Frej Your Mind — The Rest Will Follow

Published: May 22, 2012 on The BespokeBlog

Frej
90 Wythe Avenue (at North 11th Street)
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Website
Bookings by email only: info@frejnyc.com

Frej is the first of the new-wave, Scandinavian-influenced restaurant in New York that really delivers on flavor and atmosphere — it is a pleasure for all the senses. Given the constraints facing the tiny operation, this is no mean feat. Hopefully they will be able to carry on in a permanent form in the longer-term.

Frej (pronounced ‘fray’), the Williamsburg pop-up that only opens for three nights a week in a schizophrenic venue that wants to be many things to many hipsters, is the first New York restaurant of its ilk that fires on all cylinders. While influence has clearly been drawn from the Danish restaurant with a hat-trick to its name, Frej defies its own transient nature and distinctly feels like it is in the right place, at the right time … as Sam Elliot says in The Big Lebowski, it just “fits right in there.”

The two chefs — one raised in Sweden, one in Sydney, and both formerly of Corton — have come up with the perfect equation. The formula? It’s “5×2 = >$45,” meaning: they advertise five courses on their menu, but in reality you’ll likely get about ten dishes. Given the quality of the food, this is the most preposterously great value in tri-state fine dining you’re likely to find. But the $45 price of entry is only one of the reasons to go now.

You see, now that they’ve finally been discovered and reviewed by the big boys, it will be even harder to snag a coveted seat at the seven-table, Monday-Wednesday night restaurant that is bookable only via email. But you owe it to yourself to try. The food and overall dining experience really is that good.

If you had to label the food, you could call it New Yorkic™, as it combines the sensibilities of New Nordic cuisine with the produce of the New York area. And, they were so taken with Jane Herold’s earthenware, they use it exclusively in the restaurant. Sure, it resembles the now oft-duplicated dinnerware of that Danish restaurant, but it’s handmade in New York. Just like the food.

Operating out of a kitchen that is literally the size of your average closet, with very minimal equipment and no assistance in sight, these two chefs are cooking the food they like to eat and operating by their own rules. The result is subtle, yet intensely flavored dishes that are minimally plated but wholly memorable.

Sunchoke, Pear, Elderflower & Beef Liver

Highs from my meal in late March included a dish of “sunchokes, pear, elderflower and beef liver,” in which the ingredient listed last provided a tantalizing and binding flavor that had real staying power. Also stunning was a non-advertised course of “periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage purée, pickled kohlrabi and bittercress.”

Soft Poached Egg, Scallop, Porcini & Cauliflower

But my favorite dishes of the night included one featuring the most translucent, sweet and succulent Maine shrimp I’ve tasted, a seriously divine fried veal sweetbread dish, with that trendy, orange-skinned Scandi rockstar (sea-buckthorn), padded out nicely with rosehip and miner’s lettuce. The cooking of the sweetbreads was perfectly judged, as were the textures surrounding it — something they pay very close attention to in their cooking. I was also enamored by a surprise dessert of (quite firm) goat milk custard that was flanked by seaweed shortbread crumbs, poached pear, allspice and crisped pear skin. It was one of the few savory desserts I have really savored.

Goat Milk Custard, Seaweed Shortbread, Poached Pear, Allspice & Pear Skin

The reason nearly all of the dishes are triumphant is that the chefs use a small number of high-quality, local suppliers and only select the best ingredients. Here, ‘best’ does not mean the most expensive produce, but rather off-cuts of meat and under-loved vegetables from which they will be able to tease out new and complex flavors, and that won’t cost and arm and a leg (although, in some cases, it may actually be leg they’re after).

Cardamom Parfait, Raspberry & Walnut

Still, for $45 a meal (excluding drinks, tax and service), I’m not quite sure how they can be making any money out of what is essentially a ten-course tasting menu of seriously considered small plates. This is likely the reason that Frej is only a pop-up … at some point, someone will be smart enough to snag this duo’s dynamic food, and help them open a more traditional restaurant. Let’s just hope they are able to stay true to their vision and the roots they’ve now firmly planted.

The list of all the dishes from my meal can be found below, and the current menu is available on their site. I don’t know if they always dish out two times what they promise, but if you happen to get a reservation, hopefully you’ll get lucky twice.

A word to the wine: they stock a full bar, and have a nice, concise wine list consisting of about ten versatile wines that pair nicely with a variety of flavors and range in price between $29-$49/bottle. We had a $39/bottle Loire red blend of Pineau d’Aunis and Gamay (called ‘Poivre et Sel’ from Olivier Lemasson), which was very pleasant for the duration of the meal.

Advertised Menu
– Smoked brook trout, egg yolk, dill, chickweed, rye bread
– Sunchoke, pear, elderflower, beef liver
– Soft poached egg, scallop, porcini, cauliflower
– Beef cooked in hay, rutabaga, apple cider
– Cardamom parfait, raspberry, walnut

Additional Courses Served
– Periwinkle, pork jowl, cabbage puree, pickled kohlrabi, bittercress
– Fried veal sweetbread, sea-buckthorn, rosehip, miner’s lettuce
– Maine shrimp, baby potatoes, sprat milk, bee pollen
– Skate, fennel puree, pickled baby carrots, pearl onions, bronze fennel fronds
– Goat milk custard, seaweed shortbread, poached pear, allspice, pear skin

Photo creditall photos are courtesy of Spanish Hipster (thank you).

*Note: I have dined at Frej once; our party paid for the entire cost of the meal; we were not given any ‘extras’ that other tables weren’t given also (to our knowledge); and were not known ahead-of-time by the house*

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Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

I know I haven’t been as actively blogging this year. Lots of things have changed. Our daughter is now one and a half, and I have been eating (and generally spending a lot more time) at home than I did in 2010. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been traveling and going out to eat – I have, but just not as frequently, and more often at casual places that we can go to together as a family.

I have still made it to my fair share of more ambitious restaurants, just not at such a frenzied pace as in the previous two years. I have also been eating much more near where we now live (in Connecticut) rather than Manhattan – not because it’s trendy to ‘eat local’, but because it’s easier and there is actually an abundant variety of excellent eateries nearby, particularly in ethnically diverse towns and cities such as Port Chester, NY and Stamford, CT. Sometimes, you find the greatest things when you don’t expect to, and these are the best discoveries.

While I still plan to keep writing on this site going forward, beginning in 2012, my words and images will also be appearing in some other places, including the ever-entertaining Arbuturian and the newly launched Bespoke Blog…so look out for my features there. My first piece for The Arbuturian, which recounts a fantastic meal at a vegan Japanese restaurant in New York, can be found here.

But on to the task at hand…

It is always hard to siphon down a year of eating and drinking, but I’ve tried my best to include only those dishes and drinks that were truly memorable. Hopefully I’ve gotten the balance right and you enjoy seeing both some familiar and not so familiar names in my rambling list.

Given what I mentioned above, this year I am also including a segment on the food I have enjoyed eating most at home, which I hope will highlight some of the amazing farmers, growers and restaurants/food retailers we have in the Tri-State area, particularly in Connecticut.

Although much of this year’s list comes from the US (as I haven’t been traveling as much), there a number of entries from the short but hugely enjoyable trip I made to Copenhagen, a longer trip to Italy (including Rome, Umbria and Tuscany) and a brief sojourn in my former home of 10 years, London. I also had some great food during my first trip to Brazil, but somehow none of it made it onto the list.

Sadly, I didn’t make good on last year’s resolution of cooking more often (well, really learning how to cook in the first place). I have my wife to blame (or thank?) for that as she is so good there often seems little point in me trying. But I’m going to make it my resolution again. Maybe I will try my hand at baking since she doesn’t know how to do that. I haven’t checked to see if I have cold hands, but hopefully I won’t get cold feet.

In any case, enjoy the list and, as always, please send your suggestions of new and exciting places I should try.

Here’s to a wonderful 2012 ahead, and thanks for continuing to support me through another great year.

PS – while I haven’t been blogging as much, I am quite active on twitter and, more recently, on instagram (username: ‘laissezfare’), so follow my tweets and picture posts on those channels as well if you so desire. Also, many of the photos below come from my instagram or un-filtered iPhone images, so apologies in advance for the inconsistency in quality.

~ AT HOME ~

For a number of months now, each morning at Chez Laissez begins with a glass of what I have affectionately coined the ‘green sludge’. It is not as bad as it sounds, and is actually quite tasty once you get used to it. It all started when we purchased a great blender earlier in the autumn. The concoction consists of a variety of organic leaves, usually including a mixture of kale, chard and arugula (rocket), spirulina and macca powder and goji berries, with a touch of banana or apple to make it more palatable. The natural and slowly released energy boost is amazing, and it helps to ensure we get a good dose of enzymes to tackle the day. I find I actually don’t need any coffee in the morning now, but since I like it so much I still often have an espresso or macchiato – not a Caramel Macchiato, which ‘doesn’t exist’ 🙂 – once I get to Manhattan.

Morning Sludge

We also recently purchased a very good dehydrator for our home kitchen, and my wife has been making all kinds of healthy and delicious snacks for us over the last few months, which you may have seen me tweeting about. We use only raw ingredients for these snacks (i.e. not heated/pasteurized) so they retain their full nutritive properties. My favorites are the kale chips, for which she makes a variety of seasonings. More recently, she is also making cookies from raw cacao, coconut oil, dates and nuts (cashews and almonds), which are also excellent.

Kale Chips

We don’t eat a whole lot of meat at home, but when we do, we like to know where it comes from and how it was raised. This means we source most of it from local farmers markets.

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

Our favorite beef comes from Four Mile River Farm, which practices excellent animal husbandry and sells dry-aged beef of very high quality at very reasonable prices. We have also bought grass-fed steaks from New York Beef, which is also good.

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

We love the eggs we get from Fishkill Farms at one of our local farmers markets. They come from pasture-raised, heritage breed hens that move in mobile coops and their eggs are downright delicious.

Fishkill Farm Eggs & Tarry Market Bread (Tuscan Farm Loaf)

We now buy these by the boatload, and often have them for breakfast with some excellent bread from Tarry Market, which we rate as the best bakery in our area. I have heard that they supply much of the bread to Batali/Bastianich restaurants in the NY area, but have not had this corroborated…they do have a huge facility that takes up a large block in Port Chester. Fishkill Farms also sells excellent organic fruit and vegetables (although they’re not officially accredited), which we buy weekly.

Lastly, one of the best things I ate this year came courtesy of my mother-in-law who just returned to Normandy after a two-week long stay at our home. It was a traditional Norman dish of Poule au Blanc and it was simply out of this world. We bought two old hens from Fishkill Farms and she did the rest. The iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice, but the cream sauce was almost literally to die for. We had this for her 77th birthday.

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

Also excellent was a house-made foie gras terrine (mi-cuit) from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. We had this with some toasted brioche and a sweet and sour onion spread, which worked great together. The next night, she used the fat from the foie gras to sauté some fingerling potatoes – that was also something to remember.

Foie Gras Terrine from Restaurant Jean-Louis (Greenwich, CT) Paired with 2006 Château Suduiraut

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

There is a Mexican restaurant named Bartaco near our house that makes you feel like you are on vacation when you dine there during the warmer months of the year. It is on the water and is designed like a beach resort of sorts. Their food is generally good, but there is one dish we always order…strangely enough, it’s a variation on corn-on-the-cob (pardon the iPhone pic). It’s about as good a version as I’ve had.

Grilled Corn with Lime, Cayenne & Cotija Cheese from Bartaco (Port Chester, NY)

Another nearby restaurant we discovered was Chili Chicken in Stamford, CT, which serves Indian Chinese food. Their fried okra dish was addictive as crack (not that I would know) and is the best thing we’ve had from there so far.

Crispy Fried Okra with Onions and Green Peppers from Chili Chicken (Stamford, CT)

I was lucky enough to enjoy some very good pizzas this year, the best of which were in – go figure – Italy. A casual family restaurant in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood served an excellent Neapolitan style margherita. All the photos from that meal can be viewed here.

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

At our relatively new family hideaway in Umbria, a local pizzaiolo constructed an excellent meal of at least a dozen different types of pizzas for about 30 people. The standout of the evening for me was the speck pizza, and I also enjoyed the non-traditional dessert pizza with Nutella and peaches. Below, you can see the first pizza he made: just dough sprinkled with sea salt and a touch of olive oil. All of the photos from this meal can be found here.

Pizza Night in Umbria

While on the same trip to Italy, we had an unbelievable lunch at Arnaldo Caprai winery cooked up by Salvatore Denaro, who has to be one of the most jovial chef/hosts I’ve encountered. There were two courses that particularly stood out as being perfect versions of their respective dishes, the caponata and panzanella. There are tons of photos from this lunch, including some funny ones from the kitchen, all of which can be seen on my flickr set.

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Back in the US, I also had some great sandwich-type foods this year. My new favorite sandwich shop in New York is the Cambodian sandwich specialist Num Pang, whose five-spice glazed pork belly is definitely a standard bearer.

Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly Sandwich from Num Pang (New York)

Ever late to the proverbial party, I finally had the chance to sample the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern in the latter part of the year. I really can’t think of how it can be improved; it is a thoroughly conceived and rigorously executed beefy affair. Sure it’s $26 but that’s all you need to eat for the meal and it’s both perfect and perfectly satisfying.

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

My favorite burger closer to home comes from the excellent Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Their meat is a bespoke blend from Master Purveyors in the Bronx (who supply a lot of the famous steakhouses in the Tri-State area) and is really good. The twist here is that the sandwiches are served on ‘Texas Toast’, which in this case is simply toasted bread that has been slathered with butter on both sides. After trying the various iterations, I like the single patty burger with a slice of cheese. The meat does all of the talking and doesn’t need much support. They also serve the best onion rings I have ever tasted.

Double Cheeseburger & Onion Rings from Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Greenwich, CT)

On a healthier note, my favorite food truck for lunch in the City is a rather new Colombian operation that serves arepas. All of their ingredients are organic and meticulously sourced. In addition to the traditional corn base, they also offer more innovative versions, for example one made with quinoa flour, and others with brown rice flour and flax seeds or sesame seeds. My favorite is the quinoa, and I either get it with just hogao and all the fixings, or occasionally a vegan ‘chorizo’ sausage (which is made from soy and comprises over 20 ingredients, including red wine for the color). They are small but if you eat it slowly it fills you up for the rest of the afternoon. Delicious.

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

One of the best appetizers I had this year was seemingly one of the simplest, a burrata from Roscioli in Rome, which is definitely the best version of the creamy cheese dish I’ve had so far. All the photos from that excellent meal are here.

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

Along the same lines, the ceviche di spigola (marinated raw sea bass with oil, lemon, onions, chili and fresh coriander) I had at another Rome restaurant – Osteria La Gensola – was vibrant, bright and fresh, the perfect beginning to our meal.

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

Another wonderful light starter came from the most unlikely of places. Spuntino, Russell Norman’s third of five London restaurants in roughly two years, is known more for some of its delicious yet artery-clogging dishes. But the thing I most enjoyed during my meal there was a salad. Possibly this was because it came after a few of those very rich dishes and my stomach was craving greens, but in any case, it was excellent and definitely worth ordering if/when on the menu. My review of the meal can be found here.

Duck Ham Salad with Pecorino & Mint from Spuntino (London)

Another stand-out appetizer also hailed from Italy, although this time from a restaurant in the picturesque hilltop-perched Umbrian village of Montone. During a great meal at La Locanda del Capitano, chef Polito served his own variation on the cappuccino, which included a hill cheese fondue, a quail’s egg and fresh truffle ‘snow’. Need I say more?

‘My Cappuccino’ from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

While in London during the spring, I had the pleasure of sampling James Knappett’s food at the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing (he now cooks with Brett Graham at The Ledbury), and one dish still sticks out in my mind, both for its beautiful plating and its unique flavors. You can read more about the excellent cold, raw scallop dish I enjoyed here; it really was as pretty as a picture.

Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil from Marcus Wareing (London)

The last of the lighter plates to make the list was also a cold plate, served in Copenhagen during a very cold January evening spent within the warm environs of noma. You can read a full description in my review of the meal, but the main ingredient was sea urchins – it was a breathtaking dish. There were many other things from noma that could have easily made this list (including a plate with pine branches and one centered around an intense Gotland black truffle sauce), but this was my personal favorite.

Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill from noma (Copenhagen)

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

It is often difficult for the ‘main’ dish, or dishes, in a multi-course menu to stand out as the most interesting of the meal, even if they are delicious in their own right. The preceding procession of nibbles and smaller plates are designed to whet your appetite, inducing you to salivate and preparing you for what is still to come. By the time you arrive at a meat or fish course, the portion is usually more substantial and can often become too rich and/or monotonous to finish. Happily, I had a number of ‘middle’ dishes that rebelled against the odds and still live on in my memory.

One of the best ‘middle’ dishes I had in 2011 came from a meal at Eleven Madison Park that started out great but didn’t finish as strongly (the meal was toward the midpoint of the year, before chef Humm and the General Manager bought the business from then-owner Danny Meyer). It was one of the best-cooked lobsters I’ve had and was completely delectable.

Lobster Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola from Eleven Madison Park (New York)

We had the pleasure of dining at the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s first London opening in the spring, and many of the dishes were excellent. The one savory course that stood out, however, was the pigeon. My wife doesn’t ever like pigeon, and she was licking the plate with this one. Other excellent dishes that almost made it onto the list were the Black Foot Pork Chop and now ubiquitous Meat Fruit. You can read more about the pigeon dish, and the meal as a whole here.

Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) with Ale & Artichokes from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

One of the most interesting and delicious main courses I had was actually a vegetarian dish from the Japanese restaurant Kajitsu in the East Village of Manhattan. It was painstakingly plated and stood out for the variety of textures, temperatures and flavors. A full account of the meal can be found here.

Autumn Vegetable 'Fukiyose', Cedar Grilled Yomogi Nama-Fu and Portabella Mushrooms & Komatsuna Oshitashi from Kajitsu (New York)

A diametrically opposed dish, in both spirit and substance, was equally as tasty. This came from the excellent Commerce Restaurant, which is ironically in the West Village, the opposite side as Kajitsu. While it doesn’t often get the press it probably should, Harold Moore is a terrific chef that is both generous to his patrons (he is there night in, night out and actually cares that all of his customers are well taken care of), humble in his manners and genuine in his spirit. His food strives to make you comfortable and satisfied, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the best things I sampled there were his carnivorous sharing plates. My favorite was actually the lamb (and pardon the instagram image below), although the chicken is more fabled, as you can see from this Ozersky TV video. One of his classic American desserts is also included in my favorite desserts of the year…read on.

Rack of Lamb on the ‘Things to Share’ Section of the Menu from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

La Locanda del Capitano makes its second entry with a superb main course of cinghiale (wild boar) that was hunted, killed, prepared and served by the head chef. It was the best example I’ve ever had of wild boar meat, and is worth seeking out if you’re ever in the area.

Montonese Wild Boar Braised with Scallions & Celery Herb Seasoning from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

Last of the top main courses of 2011 was a pleasant surprise from a casual little Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester County, NY called Lalibela, a name shared by many Ethiopian restaurants (indeed, our favorite one in London had the same name). We had a combination platter for two, which was great for lunch.

‘Taste of Lalibela’: Siga Wat, Yebag Wat, Doro Wat, Misir Wat, Shiro Wat & Gomen from Lalibela (Mt. Kisco, NY)

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

Although 2011 was a much healthier year food-wise than 2010, I managed to sample a great number of sweet treats which were totally worth the sugar and calories. In addition to some of the staple sweets we stock at home, such as Mast Brothers dark chocolate bars, we found some other great desserts in our local area. These included the best cannoli I have found in the Tri-State area (courtesy of a rapid-fire tour of Stamford, CT with perennially well-informed Jim Leff), wonderful pistachio and dark chocolate gelato from Daniella’s Gelateria in Greenwich, and also Daniella’s hot chocolate.

Cannolo from Sal’s Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)

Gelato & Hot Chocolate from Daniella's Gelateria (Greenwich, CT)

Some other treats I enjoyed outside of restaurants were from some of the better-known bakeries, including Bouchon Bakery’s classic lemon tart and Ladurée’s traditional macarons, of which the rose flavor consistently one of the best – but all are exceptional. I am glad they finally have a shop in New York, although they may still be working out some kinks, as there seem to be variations in quality from many reports.

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

A number of great sweets were consumed on our trip to Italy, but the following were my favorite. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find the name of the bakery in Rome from which I had the amazing sfogliatelle. But I have a picture of the lovely man who made them!

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

Also excellent was a simple dessert of two components from Trattoria da Teo, which serves rustic dishes in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. It was so good we ordered a second.

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

My other favorite restaurant dessert from Italy also contained cream and berries and came from L’Asino d’Oro, home of one of Rome’s best-value lunch menus. You can read more about the meal here. I didn’t expect much from the description of the odd-sounding ‘Strawberry Tiramisu’, but the proof in this case really was in the pudding.

Strawberry Tiramisu from L’Asino d’Oro (Rome)

One of the most satisfying desserts of the year came from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, its second appearance in this year’s round-up. It was essentially a brioche and butter pudding with brandy, with the addition of one of the most meticulously roasted pineapples you are ever likely to find. You can read a full description in my review of this meal here.

Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with Spit Roast Pineapple from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

My favorite apple pie comes from Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. Wendy (aka ‘Mrs. London’) makes it at the bakery, but also serves it at her son Max’s restaurant next door. The ice cream is homemade too. Both places are worth visiting if you’re even in Saratoga for the horse racing or other reasons. The bakery also serves a very worthy version of Kouign Amann.

Apple Pie & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream from Max London’s (Saratoga Springs, NY)

One the most surprisingly good sweet things I ate this year came from Commerce, which served the rack of lamb I mentioned above. I have never had a coconut cake I particularly liked, but the name of the dish speaks for itself, and is not incorrect, at least in my own experience. Its moniker is simply ‘The Best Coconut Cake’. While it carries a price tag of $10, it is money well spent. Sadly, I don’t have a great picture, but you can get the general idea from the image below. It has the perfect consistency and is not overly sweet, the main problem that affects most examples of this cake.

‘The Best Coconut Cake’ from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

As a testament to the fact that great things often come when you least expect them, one of the best key lime pies I’ve had comes from a small steakhouse chain whose Boca Raton, Florida branch I visited twice in the last 12 months or so (the other location is in Boston). It was just as good on both occasions, the secret being that they (of course) use real Key limes and also make a delectable graham cracker-esque crunchy crust. If you ever go, their bone-in filet mignon is pretty darn good too.

House-made Key Lime Pie from Abe & Louie’s (Boca Raton, FL)

As it is getting cold now, I am reminded of a part-frozen dessert I had while in Copenhagen. It was my final course at Kødbyens Fiskebar, which consisted of sea-buckthorn as both a grainté and gel, with a base of crème made from tonka nut and white chocolate. The tart and creamy contrast was perfectly judged. You can read the full description here.

Sea-buckthorn as Grainté and Gel, Crème with Tonka Nut & White Chocolate from Kødbyens Fiskebar (Copenhagen)

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

Most of the wines listed below are not particularly pricey (though all is relative), so I particularly enjoyed discovering them as I can afford to buy them again in the future. There were a few precious – in both sense of the word – bottles that I enjoyed on special occasions, but these were mostly the exception this year.

Now that I have a proper wine storage solution, thanks to the impressive Liebherr unit that arrived on my birthday courtesy of my generous parents, I have been buying a lot more wine as of late. I have also found that I’ve been buying a lot of my wine online, through excellent new sites such as Lot18 (click here to join, it’s free). There are also a number of excellent wine merchants I frequent, including Zachys, Sherry-Lehmann, Chelsea Wine Vault, Tarry Wine Merchants (which adjoins to the aforementioned Tarry Market) and the extremely competitively (online) priced Rye Brook Wines. Frankly Wines is also a great little shop, but I rarely get downtown to visit. 

Sparkling 

  • N.V. Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-Sur-Loire
  • N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs
  • N.V. Jaillance Crémant de Bordeaux Cuvée de l’Abbaye
  • N.V. Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
  • N.V. Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Gru Oger
  • N.V. Scharffenberger Brut
  • 1997 Salon ‘Le Mesnil’ Brut Blanc de Blancs
  • 1998 Henriot Brut Millésimé
  • 2002 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut

White

  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 Domaine du Chalet Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis
  • 2008 Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg
  • 2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Le Clos Sacré
  • 2008 Wind Gap Chardonnay
  • 2009 Arwen, Lilleø Vin
  • 2009 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard
  • 2009 Evening Land Vineyards Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2009 Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Lazio IGT
  • 2009 Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Chardonnay
  • 2010 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante
  • 2010 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

Red

  • 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo ‘Vigna dei Dardi’
  • 2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito
  • 2005 Baigorri Rioja Crianza
  • 2005 Bodegas y Vinedos Finca Anzil Toro Vendimia Seleccionada
  • 2006 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier
  • 2007 Ampelos Pinot Noir Lambda
  • 2007 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Médoc Réserve Spéciale
  • 2007 Bodegas Felix Callejo Ribera del Duero Crianza
  • 2007 Clos Du Val Pinot Noir Reserve Carneros
  • 2007 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva
  • 2007 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum
  • 2009 Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’
  • 2009 Venta Morales Tempranillo
  • 2010 The Pinot Project

Sweet 

  • N.V. Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée
  • 2006 Château Suduiraut
  • 2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos
  • 2009 Domtalhof Rheingessen Riesling Auslese
  • 2009 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest
  • 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Beer

  • I am not the world’s biggest lover of, or expert on, beer (by a long shot) but my friend recently introduced me to the Three Philosophers, which is quite nice.

I hope you enjoyed my review of the best bites & sips from 2011 and look forward to keeping you up to date on my findings in 2012 and beyond!

My 7 Links

I was asked by esteemed fellow blogger @gourmetraveller to participate in a project called ‘My 7 Links’, which is organized by Tripbase. I haven’t really done a ‘meme’ post before, but thought this particular one would be a nice way to review my last two years of food and wine, re-focusing attention on some highs, some lows, and the unexpected. So, without further adieu, my seven links.

Most Popular Post:
The Fat Duck – A Blumen’ Great Day in Bray  

JELLY OF QUAIL, CREAM OF CRAWFISH: Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss & Truffle Toast (Homage to Alain Chapel) … at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK

I guess it comes as no surprise that my most popular post is a review of one of the UK’s high temples of gastronomy: Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Michelin restaurant, The Fat Duck, which was also awarded ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ by the Restaurant Magazine / San Pellegrino ’50 Best’ awards in 2005, and has been in the top five since 2004. Given that a large portion of my readership still hails from the UK and that Heston Blumenthal has become a very popular figure on TV and in the country’s print media, it makes sense. Happily, it was also one of the better meals I’ve had the pleasure of eating since I started this blog. I also like the chef’s approach towards food and his concept of ‘the meal’, and think he’s one of the more consistent and genuine characters in the higher echelons of chefdom. I therefore have no qualms about the success of this post. 

Most Controversial Post:
Le Gavroche – Unfortunately A Very Mixed Bag

The Signature Cheese Soufflé ... at Le Gavroche, London (photo: goodtoknow.co.uk)

It is unfortunate that my most controversial post came from a restaurant that I so much wanted to like. You see, Michel Roux, Jr. was a new hero of mine at the time, and I desperately wanted to love his food and his restaurant, which I saw as an extension of him. Unfortunately, we did not have a pleasant experience at all – it was certainly not befitting of its dual Michelin-starred status. This was one of my first posts, back in the days when I didn’t take photos, so sorry for the lack of visuals, but this was probably the angriest review I have written (which just goes to show I’m a big softy). The anger wasn’t due to the fact that Mrs. LF annoyingly had a big crush on him (and still does), but rather the bordering-on-rude service we experienced. It put me off ever returning this traditional yet quirky subterranean dining room. The signature cheese soufflé and innovative wine pairings were the only things that mitigated what was generally a very disappointing experience.

Post Whose Success Surprised Me:
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma 

Samuel Miller Plating our First Course … at The Loft Project in East London

I really didn’t expect my post about a supper club in the East End of London to get the attention it did. But I guess The Loft Project is a pretty unique concept, as they do get some of the most interesting young culinary talents from around the world to cook for a few nights for 12 or so lucky guests. It’s not cheap, but for what you end up getting (sometimes 8+ courses with a wine paring included), it can often end up being phenomenal value. Anyway, the meal that Yorkshire man Samuel Miller – who is second only to Rene Redzepi himself in noma’s kitchen – stands out as one of the best dining experiences I’ve had anywhere. It was a wonderful evening in every sense, and for all my senses. The technical reason why I think it got so many views is because there was a television show on one night about noma, and Sam featured prominently in it, so I got a lot of people coming to the post after googling his name alongside the word ‘noma’. As of now, it is my 7th most popular post.

Post That Didn’t Get the Attention it Deserved:
Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce … at Morgan M. in North London

Maybe it was the signature cheesy title, but I was surprised that my review of Morgan M. – which is one of only two reviews listed on Urbanspoon in nearly two years – did not garner more attention. Although the service was a little uneven, the food was certainly beautiful to look at and tasted very good to boot. I had really wanted to highlight this little gem of a place, which takes advantage of cheaper rent in North London but produces traditional French food with ample flair that competes with many of the more popular (and much more expensive) French restaurants in central London. The natural light during our lunch also allowed for some great pictures, making this one of the prettier posts I have done, IMHO. I was pleased to learn the other day that chef Meunier is, after many years, opening a second restaurant near London’s Smithfield Market.

Note: there was another post, which was somewhat controversial and also barely got any views, to which I would also like to direct your attention. It is an interview with the editor of Tong wine magazine, a publication that brings much-needed diversity to the global conversations taking place about wine. Read it here: Filip Verheyden is TONG – About Wine.

Most Beautiful Post:
The Sportsman – Captivating, Compelling, Complete

Cauliflower Tart … at The Sportsman on the Kent Coast

The food at The Sportsman, a one-Michelin star restaurant that could easily be mistaken for an unremarkable pub on an unremarkable stretch of England’s Kent coastline, is in many ways deceiving. It is presented simply and humbly, and you might not give it too much thought. However, the fact that a good deal of what you are eating comes from within a few mile radius of the restaurant, and that there is considerable technical skill and bounds of flavour packed into each bite, can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it. One of the two brothers who own the pub is the (mostly self-taught) head chef and the other oversees the front of house. The interior has been honestly restored and locals still do come in for a pint at the bar, even if the bulk of the reservations now come from patrons living further afield. The tasting menu, which is available during the week, is well worth a visit, but requires special booking ahead of time. Although the dishes are certainly not as artistic as many other restaurants I have reviewed, I felt that overall, the images from this post were the most beautiful when taken together as a whole. The light was fantastic on the day, and for the most part, these images received almost no retouching. I hope you enjoy reading and looking at it. 

Post I’m Most Proud of:
noma – Northern Light 

break on through to the other side ... noma in Copenhagen

Not only was I proud of myself for simply finding a way to eat at what has now been ranked as the ‘best restaurant in the world’ for two years running, I was also pleased with the review I wrote. It was very long (hey, what else is new?), but it managed to synthesize my numerous thoughts and emotions about the restaurant and our meal. The food itself is also breathtaking to look at, and while my photos don’t really do it justice, this also made it a visually appealing post to me. Hopefully you feel the same. 

Most Helpful Post:
Lanka – The Perfect Little Place in Primrose Hill

Rum Baba ... at Lanka in London

I don’t know how truly helpful my posts are to readers – after all, I mostly just eat and don’t cook – though I did feel like I was providing a good service to the residents within walking distance of London’s Primrose Hill when I consumed copious calories over a number of visits to a cute little pâtisserie and café run by Japanese chef Masayuki Hara. These multiple visits confirmed that the pastries were generally very technically well made, plus some of them benefited from an injection of Japanese flavor (i.e. green tea features prominently in a few of the treats). They have also gradually expanded the range of food, which is simple but very tasty, and have a good selection of high-quality teas and coffee (they use Monmouth beans, or at least did on my last visit). If you are in the neighborhood, I’ve found it is normally worth the extra calories that a visit entails. The hot chocolate is also good.

I would now like to direct your attention to five great food-related blogs that I follow regularly, all of whom have agreed to do their on ‘My 7 Links’ post in due course. Look out for their reflections on their old chestnuts. The are listed alphabetically…like, duh.

noma – Northern Light

noma
Strandgade 93
1401 Copenhagen
Denmark
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • The 7-course menu is 1,095 Danish kroner, while the wine pairing is 895 kroner & the juice pairing 395 krone
  • If you ask for more than the 7 courses on the menu (and have time for it), they will charge you a little bit extra – as guidance, my meal with wine pairing and a glass of Champagne came to 2,350 kroner (roughly $430 or £270)
  • You can see many more photos and some videos in the kitchen on my flickr page

In short (because this review is so long), my favourite meal at a restaurant thus far. Exquisite, astonishing, inspiring. And all carried out with no big fuss. Find an(y) excuse to go.

In the end, I had my beginning

It wasn’t going to be easy. Living up to my expectations. Two years, maybe more. That’s how long I had been pining to eat at noma – hardly thinking that when this dream transmuted into reality, I would in fact be eating pine, and lots of it.

It took a little lot of planning, especially now that I live in the US, but eventually I made it there. And, for those who don’t have the patience to read the rest of this post, not only did noma meet my hyper-inflated aspirations; it exceeded them…in every sense. That’s all you really need to know.

#  #  #

I began to see blog posts about noma a few years ago. The photos I saw and descriptions I read immediately struck a chord. The food was beautiful to look at, forthright, and truly of its own “time and place.”[1]

So what was noma? To render it down, like one of their duck fat crisps I was lucky enough to sample: a perfectionist chef with a noteworthy pedigree goes back to the roots – literally – of his homeland’s cuisine and reinvents it, simply but boldly. Out with the so-called ‘luxury’ ingredients that it seemed necessary for chefs with stars in their eyes to proffer. Forget the foie gras, say sayonara to soupy sauces: René Redzepi wanted noma to begin with the naturally abundant produce on Scandinavia’s doorstep and to represent each ingredient – and the ecosystem that it lived within – on the plate, honestly but with flair, artfulness and precision.

Of course, it didn’t open in 2004 and immediately achieve all of this, but that is what transpired in the end…though there doesn’t appear to be an end in store for noma. As T.S. Eliot said, “…to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” And with the creativity of chef Redzepi and forty or so ever-changing and talented chefs, who knows what directions and heights noma will strive for and reach next.

But here is where it stands now. After garnering two Michelin stars in 2008, the restaurant went on to attain the accolade of “Best Restaurant in the World” from the increasingly influential San Pellegrino / Restaurant Magazine annual awards in 2010, essentially catapulting it to be the new elBulli in terms of global profile.

Already difficult enough to book, immediately after receiving the top honor at the aforementioned awards, the restaurant’s reservation system crashed with the sudden spike in demand. How then would the kitchen and the front of house deal with this increased notoriety – would they live long and prosper, or stumble temporarily under such scrutiny?

I was more than eager to find out, and was elated that I would be able to share the meal with two friends who I knew would appreciate the experience just as much as I would. Mathilde (@mathildecuisine) and David (@dewilded) actually flew in for a 24-hour period solely to eat at noma, while I was already there on a business trip and couldn’t make such bold claims. I only wish Mrs. LF could have been with us to experience noma as well. 😦

Warm pastries, frozen canals

Let me tell you, Copenhagen in the dead of January ain’t warm. Nevertheless, we ventured from our cosy hotel at a spritely hour, and I led the group to one of the Danish bakeries that I had discovered on recon during the previous days (Lagkagehuset if you care to know) after a tip-off from a friend (who coincidentally has recently written a much more concise review on the subject of noma, which includes a cool video).

Tebirkes: a traditional danish pastry from Lagkagehuset

How cold was it? Well let me give you an example. It had been suggested to us by a number of people that we should take advantage of the canal tours in order to see some parts of the city that you can only see by water. Slight problem: the canals were frozen.

Bright but d*mn cold

Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s a more expansive view. Yup, frozen my friends, frozen.

Somebody got sick of sitting on water

After visiting the Lego shop, warming ourselves in a store selling various epicurean delights, realizing that the canal tour just wasn’t going to happen, and generally being cold to our cores, I had the bright idea of taking a water taxi.

I’m not a geek, really

We were here (blue pin), and noma was there (red pin). Sure, we had a few hours to kill (or die), but maybe one of these taxis could drop us off on the other side in Chirsitanshavn? So we went down to the nearest stop and waited. Eventually, one came along that we could take back and forth and get to see some more of the city.

Trifecta: Mathilde, water taxi, noma

Besides looking pretty in pink, Mathilde was mighty happy to get in that boat as (1) it was warm and (2) she really wanted to sit down. Sure, they didn’t serve hot chocolate on-board – a central obsession of hers which we shall revisit later – but as Meatloaf once sang, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.

In any case, I had espied noma in the distance, and was already quite excited, but this chilly weather and nonstop walking was making me hungry and I was sick of waiting!

The pink and turquoise banners beckoned…

After a warm and pleasant boat ride, we arrived on the other side, stopped off in a design museum to look at some rather fetching art/design books, looked through a bridge’s peep-hole and…

Things were looking up…this water wasn’t completely frozen

…we were there. After two years, a lot of planning, a steady build-up, and way too long of an intro, I was knock, knock, knockin’…

Let’s get this party started already

…but enough with the rock n’ roll allusions, and on with the meal!

Nordic, naturally

When you walk into the restaurant, you almost literally step into the kitchen, or at least the part of it that is semi-open behind glass. We were welcomed by a few people at the entrance who seemed all too happy to see us and seat us straight away, even though we had arrived half an hour early.

The décor is immediately Scandinavian – clean, mostly minimal lines yet with a subtle and carefully thought-out design ethos. There are wooden tables (no tablecloths) with spindly legs and similarly designed chairs, some of which are covered with small fur blankets, some not. Exposed wooden beams hang like they’ve been there forever, worn by the winds of time…even though they’re inside, and not out. The walls are a mix of rough stone and plaster, neutral in color, with very little artwork adorning them. There are some modern yet non-invasive serving stations attached to the wooden posts, and lots of uniform windows, letting in whatever natural light there may be and concentrating it around the edges of the room.

The staff, however, is immediately international. Out of about 40 people total in the kitchen brigade, just under 20 of these (17 when we visited) hail from outside of Denmark. It is very common for young and ambitious chefs – as well as old hands – to come to noma for anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months to do a stage in the kitchen. Everyone from David Chang to lucky young things who are just starting out have been fortunate enough to work in the quiet, collaborative space that is possibly the most exciting kitchen in the world to be working in right now.

We were taken to our table by the affable yet somewhat intense Australian gentleman that, as far as I could tell, was in charge of the dining room. By ‘intense’ I mean that he has the eyes of a hawk and is acutely aware of everything that is transpiring around him…and I wouldn’t want to be the waiter that he saw doing something wrong, however trifling.

Then, the young gentleman who seemed to be in charge of our table came to ask if we cared for an aperitif, maybe a glass of Champagne. If you are a reader of this blog, you will know that I rarely turn down an offer of Champagne, especially in this case as it was from a small grower-producer and was both biodynamic and without dosage (added sugar). The N.V. Jacques Lassaigne, Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux, Blanc de Blancs (Montgueux) was exceptional – dry, refreshing, persistent, lingering – and was what we would be sipping in the calm but swift procession that was about to commence.

Let me just say this: when you eat a meal at noma, things begin quickly.

The intriguing creations they casually call ‘snacks’ start arriving in succession. There is no silverware. You use your hands. You pick up the last filaments of food with your fingers. You lick them. You lick the plate. (At least I did). All of this is not frowned upon, but is instead encouraged. They love to see your enjoyment. There is no pretence. It is about doing the best they can with what nature affords them, starting from the most selective produce, the most perfect rendering, the most beautiful visual and artful presentation – a presentation of ‘what it is’ [2] on the plate.

As we settled in, I took out my camera and began photographing the pretty floral arrangement on the table. Little did I know that this vase would indeed contain our first snack!

Snack 1: Malt ‘Branches’ with Juniper Berry Powder

Three ligaments of a ‘branch’ had been molded from malt and finished off with a powder of juniper berries, then placed atop the floral arrangement, right above the real branches they mimicked so well. There was an undertone of woodiness (or was it merely suggestion?) and the juniper flavor was subtle and elegant. It was wonderful when dipped in the little dish of crème fraiche which had been provided. We had not even half begun and we were eating branches!

Shortly thereafter, a round bowl of luminescent green moss was brought to the table.

Snack 2: Silver Moss from Finland with Cep Powder

On top of it lay three morsels of silver Reindeer moss from Finland, which had been coated with a deep-fried cep powder. The flavors of the forest were reiterated. The branches had fallen to the ground and landed in moss and mushrooms. As with the branches, the moss was also dipped into the crème fraiche. It really did taste of moss (I had some when I was a kid – don’t ask), and we were smiling and giggling already. These two dishes perfectly illustrated Redzepi’s concept of representing the ecosystem that the main ingredient for a dish comes from, both on the plate and on the palate.

Finger-licking good: the last filaments of moss suspended in crème fraiche

From the branches of the tree, the moss that grows on its trunk, and the mushrooms that take nourishment from it below ground, we were next presented with the berries of a native Nordic bush, sea-buckthorn (or havtorn in Danish).

Snack 3: Sea-buckthorn Leather with Pickled Rose Hips

The berries themselves had been peddled into a rough leather and ever so lightly salted. The floral, bright and supremely tart essence of the berry shone through precisely and, for the first time, we had to purposefully use our jaw muscles to chew. The bright fortune-cookie shaped fruit roll-up was appointed with pickled rose hips at each corner, and this would be the first of many pickled sensations in the meal. In this case, it brought out the singularly magical expression of rose aroma, and also a sweet tanginess, to bear on the acerbic berries.

Next, an antique-looking biscuit tin arrived and was opened in front of us.

Only three?!

Inside, there was a little biscuit for each of us. Upon the base layer of a savory cookie, speck (or lardo) had been thinly shaved, on top of which a powder of blackcurrant had been sprinkled. The dainty orts had each been crowned with a single spruce shoot.

Snack 4: Savory Cookie, Speck, Blackcurrant Powder & Spruce Shoot

This was richer than the preceding snacks, but still delicate and perfectly balanced between richness and acidity.

At the same time, a large plate with a thin layer of gray felt (which would be the serving vessel for many things) arrived, adorned with three low-profile rectangular creations.

Snack 5: Rye Bread, Chicken Skin, Lovage & Smoked Cheese

One side of the sandwich consisted of seeded rye toast, while the other was formed from crispy chicken skin. Sandwiched in-between (literally) was a mixture of smoked cheese and an emulsion of lovage (and possibly peas). This was, for me, Denmark on a plate. Seamless but not seedless, dancing around all corners of the mouth, and then washed down with a refreshing elixir from the North…of France albeit.

Next, one of the noma signature dishes arrived.

Snack 6: Brined, Blanched & Smoked Quail's Egg

Two large speckled eggs shells appeared. Before even opening them, you could smell the smoke pent up inside, folding back into itself. Upon lifting the lid, the smoke rose up into the air – the scent of a winter campfire, a suggestion of flames in the cold. The dainty eggs themselves, in addition to being smoked, had been pickled and lightly poached. The central chamber tasted of rich, liquid, smoky yogurt and was effortless in its purity and simplicity. A perfect bite.

After the golden egg had been laid, eaten and taken away, a terracotta pot arrived.

Snack 7: Radishes in a Pot (Radishes, Herb Cream & Malt Soil)

Inside, radishes were growing in soil. We were invited to pluck them out of the pot and eat them. But the trick here was that the soil was of course edible too. Everything in the pot was edible. The soil was made from malt and hazelnut flour, beer and butter, while the green cream at the bottom of the pot was an emulsion of fresh herbs and sheep’s milk.

I was excited, but didn’t soil myself

This was really the only course so far that reminded me of molecular gastronomy, maybe only because its playfulness reminded me of Heston Blumenthal and our meal at the Fat Duck.

This was followed by another trio of thin and impossibly delicate finger sandwiches.

Snack 8: Toast, Rendered Wild Duck Fat, Herbs, Smoked Cod Roe Emulsion, Vinegar & Herbs

This time sandwich contained micro herbs in the middle, which commingled with an emulsion of smoked cod roe and vinegar powder. I believe the top of the sandwich was made from the fat rendered off a wild Danish duck, whose flesh we were to consume at a later stage. This was definitely our favorite bite so far in terms of taste alone – translucent ‘bread’ made of rendered wild duck fat…’nuff said.

Finally, our flurry of snacks came to a close when three spheres of Æbleskiver arrived.

Snack 9: Æbleskiver, Cucumber & Moiko

Only these weren’t the traditional sweets served at Christmas time in Denmark; they had been lightened and made more savory than sweet by replacing the traditional apple filling with pickled cucumber and a little moiko (a freshwater fish from Finland resembling herring) piercing through the middle of each brown ball. The batter, which Mathilde insisted tasted like a beignet, had been lightened into more of a pancake texture using clarified butter and the combination of pickled cucumber and salted fish was (unsurprisingly) surprisingly a miniature revelation. Whodathunk it? Cucumber and fish. Brilliant.

But before the meal proper was to begin, a fabric parcel was placed in the center of the table.

Loaf of Sourdough Bread

Unwrapped, it looked like a joker’s hat. It was a round loaf of sourdough bread. On the side resided two stone pots, one containing pork fat, and the other goat’s milk butter.

Pork Fat & Scratchings and Goat’s Milk Butter with Salt

The fat was expectedly very rich and it was better once you allowed it to warm up, when it melted and seeped into the pores of the bread. It was topped with pork scratchings, but it was the goat’s milk butter that won our hearts, and taste buds.

Thus far, there had been no silverware, no discussion of wines or pairings and no ordering. The restaurant had been presenting their country and region to us on the plate in the most elegant and refined way possible. We had been barraged with Danish produce. Nine snacks, a loaf of bread, plus pork fat and goat’s milk butter were residing in our stomachs. During this first succession of surprises, things were clear, resolute, unfussy, confident and on-the-mark consistently throughout – both in terms of food and service.

The single glass of crisp Champagne had been the perfect foil for the snacks, cutting through the richness present in a few of the snacks and complementing the acidity of other elements within the food. The snacks had been delicious and more original than anything I think I’ve had before (the only other thing that comes close in my own dining experience is the Fat Duck) and I was already in love. But could the relationship continue to flourish, as things got heavier?

Another nine? Hope we have time…

Another thing about noma is that the food is brought out to you by a wide array of staff members – anyone from René himself, to his senior and junior chefs, to the restaurant’s waiters could be serving your food and explaining what it is. This adds considerably to the enjoyment of the meal (at least it did to ours) as, for example, a Swedish person might come to explain why the Gotland truffle you are eating is so special, or a Dane as to why the Æbleskiver is an interesting and innovative play on the traditional way the dish is served.

As I mentioned, throughout the snacks, while various people had served us, we did have one main waiter who seemed to be assigned to our table. A young man from the region, he struck a deft balance between giving us as much food as they could within our allotted time and getting the pacing right. They close the kitchen at 4pm sharp, and there is no budging on that – and I mean no budging (an attitude I find fondly Scandinavian). So far, we had sampled so many things, but hadn’t felt rushed. This was to continue throughout the main part of the meal.

After the snacks, he explained to us that the normal menu is normally a 7-course affair, but that if we wanted, they would just try to serve us as many courses as we had time for – i.e. before the bell tolled 4pm and the kitchen shut down for the staff meal and evening prep. I got the feeling that if President Obama was eating there, they would not serve him past 4pm either. Needless to say, we went for the latter option. David and I opted for the wine pairing while Mathilde decided to try the juice pairing – a great option for those who don’t feel like consuming so much wine for whatever reason, and one which worked surprisingly well given both the quality of the juices themselves and the way they complemented the flavors of the food.

First up of the main dishes was a beautifully presented and fresh-looking plate of food.

Course 1: Apples, Leeks & Seaweed Gel

The catch here was that the leeks and apples had been painstakingly prepared to look identical, so you didn’t know whether you would be getting a sweet or savory sensation if you only ate one at a time. The two flavors married together beautifully when eaten in concert, with the pang of seaweed adding a welcome though unfamiliar sensation on the palate. The dish was fresh and light, with a touch of richness from the seaweed. It was an excellent beginning in the middle of the meal.

Course 2: Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill

The Australian chap I mentioned earlier introduced the second course. He didn’t start by saying anything about the dish, but just began telling a story. The central character was a (some would say mad) Scotsman who had relocated to 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway to hand dive for sea urchins. He supplies these exclusively to noma, and these were the central component of the plates in front of us.

What I loved about the dish was the way that the frozen landscape in which this urchin-man lives had been translated onto the plate, both in terms of the serving temperature of the ingredients and the visual aspect of the plating. I thought it was one of the more beautiful things placed before us that day, and it was also one of my favorites. The overwhelming sensation was that of clean flavors from the sea. The sea urchin was extremely delicate and surprisingly sweet in flavor, while the frozen milk and dill granita served to accentuate the cleanness of its flavor, at the same time balancing its slight richness. The small spheres of cucumber had been seasoned with dill oil and also powder from the cucumber peels themselves, which had been cooked under a hot grill until completely carbonized. The dark orbs brought a welcome textural relief while at the same time reiterating a fresh, green, watery vegetal flavor to the dish. This was a miniature masterpiece.

Course 3: Langoustine, Oyster Emuslion, Söl (Dried Dulse) & Rye Bread Crumble

Continuing the oceanic theme, we were next each served a sparse scene upon a large, slightly warm basalt stone. Atop the stone was perched a rather robust Danish langoustine (it sort of looks like a caterpillar, no?), with eight Hershey’s kisses of a pale green emulsion concocted from oysters, parsley, grape seed oil and lemon juice. These little and seemingly randomly placed globules were topped with rye bread crumbs (which had been fried with butter) and a powder of deep purple dried dulse (a red algae, in this case from Iceland, where it is called söl ). The langoustine itself was soft, a little chewy and exceedingly sweet, with undertones of the butter in which it had been sautéed. When you picked it up with your fingers (there was no need for silverware in this course) and dipped it in the oyster emulsion, it added a pleasing acidity and delicate sourness, but for me it was the pristine and sweet langoustine itself that was the star of this dish. This visual impact is an important part of this course, but most importantly, we loved the taste of it too.

Course 4: Oyster & The Ocean

While the previous two courses had showcased various elements of Scandinavia’s coastline, for me the next dish most clearly evoked the rawness of the sea. A large blue pot was placed on top of our plates, and when the lid was removed, a single large oyster shell was revealed; underneath laid stones from the sea as well as some seaweed and other seashells. A big gust of steam immediately carried the smell of the sea to your nose as the oysters had been steamed with seawater that was placed at the bottom of the pot.

Open sea-same!

When we lifted the top of the oyster shell off, a beautiful scene was revealed. There was the oyster itself, which had been sliced into three sizable pieces and steamed for four minutes, leaving it just between the raw and cooked state. Scattered on top and around the oyster were pickled capers of elderberries, tapioca pearls, beach cabbage (I think) and some green herbs.

Getting up close & personal with my oyster

It was the best oyster I’ve ever had, and I loved the meaty texture of it. I don’t know if I was supposed to or not, but I chewed each of the three pieces slowly and tried to get some of the other components of the dish in each bite. I thought it was a marvellous reproduction of the coastline and the flavors melded together seamlessly: it was fresh, sharp, saline and clean, just what I imagine the beach to be. It was one of my favorite courses, and I am not even normally a lover of oysters.

Ready to go down the hatch

From the rawness of the sea, we were next brought back to the forest. Pine was making a comeback, and in a big way.

Course 5: Cauliflower & Pine

Not immediately the most arousing description of a dish is it: cauliflower and pine? But what it lacked in descriptors, it certainly made up for in visual curiosity and in taste. A charred piece of caramelized white cauliflower was residing in the middle of the rather sparse plate, on top of which were two strands of spruce, needles and all.

Sprucing up the plate

Next, our server spooned a circular pond of green sauce composed of spruce oil and whey around the cauliflower and then placed a dab of cream (inside of which was hidden some horseradish) in the middle, where it slowly melted into the sauce.

Your plate is now pine to eat, Sir

When you ate it, all of the flavors came together in unison, without one dominating the other. I loved the taste that the char brought to the cauliflower, and the aroma of the pine persisted in my mouth but didn’t overtake the simply prepared vegetable. The horseradish was there too, but lingering in the background at the top of my mouth and back of my throat. I was blown away by how much I liked this dish, as I am not really a fan of cauliflower – I think a lot of it had to do with the brilliant sauce. I was going to try to eat some of the pine needles too, but Mathilde scolded me for being silly (she was drinking juice, not wine, remember).

Course 6: Celeriac, Black Gotland Truffle & Garden Sorrel

We officially coined this the most ordinary looking dish of our meal so far. But for whatever it may have lacked in ophthalmic impact, we shortly forgave it. The golden brown piece of celeriac itself looked quite odd, almost like a rock or seashell of some sort, and it was juxtaposed against a nearly jet black paste of black truffles from the island of Gotland (a favourite summer vacationing spot for south-eastern Swedes – the human kind – in the middle of the Baltic sea). On top were strewn a few strands of garden sorrel.

The celeriac itself, which had been cooking in butter and sorrel for quite a while by the time we saw it on our plate, tasted about as good as celeriac can all by its lonesome, and had an interesting texture that I would describe as firm mushiness. However, I felt like I had been slapped across the face when I tried some of that thick truffle purée. I remember being surprised at Matthias Dahlgren’s Matbaren a few months ago by the pungency and deep flavor of autumn Gotland truffles (after being somewhat underwhelmed by the summer truffles a few years back at another fine Stockholm restaurant, although they worked well in the dish they made an appearance), but this was taking it to yet another level. It was the essence of truffle to me, and it paired perfectly with the root flavors of the gnarly looking celeriac. The garden sorrel added a pleasing citric note (it tasted like lemon) and it was strangely one of the more memorable dishes of the lunch, especially given that its appearance was decidedly modest amongst the company it was keeping. Genius.

Course 7: Pickled Winter Vegetables & Bone Marrow, Flowers & Herbs

If the kitchen had temporarily forgotten to add color and geometry to the celeriac dish, these pickled winter vegetables certainly made up for the lapse in spades. Our server explained that it is was longstanding tradition in Scandinavia to pickle things – mostly vegetables – in order to survive the bitterly cold winters. Pickled vegetables were often eaten with salted meat in olden times. In this case, we were presented with a number of seasonal vegetables (I counted about six), each of which had been pickled in its own liquid. For example, the yellow beetroot had been soaked in elderflower vinegar, while for the red beetroot rose hip vinegar had been used. Interspersed throughout the colorful cylindrical vegetable ringlets were little discs off creamy bone marrow, which had been salted and lightly poached.

Getting saucy

Next, a sauce, which I think was made from roasted pork bones and brown butter, was spooned on top so that it seeped out to one side. It was a striking presentation, and was a wonderful sensation of flavors converging in your mouth, from astringent to sweet to rich. I truly loved this dish.

Things were becoming serious

After our empty freckled gray plates had been taken away, a beautiful handmade knife was laid down on the side of each of our place settings. We were told that René had convinced a craftsman from the region to make some knives for the restaurant, and that the man got quite a shock when he realized he was being asked to make 100 of them – by far the biggest order he had ever received. In any case, the actual blade was much smaller than we imagined it would be given the disproportionately large handle. However small the blade, we knew something meaty and substantial must have been arriving soon…

Course 8: Wild Duck & Apple, Malt & Brown Butter

Just like the pine, which appeared first in the snacks and later in the mains, the wild duck – which we thought had been used to make one half of a sandwich in our snacks – now appeared in fuller form for our final savory course. Surrounding the sous-vide cooked duck was apple…in a startling array of guises. A perfect disc of pink apple and rose powder (which was also sprinkled on top of the dish), rigatoni-like pipes of apples, cooked slices of apples, and apple ‘seeds’ which were in fact made from malt – just like the branches with which we began the meal. Possibly for the sake of diversity, some green herbs had been thrown in too.

What would we do without brown butter?

But there was more apple to come. A sauce of brown butter, which contained an apple base, was poured over the center. The duck itself was beautifully rare, and the reverberation of apple throughout each element of the dish complemented the fowl perfectly, adding sweetness and an acidic tang. It was delicious, and well worth savoring. Yet, for some reason – possibly because it was really the only substantial/filling portion we had been served – it didn’t seem as exciting as what had preceded it. Don’t get me wrong, we all loved the dish, but I suppose this was the most ‘main course’ dish of the main courses…this, of course, was a good problem to have!

Dessert 1: Pear Tree (Frozen & Aerated Pine, Poached Pear, Raw Pear with Herbs & Flowers)

After nine snacks, one loaf of bread and eight savory courses, the first of the sweet(er) dishes was here. I personally thought this was the most beautiful plate of the afternoon – I mean, just look at it….

So pretty I didn’t want to eat it (well, not really)

Now those of you who know a bit about noma will already know that Redzepi is not a big fan of overly sweet and heavy desserts – he prefers rather to use the sugars that dwell naturally within certain ingredients to present a fresh and light close to the meal.

In this case, the a pear had been beautifully poached and hidden beneath a thin slice of a raw pear, which was decorated with all manner of things green and pink…from what I can remember, lemon thyme and some local flowers. An artful golden swirl across the plate contained a pear sauce with thyme (i.e. the green shards you can see scattered throughout it). Flanking the delicately balanced pear was a light green sponge of frozen and aerated pine (or was it thyme?). The block of porous pine began to melt when it was touched by your spoon, and even more rapidly so when it got inside your mouth. The overriding sensation from this course was a refreshing sweetness – raw and cooked pear, melting frozen pine and a lovely syrup of similar flavors overlapping in your mouth. A wonderful first dessert.

Dessert 2: Snowman (Yogurt Snow, Yogurt Glace, Meringue & Lingonberry)

Our second dessert continued the frozen theme…to an extreme. It was the classic noma snowman, and I was so happy to have gotten the chance to see it in person. My three-sphered creation had a particularly long nose and I wondered if he had lied once too often and was getting sent out to the dining room to be executed by my cutlery.

Split decision

Not usually such a nasty fellow – though Mrs. LF might disagree 🙂 – I nevertheless executed his sentence and split him in two, straight down the middle. Then I got down to business. It turned out to be a concoction of meringue, yogurt glace (made of yogurt, buttermilk and gelatin) and yogurt snow (containing both sheep’s and cow’s yogurt). I thought I also tasted carrot near the base, but maybe I was going crazy at this point? Underneath the snowman there was a biting crimson sauce made from lingonberries.

Murdered in cold blood

It gave you the sensation of taking a brisk walk through the snow, and the lingonberry in particular provided a very sharp flavour against the cool, crunchy and fairly neutral tasting ‘snow’ and meringue. Taste-wise, it wasn’t the most awe-inspiring dessert, but you have to give them marks for playfulness and artistry…and I thought it actually tasted pretty good too. I was about to eat the wooden nose and arms of the snowman – in the spirit of eating everything on the plate, as I had done thus far – but I was informed that these unfortunately were not really edible. 😦

Dessert 3: Øllebrød & Skyr

The final dessert was definitely the simplest of the three sweet courses, and one of the most straightforward of the meal.  Øllebrød, it was explained to us, is a traditional Danish breakfast porridge made from beer ‘bread’. While I have never had the original, we were of course given the noma version of this simple dish. Besides the rye bread flakes that I believe had been soaked in beer and provided some crunch, it also included some frozen skyr, which is a soft cheese from Iceland that is quite yogurt-like. Taste-wise, I found the dish to be divine, and I liked the gooey texture of the bready substance at the bottom. David and I were both almost simultaneously reminded of a lemon tart in terms of its flavor profile. This was comfort food, and there was quite a bit of the delicious pudding for us to savor as we contemplated all that we had just consumed. It was the perfect ending to an inspired, and inspiring, meal.

A marrowing finale

As it was now a little past 4pm, we were escorted to the private lounge to have hot drinks and a few petit fours.

In good spirits

There was quite an array of spirits on hand, but I had swallowed enough fermented grape juice by this point and was content enough with coffee.

There are some things you can’t change about people, even when they’re in the best restaurant in the world!

But Mathilde had to ask for her hot chocolate. We were informed that coffee and chocolate were two of the few things served in the restaurant that are not from Scandinavia. And, to be honest, I was glad they hadn’t taken the local thing to such extremes as to offer us some malted hot water with goat’s milk curd and pickled elderberry foam – though maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad…. They didn’t seem overly confident about being able to make hot chocolate in the first place, but endeavored to do their best. Big surprise (not): Mathilde simply loved their 72% Valrhona version of the drink. I had a sip and agreed it was pretty d*mn good.

Petit Fours 1: Potato Chips with Anise & Chocolate in a Biscuit Tin

These were pretty much like they sounded, and I could have easily eaten a few more. Salty, crispy, chocolately and liquoricey. All things I like, and I liked them all together.

Petit Fours 2: Petit Fours: Sea-buckthorn (Havtorn) & Beetroot Flødeboller in a Metal Bucket

I know, it sounds complicated, but it wasn’t really.

No edible branches on top of this plant, alas 😦

It was basically chocolate covered marshmallows, except the mushy meringue was made of sea-buckthorn and beetroot with a beetroot gel and a malt base to boot. Sweet and sour. Divine.

Petit Fours 3: Smoked Bone Marrow Caramels

Last up was possibly the most challenging combination of flavors and textures of the afternoon. After unwrapping the parcel of butcher’s paper, which was tied shut with string, we found three marrow bones, each with a caramel-like center.

Things were becoming blurry

There really was bone smoked marrow inside them, as well as caramel, and I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it or not – it was pretty weird. But I’m all for trying new things.

Tranquility

It was nearly 5pm and our meal had finally come to an end. There had been an astonishing array of food, and I was pleasantly full, but nowhere near bilious. This reminded me of my meal at The Loft Project, where Samuel Miller (the sous-chef at noma) had cooked some of his own food for the table that night; we had eaten a lot on that occasion too, but hadn’t felt full at all – instead, energized.

It turned out that the master of the house was not there on our visit. Apparently for the first time since the restaurant opened, René and his family had taken some time off for a real holiday in January. As disappointed as I was not to be able to meet the creative force behind the food we had eaten, I was very glad to see Sam and accepted his gracious offer to give us a tour of the kitchens and private areas of the restaurant.

We got to see all of the various cooking stations, as well as the fairly new private dining room and enlarged staff canteen.

You can find a few photos and videos below, and there are loads more on my flickr set for the meal.

Placing malt branches at the snack station

Egad, there’s a Viking in the pastry station

The newly enlarged staff canteen

Private dining room

Sam demonstrating the outdoor grill (in the January cold)

Reflections on a perfect meal

I already commented on the décor of the restaurant at the beginning of the piece. In terms of the overall ambience, I think the restaurant has gotten it just right. Nothing is overly formal: there is no dress code, and there is no fancy napery. More importantly, everyone just really cares about their guests – from the senior members of the kitchen all the way to the waiters. They really want to make sure you have an amazing time, whether that means staying with the ‘normal’ set menu or being more adventurous and going for whatever the kitchen can throw at you. As Danes generally prefer to go out at dinnertime, lunch tends to be a particularly international crowd, with many people flying in and out the same day just for their meal. The weight of these peoples’ expectations could understandably put a strain on the front of house.

We got to know our young waiter pretty well over the course of the afternoon, and he was very forthright about the experience of the meal from his point of view. Toward the end service, he even asked us if, at one point, we had felt a tiny bit rushed when one of the courses was served. He explained that he had been extremely nervous about that particular dish as it was probably served 30 seconds or a minute too early. Of course, we hadn’t noticed and he remained outwardly calm throughout. The thing is, I just can’t imagine this conversation taking place at another restaurant of a similar ilk, and I found his honesty and genuine care for his guests to be touching…and I don’t think that ‘touching’ is too strong or silly of a word in this case. He really wanted to make sure that our meal at noma would be an experience we would treasure for years to come, and he felt a real responsibility to ensure the part of the meal he could control would be as close to perfect as possible. That, for me, is what true service is about, not folding my napkin perfectly and placing it in the center of my chair each time I get up from the table.

In terms of the food, I suppose I am a novice as far as Danish cuisine goes, and I tasted many new flavors and combinations of tastes and textures in this meal. I absolutely loved it all, and thought it was the most exciting meal I have had so far in a restaurant – specifically because so many of the flavors and ingredients themselves were new to me. I don’t know whether a native would take some of this for granted and therefore not share my excitement over a few (or more) of the dishes, but I thought everything was perfectly conceived and painstakingly executed to great effect. Sure, there were a few things that didn’t get our juices flowing as much as others did, but that is almost bound to happen when you are sampling so many things, especially as each person has his or her own personal likes and dislikes.

I really do think that some of the main elements of Nordic cuisine – such as their pickling, their refreshing desserts, and their sauces (which generally lack the heaviness of wine and flour, for example) – will have a significant impact on food worldwide in the next decade. I’m not saying it will become as developed as Asian (and specifically Japanese) food has become within this timeframe – i.e. I don’t see something like the now ubiquitous fusion of French and Japanese cuisine happening with Danish and French (or Italian) cuisine – but I just can’t imagine food this interesting, good and generally healthy (or at least healthier) not being ‘discovered’ by restaurants, markets and cooks very soon. Many already have.

Goodbye noma, I hope to see you again before another two years passes

I, for one, think noma deserves the praise it has garnered from the international press, its peers and the majority of diners who have had the pleasure of eating there. I know I am only chiming in to the growing chorus of goodwill, but based on my experience, there is nothing else I could or should do…and I am glad to be publishing my own little love-fest.

I wish the young team at noma all the luck in the world, and hope that they can continue to evolve and improve. I just pray I can find an excuse to go back for dinner, and that there will be a table for me!

Rating

Ambience: 10/10

Service: 10/10

Food: 10/10

Wine: I know, I didn’t comment on the wine pairing in the review, but hey, it was getting a little long already wasn’t it? In any case, you can find the wines we had below. All of them went well with their chosen partners and I particularly liked the Champagne, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (which was very fruity) and the Chardonnay vendage botrytisée. I also loved Mathilde’s sea-buckthorn juice…how I will miss that orange berry!

Champagne + Wine Pairing

  1. N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs (Montgueux)
  2. 2008 Bourgogne Aligoté, Guilhem & Jean-Hugues (Cotes d’Auxerrois)
  3. 2007 L’Or de Vix Pinot Noir, Vin de Table Blanc, Elodie Beaufort (Bourgogne)
  4. 2009 Pouilly-Fumé “Mademoiselle M”, Domaine Alexandre Bain (intentionally oxidized)
  5. 2009 J’en Veux !!! – J-F Ganevat (Jura)
  6. 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’, Domaine de Villeneuve (Rhône-Sud)
  7. 2009 Pinot Blanc ‘Vielles Vignes’, Domaine Dirler Cadé (Alsace)
  8. N.V. Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée, Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland (Vire)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have (sadly only) dined at noma once, and it was for lunch*

Noma


[1] René Redzepi’s first cookbook is entitled Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, indicating that his food is rooted in the marriage of both seasonal and local ingredients, forming a partnership that can lead to great and groundbreaking things.

[2] Curnonsky once said: “La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont,” or “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”


Viajante – Lofty Ambitions

Viajante
Patriot Square
London E2 9NF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • There are tasting menus of varying lengths (3, 6, 9 and 12 courses) and prices. We had the 3-course lunch for £25, which in reality comprised 9 different courses; the 12-course tasting menu is only available from 6.00-8.30pm
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Nuno Mendes’ new venture certainly warrants attention. Much like the “travelling” theme of the restaurant, it is clear that Viajante is embarking on a journey. Its kitchen has a fascinating pedigree and there are flashes of brilliance, both in the food itself and the design. I am eager to visit again once they have progressed further along their path to discover what it is they want to become. But for now, £25 for 3 courses with so many extras has to be one of the best fine dining values around!

Bringing it all together

True to form, I am pretty sure most London-based food bloggers have already reviewed Viajante, and if you are from London, you quite likely already know a bit about it. Nonetheless, I believe that some degree of context is always useful – but if you don’t need it, please skip ahead to the part about the meal.

Viajante is the newest venture of Nuno Mendes, an intriguing Portuguese chap who was formerly chef at London’s Bacchus and also runs a supper club called The Loft Project. Nuno also notably worked at El Bulli and has travelled the world working in various exciting kitchens. The Loft Project features notable chefs from all over the world who take up residence for a few nights to cook in an open kitchen to a table of 16 random paying guests (for reference, a review of the meal I had when Samuel Miller, Sous-Chef from noma, was cooking can be found here).

As I understand it, The Loft Project sort of proved as a testing ground for Viajante, while Nuno figured out what type of food and experience he wanted to offer diners. The restaurant itself took a long time to develop, and after a somewhat prolonged soft opening, it finally reached fruition.

Viajante, which is means ‘traveller’ and is therefore apt – also because the kitchen is made up of chefs who have done stints at major international restaurants – is located within the Town Hall Hotel in East London’s Bethnal Green.

There, now that wasn’t too painful , was it?

The travellers settle in

I dined there for lunch during my last week living in London (sob), and had the pleasure of sharing the meal with kindred foodie spirit (and actual person) @gourmetraveller. She, of course, had already dined here many aeons before our rendezvous. She said the food had been interesting and that it made for an engaging dining experience that was quite unique in London at the moment (see her review here), so she didn’t have a problem returning for another meal there. Either that or I’m irresistible.

In any case, I am pretty sure that she didn’t tag along just because the second part of her online identity shares the same meaning as the restaurant. Cue snare drums.

I had actually taken my first ever half-day off from work to have this lunch so that I wouldn’t have to rush back to the office, most likely too cheerful from inebriation that my colleagues would be highly suspicious given my otherwise rather cantankerous office disposition. I rode solo on the top deck of red London carriage and took in the rawness of the ever-effervescent East London landscape.

I see a street scene and I want to paint it red

It was a cold, wet and dreary afternoon, and I was all too happy to get inside the Town House Hotel’s front door a-sap.

A classic facade belies what's found inside

Upon stepping through the main entrance, there is a bar through the glass doors on the right, which interestingly is not housed within the dining room, while the restaurant proper lies through the glass doors to the left.

The hostess informed me that @gourmetraveller had already arrived and was in the bar. After some quick detective work (à la Jonathan Ames in Bored to Deathsans the horrible raincoat), I realized she was not there. It was just me plus Nuno and a couple of people who were obviously trying to pitch something to him over in the corner.

Some fishy information got me harpooned at the flash bar

A very friendly young barman gave me a drink list to peruse as I waited for the ghost of GT past to arrive. He said he could report no sightings of the said apparition, but I barely heard him as I was quite intrigued by the sound of some of the liberal libations on offer.

Breakfast Martini

Just as I was getting down and dirty (so to speak) with my Breakfast Martini, she appeared from the bowels of the building, where I presume she had been attending to her own bowels. Greetings were dispensed and a second drink menu was proffered for the good lady. Meanwhile, I was enjoying a slightly sweet concoction made from vodka (normally Chase Seville Orange Marmalade but they had run out so something else was substituted), Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, orange juice (or grapefruit if you prefer) and honey. It was certainly easy to drink.

A ‘Green Traveller’ for Gourmet Traveller

The tardy gourmand ordered the fascinating sounding (and looking) Green Traveller, seemingly not perturbed by the fact that she was taking this name similarity business to a whole new level. Her drink was made using fresh lemongrass, Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters – with Thai basil bubbles to make you feel comfortable that the drink was worth what you were paying for it. She didn’t seem to be complaining, and my one sip had me liking this one better than my own pretty decent cocktail.

Appetites and livers duly whetted, we headed over to the other side for the culinary shenanigans to begin.

Three becomes nine

Our table was booked quite late in the lunch service, and unfortunately the more extended tasting menu was not available at this time. We settled for the seemingly good value 3-course menu at £25. As there was no menu to choose from – the kitchen decides what they will serve you on the day – we took in the surroundings. We were seated in the back part of the dining room, which is semi-separated by a wall in the middle with wide passages on both sides.

A minimalistic yet warm space...

I was digging the calming blues and warm wood tones of the place, and liked the natural light that was afforded by the large windows – although it made it hard to take decent photos of the food, given my still pretty limited abilities as a photographer.

...replete with its own slightly incongruous green fireplace

The only thing that stuck out – and it really did seem out of place – was the old-fashioned green tiled fireplace nestled directly behind us.

I don’t know how much the light fixtures cost, but I liked them

Otherwise, it was a fairly sparse modern space, but I certainly didn’t find it cold or off-putting. It is the kind of room you can tell has been scrutinized in painstaking detail even though it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to it. Stilted? Maybe, but I was quite comfortable at our table, which was well-spaced apart from the other diners.

Just before our first plate of food arrived, the sommelier stopped by to ask us what we wanted to drink. There was apparently a pairing for the meal (also very reasonable at £15), which seemed to be the only option from what we could make out from his very rushed and awkward spiel. So, presented with no other real alternatives, we said ‘sure’. He did initially come across very odd for a restaurant that I would imagine places some importance on the pairings of the food and drinks. But before I had much time to think about it, he had disappeared.

Amuse Bouche 1: House Sashimi

The first dish was delivered on an interestingly textured circular plate, and we were told nothing about what was on it – this was part of the game, I suppose. Although the sashimi looked like a red fish of some sort, it was merely visual trickery as the deep red substance was in actual fact watermelon which had been slow-cooked and slightly charred. The melon had been topped with a variety of elements, including soy beans, sesame seeds and micro greens. It was a successful and refreshing start to the meal, and the textures worked well together to create some interest in the mouth. The only thing odd about it (besides the fact that ‘sashimi’ didn’t refer to fish) was that we were only brought one plate of it, and were meant to share it, which was slightly awkward given that we didn’t have little plates of our own. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 2: Roasted Broad Bean

Next, a roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs.

It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 3: Thai Explosion

The third of the amuses was an Eastern offering. We were instructed to each take one of these miniature parcels in our hand off of our server’s plate and immediately pop it in our mouth and eat it in one bite. I took a quick photo of it, and didn’t really get the chance to ask what it was inside it. I believe that the exterior shells were made up of crisp bread on one side and crispy chicken skin on the other. Inside it tasted of an ever-so-sweet green Thai curry, with a gentle heat that lingered at the back of the throat after it had been eaten. The little coriander leaf was artfully placed on top and the flavor complemented the ‘explosion’ well. It was subtle and elegant, but it wasn’t out-of-this-world. 6/10.

Amuse Bouche 4: Ficelles with Whipped Brown Butter

The feast of amuses continued, and was brought to a brilliant finale with two ficelles (thin baguettes) and two artfully presented scoops of whipped brown butter – one pairing for each diner.

The ficelles themselves were extremely well made, and were probably some of the best baguettes I’ve eaten the in UK. They were perfectly crunchy and had a lovely softness inside. The real master stroke here though was the whipped brown butter. It was extremely light, slightly rich (with notes of caramelization, likely due to the fact that I believe it had been whipped with brown sugar), and it was garnished with purple potato powder, pancetta crumbs and bits of crisp chicken skin. I could have easily continued eating wooden tray after wooden tray of this brilliant combination well into the afternoon. 9/10.

Course 1: Cornish Crab, Textures of Beetroot, Goats Cheese, Leek Ash, Sunflower Seeds

The first course of the meal proper was an artfully arranged plate of food, to say the least. Unfortunately, I felt this dish didn’t quite come together, despite its curb appeal.

The flavour of the crab itself was almost entirely buried beneath everything else, while the ‘textures’ of the beets really only seemed to be one texture presented in multiple hues (crimson and gold). Also, there was quite a high proportion of goats cheese lying beneath it all, which had a strong flavor that almost drowned out everything else when you took a bite of it. Finally, there were simply too many seeds, so the texture became too crunch too easily. There were also some onions floating about in the fray, which were nicely cooked. Overall, it was style over substance in this dish, which both @gourmetraveller and I felt just didn’t integrate well as a whole. 5/10.

2007 Tokaj Dry Furmint, Szepsy

Luckily, the dry Tokaj wine was a perfect match for the freshness of our first course. It displayed subtle melon on the nose, had a nice streak of minerality and decent structure but a pretty short finish.

Bread, blue and wine

I liked this photo, so couldn’t resist including it in the post.

Course 2: Halibut, Courgette, Sofrito, Egg Yolk

The second course was a particularly memorable dish, especially as I don’t care for halibut all that much. The fish itself was cooked absolutely perfectly, and aside from being artistically arranged, the courgettes actually added a nice subtle flavor that married well with the meaty fish. I wasn’t sure how well the deep red sofrito would mesh with the green and white components of the dish, but it did so admirably, maybe because it was quite mild in spice.

Egg yolk and sofrito detail

But the ace up Mendes’ sleeve was the egg yolk, which when pierced produced a perfectly runny bright orange glue which bound the whole dish together by acting as a sauce. The flavor of the little orange orb worked surprisingly seamlessly with the mild fishy flavor of the halibut. It was a fairly simple but genius concoction which I really didn’t expect to work, but which totally proved my instincts to be wrong in this instance. Really clever cooking. 8/10.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Life from Stone (Springfield Estate, South Africa)

I found the matching wine to be a rather typical ‘big’ new world Sauvignon, with lots of zing and grassy gooseberry and a touch of something else (maybe peppers). I have to say that while I have gone off this style of Sauvignon over the last few months, it went exceedingly well with the halibut dish, cutting through the fish and sofrito just enough to keep interest on both the food and the wine – it was truly complementary.

Daylight breaking through

So maybe I just like pictures of wine glasses on restaurant tables…here’s another one. 🙂

Palate Cleanser: Green Tea Granita with Sisho

Another dish, another plate and bowl. The pre-dessert was a beautifully-presented green tea granita with a bit of sisho (the Japanese name for the green leaf that is part of the mint family) perched on top in the center of semi-open egg shell receptacle. It was mild in flavor but worked well as a palate cleanser. Neither of us had too much to say about this one. 6/10.

Course 3: Pannacotta Ice Cream, Thai Basil Powder, Hazelnut Crumbs, Apple

I rushed into the dessert before I got a chance to snap a photo of it, so unfortunately this picture was taken when it was nearly half eaten…but hopefully you can get a sense of what it may have looked like (again, very pretty – surprise, surprise).

This was a delicate and light dessert which provided a soft closing to the meal. The ice cream itself was excellent, with a luscious texture, and it paired well with the milder-than-expected Thai basil powder. There were also discs of sliced green apples and some excellent toasted hazelnut crumbs. It was a very pleasant sweet, but not too sweet, end to the meal. 7.5/10.

Two dessert wine pairings

By this time, we had warmed to the sommelier a bit more, following the rather awkward initial exchange. I think he noticed we were quite interested in the wine pairings and therefore brought us a sampling of two wines to try with our dessert.

The first was a sweet German wine (2007 Ruster Ausbruch, Feiler-Artinger), which was made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Neuburger and Chardonnay grapes. I found it to be right on the edge of cloyingly sweet and, while nice to drink on its own as a dessert in its own right, it didn’t complement the subtle flavors of the dessert but rather overpowered them with strong notes of honey, caramel and biscuits.

The second wine was a simple Vin de Table Français (2007 Julien Courtois, Originel) which was quite dry and actually went pretty well with the dessert, though not perfectly. It was quite odd to drink on its own – not unpleasant, just strange. It was billed as a ‘natural’ wine and I believe he said it hadn’t been filtered or fined. The aroma was very muted to begin with, but both the smell and the taste seemed to develop dramatically in the glass after a short period of time. As I said, it was bone dry and fairly herbaceous, although there was some apple in there somewhere and possibly a touch of honey. It cut through the ice cream nicely and went well with the sweetness of the apple in the dessert. I suppose it was a welcome change from the ordinary as the wine definitely had a character of its own.

2008-2009 Clos Ouvert, Vino Puro

The sommelier let us try another ‘natural’ red wine after the dessert, which was interesting as it again evolved significantly the longer it spent in the glass. We couldn’t make our minds up as to whether we liked it or not, but certainly found it interesting. It developed some light raspberry flavor and I thought it had a touch of spice at the beginning that faded away after not too long (or maybe imagined it to begin with).

Petit Fours 1: Passion Fruit & Ginger Marshmallow and Cep Truffle

But hold your horses; our ‘3-course’ lunch was not yet over. After ordering some coffee (@gourmetraveller opted for tea) to finish the meal off once and for good, we were presented with an array of immaculate petit fours.

First, I tried the brown and orange duo which were presented on individual hollow ceramic cubes (each one is slightly different in color and design). The small orange box was a passion fruit and ginger marshmallow with a light crust, which was tasty. But more interesting was the dark chocolate and cep truffle, that had been topped off with a fleck of Maldon salt. I joked that they should make a ‘truffle’ truffle (i.e. truffle mushrooms in a chocolate truffle), but I guess that might be too obvious for the obviously clever kitchen. Anyway, the truffle worked well as you tasted the flavor of the cep, but not so much that it spoke louder than the chocolate itself. All in all, a delightful pair. 8/10.

Petit Fours 2: Crema Catalana

The other petit four was a fairly traditional Crema Catalana which had been infused with some citrus flavor. The texture was spot-on and the flavor was just superb – I just wish the glass had been half-full and not four-fifths empty! 🙂 8/10.

Single Macchiato

Aside from being one of the most striking coffee drinks I’ve been served in recent times, it was a perfect macchiato. I didn’t ask whose beans they used, but I think it may have been Square Mile. It was one of the best coffees I’ve been served in a restaurant. Or I was quite plastered by this time.

Artful surroundings

I couldn’t have been all that plastered, though, because I did find my way to the bathroom, ducking beneath a great vertical rectangular sign (or piece of artwork?) on my way down the stairs.

We were meant to continue the enjoyable afternoon by checking in on Ben Greeno, yet another former cook a noma, who at the time was preparing for dinner service at his now-closed Tudor Road supper club. Before heading out, however, Nuno came over to introduce himself – something I believe he was doing with all of the diners. I was struck by his shy modesty and his seemingly genuine intrigue in whatever we happened to be saying. He was exceedingly nice and polite and you could really tell why other chefs would be interested in collaborating with him. He made a distinct impression.

Refined, ambitious, almost there

As you can tell, I liked the space and design of the restaurant. In our conversation, Nuno had made a point of telling us that every dish was served on its own plate (or vessel) and he clearly believes that the serving medium is an essential component of each dish – indeed, he said that some of their culinary creations had actually taken direction from the shape and textures of the plate that had been selected. This could surely be seen as pretension taken to a new level, but coming from Nuno, it actually seemed to make sense, as did the conceit of the room, although it didn’t seem to be quite fully realized yet.

I had similar feelings about the food. All of it was tasty,  save for perhaps the crab dish which didn’t do much for me. Every dish – including the not insignificant extras – demanded attention, firstly because they had been presented so beautifully and secondly because (just like the Transformers) there was usually more than met the eye. The sheer diversity of the meal made it fun and engaging, and again reflected the name, and I suppose ethos, of the restaurant. While I don’t think any of the individual dishes will make my “Top Dishes of 2010” (watch this space), the overall experience was intriguing, and brimming with potential. And I don’t think you can find any other place in London serving such inventive food for a £25 meal in which you are given no less than nine individual courses (4 amuses, 3 courses, 1 pre-dessert and petit fours) – for that alone, it is an  amazing fine dining bargain.

My gut reaction is that Viajante is a place with a certain pedigree that is still in the process of defining itself, and is not in a particular hurry to get there. I, for one, am certainly interested to find out what it ends up becoming, because there is something very different about this place from any other restaurant I’ve visited in London as of late.

As my favorite poet put it, “Fare forward, travellers!

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: I didn’t actually see the wine list so can’t comment per se, but they do certainly have an interesting wine program, with a keen and increasing focus on natural wines.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Viajante once, and it was for lunch*

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Viajante

The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from Noma

The Loft Project
Unit 2a, Quebec Wharf
315 Kingsland Road
London E8 3DJ
Website
Map
Reservations can be made via phone on +44 (0)7956 205 005 or via email

  • Multi-course tasting menu (ours was 12 courses) with wine pairing for the entire meal at £100/person plus VAT
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below to get a larger image

The Loft Project is an innovative concept within the London underground restaurant scene. While its genesis consisted of its creator, Nuno Mendes, using the space an experimental kitchen to develop his cuisine and offer it up to paying diners, it has evolved into a kitchen that welcomes exciting guest chefs from around the world, who take up residence for 1 or 2 weekends with the permanent kitchen staff. The table of 16 is bookable by anyone on a first-come, first-serve basis and makes for a unique evening out, with high caliber and innovative food surrounded by a random group of diners. On this occasion, I had the pleasure of sampling Samuel Miller’s food, who is currently sous-chef at the world-famous Noma in Denmark. Both I and my dining companion were blown away by the food and the experience as a whole and I would highly recommend an evening at The Loft Project to anyone who is up for this type of experience.

When you can’t make it to the mountain…

Behind the times as usual (whether due to laziness, wallet consciousness or purposeful intention is anyone’s guess), I had been espying The Loft Project from the distant shores of my laptop for some time. Come to think of it, maybe this was because I was a veritable ‘underground restaurant’ (that’s ‘supperclub’ to us Yanks) virgin until I recently popped my proverbial cherry at the Hidden Tea Room (which, by the way, is fantastic – see my photos here). Buoyed by this experience, I had worked up sufficient courage to make another foray into this mysterious and very en vogue world; however this time it would be for dinner, it would be haute and it wouldn’t come cheap.

What tipped me over the edge, pray tell? Well, I have been aspiring to visit the now world-famous Noma in Copenhagen (along with a number of other restaurants in that fair city) for over a year now. Somehow, this culinary cruise ship has never pushed off shore, so when I saw that the sous-chef from Noma would be the ‘chef in residence’ at The Loft Project in London in a few month’s time, I quickly secured two places on one of the three nights that he would be presiding over this above-ground, subterranean epicurean mess hall. For once, the mountain (well, at least part of it) had come to me.

But let’s backtrack briefly as, in my haste, I seem to have gotten slightly ahead of myself. For those who are not already familiar with it, The Loft Project (TLP) is run by Nuno Mendes and his partner Clarise. Nuno is a Portuguese chef who formerly ran the kitchen at Bacchus in London and has had experience working with many modern-day culinary masters from around the world, including the likes of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges Vongerichten. TLP started out as an experimental test kitchen where Nuno would invite paying guests to sample his innovative and ever-developing cuisine. As he has now finally opened his much talked about new restaurant Viajante (which in Portuguese means ‘travellers’), TLP has now evolved to host exciting, and mostly younger, chefs from around the world for a limited number of nights (normally over weekend evenings). They in effect become ‘chefs in residence’ for that week (or weeks). There are by my count three permanent kitchen staff who support the head chef and also a waiter-cum-sommelier who runs the floor. The visiting chef sleeps above the open-plan kitchen/dining room space, literally in the loft.

Samuel Miller, sous-chef at Noma & ‘chef in residence’ at TLP on my visit

Samuel Miller is a 28-year old Northerner from Fulford on the outskirts of York and is following a family tradition in food, i.e. his father is also a chef. He spent over two years at double Michelin-starred Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham alongside David Everitt-Matthias (where he came second in the Young Chef of the Year awards in 2004), and since then had stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli, before going on to work for René Redzepi at Noma, which as most readers of this blog will know, was recently crowned the #1 restaurant in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in London.

My companion for the meal was the Phantom Medic (who not that long ago had dinner at El Bulli, which I interviewed him about), and we decided to go on a Friday, the first night of Sam’s three-day residency. As we rolled up a tad early, we decided to take a walk around the veritable mish-mash of buildings on the stretch of Kingsland Road that TLP occupies. We decided to duck down below to the canal, and after meandering for a while, and came upon a few surprising discoveries.

Modern developments & floating vegetable allotment

Firstly, once you got down to water level, things looked a bit nicer – there were a lot of modern developments along the waterside and we even singled out a floating vegetable allotment behind the complex where the loft is located.

Towpath, a cute cafe just off Kingsland Road in E8, serves fresh Italian-inspired food

Secondly, we stumbled upon a tiny café called Towpath occupying two carved-out open units overlooking Regent’s Canal. The food is Italian and looked extremely fresh and appetising (Time Out has done a little review of it here), and although we abstained as we were about to subject our stomachs to 12 courses of food, I will be back to sample the food on some sunny day this summer.

Light as a feather, I could eat forever

We eventually tore ourselves away from the friendly people at Towpath and entered TLP, along with the rest of the diners, who all seemed to arrive in unison, even though the group was made up of many different parties.

Entering The Loft Project

We were offered sparkling wine and had a chance to check out the scene.

Sam introduces himself to the guests & we soak up the atmosphere

We had a lovely time getting acquainted with the other diners, who ranged from Swedish and Irish businessmen (and their partners) to a group of serious Japanese foodies, including a restaurant owner, respected chef and a woman with a camera that was bigger than her face by a good measure. As we were chatting, Sam came out of the kitchen to introduce himself.  He was the consummate host: mild-mannered, friendly and genuine.

Let’s get this party started – some of the ingredients on offer as a chef ponders what to do with them and when

As we were talking, Sam explained that he had arrived fresh from Denmark that morning and had luckily managed to smuggle a bevy of beautiful produce and Nomadic (oh yeah, pun action) concoctions from Copenhagen in his luggage for his three nights at TLP. It turned out to be an exceedingly worthwhile risk, for us diners at least. 🙂

Prepping of Course 1

As the kitchen crew got to work preparing the first course, I found myself drawn like a (hungry) fly to the bright lights of the kitchen. One of the great things about TLP is that it is a completely open kitchen, and they chefs were happy to let me watch the goings on and take as many photos as I liked. I also asked a few questions here and there, when I thought I wouldn’t be bothering, or intruding upon, them too much.

Course 1: Salt Baked Carrots, Fresh Cream, Thyme & Lingonberries

The first course was based around a central theme of orange and purple carrots. I thought the purple carrots were quite novel and had a nice contrasting effect on the plate. However, when I mentioned the novelty of the curly purple slices, the Irish gentleman sitting to my left proceeded to give me a brief lecture regarding the history of carrots, and explained that most people thought that the ‘original’ carrot was actually dark purple (if you are interested or curious, knock yourself out over on the Carrot Museum site – yes, it exists, for real). In any case, both carrots had a firm sweetness that was balanced well by the sweet and sour sharpness of the lingonberries, and subtly enhanced by the thyme oil and fresh cream. There was also an extra crunch provided by a few bits of bread salad and a few strands of mixed chewy herbs. It all held together well and was a very fresh opening to the evening.

Course 2: Mussels, Watercress & Frozen Yogurt

As I was diverted by the enthralling history of carrots, I missed the prep action for the second course. This was another pretty plate of food, where the flavors again gelled well despite some slightly unusual combinations. The mussels themselves were soft, meaty, delicately rich and fresh. They were also enriched with a ‘mussel gel’ which brought an intense preciseness to their flavor. The watercress sauce was a beautiful deep green hue and lent a slightly bitter (sort of radish-like) and peppery note to the mussels, which was not at all unpleasant. But what I loved about this dish was the frozen yogurt ‘snow’. Its gentle tanginess offset the mussels perfectly and the coolness brought a very engaging dynamic to the plate, which I thought augmented the dish nicely. Again, light, dainty, delicious.

Prepping of Course 3

As the table played its first round of musical chairs, I took the opportunity to dash off to the kitchen to check on the progress of the third course.

Course 3: Raw Mackerel, Hazelnuts, Mustard & Rye Crumbs

This course turned out to be one of my favorites. An oddly arranged plate was presented, with a creamy tapioca base and an alternating circle of yellow and green glistening spheres (which mirrored the tapioca’s translucent pearl beads) ensnaring a pink and wormlike sliver of raw mackerel which was topped with a rutted skin of mustard and rye crumbs. Somehow, this all worked. Again, an interesting play on textures was afoot here. The unctuous tapioca acted as a unifier, evening out the combination of sweet apple and cooling cucumber as they interplayed with the creamy and rich texture of the delectable raw mackerel. The crumbs were also clever as they provided a much-needed crunch an ever so slight hint of spice. The Phantom and I were both left speechless (and that’s saying something for him).

Prepping of Course 4

Things were noticeably beginning to step up a notch in the kitchen and I really enjoyed watching Sam steer his team into plating up the courses from then onward. There was generally a quiet calmness as all of the elements of the dishes finished cooking (or being prepared) in anticipation of plating. Then, a sudden and nearly silent intense flurry of activity ensued as Sam and the other chefs quickly and purposefully moved around the table (and sometimes the side counter), precisely plating up each dish and checking them for uniformity and flavor. It was quite an experience for me to witness a chef operating at this level as he moved resolutely and with a quiet confidence to ensure each plate was ready for his guests. An atmosphere of friendliness and comradery was also evident between him and the rest of the team, which I found interesting as I assumed that they had not worked together before.

Course 4: Asparagus, Rhubarb & Lovage

The fourth course of white and green asparagus was, for me, probably the most ho-hum of the evening. The asparagus spears were fresh and the rhubarb juice added a gentle sharpness. The lovage oil was very mild and offered up vaguely celery-like undertones. After the sublime mackerel dish, my reaction was kind of, “meh.”

Prepping of Course 5

Things hotted up as the meat made its first appearance. Earlier, Sam had promised us a nose-to-tail dining experience that would manage to remain very light, so I was curious to see how this would be delivered.

Course 5: Crispy Pork Tail, Jerusalem Artichoke & Ramson Onion Sauce

Well, the tail certainly hit the nail on the head, it was pure genius. A smiley face outlined by circular green streaks of Jerusalem artichoke and ramson onion sauce, with sliced ramson onions for eyes, was presented on a plain, white round plate. The onions themselves were to die for…so sweet and succulent. The pig tail was extremely crispy on the outside and gelatinous in texture inside, reminding me slightly of bone marrow in its consistency. Its fattiness against the snappy skin and the deepness of the green sauce made for a perfect trio. The toasted flavor of the sunflower seeds that had been sprinkled on top of the onions also worked well, in addition to providing textural alternation for both teeth and tongue.

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

After another round of musical chairs, I was busy catching up with my newly found Swedish friend who I had met during the welcome drinks. The next course was suddenly upon us. I have confessed before to not really knowing much about oysters (unlike other bloggers I know, who have even attended master classes and oyster-focused dinners). These oysters were presented in a new format for me: poached. The flavor of an oyster has a way of defying exact description (for me at least), so I won’t try to do it here. In fact, it is not the oysters I remember here, but the potatoes – they were transcendent. I think the potato purée must have been emulsified in butter, or something like that: it was luscious, soft and highly memorable, and a rich pot sabayon also added to the creamy delicacy that was this dish.

Prepping of Course 7

I spent a long time watching the brigade prepare the seventh course – it seemed to take the longest to prepare, and I had never had anything like it before.

Course 7: Lamb Tongue, Peas, Pine & Milk Skin

The lamb tongue was silently cavorting with an entourage of fresh green peas underneath a thin white sheet of milk skin, which had been covered with sorrel stems, a pine glazing and barbecued pea oil, then dusted off with some salad leaf stems. I suppose it was meant to enforce the element of surprise (which unfortunately I had spoiled for myself by watching them construct the dish from the plate upwards). It wasn’t an unappetizing presentation, but I guess many people wouldn’t naturally want to dive into it straight away either. How did it taste? Well, the intense meatiness of the tongue came through strongly, but not as harshly as I had imagined it might. The milk skin, a component in some of Noma’s famous dishes, was very mild in flavor, and seemed to be there more for texture and visual impact than anything else. The subtle pine flavor suited the almost gamey taste of the lamb well, and the peas’ sweetness and slight crunch pulled the dish through to make it very enjoyable amusement for my bouche.

Prepping of Course 8

I spied a pot full of oozy green liquid stuff in the kitchen and resumed my place on the observation deck.

Course 8: Pigs Trotters Cooked in Beer & Burnt Leeks

The eighth course eventually arrived in all of its green swampy glory. Not the most appetizing bowl I’ve ever been served, but the ingredients had me curious and slightly excited. It actually wasn’t as heavy as I thought it might be, and the taste of the trotters was spot on – not overpowering at all – and melded well with the deep flavor of burnt leeks (in the dish there was leek oil, leek bouillon and actual leeks) and the hint of parsley. Sam’s subtle use of textures was again evident, with some cereal flakes being strewn across the top to add some crunch. It was an enjoyable course but not one of the ones that sticks out most in my memory of the meal.

The table was in full swing as Sam introduced Love Potion #9

With another spontaneous shift of positions at the table, I was now sitting next to someone else as Sam came out to introduce the ninth course.

Course 9: Skate, Radishes & Unripe Elderberries

The simple skate dish was one of the highlights of the evening for me. I thought it was presented beautifully, with a few radishes – stems still intact – scattered around the edges. The fish itself had been faultlessly cooked and was firm, flaky and soft at the same time. The roast bone sauce flaunted a perfect balance of acidity and richness and the dish was lifted by the pungency and tartness of the unripe elderberry capers (presumably flown in from Denmark with Sam) that topped the fish. Perfection on a plate, or skate, as the case may be.

Prepping of Course 10

The last of the savory courses was being prepared and it was an exciting one to witness, with a few more intriguing ingredients on display.

Course 10: Beef Cheeks Cooked in Hay, Onion & Roses

While presented in a simple fashion, there was a lot more going on flavor-wise than was immediately on show. Whatever they did to those beef cheeks, they were out of this world. Soft and intensely flavorsome, they were complemented (and I would say lightened) by the acidic astringency (both sweet and sour) of the beer- and rose-pickled onions, with the brown butter and thyme oil adding a further notes of harmonious delight. The way that the sharp rose flavor lifted the beef cheek was phenomenal and definitely one of the best flavor combinations of the meal.

Course 11: Glazed Beetroot, Apple & Crème Fraiche

The first of the dessert courses was a stark affair (and not Philippe), to say the least. The cored cylinder of an apple and two similarly barrel-shaped constructions of crème fraiche mousse and red beets lay scattered on the bare plate, dangling their feet in a little puddle of sorrel granita. It was fresh, clean and almost seemed like a palate cleanser of sorts to me. There was nothing particularly interesting, save for the sorrel juice, which had a sort of sour strawberry flavor that helped to tie together the other three elements. This seemed like the least thought-out and developed course of the meal – almost an afterthought. (Note: I do vaguely recall Sam telling me that desserts were not his strong suit and that he hadn’t done them in a while, so possibly he hadn’t spent as much time on this course as he had on the previous ones).

Course 12: Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry

Whatever was lacking in the eleventh course was more than made up for in the meal’s grand finale. A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intenseness of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.

(Lofty) Northern heights

The whole experience of eating at TLP was immensely enjoyable for both me and my dining companion. Everything was laid back but at the same time functioned in a timely and well-organized fashion. Wine was poured, explained and topped up; the chef presented each course; diners mingled endlessly and played musical chairs (even if there was no music); and there was a free flow between the table and the kitchen as people ducked off occasionally to watch the chefs at work and then wandered back to the table. The group of diners was diverse, interesting and the atmosphere at the table was exceedingly convivial.

One of the most amazing things about the evening – which we both commented on during the journey home – was that although we had eaten 12 courses, with some pretty intense ingredients and flavors, we felt extremely light afterwards. In fact, instead of feeling heavy and bloated – as I have been after similar tasting menus at expensive restaurants – I felt energized, completely awake and ready to take on the world. Even stranger, when I woke up the next morning, I was a full kilogram lighter than I was on the previous morning, despite eating very late, having 12 courses and having at about 6 glasses of wine (if not more), which is a lot for my delicate temperament. 😉 Possibly it was down to the Northern influences in the dining, but I still found it miraculous.

Much of the food was also full of little miracles for me. The menu had been well conceived and constructed, always slowly building, but not by too much or too quickly, and was never jarring. Some of the ingredients and flavor/texture/ temperature combinations were completely new to me, and will stick in my mind for some time to come (i.e. mussels/frozen yogurt, raw mackerel/tapioca and beef cheeks/rose-pickled onion, to name a few). Also interesting was that, while the menu was undoubtedly influenced by Redzepi’s cuisine at Noma, there was also a lot of Sam himself in the food (well, not literally), and the combination of the two for the most part worked brilliantly.

If you have the wherewithal and the financial means to do it, by all means go to TLP for one night this year. Just look at the calendar of chefs and pick one that speaks to you – because he or she will then cook for you. I doubt that you’ll be let down by the rather unique experience. Although the total cost is £115, in many ways it can be seen as pretty good value. After all, you are having an exciting and well-respected chef cook 10 or more courses for you, plus all of the wine you want and service is included in the price. You also have the rare opportunity to actually engage with the chef if you care to, in whatever way is most comfortable.

Or if you can’t be bothered with the whole process, why not check out Nuno’s own cooking at the newly-opened Viajante? His food will likely share a few similarities with the type of chefs that tend to frequent The Loft Project.

Rating

Ambience: 10/10 (though this is obviously variable depending on the 16 people who turn up on the selected evening)

Service: 7/10

Food: 9/10 (I think this is an apt score given the innovativeness of the menu and the general balance, creativity and precision to the food. While a few of the courses didn’t blow me away, the culinary experience as a whole certainly opened new doors and was a in many ways a quietly confident tour de force, utilising a vast array of primary ingredients and making them work well in their own right as individual dishes and also meshing seamlessly together as a progression of flavors and textures over the course of the evening).

Wine Comments: unfortunately, I did not take any wine notes as I was mostly concentrated on observing the kitchen and tasting the food, but nonetheless I do have a few comments. The first wine was a Gruner Veltliner (2008 Stift Kloster Neuburg, Autria) and was very pleasant, going well with both the first course of carrots and the second of mussels and frozen yogurt. I also recall that the German Pinot Noir that was served with the lamb tongue and pigs trotters worked very well and was a particularly good example (2006 Villa Wolf). A pleasant Côtes due Rhône complemented the final two savory courses of skate and beef cheeks (2008 Domaine Sarcin). The delicate and refreshing dessert wine was lovely with both sweet courses, and I could almost picture it with gentle bubbles, which would have made it into one of my favorite light sweet wines, Moscato d’Asti – it was however sans the gas and Spanish in origin, though perfectly lovely and floral in its own right, enhancing the sharper fruit notes of both desserts (2008 Enrique Mendoza, Moscatel de la Marina).

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Loft Project once and I paid for the meal.*

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