Thursday, 11 December 2014
The Five Fields, Chelsea
This was actually the second time I'd sat down in the dining room at Five Fields. Unfortunately on our first visit a power cut meant no sooner had we got settled than a very apologetic front of house had to find us a short notice table elsewhere; a very minor inconvenience for us (particularly considering the alternative was the wonderful Medlar) but a disaster for them, losing an evening's full house of bookings and god knows how much food spoilage. This isn't actually the first time I've had a booking cancelled because of a power cut - it seems to happen in Soho a hell of a lot; maybe it's the rats - and I'm reliably informed that compensation from the energy companies is rare to completely non-existant. Which seems desperately unfair.
Anyway a return date was soon found and here we finally were, nibbling on pleasant amuses of foie gras paté and fresh crab. I can't remember many canapés that have really set my heart racing; it seems to me that you'd be silly to waste an opportunity to start dinner with a bang, and yet most restaurants seem to settle for a couple of mouthfuls of comfort food. Which isn't to say they weren't welcome, of course, just a bit disappointing.
Pre-starter of onion consommé continued the theme; nice but fairly ordinary. The cube of soft gruyere had a gentle earthy flavour and having a chunk of sweet pickled onion floating around was at least unusual, but the broth itself was really no better than the French Onion Soup at Zedel, a restaurant with no pretentious to fine dining and - to say the least - in a rather different price bracket.
But then the bread arrived and all of a sudden the journey was worth it. This buttermilk-based invention is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best house bread I've encountered in a very long time, although perhaps it's not technically "bread" at all, more of a savoury pastry. Inside a brittle, golden brown crust were soft curls of soft, sweet brioche, steaming warm from the oven, just the most perfect texture inside and out. Alain Ducasse once famously said he deliberately serves cold, sub-premium bread at his restaurants because he doesn't want people filling up before the proper dishes arrive. This is probably just an excuse for being rubbish at bread, but I can kind of see his point - I could have happily eaten 10 of these and nothing else and still gone home happy.
Another little extra course, this time beetroot done a number of different ways. It was very pretty, colourful and with an artistic arrangement of various geometric shapes, but the success or not of the whole enterprise rather depends on your attitudes towards beetroot. And to that end, I'm afraid I'm not that much of a fan. I don't hate beetroot any more than I hate parsnip or sweet potato or turnip, but it's not exactly a death row vegetable is it. Still, enjoyable enough.
Rather a lot, then, was resting on the starter courses proper. First - huge, meaty Orkney scallops crusted with toasted pistachio and surrounded by various forms of cauliflower, and these were very good indeed; not just the scallops themselves which were perfectly seared golden brown leaving the bright white flesh inside firm and tasty, but cauliflower is always a good match for scallops and the textures of veg made all kinds of interesting crunch and contrasts.
My own dish "Rockpool" is a Five Fields signature dish of sorts, and certainly comes with plenty of fanfare. It's presented in two parts, the first "cold" stage consisting of a bowl of seafood granita and a slate of various shapes and techniques of caviar, sea urchin, smoked eel, you name it. It's a dish that was more admirable than enjoyable. Bits of it were very nice - I loved the oyster (I think it was anyway) bowl with the citrussy granita on top, and the best item on the slate was a sweet glazed bit of mackerel, rich and rewarding. My problem with it all was only that the flavours and aromas were a bit too reminiscent of an actual stagnant rockpool; evocative and technically impressive maybe, but still not exactly what you'd usually consider dinner. The next stage, some good firm langoustine tails in a slightly oversour seafood sauce, had a similar curate's egg quality.
Between the starters and main was this, the first time I've ever had a dish served on a 400-million-year-old ammonite fossil. If only the food had been as interesting, as what was inside these neat green spheres was a mouthful of the kind of everyday apple sauce you might have with your pork chop. I mean I'm sure it wasn't, but it certainly tasted no different.
Red grouse was, I'm fairly certain, cooked sous-vide because there was no nice bubbly skin, in fact no sign of a direct heat source of any kind, just two tranches of medium-rare breast meat surrounded by neat chunks of winter vegetables. There is a time and a place for sous-vide cooking, I'm certainly not totally against it in all situations, but when I compare the golden brown, crisp-skinned birds fresh out of the oven at, say, Racine to these characterless lumps of salted rubber, well, there's no contest. It seems to me that too often sous-vide is a technique used for the benefit of the kitchen more than the enjoyment of the customer, and though I can appreciate consistency is at least more important in a fine dining environment than in a neighbourhood bistro, it should never be priority number one.
Cornish Turbot, hiding here under a clever piece of dried skin, was by all accounts a more enjoyable main course. Pan-fried to a nice dark exterior, the inside firm and fresh, there was little to complain about. I'm not entirely sure raw blackberries are a perfect accompaniment to anything other than a fruit salad, but that could just be me.
This miniature bowl of foam was presumably a palate-cleanser of some kind, as it was quite surprisingly bitter and not entirely fun to eat but admittedly did zap our tastebuds back into the middle of next week.
Finally the desserts. Mine was a mango, peanut, celery and buttermilk affair, a Dairy-style arrangements of different forms and textures but lacking something - salt? Sugar? Heart? It was perfectly pleasant, but entirely forgettable, a sign of a kitchen whose interests quite clearly lay elsewhere.
I think the other dessert was called Orchard, as it consisted of coils of fresh apple in an apple sorbet, with some bits and pieces of ice cream and doughnut things. It also felt like a refugee from a much cheaper restaurant; this kind of thing is done better by any of those new-wave British garden restaurants like Picture, the Dairy or Toast, and for little more than a fiver.
Five Fields is, and will more than likely remain no matter what I have to say on the matter, an incredibly popular little restaurant. Plenty of people have had enough of a good time at this cozy spot just off Kings Road to regularly propel it to the top of more than one 'readers favourites' list on sites like TripAdvisor, and whatever you think about those lists they must at least have a loose relationship with the truth. I just honestly wish I felt the same - dishes swung between oddly timid (sous-vide grouse, scallops and cauliflower) and recklessly experimental ("Rockpool"), never often stopping at enjoyable along the way, and for the prices being charged "enjoyable" is really the least you could ask. Most likely, Five Fields just isn't for me. And all said and done, I'm sure that's the least of their worries.
Thanks to the power cut kerfuffle and the intervention of a kindly PR, we didn't end up paying for our meal at Five Fields. Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon.