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Chocolate Dinner

This was a one-off dinner, each course orchestrated by a different chef or chocolatier, in honor of the overlap of Chocolate Week in the UK and London's inaugural Restaurant Week. As a result of all the different agendas and personalities involved, it was only a coherent meal to the degree that each dish involved chocolate. To a degree, they were more in competition with each other than they were in harmony. As a result, I'll write about each dish separately.

Amuse bouche
Parmesan and dark chocolate with smoked bacon and mango
from Bill MacCarrick of Sir Hans Sloane Chocolates


The explosively-flavored amuse bouche was a hefty little concoction, four awkward bites' worth on a spoon; but since it featured the best chocolate of the evening, I forgive it. The chocolate was a thin sheet crowning the crowd of ingredients. Rich smoked bacon, bright mango, intense chocolate, and more muted Parmesan (in the crust, of the tartlet, perhaps?) made this a chaotic dish, all the flavors, while complementary, in competition with each other. Also, I'm not convinced that an amuse bouche should try to be the star of the show, as this one was, taste-wise, trying to be.

Starter
Pressed Cob chicken and foie gras, bitter chocolate and mayan spices
from Tristan Welch of Launceston Place


Mmm. This was a real highlight. A little pot of creamy spread. A large spoonful (literally, includes spoon) of dense spiced chocolate spread. A basket of decent restaurant bread to pillage for spreading on. The little pot contained untold complexities, being a smooth, slightly dense spread of chicken and foie gras, dappled with chocolate nibs for inflection and spice. It was rich, buttery, lively, complex and - compared to everything else in this dinner - refreshingly understated. The minor challenge of figuring out how to each it also added a playful element. Spread it on bread? Which bread? Chocolate sauce first or second? Each directly with a fork?

Fish course
Halibut with herb and cocoa nib crust
from Paul A Young


A good-sized piece of slightly dry halibut was crowned with a thick green crust, and enlivened with a handful of chocolate nibs mixed in. The sauce was very buttery - an emulsion of butter, perhaps - but balanced by spinach and a few intensely sweet cooked half-tomatoes, which added a nice fruitiness. Eating this was like sauntering through an idyllic spring meadow in the sunshine, abounding in good cheer, and laid back comfort. If only the portion size hadn't been so substantial....

Meat course
Scottish pheasant supreme with girrol mushrooms, pumpkin and bitter chocolate infused jus
from Bert Nehle of the May Fair Hotel


Because the portion size of the halibut was so substantial, I knew before this dish even arrived that I had to ration my appetite to be sure I could make it to dessert. It wasn't a struggle. This was easily the most disappointing dish on the menu for me. The dish was intense, made more so with noticable salt and sugar, but intense in a very, very limited range of taste. It was a single loud note rather than a chord of interesting intersections. Not even the chocolate made this interesting for me, although i liked the mushrooms. The pumpkin was barely present but could have - with a great deal more of it - rescued the dish for me, I think. So could a bit of greens for depth and variety. I should note that, although I had a token bite of the potatoes, they seemed generic and not worth filling myself with; but I overheard a woman at another table gush that they were the best potatoes she'd ever had.

Pre-dessert
Chocolate macarons with a chocolate and Bramble Liquor Parfait
from Maria Elia at Whitechapel Gallery


How lovely was the cream which filled the macaron (singular), a fluffy dream of a milk chocolat mousse. It was contained inside a sandwich of light brownie-like cakes, a smidgin too sweet, especially compared to the filling. It was about as substantial as what was technically the dessert, however, so less pre-dessert than dessert part 1.

Dessert
Chocolate fondant tart with a cacao pulp sorbet
from Gerard Coleman at Artisan du Chocolat


I wouldn't really call it a fondant tart, but it did have a slightly squidgey chocolatey center; a pity the pastry on the tart was such a dull, flat affair. The cacao pulp sorbet, however, was phenomenal, half pudding, half sorbet, its squidgeyness of a much more satisfying variety. it was fruity, in a chocolatey way, dense, and rich, without losing its refreshing edge. A good balance of flavors and an intriguing variety of textures. A few decorative berries helped balance this dish too.

Amba Restaurant at the May Fair Hotel

I started off reasonably well - a delightful maitre d' who was a pleasure to talk with. A large, relaxing dark-toned dining room, spacious enough that none of us were crowded in, even when at adjoining tables. A dedicated menu, provided, albeit notably leaving out which chef, shop, or chocolatier was behind any of the dishes. Crisp white table clothes.

But my feelings about the restaurant went steadily downhill over the course of the evening, all small little things which added up to lingering disappointment. The table clothes were the worst of it. Occassionally, waiters would change them, but several times I saw pairs of waiters brushing crumbs off tables onto the chairs around them (unintentional aiming, I hope, but consistent), and then reset them with gleaming glassware and cutlery. Dear Amba: If you cannot afford the time or money to change your table cloths every time, then don't use table cloths. My chair was crumby. I resent this and on this basis alone, don't intend to return again.

The rest was an accident of who my waiter was. He didn't know the menu he was serving, understandable since it was a one-off. But he wasn't even trying. He'd deliver a dish and say, "the second one". I had the print-out of the menu beside me for cross-referencing at least. Still. More ridiculous was when I failed to convince him to upsell me on dessert wine. It was my one alcoholic drink of the evening. I said at the beginning that I was going to have one, and was looking forward to discussing with someone whether their moscatel, sauterne, or tokaji might go better with the dessert options. Halfway through my pre-dessert - long after I'd anticipated talking about my wine - he came back to check on me, and I asked about following up on the wine. He said he'd bring it shortly. "Which one? I don't know which goes better. Can I speak to someone about?", I asked. "You'll like it", he said. "It's our most popular dessert wine." I tried. I really tried to get him to consider upselling, but he brought me the cheapest, most popular version. It might well be the best match as well. It was a fine moscatel; I enjoyed it. I'll never know if I could have done better.

In conclusion: I have no incentive to go back to the Amba Restaurant again. It disappointed me in a variety of ways, especially for a place which pretensions to fine dining. The dinner, however, had real highlights. It was an encouragement to use chocolate nibs regularly as, effectively a spice. I would love to learn more about cooking with chocolate pulp. And as a sampler of the restaurant, Launceston Place, the chicken & foie gras dish was a compelling invitation to try it out. All in all, a very mixed meal which would have worked better with better coordination, but was fundamentally a good idea.