomfort is a personal thing, and the more emotionally grounded amongst you could have shrugged off the Incident as just one of those things that must happen from time to time in any professional kitchen. It would be naive to think they don't happen, in fact, in restaurants all over the world every hour of service. But my point is, I'm not that naive. I know these things happen. I just don't want to see it. And even if you are the kind of person who can happily sit through the sight of a chef/owner striking the fear of God into all around him, only a real sadist would enjoy watching sous chefs and sommeliers desperately trying to do their job and pretend all's well while all hell breaks loose behind them.
And even if this was a complete one-off, and normally Knappett is as level-headed and composed as Mahatma Gandhi on a spa break, the Incident still made me question the whole logic of having the process of preparing food so nakedly on display. Is not some of the joy of eating stunning fine-dining like this the mystique of not knowing exactly how the magic happens?
There's a fine tradition of open kitchen bars in Japan, for sushi and yakitori amongst many others, but these are much different beasts - the sushi master will just press a piece of raw fish around some warm rice and it's done, or place some skewers of marinaded chicken over charcoal as needed - actions calculated to be part of the presentation rather than part of the preparation. Watching a poor junior chef, towards the end of a 12-hour day, desperately shaving as much raw chestnut into a bowl as possible without slicing his fingers off is not fun, or educational. It's just cruel. And had I been shielded from all that, the tantrums and the terror and the toil, I would have enjoyed my dinner infinitely more.
But here we are. And though I didn't enjoy my evening at Kitchen Table as much as I'd hoped, there is still the unavoidable fact that the food is some of the best you can find in town. If I'm the only person to ever catch them on a bad night, then consider the above nothing more than an anomaly, an excuse to pontificate grandly on the whole logic of open kitchens and, all said and done, a report of what I had for dinner one day. By all means, go, eat and drink and be merry, you'll probably love it. But I think I may just lean towards an "ignorance is bliss" perspective from now on - when it comes to eating out, too much reality is rarely a good thing.
EDIT 2: I've received a response from James that stands in such contrast to the usual cheffy posturing on Twitter I hope he won't mind if I publish it here:
EDIT: Forgot prices. The menu is £68/head and bottles of champagne start around £35 ish. We paid £108/head all in with drinks & service.