“I don’t think there is better food being cooked in London,” said Giles Coren in The Saturday Times. “Exceptionally balanced and thought out,” said Jay Rayner in The Observer. “It was a close to perfect as I’ve eaten for a long time,” raved A.A Gill in The Sunday Times. And when the great crocodiles of food criticism get this excited, one wants to know what all the fuss is about; so we booked a table*, and seven months later, took our long-awaited seats at Dabbous.
By now, you’ve probably all heard of Oliver Dabbous, the ex-head chef of Mayfair’s Texture and former employee of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons; he’s only 28 and has crocodiles literally eating out of his hand. But sometimes it takes youth to knock the stuffing out of something so, well, stuffy as fine dining can be, and it’s the lack of pretension at Dabbous – the dressed down industrial décor; the black and white, but non-uniformed attire of the waiters; the reasonable prices; the fact that the bar downstairs is open to those who haven’t got a table reservation – and the general lack of pomp and ceremony that makes the exquisite food here all the more surprising and exciting.
And it really is exquisite. Our Day of Dabbous took place on a Saturday lunchtime with The Worms for company. In hot anticipation, we had pretty much decided (three days previously, by email; subject line ‘Abba Dabba Dabbous!’) – to have the tasting menu, so the only decision left to make when we arrived was what wine to order, the answer to which ended up being: lots
We had a table by the window with streams of natural light. Normally iPhone pictures (often dark and fuzzy) come out quite well in such light, but I had taken an executive decision NOT to take pictures** of each course on this occasion, simply because, sometimes, just enjoying the food for what it is seems more important, and this was one of those times. (I’ve done some doodles instead).
By sheer ingenuity, artfulness and alchemy, Dabbous leads you to look at, taste and admire simple, everyday produce – a pea, an egg, a tomato, a peach – in a way that you never have before.
The first course, entitled simply pea and mint came in a small and understated white bowl, allowing the natural beauty of the pea in various guises to be shown. There was the pale green pea purée on which whole peas were scattered; a pea pod, delicately split to reveal a line of peas clustered within; a tea spoonful of icy pea granita; then meticulous placed whole mint leaves; and a pea shoot, with the inky purple of its flower petals a fragile accent of colour against the whole.
To jab our forks against such a pretty picture seemed a crime, but a crime, it turned out, worth committing, for this was a dish so quintessentially pea-like, it was revelatory.
It was the same story for the ripe tomato in its own juice. This consisted of quarter of a tomato, scattered with tiny crispy flakes of black olive, and placed within a cool tomatoey water laced with liquidy green puddles of basil oil. We admired. We tasted.
“I’ve never been this excited about a tomato before,” said Becca.
“And it’s not even a whole tomato!” said The Heid.
We mopped up the juices with the freshly made sourdough bread, savouring every last morsel of this, the most tomatoey tomato I’ve ever eaten.
Next was the famous coddled egg. It came nestled on a bed of hay, in its shell, the top of which had been sawn off completely straight, with no cracks or jagged edges to tarnish it. Inside were three of four tea spoonfuls of what tasted like scrambled egg, but the best scrambled egg ever, infused with woodland mushrooms and a smoked butter that gave a salty depth of flavour akin to bacon (except there was none) and a richness that more than made up for the smallness of the dish. I loved it.
Braised halibut with coastal herbs followed lightly, whispering flavours of oyster from the oyster leaf that lay on top. Then the barbecued Iberico pork arrived, a heartier dish, with a richer, pinker pork – almost like lamb – than I have tried before. It came with a salty, crunchy, almost caramel sauce of acorn praline, accompanied by turnip tops and apple vinegar, and compelled me to wipe my plate compulsively long after it was clean.
An elegant symmetry to the menu was achieved by the peach in its own juice, which, like the tomato that had come before it, was a culinary sonnet to this fruit, which came peeled, quartered and perfectly ripe, surrounded in a orangey-yellow pool of peach juice that was sweet, subtle and oh-so-very peachy.
The final dish was again marked by its apparent simplicity: a soft and creamy milk curd scattered with pistachio, crunchy ‘black’ sugar, and rose petals, placed as though they had fallen. Beautiful to look at, the flavour was at once milky, sweet and fragrant; the texture smooth and yet rough; the whole dish complex in the balance of its flavours, but honest in its ingredients, which seemed so very humble.
Despite it being seven courses, our lunch at Dabbous was light, very healthy and fresh, and one, we realised afterwards, had been served completely without carbohydrate (save for the sourdough). Would carbs have interfered with the delicate balance of this menu? Or distracted from the finely crafted flavours of the key ingredients? Or filled us up so much that we would have stopped tasting properly? All I know is that we were in the hands of Oliver Dabbous, and – by god, those old crocs were right – he really knows what he’s doing.
* TOP TIP: If you can’t get a table, keep an eye on the Dabbous Twitter account @DabbousLondon – it sometimes posts last minute cancellations, so you could squeeze in early.
** PHOTOS: If you want to see what some Dabbous dishes look like, check out the Flickr account of Elepantu – it’s got some excellent shots of all the dishes mentioned above – and next time I’ll take my own!
39 Whitfield Street
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