Nineteen seats, eleven courses (but thirteen dishes), four chefs, three waiting staff, two and a half hours and one room tucked in at the back of a champagne and hotdog bar in Fitzrovia …
I could start at the top: at shrimp, two ways (first, deep fried heads with a salmon belly and roe emulsion dip; then their raw bodies, each dressed with only a blade of dill and a punchy yet soft covering of horseradish snow).
But I’ve long thought that the worst possible way to write about evenings like this is in chronological narrative. In this case I would probably lose you somewhere around ‘Scallop’, ‘Truffle’ or, at best, ‘Duck’. So instead we’ll try some themes. Themes that, in fact, are loosely represented by those same three courses.
Before ‘Duck’, James Knappet, the head chef and, with his wife, the co-owner of Bubbledogs and its kitchen table (or ‘&’ as this part of the operation is technically named), showed a tray of wild mushrooms, foraged for him a few days earlier, to the eight of us who had gathered for the 8:00pm sitting.
The tray included a large beef steak mushroom. I’ve seen these before but never tasted them. James looked as excited as if it was his first time too. He cut a piece off to show how it could pass as a slice of Wagyu, and was even more animated as he squeezed out the juices that could so easily pass as blood.
In due course the beef steak mushroom was fried quickly with the other shrooms and served with seared, blushing pink duck hearts, a smear of yoghurt and watercress. It was one of the best tasting dishes of the night, though, for me, ‘Duck’ was most memorable because of the way James endearingly and enthusiastically introduced the dish and its component parts.
‘Duck’ represents interaction.
The kitchen table at Bubbledogs is a u-shaped bar or, more correctly, pass, which surrounds the workspace and stoves of the restaurant. Interaction between chefs and the punters is the order of the day: there are only 19 seats, filled over two sittings. Each course is prepared quietly and balletically in front of the diners, before being introduced by one of the chefs. There’s an interesting dialogue to be had for those who want it.
I think a seat in full view of the kitchen is always the best in the house. Finishing dishes and plating is both an art to be admired and a conversation topic. That James, his chefs and the waiting staff flitting attentively in and around us were all charming was a bonus. The experience felt more akin to that of being sat at a sushi bar (where the direct relationship between chef and diner is natural and not contrived) than the typical ‘kitchen table’, placed incidentally and often awkwardly in or near a kitchen and generally funded by expense accounts.
There is also an interaction between the chefs and their ingredients. James spoke fondly of the aged New Forest mushroom supplier, of his mate who shot the roebuck for the ‘Venison’ course, and in particular of his Monday train journeys back and forth to his Mum’s house to collect the various herbs that she grows for him. The lengthy no choice menu changes daily based on the ingredients that are available to kitchen. This approach means constant thought, engagement and invention. Good.
The ‘Scallop’ course was beautiful. Half a plump, perfectly cooked hand dived scallop was sat on sea aster and a disc of celeriac and surrounded by the tiniest cubes of crisp sharp apple and a lemon verbena sauce. All the flavours were complementary; they lifted the dish so it was more than the sum of its parts. There was care, attention and skill in delivery. The presentation was stylish and clean.
‘Scallop’, then, represents smart, attractive and often excellent food.
Those shrimp dishes mentioned at the beginning and the duck hearts were in the same bracket.
And ‘Chicken’, which was chicken skin topped with mascarpone and bacon jam. Dang that was good.
And the roebuck venison with a stringy onion sauce, elderberries and shavings of chestnuts; that was pretty great even before the outstanding shepherds pie made from the offally bits and pieces from the same animal … which meant that, overall, ‘Venison’ was really excellent, and visually stunning too.
And a fig that had been baked in honey, just to that point where the fruit is plump and luscious, but before collapse, served with a light and refreshing fig sorbet and caramelized white chocolate. Yep, that was pretty great too.
Much of the cooking at the kitchen table at Bubbledogs is as up to date and effective as anywhere in London. On the whole it is unfussy and, it seems to me, is focused on taste above design. I enjoyed the fact that they use interesting ingredients where they add something, but never just for the sake of simply naming something random; it felt like there was a good balance between trend and common sense.
The ‘Truffle’ dish was a small portion of house made tagliatelle doused in a truffle sauce. It was perfectly decent: good al dente pasta, and the sauce was well balanced. It was comforting and there was nothing wrong with it per se … yet it felt a little out of place; a relatively easy filler amongst a menu that generally offered far greater imagination and surprise.
So ‘Truffle’ represents the fact that the kitchen table at Bubbledogs has only been open three weeks; I believe that whilst very good things are already happening, but there’s potential for much more to come.
There were no duff courses on our menu, just some that didn’t scale the heights of the others already mentioned. ‘Mackerel’ probably underwhelmed the most – the taste of the fish was pretty much obliterated by dollops of a lemon zest purée and oyster pearl and emulsion. A fantastic almost almond damson jam overpowered the shards of Italian cheese in the ‘Castelrosso’ course, though I could see where it was trying to go. Even accounting for the taste of the fig, I felt the meal tailed off a little from the cheese onwards – there was less skill and invention at this end.
I should stress that all of the ‘Truffle’ dishes were enjoyable. But I do think there’s room for improvement and that the already high standard will improve. There is a downside to having a lengthy set menu that isn’t fully finalised until a few hours before service, but as systems bed-in, there’ll be more opportunity to ensure that each of the courses are equally inventive and intriguing, that there are no easy fillers.
I had an excellent evening at the kitchen table at Bubbledogs (or &, if you must). As good as I have had in London for a while. These ‘Truffle’ comments really are the kind of nit picking constructive criticism reserved for places you feel want to, and can, really excel.
As I walked out onto Charlotte Street, I was reminded of a multiple course taster menu I had had a year ago at the then two Michelin star restaurant Pied a Terre, just one hundred metres away. It was a staid experience, utterly unmemorable save the fact that it was joyless, dated and a couple of the dishes were remarkably unremarkable. Pied a Terre’s was one of a number of disappointing and disheartening feign dining taster menus I had had between maybe 2009 and 2011. I remembered it last week, partly because of geographical reference, but also because of how it contrasted with the interactive, non-choice multiple course experience I had just had. Relaxed, entertaining, modern and inventive ‘&’ is another exciting and positive step in our city’s dining scene.
The bottom line is that at & there’s quality food, an intriguing menu, entertaining and charming chefs and waiting staff, and every diner has a front row seat for a top meal. It’s very much somewhere you should put your name down for.
& / the kitchen table at Bubbledogs in 3 words
Interactive. Endearing. Modern.
£68 per person for food is good value. On the flip side, wines are a little steep, with very little on offer below the £40.
So if you’re drinking it’s £100-130 per person with service – which we felt was still totally fair for the overall package.
www.bubbledogs.co.uk/amp – Behind the curtain, 70 Charlotte St – 020 7637 7770