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Great British Menu 2019: London & South East recap

Great British Menu 2019: London & South East recap

by Howard Middleton 23 March 2019

Howard Middleton takes a look at how the first three chefs to appear on our screens got on, as Great British Menu 2019 returns for another year.

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New series, new theme, new location, new door knocker – it’s all looking very fresh in the Great British Menu kitchen as we kick off with chefs representing London and the South East. Competing to cook a banquet at Abbey Road Studios are Michelin-starred Luke Selby, head chef at Hide Above in the West End and Ben Marks from Perilla in Hackney – the youngest chef in the competition and a man whose face has the endearingly doe-eyed, doleful earnestness of a Dickensian urchin.

Missing out on a slot in the judging chamber this week was Paul Walsh from Michelin-starred restaurant City Social. Paul took a clear lead in the name stakes with his pun-tastic fish dish, ‘What’s the Story Morning Dory?’ but his dreams of reaching this culinary oasis sadly disappeared in a blur.

Luke vegetarian starter, ‘British Invasion’, takes its title from events of the mid-1960s when British bands stormed the American charts. He translates this phenomenon into a bowl of Gouda custard, topped with a slow-cooked egg yolk, barbecued sweetcorn, hazelnuts and black truffle sauce. Hiding his work under leaves of kale, Savoy cabbage and finely sliced truffle, he moves on to pipe black garlic purée into crispy cheese-and-onion-flavoured potato baskets. Luke presents his dish in a bowl of meadowsweet, hay and dry ice, along with lyrics from the song ‘Till There Was You’.

The judges praise the contrasting textures and general mellowness. Guest judge and legendary bassist Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield says it’s ‘not a punch in the face – more Burt Bacharach’. Andi adds ‘it’s a fantastic start’.

Ben’s menu is inspired by an impressive personal pop music provenance, as his grandfather helped to design the embossed detail of the Beatles’ White Album cover.

He starts with a literal interpretation of the album track ‘Glass Onion’, presenting soup in a pretty onion-shaped bottle. Into Ben’s bowls of hollowed out charred Spanish onions go a scoop of crème fraiche, chestnut shavings and a light dusting of pungent black onion powder. More powder and pata negra fat go in the soup itself. The dish is served with slices of sourdough toast, which have been soaking in a little bath of classic coq au vin sauce. The croutons are topped with cep duxelles and lardons and presented in a cassette case.

Matthew thinks the soup is ‘delicious’ and ‘fresh’ and Oliver says it’s ‘fabulous’. Mani has nothing but praise for the crouton, saying he’ll never again throw out stale bread for the birds, adding ‘this is an absolute winner’.

For his ‘Rockstars’ fish course, Luke serves barbecued soy-glazed lobster tails and prawn-stuffed battered claws. On Wednesday, his fellow chefs rallied round when he ran the risk of a tempura tantrum as his batter split. Despite being two minutes late to the pass, this week’s veteran judge Angela Hartnett praised the team effort and still awarded the dish full marks. Luke’s crispy claws come with a ponzu dipping sauce and he places his tails on pools of lobster emulsion and wood sage honey dressing.

It’s a hugely popular dish with the judges. Mani is a big fan of the presentation, saying ‘he’s nailed it’, whilst Matthew demonstrates his expertise in the textural qualities of ‘perfectly cooked’ lobster by pontificating that it has ‘none of that muscular shredded density’. Bodybuilding crustaceans around the country suddenly realise they’re wasting their time at the gym.

Ben interprets another Beatles hit for his spiced mackerel. Called ‘Rishikesh Fish’ it’s named after the Indian city that the band visited in 1968. Stuffed with red gooseberries, ginger, chilli and garlic, the fish is grilled and torched, then topped with spiced braised spinach, roasted Indian kale, more gooseberries, yogurt and nasturtium flowers. It makes for a colourful display but Matthew pithily says he’d prefer it without the mackerel, calling it ‘a bit of a mess’. Oliver sums it up as ‘a party that’s got out of control’. ‘My favourite kind as a rule,’ muses Mani, adding soberly ‘but not when I’m eating it’.

After his disappointing fish, Ben’s prospects are swiftly revived by a gloriously impressive main course. Named after the Beatles song ‘Blackbird’, it consists of a dramatically dark platter of mushroom and squid ink sauce onto which Ben nests a whole quail, meticulously de-boned and stuffed with pearl barley, shallots, wild hen-of-the-wood mushrooms and lardo. Blackened with trompette mushroom powder and topped with plum compote, it’s instantly admired by the judges. Oliver says ‘this is rock and roll… art on a plate’ and Andi deems it ‘amazing’. Matthew concludes that it’s ‘absolute cooking brilliance’.

Inspired by ‘the greatest girl-band of all time’ Luke presents a duck medley in his main course ‘Spice’. Slabs of succulent five-spice roasted duck are plated alongside poached plums, vividly punctuated with piped peaks of pink purée. Baby turnips, fennel, radish and spring onions bathe in bowls of comforting consommé whilst soft steamed buns of confit duck leg, pickled cucumber and roasted peanuts ensure diners won’t go hungry. Angela Hartnett suggested that there may be too many duck elements (and also argued that the Supremes ranked above the Spice Girls) but Luke ignores her advice (and her pop critique), adding crispy duck skin to his buns.

Luke bravely enters the judging chamber to perform a self-penned rap. ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’ says Mani, but he’s clearly praising the consommé. Andi adds it’s ‘very gentle’ and Matthew says it’s ‘yummy’. Only Oliver remains unconvinced – ‘technically great but I don’t think it has the wow of the occasion’.

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Rounding off his menu, Ben presents ‘The White Album’ – a delicate meadowsweet-scented custard tart, topped with goat’s yogurt, white rose petals and droplets of whitecurrant compote. Bespoke white plates embossed with ‘The Beatles’ echo the simplicity of the original album and the judges admire the subtle brilliance of flavours and presentation. But then Mani brutally admits this ethereal dish is ‘Sting or Phil Collins, not Motorhead – I want Motorhead for my pudding’.

For his ‘Going Platinum’ dessert, Luke arranges rings of shortbread, yuzu caramel, chocolate sponge and chocolate crémeux and fills them with chocolate and honey puffed rice and a quenelle of caramel ice cream. Shards of tempered white chocolate, like fragments of a broken record, didn’t work in the week but he manages to pull them off this time.

Matthew sounds like he’s assembling a new band when he says it’s ‘squidgy, cool, crunchy, munchie’ and Mani asserts ‘this is a rock and roll dessert’. Matthew goes on to explain that though Ben’s dessert was more original, ‘this is a reworking of nice old favourites’. Andi adds wistfully ‘sometimes, in pudding, that’s what you want’.

And so, admittedly mainly due to his disappointing fish course, poor Ben loses out to Luke. Oliver thanks Mani for his part in ‘one of the most halcyon days ever on the Great British Menu’. If future guest judges are anywhere near as much fun as Mani, this promises to be a (primal) scream of a series!

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