27 Jan 2010

Aikens Diet: Self-Portrait in Dough?

TO MARK my 30th, I was generously treated by friends and family to three meals in Michelin-starred restaurants, the first two of which were announced in the recent awards. I didn’t deliberately approach these critically, although that hat can be hard to remove. Some brief thoughts below.
At £23 for three courses including a rice pudding in chocolate canister, the set lunch offers reasonable value. However, chef Shay Cooper relies on recycling the same ingredients across too many dishes, particularly cubed, caramelised figs and Sugar Puff like grains, in one instance so overly-scented with Saffron as to smell surgical. He also seems wasteful in his pursuit of aesthetic plates, for example divorcing potentially tasty legs from albeit tenderly cooked partridge breasts. The expensively decorated, stiff, soulless dining room features ominous paintings of unhappy animals (possibly reflecting diners’ temperaments) and an exhibit case containing too few, starkly presented cheeses.
Bingham on Urbanspoon
The standout. A pleasure to taste again the hearty yet precise cooking of Dominic Chapman, including feathery halibut with crisp samphire strands and perfectly cooked veg. Apparently one customer crosses the country to sustain himself on a pint and six Scotch eggs (up 25p to £3 each since Michelin’s award). I understand his motivation – although I’d always add chips, which, like the eggs, are yet to be bettered. I tried retro pudding, baked Alasksa for the first time, its thin membrane of meringue pierced by a candle and accompanied with a deeply-voiced birthday chorus. On a Sunday, the atmosphere felt cosy: a blend of local ale drinkers, some out of towners and proprietor, Parkie.
‘Kitchen or the posh one?’ asked the black cab driver yesterday night. ‘The overpriced one,’ I replied. He nodded, no doubt supposing I was a new season Yuppee seeking to splash cash the day the recession officially ended.
Since Aikens turned down an interview request last year on the grounds that we would touch on his ‘past’, I lacked motivation to try his exotically priced, chilly-looking, house sound-tracked restaurant. But my wine-trade friends had chosen the venue on account of its offer of zero corkage in January (no doubt adding strain to its sole sommelier). Curious to see whether the man branded a genius by critics genuinely had talent, I went along. Judging by his quad of appetisers, served on a rough-hewn cork tile, then oddly phallic bread rolls, he does, although the rest of the meal proved often over-cooked, lacking precision, under-seasoned, coated in dry old truffle discs, and utterly devoid of creative warmth. There was also an annoying, unnerving preponderance of tangly, earthy leaves.
In addition to a bill featuring never ordered Champagne, eventually removed by a clearly disbelieving mâitre’d, glacial service was dealt by malfunctioning humanoid automata. In a stroke of comic timing, vegetables arrived as at least one of our group replaced cutlery in the 12 o'clock position.
But back to that interview. Last week, a respected figure on the capital’s culinary scene commented that Aikens could do worse than seek the advice of a professional comedian. Why? Because he could then be armed with a witty retort or three to deflect journalists who dare broach the inconvenient issue of those 160 allegedly unpaid suppliers. Silence, it was argued, might otherwise imply an admission of guilt. Aikens' rigid-seeming staff should benefit too from some laughter therapy...
Tom Aikens on Urbanspoon