19 October 2010
Yes, I know I've just come back from cooking Burmese food at The Wild Garlic and you may want to know a little more about that.
However, I thought I'd take a step back and throw you a curve ball by writing about what Mat Follasand his fine brigade normally dish up.
Last February, my husband, his brother, his brother's girlfriend and I had resolved that as soon as the gladiator that had slain his opponents in culinary warfare had established a going concern, we would venture west and pay a pilgrimage to this champion.
Well, life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans, so it's not till more than a year later that we four are embarking on an adventure to the distant land of Dorset to make good this resolution.
None of us want to drive, so we get a train to the nearest station, and thus find ourselves in the village of Crewkerne wondering what the hell to do. There's some kind of funfair being set up, and the temptation to go on the Mega-Dance and 'llow Beaminster altogether is strong, but eventually we find a cab who takes us the rest of the way.
The Wild Garlic's address is 4, the Square. Beaminster appears to comprise just this Square, so it's easy enough to find.
As we stand at the door, suddenly I feel a bit weird - I'm conscious of the fact that less than a month from now, Mat is allowing me to take over his restaurant, and seeing it in real life has made it become very real.
Any weirdness is immediately replaced by awe - being pedestrians, we've lazily booked the apartment directly above the restaurant, and Katy, one of Mat's brigade, leads us up to a retro vision of wood, pale greens and lilacs (a theme carried over from the restaurant).
The flat is bigger than we expected, comprising a combined bedroom and lounge area, a fully equipped kitchen diner (plus bread, butter, wine and cereals) and an ensuite bathroom.
Moreover, I'm a sucker for a well-designed piece of furniture, and this flat is a showcase for some of the best including G-Plan and Ercol - a beautiful set of table and three-legged chairs which sleekly slot together to leave a clean silhouette, some Mad Men-style purple recliners, a starburst wall clock, and a glam mirrored pendant lamp.
I make the other three strike a pose for posterity. It has to be done.
There's time to kill before dinner, so we loaf around the stylish apartment for a while, and then decide that we really ought to get some fresh sea air. Sadly, there is only one bus from Beaminster toWest Bay (the nearest beach) and we miss it - the brother-in-law and his other half make it to the sea on foot, but my husband and I do not, as Mat has asked Terry Ireland (his sous chef and a semi-finalistin this year's MasterChef) to let me have a go at prep before service that evening.
It's my first time in a professional kitchen and I mainly get in the way, so we're all relieved when it gets to 7, and I can cross to the other side of the swing door for our reservation.
Bread, Nuts and Oil
The four of us sit down at a gorgeous wooden table which looks like a large piece of driftwood, but in fact used to be a French carpenter's table.
It's strikingly different from the other tables, which are by Marnie Moyle and just as beautiful, but engraved at the edges with the names of birds, plants, and randomly, types of potato.
A jug of iced water arrives immediately from a smiling Steph. Jen and Emma are also front of house tonight - Jen takes drinks orders - some wine for the others and Mat's Fizz for me. We're also given good bread, oil and balsamic to dip in, and some spiced, caramelised nuts to nibble.
Because I'm with family and I'm a control freak, I make all the food choices - we absolutely have to cover as much of the menu as possible.
Starters are Dorset Crab Thermidor; Smoked Scallops, Smoked Meats Carpaccio; Sweet Chilli Squid; and Confit Duck Leg, Orange Sauce.
Often Thermidor is so smothered in cheese that the seafood is suffocated, but here the creamy sauce simply serves to enhance the sweetness of the delicate crab, as it rightly should.
Continuing this theme of allowing the main ingredient to shine, the Wild Garlic squid comes free of the usual batter shackles and, astonishingly, the texture is perfect - tender, delicious, with no sign of rubber at all.
Sweet Chilli Squid
And the chilli jam that comes with it is fresh and uncloying (in fact, not half an hour beforehand, Terry was trying to teach me how to make both this and the thermidor sauce, to which my reaction was, "You're not really expecting me to remember all this, are you?").
The duck leg is a little too salty for my liking, but the skin is fabulously crispy, and the portion so generous that we dive in without guilt when my brother-in-law offers a tasting.
The smoked meats are textbook, but as for the scallops - oh, the scallops. Mr Follas has been known to dive for his own anyway, which already makes them that little bit more special ("hand-dived by the chef" and all that).
But these scallops have been smoked until they turn into nuggets of yum. Yes, that's possibly the worst phrase that I have ever written in my life (although give me time), but seriously, people - nuggets of yum.
My husband has never, ever seen the point of scallops, but these ones, which have been smoked briefly over woodshavings in a little camp-style smoking pan, actually make him change his mind.
A storming start, so we're really looking forward to the next round. We, by which I mean I, have chosen Local Pork Chop, Hogweed, Purple Sweet Potato, Crayfish; Slow-Cooked Skirt, Truffle Cream; Whole Gurnard, Tomato and Tamarind; and Fillet of Beef, Smoked Mash and Bearnaise Sauce.
As we wait for our mains, two platters are brought with five beautiful types of leaf on each for us to try as amuse-bouches. Sadly I can't remember them all, but there's ice leaf, oyster leaf and Tiny Totoro Umbrella (aka nasturtium). All mad, all exciting, the peppery nasturtium's my favourite and not just because of the Ghibli/Animal Crossing connotations.
When my dish arrives, I want to sing "Under the Sea", so lively does my wee crayfish appear (and it tastes just as perky). The pork chop is a little tough, but the fat is nicely crisped, and the ground hogweed ramps up the savouriness. The purple sweet potato is soothing and moreish, with warm hints of miso.
Pork Chop, Hogweed, Crayfish, Purple Sweet Potato
The hubby's beef and smoked mash is gorgeously autumnal, the mash a sexier version of the one I'd tasted in Birmingham.
Brother-in-law's beef is an even better chunk of cow than the husband's, with its frothy topping of truffley cream. And like the miso in my purple mash, there's another Japanese touch in the littletamagoyaki roll which comes with his dish - but it goes surprisingly well.
Skirt Steak with Truffled Cream
And his girlfriend's gurnard is the biggest beast we've ever seen - she immediately names the fish Bernard, and then apologises to it repeatedly as she eats its delicious body covered in tangy sauce.
At this point though, we're close to admitting defeat. The portions are huge.
Possibly too huge. But despite the size, the presentation is somehow dainty - they're the prettiest plates I've seen in a while.
Bernard the Gurnard
But I'll be damned if I don't get to try dessert, so we plough on and order Mixed Berry Eton Mess; Local Damson and Apple Crumble; and Trio of Chocolate Desserts (Chocolate Cardamom Brownie, Dark Chocolate and Rosemary Mousse, Chocolate and Orange Sorbet).
We also order some of Mat's home-made sloe gin - might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and it turns out to be delightful.
The Eton Mess is heavenly. There is no other word one could use. The damson and apple mix is too sharp; however, the granola in the oaty crumble works brilliantly.
The trio of desserts is also a success - my favourite being the citrussy sorbet, though the mousse is a close second.
And to be fair, the only reason I'm not so keen on the brownie is that I'm not fond of cardamom used in sweet stuff.
Trio of Chocolate Desserts
By now, we're weakly scraping at the plates with our spoons, lapsing into a food coma, when Mat appears to say hello and gives us all a shot of Somerset Pomona on the house.
This act of kindness combined with the wonderful food we've indulged in means the rest of the night disappears into a bit of a haze ...
It's a bloody good thing we booked the flat upstairs.
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