Wednesday, 7 January 2015
A quirky Modern British restaurant is probably the last thing you expect to find on the King's Road in Chelsea, but there it is anyway, looking right at home nestled in-between the Sloaney clothing shops and candle emporiums, largely because at first glance it looks like either a Sloaney clothing shop or an overpriced candle emporium. It's only when you look closely, spot the tables and chairs inside and the menu on the door that you realise it's not a rustic interiors shop or a branch of Cath Kidson but a restaurant. Some of the customers look slightly bewildered by the situation too, like they've wandered in looking for a jar of mandarin and cinnamon hand wash and ended up being served dinner.
More remarkably given its location, Rabbit isn't half bad at all. Admittedly for Chelsea, "not half bad" means "isn't ludicrously expensive, and isn't entirely populated by people you'd normally cross the street to avoid.", but at least they're trying. Our dinner started with a plate of pretty "mouthfuls", a brown crab "bomb" with lemon and dulse (some kind of seaweed I believe), really just a crab croquette but pleasant enough; a Woodcock paté, fluffy blobs of super-light game liver on melba toast (really rather good); and a "mushroom marmite eclair" which, well, tasted exactly like it sounds - a mini savoury choux pastry filled with mushroom and Marmite.
Rainbow trout tartare was my favourite of the small plates. The fish itself had a good, firm flesh and none of that offputting slimyness you get from cheaper animals. And the accompanying bits and pieces were certainly colourful, and in the case of blobs of chervil mousse leant a refreshing dairy note, almost like cream cheese, but am I wrong in expecting those little clumps of black blobs to be caviar and not, as it turned out, grape seeds? I'm sure they weren't deliberately setting out to trick anyone with faux caviar, but the dissonance between the salty, fishy flavour I was expecting and the more prosaic reality was quite jarring.
"Sticky spatchcock quail" was slightly disappointing not because there was anything in particular wrong with it (apart from more of that fool's caviar) but because I've been spoiled by better (and cheaper) versions elsewhere - Peckham Bazaar, the Table Café, even my local Vietnamese Mien Tay does a version for £6.50 that somehow manages more fire and spice. The Rabbit's quail (this is getting confusing) wasn't terrible, it just needed a bit more love and seasoning.
"Lamb chips" sounds exciting. "Lamb croquettes" less so, so maybe that's why they went with "chips". Slow-cooked lamb inside a breadcrumb casing, resting on a little puddle of harissa. Again, not bad just not quite what I was expecting. I realise I'm risking sounding like I'm picking fault with everything just for the sake of it, but I think at these prices (those two fingers of lamb were £8) I'm entitled to expect a little more pizazz.
Whilst some of the preceeding courses had been faintly disappointing, though, a truffle and mushroom "ragu" was genuinely wrong, mainly because the truffle - great big awkward slabs of it sliced as thickly as chorizo - tasted of absolutely nothing. There was no aroma, and no flavour; they may as well have shaved on candle wax. And that would have been bad enough if the mushrooms themselves weren't desperately underseasoned and accompanied by way too many deep-fried sage leaves that each held about a tablespoon of cold oil. Chefs - if you find your truffle is old or tasteless or just rubbish, don't shave extra on in an attempt to salvage some flavour, just leave it off completely. Then find a better truffle supplier.
Duck liver came with yet more fool's caviar but by this point we knew not to get our hopes up. What let us down here was the duck itself which was mealy and dry, not a fun thing to eat at all. I knew not to expect anything as wonderfully moist and flavoursome as foie gras from any old duck liver, but even so, this didn't seem worth the while slicing it and putting it on a plate.
Desserts were better. Maple syrup pudding with preserved plum (prune, then?) rum and buttermilk had plenty going for it, not least a big punch of hearty bold flavours which had been missing from so much of what preceeded it. And a tongue-in-cheek take on a Wall's Vienetta was good too, layers of salty caramel in between good soft vanilla ice cream.
But you'll have guessed by now where this is going. Rabbit is not a bad restaurant, not by a long stretch - there is talent in the kitchen and front of house, and the dishes are presented with a clever eye on the latest trends (foraging and all that jazz) and a refreshing lack of cynicism. But even so, there are too many mistakes being made to justify the £140 for two with a few glasses of wine that the bill came to - the competition in London elsewhere is just too strong. Rabbit may be a brave step forward for Chelsea, but I can't make excuses for that when I know that the Dairy is only a ten minute cab ride away. And if I had my time again, it's there I'd be spending my dinner money.
Tuesday, 6 January 2015
I had heard rumblings of appreciation about Chifafa, about how they were trying to do for the kebab what MeatLiquor did for the burger, about how they were making their own bread, pickling their own vegetables, and generally going about things in a way guaranteed to grab the attention of any overeager foodie (that would be me, then). And so when I made the trip myself and spotted a Big Green Egg lurking in the back of the Chifafa kitchens, I knew I was onto a good thing.
Other than that Egg though (every home should have one) at first glance Chifafa doesn't look that much different from any other lunchtime sandwich shop aimed at local office workers. There's a few tables and chairs, a drinks cabinet, a bar with a few cakes on display, queue and pay one side, pick up the other. The menu is short but attractive in a don't-run-before-you-can-walk kind of a way, with chicken, lamb, veal, falafel and halloumi options each with a slightly customised set of accompaniments and with an option to have a bread-free salad box instead of the usual wrap. So far, so Clerkenwell.
But a lamb wrap was clearly a cut above what you might ordinarily expect from high street kebabbery - tender chunks of marinated meat, with diced salad, a nice sharp tahini yoghurt, mango pickle and - a clever touch - chunks of feta cheese. Yes I could have done with a bit more of a char on the meat (they say the meat is 'finished' on the char-grill but I couldn't detect much sign of that) and £7 is quite a lot to pay for a sandwich, but it did feel like a premium product, thanks also to the fantastic bread which was soft and salty and just chewy enough to be a perfect wrap bread without being tough.
On a second visit, I was hoping for a similarly impressive experience with the veal (£8.40), but sadly it wasn't to be. The meat was, weirdly, and despite being cooked pink, dry and chewy, with no discernible flavour and swamped by a hardly powerful minty tzatziki dressing. Like the lamb there was no crunch or smoke from the grill, which may have improved things slightly, but unlike the lamb the salad and marinade wasn't enough to compensate - I'd asked for 'medium' hot sauce with the lamb and didn't get any chilli kick at all, so I was hoping for a bit more from the "hot" requested with the veal. In the end, I may just as well have not bothered, as I couldn't detect even a hint of a burn.
Perhaps it's still early days. A tweak to the controls of the Big Green Egg, longer contact with a hotter charcoal grill, a more liberal use of chillies, and we could have a real destination lunch spot. Plus, Chifafa has two more tricks up its sleeve - house pickles, which looked a bit washed out but tasted great, with a lively crunch and good balance of vinegar/sugar, and the homemade hummus which is probably the best I've tried in London, and I've been to more Dalston ocakbasi than I care to remember.
So I'll stop whingeing about what I'd like to change and praise instead what we already are lucky enough to have, a friendly, forward-thinking kebab shop on Clerkenwell Road that could very well end up taking a large chunk of my lunch money. And right next to the bus stop, too.
Monday, 5 January 2015
It's Christmas Eve (babe), and having being the only person stupid enough to fight my way into a deserted office to do a final morning of work before the Great Central London Shutdown, I thought I deserved a nice lunch. A little office Christmas party of my own, maybe, where I get to choose the venue, don't have to mark in a shared spreadsheet a preference for "turkey" or "mushroom", and doesn't end with anyone being sick in a bin. Well, that was the plan.
First, the parts of the Cheese and Biscuits Office Christmas party that went to plan:
1) The venue - Kitty Fisher's in Shepherds Market, Mayfair, is a teeny, ramshackle Dickensian spot that couldn't have felt more festive if it were designed by Disney. Downstairs an open kitchen bathes some of the low-ceilinged room in soft fluorescence, and the rest of it flickers with candlelight. Upstairs a small bar and a couple of tables look out over the quaint pedestrianised square as the last remaining Christmas office workers shuffled home. I'd like to say snow was lightly falling and Prime Minister Hugh Grant was rushing across town to chat up his secretary, only he wasn't. Still, you get the picture.
2) The food - everything. Was. Brilliant. OK, perhaps not absolutely every last bit of everything, but enough so that the overall effect was a masterclass in modern British cooking; inspirational, innovative dishes presented with confidence and flair, even more astonishing when you find out the head chef looks young enough to still be at university.
And the parts that didn't go to plan? I'll get to that. First, more on the food.
I didn't have my fancy camera with me, but hopefully even without you'll be able to tell there's something quite special going on at Kitty Fishers. The first dish to arrive was a steak tartare, superb aged beef with a faint horseradish tang and crunchy caraway (I think) seeds. Superficially straightforward but enigmatically greater than the sum of its parts, it was a theme that was to continue throughout the afternoon.
Grilled sourdough with my favourite new thing in the entire world - "burnt onion butter". Bright white whipped butter with a beguiling note of grilled onion, it pains me to say it but it was even greater than the house whipped butter at the Dairy, and that has bloody bone marrow in. The bread was fantastic, lightly oiled and chargrilled to perfection, but this was really all about that butter, a fluffy barbecued cream which dissolved in the mouth leaving only a faint hint of smokey allium.
Any restaurant that has the confidence to serve three warmed fillets of oiled anchovy on a plate and for it not to feel like a scam is clearly ahead of their game. I can't tell you where they were from, or even how much they usually cost (they were off menu and I don't think charged for) but they were lovely, meaty things, not overly salty but with loads of flavour.
Salt hake croquettas with aioli - greaselessly fried, packed full of the good stuff and with a light mayonnaise that wasn't too thick or too garlicky. About as good a plate of saltfish croquettas with aioli as you'd ever want, in other words.
Next the only dish I wasn't mad about but that's probably because I've never been a huge fan of whole chestnuts. I don't mind chestnut stuffing or even (on the one occasion I tried it) chestnut liqueur, but the whole nuts are often quite unpleasantly soily in texture. Festive, though, and plenty of other people seem to like them so I'll give Kitty Fishers the benefit of the doubt.
Burrata, beetroot & clementine quite sensibly gave us a great big wodge of what we really came here for (a vast, loose burrata, strongly seasoned and drizzled with oil) and left the other ingredients to play accompaniment. This was, if I'm being brutal, perhaps the least cutting-edge of the dishes on offer but still managed to impress.
If you were to tell me before my visit to Kitty Fishers that the best bit of a world-famous Galician ex-dairy cow steak dish would be the accompanying potatoes then I'd probably have laughed in your face. But here we were anyway, eating pink fir spuds stuffed with Tunworth cheese and drizzed with homemade mustard dressing and wondering if any potatoes had ever tasted better in the history of planet earth. Try and imagine each as a sort of bitesized raclette, with melted soft cheese, potato and a tang of sweet mustard combining to assault every one of the foodie pleasure points - fat, salt, sugar, carbohydrate.
Oh yes, and the steak wasn't bad either.
There was more. Duck, pink and juicy, with black cabbage, cranberry and chervil root. A red mullet escabeche which managed a bright white, firm flesh next to some expertly grilled skin. Lamb cutlets, yet another example of a masterful use of a direct heat source, with heart & liver presented separately cutely skewered on rosemary stalks. I wish I could go into more detail, only by this stage I'm afraid I was somewhat suffering from the effects of a failure of part 3) of the plan - to stay (relatively) sober.
Whether it was the first couple of glasses of house fizz (why not, it's Christmas) to the endless parade of fantastic wines that kept appearing at the table (why not, it's Christmas), to God knows what happened after around 3pm (why not, it's Christmas), events somehow conspired to ensure the impromptu Cheese and Biscuits Office Christmas party was, in one key area - quantity of alcohol consumed per capita - not too dissimilar to many other such parties happening across the capital. And I can try blaming the restaurant for being so damn good, or even a group of friends who by sheer coincidence were able to join me just after I'd finished my starter, but really the ultimate responsibility lies with me. I am weak, and I got drunk, and I'm not entirely convinced at some point I wasn't sick in a bin.
But even before I lost my critical faculties to the Ghost of Christmas Present, Kitty Fisher's had done enough to convince me that it is one of London's most exciting new restaurants. With an impeccable eye for good ingredients, coupled with command of a range of techniques on hand to make the most of them; a menu that while not anything that can be described as 'budget' (I drunkenly insisted they took £100 from my credit card but I'm sure a more sensible spend per head is about £60) yet is still great value, and service that makes you want to stay the night, it ticks almost every box you could care to think up. I'll be back - hoping they've not run out of the Galician beef, eager to see what other surprises they can come up with, and - with any luck - not quite so drunk.
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Whether I found a home in this city because I'm naturally a reckless idiot, or whether my adopted home made me one, London is a city of risk takers, and this is why it's always been such a fantastically exciting place to eat out. Street food, burgers, hot dogs, ramen, foraged Modern British, whatever trend you may have leapt upon, enthusiatically devoured for as long as it was a novelty then haughtily dismissed as soon as soon as it reached the pages of the Observer Food Magazine, the fact is, this pace of change would hardly be tolerated anywhere else. And whilst innovation still very often comes at the cost of some truly bizarre and completely unworkable "concepts" that have popped-up and fizzled out recently (it's the Shoreditch Cereal Café that's become the latest object of mainstream eye-rolling but I swear I've seen worse in the past), it has, after all, also given us MeatLiquor, Burger & Lobster, Bob Bob Ricard and a few other past winners of the Cheese & Biscuits Restaurant of the Year. This is a city of innovators.
Clearly, too, there is still an awful lot of rubbish around. It's still possible to buy a really bloody awful burger, lobster roll or bowl of ramen in London in 2014, either because the owners have checked out the competition and still honestly believe their product is better, which means they don't have an ounce of talent in this area and really shouldn't be running a restaurant at all, or perhaps they haven't bothered checking out the competition and just think that by scanning a few trade articles on the latest trends they can dupe enough people that their lazy slice of commodity garbage is worth the logo-emblazoned greaseproof paper it's presented on, in which case they also really shouldn't be running a restaurant at all. Lots of people who shouldn't be running restaurants are somehow still running restaurants, but then I guess that's true of every industry. At least hospitality does better than rail transport.
So I won't dwell on the bad. It may be easy and amusing to have a "worst burger" award or "most incompetent PR campaign" or "most viciously incompetent service in a restaurant" but to draw attention to these things would cloud the fact that most of the time, London food people get it right. And my goodness, how right. I know I say this every year but it really is nearly impossible to narrow my favourites down to a short handful, never mind choose an overall best. But I hope at least you appreciate my reasons for this shortlist, and can at least forgive me for the winner.
The Culinary Trailblazer award - Peckham Bazaar
Also known as the "where the hell did this one come from" award. It's not just that the dishes at Peckham Bazaar make liberal use of obscure and exciting ingredients sourced from parts of the eastern Mediterranean you never knew existed. It's not just that the wine list is worth an award all by itself (and in fact very nearly won one), being a list of incredibly fairly marked-up and entirely unpronouncable Balkan oddities with literary footnotes from people who not only know what they're talking about but can communicate it well to us mortals. It's also that for all this, in a room hung with the smoke from a vast real charcoal grill and at a budget that only a converted pub in SE15 could manage, you can eat dishes of flair and flavour for not very much money at all (£7 starters, £16 mains).
Peckham Bazaar is a one-off, but even that label doesn't do it justice - it is one of London's true innovators, the kind of place requiring not just oodles of talent but nerves of iron and real determination to pull off. A labour of love, and you will love the fruits of its labour.
The Moment Where We Finally "Got" Ramen award - Kanada-Ya
I may never be able to persuade everyone to queue up in the freezing cold outside a tiny, sweaty little noodle shop in St Giles. But for those who are willing to suffer most kinds of hardship for a bowl of frothy, creamy pork bone noodle soup, neat slices of salty pork belly as soft as jelly, and perhaps an extra of cured egg with a yolk the colour of Christmas clementines, this is absolutely the very best you can get. It's definitely not the most comfortable dining experience, but what it lacks in elbow room it makes up for in attentiveness and a pleasant environmental authenticity - the steamed-up windows and largely Japanese clientele mean that you can imagine just outside are the streets of Nagasaki rather than central London. Now just hurry up and open a few more branches, please - food like this deserves to be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
The Future of Fine Dining award - Fera
I have to acknowledge that there are people in the world, nice, intelligent people, who don't enjoy Simon Rogan's food. A very good friend of mine walked away nonplussed from Roganic (a popup that existed briefly in Marylebone a couple of years back), yet another wished he'd never booked L'Enclume (still the pinnacle of the art, in my opinion), and none other than Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard couldn't find many nice words to say about Fera. But sometimes you have to shrug your shoulders and tell yourself, well, you can't please 'em all. Rogan's food may be experimental, it may occasionally overwhelm with texture and colour and bizarre confrontations of seafood and raw beef and bright green goo. But I have never found any of it less than entirely thrilling, and he has, against all odds, shifted effortlessly from the understated charm of a medieval Lake District blacksmiths to the grandest of grand London hotel dining rooms without (in my opinion - others are available) sacrificing anything of what made his product so special.
And if you want just one example, the grilled salad with truffled custard; leaves from a dozen weird and wonderful plants some of which don't even have non-Latin names, made brittle and smoky from some fiendishly clever technique possibly involving charcoal, all forming a canopy over a mind-blowingly heady truffle mousse, the kind of thing which will haunt your dreams for years. There is still hardly a mouthful of food from my meal at l'Enclume two years ago that I still can't taste if I close my eyes. Fera is a deeply worthy successor.
The How On Earth Do They Make Any Money award - Silk Road
In most restaurants, the phrase "that can't be right" uttered on presentation of the bill at the end of the meal means beans on toast for a week and an apology to everyone else on the table for that extra bottle of Chablis. But at Silk Road, no matter how many rounds of beer, no matter how many delectable portions of cumin-spiced lamb skewers or pork dumplings or bowls of steaming belt noodle chicken, no matter how every inch of your table groans with dishes of fire and invention and sheer pork-laced generosity, the bill per head will never come to much more than the price of a trip to the cinema.
Nobody is entirely sure why this should be the case. Sure, many of the ingredients are hardly premium, but they are fresh and treated well, and in many cases require either careful slow-cooking in vast stockpots overnight, and someone's got to pay the gas bill, or are fiendishly labour-intensive and highly-skilled, like those hand-wrapped dumplings. Everything is made on-site, by the family owners, and is - and believe me we've tried everything on the huge menu at least once - invariably wonderful, packed with beguiling spicing and uncompromising levels of Northern Chinese chilli. Silk Road is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a handmade pastry casing, but nobody is complaining. A wonder.
The Fusion Fever award - A Wong
The second Chinese restaurant in the runner-up list, but A Wong deserves a spot firstly (and mainly) because it's brilliant, but secondly because it very handily highlights one of the dangers that food blogs like this one can run in to by making a decision about a place based on one visit. I can't apologise as such for writing up most if not all of these pages after a single lunch or dinner; I don't have the time or budget to do it any other way, and in fact 90% of the time even if given the chance I wouldn't need to - barring an errant point here or there, once is enough.
But in 2013 I got it wrong, so completely and utterly wrong that A Wong has leapt from a barely creditable 4/10 straight to one of my favourite restaurants in town. The food is nominally Chinese, but really Andrew Wong's cooking deserves a whole new category of its own - Chinese techniques are married with the very best of London's ingredients (steamed Scottish langoustine with Chinese herbs, for example, or chilli-roast pineapple with Sichuan pepper) to produce a inticing (and huge) menu that impresses at almost every turn. There's nowhere else like it, and for about £40 a head there's certainly hardly anywhere better value.
The Overall Winner - The Dairy
With my earlier whinge about bandwagon-jumping and creative bankruptcy neatly out of the way, I am free to point out - for the umpteenth time - just how good we have it in 2014. In almost every conceivable style and budget, there is a team of people somewhere working their socks off to make sure you enjoy your dinner - surely only New York can challenge our availability of such variety, passion and talent. You want it, you got it.
In the end though, a winner cannot reward either strict authenticity OR no-holds-barred experimentalism that alienates too much of its potential target audience to ever be a hit. The most successful proponents of any art produce groundbreaking invention whilst simultaneously taking along a huge amount of people along the journey with you. Be unappreciated in your own time if you like, but I'm pretty sure most people would rather be the Beatles than Frank Zappa.
There are a number of reasons why I think the Dairy is the best restaurant in London right now. There is of course the the food - they relentlessly push forward what it's generally accepted you can offer customers in a £40/head restaurant on the edge of Clapham Common, and they are working hard to increase the amount of ingredients they produce themselves on in their rooftop allotments not because (or at least not just because) it looks good on their CV but because the taste of the resulting dishes is demonstrably better for doing so. They are also accessible, unpretentious and charming, just as comfortably serving snacks and cocktails on a Saturday afternoon as pulling out all the stops for a ten-stop tasting menu with matching wines; there are no waistcoat-clad waiters flocking to your table every 30 seconds, but neither are you ever ignored. It's service reimagined for modern London, neither haute-cuisine-obsequious or lackadaisical.
I'm not about to suggest that the Dairy is a revolution. Its influences range from Simon Rogan to the Eagle, Farringdon and prehaps its only a few steps ahead of your own favourite local gastropub. It's also half an hour's walk from my house, and that is a factor, I mean I'm only human. But you'll have to take my word that it's my favourite restaurant of 2014 mainly because of what it represents about London. It's barely been there for a year and a half but it as feels as solidly part of what modern British food IS as what Parisian bistros or tapas bars in Madrid do for their respective host cities. Though I love ramen and belt chicken noodles and - yes - burgers, I am after all a Londoner, and we need something we can call our own. If all goes well and this kind of thing becomes our gift to the world, well, what a marvellous thing to be proud of. And if it doesn't? At least we can say we were there for the ride.
Anyway congratulations the Dairy, the other runners-up and pretty much anywhere on these pages that won 7/10 upwards over the last 12 months, and deep apologies to anywhere I've not mentioned by name; there are spots in Dorset, my beloved Cornwall and Somerset that are more than worth a few paragraphs of gushing prose but perhaps I'd better leave you all to your mince pies. I'm off for a brandy, a slice of Cornish Blue and a lie down, and then I'll be up bright and early in 2015 to start the whole thing all over again for - it hardly seems possible - the ninth year running. Thanks so much - as ever - for still reading, have a lovely Christmas and a Happy New Year.
All photos my own except the one of the Silk Road Belt Chicken noodles which is by Lizzie.
EDIT: For more London restaurant ideas, why not spend a couple of quid on my Top 100 Restaurants map? Ideal Christmas present etc. etc. App coming early 2015.
Thursday, 11 December 2014
This was actually the second time I'd sat down in the dining room at Five Fields. Unfortunately on our first visit a power cut meant no sooner had we got settled than a very apologetic front of house had to find us a short notice table elsewhere; a very minor inconvenience for us (particularly considering the alternative was the wonderful Medlar) but a disaster for them, losing an evening's full house of bookings and god knows how much food spoilage. This isn't actually the first time I've had a booking cancelled because of a power cut - it seems to happen in Soho a hell of a lot; maybe it's the rats - and I'm reliably informed that compensation from the energy companies is rare to completely non-existant. Which seems desperately unfair.
Anyway a return date was soon found and here we finally were, nibbling on pleasant amuses of foie gras paté and fresh crab. I can't remember many canapés that have really set my heart racing; it seems to me that you'd be silly to waste an opportunity to start dinner with a bang, and yet most restaurants seem to settle for a couple of mouthfuls of comfort food. Which isn't to say they weren't welcome, of course, just a bit disappointing.
Pre-starter of onion consommé continued the theme; nice but fairly ordinary. The cube of soft gruyere had a gentle earthy flavour and having a chunk of sweet pickled onion floating around was at least unusual, but the broth itself was really no better than the French Onion Soup at Zedel, a restaurant with no pretentious to fine dining and - to say the least - in a rather different price bracket.
But then the bread arrived and all of a sudden the journey was worth it. This buttermilk-based invention is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best house bread I've encountered in a very long time, although perhaps it's not technically "bread" at all, more of a savoury pastry. Inside a brittle, golden brown crust were soft curls of soft, sweet brioche, steaming warm from the oven, just the most perfect texture inside and out. Alain Ducasse once famously said he deliberately serves cold, sub-premium bread at his restaurants because he doesn't want people filling up before the proper dishes arrive. This is probably just an excuse for being rubbish at bread, but I can kind of see his point - I could have happily eaten 10 of these and nothing else and still gone home happy.
Another little extra course, this time beetroot done a number of different ways. It was very pretty, colourful and with an artistic arrangement of various geometric shapes, but the success or not of the whole enterprise rather depends on your attitudes towards beetroot. And to that end, I'm afraid I'm not that much of a fan. I don't hate beetroot any more than I hate parsnip or sweet potato or turnip, but it's not exactly a death row vegetable is it. Still, enjoyable enough.
Rather a lot, then, was resting on the starter courses proper. First - huge, meaty Orkney scallops crusted with toasted pistachio and surrounded by various forms of cauliflower, and these were very good indeed; not just the scallops themselves which were perfectly seared golden brown leaving the bright white flesh inside firm and tasty, but cauliflower is always a good match for scallops and the textures of veg made all kinds of interesting crunch and contrasts.
My own dish "Rockpool" is a Five Fields signature dish of sorts, and certainly comes with plenty of fanfare. It's presented in two parts, the first "cold" stage consisting of a bowl of seafood granita and a slate of various shapes and techniques of caviar, sea urchin, smoked eel, you name it. It's a dish that was more admirable than enjoyable. Bits of it were very nice - I loved the oyster (I think it was anyway) bowl with the citrussy granita on top, and the best item on the slate was a sweet glazed bit of mackerel, rich and rewarding. My problem with it all was only that the flavours and aromas were a bit too reminiscent of an actual stagnant rockpool; evocative and technically impressive maybe, but still not exactly what you'd usually consider dinner. The next stage, some good firm langoustine tails in a slightly oversour seafood sauce, had a similar curate's egg quality.
Between the starters and main was this, the first time I've ever had a dish served on a 400-million-year-old ammonite fossil. If only the food had been as interesting, as what was inside these neat green spheres was a mouthful of the kind of everyday apple sauce you might have with your pork chop. I mean I'm sure it wasn't, but it certainly tasted no different.
Red grouse was, I'm fairly certain, cooked sous-vide because there was no nice bubbly skin, in fact no sign of a direct heat source of any kind, just two tranches of medium-rare breast meat surrounded by neat chunks of winter vegetables. There is a time and a place for sous-vide cooking, I'm certainly not totally against it in all situations, but when I compare the golden brown, crisp-skinned birds fresh out of the oven at, say, Racine to these characterless lumps of salted rubber, well, there's no contest. It seems to me that too often sous-vide is a technique used for the benefit of the kitchen more than the enjoyment of the customer, and though I can appreciate consistency is at least more important in a fine dining environment than in a neighbourhood bistro, it should never be priority number one.
Cornish Turbot, hiding here under a clever piece of dried skin, was by all accounts a more enjoyable main course. Pan-fried to a nice dark exterior, the inside firm and fresh, there was little to complain about. I'm not entirely sure raw blackberries are a perfect accompaniment to anything other than a fruit salad, but that could just be me.
This miniature bowl of foam was presumably a palate-cleanser of some kind, as it was quite surprisingly bitter and not entirely fun to eat but admittedly did zap our tastebuds back into the middle of next week.
Finally the desserts. Mine was a mango, peanut, celery and buttermilk affair, a Dairy-style arrangements of different forms and textures but lacking something - salt? Sugar? Heart? It was perfectly pleasant, but entirely forgettable, a sign of a kitchen whose interests quite clearly lay elsewhere.
I think the other dessert was called Orchard, as it consisted of coils of fresh apple in an apple sorbet, with some bits and pieces of ice cream and doughnut things. It also felt like a refugee from a much cheaper restaurant; this kind of thing is done better by any of those new-wave British garden restaurants like Picture, the Dairy or Toast, and for little more than a fiver.
Five Fields is, and will more than likely remain no matter what I have to say on the matter, an incredibly popular little restaurant. Plenty of people have had enough of a good time at this cozy spot just off Kings Road to regularly propel it to the top of more than one 'readers favourites' list on sites like TripAdvisor, and whatever you think about those lists they must at least have a loose relationship with the truth. I just honestly wish I felt the same - dishes swung between oddly timid (sous-vide grouse, scallops and cauliflower) and recklessly experimental ("Rockpool"), never often stopping at enjoyable along the way, and for the prices being charged "enjoyable" is really the least you could ask. Most likely, Five Fields just isn't for me. And all said and done, I'm sure that's the least of their worries.
Thanks to the power cut kerfuffle and the intervention of a kindly PR, we didn't end up paying for our meal at Five Fields. Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon.