Friday, July 28, 2017

The Test Kitchen, Soho

When friends or family ask for restaurant recommendations, I wave them in the general direction of Soho and Covent Garden. Soho, in particular, seems to play host to some of London's trendiest restaurants and cafés: from liquid nitrogen ice cream bars to Nikkei cuisine (Japanese-Peruvian cuisine); from grilled Greek skewers and stuffed pittas to French fine dining - Soho has it all.

The Test Kitchen, a pop-up by twice Michelin-awarded Chef Adam Simmonds, opened a few weeks ago and has taken up residency at 54 Frith Street in Soho until March 2018. I went with my friend Alex to try it last week for lunch and, well, our minds were blown.

The premise is this: in preparation for Chef Simmonds' first permanent restaurant in London next year, the menu at The Test Kitchen (as the name suggests) changes weekly - dishes are swapped out for others, according to diners' feedback.

"What's some of the more unusual feedback you've ever received?" I asked. "You won't believe the number of requests we get for fried chicken," came the response, drily. I laughed. I also couldn't see how fried chicken could possibly compete with 80-day aged sirloin of beef, topped with bone marrow, white onion and jus, for example.

We ordered from the a la carte menu: 6 sharing plates grouped by "veg", "fish", and "meat".

The pearl barley, cauliflower Romanesque, truffle and heritage tomatoes, burrata, olive and courgette were the first to arrive. For some reason, we had expected the pearl barley to be served cold, but instead, we dipped our forks in some of the creamiest, most heavenly fragrant risotto I'd ever tried. "WOW," escaped our lips more than once after that first bite. "I could eat this all day!" Alex exclaimed. And I agreed.

The heritage tomatoes, sweet and plump, tasted like a summer's day when we scooped bitefuls onto our forks, along with the burrata and slivers of courgette.

Next, we ordered scallop ceviche with green asparagus, avocado and almonds and cured red mullet with green tomatoes, rocket, and fresh almonds for the "fish" course.

The cured red mullet had a similar texture to sashimi - subtle, yet sweet, it reminded me of walking past fishmongers on the Cornish coast, when the shock of the icy granita touched the tip of my tongue.

Alex described the scallop ceviche as "melt-in-the-mouth" - and it was! These are two gorgeous, fresh dishes for summer (I'd highly recommend sitting outside, if the weather's good, like we did, and washing it all down with a glass of white, if you drink!).

But, the piece de résistance was the 80-day aged sirloin of beef, topped with tiny cubes of bone marrow and soft white onion and drizzled with jus. Although the lamb we ordered was also delicious, we couldn't stop gushing about the beef.

It tasted as sublime as it looks. Unbelievably tender and rich, it was the kind of plate that made me want to throw down my napkin and tell the world about (I texted John right then and there - he answered grumpily, as he was at work and not enjoying a fancy four-course meal like me in the middle of the day).

Now, about the desserts ... I'll admit that my eye skipped straight to the dessert options as soon as we sat down because I caught sight of the matcha tea custard with poached English cherries and red wine syrup.

Chef Simmonds emerged from the restaurant and presented these beautiful plates to us himself, which was such an honor! I think I devoured my matcha custard in a record 3 minutes or so ... I tried to savour it, but to no avail. It was just too delicious: the sharpness of the poached cherries cutting through the slight, familiar bitterness of the matcha, and the sweetness of the red wine syrup balancing it all out on the palate.

I reached over and took spoonfuls of Alex's delicately arranged lemon posset as well. Thick, creamy, and sweet, it lingered on the tongue long after the mouthful disappeared.

The restaurant has 23 covers, but you can book in advance, online! (I'm only excited for this because there's nothing more I hate than showing up to a restaurant I really, really want to try, hangry, and having to wait in line.) There's a 4-course set menu for £29.50, if you'd like, and - if you book online - this is reduced to £27.50, including a complimentary glass of wine. Amazing value for the quality of food you're getting (I've already urged John to take clients there) and the experience of sitting at the open kitchen, watching Chef Simmonds and his team work their magic.

I have to say, I always feel like a bit of a jerk reviewing restaurants as a "blogger" - especially restaurants of The Test Kitchen's calibre. Who am I to give my opinion on what's being placed in front of me by someone with the expertise and talent of chefs like Adam Simmonds? I'm not a trained food critic or restaurant reviewer or food journalist or a "foodie", even. I eat something I like, go "MMMM!", take a picture of it, slap a filter on it, and post it here for you to read and say, "There."

So, I suppose what I loved most about The Test Kitchen was the earnest - truly earnest - emphasis on the customer's (that's regular ol' Joe like me) experience of the food, and placing this at the forefront of the restaurant. "I want you to be part of the development process - something that's usually hidden away behind closed doors - and make your mark on the menu," Chef Simmonds urges in a note attached to the menu, that begins, "Welcome!"

At The Test Kitchen, I ate, I thought a lot about what I was eating, and I gushed with Alex over what we liked (the creamy burrata), what we loved (the velvety pearl barley), and what we could have passed on (the intense black garlic and anchovy) and, you know, as I filled out my feedback form at the end of the meal, I thought, "Oh! It does matter what I think." And I left with a spring in my step because here (for the first time in a long while) was a restaurant that wasn't saying, "Aren't you lucky to eat here!" but instead, made me feel wanted. And that's always a good feeling.

Thank you to The Test Kitchen and to Chef Adam Simmonds for hosting us! Our lunch was complimentary but all opinions are my own.

The Test Kitchen, 54 Frith Street, London, W1D 4SL, +(44) 020 7734 8487


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