Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Game Week at the Freemasons, Wiswell: Roger Jones of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn

I always think hard about these guest chef nights at restaurants. The guest chef is working in a strange kitchen, with a bunch of cooks s/he's probably never met before, let alone worked with, and quite often with the host's suppliers not their own.
From the customer's point of view, you might be getting the guest chef's recipes, but you're in the dining room, which isn't the guest chef's dining room, the staff aren't theirs, neither is the wine list, coffee machine etc.  My point is, you're not getting the experience of going to the 'other' restaurant.  So, for me, the guest chef has to be sufficiently far away that it would be a real trouble (and expense, because these nights are never cheap) to get to.  Either that, or some element of competition or fun/theme that attracts me.

Little Bedwyn, between Marlborough and Newbury, is well over 200 miles from me, so a night at the Freemasons at Wiswell certainly wins on that score.  It's still not the same as going to the Harrow at Little Bedwyn though. But a lot easier.

Roger Jones has held a Michelin star at The Harrow since 2007.  But since Paul Heathcote hung up his apron, Michelin hasn't been able to draw its attention away from Northcote and the Box Tree, and they seem to be very reluctant to recognise the achievement of anywhere inbetween. Other guides largely follow suit. Certainly the Freemasons at Wiswell must be edging close to a star, but for this one night there was one star in residence.

One glance at the menu and I tried to tweet a picture saying, "Yes, that is going to do very nicely." But the signal in Wiswell is too bad to do that.

But before that, there were a couple of canapés to deal with.  First came a ball of tuna sashimi filled with a wasabi-flavoured cream cheese on a shiso leaf.  For me, I thought it was marginally too big, and could have coped with a little less of the filling: it was quite difficult to bite in two elegantly, but too big to pop in the mouth whole. The filling was, however, jolly good: like Boursin that's been on its holidays to Japan and wishes it hadn't come back. Not sure if this was Roger Jones' canapé, or whether host, Steve Smith had done both canapés.
The second canapé was one of Steve Smith's: a foie gras hot dog.  I've had this before, though as an accompaniment to soup.  This is a foie gras enriched boudin blanc which has been breadcrumbed and then fried, before being presented in a mini brioche bun.  Personally, I'd quite like to try these without the crumb and less pungent ball-game ketchup and mustard. Now I've written that, I can't get the idea of a truffle mayonnaise and a roast chicken fluid gel out of my mind over an un-crumbed foie gras hot dog.  Consider the challenge laid down, Mr Smith.
Steve Smith's foie gras hot dog
We then moved on to Roger Jones' menu proper, starting with a shot glass of Bull Shot - this was a really rich, deeply flavoured, jellied game stock spiked with vodka. I've had these Bull Shots before occasionally, but this one was distinguished by the really superb game consommé and just enough vodka that you could notice it, but not the alcohol.  And if that wasn't enough, the shot glass was topped with an excellent little biscuit.
Bull Shot
This was followed by Cured and Marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices.  The lobster tail had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil and spiced Halen Mon sea salt, apparently spiced with Thai Lobster Chilli Jam (which I couldn't really detect). It was presented on a large shiso leaf (which really added something), together with a rather interesting salted wafer-biscuit-cracker thing, some diced tomato and little blobs of pea purée and of carrot purée.  I didn't think the two purées really added much: if anything they took away from the freshness and brightness of the rest of the dish.  But the lobster was really terrific: a beautifully balanced set of subtle flavours.  For some reason it had never occurred to me reading the menu that the lobster would be merely only very lightly cured, so it was almost like a sashimi of lobster.  What you can't see in the photograph (it's behind the cracker) is that each plate had a perfectly prepared slice of the claw: the central cartilage had been neatly removed and then presumably the claw was reformed before being sliced vertically.  A terrific dish.
Cured and marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices
It was at this point that I re-read the menu and realised that Roger Jones had been really rather clever with the menu. The bulk of the menu could have been prepared in the kitchen at the Harrow in Little Bedwyn, entirely within Roger Jones' control, and brought up with him in the boot of the car. The amount of preparation needed from Steve Smith's brigade at Wiswell may well have been minimal, as indeed was the cooking required on the evening - which probably explained why the evening ran more smoothly, with fewer longeurs than is often the case with similar evenings elsewhere.

The next dish was Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel. Another really terrific dish.
Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel
Very good venison, sliced thick enough to be able to really taste it, but thin enough that it felt sexily silky in the mouth.  There was just a hint of something beyond the venison (identified on the menu as spices, truffle and cep dust), which would probably have been more noticeable by its absence than immediately identifiable by its presence. 
A slice of a small torchon of foie gras was the filling in a salted caramel macaroon, which initially seemed to be more of a counterpoint than an accompaniment.  But when combined with the reduced PX sherry dressing and the fresh (and massive) Wiltshire truffle that was liberally grated over half the plate at the table, it was really tied into the dish as a whole.  The menu also mentioned crisps, but neither of us could find anything on the plate that could be called crisps.

The final savoury dish was grouse: Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates. Without a doubt (and leaving aside proper whole roast grouse with the traditional trimmings) this is the finest grouse dish of the last couple of years.  The breast was beautifully cooked and had a good flavour, without being excessively gamey.  The grouse bon bon was almost worth the trip on its own: a really good combination of grouse, black pudding, foie gras, chorizo and raisins.  A slightly odd combination maybe, and it would be easy to sigh at the use of the now ubiquitous chorizo, but there's no doubt it that really worked.  I could have eaten lots of these grouse bons bons.

When we initially read through the menu, we also wondered what on earth was the point of adding dates to parsnip purée. But by golly, it's good and I'll certainly be trying that one myself.  Though it did rather underline Roger Jones' apparent love of having something a bit sweet on most dishes.
Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates
The interior of the foie gras bon bon

Dessert was a plate of blackberry things: blackberry parfait, a blackberry jaffa cake, a blackberry and champagne chocolate truffle and a distinctly moreish blackberry sorbet.  All the elements were spot on.  The chocolate truffle (in the background on the photograph) was momentarily challenging as everyone worked out how to eat it (cue the sound of a lot of spoons crashing onto the plates across the restaurant as everyone tried to cut it vertically), but once you went in horizontally, you found a remarkably thin, well-tempered chocolate shell filled with a ganache that tasted of what it was meant to.  Even if it perhaps wasn't the most visually appealing element, he blackberry jaffa cake seemed rather inspired to me: clearly a jaffa cake, adding a bit of weight to the dessert with its sponge.  A very nicely balanced dessert.
We had started with a 1970s hangover cure, the Bullshot, and finished on something remarkably similar. Resurrecting the now pretty much disappeared tradition of the end of meal savoury, with that classic, the Welsh Rarebit.  Remarkably, this wasn't the first Michelin-starred Welsh Rarebit I've had, though this deserved its rating far more than the other (at the Pipe & Glass in Yorkshire).  It's a bit boring to say it again, but this was quite possibly the finest Welsh Rarebit I've ever had.  Probably the most remarkable thing about it was how light it was, as well as the very finely judged balance of flavours.
According to the menu there are three different Welsh and English cheeses in it, along with fish (which we identified as anchovy), tamarind, ale and spices. All served on beer and truffle toast.
Welsh Rarebit
As we were both driving, we shared one of the matching wine packages.  Somewhat unfortunately, the wines were selected from the Freemasons list, not the utterly stupendous wine list of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, which I've just spent an hour reading, or rather lusting over online. But the sommelier at the Freemasons had done a good job for the most part.
A very nice, 2011 The Opportunist Sauvignon-Riesling blend was a beautiful wine, excellent with the lobster.
2011 Sherwood Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Waipara Valley was not a wine to my taste, tooth-achingly young, and reminding me of Vimto-flavoured boiled sweets with added sherbert. It did not, we thought, go particularly well with the venison either.
2009 Painted Wolf Madach from Stellenbosch (a pinotage dominant blend with grenache, syrah, mourvedre and a bit of merlot) was also far too young really, but was a very good wine that worked extremely well with the grouse dish.
The All Saints Rutherglen Muscat served with the blackberry dessert avoided being cloying with some good acidity, and I thought the coffee and berry flavours worked well with the dessert.
A champagne flute of Wiswell Brew (a light session ale) was fine with the Welsh Rarebit, but felt a bit of a cop out, as surely there must be something on the Freemasons wine list that would have worked without risking mixing grain and grape. I'm thinking of a nice palo cortado.

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