Lifting the lid on culinary combinations

Lobster with black pudding, anyone? I know it sounds disgusting, but done skillfully, it's a match made in heaven. And I'm not making this up, either – it's on the menu at London's Club Gascon. It's just one of the weird but wonderful combinations on offer in British restaurants.

Lobster with black pudding, anyone? I know it sounds disgusting, but done skillfully, it's a match made in heaven. And I'm not making this up, either – it's on the menu at London's Club Gascon. It's just one of the weird but wonderful combinations on offer in British restaurants.

We've come a long way from the days when a ring of canned pineapple on a piece of gammon was something shocking. The nation's chefs are straining for our attention, playing the novelty card. See our five examples (right) if you need evidence. But the dishes aren't just gimmicks – some are on the menus at highly rated restaurants.

In the US, they like to shock. Currently, in New York, daring pairings include foie gras with chocolate sauce and marmalade; salmon tartare with stilton and Yorkshire pudding; even sauerkraut risotto. But here, such notions were, until recently, ridiculed. In Mike Leigh's memorable 1990 film, Life is Sweet, Timothy Spall opens a horrible restaurant, Regret Rien, with a menu offering saveloy with lychees, liver in lager, and clams in a ham and prune quiche. It stopped short of including sardines and raspberry jam, a child's idea of the most inedible combo.

But wait. Sardines and raspberry purée is one of the signature dishes at Ferran Adria's restaurant, El Bulli, on Spain's Costa Brava, which sports three Michelin rosettes. Adria is the man most responsible for kick-starting this new take on cooking. He's self-taught and has never worked under other chefs, yet his innovation draws the great kitchen stars to his door, from Chicago's Charlie Trotter to our own Gordon Ramsay. Paul Merrett, chef at Mayfair's Greenhouse, made the pilgrimage to El Bulli and was an immediate convert. "It was startling. Groundbreaking," he says. "You felt you had to tear up your menu and start again."

A meal at El Bulli consists of 15 to 20 courses. A poached quail's egg in caramel sauce is fed to you on a teaspoon by the waiter. The first taste of green pea soup is hot, but changes to warm and then ice-cold as you eat. A ravioli of coconut cream has been made not with pasta but with fine slices of squid cut from a chilled block. Flavours are often introduced as foams from compression cans. It is unsweetened raspberry foam which he combines with small sardines from the bay which are skinned and marinated overnight in vinegar and water. Before serving they are bathed in sweet olive oil and dressed with the slightly acid raspberry foam. A weird but delicious twist on the tapas bar morsel, boquerones en vinagre – anchovies marinated in vinegar.

Many visiting chefs find Adria's cooking inspirational and liberating, but not all critics agree that his influence is for the good of cooking. Anne Willan – whose famous cookery school in France, La Varenne, upholds French haute cuisine – sees him as a culinary scientist, not a real cook. "He cooks with passion, not with love," she says. "Intellect and palate are bombarded with speed and intensity... it amazes, it excites, but in no way does it nourish or satisfy. In no way is this real food."

Some critics feel the same about the British chefs working in this vein, such as Heston Blumenthal, chef of the Michelin-rated Fat Duck at Bray, Berkshire – though he'd be proud to be called a culinary scientist. Another self-taught cook, he uses science texts like Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking to explore contrasts of flavour and texture, like mustard ice-cream with gazpacho of red cabbage; sweet garlic ice-cream with coffee jelly; white chocolate with caviar; and petit fours flavoured with raw tobacco.

John Campbell, author of Formulas for Flavour (Conran Octopus £20), is an admirer of Blumenthal. Savoury ice-cream has been a particular challenge for Campbell. He does mustard sherbet with smoked-haddock risotto, Roquefort ice-cream, and slow-roast fillet of steak with browned-onion ice-cream .

But it's not just Adria and his disciples who bring us odd mixtures. Fusion food, largely credited to New Zealander Peter Gordon, has played a big part. Gordon's eyes were opened when he toured south-east Asia. He started to combine exotic ingredients – lime leaves, coconut, chillies and relishes – with plainer Anglo-Saxon fare. When he opened the Sugar Club in London 1995, the effect was sensational. Now he is fusing Spanish elements with this cuisine at Los Providores in Marylebone.

The two most successful fusion restaurants have been Vong and Nobu. Nobu mixes US and Japanese elements, with a touch of Peru thrown in – Lima was the site of Nobu's first restaurant. Vong, named after Alsacian chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is a fusion of classic French and Thai. He was first to combine sweet lobster and vanilla, two flavours which now seem made for each other.

But even fusion has its detractors. "Fusion cooking is a disaster in the wrong hands," says Raymond Blanc, chef-patron of the two-Michelin-star Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire. "Some people think it's an excuse to throw any combination together."

He speaks with feeling, as he's an innovator himself – his newest creation, which went on to menus this week, is a paper-thin biscuit of baked langoustine purée which he serves with a warm langoustine over ratatouille chutney, moistened with curried mango juice.

More shocking is the menu at Club Gascon in Smithfield, the restaurant where Pascal Aussignac creates his lobster and black pudding cappuccino (right). It lists no fewer than 20 different foie gras dishes, including a dessert foie gras with marrons glacés and chocolate. Looks like you may never be able to order "the usual" again.

Five daring dishes

Cappuccino of black pudding

Pascal Aussignac's rendering of American surf and turf (lobster and steak), partnering the flavours of land and sea. Same idea is his rare seared tuna with andouillettes and frothy chervil sauce. Club Gascon, 57 West Smithfield, London EC1, tel: 020 7796 0600

Guinness cheesecake

Gareth Hughes, the Liverpudlian chef of this restaurant/bar says his invention is unique. He stumbled on it by accident when making a bittersweet treacle and Guinness marinade for gammon. Another house special is chocolate chilli mousse. The Laughing Gravy, 154 Blackfriars Road, London SE1, tel: 020 7721 7055

John Campbell's ploughman's

This consists of a circle of Blue cheese (forme d'ambert) deep-fried in breadcrumbs (flavoured with orange and lemon peel) served with pickled beetroot ice-cream and sweet beetroot crisps with an onion soubise sauce. And new on the menus this week is roast anjou pigeon with braised rhubarb, Japanese daikon pickle and vanilla foam. The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire, tel: 01635 589 400

Curried chocolate truffles

Vong's "special chocolate log petit-fours" are made with a soft chocolate ganache seasoned with a 15-spice curry. Jean-Georges Vongerichten also serves a mustardy apple terrine with wasabi sorbet, and a new dish is scallops with caperberry and white raisin emulsion. Vong, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1, tel: 020 7235 1010

Casserole of chicken liver, snails, belly of pork confit, red-onion jelly, foie gras and garlic butter ravioli

Paul Merrett, inspired by his visit to El Bulli, pushes flavour combinations to the limit. According to Merrett, you need to burst open the ravioli to let the garlic permeate the other flavours and bring them together. Greenhouse Restaurant, 27A Hays Mews, London W1, tel: 020 7499 3331