One is suitably posh in the way you expect of a well-oiled two Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant, while the other is a scrappy, East London upstart that wants to break the mould of conventional dining. But what both CORE by Clare Smyth and Mãos have in common is that both have a strong sense of place, given their determination to uphold and showcase British produce in their cuisine. Together with other London chefs who are writing their own culinary stories of home and hearth, they are shaping the future of British cuisine – perhaps more relevant now in this era of Brexit. Here’s a taste of what to expect.
CORE by Clare Smyth
At the sumptuously designed CORE by Clare Smyth, the VIP treatment begins the moment you sit down and before you even get a chance to order. A veritable garden of canapés appears – an elaborate centrepiece of ferns and flowers hiding little morsels such as cheese gougeres, crunchy tarts filled with smoked eel or creamy foie gras, and skewers of roast duckling with a sticky Chinese style glaze.
It sets the stage for an elaborate lunch to follow that is exquisite and skilfully presented under the helm of top chef Clare Smyth who’s charting her own path after leaving the three-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. With two stars to her own name and a third perhaps in the not-too-distant future, CORE celebrates Chef Smyth’s heritage, which is something close to her heart.
Her decision to focus purely on English produce “is deliberate because I spent 15 years of my life working in Michelin restaurants that were predominantly French”.
She adds, “I’m British and (CORE) is really about who I am, my culture, taking my skills and applying it to British people, artisans and people around us who work with their hands”.
She reckons that what sets a chef apart has a lot to do with where they come from. “It’s nice when you travel, and you go to a restaurant where you see the food of where you are. I myself certainly like seeing the food of the region, the personality of the chef, a bit of identity, not just something homogenised.”
She’s certainly not one to follow trends, especially the current fascination with Japanese food. “I can’t cook that because I’m not familiar with it. It’s really about me and my personal journey. Everything here is British right down to the furniture.” A lot of time is spent hunting down the right producers and showcasing the ingredients. An example is Jerusalem artichoke – its heart cooked in milk until very tender, covered with gnarly-shaped crisped skin, dehydrated crumble and artichoke consommé. “It’s a great British product that was grown during the war but it went out of fashion. It’s really good for the health so we went to find a grower. We turned it into a dish and we have the history behind it to share.”
Born in Northern Ireland, Chef Smyth has known what she wanted to do since she was 14, growing up on a farm “so we understand produce” and working in local restaurants during her school holidays. She never had an issue with being the rare female chef in the kitchen – “once you prove yourself, they (male chefs) leave you alone”. While once uncomfortable about being labelled a top female chef (as opposed to just a chef), she now feels that “if it inspires other people then it’s a positive thing”. She still can’t tell the difference between a male or female chef since “I know chefs who are really big guys and their food is so elegant”.
Whatever label that’s stuck on her is probably not a big concern for her. But staying true to herself is, and that pretty much sums up the core of her philosophy.
92 Kensington Park Rd, Notting Hill, London W11 2PN. Tel: +44 20 3937 5086.
When you’re located in a school/creative space that is itself hard to define, it’s a given that Mãos is not going to be easy to pigeonhole as a dining concept.
Blue Mountain School is a fashion retail and exhibition concept in Shoreditch owned by fashion label Hostem, which houses dedicated spaces for creatives from different industries to collaborate on projects and events.
Mãos – Portuguese for ‘hands’ – is one of these spaces, helmed by Nuno Mendes, whose resume includes Viajante and Chiltern Firehouse and who can be depended upon to not follow the norms of eating out as we know it.
So he has created a 16-seater dining experience that dispenses with the usual restaurant conventions – where you sit down and are waited upon, while the chef occasionally comes out for a few words to make you feel like a VIP.
At Mãos, it feels like you’re at your own dinner party except you don’t know who your fellow guests are. You will before long as you roam around, wandering into the kitchen to chat with the chefs as they prepare your pre-dinner snacks and drinks. The place is yours for the next four hours – the kitchen, dining room and a wine room with its library of alcohol where you find Alex, the very friendly Aussie wine expert/server/organiser whose warm, easy-going manner immediately makes you feel at ease.
Like a real dinner party, there’s no bill to pay at the end of it – you’ve already prepaid £150 (S$270) when you made your booking online, and whatever drinks you consume during the meal will be charged to your card later.
Executing Chef Mendes’ vision is his head chef Edoardo Pellicano, who devised the multi-course menu that has a strong Asian/Japanese slant and some Portuguese accents.
Unlike other young London chefs who use British ingredients and tend to keep the execution simple and produce-driven, “we do it in a different way”, says Chef Pellicano.
The half-Italian, half-Singaporean (on his mother’s side) chef clearly shows he’s on a different path as he pushes the envelope with his ingredients to deliver a memorable omakase experience, setting Mãos apart from the more predictable newer eateries in town.
The food is not super-polished in the way that some of the Japanese-inspired creations don’t quite gel, but what really impresses are his raw ideas and resourcefulness in finding local producers of ingredients you think only come from Japan.
For his predinner ‘tea’, he steeps fresh seaweed, dried shiitake mushrooms and dried scallop skirts – all of which are British – served with raw scallops and dehydrated enoki mushrooms.
He uses wasabi grown in Dorchester, and red shiso leaves grown in Cornwall to hold beef, roasted yeast paste, crispy potatoes and wood ants (for its unique acidity). Cue appreciative noises from all gathered around his cooking station. He even makes his own yuba, lifting layers of skin off heated homemade soy milk to wrap around braised maitake mushrooms and smoked eel, while Spring’s early almonds are crisp and jelly-like at the same time, bursting with clean flavour in lacto-fermented asparagus juice blended with toasted almonds and topped with caviar.
There are just too many dishes showcasing myriad techniques, yet there’s nothing showy or pretentious about it. You need to push yourself out of your comfort zone to appreciate it, but you’ll be glad you did.
41 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London E2 7DJ. Tel: +44 20 7739 9733.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.
Photos: CORE by Clare Smyth & Maos