It's hard to imagine a London that doesn't award food the godlike status it enjoys now, but go back 30 years and there were no street food markets or dining pop-ups. Fine dining types would never mix with burger eaters and appreciation of food was something of an elitist activity.Five people—Simon Hopkinson, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, Marco Pierre White, and Rowley Leigh—changed all that. Talk to any chef in London now and they'll cite at least one of these as an influence.
Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, founders of Noble Rot restaurant and wine bar, are no exception.
"Having this place is an opportunity for us to get some of our food heroes to cook with our head chef Paul Weaver," says Keeling. "Rowley was somebody we loved. We used to go to Café Anglais and you could get an amazing hamburger or boeuf bourguignon. The food was never anything less than brilliant and diverse."Luckily, persuading luminaries of the restaurant world to come and cook at Noble Rot didn't prove difficult.
"I was here for lunch one day talking to the boys about something," says Leigh. "I saw they had a guest chef for a special dinner, and volunteered. I thought it would be nice to do a collaborative thing."Noble Rot is one of those places. The restaurant was the natural evolution of Noble Rot magazine (a publication dedicated to the finer points of wine and its consumption) and the wine bar sees the great and the good pass through its doors as a matter of course. In the most recent issue of the mag, Caitlin Moran, John Niven, and Benedict Cumberbatch all feature as people frequenting the restaurant. Previous chef collaborators include Fergus Henderson and Steven Harris—and now it's Leigh's turn.
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The two make a good match in many ways."Our dream was to to have a place where you could buy a glass or a bottle of really cool stuff at prices that don't smash the bank," says Andrew. "Often we'll see something and there'll only be two bottles to buy, but rather than pass it over, we'll pick it up because that means at least two customers get the opportunity to drink something really cool."
Keeling adds: "We don't want wine to be elitist. We want it to be accessible. The last thing we want is to become a museum piece where you have all these great bottles at too expensive prices for what they are. This is a great chance for people to get stuck in."The pair track down the best wines, and the best value wines, from all over.
This democratic approach is one that marries well with Leigh's ethos. Past restaurants of his—Kensington Place, which Leigh opened in in 1987 and Café Anglais, which he opened in 2008—continue to hold a place in the collective imagination of London's food-lovers, precisely because he brought an egalitarianism to the fine dining scene that we all benefit from now."I'm very pleased people still talk about them," he says. "Before Kensington Place, I worked in a restaurant in the City which had a cheap brasserie upstairs and fine dining downstairs. I wanted to democratise the fine dining bit and do really good food in an accessible manner. I think we were pioneering in that respect."Hence Keeling's reference to the burger and the bourguignon on the same menu.
Of all the food trends Leigh must have witnessed over his decades working in London, I wonder whether he sees the sharing culture of social media as a continuation of his legacy of democratised dining."I think it's pernicious and unfortunate," he says with little hesitation. "People say you eat with your eyes, but it's bollocks. You eat with your mouth. It means chefs aren't concentrating on ingredients and flavours but on what sort of picture they're making at the end of it and people only go to restaurants because they think the food looks pretty. Food is about farms and fishing and should be connected to that. Instagram is virtual reality. You can't taste a picture. You can't smell a picture. The image makes food vicarious and even more remote. The reality of that is alienation."
In the lull before service begins he sits with the front of house staff and talks through the evening's menu, his focus is notably entirely on ingredients and flavours, followed by Andrew describing the suggested wine pairings for each course.As you might expect, the way the wine works with the food is the other reason this particular collaboration makes so much sense. Aside from the Champagne that's being served with dessert, every course has been matched with a wine local to the region, chosen at least in part for what Keeling calls "authenticity and sense of somewhereness."
"We needed to focus the menu in some way, and I suggested Lyon because it's a great food hub," Leigh explains, "and a lot of France's best wine is made within 100 kilometres of Lyon. Lyonnais food is quite…"He pauses to find the most appropriate word: "Robust. The most popular dish in Lyon is tablier de sapeur [fireman's apron] which is a piece of tripe. I'm not very keen on tripe and my customer are even less so."
Leigh's sense of making food accessible to the majority means that tripe, thankfully, does not feature on this menu.Instead it's cervelles de canut (silk worker's brains, named after Lyon's famous craftsmen and described by Leigh as "a sort of sausage roll"), quenelles de brochet (pike finely minced and whipped with cream into a mousse that floats on a crayfish bisque), pièce de boeuf à la bourguignonne, Lyonnais cheeses, and to finish, a peach poached whole in Noble Rot's house Champagne.
All of which I rather guiltily snap pictures of later when I sit to eat. Of course, my photos do not do justice to what's on the plate—or on my tongue.Eating Leigh's dishes, I get the sense that this is a menu that defines what he sees as fine dining."It's classical cooking but in the best sense. It's not haute cuisine or fine dining but real fundamentally French regional cooking. It's very tasty," he says. "I believe food should be highly refined but I loathe unnecessary embellishment. Every chef in the world pretends to adhere to Escoffier's dictum, fait simple and 99 percent of them fail."He pauses: "I'm in the one percent of course."Who am I to disagree?This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES UK.