Monday, December 08, 2008

A-Maze-ing!

Maze has been on my list of must-visit restaurant since its opening but Jason Atherton’s artistry and brilliance as demonstrated on the Great British Menu Gherkin escapade in May this year totally clinched it for me. For Heston Blumenthal and a bevy (I did wonder if there was a collective term for chefs and I found various suggestions ranging from ‘spoilbroth’ to ‘drizzle’ though I prefer my own – ‘a sauté’) of the world’s supreme exponents of culinary excellence he whipped up his unusual Bacon, lettuce and tomato with Croque Monsieur followed by the utterly delicious sounding Dexter beef fillet, ox cheek, smoked potato purée and marrow bone. And I had to admit that I was secretly hoping to see the words Dexter beef and smoked potato purée on tonight’s menu. But I did bump into Jason Atherton at the Taste of Christmas event at Excel last week and he gave me a preview of the tasting menu so I was already prepared for a beefless evening.
Maze is probably the most casual of the Gordon Ramsay’s stable, Narrow and the other pubs notwithstanding (though I haven’t been to Boxwood yet) so gone were the acres of white linen and sparkling crystal replaced with more contemporary dark wood and American styling. Though we do have the quirky French touch of knife rests, well actually our entire place setting rests. I guess these are often deployed to eke out the cutlery and not to get the dirty knife on the lace and linen in between courses. Though I suspect we will have new cutlery for each course. Sadly for me and seemingly in the mode of so many wonderful restaurants nowadays, there is nowhere near enough light. I know I shouldn’t complain but I want my photographs to look as delicious as the food - not murky, grainy and entirely lacking the wow factor I’d like. Contrast the immaculate sculptural marinated beetroot dish at the top of this post captured by a professional photographer and flooded with some genuine light with my sad sepia rather flat lurking-in-the-shadows version above. Thank goodness it tasted like it does in the expert’s image not like it does in mine!
So whilst sipping the now completely obligatory Kir Imperial, E and I had a quick glance at the menus and immediately plump for the seven course Chef’s Menu. We also decide to split the alternative options between us so we can experience the entire wonderful menu.

Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche
~

Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Ca
bernet Sauvignon dressing
~

Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur

or

Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinega
r
~
Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable

or

Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint
~

Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s hea
d, quince confiture, parsnips
or

Roasted rack of lamb, winter veg
etable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie
~

Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut

~

Floating island, ‘
pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet
or

Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité


We asked the sommelier for some advice for a red and white wine to accompany the Chef’s Menu and she was probably the only mild disappointment of the night as she didn’t instil us with confidence that she really knew what she was doing. It felt like she had a price in mine as by incredible fluke every bottle she recommended was that precise amount but the style of the wine we wanted didn’t really enter into it. Anyway we picked a couple of our own and they seemed to do the trick very nicely.
Our first taste is the truly scrumptious (despite my unassuming photo) Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche. The bowl of frothy pumpkin soup is delivered with a little nodule of duck goodness with more duck lurking in the foamy depths. The waiter drizzles the enticing black truffle syrup into our bowl and we tuck in and it is a revelation. In fact when we’ve scraped our little bowls clean we’d quite happily polish off another bowl or six, it is that fabulous!
Next we come down to earth with the pretty Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing. Not that it isn’t delicate, tasty, a pleasing bite of the slivers of beetroot Carpaccio wrapped round the softest of creamy ricotta and beautiful to look at also but it can’t quite equal the heady heights of the soup!
After our two little amuse gueules we take different directions. And wait for this, drum roll…gasp of breath…without being strong armed into the decision I chose the Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur and yes, I am completely aware what the ‘T’ in BLT stands for. This was my rationale; as much as I detest tomatoes in any shape or form I have a scale of degrees of tomato-ey evilness. At joint top are raw fleshy lumps of flaccid tomato (sometimes dressed up by calling it ‘concasse’) and thick, gloopy and frankly plain nasty tomato sauce. Tomato ketchup is very close behind; it’s no coincidence that sometimes it’s smeared on amateur dramatists to designate some dreadful catastrophic accident. At the ever so slightly less heinous end of the tomato scale are sun-dried tomatoes (in very small doses) and tomato essence. Obviously they still have the tomato taste that I really can’t get my head around (and yes, I’ve tried!) but the texture is not so abhorrent to me. So having watched Jason construct his witty Michelin take on sandwiches on the Great British Menu I knew that tomato pulp has been dripped through muslin over a period of hours leaving a pale liquid behind which then has gelatine added to make the bottom tomato jelly layer of the dish. The jelly is topped with bacon and onion cream with in turn is crowned with the most delicate of deep fried onion rings and miniature bacon lardons. As the martini glass is delivered to me the waiter floods it with an extremely verdant lettuce soup and instructs me to eat by spooning through the three BLT layers. I am probably more tentative about delving too deeply into the scary jelly layer but the lettuce and bacon are strong anyway. Actually I could have never guessed than mere lettuce could be so powerful. I didn’t really get hit round the head with tomato and I really loved the bacon-y cream and feisty lettuce soup.
To accompany the homage to an American sandwich I had a ‘soldier’ of the archetypal French sandwich a croque monsieur. The croque monsieur was soft and unusually made from brioche so I really only got a tiniest hint of the ham and cheese amongst all that buttery fluffy brioche.
E had the Slow cooked quail, marinated foie gras, raisin and saffron purée, marinated pear and ale vinegar. I got to taste a little quail, the unctuous foie gras with the fruity sauce and it was also delicious and very accomplished.
For the fish course I’d chosen the Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint, as the sauce diable sounded a little alarming. I am also not so crazy about pimento (yes, I am constantly told I am a nightmare) but E seemed to be much keener about the pepper family than I and after enjoying his Pan-fried halibut with black pudding, celeriac and sauce diable polished off the purée. The roasted hake is perfect though, firm and flavoursome and really almost everything is improved by wrapping it in Parma ham or bacon, so full points there!
I think we both fancy the pork but I have had first dibs on all the other courses and lamb sounds pretty fine also so it’s the Roasted rack of lamb, winter vegetable purée, hispi cabbage salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie for me whilst E has the Confit rare breed Sussex pork belly, pig’s head, quince confiture, parsnips. My lamb is succulent and tasty with the sweet and fruity additions of parsnips and quince.
And if that isn’t enough I have a diminutive little shepherd’s pie as a side dish. It is all just excellent and even though I struggle to finish all the shepherd’s pie E helps me and also declares it to be comfort food at its finest.
I’m just getting to the stage when I feel pleasantly full but we’ve closed the savoury door and have the sweet stuff coming and I’m pretty sure I can cope with that.
Firstly we have a wonderful palate cleanser of Apple and caramel trifle, cider granité, apple cinnamon doughnut. It has that pert sharp taste of crunchy apples with the fabulous accoutrement of a flawless dinky doughnut. The whole thing is a miniature orchard feast with the cider, cinnamon and apple.
I’ve opted for the girlier of the two desserts which is the Floating island, ‘pink praline’, pear and caramel sorbet. It is light, downy and hugely refreshing – definitely a pink and girlie way to end a meal. E had another one of Maze’s signature dishes Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité. Jason is a fan of contrasting salt and sugar hence the unusual combination of olive and caramel.
The final flourish is the petits fours, we have lollipops, rosewater jelly, dark chocolate cubes, white chocolate covered pistachios and raspberries. The lollipops are iced pineapple chunks smothered in very far from the Girl Guide campfire marshmallow, deliciously singed around the edges and perfectly gooey in the middle. Almost makes you want to tell a ghost story!
It seems that E just like another E – Edmund who succumbs to enchanted rose-flavoured sweets courtesy of the White Witch of Narnia is an aficionado of Turkish Delight, and seems pretty delighted with Jason’s interpretation of his favourite. The other chocolates have a wonderful intense flavour as well; we are being truly spoilt for sure! The couple on the next table don’t seem to have room for their tiny chocolates so we kindly assist them!
Jason Atherton is a seriously talented chef; I know he has the accolade of the first British chef to hang out with Ferran Adrià of the best restaurant in the world fame El Bulli and has also worked for Marco Pierre White, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, his fellow finalist on the Great British Menu Stephen Terry and then Gordon Ramsay in Dubai. When Jason opened Maze to great acclaim in 2005 the idea was to serve a menu of small tapas-style dishes of contemporary French food with an Asian twist and all the menus seem to follow that premise. When interviewed about his tasting dishes, Jason said 'You've got more chances to express yourself and it's much more creative.' It’s a pleasurable surprise to see this alchemist in the restaurant tonight, often when you see a chef on television you might think that he’s hung up his chef whites in favour of a media career. But Jason has been slaving over a hot chopping board this service and is now doing the rounds chatting to some of the diners. I guess being part of the Ramsay clan you are used to having Gordon’s name above the door and not having your own and deserved name in lights and is possibly the reason Marcus Wareing made a bid for freedom earlier this year. But despite Jason’s many awards and accolades I hope he gets even more. Michelin do so love their classic old-school style of restaurant but I think he definitely deserves another star.
I’ll give Jason Atherton at Maze three forks, the diamond fork (it’s about time it was awarded to another restaurant) but I still think that someone should give that man another star – we've had a superb evening and his food is truly amazing!
And thanks to E for helping me tick another one off my restaurants of my heart’s desire list and your ever so handy torch incorporated in your Swiss Army watch that gave a glimmer of light to the shadowy table. I went for miniscule diamonds in my watch but then I’m not a bloke and just not as practical, and that just shows how wrong I am! Imagine if I needed to remove a stone from a horse's hoof, what would I have done?

1 comment:

Loving Annie said...

J,
Very yummy, indeed...

It's nice to hear good things like this - can't wait to try the blt, and the apple & caramel trifle !

Happy holidays to you :)