2011 marks Taste of London's eighth outing, an event that has come to define the capital's summer food scene. Taste popped up before 'pop-up' became foodie parlance, did 'street' food
before it became hip, and pioneered the now ubiquitous trend for small plates
. Inevitably for a restaurant festival nearly a decade old, there has been an annual need to percolate new ideas, attract an ever-changing cast of chefs and remain at the sharp edge of eating in London.
But Taste isn't only about what's new; there's a vein of dedicated chefs and restaurants, artisans, importers, sommeliers and distillers who've returned year-on-year to cross the counter and meet their audience, pow-wow with colleagues and challenge the competition.
Best in Taste
To round-up four days of Taste, we've put together a by no means definitive assortment of highlights, starting with the Best in Taste awards launch. The judges, led by Pomp
editor Joe Warwick and including Jay Rayner
René Redzepi ("Taste serves 60,000 people in four days; at Noma we cook for about 22,000 a year"), sampled 30-plus dishes in three hours. Best in Taste went to Pascal Aussignac for Club Gascon's
foie gras burger with summer truffles, heralding a theme that seemed to dominate the event. On the imbibing end of the awards The Wine Tipster
, Neil Phillips, awarded the Taste of Summer Award to Prosecco Riccardo NV, Italy. Gran Feudo Chardonnay 2008, Bodegas Chivite from Spain and Felsina Vin Santo 2001, Italy, took the other gongs as the great and the good of London's restaurant scene and press were treated to Claude Bosi
manning a spit-roast, Jun Tanaka serving black bream in his converted Airstream van, Street Kitchen
, champagne by Laurent-Perrier and burlesque by Circus
We're all for seasonal ingredients in British cuisine: it's the weather - in all its frustrating, fickle volatility - that determines the best of our local ingredients and traditional cooking. This year we were treated to nearly four days of rain, as well as some sparkling seasonal dishes. The fennel-infused lamb chops with mint chutney from Benares
incredibly popular crab ravioli and L'Anima's
wild mushroom fettuccine with black summer truffle nodded towards seasonality and a sense of place. Rhodes 24
did extraordinary stuff with an intense, umami-rich white tomato soup and a slow-cooked lamb on buttered potato and caramelised onions - a pared-back pairing of seasonal ingredients that really gets to the pith of British cooking.
Keeping great food local (do we really need garlic from Chile or China?), producers like Isle of Wight-based The Garlic Farm
won our admiration for their gigantic elephant garlic. Sipsmith
brought their hugely popular London (yes, Hammersmith) Dry gin, barley vodka and other botanicals distilled in the beautiful copper pot still, affectionately known as Prudence. They've ridden the wave of serious mixology engulfing the capital - and lubricate the 'local is best' argument in the nicest possible way. The Producers Market was home to many great small scale suppliers, artisanal producers and up-and-coming propositions, like Marylebone's Polka Gelato
. Hampshire's Laverstoke Park Farm
had some incredible produce: the liquorice buffalo ice cream with Jersey double cream was a delight.
Over to Noma
Neil Phillips hosted René Redzepi at one of the S.Pellegrino masterclasses, with a promise of organoleptic food/water/wine tastings and a good chat with the world's star chef. A St Véran Blason de Bougogne 2009 white and Moulin à Vent Château de Chénas 2009 Beaujolais were paired with S.Pellegrino's eponymous flagship sparkling and the still Aqua Panna to illuminate the importance of selecting the right water with dinner (though with Redzepi in the room, the assembled media could have been treated to tap water for all they noticed). He reflected on Noma's emphasis on Denmark's spring/summer culinary bounty, and his team's bottling, pickling, smoking and preserving: foragers are "out eight hours a day, gathering food; right now it's rose hips."
Keeping things local, he reminded us of London's underlying nature - Regent's Park is covered in wild chamomile, "the best chamomile there is." Noma - number one on the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants
, has been a game changer for Redzepi and the world's modernist restaurant scene. "We are booked a month in advance, we have more than one million requests a year for 22 thousand people. It's really changed, now we can cook truly free, everyone is there to go into the food, into our way of thinking and that is amazing, I have complete freedom to cook what I want."
On the menu, burgermania and a surfeit of truffles
Restaurants took up the London-wide rage for gourmet burgers, with Corrigan's
hand-ground steak with bone marrow, Club Gascon's
foie gras number, and Japanese accented French L'etranger's
Wagyu with black truffle and Cantal. From turf to surf, Scott's
shrimp and scallop burger won over tweeters all weekend. Truffles abounded - between buns and elsewhere, leading a French restaurateur to mutter that the pungent fungus "was becoming the ketchup of the bourgeoisie."
Elsewhere, and at another posh angle on fast food, Gauthier Soho's
smoked Strasbourg sausage hot dog, honey bacon and mustard/mayo relish with a golden soft and warm pain au lait was an offbeat winner.
Charming detail of the day came with Tristan Welch's rice pudding soufflé with raspberries. We were given wind-up cat timers (there was something of the Maneki Neko
about them) with our order to avoid hanging around. Launceston Place's
galley was cooking the soufflés individually - an ambitious thing to do in the small kitchens, and pulled off with aplomb.
Well-formed tasting plates were in abundance; from miniaturised main courses to tailor-made creations. Small plate experts Maze
offered a jasmine and miso-cured salmon with radish shoots and watermelon cubes; Yauatcha
, tea house style dim sum. Elsewhere there was bijoux regional Italian dishes from Bocca di Lupo
, while chefs at the Hart Brother's concession, combining Quo Vadis
, were thoroughly enjoying the theatre that makes the best tapas joints boisterous, comfortably messy, dynamic places. Visitors took the hint and slammed their collective kitchens, particularly for the incredible suckling pig, Scotch eggs and grilled ribs of beef.
For a day Marcus Wareing manned the Action Against Hunger Love Food Give Food
pop-up, bringing The Gilbert Scott's revivalist British cuisine up the road from St Pancras:
oversize pork pies, cullen skink and English strawberries, mint
and lemonade cream kept punters on an even keel whatever the weather (unsurprisingly, heartier dishes really thrived
On stage at the Taste theatre, The Observer's restaurant critic, Jay Rayner maintained the patter and the ham chef/critic dialogue for four days, keeping chefs on their toes and damp crowds laughing. David McIntyre, executive chef at CUT at 45 Park Lane
- Wolfgang Puck's first UK outing - talked us through steak with an American sensibility - his favourite rib eye - and New York strip on the grill, and in the oven, that legendary slice of Southern carb heaven, Mac and cheese
Seemingly part showman, part pork obsessive, Bocca di Lupo's Jacob Kennedy made sausages on stage, employing one of those machines
that look like a ready-made prop for double entendres, coming up with one of the most simple and appealing dishes of the theatre series.
Avignon-born chef Alexis Gauthier riffed on a restaurant classic of the 1950s, a warm lobster salad, dispatching a lobster on stage and recalling a Provençal childhood of horse meat and horse blood 'tonic' with trademark French drollery. Rayner prodded him to admit that London has become a better eating city than Paris: Here "you can go to a local restaurant and have a wonderful meal - it's harder to do that now in Paris." Gauthier blames restrictive business and labour laws, and the legislated 35-hour working week - an absurd imposition for chefs and restaurateurs.
Gary Lee, fresh off the plane from the opening of The Ivy, Dubai
, brought his Covent Garden brigade to the table to cook roasted organic salmon with pickled cucumbers and twinkle jelly with elderflower and lemon curd ice cream
chef Nuno Mendes
showcased his modernist credentials with a bewildering display that resulted in a cured mackerel with crème fraiche sponge, garlic oil, confit lemon, and sorrel leaves and oil among others.
At last, London's getting coffee, its craft-focused, independent cafes and roasters forming a small but inventive scene. Locally based outfits independently importing and roasting beans, like Union Hand-Roasted
in Canning Town, have seen demand for distinctive seasonal and single estate blends rocket over the past few years. Union's beans are sourced from the top three per cent of the world's low-yield, premium quality arabica harvest (like the sublime La Esperanza, Geisha microlot, Colombia). The season's top roasts were put to good use by way of a Hario syphon
, pour overs and the newish Aeropress
Brewing, which has become the thing for coffee aficionados and baristas, gives hands-on control over pour times and temperature in a way that the mechanical process of an espresso machine can't. Careful weighing of water and grind, and attention to detail (to stir or not to stir) lets the coffee assert itself, particularly when it's had a provenance and focus on farm-to-cup quality à la Union.
The easily transportable Aeropress is a beguilingly simple contraption that looks something like a veterinary syringe and produces about as pure an expression of coffee as possible.
The wider view
Elsewhere, Willie Harcourt-Cooze
touted top-notch cacao, The Cinnamon Club's
Vivek Singh lost a bet on which dish would prove most popular (his seared scallops, achari cauliflower purée and stir-fried squid
won the day); Paul A Young
celebrated opening his Soho flagship with seasonal, unorthodox confections, and we drank Bubbleology
bubble tea through oversize straws. We drank champagne, ate gelati propped up against a tree and discovered the best dressed team at The Ritz Restaurant
by way of the best plated dish of the event, its saddle of lamb Belle Époque.
Whatever the weather, Taste uniquely brings together elements so often lost in our everyday restaurant experiences. The spontaneity, sound and fury (and fun) of the kitchen: the ingredients, noise and heat of the galley, the chefs, front-of-house and guests - all thrown together, all sharing the communal pleasures of food.
Taste of Christmas runs from December 2-4 at London's ExCeL.