Not often did I see Ben Spalding pose and smile for a camera (even his mate didn’t look convinced) but, well, he did today whilst plating up some marvellous dishes for enthusiastic diners at The Loft Project…
Ben and Loft, of course, needed no introduction. Say, 10 Courses + Wines + Fun + (Very) Young Chef = £110. While meals at The Loft do not always deliver at the same level of fabulousness, Ben’s cooking does. This time, he was set for a more “mature” mode.
“Mature” yes.. I was speaking of Ben’s stint at The Critical Couple a few months back when I felt excited at eating desserts off gardening sacks and spades. That sort of things.. but at The Loft there was no play and foreplay but a solid meal with creative sparks.
A parade of scrumptious nibbles, from Colchester native oyster with lavender & lime vinegar, and crispy onions, scallops with black grapes and cauliflower, to rose veal and San Marzano ragu. My favourites, I must say, were the joyful “pizza delivery” – stringy, cheesy and toppled with a mountain of truffle, which released heavenly aroma and ruptured my taste bud – and the robustly velvety pheasant and liver with ropergreen and linseeds. And, soon after, the meal kicked off with this spectacular display of bread in many forms and sweetest Emily, newest to the Roganic family, while Zeren of Bitten Written dashed about with gorgeous wines.
`’Deer” arrived as lightly smoked roe deer with original beans and roasting jus. Very moist and complex in taste. The grilled lettuce that accompanied provided juicy crunch. I particularly liked “Crab and Shrimps”. Fresh flake-full of crab meat was stacked up a pile with grapefruit and bilberries and garnished with a school of Looe shrimps. The citrus-y and fruity sweetness marked a delicate balance, while the light smearing of yogurt made the dish so lubed with velvety milky-ness.
The meal picked up its pace with Richard’s introducing me two plump, clay-clad & marjoram-ed batons of King Richard. I couldn’t help but wondering if this was a pun intended scenario! Never mind..
So, the edible Richard returned with sweet onion jam, pine nuts and autumn truffle cream. A dish of vegetarian luxury. I felt the warm cream gushing down, many bites of nuts well coupled with sandy chopped truffles that tickled my tongue. The leek was cooked to retain some crunch but not to turn stringy. A mesmerisingly great dish (which you might be able to have a taste of this at Roganic!)
More excitement? I had this “Oyster and Oyster”, a truly unique encounter of firm, grilled oyster mushroom, marsh herb and young beetroot VS hot and intense oyster (as in sea oyster) consomme. The innovation paid off in this layering of texture and depth of flavours. Earthy mushrooms with sweet and crunchy beetroot, carrot and radish. A pleasantly seaside fragrance in the background and a more direct note of herb. The Other Bib described it as a “posh borsch” and utterly loved it!! But, this majestic offering seemed to work against the following dish of “Pot Roast Parsnip”. Ludicrously and appetisingly sweet and nutty from an orgy of ingredients, say vanilla and brown butter, honey and almonds, wherein the snow peas and the celery leaves were made to submerge. It was a decent dish but felt slightly less dimensioned than what preceded it.
Then I had this injection of endorphin. A dish described to me as “castrated cock”. Nothing naughty in sight but this fleshly Norfolk capon cooked in its fat and served with crispy-skinned “Mr Little’s Yetholm Gypsy” and bok choi. The cock was soft and pleasant to chew. The jus was dangerously rich and with a strong blackberry hint. Good texture from barley and sweetcorn. A comforting dish.
Also oozing comfort was Ben’s cheese course of “Warm M’dor with Rosehips”, which was baked vacherin with pine and served with rosehip puree and toasted sourdough. The gooey cheese was scooped at table torturing those who were last in the serving line. Potent taste with a potent puree to compliment it. The sourdough was crust perfect.
Desserts were light. “Ginger Beer” came as crystal granita that promised most delicious gingery heat that one would expect, while “Salted Chocolate” was less straightforward. A deconstruction of salted milk chocolate, steeply sour sea buckthorn liquid, pear cubes and Astina. Personally, I felt the chocolate was too strong a flavour and undermined the gorgeous combo of garnish. I also wished the choc was more set as choco mousse as it would make the dish prettier. Promising flavouring, nonetheless!
There was no better way to sum this up..
Ben’s cooking is expertly put together and very forward. I could taste dedication, ambition, sparks, fire and whatever there is you want to taste in a chef in Ben’s dishes. No unnecessary gimmick, no useless drama. While The Loft Project offers a superb platform for Ben’s innovations, I still felt it was yet to unleash his full potential that he had previously delivered at The Critical Couple.
But.. that is a good thing?
Yes. It urges me so strongly to follow this 24-year-old chef wherever he cooks and whichever marvels he will come up with next. And until he has his own restaurant I’ll free-fall on delights at Roganic where Ben Spalding plays the head chef!
For more information on The Loft Project, click here.
And for Roganic, here.