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:

Bubbledogs on Urbanspoon

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.


David Ginsberg said...

You should have asked him if he was talking to you when he swore! that would have been really funny. Never seen that happen at over open kitchen places like Hereford Road or the Electric.

Anonymous said...

you're an incredible pussy. What would have been the score out of 10 if no outburst?

Winerackd said...

Don't you love anonymous comments? Surely if the uninitiated like me were to sit at the warts and all kitchen table anywhere, one would expect some shoutyness. I've never been to any KT, but in my naivety, I would be surprised if I didn't have to listen to at least a couple of c*nts through out the night in the room. Knappett's food looks awesome, but I still can't get my head round having to eat what I'm given over a time frame chosen by others. Maybe that's why I haven't been to any KT yet.

Caviar_girl said...

Interesting review - I too enjoyed the KT food, it was amazing while we were there...but also experienced a slight tense moment where like you say made the atmosphere thick enough to cut with a butter knife. Sure it was amusing to see how the kitchen works behind closed doors, but it definitely didn’t add to the dining experience during this moment…

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Poke said...

I haven't yet been to KT but intend to soon to try the excellent looking food. Having eaten at Brooklyn Fare (on which KT is in part a homage I hear), I found the food to, yes, be very good but the kitchen itself so quiet and 'perfect' it was eerie. The head chef reminded me of Gus from Breaking Bad- stern, intense, all slight but devastating facial movements. This isn't exactly how imagine an ideal dining experience. By breaking down the barriers we definitely get a more inclusive experience- warts n all. By all accounts working in kitchens is tough, stressful and not instantly gratifying. Which is why I think the jury is still out on open kitchen experiences like this. I just can't see how inviting a customer into the atmosphere of a tightly wound kitchen would in any way improve the dining experience. Maybe it's better to conserve the magic.

siepert said...

Interesting to see from the comments that this isn't an isolated incident. Surprised it hasn't been mentioned anywhere before.
Keeping it behind closed doors is one solution. Starting a discussion on why dinosaur management methods are still accepted in professional kitchens is another.

There's simply no proof that fear and pressure creates excellence, quite the contrary. Would be lovely to see that insight spread into restaurants.

Christoper said...

If the food was that good who cares ?. stop being so sensitive.

PDH said...

Kitchens can make the nicest of people a bit sweary at the best of times and not wishing to sound like a sadist I would probably find it quite entertaining if JK lost it a bit. I quite love the drama of service whether it be good or bad and at least we know from his twitter comments he is human at the end of the day and realised it was unacceptable. Great post though Chris; very honest and it is entirely understandable why you wouldnt enjoy that situation.

SD said...

Looks like this might get quite a few comments then!

Surely if somewhere is going to go for the kitchen table experience then the "back of house" has to present itself exactly like a front of house at this level generally do? Keenly whispered instruction, yes; C-Bombs? No thanks.

"When people eat with us at Kitchen Table, we want to feel like we're cooking for them at home...". I'm guessing that Chris doesn't usually experience this level of discomfort when eating at his own gaff?!

Anonymous said...

I guess everyone has their off day. When I visited everybody knew what they were doing, JK didn't even need to give instructions to his staff, it was like a well-oiled machine.

Jason said...

Sure, these things happen in many professional kitchens, but not all of them.
And whilst some chefs may feel that a tense atmosphere is inescapable, or desirable even, in the pursuit of high standards of cooking, that same tense atmosphere adds absolutely nothing to the dining experience.
Frankly, if a chef isn't professional enough to hold his temper during the course of service, then he really ought to be doing his cooking behind a set of swing doors and out of earshot.
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the (open) kitchen.

joe said...

Swearing loudly to yourself is one thing, not that professional in the context but something one is probably entitled to do; calling your waiting staff cunts is not something they should have to endure in the workplace.

It's telling that the head chef apologises for offense caused to customers, but says nothing of distress caused to staff.

Fergus Miller said...

I loved reading what you said about James Knappett's food in this post, Chris, and I have been lucky enough to eat at the Kitchen Table myself. On the occasion I ate there all was calm & harmonious. His tweets to you say a lot about him as a man. He didn't make any excuses for what he said and apologised.
Most of the general public have no idea how much stress occurs during service, to quote an article in Fool Magazine #2: "Those five hours of service can be compared to an Olympic 100-meter final". Having an open kitchen just adds to that I imagine.
When people reserve a table here they know what to expect, maybe they even want a bit of drama.
It’s weird how this incident occurred when you were there as you have known James for 2 years and he knows that you are a blogging restaurant critic.
I found James to have a great sense of humour, someone who is happy to chat about his passion for cooking and serving the great dishes he creates from well sourced ingredients.
I personally can’t wait to go back.

Hungry said...

Brave to post, and good chef to respond openly. Have to applaud both efforts.

It won't put me off going - it looks incredible - but it is interesting to see that it's not as sanitised an experience as I would have expected.

DvineCookbook said...

I am not going to hang the chef on this one but why is there an acceptance that their fraternity can rant and dish out offensive abuse in the workplace. Passion doesn't equal foul abusive language.

Sure it's no playground in a kitchen, but when it is an open kitchen, the chefs need to be as professional with their manners as the waitstaff.

Few would accept waitstaff using this language, why should chefs be excused when on show ?

Anonymous said...

What awful,awful food. The emperor's new clothes have nothing on this, as so often when idiots who decide that they know better have free reign. said...

Interesting review and glad you got a response on Twitter. Makes me more interested in going rather than less.

I went to Bubbledogs just after it had opened expecting a gimmick. Instead had the most delicious lunch with a glass of bubbly. If only all the new concept restaurants (only chicken, etc) were as good.

Northern Snippet said...

I enjoyed reading your take on that.We used to have an open kitchen at our last place and yes you have to be conscious that customers can see(and hear) whats going on.Thankfully though there was a small corner we could go to which wasn't visible to the customers where the wall was regularly repeatedly v'd.Perhaps he could do with a similar space.Good response from him though.

Bangers&Mashtag said...

Wow the Kitchen Table looks amazing! I loved bubbledogs and have reviewed it here;