Sunday, 24 January 2010

Restaurant Review: The Loft Project

A little bit of internet research led me to 'drop hints' that a meal here would be a really great birthday present, a really really great one a really really... Yes annoying for about 20 seconds in type, imagine it for a lot longer in a simpering whine.  Well here we were outside a very nice maisonette flat in Dalston after a couple of cocktails, slightly nervous about meeting our other diners and very excited about the 12 course meal to come.

You see the title of this post is a little disingenuous, the Loft Project isn't really a restaurant at all.  It's actually part of London's burgeoning supper club scene.  This means it's a private members club, which you join in the short term.  This is really cool.  It makes the whole things seem very exciting, something for those in the know.  What makes it even better is that the chef is not an enthusiastic amateur like in many other such places.  No, no Nuno Mendes cheffed at El Bulli and then worked as head chef at Bachhus, where he won much critical acclaim for the kind of exciting, innovative food you would expect from a disciple of Ferran Adria.  The Loft Project is his flat and he is using it to cook and experiment with dishes whilst his new restaurant is set up.  Each Friday and Saturday he opens it up to 18 diners per night for a wonderful dinner.

I don't want to spend too long talking about the flat itself because I want the food to be the real focus, but it is definitely worth some description.  It is a very nice high ceilinged maisonette with bare brick walls, sparsely but well furnished and with a large central dining table.  Most importantly you can see the kitchen if you sit on the right side of the table (which we did) and watch the team of 5 chefs work their magic.  This is actually a very relaxing experience, Nuno and his team are incredibly calm and organised, never getting in each other's way despite the kitchen being pretty small.  The whole performance was incredibly elegant.  And the food!

Before we got to dinner we were given a cocktail, made of vodka, lychee, lemon grass and Thai basil oil.  This was good but the lemon grass and basil were a bit lost.  The little canapés served along with this were tasty and welcome.  A choux pastry ball with parmesan and saffron was good, better was the savoury madelines made with ground almonds and herbs.  As we were eating these we were invited to mingle with our fellow guests.  This was the worrying part, not because we are hugely anti-social (though that doesn't help), but mainly because we had no idea who would be there, or what they did.  It was in fact pretty mixed in terms of age and profession, a few students there for a special occasion were mixed in with professionals and serious restaurant goers.  Everyone was also quite excited by the whole experience and that provided a natural ice breaker and everyone soon got chatting.  That there were 18 diners meant there wasn't an obligation to make conversation, so it could come naturally rather than being a neccessary filler for awkward silence.  Equally it means its not rude to just talk to the people you come with.  Definitely a nice balance.

Most importantly though, not only could you see the kitchen you could walk in and watch the cooking, ask how things were done and generally make a nuisance of yourself.  This is great given what a high technical level   of cooking is going on, especially if you're a bit nerdy about this kind of thing, which I am.  Nuno himself was also incredibly friendly, very likeable and very humble despite what is clearly a huge amount of talent.

Finally on the the food.  This started an hour after we arrived, drinks had been finished and snacks nibbled.  The first plate of the main event to be brought out was a delicate arrangement of very thinly sliced, roast celeriac tipped with buttered chopped hazelnuts, dill emulsion and some small capers.  This sounds simple and it was but it showed a chef who understands balance of textures and flavours.  Everything built wonderfully together into something much more than the individual ingredients.  Given the far more technical cooking to come this was a very good sign.  Good cooking is normally simple, relying on the best ingredients, not fussed around with too much.  If you start putting them through a lot of process, or adding something unexpected or just adding in a lot of ingredients things can get very cluttered.  The type of cooking Nuno produces rests on a knife edge - without an excellent sense of balance you will end up with overcomplicated food that is a huge letdown.  This did not happen!  A real respect for ingredients underpinned the experimentation and it really felt as if things were being pushed beyond their usual limits.  It worked very, very well.

The next course was a fantastic example of this.  White crab meat was served inside a tube of thinly sliced cooked beetroot.  This sat next to a gelee made from dashee stock (a Japanese ingredeint made from seaweed), this tasted wonderfully of how the fresh sea smells.  The brown meat had been mixed with bread-crumbs and fried to give a necessary richness and crunch.  Trying to avoid being too pretentious (and failing) this made me think of eating a fantastic dressed crab, walking along a windy beach.  It was excellent.  Next came a dish of aubergine.  This came three ways.  First small pieces of fried aubergine sat with parmesan on a small puff pastry plank.  Nice, well made pastry.  Tasty but quite plain.  This sat on top of a shot glass of smoky aubergine consommé, flavoured with Mirin (you will detect a strong Japanese influence in Nuno's cooking as he spent time working there).  This was rich and sweet and was a step up from the part before.  Then in a bowl sat a line of smoked aubergine puree sat between some fried bread-crumbs on one side and a thick soy milk and truffle soup on the other.  The cumulative effect was both sweet (from the milk), earthy (from the truffle), intense, rich and smoky (from the aubergine) and wonderfully textured (from the bread-crumbs).  The whole thing had built itself up from plain to incredibly intense each part adding a layer, showing something more that could be done with the aubergine.  This was very clever cooking indeed.

With the next course came a change of wine.   Five wines are selected for the evening to be paired with two or three dishes each.  These are all from small producers and worked very well.  After a sip a dish called Winter Garden arrived, unsurprisingly this was made from seasonal veg, all cooked.  This involved a thick sauce scattered with small bits of broccoli and cualiflower a thin strip of roast parsnip, paired with some ginger.  Again a very simple dish, excellently executed with a lovely balance of flavours that worked well with the different textures to produce something far more interested than it sounds on the page.  Good as this was, however, what followed was possibly my favourite dish of the night.  Thai Explosion, actually Explosion Thalandaise because everything sounds better in French (though the name would still sound naff if Jean Paul Satre was saying it between drags on his Gauloise) came in two parts.  The first was a delicate teaspoon containing very crispy crumbled chicken skin and freshly grated daikon radish.  The slaty fattiness of the chicken skin gave way to a lovely cold freshness from the radish.  Then came the main event a shot glass filled with lakhsa, incredibly creamy from the coconut milk with a punch of lemongrass and a lot of subtlety from the small amounts of shredded vegetables cooked in it.  This was rich and warming, big but with delicate flavours at the same time.  At the bottom was a quails egg, which I presume had been cooked at a low temperature in a waterbath for some time, giving it a gel quality in the yoke, the consistency of which built on the thick soup that contained it.

Next we were presented with another shot glass - the first part of a course called The Story of the Squid - consisting of a delicately fried squid tentacle and a few pieces of very finely chopped tomato on top of a thin layer of ponzu jelly, which sat on a thick avocado puree and finally a spoonful of sweet and tart apple sauce at the bottom.  The whole dish worked perfectly, again surprising and interesting, but most importantly satisfying.  So many of the dishes were like this.  The chef explained that when thinking of an ingredient he thought of its natural pairings, then the natural pairings of some of those, finding that though the combination of 'ingredient A' with something a couple of times removed might be unusual it normally worked.  He also said he worked through this process solely through taste rather than applying the type of molecular cooking others are famous for.  Sadly the second part of the squid did not live up to this.  The meat had been very slowly cooked at low temperature then quickly fried and itself was very good.  However, pickled carrots that were the main counterpoint, though working as flavours, were heaped on a bit generously leaving the dish out of proportion and overpowering the delicate squid.

You might have noticed so far that apart from the canapés there have been no carbs.  The nibbles were enough to stave off hunger and allow people to appreciate each course rather than just gulping them down, but most people don't like being sent home hungry.  Well planned then that at this point a dish of Iberian nuts and potato with egg arrived.  The nuts were toasted with chilli and salt and weren't much more than a good bar-snack, but served to add some piquancy to a very light, but creamy mixture of mashed potatoes and eggs that had the consistency of a very thick white sauce.  Again, the ingredients were very simple, but the concept itself was interesting and the whole thing was very satisfying.  Its the kind of dish that you can only serve in a big menu like this, but in that setting it worked perfectly.  Next came another carby dish, but this time one that would definitely have stood up on its own.  It was a porridge with not too many oats in a thin for porridge liquid that was exactly the consistency of really good risotto.  The dish was a play on the classic dish, flavoured with truffles and saffron, both big flavours, but managing here to compliment each other rather than compete.  On top of this were thin strips of fennel, which provided a sharp note that stopped these flavours and the butteriness of the whole thing becoming too much.

The next dish, on the surface, was far less opulent.  It was termed Onion Soup Moderne.  I was very excited about this one because we had watched one component being made, whilst Nuno explained the process.  The 'soup' was an onion sauce with tapioca balls in it and a quenelle of finely chopped shallot cooked in butter with wild mushrooms.  The fun bit was the white ball on the side, which looked exactly like an anaemic egg yolk.  There's a dish that was very famous coming out of El Buli which was a thin pea puree.  It was the most peaish taste you could have, more so than a pea even (how that happens I'm not sure), but the exciting thing was that despite being a liquid it held itself.  This was the same thing but with an onion, butter and white wine reduction.  The process involved creating a solution from a couple of spoonfuls of powdered seaweed extract (agate) and water and lowering a spoonful of the mixture in.  The neutral tasting liquid creates a very thin skin around the broth, but doesn't effect the contents, creating a perfect little ball, that wobbles if you poke it.  We were told to eat this first.  The most solid thing in the soup then burst in the mouth flooding it with a rich onion broth.  All very good, although I think the dish in total would have benefited from a touch less seasoning and something fresher tasting thrown into the mix.  

We were now served the main main-course.  A chunk of 28 day aged beef fillet cooked at 50 C for three hours, leaving it pink but melting the sinews, rolled in vegetable ash, which gave a charred umami flavour you get from grilled meat without at all affecting its texture as frying would have done.  The ash was made from a leek left to dry in the oven for nearly a week until completely black, crushed and mixed with a bit of oil.  This sat on top of a dark sesame paste with a smear of 'mushroom caramel' on one side and a line of mushrooms on the other, delicately flavoured with some chilli, which changed the dish and moved it away somewhat from the classic European flavours it otherwise contained.  It  was again, unsurprisingly by now, excellent.  The meat itself was very well cooked, though personally I like my beef bloodier than most and it was like everything else had been, beautifully presented.

Sadly we were now approaching the last two courses.  The first was pre-pudding which took normally savoury ingredients into something nearing a dessert, leaving the promise of something properly sweet after.  A shot glass arrived filled with a sweetened cauliflower puree, topped with an already sweet beetroot sauce and some salt and sweet roast pistachios.  Again exploring new approaches to ingredients in a way that this type of cooking needs to, but leaving something not overworked that was interesting and thought provoking but that worked well as food.  The pudding itself was a little white chocolate doughnut with tiny bits of herbs mango puree and fresh fruit.  Oh and a couple of small blobs of sweetened black olive sauce, obviously - who eats chocolate without olives these days?  Again it worked, it wasn't just there for the sake of it and that's what's so important when you push the boundaries.  Things were tweaked and they were conceptual, but they weren't experimental for the sake of it.  At the heart of each dish was real cooking and good food.  What made it more was the limits the chefs pushed their ingredients to and the skill with which they did it.  This was a fantastic five hour night, with incredibly friendly, nice chefs in the kitchen and a wonderful host and some of the best fine dining I have ever eaten.

Price £117.50/head incl. all drinks.

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