As I write this, the next available table for dinner at Dabbous is in February. In a pleasingly egalitarian way, that’s true for all of us – just like the punters, all the critics, no matter how big and important, have had to wait their turn to get into London’s most exciting new restaurant. This induces an interesting tension into one’s first visit. On the one hand, you settle on to your mid-20th-century design-classic chair feeling spectacularly smug – you’ve finally made it. On the other hand, the expectations are ferocious. After a six-month wait to get in, Dabbous can’t get away with just being good; it needs to be undeniably, brain-alteringly superb.
Ollie Dabbous trained with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir and staged at L’Astrance, Hibiscus, Texture, Noma and The Fat Duck before cheffing at Texture. Like many young chefs (he’s 31), he displays remarkable facility with modern scientific techniques, but what makes him special is the lightness with which he uses it. Dabbous’s kitchen could be a pristine lab full of vacuum extractors, water baths, anti-grills, Pacojets and a couple of laser-pulse cannons in the 50-megawatt range – but you’d never know it. Food is presented at Dabbous without posturing and with minimal exposition, and from that simple start point, it blows you away.
The first course from the evening tasting menu – peas with mint – is an example. There are peas and mint (obviously), a kind of oil, flowers, shoots, a purée and a granita all in a bowl not much bigger than a flat white. There is a pod, somehow made as soft in texture as the pea itself, and yet none of the technique is thrust at you, explained or shown off. Nor need it have been because the reaction around the table was unanimous: “I have no idea what you just did to the inside of my face but I am thrilled and seduced. Do it again.”
“Mixed alliums in a chilled pine fusion” contained, inter alia, a cold consommé of such purity and balance that I’m still trying, hours later, to tell if it was sweet, savoury, simple or complex. It was so good it no longer matters. The staff, starey-eyed food fetishists to a man, stood back, smiling seraphically at our reactions as we ate. I remember the same feeling the first time I gave my baby daughter ice-cream.
A coddled egg, served in its shell with wild mushrooms and smoked butter, is one of those “together at last” combinations that stands out for me, hinting at fecundity and mythic sylvan transgressions – if I ever spend the night getting a seeing-to from the earth goddess, this is what she’ll make me for breakfast – but it was the Iberico pork that summed up best what Dabbous is about. It’s a fashionable piece of meat, a single muscle, dark red and fatless, which any one of London’s mob of molecular snake-oil pedlars would have leapt to sous-vide into a homogenous, viscid slab. Yes, the acorn and almond praline is a “witty” nod to the pig’s diet and the apple vinegar probably uses techniques devised by Nasa, but Dabbous does the pork on a barbecue. It says everything about the contemporary London restaurant scene that we were impressed when meat that good wasn’t cooked in a pouch.
I really needed something negative to stop this turning into a shameless love-fest, so it was an enormous relief when dessert (predictably sublime) arrived on a piece of slate. I hate slate. It’s a building material and has about as much right to be under my dinner as a shovelful of hot tarmac. Christ! Slate! Don’t go to Dabbous… they serve pudding on slate.
But then they brought us the bill and we realised the three-hour long sensory ravishment was going to set us back just £49 per head and I started to feel that the slate was maybe ironic, a kind of knowing dig at restaurant pretensions and… you see, that’s what Dabbous does to you – you fall just a bit in love and can forgive anything.
Critics have heaped praise on Dabbous and they are right to do so. Hospitality is not just food but the generosity of spirit with which it’s offered, and Dabbous pulls this off – the highest quality cooking that’s accessible not only in price but also in its intent and its delivery.
What’s important about Dabbous is that it doesn’t lose enthusiasm, informality and joy. That it’s faultless should not impress us half as much as the fact that Dabbous has soul.
Tim Hayward is the 2012 Guild of Food Writers Food Journalist of the Year.
The writer is the FT’s regular restaurant critic in Nicholas Lander’s absence; firstname.lastname@example.org
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