Carbonation, emulsification, oil spherification, vacuum distillation…alright, settle down, I am not reviewing el Bulli, it’s not Fat Duck either (well, this week anyway), but of course you already know this from the post heading. Yes, it is Bacchus of Hoxton. Of where? Of Hoxton. You would be forgiven for not having heard of it before; it is a pretty miserable, impoverished and ugly area just north of the City, so miserable, impoverished and ugly in fact, it is rather trendy. Actually, it is not all bad; Hoxton did give the world the Kray twins, Lenny McLean (actor, bouncer, bare-knuckle boxer and ‘hardest man in Britain’) and Jamie Oliver. Well, OK…maybe it is that bad.
I had never before been and most probably never would have gone to Hoxton were it not ‘thanks’ to Nuno Mendes. Nestled away behind a council estate, a few minutes’ walk from Old Street, sits his Bacchus; former pub, current laboratoire gastronomique, or more appropriately, laboratório gastronômico. Chef Nuno, formerly of el Bulli and Jean-Georges, has established an impressive outpost (or blockhouse, considering the neighbourhood) of creative cooking. His mission is to bring avant-garde cuisine to the masses; his motto, ‘fine dining in trainers’.
The restaurant its very self is a combination of contrasts: well-maintained, large and painted completely white, it stands out clean and precise amongst grubbier surroundings; yet, it is also slightly anonymous, the signage almost unnoticeable and the front door easy to miss. However, it works.
Entering the restaurant, you are instantly absorbed by a welcoming, comfy ambience: windows draped with heavy curtains, warm woods and candles on each table combine to create a disarming charm. The faux Parisian bar and open kitchen add a further layer of intimacy, allowing guests to watch the chefs at play and encouraging a fuller dining experience.
After being greeted at the door, I was politely escorted to a table where the menu, printed on a single sheet of paper, awaited me. There were only two choices: the full tasting menu, 7 courses, £60 or the reduced tasting menu, 4 courses, £45. Brilliant! Bacchus made it too easy. Both my sad inability to make quick, decisive dish choices and my desire to sample as much of the menu as possible (reading between the lines – eat as much as I can), were simultaneously neutralised; the full menu please. However, because I do not eat pork, I had to request one dish, Umami: Del Mar La Montagna – Memories of San Sebastian, be substituted. Although informed this would not be a problem for the kitchen, I was quite disappointed. I had already learnt that Chef Nuno had a special fondness for San Sebastian, so I could not help but expect that this dish was close to his heart and probably something rather special. C’est la vie!
My order dispatched, I sat back and contemplated the menu. I had barely started this when I was distracted by the appearance of Chef Nuno himself, who looks like a cross between artist, mad scientist and wizard, hunched over a large canister at the serving station. Suddenly, a mysterious mist, oozing out this magic container, began to envelop his features; I was immensely curious. After some more technical, scientific ‘fiddling’, the sorcerer’s, sorry, chef’s creation was presented to me.
“Your first amuse bouche…” I was probably as excited at the intimation that more surprises from the kitchen were to follow as I was to discover what I had before me, “…nitro cocktail of ginger and whiskey, ginger and whiskey tea.” Liquid nitrogen had been used to transform the cocktail from liquid to cold, refreshing solid, lumps of which now floated in a sharp, yet sweet pool of tea that had been poured tableside. It was a pleasant surprise.
A selection of breads were then brought out: olive oil infused savoury biscotti (left), cinnamon & icing sugar Pain à la Grecque (centre), parmesan choux (right), romanesco sauce. I thought this an interesting take on traditional bread and butter service. Not only did the taste differ, but each offering varied in texture. Each was pleasant, but the melt-in-your-mouth choux was my favourite.
A second amuse bouche followed. Parmesan Porridge, Mushroom Consommé. I liked the consommé, but wasn’t moved by the porridge; my clumsy palate could not taste the parmesan nor did I find the mixture creamier for the alleged cheese.
First course: Kingfish Sashimi; strawberries, almonds, foie gras. I imagine it is dishes like this that detractors of avant-garde cooking drool over; the personification of ponciness, random foods thrown on a plate, blah blah blah. I loved it. Juicy fish, prepared simply with olive oil, sake, and strawberry puree whose acidic sweetness cut through the fish; a heavenly morsel of foie gras; almond crumbs providing a contrast in texture; and sweet, fresh strawberry gel and creamy fennel spread linking the components together. I was left wanting more; a good sign.
Second course: Asparagus Chawanmushi; textures of asparagus, confit clams, milk kappa. Chaw…chaw…chawanwhat? I found out later this is a Japanese egg custard. A ceramic pot, sealed with a lid upon which sprigs of asparagus and succulent clams were enveloped in thin peppercorn-infused milk feuilles (left) was brought out. The lid was lifted to reveal a poached egg atop an egg and parmesan custard (right). I could not get enough of what was on the lid, but, though the egg was well cooked, I found the Chawanmushi forgettable.
Third course: Oysters & Onions Old But New. This dish was able to show off the skill of the chef. Those who have heard of el Bulli may have also heard of the liquid pea ravioli served there; Chef Nuno applies the same technique, spherification, here. Sodium alginate and calcium chloride are added to onion soup to induce a chemical reaction, creating a very thin skin made only of the soup itself.
For the diner, this means two perfect bubbles of rich onion potage bathing in onion jus, upon which lay a slice of savoury biscotti topped with a dollop of oysters tartare, pomegranate seeds and charlotte pepper mélange.
Only recently I was served an oyster amuse bouche at le Bristol prepared in the same fashion, so though not my first exposure to spherification, it was nonetheless interesting and impressive. However, it was also my least favourite dish. I thought the individual flavours robust, but found it difficult to enjoy the ingredients together, due mainly to the physical impediment of having to eat the bulle d’air de soupe in one go (otherwise a big onion-y mess would result). Still, marks for effort.
Fourth course: In place of the San Sebastian tribute dish, came langoustine, pine nuts, smoked aubergine, honshimeji mushrooms, spring onions (this less than sexy title is my own manufacture). Mon Dieu! Any worries left over from the previous dish, were absolutely demolished; this was delicious. Tender langoustine, smoky aubergine, sweet mushroom, sweeter onion; each ingredient was superb and superbly partnered.
I was told that this was a new dish the Chef was developing for future menus, causing me to infer that I was some sort of gastronomic guinea pig…never was there a more grateful test-subject! I must also mention the gentle, enchanting aroma of this dish; smell your food people!
Fifth course: Red Mullet Toast & Liquorice; courgette & crab, blood orange & saffron. A delicate courgette flower stuffed with creamy crab mousse and coconut tofu carré lay immersed together in a bath of blood orange, saffron, enoki mushrooms and liquorice cubes. Resting on the rim of the plate was a perfectly cooked, tasty red mullet fillet under a thin savoury cracker upon which nestled crunchy flowers. Sounds good? It was good. The red mullet, one of my favourite fish, and crab-stuffed flower really stood out for me. I would have preferred a stronger taste to the tofu and liquorice, which unfortunately, I found a little bland and I am also not a huge fan of oranges, but I cannot blame the kitchen for this. Coincidentally, the preparation of the fish was reminiscent of line-fished whiting from Saint-Gilles in a bread crust, yet another le Bristol offering.
Sixth course: Slow Cooked Squab; mangosteen, edamame beans, rhubarb, garlic. Sacredieu! Another stunning dish; it looked sexy, it tasted sexy, it even smelt sexy. The perfect pigeon was prepared in two ways; one portion came as a beautiful chunk of pigeon breast sat in a bed of soy beans, whilst another as a selection of different cuts entrenched with a plump mangosteen in sweet, piquant rhubarb jam. A smooth soy puree added further flourish to the plate. This was a feast for the eyes; the contrast between the beautiful falu red of the bird and summer garden green of the soy was evocative and arresting.
Seventh course: White Chocolate Mousse; mango, passion fruit gel, ginger iced milk, gingerbread crumbs. This was an excellent conclusion to the meal; light and refreshing, fruity and spicy, one was left suitably satisfied instead of sickly surfeit. A thick white chocolate sponge laden with sweet mango jelly and crunchy vanilla chilli tuile was served along with smooth ice cream spiced with ginger and atop ginger crumble. Embellishing the dish was a pool of passion fruit gel, stroke of pineapple oil and fantastic black olive caramel bubble. Sweet versus sharp was the major theme here, with a subtle interplay of textures in the background.
Petit Fours: Crema Catalana, passion fruit sponge, financier, chocolate truffle. A decent selection of PFs helped me digest my espresso. The crema Catalana (right) was creamy and spot on sweet; the sponge (centre left) was forgettable; and though I am generally indifferent towards financiers, I admit this was a fine example (left). I was glad I left the glorious truffle (centre right) till last. One bite and I was in love – deep, velvety smooth and so wrong. I would have been happy had a single truffle been served to me as dessert.
After all this, it would be fair to assume that I was embarrassingly, uncomfortably stuffed – not so. Even though each plate left me wanting more – due to the profusion of flavours rather than paucity of quantity – I was indeed full, however, it was more of a belt-hugging-belly-dutifully satiety that felt very well earned. This is thanks to the light use of dairy and carbohydrates in Chef Nuno’s cooking, making the meal, for those calorie-conscious, a lot less guilt-inducing. This does not mean that anything is sacrificed: the always-evolving dishes are lessons in how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Classic and unconventional ingredients are employed to create a full taste-texture-colour-smell experience. In a manner that stoked my memories of Alain Passard’s cooking, the Chef aims, through interesting combinations and much-perfected cooking methods, to extract and enhance the foods’ own natural flavours.
Bacchus is a genuinely delightful experience and one I would well encourage. The food is well thought out, well designed, well crafted, well presented and well worth it…I do not want to gush, but after successive disappointments dining out, I am pleased to have finally left a restaurant with a fat smile on my face and warm feeling in my belly. The food needs no further tribute. The staff, polite, friendly, inquisitive, are each genuinely interested in your thoughts and share their own, encouraging a refreshingly honest dialogue; over my meal, I had a conversation with each of the three serveurs and Chef Nuno himself came out to meet his patrons. Throughout the evening, I had already observed him at the serving station diligently analysing every single dish as it left his kitchen; he is obviously someone who cares about his cooking and enjoys it too. In person, he is charming, passionate and intense and I was instantly won over by him.
I am glad that Bacchus’ star is indeed rising; professional and ‘voluntary’ reviews are becoming more consistent in their applause and were it not for Michelin inspectors’ emphasis and preference for classic, formal French cuisine, Bacchus would surely be starred, but I do not think that Chef Nuno is too concerned about this. He is more focused on his mission to make fine dining accessible to a wider audience and I do believe he is succeeding; the varied crowd I dined with – a pair of foreign tourists/bloggers (they were snapping photos of their food), a family celebrating something, a well dressed elderly couple and a group of mid-twenty-somethings in jeans and trainers – are testament to this.
177 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6PJ
tel: 020 7613 0477
nearest tube: Old Street, Farringdon