Ever since visiting Stripped Back by Ben Spalding, I’ve been a big fan of his. I was rather excited by the news that he was doing a one off dinner in collaboration with Henrietta Lovell (aka the Rare Tea Lady) which would consist of a tasting menu with matching teas. Once I convinced my gentleman companion that the £80 a head would be worth it – I booked us in.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ben’s work, he was head chef at Roganic and has since worked alongside Brett Graham at The Ledbury. He will shortly take up a six month residency in the kitchen of John Salt in Upper Street.
The dinner took place in Red Hook restaurant in Farringdon which Ben had taken over for the evening. In the middle of the room was a long table where Ben and his team meticulously prepared each dish.
Henrietta Lovell, founder of the Rare Tea Company and a passionate lover of teas, perfectly matched each course with unusual flavoured teas. I’ll be honest, I never had much time for tea before, but after tasting the difference between a Lapsang Suchong and a Ruinous Jasmine Silver Tip – I think I’m a convert.
Now lets get down to the food. Each diner had a placemat titled the Golden Meal which resembled a tube map with each stop representing a different course. We were intrigued to say the least.
Three types of bread started proceedings and were served on a plate made of bread – a plate made of bread! The soured flatbreads were crispy and had a real twang which made them totally moreish. The highlight for me was the orange marmalade ciabatta – it was spongy and sweet with a crunchy crust and was absolute perfection.
Two butters were served on a slab of salt, meaning as you scraped it off with a knife you could season your own butter. It was very unusual but worked really well.
A third butter served in a separate dish came from Swedish based Patrick Johansson and was like no butter I’ve ever eaten before. Creamy and sour yet light as air – it got a big thumbs up from me.
Fermented mung beans with San Marzano seeds and potato crisps, cured salmon, lime cream and stonecrop was our first serving and epitomised Ben’s style of cooking (usually with ingredients that I’ve never heard of!). The mung bean had a consistency of crushed chick peas and alone wasn’t my favourite thing. But combined with the salmon and crunchy potato crisps (that were just like kettle chips) it all worked rather well.
Next up was a salad of mixed fruit and veg with foraged herbs, fresh cobnuts, green peppercorns and soured cream. This soured cream had been left to go well past it’s sell by date which Ben insisted gives it extra flavour and he wasn’t wrong – it was seriously flavoursome! The dish was light and refreshing with crunchy textures in every mouthful.
Luckily for us we got to try one of Ben’s signature dishes ‘chicken on a brick’. The brick was covered in a hardened caramel and then smeared with chicken liver parfait topped with sweet corn, pearl barley, edible flowers, celeriac puree and a red onion jam. It was heavenly – so much so that I gladly licked the brick clean afterwards. It was perfectly balanced between the rich irony livers and the sweet onion jam and the bitter edible flowers. The quirky presentation was right up my street.
We were then served luke warm razor clam and lemon verbena broth, raw carrot, snow peas and white peaches. The broth was light and delicate with perfectly cooked razor clams – a real taste of the sea.
Next up was a thing of pure beauty. Fried Machiavelli egg yolk, rich mousse of aura potato, oxe eye daisy leaves, parsley and smoke watermelon. The egg yolk was so plump and gooey with a yolk that could win awards for its orange-ness and served alongside one of the strangest things I’ve ever tasted – smoked watermelon. It was like someone had smashed an ash tray against my tastebuds then quickly squirted them with refreshing sweet watermelon. It was very clever and VERY tasty.
Then we were served poached and grilled king oyster (which is a mushroom not an oyster like I thought, durr) beefsteak fungus, toasted almonds, blowtorched baby gem lettuce and a marinade flavoured with fish sauce. The king oyster mushroom was heavenly and perfectly cooked. The marinade went brilliantly with the mushroom – sweet, salty and tangy. The soil sprinkled on the plate had a strong taste of mushroom which was also really enjoyable.
Our next course was day boat fish – meaning we were served the freshest possible fillet of plaice with raw and cooked young carrots, beetroots and leeks with Brazil nuts and a light cider sauce. This was my favourite course. The quality of the fish was phenomenal – I’ve never had fish quite like it. It had a beautifully brown crispy exterior with an inside as white as snow. The chewy crispy leeks and the sweet carrots gave me a mouthful of heaven.
Our final savoury course was matured beef rump from O’Shea’s, sweet potato, Thai long beans and kimchi with roasting juices. In terms of flavour combinations this dish was the simplest and tasted wonderful. The beef, served perfectly pink, was tender and the sharp kimchi gave it a real kick.
Next up was the cheese course which consisted of a triangle of St Agur cheese, roasted pineapple, rye crisp bread and 50 year old black gold balsamic. We were all given a pipette filled with this rather expensive balsamic so we could taste it on its own – and I made sure I grabbed the fullest one! The strong flavour hit my tastebuds like a wave – it was by far the best balsamic I’ve ever tasted. Accompanied with the cheese and the sweet pineapple it made for a great combination.
Our first dessert course was Carina’s brown butter and cardamom pancake, sweetened lingonberries and jersey milk custard. This was absolutely delicious however my pancake was a little overcooked on one side and had a lot less lingonberries than my gentleman companion’s plate but that aside – it was a really tasty dessert.
Our second and final dessert course was iced lemon thyme, caramelised white chocolate, roasted pine nut paste, Oreo cookie crumbs and muscat grapes. The lemon flavoured ice with the thick smooth white chocolate was quite an odd blend of textures and flavours but – surprise surprise, it worked really well. Sweet yet refreshing it didn’t leave me feeling obese after what could only be described as an almighty feast.
For petit fours: epoisse (cheese) macaroons and Indian mango with cream cheese. The cheesy macaroons divided the table – my gentleman companion wasn’t that keen but I absolutely loved them.
The matching teas with each course really were excellent and it made for an interesting change to the usual. Whether it was the Malawi Pu’re matched with the mushrooms or the Ruinos Jasmine Silver Tip matched with the plaice we both enjoyed every single one (I’m still buzzing from all that caffeine!)
Considering Ben doesn’t have a professional kitchen at the moment, the meal that we received was seriously impressive. He and his team did a sterling job. The food was unusual and featured many ingredients that we’ve never eaten before making his dishes exciting and intriguing. That man can seriously cook!