Head only at Hedone.
Head only according to my speech recognition dictation. Spot on. The head likes the idea, but the heart? Not so much.
I’d wanted to go to Hedone for so long but it was Chiswick and it ain’t my manor, guv. But I sometimes forget that I don’t live in North London any more and it is merely a hop skip and a jump down the A4, from Paddington.
So we had the obligatory row in the car, because I wanted C to drive, so I could phone a friend. It wasn’t a conversation for the loudspeaker. C doesn’t like driving with me in the car. Says I’m a nightmare. Says I’m a control freak. Says I’m very worst back seat driver he has ever known. Pah. As if. I had to threaten to turn the car round.
So I wasn’t in the best of moods when we finally pulled up to Hedone, on Chiswick High Road. I had a scowl on me as big as that of the chef. Not a laugh a minute, I’d say. Either of us.
I deliberately didn’t read anything about this before I went. I knew that it had been blogged to death. I knew that people really liked it. I knew that it had been given a Michelin star and that the owner was an ex-lawyer foodblogger. It spoke to me.
So I expected that I was going to get food which was interesting, well-cooked and a cut above the ordinary.
Interesting it certainly was. I very much liked the décor with its upcycled furniture and quirky/casual Scandi-eclectic vibe. There were strange food-related murals on the ceiling but they were original and showed a lack of conformity which I find refreshing.
This is a good, warm place with a nice feel as you walk through the door. And lovely, friendly service from the waiting staff.
First, some superb bread. Bread worth crossing London for. The best sourdough I’ve had for some time. Memorable. I said no after the second piece. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
Then came three amuse-bouche. Smoked eel in a pastry case; a Parmesan biscuit with a red jelly button and a portion of foie gras, between two ultra-thin wafers.
I thought these were interesting, beautifully presented, and the flavours were pleasing and balanced. So far, my impression was that the cooking was precise, slightly quirky in terms of flavour on the Jammie-dodger-lookalike biscuit, but delicate and subtle.
And instead of choosing the tasting menu (£75), we chose the à la carte, at £55 for three courses, available Monday to Thursday. But there was something on the tasting menu which sounded rather wonderful; the liquid Parmesan ravioli, girolles, red orache and horseradish foam.
After a little bit of a consultation, as clearly I had strayed from the path, the kitchen agreed to let me have this as a starter dish.
And I noticed that there was a lot going on in the kitchen area. And seven people in the open kitchen. And eight, front of house. In a restaurant with not that many covers.
But before the ravioli, a small cup of savoury custard, with seaweed. Had I read the many reviews, I would have known that this was meant to give me a big umami hit, before the main meal.
Because I hadn’t, so I just thought this was a rather odd-tasting dish and wasn’t entirely enamoured of it. Interesting, but not enjoyable. I think that knowing the intention behind it might have made it more palatable. At least it would have made it make sense.
I was expecting something intense with the liquid parmesan. I think I had in my mind the liquid foie gras that I had had many years before, at L’Ésperance. Little bombs of flavour, liquid, almost translucent foie gras, within a small, deep-fried cube. I remember being completely blown away by it.
I was expecting something similar, in cheese form. What I got was some fresh ravioli, with melted Parmesan. Just simple melted cheese, not anything particularly complex, some girolles, a large red leaf and some foam, which tasted not of the promised horseradish, but of simply nothing. The sauce underneath was a bit sharp. I don’t know what it was. Nothing was explained.
I tasted another blob of it, to see whether I could detect any horseradish. I couldn’t. The ravioli was pleasant enough and the red orache interesting, but this was a dish which just didn’t stand out. Maybe there wasn’t enough going on in that dish for it to be a full starter, rather than a tasting-menu component, but I was surprised. I’d really expected something more.
And then the duck, with smoked aubergines, miso, chicory and white peach. The duck was delicious, and cooked perfectly. As good a piece of duck as I’ve had anywhere. The flavour was superb. I’m not sure what the sauce was and whether there was anything else with the miso.
And the peaches were not sweet, so just tasted bland in that way that unripe peaches do and the aubergines tasted slightly too charred. The skin was burnt. I didn’t like the miso dressing on the aubergine. C left his altogether. No-one asked why. The chicory leaves were so sparse as to be merely decoration.
I tried the components of this dish together and on their own. No. Still not working for me. And not a lot of food either. So one brilliant component but together? Not a coherent dish.
I ordered cheese, rather than the dessert because there was actually nothing on the menu that I really wanted. The selection of five cheeses came with a large portion of very good raisin bread and it was fine – a good selection, interesting. Nothing out of the ordinary.
C had the millefeuille. He thought that the pastry was dry and his word – sandpapery – and not as he had expected. In fact, everything was not quite as we had expected.
At the end of the meal I felt disappointed. I’d hoped for more.
I felt that this was food as an intellectual exercise, rather than feeding as an act of love. Which all great food should be, at some level.
This is one of those places where the enjoyment of the food would be greatly assisted by explanation. It’s that sort of place.
Without it, you can’t possibly know that the sauce might have been made in three stages over four days. Or that the the peaches were some very rare variety. Maybe I would have approached it in a different way if I’d known all the effort that had gone into it. The power of suggestion is, as we all know, very great. As it was, I took it at face value, on taste alone.
I don’t for a second doubt the seriousness, passion and purity behind the cooking, but I wonder whether something has been lost in the quest for the very finest ingredients.
One of my food heroes, Simon Hopkinson, says in his seminal cookbook, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, that “good food relies on good ingredients, but it has always been my belief that a good cook can turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse….whereas an ignorant and uncaring chef can turn ruin the finest free-range chicken, a sympathetic and enthusiastic cook can work wonders, even with an old boiling fowl”
I’m not for a moment suggesting that the chef is ignorant or uncaring. On the contrary. But I think that you can get carried away with the quality of the ingredients. I also think that there is very good cooking on display here. But I think perhaps he cares too much, or perhaps he doesn’t care enough about the right things.
It’s not far from here to serving a single ingredient, unadorned, uncooked, on a plate.
I think that here, the focus on the ingredient above all else has, perhaps, taken over. Or maybe this just isn’t the style of food that I enjoy. Or maybe I just chose badly. Or maybe it was a bad night.
It seems ironic to me the name of the restaurant, Hedone, is, according to Wikipedia, an English transliteration of a Greek word meaning pleasure and the root of the English word hedonism.
There is no hedonistic pleasure here, as far as I can see – just rather austere delivery of deceptively simple food. For me, food is more than just ingredients, although good ingredients are of course the starting point. For certain foods, its also about the combination of ingredients and that magical alchemy when you get a perfect marriage of flavours.
I certainly didn’t come away feeling happy. Or full. The chef didn’t engage with us as he apparently does with other diners. Not that I’m complaining. He certainly engaged in a rather negative way with one of his staff for some minor misdemeanour, behind the wall. He certainly went to town explaining the wine list to a table nearby. Apparently if you choose a wine for less than £100, they will give you a carafe instead of a bottle, to reduce the cost. But when the diner chose a bottle, that particular choice was refused. I couldn’t quite hear the reason, it all seemed rather odd. Something about not being able to replace it. And the chef’s severe manner didn’t make me want to strike up a conversation.
And I’ve looked at the chef’s very interesting blog, which shows his honesty and attention to detail and I feel sad that I can’t enthuse about what is clearly a labour of love for him. I wanted to love it. But you can’t talk yourself into love, however much you might want to.
Tip: if they offer you a third portion of that wonderful bread? Take it.