Thursday, April 5, 2012

Culinary Darwinism and the clenched fist

Apparently you should never eat a meal larger than the size of your clenched fist.  Apparently, use of the term ‘apparently’ is the swiftest revelation that the forthcoming statement is either entirely contrived or quoted from a half-read diet column in an out-of-date waiting room Grazia. In many cases, it may be both.

But let’s assume for a moment that this ‘fact’ is true.  Many a question it does raise. For example: If you clench your fist at the table, can you do so and not burst into a Fee-Fi- Fo-Fum? How do you simultaneously clench a fist and hold cutlery with modern decorum? Can I use a Space Bag to compact my meal for measurement? Why are my hands not bigger?

Simon's fingers are long and he prefers the hand span measurement approach.
Yes, Simon, this is edible in its entirety.
I am a consistent abuser of this proportionate theory of consumption.  My fist of reference is more the size of a novelty NBA fan hand than my own little clencher. If I could fit a hotel breakfast buffet into the volume of my hand I would, but no amount of cuisine Tetris is going to make that happen.

Yep, that ought to do me...for lunch.
In fact, if I can fit my hotel breakfast into the volume of my hand I am obviously approaching the buffet offering wrong…or I'm staying at a crappy hotel.  The Breakfast Buffet Methodology involves the following sequence of events: Muffin, fruit, skip the cereal, breather, hot buffet, breather, pastries, fruit, muffin for later, breather. The End. That’s a lot of handfuls if properly executed.

Certain venues, aware of my skills at the buffet, prefer to opt for pre-portioned breakfast servings.
But I would like to protest at this point that I am not a glutton. As larger people have ‘big bones’, so do hungry people I have ‘healthy appetites’.  Maybe I’d be better to say apparently I’m not a glutton. But increasingly I find myself  saving my fistfuls of consumption for things I really enjoy.  And the things I really enjoy are not as abundant as they used to be.

Now this isn’t me being picky and it certainly isn’t me dieting. As anyone who knows me is aware, I discretely display ‘No Dietary Requirements to be Requested’ posters at my dinner parties.  Pregnancy and allergy causing death are carve-outs.  Atkins is not. Go to the gym. I think this new wave of culinary Darwinism is attributable to me being completely spoilt for choice here in London now.  Disappointing dining also makes me sad. Actually sad. Only cheese, in wheel format, can help at such a time.

But back to London.  There is a new restaurant, food truck, wine-bar, bistro, food truck turned bistro-wine bar opening in this city every day.  It’s impossible to keep up, though indeed we try.  To make it through the new Soho openings of just the past few months we’ve started instituting a travelling feast approach.  Soho is the new breakfast buffet.  Drinks and bar snacks here, a few plates here, breather, a few plates there,  breather, dessert and coffee elsewhere, breather, cocktails. The End.   That’s a lot of venues if properly executed.

Enough!! Well not really, but it’s fun to be dramatic sometimes.

The more eating and exploring I do, the more I’m aware of what’s a gimmick, what’s a classic, what and who is really exciting and generally how I want to spend my nights and lunches out.  It’s entirely personal preference but I like surprises, thoughtfulness, intelligence, respect, flirtation, fun and generosity.  To clarify I am talking about eating out in all its guises and neither a corporate philosophy manifesto nor an eHarmony compatibility test.  I do realise I sound quite bonkers at times so I guess I’m lucky this isn’t an eHarmony compatibility test.

It might make me sound slightly less bonkers if I put a few faces to names:

New season brights on the De Camaron Salteados Taco
Surprises: Amongst the to be expected Mexican fare at La Bodega Negra we came across the Tuna, Chipotle, Avocado & Jalapeno Tostadita.  Chipolte mayo, raw tuna, an unexpected Asianesque twist and worth returning for.  Oh and the De Camaron Salteados taco took on the taste buds too.  Beyond that La Bodega Negra was fine, well OK, but for a couple of specific dishes and a cheeky margarita, give it ago.

Do I need a caption on this picture, it's largely self evident isn't it?
Flirtation: The packed and multilayered dining room at Ceviche with it’s close tables, bar spaces, warm lighting, loud and boisterous clientele is a perfect warm antidote to the sharp and after a while slightly homogenous citrus flavours of the tart Peruvian fad (I mean food)…not to mention the inevitable abundant enjoyment of pisco sours.  Maybe that explains the flirtation?

Fun: Late Sunday lunch at Honest Burgers in Brixton Village.  I’m willing to host a protein smack town to determine and crown the best burger in London.  Hell I may even don a bikini and hold the scoreboard.  But not after eating one (or more correctly three burgers between two people) of these guys. Drool.
Dear Knife.  I am tired of playing hide and seek with you.
I can see you under the rosemary fries and I don't need you anyway.
Love, Miss Devour.
Generosity: OK so this isn’t London so it’s technically off topic, but amongst the small plates served at Au Passage in Paris, lays a slow roasted shoulder of lamb that brings pure happiness to a table when torn apart and devoured with medieval fervour.

Dear Knife,
As I said in my last letter. We don't need you anyway.
Love, Miss Devour
Respect: Sadly I don’t have a photo of anything I’ve ever eaten at Koya.  I enjoy it too much.  Or I’ve burnt my mouth or I’ve flicked broth in my eye.  I even enjoy that. The noodle (spoken in the voice of Po’s ‘Dad’ in Kung Foo Panda 1 and 2) are unbelievable, the flavours clean and delicate, the experience entirely and consistently satisfying.

OK so this weekend, I finally managed it, a photo at Koya! Duck hot pot.
Intelligence: It’s a sad and often denied reality that my financial resources are finite.  Dinner in, a rib of beef, bottle of wine is a less rare but always wise plan of action.

Still nuts?  Probably, but only enough nuts to fit into a clenched fist.  Apparently.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

T + 60 minutes and counting...

I’m thinking about changing the sort of person I am.  This isn’t a great 30 something existential crisis – I was progressive, I had one of those in my late 20’s - but more a practical approach to temporal management.

I currently am, and always have been an On Timer.  No, more correctly, I’m a Little Bit Early to Everything kind of girl.  I get up early (subject to the activities of the night before), I take the slightly too soon train to get somewhere and I think an 8.30 reservation means 8.25 not 8.45.

I’ve always been this way. In part this is due to a vast proportion of my childhood being spent in airports 5 hours prior to departure time on the insistence of my Little Bit Early to Everything kind of mother.  I also don’t like rushing, look immediately dishevelled when power walking and always like to sneak a look at the menu before my dining compatriots arrive.

Problem being, I seem to attract and be attracted to Late Enough is Good Enough kind of people. Busy people. Doers. Well not always that busy doing anything in particular other than being late, but you get the gist.  People who have lots going on and a finite schedule to populate…some people can just do this and those who can’t are late.

I understand the temporal impediment of the Late Enough is Good Enough folk and I’m absolutely open to a 15 minute falter in the time space continuum. In 15 minutes I can check Twitter, consider a tweet, neglect a tweet, order a champagne, peruse the dining room, solve a complex algebraic logarithm in my head whilst silently reciting a script extract from A Beautiful Mind and consume all butter on the table.

By T + 30 minutes I’ve refreshed Twitter four times, read the Wales sub-section of the BBC News app, displayed artisan origami skill on my napkin and noticed the tuft of externally visible nasal hair on my dining neighbour which will now enthral me in a vortex of gross for the next 10 minutes.

At T + 45 minutes I still can’t believe his girlfriend hasn’t said anything about that and I begin to consider ordering ahead after prioritising my best to worst picks of the night.  Surely I can sneak in a couple of ‘hidden courses’ before they get here? I’d also like to look at the cocktail menu please…again.

And yes, before you ask, there have been instances, be they few, when a T + 60 minute scenario has arisen.  This is a significant violation and can only ever be borne in an environment heavily populated by reading materials, intriguing people or things I can buy.  Dining plans with common time perpetrators usually involve BYO literature, an iPhone, a Blackberry and an exchange of email addresses with the waitress who is my new best friend.

An On Timers' support group in the bar at Dabbous
Today, a last minute cancellation at the ‘Impossible to Score a Table at Newbie’ Dabbous, resulted in me diving head first into a T+60 minute plot line.  I knew little forewarning on a 12.15 reservation was fertile ground for such an outcome so I arrived promptly, smiled at the seriously kind and polite front of house staff, pre-emptively apologised, inserted a small but unobtrusive portion of banter into the mix and retired to the bar for a cocktail and a couple of chapters of my book.

Note to fellow On Timers – the ‘One day in June’ on the martini menu (Saffron Gin, Creme de Peche, elderflower cordial, ginger, cucumber, lemon and pineapple juice) is a tart selection I felt boldly straddled the 12 midday cocktail o’clock calling with just enough fruitiness to argue it’s actually one of my seven a day…fruit and vege that is, not cocktails. The downstairs bar at midday is quiet, as you can imagine.  I counted five On Timers down there.  We share a knowing glance, air cheers our cocktails and get on with out respective self-provided activities. And so we wait, surrounded by revealed brick work, communal tables, faux-warn leather deep seats and cocktails. Not bad, not bad at all.

The superb celeriac and I'm not sure if you can see the tiny but delicious
egg dish up the back there...wave for us tiny egg dish!
From ‘One day in June’ followed an exponential increase in the banter to apologies conversation matter between myself and the staff until, at the T + 67 minute mark, my boyfriend flies down the stairs to the soundtrack of Jamiroquai and we get on with proceedings.  Two things: (1) Thank you, thank you kind front of house people for tolerating our collective late arrival and being super accommodating; and (2) Jamiroquai was an unfortunate addition to the Dabbous playlist (not a personal entry soundtrack to said late arrival) which runs largely like my best friend’s iPod circa 2001, only with marginally less R Kelly.

I’m sure you are aware of the hype here.  Faye Maschler, amongst others, has declared Dabbous a ‘Game Changer’, ‘5 stars’! This ensures nobody can score a table in this 36-seater single-turn two-service-a-day venue until at least the end of May.  We got lucky, the wait list paid off.

I honestly cannot look at this picture without trying to dip my finger in that potato.
We went the a la carte approach with a side of upbeat anticipation. The menu at Dabbous reads like an absolute treat, every dish makes my short list.  The proposition however is a little misleading. The menu is divided into untitled starters, mains and desserts, when in fact what followed was a selection of solo degustation style dishes which would better have been declared up front by diving the menu by protein, vegetable or some other way. I understand the price points are a signpost but luckily I am greedy and we went for three from each (including cheese) so crisis averted.

The celeriac with muscat grapes, lovage and hazelnuts (£5) was perfect and fresh, really special. But the beef tartar with cigar oil, whisky and rye (£8) left me a little flat. I love the word coddled, so the coddled free range hen egg with woodland mushrooms and smoked butter (£7) was already rating highly in text before it did so in taste.  Pity there was so little of the goodness in the ornamental hay nested egg shell.

The mashed potato, roasting (chicken) juices and black truffle (£11) had a hard job ahead to win my heart from the burnt end mash at Pitt Cue (yes, totally different establishment but my current betrothed). It might just have done so.  The dish was refined and so complete in flavour that I proposed a second round…or just a more abundant serving in the first instance.

Barbecued iberico pork with savoury acorn praline followed (£14) (loved the praline) and the braised veal cheek with spelt (which I don’t think I’d invite on a second date, bit flighty after initially showing potential).

I call this piece 'Glory in Daylight'
Dessert was a visual escapade and the chocolate/virgin hazelnut oil ganache, basil moss, sheep’s milk ice cream (£7) was one of the sexiest concoctions I’ve seen on a piece of slate.  I’m not a chocolate person but the dish was far from lost on me, placid and not too sweet with texture and colour - a slow and building head nod with a big lick of the lips.

Cheese course is always necessary and I hate to sound like a remix but I only wish it were a little more generous.  I wish all the dishes were a little more generous.  Generosity is something a think goes hand in hand with the casual take on a fine dining formula that Dabbous is going for.  If we’re here and we’re friendly and we’re smart and ‘cool’ and ‘urban’ and we’re excited by food and ingredients, let’s also be generous (not gluttonous) with the centrepiece of the restaurant statement – the food and the prowess of the kitchen. Or don’t be more generous, but be upfront on the menu and trust that diners are excited to be there and want to engage in the variety on offer.

I’ll definitely go back (if we can ever again fluke a reservation) and I’ll definitely wear my slim leather trousers and grey trapeze knit again (I felt like a mannequin perfectly matched to the decor) and I will look forward to seeing and tasting the developments coming out of the kitchen. I’m not sure I agree any game has been changed, but some of the dishes made me innately happy, some indifferent and others made me think ‘I can’t wait to taste what’s next’.  Maybe that’s it? Dabbous is the latest opening in the enticing revelation of London’s changing culinary identity. I just hope we’re not up for a T + 60 wait for the next instalment.

p.s. Claire from the front of house team, I'll call you on Thursday x

Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London, W1T2SF, +44 (0)20 7323 1544,