I am on a mission, to eat Jersey Royals in Jersey. Their season is short (April to June) and, like asparagus, the thin-skinned, 10-week-old potatoes are best molly-coddled into a pot as soon as humanly possible after harvesting.
Mind you, after travelling 180 miles to their source, I am not going to eat them cooked any old how. So here I am at the Michelin-starred Bohemia restaurant in St Helier for my Jersey Royal epiphany. In preparation, I have bathed and anointed myself upstairs in the very swish £7m Club Hotel & Spa, which owner Lawrence Huggler opened five years ago when he couldn't get a late-night drink anywhere on the island. As you do. I have stimulated my appetite with a well-made cocktail and have dipped parmesan sticks into little beakers of smoky taramasalata and houmous in the buzzy, modern Bohemia bar.
Now I am seated at a luxuriously large, double-clothed table in the adjacent, open, dining room. Wood is the theme note here, with walls of varying panels of light and dark like a chocolate chess board, and my chair is large and leather-clad, a home away from home. Around me, stripy-shirted members of various offshore banking and accounting tribes are busily doing one-on-ones and four-on-fours.
Lying only 14 miles off the French coast but being a part of the British Isles has made Jersey a very appealing blend of Norman and Saxon influences. Rather than decide between the two and antagonise one or the other, the Jersey way is to accommodate both. So chef Shaun Rankin's menu includes Jersey asparagus, sea bass, turbot, lobster, crab and local Royal Bay oysters, as well as French foie gras, Welsh lamb and Scottish beef. Rankin is a Durham boy, while the maître d' Dimitri Marqueteau and his team are French, overlaid with typically Jersey friendliness. Even the mineral waters on offer are British Hildon and French Badoit.
What becomes instantly obvious is that Rankin, having cooked with Charlie Trotter in Chicago, Chris Fraser in Perth and Andrew Baird on Jersey, has dazzling skill. The first spoonful of a chic little "martini" jelly, complete with suspended olive and froth of lemon foam, is exquisite. Next, a starter of plump, poached Royal Bay oysters nesting on little bales of saffron linguine topped with tiny cucumber batons and a little Sevruga caviar, explodes with brilliant brininess. Oysters are rarely improved by cooking, but this dish, with its echoes from the deep of Marco Pierre White's iconic tagliatelle with oysters and caviar, is utterly seductive.
From the sea, we go to ground with an earthy salad of poached duck egg, foamy herb sabayon, morels, peas and herbed gnocchi. It is a free-form forest floor of a dish; a seasonal celebration of springtime flavours linked effortlessly by a second "sauce" of runny egg yolk.
The solid and sophisticated wine list runs from a Baron Philippe de Rothschild Sauvignon Blanc priced at £14.75 to a 1966 Chateau Palmer at £1,275. Somewhere in between is a 2002 Clos de Chateau de Puligny Montrachet Bourgogne at £32, an intense, soft, elegant white burgundy grown in the walled gardens of the Chateau grounds. It plays up to the subtle charms of a succulent, warm buttered lobster tail sitting on a bed of finely shaved fennel and rich crab meat (£3 supplement). On the side is a small bowl of silky, hand-made macaroni in a lush, creamy sauce studded with bits of lobster and crab. Everything tastes light yet rich, soft yet juicy.
The main-course-in-two-acts idea is a bit of a signature. A beautifully crisp fillet of Jersey sea bass with freshly picked Jersey asparagus and a sauce vierge of fresh tomato and shallot comes with a thinly sliced, lightly dressed scallop carpaccio on a satellite plate. It is a little disconcerting to go from raw to cooked, but the sheer harmony of the flavours keeps it all together. And the asparagus is astonishing.
Now what would a chef of Rankin's unarguable talent and imagination do with the Jersey Royal? Drum roll, please. The lid is lifted from a small bowl to reveal that he has peeled them, boiled them, and served them with little more than Jersey butter and chives, so that nothing can interfere with their sweet, earthy, vaguely chestnut flavour. That, more than anything, tells me how good he is.
The cheeses, supplied by a M. Blanchard, are in very good nick, and are served - unsurprisingly - with both English biscuits and French bread. A Normandy-inspired assiette of apple and vanilla is a delightful composition of goodies that includes a bright green apple sorbet, sugar-dusted apple beignets and crunchy little apple fritters, with satellite dishes of a superb crème anglaise, and a vanilla-scented panna cotta on apple puree.
Rankin gets it right every time, with polished, light-at-heart food that synthesises myriad techniques and influences into something complete in itself. What a magical night: a tour de force of velvety service, impeccable produce, high skill and sparkling food, not to mention some very nice little potatoes. s
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Bohemia, The Club Hotel & Spa, Green Street, St Helier, Jersey, tel: 01534 880 588
Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday. £45pp fixed price for three courses, plus wine and service
Second helpings: More island hopping
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