Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Christmas on a plate

As freezing fog descended to shroud even London in shivering winter, the plate in front of me announced, loud and clear, that the festive season is upon us.

The red of venison tartare, the green of Douglas fir and the white of buttercream – Rudolph, wintery forests and snow. It was, as The Other Half put it, “Christmas on a plate”.

After the business of trying my first oyster a few weeks ago, primarily to ensure that I could safely consume some at my birthday dinner, I changed my mind.

After all, an oyster is – in effect – an oyster is an oyster. And I can let them carry the taste of the sea down my throat pretty much any time. But what I wanted on this occasion was to experience the food of Richard Corrigan.

The Michelin-starred Irishman has won Great British Menu on three occasions, and is an ambassador for the Slow Food Movement; in other words, seasonal produce, as locally-sourced as possible, is at the heart of his food philosophy.

What does all that look like on the plate – and more to the point, what does it taste like?

Well, it can be rather surprising. Having discovered that a G&T really benefits from a slice of cucumber, we then found ourselves with a slender dish of deep-fried olives as an amuse-bouche, which stunned us both by being a delight.

Venison tartare.
But then it was on to that venison tartare. Lightly spiced – not spice that suggested the east though, but the north and mulled wine – it was gloriously moist and melted in the mouth. A thin slice of air-light toasted bread added texture.

The quenelle of buttercream was as light as it was rich, while the green oil, infused with the fresh scent of the forest, was a shock – but a welcome one.

Taken together, it was at once complex and simple: a taste of the wintery forest on a crisp night beneath a sparkling sky. And yes, that really was an image that entered my head almost instantly.

The Other Half had picked duck egg and smoked hake: he noted that the egg was perhaps a fraction overcooked, but that it was wonderful to taste, and was followed in his case by a ballotine of wild boar, with curls of crisp crackling and quince on the side, and which had him rhapsodising.

My venison was followed by steamed hake.

The fish was perfectly cooked – firm and yet flakingly moist at the same time – and sat on a bed of sea grass that had a totally unexpected taste (and very pleasant, I might add).

On top of the fish itself were ribbons of salted cucumber – delicate yet crunchy all at once – and above that, a tiny piece of fish in a wafer-light batter, crowned with a garnish of cress. Dotted around, a brunoise of carrot, tender and sweet and, on the side, an oyster veloutĂ© with caviar.

Hake – with layers. And texture. And taste.
Goodness; hidden layers of surprises: myriad combinations of flavours and textures. An absolute delight.

And how did we ‘forget’ hake? I remember it vaguely from childhood, yet you rarely see it in shops these days. And the taste is such that it’s little wonder that chefs have been talking it up in recent years.

As a side order, we shared a portion of crushed carrot and swede with pepper and tiny pieces of perfectly crisp bacon.

For dessert, The Other Half opted for a rich chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream. I selected plums in Marsala, served with a madeline – actually more like a wedge of dense, ginger cake – and a delicate scoop of a lightly-spiced ice cream.

Christmas in a bowl.

There followed coffee and petits four – tiny chocolate treats and slices of a miniature, but utterly perfect lemon tart that was anything but miniature when it came to flavour, packing a massive citrus punch.

And then, just as we leaned back and exhaled slowly and with pleasure, a small cake, topped with two candles, arrived at the table, on a slate that was inscribed, in cream, with the words: ‘Happy Birthday’.

Layers of chocolate, covered in more chocolate and topped with a quenelle of rich chocolate mousse, it was a complete surprise – and an absolute delight.

Now regular readers of this blog will know that, no matter how difficult to believe it might be, I have a very small capacity for food.

But I had, on this occasion, managed to put away, in their entirety, three complete courses – the portion sizes were absolutely perfect for me.

In that situation, there was no chance that I could eat all (or half) of that extra – and oh so special – cake. I did do my best, though.

To drink, we’d chosen a Bourgueil La Coudraye 2010 from the Loire Valley, which was a light enough red to drink alongside the fish – as well as the meat and game.

A very special birthday cake.
Corrigan’s Mayfair is a lovely setting: a low-ceilinged room that is at once classy but yet not remotely intimidating, and with beautiful light. To borrow a phrase from one of my favourite films, Victor/Victoria, the restrooms are almost a religious experience.

And the staff are a delight: at once highly attentive and helpful, but also entirely unobtrusive.

A short while after that cake arrived, we exchanged the warmth of the restaurant for the cold night air, only to discover that the nearby fair in Hyde Park was shrouded by dense mist.

With the waddle of utter stuffedness we made our way around the corner until we were in a condition to hail a taxi home.

But, oh my goodness – what a meal, what a meal.

If anyone suggests to you that expensive restaurants really don’t give you anything much more over far cheaper ones – well, don’t listen to them.

Because at Corrigan’s Mayfair, you get massive culinary bang for your buck with inventive cooking and sublime food.

Did I make that clear? This is utterly divine use of the very best ingredients. It is an art – and don’t let’s pretend otherwise.

And those candles? As I blew them out, I could only wish to dine more often so magnificently and, indeed, to return to Corrigan’s itself.

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