Dabbous: Sophistication is simplicity
He who thinks that it’s the presentation that makes the dish is not in line with the latest food trends.
Don’t get me wrong, the look and layout of the food are extremely important – but relevant only when every single element and flavour has a strong significance. The focus has now shifted towards seasonal and locally sourced ingredients.
Last year we saw Jason Atherton proposing tasty salads with spicy leaves, flowers and coffee beans at Pollen Street Social – now a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Dabbous opened in late January after a long period of buzz surrounding chef Oliver Dabbous’s plans to launch his first own venture. The young British talent has an impressive curriculum despite his age (early thirties): he worked for years at the iconic Manoir aux Quat’Saisons of Raymond Blanc, then made his way through the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus, René Redzepi’s Noma, before becoming Texture’s head chef in 2009.
The premises are styled to focus on just the bare essentials, designed with a mix of industrial and raw materials. The floor is intentionally unrefined, ample metal frames shape the room and the wooden tables still show veins and imperfections.
The concept is clear: substance should stand out, not appearance.
When we sit at the table we are provided with a clipboard menu, a portion of warm home-made hazelnut bread (in a day-marked bag, another industrial touch) and butter, and some very good Nocellara green olives.
The offer is convenient: the set menu is 3 courses for £21 or 4 for £24. Even on the à la carte, the most expensive combination of dishes amounts to £34. The wine list is not particularly interesting but it has the benefit of offering most of the bottles also in a half-size carafe for exactly half of the price.
We try a bit of everything: first the Salad of Fennel, Lemon Balm and Pickled Rose Petals, delicious but perhaps a bit too light; then a Beef Tartare with Cigar Oil, Whisky and Rye, which is succulent with a spicy touch, balanced by a crunchy rye element.
We move onto the Confit Organic Glenarm Salmon with Warm Buttermilk and Hispi Cabbage and Grilled Monkfish Cheeks, Virgin Rapeseed Oil Mayonnaise and Jerusalem Artichoke. These two dishes have something in common: the fish is nicely cooked, while it’s a bit too mild in terms of taste; however, the side vegetables (especially the cabbage) really have something to say.
The real test is in the next two courses: a Braised Veal Cheek with Spelt, Mixed Alliums, and a Light St Gall Broth might have not been particularly remarkable, but the BBQ Pork Belly, Savory Acorn Praline, Turnip Tops and Homemade Apple Vinegar is a stand-out dish. The chef tells us that the pork is first cooked at low temperature for 18 hours – making it extremely tender – then transferred to a very hot pan: the result is a crispy crust which perfectly complements the meat. Outstanding.
For dessert, we have an enjoyable – and very pretty – Barley Flour Sponge Soaked in Red Tea and Tahitian Vanilla Cream, served in a funnily appropriate giant glass goblet; and the slightly too audacious Chocolate and Virgin Hazelnut Oil Ganache, Basil Moss and Sheep’s Milk Ice cream. The latter, despite its debatable use of savoury elements, has an intriguing play of textures.
We drink half a bottle of Rully 1er Cru Molesme pinot noir by Jean-Baptiste Ponsot.
Overall, the meal is quite a revelation; Dabbous clearly has great talent to explore and will nurture the creativity he shows in every dish. Once the lunch is over, we discover that there’s also a spacious bar downstairs, with a wide offer of drinks and a separate food menu. Mixologist Oskar Kinberg runs it and the atmosphere is again essential-cool but there is more of a club flair.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Filippo L’Astorina, The Editor
To book a table at Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street London W1T 2SF, call 020 7323 1544 or enquire here.
Chef Oliver Dabbous shared some of his thoughts with us
Oliver, what can you tell us about these first two weeks?
I’m really, really happy about them. Yes, we have also been through some difficult times, like the first day when the builders upstairs cut our telephone cable which meant no phone, no internet and no credit card payments… There has been an overwhelming amount of press and positive feedback that we really did not expect. I try not to think too much about it, I work on a day-by-day basis, and sleep on my only day off!
How long did you work on this for?
Well, two years starting from the inception of the project, nine months since we found the site. We are an independent venture: several small investors and a low-budget setup. I was shocked by all the interest and press, once we’ve opened; I did not expect anything near as much. It was rewarding to see some big chefs I worked for sitting at my table and enjoying the meal.
Did the whole project come from you?
Yes, the whole thing has been done by me and my partner Oskar [Kinberg]. We wrote the business plan together, sought the money and found the site. We had this idea of a dining room and basement bar, the design, and the atmosphere. It is exactly what we imagined it to be. We had to hold some investors’ ideas off at the beginning, but we managed to keep it as it is.
Tell us about the menu: was everything in your mind since day one?
As soon as I knew about the site I started working on the menu. I wanted my dishes to be very recipe orientated: everything measured and weighed. It is the most cost-effective way to make it work at this standard. The kitchen is all I had in mind; they told me to think about the media but I was thinking about the food!
The pork belly was simply amazing, how do you make it? The crust is incredible!
We cook it for about 18 hours at low temperature, till it’s very, very soft. After we put it skin down on a really hot pan and then under the grill. Simple things do best; I don’t want to make it too “cheffy”. I want things to be organic, respect the ingredient and keep it tasty. Cooking is not about clever food; it is about good food.