Tasting menus can be a real challenge.
They’re a challenge to the kitchen. Have we got the right mix between innovation and an enjoyable meal?! Can we actually cope with the number of dishes and the number of diners?
They’re a challenge for the diner. At what stage does a lengthy menu go beyond a meal, past an ‘experience’ and become a bore? Is every dish supposed to be considered, analysed, worshipped (or are we allowed to simply eat and continue our conversation)? Was that really the best use of that amount of money? Did I eat too much? Am I only full because we kept getting offered bread? Or am I still starving? Is it wrong to always crave a kebab on the way home?
Frankly, they’re a challenge to write up, too. Describe all the dishes at length and it’s War and Peace. Mention them simply in passing, and the account might as well have been a photocopy of the menu. Neither approach is an interesting write, let alone read.
All that considered, I reckon I have six to eight ‘tasting menus’ a year, enjoy two thirds of them, pen an account for half of them, and mentally write-off the cost of the lot.
When I do put finger to keyboard, I tend to summarise the meal through three or four themes. So I’ll do that now, in order to note the arrival of Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridges.
The Fera ‘experience’
We are repeatedly told during our nine-course (and then some) meal, that this is an experience. They refer, I believe, to what we are eating. It’s probably a journey or something. We’ll get to that.
I actually think the ‘experience’ comes by way of the floor. I’m mesmerised by the number of staff, whirring round, buzzing, directing, doing stuff. There must be twenty five, thirty, maybe. My guess is one for every three customers. The numbers will drop a bit when they go beyond the first few weeks. But even then the economics are bewildering. Perhaps I think about the practicalities of dining and service too much?
The bottom line, though, is that the hosts did a grand job. They struck the right charming not chummy chord. They’re efficient and pamper sufficiently, and they don’t fuss too much nor patronise.
The room is balanced. Smart, becalming, elegant. I’m not convinced by the petrified tree in the middle – but I sit beneath it and so it’s out of view all night. My view is of the kitchen. A space you can enter, if you’re interested, and from where Rogan and his head chef Dan Cox emerge with plates in hand. It is a gleaming den of activity – the rows of desks or ‘stations’ remind me of a school laboratory (how do you control the jokers at the back?).
A rigid word count would require just ‘stoneware’ or ‘croquery’. But I get to write that the plates, bowls, boards, stones, goblets and tree trunks fell shy of gimmickry, and provided beautiful settings for the food. Touches like these should always be remembered when you look to the bottom of the bill.
All in all, this is fine dining brought up to date, within one of the oldest of school hotels.
Fera means ‘wild’ in Latin.
A plethora of leaves dress most plates; indeed they are the main form of decoration. Some may have been ‘foraged’. But the vast majority of the herbs, flowers, micro herbs and micro flowers must have been painstakingly grown, tended and selected – up in Rogan HQ in Cartmel, and over at Westlands Wow near Pershore, Worcestershire. So it’s not really about where and what the wild things are, it’s about how beautiful nature (cultivated or otherwise) can be.
By and large, the pretty little things are a success. Microherbs have a bad name on account of the fact that they’re often superfluous, thrown on for effect because years ago someone thought it looked posh. At Fera, I have no doubt every last leaf was picked and portioned for each dish on account of its flavour, not simply its aesthete.
The most memorable use of herbage was probably of the sharp, citrus edge of baby sorrel cutting through an ‘iced beech leaf, nitro sweet cheese and apple’ dessert. In another, brill had been cooked in whey flavoured with hogweed, and garnished with beach herbs. The effect was a dish of layered if ultimately connected flavours. It was ace – and the herbs undoubtedly played a leading role in that.
Is it overkill, though? The first snack is a pea wafer, which holds a light, sweet, pea mousse, heightened by the anise of fennel and topped with a rainbow of delightful petals. You will coo. The dishes continue on that trend, but perhaps the cooing diminishes. Not because they’re no longer a pretty picture, but because you’ve seen it already.
None of the snacks were mere fillers – potato and Winslade (a Vacherin like cheese) mousse with duck hearts, in particular, delivers knockout flavour.
The main courses kick off well. Raw beef with smoked broccoli cream, scallop roe and apple juice is one of the better tartares I’ve had for some time. The scallop roe (I think) softens the acidic bite of the apple juice and adds a parmesan like umami. I guess this is an example of the best of Simon Rogan – an understanding of flavour, the sourcing and use of ingredients in their prime, and the ability to hide a couple of tricky techniques in what deceptively appears to be a simple dish.
Indeed, whilst eating the aforementioned brill dish (too appetising and too good to even stop and take a photo, which is saying something these days) there was a moment when I felt the meal might be an outstanding one.
But two things stopped that.
The first was the arrival of an (off menu) grilled salad. It’s kind of a signature dish, and a knockout one at that. Theoretically it’s just vegetables – some burnt, some raw – and a cheesy, truffle, ‘custard’ dressing. But it is so much more than the sum of its parts, and it made me a little sad that it (a) wasn’t technically part of our £95 menu (shouldn’t everyone’s experience reach this height?); and (b) other dishes were not at the same level. This was an adjustment of expectations – bizarrely, an awesome extra left me wondering what else might be.
The second was that the meal tapered out. I enjoyed the use of jowl in a posh pork dish. But just three days later I struggle to remember much more about the plate (what should’ve been the peak of the savoury dishes). Baked yoghurt, pear poached in perry, mint and muscovado was fine, but I have a feeling it was meant to be baked and set a bit more (like a bhapa doi). If not, then it should be. The reveal of chamomile milkshake and chocolate malt is fun (you’ll see), but the flavour not so memorable. Petit fours verged on the ‘interesting’ side, and were not fully successful as a final, lasting, flourish.
To be clear, every dish was good and very definitely enjoyed. But without a menu in front of me, it would be hard to recall more than two thirds of those dishes in detail.
I’m surprised that I’m downbeat, bearing in mind the overall package. It is, undoubtedly, quality cooking and the service, wine and everything else around the meal made for a top evening. Moreover, I’m delighted this flagship restaurant space is now in the Rogan fold, rather than a global brand or celebrity megalomaniac.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for a tasting menu, though, is whether it can live up to the inevitable hope of both diner and chef, that it will be ‘exceptional’ and ‘unforgettable’. I very much enjoyed the Rogan way of promoting natural form and flavour, rather than fussing and foaming. But were a few dishes just a bit too safe (the pork, the baked yoghurt and chamomile milk shake, perhaps the prawns draped with lardo)? My feeling is there’s more to come.
Fera in 3 words
Modern refinement. Greenery.
We had ‘menu 1′, which is a £95 tasting menu. Add another £40 (or more) pp for drinks and service. There is a longer, £125 tasting menu (2). Or a 4 course a la carte for £85 (no doubt with bits and pieces thrown in – this could well be the smart choice).
www.feraatclaridges.co.uk – +44 (0)20 7107 8888 – Brook Street, W1K 4HR