ben greeno @ the loft
The Loft Project began its life as chef Nuno Mendes‘ temporary supper club and test kitchen for the interim period between the short-lived Bacchus, and his new restaurant, Viajante. With the imminent launch of Viajante, Mendes has opened the loft up to young international chefs to take up monthly residencies and showcase their talents. The guest chef series kicked off last month with Ben Greeno, a Newcastle native who cut his teeth at 21 Queen Street and Sat Bains, before moving to Copenhagen to work at a chain of top establishments including Kommandanten, The Paul and the world-renowned Noma. After a short stint at Le Grand Hôtel d’Uriage in France he was drawn back to Denmark, first to MR (as chef de partie), then returning to Noma as joint head pastry chef. Fresh from two months of hard graft in New York (most notably in the kitchens of David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants), he’s currently taking a breather between projects, affording him time to add a little colour to the East London dining scene (albeit, only for a month).
Having heard nothing but praise for Greeno’s cuisine, I was more nervous about the whole supperclub set-up than leaving well-fed (which I took as a given). The idea of attending a dinner party where I knew neither guests nor host did not appeal to me in the slightest, and I was certain I’d be sat next to some idiot who couldn’t discern between chicken and tuna (true story) or worse, some pretentious know-it-all gastronome. Silly me for worrying. Granted, there was the awkward initial few minutes where we stood alone (we were the first to arrive) browsing Atlanta Rascher‘s etherial artwork in the makeshift gallery space but the rest of the evening was a breeze.
Ben popped out to introduce himself shortly after our arrival and before long the other diners started filtering into the cosy, low-lit space. All the folks I met were lovely, and I had the pleasure of being seated next to V, a fellow food-lover who, although not a blogger herself, religiously documents all her meals on film (much to the chagrin of her sweet partner D) – my kinda girl! I must confess my socialising didn’t extend to the other end of the table as, ever the food blogger, I spent most of the evening holed up in the kitchen snapping away on my camera, getting in the way and making a general nuisance of myself (I’m sure Ben quickly regretted being so accommodating as to allow me to flit about as he worked). Inspite of my intrusion the kitchen was serene and ran like clockwork despite the space constraints and the short span of time that Greeno and the sous chefs have had together (this evening was his 8th at the Loft).
After a spot of mingling, a soothing cocktail of champagne, rum and honey in hand (mixed by Vadim, our gentle giant of a sommelier), we settled down at the table for the opening Oyster with Rhubarb Granita, Buttermilk and Poppyseed. I found the shards of rhubarb ice a bit of an assault on my palate, and looking around at the other stunned faces, I wasn’t the only one. Perhaps a finer granita or a snow (and less of it) would have been less aggressive and not as shockingly cold. Temperature issues aside, the flavour combo didn’t really work for me – the tartness of the rhubarb completely masked the delicate oyster, and the hint of poppy seed was an unnecessary distraction.
A wobbly start for sure, but the next course more than made up for it. The Poached and Pickled Carrots with Chorizo, Apple and Ham showcased the humble vegetable beautifully. It was a far more balanced dish with the savoury barbecue-sauced chorizo offset by the sweet, tender poached carrot and its acidic pickled counterpart.
The Pickled Mackerel with a Lettuce Emulsion, Micro Greens and Horseradish, was equally pleasing both to the eye and the palate. Gently pickled so the clean taste of the oily fish shone through, and well-complemented by the mild lettuce emulsion and leaves. I did however struggle to detect the shavings of fresh horseradish that topped off the dish which would have added a nice little kick.
Next up was the Celeriac baked in Heather with Brown Butter, Heather Honey and its Flowers. It was baked whole, and prior to carving and plating up, Ben kindly captured it in its full majestic glory for me while I was happily tucking into the previous course. Beautiful in its simplicity – the honey accentuated the natural sweetness of the root vegetable, and the aromatic butter added a welcome touch of fat to proceedings.
Salmon is not a fish I normally choose to order unless I know it’s going to be done well – there’s nothing worse than dry salmon cooked within an inch of its life. Ben’s thankfully, was really very good. Cooked sous-vide, the fish was incredibly soft and its subtle flavours paired harmoniously with the salsify, cauliflower purée and intense malt oil. There seemed to be a general consensus around the table that this was one of the star dishes of the evening (the other, being the mackerel) although many found the salsify a little tough and stringy – I however had no complaints as mine was perfectly tender.
Having loved everything (apart from the oyster) up to this point, the Ratte Potato with Cabbage and Danegeld Cheese Soup presented next was a bit of a disappointment. Reminiscent of a baked potato topped with sour cream, cheese and crumbled bacon – I found this combination in soup form rather odd. It obviously was a matter of personal taste though as B didn’t find the flavours particularly offensive.
That minor blip was quickly forgotten as we sunk out teeth into the sweet and earthy Salt Baked Beetroot, perked up with a couple of sharp pickled beetroot and (apparently) a touch of liquorice. None of us tasted the liquorice, but not being a fan of the herb myself, I was more than a little pleased of its absence.
The meat course for the evening was a fine piece of pork belly from Ginger Pig that had been blasted on high heat then slow-cooked in a low oven until gorgeously succulent. It was a last minute substitution (and a fine one at that!) for the lamb neck Ben had acquired for the previous evening, but felt wasn’t up to scratch. The divine porky goodness was served with mustard seeds and cucumber, grilled outside on the barbecue (delicious!). The crackling we snuck out of the kitchen was pretty darn good too.
A Goat Yoghurt and Whey with Mint Oil followed as a lead-in to dessert. It was a tad bland, lacked structure and I wasn’t crazy about it. That being said, as a palate cleanser it just about did its job.
An unusual Sea-buckthorn Curd, Gingerbread, Apple Vinegar and Meringue was the first of two desserts. The orange berries were spine-tinglingly sour and although sweetness was introduced by the gingerbread crumbs and broken up meringue, I could have done with a further hit of sugar. Mind you I do have a sweet tooth, and B seemed to enjoy it.
An outstanding composition of Poached and Pickled Pears with Brown Butter Caramel and Toasted Oats wrapped off our 11-course supper. I absolutely adored this pud – the brown butter caramel had a deep rich malty taste (from the addition of chocolate) and was insanely good with the soft plump pears and crunchy oats. An extra helping of the caramel – piped straight onto, and eaten from, my fingers (yes, when it comes to good food I sometimes leave manners by the wayside) brought my meal to a delightful end.
After service Ben and his sous chef Antonio joined us at the table for more glasses of wine and a natter. I guess it was getting late, because when I next looked up all the other guests had trickled off, as had half the kitchen staff. So we reluctantly said our goodbyes and merrily rolled out the door, with our pristine printed menus (signed, no less!) and memories of an utterly enjoyable evening in tow.
Despite a couple of hiccups, I had a wonderfully relaxed dining experience, no doubt enhanced by the transparency of the kitchen that allowed interaction with the chefs throughout the meal. Ben’s refined, pared-down creations show that clearly, the boy’s got skills (especially when taking into account the modest kitchen) and I would not be at all surprised to find him receiving culinary plaudits at the helm of his own restaurant in the near future.
To check out the latest resident chefs at The Loft Project (and to make reservations), visit their website.