Monday, 11 March 2019

Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

It's a very good job Sat Bains turned out to be as good as it did, as in the days leading up to this weekend in Nottingham I was increasingly thinking the whole trip was cursed.

It all began a few weeks ago with an invite to the East Midlands on a particular weekend, to a particular restaurant which should - and shall - remain nameless. We'd agreed enthusiastically, only for them to change their minds about the arrangement shortly after we'd spent £205 on train tickets. A few frantic DMs later, I'd managed to secure both an early dinner reservation at Sat Bains (thank you Sat!) and a couple of nights at the Nottingham Hilton (thank you Sophie of Visit Nottinghamshire!) so our non-refundable train tickets wouldn't end up in the bin, so again all seemed fine until 3 days before the trip when both of my parents (who would have been joining me) contracted chest infections. Literally the very last minute before I would have been charged £315 for 3 late cancellations, a friend from London said she could join me, Sat Bains kindly agreed to change the table to a 2, and the weekend was back on. Right up until the very first sip of welcome champagne I was still half expecting to be thwarted by, I don't know, a wolf attack or meteorite strike or something.

But here we were anyway - finally, unbelievably - and even as the leadup to the weekend had been a bit of a roller-coaster, once down an unlikely dirt track next to a flyover (plastered with so many "Restaurant Sat Bains" signs they may as well have added "honestly!" underneath) and inside this warm, welcoming space (it's a bit hard to describe, but with its exposed modern bricks and conservatory it's sort of a cross between a posh private liposuction clinic and a garden centre) the nerves soon settled. The only choices we were asked to make were on the wine - where the sommelier very cleverly advised one bottle of light Hungarian red to go with everything, so much more relaxing and sensible than attempting a half glass per course - and between the mains, pigeon or monkfish. Obviously I went for the pigeon.

Reseated in one of the main dining rooms, on a table cutely lit by a lamp using the menu as a shade, the first snack was a light artichoke velouté, artichoke crisps, nasturtium oil and I think a very light horseradish ice cream. Immediately two things were apparent - firstly that, as you might expect from a restaurant of this reputation, seasoning was utterly spot-on in every department, meaning that exactly one mouthful into this 10+ course dinner I knew I could relax and not worry about any ingredient or finishing sauce or element of any dish to be anything less than the best it could be. Secondly, that in folding a warm velouté over a savoury ice cream and adding various nuts or grains somewhere underneath it all, this is a kitchen supremely confident in its control and mastery of texture (the ice-cream held its shape till the last moment, and the velouté remained warm) and we were in for a night of some serious culinary fireworks.

"Smoked eel", one of the most luxurious and rewarding bits of seafood even just served within two slices of bread, here came topped with a generous layer of truffle, surrounded by a neat border of pickled radish, and finished with a charcoal-grey truffle, seaweed and chicken sauce so mesmerisingly perfect in every way that I've been having regular dreams about it since. Fancy sauces that take days to make and involve a bewildering array of difficult techniques are, after all, why we pay the big bucks in restaurants like these, and you'd expect somewhere with Sat Bains' reputation to be able to perform well on this front. But the sauces here are something else - another level over anything I've tried anywhere else, not just balanced and satisfying but genuinely innovative and experimental.

Another knockout sauce finished the next course, a single bronzed veal sweetbread sat on a bed of soft, earthy lentils and topped with a sharp pickled lemon. The sweetbread itself was perfectly cooked, as you might expect, but again the star of the show was the "sauce Macvin" which somehow matched the traditions of a classical French kitchen with a kind of vinegary black daal. Fusion dishes are rarely very successful, especially when the backgrounds they draw on are so diverse, but this sauce, heady and complex, thrives off its geographical vagueness - and is somehow both Gallic haute cuisine and recognisably Indian.

"From the embers" is one of those ideas so simple and so wonderful you wonder why nobody has done it before. Or maybe they have, and I just didn't know about it, which is more likely. Anyway, this is a single small potato, baked in the embers of a wood fire till creamy on the inside and dark and crunchy on the outside, topped with a generous mound of caviar. Though ostensibly a "simpler" dish, this had much in common with the very first artichoke amuse, insofar as hot potato was sold next to cold caviar, and even sampling both elements simultaneously wasn't confusing or weird, but instead made perfect sense. I suggested to our waiter they should do a scaled-up 'normal size' baked potato with half a pound of caviar on top for the lunch menu, and I was only half joking.

"Sherwood Forest" was various bits and pieces from the local woodland (perhaps even Sherwood Forest itself although that's a ways away) accompanying chunks of venison. Mushrooms and foraged herbs filled out the mix but the most interesting element was a note of pine, which cut through the ragu with a kind of aniseedy freshness. Full of life and flavour, that it was the only one of any of the dishes that felt if not exactly safe then rather familiar, but was no less enjoyable for it.

Salt-baked turnip appeared next, soft and sweet and accompanied by neat little squares of pear and, in these final days before Brexit before they turn into gold dust, wispy-thin slices of Cinco Jotas Iberico ham. It was all bathed in - you guessed it - another incredible sauce, this time coyly referred to as "dashi" but no doubt actually involving a multitude of stocks, oils and techniques.

Earlier in the evening, flushed with the confidence of empty bellies, we had agreed to insert an extra 'bonus' of coddled pheasant's egg, truffle and new season wild garlic in before the main course. Perhaps through the creeping fear of not being able to finish our mains, or just the fact that there's only so blindingly brilliant a coddled egg can be, I'm afraid I wasn't completely sold on this one. It was solid, and gently impressive where everything else had been stunning. Having said that, it's apparently a new dish, and so maybe with the benefit of a few tweaks over the summer it could eventually evolve into something quite special.

Finally it was time for the main, an attractive arrangement of pigeon breast and leg, darkened over a wood grill but still plump and pink inside, served with bitter ears of endive slicked with offal paté, and - of course - a variety of swoops and swirls of nasturtium oil, incredible game jus and vegetable purée. Objectively this was the kind of main course you'd expect to be served at a fine dining restaurant - none the worse for it of course, just perhaps less otherworldly than other parts of the meal. However, completely subjectively, roast pigeon in game jus is absolutely precisely the kind of thing I want to be served at this point in a tasting menu, and so I wolfed it down in seconds.

"Crossover" was a way of introducing the desserts without losing complete sight of the savouries, by offering vegetables teased into the shape of childhood sweet-shop favourites. So on the left, skewers of caramelised carrot dipped in "sherbet dip" (baking soda and sugar), and on the right, sweet tomato crackers that look like jammy dodgers. Not only were these fun, and pretty, but (somewhat against expectation on my behalf, I'll be honest), the sweet-savoury thing actually worked incredibly well, and anticipated what followed beautifully.

I've not had a dessert as good as "Lenton Lane" in a long time. At first glance, aerated chocolate, honeycomb and flavoured meringues are hardly new techniques, even if they are sometimes tricky to pull off, and you may have had something resembling the above at restaurants before. However, while this dish didn't reinvent any wheels, each element, in its own way, defied expectations. The honeycomb was light and firm without dominating, the chocolate ice cream was dense and, well, chocolatey without being too sweet or bitter, but the real star element were the tobacco-infused chunks of aerated chocolate, which had an almost chilli burn and which dissolved in the mouth like pure burny-chocolatey joy.

Second dessert was forced rhubarb from the Yorkshire Triangle, on a smooth ice cream made with Bird's Custard. There's absolutely nothing not to like about rhubarb and custard, and in the same way I love it when posh restaurants make canapés or snacks with Marmite, the addition of a subtle amount of powdered custard to the slickly-Pacojetted (I assume) ice cream here was a touch of genius. They came with some mini doughnuts filled with jam, which of course were also impossible not to love.

Finally, there was a stick of candy floss consisting of all the flavours of a Thai green curry - very Heston (I'm sure they won't mind me saying), playful and whimsical but with a firm grasp of the balance of flavours required in a dessert snack. It was a great way to end the meal, and by the time we'd relocated back into the reception bar for a nightcap and to wait for our Uber (thank God for city dining) it was clear that whatever the bill was, it would have been worth it. Thanks to unspoken blogger privilege or out of sheer sympathy for my initial desperate pleas for a table, they'd charged us the price for the 7-courses and given us the champagne on the house, but even so, this is unquestionably one of the nation's top restaurants, and to get away with less than £200/head is, for as long as it lasts, one of the greatest benefits of eating out in this country. Just try and do the same in Paris without having to mortgage your home, I dare you.

So thanks again Visit Nottinghamshire, which delivered our weekend from the clutches of defeat into the arms of the Hilton hotel and the biggest bed I've ever seen, thank you Shula for dropping everything to get on a train to a part of the country she thought she'd seen the last of when she left university, and of course to Restaurant Sat Bains, for feeding us with such love and generosity that a 3-hour meal felt like three minutes. For a trip that so often came so close to disaster, it couldn't have worked out better.


Two nights in the Hilton Nottingham (right in the centre of it all) were organised by Visit Nottinghamshire. I can recommend a pint in the tudor bar in the Old Bell and using the tram to get there from the train station, which is great fun.

1 comment:

Pasta Bites said...

I was there for lunch less than a month ago, also with a lot less hurdles along the way too - sorry for your mum and dad!
We loved our lunch - we had the Nucleus which was a great experience. Loved the food, my vaourite dish was the sweetbread and I don't even like sweetbread!