June in London; the official start of the summer and nothing says this more than the five-day long food and drink festival that is Taste of London.
Back in Regent’s Park, where it belongs, this years line-up of restaurants was as good as ever. The sun was shining, the air was filled with the smells of cooking and, in some parts, a hell of a lot of smoke from all the barbecuing. So tastebuds tingling, it was time to Taste.
As ever, each restaurant had three/four dishes for the festival, at least one of which is a “Taste Exclusive”. Being ever-so prepared and organised, I had drawn up a list of my must-have’s in advance so we had a clear plan of action. And here, in order or worst dish to best dish, we have our hits and misses of Taste 2018 (you can see this years full restaurant menu list here).
Ironically the first thing that went on my list but the most disappointing dish of the day came from Club Gascon. The “Delicascone” which, for some reason, was described on the menu as a “sexy scone” was served with an intriguing foie gras ice cream for a pretty standard £6.00. So why did this dish miss the mark? Firstly, the quintessentially British scone. Mine was still pretty cold in the middle and so clearly hadn’t been properly defrosted before serving, which contributed to the rather dense texture of what should have been a light and crumbly baked good. Secondly, that foie gras ice cream. I will admit that I had no idea what to expect when I ordered this dish, however, an ice cream that could have as easily been mistaken for vanilla instead of the rich, irony meatiness of foie gras was not what I was hoping for. The best thing on this dish was the little pool of sticky balsamic vinegar hidden under the scone. I don’t know why it was there but I’m glad it was.
My next most disappointing dish came from The Cheese Bar. I decided to forgo the truffled macaroni cheese, the smoked mozzarella sticks and the Taste Exclusive dish of burrata in favour of the goats cheese ice cream sandwich, simply because that is the one dish on offer that I can honestly say I don’t eat on a semi-regular basis. The goats cheese ice cream came sandwiched between two very light and crumbly lemon short breads and had been rolled in a pistachio crumb, all of which was very pleasant. The problem with this dish was the goats cheese ice cream, which simply had no flavour of its own. Given that an awful lot of goats cheeses are incredibly subtle in flavour, perhaps I should have seen this problem coming, but the intrigue was too much to pass up on.
This next dish came from a restaurant that I have been dying to try for some time now: Ikoyi. Two thin discs of kohlrabi were topped with razorclams, spots of pink peppercorn puree and an unidentified crumb, all of which was to be picked up and eaten like a taco. The pink peppercorn puree was intriguing, adding a burst of peppery heat to the delicate razorclams, however, the crumb on top added nothing to the dish, other than slightly choking me when I accidentally inhaled it before eating. Meanwhile the kohlrabi discs could have certainly benefited from a mild bit of pickling to add some flavour.
On to the Grana Padano doughnut from D&D’s Sartoria, of which chef Francesco Mazzei heads up in Mayfair. This was an odd little number in that it was completely delicious; the doughnut was light and fluffy as any I’ve ever had and the sauce ladled over it was completely moreish. However, I am not convinced that what we got was actually what was advertised on the menu. For a start, the colour of the Grano Padano sauce was a very questionable neon yellow, quite unlike like that of the actual block of cheese, and the taste was really quite sharp with an almost mustard-like quality to it. Finally, the menu indicated that there was to be grated black truffle over the top which was certainly lacking from this one and had what appeared to be deep fried breadcrumbs scattered over instead. So a strange dish: delicious but not what we were expecting.
Now we get to the best dishes of the day. Up first, we have the Taste Exclusive Dish from Ladies of Restaurants. A collective of women who work in varying hospitality roles in the UK; this group of ladies came together for Taste and managed to produce THE dish that won the coveted Best in Taste award. Beautifully spiced, grilled lamb came wrapped in a betal leaf, which is a vine leaf often found on black pepper plants in Asia. It was served with pickled chillies, a soy sauce marinade and crushed peanuts for a delightfully salty, sticky and nutty finish. The fact that it also came with a refreshing alcoholic ice tea didn’t hurt either.
The Signature Dish of Jamaican buttermilk jerk chicken, courtesy of James Cochran, blew me away. There aren’t many things better in life than a plate of deep fried chicken, but add some jerk spices into a buttermilk batter and you find yourself with a whole new level of fried chicken heaven. The generous spoonful of scotch bonnet chilli really upped the ante on this dish; it was absolutely delicious and kept that tongue-tingling spice going for a good long while.
Coming in a very, very close second favourite was this bowl of crispy new potatoes from Smoke & Salt. Crispy and salty on the outside, fluffy in the middle, the heap of new potatoes were covered in a glorious herby chimichurri oil, topped with slivers of moist beef heart and finished off with some lashings of creamy Gorgonzola. Rich, salty, meaty with a herby punch, this was an absolute sensation even if it wasn’t much of a looker.
And finally, we get to my personal favourite dish of the event. Monkfish tail in a turmeric and vodka tempura batter, covered in a caramel sauce with a hint of harissa, served with a preserved lemon mayonnaise and a mint and pomegranate salad. Seriously, hats off to Bala Baya for this dish, what a triumph. The batter, so light and crispy, was in no danger of overwhelming the delicate sweetness of the monkfish tail, while the sauce added the most interesting notes of sweet and heat at the same time. When Bala Baya opened its doors back in 2016, we had the absolute pleasure of eating at its soft launch. It may have been a couple of years ago now, but it has to be said that it was one of the standout dinners I have ever had, and that was for two reasons. Firstly, the inordinate amount of time it took for the food to reach the table that night and, secondly, the absolutely stunning quality of the food when it finally did reach our table. If this dish is anything to go by, they’ve certainly kept up these incredibly high standards. Also, I reckon two years is enough time for them to have gotten their service and speed up to scratch, so I wholeheartedly implore you to go and sample the genius that is this restaurant.
One evening visit, several freebies from suppliers, eight dishes and a handful of cocktails cannot really be described as a fair representation of the amount on offer at Taste. So if we could wave a magic wand, or rub a lamp and ask a genie to give us one more day at Taste, what would we have chosen to eat? I think the first thing I would do, would be to go back to The Cheese Bar and order any of the other options, but probably the smoked mozzarella sticks and perhaps I would have gone for the avocado soft serve from El Pastor as my dessert option instead. I would also definitely have swapped the “Delicascone” in favour of the spicy lobster doughnuts on offer from Club Gascon.
One of my friends, who was as equally taken by the monkfish from Bala Baya as I was, has been raving about the cuttlefish croqueta she had from Barrafina, so that makes the list. The crisp lamb rib from Salon tickled my fancy, but in all honestly, I really just want to go and eat at the real McCoy more than anything. Everything that The Modern Pantry was dishing up had my mouth watering, but I wish I had chosen their Exclusive soft shell crab brioche bun with a brown crab mayonnaise and a lemongrass sambal. Finally, if I had been visiting on the day that The Begging Bowl was cooking (they were one of the daily guest appearances), the sheer intrigue of their Taste Exclusive dish of a green curry wafer filled with scallop and salted Suffolk chicken, would have been just to much to ignore.
Thanks for a good one Taste, until next time at the Festive Edition at Tobacco Dock.