Trying to beat an egg
Ollie Dabbous’s new London venture disappoints Lisa Hilton
Culinary bloodstock is a surprisingly small world. With the exception of rare geniuses such as Raymond Blanc or Heston Blumenthal, the majority of planet Michelin’s inhabitants — as with all members of rarefied artistic communities — slaved and sweated at some point in the same kitchens. Lines of descent might read thus — Agnar Sverrisson (Texture) by Marcus Wareing (Petrus) out of Gordon Ramsay by Albert Roux (Le Gavroche). There’s a website called greatchefs.com where one can spend hours working out the pedigrees of the world’s tastemakers, among whom Ollie Dabbous is a young and extremely talented example. Dabbous began his career at Blanc’s restaurant Le Manoir, going on to work for Sverrisson as well as Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and at Claude Bosi’s London Hibiscus before opening his eponymous and swiftly-starred restaurant in 2012. Last year, in partnership with Hedonism Wines, he took on a huge space, HIDE (sic), on Piccadilly. HIDE Above, on the first floor overlooking Green Park, is the more formal side of the proceedings. Downstairs is open from breakfast through dinner for a more relaxed, though no less meticulous, experience.
The original Dabbous in Fitzrovia did something that felt remarkably fresh at the time — haute cuisine skill mashed with Shoreditch cool. The El Dorado dish there was a “nested egg”, baked in hay, so superlative in its perfect egginess that it infallibly did what all great cooking does, which is make everyone shut up aside from the odd faint groan of pleasure. The egg is still on the menu at HIDE, where the décor — the menu masthead and lampshades above the tables, witty half-domes of white porcelain — pay it tribute. It’s still a showstopper: disarmingly simple, just an eggshell filled with golden perfection. I wish and wish I could be equally complimentary about the restaurant.
From the moment one enters, there’s something off about the proportions of HIDE, which communicates a sense of draughty tension. It’s huge, reminiscent of those Conran megaliths of the Nineties, which is fine if it’s packed and the staff are nippy, but dismal and anxiety-inducing if not. A lot of money has obviously been spent on the interior — the staircase is a wonder of tactile wood, fanned as delicately as the skeleton of a bird’s wing. There’s some beautiful relief — intarsia panelling, the floors are pickled (I think) oak and everything else is a cautiously luxey greige. But nothing quite coheres. Neither formal nor relaxed, it doesn’t feel as though it knows what it’s doing, a problem it shares with the service. The staff are beautifully-trained and clearly enthusiastic, but they have a collective tin ear when it comes to interrupting conversation to recite the construction of the dishes, while the very grown-up wine list would benefit from an equally authoritative sommelier.
The collaboration with Hedonism should work in that one can order anything from the wine merchant’s cellar to be brought to the table. But why make it harder by presenting the wine list on an iPad that isn’t quite up to the job? Ordering anything — except Ocado — from an iPad feels out-of-date, not cool. The tech was no advance on a thoughtfully-planned printed selection, which also has the advantage of not sliding you into a portal of approachably-priced reds when you’re after an Italian white just because the previous user has smeared butter on the screen. If you’re going to do that trois-etoiles thing with the wine, where you present it, decant it, and then take it away to be poured at the server’s discretion, then please make sure that the server keeps an eye on the glasses. Telling your customers they have finished their wine only to produce the bottle still a third full with the bill because you’ve left it behind an originally-fashioned Murano vase is not laid-back, it is screamingly annoying.
The seven-course tasting menu, with limited choice of meat and fish and options on added luxury courses such as foie gras, was — entirely forgettable. This is terribly embarrassing. Usually, I have a joyously greedy memory for food, being the sort of person who would recall where they were when Kennedy was shot by what they happened to be having for dinner that day. I can still conjure perfectly the pressed belly pork I ate at Claridges in 2002, the duck breast in rooibos tea at Arpège in Paris in 2011, or indeed the first time I tried a Dabbous egg. I seldom take a notebook to review (bad manners, also I’m not a famous critic like Grace Dent, so a notebook will only buy me funny looks, not free champagne), and in this instance I was confident that the kitchen would produce enough dazzle to obviate an aide-memoire. I checked the example on the internet but the tasting menu, as is proper, changes so frequently that nothing I had tried was listed. I could have lied, picked a dish or two and attached some adjectives, but the black hole is maybe the point. I remember that it was technically extremely competent, that presentation was austere though not frigid, that everything was good in a modern European, bit Japanesey, bit pickley and preservey Noma way. Flavours were careful compositions of balanced intensity, textures impeccable. No smears, drizzles, clouds or decorative buffoonery impaired what should have been a proper event of a dinner. Yet the only dish that sang was the egg, which was old though delectable news. The foie gras was yummy, but then foie gras is always yummy. But if I can’t remember the food well enough to praise, let alone criticise it, something has to be wrong.
I’m sure the investors are happy. The place was packed, even for the late 10pm serving, and the kitchen was banging out those multi-course sets with admirable efficiency. What it felt like was pedigree food — it could have been made by Tom Aikens or Jason Atherton, Alain Ducasse or Hélène Darroze — pleasant, well-bred and ultimately innocuous. Just not charismatic, characterful or compelling. Which is what the original Dabbous restaurant did so memorably well.
OK, HIDE, maybe it’s not you, it’s me. I’m spoilt and apparently semi-senile. You have an extraordinarily gifted chef, a billionaire’s view and amusingly rustic napery. I’ve got a receipt for over three hundred quid, a nagging sense of shameful ennui and a feeling that I should be finishing this piece with a gag about a curate.