You always know that you’ve hit the heights of chefdom when your name is proudly emblazoned above the restaurant’s moniker. The effect is rather like when you see a film poster that pronounces whichever actor du jour is starring in whatever vehicle that they have collected an enormous fee for. However, in the case of the talented Mr Handling, Masterchef: The Professionals finalist in 2013 and former Scottish Chef Of The Year, such a designation seems an entirely accurate one. His beguiling cooking, in the comparatively unsung environs of Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel, has not yet attracted the attention it deserves, despite the three AA rosettes that he boasts. This ought to change.
The small, intimate dining room in which he functions is pleasantly unmemorable in the way that most comfortable hotel spaces tend to be. The food, however, is highly memorable. There are three options to go for – the a la carte, the seven course tasting menu and finally the behemoth, eleven courses of silken magnificence. It would have seemed a dereliction of duty not to do justice to Handling’s towering creation, and so, armed with a glass of Laurent-Perrier, the adventure began.
The first four courses are really nothing more than little hors d’oeuvres designed to given an indication of the kitchen’s strengths and Handling’s interests. A miniature crab doughnut nods to the more famous variety over at the Chiltern Firehouse, and is gone in an instant. ‘Chicken, fig, lemon’ is a kind of rich chicken liver sandwich, which there is no easy way to eat elegantly and maintain one’s dignity by doing. ‘Beef, beer, chilli, yolk’ shows the influence of Simon Rogan – and won’t be the last dish we try that does so – in its complex melding of exact ingredients on what resembles an enormous savoury wafer. And ‘beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot’ turns the much-misunderstood vegetable into a startlingly sweet concoction that looks and tastes like an exotic boiled confectioner’s item. We are intrigued, and dazzled.
It is only with course five, the arrival of delectable sourdough bread and ‘chicken butter’, that the meal proper begins, and the highlights of what we try are plentiful. Rogan-esque touches include chefs emerging from the kitchen with their dishes (including Handling himself) to explain what we’re about to eat; advisedly, in the case of chicken liver that’s served with liquid nitrogen-frozen liver, but also for simple elucidation. A smorgasbord of scallops, crab, lemongrass and sea urchin is fascinating; a dish of wild bass with spring onion and sherry, a fantasia on seaside fish ‘n’ chips, minus the chips. Or the batter. Even a dish of beef with artichokes and kale, probably the most conventional thing we eat, is rich in both the quality of cooking and ingredients. It’s hard not to take delight in the sheer imagination and quality of cooking.
It’s more than adequately matched by the kind of friendly, inviting service that makes meals like this a pleasure rather than a game of attrition, and a wine pairing for £30 a head that offers some delicious matches, including a fine rose Clos du Canelet and a very drinkable Gavi. The meal lasts for over three hours, but never is there any sense of proceedings dragging; it is paced and pitched beautifully, even down to the desserts, a pre-dessert of candyfloss with rhubarb that has a pleasingly unironic take on that most tooth-rooting of seaside favourites, and a complex, rewarding combination of white chocolate, milk and olive oil with that most fashionable of items, yuzu.
We had the most superb time at Mr Handling’s establishment. If your tastes lean towards the drab and banal, then you won’t enjoy it. For the rest of us, it is the perfect match between experimentation and top-notch traditional cooking. Masterchef, indeed.
Adam Handling at the Caxton, 2 Caxton St, St Ermin’s Hotel, SW1. For more information, and details of their festive menus, visit www.caxtongrill.co.uk.
The new series of Masterchef: The Professionals is currently airing on BBC2. To catch up, visit www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer.