15 Dec 2008

Free From Local Shackles

‘There isn't a single dish that I wouldn't consider ordering…’
[Aidan Brooks]
FOOD AND WINE matching is far from trivial, especially when you get it wrong. I remember when my father vetoed a sommelier, selecting a bottle of Barsac to rinse an entire meal sweet. A sticky collision! The same principle can be applied to the people you dine with. A conceited companion affected by dietary quirks, excessive intoxication or a miserly attitude can ruin a repast.
I met Jonathan, sage co-author of meal miscellany, ‘Around Britain with a Paunch’ a few months ago. We arranged to have dinner and played e-mail tennis to whittle down a selection of venues doing things differently, deftly and with bravery. Clearly he is worldlier than me because his shortlist included a bierodrome in Berlin whilst mine extended to Colchester’s ‘Company Shed’! Eventually we set our sights on Peter Gordon's 'Providores' in Marylebone Village: sophisticated Kiwi cuisine brightened by Asian and Middle Eastern spices… Whilst I am a fan of the buzzing ground floor ‘Tapa’ room, named after a mahogany coloured ceremonial tapestry (try the Wasabi martini), I had not before ventured upstairs to the small but chic dining room.
Thanks to our second-rate railway, I was running late and so I telephoned to arrange a flute of cool, apple puff scented Pelorus (Cloudy Bay) for Jonathan. This is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished sparkling wines, owned by the world’s largest luxury goods organisation, ‘LVMH’ – Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey – note the handbags go first! The restaurant delivered this with charm. Indeed, despite a couple of recent criticisms about an ‘unsmiling’ attitude, we only ever encountered patient, unqualified sweetness, front of house.
The menu, which reads almost lyrically despite an utter absence of adjectives, is malleable to your desires. Basically you choose between two to five plates, noting the enticing wording ‘desserts can make up one or more of your courses’ and then think about the wine. Bear in mind that the user-friendly, again concisely worded list provides probably the most comprehensive range of Kiwi bins in Europe, with much offered by the glass.
Whilst I tried to forward plan, going so far as to ask chef / blogger Aidan Brooks for navigational advice through the intricate menu (he did a placement here in ’06) I felt much more spontaneous now. I suggested therefore that we stopped gazing at the paperwork and handed all decisions to the kitchen. The result? Ten plates, shared, served two at a time, with liquid correspondents.
Rather than itemise every course, here is a taste of the most intriguing...A soft circle of panna cotta, which evoked fresh white Stilton, was topped with petrified dashi (made from the base of miso soup). This nudged bracingly fresh, moist tataki (‘pounded’) line-caught Yellowfin tuna and deep green sweet nori (seaweed) purée. It was decorated with small feathery fennel fronds, licked by brisk green peppercorn and lime dressing and dotted with slightly medicinal tasting, brittle buckwheat bullets. Despite a desire for a pocket version of ‘Wikipedia’ to decode aspects of the description, the medley was moreish, balanced and I would imagine highly nutritious. It highlighted the tangibly fresh, slightly mysterious ingredients and a pristine, honed aesthetic awareness. This verged on the deconstructed, but never fully flowed into that philosophy.
A glass of toffee scented, judiciously unoaked Māori-made Chardonnay from the tip of the south island, Marlborough (Tohu) elegantly cleansed. It may be worth pointing out that the Māori were one of the few peoples to have no form of alcoholic beverage before the British missionaries arrived.
Soft-shell crab was crisply, greaselessly deep-fried and served on tight-knit ginger and wasabi tobikko (flying fish roe) arancini (rice ball) with pickled papaya (a preparation which toned down the fruit) and carrot salad. I last encountered such romantically titled ovaries at another Kiwi influenced enclave, the ‘Bleeding Heart’, Farringdon. A lacquer of salty sweet Nam Jihm dressing nervily brought all the elements together. The textures richly interplayed, particularly the grated carrot, which became slightly sweet, even nutty under the influence of the dressing. Gordon, incidentally, is a salad radical, as demonstrated by his leafy missive ‘Salads – the new main course’.
A glass of stylish Pinot Gris (a prince to north Italian pauper, Grigio) came from the foot of New Zealand’s north island, Martinborough – note the ‘n’ for north as opposed to Marlborough at the tip of the south. It had a visibly languid texture when spun in the glass and generous, glamorous flavours such as lychee, blood orange flesh (and a slither of peel) as well as ripe pear (Palliser). Its sumptous, persuasive weight deftly softened the inner juiciness of the crab, which had the texture of dry forest leaves.
Jonathan is fascinated by the magnification of the senses. He talked lucidly about enjoying Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’, experienced at ‘The Fat Duck’, Bray. Apparently ocean sounds are woven via I-Pod alongside a collage of tapioca, fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine crowned with abalone, oysters and seaweed. Here, the fact that the roast Middlewhite swine belly created such an audible, satisfying crunch helped amplify the flavour, he said. I think I see what he means. This was served on kim chi (Korean fermented cabbage – they eat 40lbs of it per person, per year) with dense, dark earthy wood ear mushrooms, pickled quails egg and lustrous, highly aromatic anise Sichuan broth. A glass of dry, wet chalk scented Riesling from Waipara Springs, North Canterbury added an interesting tangerine tangent and a judicious piercing acidity.
Squab (or young) pigeon was delicately tandoori spiced (although I wonder whether Providores has an actual tandoori oven) and served on playfully ginger ale braised cabbage with black trompette jus, cooling banana raita (yoghurt) and lightly absorbent sumac lavosh (unleavened bread). This was matched with the classy Célèbre, a Bordeaux meets Rhône style red from Ata Rangi, Martinborough. Incidentally, to make ends meet in the early days, this producer sewed pumpkins between the vines to sell at market.
We finished with the dessert plate for two, an idea I am always willing to embrace. A miniature toasted coconut pannacotta, warm chocolate prune cake exaggerated by spectacularly sweet Pedro Ximinez sherry, and a ‘wee’ pear bavarois, mischievously melting.
Coffee, hailed by Giles Coren as ‘the best in England’ and served in mini Duralex beakers, was Monmouth in its revitalising strength and bitterly ravishing.
Did Jonathan and I succeed in finding somewhere bold and extraordinary? -Whilst we didn’t physically leave zone one, unshackled by adherence to local fodder, Gordon took us to far-flung climes through creative, visionary collages. Whilst some of the descriptions made as much sense on paper as serving Barsac and Colonial Goose, the actual plates were remarkably pretty, poised, startlingly provoking the palate with bright bases, careful textures and exotic spices. In short, it fused, as did the communication between front and back of house. This was therefore one of my most exciting meals this year.
As we began dinner, we noticed a couple nearby, miffed at the menu, clearly outside their comfort zone. The thought of a departure from the well-worn three course rut must have seemed as far from gastronomy as astronomy. Whilst I lost track of them after the first morsel arrived, I do hope that they succumbed to Gordon's enthralling craft...
Since The Providores and Tapa room was established ('01), an outside catering operation has prospered. Peter Gordon also has ties with two venues in the world’s third largest city, Istanbul, one of which was recently voted best new restaurant.
‘The Providores’ and Tapa Room’ - 109 Marylebone High St., London. W1U 4RX. T 020 7935 6175
Nearest Tube: Baker St.

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