In January, Ollie Dabbous opened the doors to his self-named restaurant (pronounced Da-Boo). A few weeks later, Fay Maschler called the food ‘game changing’ and awarded it four stars in the Evening Standard. Today, Dabbous is known as one of the biggest success stories of 2012, with a waiting list that reads like The Fat Duck and one Michelin star under its belt.
Ollie Dabbous’ impressive CV features some of the best restaurants in the world, from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and Hibiscus in the UK, to wd-50 in New York, Murgaritz in San Sebastian and Noma in Copenhagen. As he’ll tell you on his website, Dabbous focuses on clean flavours, seasonal ingredients and innovation. His aim is to create food that is modern and impressive, simple and restrained – you won’t find overcomplicated, lavish sauces on Ollie’s menu.
The popularity of Dabbous means tables must be booked months in advance – around five for lunch and up to a year (yes, a year) for dinner. Our recent lunch reservation was made back in June, so when the day finally came to go, we were quite literally champing at the bit.
Situated just around the corner from Goodge Street, Dabbous is protected by a tall, heavy black door that may seem more at home at a bank, or indeed, the MI5 building. Inside, simple wooden tables and chairs sit on a concrete floor, surrounded by wired screens and exposed pipes. It’s safe to say the décor is urban, edgy and cool, without feeling grimy.
The theme continues downstairs at the bar, run by award-winning mixologist Oskar Kinberg. Although we were there for the food, a quick peak at the menu told us the cocktails were seasonal, made up of ‘The Classics’ and Oskar’s own creations. There are also bar snacks available, many of which we recognised from the menu upstairs.
Talking of upstairs, the staff – who were trendy, yet approachable – showed us to our table before taking us through the menu options. As it was lunchtime, we had the choice to go A la Carte, with the Tasting Menu or the Set Lunch. Considering the hype, Michelin star and quality of ingredients, the prices were surprisingly reasonable, with the set menu coming in at just £26 for four courses.
At the other end of the scale, the Tasting Menu was £54 per person, covering off seven dishes and an eighth that asked for a £9 supplement. This menu was a commitment for the whole table, so knowing this might be the only time we’d get to sample the delights of Dabbous, it was the obvious choice. That, and a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet from the extensive wine list of reds, whites and desserts, all at varying price points.
With wine came a paper bag of freshly made bread and a whipped spoonful of creamy salted butter sat on a dark piece of slate. As moreish as it was, we were careful not to eat too much as it wasn’t long before the tasting menu began, starting with Hispi Cabbage with Sunflower, accompanied by a short description from our knowledgeable waiter (obligatory at the start of each course).
It must be a good sign when a chef manages to make cabbage taste so good. Blanched and crunchy, it came with a nutty sunflower mayonnaise that had a rural beauty due to the petals and seeds lightly sprinkled on top.
Next up was an equally inventive dish, again made with the simplest of ingredients – celeriac, grapes, hazelnuts and lovage (a hard to come by herb that has the flavour of parsley, celery and aniseed). All ingredients were brought together in a pretty consommé topped with an olive oil emulsion. The result was refreshing, light, fragrant and unique, something that was becoming a common theme at Dabbous.
Much like Heston’s Meat Fruit, the third course has already become the restaurant’s signature dish. Coddled Free Range Hen Egg with Woodland Mushrooms & Smoked Butter came in an eggshell that sat in a straw filled plant pot. It was the highlight of the meal so far, tasting like an intensely rich fry-up, with the smoked butter acting the part of the bacon.
The next two courses were what you could call the mains – Braised Halibut with Coastal Herbs and Barbecued Iberico Pork with a Savory Acorn Praline, Turnip Tops & Apple Vinegar. The halibut was light, poached to perfection and brought to life by the wonderful sauce of verbena, vermouth and bright pink pickled garlic, whereas the slab of pork was rare, salted and substantial, sitting on a bed of crunchy acorns that sweetened the dish.
We now had a decision to make – do we, or do we not, pay £9 to have cheese when there are still two desserts to come? It wasn’t just greed that made us say yes, our waiter talked us into sharing one. On a plate lay four slices of creamy artisan cheese – two sheep, one goat, and a cow – next to half a baked, caramelised apple and a portion of toasted sourdough. I’m glad we decided to have it, but I’m also glad we decided to share. After five courses, one each would have quite possibly killed our appetites and ruined pudding.
The first dessert was Fresh Milk Curds, Birch Sap, Winter Fruit & Vegetables. The sweet yet savoury curds hid chunks of chewy birch sap and crunchy vegetables, one of which chorogi (Japanese artichoke). The dish was unusual, but by no means unpleasant, making an interesting bridge from the mains into pudding.
For me, the best came at the end with a bowl of Chocolate Soaked Brioche served with Barley Malt Ice-Cream, Azuki Beans and Pecans. It was everything you’d ever want from a pudding – varying textures, balanced sweetness and a cooling, melting topping. Simply sublime.
At the end of our eight courses, we felt like Ollie Dabbous had not only treated us, but also taught us a few things. In two and a half hours, he’d shown us how simple ingredients can feel exciting and exotic, that you don’t need to hide behind white tablecloths, fancy lighting, suited waiters and bound menus if the food is excellent, and it’s always worth adding a few complimentary surprises to the meal – the French sponge cherry pudding given with our bill being a case in point.
Dabbous gets an LLE Rating of 9.5 / 10 – the half point cap because I’ll probably never get to eat there again.
Dabbous, 29 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF