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Never eat anything bigger than your head
Whenever you see crossed chives you are in trouble
Cookery Quote
We should all be eating less meat and better meat

The French in Manchester, Dabbous in London, a great double header

Simon Rogan must be enjoying his new ranking as Britain’s top chef – L’Enclume narrowly pipped the Fat Duck to the Good Food Guide title. He recently added a second restaurant to his Manchester portfolio – “Mr Cooper’s House and Garden” and the French (his first mission to Manchester) continues to soak up good reviews although they mainly concentrate on the carpet. Because a hard wooden floor would resound with the clatter of heels the designers decided to weave a patterned carpet that looks like wood grain – well kind of. Meanwhile down in London Ollie Dabbous continues to wow all and sundry while remaining irritatingly fully booked.
You know what it is like, you wait at the stop for a restaurant with style, panache, personality, and a passionate policy about ingredients – particularly the romance of foraging- and then two come along. Both the French and Dabbous are worth a detour. One day last month I managed to dine at the French and then rush back to London to lunch at Dabbous the following day – Simon Rogan and Ollie Dabbous, it is the kind of head to head that stimulates the tastebuds. Both these chefs are inextricably linked to “foraging” and there are many unfamiliar tastes and textures on show.
What’s with the foraging? Various dishes from the two menus include pickled rose petals; dried meadowsweet; chrysanthemum; fennel pollen; perilla; ox-eye daisy; marigold; bitter cress; mugwort; nasturtium; coastal herbs; samphire. Both restaurants offer a lengthy tasting menu, and both lean towards small dishes – at the French 12 courses for £95, at Dabbous 8 courses £59. Both establishments add a great many ameuse bouches, snacks, nibbles, pre-desserts and outstandingly good bread (with delicious homemade salted butter at Dabbous). The other thing that both these restaurants have in common is astonishingly sophisticated presentation.
Referring back to that list of foraged green stuff, it is worth noting that most of us have no idea what these plants taste like. Presumably fennel pollen tastes a bit like fennel, and bitter cress may be bitter, but it would take a good man to chew on a
forkful of a dish listed as “middle white pork, blewits, mugwort and beans” and pick out the flavour of mugwort against and background of fabulously fatty pork and the blewits - one of my favourite mushrooms. Incidentally this dish is one of Rogan’s and is very good indeed. Another of Rogan’s star turns is a dish of “ox in coal oil, pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi and sunflower shoots”. Very good eating – the “ox” is a beef tartare and the coal oil gives it an elusive smoky taste while the other elements provide a variety of textures. Very accomplished. Rogan’s “Westcombe dumplings with duck sweetbreads, sweetcorn and bittercress” is another fascinating dish. These cheese dumplings are fabulous, like airy gnocchi, little clouds of Westcombe cheese compliment the ducky bits.
Meanwhile down in the smoke Ollie Dabbous features a “salad of fennel, lemon balm and pickled rose petals” which is clean, elegant and very good. Dabbous has a way with simple dishes which end up exotic, how about “toasted sweetcorn with salted butter and meadowsweet”? Very sweet corn on the cob, rich salty butter and a sprinkle of dried meadowsweet, for once less really is more. And then there’s a Dabbous grandstand dish – “roast veal fillet with summer vegetables, chrysanthemum and a light cheese broth”, the veal is agreeably pink but the show stealer is the clear, limpid cheese broth – very cheesy but in no way sickly. Who would have thought of making a cheese broth? Who would of thought that it tasted so good?
Both these chefs are perfectionists and you have to suspect that even if they weren’t constantly foraging for the next big flavour they would still be cooking outstanding food. They forage because they are curious and we are the beneficiaries – even when we don’t know what perilla tastes like!
The French, The Midland, Peter Street, Manchester M60 2DS (0161 236 3333) thefrench.co.uk
Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF (020 7323 1544) dabbous.co.uk

Charles Campion - Sunday 29th September 2013

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