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Experimental delights stand up to the test
What do you buy the restaurant critic who has everything? Nothing to do with cooking, for a start. Yet, anyone who looked in my kitchen would think I had a penchant for being manacled to the stove.
There's more Le Creuset than a bourgeois wedding wish list, aprons that range from prissy to pornographic, and an armoury of skewers and prongs that wouldn't look out of place in a medieval torture chamber.
Aprons aside, I've no use for any of it. I didn't ask for it, it finagled its way into my life in a procession of gift-wrapped and ribboned-embellished boxes.
Merry Christmas. Happy Birthday. I saw this expensive dust magnet and thought of you x.
The most redundant of these unwanted what-nots and doo-dahs -- a "Molecular Gastronomy At Home Kit" -- is sitting on top of my kitchen cupboards, still in the box, taking up space and generally annoying me.
I brought it to my local charity shop, but the lady told me she didn't think it would sell and they didn't want it loitering around the place. She slid the box across the counter and told me to put it on eBay.
The thing is, molecular gastronomy exhumes a distant, unhappy memory involving a Bunsen burner and a school jumper that almost resulted in self-immolation. It earned me a reputation as a dunce with a predilection towards arson.
It also snuffed out any interest I had in the sciences and catapulted me headlong into the liberal arts. It's a station I'm happy to call home, and I do not want a box stuffed with chemicals, pipettes and five feet of silicon tubing sitting in my kitchen -- mocking me. What did sodium alginate ever do for me?
Of course, the most notable practitioners of molecular gastronomy prefer to think of themselves as artists -- not scientists. They use terms like modernism, deconstructivism and cocina de la vanguardia to refer to themselves.
They're on a mission to revolutionise the way we think about food, emboldening our palates with porridge made from snails, and sausages cooked using a car battery. It's all about spherification, the manifold uses of agar agar and conference papers that ask "how many ways to boil an egg?"
"Come, come, Miss Flannery," said Professor McGuffin, growing impatient with this rambling explanation of the unopened molecular gastronomy kit.
He, who doesn't own a television. He, who has never heard of Heston Blumenthal.
To prove I wasn't making it all up, I brought him to dinner at The Greenhouse -- a new colt from the Eamon O'Reilly stable of restaurants.
If you didn't know O'Reilly was involved, you'd never have guessed -- the kitchen is in the control of Mickael Viljanen, formerly of Gregan's Castle. In his caboodle, he has brought a sack-load of calcium lactate, syringes and a dehydration machine.
In keeping with the molecular gastronome's eye for precision and beauty, he has nicked one of the best maître d's in town from Camden Kitchen. Her Latina charm was not wasted on Professor McGuffin. I deducted three points from his scorecard for failing to conceal it.
The dinner options at The Greenhouse are a five or seven-course taster menu, with or without wine pairing. Or a set menu, with a choice of two starters, two mains, two desserts.
The anticipated references to sand, dirt and foam were not there and I was starting to worry that I'd gotten it all wrong when an amuse bouche appeared: a mussel-shaped green apple meringue with cream cheese, herring roe and fennel that danced between sugar and sourness -- like an old-fashioned apple drop -- offset by an anthill of salty bacon dust.
This was swiftly followed by another tongueteaser: a hollowed eggshell filled with runny Parmesan custard and pear juice, into which a wild mushroom sabayon was poured amid great table-side ceremony. So far, so scientific.
Not knowing where the rest of the meal was going, we asked for our wine to be paired. This yielded me a glass of Blenheim Superb still dessert cider, which I suspended judgment of until its intended partner arrived.
Waldorf salad-inspired foie gras royale, served as custard in a glass with frozen apple granita and crushed walnut, with hazelnut powder around the glass for extra nuttiness. It was experimental and challenging, but I took to it -- by allowing my senses rather than my expectations to guide me.
Professor McGuffin's first choice, roasted mackerel, was supple, oily and delicious. It came with veal tongue and eel cannelloni wrapped in a rabi skin, with avocado puree, lemon dressing and shaved pickled radish. It's a dish that must have taken forever to imagine and perfect, but oh so worth it.
Next up was roasted pollock, which was suitably mild and fleshy -- accompanied by a hail of butter-browned shrimp, a caramelised chicken wing and three ravioli stuffed with chicken, shrimp and snips of foraged Alexander.
Forraging is key to the Greenhouse's philosophy on food; expect your plate to be littered with objets trouvés -- my favourite was the pressed stalk of dried wild garlic, that was crunchy and not so much wild as primordial. But what would Mother Nature make of the electric dehydrator?
Next out of the bag came a slow-cooking magic trick: veal -- the last frontier between the carnivore and the cannibal -- cooked for 36 hours until it melts on contact with your tongue. It played Olivier's Hamlet to a supporting cast of sweetbread, liquorice salt, carrot puree, olive powder, dill and malt vinegar.
The fusion and intensity of the flavours, the manipulation of texture, the sheer showoffyness of the damn thing was extraordinary.
Fearing McGuffin was on the verge of a sensory short circuit -- this, after all, was his first review -- I called a halt to the proceedings. We finished up with two plates of petit fours: he played it safe with a lemon madeleine and some blood-orange Turkish Delight, while I filled my pockets with smoked fennel fudge and caramel topped with shallot.
The Greenhouse is not for the faint hearted. We left feeling spoilt, impressed and a little bit confused. Leave everything you know about food at the door -- then take your protein pills, and put on your helmet.
typical dish: Foie gras royale
recommended: 36-hour veal
the damage: €128 for two-course set dinner for two with wine pairing and petit fours
on the stereo: iPod shuffle
at the table: Intrepid eaters
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