Monday, 28 January 2013

A Little Slice of History: Ben Spalding @ John Salt

A lost post of 2012, a wonderful evening at John Salt with Ben Spalding at the helm. This is probably the most pointless post of the, still young, year. Why post about a restaurant, whose head chef was usually mentioned in the sentence before his employer's, when he there anymore? Well, two reasons. Firstly, for preservation: to carbonite the evening in space. To 'Han Solo' Ben's cooking if you will. The main reason however is to show people a glimpse of what Ben's cooking is about and that like his Stripped Back street food joint proved, a chef doesn't actually have to have some fancy digs to be a great cook. As I write, this Ben is publicising the first of a series of events on EventBrite.

As was announed late last year, Ben and John Salt parted ways pre-maturely, leaving those with bookings a bit miffed I'd imagine (although provided with a very reasonable 50% discount). That being said, Neil Rankin who best known for wearing the gloves at Pitt Cue, has taken up the rather large mantle and by the look of my twitter feed doing a damn fine job. I'll be going along as soon as I can and I'm as excited as I was the first time around. This post wont go into the reasons why Ben left and frankly, I do not care. That's only half true. I don't care why he left, he is talented enough to pop-up somewhere else soon enough. I do care that I have to wait for that. See, beneath all the crowing and beard-stroking about his techniques, passion, skill and obscene work ethic (he produced his own salt for gods sake), Ben does indeed understand why things should be on a plate. Sure there are some air-balls - kiwi scallops and caramel covered bricks were duds. But there are also some wonderful little gems in things as ridiculous to see on a menu as 'rotten mango juice'. His is a talent that could no more be ignored than that guy who insists on trying to continue the conversation inside a lift.

Weekday 9 Course Menu

Personally I would describe Ben's cooking as anything but comforting. It neither puts a twist on old classics, nor plays on childhood memories. It is as close to conceptual food art I have seen. The majority of dishes and flavour combinations try to challenge us and ignite some conversation without being obtuse. It is theatre but without the over the top compere sprinkling glitter and lighting flares for attention. Halfway through the meal however, I began get that a nagging feeling that it was all a little pretentious. I was stepping into a chef's view of food as he saw it, his vision and his creativity. Other chef's create dishes that spark memories of something inside us, leading us to wander into our own minds. I felt the relationship was fairly one-sided. Nothing in the place had his initials stamped, but at the same time it felt as though everything did. It seems like heavy criticism, however the original John Salt was meant to celebrate this chef's cooking. You went for Ben, not just to eat great food.

The food itself was exquisite and complex from start to finish. The salad was a joyful medley of confusion from one bite to the next, while the Chinese mushrooms oozed unctuous meaty notes. Vacherin risotto was silky with a sour kicker, the beef punchy and boosted by the vinegary, heat of the kimchi. It was like the best roast beef fell through a Korean BBQ. Deserts hit both the required elements: cold, fresh and zingy; warm, silky and chocolatey. For our table, the unanimous winner was the salmon. Maple cured and served with kaffir lime cream, almonds and rotten mango juice. For complexity of flavours and pure conceptualisation, it may well be one of my dishes of 2012. It felt like cooking at its most primal and simplistic which belied the thought process behind it. Far and away more impressive than the novelty brick-licking.

It was a memorable meal with exciting food and delicious wines. It sounds like Neil will be going in a different direction with the atmosphere of the place, bringing the celebrity down a little, and focusing on slightly simpler, more easily enjoyable plates of food. I don't know about you, but that is a good enough reason as any to go.


Four Tasty Breads. Generous Quantity
45 Ingredient Salad

Chinese Mushrom

Scallop, Ham and Kiwi with Truffle

The Brick - actually came out as our least favourite dish by a mile

Cured Salmon with Rotten Mango Juice

Vacherin Risotto

Heel of Beef with Kimchi

Fennel and Absinthe

Chocolate Cloud with Ice Cream

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