Tuesday, 1 September 2009

nuno mendes - the loft project

i wasn't sure if there was any point in writing about our trip to the loft. as i've said before, writing about food is difficult enough when you know what it is that you're eating. but when you can't get further than just stating that something is crunchy or savoury without having any idea even what foodstuff it is, you're going to struggle.

i decided to do it simply because i didn't want to forget the food. it's as close to heston as i have got so far (there are plans...) - though, for nuno, i expect the comparison will probably get a bit irksome after a while).

the whole concept is pretty crazy: you pay upfront to sit in someone's flat with a dozen strangers and watch someone cook. it's a nice flat and all - but it's still a strange way to spend a saturday night.

but it works. it's a self-selecting group of people, for a start: i can't imagine a banker's wife from chelsea wanting to go to shoreditch (dalston, if you're feeling less generous) for some cauliflower paste dessert. the people we ended up sitting next to were good fun: two chefs from gordon ramsay's restaurants, and a couple from staines who, like us, just like food and booze. and there was plenty of booze too, which helped - they give you a lychee cocktail topped with basil oil as soon as you walk in and continue with white wine, sake, red wine and finally dessert wine. it helps people relax but, as the wine is poured for you, there is no risk of anyone getting drunk.

as for the food....my god, the food was amazing. it made me realise i know NOTHING about cooking. not in the sense of 'technique' as they'd want you to demonstrate on masterchef - though, of course, i'm not exactly an expert in using a water bath that rich recognised from his time in the lab (it's the currently fashionable sous vide). i mean cooking in the sense of knowing how flavours and textures work and what makes something taste right - and experimenting, mixing ingredients in a way that produces something new. what surprised me most, i think, was that none of it felt pointless, and done solely for the sake of being different. it genuinely tasted amazing.

i can't remember all the courses we got - there must have been ten or more. there was the onion soup formed into a perfect, soft little sphere, like a table tennis ball, that you pop into your mouth whole and then it just kind of...melts. there was the egg cooked in the water bath where the yolk and the white were of the same texture and tasted like the eggiest egg ever. there was the 'cake' (in a very loose sense of the word) served with passion fruit and a thick, tar-like black olive sauce. there was some black squid porridge and steak cooked in the water bath with enoki mushrooms. (there was basically more umami going on there than you could shake a stick at.)

the two dishes that really stick in my mind - the ones where i wanted to pick up a plate or a bowl and lick it clean - were the aubergine roe with an aubergine consomme, truffle oil and a slick of the most amazingly savoury japanese plum paste; and the strawberry cauliflower dessert which was without doubt the strangest thing i have eaten in my life - a patisserie cream consistency and colour but smelling of blue cheese and white chocolate, eaten with some sliced strawberries and something else i couldn't identify. when i first tasted the cream, i thought it would be the first dish i didn't like. but then rich said i should eat it all together rather than taste the individual components. this seems logical until you're presented with a plate of unrecognisable stuff so your instinct is to try each bit. and it worked, it worked so crazily well i was blown away. maybe i have a weird palate but i just wanted to carry on eating it. it's funny how your brain works too - i smelt the cream and all i could think was - cheese and chocolate. it's only when one of the ramsay chefs said cauliflower and vanilla that it suddenly smelt of precisely that.

we walked home after midnight, tipsy and content. maybe you wouldn't want to eat like this all the time - but i'd be quite happy to have supper at the loft every couple of weeks.

so, when nuno opens his restaurant next year, i suggest you go. http://www.nunomendes.co.uk/loft.html

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