When I announced to a friend that I had a reservation at the hardest table to book in London, I am sure there was a note of unholy glee in my voice. “What, the Ledbury?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Dabbous.”
In the few short months that Dabbous has been open, the cascade of glowing reviews from London’s most difficult-to-please critics has been followed by extraordinary hype. Giles Coren pretty much sealed the fate of London diners with his rapturous write-up in the Times (which I still haven’t been able to read in its entirety thanks to the Times’ pay-wall). I hear that the wait for a table is now several months long. Nevertheless, when I idly clicked through Open Table on Sunday trying to book a table for four in May (no luck), to my utter surprise there was a table available for two people that Tuesday. The decision required no reflection. I booked it immediately and invited reliable fellow-lover of decadent dining experiences V to join me.
With all the talk of future Michelin stars (and believe me, there’s been plenty) I’m not sure what I expected. Something posh, maybe. Perhaps a hushed temple to modernist cuisine. But here’s the thing about Dabbous. It’s fun. FUN. The music reflects the goofy fondness for early-nineties club hits and pop music of chef Ollie Dabbous (appropriately, rhymes with “fabu”). The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. And the really quite lovely food is served without fanfare or self-consciously pompous introductions, so that you can get down to the serious business of eating without having an endlessly mediated experience.
Downstairs there’s a delightful bar, which was surprisingly empty, staffed by a confident bartender who could pass for R-Gos in dim enough light. His drinks are clever, refreshing, and not fussy. My “Dillusion” was a cool dry blend of gin, elderflower, cucumber, lemon and dill. Since it was pouring rain outside, friend V had One Day in June – saffron gin shaken with pineapple, crème de Peche, elderflower, ginger, cucumber and lemon – not as sweet as it sounds; classy, in fact.
The bar was so nice I’d almost forgotten we were eating at the current foodie Holy Grail restaurant – that is, until we came back upstairs. The room was packed with delirious foodies; I recognized two other food bloggers, and the earnest young woman seated at the table behind me was methodically photographing every plate that came to her table. Although I’d brought my camera, I decided not to use it; Dabbous’s website has gorgeous photographs, and the blogosphere is swarming with photos of Dabbous’s beautiful, minimalist plates. I wanted to eat and get drunk and have a normal restaurant experience.
Dabbous’s food is elegant, precise, and very very smart. It tastes considered; everything on the plate has a purpose, and nothing feels superfluous. The influence of Ollie’ Dabbous’s stint as head chef at Scandi haven Texture is evident: there’s a distinct note of green running through the dishes, and dill and elderflower feature prominently.
We had the tasting menu (£49, seven courses). Our meal started with a plate of spring asparagus with hazelnuts and rapeseed mayonnaise dusted with meadowsweet pollen. This last was not fanciful redundancy – the pollen gave almost a wheatgrass flavour to the rich mayonnaise, which together with the toasted hazelnuts acted as a beautiful foil to the nutty, earthy asparagus. This dish was followed by sweet poached onions sitting in a delicate broth splashed with vivid green pine-infused oil. It was bright, pretty, and clean-tasting. Plate number three – coddled barely cooked egg with smoked butter and woodland mushrooms, served in a bowl surrounded by fragrant hay – friend V called “a vegetarian’s orgasm.” It hit every umami note, and it sent my salivary glands into overdrive. If I’d opened my mouth I’m sure I would have drooled.
Salmon with elderflower, spring onions, and almonds was probably the least successful part of our meal; on this plate the various elements seemed to compete with rather than complement each other, and V thought that the spring onions slightly overpowered the beautiful fish. The next meat dish, however, was extraordinary. Iberico pork loin was served medium-rare over “acorn praline” – intensely nutty, slightly bitter toasted broken acorns in a sort of rich, slightly-sweet, brown caramelly sauce – with turnip tops and an apple vinegar reduction. I was a cocktail and a bottle of wine into our meal (i.e., wasted) but I’m sure I’ll dream of this dish.
This was followed by a very clever palate cleanser of a bright green sorbet of lovage and green herbs, and then we had dessert, described as “chocolate and virgin hazelnut oil ganache, basil moss, sheep’s milk ice cream.” This plate of food again demonstrated that we were in the hands of a massively talented, creative, and confident chef. The bittersweet ganache was deconstructed over chocolate “earth,” complemented by tangy sheep’s milk ice cream, surrounded by a streak of some green herby infusion, and dusted with green moss and, incredibly, shiso leaves. Texturally exciting, beautiful, memorable food.
I have no idea what fluke got me this reservation at two days’ notice. There are no other tables for the foreseeable future (I’ve checked), but eating at this restaurant was an utter joy. Go if you can, when you can.
39 Whitfield Street, W1T 2SF
Price per person: £85 including service (we had the £49 tasting menu and a lot of alcohol)
The verdict: Must try!