I’m sure we could go on for ages about the Mariana-like depths to which we collectively submerge our independent judgment, those tempting soundbites of talk-show zeitgeist whose value exists in roughly inverse proportion to the volume of their proponents, including, inter alia:
- Water boils more quickly when salted;
- Cutting taxes reduces the size of government;
- Guns don’t kill people, people do;
- Traditional English food sucks;
- All the best and most interesting restaurants are engaged in the new-new thing in terms of technique, flavor, and presentation.
Maybe you find this to be odd dinner conversation, but the family’s all gone home to Healdsburg, so I’m dining alone tonight, and thus even further lost in my own thoughts than usual (and that’s a very high – or perhaps very low, depending on one’s perspective - bar, or so my wife and others have led me to believe).
The meal in question is birthed by the gleaming, microchip factory-cum-kitchen at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and, beyond how damn good it all tastes, the up-ending of CW is what I keep thinking about, because what is so spectacularly new and interesting about the food, in an establishment run by one of the greatest practitioners of modernist cuisine, is that it is the very antithesis of new: to the contrary, it is old.
Very old. So old-school it’s better described as medieval. Literally: the back of the menu lists the ‘sources of origin’ for the recipes, and they range from the merely very-old (e.g., The Cook and Housewife’s Manual of 1826) to the definitively ancient (a risotto-like dish of “Rice and Flesh”, from the court of King Richard II, c.1390); English kitchens of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries – not generally mentioned in the ostentatious whisperings of the foodie elite – are well-represented. And yet, without exception, every single dish comes across as lively, fresh, and contemporary, with a heavy reliance on local, seasonal ingredients and – in the deft hands of head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts – flawlessly executed. Service, for what it’s worth (which is quite a lot, in my book) is what hospitality ought to be, but so rarely is: seamless and on the verge of not-being-noticed, unless of course you need something, which seems magically to materialize; always present, but never fawning.
The best example I can offer is this “Meat Fruit” (c.1400-1500 England, precise origin unknown), which seems a dead lock at this point for everybody’s dish of the year. Certainly, it’s the best thing I’ve eaten in 2011, and probably the best thing I’ve eaten since somewhere relatively deep into the last decade. As far as 500-year old cuisine goes, it’s also astoundingly, deceptively, clever, and yet again, somehow strikes a perfectly modern chord, from its tongue-in-cheek presentation to its pure, bold flavors.
Everything you see is meat: the center of the Mandarin is a whipped chicken liver parfait, so light that it creates a sensation on the palate closer to savory whipped cream than, say, fois gras; the ‘skin’ is a delicate gelee – complete with dimples, no less – through which the tangy-sweet flavor of the orange remains perfectly transparent, that is structurally sound enough to hold the thing upright, and offers no resistance whatsoever to my butter knife. And, like the best of modernist cuisine, the gimmick serves a purpose: the Mandarin encasement becomes the classic fruit-based ballast to the rich globe of torchon-like liver inside.
Served on a wooden plank, served with crusty grilled bread, I’m not sure how one improves upon a dish like this, except perhaps to order seconds.