Monday, July 13, 2015

The Kitchen Table London

When I first told people that we were heading to London in June, our foodie friend and long-time Londoner G suggested that we must try Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs owned by his friends, the husband-and-wife team of James Knappett and Sandia Chang. So despite the restaurant was completely booked up for the next 3 months when I checked online - certainly a good indication of how great the place is - I shot an email to Sandia, saying we would take any last-minute empty spots should they became available later on. After a few exchange of emails, luckily at the end someone made a cancellation a couple of weeks before we arrived and two seats became open, so without much hesitation, we took them and quickly re-adjust our schedule.

As we walked through the door of the front side of Bubbledogs for our 6pm reservation on a Friday evening, the place looked like to be just another gastropub on a busy side street, "pecuriously" serving niche champagnes to pair with fancy hot dogs to a buzzing crowd ("the only champagne bar in town that doesn't serve caviar" is how they described themselves as). But Sandia led us in through the thick curtain at the back of the restaurant, revealing a large open kitchen with horseshoe-size counter and it's so quiet that I could almost hear a pin drop, even when the place was fully seated. The contrast in ambiance was stunning - it's like walking into those high-roller tables behind the main casino hall, ready for some dead-serious actions.

We were the last group to arrive for the 6pm sitting. Every evening The Kitchen Table only accommodate 2 sittings - one at 6pm, and another at 7:30pm. There are 19 seats at the counter, but only half of them were occupied at any given sitting so the team can focus on serving a smaller group. One prix-fixe menu was served with no less than a dozen courses give or take, and the menu changes daily, if not more frequently. Before each dish was served, guests only had the slightest idea of what they were having by looking at the list of words listed on the blackboard at the far end. For the night of our visit, it's a 12-course menu with an option to add 3 supplement courses (and one surprise dish that wasn't listed), starting with words like "Watermelon", "Potato" and "Chicken", working down to "Gooseberry", "Caramel" and "Vanilla". Chef James and the team worked in the middle right in front of us at the open kitchen like inside a grand culinary theater, while his wife Sandia - a trained sommelier herself - managed the front-of-the-house.

I was unable to do a detailed round-by-round lowdown of every single dish we had that evening, because they were so mind-blowingly complicated, even as James (or sometimes his assistants) went in great length to introduce each course to us as they were presented. I had a hard time keeping up with jotting down what went into those dishes, let alone how they were prepared and assembled, even though they were cooked and plated right in front of us. For example, "Watermelon" turned out to be a piece of compressed watermelon served with a tomato water jelly and eldenflower. "Potato" was a piece of crisp made from dehydrated potato "water" topped with bits of smoked salmon and dots of sour cream. (God knows how that was done) "Parkerhouse" is a butter bread roll fresh off the oven served with a small bowl of pig fat "butter" with bits of bacon and coconut nectar. "Asparagus" was served in a bowl with Parmigiano foam, Meyer lemon skin jam and grated summer truffles. Well, I think you got the idea of what I meant.

The menu was drawn up daily based on the ingredients available on any given day - we even saw menu being altered in between sittings with one word wiped off and replaced by another on the board. When we were curious and asked why, Sandia explained to us that since they didn't have enough duck for everyone that day they served beef at the second sitting instead. Or sometimes the dish was served differently at the second sitting, presumably James just thought of a way to improve on the original version. Nonetheless, we were told that some dishes featured quite regularly on the menu because of their popularity, like "Chicken", which was a piece of crispy pressed chicken skin with rosemary mascarpone and bacon jam. That was sublime.

Before dinner began, we were told there's an option of ordering 3 additional courses - the "Seabass", "Lobster" and "Balsamic". Daunted by the number of courses already available, initially we reluctantly said no. But just as we finished up the course of "Trout", a piece of ocean trout from Shetland Island in a zen garden like presentation with candied lemon zest, shiso threads, white radish slices, and a dab of white miso on the side, Sandia dropped by to confirm whether we were 100% sure of not taking up those add-on courses. "The lobster today is very very good!" she assured us. Well, it was a close call in the first place not going for them so it didn't take much convincing for us to order one portion just to share for a taste, and thank God we did.

The Cornish lobster was butter-poached and served with a ginger brown butter bisque sauce, along with wild garlic in many parts. The lobster was tasty and the overall flavors were intensely good, almost like a Canto-style sauteed lobster. It was something to die for. And the seabass, which we were told was line-caught by someone on a kayak, was lightly poached, and served on a bed of English green peas, the crunchy slices of green (unripe) strawberries, lemon verbena and oyster leaf. That was excellent too.

We saw James began to put a handful of duck hearts into the pan in front of us and started the charcoal smoke, so we knew our "Duck" dish involved some giblets. And it's done with a piece of duck that reminded me of the Chinese deep-fried duck 香酥鴨 type and a slightly sweet carrot sauce and served on a stoneware plate garnished with a long piece of baby carrot on top. We saw some people across the table frowned upon the sight of the cute little hearts on their plates, but we were unfazed by the dish's intense gaminess and thought the texture was great and taste well-balanced.

The gastronomic drama continued until the very end with 5 sweeter courses, for which I probably loved the "Gooseberry" most. The yogurt parfait was topped with raw white almond with gooseberry juice poured around it at the table, giving it an extremely exotic combination of flavors and texture. The "Strawberry" was equally good actually - with strawberry coulis served with a soft pea-mint icecream and a piece of crushed meringue cookie. Or the mild balsamic icecream with balsamic vinegar drizzles and chopped summer truffles and artichokes. Okay, I admit it - I simply loved them all! We were even super-impressed at the tea selection - three unusual choices were available and they were foraged (we picked the woodruff which was interestingly good), or the bin of digestives filled with bottles of homemade liquors, which unfortunately we didn't have room for. 

The meal was marvelous and absolutely enjoyable from start to finish. Chef James seems like those perfectionist chef we saw on the movie - the kitchen was spotlessly clean and neat, and he gave out very specific instructions - sometimes intensely and passionately - to the crew on how things were prepared and plated, down to the little details of the exact position of the trout on the plate, or picking only the Porter House rolls from the inside of the pan for softer texture. And his energy and creativity blew our minds off too. How can he talk to food suppliers on a daily basis, draw up the menu on the day, cook the meal every night, then at the same time go around and forage his own damned tea leaves? Gosh, do they ever have time to sleep?

The dishes we had were definitely playful and unique, and it would be hard for me to pinpoint one single favorite course. I am edged towards the Lobster but all of them were excellent. We went light on the wines this evening, starting with a glass of Burgundy white then a Sicilian red - its hay smokiness and the dark fruit flavors work wonder with the duck and a few other strong dishes, even the lobster.

It was a remarkable evening at this remarkable restaurant with food prepared by this remarkable chef and team - I think the Michelin inspector was dead wrong when they awarded the restaurant one star last year: it was grossly underrated and certainly deserved more for years to come.

More pictures of the meal at my Flickr page:

When? June 26 2015
Where? The Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs, 70 Charlotte Street London W1T 4QG
Menu Highlights? All!
Bourgogne Blanc Domaine David Duband 2010
Azienda Agricola Arianna Occhipinti SP68, Sicilia Rosso IGT 2013

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