Lunch - 9 February 2018
Our first experience of Salt was in June 2017. We had backed the Kickstarter run by chef Paul Foster and his wife Rhiain and our reward was a lovely Tasting Menu lunch. And then it was October and Jay Rayner published his review in The Observer. And then chef could finally stop crapping himself!
Mr Rayner’s experience and reaction was very much in line with ours. Close enough to stop me writing even a late review of my own. All the elements he identifies were enjoyed by us. Even the violent and bloody trauma of the RSC’s production of ‘Titus Andronicus’ later in the day couldn’t diminish happy memories of that meal.
On this second visit we ordered from the à la carte menu.
There was temporary distraction from good quality olives and smoked almonds. Deeper distraction arrived with the malted ‘mini muffin’ breads and ‘that’ house butter which smells and tastes fecund enough to be the product of intimate foreplay. No, I’m not trying to put you off. What... you’re booking a table now? That’s the ticket.
Two great starters arrived.
My Cured halibut, cep ragu, yellow chanterelles, crispy onion was fresh and deceptively gentle before deeper flavours took over. The fish was perfect. Melt-in-the-mouth raw. Raw but not raw. Mushrooms were given a light touch for the ragu and in the gently pickled chanterelles. The smoky tang of onion 'scraps' provided the final contrasts of flavour and texture.
Slow cooked duck egg, celeriac velouté, Dorset merguez
The richness of Mrs Cheoff’s bowl was insistent. It couldn’t be much otherwise given the trusted, classic ingredients. Two types of soupy, relatively sloppy components with the egg and the velouté. But the 'sausage' had been given enough surface crisp to restore textural balance. Indulgent stuff.
Mangalitsa pork, malted artichoke, salted pear, sprouting broccoli
This main was my high point of the meal. No good having a superb ingredient unless it is cooked with respect and understanding. Chef did not let me down. More importantly the supplier and the beast itself were not let down. Whatever had been done to the pear (brined, sous-vide… salt-baked?) it ate, skin and all, as the most perfect, firm but succulent fruit that you might wish for. Malted artichoke is one of those things which you can expect from Paul. An unassuming dab of something which suddenly reveals glorious texture and, even better, unexpected depth of flavour. I had cut off all the pork fat for eating. Its flavour will stay with me along with just a very few other food memories which are at the top of my dining out hit parade. I left a medallion of the meat. On the recovery phase of a stinking cold, I was so grateful that my nose and palate were pretty much back in working order. My appetite wasn't quite up to speed.
Hogget, lamb rump, hispi cabbage, goat’s curd
This was probably a slightly misjudged choice for Mrs C who, because she loves all things lamby, was following her starter with equally rich challenges in the main. That said, the ingredients and cooking shone out again. There is a lack of fuss in presentation here but ragged slices of hogget mean that a diner can choose how much of the fatty delights to trim for setting aside or for eating. In the end the richness was not quite balanced out by what should have been sharper and fresher hits from curd, cabbage leaf and monk’s beard. No matter… but it shows how more time spent exploring and understanding a menu with help from servers is not wasted.
We made a delightful revisit to off-dry German Riesling. Wines are cleverly chosen here and are offered at a sensible mark-up.
So far two thirds of our meal, four sixths if you like, had given large degrees of deliciousness, met with enjoyment and appreciation. But then our desserts arrived and the sweetness began to wane.
Papouasie milk chocolate, spiced orange cake, barley crisp
There was little wrong with any part of my finale except that it was a mean helping. Please understand that I have spent much time arguing with friends who manage to bemoan portion sizes considerably larger than my offering. I will always defend a chef who, in my opinion, has done enough to make us slow down and enjoy their creativity and hard work. But the rather wonderful cake here was served as four cubes no bigger than gaming dice. I cut each in two to prolong appreciation. My appetite was still sharp enough to hope for a more generous crisp than was offered. The rocher of chocolate was just perfect... but couldn't distance that feeling of being a little cheated.
If my pudding seemed lacking in generosity, Mrs C's appeared to suffer as well from the absence of decent ingredients.
Rhubarb, buttermilk ice cream
I suppose this might have been conceived as a riff on rhubarb crumble and ice cream. It did not satisfy anywhere in composition or delivery. A measly teaspoon of pink compote and a strangely tasteless green variety chopped into half centimetre chunks was all that represented the oh-so-seasonal rhubarb. Maybe there was a reference to the old-style way of dipping a raw stem into sugar but it didn't work. Cold and crunch from the two other elements but much confusion. Confusion mixed with much disappointment at the meagreness of it.
When the Facebook site offered a picture of a properly developed and finished dish shown below, it strongly suggested what can be achieved. Luscious pink rhubarb, bright peeled pistachios, whole and ground in an oily cake. Perhaps a sorrel granita? Included in a three course lunch at the same price as ours. More like it.
We fizzled out on a tea and a coffee without the accompaniment of petits fours. I’m not sure if this was an oversight or the result of their normal exclusion at lunch service.
Not a complete disaster but a stark contrast with our first meal. I don't know if the Grand Poobah of Gourmandise (that's you, Mr Rayner!) has returned like us. I hope he saw more consistency if he has or will see when he does. And if Mr or Mrs Michelin are visiting, they will demand that consistency before elevating chef and team to Bib Gourmand and beyond. They don't allow for excuses.
I don't have any stars to give out of course... but I can offer a possible excuse. We might have booked on the wrong day. Later, as we returned from seeing Edward 'Eddie' Elizabeth Hitler and others staging 'Twelfth Night' with great style my Twitter feed alerted me to another event in town that night.
So it's perfectly possible that our shiny stars at what must still be the top restaurant in Stratford had been distracted earlier by thoughts of impending glory. Glory for which I heartily congratulate them. All I ask is that they get back quickly to polish up their act and continue to do what they do best. Just do it even better. More often.
And we'll be back to check up on them... promise.