Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ferran Adria: The Art Of Food

The popularity of food & drink reaches a new high this summer as London’s Somerset House unveils the world’s first art exhibition dedicated to a chef and his restaurant. Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and his Catalonia restaurant elBulli are in the limelight, but don’t expect anything to eat. Ben Norum talks to the chef and the curators for a taste of what to expect at the food exhibition with no food.

If food is the new rock ‘n’ roll, then Ferran Adrià is Bowie. He is the most acclaimed chef of our time, winning three Michelin stars and bringing elBulli to the top of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a record five years, more than Rene Redzepi’s Noma and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck put together. He’s also a maverick and an innovator, breaking and re-writing many of the rules of running a restaurant and turning a meal into a life experience. Along the way, he’s created numerous new styles and techniques that have changed the way chefs cook and we eat. He’s an obvious choice for a groundbreaking exhibition that’s the first of its kind, then.
The behind-the-scenes retrospective titled, elBulli: Ferran Adrià and the Art of Food is  something that has been in the pipeline for a while, Adrià says: ‘It’s taken a long time to find the language to be able to hold such an exhibition because people have always thought that if you have a food exhibition, then there has to be eating involved’. In fact, he’s more than happy to skip the food altogether, ‘I don’t want to showcase my work; my work is elBulli restaurant and if people want to see my work, they have to come to elBulli and eat. This is about the story behind El Bulli and what it means. Think of it as visiting the Barcelona FC ground and looking around when there’s no match on’.
In place of anything edible, the three-month-long exhibition will display a timeline of Adrià’s inspirations and career at elBulli, along with collectibles such as original menus and review clippings, documentary footage, and hand-scribbled notes and sketches by Adrià and his team. There will even be sushi restaurant-style plasticine models of many of the restaurant’s dishes, originally created as a guide for elBulli chefs in order to maintain consistency when plating up. These are important details to Somerset House’s Director of Exhibitions, Claire Catterall. ‘What is fantastic about Ferran Adrià is the depth of research and documentation involved in his cooking,’ she says. ‘The range of ephemera that has been archived is unique, who else documents every dish they cook? It is the extraordinary commitment to recording the creative process that makes the content of exhibition so rich and immersive’.
This Somerset House presence is far from Adrià’s first entrance into the world of art. The late painter Richard Hamilton created numerous pieces for elBulli, inspired by the food he ate there, and the restaurant is renowned for creating recipes which merge cooking with conceptual art in their own right. Adrià himself has also been artistically immortalised before, in 2007 as a voiceover in the film Ratatouille, and in 2009 as a character in The Simpsons.
The concept of food being a form of art itself is central to the exhibition, but Adrià is adamant that they are separate but similar. ‘I’m a fantastic cook and not an artist at all,” he says. “What we do at El Bulli, though, is create an experience which might provoke an emotional response that is similar to what an artist might provoke’. For him, the exhibition is about innovation, and he sees that as an artform in its own right. ‘You can innovate in any field, I chose food...that is what this exhibition is about, it should be inspirational,’ he explains. ‘Think of how Apple innovated the smartphone - that is art. In terms of innovation, I would love to be described as the Steve Jobs of food.’
As big a name Adrià is, it’s easy to overlook just how influential he has been. Consider that Heston Blumenthal describes him as ‘an inspiration’, that Noma’s Rene Redzepi launched into his now famous Nordic style of cooking only after a stint working at elBulli, and that he is the founding father of the cooking style we now know as molecular gastronomy and you might get close. Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, who heads up Viajante in Bethnal Green, worked at El Bulli for a matter of weeks, but speaks of how the time, ‘had a massive impact on my career. After reading a great deal about him, going there reassured me that it is possible to follow your dreams and create a restaurant that really pushes the boundaries and allows you to grow as a chef. The fact that it is possible to think outside of the box and still succeed is a huge reassurance for someone with dreams and aspirations’.
Like most chefs who have the title thrust upon them, Adrià is not keen on the molecular gastronomy label. ‘It sounds too much like a science,’ he says, reiterating that most of the cooking which happened at elBulli was very rustic and artisanal - as will be shown in the exhibition. The label which Adrià would prefer doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as easily: deconstructivism is what he considers to be the technique of taking one dish and maintaining its essence and components but giving it a whole new look. The classic Spanish tortilla is one of Adrià’s most famous dishes, but you’d be hard pushed to recognise it; he re-envisages the ingredients of eggs, potatoes and onions by serving a combination of a potato foam, onion purée and an egg white sabayon.
Whatever you call his style of cooking, most people don’t realise just how much he’s influenced London’s menus over the last few years. The use of the word deconstructed in the title of a dish is one of the most obvious forms of pilgrimage, but if you’ve ever seen a dish crowned with a foam or a cocktail topped with juicy balls that resemble caviar then you’ve also witnessed the Adrià effect.
The exhibition comes at a time when Adrià is exploring more than ever the connection between food, art and culture. It was with fanfare and sadness that he closed elBulli last year, in part due to it incurring vast operational losses, but he is now working on a number of projects including an online platform called Bullipedia that he describes as a kind of ‘wikipedia for food’, and the re-opening of the restaurant as an experiential visitor centre in 2015. Plans are partly undeveloped and partly unannounced, but what Adrià has confirmed is that it will be affordable and open to everyone who wishes to visit, taking the form of a two hour exploratory exhibition that discusses the history of cooking, what cooking is, and what the future will hold; there will be nothing to eat.
As the world’s foodies await another chance to get inside the legendary powerhouse of creativity that is elBulli and worship at the altar of modern gastronomy once more, we Londoners should feel fairly privileged when Adrià tells us that we’re getting a sneak peak. ‘This exhibition at Somerset House is the embryo of the experience,’ he says, ‘it is a chance for people to see what has happened in elBulli, what it has done and what cooking is about’. It’s a taster, just without anything to actually taste.

Originally published in Time Out magazine.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Restaurant Review: Mash

Named as an acronym of Modern American Steak House rather than a tribute to the comical war film, this venue feels like something of a joke in itself. It’s the first international outpost of a small restaurant chain from Denmark, the theme is 100% USA and meat is shipped in from Australia and Uruguay. Multiculturalism gone mad, one might think, but the Copenhagen original is apparently a popular haunt for the country’s man-of-the-moment, Noma’s Rene Redzepi.
To their credit, the Danes evidently do American Steakhouses in style. From the swanky spiral staircase which diners descend on arrival, to the lavish red carpets, elaborate hanging lights and shiny, extra long brass bar, the space exudes a handsome, old-school glamour. It’s perhaps better suited to Mayfair than its Soho basement location, but impressive all the same.
The food is unfortunately less slick than the surrounds. Smoked salmon served with potatoes and spinach does well what it says on the tin, giving a sly nod to Scandinavian cuisine along the way. But that’s the highlight. Fried squid is a mess of overly thick and soggy batter to the point there may as well have been no squid at all, let alone the billed chilli and lime.
It’s admittedly hard to be open-minded about a steak selection gathered from around the world yet completely snubbing our own British beef, but we try. A Danish sirloin comes cooked as requested and promptly served, but something’s not quite right. The cut’s trademark rim of fat which gives the steak its shape - not to mention flavour - is alarmingly missing altogether. Combined with a strange and superfluous clingy gravy coating and some unremarkable chips, the experience is a not a wholly unenjoyable one, but very disconcerting.
A Uruguayan ribeye does fare better, the meat benefitting from the marbling of fat which the Hereford Breed Cattle it’s from are famous for. Weird clingy gravy aside, it’s a top steak. But when reading the menu’s helpfully tantalising, M&S-ad-style description of Hereford Beef, it’s worth bearing in mind its origins - the clue’s in the name. From the early nineteenth century and into the 80s, British beef had such a good reputation that we exported many of the best examples of our native cattle breeds to countries around the world for breeding. It is the product of this breeding that we are now being served. No matter how glamorous the surroundings, tucking into a steak at MASH is the food equivalent of a Parisian flying to Las Vegas to see their imitation Eiffel Tower. All year London has been decorated with Union flags and peppered with patriotism; if there’s any substance to the sentiment then surely such a restaurant should have no audience. Unless, of course, they’re just really big fans of clingy gravy.

Originally published in Scout London magazine

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Feature: Social Enterprise Restaurants

Good Food

We’d all consider dining to be a social activity, but few realise just how much good eating out can do for society. Ben Norum takes a look at London's lesser-known restaurant-based social enterprises.

Where socially minded restaurants are concerned, it's hard not to think first of Jamie Oliver. He captured the nation's headlines and hearts when he launched Old Street restaurant Fifteen in 2002, giving unemployed and down on their luck youngsters the chance to take on apprenticeships. Eleven years on, the TV cameras have gone home, but the good work continues and we still hear success story after success story from graduates at both the London restaurant and the newer Cornwall spin-off.
Opening two years later, the like-minded but less high-profile Hoxton Apprentice restaurant didn't have the luxury of a celebrity ambassador. It won numerous social and culinary accolades, and across nine years placed more than 450 apprentice chefs into restaurants including Nobu. The outcome is less positive, though. Due in large to a cut in government funding, the charity of which the restaurant was part, Training For Life, was forced into administration and the restaurant put up for sale. It's currently closed while a buyer is sought.
Things are looking better for nearby Waterhouse restaurant in Shoreditch. It is owned and run by The Shoreditch Trust, who use it to host their Blue Marble Training programme which supports and nurtures young people who would otherwise not get the opportunity to develop a career in the food industry. The tucked away but well worth seeking out restaurant is highly affordable and pairs their dedication to helping people with a focus on food sustainability.
Brigade on Tooley Street is the newest entrant to the social enterprise game. Housed in a disused fire station next door to the offices of accountancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, it is privately supported by the company through both funding and mentoring work. It was founded by chef Simon Boyle and runs a six month apprenticeship programme called Freshlife, aimed at people who are jobless, homeless or considered in danger of becoming homeless. Candidates receive mentoring and classes, but primarily learn on the job at Brigade, under the guidance of the restaurant's permanent chefs. "Brigade works to high standards and expects the same from its staff, irrespective of their level or ability," says Simon, and indeed during a lunch boasting a brilliantly executed runny-yolked scotch egg and a beautifully seared beef fillet adorned with bone marrow crust, it's hard to imagine that the chef cooking it won't have worked in the kitchen for more than a matter of weeks. There's clearly a lot of quality control to be done, but by all accounts their graduates already seem to be building up an impressive array of jobs upon leaving. After the six months at Brigade are up, the apprentice chefs receive two more six month placements at other restaurants and companies who have partnered with the scheme. These are paid positions and are designed so that there is a high likelihood of longer-term employment once they come to an end.
The Clink charity also sees food as a way of helping people into employment; this time, it’s prisoners who they work with. Based in Surrey not far south of Morden station, The Clink trains inmates who then work in a prison restaurant which is open to the public. As well as offering a quirky dining experience, and something for the prisoners to focus their time on, it also provides them with valuable skills and experience for future employment upon release; the scheme has been highly praised by ministers who commend the visible drop in re-offending rate of those prisoners who have taken part. Now a second, more central London branch is planned for Kennington within the next year or so, this time held in a church rather than in prison, and to be run almost entirely by ex-offenders.
It seems that social responsibility in London’s restaurant industry is moving off the list of sides and becoming a popular main course. As for how much it can help feed up our starved economy? Well, we’ll just have to keep eating out and see what happens.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Restaurant Review: Sushinho

The idea of a restaurant fusing Brazilian and Japanese food sounds somewhat way out, neither country having an obvious cultural or geographical connection with the other. Until you start to think about raw fish, that is. While Japan is famous for its sashimi, Brazil and much of South America are well known for ceviche, a dish which is fast becoming a staple on London restaurant menus. Think then of beef, and again there are parallels to be drawn. Where Japan has its world-renowned Wagyu, Brazil is no stranger to steak. It’s in these two ingredients that you have the basis of Sushinho, already a successful restaurant in Chelsea and now the newest opening in Devonshire Square, an increasingly foodie office quarter which houses Cinnamon Kitchen, New Street Grill and Kenza among other restaurants.
This new opening is much larger than the West London original, with the addition of The Cutler Bar in the basement which offers a small selection of dishes from the main menu, along with an eclectic selection of punchy cocktails which are loosely tied to the restaurant’s theme through an overzealous use of both sake and Brazilian spirit cachaça. Our waiter is just as zealous with the topping up of our crisp, salty and ridiculously addictive cassava chips, but that’s entirely a good thing.
With a more substantial platter of nigiri and sashimi to start than most japanese venues can muster, perhaps I should have eaten those cassava chips with less vigour. Still, light and bright flavours make easy work of polishing the lot off, including a sprightly mix of eel and fresh papaya, and unctuous roasted pork topped with sun-drenched droplets of sphericalised pineapple - pineapple caviar, if you will. Scallop ceviche comes with real caviar as well as a generous glug of truffle oil. Raw apple brings the dish back down to earth, cutting through the luxuriously heady flavours to keep up the signature fresh feel.  
Beef is the only natural follow-up to all that fish, and Sushinho’s selection includes grilled steaks as well as some neat wagyu sliders in which admittedly delicious toppings of comte, onion relish and pickled cucumber come disappointingly close to out-flavouring the much heralded beef. A picanha steak, a popular Brazilian cut which boasts a large rim of meltingly oozy fat, fares much better, being at once deeply charred and smoky tasting, bleedingly rare and packed with its own, earthy beef flavour. Quite why Sushinho has chosen to use USA beef over Brazilian (or indeed British) for this classic South American dish, I do not know, but it does deliver the goods.
A selection of tropical fruit sorbets makes for a less dynamic ending than one might have hoped for, but they are homemade, vibrant and refreshing: exactly what is called for after a packed meat feast that started prematurely when the cassava chips came out. For all those fusion food cynics out there, be aware that eating at Sushinho may involve you eating your words, too.

Devonshire Square, EC2M 4AE
Tube: Liverpool Street
Price: £££
Written by Ben Norum

Originally published in Scout London magazine

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Restaurant Review: Banca

There’s something incredibly old school about Banca. Not that it’s been around for that long at all. Conceived of by the super-team behind Zuma, Roka and Aurelia, it opened late last year taking the place of a former Natwest bank just off Oxford Street.
It’s a lavish space with milky white walls, boudoir-style bonquette seating and low-hanging, gold-lit light fittings. A shiny silver bar spans one whole side while glass allows a view onto the comings-and-goings of Mayfair out front. It’s sleek, swish and even a bit sexy, but in a climate where we’re used to seeing big new openings opt for reclaimed woods, bare lightbulbs and edgy exposed brickwork rather than brash exuberant glamour, there’s some acclimatising to be done.
As a general rule, there are few better places to acclimatise than at a bar, and Banca’s is a particularly comfortable one. Grabbing hold of and running with the trend for aperitivo which has been slowly developing around town - including at both Tempo and Sartoria within minutes of here - Banca has taken the king of the genre, the Negroni and created it a menu of its very own. There are four classic varieties and then another six newly made. A fantastically passionate bar man who can only properly be described as the Cocktail Don describes them in a way I never could, but they effectively offer varying levels of bitterness and robustness. The deepest has added bitters and blood orange, the lightest gains lift from a generous spritz of prosecco.
As we’re ushered to our table in neatly choreographed moves, the service remains ergonomically efficient, though we miss the Don’s passion. A fritto misto fried fish assortment is plentiful, studded with succulent prawns and soft calamari. A cured meat platter is again large, of distinctively good quality and somewhat ingeniously served with pickled vegetables that work to cut through the meat’s fat and salt.
Simply cooked gnocchi dressed with sage butter is a rustic triumph served in surroundings that are anything but; the gnocchi almost melt in the mouth, incomparable to supermarket versions that are best used for playing ping pong. A risotto topped with foie gras and lightly cooked blueberries turns out to be a very well executed form of overkill, but you could probably guess that. A perfectly cooked rare beef fillet boasts more substance; it’s a deep ruby colour, has a flavour to match and is served with an earthy yet sweet wild mushroom assortment.
A first class tiramisu made with large quantities of coffee and quite correctly unable to stand upright, and a sharp, quivery lemon tart with buttery pastry each prove that puddings are no problem for Banca. But before you get too excited about paying a visit, just think about what this sentence involves. That visit will involve paying in excess of £120 for two. Do it and you’ll be in for a treat, but just make sure that a glitzy old school Italian is what you’re after, and preferably that it’s a day the Don is working.

30 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZG
Tube: Bond Street
Price: ££££
Written by Ben Norum

Originally published in Scout London magazine

Monday, 18 March 2013

Feature: Horsemeat - yay or neigh?

Full Horsepower

The horse meat scandal refuses to die down. New revelations of contaminated products are coming out by the day and more and more retailers and manufactures are being shamed into apology. On the other side of the fence, London’s foodies are getting a taste for the stuff. Ben Norum questions whether it’s a meat to stay or if we’re all just horsing around.

Even though you might have said before that you’re so hungry you could, up until about a month ago you had probably never given much serious thought to eating a horse. If you had done, it was most likely in France or Italy. Or indeed just about any country around the world except for Britain. The meat is eaten as tartare, steak, salami and mince in places as varied as China, Kazakhstan and Mexico, as well as by our neighbours over the Channel.
As much as the ongoing scandal, which started when traces of horse were found in Tesco burgers, has caused mass disgust across the nation, it has also brought to people’s attention the uniqueness of Britain in not routinely eating the animal. Even Boris Johnson has weighed in, describing our disgust towards eating horse as an, “unusual scruple”.
So, it’s only natural that interest in the meat has piqued. That and the opportunity been spotted for establishments to make money out of the gimmick factor. We’ve already had Southwark pub The Lord Nelson put on Horse Burger Week, running the special burger alongside its usual range. Scout headed down to try it out at lunchtime and had to wait for a table; we noticed one person out of the whole room who wasn’t eating horse. (See our verdict over the page on p.22)
Prolific restaurateur Oliver Peyton also last week ran a one-off sold-out dinner devoted to horse, starting with tartare before moving onto sirloin steak and a tongue-in-cheek pudding of carrot cake served with oats, cream and an apple granite. Gamston Wood Farm which has a stall at Borough Market and is better known for selling exotic meats such as crocodile and ostrich, has now started to sell horse burgers - which it painstakingly points out contain no beef! - and have seen a big uptake.  
Flogging A Dead Horse, a dining club which has been running for several months now and hosted a pop-up in Covent Garden late last year was ahead of the curve and had already seen a very positive reaction to the meat from first-timers. Founder Caroline Roddis tells us, “there are many good reasons why people should eat horse, the most compelling of which are probably that it's both a delicious and very healthy meat”. As to whether or not the current events will have a lasting impact on its popularity, she’s not sure. “On the one hand I can see that this interest will encourage more people to think about it as a serious option that they can serve in their restaurants, particularly because of the meat's versatility”, she says. “On the other hand, it's still a fairly difficult meat to get hold of and I imagine that any venue that just wanted to do something gimmicky and attention-grabbing might not want to commit to it in the long term”.
As a healthy meat with half the fat of beef, ten times the level of omega 3s and a flavour that is similar but possibly slightly deeper and sweeter, it has all the right attributes to become very popular indeed. Whether it’s a yay or a neigh will really depend on whether or not we can get over the taboo of it.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Restaurant Review: The Crooked Well

The adjective crooked refers to something which is bent out of shape or place; it’s not an unfit name for this venue. Looking quaint with a friendly village-like feel, it’s far from what you’d expect a head’s turn away from the gritty, arty urbanism of Camberwell Green. It fits no mould, either. There is too prominent a bar area for it to really be considered a restaurant, but the service is a tad too slick, the cocktail menu too extensive and the wine list too considered for it to be branded a gastropub.

Like many a Londoner, I’ve grown both weary and wary of establishments that trendily tread the line and tend to offer either overpriced pub meals or sloppily served masterpieces which are incoherent with the atmosphere. In fittingly non-committal style, though, a place of such a description can swing both ways, and on entering The Well (I’m speaking of it affectionately already), any ambiguity quickly disappears.

It may be the fact that it’s generously heated and cosily warm, or because we’re welcomed with a genuine smile and friendly banter, or down to the freshly baked bread that we’re hastily brought to pick at as we browse the menu, but for one reason or another we fall head over heels for the place in an instant.
Nervous that the food offering would compromise our feelings, we order carefully; I ask our waitress for advice and though she’s confident that the whole menu is sound, it’s refreshing to hear she has her own highlights and personal favourites. They don’t disappoint.
Pigeon breast nestled in rich, stock-seeped lentils and studded with spicy chorizo is one recommendation. The meat is beautifully and radiantly pink and tender, and we’re confident that in a room less heated, the dish’s robust Mediterranean flavours could easily permeate the London winter. A breaded halloumi salad is another, and one that we wouldn’t have plumped for without a push. It could serve as a mascot for the often maligned cheese; it’s crisp, creamy and pleasingly salty, while a honey dressing, fresh pear slices and tangy watercress all help to cut through its denseness and lend a touch of refinement to what is otherwise classic comfort food.
A ballotine of guinea fowl, Jerusalem artichoke and leeks is daintier; it’s soft, earthy and faff-free thanks to being boned and rolled. Pate Negra pork served with a red cabbage and celeriac slaw, and utterly delectable crispy roast ham is heartier, but still intricate in its flavours. From the pudding list, a chocolate and rhubarb tart is particularly impressive, with the tartness of this most classic British spring vegetable soaring through the dark richness of the chocolate. Bakewell, eat your heart out.
If The Well is a gastropub, then the genre has a leader in its field, but just as the area of Camberwell Grove that it occupies is its own entity, someway between suburban Dulwich and edgy Peckham, so The Crooked Well is a unique venue that’s well and truly in a class of its own.

16 Grove Lane, SE5 8SY
Overground: Denmark Hill
Price: £££
Written by Ben Norum

Originally published in Scout London magazine