30 Sept 2008

Hare Ball at the 'M' Spot

‘I do not deal in nostalgia…’
[Morgan Meunier]
I CANNOT think of a better way to interpret a restaurant’s history then to digest the highlights. Morgan M.’s ‘Fifth Birthday Menu’ celebrated the classics over six courses.
I chose the almost secretly stylish venue for a long (but never lazy) lunch with Alastair Bathgate, author of ‘Confessions of a Wino’ and his wife, Freda. By the end of the tirade of intense, intricate dishes we felt we had been given a thorough gastronomic work out, with every taste-bud tousled. The aftertastes left by many of these persisted like a struck tuning fork.
Beyond the bay trees bordering an unassuming frontage, the Maître’d immediately warned me of a lethal little step just inside the door. When safely within, I found an attractive, airy dining room festooned with chef’s own pictures, an initial sign of authorship. This sounded echoes of Marco Pierre White’s moment as a painter: printing ego on huge canvasses (at a significant saving). Morgan’s pictures were small, however, colourful too and never distracting. Art is of course personal, and whilst a cliché to state it, his plated craftsmanship was more to my taste…
Alastair and I began with flutes of bone-dry Champagne enlivened with a drop of Crème de Peches. Conversation ran into the almost all French wine list. When it came to ordering, however, it appeared that we might be in a pickle. The tasting menu may only be taken by the whole table, which didn’t suit Alastair’s wife. Short of decamping her to another table, which would be deeply unsociable, the Maître’d patiently responded to what I would interpret as a pulverisingly masochistic tally of allergies. The aversions: red meat, fish (including crustaceans), onions (indeed all members of the onion family, i.e. leeks and shallots), tomatoes, and last, but definitely not least, alcohol, which must be especially tough for the wife of a prolific wine blogger.
Curiously, the chef seemed to relish the challenge, cooking up a six course extravaganza, which included radically modified versions of dishes already on the menu as well as several off piste. The most exotic: a white Chicory Tarte Tatin flower.
For us, a salt flake frosted Mushroom Beignet, which looked like a small, tall black pudding, surrounded by cubed pumpkin, was flooded at table with a Light Cream of Pumpkin and Butternut infused with Rosemary. Here as throughout we chose the recommended wines to accompany. The radiant, appetisingly saline starter was, alas, partnered with a dull as dishwater Ugni Blanc/Colombard (the latter grape at its best when distilled out of its misery). It had bite but (like Gordon Brown) lacked élan.
Next, three circles on a concentrically circled plate: a yielding Ballotine of Foie Gras swathed in Pain d'épices was served next to a glittery mere of fig compote (later to make another appearance with the impeccable cheese) and a sweetened salad stack. Toasted brioche was lightly fibrous: cottony. This was accurately aligned with a tulip of sticky, Coteaux du Layon ’06 (Dom. Des Barres). Light, refreshing, and never overwhelmingly syrupy, the fabled match lost nothing in fact.
Alastair and I agreed that the Seared Fillet of Wild Sea Bass damming a Lobster Velouté, beside a single ravioli (raviolo?) stuffed with pink smudged Crayfish and Tarragon was the finest dish. With an almost caramelised crust, the sea bass gave definition against the froth, which was inhabited by broad beans. The ravioli case was sublimely fresh and its contents acutely sharpened by delicate use of the aromatic herb. A glass of Burgundy, Montagny 1ER Cru ’05 ‘Les Coères’ added weight, butter, smoke and body.
A Pot Roasted Fillet of Iken Valley Venison (which I think comes from Suffolk, but eludes cursory detective work) was seriously gamey, held under a blanked of Grand Veneur Sauce (made with game blood). A Farci of Hare was playful and surprising. This deeply glossy ball jacketed in Radicchio concealed tender meat of haggis like flavours. An upright Glazed Pear sail in shape resembled the Burj Al Arab in Dubai – the world’s only seven star hotel. Brainy Chestnuts added additional nutty sweetness. A glass of rested ‘01 Margaux, (Chateau Durfort Vivens) surrendered a gentle perfume of herbs and powder puffs, with a fine texture.
The pre dessert certainly 'sexed-up' any school notion of Rice Pudding, contained within an orange ‘brandy basket’ Tuile.
Finally, the waiter carved a smile into an overly substantial Apricot Soufflé, before penetrating it with Coulis (this made me giggle nervously). Rosemary Ice Cream was coolly invigorating alongside, as was a little light, grapey, gently sparkling, frivolous ’05 Moscato d’Asti (Canelli). How ironic that the only departure from French wine was so deliberately playful.
A shared plate of six cheeses (we were offered more: “you’re here to enjoy yourself”) included the most mature Epoisses I have experienced. It had developed an almost caramel like crust. I spread it easily over warm sourdough.
I had warned my guests that Morgan Meunier has a habit of materialising after service to conduct a post mortem of his endeavours / bask in the glory, which is exactly what happened next. This could be intimidating, perhaps like on the Great British Menu, where Matthew Fort sheepishly meets the burly looking chefs who cooked their hearts out. As you might tell by my descriptions of the dishes, Meunier's talent was transparent, as was the quality of the ingredients. This is after all a restaurant which offers a Vegetarian Tasting Menu, making concepts like ‘Saf’ ('organic, vegan, raw') appear superfluous. Noting an ‘R’ in the month, Alastair asked about the absence of oysters, to which Morgan said that their was very little he could do with them. They are at their best when left alone – he cannot improve their flavour. He prefers intricate cooking: crafty art, which is also why, unlike White, he earnestly shuns the nostalgic dishes of childhood. "Those are memories which cannot be improved on..."
On Alastair’s advice, we finished with (and were finished off by) balloons of a potent, slightly rough gem: Baron de Sigognac ’72 Armagnac and malty macchiatos with motifed petit fours (in case we forgot where we were).
Lunch had been an unforgettable journey which was also in parts an education. But considering we were one of only three tables (totalling seven diners), this was almost private dining: pristine conditions to showcase Meunier’s plates. Such pitiable customer attendance is not down to price (as well as our £43 menus, they do a three course lunch for £25.50) but the peril of location (ironically facing Paradise Park). Some lumpishly limbed critics pan this as being ‘so far up the Liverpool Road it’s practically in Liverpool’ - ‘the socially challenging end’. Heavy handed point taken, although if this venue was miraculosuly towed towards the bright lights of the capital’s centre, the prices would accelerate more dramatically than a cow dropped out of a helicopter…’
Read Alastair's review HERE.
Morgan M. - 489 Liverpool Rd., Islington, London. N7 8NS. T. 020 7609 3560
Nearest Tube: Highbury & Islington
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