As winter bites, a new Fitzrovia restaurant has created a warming balance of beautiful food and relaxed surroundings.
London has a problem. It's cold out and there's a no-reservation policy at every new restaurant in town. All-day affairs and pop-ups with a heavy meat bias are Pavlovian to excitable foodies. Granger & Co. presents a photo parade of shivering Aussies to anyone wandering down Westbourne Grove. Meat Liquor, Pitt Cue Co. and Spuntino—Soho's trendy carnivore hangouts—leave a trail of hipsters with chattering molars at their doors. The intention of shedding the capital's food formality is proving popular—but turning up without a guaranteed seat can be frustrating.
Enter Dabbous. Ollie Dabbous's new Fitzrovia restaurant is bringing fine-dining back into focus. Backed by his former boss at Le Manoire, Raymond Blanc, O.D. has a plan to knock pretension off the tasting menu—without compromising his art-on-a-plate food.
We booked our table two days after the official opening. The focus on restraint and healthy but spectacular food—butter and cream are used only sparingly—has garnered much attention. A six-week wait now faces those eager to experience things first-hand.
The restaurant interior is familiar to anyone who's rummaged for sweaters in an All Saints store. Stark black girders throw diagonal shadows from exposed lightbulbs. Dappled grey Dulux completes the faux-distressed look. Patrick Bateman would likely approve, though for 2012 it's trying a little too hard to be cool—like a Dad buying expensive pre-ripped jeans. Dabbous himself slid about the place during our lunchtime visit. A lean, whippet-like figure; he could model the clothes sold in shops that his restaurant resembles.
We order the lunchtime set menu. Four courses, £24 a head. Each course presents two options, so we take one of everything including a cheeseboard dessert for a fiver extra. All very reasonable. By contrast, the A la carte is one of those pick 'n' mix affairs, with upwards of seven dishes recommended per person from a choice of sixteen. With prices ranging from £4–£14 each, only the 1% could leave without feeling some violation of the wallet.
We pitted each dish against each other. Round one saw a fennel, lemon balm and pickled rose petal salad face a beef tartar of unerring beauty, but questionable seasoning. The salad comes in a lipped bowl that screens its prettiness from your dining partners. It's a work of floral genius: dainty, light, ambrosial.
The tartar sings when every element on the plate is combined, so a little strategy is required when loading your fork. Perhaps in a nod to Dabbous's time at wd~50 in New York, it marries French tradition and Americana, noting Cigar oil, whisky and rye as its constituents. This wouldn't have been obvious had I not nabbed the menu back surreptitiously.
Confit salmon sits atop golden buttermilk in the meal's second standout dish. The grilled monkfish cheeks with Jerusalem artichoke that arrived alongside are incredibly good, but can't match the heights of that Glenarm salmon. The buttermilk's yellow glow acts as a heart-warming reward for suffering the capital in winter.
The Iberico pork that follows is the haymaker in this flurry of beautiful food punches. Soft wedges of porcelain fat are flanked by pinkish flesh and a wafer of crackling. It's served with an acorn praline in a humorous hat-tip to the woodland food chain. I hunched over the tiny dish and vanished it in four glorious mouthfuls.
Few dishes could compete with that but the veal cheek barely raises a glove. It has a limp, gelatinous texture and sits in a sour sheep's cheese foam. The St. Gall broth is described as light on the menu but overpowers the spelt bedding. Ironic, then, that it's perhaps the prettiest of everything we ate.
The beauty in all this is that despite every element being tweezered onto plates with Buckaroo-worthy precision, the dishes look unfussy. The interior makes sense when taken in context of the meal. There's a femininity in the food's presentation that's juxtaposed cleverly with its brash, masculine environment.
The sculptural form of the savoury courses suggest desserts will take the artistry to new heights, but Dabbous spins 180° and plonks a sponge cake on a mound of cream for the only pudding on the menu. Said cream is a splendid Tahitian vanilla. The cake is a barley flour sponge that folds from the fork at the merest of teasing. It's confidently simple, offering a balance of texture and flavour fit to end this impressive lunch.
Balance governs the experience of eating at Dabbous. The reassurance of a booked table. The enchanting pride and belief in the concept from an enthused yet relaxed staff. The innovative and spectacular menu, served in unassuming surroundings. The mark of a good meal is when the dishes that don't work are only poor by comparison to the ones that do.
Ollie Dabbous and his team bring to the table exciting cooking and a knowledge of what makes a place work for the patron. A holistic experience ending in a sated, enriched contentment and beginning without the faff of waiting to be seated.
Dabbous is a fusion of successful elements from the best restaurants in this city. London should have more of this.