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.

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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.”


Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

Quite unintentionally iconoclastic in its timing, I am publishing a list of some of the best things I ingested during 2010, now that it’s already 2011. I know, I know…forever behind the times. (The ‘unintentionally’ part – if you happen to care – is because I was stuck in Florida due to the storms in the Northeast of the US and didn’t have access to my laptop with all of my photos and notes).

I have decided against posting favorite meals in favor of the most enjoyable dishes of food and glasses (or bottles) of wine, which gives the added benefit of highlighting some excellent establishments and vintners about which, for some reason or other – call it laziness or busyness – I have yet to post a fuller review.

I have made no distinction between the type of place in which the food was served and have included a few oddballs for the fun of it. I thought maybe it might be easier to digest (pardon the pun) by dividing the list into different parts of the day. I didn’t necessarily have all of the dishes at the specified time of the day (though I mostly did), but assigned them to the mealtime that people would be most likely to consume them.

But without further adieu, Maestro, drum-roll please…

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

Well, to come clean, I didn’t actually order this, it was Mrs. LF’s dish. But she swore at the time that “this is the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had” – no small praise indeed. I tasted it and had to concur – it was pretty darn good, as many things are at The Heathman. Not particularly exciting, but very, very good. I think even Monica, Michel Roux’s sous-chef would have been happy with the perfect hollandaise sauce. 🙂

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

Exceedingly light and perfectly crispy, these were the surprise hit of our recent pilgrimage to one of the bastions of my childhood memories. Their famous apple pancake (which is about the size of a small horse) was still largely as I remember it, but I think my taste buds have moved on a bit since I was 10 years old – it’s pictured below so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

Childhood Memories (But No Award): Apple Pancake at The Original Pancake House

It is delicious, but just a little too sweet for me nowadays. It is still a unique and memorable dish, though.

Best Non-traditional Brunch Dish:
wd~50, NYC

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese at wd~50

Out of all of the immensely whimsical and delicious dishes on wd~50’s tasting menu when I visited with Brother LF, this was quite possibly my favorite, in no small part due to the presentation. I mean, it does look like an ‘everything’ bagel, right?…but it’s ice cream, not bread! It tasted like one of the quintessential New York breakfasts of nova, cream cheese and bagel, but in a very grown up and refined way. It was a painstakingly and lovingly created reinterpretation of a piece of Americana – in a word: wonderful. I savored each dainty bite that I took. If I would have had Heston’s Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream from The Fat Duck in 2010, this may have beat out wd~50.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

My favorite place for my daily coffee (when I am near one, that is). I also like Joe the Art of Coffee too, and frequent the one in Grand Central Terminal when I commute into NYC…though the West Village one is much more cozy and you can sit down.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

Father LF swore by it, and I swore it couldn’t be good, but in the end elderly wisdom one out. The foam was perfect and the espresso excellent.

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

Sorry, no photo for this one, but Mrs. LF swore it was the best mocha she ever had, and from my wee taste, I thought the balance between sweet and bitter was pretty amazing. I love this London coffee-house too – definitely one of my favorites, and the lunch fare is good too.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

I’ve tasted a lot of brownies in my time, but this blows them all out of the water. It is at once indulgent and addictive, and it became an expensive yet highly worthwhile habit of mine (at Mrs. LF’s begging, of course) to buy copious amounts of these rich brownies whenever we (she) had a hankering for them in the few months after we discovered them and before we were leaving London behind  us. If you are in London, or if you visit, try one at Paul’s charming shop in Camden Passage in Islington. If you like brownies, there is a very comprehensive review of some of the better ones on offer in the London area on @mathildecusine‘s blog here.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

I had read about these oddball cream puff shops somewhere or other and before realizing that they had a location in London (which closed a few months ago), I found one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They do what it says on the tin, so to speak – effortlessly light puff pastry gives way to a lovely cream filling – they are also very addictive, so be careful.

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

This cubano sandwich consisted of pork belly, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Let me just say this: it was not only my best sandwich of 2010, it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Mrs. LF concurred. Now, maybe I don’t know all that much about sandwiches, but I know what I know. If you ever go to Portland, go to Bunk and try this if it’s on the menu (which changes daily).

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Best Burger (Two-Way Tie):
Shake Shack, NYC
Café of Love, Mt. Kisco, New York

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

Now I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, but I don’t eat them all that often…or at least I didn’t until I moved back to the New York area. In any case, I tend to like the more fast-food style burgers, and I prefer my patties smashed, thank you very much. Out of the ones I had this year, my favorite had to be Shake Shack, despite how unoriginal this may be and how many moans I may get from the New York and/or East Coast burgerati. But hey, it was just really good. In fact, I couldn’t fault it in any way. Oh, and by the way, my malted peanut butter shake was off the hook too, using the parlance of our times.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Grass-fed Beef Burger with Brie, Apple Butter & Smoked Bacon at Café of Love

Having said all that, every now and again, I get the hankering for one of the constantly-evolving offerings within the ‘gourmet’ burger category at more hoity-toity restaurants. In the not-so hoity-toity but horrendously named restaurant called Café of Love near where I live in Mt. Kisco, New York, they had a burger that I just had to try based on the description. Well, it tasted even better than it sounded on this occasion. The beef itself was excellent and had been perfectly charred on the outside and was nice and pink in the middle. The combination of creamy cheese, apple butter and smoked bacon was genius and the brioche bun was the perfect vessel for this mini heart-attack sandwich. It came with its own flowerpot on the side, which contained really good thin-cut frites that were perfectly salted. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but this was probably the best burger I had in 2010. Now, maybe they can work on their name?!

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

In this category, I would like to make an honorable mention for Five Guys. I had two burgers of theirs before the end of the year and thought they were excellent. Although you can’t specify how you would like it cooked, it comes medium, which seems to work for their burgers. They are very, very good burgers from what I could tell from the two Manhattan outposts I visited. And their fries actually taste like potatoes – no, I mean that. It took me a second to get used to them, because they were clearly from very fresh Midwestern potatoes and prepared with fresh oil: delicious. Just be careful, all you can get there are burgers, hot dogs and fries. Seriously.

This year I hope to try the Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, The Breslin‘s lamb burger, and also visit Corner Bistro…all in NYC.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

Okay, so I didn’t eat too many hot dogs, but I was resolutely shocked when these turned out to be so good. A New York institution, and in my humble opinion deservedly so, these are exceptionally good hot dogs…

Recession Special is Still On!

…especially with the ‘Recession Special’ that’s currently on – you can save $1! 🙂

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

After having my first-ever cornmeal-crusted pizza from Otto in London (see review here), I was eager to try the pizzas at their alleged source of inspiration in Portland, Oregon – Oregon being my home state. We actually ordered the pizza to pick-up, although there is a nice little dining room at the restaurant too. We had two varieties, but my favorite by miles was the ‘Sausage Classico’, which was made up of mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage and tomato sauce. These are actually more like pies than pizzas, but the crust is really unique given the cornmeal content. It is light, golden and crispy, and makes for the perfect base to the hearty toppings. I am now getting a taste for this stuff – when will NYC get a similar joint?

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

When Russell Norman opened up Polpo in London’s Soho a while back, I was a fan from my first visit. The restaurant’s first offspring, though not originally planned to be by its parent, is the tiny and charming box of a dining room called Polpetto…or as I affectionately call it, Mini-P. Anyway, it was the venue for my last fun lunch in London – and my dining companion @BigSpud wrote about it (sort of) here. We mostly had cicchetti and my favorite of the bunch was this stunning meatball, in all its unadorned glory. Deep, rich duck and punchy porcinis mushroom with a robust sauce made this stand out as much in my mind as it did against its little stark white plate.

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille at Gauthier Soho

Okay, so it’s a French restaurant, but it’s risotto, so hey.

As I said in my preview of Alexis Gauthier’s new restaurant: “Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception as his new Soho townhouse. The petite mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.”

Honorable mention must go to an excellent seafood risotto I had at Fifteen Trattoria. You can read more about that here and there is a photo below.

Honorable Mention: Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare’ with Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine at Fifteen Trattoria

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

This dish wasn’t mine, but I got a few bites anyway. Besides its rather arresting beauty on the plate, it also tasted d*mn good. The richness of the lamb was cut through by the tangy goats cheese and the toasted pistachios added not only a note of sweetness and a pinch of saltiness, but also a chewy texture which rounded out the dish. The watercress provided a fresh and peppery contrast. It was original – to my mind – and superb.

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

Despite some odd sightings of fresh produce by @DouglasBlyde (see here), Terroirs is a haunt of mine, simply because they have consistently delivered me good and unfussy food that is well executed, plus they have a fantastic array of natural wines, many of which have proven to be very good. Anyway, on my last London meal of 2010 with my good Welsh friend, we ordered the steak tartare. The waiter said to order it spicy, so we complied. Thank god we did. It was one of the best versions of this bistrot classic I’ve had. We were both mesmerized. If it’s on the menu, order it.

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

If you live in London and haven’t been to the Hidden Tea Room, do yourself a favor and book it. Aside from having the best and freshest baked goods you are likely to get at an afternoon tea in London, it is also a lovely underground restaurant experience. There is a rectangular table with jovial strangers who obviously share at least one interest with you (food…or tea, I guess); or if you are particularly delicate in nature, you can go with your friends. In any case, Lady Gray’s scones and cupcakes are excellent and Mrs. LF and I popped our underground restaurant cherry here – so it will always hold a fond memory for us. Oh yeah, and there is an excellent assortment of fresh, diverse and exotic teas.

Other excellent afternoon teas we had in 2010 were had at The Wolseley (somewhat surprisingly), Browns Hotel and Bob Bob Ricard.

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

The kick-off to my first meal at George Mendes’ Aldea was as beautiful as it was flavorful. I savoured that rich bisque for as long as I could and soaked up even more of the sea with my oyster. It was an extraordinary beginning to a very good meal. You can see and read more photos of our meal here. I was also happy to see that the team picked up its first Michelin star this year.

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

Pretty much everything we had at The Sportsman was excellent, but this was the bite that stood out in my memory as the best of 2010. Full stop.

As I said in my review earlier in the year: “This was basically spring arriving on a plate. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible.” It received a very rare 10 out of 10, and deservedly so.

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

After this enjoyable meal with the London Food Detective, I remarked: “I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful.”

Most Creative Use of a Bean in Supporting Role:
Viajante, London

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

This was one of the more interesting presentations of a plate (or in fact, slate) of food this year. In my review of the meal, I wrote:

“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.”

Best Dish Incorporating Goose Eggs & Soldiers (of Toast):
Launceston Place, London

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

Firstly, apologies for the especially poor photo, but this was taken with my old, archaic and generally not so useful camera. Right at the beginning of 2010, this was nonetheless one of the best dishes I had for sure. My thoughts at the time, which haven’t changed, were: “It was cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque).” This was a 10 out of 10 all the way.

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes at Matbaren

I loved my meal at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren and this was the stand-out dish for me of the evening.

As I wrote in my post about the meal: “…for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste!”

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coullis at Morgan M.

You may recall me saying something along the lines of…“This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no? Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot. The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate.”

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

Another memorable London meal took place at Sushi of Shiori, a sushi restaurant that accumulated a scale of press disproportionate to its own modest size (it seats about 12 at most). I dined with @LondonEater (see his reviews here and here), and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company – my mini-review and photos are here. Aside from having the pre-ordered omakase, we ordered an extra course of truffled scallops. I remember exclaiming that this was an actual explosion of flavor in the mouth (so many times, people just use that term half-heartedly). I don’t know what the chef does to his secret paste, but the tiny amount dotting surface of the raw scallops really does explode in your mouth and somehow complements the sweetness of the scallops perfectly. I loved this, and it is quite affordable at about £2 a pop.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

Cold Fried Chicken, Buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar at wd~50

Okay, so nearly everything I had on the wd~50 tasting menu was pleasurably challenging for my senses – both visually and in terms of taste, texture and temperature – but this dish stood out in particular. This dish brought back so many memories of good fried chicken. It was served slightly cool and was absolutely delicious. My favorite part of it was the heat – those little dollops of orange sauce packed some serious power, and this enlivened the whole dish. Playing off against this was the creaminess of the buttermilk-ricotta cloud, which helped manage the spiciness. But the touch of genius here was the caviar, which added an extra element of saltiness on top of the chicken, cream and Tabasco. It was superb.

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

I don’t think anyone would be able to question Chef Humm’s ability to cook a whole bird. The even browning of the skin, its crispiness and the juiciness of the duck were outstanding. The lavender glaze gave it an intriguing and subtle flavor, with peaches and other hidden joys dancing around on my palate. While not quite as exceptional as the Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus I had at l’Arpège last year – which is to date the best duck dish I’ve ever tasted – this was still pretty fantastic. It was an interesting and not unwelcomed contrast to some of the more modern elements during my first meal at the excellent Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

But of course there is no photo due to the restaurant’s no-snapping policy – sorry, but don’t snap at me. The following description will be in my forthcoming review of ko, where I dined with @catty.

Shaved Foie Gras, Lychees, Pine Nut Brittle, Riesling Gélee

This was certainly one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet-yet-tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they ware placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and, to me, it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavor of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat.

I also immensely enjoyed one of our two foie gras dishes at wd~50, but I couldn’t give Chef Dufresne another award, so he gets an honorable mention. There is, however, a half-decent photo below and a full description here. (And yes, I know it’s not frozen in the process, but hey…).

Honorable Mention: Aerated Foie, Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum, Brioche at wd~50

Best Desserts (Three-Way Tie):
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma, London
Fifteen Trattoria, London
Eastside Inn, London

Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry at The Loft Project

This was the most memorable dessert for me of the year. Although not particularly complicated in conception, the fresh combination of flavors was nonetheless dazzling.

Here’s what I said in my review of the amazing evening: “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 intensity 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.”

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

Not too long ago I had a simple dessert that the kitchen knocked out of the park, as we say in America. It was the best pannacotta I can remember having and got the fabled 10 out of 10.

In case you didn’t read it, and care to, here’s what I said: “The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.”

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

Unfortunately, I never got to properly review the ‘bistrot’ side of Bjorn Van der Horst’s Eastside Inn before it sadly closed towards the end of 2010. However, I vividly remember the intensity of chocolate that was perfectly paired with a memorable tonka bean ice cream. As always with Bjorn’s food, it was also stunning to look at.

Weirdest Dessert:
(Note: that doesn’t mean it was bad!)
Il Baretto, London

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries at Il Baretto

When I had some time to digest the experience (and the dessert), I reflected: “It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert.”

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

If you follow this blog, you will know my hands-down favorite martini is at Dukes Bar in London (see here and here), when it is served by the ever-affable and supremely knowledgeable Alessandro Palazzi.

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

Not only do Leonid and Richard have the now ‘soooo 2010’ Champagne buttons at the booth-seating-only tables at this fabulously individual creation, which could have only resulted from the marriage of Russian and English (business) partners, they also have the lowest mark-ups I’ve come across of some really excellent fine wine. This means you can (better) afford to indulge yourself in a special bottle or glass of wine when going out on the town. And the food is generally very good across the board too. For a peek at their current wine list, click here.

FYI, @gourmetraveller also has an excellent BYO guide for London restaurants here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

This list is from across the board…glasses and bottles I remember that I particularly enjoyed and/or found memorable. I have probably missed some out, but I hope not. They are listed chronologically and then alphabetically within each vintage.

Sparkling

  • 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc
  • 2004 Duval-Leroy Champagne Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut
  • NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne, Brut Réserve
  • NV Henriot, Brut Souverain
  • NV Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noir
  • NV Thiénot, Brut
  • NV Vincent Laroppe, Cuvée Alfred Laropp

White

  • 1992 Haut-Brion Blanc
  • 2001 & 2009 Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2004 Lafon Meursault
  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Sec, Le Mont
  • 2005 Les Plantiers de Haut-Brion
  • 2006 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc
  • 2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix
  • 2006 McHenry Hohnen, 3 Amigos
  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 d’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab
  • 2007 Domaine Gauby Blanc
  • 2007 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2007 Felton Road Chardonnay, Block 2
  • 2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc, Les Sétilles
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano
  • 2008 Benmarl Riesling
  • 2008 Beringer Chardonnay, Private Reserve
  • 2008 Domaine William Fevre Chablis, Champs Royaux
  • 2008 Trimbach Riesling, Reserve
  • 2009 Adair Cayuga White
  • 2009 Arietta “On the White Keys” (Semillon)

Red

  • 1964 Haut-Brion
  • 1985 Haut-Brion
  • 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Bahans Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly
  • 1998 Château Pichon-Longuevile Baron
  • 1998 Château Lafite-Rothschild
  • 1998 Poliziano Le Stanze
  • 2000 Château Vieux Chevrol
  • 2001 Château Musar
  • 2001 Château Palmer
  • 2001 Château Pavie
  • 2001 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion
  • 2005 Montes Carménère, Purple Angel
  • 2006 Domaine La Tourmente, Syrah, Chamoson
  • 2006 Herdade do Arrepiado Velho, Arrepiado
  • 2006 Neyen Syrah, Limited Edition
  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs
  • 2007 The Sum, Seventy Five Wine Company, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Domaine Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Sierra du Sud
  • 2008 Monty Waldin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2008 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tavola

Sweet

  • 1999 Château Coutet
  • 2003 Château Rieussec
  • 2006 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Gold Reserve
  • 2006 Leduc-Piedimonte, Ice Cider
  • 2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata

In the coming year, I am aiming to develop a better understand of grower-producer Champagnes (i.e. ones that are terroir driven by the people who grow the grapes), deepen my cursory knowledge of some major European wine countries – namely Italy, Spain and Germany – and, of course, get a better handle on the domestic North American wine scene…as well as becoming more familiar with countries such as Chile and Argentina in South America.

#   #   #

So that is the end to a wonderful year of food, wine and friendship shared over the two. Here’s hoping 2011 will be even more exciting and enjoyable. I look forward to sharing with you what I can from the shores of America – or wherever else I may be lucky enough to travel – with an exciting review coming up very soon.

Thanks for putting up with me, and a very Happy New Year.

All the best for 2011!

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.*

The Loft Project on Urbanspoon