There’s nothing like being surprised by a meal. Some things can appear on a menu and sound anything but appetising, but when presented, and tasted, they can far exceed expectations. ‘Carrot cooked in chicken fat’ is one such thing.
Of all the restaurants in all the culinary hotspots around the globe, a small understated venue in Stratford-upon-Avon was not somewhere I would imagine I’d enjoy some of the most unexpected and inventive culinary turns I’ve experienced.
Salt, from Mallory Court alumnus Paul Foster, is billed as ‘relaxed fine dining’, and it is that. A low Georgian doorway and diminutive bay window could easily be passed unnoticed among the many more iconic buildings, such as the timber-fronted Guildhall and schoolroom, on Church street. Even more so with an interior more like a Tudor tavern than a fine dining restaurant, there was little to make me think that lunch might be anything more than a single, hearty course and a glass of ale.
But then the menus landed. Yes, more than one. There was the a la carte, a tasting menu, and a fixed-price lunch menu, not to mention cocktails and the wine list. The surprises kept coming; there were dishes I wouldn’t expect in some of London’s finest, let alone following a tour of Shakespeare sights where I would have settled for a sandwich but this was fast becoming the highlight of the visit.
We pored over them, deliberating and indecisive, putting our waiter through his paces with requests to mix and match. It had to be the tasting menu but with options on the a la carte that looked too good to miss. Intriguing confections such as cured halibut with grapes and almonds, rhubarb and sorrel, and roast cod with braised beef shin, competed for our attention alongside things you couldn’t place; sea buckthorn millefeuille, and mangalitza. This wasn’t so much a meal as an education.
“Could we switch that…with that?” “And try the hogget shoulder rather than the beef onglette?” Our waiter politely forced a smile. We were being testing, admittedly. “I’ll ask chef.” He returned promptly, “It’s not a problem, gentlemen, chef’s smiling…”
And so it began.
Bread came straight from the oven; a malted bun, with hand-churned butter. The pinot noir was poured, and the salt-baked celeriac arrived; ribbons of it with an egg yolk and truffle puree, dusted with crumbs of crispy bacon. I ventured for the slow-cooked hogget shoulder with a subtly minted goat curd, but tried my companion’s mangalitza (I didn’t know either, but it’s the Wagyu equivalent of pork) with malted artichoke and salted pear. That pork. By Jove, I’m never normally a fan but this was divine. Sea buckthorn, it transpired, being a berry, produces a wonderfully tangy curd that offsets the richness of a dark chocolate cream, and in a dessert that introduced chocolate in textures I never thought possible.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the meal, when Paul came over. Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, I learned this venture, his first, was crowdfunded. “Crowdfunded?” I was bemused. “It’s tricky getting investment,” he told me, “and then you’re beholden to backers and giving away your profits to the bank.” Far better, he rationalised, to offer meals to anyone willing to pay up front. And the people thought so, too, with he and his wife raising £100,000 for the venture.
I quizzed him about his daring menu, particularly that carrot in chicken fat, and the inspiration behind it. “Fundamentally, it’s about purity of flavour, getting the best out of seasonal – and often wild – ingredients,” he says. “Plus it’s about the best bits you can enjoy of a meal…”.
Of course; the flecks of bacon and egg yolk that came with the celeriac, that mirrored the last mouthfuls of a fry-up; dipping the last of your bread in the fat from a roast chicken for that rich, tangy flavour; the caramelised white chocolate tuille – that’s a Caramac bar. Paul has recreated those best bits of familiar favourites and dotted them into a menu that is as daring as it is delicious.
With awards already coming in, the UK’s culinary scene is all the better for someone like Paul Foster given licence to show us what he can do.
If you don’t believe me, just try the brown bread ice cream.
Salt, 8 Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, CV37 6HB. For more information, visit www.salt-restaurant.co.uk. Finally, congratulations must go to Paul and his team on winning Best New Entry at Waitrose’s The Good Food Guide 2018 Editors’ Awards.