Monday, 23 January 2012

Hedone, Chiswick

I went to see new movie The Artist on Saturday evening. Even if you've not seen it yourself, you will most likely have heard of it - the slavering reviews, the cavalcade of awards, the Oscar buzz. The friend I went with told me that her colleague declared it "the most perfect movie he'd ever seen", and to compliment this most nostalgic of shows we'd selected the best seats at the wonderful old Ritzy cinema in Brixton. So I think it's fair to say our expectations were high.

It was a good film. I liked it. I think my friend liked it too. A nice, light-hearted period piece set in the early days of cinema, a good few chuckles, some dancing, a straightforward love story and a Bit With A Dog. A very pleasant way to spend the evening. But I would hardly put it in my top 5 films I've seen this week, never mind of all time, and left completely baffled about the attention it's been receiving. Is The Artist really the best film of 2011 and I'm just a joyless misery guts that can't appreciate a good thing when he sees one? Or, was I simply expecting too much and nothing could have lived up to it, no matter how good? Which brings us to Hedone.

Executive Chef Mikael Jonsson is that rarest of things - a food blogger and obsessive foodie who gave up his previous (presumably more generously paid) job, and, by the looks of things, his blog, to open a restaurant that would serve the kind of food he wanted to eat. And, being an obsessive foodie, what he wants to eat is nothing less than the finest ingredients he can get his hands on, cooked in a way that makes the most of them. I remember reading his blog in the days before I'd started my own - it would contain vast, 10,000-word reports on multi-Michelin starred meals in Paris and Berlin, with the kind of detail and expertise more usually applied to open-heart surgery than dinner, and I found it all completely fascinating. So, above all else, congratulations to Mikael for having the guts to offer up his own cooking for critique, as he must know what he has coming from other bloggers too lazy and talentless to ever cross the Great Divide themselves (ie. me).

The amuse was literally that - a culinary joke which looked for all the world like a sweet Jammy Dodger but actually consisted of savoury cheese biscuits sandwiching a thin layer of sharp ewe's milk cheese, topped with a sharp red berry coulis of some kind. I realise I'm doing a huge disservice to the amount of fanatical care that has gone into sourcing all the food at Hedone, but quite frankly if you ever came to this blog looking for informed food journalism you were on a hiding to nothing.

Next, a teeny cup of ferociously dark seaweed sauce which topped a thick savoury custard which I think involved some kind of cheese (more of that top-notch food journalism for you there). The idea behind this was to provide a heavy umami hit to get your taste buds going before the main courses started arriving, and though I can't vouch for the science of it, I thought it was great fun.

Devon scallops sashimi was a pretty little dish, containing carefully balanced textures and delicate splashes of colour, but I'm afraid I wasn't hugely impressed by the flavours. Raw scallops aren't my favourite thing in the world - I just think they're always better cooked - and while I'm sure these were the finest examples money can procure, I found them dense and bland.

Rocks on watercress jelly was better, though. Raw (or at least very lightly poached) oysters had an absolutely fantastic fresh flavour, and combined with the ever-so-slightly-peppery watercress and a few dabs of what I think is the same red berry coulis that came with the Jammy Dodgers, it all added up to an interesting and rewarding dish.

Cévennes onions, pear shavings (with the £15 Périgord truffle option naturally) I knew would be the dish that made up my mind about Hedone. You have to have supreme confidence not only in your own ability to showcase world-class ingredients but also confidence in the customers who will be paying a lot of money for a plate of onion and pear to recognise the quality in those ingredients, and appreciate them. I'm sure there will be enough people out there who do, as well, I'm just not one of them. To me, it tasted like warm onion and shaved pear with some nice black truffle on top - not unpleasant, just unremarkable. What am I missing here?

This mother-of-pearl effect on the turbot flesh is, we were told, an indication that this most precious of beasties has been cooked to perfection. It certainly had a great flavour, and a remarkable texture - dense without being dry, and flaking apart beautifully. The seaweed (I presume... don't nominate me for the Pulitzer all at once, now) underneath seasoned the fish very nicely, and a slightly grizzly-looking clam topped it all off.

Sika deer "Royale" was, for me, the highlight of the meal. A delicate "raviolo" burst under the slightest pressure in the mouth to reveal a rich game soup filling. Beautifully cooked venison, bright pink loin and a different slow-cooked cut, had the most intense flavour of any I've ever eaten, and was all soaked in one of those classically French reduced sauces that packed an incredible punch. As if all that wasn't enough, there was some gorgeous shaved foie gras on top to add extra meaty butteryness. Beautiful.

Squab pigeon was, again, technically faultless - flavourful and attractive and presented as two cuts of breast and a roast leg. I ate it all quite happily, I just think it suffered slightly in comparison to the pigeon I'd had at the Ledbury a few months ago where they debone the leg and turn it into a meat lollipop. Chewing around the sinew in this one was harder work, but perhaps I'm nit-picking.

What is it with fancy restaurants and beetroot desserts recently? Rose floating island, rhubarb and beetroot was, fortunately, a lot nicer than the dish at Tom Aikens, though I definitely preferred the gorgeous sweet rhubarb sorbet and the soft meringue-y base to the disconcertingly earthy beetroot sauce. Also, I couldn't detect any rose flavour but can't say I missed it.

This second dessert was, with the flecks of gold leaf on top, reminiscent of Alain Ducasse's famous Louis XV creation from his restaurant in Monte Carlo, but just like the version I had at Gauthier Soho I couldn't quite see what the fuss was about. It was a perfectly decent chocolate dessert and I finished it off quite happily, it just wasn't particularly memorable.

We didn't have a huge amount of wine, just two bottles (one of each) between four and I think a couple of people had coffees, but the bill still somehow managed to come to £120+ a head. In fairness, in the context of the obvious commitment to world-class ingredients (I'm reliably informed Jonsson is charging far less for some of these super-premium items than his accountants would like), the superb service and the very attractive room, this is understandable but I can think of a few other spots in London I've had more satisfying meals and on a far less eye-watering total. This ingredients-led, precise, formal, even reverential style of cooking will, indeed does, have its fans but I couldn't help spending most of the afternoon wondering if I was suffering from some kind of palate-blindness. It was like being in the audience of an experimental modern Jazz quartet, standing baffled and uncomprehending whilst all those around me enjoyed a life-changing experience.

After we'd emerged, baffled and uncomprehending from a sell-out screening of The Artist in Brixton, we nipped around the corner and joined the back of the queue for Franco Manca. After 15 minutes or so wait, we sat down and ordered a pizza each for £7 ish, a glass of £1.80 Pinot Grigio and a glass of their homemade lemonade for the same. I still maintain that the pizzas from Franco Manca Brixton (have heard mixed reports from the other branches) are the best it's possible to pay for in the capital, the sourdough bases sweet and crispy and smoky, the toppings fresh and bright, the atmosphere convivial and rustic. And call me an inverted snob (you won't be the first), but I enjoyed that pizza much more than I'd enjoyed lunch in Chiswick, and not only because it cost fully twelve times less. I am convinced, objectively, that Hedone is a very good restaurant, possibly world-class. But I think I'd rather have a pizza. Sorry.


Hedone on Urbanspoon


Unknown said...

Interestingly, your conclusions on Hedone (expressed with your usual equilibrium) almost exactly reflect mine on Roganic - I could see that incredible skill was at work in the kitchen, and knew that I was eating a world-clas meal, it just didn't do much for me. I think this is the danger with restaurants (and chefs) performing at this level; those who get it will *really* get it and quickly run out of superlatives, but those who don't will be left feeling a little confused.

Credit to you also for quite the worst shoddy iPhone photo - that abortion of a menu snap, shaky shadow hand-puppets and all - I've yet seen from the self-crowned King of The Shoddy iPhone Photo ;-)

Fiona Beckett said...

I felt much the same about it, Chris. Great technique and ingredients, obviously just lacked that warmth, passion and excitement that makes a restaurant special. It obviously divides people a lot.

Chris Pople said...

Hugh: HAHA well, I aim to please. If only I had Paul Winch-Furness following me around taking stunning photos of food but sadly we can't ALL be that fortunate :D

Fiona: That's it - it's literally ALL about the expensive ingredients, a temple of sourcing.

Laissez Fare said...

Interesting review Chris. I have yet to visit - as I haven't been to London since it's been open - but it is definitely divisive: some can't love it enough, others feel much the same as you (thinking the food is nice enough, but not all that in terms of a dining experience). It's on my list for my next visit, so looking forward to trying it. Hopefully that's not misplaced.

Michael said...

Always enjoy reading your reviews but I do disagree with the conclusion on this one.

I ate on the same day as you and had pretty much exactly the same to eat - I think what made the difference for me was sitting at the bar next to the open kitchen and getting to speak to Mikael about each course and hear his passion about all of the ingredients.

I think it was very much a combination of this and the incredible flavours of the ingredients that made me enjoy the meal so much - I'd urge you to give it another go but this time sit at the bar!

Hollow Legs said...

I've seen some raving reviews but judging by your pictures, I think that aside from the raviolo I would think similar. Still, you never know until you try. I just don't have £120 to blow on a risk.

Su-Lin said...

Totally agree with you.

Pasta Bites said...

Great post as usual... I must admit, the way the discesa look, doesnt appeal to me at all....

Gavin said...

Chris, have you read this? I think this may be one of the very few times you, I, and Steve Plotniki agree - almost.

Any meal that includes the best turbot, venison and pigeon I can recall eating and where no other course failed to impress on some level is a bit special in my books. My only regret is that I would love to try the wine flight with a meal and include a cheese course. The cost, I suspect, would be nearly double what we paid so it's not happening any time soon.

PS your photography is rubbish.

Helen said...

Why is every plate a combination of dark brown/black and beige? (with the exception of a couple of red things?). That's odd isn't it?

Unknown said...

I've been struck with the continual focus on the ingredients being the absolute best possible, I'm of the opinion that beyond a certain quality level, any preference is merely personal, or, as we see with wine fashion based.
It's a common and well known phenomena whereby people who are told their wine is very expensive, perceive it to be much better than it is.
I'm not knocking Hedone as I've not eaten there, but too many of the glowing reviews reference speaking with the chef, sharing his passion etc for me to be fully comfortable with their impartiality.

Chris Pople said...

Michael: I didn't sit at the bar but we weren't short of interaction with Mikael who is good friends with one of the people I was having lunch with and spent a long time explaining every dish. He is clearly passionate about it all and really goes to great efforts to get the best ingredients, I just felt a bit useless for not being able to appreciate them!

Gavin: Thanks for that, have read it now. Not sure how I feel about having the same opinions as Plotnicki... PS. I know.

Helen: "Beige" is a pretty good description of my feelings towards Hedone, ironically.

Donald: Very good point about expensive wine. Again, not knocking the effort that goes into the ingredients at Hedone - it's definitely not some kind of huge confidence trick - I just don't understand why I didn't enjoy it more.

Anonymous said...

Stick to searching for the perfect burger then, and leave real food to the adults.

Mister M said...

[The last comment sounds suitably bitter / anonymous such as to speculate it was written by a chef from the restaurant itself...]

I've just arrived home this evening from dinner at Hedone and if I had to write-up my experience, it would be EXACTLY as you described it.

Technically faultless, great ingredients, but dear GOD the combination of foods was bland and unimaginative.

Oyster is a slimy food. You don't put a slimy food on a bed of more slimy food (the watercress jelly). That oyster should have been fried, like the Spanish do. There should have been SOME variation in texture.

The venison dish ("deer") was again technically fine - the colour of the meat was gorgeous and it was perfectly cooked. But even the venison itself left me thinking ... meh. It didn't do anything for me and I LOVE venison.

That umami brulee thing (I believe it was made with egg not cheese) neither cleansed my palette nor excited it.

The wine was fabulous but the demi-bottle we drank was 80 quid and I'm sorry but it was nowhere near THAT good. Perhaps 30 quid a bottle in a restaurant, 40 tops.

So much more to say, but I'll save it for my own blog post some time soon...

trickie said...

anonymous - very unfair and prejudiced comment; my 15 year old daughter loves Hedone ....

Howard said...

I can understand why some people like a less austere experience. The test, really, is if you can find value in the scallop sashimi. Personally I loved it, and I don't think anyone else is doing anything comparable in London. A few times, in the course of one meal, he made me taste formerly familiar ingredients in a new way. Minimal saucing and careful cooking are designed to make you think about every mouthful . . . but this may be too much of an intellectual approach for some and others simply might not have the palate.

Restless Native said...

The Venison dish looks really good.
I would go there, just for that.
Personally I don’t like the taste of gold leaf. What is it with cockles and clams, I hand rake my own, so when they arrive to small or grizzly, I get a bit bothered. Small ones are usually dredged; this is F@cking things up in a big way. Dredged produce should be avoided.
Another good post, keep them coming. Can’t wait for my visit to The Ledbury next month.

Patrick said...

You're probably going to be banned for life now.

The more I read about the chef there the more he seems like the 'Soup Nazi' character from Seinfeld.

Scotty said...

From Donald Edwards:
"I'm of the opinion that beyond a certain quality level, any preference is merely personal, or, as we see with wine fashion based.
It's a common and well known phenomena whereby people who are told their wine is very expensive, perceive it to be much better than it is."

with the best will in the world, this is an astonishingly daft thing to say. above a certain level, preference is personal, quality is not. once a subject matter exceeds the individuals own knowledge level, there is a temptation to reduce it back for ease of understanding.

this is not useful.

and as for a common, and well known phenomena... well that might be even more asinine than the first comment.

as to Hedone, its an aesthetic, intellectual atelier of a restaurant. if that's not your bag, fine. but again, just cause you went to the wrong movie, doesn't make it bad. although at some point, again, if you want to comment extensive on a certain field, your repertoire, experience, knowledge and appreciation has to be broader than movements from 5 years ago.

If Hedone was in San Sebastian, or Denmark it would be a sensation.

Anonymous said...

Went with high expectations and left underwhelmed. Perhaps I've been spoiled by too many good meals in Tokyo and Spain. Dined alone at the counter and had the carte blanche. Mikael was not cooking. No interaction with the staff. Told them at the start I only had two hours but still they went over by 15 mins in not the most busy service. The grouse is the only thing I remember - it was outstanding and much better than the grouse I ate at Tom Kitchen the same week. Much preferred the meal I ate The Square that week.

Amanda Brendon said...

Came here with my co-workers for a birthday treat. The restaurant is modern inside and not at all pretentious. The food is shunning. There is attention to detail in every dish and you can see into the kitchen to see the craftsmanship that goes into each course. We had the lunchtime taster menu which was great value.