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Fera at Claridge's by Simon Rogan

Rating: 99.
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Note: Fera was awarded a Michelin star in the 2015 guide to Great Britain & Ireland.

In February 2013, it was announced that Gordon Ramsay's contract to run the restaurant at Claridge's in Mayfair would not be renewed. Thomas Kochs, the hotel's general manager said: "We feel the time has come (...) for a new dining direction for Claridge's (...)." It wasn't until November 2013, after months of speculation, that it was announced that this new direction would take the shape of a cooperation with Simon Rogan.

Simon Rogan (b.1967) is well-known as the chef and co-owner of the critically acclaimed two-star restaurant l'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, a restaurant he opened with his partner Penny Tapsell in 2002. l'Enclume was awarded a Michelin star in the 2005 guide and a second star in the 2013 guide. Rogan also owns three other establishments in Cartmel (also known as: 'Roganville'): the more casual Rogan & Co, the Pig & Whistle pub and there's Aulis, a development kitchen with a 6-seat kitchen table. Last year he launched two restaurants at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, The French and Mr Cooper's House & Garden. Restaurant Fera at Claridge's is the latest jewel in his crown.

Fera, which means 'wild' in Latin, opened its doors in the first week of May 2014. The soft-opening took place a week before, when the World's 50 Best Restaurant circus was in town; quite a brave and smart move, I must say. The restaurant's luxurious dining room is designed by Guy Oliver and seats up to 88 covers, and the design is a beautiful blend of modernism and Claridge's signature art deco luxury.

Executive chef at Fera is Rogan's right-hand man Dan Cox, winner of the Roux Scholarship in 2008. Dan Cox started his career in London in 1999, first at The Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair and later on in 2001 at restaurant and catering company Restaurant Associates. After winning the Roux Scholarschip he did stints at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, Santi Santamaria's Can Fabes in Catalunya, and at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray. Before joining Simon Rogan in Cartmel in 2011, he was head chef at Roux in Parliament Square in London.

Fera is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. The restaurant offers an a la carte menu (3 courses £85) and a multi-course tasting menu (around 13 courses for £105, which conforms to London standards). I had lunch with my husband at Fera on Friday 27 June 2014 and we both ordered the tasting menu and requested to further include one a la carte dish (raw veal and oysters) in this menu.

The meal began with a steady flow of six small dishes. To start there was a puffed barley cracker, covered with ox-eye daisy puree, small dots of mustard, watercress shoots, pickled onions and little pieces of smoked eel. Wonderfully delicate flavours and the cracker had a nice toastiness to it.

This was followed by stewed rabbit with a crisp onion tapioca coating, accompanied by a gorgeous, concentrated lovage emulsion. Lovely tender rabbit meat, followed by the crunch and a touch of oiliness from the tapioca - delicious; the aromatic, herby-sweet lovage emulsion had an incredibly long finish.

Then there was a squid ink cracker sandwich with a filling of tender squid, ling roe and pickled Alexander shoots. A delicious combination with the right amount of acidity and piquancy.

Chopped scallops in buttermilk with fresh sweet peas and a few drops of herb oil followed. An original take on the scallop & pea flavour combination with a well-balanced sweetness. The flavours were subtle but distinctive and the herb (calamint) oil was a fantastic addition; intensely herby, like a bottled essence from the Swiss alps.

Next was an extraordinary, light and fluffy potato and Winslade cheese mousse, served with a delicious duck heart ragout and garnished with chopped chives and chive flowers. Winslade is a Vacherin-like cheese from Hampshire and owing to its perfect balance of creaminess and tanginess, it proved to be an excellent choice for this dish. The potato flavours were there too, but more in the background, and they gave the mousse a lovely, round finish. A simply divine dish, the kind that brings out your inner glutton, because you want to have bowls and bowls of it.

Last in line was white crab meat covered with a thin slice of pork fat, served with a rhubarb and strawberry jam, oxalys flowers and lemon verbena. I liked the individual flavours in this dish; delicately sweet crab, nice tart sweetness and floral notes from the jam, mildly salty pork fat. I felt however that something was missing that might have brought it all together.

Then there was bread: Golden ale and malt bread with Bermondsey butter, served with a small cup of onion broth (no photograph). The concentrated broth had lovely, subtle bitters and a hint of herbs. Very elegant and a seductive flavour combination you can easily get drunk on.

The second part of the meal, was a succession of six more sizeable dishes plus the extra course I had ordered, starting with a dish called Aynsome soup. First we were served a bowl with fresh herbs and flowers, a small quenelle of mustard cream, baby carrot, radish, truffle puree, artichoke, pickled cucumber and a mini courgette flower, onto which the Aynsome soup, made with wild watercress, spinach, rocket and potatoes, was poured. A dish with great purity and a wonderful variety of textures. The soup was full-flavoured and had a lovely velvety texture and the truffle puree delivered a nice touch of warm luxury to the dish. Great sharpness and bite from the pickled cucumber, which added vigour to the soup.

The a la carte dish I had ordered, was served next. Roughly chopped, light red veal tartare, topped with a layer of smoked cauliflower, followed by a layer of chopped oysters (poached in the shell) and fried baby capers, and finished with thinly sliced cauliflower and a cicely and gooseberry sauce. An absolutely stunning dish with impeccable flavours and faultless seasoning, each bite producing a beautiful interplay of creaminess and saltiness and the oyster enhanced the flavour of the veal beautifully. The smokiness of the cauliflower was perfectly judged and delivered just the right amount of oomph to the dish.

Shortly after there was lobster. Deliciously tender and sweet lobster, served with a mildly peppery dittander (a member of the mustard family) puree, a fresh and sharp apple gel, sliced, delicately salty, yellow beetroot, lobster oil and a lobster crisp (krupuk-like). A well-balanced dish, the cleverly used dittander adding a lovely freshness to complement the lobster.

This was followed by 'Grilled Salad'. Grilled lettuce hearts, kohlrabi, mustard sprouts, crunchy sunflower seeds, accompanied by a truffle custard, a drizzle of cheese sauce and a grating of black truffle (from Australia) for extra flavour and aroma. The salad was served in a custom made bowl with wooden cutlery from Peter Hall & Son in Cumbria. A brilliant combination of flavours and textures and not a single raw note to be found (Hurrah!). First you get the warm, lightly smoky flavours from the grilled vegetables, followed by some sharpness from the mustard sprouts; then there's creaminess from the truflle custard and the cheese sauce, and in the finish there's the earthiness of the truffle. Vegetarian dishes don't get better than this.

Fifth in line was hake. Beautifully cooked hake inside a crunchy, caramelised cabbage leaf, served with nasturtium flower sauce, cabbage foam, cabbage puree and new potatoes cooked in chicken fat and topped with crispy chicken skin crumble. A very pleasing combination, the caramelisation had given the cabbage a wonderful, nutty touch and the chicken crumble added a lovely natural saltiness to the dish.

Then there was superbly cooked Goosnargh duck, served with a pure and peppery watercress puree, celtuce, mildly sweet and juicy beetroot, a fantastic smoked beetroot and duck sauce, a sprinkling of berry crumble, and grilled wispy leeks for extra flavour and texture. Wonderfully succulent duck and the flavour of the smoked beetroot and duck sauce was magnificent: intense and smoky and sharpened by a drop of vinegar. The acidity in the sauce and the bitters of the watercress puree balanced out the richness of the duck beautifully.

First of three desserts was a delightful, savoury-sweet combination of fruity pineapple weed ice cream, a foamy butterscotch cream, a cacoa tuile, chamomile powder and some gorgeous celery, served with its own cooking juices. A surprising but delicious combination.

Next was a white chocolate and strawberry dome filled with an elegantly sweet woodruff cream, marinated strawberries, and finished with elderflowers and caramelised white chocolate crumble. A truly delicious and light dessert with terrific fresh and clean flavours, and the chocolate delivered a wonderful touch of milky richness.

Equally good was a dessert of soft cherries, accompanied by a light sheep's milk foam, yoghurt shards, and delicately flavoured douglas fir snow. A wonderful contrast of textures and temperatures. The addition of douglas fir brought a nice piney-lemony flavour, but also perfumed the dish. Three exquisite desserts with not too many flavours and just the right amount of sweetness.

Some final sweets:

Crisp sweet cicely spongecake

Banana mint chocolates and hazelnut jellies

Carrot and sea buckthorn macarons

Warm chocolate mousse with apple marigold ice cream
There was some surprise that of all the chefs in the world, it was going to be a "farmer-cum-forager" from up north who would be running the restaurant at this paragon of British establishment and tradition. The marriage wasn't as unlikely as it may have seemed however, as Rogan is a British chef, working (almost) exclusively with British ingredients who was looking for a new shop window in London after his two year Marylebone pop-up restaurant Roganic had closed. For Claridge's as a British institution, tradition is clearly about fanning the embers rather than guarding the ashes. The resulting blend between the metropolis and the countryside and between tradition and avant-garde is beautifully represented in the magnificent art-deco dining room, with its tables without linen and the state-of-the-art-kitchen that looks distinctly futuristic when you watch proceedings there from your table.
What's on the plate however, is 100% Simon Rogan. He is well-known for his individual style of cooking, a cuisine based on a close affinity to nature, on fresh ingredients farmed or foraged locally. Having developed this approach in the last decade or so, he is probably the most prominent exponent in the UK of a broader movement among chefs, who are looking to tell on their plates the story of the nature that surrounds them. This philosophy has come up more or less simultaneously in a number of countries in Northern Europe and has found particular favour in Scandinavia. It is in my view a healthy discourse in a world where the distance between the produce and the diner seems to be ever increasing, both geographically, industrially and technologically. My experiences with this style of cooking have been rather mixed; not everybody gets it right. It takes a chef of the outstanding intuition and skill of Simon Rogan to really do it well. It certainly helps that he is not evangelical about it at all and that he is happy to celebrate the treasure trove of nature's diversity without resorting to bizarre experiments on the plate.

This sagacious chef may use ingredients you have never heard of before and this may be creative food for the inquisitive diner, but this is also serious fine dining taken very seriously. In my experience, Simon Rogan sets the European standard for his chosen style of cooking. It is made complete by the clever way he brings the flavours, the textures and the presentation together to produce food that is truly delicious and enchanting (does the word 'foragealicious'  exist?). The stylistic unity throughout my meal at Fera was as natural as it was impressive, the execution was flawless and the menu was carefully constructed to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Service was exquisite, with some welcome theatre (it is, after all, Claridge's). The extensive wine list features many biodynamic producers and natural wines and is otherwise very Mayfair: a nice selection of affordable choices but anything that is even remotely prestigious enjoys jaw-dropping, eye-watering mark-ups.

Selling fine dining at a 5-star hotel in Mayfair meets with a lot of preconceptions and the many things that have been written about Fera at Claridge's have often left me wondering whether the author loved to hate it or hated to love it. The economic truth of the matter is however, that in the modern world, grand hotels are important curators of the culinary arts and one can only applaud Claridge's for taking its responsibility and making the massive investment required. 'Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi' (If we want everything the remain the same, everything must change), they must have thought and the transformation has been very successful. It is wonderful that Simon Rogan's cooking may now also be sampled by those who do not have the opportunity to make the long trek north.

Posted 06-07-2014


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