Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lunch at Hereford Road, Notting Hill

I received an email last week from an outfit called Taste Club of which I was apparently a 'member'.  It invited me to buy a place for a 'Taste Tuesday' lunch, proceeds of which (well, some of the profit I guess) would go to the StreetSmart charity.  The name Taste reminded me offputtingly of a glossy food magazine back in the 1980s featuring elaborate, often foreign recipes but the names Hereford Road and Tom Pemberton leapt out of the email and screamed 21st century back-to-basics, offally good English food.  And the St. John trained chef was going to do a demo for us.  I had to give it a go.

There was no one from Taste Club to greet members and I was shown on arrival straight to an extremely comfortable but lonely 4 seater booth.  I hoped that I'd be joined by some greedy and hillarious fellow club members or at least have a waitress (or the promised chef) to chat to but  bonviveur members of any club were perhaps in St. James's, and the waitress and chef were busy.  I thought clubs were supposed to be about conviviality and the sharing of common interests but what members there were (identifiable by the smart blue Taste Club menus on their tables) were too far apart to communicate.  But it is early days for Taste and I hope membership increases and the concept takes off.  

After fiddling with a glass of Laurent Perrier I was summoned to the open kitchen where Tom talked us through the meal we were going to have.  He briefly explained his ethos carried over from being head chef at St. John Bread & Wine of using all the bits of the animal and using sympathetic preparation and cooking techniques appropriate for all these bits.  In his quiet, unassuming way he managed to convey considerable passion and knowledge about the ingredients and their sourcing and careful handling.  He assembled a salad starter for us whilst explaining the brining of lamb's tongues and the blanching and peeling of the "rather membraneous" lamb's sweetbreads.  Whilst he spoke we chomped on sublime little fried crostini of smoked cod's roe which finally gave meaning to the lean and rather fresh, lemony Champagne.  But being 1pm and a restaurant with only two chefs there were other fish to fry and we had to reluctantly leave the kitchen behind and go back to our booths.

The sensational starter of Lamb's Tongues, Sweetbreads, Pearl Barley & Mint was served with plenty of chopped flat leaf parsley and the odd tiny caper in a light oil & lemon dressing.  The tongues which had had 2 weeks in brine were tender and subtle but were outlambed by the caramelised sweetbreads which tasted very lamby (wonder what mutton sweetbreads taste like) and left a pleasant sticky residue on my teeth. The whole dish had character a plenty but was light and balanced and the glass of house white (billed as Sauvignon) was a pleasant enough foil. 

The next dish drew gasps of amazement from around the room as each table received a whole oxtail, enough to feed 3 or 4.  I was not complaining and tucked straight into melting, fibrous, unctuous meat, tender from 6 hours braising in carrot and onion sweet stock.  The carrots had had several hours too and only managed to stay whole as they hadn't been peeled and so the skin held them together.  The jus was redolent of herbs (mainly rosemary) and had a slightly syrupy consistency from the gelatine oozing from the bones.  The buttery rich mash was perfect for soaking up the juices (why wasn't Pierre Koffmann's mash made like this?).

  Evidently, the dish was intended for more than one but I managed to finish it as, like the starter, it was balanced, subtle but flavoursome.  A glass of plummy house red (billed as Côtes du Roussillon) was again a pleasant, innocuous foil letting the dish speak for itself.
Even I needed a bit of a rest after that and this rather odd-looking but refreshing pud turned out to be the best sorbet I have ever had. It was creamy but light, tasting more of oranges than oranges themselves, and was slightly molten like a granita because of a splash of homemade sloe gin (the sloes came from the lamb supplier).  The tuile was buttery but again super light. The preferable order of cheese following pud allowed us port or sherry to finish off the meal.  Cashel Blue went really well with my glass of figgy, treacly Pedro Ximenez which did rather swamp the overly youthful Montgomery Cheddar and something rather mild called Coddlestone, the only false note in an otherwise brilliant lunch.  Oh, and the long flat crostini to go with the cheese were embedded with cumin seeds which underlines this chef's attention to detail. As a postscript,  I think for future Taste Club events the chef should try and come around towards end of service to chat about the food.  One can grill the waiting staff but when the response to each question is "I'll go and ask" you soon feel you're upsetting their service routine.  I didn't ask about the wine because I overheard the neighbouring table being informed that the Côtes du Roussillon was "French" when a query was made.