Of course we’d booked it months upfront, for my birthday. And still the only available slot was a Tuesday lunch after the August bank holiday. So we were pretty excited.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Dabbous opened in January to rave five star reviews from almost everyone, in particular the Evening Standard, which then followed the story up with another saying they were responsible for its success.
Chef-patron Ollie Dabbous was quoted as being shocked at the praise (and subsequent bookings meltdown). Yet he’s not exactly a newcomer, despite his modesty when interviewed, having worked variously at Heston Blumenthal, Texture, and Raymond Blanc. And the entrance, with its daunting steel door, was surely aimed from the start at deterring casual passers-by.
We planned to try the £26 lunch menu, which offers four courses and therefore, for cooking at this level, a bargain of sorts.
Arriving early, we lounged in the spacious downstairs bar with a negroni until the mood took us to head upstairs for a fairly narrow table nestled between diners. The look is industrial chic – concrete, metal light hangings, big windows, the grey light of a Noho afternoon leaking in.
Other diners were a worldly bunch: a table of French businessmen to our left, all in high spirits, a Hampstead dame and her nephew to our right; four wide-tied city boys with Mad Men hairdos guffawing behind, a wealthy family dragging along teenage children who must, we imagined, be positively bored at such a place. Yes, it’s small enough to be that nosy.
Anyway, onto the food: peas and mint to start (main pic). Regard those vivid greens! A gorgeous cold pea mousse with shelled peas and mint granita in a tea cup. A meal highlight already. Too early perhaps?
We’d heard about the famous coddled hen egg with mushrooms and smoked butter, and ordered it as an extra course (another £8 – yikes!) Colour, depth of flavour, umami. Quite tiny too (you don’t eat the straw).
The fish courses were a breeze: whilst mackerel with samphire, gooseberries and horseradish worked beautifully, the ling (or cod) with coastal herbs was lighter, a tad bland even. But a piece of art to look at; a simple pleasure to eat.
Of the mains, barbecued chump wasn’t quite the tastiest piece of lamb I’d ever had (although I was hoping it would be); but it had a wonderful pink tenderness, and came with violet mustard and pickled vine leaves. More sensational was veal rump served pink with vegetables and a zingy cheese broth: the best dish we tried.
Desserts were more than worth a wait. We shared a peach ‘in its own juice’ (with vanilla pods and mint) – a soaring combination punching way above its tiny weight – and a perfect custard tart to finish.
Each course was very small; this has been much commented on, particularly by punters who have left angry comments on various websites. But surely this is simply missing the point: intensity of flavour and presentation is preferable to clammy great plates of filler anyday. And whilst a restaurant can rarely live up to the weight of expectation – it’s far easier to rave if an experience is a ‘discovery’- the passion and vision is here in buckets (even the bread is served in a cute brown paper bag). But if you want to roll out of a place stuffed, don’t book here.
Some other points? An unexpected mix-up between courses (meat was brought rather than the fish) was cleared up very quickly, but we were given two glasses of fine burgundy and two extra desserts as compensation. A welcome touch.
Other observations? A swarm of staff circle, which is fine, but oddly there’s no uniform or sartorial style so it’s tricky to know who you’re speaking to. And they do that thing where they describe the dish, and you nod appreciatively before you begin. Which isn’t to everyone’s taste (but we quite enjoyed it). And, most surprisingly, it wasn’t as busy as we expected. Every table was taken, but being a Tuesday lunch it emptied fairly quickly, with tables not re-booked – probably a good thing.
But overall? A memorable meal; a true special occasion place. Whilst we probably won’t return soon (too many others to try, alas) we might just check out the enticing bar menu downstairs. The Wagyu burger’s got my name on it.
Words & Pics: Stephen Emms