12 Nov 2008

Restaurant in a Box

'The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure no slight pleasure...'
[Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, C.16]
THIS REVIEW is about a dining room called ‘Flash’, so please allow me to purge the clichés within the first paragraph. “Flash in the pan, Flash fried, Flashy, you need to be flush at Flash, Flash light, gone in a Flash…” (etc. etc.) Suffice to say that all evidence of this rather couth restaurant’s 80 day existence will have been removed (or auctioned off) by February next year. It is part of the Royal Academy’s ‘G.S.K.’ (Glaxo SmithKline) exhibition, which explores ‘art, performance, experimental theatre’ and ‘an apocalyptic vision’. Entering from Burlington Gardens, I was greeted by a soundtrack from the latter category: intensely unappetising, pitiful sobbing…

Normally, I prefer to give a restaurant a little time to set into its stride rather than turn-up at the very first sitting, poised to poison it in print. I know that the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler famously observed that if a venue is already charging full prices, they should expect little mercy. But I believe that the business of establishing something as intricate as a restaurant requires a little empathy from professional eaters. At least initially. But seeing that Flash shines for such a short season – and because I was excited about the concept – I ventured to the room within a room on opening night. My enthusiasm was only mildly dampened by a telephone call beforehand, which advised that the extraction system was as unhappy as the weeper in the foyer. There would be no grills tonight, although a half-price discount would be applied. This was later be annotated as ‘Practice makes perfect’ on the bill. At least one loud stomach has already assessed a terminal gut reaction, describing Flash as pointless – ‘it serves no purpose’. In my opinion there is raison d’être and integrity to this space, and that is pleasure by design. The large, but welcoming room is a collage of creative commissions. 191 plywood art storage crates form the structure. These are inlaid to resemble a trellis – a reference to the original gardens once laid out where the site now stands. Behind this, various animals lurk in the ‘undergrowth’. An opalescent painting of parrot pairs hangs above. The centrepiece of the room is a bold black, oversized snowflake of a chandellier, known as the ‘death star’ by its designer. ‘Brutal but beautiful’, it is made of Swarovski crystal. China is supplied by Wedgewood, although the childlike dog, cat, bear and other animal heads that grace the crockery must be amongst the most avant-garde of designs in the firms 250 year history. The menu itself is made of various layers of card lasered into a geometric pattern. We began with mauve Flash Rita’s, ordered via a clued-up waitresses portable Play Station. From an unseen bar, gently American oak matured tequila was flawlessly blended with thick winterberry purée and a little cranberry juice. A small, cantaloupe coloured flower floated on top like a water lily.

It could be argued that a venue like Flash is more about concept and surroundings than anything culinary. The menu, which is stirred into life by Californian influences, hallowed the season. Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with braised rabbit leg was languid: earthy, kind and comforting. The leg did not materialise, however: just a little knoll of lean meat, pulled from the bone, orbited by a truffle oil ring of Saturn. A panda’s face emerged from the bowl's floor during the final excavations. My Ham Hock and Smoked Eel Terrine with Watercress Sauce was flawless. The moistly fatty, slightly sweet pink hock combined well with the discreetly smoked eel, jostled by the heady, inimitable cress. Incidentally, as a student, I remember trying to roast a hock in a Baby Belling, to little practical avail...Duck Confit with Spinach, Wild Mushrooms and Mustard Sauce was crisp and substantial and – forgivably - mildly ugly. The slug-soft mushrooms were notably over-salted, however, a small opening night clanger with the sodium chloride. My Roast Cod with Baby Fennel, Sauce Vierge, Cherry Tomatoes and Fennel Cress (whatever that may be) was a joy. Soft white flesh with a crisp top urged into life by the nervy dressing. A side order of British racing green, lightly leathery curly kale was glossily bathed in blood orange juice. From a short and snappy, interesting list, a glass of Western Australian Chardonnay (Cape Mentelle ’05) tidied up my palate: incisive lime, fig and flint within an unobtrusive oak picture-frame. Lemon trifle, almond cake and lemon granite was a little too spirited in the pith and acid department. Fig, raspberry, mascarpone custard, basil and praline pastry looked messy too (the coulis was thickly applied like squirted ketchup). The soft, sugary sandwich was given a hint of dynamism however thanks to the tangy baby basil leaves weaved within. Keenly caffeinated Espresso Martinis were presented with floating beans arranged in the shape of the Mercedes star. Flash is the second ‘pop-up’ restaurant that the trio of minds behind (Pablo Flack, David Waddington and Tom Collins) have launched. Their first, ‘Reindeer’, occurred two years ago at a ‘grubby’, almost secret location. That three week rather than three month operation was to all accounts (most of them nostalgic) such a 'wildly exciting' success that neither love, money nor celebrity could secure a reservation once the diary was full. From what I understand, Flash is not as immediately playful as that. Its punishment for daring to be less daring? -Scorn (it seems). Regardless, it is a shame that life will be short for Flash. It is one of the most relevant gallery restaurants I could imagine, especially when compared to culinary calamaties like the ‘Rex Whistler’ (Tate Britain). But then again, the most touching, most memorable narratives are brief encounters… 'Flash' - Royal Academy, 6 Burlington Gardens, London. W1S 3EX. T. 020 8880 6111
Nearest Tube: Piccadilly Circus
Flash on Urbanspoon
My latest wine column at Southwark News
My meal at 'Flash' with Channel 4's Andrew Webb