Two Sundays’ ago I was lucky enough to bag myself a seat at the Critical Couple’s Simon Rogan Dinner in aid of the Manna Society, a charity based near London Bridge, which provides food for around 200 homeless people each day. To my mind, a thoroughly worthwhile and appropriate cause.
It took me about a week to recover from the dinner and then another week to put together this post. It was epic. I feel entirely comfortable saying that it was THE BEST DINNER PARTY EVER and that is exactly what it was, a dinner party. I was invited to the Critical Couple’s amazing London pad and sat at their dining table with 9 other guests whilst Simon Rogan and his team served us the meal of a lifetime.
Check out the view from my seat at the table.
Simon and his team (Dan Cox and Kevin Tickle who both work at L’enclume) brought the kitchen into the dining room and so ‘the pass’ was positioned at one end of the dining table and I was lucky enough to be seated right next to it. It was great fun being able to watch the chefs plate everything up and ask them questions as they did. They were incredibly sweet and accommodating in answering my many questions despite having a huge amount of work to do plating up.
The intricacy of some of the dishes was breathtaking. A simple amuse bouche might have 7 or 8 different elements and take about 10 minutes to plate up. The guys took a huge amount of pride in their work and it was a privilege to watch. They also took it very well when I teased about how unusual it was to see big strapping blokes delicately arranging flowers in such a beautiful fashion.
That’s my empty seat on the right, next to the lovely @john2man who kept me thoroughly entertained for the evening along with my new BFF @nutsfood, @d_goodfellow1 and @girlfridaymedia.
Before each course Simon explained the dish and then helped to serve us alongside Matt and Andy, who had come along from Roganic. It was rather a novelty being served by the head chef and something I don’t imagine will happen again too many times in my life.
When I signed up for this dinner all I knew was that Simon Rogan would be cooking for us. That was enough for me! I had watched him in awe on Great British Menu and was dying to taste his food. Then, a couple of weeks before the dinner was set to happen,the Critical Couple tweeted that he has decided to cook 26 courses. 26 COURSES!! I couldn’t believe my eyes. How on earth was he going to do that in a domestic kitchen. How on earth were we going to eat it all?
A couple of days later I saw a tweet from Simon which said “a daunting task matching drinks for the @CriticalCouple dinner but somebody has to do it”. Surely we weren’t having 26 wines as well?!
As it turned out (and luckily for my liver) we didn’t have 26 wines. We did, however, have 17 different drinks matched to our food including a delicious sparkling rose, an ale, a sherry and a cider in addition to the more traditional white wine, red wine, desert wine combo. These were all introduced by the wonderful Richard, manager of Roganic, who had stayed up until 2am the night before writing the tasting notes!
As you scroll down through the dishes you might* notice a slight change in the quality of the photos. Basically they start off pretty good and end up being rather dreadful. I could blame the light, we started eating at 7pm and didn’t finish until after 1am, by which time it was pretty dark. However, who would I be kidding?! By about drink 12 I was sloshed. I think it’s fair to say that my photo taking abilities probably deteriorated at around the same rate as my alcohol levels increased. So apologies in advance, but a girl’s gotta have fun!
Right then, off we go, let me take you on a magical mystery journey of some of the best food I have ever eaten ….
We started off with some anchovy bones and seaweed fried in a rice puree. A delicious salty snack with the texture of a prawn cracker. I loved the fact that it was served on a bed of stones as if it was the seabed. This creative touch was a good marker of what was to come.
Next was a particularly tasty ball filled with crab and parsley, coated in crispy pork fat. Not a combination I’ve eaten before but that can probably be said of most of these dishes. It was fab.
This dish was especially intricate. It’s described as crispy mushroom bread with mint and vinegar but there was so much more to it. Such a delicate and beautiful dish.
The beetroot cornets with bay shrimp, yoghurt and anise hyssop were delicate little bites. Simon did admit that at least one was broken in the process.
Excuse my fingers in this photo but I wanted you to get a really good look at this gingerbread sandwich. It had taragon mayoniase on one side and spiced strawberry jelly on the other with a bay leaf semifreddo filling. Amazing!
I’ve always been a bit nervous of oysters and this was a big one (a knife and fork job Simon suggested) it had been poached in its own juices, in a similar fashion to the GBM lobster, and was served with wild juniper and hazlenut. It was great, it still had that taste of the sea but it was a bit more pallatable for a non oyster lover having been slowly poached.
The last of the amuse (all of which were served with a 2004 sparking Balfour Rose from the High Heath Estate in Kent – go buy some) was Cumberland creamed chicken livers. It was to die for. I absolutely love chicken liver parfait but I must admit to leaving some of this because it was so rich that I was worried about how I was going to manage the 19 courses to follow.
The first (!) course was these Westcombe dumplings with dried tomatoes, fennel and celery. They were light, cheesy and delicious. Served with a 2010 Riesling from Australia.
Next was some really delicate mackerel in coal oil, a speciality of Simons and a really interesting flavour. It was served with a Fino sherry.
Then verbena and smoked curds with radishes and watercress. These, as with all of the vegetables served on the night, were grown and picked at the L’enclume farm in the Lake District. The guys were especially proud of their raddishes. This dish was served with an ale, which was a very interesting choice and worked really well. It was a Cumbrian Ale, Loweswater Gold.
The next dish was another beauty. It was supposed to be langoustine and Simon told us that he’d left the Lake District the day before with some amazing juicy ones but, by the time he arrived in London, they had turned and so instead we had shrimp. It still tasted amazing, one of my favourites, so I can only imagine what it should have tasted like. The shrimp were served with purple sprouting, blackberry and crystal lemon and the matching wine was a 2009 Montagny 1er Cru from France.
This was a course which I was very suprised to enjoy, beef tounge with dill, mushrooms, carrots, carrot cake and buttermilk. If I remember correctly some of the tounge was pickeled and I especially enjoyed that. It was served with a 2009 Chenin Blanc from South Africa.
I’m afraid that this is an especially poor photo (although they do get worse) of what was actually a very beautifully presented dish. Red orach, smoked yolk, purple azur and apple marrigold. He had me at the smoked yolk! Our accompaniment with this dish, and the next couple, was an Australian 2008 Woodcutter’s Semillon.
This dish was a bonus dish, it didn’t appear on the menu. Again I was extremely suprised to enjoy it. If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know that I admitted sometime ago that offal is not for me. However, these crispy duck sweetbreads were delicious. They were served with yellow beans, a sweetcorn puree and a duck jus and I thoroughly enjoyed every single mouthful.
Of the dishes served to us, only two or three had ever been served before and this was one of them. I think it was actually one of my favourites but it’s so hard to say because I loved everything. It was potatoes in onion ashes with lovage and wood sorrel, served with a crisp, delicious, 2010 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Fromm.
Back to fish for the next course, razor clams served with sea herbs, turnips and pearl barley. Again this was served with the Sauvignan Blanc.
It was at around this stage that I started to feel REALLY full, and there were still 10 courses to go! I did manage to eat the whole portion of sea bass with grilled leeks, sandwort and cockle sauce though. The wine was a 2011 Picpoul de Pinet from Saint-Peyre, France, which I managed about half of, in the knowledge that there were a further 8 wines to come!
The photos really are going down hill now aren’t they! This was salt baked turbot with marrow, caulifower and roasted bone. With it, a 2008 Pinot Gris from Hugel, France. Simon had originally intended to source all English drinks but this turned out to be near impossible and I’m glad he didn’t try too hard as the wines we ended up with were fantastic.
The Randolph Lop suckling pig with Scottish girolles, mustard and chenopodiums was another of my favourites. So much so that I dived in before I rembered to take a photo and so the picture below is actually of @d_goodfellow1’s plate, a much more patient man than I. The drink for this course was cider, and why not?! It was a particularly nice Ancient Orchard Cider from Cowmire Hall in Cumbria. Something which Simon and the team enjoyed a fair few bottles of while we all stood around chatting after dinner.
The next course was Reg’s English Fowl, offal, broad beans and elderflower, which was served with a 2007 Les Cedre D’Hosten from Medoc, France. I reckon I only managed about half of this but that’s no reflection on the dish, it was great.
Then Hogget. Something which I hadn’t tried before but I was very keen to do so and it was great. The hogget came with courgettes, pickled tounge and nasturtium and the wine was a bold and delicious 2010 Rioja from Rayos Uva, Spain. This was the last of the main courses, which in my view was no bad thing. As amazing as everything was, I’m not sure how much more I could have managed.
Now, we all know that there are certian people out there who have a cordoned off area in their stomach for dessert, no matter how full they are, they can always manage a spoonfull or two of something sweet. I am one of those people. I’m usually partial to a chocolate dessert but Simon had set me straight early in the evening that there would be no chocolate appearing on my plate, he doesn’t “believe in chocolate”. I was quite taken aback by this and told him as much. I’m basically a chocolate addict so I couldn’t help myself. However, he explained that it is because his ethos is to only use British products, which made more sense and so all was forgiven. Especially when I tasted the first pud.
It was one of the nicest desserts I have ever eaten and almost certainly my favourite course. The menu described it as sweet cheese and raspberry with honey and rose but it could have just said heaven on a plate. It was a revelation. The matching wine was a 2010 Els Paris from Clos Ouvert, Chile but to be honest my focus was all on the desert, I can hardly remember the wine.
Dessert number two was a rather beautiful comination of gooseberry, mead, caramel and water mint. Not that my photo does it any justice at all. It was served with a 2007 late harvest Sauvignan Blanc again from Chile.
It’s a good job that my blog is just a hobby because if not, I’m fairly confident that I would get the sack for even considering putting the next photo up. It’s a dreadful, blurred, drunken mess and does absoluetly no justice to Simon’s meadowsweet with sweet bracken, lemon balm and rhubard. Sorry Simon, but really, you can’t give a girl 15 different alcoholic drinks and expect her to be able to take a decent photo. Plus he didnt stop there, with this we had a Essencia Orange Muscat fom Andrew Quady in California. Rather good it was too!
The penultimate dish was Douglas fir and cherries with goats milk and pennyroyal. Yet another intricate and interesting dish, which came with a 2010 Brachetto D’Aqui from Contero, Italy.
And then, just when I thought I could take no more, we were presented with these gorgeous little hot donuts filled with custard.
So there it is, my 26 course marathon meal. It was a marathon to eat and a marathon to write about but give me that over running 26 miles for charity any day. I’m an eater not a runner!
Although it feels like it has taken forever, and I probably lost most of you at about course 10, it has been a real pleasure to write about this and experience the amazing flavours and fun conversations all over again. It’s a meal that I’ll never forget but it’ll be nice to be able to look back at this in years to come and perhaps jog my memory a little.
To top off the set of terrible photos, here’s one of the whole team together after dinner, as we gave them a huge round of applause and thanked them for being so generous in giving up their time entirely for charity. They were a fantastic, talented and generous group of guys.
I take my hat off to Simon Rogan, he’s one of the most humble men that I have ever met. He gave up his time to cook this meal for us (and do the preparation in the days running up) entirely for free, including travelling down from the Lake District and spending two nights in a Travelodge. He happily answered all of our inane questions and at one point I caught him in the kitchen washing up, by himself! This is impressive for anyone but I couldn’t help but think it was especially impressive for someone so hugely successful right now. As the only chef to have got all four of his dishes through to the Great British Menu final and three hugely successful restaurants under his belt, Simon Rogan is riding high and yet he remains entirely humble. Bravo!