.. is 24 years old and by the time he turns 27 his name will become firmly established in the UK’s foodosphere.
That’s my prediction.
Nonetheless, Ben has been talked of much since the opening of Roganic in London where Simon Rogan entrusts him with the “head chef” tag and collaborates his tasting menu with Ben. A “wild” child in many respects. Young. Trained, yet not quite tamed by many world’s renown chefs from Thomas Keller to Heston Blumenthal. I’ll spare you his training pedigree but if you wish you can find it here. All I can say is he is now London with the aim to stamp his mark all over it!!
This “wild” spirit sees itself manifest in Ben’s cooking. My compliment? Ben’s a bit of a theatrical loon when he invents dishes. There are always sustained elements of excitement. Say, handpicking rocks, smashing bathroom tiles and carrying gallons of seawater from Folkstone to London so to create magic in his tiny basement kitchen. Another of Ben’s “wild” side is firmly rooted (pun intended) in his interest in foraging. Many obscure leaves and unknown berries.. thanks to his time in Sweden whose food nobody seems to care until Noma – a restaurant of its neighbouring country – topples the World’s 50 Best.
I’m going to shut up. Now. The Critical Couple.
You know the deal. One dazzling, charity-oriented supper club which has recently received A LOT(!!) of press coverage (I am not talking about Skinny Bib as one of the “press”). Twitter-picked guests to contribute money towards Action Against Hunger. If you don’t know the deal, check it out in my previous write-up of CC here.
I was set for a dinner.
A familiar sight. The Rogasmic front of house Jon (@jonjcannon) and Sandia (@watermelonchang) teamed up with Zeren (@bittenwritten) the sommelier extraordinaire of the night. Behind the closed kitchen door Ben was assisted by his brigade – Luke from L’ Autre Pied, Ian and Arran from Roganic. There were unfamiliar objects.. bricks, mini-pumps. In no time another weird-looking object, an ad hoc hour-glass filled with ice arrived at table with a piece of paper unfolded to reveal a clock-like menu and minimally billed dishes. Nope.. there was no giveaway there!
NIBBLES (1) A landscape of them!! Jar cured salmon with lingonberries. Steak tartare with grated chocolate beans. Scallop, smoked yoghurt and mango. Ox tail, crispy duck sweetbread and orange marmalade. Tomato seeds, truffle and ricotta curd. All very decent. Delicate sheets of salmon wrapping fruity, acidic lingonberries. Very Scandinavian. The bombarding flavours of ox tail and marmalade stood out. So small but so rich. Heavenly melt-in-yer-mouth tartare, with adequate acidity and shallot crunch with bittersweet taste of chocolate lingering in my mouth. The velvety ricotta had its lightness enhanced by tomato seeds. Pure ingredients showcasing their merit. The butter for the bread (2) came smeared on the Folkstone rock. The Roganic touch.. that always delights me.
CLEANSER (3) A Lilliputian portion of Sea Buckthorn Sorbet, Orange Segment, Sel Rose Salt and Rapeseed Oil was O-so-pretty and refreshingly and naturally sharp. A note of rapeseed oil transported out experience to the open field.
This was quickly followed by Sandia parading a segment of uncooked POM POM (4) around the dining table. This “pom pom” was indeed a rare mushroom called Lion’s Mane. I came across it via a splendid meal at Tuddenham Mill and was informed then that Lion’s Mane is mostly harvested by means of foraging. Rarely anybody grows it in the UK. It looks much like a bearded sponge, has this chewy, tripe-like texture and sucked up pretty much everything it is cooked in.
Ben’s Pom Pom dish came with a combo of radish, brioche crouton, baby gem lettuce and fried white onion, and finished at the table with warm roasted mushroom and anchovy jus. Pom Pom wasn’t the main ingredient here though. The dish was a medley of mushroom flavours inventively fused – starting with miniature crouton soaked in mushroom fat, poached and roasted Lion’s Mane, to the jus of very bold Umami taste. The whole table mopped the plate clean. So did I, though I felt more fresh components to counter the richness of the jus (or even less jus) would make the dish more balanced. Don’t get me wrong it was BLOODY GORGEOUS!
Continued with “Langoustine” (5) whose smell invaded the table as the first plate landed in front of my two neighbouring ladies. Frustrating. For all those years we talk about gender equality, why on earth were ladies served first!!!?? A very light dish. Sweetness was the star. Layers of flavours from maple syrup to crispy onions. Peppery-ness from the watercress puree and acidity from mildly pickled fennel. All of these were meticulously put together not to jar or overwhelm the massive, neatly cooked piece of langoustine.
“Chicken on a Brick” (6). The dish I had long been waiting for. One has long heard about chicken rustically cooked under bricks. Ben turned your world downside up!! A mock-arrogant dish. Luxurious but at the same time shabby. Velvet-smooth chicken liver mousse painted across a heavy block of brick. As far as the combo went, there were crispy chicken skins, toasted cobnuts, onion puree, edible flowers and preserved logan berries. Then a touch of genius? Pickled sweet corns!!! Burst of paradoxical taste – sweet and pickle-y.
Can you eat the brick too?
Ben isn’t Heston Blumenthal, and the brick wasn’t edible. Bu**er!
That said, the brick was cemented with caramel, which once you wipe the chicken liver mousse, you’d simultaneously scrape off the caramel veneer. A heavenly additional caramel dimension. Why can’t you do this at restaurant, Ben!!?
Moving on to “Black and White Sole” (7). A firm, rectangular piece of white sole. Pun intended. Toppled with the “black” layers of squid ink crust, douglas fir-infused, chopped Italian black truffle and caviar. Creatively earthy note and the aroma of sea, land and heaven. The subtle roasted cauliflower puree and the white wine foam complimented the dish well. My most favourite so far..
The savoury array concluded with this “Best End of Veal” (8). It was 11pm. And we were nowhere near the finishing line. Now we came back to the “basic”. Poached and roasted veal. Milk and grass fed. You knew how tenderest it was when you sliced it. Came with a leek-y entourage. Grilled leek, caramelised leek puree and turnip. Deceptively simple roast dish. But the best.. after all the innovative dishes this was the BEST way to impress.
The train of excitement was yet to finish. “Salt Baked Cheese” (9) featured this obscenely big cubes of cheddar that leaked gooey stringy-ness. Came with fayberry jam – a rare raspberry-like berry that can survive just 2-3 weeks in a whole year! – frisee and rye fermentation loaf. Rather sweet take on cheese, which I much enjoyed. If I didn’t mistake it, there was some celery crunch in the jam.
I progressed to “Cleanser” (10). The secret of the ad hoc hour-glass was revealed. All the granite melted to be served in shots. This was wine without the alcohol. Grape stock garnish with pickled red grape. Clean flavour with an interesting fusing of acidity and sweetness.
And just as I was slurping my delight, Sandia and Jon returned to the table with gardening spades and a sack of soil!!! The chefs stormed out, raided the dining table.. we were each given a spadeful of soil. (NOOOOO!!!) The procession of chefs began round the table. Ben led it with a squeeze of vanilla and bay leaf custard onto the soil. Luke, Ian and Arran followed with marinated warm bilberries, white chocolate cookie ice cream and micro lemon balm. My first reluctant spade nibbling turned out a memorable experience. This was a deconstructed cookie and cream. It popped as the cookie crumble was tossed with popping candy. A really fun take on the sweet-teeth tradition, and there was enough substance to go with the theatre of dish assembling. The last dessert was the warm “Spiced Bread” (12) which was also on the menu at Roganic. Huggingly warm and ideal for such a breezy night!
“After Nibbles” (13) of beetroot marshmallow, sea buckthorn jelly, ginger and lemon truffle, and whisky fudge were ace. The fudge dissolved on my tongue. Oink!
Before all’s done we were presented a thoughtful gift of minted meadowsweet mouth spray. Cooling and minty (to stop me from belching truffle and veal!)
Ben is ….
.. A WILD CHILD.
Young. Trained but not tamed by the fine-dining and the trends we are now made familiar with. That night I saw what he was capable of. Something bloody genuis. Meticulously constructed. No ingredient at odd with another. NEW flavours, NEW ingredients. A touch on the classic comfort. Theatricality that makes sense. I tasted his passion. Every morsel of his character was there in the dishes and out. A jigsaw plate for “After Nibbles” that looked a parallel of a tattoo on Ben’s arms. Everything.. you want in food and more.
Yes.. he is 24. And in a good few years all food enthusiasts will know his name and bloody love his food.
That’s my prediction..
As for now.. I needed a cab home and so did Ben. He had to rush back home (outside) London to tend a wild child of his own.
(I’ve heard she likes him smashing tiles)..
As for you all?
You won’t be able to catch Ben again at The Critical Couple (but you can catch others!) but there is still luck for some spare seats for Ben Spalding’s cooking at The Loft Project on 15-16th October.
I’m already in for that. ..and hope to see you there