Tuesday, 3 June 2014
For some people, this whole food blogging malarkey is simply a means to an end. I'm thinking particularly of the late, much lamented Dos Hermanos blog, whose writers (brothers Robin and Simon Majumdar) often said was less a guide to eating out than a sort of journal of their quest to find The Perfect Restaurant. Simon moved to Los Angeles to be a TV star (as you do) but Robin continued only as long as it took him to stumble across West London restaurant Hedone, and, just like that, all the pieces fell into place. He is still often to be seen propping up the bar at the open kitchen of a Saturday, with a good couple of hundred meals under his belt, and even has a brass plaque with his name on next to his favourite stool. Dos Hermanos quietly wound down, and for Robin, at least, the journey was over.
I have no plans to quit blogging any time soon, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but I do envy that sense of completion Robin must have received from the realisation that here, finally, was the restaurant he'd been looking for all his life. While it may be true that there's no such thing as the perfect restaurant, there must be, surely, somewhere, a place so utterly in tune with your own (necessarily subjective) ideas of what makes great food that to carry on looking for anything better would be more effort than it's worth.
I have not yet found my Perfect Restaurant. At least, I don't think I have. But if I was to pick just one meal in the seven years Cheese and Biscuits has existed that most accurately represents everything that I consider good food should be, it's Simon Rogan's L'Enclume, in Cartmel. Here was a parade of dishes, engineered with consummate skill, produced with flair and imagination, and presented with an artist's eye, on the one hand recognisably Of England but at the same time revolutionary and otherworldly. It was, for me, like they had reached inside my subconcious and given me exactly what I wanted before I even knew what it was I wanted myself. The sign, you may say, of a truly great craftsman.
With all this in mind, and knowing that Simon Rogan's food is perhaps the closest thing I have to a personal ambrosia (that's ambrosia with a lowercase "a", not the rice pudding), I was always going to like Fera. The fact that in the weeks since this grand space in the grandest of London's grand hotels - Claridge's - has opened not every review of the place has been entirely positive, didn't bother me at all because, much as I respect those opinions, I knew Fera, like Simon Rogan's other restaurants, isn't for everyone. It's for me.
I may as well start at the beginning. The very first "snack" was a cracker made of puffed barley, topped with smoked eel and watercress. I think there was also sheep's curd in there too, adding a lovely citrussy, dairy note. Who doesn't like smoked eel and curd, but the puffed barley was impossibly light, like the world's fanciest cream cheese cracker.
This is a little arancini-style crunchy ball of stewed rabbit, with a lovage purée. Lovage is a peculiar herb, very bitter and metallic, but with the soft, salty rabbit it worked incredibly well.
Sturgeon, seawater cream, caviar. Another delicate sliver of light cracker, topped with bouncy fresh fish and a generous dollop of black gold. My favourite of the snacks, but as you can probably tell, it was a close-run thing.
Gorgeous mini scallop shells filled with scallop poached lightly in buttermilk (I think), with pea and pea purée. Great fun to eat, scooping the mixture from the shells with your teeth like you would an oyster.
A morsel of chicken skin, next, with a pretty bowl of thyme and roast garlic dip. Again, everything that makes a great dish - top ingredients (the chicken was particularly noticeable, a shockingly concentrated flavour to it), top presentation, and lovely texture contrasts. It's worth bearing in mind at this point that we were still only halfway through the "snacks" - the menu proper hadn't even started yet!
Winslade cheese, potato and duck heart. The very finest, lightest, smoothest cheesy mash, and if that wasn't enough, some soft chunks of duck heart in a rich meaty jus plonked on top. I am ashamed of the noises I made when eating this.
The freshest crab, topped with slivers of sweet rhubarb and filled out with goat's cheese. There was some foraged herb of some kind on it too, but heaven knows what that was.
There's been an interesting new trend in modern restaurants to present the bread as a course of its own rather than as something to nibble on during other dishes. So here is a fresh, moist house loaf with bone marrow butter studded with bits of some kind of crackling, and a pot of sweet onion broth. We still had not yet started on the advertised 16 course menu by this point so forcing customers to go easy on the bread is probably a very wise move. I was so terrified I wouldn't have it in me to make it to the end of the meal I only had one mouthful of it.
Finally, the Fera tasting menu proper was underway. Beef tartare with smoked broccoli cream was clearly from the same mind as the venison with coal oil at the French, but this was a more subtle, and even more impressive way of adding smoke to tender raw beef. Apple juice added acidity, and scallop roe an enjoyably discombobulating note of surf to the beefy turf. Clever stuff.
Oxalis (a plant. Of some sort) with fudgy slow-smoked egg yolk wouldn't have been the most exciting thing in the world was it not for something called 'duck sweetbread' which were like little meaty flavour bombs. Perhaps I'm just not the world's biggest fan of slow-cooked yolk; I much prefer it runny. Still, objectively an imaginative and attractive dish.
Prawns with asparagus and shellfish butter was another great idea let down by a single duff ingredient, in this case the prawns themselves which were oddly grainy and tasteless. A shame, really, because the shellfish butter was gorgeous and would have really made this dish otherwise.
Fortunately, we weren't off-message for long. If you'd have told me that my favourite dish of a 20+ course tasting menu at any other restaurant in the world would be a salad, then I'd have reacted with some scepticism. But this is Simon Rogan, known for his way with vegetables, and this is no ordinary salad, not by a Cumbrian country mile. Firstly, the greens were crunchy, and smoky from the grill - dry roasted, somehow, to a fantastic delicate texture. Beneath them, and a generous shaving of fresh black truffle, was something called truffle custard, a light cheesy mousse that was like wrapping yourself in front of a thick fur blanket in front of a fire. Made of cheesy truffle. I know I occasionally overuse hyperbole on these pages but there is nothing that could have improved this dish. It was an absolute knockout.
Plaice braised in nettle butter was golden and green and silky, with an array of pretty miniature vegetables and boasting a nice meaty chunk of fresh fish. My favourite element though was a stick of roast salsify, a weakness of mine at the best of times but particularly nice here.
Hogget with pickled tongue and turnips, another glorious plate of food. The meat was perfectly tender, but then you'd expect that somewhere like this. More impressive was the extraordinary flavour, like the most lamb-y lamb with added notes of dry ageing and funky fat. A thick cheffy jus was poured on top, and coiled around the geometrically-cut turnips beneath.
Desserts began with "Pineapple weed, butterscotch and celery", a palate-cleanser of sorts using some weird and wonderful foraged herb next to one of those light mousse-sorbets that only the most experienced kitchens ever seem to be able to pull off.
I still - even despite Simon Rogan's best efforts - have issues with beetroot in desserts. I can kind of see what they're getting for here, with the earthy vegetable put up against another one of those lovely fresh sorbets but even so, I'd rather root vegetables stayed with their savoury friends than creeping their way into cakes and puddings.
This next course, though, was utterly wonderful. A neat row of gently alcoholic cherries next to a cherry "snow", a rich sheep's milk yoghurt which was more like a fresh butter (in a good way) and topped with delicate slivers of pine.
And apologies for the odd photos of this next dish but it was impossible to capture both the blackberry and lemon verbena cracker and the weird Sellafield Tower of sweet sauce it came with in the same focal length. Tasted good though, sharp and sweet and with another one of those delicate crisps that threatens to collapse under the weight of a hard stare.
Dandelion and caramel was essentially a spongecake topped with a sugar mousse, and was very nice too. Incredible colour as well.
Spruce drops - chocolate truffles flavoured with pine, a thin crust containing a soft centre.
And then we were done, the final petit four being "smoked meringue", little macaron-shaped things with a dairy filling, perfectly constructed and easy to devour.
So yes, I was always going to enjoy Fera. I am a shameless Simon Rogan fan, loved all his other restaurants and I consider this to be, while not quite on the level of the peerless L'Enclume, which has time and location on its side, still one of the few genuinely innovative and idiosyncratic restaurants in London. Relentlessly experimental, aiming for (the) stars with feet firmly planted in the sourcing (and growing) of exceptional ingredients, Fera is a towering achievement.
But the Perfect Restaurant? Not quite. At least, not yet. Simon Rogan may be better placed than most to eventually open the kind of place I'd happily spend the rest of my days, with my name on a brass plaque next to my favourite chair and the priority reservation number on speed dial. But today is not that day. And besides, there's the little matter of another restaurant I visited on a whim over the weekend that may have an even closer stab at the title. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Watch this space.
I was invited to review Fera