Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A culinary masterclass from a master chef

Sweetbread, almond, pear
Back in December, a whole fortnight before Christmas, we ended up at the Gilbert Scott for my birthday meal, after a salutary lesson in just how far in advance you need to book for certain restaurants.

Not, I hasten to add, that The Gilbert Scott is in any way a culinary let down.

But within a few days, I’d suggested to The Other Half that we try to book well advance for his birthday, which fell this weekend just gone.

It paid off – thanks to very helpful staff – and we found ourselves with a reservation for lunch at Marcus, Marcus Wareing’s eponymous eatery at the Berkley Hotel in Knightsbridge.

Having quaffed a late-but-light breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast – as much to get the systems going as anything – we dressed and headed out into Saturday’s gloom.

To begin with, the bus was slow. Then, after getting to King’s Cross, the tannoy blared out the news that a signal failure had stalled all Piccadilly line trains – just as we’d found our way to the platform.

I’ll just say at this point: King’s Cross was always bad, but it now simply seems bigger and more crowded than ever, even if shiner and newer. It’s a nightmare to navigate around.

We thought about hopping onto the nearby Victoria line and changing – only to see that there are no stations where you can change to the Piccadilly.

We’d given ourselves more than enough time – more than recommended by Transport for London – but with less than half an hour left before we were due to take our seats, we hopped a cab and I rang the restaurant to let them know we would be a little late – which didn’t worry them in the least.

Eventually, we made it across London just 15 minutes beyond our appointed time, but nonetheless feeling slightly harried.

Anjou pigeon, celeriac, bean, blackberry
Moving through the tea room and into the restaurant provided almost instant tension relief.

At a comfortable spacious table, we started to unwind with the menus, a welcome glass of fizz and small, doughy balls with a Parmesan salty kick inside that really lengthened the taste experience.

Marcus is one of those establishments that uses very simple menu descriptions, but frankly, I don’t know why some people find it disconcerting: for me, it’s a nice way to highlight the key flavours and ingredients.

So, while The Other Half started with “sea bass, sweet potato, saffron, sorrel”, I opted for “veal sweetbread, almond, pear”.

Sweetbread is one of those hugely misunderstood cuts: yes, it can be testicles, but it can also be several other things – not least, thymus.

These were blissfully sweet and tender, with a texture that was not unreminiscent of foie gras, and with a gloriously caramelized top providing a wonderful contrast.

The pear came in at least two ways: two segments that, our waiter explained, had been given the sous vide treatment, which firmed them up at the same time as keeping them juicy. The cut edges had a filigree of black on it – a little like charcoal, I thought.

And indeed, that would work perfectly, given the wine I had.

We’d decided to rely on the sommelier for recommendations, and for this course, mine was a French white – Chardonnay Vieilles vignes’, Seguela, Côtes Catalanes, 2013 – with a distinctly burnt toast taste that worked really well as a compliment to the sweetness of the meat and the pear.

There was also a pear crisp that was wafer thin and simply melted in the mouth, plus slivered almonds and a purée to add further textures.

It was divine.

For a main, The Other Half picked “venison, chestnut, cranberry, black pudding”, while I took on “Anjou pigeon, celeriac, bean, blackberry”.

Again, two very happy diners.

The pigeon was wonderful: superbly cooked, with a single leg roasted to the point of being sticky with it’s own juices, and served in a tiny bowl of bread sauce and with a water bowl alongside. There’s something almost divinely nefarious about sitting in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant and eating with your fingers.

Rhubarb, custard, thyme, ginger
The blackberries, I suspect, had also been in the sous vide for the same reason as the pear – intensified flavor and firmness – while the celeriac came in both tiny, sautéed dice and little roundels. The beans added yet more texture.

Wine this time was an earthy red – a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Clos des Brusquieres’ from the Rhône, 2010.

And then, of course, dessert.

Both of us, having seen Wareing himself present Masterchef: The Professionals late last year, were aware of his love for the dishes his grandmother cooked in his native Lancashire.

So on seeing a listing for “rhubarb, custard, thyme, ginger,” neither of us bothered with a second thought, given that the Yorkshire Triangle’s forced rhubarb season is just underway.

Not, of course, that this was any old rhubarb and custard.

The custard came as feather-light set discs, flavoured with vanilla and thyme.

With that, there was a sticky rhubarb smear, a quenelle of rhubarb ice cream, pieces of rhubarb (probably from the sous vide, because it was ‘cooked’ yet firm) with dots of foam and thyme, ribbons of stewed rhubarb and strings of ginger.

With the restaurant out of banyuls, I tried a digestif from Spain: a Moscatel Dorado, Bodegas César Florido, Jerez, which was full of prune sweetness and sunshine.

There were Tahiti vanilla and milk chocolate truffles and banana ganache with yuzu gel squares to complete the meal.

We that, we headed home, both sated and soothed.

People sometimes question whether fine dining is worth the lay out.

Truffles and ganache
I know I’ve said it before, but yes, it really does.

This was flawless cooking; not a single false note. Superb ingredients, with flavours that were robust yet combined with great subtlety, and all presented quite beautifully.

Having the wine selected for you by an expert really adds to the experience: when matched like this, it becomes even more an integral part of the meal than if you simply selected a single bottle to cover all courses.

Service was exemplary – friendly yet formal at the same time: the perfect way to illustrate this was that the junior sommelier happily agreed to give me a list of the wines we’d had, and did so in a beautifully hand-written list before we left.

And in the interests of completeness, the setting combines comfort and elegance.

This was a wonderful meal – and a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

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