October 13th-19th is chocolate week. Paul A. Young is a chocolatier. Alan Jones is a chef. Together, they have created a special chocolate menu at Almeida restaurant. I love chocolate. I will eat this chocolate menu.
Logical, succinct and simple, my sentences have never been so short, nor so selfish. And it only gets worse. This is probably also my most indulgent, most useless greedy adventure yet: this carte chocolat is only on for one week – chocolate week (surprise, surprise). But chocolate week was last week.
Upper Street, Islington, dating from at least the 12th century, has had a long if not spectacular history. It has always been part of one of England’s greatest roads – the Great North Road, successor to the Roman Ermine Road and itself precursor to the present A1 – and also a stopping place for hungry farmers from the surrounding fertile fields en route to the Royal Agricultural Hall. It was this thoroughfare of tradesman that first attracted many pubs and inns to the area and although Islington has since become a trendy, modern North London enclave, it is still characterised by the extensive array of eateries that exist there.
Today, 580 yards of high street gastro heaven separate two more-ambitious foodie establishments: Almeida, part of the 20-restaurant-strong D&D chain (formerly Terence Conran’s eating-empire), and the original Paul A. Young’s Fine Chocolates Camden Passage boutique.
Almeida is the newly refurbished French restaurant serving contemporary Bourgeois cuisine. Chef Alan Jones, who joined in June 2007 after stints at Foliage and as sous chef at Bath-based Relais & Chateaux hotel, Lucknam Park (1*), has introduced a more refined and lighter menu which focuses on using seasonal produce simply; ‘my food is very fresh and inspired by the seasons, using clean flavours and combining colour and texture.’
Yorkshire man, Young, after attending Durham and Leeds Metropolitan Universities, spent his early career working in some of Northern England’s best restaurants before being poached by Marco Pierre White (how does this fellow get his name into every other review I write?). Starting as a pastry chef at The Criterion Brasserie, then Titanic, he finally began earning recognition as Head Pastry Chef at Quo Vadis. Then, in a change of direction he became a desserts consultant for M&S and Sainsbury’s, during which time the success of a promotion he had made some chocolates for inspired him to go coco fulltime. One can now find him in a Georgian house in Islington crafting and creating confection in the basement; selling them on the ground floor; and living on the first.
The duo share more than just a postcode though; besides the fact that Young is an Almeida regular and that he and Jones have become friends, the two men share a common past, having both at some time worked under Marco Pierre White. Together, they have spent the last six months testing and tasting different coco combinations, to construct a seven course seasonal chocolate carte. With Jones’ expressed intention ‘to show people that chocolate is a lot more than just a dessert component; it has a complexity and depth of flavour that enhances a menu at every turn,’ and Young’s bold assertion that ‘there’s nothing you cannot mix with chocolate,’ one is sure to expect something special.
It was Wednesday afternoon I first saw the Menu’s advertisement on London Eating and my interest was immediately piqued, I admit, more by the mention of Young’s chocolates than Almeida’s association; in my more mischievous moments, I have often made the short stroll to the chocolatier’s tiny Royal Exchange outpost to indulge in some of his fine handmade choc, especially, the award-winning salted caramel truffles and yummy brownies. D&D restaurants, on the other hand, are an unknown quantity to me. Anyway, it was a one-off occasion and good chocolate is worth the risk…
Opposite the Almeida Theatre, upon the eponymous side street is the eponymous eatery. Exposed corn-coloured brickwork encloses tall, white-latticed windows and the restaurant’s arched entrance. The inside space is considerable, 98 cover considerable. One side of the vast room is lined by felt burgundy banquette, the opposite side by a bar, where one hundred wineglasses dangle upside down in flawless formation. Across from the large glass front that allows the lovely sunlight in is a semi-open kitchen from which copper pots glisten and stainless steel saucepans shine. The oak dining room floor is partially covered by slate gray carpet and broken up by columns of Carolina blue. The centre space is filled with circle linen-covered tables, whilst bare, light-oak, square ones skirt the long settee; bentwood chairs abut both. Wooden salt and pepper shakers, plain glassware and cutlery and simple, white custom Conran crockery adorns tabletops. The openness is busied by hustle and bustle from the kitchen and diner; the room has the relaxed class of a classic bistro.
Amuse Bouche: Butternut squash velouté, chocolate and cumin stirrer. A cup of amber butternut squash soup was served with a baton of 72% Venezuelan chocolate studded with toasted cumin seeds. Hot, creamy and smooth, the squash set free a subtle, sweet aftertaste whilst the spice’s earthy sharpness and natural sourness of Venezuelan choc worked well together. When the cumin-cocoa club was stirred through, little by little, as instructed, the seed’s warmth and bitterness balanced nicely with the sweeter soup, but in the end, the blend was a little too rich.
Les Pains: Focaccia, brown, poppy seed and baguette. The baguette was crackly crisp; brown buns were thick, wholesome and made great sauce soppers; focaccia was fluffy and pleasantly greaseless; whilst, my preference, poppy, was so soft with a crunchy seedy crust. Rock salt sprinkled English butter accompanied. Although not baked onsite, the bread is at least delivered daily from the French Bakery and served, generally, warm.
Entrée: Salad of smoked eel, oysters and watercress, chocolate vinaigrette. A circular conga line of carved eel, shucked oysters and potato pieces came garnished with watercress leaf and syrupy spirals of chocolate vinaigrette. Both bivalves and fish were surprisingly mild with soft baked potato adding substance. The fresh, peppery cress was a good counterpoint to the briny seafood whilst the balsamic-sherry vinegar cut through the oily eel. The 64% Dominican chocolate was another gentle addition, whose nutty-smokiness linked the different elements nicely.
Plat Principal 1: Brill with hazelnut and cocoa crust, fricassee of wild mushrooms. Upon a verdant island of spinach, surrounded by a sea of creamy golden brown girolle and cèpe fricassee, a pan fried fillet of brill, encrusted with hazelnut, spinach and Venezuelan cracked cocoa nibs, sat. The fish was cooked delicately whilst the meaty mushrooms brought with them different texture, floating in a flavourful, earthy consommé. The spinach was well prepared and though not crunchy, had nice bite. The veggy-nutty-coco coating was a splendid and interesting addition that complemented the whole dish: hazelnuts, a natural partner to chocolate enhanced the nuttiness of the mushrooms; a hint of choc came through the cocoa nibs – roasted cocoa beans separated from their husks and broken into small bits – that picked up on the fish’s soft sweetness whilst adding crunch; and the spinach provided warm mushiness.
‘Palate Refresher’: Cucumber and lime chocolate. Next, ‘to refresh and invigorate’ came a pair of truffles or more precisely, Venezuelan 70% Amedei chuao blended in water-based ganache with fresh cucumber and lime zest. The fruity and citrusy Amedei chocolate, which synchronised with its citrus lime contents, was pleasingly light with a clean, dry finish. However, the cucumber was rather overpowered by the lime.
Plat Principal 2: Pot roast Barbary duck, candied carrots, Madeira and chocolate jus. Delightfully dark pink Barbary duck slices were delivered fanned over Savoy cabbage and candied carrots; alongside a baked fondant potato carrying confit duck breast roll; and mizzled with Madeira and chocolate gravy. Initially, the cabbage-carrot commixture came with lardons of pancetta, which also cased the confit; only after tucking into the duck did I notice this and upon confirming the pork’s presence, the dish was immediately whisked away and a brand new one soon arrived. On both occasions the delicious duck, roasted in sealed pot, was tender and full-flavoured; the peppered flesh was coated with just enough succulent fat to moisten it without making one feel guilty. The vegetables, creamed with crème fraiche, which countered the candied carrot, consisted also of crunchy cabbage; and smooth potato boasted the richest, most sensuous, slow-cooked duck breast. The Madeira, mixed with 66% Amedei Toscano black – a versatile chocolate tasting of subtle tobacco, liquorice with caramelised sweetness and definite, aromatic aftertaste – sumptuously super-glued all the elements together. This was warm, hearty and fulfilling food.
Pre-Dessert: Milk and white Chocolate ice cream. This pre-dessert differed from standard sorbet: a multi-layered milk and white chocolate shot topped with hundreds-and-thousands arrived accompanied by a pick’n’mix platter of vanilla and strawberry marshmallow, roasted almond flakes, cocoa nibs and tiny dies of truffle: essentially a tongue-in-cheek, make-your-own sundae. The Ecuadorian 55% pure Arriba bean (from small producer Lourdes Delgado, exclusively for Paul A. Young) and 35% cocoa butter white chocolate was well balanced, mildly bitter and sweet in turn. The hundreds-and-thousands and almonds added crunch, as did the cocoa nibs – sometimes described as the essence of chocolate – which imparted a delicate, unsweetened touch of choc. The marshmallow was nice and light, whilst the truffles, gorgeous; melting in the mouth, airy and with an unusual grainy, crumbly consistency.
Dessert 1: Dark chocolate, prune and Armagnac. A simply presented trio of coco fondant; Armagnac-soaked, pitted prune festooned with julienne orange zest; and Armagnac ice cream atop an almond-hazelnut crumb base came with an artistic application of dark chocolate. The prune was sticky and serious; the fabulous fondant, the best example I have had in a long, long time: warm, crispy crust of moist, rich sponge served to suppress a lush lake of hot, liquid cocoa that ran like molten magma. The cool ice cream supplied a smooth, refreshing, real fruity spirit slap without which it would not have been able to stand up to the unusually yet not unpleasantly strong 68% Ghanaian dark coco.
Dessert 2: Passion fruit soufflé, yoghurt sorbet. So impressive was the first dessert, I was worried that any that followed would undoubtedly disappoint; however after some stern supplication from my serveur, Giancarlo, I could not snub the offer of a sugar-dusted, rustic passion fruit soufflé and liberal scoop of yoghurt sorbet. Lighter-than-air, I was able to almost breathe in the treat, but contrary to its good texture, I found the passion fruit’s tart-sweetness quite overpowered by the sour sorbet.
Chocolat chaud et Petit Fours: Hot ganache. To complete this celebration of chocolate came strong and spicy hot chocolate made with spring water and 85% African cocoa and a pinch of black cardamom. The thick brew was lovely and rich, thoroughly warming one’s cockles. In addition, petit fours of the same choc were crafted three ways – thins, ganache and crème demi-truffle. These were well made with intense, tannic African chocolate and floral, smoky flavour from the spice.
First, a quick comment on the service is warranted. It was very friendly, warm and thoughtful. The aforesaid Giancarlo was talkative, attentive and clearly enjoyed his job. He possessed a good knowledge of the food and was willing to go into as much detail as was desired. After learning that the soufflé, a personal favourite of his, did not match the fondant, he even offered not to charge me for it. The fussiness with which the duck dish was replaced was also notable.
As regards the food, as mentioned already, I was unsure what to expect. I am glad to say though, I was pleasantly surprised: the cooking was difficult to fault; the produce, good quality; and presentation, professional. One could maybe make the comment that there is an absence of some of the finer ingredients of haute cuisine, but that is not what Almeida is trying to be and at the prices charged, there can be no complaint. Plus, it is not as if any corners are carelessly cut: brill is a good alternative to turbot, Maldon oysters can be obtained fresher than Cancale ones, etc. I also felt that the special menu itself was successful; Jones and Young’s aim to show how coco ‘is such a versatile and creative ingredient’ definitely came off. Never did I get the impression that chocolate was forced upon or thrown onto a plate, instead it was worked in gently, softly into each course in a carefully considered and fully thought-out manner. The chocolate was not the dish’s focus and I do not think it was ever meant to be; my impression was that it was to be seen as any other element and not designed to distract or shock, but simply enhance the accompanying parts. After all, let us not forget, as if Young would let us, ‘chocolate is supposed to be fun and quite naughty.’ This meal proved just that and more; good food with an interesting twist.
In post-meal conversation, Chef Jones himself admitted, ‘I’m not trying to change the world.’ Maybe not Alan, but you have made it a little sweeter.
30 Almeida Street, Islington, N1 1AD
tel: 020 7354 4777
nearest tube: Angel, Highbury & Islington
Paul A. Young:
33 Camden Passage, Islington, N1 8EA
tel. 020 7424 5750
nearest tube: Angel