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Friday, 9 December 2011

Roganic, Blandford street, London

Although Roganic is obviously the baby restaurant of Simon Rogan, it seems the Prodigous talent that is the head chef Ben Spalding, has really bloomed in his position at the helm of one of the most highly thought of restaurants on the London scene.
When I originally ate at the temporary Blandford street home of Simon's first foray into the capital, although Ben was in charge then as well, there was definitely a large slice of L'enclume running through the food (although admittedly, the place still had wet paint on some of the woodwork as it had only been open for three days...). Fast forward six months, and I certainly got the feeling that Ben has matured rapidly in his surroundings into a chef confident in what he is doing, and strong enough to allow his own passion for food shine through in his dishes.

Upon my arrival at Roganic, I am greeted by the familiar smiling faces of the front of house team of Sandia Chang and Jon Cannon. It was a chilly december lunchtime, and I was the first to arrive, but the room and the welcome were warming, and set the tone for the next few hours experience. A glass of dry, organic Prossecco to start the meal was offered, and it was the perfect partner to my opening nibbles, or canapes- squid ink cracker, celery leaf and smoked cream cheese- slightly salty, lightly smoked with a strong, but not overpowering flavour, and corned beef croquette, mustard mayonnaise- like the ultimate 'corned beef hash' (hope Ben doesnt mind the comparison), warming comfort food, which had the ability to revive memories and simply leave me smiling to myself, as I sat hoping someone would bring me a few more of them.
These canapes were a strong start to the meal, and like all the other courses I had, just the right size to get you excited, and leave you wanting one bite more. Thomas Keller wrote in the original French Laundry Cookbook that his theory was to do just that, which was why he introduced multi-course tasting menus there, and Ben has mastered that particular art.
An offering of bread was generous and highly tasty. Matched with the Netherend farm (Gloucestershire) butter, which is whipped and seasoned with Maldon sea salt and then smeared onto a large pebble from Folkestone beach, where Ben goes foraging for much of the sea herbs used at Roganic. The breads were chestnut flatbread, potato and buttermilk, irish sourdough and pumpernickel.

My first 'proper' course was 'millet pudding with grains, burnt pear and Isle of Mull blue'. Similar to a risotto, but with the millet giving an earthier taste, and the Mull blue cheese adding a salty piquancy, which balanced with the sweet pear to create a stunning opener. Dill oil and sea kale completed the dish, and the whole thing kept the smile on my face.

Next up in this marathon lunch (I had chosen the 10 course menu, figuring it was best to assess as many dishes as possible while I was there...) was the 'smoked braddock white, pickled roots, ox-eye daisy and salt beef'. While the description was quite a mouthful, the actual dish was also plentiful, and extremely tasty. The smoked egg yolk is smoked over applewood, and presented with a glass bell jar filled with the same smoke, so when it is removed at your table, the autumnal aroma of smoke and the visual appearance of the dish combine to make you feel like a child again, and when you cut into the yolk, and it has the texture of soft butter, its very hard not to smile.
The flavours are just as important as the appearance, and this is becoming one of Ben's signature dishes due to its intense, sweet, smoky flavour. lovely woodland textures make it very autumnal/wintery, right from the yolk to the tiny brioche croutons, everything there for a reason.
For my first fish dish, I was served 'roasted scallop, cured char, purple sprouting and chokeberry vinaigrette'. This was a very 'seaside' tasting dish, not as obvious as you think for a fish dish, as to encapsulate all the flavours of sea air you need salt, fresh fish, sweetness as well as a touch of acidity, and this dish had it all- the tiny choke berries cut in half had both sweetness and acidity, the char was so fresh it could have been still flipping when it was delivered that morning, and the fried onions which were part of the assembly gave a salty bitterness to the whole thing, which if you closed your eyes, would convince you that you were paddling in the sea. some of the broccolli was also in the form of a puree, and although not necessary, it certainly didnt harm the dish.
To follow that, I subconciously felt the meal couldnt possibly get better- I was wrong. A vegetable course of 'poached and grilled king oyster, pine, beetroot and coastal sea leaves' blew my mind. Not since 'Noma' had I tasted so much flavour in a dish without protein. To master this kind of cooking, and excite the palate with vegetables, shows that Ben is a man on the up. Mushroom puree and soil added to the mix to show off textural diversity as well as depth of flavour which you usually only associate with a plate of pork prepared several ways- really strong stuff. The addition of a single chicory leaf gave just enough bitterness to hold the flavour balance together. Pine is an ingredient which takes real precision, or it can overpower and leave everything tasting like a bathroom cleanser, this left a hint of freshness to the experience, and worked so well.
Moving on from my perfect vegetable dish, came another non-protein course-a sly addition to the usual menu, courtesy of Ben. This was the 'king richard leek, baked in red clay and rosemary'. Prior to serving, the Leek wrapped in clay was brought to my table on a steaming pile of rosemary inflicted soil, for me to see how the leek is baked. A nice touch of theatre to the course.
Once the plated leek came to my table, it was also accompanied by a plate of truffles, which once the dish sat in front of me, Jack - one of the front of house team- proceeded to shave over the leek. Believe me when I say that Jack ain't shy with the truffle! All that truffle, combined with a toasted pine-nut puree, shallot jam, kale and a rich truffle cream sauce to enhance and bring the best out of the fine tasting leek. As anyone who has tried it will testify, leek and truffle is a marriage made in heaven, and this was pretty much as good as it gets on the leek/truffle pairing.
At this point, I realised that here I was, sat in a full restaurant, on my own, smiling. I looked around, and everyone else was smiling too, some of them barely noticed the food in front of them because of their dining partners, but I had by far the biggest grin on my face because I was giving the food the attention it deserves.
As I sat and smiled like a madman, I was served my next offering-yet again vegetable based, but no worse off because of it. This was the 'caramelised cauliflower, sour cream, raisin, gilled lettuce and yarrow'. Intense, almost charred cauli, with its pickled brother (reminiscent of piccalilli), dried powder, raisin puree and fried yarrow which was bitter but in a good way, combined with the grilled heart of a little gem lettuce to do a tricky vegetable well. Cauliflower is a great accompaniement, rarely the main attraction. coupled with the attractive presentation, another winning meat-free course.
As descriptions go, 'Mr Little's yeltholm gypsies' leaves a lot to the imagination, especially when followed up with 'cooked in chicken fat', but trust me when I tell you, this potato (the gypsy) was like the worlds best roast potato, VERY meaty from the chicken fat, just at the point of being cooked, and paired with very complimentary ingredients- sliced snow peas (an ingredient I have never had an affection for, but this worked), crisp chicken skin, pea shoots and a strong clam juice sauce. The slight bitter note on the chicken skin was perfect, and I was told the dish had its origins in a dish from L'enclume, Which can only be a good thing, as this was sublime. Another one of those courses where I wanted more.
Returning to the fish front next, a lovely dish of 'dab, baked in fennel salt' this was deceptively simple in presentation (again), and packed full of flavour. Brought to me with some Morecombe bay shrimps, grilled baby leek, charred sprout leaves and parsley root, this favoured the delicate, moist dab with intense flavoured vegetables with a herbal balance and fresh taste of the garden.
Time for my final savoury course, and wasn't it a good one! '72 hour (three days!!) braised short rib beef, carrot, salsify and redcurrant' said the menu. and thats exactly what i got, with the addition of sea buckthorn leaves and a few caramelized silverskin onions. Having played with long braises on beef before, I know the rewards are worth the wait, but this was exceptional, tender, sticky meat, rich sauce, sweet and sharp berries, and earthy vegetables all balanced together and the whole dish was spot on. Being so rich, you felt that a larger portion could have been too much, but once again, the balance was exact. My favourite beef dish all year- up to that point (Alyn Williams that evening just pipped Ben to that title!).
Before moving to the sweet courses, a refresher of Iced ginger beer and juniper cake was ushered to me. Not a classic palate cleanser, but damned tasty. the ginger and juniper were a great combo, if a little strong in the aftertaste. For my taste, a little lime or other citrus may have just toned it down a little. (my only slight criticism ofthe whole meal)
Another bit of at-the-table theatre next, with the warm salted chocolate mousse element of the ''warm salted chocolate, toasted almonds and heritage apple sorbet' being added to the plate by Sandia from an isi whipper. The mousse, and the dish as a whole, was magnificent, again balancing salt, sweet, fruit and the slight bitterness of the toasted almonds to the precise point of ultimate pleasure. Unmentioned, but vital to the dish were some dice of a medicinal tasting pear. genius on a plate. Heritage apple sorbet was intense, and very sweet to go head to head with the chocolate and hold its own. Prior to this course, my arm was twisted (honest) into a glass of late harvest chenin blanc to accompany my desserts, and boy was I glad I did. The wine had a very Sauternes-like taste, with a hint of spice and more than a little honey. It could have been made just for this dish.
My final full dessert course (nearly there!) was 'bilberries, dried caramel, natural yoghurt and iced lemon thyme', but once again, it was far more than the sum of its parts- the bilberries came as a compote/jam, and a very crisp glass like tuile, the yoghurt was a sorbet, sharp and sour and great with the bilberries. Dried caramel turned out to be a powder, made with a tapioca starch called maltodextrin, which has the property to absorb fat to create a powder, which returns to its former state in moisture, so when you eat the caramel pwder, you get the warm, gooey caramel you started out with. Throw in the lemon thyme ice, in the form of a granité, and you have another fine course, a perfect (if there is such a thing) end to an amazing meal.
As I said, that was NEARLY the end of the meal, I had one more surprise, in the form of a warm 'petit four' of douglas fir milkshake, white chocolate and walnut cookie. This was simple, yet very tasty. lighter than you expect from a milkshake, but at the end of a long lunch like that, it was spot on. the cookie-also served warm- gave a texture and nutty edge to it.
Despite so many courses, I wasnt bloated stuffed or feeling the pinch of my belt, I was satisfied and happy, which is the magic of Ben's menu- every detail has been planned, and balanced to make sure whether you have the three, six or ten course menu, you are at the same point- pleasurably fed.
Thinking about what people look for when they eat out, several things came to mind- attentive service, good food, inventive and creative food, a relaxed atmosphere, fresh food, location and value for money. Roganic tick all those boxes. They also tick several more, which is why it is such a bust restaurant. If Simon Rogan gets to the end of the two year life of this 'pop-up', and doesn't continue elsewhere in london, it will be a tragedy.
Ben- thank you. Thank you for this meal, and all the others I hope to have at roganic, and also thank you for signing a menu for my best mate!

2 comments:

  1. Great review I will definetly be adding this place to my places to eat when I come back to the uk ...cheers for a great review & read Steve

    All the best Simon

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