In some meals there is one element that is so odd – or quirky, or novel, depending on your viewpoint – that afterwards the meal is known as ‘the one with….’
My lunch at Caxton Grill, St James’s, home of Masterchef: The Professionals finalist Adam Handling, became known afterwards as ‘the one with the burnt vegetables’ (although to be fair it could also have been ‘the one with the chicken butter’, or ‘the one with the ashed beef’ – being on Masterchef evidently makes for eclectic menu choices).
Either way it is slightly unfair to have the entire experience reduced to just one ingredient, but it was such an usual feature that it was hard to forget.
They had been described on the menu as burnt vegetables, so it wasn’t a surprise when they turned up: it was more the fact that they were so burnt they looked like something you’d find after a forest fire – it was like a thin, black, ashy fossil of a vegetable, something almost prehistoric.
I held up the burnt offering to the waiter. ‘Are you supposed to eat this?’ I asked, genuinely curious as to whether it was part of the dish or just the decoration.
‘Well, you can,’ came the not-very-helpful reply. I mean, I could eat the napkin if I wanted to – it just probably wouldn’t be what the chef intended.
As no more help was forthcoming, I nibbled on a corner of the carbonised former veggie. Unsurprisingly, it tasted of ash. However while it didn’t add to the culinary element of the meal, it certainly added to the conversation as we tried to work out what it was doing there at all.
The main reason for our visit- myself and two friends – was to check out the new Wagyu beef on the menu, a full blood Perthshire-raised Wagyu beef no less and the basis for the Caxton Grill’s Wagyu burger – which at £25 a pop with chips (£30 with a beer too) was certainly hinting at something rather special.
First we had to find our way around the menu which wasn’t actually that easy. There is probably an art to menu design but whoever designed the Caxton Grill’s menu thought that it would be sensible to split the main courses in different sections throughout the menu rather than having them all in the same place.
So the first page had the Wagyu burgers in one section, and then a fish and chips section, while the following page began with the starters, then had a selection of meat and fish dishes, then had the £4 side dishes in pride of place, centre page, and then another lot of main dishes buried at the very bottom.
Not only that, but the menu’s author had gone for the ‘listing the ingredients of each dish’ option, rather than ‘describing what the dish actually is’ option. So you got a line simply saying: ‘Lobster, chicken, carrot, egg yolk £35’ and another saying: ‘Cauliflower, curried sultanas, coconut, almonds £20.’
It was even more opaque for the desserts: what, we wondered, was ‘Peppermint, chocolate, lemon, peanuts £9’? or ‘Chocolate and passionfruit – textures and temperatures?’
It seemed best to just order a selection and see what arrived, but that’s a luxury of a press visit – if I were spending my own money then I think I’d like to have more of an idea as to what I was actually going to get. However it was certainly a break from the usual restaurant fare and hinted at some creativity in the kitchen.
While we wended our way through the menu some bread arrived with two anonymous pats of butter. Only on asking were we told they were ‘smoked butter’ and ‘chicken butter’ – which would have been a good thing to mention straightaway, particularly for the vegetarian among us: they were both brownish and slightly gloopy if perfectly edible but one butter done well rather than two slightly odd ones would have perhaps been better.
We were given a very pleasant amuse-bouche of parsnip soup to start off with which looked and tasted great, and then embarked on the starters: Orkney hand-dived scallops, with cannellini beans, chicken and truffle, which seemed a lots of ingredients; piglet belly, with octopus, squid and soy consomme, and Scottish salmon, with goat’s yoghurt, dill and miso. They were all very tasty, even if the Scottish salmon looked in danger of being dominated by what looked like seaweed, and there was certainly a lot of effort and attention to detail going into each dish.
For mains we had the Wagyu burger – it seemed rude not to – the fish of the day which was cod, and the contender for weirdest dish of the meal, described on the menu as ‘Herefordshire beef fillet (ashed), burnt vegetables, ricotta and duck ravioli and truffle’.
We also ordered a selection of sides: steamed spinach, cobb salad, chips and Scottish mussels with garlic and butter, but which also came with a lot of pearl barley too.
The burger was pronounced ‘very tasty,’ the cod was ‘nice but way too salty’ (this from someone who always had a lot of salt on her food) and the sides were perfectly fine with the exception of the cobb salad, whose square-cut chunks of ham made it look as it it had been bought in an service station forecourt.
My beef fillet was an impressively large slab and tasted pretty good, but the ‘ashed’ surrounds didn’t do it many favours and the whole effect of being placed on the dark plate with the burnt vegetables meant it didn’t look like the world’s most appetising dish.
It was at the dessert course that the meal really came alive. We were fairly full by then but, in the interests of research we thought we’d give it a go – and mainly out of curiosity too as the menu didn’t really give much of a hint as to what might turn up.
What did turn up was great fun – visually lively, full of flavour and a delight both to eat and to look at, so all of a sudden the meal was elevated from a fairly unusual but hit and miss affair, to one which really showed off the chef’s skill and individuality.
We had avoided the chargrilled pear, having had enough of chargrilled things by then, and opted for the ‘chocolate and passionfruit – textures and temperatures’ and the ‘peppermint, chocolate, lemon and peanuts.’
They were both delicious and were polished off rapidly in spite of having been too full to eat anything more just a few minutes ago. They showed what the rest of the meal should have been like – fun and quirkiness that actually made sense, rather than just being a little odd – and showed that still only 25, Adam Handling has got a great future on the restaurant scene. If there was any justice, the desserts would be the stand-out memory of the meal. However there’s just no getting away from those burnt vegetables…