Back in March, I achieved the impossible. The almost unthinkable. Something foodies across this beautiful city of ours dream of for months. Possibly even years! Even some of the greatest critics in the country have struggled to achieve what I finally managed to achieve; because I, Georgina Pursey, 24 from Newbury in Berkshire, managed to book a table for 2 at Dabbous, London’s hottest restaurant.
And, I might add, not only did I manage to get a reservation at Dabbous, London’s hottest restaurant, I managed to reserve a table on a date and at a time that was convenient to me. Not at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, or at 10.45pm on a dreary Tuesday evening. No, at a reasonable hour, on a day that was convenient to me, that I picked! Granted, I had to wait 5 months for it (and had to change it once which pushed it back another three weeks), but I achieved it. And now I can say that I have finally tried the food that has awarded Chef Ollie Dabbous the title of “Culinary Messiah”.
I must say, I was very dubious about eating at the restaurant prior to the reservation, because how could it possibly live up to the hype?
The average wait time for a table at Dabbous is three to six months, depending on the day and time. The high demand of this restaurant is most likely thanks to the rave review from the Evening Standard’s Faye Maschler who called it “a game changer” and awarded the restaurant 5 stars in it’s opening 2 weeks (in fact, she dined on the 3rd day of opening) – an accolade she awards on average once every two years. After that, the amazing reviews kept on coming, with Raymond Blanc labelling the menu “intelligent”, Guy Diamond of Time Out “extraordinary” and “cutting edge” and A.A.Gill of the Sunday Times saying “It was as close to perfect as [he’s] eaten for a long time.” That’s a very high pedestal to perch upon, and a long way down for them to fall if expectations aren’t met!
I have previously had the pleasure of trying food from the vision of Ollie Dabbous, as he opened up a very simple restaurant around the corner on Charlotte Street a few months back. You can read my review of Barnyard here. As soon as I walked into Dabbous, you could instantly tell that these two restaurants are run by the same company by the decor alone. If I were to give a name the decor of Dabbous, i’d call it ‘Industrial Saloon Chic’ (or something a bit like that). There’s a lot of polished metal, wooden tables, exposed piping and simple lighting.
The cooking is described as “light and modern, with an emphasis on clean flavours and seasonal ingredients” on their website, “Menus are product-driven, serving innovative dishes based on clear understanding of flavour. Above all else, the food should impress through its sheer simplicity and restraint.” It sounds wonderful doesn’t it?!
Your options are minimal – you will either dine from a Set Lunch/Dinner Menu (£28/£48) or the 7 course Tasting Menu (£59) – This is a smart move from the restaurant, because when you’ve waited as long for a dinner table as we had, you’re going to want to make the most of the experience and not think twice about forking out that extra £11 for the tasting menu!
The meal, as in most decent restaurants, started with some warm, freshly baked brown seeded bread with a small slate of fresh churned butter. I’m a sucker for a good slice of home-baked bread, and event more of a sucker for a bit of novel presentation, which is good as the bread arrived at our table within a brown paper bag, stamped with the date. This annoyed Josh. I liked it.
The first of the seven courses was cured salmon with elderflower. The salmon, my favourite fish, was fresh, seasoned well and on a bed of pureed a chervil (french parsley). It was presented beautifully, but you were instantly aware of how little you were getting because of the size of the plate. Not an issue as it is a dish from a tasting menu, but it just looked a little sparse on the plate. Luckily it tasted beautiful.
The second dish, and my absolute favourite of the seven, was Peas & Mint. A stunning bowl of pea mousse, fresh garden peas, mint springs and a mint granita. The mousse was a beautiful texture; light but substantial enough to coat your mouth with the fresh flavour of pea. The fresh garden peas provide a crunchy texture to a mouthful, while the mint granita was subtle, refreshing and a delight to the pallet.
The third course was remenisant of the kind of presentation you might find at Barnyard. A bowl filled with hay, topped with a delicately decapitated egg filled with coddled egg, mushrooms and smoked butter. For such a small portion, this course sure did pack a punch when it came to flavour. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way when I say it reminded me of a very rich Heinz Chicken & Mushroom soup. The mushroom chunks were hefty, almost meaty, and the smoked butter was rich and creamy.
The following course, the fish course, was beautifully presented. Braised halibut with coastal herbs that was soon joined by a light creamy sauce. The halibut was cooked beautifully, flaking away from the fork effortlessly, but it was nothing to really write home about. I’m not a huge fan of fish because I just don’t think the flavours are powerful enough, and with this course, I think i’m right in thinking that. The dish was simply too dependant on the sauce to bring it together, and even then, the flavour of the sauce was triumphant over the fish.
Unfortunately, the preceding dish didn’t do anything to bring back the excitement to my mouth, and this was the main course! The roast veal fillet with summer vegetables, chrysanthemum and a light cheese broth was nothing short of a huge disappointment. The summer vegetables were a selection of different beans, most of which were hard, with a unpleasant taste and texture (soy beans I believe), and the veal, whilst cooked excellently (very tender and juicy) was actually lacking in flavour and seasoning. The cheese broth that the veal rested in was just confusing to the pallet… has cheese ever been a suitable accompaniment to a meat dish? If so, that’s news to me… and i’m confused as to why that would be the case! The only element on this plate which provided a decent flavour was the slice of pink onion which had a subtle sweetness and a decent crunch.
The pre-dessert was another disappointment – a chilled lemon verbena infusion with cucumber and perilla (a herb from the mint family). While the flavours were quite lovely, they were similar to a slightly weakened lemon squash and didn’t have much of an impact. The cucumber left one question of the tip of my tongue; why? It provided nothing other than texture and complication, as only a small spoon was provided and the cucumber was too long to both fit on the spoon and comfortably in my mouth. As pre-desserts go, this just didn’t work. In my own experience of tasting menus, the pre-dessert should be a pallet cleanser, or a powerful, intense mouthful of something rich and memorable.
Finally came the dessert. The dish that I normally find to be the most exciting and memorable of any meal. The pièce de résistance, the grand finale, the main event, the magnum opus… and it was Vanilla. In every sense of the word. A vanilla cream and ice-cream, with brioche and marshmallow. Aside from the fact that vanilla is one of those flavours that I struggle to taste anyway because of my anosmia, it was just like a very bland trifle; very similar to something I would probably manage to create myself, with what tasted like slightly stale shop bought marshmallows (well… they were small and chewy) and soggy brioche. I don’t want to sound melodramatic or anything, but to say I was mildly heartbroken by this dish would be the best way to describe my feelings towards it.
A small redeeming moment that came at the end of our meal along with the bill, was the two petit fours of cherry and amaretto soaked brioche – flavours that Josh hates and I love, so I got to have both of them! Had the main dessert had as much flavour as these little bites then maybe I wouldn’t be feeling quite so deflated and disappointed by my meal today.
The total bill came to £163.13 (we also ordered a lovely £26 bottle of white wine from the Languedoc region of France – our favourite holiday spot!) which is what we had budgeted for, but we can’t help but feel that that’s a pretty pricey meal when over 50% of the dishes didn’t live up to the hype.
It would seem that, as I feared, the pedestal upon which this restaurant has been perched was just too high. I didn’t want to have my expectations too elevated, but when you read that many incredible reviews from so many talented and knowledgable writers, you can’t help but hope that you will be completely blown away by your meal. I have no doubt that on other occasions the menu at Dabbous has been outstanding and mind blowing, but on this occasion, the inclusion of powerful and memorable flavours has been found wanting.
Needless to say, I won’t be rushing to return (obviously as there’s a 6 month lead time on a table anyway!) and I think in future I might regard all rave reviews & long reservation wait times with a hefty pinch of salt (Chiltern Firehouse… i’m looking at you!) But i’m glad i’ve finally had my opportunity to try it. However I do have to say this: when it comes to Ollie Dabbous, he’s not the Messiah… he’s just a pretty decent chef.