14 Jul 2008

Massage Me Like a Wagyu

‘Thought: Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage...’
[Woody Allen]
MY MEAL at Gordon Ramsay Holdings’ latest opening was ‘a-maze-ing’; ‘grilliant’ even. In anticipation of a substantial lunch, I advised my brother in law, accompanying, to wear slacks with an elasticised waistband. He explained that owing to previous bouts of decadent dining, they would fit him like leggings. Fortunately, rather then resembling Bibendum (aka the ‘Michelin Man’), he turned up politely restrained in chinos. A thirteen-hour lunch ensued (four at table, the remaining at 1707 (Fortnum & Mason), Camino and St. Pancras’ Champagne Bar). But this was the main attraction. We were pampered with a couple of breaks to tour maze’s kitchens (head chef Jason Atherton was behind the Rorgue) and the Grill’s.
My father formed the third point of the triangle for this review. Considering his distant background as an animal feeds salesman, he was an appropriate guest to bring to a specialist meat restaurant. He took great pleasure in quizzing the aproned waitress, on loan from the Savoy Grill until it reopens next year, as to the finer points of animal husbandry. She took his inquisitive barrage, including ‘what colour is the face of a Black Hereford?’ rather well.
It occurred to me, stepping from the green pitch of Grosvenor Square, that this would make excellent cattle grazing pasture. Meat was on my mind. Maybe I should write to the Royal Parks Commission? From the little lobby, you turn left for Maze, right for the Grill. I was surprised by the restrained décor of both dining rooms. In the Grill, the bright, regency windowed rectangle has been given the United Designers treatment (Galvin at Windows, Pearl, Le Cercle, Met Bar, Nobu and John Torode’s ‘Lux', coming soon to Spits). The brief: make it feel ‘like the kitchen/breakfast room in a posh Hampstead home. Realising details include long mushroom drapes, semicircular Celadon banquettes, stepping-stones on the ceiling, chrome shades and blonde Ikea-esque chairs, which appear set on skis. Despite unlovely tables, the effect is clean, smart, albeit a little inanimate: the decorator’s definition of ‘smart-casual’.
We opened with light lime cordial coloured flutes of Italy’s premier sparkler, Franciacorta from Lombardy. La Montina Extra Brut was a beautifully mature, traditional method, charismatic alternative to Champagne. It evoked truffles, ripe lemons and fresh ciabatta, with a smooth perlage (I.E.., silky bubbles). I try never to drink on an empty stomach, hence the opportunity to sample one of the tapas style ‘small plates’, groundnut oil fried baby squid with diced, surprisingly potent green chilies and lime wedges. Apparently this simple dish was borrowed from Zuma. Crisp, greaseless and freshly mouth-watering.
At this point the infamous board of juicy raw cuts arrived, swathed in linen, looking operating theatre fresh. The protein protagonists were patiently explained. The choice: Casterbridge grain fed, Hereford, Aberdeen Angus, North American Creekstone prime and Wagyu ‘9th grade’. The last two players were ominously offered ‘market price’. However one glance of the Flintstone sized, ruddy 35 day aged U.S. import threw my taste buds into overdrive. Despite its £40+ meal ticket, lust gave way. And compared to the lazy fat cow (Australian Wagyu, £120), it was a bargain.
I have read much about Jason Atherton’s meat mania. His Dexter Beef Fillet, Ox Cheek, Smoked Potato Purée and Marrow Bone won this year’s Great British Menu (BBC Two). Every review of the grill I have seen lauds his carefully sourced cuts, finished on an imported broiler grill. This gleaming Concorde, which probably gets hot enough to kiln pottery, is the only one in the U.K., apparently crucial to contributing a crust.
The meat display sidled over to another table of cooing diners. Another little plate preceded our starters, Pigs on Toast with Parmesan and gently spiced Rocket. Behind the blasé title, the earthy, melty, braised boned trotters, spread onto sourdough, oozed. Molten mouthfuls.
Glasses of fresh, slightly prickly, stone mineral dappled Albariño from Pazo de Señoráns followed the fizz. For a more complex version, I suggest looking to this bottega’s Selección Añada. I recently tasted their ’03 at a ‘New Wave Spanish Tasting’: expressive with notes of drying yacht varnish, wild honey and butter overlaying crisp citrus fruit.
My two skewered Quails basked in a Soy reduction with Raspberries, Walnuts and more Rocket. I am sure Henry VIII would have licked his ginger chops at this umami stroked sweet and sour, fruit and nut combination The others had Fried Oysters, Remoulade, Tartare and Cocktail Sauce. The latter was not Triple Sec, but something like “Thousand Island” according to my brother in law, “in a good way”. The oysters within glistening batter were soft, like cods’ roe. Nothing to lose your Tempura over so far.
Foreplay finished, we wanted the finest steaks known to humanity.
My moistly marbled rib eye, medium rare on the advice of our waitress, arrived on a wooden board with a fine Smithfield knife. Its deep, warmly oleaginous smoky wafts alloyed with the greeting aromas of a whole bulb of garlic, roasted in duck fat for 45minutes. A wildly hedonistic technique reminiscent of the Hitching Post, California. A pretty bouquet garni rested on top.
I recently received an e-mail advertising 'Monjay', 'a tasteless yeast-like granule that, when sprinkled over the offending food, prevents socially embarrassing gases...' Not having sampled its effectiveness, I would be more tempted to adere to the idiom, ‘if you love garlic, surround yourself with others who love garlic’.
Dice-sized bone marrow croquettes, lustrous stocky red wine sauce á la bordelaise, and boiled egg Bearnaise sufficiently acidic to bring Gregg Wallace tears of joy provided additional company to the juicy, thick cut. Despite fervent, easy slicing, this took time to tame. In comparison, my father’s fatless fillet of Aberdeen Angus, rare, lacked the exquisite succulence of the Creekstone.
We partnered the protein with another Spaniard, Parés Baltà Mas Irene ‘00 from Penedès. This Cabernet Franc/Merlot was ordered from maze’s list. It was opaque, maroon with - in order of appearance - gorse, wild berries and vanilla on the warmly engaging nose. The crisply spiced, herbal palate had a sumptous texture which favourably curled each meaty morsel. I liked the brave minimalism of the label which belies the bodegas eighteenth century origins.
Meat marathon over, we were invited to circuit Atherton’s kitchen kingdom. Before pudding, we saw maze’s. This intricate engine room was almost chastely immaculate, expansive. The chef’s table had labyrinthe marquetry (as well as a three month waiting list). Whilst obviously very happy, the pinstriped crowd around it looked incongrous in the busy kitchen.
Liz, author of ‘Gastronomy Domine’, a blog which provokes salivation, recently observed: ‘...it is a happy freak of biology that I appear to have been born with a separate stomach, especially for dessert…’ I share her predicament. Following the waitresses' eloquent description, we unanimously selected the creamy, jellied apple trifle granita made with Magners Cider and Calvados. This came with warm, puffed financiers (light tea cakes rather than those fitted around the chef’s table next door). A Côteaux du Layon, colour of gold bullion and evoking candied tangerines, accompanied (Claude Papin).
After coffee and sugar cane rums, we went on another adventure, this time to our open fronted kitchen, perfectly ventilated unlike Tom’s Place. It faces another dining area, the butcher’s block. This concise kitchen was even more beautiful then maze's. I noticed curved tops and handles, mauve illuminated meat cabinets, and a wooden pass. I am told that the chefs use lacquer the cuts with a paintbrush of oil.
We savoured such precise, dense, lingering tastes. Asian flourishes, a flexible approach and an abiding awareness of often unadorned, impeccably sourced ingredients. I once read that in a lean ‘before he was famous’ moment, a prominent critic gave way to temptation, blowing the remnants of his jobseeker's allowance on a fabulous meal. If I ever entered a similar vein, I would be prepared to eat my bank dry for Jason Atherton…
(Incidentally, the Black Hereford has a white face).
maze GRILL - 10-13 Grosvenor Square, London. W1K 6JP. T. 020 7495 2211
Nearest Tube: Bond Street
Reservations are being taken for Flash, ‘a temporary restaurant opening on 01/11/08 and closing 80 days later’. The location: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington Gardens… I have already booked a table for opening night and have a spare seat…

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