Saturday, 7th February 2009
Sat Bains' food had the critics drooling for some time before I'd got round to eating there, my wife and I giving ourselves a birthday treat in June 2008. The food had blown us away, but we were relatively new to the Michelin experience then, spending most of the evening grinning like idiots as we scoffed a dozen delicately-cooked, elegantly-arranged dishes. We returned in February with high expectations, this time to experience the tasting room in a party of six.
You've probably already read stories about Restaurant Sat Bains being situated ‘under a flyover’, but that description only tells half the story. Ignore the background traffic noise and the setting – including a handful of bedrooms around a gravel courtyard – is actually quite tranquil. Inside is a cosy, candlelit reception bar, leading through to a dining area split into one room and a conservatory. The tasting room itself is separated by a sliding door, and connects to the tiny, pristine kitchen via another one, allowing the noise and excitement of service to spill in. This informal atmosphere was perfect for us, particularly as some of our group had reservations about whether a stiff restaurant experience was for them.
So, to the food: a plate of snacks that we were instructed to eat left to right brought a foamy parsnip soup topped with wild rice, a spoonful of raw tuna with ponzu and mooli, sticks of breadcrumbed salt cod and pig's head and finally a palette-cleansing block of compressed watermelon with ricotta. The first dish was a scallop, with small chunks of apple, compressed apple, bitter chicory leaves and watercress. This was followed by crabmeat, bound by a rich duck egg, overlaid with thinly-sliced turnip, ice cream and croutons, finished with a drizzle of brown butter.
The purity of these dishes was contrasted by a jar of rich, sweet duck liver and sweetcorn velouté, with caramelised popcorn and gingerbread, followed by veal sweetbreads with broccoli, a broccoli puree and crushed hazelnut. The final savoury course was small hunks of beautifully-cooked woodpigeon, with squash and a smear of dark chocolate – although by this point the details were starting to get a little hazy thanks to some intriguiing selections by our friendly sommelier.
We shared a plate of potent local cheeses before enjoying what the restaurant calls the ‘crossover’ course: blue cheese on a thin crispy toast with a cube of compressed pineapple. In other words, cheese & pineapple! The courses continued in this dainty, vaguely camp vein with a rack of white chocolate and beetroot mivvis, complete with sticks. After this, the curiously ugly ‘anti-griddle’ machine in the corner of the room came into play; dark chocolate and rose-petal rounds were chilled on its surface and popped into our mouths on the end of a palette-knife, possibly the only course which didn't quite live up to all the effort that went into it.
We were then asked to be guinea pigs for the pastry chef, as he gauged our reaction to a new dish of sweet potato ice-cream, coconut, cashew and olive, which reminded me of a deliciously deconstructed muesli. We finished off with a passionfruit ‘supertart’; deep, smooth fruit on wafer-thin pastry served with pickled blackberry, yoghurt and apricot puree.
This wonderful evening was made all the better for us by the relaxed atmosphere of the tasting room and the interaction with the chefs who had cooked our dinner. I've noticed a few negative reviews of the restaurant online, and I wonder if this is down to the service, which is perhaps more down-to-earth than you would get in a London restaurant. Aside from the northern accents, staff seem encouraged to have a personality here, which is something you don't really expect at this type of place – but we could certainly do with more of it.