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29 December 2006

Bacchus

I am in the process of reading Hervé This' Molecular Gastronomy.  Heston Blumenthal praises This in this month's Observer Food Monthly.  I was trying to explain why to Silverbrowess last night.  Although the phrase might be clumsy (as Blumenthal explains) Molecular Gastronomy has been pinned to a movement led by chefs like Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller.  They are differentiated because they all believe that a strong scientific grounding is essential in the kitchen.  Silverbrowess argued that using science is not really cooking, I disagreed.  When most people want a soft boiled egg they know it takes about three or four (not eight as I said originally, oops) minutes in boiling water, but they don't understand why - and what about if you were on top of Mount Everest?  Similarly, some people know how to cook a rib of beef so that it is rare in the middle, but do not fully appreciate the process of cooking the meat and how it changes as it is heated.  Applying science in kitchen should mean we can always boil an egg perfectly and never again suffer dried out roasts.  Using or at least understanding the science, helps to ensure we get things right in the kitchen.  It is not all about snail porridge or ISI whips.

Until recently, the scientific stuff was the preserve of exclusive and expensive restaurants such as The Fat Duck or El Bulli.  Their chefs had the time and money to research.  At Bacchus they are trying to make this kind of food far more accessible.  The restaurant is in an old pub in Hoxton, an area of London's East End that has undergone significant gentrification over the last few years.  It still looks like a pub, but a smart one with dark woods, muted lighting and an expensive looking sound system.  The kitchen, and most importantly the pass, are directly opposite the door, so the first thing you see as you walk in is chef Nuno Mendes.  His floppy, lank black hair, wispy goatee and brooding manner give him the appearance of a young Salvador Dali.  Some might argue his creations are just as outlandish the artists' paintings.

When we sat down we were told some of the dishes, including the nine-course tasting menu were unavailable.  The inter-Christmas/New Year period meant they were unable to get all their usual produce.  We were also told there was no salmon, where necessary it would be replaced with halibut.  I am not sure this is a like for like swap, but both are fairly meaty, dense fish and clearly Nuno thought it would work.  We were advised to try the two house cocktails.  I cannot remember what they were called but they were both served in martini glasses, with a thick layer of foam atop a colourful liquid.  Silverbrowess' was much more refreshing, with strong hints of apple and citrus, making it quite a summery drink.  Whereas mine was much more seasonal, with lots of spice, orange and cinnamon.  They were fine, but a bit too sickly sweet for me.

If I have any criticism of the meal, it is that orange and cinnamon featured far too frequently.  I know it is the season for citrus and spice but after a while it began to grate.  Especially as the cinnamon was so intense.  I appreciate the kitchen were trying to create a theme, but they could have been a bit more subtle about it.

However, I need to caveat my criticism of the cinnamon, because it was the sheer intensity of flavour that set this meal apart from so many other restaurants.  This was best demonstrated at the beginning of the meal with the amuse bouche of tortilla and our starter of Sweet potato veloute, spiced onion cake, greek yoghurt foam.  The tortilla tasted just as you would expect of a good spanish omelette: egg, potato and onion, plus a hint of paprika.  Except, this was more like a thick soup than an omelette.  It was a perfect example of understanding the ingredients, getting the best out of them, but using them in a new way.  I accept there is not necessarily much merit in redesigning something perfectly good, but it was a clever dish and tasted good.  It also acted as a sign-post to the diner that they were about to experience a meal with a few twists.

The depth of flavour of our starter was particularly complex.  If you tasted each item by itself, it tasted of the most flavoursome sweet potato or greek yoghurt, but once you started combining the various bits and pieces, it became something new, constantly evolving as you ate.  The spiced onion cake was more like a crumble and the texture worked well with the almost-viscose veloute and foam.  However, the spice I noticed most was the dreaded cinnamon.

For main course Silverbrowess had the Halibut (formerly salmon), black olives, date and hazelnut puree, pate de brique.  The dense sweetness of the date and hazelnut worked beautifully with the black olives, which were essentially served as a juice, rather than solid.  The combination of salt and sweet was in perfect harmony.  As with all the fish on the menu, and I believe most of the meat, the halibut had been cooked sous-vide, because, when done properly, it ensures perfectly cooked fish.   As was the case last night.

My main course of Warm cod, sofrito traditional, espuma de bacolao and honey was equally  good.  The espuma, yet another conceit of MG, was astounding.  It was a foamy combination of salt cod and potato.  It was very nearly the epitome of the perfect potato dish, that was until I tasted the side of Truffle potato puree, which I could have happily eaten double portions of.   Although very unseasonal, the tomatoes, hiding underneath the cod had great flavour, very sweet.  Less of a success, was the flavour of orange, that I think came from an oil, that seemed to spike the dish.  However, as with the starter I found this dish a revelation, every flavour and texture working in harmony with the next.  We also tried Spinach Catalan side dish.  It was a great combination of flavour and texture: raw spinach leaves served with a reduction of pine nuts and currants.

We could not decide which desserts to have, so asked Jay, the general manager, to choose for us.  She suggested a tasting plate (excluding the chocolate cake, because there was a problem with the ovens so it had not been made).  Of all the courses this was the most disappointing.  The roasted pear ice-cream served on the black olive financier was good, but not great.  After the flavour assault launched in the previous two courses, dessert seemed a bit muted.  Cinnamon reared its head in spades on the plate, especially in the polenta cake.

Simply put, the meal was exceptional.  That may be because I have met Phil Mossop the owner a couple of times and made the booking directly through him, so we got special treatment.  From the obvious pleasure of other diners and the good reviews, I do not reckon that is the case.   An exceptional meal and experience is this restaurant's stock in trade.

The only serious criticism I have heard is from a friend who writes about food and wine for a few national newspapers.  He and another food writer were having lunch at Bacchus and complained in particular about the service.  Although it was not spot-on last night, it was good.

It is worth noting this restaurant has only been open two months and Phil is displaying either great trust or stupidity in his staff because he is on holiday at the moment.  On the basis of last night, I think Phil was displaying well placed trust, because although the service was a bit patchy from some of the staff, Jay was exceptional.  She was exceptionally attentive and her enthusiasm for Nuno's cooking was infectious.  However, she was let down by some of her colleagues.  I asked the waitress who served the bread whether it was made in the restaurant.  She said she didn't know but would find out and come back to us.  She didn't.  In many restaurants this is only a minor glitch, but in Bacchus, where there is so much focus on the techniques behind the food and its presentation, it seemed odd that she didn't know and forgot to ask.  However, at the risk of repeating myself, Jay was very good.  She even apologised over the minor delay, two minutes at most, of one of the house cocktails and comped us the drink.  An unnecessary, but welcome gesture.

This restaurant deserves all the praise it has received so far.  They are successfully (with the exception of desserts) introducing new cooking concepts and therefore new flavour profiles to a wider audience.  They are doing it in a very relaxed atmosphere, with generally good service.  For many Hoxton is the arse-end of beyond, I would not let that put you off.

Bacchus, 177 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6PJ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7613 0477

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What others say

The Observer - for the most part, it is delicious and never less than intriguing.
The Sunday Times - Given that there was a bit too much spume, air and foam for my liking, the food was remarkably inventive and cleverly thought out. The flavours were at worst interesting and at best inspired.

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I'm still trying to find the right time to go to Bacchus, which is within walking distance of my house (bows head in shame). A definite for the New Year.

Trig - I think you should make the time, when they're on the form we experienced, it is a great place.

Anthony - great review I enjoyed reading your comments which i concede are all particularly accurate. In short, we opened for lunch on December 1st and this coupled with Xmas parties was a bit of a stretch and we took on staff to cope with the excess who took more of the latter part of our tagline 'fine dining in trainers' rather than the former...As i suspect is the case with a lot of restaurants I struggle to find staff with the passion that I have for what I'm doing. However, i cant complain too much as you quite rightly identified the likes of Jay, who is nothing short of an inspiration. At only 23 years old she shows a maturity and professionalism that is far beyond her years and experience. Add Nuno, Pete and several others and we do have a superb core team. Check early reviews and service was always highlighted as a plus point. This has reversed in the month of December and is now number one priority to get back up. It particularly saddens me about the bread; one of the main concepts of Bacchus and its location is the utilisation of local providers - the bread is provided by Andersons bakery on Hoxton Street itself which has been going since 1800's and is still the same family behind it! The fact that that story could not be told is wrong and is way wide of the mark. It will be rectified and quickly.

But, positively, i'm really glad you enjoyed your meal and found it a positive experience. I have enormous trust in the management and their ability to meet even my terribly unfair targets ;-) I still really believe in what we are trying to achieve with Bacchus as a concept and if the last 16weeks since we've been open are anything to go by it looks like we could be right.

Lots more exciting things coming up this year on the menu front and the business front so watch this space!

Take care and sorry for the protracted reply!

Best

Phil


PS. Trig - i read your blog quite often - if you would like a tour of Bacchus and a look round the kitchen send me an email and i will arrange it for you

Phil - Thanks for the personal response. I suppose that's the good thing about these blogs, it gives the restauranter the right of reply, which you don't get in a paper.

Great review. Hoxton isn't too far from where I work and this place has been on my "to do" list pretty much since it opened. It is a great pity that the whole molecular gastronomy thing has got such a dubious name as a silly fad at the moment, because when it works, it can produce such surprising and delightful results. And there is nothing I like more than a delightful surprise when I'm dining ;-)

Thanks. It's definitely worth a visit.

Based on your great review, my wife has booked us a table for a valentine's day treat and I can't wait !

Thank you

Mr Newlywed, you and Mrs N clearly have impeccably good taste.

Anthony, based also on your review, we ate at Bacchus on Saturday night. I couldn't even begin to describe the food except to say that it was a visually-inspiring, delicious and quite unique dining experience. Only criticism was the massive time lag between the reservation (9pm) and eating our first course (10.30pm). Notwithstanding this, the staff were great, esp the chap with a little tufty goatee who advised/served us.

Stempel, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. However, that is a massive delay, got to say I would have kicked up a bit of a stink. Hope they compensated you in some way, or at least explained why there was such a delay.

The delay was caused by the first sitting of the evening overrunning - a real recommendation to the restaurant would be to move the second sitting to 9.30pm. We were advised that it might take 10-15 minutes to get to the table, but in the end it was nearer to 10pm before we sat down. Service was a bit iffy after that - butter arrived on the table but we had to ask for bread. That shouldn't detract from the food - it was a pretty great dining experience all things considered.

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