Tuesday, 2 February 2016
Noble Rot, Bloomsbury
To be fair to the team behind Noble Rot, they tried to keep if not schtum then at least sotto voce the involvement of chef Stephen Harris. This was not billed anywhere official as The Sportsman in London. Harris was merely a consultant on the menu, and manning the stoves on a daily basis would be Paul Weaver, admittedly ex-Sportsman but also having experience of the nose-to-tail aesthetic of St John Bread & Wine, and very much his own person. Noble Rot would be "Franglish", they said - British ingredients presented in a French bistro style. Definitely not the Sportsman v2. No no no.
But then the mere mention of "slipsole" on a preview menu was enough to prompt fevered speculation. Of all the dishes served in that windswept spot on the north Kent coast, it's the "Slipsole with seaweed butter" that's come to represent everything that's pure and good about Harris' cooking. Delicate but meaty fillet of sole drenched in a sauce made from seaweed gathered from the beach, seasoned with sea salt made from water carried out of the ocean by hand. Dare we expect this level of ultra-seasonal, haute-British cooking in Bloomsbury? Would we be disappointed if it wasn't?
In the end, what Noble Rot have done is very clever. Those knowing nothing about the pedigree of the kitchen will enjoy a sophisticated yet accessible menu of seasonal British ingredients, well worth the money they're charging and alongside a wine list that's every bit as intelligently considered as the food. But what about those people expecting the Sportsman in London? Well, they won't be disappointed either, because Noble Rot is such a good restaurant that any lingering doubts will fade as soon as the food starts arriving. Oh, and they even serve slipsole.
First things first, though, and the house bread at Noble Rot is up there with the very best in town. This is because they get some of it from the Antidote/Hedone people, who are almost as famous for their obsessive attention to making the very best bread as they are about, well, pretty much everything else they do. There's no finer way of starting a meal than with a bread course like this, soft soda next to sticky sourdough and moist, cakey foccacia. All gorgeous. I do think it's a bit strange when places serve focaccia with butter but that's a minor niggle.
Native oysters from (where else) Whitstable, and lovely they were too, minerally and fresh and lean. Not massively cheap at £3.50 a pop but then natives never are, and it's always a good sign to see them on a restaurant menu. Means a place knows what it's doing.
A plate of Iberico ham next, just because it's on the menu and if you don't always order Iberico ham whenever you see it you're a stronger person than me. It was in perfect condition, and every sliver of that warm, nutty, rich meat with its ribbons of fat dissolved on the tongue like butter.
And so, the slipsole. In a nod to the location instead of seaweed they'd used "smoked" butter, an equally clever and visually arresting way of making the most of this astonishing fish. Just like when I had it in Whitstable the flesh was bright white and lifted off the bone in satisfying clean chunks, and the dressing added an intriguing spicy note. Perhaps it goes without saying that the seaweed version in the Sportsman is slightly better but that is there and this is here and you'd have a heart of stone to whinge about this superb dish for £8 in central London.
"Burrata, pumpkin & hazelnuts" almost, but not quite, made me enjoy pumpkin. The burrata was gooey and bright tasting, and the nuts had a lovely toasted flavour and fragile texture, but pumpkin is still a bit of a characterless vegetable as far as I'm concerned. Still, this wasn't my dish and the person who ordered it loved it, so what do I know. Or care.
This was halibut braised in "oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru". If I was a proper food writer I'd make at least some effort to find out what the hell this means, but I'm not, so all I can tell you is it was a lovely meaty chunk of moist halibut in a wine/butter sauce with some new potatoes. Certainly on the more straightforward side of food presentation and not a great deal going on texture-wise but the fish was lovely and it went down very well with the parties who ordered it.
Whole roast quail with bacon, chestnuts and cavolo nero was far more my kind of thing. The bird was cooked pink inside, with a fantastic dark skin holding bags of salty flavour. The rinkles of the cavolo nero worked like a sponge so that every bite gave up a satisfying amount of gamey gravy. Chestnuts were horrid little nuggets of soily blandness like they usually are, but were easily avoided. A comforting, seasonal dish.
Desserts were a game of two halves. On the one hand, a not-very-good-really egg tart which though edible didn't have the depth of flavour or structural integrity (I mean to say it was a bit runny and the crust was too thick) of masterful versions elsewhere in the capital such as the one at the Marksman. I know this makes me sound a bit spoiled but the egg tart game has upped so much in recent times that substandard ones really do stand out. The clementine sorbet didn't do anything for it either.
But on the other hand, a really good cheeseboard, with (from wobbly memory, we'd had a bit of wine by this point) a stinky Livarot, a good creamy Comté and a blue, all room temperature and in perfect condition.
So it seems the strengths at Noble Rot, and they have some very notable strengths, are in sourcing impeccable ingredients, from oysters to cheese, and serving them at the absolute best they can be. And the savoury courses generally were worth the journey, not least that slipsole which is still able to shine despite not having the benefit of its seaside context.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the wine. Noble Rot have consistently described themselves in the press as a wine bar first, and to this end the wine list - not excessively long but full of interesting options - will I'm sure keep oenophiles happy as Larry. For those of you (myself included) who don't take a professional-level interest in that side of things, there's the fun of ordering a bottle of £20 white and knowing that if it's on the list, it's likely to be pretty good. I spotted a few other tables who were as happy working their way through the wine list as we were working our way through the food menu, and I'm sure Noble Rot are happy playing to either role.
So I'll leave it up to you whether you treat Noble Rot as an exciting new wine bar that happens to serve excellent food, or a modern British-French bistro that serves some of our island's greatest ingredients with the minimum of faff and fuss. Either way, you should find a lot to like in this charming mid-range (you're probably looking at £40-£50 a head) spot on Lamb's Conduit St, and I can see myself returning quite a bit, not least because it's 8 minutes walk from the office. It's a hugely enjoyable addition to the area, and to London.
Noble Rot didn't quite make it into the app this year, but to see what else is in the area try the brand new Where to Eat in London 2016. Also, apologies for the photos. It's dark in there.