Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A series of experiences

I have been lucky enough to get to know a couple of talented supperclub and pop-up restaurant geniuses in the past couple of years, one of whom I have worked with a few times and learned a lot from, and the other I have had the great fortune of being taught by. Rob Dawe is one of the most inspirational people I have met - and I don't use terms like that lightly. Chefs are often incredibly good at what they do, meticulous in their precision, fiercely proud of their work and renowned for their art. What sometimes slips away is their passion, worn down by years of seasons repeating themselves, trends coming and going, diner desires becoming ever more fastidious. So it is not every day that a chef comes along who not only has a wealth of experience, but also an abundance of passion about cooking, about ingredients and sourcing, and to top it all, a desire to help others to learn as much as they can and gain the most benefit possible from time in a kitchen.

Rob's years of experience cheffing in London eventually led to a post teaching in Exeter college and after while, he moved on to Ashburton Cookery School as a chef tutor. Fast forward a few years and he is now working there part-time while he also carries out consultancy work for restaurants and hotels, runs his own pop-up events and, probably my favourite part, forages for mussels. As you do.

As soon as I heard Rob mention his pop-ups, I asked him when his next one was. It turned out that it would be the night before the most scary of my assessments, and this put off almost half of my classmates. My philosophy on life, however, is that it is built from a series of experiences and opportunities, and I knew that I would be going regardless of how ready I felt for the next day.

The event was hosted at the Heart of Oak pub in Pinhoe, Exeter and was a sell-out within a few days of tickets going on sale for what turned out to be an even more reasonable £30 than I had originally thought. There were to be seven courses of wonderfully treated, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and my fears that perhaps devouring the steak and chips we had produced for our assessments earlier that day was a bit of an error, were quickly blown away when I saw the menu.

To start, we had a trio of pea, ham and beetroot. This was served as a warm pea soup mini cappuccino with a delicately salty foam, a tender and sticky nugget of glazed ham hock topped with pea shoots, and a pea and ham croquette with beetroot puree. It was great, as students, to recognise the various techniques in use on the plate and to discuss how they could be recreated. Pea shoots are one of my favourite salad gems, with a wonderful sweetness to offset the honeyed saltiness of the ham beneath.

Rob had taken us through how to prepare and serve mussels - hence his casual anecdote about foraging for them (we never found out if that was how he had sourced them this evening!) and so I was glad to see them on the menu, served 'à la Devon' with cider, bacon and cream. I could have done with a few more lardons in my portion, and we all agreed that some fresh, warm and homemade bread would have gone down a treat, although, as we grudgingly conceded, might have been a bit much with five courses to go... Still, I ignored all principles of restraint and finished most of my sauce because it was delicious. Cider gives a much more delicate finish to a mussel dish that wine can, and complements the sweetness of the mussel flesh well. Bacon rounds off what sounds like a heavy dish but ends up being light and flavoursome.

Next up was a palate cleanser ahead of the main event - delicate mojito sorbet with edible flowers. The balance of mint, lime and alcohol was just right and - a small but important detail - this was one of the occasions where we appreciated the attention of the front of house team. We had been given finger bowls for our mussels but also a teaspoon for our sorbet, and so could spend all our energy on enjoying the food and company.

The main dish was locally-sourced Crediton rump of lamb, with parsnip purée, spring vegetables and a port and rosemary jus. Spring is probably my favourite season, and vegetables like asparagus, firm and dazzling green like they were here, are a big part of the reason why. The parsnip purée had been infused with saffron - something I hadn't tried together before, let alone saffron in a lamb dish. But then saffron is largely produced in Iran, and lamb kebabs with saffron rice is a national dish, so it makes perfect sense. The purée had just enough liquid gold in it to complement the flavours without being an overbearing presence. The lamb rump was served in big, no messin' cuts, wonderfully pink and delectably tender. Parsnip crisps were a welcome addition to the dish, bringing an extra texture and fun presentation.

Next up was what Rob thinks may become his signature, mysteriously titled 'Mango, coconut, lime' and looking much more like 'Egg, chip'.

To reveal how this is done, how to eat it or what happens when you try would be too much of a spoiler. Suffice to say I had been told about this in advance, and it delivered just as described - in terms of flavours, textures, and, of course, theatre.
Hearing the room bubble with excitement, laughter and various 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' made me smile and I hope it had the same effect on chef.

This was served with mini fresh strawberry 'milkshakes' - another fun surprise, and packed with lots of vibrant flavour. The tiny bottles being carried to the tables in mini milk crates showed a great attention to detail and sense of humour.

Dessert was chocolate fondant with salted caramel and peanut butter ice cream, which I am fairly sure Rob must have designed especially for me.
The fondant had a pre-requisite gooey centre and its warm chocolate headiness was well complemented with the icecream, which nestled on a bed of honeycomb to give added texture. I'm normally a lover of raspberry but here felt that although the coulis looked perfect on the plate, it distracted a little from the stars of the show. That said, whoever came up with the pairing of chocolate and peanut was a genius. A little digging tells me that Alexandre Dumas, of Musketeers fame, may well have beaten Reece's cups to it, when he suggested that the Spanish called peanuts cacohuette because their flavour resembles that of cocoa, and used to mix cocoa into a peanut mixture to make a kind of cheap chocolate. Although I love my desserts, I've often struggled with this part of my 'last supper' scenario, but I feel more sure now that chocolate and peanuts would be involved.

Our after-dinner coffee was served with a handmade marshmallow, topped with popping candy, renewing my wish to give making marshmallow a go myself soon. Despite the number of courses we all felt comfortably full and disappeared off to the moors with happy faces and entertained tums.

Rob's next pop-up will be on Monday 19th May at the Rodean Restaurant in Kenton, starting at 7.15pm. This will be a six course Summer tasting menu for £35/head and is BYOB. If you would like to book a place, or to be added to Rob's email list and receive notifications of future events, please drop him an email here.

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