In the Arabian Nights, a young man came to his bride smelling of garlic. Because he had presumed to appear thusly, she cut off his thumbs and his big toes. And never again did the young man forget to freshen up after a ragout. I was disappointed that we never really got to hear whether things worked out for that couple - I wanted a "where are they now?" type follow-up. I may be wrong, but I sense that the whole thumbs-and-toes-thing was about something other than the garlic.
The garlic (along with the onion, the leek, the shallot and the scallion) is a plant of the genus "allium". It's the family that carries the kitchen's biggest flavours, and Anton Edelmann - who was maître chef des cuisines at the Savoy for 20 years - has decided to honour the genus with a restaurant of its own. He has set up shop in the premises once occupied by Rhodes In The Square. And what lovely premises they are. He has even managed to save a bit of money by keeping Gary's cruet sets.
The room has the look of a cruise liner. Not a modern cruise liner, you understand, where young men slam back beer by the pool before they rush the shrimp platter at the all-you-can eat buffet. But an old-time cruise liner - the sort that slips out of New York harbour at midnight into waters as black as ink. Allium has real Art Deco splendour, with chrome portholes and a sweeping staircase. There's a real glamour about the place, in a rather neglected corner of London.
The buttery leather armchairs at our table were a treat - insist on one when you book. The midnight-blue carpet was very restful on the eyes, but it was the same colour as the walls. Given the dim lighting, this is only a good idea if you want people to walk into your walls, which was a distinct possibility, especially when you've seen the heavenly wine list.
My guest and I plumped (an appropriate term) for the tasting menu - five courses for £39. It started with oxtail tortellini, served atop a celeriac confit. The single pasta parcel arrived with its own jug of jus which, hoorah, we were allowed to keep. The meat wasn't as tender as I would have liked, but the flavour was every bit as intense. And the tiny portion merely served to create a profound sense of expectation over the scallops to follow.
Sorry - scallop, which was perched on a hillock of carrot and cardamom purée, clouded in chervil cream. The dish was perfection. It was all about different grades of savoury sweetness, wafted with a breeze of aniseed - the chervil was like a touch of perfume on a lady's pulse point. My only regret is, what with scallops being so fleetingly "à la minute", I found myself eating it far too quickly.
Edelmann grew up in the German countryside, where his grandmother would bake sourdough bread every Monday. He still likes the simple flavours - flavours which pair well with wine. Imagine being the poor sommelier who works for Ferran Adria at El Bulli - what would you pair with Adria's Parmesan cheese ice-cream sandwich? Alka-Seltzer springs to mind. But at Allium, the sommelier's lot is a much easier one.
The steamed seabass came with a langoustine, shellfish and tarragon essence. The texture of the fish was perfect. It was somewhere between solid and liquid - a gaseous presence on the tongue. After a few seconds, all that was left was a memory of its taste. The lamb was the only disappointing dish on the menu. The meat arrived red, rather than pink, and wasn't well flavoured. It needed more than a black olive crust to save it.
The place deserved to be busier. But then again, Allium is tucked out of the way in the ground floor of an unprepossessing hotel. And maybe some people don't like the cruise liner feel (even though there's no motion sickness to contend with, or a string quartet playing "Begin the Beguine"). But the food is certainly good enough for a Michelin star. And so is the service. I didn't notice anyone hovering, and the meal was allowed to go at exactly our pace.
The dessert of caramelised apples on eggy bread was delicious. (I always prefer "eggy bread" to "French toast". This isn't US-led revisionism, like "Freedom Fries" - it's just that the first written mention of the dish actually came from the court of Henry V. It was called pain perdu, or "lost bread", because the egg rescued something that would otherwise be thrown away.)
Cruise liner portions meant you came aboard as a passenger and left as cargo, but I ended dinner at Allium feeling pleasantly full. My companion wanted to finish off with jasmine tea. Had he not heard about the man who chased his wife with a dagger after drinking too much jasmine tea? Evidently not. But Gilbert Walker did drink 10 cups of the stuff. It was insani-tea! Imagine if his wife came home smelling of garlic? Heaven forfend. E
SECOND HELPINGS: VEGGIE TABLES
By Caroline Stacey
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