Do you fancy something sweet for your starter? Aiden Byrne and other Michelin-starred chefs reckon so
That’s black cherry and foie gras terrine with palm sugar mousse and gingerbread biscuits in the picture above.
Looks fantastic, undoubtedly tastes great, but is it the kind of thing with which you’d want to kick off your meal?
And he isn’t alone.
Scot Alan Murchison kicked off the entire TV series with duck terrine with pineapple five ways.
I’ve also experienced the sweet at the start of meal in real life, at Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus (review below) recently, with an amouse bouche of hibiscus flower and pineapple foam.
And at Gordon Ramsay’s three-star Hospital Road restaurant he’s now serving pressed foie gras with peppered Madeira jelly, smoked duck, new season rhubarb and blood orange.
You’d expect a little bit of fruit here, some sweet alcohol or vinegar there – hence the Madeira jelly. But rhubarb and orange take it into a whole different territory – desserts.
There’s a tradition of mixing fruit with meat, vis pork with apple and redcurrant with turkey, and pastilla with pigeon in North Africa.
And meat or vegetables often benefit from caramelisation, giving slightly sweetened notes to add to the complexity of a dish.
But to kick off with so much candy-coating seems OTT.
Maybe we need to open our minds a bit; perhaps we’re seeing the future here. But I’ve yet to be converted.
Hibiscus: venue to one of the country’s most talented chefs who nearly lost it all a few years ago but is now back on track.
Accolades: two Michelin stars, voted no 94 in the world’s top 100 restaurants.
Even bigger accolade for any proprietor: the restaurant was full at lunchtime, comprising wealthy locals with a high chair and kids, gourmets from Holland and Brits out to impress.
While so many chefs suffer in the shadow of Heston’s pyrotechnics, Claude’s kitchen is sufficiently technically adept to carry off more simple inventiveness and draw in the crowds.
We picked the set lunch on Saturday 29th April for £53.50, giving an extra glass of wine, coffee and petits fours rather than the regular £45 for three courses.
The immediate impression is of a restaurant at ease with itself in the French two-star manner. Customers talk to each other rather than watch every step as you walk in.
Service is mixed - there were some questionable ingredient descriptions from our waitress: what for example is the wild herb ‘salty finger’? We guessed it was probably sea purslane.
But the rest of the time there’s zero snootiness and competence, along with a great sommelier.
The aforementioned waitress laid down pork scratchings with vinegar powder to kick off - punchy, sharp, a haute cusine take on the salt and vinegar crisp. It was impressive if brutal.
Amouse bouche no 2 was hibiscus flower mixed with pineapple cream. Clearly intended as a palate cleanser, with a rich fruity foam, this would have hit the mark between mains and desert.
Things took a step up with the starter: pike quenelle that dodged the French bistro failing of all flour and no fish that Raymond Blanc recently complained about, with quiche lorraine sauce to give the quirky touch (bacon, cheese, roux flavours), roast shallot, pickled onion and roast emmenthal crumbs.
My wife took crab with wafer - thin cucumber slices - clean, sweet pieces of crustacea, with rhubarb, cardomon, stitchwort, chickweed and sea purslane - or salty finger perhaps. This was decent, if lacking some oomph.
Pork belly main was the standout - soft and melting from being cooked in hay, with a crisp skin – atop peas cooked a la Française with some pink grapefruit juice for sharpness.
The other main was a well-timed Cornish piece of cod, elegantly matched with a strawberry vierge sauce and exquisite crushed ratte potato.
I finished with drops of black olive, asparagus and whey cream, plus wafer-thin meringue. It looked a little 90s, and worringly containing ingredients you’d normally serve in a Spring salad. But the olive was particularly fine, the asparagus disconcerting but delicious.
A whole blood orange hollowed out then filled with frozen blood orange, served with orange sponge pieces, was only spoilt by marjoram, with some characteristic soapy flavours to the fore.
There’s a very fine pastry chef at work here - delicious small madeleines with a thin crunch on the outside and soft inside finished it off. Petits fours were completed by honeycomb chocolates of a fantastic texture - Wispa without the added chemicals, although some of the herb flavourings such as lemon thyme were too dominant.
Claude is mixing classic French cooking with the trend for foraged ingredients, some Heston-esque curiosities, and with a slight British influence at play. He’s also doing his own thing of reversing ingredients around.
Savoury at the end most definitely works, sweet at the start doesn’t but as former England manager Graham Taylor once said, people tend to give more credence to the second half of any game. And it has to be said that from main course onwards Bosi played a blinder.
Daniel Clifford is turning in a storming performance on Great British Menu and frankly it makes me want to take up his offer to sample the food he’s turned out for the TV show.
He’s previously mashed up his MIchelin star billing with under par performances in the BBC kitchen, but this time Daniel has turned scores of 9, 9 and now 10 for the main.
Sat Bains managed a 10/10 with his slow-cooked duck egg with pea sorbet, ham and pea shoots and this latest effort from Clifford seems equally likely to have people heading to his restaurant just to smaple it.
"I’m not here to make enemies, I’m here to cook great food" is what he tells Aktar Islam.
And as from 24 April, Midsummer House will be serving the full Olympic-sized effort. Here’s the full four-course lowdown of what’s on offer – get in there!
Starter – caramelised veal sweetbread, onion and cinnamon purée, burnt onions, wood sorrel
Fish course – stuffed red mullet, parmesan purée, confit!lemon, roast artichoke, green olives and Iberico ham
Main course – slow poached chicken, sweetcorn, wilted spinach with bacon and peas, chicken juices
Dessert – raspberry and tarragon roulade, white chocolate cookie dough, salt and pepper powder and tarragon oil