|Photography throughout courtesy of www.paulwf.co.uk|
Better I think to concentrate on the meal's many highlights and to point out the few, but significant slip-ups that meant that what might otherwise have been a stellar meal was, on balance, only a notable one. The dishes that were good were remarkably good. Slow-cooked Clarence Court duck egg on a bed of barley flakes, drizzled with marjoram oil and paired with an unexpectedly complementary slice of crisp ripe apple was phenomenal, a fascinating - not to mention delicious - exercise in contrasting textures and depths of flavour. Pork and eel croquettes with sweetcorn crisps and a mustard-seed strewn sweetcorn puree were salty, smoky and intense, as well as being visually stunning (in common, it must be said, with just about everything, including head chef Ben Spalding).
A couple of courses which had the potential to dazzle were spoiled by kitchen carelessness. A giant Cornish prawn, brought to the table intact for our inspection before being split into three, stone-baked and served with lingonberries, crab meat, fresh horseradish and a brown crab puree, ought to have delighted but had not been deveined, which as well as being deeply unattractive for the diner struck me as being a terrible way to treat such beautiful produce. Roasted duck breast with gizzards, baby carrots and a redcurrant sauce was a joy to look at, elegantly simple, but mouth-puckeringly over-salted.
Everything else was very pretty, perfectly pleasant and not overly-fussy, but in many cases the dishes were memorable more for a particularly clever component than as the sum of their parts. Cured, smoked mullet - actually smoked on the plate, the lifting of a glass cloche releasing a powerful waft of woody smoke - was striking on the nose but a little bland on the palate. Vintage potatoes with lovage, dried potato skins and onion 'ash' was clearly intended to elevate two of our most staple, taken-for-granted veg to gourmet levels but only the crunchy skins - essentially posh crisps - registered. A caramelised cauliflower purée which shared plate space with an otherwise slightly bland piece of roasted pouting was intensely, surprisingly nutty.
An optional extra course of British cheeses was as excellent as one would expect when supplied in prime condition from near-neighbour La Fromagerie. Deceptively simple desserts - two of them, each - impressed; the first, consisting of a bilberry tuile, fresh blueberries, bracingly tart yoghurt sorbet and a lemon and thyme granita was a perfect palate cleanser. The second, plum cake crumble topped with a white chocolate sorbet, interestingly and cleverly took things full circle by its inclusion of a granita of meadowsweet, the honey-scented flower which had flavoured the complimentary vodka-and-cordial cocktail we'd been given at the very start of the meal.
As well as the aforementioned cocktail, extras included a visually beautiful but forgettable canapé of squid ink crouton topped with a herby mousse and amarynth petals at the beginning of the evening and a bay leaf-scented shot of milkshake with a home-made jammie dodger after our desserts, before a final flourish of miniature raspberry Victoria sponges studded with popping candy. All were good fun.
The bread offering was superb, consisting of three different home-baked rolls - among them a wonderful pumpernickel and honey - as well as a chestnut and thyme flatbread. The manner of service of Gloucestershire butter - hand-softened table-side with a wooden spatula before being smeared over a pebble scavenged from the beach at Folkestone - is either charming or intensely silly depending on one's point of view. I tend towards the latter.
If the food didn't particularly overwhelm me when all was said and done, two elements of the Roganic experience did stand out as being especially worthy of note and praise. First was the intriguing, imaginative wine list, ordered alphabetically to encourage considered browsing over instinctive hurrying to the bottom or top of the price range. From it we enjoyed a stunning Cantine Lonardo Taurasi from Southern Campania, every deep red fruit and leather-flavoured sip so volcanically smoky that it felt pleasurably like drawing on a cigarette. We also saw off a bottle of 2008 Voudomato, a Greek sweet red of such syrupy jamminess that it was more like a dessert than a dessert wine.
The other unimpeachable element was the service, from about the most professional, passionate and engaged staff as I can remember having experienced anywhere. The team has obviously been involved in the project from the outset, such that they know and care about how every ingredient came to be on the plate; it transpires that the many unusual flowers, herbs and fungi on the menu are foraged by the brigade's own hands on their days 'off''. If it was a little unsettling to observe the staff gradually leaving via the front (and only) door before our meal was finished, they'd been so attentive that it was impossible to begrudge their being stood down early once the latter, pre-prepared courses of the night had been served.
And so we come to the very important questions of what this all cost, and whether I would recommend it. As to the first, and as previously mentioned, the cost to me was nothing, Paul and his other guest - the delightful but sadly married Florian Siepert - having very generously treated me. But with our ten courses, three bottles of wine, additional cheese course and service, the bill must have come to near on £500. Even with Paul having bartered some of this against his remarkable photography, which with his kind permission accompanies this post, this was a very expensive meal. It's perfectly possible to eat at Roganic for much less, especially since they bowed to early pressure and introduced a three course lunch menu for £29, but the full-on experience is going to cost you and only you can decide whether this is a price you're willing to pay.
As for whether I'd recommend it, I'm afraid I honestly don't think I can say; blessed with Paul and Florian's company and being spoiled rotten, I personally couldn't have had a better evening had I arrived home to find a naked Tom Hardy in my bed. But given that more of the meal had been good rather than amazing, and had it been on my own dollar, I don't think I would have been sufficiently wowed to say that it was value for money and to encourage you to go yourself.
It wouldn't be unfair to suggest that having not wanted to go to Roganic in the first place, I was never going to be blown away, but I honestly went with a completely open mind, ready to be proved wrong. Whether I'm now wrong not to be insisting that you re-mortgage your house and book your place there without delay can only be proven by your going. So do - but only if you want to.
Roganic, 19, Blandford St, London, W1U 3DH Tel: 020 7486 0380 http://www.roganic.co.uk/