CARPACCIO OF GHERKIN

Terence Conran

food_pork_pig_sliceTerence Conran once wrote a note to a chef castigating him for naming a dish “carpaccio of gherkin.”  Today’s diner is presented menus that add little to the dining experience, and merely extend the conversation-stopping analysis of the menu at the beginning of the meal.  It’s a bit tedious to be told which pig, on which farm, in which valley our locally sourced pork come from.

Much of this additional information is unnecessary.  The Bluebird Dining Room on the King’s Road has “New season’s lamb rump, spring vegetables, meat juices, Spring herbs” on its sample menu.  Yet if one was to order rump of lamb, such trimmings would be expected – it doesn’t need to be spelt out.

Describing the provenance of food is increasingly fashionable.  Jamie Oliver goes so far as to offer “Loin of free range pork from Pete Gott’s farm”: such information is as useful as offering to produce the ear tag of the cow one is eating, as one gastro-pub in Northumberland will do.  Almost all information as to the origin of one’s food is useless; at a good restaurant, one expects the raw ingredients to be excellent, so does it matter if the crab comes from Devonshire or the Shetland Islands?  The exception is simply when the location is exceptional, as in the case of Poulet de Bresse, or Morcambe Bay cockles.  Menus that indulge in this name-dropping are always inconsistent, only trumpeting the origin of the food the restaurant knows.

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is undeniably one of the best restaurants in the world, yet most of the information on the menu is peripheral.  “Oven roasted pigeon from Anjou with foie gras, braised cabbage, horseradish pureé [sic] and a ruby port jus.”  Does this reflect the complicated and detailed cooking of today’s haute cuisine.  Yes, but in the days of Escoffier and César Ritz, cuisine was even more intricate, yet their menus did not indulge in what amounts to food porn.  The dish quoted above would have been rendered, “Pigeon rôti”.

The Gourmet’s Guide to London, published in 1914, offers a fascinating snapshot into the London dining scene of the period by gourmand extraordinaire, Lt.-Col. Newnham-Davis.  His chapters invariably include a bill of fare of vast length, sometimes fifteen courses long.  What strikes one the most, however, is the restraint of description.  I doubt the course of “Petits Pois” was just some nicely buttered peas with a sprinkling of salt.  Of the “Cailles des Gourmets”, we are told, “the quails formed part of a little pie…and with them were coxcombs and truffles and other good things.”

For a restaurant to show restraint is a mark of supreme confidence.  St. John restaurant in Smithfield is a resolutely English restaurant, with chef Fergus Henderson pioneering a “nose to tail” approach to eating: if you are going to kill an animal, it would be “disingenuous” not to eat as much of it that you can.  The first four items on the menu read, “Broccoli Vinaigrette; Calf’s Brain Terrine; Foie Gras; Native Oysters.”  No-nonsense descriptions of extremely good food.

A model menu is that of The Wolseley on Piccadilly.  It manages to squeeze a large number of dishes (seventy-four, not including variations) onto one A4 page.  It is a model of good layout.  Groups such as “Eggs & Rice” or “Soup” or “Crustacea & Caviar” are clearly marked.  Dishes for two such as the côte de boeuf are printed in red.  The plats du jour are listed simply in a box in the top right-hand corner.  Origins are largely ignored: in any case, the Wolseley’s Atlantic prawns are a far cry from “pork from Pete Gott’s farm.”  When details of a dish are given, it is in this format:

Seared Scallops

With celeriac purée and pancetta

Yet most of the dishes are ungarnished in their description: “Chopped liver”, “Hamburger”, “Eggs Benedict.”  The Wolseley, run by the founders of the Ivy, is popular, successful, and most importantly, produces very good food.  Restaurants in London would be vastly improved if they took their lead from this menu.

– Orlando Bridgeman

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