It’s the little things that make a dinner memorable. Like, for example, being asked to sign a liability waiver before you take your seat. Or spotting a St John’s Ambulance man by the bar, inquiring as to his presence and being told: “The insurance company insists, sir.” But then I was about to eat dinner in a crypt and the invitation did come from Remember a Charity in Your Will – so it was probably always going to lodge itself deep in the part of my brain fenced off for Odd Moments In Restaurants.
And indeed last week’s five-course tasting menu at the two-day Café de Mort pop-up beneath St Andrew, Holborn was very unusual; unusual in a Lucretia Borgia type of way. Each course came with the possibility of death or blindness or else a night spent in the proximity of a lavatory. Menu consultant Matt Day had been engaged for 12 months by the charity to create “a menu of death”; to include as many “neutralised” toxic foods as he could think of – and acquire legally within the EU.
And Day had worked hard for the money. I am no stranger to the weirder end of the menu having worked through leathery slivers of jellyfish for a feature on texture, ground-up worms as a seasoning for a slice of post-mezcal orange, taken chillied ants as a pick-me-up in Thailand, and sucked on tendonous chickens’ feet in a restaurant off London’s Berwick Street.
Yet the presence of fugu on the menu, the Japanese blowfish that so famously nearly did for Homer Simpson, pulled me up short. Maybe even more concerning than the presence of the Homeric fish, however, were the dish descriptions. Where there ought to have been words such as seared, pan-fried and roasted, there were instead other words, less kind words, such as hydrogen cyanide and tetrotoxin and myristicin. Still, the blindingly strong glass of Death in the Afternoon handed out at the door had me wafting to my seat like a galleon on an aft wind.
Sitting there in the candle-lit crypt, waiting for the fugu, I have the feeling you have when queuing for a rollercoaster – the compelling draw to the danger, but also the strong desire to sod off very quickly. The presence of Taiji Maruyama to my left on the circular table, one of only 10 people in the UK licenced to work with fugu, and the man who had cut the fish now before me, calms me a little. He was 10 years in getting his licence and talks with the assurance of a late-career surgeon. “The tetrotoxin is in the gut, liver, ovary and skin, so we remove those. Some chefs slightly nick the organs to give extra flavour – but not tonight,” he says.
When it arrives, it is a disappointment. The translucent fish has only the slightest umami tang. Maruyama explains: “In Japan it is prized for its chewy texture, rather than strong flavour.” Passing our table, Matt Day, perhaps seeing my disappointment, explains it is a wonder we have it here tonight at all. “It’s actually illegal to import fugu into the EU commercially,” he says. Eh? “Yes, what we have is imported for personal use – that’s why all the guests are invited and we take no payment.” The cost of the fish, someone later informs, me is about £50 per plate.
The next course is preceded by a tankard of Bloody Hell Mary. A spiteful mix of tomato juice, rhubarb and Poitín. The 90 per cent Irish spirit was outlawed in 1661 after causing a spate of blindness and only became available over the counter in 1997. It makes me feel drunk from my feet up and stoic for the curried ackee patty and ghost chilli that has just arrived.
The ackee plant was introduced to the West Indies by that dubious man Captain Bligh of The Bounty. And the fruit is as merciless as he; unripe, it contains enough hypoglycin to cause vomiting and sickness that makes norovirus look like a holiday in the south of France.
Here, ripe and cooked in a half-moon Jamaican patty, it is bittersweet and delicious. The chef has added only a modest amount of ghost chilli to the garnish, so the effects of police pepper spray, for which it is usually reserved, are avoided.
At this point, just before the third course, chef Maruyama turns to me and says, giggling: “It has been 30 minutes and you can still move – you have survived the first course.” It is about as unwelcome a sentence as has ever been uttered in an eating establishment. Still, the snake wine has arrived, so I turn my attention to that. It is served in flutes but the bottle from which it comes is considerably less elegant, having a coiled cobra in it. “It makes you tough,” says Maruyama, pumping his arm. It also makes you feel a bit sick.
The kluwak nut pierogi with false morels makes up for it though. When fermented and cooked, the Malayasian kluwak nut makes a rich, almost sweet paste and sheds the hydrogen cyanide which in its immature form would finish you off. After the “wine” it tastes as honeyed as butternut squash and biscotti ravioli – and looks as pleasing, bobbing there in its little pot of mushroom broth.
As I scoop the last of the morels into my mouth I know I’m safe. I am neither dead, dying nor, as Emily Dickinson put it, feeling “a funeral in my brain”. Remaining are two dessert courses, which I’d wager wouldn’t harm a fly. A large macaron with bitter almonds (which the menu rightly points out contains cyanide but fails to point out that they do so in harmless quantities) is first. Then comes peanut, cacao and nutmeg sweetmeats, which is presumably only deadly to those with a peanut allergy.
The two dishes, sweet and heavy, make the fugu seem like a memory from another life. Only the arrival of the last matched drink brings back the deathly theme. A bow-tied waiter brings out a large shot glass containing a milky liquid. Only after drinking it down with a toast to our table’s health is it clear that the milk is a disguise. It is about two parts milk. The rest is 84.5 per cent Sunset Very Strong Rum from St Vincent. The friend I’m dining with declares it “my perfect nightcap”, his sense of reason evidently having been left behind with the second tankard of Bloody Hell Mary.
As I pass the St John’s man packing up and trip up the steps at the crypt’s exit, I reflect that it has, yes, most definitely been a memorable dinner. An alcoholic tour and, in its way, a rollercoaster thrill. But will I long for fugu or zig-zag London in search of ackee for my patties? I think not. Risk for risk’s sake has a place in life – just not necessarily in the dining room.