I’m marking WFTTD’s second birthday with my first restaurant review, and the first review might as well be for the hottest ticket in town…
photo © Dabbous
Everybody, it seems, loves Dabbous. I really can’t recall the last time the capital’s collective critics got themselves into so unanimous a lather about anything, and as I write this in June there’s not a table to be had for dinner before next April. “Game changing” is the prevailing gist. I’m really not keen to fuel the bonfire of hype for the restaurant’s sake – overly heightened expectations are so often the enemy of a good meal – but in all honesty I loved it too, and here’s why:
In a display of muscular indifference to identikit restaurant design Dabbous’ interior favours bare brick and concrete, exposed air-con ducts and naked bulbs. Forget rooms aping the style of a private jet and think more the engine room of a cross-channel ferry. And it works. It says with crystal clarity that this place is about what’s on the plate [and downstairs, what’s in the glass], not about the fact that we spent more on our curtains than you did on your house. It’s small too [40 or so covers] and intimate to just the right degree as a result. It’s a space which invites you to relax and enjoy what you’re doing, not one which wants to bully you with its lavishness. And if wasn’t for the customers coming and going all the time I could happily live in the downstairs bar!
Friendly as you can find. Polite, knowledgeable, there when you want them, not when you don’t. Downstairs in Oskar’s Bar I dithered over my choice of cocktail – keen on the cigar syrup, unsure of the yellow pepper – and the charming and talented young mixologist said, “try that, and if you don’t like it I’ll just make you something else.” I didn’t, so he did, no fuss, and no charge. Upstairs last-minute ordering of additional dishes caused no hint of flap, and despite the pressure of the waiting list we were never pressured for the return of our table. Quite the opposite in fact, as we wanted to return to the bar for a digestif cocktail and were asked if we’d prefer to linger and have them brought to the table. This crew’s pride in what they do and evident joy in doing it here infuse the contents of each coupe and bowl. They could hardly have been bettered.
A short, seasonal, and to the point selection. The à la carte has five starters, six mains, and five desserts. The descriptions thereon range from three to eleven words, mercifully leaving no room for hyperbole or just plain bollocks. In fact ‘Just plain bollocks’ stands more chance of being a dish on the menu than a criticism of it. I have something of an aversion to tasting menus, though at £49 for seven courses this one is truly excellent value. We were advised that dishes were small [think large tapas] and that if ordering à la carte we might want to choose between four and seven dishes each, and in the end ten between two worked out very well. The other advantage of grazing from the à la carte is that if there are just a couple of you who are happy to share then you can try more dishes than if you both follow the same tasting menu processional route. Be warned though, you might well be reluctant to share some of what arrives!
OK, I’ll say it – this was quite simply some of the best food I have eaten in a more than usually gluttonous 40 plus years. The simplicity of the dishes belies the huge amount of skill and technique which is clearly at play, because all of that skill and technique is directed back into highlighting the inherent beauty of the ingredients, not into hiding them behind the technical prowess of the kitchen or shoving its cleverness down your throat. Several dishes were frankly so good that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry [and usually ended up doing both at the same time!].
To describe the highlights would include almost everything, so here are the edited highlights.
The bread – not something I can remember raving about, or indeed remember, just about anywhere else, our home-made seeded sourdough [with a hint of smoke] came with home-churned butter. Not an afterthought, not padding, but bread to make you sit up and take notice, a sign of things to come. I scoffed the lot. Incidentally I don’t agree with those who have said that it shouldn’t be served in a paper bag – did they actually taste what was in there?
‘Peas with mint’ – this simple description could only have tempted me more if it were to be reduced to just ‘Peas’ [regulars will know I’m a bit of a pea fan]. What arrived was a sublime, smooth pea cream topped with peas, podded and not, pea shoots, and a pea and mint granita on the side. I rummaged around in my extensive critic’s technical vocabulary and pronounced it [no sniggering] “the height of pea-ness!”. This is now officially my ‘death-row’ dinner of choice.
‘Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion’ – had the Shopkeeper repeating over and over “I can’t believe what they’ve done with… a plate of onions!”. Soft onions, aioli, chives, a light broth with jewels of herbed oil and pine infusion. Deep, fresh, sweet and savoury, it was a perfect example of letting the ingredients do the singing.
‘Coddled free range hen egg with woodland mushrooms and smoked butter’ – that ‘hen’ is as close as you’ll get to redundant verbiage on the menu but entirely forgivable given the difficulty of finding eggs from so humble a fowl on London menus today. Imagine the most unctious yolks you’ve ever had and know that they will be as nothing once you’ve eaten this. Being presented in the egg shell nestling in a bowl of hay has helped this to become one of the most photographed of Dabbous’ dishes – it’s now virtually a celebrity in its own right.
‘Braised halibut with lemon verbena’ – we agreed that we’d never had a better bit of fish. It was meltingly light and stunningly sauced and garnished. I should apologise publicly here to the Shopkeeper for trying to take a delicate bite of the accompanying oyster leaf and underestimating the size of my own mouth, sorry.
Also stunning were… asparagus with rapeseed mayonnaise and hazelnuts, barbecued Iberico pork with acorn praline [don’t miss the turnip tops with home-made apple vinegar], the squid broth, the custard cream pie [hint of Tonka bean?], and the chocolate ganache confection [bigger and more dramatic than the custard pie as the Shopkeeper was repeatedly keen to point out]. An otherwise super salmon with marjoram, samphire and moscatel grapes would probably have fared better if it wasn’t up against such stiff competition.
I’d read in Fiona Beckett’s review that the cheeseboard included Wigmore and – my own personal favourite in five years of cheese mongering – Shorrock’s aged Lancashire bomb, a cheese which we were the first in London to stock. I have not seen the bomb on any other cheeseboard, and any restaurant with the good sense to serve it instantly goes up in my estimation.
Ten dishes of the finest food to be had anywhere in town, three cocktails each [two before dinner, we couldn’t resist another one after], a bottle of Viognier, two glasses of dessert wines, and service, all came to just under £100 a head. It is very easy to pay far more for so much less. Let’s just hope that the laws of supply and demand and the inevitable blizzard of awards to come don’t herald a price hike. As things stand this is phenomenal value for money, especially in the heart of W1, and to find such satisfaction without being bilked in the process is all part of the pleasure.
Book it for as soon as you can, and sit out the wait. There’ll probably be only one Christmas between now and then, and we all know how quickly they come around! In the meantime you can always turn up at the bar where a selection of dishes are also offered, some being from the à la carte and some specifically for the bar. It’s a destination all on its own and I’m planning a return trip just for the cocktails – and maybe a sly snack or four. You never know, ask on the way in and they may even have a cancellation, but don’t count on it.
And when your day rolls around please do me one favour – print out this review, rip it up, and throw it on the fire. Forget everything you’ve read here and anywhere else, put away the expectations and the hype, and just turn up hoping for a good time – you’re in good hands, and the good folks at Dabbous won’t let you down.
I didn’t take photos – enjoyment isn’t always consistent with documenting the evidence, and I still turn my phone off when I sit down to dinner. Fellow reviewers Cheese and Biscuits and Eat Like a Girl were more conscientious in the photography department, and there are plenty more to be found online or on the Dabbous website. Please ask me if you’d like to be referred to pictures of specific dishes.