Monday, 3 June 2019

The Swan at Shakespeare's Globe, South Bank

After so many years eating and writing about restaurants, I tend to flatter myself I can tell the good from the bad with a quick glance at a menu. And on paper at least, the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe is boldly and assuredly exactly my kind of place. Starters of English asparagus and duck liver custard, mains of wild garlic broth and rabbit with nettles, unusual strictly seasonal ingredients in interesting and tasteful combinations, it was clearly constructed by people who love eating and know how to express that love in words. I got as far as "Ox cheek & spelt risotto, cured bone marrow" before deciding my search for dinner on the South Bank was over, and ventured inside.

Things began well enough. Front of house found us a corner of a large sharing table to use as the rest of this large, bright restaurant was at capacity, which was nice of them, and cocktails were, if not entirely brilliant ("Rhubarb Negroni" had too much Campari and seemingly no rhubarb, and something called "Spring, Where Art Thou!" was too sweet), then at least enjoyable. By the time we'd ordered food, the mood was very much one of cheerful optimism.

Until it arrived. Firstly, a spelt risotto which looked the part until you realised the spelt had a very strange texture, possibly from some kind of mistake in the cooking process but I won't even bother trying to guess what, making it all a bit, well, slimy. Without the weird sliminess it might have been OK - it was all seasoned properly and it was a sensible portion size - but the shredded ox cheeks just got lost in the mush, and it wasn't much fun to eat.

Asparagus were even more upsetting. Presumably at one time these had been nice fresh vegetables, but having been grilled a long time ago, and left in the fridge, they were presented cold, chewy, and utterly lifeless. God knows who's idea it was to serve "chargrilled asparagus" fridge cold, but they need a serious talking to. Lardo was nice enough, and some lightly dressed salad was edible, but the "truffle jam" didn't seem to contain any truffle and had its bland sweetness didn't do anything to compliment anything else. Also it's worth noting both starters arrived barely a minute after we'd ordered them - how long had they been sitting around?

Any weak hope the starters were anomalies was crushed with the arrival of the mains. A dish of rabbit, nettles, artichoke and lobster should have me purring with delight, but the ballotined rabbit was a strange pasty texture, tasting only of the ham that had been used to wrap it, lobster was overcooked, the tail portion chewy and the claw hard, and the whole thing was barely above room temperature. Disappointment barely covers the emotions I felt as I glumy picked my way through it.

Brill - twenty six quid's worth of it - arrived accurately cooked, but entirely unseasoned, and was similarly difficult to eat. "Rolled leeks" were chewy and unpleasant, "Champagne sauce" is probably supposed to look like cuckoo spit but presumably not taste like it, and a large poached oyster heaved on top of the whole thing just looked clumsy and bizarre. This was not good food.

So what on earth happened here? How can a set of dishes that worked so well on paper, that made such exciting reading, turn out so dissapointing in reality? Ordinarily I'd walk away from an experience like this saddened and frustrated but completely baffled - with so much effort clearly having gone into the sourcing of ingredients, it makes no sense that there would be such a disjoint on application. And I would have remained baffled - £63 a head lighter, and baffled - had a few days later the subject of my dismal dinner came up in conversation with a friend. "Oh yes, the Swan poached Simon Ulph from the kitchens at St Leonard's. He spent ages reworking the menu and introducing some exciting new dishes, only for the management to say they wanted to start doing sandwiches. So he left."

Now, obviously take any such anecdotes with a pinch of Maldon salt - there are few less reliable sources of information than restaurant kitchen gossip - but you have to admit, it provides a rather neat explanation to what happened on Friday. A (by all accounts) talented chef is brought in to revamp a menu and reinvigorate a kitchen. He's barely started, possibly not even given enough time to fully train his team on the new dishes, when management have a fit of the nerves about the experimental direction the new chef is going in, and completely change his brief. Said chef leaves, and we're left with a "ghost kitchen" with a menu full of dishes nobody really knows how to cook.

Oh well, these things happen. I'd had such a good run for a while, I suppose I was long overdue a bad meal. If nothing else, it's taught me to look out for Simon Ulph's next move because I really want to know if that rabbit, nettle and lobster dish lives up to the thing I've invented in my head, and I do hope the Swan manage to get their kitchen back on track, with or without the sandwiches. Meantime, I can only suggest you avoid the place.



Alicia Foodycat said...

Has Allan Pickett moved on? It sounded great under him.

Andy K said...

that oyster looks terrifying.

and isn't the whole point of lardo that it melts onto warm stuff?

blimey - eating out shouldn't require insider knowledge of who's employed where really should it?

SFSusan said...

Because they get a lot of diners in pre-show, it wouldn't surprise me if they par-cook things and hold them. "Easier on the kitchen" and "faster to the customer" would be their 'reasoning'.

Alex C said...

I'm going to have a crack at that spelt resotto sliminess. (I'm no chef though).
I've not tried spelt risotto -why would you when Arborio or Carnaroli are easily avaiable.
That said you can pre-cook a risotto about 2/3rd of the way - so that the rice is still a bit cruchy, and then leave it to finish off later. It's not quite as good as cooked all in one go, but really not bad either. The problems is - if you leave it with too much stock in the pan - then the rice absorbs it all and goes slimy. When you come to finish it off later on you end up with a sludge.
It's the same story with your other comments too - it looks like they've been trying to do way too much prep in advance, and it's ruining the dishes. They can get more dishes out that way and accomodate bloggers willing to chance their arms, but means they risk a lot of bad dishes that could have been good.