Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Dressing Room salad pop up, Hackney

A salad pop up? A SIX COURSE salad pop up? In the event space above a CORNER SHOP on Lower Clapton Road? It wasn't easy for my colleagues to keep a straight face as I told them what I was doing for dinner that night. Persuading the other half that he would be full - even after six courses - from salad was also a challenge, but the guys at The Dressing Room are on a mission to show that vegetable-led food can be stunning, exciting and fully satisfying.

The Dressing Room is a monthly pop up in Clapton run by a group of upstarts from various acclaimed London restaurants, including a chef from one of my favourite restaurants: Moro, in Exmouth Market. They build on Moro's strong Moorish and Middle Eastern influences to encompass classic British flavours, exciting Latin American zestiness, and some Asian twists, all using seasonal (and often local) veg, interesting grains and well sourced meats and dairies.

Guests are sat at communal tables in Palm 2's event space (surely the only corner shop in London to employ an events manager and have a tumblr fansite?) and share some courses as fours or twos, and others as individual plates. We happened to be sitting with Sam and Sam Clarke, the founders and owners of Moro and Morito, and authors of four of my favourite cookbooks. With Courtney Love playing a gig in a shop the weekend before, and Macaulay Culkin playing a gig in a pizza takeaway last week, you never quite know who you'll bump into on Lower Clapton Road these days!

Our first dish was a snack of radishes with whipped butter, served a gin and elderflower cocktail, packing a punch under some beautiful, clear, familiar spring flavours.

Each dish was served with the dressing separate, and part of the schtick was dressing the salad in a fitting and surprising way. Our scallop ceviche was served in a scallop shell, with crispy duck skin, toasted hazelnuts and the zingy amalfi lemon and iced earl grey dressing was poured out of a chintzy teapot.

Fresh, seasonal ingredients were a big deal too. Bang in the middle of the asparagus season, the beautiful green stuff made an appearance alongside outlandish parmesan crisps, creamy goats curd, wild garlic flowers, and a pungent wild garlic and mint dressing.

Mackerel came with Growing Communities bitter salad leaves, and strong aromatic flavours from fennel, olives and capers to match the strength of the mackerel. A nice touch dressing this one: a bolshy blood orange and sherry vinegar dressing came in a little spray bottle, so you could spray on the dressing like ocean spray...geddit?!

Perhaps the most beautifully presented was a salad of grains, with hundreds of pomegranate seeds, chopped pistachio, shelled broad beans and purple edible flowers, and lots of finely chopped herbs – an amazing sea of colour, and more so when served with robust green and red leaves, designed for scooping. The flavours reminded me of those in Georgian cooking, where vegetables are given a huge lift by pomegranate and fresh herbs.

The final savoury course was PX Duck (Sam and Sam Clarke translated Pedro Ximinex – that grapey, thick, sweet sherry) with more Growing Communities leaves, red and gold beetroot and a garlicky rich walnut paste (another Georgian influence) and a kickass horseradish cream. Topped with beautiful edible flowers, of course.

We were blown away with each course individually – the literal wow factor at the presentation as it landed on the table, the ceremony of the dressing – but it worked well as a conventional story too – a snack, an amuse bouche, a salad, a fish course, a meat course, a dessert. It was perfectly paced, filling us up just a little bit more, allowing for slowly munching through each course and letting the flavours and impressions settle down before the next came out.

A slightly longer wait followed the duck, and we all knew that its predecessors would be hard acts to follow. But a dessert, served in an oversized antique teacup – which in any other context would have been a nausea-inducing Cath Kidston glimmer of twee hell – of sweetened buttermilk, almond crumble, strawberries and rhubarbs, topped with a granita and served with an elderflower, ginger punch – was pretty much the freshest, most moreish dessert I've had.

The dessert, like the whole thing, shouldn't have worked. Tell it to your friends and it sounds like the most pretentious parody of an East London night out you've heard. But the quality of the cooking, the vibrancy of the flavours, the visceral excitement that the announcement of each course brings, is so fun, sensual and full of love – and not pretentious in the slightest.

I left with a real sense that Tom Sarafian, the head chef of The Dressing Room, and his co-plotters are all future masters of London's restaurant scene – and that I'd just been part of an exciting step in their rise to running their own critically acclaimed more permanent ventures.

The next instalment of The Dressing Room takes place on 5 June at theRusset, just on the other side of Hackney Downs, and promises 7 courses and a cocktail for £40. You might baulk at the price, but you won't find more plentiful portions of expertly cooked, innovative, beautifully presented, seasonal quality food in London. 

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