Sunday, 21 May 2017

#AllGunsBlazing with Ben Spalding and Arnaud Bignon

Consider this a serious food-porn alert. I am about to walk you, dish by dish, through the most recent of Ben Spalding's #AllGunsBlazing events.

If you've never been to one of these, it works like this: Ben is joined by a fellow chef (usually Michelin-starred, always extraordinary) and they work together to produce a twelve-course menu. Some dishes are from Ben, some from the guest chef and some are cooked collaboratively. Previous luminaries have included JP McMahon (Aniar), Adam Handling (The Frog) and Calum Franklin (Holborn Dining Room), creator not only of legendary pies but also of the world's best Twitter hashtag. (No, I'm not telling you, go and look.)

In the interests of transparency — about which I have pretty strong views — it's worth mentioning here that I've been lucky enough to have been invited as a guest to several of Ben's dining events recently (although not this one; I bought these tickets, back in February after blogging the Meat Lust bus tour). I will remain, as always, fully open and honest about my opinions - I have long thought him an extraordinary talent, and the evidence is only building — but this has given me a little more insight into what motivates and drives him as a professional, which has been fascinating.

Anyway, back to #AllGunsBlazing; this time, in partnership with Arnaud Bignon of two Michelin-starred The Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair.
The event hit the ground running with a selection of Table Nibbles, waiting for us as we were shown to our seats by the lovely Sarah. Arnaud contributed the spelt crisp with soft cheese and smoked duck along with the liquid Greek salad, which not only looked beautiful but was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. A perfectly bite-sized, glistening red globe with a tiny basil leaf garnish, this bursts in your mouth to release a flood of fresh, complex Greek salad flavours — an experience not unlike the tomato sphere in the Prairie Oyster at The Bar with No Name (in other words, wonderful).

Ben provided a varied range of nibbles, my favourite of which I think was the caramelised kohlrabi, buttermilk jelly and white chocolate skewer. Characteristically inventive, this might sound like an unlikely combination of flavours but it was marvellous — as was the roasted pickled onion in chicken butter and spicy ginger wrapped in nori. Spalding's dishes are regularly outside-the-box creative, but never for novelty's sake; every single component adds to the flavour and balance of the final dish.

We officially started with B&B; Hackney Wild sourdough bread served with Grant Harrington's gorgeous cultured butter, sprinkled with brown sugar and mushroom powder, lightly blowtorched and served on a board with smoking spruce twigs.

One of the fabulous things about the #AllGunsBlazing dinners is that it removes the barrier between chef and diner. Ben and Arnaud were not hidden away in a high-tech kitchen but mere feet away, preparing and plating everything right in front of us, introducing the dishes and interacting with guests throughout the evening. I can't help thinking that this must be a welcome change for the chefs as well as extremely cool for the guests. I should probably point out here that all this is being prepared and served in an event space above a corner shop in Hackney, with very few of the standard toys and equipment which chefs at this level are used to. I have huge respect for professionals willing to step so far outside of their comfort zone.

First up from Arnaud was this dish, Hemoglobin;  vividly-coloured, elegant and stylishly presented, with the bold, earthy flavour of beetroot balanced with the tang and acidity of yoghurt, smoked eel, pumpernickel and dill.

Then came Tomato Vs Tomato Vs Tomato, Ben's delicate and delicious salad of late spring tomatoes prepared in different ways — including an intensely-flavoured, almost jammy, dried version — with radicchio, sour cream, pomegranate molasses, grapes, ripped mint and iced basil in a spruce bark honey dressing.

The bar set high by both chefs, we moved on to Arnaud's next dish, Iodine, which was preceded by a flurry of activity on the part of the chefs and a waft of woodsmoke. Little Kilner jars arrived at the table, containing a cold jellied dish of cockles, mussels, calamari, dashi and basmati rice; when opened, a fragrant wisp of smoke drifted up towards each guest.

Here, opinion on the table was divided. I really liked this dish; for me, this was the closest thing to eating an oyster without actually eating an oyster — cool, briny, slippery, tasting of the sea. One of my companions however was not a fan of the texture. (I ate hers. I'm not too proud to admit it).

Ben's next dish, Mr Mung, characterises his love of taking a Cinderella ingredient and transforming it into the belle of the ball. Here, the humble mung bean is fermented with over thirty different flavourings and served with tom yum mayonnaise topped with MSG chicken skin and pork skin, creating a delicious houmous-type dip with contrasting crispy nuggets of crackling.

The next item on the menu, simply entitled Cauliflower, was the first collaboration dish. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the #AllGunsBlazing dinners; two incredibly talented chefs with very different styles, not only delivering their own dishes but working with each other to create one savoury and one sweet dish for the evening. (It was particularly fascinating this evening as they were so very different; Ben positively fizzes with energy, whereas Arnaud has an almost yogi-like zen calm about everything he does.)

This dish was another of my favourites: cauliflower, slow-roasted in beurre noisette with garam masala, shaved almonds, yoghurt, black garlic crumble, marmite cream cheese and grated bitter dark chocolate. Every component intensified and enhanced the flavour of the cauliflower, bringing out an extraordinary, unexpected, satisfying depth. You know when you bump into the unattractive kid you went to school with and they're now unbelievably hot? The Neville Longbottom thing? Brad Pitt in Friends? That.

On to a dish created by Ben, which the menu informed us is called Piggy Cheesy Cheesy Piggy; this typifies not only the quirky and playful aspect of his cooking but also his guiding principle that exceptional food doesn't have to be formal and priced beyond the reach of most — as evidenced by his frequent and absolute willingness to dispense with cutlery of any kind. This was a delicious shot of Italian prawn, Iberico pork and warm Parmigiano Reggiano broth with raw peas and chilli oil, in a glass.

I'm going to mention here the hand model for this particular shot; my neighbour for the evening, Head Chef Asimakis Chaniotis of L'Autre Pied. Another thing that makes these evenings such fun is that the vibe is so buzzy and relaxed (Ben also curates a playlist of rare funk, groove and classic disco from the music side of his business) you end up brazenly chatting to the perfect strangers sitting next to you — and no, this time its's actually not just me.

Asimakis was there with restaurateur and founding Director of Pied à Terre and L'Autre Pied, David Moore (pictured, left, with Arnaud Bignon). I have to say, they were the perfect dinner companions: interesting, great fun and utterly charming both. Just as well really, as the friend sitting next to me was deep in conversation with the person to her right, chef James Wilson, getting an insider tip on seasoning steak.

Next up was another cutlery-free dish that really makes you get up close and personal with your food — a warm malt loaf and butter mousse that is squirted onto the back of your hand in a picturesque rosette for you to lick off.

Confession time; my camera skills may have been deteriorating slightly at this point and, by the time much faffing had been done, the mousse had melted into a rather unphotogenic blob. It was great fun though, and utterly delicious.
Did I mention there is a cash bar providing cocktails and a brief but carefully selected wine list, including a sprightly Sauvignon Blanc and a hefty, full-bodied, spicy Château Musar 2009 that went very nicely with Arnaud's next dish?

This was Black is Back, a visually dramatic and intriguing dish of meltingly tender lamb neck with aubergine and harissa providing a wonderful, deep smokiness.

And so on to desserts, the first of which was another collaborative dish, Liquorice: toasted liquorice marshmallow with sweet potato ice cream, blueberries dressed in tonka bean caramel, crispy artichoke and young lemon balm. I'm not a huge liquorice fan but this was really good; the sweet potato ice cream in particular was a revelation. The guests also had a front row seat for the theatre of top chefs toasting marshmallows over a blazing fire - indoors. As you do.

Arnaud's sweet dish, Tagada, was a light dessert of strawberry, basil and popcorn with a delicate freshness and an accomplished mix of textures. I loved the note of basil lifting the sweetness.

Our final dish was Aromatic Fudge, from Ben: a trio of chocolate fudges made with dark, milk and white chocolate, all flavoured with cardamom and served with whipped maple cheese, iced lemon thyme, crispy pea shards, toasted pecans and dusted with raspberry powder.

The intensity of the fudge was beautifully balanced by the accompaniments and it was so interesting to see how the aromatic warmth of the cardamom came out differently in each of the three chocolate fudges.

The #AllGunsBlazing dinners are a steal for both the quality and quantity of food, even without meeting the chefs and seeing them at work. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it - I think there is one more booked (with Jonathan Tam of Relæ) and, at least at time of writing, there were tickets available. It is so chilled, so much fun, and the food is awesome. And, please, go hungry.

Yours, in foodie heaven,

London Girl About Town xx