Thursday, 7th March 2019 – Frog by Adam Handling, London
Back in London again for another theatrical event, and having kept costs down on our previous visit, post seeing Sir Ian McKellen, talking entertainingly and at surprising length about his career now he’s turned 80, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, we opted to go to Frog by Adam Handling. This place has been on my radar since it opened, given how impressive Handling was when propelled into the spotlight by Masterchef: The Professionals back in 2013. It it was clear then that he was something quite special in culinary terms. Now, at just 30 year’s old, he has a growing mini-empire of seven establishments across London and has clearly impressed the Belmond group enough for them to want his restaurant in their second UK hotel (their other UK hotel is Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons with the ever-wonderful Raymond Blanc so they have high standards).
It was a fairly unpleasant night outside and we kicked out of the theatre slightly too early, so we scooted past (to see the staff setting up for the evening) and went to The Port House for an aperitif of one of Niepoort’s white ports before turning round and heading back just before 6pm.
From the outside, the restaurant is very low key, and inside it’s perhaps not as flashy as you might expect. There are no tablecloths, just incredibly shiny black-topped tables, and the kitchen is open to the world. There’s a counter where you can also sit and from which you can watch the chefs in action in incredibly calm action. There are plenty of front of house staff, as well as a large number of kitchen staff and it all felt very Scandi in atmosphere, reminding me very strongly of the places I really like in Copenhagen. That was an impression that lasted all the way through the evening, particularly given the food that followed, and the way in which it was presented.
We were welcomed in, served a glass of excellent Champagne, a biscuity Lallier Grand Reserve, Grand Cru Brut from Aÿ (not Reims as the waiter who first served us claimed) and handed the menus to have a think.
We thought very carefully (for about a nano-second!) and decided the full tasting menu was doable and looked fabulous, and that we’d also take the “extra” course of lobster with Wagyu fat, along with the matching wine selection. A second glass of Champagne arrived after we figured we’d treat the first one as a second aperitif, along with the truly dramatic looking “Snacks”. These were delivered in a cloud of dry ice (I know it’s quite an old-fashioned thing to do but it’s also entertaining and I love the odd theatrical flourish), in a bowl and a box. Once the clouds cleared, further inspection revealed a pair of razor clams, beautifully garnished with hazelnut crumbs, apple, herbs and edible flowers, and that tasted as fresh as you could wish. I was briefly distracted by the way the liquid between the stones in the dish kept bubbling up every so often in the aftermath of the grand entrance, but I am sometimes very easily amused!
Next was a fabulous little tube filled with smoked cod’s roe (so a pretty posh taramasalata you might say). It was rich and creamy and densely textured, and I loved it. It had tiny blobs of caviar and of creme fraiche sitting on the top of the cylinder which added considerably to the richness.
The third and final snack was a duck meat bon bon, and it was a deliriously delicious little mouthful (though I stretched it to three bites because I didn’t want it to stop), with a crispy coating on the outside and full of dark leg meat cooked down perfectly. This is what most confit duck has ambitions to be when it grows up!
After we’d finished the snacks, a serving of bread arrived, an IPA-infused sourdough, served warm, and accompanied with the most delightful butter, whipped through with chicken jus, and sprinkled with crispy chicken skin. We tried to restrain ourselves, but it really was too good to resist for any length of time. Summoning all our reserves of willpower, we turned down a second serving, but it would have been soooo easy to cave in and eat a second portion. This is dangerous food, in the best possible way!
It’s tough to say whether the bread or the butter was the greater, but together they made the perfect match. I love good bread, and that was definitely good bread.
We now came to the second dish of the menu, named Mother, apparently because Handling’s mother suddenly announced she’d become a vegetarian the day he opened his first restaurant, and he had to very quickly figure out what he could possibly give her to eat. In an interview with Foodism he had this to say about it: “When I opened my first restaurant, we had 50 journalists, food critics and influential people coming in to taste my menu for the very first time. And my mother told me she was going to be vegetarian. So I created this dish, and I called it ‘Mother’ to try to embarrass her.” The result concoction of salt-baked celeriac, with cheese, a confit egg yolk, and apples, and liberally dusted in black truffle shavings, is a truly amazing dish. If all vegetarian food could be like this, I really could happily give up meat and not miss it. It was accompanied very successfully by a glass of Sepp Moser, Grüner Veltliner von den Terrassen from Austria’s Kremstal, which went down very nicely.
Things moved from vegetarian to marine-based now, with a glorious scallop, oyster and caviar dish. The scallops were not cooked, rather ceviche, with some incredible gel bobs and an oyster mayonnaise, dotted with micro-herbs and nasturtium leaves, and topped with the caviar. It was subtle, slippery, smooth and lovely and was a great pairing with a 2015 Chardonnay, Trinity Hill, Hawkes Bay, the Kiwis supplying an example of just what Chardonnay can do (as opposed to what it so often sadly is).
What came next was even better. Having recently discovered the joys of black garlic, it was used to tremendous effect in a pasta dish of agnolotti, stuffed with mushrooms and served with tiny little blobs of crumb covered deep fried bone marrow. The black garlic was incorporated into the pasta dough, which made it a tremendous shade of black, with a deep garlic flavour matched by the mushrooms which were enhanced by the wonderful crunch and stickiness of the bone marrow. It might not please the Italians, but it was definitely one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating. With it we drank a delicious 2014 Monopole Blues Kékfrankos from Hungary.
The wine stretched to the next course too, which was described as “crab, kimchi, tart” and was in fact a crab tart with kimchi at its base. The pastry was so short it almost exploded in the mouth when you bit into it. It was the lightest, shortest pastry imaginable, and while I don’t know who the pastry chef is, they are clearly blessed in their ability to create pastry. The crab was creamy, the kimchi delivered a bit of punch and the whole thing was a mouthful of pleasure, the surface glazed with cheese and dusted with paprika.
Next was the extra dish, where a portion of lobster is in effect marinaded in Wagyu fat for a day or so before being cooked. The initial bite, when your mouth fills with the seafood but also seems to flood with the oleaginous fat feels very odd, and as if it will be too much for the tastebuds. In fact it’s almost unpleasant, until the moment you start to chew and then it all miraculously comes together. I don’t think you could eat much of it; it’s far too luxurious to do that, but the smallish lobster tail was just right. We had a fresh white wine, slightly effervescent, with it, but it wasn’t listed on the menu, so I can’t say what it was, just that it was well-chosen.
We had one more fish dish still to come, a portion of cod, with tiny cubes of smoked eel, brown shrimp, kohlrabi and a selection of sea vegetables including samphire. The creamy sauce brought it all together in a very cohesive way. It was terrific. So was the bone dry 2016 Riesling Steinhugel Tatomer from California that went with it.
And then there was meat. In fact there was duck, sausage and foie gras. I mean, what’s not to like? It came with a jus so glossy you could see your own face in it, and was sumptuous, deep, a hug of a plate with all sorts of dark, autumnal notes to it. The meat was perfectly cooked, and it was simply allowed to stand very much on its own considerable merits. The wine with it was a plummy, deep red fruited 2017 Primitivo Rumirat Terre de Chieti from Abruzzo in Italy and it fully deserved its place in the pairing.
And thus, inevitably, we came to the sweet stuff. First up was pear, anise (in the shape of more tiny, perfectly deep-fried “croquettes” which gave off not the slightest hint of whatever they were fried in but just tasted of aniseed which is a damn clever trick) and sweet cheese. It was a refreshing plate after all the richness that had gone before and showed off the pears very well too. Pears are tricky, even trickier than apples; some varieties can be horribly grainy and gritty (as stones start to form, I’ve now learned), but I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that these were perfect. For dessert wine, we were back in Riesling territory again, this time with an Australian example, Mount Horrocks, Cordon Cut Riesling from the Clare Valley.
We’d now hit the home straight with one more dessert before the end, a light confection of bergamot, stout, miso and smoked Earl Grey. Handling was known for having something of a fascination with Asian elements, though he has by all accounts toned it right down in the last few years. It came through here though with a fascinating mix of savoury and sweet, done with a light hand. It was a good way to complete what had been quite an adventure. The final wine saw us back in New Zealand and again at Hawkes Bay, this time for a 2016 Chenin Blanc Late Harvest specimen, a medium bodied dessert wine full of honeyed tones. On a side note, if our visit was on a typical night, around a third of the tables were taken up by young Asian women, dining in pairs, and furiously Instagramming everything, which may or may not be an effect of the Asian flavours. Who can tell?
By now it was gone 10pm and although coffee and tea was on offer, we declined (I no longer drink coffee after around 2 in the afternoon, at least not if I want to sleep) but we were still presented with the petit fours, which were playful and fun. These little jellies had to be peeled off the plate they came on.
And these included coffee-flavoured chocolates made to look like coffee machine capsules to my probably unreasonable delight.
Nearly five hours after we’d sat down, we paid our bill, then wandered out into the night to catch our train promising ourselves we’d be back when we could afford it. We’d had a brilliant meal, served by attentive, friendly, knowledgeable (in the main) staff and while it really couldn’t be called cheap in any way, it was worth every penny.