I love experimental cooking . . . Exotic jellies, smears across plates, computerised flavour matching, sous vide cooking and all that. Foams? Yeah, I like retro too. Molecular Gastronomy, as it is called, is an easily lampooned cookery style. This is partly because to many it just sounds weird and unappetising (sardine ice cream anyone?). It's also because, as with much haute cuisine, many dishes seem insubstantial, sometimes because they're intentionally lighter (non dairy foams, for instance) but sometimes because they appear just too frivolous. Although the techniques developed by molecular gastronomists have now spread to many haute kitchens they haven't filtered down to mainstream small-scale kitchens, neither commercially nor in the home. However, now you can experience all the delights of a scientifically minded kitchen without the Michelin-starred expense of Bray or Barcelona . . . in Hoxton.
Hoxton self-consciously tries to maintain a beyond the bleeding obviously bleeding bloody edgy edge in all manner of things, yeah. Everyone's always trying out a new haircut, customised trainer, home-produced Neu! Rave anthem or whateva. Except when it comes to food that is. There are some pretty good restaurants around Hoxton/Old Street but most of them are fairly conservative with the menus they offer. Grills are pre-emininent.
Now, slightly north of Old Street, up Hoxton Street, there's a sort of molecular gastropub called Bacchus. It used to be a pub called The Bacchus and it's not clear that the definite article has definitely disappeared. I'd heard about it opening from Ben, eGullet had a thread on sous vide cookery too with 'TheBacchus' contributing. By the time I got there last night, eight days after opening it's already had pieces in LondonPaper and Restaurant Magazine.
I went there last night with Bill, another enthusiast of this sort of stuff. The waiting staff are effusively cheerful. The place was half full and as I waited for Bill to arrive I settled and was effusively and cheerfully persuaded to order a glass of rose champagne. The old pub decor has been pretty much swept clean with a slightly primary school-like feel to it. The chairs seemd a little small and I was worried that I might snap the back off mine - overall it does feel right though, with a slightly more modern and sans-serif feel than many a food-inclined pub. The Cure and Hot Chip played unobtrusively in the background.
Bill arrived and we settled on the tasting menu (£36) with matching wines (£15). These already keen prices were further reduced by a 25% discount on the food that the pub is applying during its soft opening.
The amuse bouche was a statement of intent: a small pot with a ginger jelly cube, yoghurt foam, apple sorbet and wasabi. A really good combination of palate cleansers with contrasting textures. As a very minor quibble I would have preferred the jelly less firm.
Next came sous vide cooked scallop with a smear of cauliflower puree topped with apple foam and garnished with almonds and pine nuts.
The foam, while stable on the plate, swiftly disappears on your tongue, the scallop was succulent and sweet, the puree light. There was perhaps too much salt in the dish, with the almonds salted and also flakes lying on top of the foam. With this dish we had an Agustinos Sauvignon Blanc Reserve Bio Bio from Chile which was light and citrus and picked up the apple foam taste.
Next we had a had langoustine on top of very thinly sliced layers a fatty pig cheek. Accompanying this was another smear, this time of soy sauce, embedded with mangosteens. And on the side a blob (a bit more substantial than a smear?) of leek puree.
The ranges of sweetness from the pork to the langoustine to the puree then soy then mangosteen was well thought out, recalling a Chinese style. The pork was marvellously soft, its texture and flavour surely only achievable with sous vide. With this we had a Collavini Friuli Pinot Grigio Villa del Canlugo. The wine was darker in colour and fuller in flavour than the last, to match the more robust dish. Savoury notes helped balance the sweetness on the plate.
The sommelier then brought us a chilled red wine to with a soon-to-arrive fish course. "Cherries!", my mouth announced before my palate had a chance to tell my brain about the strawberry scents in the wine's bouquet. Then fillet of salmon, again sous vide, with a single strawberry sliced thinly over it. Underneath lay some finely sliced fennel. On the other side of the plate was a line of chopped black olives. Lying in a foamy puddle between the two was some almond sauce with some salad leaves.
The strawberries acted as lemon might normally with the salmon, providing subtle acidity to cut the richness of the fish. You can see from the picture that this dish looked so tasty that I started tucking in before I took the photo. You can see the moist flakiness of the salmon though. Oh yes, the wine was a Enate Rosado Cabernet Sauvignon and you can see why the strawberry-ness was approppriate now.
The final main course was lamb with figs, onion confit and a huge smear of cocoa.
This worked well. The cocoa wasn't at all intrusive with other sweetnesses coming from the figs and onions. In the middle of the confit was a deliciously chewy caramelised bit of confit. I was surprised that the lamb wasn't stopped at pink, but maybe they wanted a slightly stronger lamb flavour? The wine here was an organic Merlot from Languedoc-Roussillon.
Finally the dessert, which was a real highlight: pear financiers with caramelised lemon rind and dolcelatte ice cream.
This was later described to us as a 'deconstructed cheese plate'. The flavours ranged from sweet to bitter to salt to acid - the four primaries. Delicious and swiftly demolished by both of us. The wine was a typical Sauternes(Castelnau de Suduiraut) that perfectly matched the dish, almost as if one was designed for the other.
I had been happily snapping and scribbling away and maybe this was what prompted the chef, Nuno Mendes to come to our table after for a good long chat. He's a charming guy with a clear passion for what he does. He spent time at both El Bulli in Barcelona and at Jean-Georges in New York. WIth Bacchus he's on a clear mission to introduce this kind of food to a wider audience, of course this dovetails with being able to start up in a less expensive place than, for example, the West End. As well as producing the more exotic dishes they'll also be using the progressive cooking techniques to deliver 'standard' sunday lunches. It's also clear that sous vide provides a practical cooking method for a small scale/pub type operation. Although the primary reason for sous vide is the excellent flavour and texture it provides it has a side benefit of enabling some pre-preparation of dishes. This gastropub is more gastro than pub though. We had a brief tour of the miniscule kitchen (viewable from the dining area) - they have a combi/steam oven waiting to come online. We also met Phil, the eGullet participant, another friendly guy (despite clearly being a bit more along standard Hoxton lines than Nuno).
So . . . what a treat, to have somewhere like this land on my doorstep. It's clear that they've just started and while not everything's entirely smooth there is a huge sense of enthusiasm in the place. I imagine prices will rise as the place gets more attention - get there now!
Bacchus, 177 Hoxton Street, N1. 0871 223 7275