LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
I made it to London and this is my first visit so I am wholeheartedly excited. For my first meal in the city, I decided to pop in to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal for lunch. I had intended to go for the tasting menu for dinner but I could not get a reservation. I was excited nonetheless. I mean it is a meal at a two Michelin star restaurant and as of this writing, No. 36 on the world 50 best restaurants list. In arriving, I had initially forgotten that it was in the Mandarin hotel, but I was very quickly escorted by the gentlemen in the front. The reception at the actual restaurant was really great. The gentleman was very welcoming and relaxed and we chatted about New York for a few minutes as he led me to my table. After settling in, I was introduced to the restaurant and the key piece of information about it is that each of the items on the menu is based on a historical dish. They found out when the recipes were created (noted on the menu) and then applied modern cooking techniques to prepare them. I am definitely quite curious as to how they were able to verify the source of these meals as there was one from 1390! They also had little things that stood out for me to reinforce their theme that this was to be a historical restaurant. Aside from the date of origin for each of the recipes, the source of some of the information was listed on the back of the menu. In addition, within the menu wrapper there was a little nugget of history regarding France’s temperament towards British food, beef specifically in this case. I have to assume that each menu wrapper had a different piece of information. Even the bread was naturally leavened bread as opposed to packaged yeast, a testament to the absence of yeast in early times maybe? I do not know but I still thought it to be an interesting item and uniquely thoughtful.
Since it was the afternoon, they have a set lunch menu with everything being offered a la carte. Generally, I prefer tasting menus because I can try multiple items in small portions which really gives me a sense of the environment and the story that the restaurant is trying to tell. In any case, I settled on three (3) dishes, the Salamagundy, the spiced squab pigeon and the sambacode for dessert.
There is truth in their statement that each of the dishes had a historical significance for England as I did some research after my meal for curiosity sake and to confirm some of the dates that were listed on the menu. According to Wikipedia, Salamagundy (sp: Salamagundi) is a salad dish originating in the early 17th century in England. It is supposed to comprise of meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, nuts, flowers and be dressed in vinegar and olive oil. This is exactly what I got. In DHB’s version, it is chicken oysters with salsify, horseradish cream and picked walnuts. It also had red and green lettuce to complete the salad. I was expecting a serious bite of sharp flavor from the horseradish cream sauce but it was quite tame. The salsify had been seared in a pan and also dressed in what I think was balsamic vinegar. The chicken oyster, a part of the chicken that is very close to the thigh, was a little tough for me, I did not have to struggle to cut through it or anything and it certainly was not dry but I feel they could maybe have stopped a minute or two earlier than they did so that it could possibly have been more tender. My plate did not come out hot so maybe they let it rest for too long. Eating everything together made for a tasty couple of bites but nothing mind blowing. Now, I will say that this is when the horseradish in the sauce shines. The balsamic vinegar has a bit of a peekaboo effect in this case as opposed to being abrasive. There was a crumble that I could not readily identify but that in combination with the other pieces on the plate added a different kind of salty flavor. In the end, it was tasty and I finished the plate… no bowl scraping though.
At this point, I have to note that service is a little slow here but I do believe that my impression here is heavily skewed on how fast paced dining in New York is. This is my first restaurant here so it remains to be seen if that is to be the case with all the restaurants.
Per the menu, the spiced squab pigeon recipe originated in 1780 but I could not find any information about it online given the generic name. The plate is a pigeon cooked to medium served on a bed of onions with braised artichoke and a spiced sauce on the side. There was also a mash that was topped with a pistachio crumble but I forget what vegetable was used here. Maybe salsify again but do not hold me to that. On initial taste, I was not sure what to make of this dish, it was kind of all over the place but it became a tremendous winner in the end. Let me explain. The squab is tender and juicy as is to be expected at a medium temperature. There was barely any pressure required from the knife. The artichoke could have used a little bit of salt. The onions were actually quite nice for me as they were cooked tenderly to remove the tang and mixed with herbs. The sauce on its own did not seem to have any particularly standout flavors but this was the key to this entire plate. It pulls in the earthiness of the artichoke instead of bland, it accentuates the juices of the squab and it makes the onions come alive even more than they already were with the added herbs. This was another plate that I finished but did not scrape the bowl though it was certainly better than the first. Some restaurants just have recipes that only taste great when all pieces of the dish are eaten together as opposed to with the individual ingredients tasted apart. This is one of them and I found the same to be true of Jean Georges.
If you have been following along with my stories, you know that I do not have a sweet tooth… but the next dish, the Sambocade, could make me change my mind on desserts. This is the dish that they say was created in 1390 and I am flabbergasted as to how 1) they got that date AND 2) how the recipe has remained intact all this time. I did do some digging and found the same origination dates from other sites. In their variation, there is a goat’s milk cheesecake with elderflower and apple, pickled blackberries and smoked candied walnuts. Traditionally, this recipe is a tart but what I was served was what I would call a deconstructed version of that. As mentioned, this would make me want desserts even though it is sweeter than I would have thought. I assumed the goat cheese would be the major player here since it is a forceful ingredient but it was content to wait in the background. It was incredibly soft and initially, I had tried to use a fork to eat this, but it just kept on coming up short. Think, along the lines of trying to use a fork to taste a smooth tomato sauce… that fluffy. My favorite part of the dish were the smoked candied walnuts though and it tasted exactly as the name states with the smoke taking charge followed by the sweet. I really wish I could have had more of those. I could probably eat them forever as they had just the right ratio of sweet to smoke. The blackberries had been pickled in maybe red wine or sherry vinegar which was quite strong on its own but significantly tamed down with the cheesecake. The apple was a surprise in the middle of the cheesecake but it did not really do much for me in addition to the flavors on the plate. The best combination flavor, as is to be expected from my previous comment, was the walnuts and the cheesecake. Together, they were beyond marvelous with smokey, sweet, cream and crunch all in one bite. Magnificent. I must note that it was only at the end of the dish that I really tasted the goat cheese. It really did sit back and let all the other ingredients standout.
Last but not least was the very sweet gift that I received from the restaurant, a chocolate tartlet with a “Welcome to London” message. It was dark chocolate with a herb that I have tasted before but cannot remember the name, tastes quite a bit like lemon. Lemongrass maybe? In the end, I would come back to eat here as they were so approachable and delivered overall tasty food. I think that is how the best of these restaurants get a hook on you i.e. they make marvelous food but still make you feel like you are walking into a friend’s house for dinner. They very much reminded of my dining experience at EMP and that is a huge compliment.