Monday, 23 January 2012
I went to see new movie The Artist on Saturday evening. Even if you've not seen it yourself, you will most likely have heard of it - the slavering reviews, the cavalcade of awards, the Oscar buzz. The friend I went with told me that her colleague declared it "the most perfect movie he'd ever seen", and to compliment this most nostalgic of shows we'd selected the best seats at the wonderful old Ritzy cinema in Brixton. So I think it's fair to say our expectations were high.
It was a good film. I liked it. I think my friend liked it too. A nice, light-hearted period piece set in the early days of cinema, a good few chuckles, some dancing, a straightforward love story and a Bit With A Dog. A very pleasant way to spend the evening. But I would hardly put it in my top 5 films I've seen this week, never mind of all time, and left completely baffled about the attention it's been receiving. Is The Artist really the best film of 2011 and I'm just a joyless misery guts that can't appreciate a good thing when he sees one? Or, was I simply expecting too much and nothing could have lived up to it, no matter how good? Which brings us to Hedone.
Executive Chef Mikael Jonsson is that rarest of things - a food blogger and obsessive foodie who gave up his previous (presumably more generously paid) job, and, by the looks of things, his blog, to open a restaurant that would serve the kind of food he wanted to eat. And, being an obsessive foodie, what he wants to eat is nothing less than the finest ingredients he can get his hands on, cooked in a way that makes the most of them. I remember reading his blog in the days before I'd started my own - it would contain vast, 10,000-word reports on multi-Michelin starred meals in Paris and Berlin, with the kind of detail and expertise more usually applied to open-heart surgery than dinner, and I found it all completely fascinating. So, above all else, congratulations to Mikael for having the guts to offer up his own cooking for critique, as he must know what he has coming from other bloggers too lazy and talentless to ever cross the Great Divide themselves (ie. me).
The amuse was literally that - a culinary joke which looked for all the world like a sweet Jammy Dodger but actually consisted of savoury cheese biscuits sandwiching a thin layer of sharp ewe's milk cheese, topped with a sharp red berry coulis of some kind. I realise I'm doing a huge disservice to the amount of fanatical care that has gone into sourcing all the food at Hedone, but quite frankly if you ever came to this blog looking for informed food journalism you were on a hiding to nothing.
Next, a teeny cup of ferociously dark seaweed sauce which topped a thick savoury custard which I think involved some kind of cheese (more of that top-notch food journalism for you there). The idea behind this was to provide a heavy umami hit to get your taste buds going before the main courses started arriving, and though I can't vouch for the science of it, I thought it was great fun.
Devon scallops sashimi was a pretty little dish, containing carefully balanced textures and delicate splashes of colour, but I'm afraid I wasn't hugely impressed by the flavours. Raw scallops aren't my favourite thing in the world - I just think they're always better cooked - and while I'm sure these were the finest examples money can procure, I found them dense and bland.
Rocks on watercress jelly was better, though. Raw (or at least very lightly poached) oysters had an absolutely fantastic fresh flavour, and combined with the ever-so-slightly-peppery watercress and a few dabs of what I think is the same red berry coulis that came with the Jammy Dodgers, it all added up to an interesting and rewarding dish.
Cévennes onions, pear shavings (with the £15 Périgord truffle option naturally) I knew would be the dish that made up my mind about Hedone. You have to have supreme confidence not only in your own ability to showcase world-class ingredients but also confidence in the customers who will be paying a lot of money for a plate of onion and pear to recognise the quality in those ingredients, and appreciate them. I'm sure there will be enough people out there who do, as well, I'm just not one of them. To me, it tasted like warm onion and shaved pear with some nice black truffle on top - not unpleasant, just unremarkable. What am I missing here?
This mother-of-pearl effect on the turbot flesh is, we were told, an indication that this most precious of beasties has been cooked to perfection. It certainly had a great flavour, and a remarkable texture - dense without being dry, and flaking apart beautifully. The seaweed (I presume... don't nominate me for the Pulitzer all at once, now) underneath seasoned the fish very nicely, and a slightly grizzly-looking clam topped it all off.
Sika deer "Royale" was, for me, the highlight of the meal. A delicate "raviolo" burst under the slightest pressure in the mouth to reveal a rich game soup filling. Beautifully cooked venison, bright pink loin and a different slow-cooked cut, had the most intense flavour of any I've ever eaten, and was all soaked in one of those classically French reduced sauces that packed an incredible punch. As if all that wasn't enough, there was some gorgeous shaved foie gras on top to add extra meaty butteryness. Beautiful.
Squab pigeon was, again, technically faultless - flavourful and attractive and presented as two cuts of breast and a roast leg. I ate it all quite happily, I just think it suffered slightly in comparison to the pigeon I'd had at the Ledbury a few months ago where they debone the leg and turn it into a meat lollipop. Chewing around the sinew in this one was harder work, but perhaps I'm nit-picking.
What is it with fancy restaurants and beetroot desserts recently? Rose floating island, rhubarb and beetroot was, fortunately, a lot nicer than the dish at Tom Aikens, though I definitely preferred the gorgeous sweet rhubarb sorbet and the soft meringue-y base to the disconcertingly earthy beetroot sauce. Also, I couldn't detect any rose flavour but can't say I missed it.
This second dessert was, with the flecks of gold leaf on top, reminiscent of Alain Ducasse's famous Louis XV creation from his restaurant in Monte Carlo, but just like the version I had at Gauthier Soho I couldn't quite see what the fuss was about. It was a perfectly decent chocolate dessert and I finished it off quite happily, it just wasn't particularly memorable.
We didn't have a huge amount of wine, just two bottles (one of each) between four and I think a couple of people had coffees, but the bill still somehow managed to come to £120+ a head. In fairness, in the context of the obvious commitment to world-class ingredients (I'm reliably informed Jonsson is charging far less for some of these super-premium items than his accountants would like), the superb service and the very attractive room, this is understandable but I can think of a few other spots in London I've had more satisfying meals and on a far less eye-watering total. This ingredients-led, precise, formal, even reverential style of cooking will, indeed does, have its fans but I couldn't help spending most of the afternoon wondering if I was suffering from some kind of palate-blindness. It was like being in the audience of an experimental modern Jazz quartet, standing baffled and uncomprehending whilst all those around me enjoyed a life-changing experience.
After we'd emerged, baffled and uncomprehending from a sell-out screening of The Artist in Brixton, we nipped around the corner and joined the back of the queue for Franco Manca. After 15 minutes or so wait, we sat down and ordered a pizza each for £7 ish, a glass of £1.80 Pinot Grigio and a glass of their homemade lemonade for the same. I still maintain that the pizzas from Franco Manca Brixton (have heard mixed reports from the other branches) are the best it's possible to pay for in the capital, the sourdough bases sweet and crispy and smoky, the toppings fresh and bright, the atmosphere convivial and rustic. And call me an inverted snob (you won't be the first), but I enjoyed that pizza much more than I'd enjoyed lunch in Chiswick, and not only because it cost fully twelve times less. I am convinced, objectively, that Hedone is a very good restaurant, possibly world-class. But I think I'd rather have a pizza. Sorry.