Posted on Friday, 16th October 2009
I recently got the opportunity to sample a dinner prepared by pop-up restaurant extraordinaire Rachel Khoo. In the last year or so there has been a growing movement in the underground restaurant scene where home cooks prepare meals for members of the public in the comfort of their own abode. Its growth has no doubt been spurred by the fact that the idea is brilliantly novel, and there are similarities between her pop-up restaurant and the underground ones – you eat in someone’s home and the location is kept secret until you have booked and paid. But Rachel’s events are not regular occurrences which is why she prefers to call them ‘pop-ups’. Furthermore, Rachel always creates a different theme for each event, which on this occasion was endearingly called ‘A Taste of Love at The Loft’.
Rachel Khoo, a ‘food creative’ (stylist), has an Art & Design degree from Central St Martins and a pâtisserie diploma from Le Cordon Bleu and is now based in Paris. ‘A Taste of Love’ was the food theme for the evening; and The Loft, in a secret location in East London, is the personal test kitchen of Nuno Mendes who lends Rachel his digs for these occasions. Nuno, who trained at El Bulli, was previously the head chef of the now closed Bacchus in East London and will be opening a new restaurant, Viajante, in Bethnal Green next year. Nuno was on holiday and therefore did not join us for the evening.
I don’t think I would be wrong in saying that we all had a brilliant evening. It had a sense of occasion to it. Unlike dining out at a restaurant, the experience was similar to going to a dinner party with several complete strangers and any friends you might have happened to have dragged along. We numbered 10, all gathered around one table, and after our mains, changed seats so that we sat next to and got to chat to different people. The other diners were great fun, which helped the evening along, and given that most of us were foodies, there was no end to the conversation. I, for one, am never at lost for words when it comes to talking about food. And with love in the air (or rather the food), I managed to engage in some nosy idle gossip with my fellow diners as well. As for ‘The Loft’ itself – it’s airy and spacious, modern in design and minimalist in nature. And the lighting, lit low, created the perfect ambience for dinner.
Before I start talking about the food, I think it’s important that I preface this by highlighting the fact that other than a formal pâtisserie training, Rachel is not a trained chef. I will talk about all the dishes that we had as I would with any other restaurant so that you get a sense of consistency between my write-ups, but for all intents and purposes, the food was not a restaurant meal. And with this in mind I will summarise accordingly in my conclusion. We had a six-course tasting menu with wines (listed below) for £65. As mentioned, the food centred around a ‘love’ theme, and the menu was creativity worded to accommodate this theme.
We started with a ‘Love Bite Canape’, a little crumbed ball of cheese. Served with a glass of champagne, this was crispy and hot with a nice flavour, but was light on the cheese filling as the centre was quite hollow.
Our first taster was a ‘Love/Love Me Not Tapenade with Beetroot Petals to Pluck’. Slices of different types of beetroot had been rolled with tapenade and placed on a toothpick to creatively form ‘flower petals’ that you were meant to pluck to determine whether he/she loved you, or loved you not. The beetroot, beautifully presented, was crunchy but a little bland.
Next was an ‘Even Keel Tomato and Fig Soup’. The soup was really fresh with a rich tomato flavour. It was delicious but underseasoned.
The main course was lamb stuffed with chestnuts, vitelotte (purple potatoes) puree and heritage carrot brunoise. This was the least successful of all the courses that we had. The lamb was cold when it turned up and was a little overcooked for my liking as it was well done. The dish also needed more sauce as it was a little dry. The puree had a starchy, rather than creamy, texture.
Rachel’s patisserie skills were clearly evident in a cleverly designed cheese course, a stilton crème brûlée with edible (biscuit) spoons. The brûlée was presented in a heart shaped dish, and was to be eaten with the edible spoons. The action of cracking into the brûlée was meant to symbolise a ‘breaking heart’. The brûlée was delightful – creamy and light, the flavour of the stilton was pleasant, and its inclusion was not so heavy that it overwhelmed this dish.
Pre-dessert was a cucumber and rosewater granite which was a bit icy. But there was a nice balance between the rosewater and cucumber, and the latter did not overpower the flavour of the former. A dessert of honey meringue, lemongrass mousse and blackberries was very tasty. The meringue was light, the mousse creamy, and the fruit added a touch of tartness to the dish.
To finish was an ‘Intoxicating Love Potion Digestif’, a mixture of amaretto, grappa and coffee which was fabulous. It was served with a ‘Fated Heartoscope Cookie’, a homemade fortune cookie (that Rachel burnt her hand making) which was filled with a love message that had been ‘written in the stars’. (Mine was “even morsels of love are fine dining – it’s all about the savouring” (oh how apt!)). The cookie was buttery and crumbly, and much tastier than your average Chinese fortune cookie.
The portions were small and at the end of the meal I didn’t feel entirely satisfied. I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t full either. I also would have liked some bread during the meal and upfront explanations of each of the wines that we were being served.
Overall, I really enjoyed the food. As a home cooked meal (for it wasn’t a restaurant one) it was very good, in particularly the crème brûlée and the desserts. But as an ‘event’, this was a fabulous one to have attended. I enjoyed the evening hugely. The menu was great fun, the ambience was fantastic, the crowd was warm and friendly, the food was beautifully presented and I was enthralled by all the lovely, creative ideas behind the evening. There were so many thoughtful little touches that made this evening special. Rachel makes no money from hosting the dinner, and I could only admire her for wanting to spread the love. ‘A Taste of Love’ was well worth it.
Altenriederer Gruner Veltliner (white) and Zweigelt (red)
Dessert Moscatel de Setubal from Casa Agricola Horacio Simoes
Contact Rachel for future Loft events: firstname.lastname@example.org