Experimental dining is a baleful concept. It takes two wonderful habits in which our species excels and, by conjoining them, besmirches both. Dining is wonderful because it elevates food from the realm of nutrition to that of culture. Experimentation is wonderful because it was only when our forebears threw off the shackles of organised religion, and dared to know through science, that our lives went from being nasty, brutish and short to stuffed full of newspapers with pompous restaurant critics. But experimental dining? No.
When I turn up at a restaurant, I want the experiments to have been finished, boxes ticked, conclusions drawn, perfection on each plate. What I don't want is the sense that the kitchen is making it up as they go along. Particularly when you're paying more than average for the experience.
Worse still, when you book, the following text arrives as part of the email confirmation. It's all in capitals, but I'll save you the headache: "By booking and attending House of Wolf you are entering into an experimental dining scenario. This means you accept things may stray a little out of the ordinary in terms of both the food you will be served and the manner in which you consume it. Please use common sense at all times when handling sharps [sic] and using the various implements you will be supplied with. We can accept no responsibility for injuries sustained in this manner."
There are two points to make about this. The first is that it is wholly irrelevant to the experience of House of Wolf. The second is that a paragraph could hardly be better crafted to destroy the appetite in advance of arrival.
House of Wolf boasts "pop-up chef residencies" and November's comes courtesy of Blanch & Shock, whose tasting menu is £45 (there is an accompanying, but not compulsory, drinks list at £25). A full 87 minutes after we arrive, all we've eaten is the first of six courses: an Einkorn wholegrain bread and yoghurt whey butter, the latter coming from a churn in the kitchen, apparently. We are told that by a waitress called Katie, who seems to be the only one of the waiting staff to have a clue what is going on – though the fact that the menu changes monthly may help explain why they often haven't the foggiest what they're serving up.
It's almost an hour-and-a-half in by the time we get raw prawns in British lardo, with hogweed (also known as cow parsnip), mallow oil and salad burnet. The leaves are fine and flavoursome, the prawns lifeless in every sense, and the salty, ultra-fatty lardo is half-left by my mate Eve but gladly gobbled by Henry, Charlie and I. Next is a wild sea bass that has been left in dill vinegar for 20 minutes to "cook", Isle of Bute dulse, purple oxalis leaf, chervil root and celery cress. If you're struggling to keep up, so are we. This tastes like a tour of Monty Don's childhood, except for the sea bass, which is too tough.
Then there is excellent wild mallard duck with chestnuts, scarlet hawberries, Jerusalem artichokes and melliot; dry beef with under-powered fermented turnips (missing from two of our plates), dandelions, and a lovely oyster emulsion; and finally "textures" of Brogdale apples, quince, sourdough brioche eggy bread, yoghurt curd and buttered black tea.
That's a lot going on. Experimental dining indeed. I have huge admiration for the young, ambitious chefs here with brilliant imaginations, but taken together, their menu tastes more like an argument between courses than a conversation. This point hits home when, finally, we are given a bonus cocktail – a horrendous, boozy beetroot mixture – and then, dear me, told to bite on a szechuan pepper, which makes our tongues fizz and converts the House of Wolf, however briefly, into the House of Flying Daggers.
This is yuppy central, by the way. Everyone is under 35 and the music is Finley Quaye, Tenor Saw and Barrington Levy. It's well-intentioned, but a long way from the finished product. Anyone who has worked in a new opening knows it takes time to get the process right, and I am loath to be harsh about an ambitious start-up. But seriously, guys. Experiments are for your lab, not for our dinner table.
SCORES: 1-3 STAY AT HOME AND COOK, 4 NEEDS HELP, 5 DOES THE JOB, 6 FLASHES OF PROMISE, 7 GOOD, 8 SPECIAL, CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK, 9-10 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
House of Wolf 181 Upper Street, London N1, tel: 020 7288 1470 Dinner daily, about £180 for four, plus drinks
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Reviews extracted from Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012 www.hardens.com