Sunday, 22 January 2017

Shibui - Elizabeth Allen pop-up at Carousel

This was my first visit to Carousel; how have I never been here before? It's a wonderful idea for a venue, and pretty much everything I love under one roof. Food-wise, lunch is prepared by their own team and dinner comes courtesy of a series of stellar chef residencies; there is an exhibition space for new talent and also a programme of events ranging from life drawing and yoga to acoustic sets and spoon carving. Spoon carving!! I didn't know this was a thing, but now I do and I need it in my life.

So - on to this week's guest chef. Elizabeth Allen was formerly head chef at Neil Rankin's Smokehouse before moving on to Pidgin and her first Michelin star; I'm pretty sure it won't be her last. Allen has a self-confessed love of fire and flames as 'sophisticated barbecue' and specialises in the delicate balance of bold flavours, all of which will be showcased in her new restaurant project, Shibui.

Shibui is an ancient Japanese word with no direct translation into English but which expresses the elegance, grace and beauty of simplicity - a perfect name for a restaurant that promises dishes combining both everyday and exotic ingredients and a relaxed fine dining experience. I think this is an exciting trend; I am a greedy, obsessive and endlessly curious foodie but for me food is both literally and metaphorically nourishing - it should be an experience that is relaxing, heartening, soothing, exciting, nurturing and sociable. (I heartily detest the concept of 'good' and 'bad' foods - and don't even get me started on so-called 'clean eating'.) So, the concept of jaw-dropping food without the intimidating starchiness and obligatory reverent hush of classic fine dining is very good news.

Carousel was a good choice of venue for this, with its scrubbed wooden refectory tables, communal seating and subdued lighting; it is also very intimate, with the prep and kitchen area a few feet from the bar, so you can have a pre-dinner sharpener whilst watching the chef at work. Consequently, I was at a toddler-on-Christmas-morning level of excitement by the time we actually sat down for the meal. The first dish was bite-sized tempura nori with apple puree, oyster and sambal and did not disappoint. This was so clever; a mouth-pleasing mix of textures and the nori, oyster and sambal all balanced out by the apple and making different contributions to produce something that, quite simply and in the best possible way, tasted of the sea.

Next up was the buttermilk chicken with miso and caviar, which I hear will be a signature dish when Shibui finds a permanent home later this year and which embodies Allen's philosophy of combining the humble and the sophisticated. Crispy coating, tender chicken, a salty hit of caviar and a savoury mayo, this was delicious. We had also opted for the wine flight which paired this with Konishi Gold, a light, clean sake with a hint of apple - a perfect match.

We then had a fresh, palate-cleansing dish of fermented cucumber, sorrel and apple with rhubarb, all wonderfully zingy, sour flavours to wake up the tastebuds. This came with a De Loach California Chardonnay; I'm normally ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) when it comes to wine but this was light and fresh with a refreshing fruity acidity.

At this point there was the option of an additional course at a surcharge. I overheard some scattered and gentle grumbling at this culinary ambush, as of course the only real possible answer was yes; everyone I could see paid up and ate up. Having said that, it was the best possible call. Maltagliati (literally, 'badly-cut') pasta with tender, creamy lamb sweetbreads, brown butter, cabbage - all basic, almost rustic ingredients - oh, and did I mention, Perigord truffle? Allen had me at the fried chicken and caviar, but this was silky, seductive and outstandingly good. The wine pairing was explained to us by a friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic member of the team; a balanced and 'minerally' Chilean Caquenina from a vineyard a mere six kilometres from the Andes.

On to the next course, which was three succulent slices of Koji beef with coffee and Jerusalem artichoke puree, served with blistered sprout tops, beef fat and XO. I've never had sprout tops but they were surprisingly tasty, especially with the nuggets of beef fat nestling in amongst them. This was accompanied by a punchy Langhe Nebbiolo which held its own against the beef.

Finally, dessert; apple, kinako custard with miso butterscotch. Delicate and balanced, this showcases another facet of Allen's work, which is a blend of European and Asian influences. If Carlsberg made hot apple pies, they would taste like this. Alongside was an intriguing digestive with suze gentian, lime juice and a home-made smoked hay syrup.

In summary, this was an exceptional meal and a thoroughly enjoyable evening: incredible food, imaginative wine pairings, relaxed vibe, fascinating chats (and some great restaurant recommendations) with fellow foodies sat alongside us, and I have discovered some new ingredients that I am off to try. When Shibui eventually finds a permanent place to call home, I will be queuing at the door.

Yours, STILL thinking about that lamb dish,

London Girl About Town xx

Square Meal

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