With Masterchef: The Professionals currently gracing British screens showcasing more undiscovered stellar talent among the country’s kitchens, Alex Larman visits one of the past series’ brightest finds…
He’s a complicated chap, Adam Handling, not least for someone who’s only 29. After a successful stint in the kitchen of the Caxton Hotel, which nevertheless felt incongruous – generally innovative food coming out of somewhere with all the atmosphere of a high-end business hotel – he has decided to go his own way, and, despite hailing from Scotland rather than France, has been developing restaurants known as ‘The Frog’.
The first of these was in Spitalfields, and boasts of ‘a lightly theatrical touch’. It was acclaimed to the skies, not least by Giles Coren, who found himself in one of the year’s more entertaining contretemps by posting a series of hissy-fit Instagram videos about the rudeness of another diner who reminded on his laptop throughout dinner; the man, of course, was Handling himself, catching up on work as he prepared to open his second restaurant in Covent Garden.
Coren duly ate humble pie, along with publishing a suitably glowing review. Yet his second outpost is more formal, setting out its store to attract the ever-choosy West End crowd who might prefer something either fancier or less elaborate. The downstairs bar, known as Eve, commands drinkers to ‘resist everything except temptation’. The music is loud; slightly uncomfortably so for half six on a Tuesday evening. But the service is slick – truffle popcorn comes over to nibble on unasked – and the cocktails, including an apple-soaked Adam’s Apple and a suitably decadent champagne and 15-year old whisky, known as Uncensored, are every bit as good as you’d hope.
It is but a merry hop and skip upstairs, and Handling’s grand plans become obvious. The stylish dining room faces onto an open kitchen, there to see the master’s wizardry at work. Although Handling wasn’t present the night that we visited – something about doing a collaboration with the equally excellent Vivek Singh at his other restaurant – his brigade were more than capable of rising to the challenge.
There is an a la carte option, but the preferred ways of enjoying a meal here are to try the five or eight course tasting menu, and it seems sensible to plump for the first one. Excellent canapés – ‘snacks’ – begin the evening, and an especial highlight comes in the ‘lightly theatrical’, if you will, presentation of razor clams on a bed of dry ice. I’m also delighted to see the reappearance of Handling’s ‘chicken butter’, which is chicken scratchings mixed with a rich, creamy butter. We order a second helping; I could happily have eaten it all night.
But this would be a dereliction of duty given the wonders on offer. Handling’s cooking has become more refined and developed than the last time I tried it a couple of years ago, with a pleasing accessibility and lightness to it, despite an obvious love of truffle and rich sauces. A light dish of mackerel early on is splendidly accomplished, as is a cheeky celeriac and truffle second course that rests boldly on a poached egg.
I could have eaten the Iberican pork and halibut (separately) all day; everything here shows an intelligence and sense of playful then that makes for a rewarding experience, underlined by the excellent, notably friendly staff. (Oddly enough, the least interesting thing we try is an extra course of Handling’s famous cheese doughnuts with truffle; nothing wrong with it, it might simply have been a step too far.) It’s not at all overpriced either – £65 for food of this quality is something of a bargain. The meal wraps up with a dessert of chocolate, raspberry and vanilla, and it’s every bit as good as the rest of what we have.
If we have to have a ‘but’ to all this praise, it’s a slightly unusual one, and nothing really to do with the restaurant. There are three kinds of drinks pairing offered; wine, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, at £55, £50 and £30 respectively. The wine pairing is a rich and interesting one that ventures into unusual territory, such as a Romanian Pinot Noir and a fine Spanish Albarino, and is well worth the cost.
The cocktail pairing, though, is one of the more surprising things that I’ve come across in a restaurant of this calibre. One is served a couple of small glasses of beer; top notch stuff (including the excellent Burning Sky’s Saison d’Ete), but not quite the promised cocktails. These instead come served in ready-made bottles, rather than, as one might expect, being freshly preapred by the superb bartenders downstairs. They are admittedly nice – an apple, sage and tequila one is a particularly good fit with the Iberian pork – but the feeling that one is getting immeasurably better value for a fiver more with the wine is brought home when the first drinks come, and one’s dining companion has a glass of rosé champagne, while one is served a small measure of IPA. Let this be a lesson.
Yet if this is a surprise, it doesn’t ultimately matter. Handling’s excellence as a chef has been given ample scope here to be showcased, and his continuing evolution is an exciting and even inspirational part of contemporary London dining. Long may it continue to be so.
For more information about Adam Handling, the restaurants, news, events and even requesting Adam for private events, visit www.adamhandling.co.uk.