Gosh, I have missed restaurants. I have missed the feeling that someone of great skill is cooking my food for me and has gone to great pains to think about food that will delight the senses. I have missed the thrill of looking through a wine list, seeing what treasures it contains – both familiar favourites and new discoveries. I have missed the sense of being looked after by the staff, being made to feel like the most important thing in the world is that I have a nice meal. I have missed having a meal and not having to do the washing up!
The last few months have really shown us how much we appreciate those things that we may have taken for granted previously. It has been heartbreaking, amongst all the other terrible situations, to see the anguish that COVID-19 has caused for those in the hospitality sector. They have been given precious little support or guidance and have have had to make really difficult decisions about the future of their businesses in the face of huge adversity. We face the very real prospect that many businesses and establishments that we have known and loved will go to the wall as their finances are increasingly drained (particularly in London where the rents and rates are so high) and the uncertainty about second spikes, etc. mean that decision-making becomes impossible. This will be a huge loss to all of us and something that we need to find a way to avert.
It was for this reason that as soon as it was announced that restaurants could reopen, that I felt duly obliged to book a table at one of my local favourites – Copper and Ink in Blackheath, run by the inimitable Tony and Becky Rodd. I have seen first-hand over Twitter just how hard the last few months have been for them, how they have agonised over decisions and waited (mostly in vain) for any kind of constructive guidance and support from the government. So, it was with great joy that last week my wife and I stepped over the threshold and went to eat at a restaurant for the first time in months. Yes, things were different – we were greeted by staff wearing visors and gloves; we were shown to a table which had a Perspex screen separating it from the next one; there was a hand-sanitising station for us to cleanse our hands; the menus were laminated to allow them to be wiped down. But I would very happily accept each and every one of these things in order to keep the restaurants that I love open.
So, getting off my soap box. How was the dining experience? Wonderful – of course!
We were celebrating so obviously started with a glass of fizz. In this case a glass of Henners NV Brut, which was a pleasingly classic glass of English sparkling wine. Since it had been so long since we’d been out to a restaurant we were keen to make the most of the occasion, so we decided that we would go for their tasting menu.
The meal started with burrata served with romesco, courgette and basil. Any dish that features burrata will always be a winner for me – I absolutely adore that creamy, melty, slightly salty, oozy, orb of deliciousness. This was no exception – and it paired wonderfully with the chargrilled yellow and green courgettes (very much in season now, as my recent forays into gardening have shown me!). Underneath the burrata was a romesco, which is a Catalan sauce made from tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and various nuts (thank you Wikipedia!). I thought it had a kind of tapenade consistency to it. The flavours were very pronounced and gave a lovely lift to this Mediterranean-inspired dish. I also liked the dramatic plate that this was served on, it kind of reminded me of a glamorous sea-shell.
Next up were crab cakes served with avocado purée, crab bisque, grapefruit, samphire and radishes. The crab cake itself was lovely and light on the inside with a lovely crab flavour, but the outside was crunchy and crispy. Texturally it kind of reminded me of falafel (in a good way!). I thought the garnishes were all really nice and thoughtfully arranged, with the bisque being nice, rich and deep – as it should be. What I particularly enjoyed though was the avocado purée, which lifted the dish and gave it a different dimension, which really worked when added to the other flavours and textures. Very clever stuff!
Time to talk about wine! This was another aspect that I realised how much I had missed; leafing through the wine list at a restaurant. Seeing the exciting names that I knew of, intrigued by the names that I didn’t. It’s amazing how much you take simple pleasures like that for granted. As we were matching against the lamb, I chose a bottle of 2016 Circumstance by Waterkloof (Stellenbosch, SA). This was a Cabernet Franc, a grape that I can’t get enough of really. This had everything I was looking for, it had a lovely blackcurrant profile to the wine that showed decent acidity to keep the wine in balance, along with some slightly more vegetal notes to ground it. A fantastic wine to match with the lamb. The only thing that I would have done differently with hindsight was ask for an ice-bath for the bottle, as I always find that Cab Francs benefit from a slight touch of chilling. Also, worth noting that the South African wine industry needs all the support it can get at the moment as the government has banned alcohol sales; so do yourself a favour and pick up a few bottles of this wine – you won’t regret it!
For the last of the savoury courses, we were treated to a lamb rump and lamb kofta, served with grilled courgettes, feta, pomegranate, olive crumb and yoghurt. Another gloriously Mediterranean-themed dish, which was just what was called for on a summer’s evening. This was one of those dishes were there were all sorts of hidden morsels on the plate, which meant that for each mouthful you got a slightly different combination of flavours. The lamb was cooked perfectly, naturally, both the juicy, tender rump and the kofta. Pomegranate seeds are one of those elements that when added to a dish in a restaurant really lifts a plate of food – I really must remember to get some for the kitchen for use in my home creations.
Time for the puds! First up was a lovely and light morsel of summer-berry pavlova. The meringue was divine, crunchy on the outside, sticky and chewy on the inside. Just fabulous! This was then followed up by the slightly heavier chocolate brownie served with a medley of dried raspberries, fresh raspberries and raspberry sorbet. I mean, you can’t go much better than a delectable home-made brownie served with varying textures of raspberry – it’s the stuff of dreams! We’ve had the odd dessert during lockdown (who hasn’t), but desserts are one of those areas that I just think are better done by professionals. This was a rather lovely way to round off the meal.
Wow! It feels so good to have written a blog about a memorable dining experience again! 2020 is a year that I don’t think anyone will forget. I truly hope, however, that 2020 is not the year that we look back on and think “that’s when all those great pubs, bars and restaurants shut down and we were left with only the chain places.” If you can, and I know that many people can’t, please get out and support your local businesses in the hospitality sector. They are artists who put their heart and soul into making sure that you have a good evening and our world would be so much the poorer for their absence.