In my roundup of 2015, the one where I drone on about some rapper from Milton Keynes before detailing 19th century clarets that I thought were quite nifty over the last 12 months, I ranked "Fera" in Claridge's Hotel as one of my O.M.G. restaurant experiences.
That noun encapsulates Fera because this is a rare kind of dining that gives the cerebral membrane a workout. It is not simply a restaurant that provides you with a delicious dish that appeals to the senses; for here, the gastronome has no option but to contemplate what they are about to put into their mouth. The only other restaurant that compels me to do the same is KFC, although this is because I habitually reflect upon the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices. The ingenious use of esoteric ingredients, the lightness of the food, inspired use of natural herbs and edible flowers, and the complexity and startling presentation marry together to hoist the gustatory experience into a different league from all but two or three restaurants in London. (Incidentally, I am referring to Fera and not KFC. They are yet to include edible flowers as part of their three-piece original meal deal.)
After my evangelical praise of Fera in 2015, I thought it wise to return and see whether this really was a potential 3-Michelin star restaurant or whether I had just lunched at a good moment. On that day back in August, Head Chef Simon Rogan was not working the kitchen, but as I commented in my original review, Sous-Chef Dan Cox appeared so capable that I wondered whether Rogan should remain up in Cumbria to helm his other Michelin-starred restaurant, L'Enclume?
The occasion was a gathering of likeminded oenophiles and the vinous theme was 1991 and 2001. Both the menu and the wines were fascinating, so I will start with the food that we ate and then the drink that we drunk.
|Stewed rabbit with lovage.||Tunworth, yolk and salsify.||Mushroom cake, juniper and fennel.|
Like my first visit, the selection of amuse bouches were exceptional, and if someone opined that they are Fera's pièce de résistence, then it is just a reaction to the breathtaking brilliance of these creations instead of slighting what follows. I could have eaten a huge bowl of the mouth-watering stewed rabbit with lovage. It is not unlike a mellow take on Japanese kariage in many ways and equally more-ish. The seaweed cracker was fresh and vibrant, and the mushroom cake with juniper and fennel looked so beautiful it was akin to some magical dish you would find in some fairy woodland. However, my pick was the Tunworth, yolk and salsify that was presented in what looked like a miniature cooling tower-shaped earthenware, forcing you to dig through the gooey cheese until you reached the yolk hidden below.
The roasted scallops were fresh and perfectly cooked. It was presented in a very natural way insofar that you could describe it as "healthy" in appearance, complemented by parsley, cauliflower and whey. The rose veal tartar with oyster, apple and kohlrabi was an absolute joy to behold, the kohlrabi spiking the dish with an arresting vegetal coolness. The Cornish asparagus was very well presented, though the monkfish was the one course that didn't quite work, not only for myself but one or two others. The fish had wonderful meaty consistency but it needed to be matched with more colorful, less neutral ingredients. It felt a little monochromatic - like eating half a good idea.
The Goosnagh duck was quacking fabulous. The serving was not particularly large, but there was no need since there were so many flavors packed inside the tender pink meat. The two puddings worked perfectly, in particular the Meadowsweet cake, cherries, pine and sheep's yogurt - so intricate in terms of presentation and you had to resist licking the plate. Such a shame that some of our party had to catch last trains home.
The wines were splendid, commencing with a brisk and precise magnum of 2004 Brut Grand Cru from Egly-Ouriet, one of my favorite producers. The 2001 Chablis from Raveneau was alas corked and so we skipped directly to the 2001 Puligny-Montrachet la Richarde and 2001 Meursault Narvaux from Domaine d'Auvenay. Readers will be aware that I often wax lyrical upon Lalou Bize Leroy's whites, however on this occasion, I was disappointed by the Puligny-Montrachet that was too rich and honeyed, and deprived of tension. The Meursault was better. Narvaux is often one of Lalou's strongest village crus and this had much more sharpness than the Puligny, although it is still not the best that I have tasted from this vineyard.
This was followed by a quartet of red Burgundies. The best? That was without question the 1991 Clos de la Roche from Domaine Dujac. It was almost clinical in terms of definition and focus, but delivered the weight and peacock's tail of fruit that you expect from this grand cru. At 25 years, it would appear to be just halfway through its life cycle, maybe not even that. Silver medal was presented to the 1991 Grands Echézeaux from Domaine Rene Engel, although that was probably because it was not quite the best bottle; the example I tasted last year better. The 1991 Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Petit Monts from Domaine Robert Sirugue, one of the largest holdings of this premier cru, was rounded and maybe too oaky on the nose, but there was decent weight and the softness rendered it very appealing, even if it lacked the pedigree of the Dujac. The 1991 Musigny Vieilles Vignes from de Vogüé felt a little muddled and lacked freshness, perhaps not the best example and so I have not attached any score here.
From Burgundy we moved south to the Rhône with a trio of quite marvelous examples of the 1991 vintage. The 1991 Côte-Rôtie La Turque from Guigal has soaked up all the new oak (I personally don't go near the La-Las until at least 15 years of age). It was the most lavish and showy of the three, doubtless with another 20-30 years of pleasure to give. Drink now, but preferably keep bottles down in the bunker for another 3-4 years. The 1991 Hermitage from J-L Chave is perhaps underrated and predestined to be overshadowed by the lauded 1990 vintage. I found much to admire here. I found it more discrete than the Guigal, beautifully balanced and self-effacing, combining grace and intensity effortlessly. But the best was the 1991 Cornas from Noël Verset. Verset's prices have gone through the roof in recent months. I caught wind of one wine-lover funding his attic conversion through the sale of Verset alone (once somebody had clued him in on their value). Having enjoyed the 1999 the previous week, the 1991 was even better with a distinctive undergrowth, almost charcoal-like nose, brilliant balance and an unfathomably complex finish. What a stunning wine.
Finally, we crossed the border into Germany. The 2001 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spatlese from Willi Schaefer was not singing as it ought to, which is a shame, considering how much I adore his wine. While the consensus was that the 2001 Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spatlese from Dönnhoff was the standout wine, I was smitten by the 2001 Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, which exuded great depth and intensity, and conveyed a sense of brightness all its own.
By this time, we had discussed the wines, Game of Thrones, whether the dishes at Fera had too much "green," the ageing of 19th century Madeira, the 1929 Hermitage Blanc from Chave (not here sadly), Boris Johnson, en primeur, Radiohead, and of course, Brexit. Certainly the wines had delivered...but Fera? Did it live up to expectations?
While perhaps it could not repeat the wow factor of discovering something new and exciting, the standard of cooking here remains exceptional. The nuance and detail is extraordinary, dishes that push boundaries, but without the avant-garde flamboyance or theatre of say The Fat Duck. It is not cheap, but hey, you are dining in the splendid art deco interior of Claridge's. The service was excellent and the seats remain the most comfortable in any London restaurant. One hopes that the Michelin inspectors will book a table soon, because it is ridiculous that the quality here has not been recognized. Hopefully I can return before that happens, while I can still get a table.
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