Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden: Dazzling dishes that dress to impress
Though Frog is one of three London venues in the Adam Handling group, stepping into the space where it all started feels special, like returning to your family home for the holidays. The British chef is reopening his flagship restaurant with a non-refundable deposit to ward off empty tables, but you’ll lose much more than money if you fail to show up. In this cosy yet classy Covent Garden spot far from the high ceilings and high heels of Chelsea, you can relax and be spoilt in a safe environment without the distraction of social expectations.
Admittedly, I felt a little uneasy about the idea of dining out during a pandemic. But food critics are a selfless bunch, and our dedication to the hospitality industry is enough to lure us back to our culinary calling. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, as I am treated to some lavender-scented house sanitiser (an adorable touch) before sitting down to indulge in the ten-course tasting menu.
The room takes its rightful place as a backdrop to the dishes, with elegant yet simplistic light fixtures serving to illuminate the choreography of cookery taking place in the open kitchen. This balletic showcase is a window into Handling’s dining experience as a whole: accessible, inclusive and enchanting. The secret to his charming service? Saving the dress code for the dishes.
After a wine recommendation of Novas Gran Reserva viognier, a balanced and full-bodied Chilean white to quench us through a marathon of a meal, we settle comfortably into the evening with an array of snacks that are almost too attractive to eat, from a burst of jewel-like beetroot to a nest of eggs enveloped in dry ice. Though the techniques are flashy, the faces feel familiar: we are first served by head chef Jamie Park, who made the finals of Masterchef: The Professionals four years after Handling himself. The warm sourdough bread and trademark chicken butter which come next certainly remind us why the spinoff series is so much better the original, the professionals putting our lockdown loaves to shame as impossibly light butter melts into each malty, moreish bite.
The starters are a well-curated exhibition of quality British produce. A crab salad arrives nestled in a spiky shell like a piece of modern art – but unlike Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, it makes perfect sense, with spiralised kohlrabi resting on creamy crab, cut through with pickled cauliflower and tart grapefruit. The oyster dish is another inventive ode to the sea, refined finger food fried to perfection and matched with chilled caviar and an endearing note about its Irish origin.
But it’s the Cep Agnolotti, Crispy Beef, Garlic which most surprises and delights the taste buds. Rich mushrooms mingle with a slightly acidic black garlic, the punchy flavours elevating the parcels to heavenly heights. Given that the dish is so buttery, a fresh palate cleanser in the form of an intense tomato salad is a welcome arrival at the table. The citric yuzu, concentrated tomato puree, frozen emulsion and courgette flower are powerful but impossibly light.
Now it’s onto the mains, and back to the coast with another highlight, Wagyu Lobster. This Scottish catch is beautifully tender, with an impressive depth of flavour, the kimchi bringing out – rather than drowning out – the subtle notes of the meat. The Turbot, Mussels, Butter Leaf follows, less of a game-changer but condensing the all the character of moules marinière into a small and mighty morsel.
If we were missing the frites, they come next with Handling’s take on chicken and chips. Well, sort of; these are more like crisps, puffed up into delicate orbs and lifted with a subtle finish of vinegar. The chicken itself is topped with light haggis mousse and served with a silky burnt onion puree, a robust amalgam of comfort and class.
However, the unanticipated masterpiece of the night is Cheese, Apple, Meadowsweet, which reads like an unassuming savoury dish but launches us unexpectedly into our sweet conclusion. A cream cheese centrepiece sits atop a juicy apple and airy granita – light enough to refresh the whole mouth without numbing the senses. Finished with a sprinkling of tangy goat’s cheese, it’s a tongue-tingling triumph.
It’s hard to match up to the execution of the last dish, but Chocolate, Cherry, Tonka Bean is still a solid send-off for the menu. The trusty pairing of smooth chocolate mousse and cherry sorbet is well balanced, the ice offset with the subtle warmth of tonka beans and boozy fermented cherries. The delicate decorative touches of a stained-glass sugar disk and dainty chocolate branch prove that even comfort food can look exquisite.
If you are missing the restaurant experience, Handling’s tasting menu is a great way to make up for four months of lost time. Though the young chef has put together a successful culinary group – including Eve bar downstairs – Frog reads like his original signature: bold, elegant and straying intrepidly over the line.
★★★★★Food ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Drinks ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮Service ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮
Photos: Cristiana Ferrauti
To book a table at Frog by Adam Handling, 34-35 Southampton Street Covent Garden London WC2E 7HG, call 020 7199 8370 or visit their website here.