The Great Taste Awards were started in the mid-1990s by the Guild of Fine Food to recognise excellence in speciality and artisan British producers. Producers submit their products which are then judged by at least three different panels at three different venues. All the tasting by the over 350 judges, who include fine food retailers, chefs, restaurant critics, food writers and other industry experts, is blind. Products are rated as deserving one, two or three stars – one star meaning close to perfection; two meaning faultless and three meaning unmissable. Of the 6,400 products submitted to the awards in 2012, less than 10 per cent were awarded a star and only two percent attained three – so winning any stars is indeed an honour.
This year, the Cadogan restaurant at the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge have collaborated with the Great Taste Awards to create a series of showcase menus highlighting the current Great Taste Award winners, changing every 6 to 8 weeks and are put together by various guest curators. The menu Michelle and I were invited to try was created by Masterchef winner and Wahaca owner Thomasina Miers and The Sunday Times’ Lucas Hollweg, together with Cadogan head chef Oliver Lesnik. Some of the Great Taste Award-winning foods on our menu included Sally Clarkes bread; Mackintosh of Glendaveny extra-virgin rapeseed oil; Hurstwood Farm Kentish cobnut oil; Pipers Farm beef; Alternative Meats Ltd Welsh wagyu beef fat; Pendaridge goat’s cheese from the Somerset Cheese Company; and Lynher Dairies Cheese Company Cornish Yarg. The menu is available as a one course (£18), two-course (£23) or three-course (£28) meal.
The very Victorian Cadogan Hotel is one of London’s oldest and trivia buffs will be glad to learn that it was in this very hotel that playwright Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency in 1895. The ambience is hushed and plush, whisking you instantly away from the hustle and bustle of South Kensington and into a more gracious era. Dark wood panelling and vevlety armchairs abound in the drawing room, but once you reach the dining room it is a light and serene space. Historical touches are still evident in the huge creamy marble fireplace and ornate plaster mouldings, but the light streaming in through the huge windows and the pale colour scheme makes this room feel both contemporary and historic. While studying the menu, we sipped on signature cocktails (which I believe were gin based and were laced with the flavours of Earl Grey tea and orange) and snacked on the excellent bread dipped in British cobnut and rapeseed oil. The cobnut has a very pronounced flavour and may take some getting used to, but both oils were intriguing and made a change from imported olive oil.
To start with, I had my newly-rediscovered favourite: steak Tartare with a poached pheasant egg, sauce gribbiche and Wagyu beef dripping crumbs; while Michelle had the courgette flower & goat’s cheese with wild honey, cucumber & hazelnuts. My steak tartare was without a doubt the highlight of my meal. Steak tartare is not a place where sub-standard ingredients can hide, and the wonderful quality of the beef certainly stood out here. The beef was also beautifully seasoned with traditional seasonings including capers, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce; and the lightly poached egg was surprisingly flavourful. The Wagyu beef dripping crumbs were quite evidently too tasty to be good for you (!) but were addictively tasty and added a nice touch of texture to the plate. Michelle’s starter certainly won my vote for the prettiest plating of the night – kind of like if Joan Miro were in charge of plating the starters. Courgette flowers, goat’s cheese and honey are a classic pairing and this was a lovely example, with lovely creamy goat’s cheese offset by the floral honey and crunchy candied nuts.
For my main course I chose the rabbit ravioli and loin with smoked pork belly, braised lettuce and St George mushrooms; while Michelle chose the lamb sweetbreads and neck fillet with smoked garlic mash, broad beans, beetroot and tarragon. Once again, my rabbit was beautifully plated, with the single raviolo perched atop the braised lettuc and mushrooms, and the loin slices standing to attention on either side. The loin was wrapped in pancetta or somethig similar, adding some flavour to its mildness, and the slow cooed lamb in the raviolo was dark, unctuous and flavourful. I liked the contrast of the two cuts of rabbit, although the St George mushrooms did not pack much of a flavour punch. Michelle’s lamb was cooked to pink perfection and I loved the smoky hints in the mash. I did not try the sweetbreads, but I love how the beetroot colour contrasted with the bright green broad beans.
For dessert, Michelle chose Tommi’s chocolate & chilli cake with Cornish clotted cream; while I could not resist the Great Taste cheese board consisting of Quickes traditional vintage Cheddar; Cornish Yarg, Mrs Bells Blue, and Milleen’s date, quince, damson & port jelly. Michelle pronounced her dessert to be nice, if underwhelming. Clotted cream is always a crowd-pleaser, but neither of us could detect much chilli flavour in the cake, as if Thomasina had left her red hot chile pepper back in the Wahaca kitchen. I fared better with my cheese board, which came with some moreish dark wholewheat crackers and the fantastically flavoursome jelly in a little kilner jar. The cheeses were all excellent – perfect for those who are not fans of soft French cheeses so mature that they are oozing off the plate. Their full flavours paired beautifully with the glorious jelly and made for a fitting end to the meal.
The meal was a good example of how to prepare excellent ingredients in such a way that the essential flavours of the raw ingredients continues to shine through. This was not a meal of Heston Blumrenthal-style culinary fireworks, but a meal that spoke of quiet and unassuming excellence. And what more fitting way could there be to spotlight the quiet labours of hundreds of small artisanal British producers who strive to create artisanal products worthy of the Great Taste Awards. The setting is lovely, the service was excellent, the food was good with flashes of excellence, and you get to support small British producers as you eat. And, of course, it is a wonderful place to take the hordes of visitors that we are all aboout to receive for the Olympics, to demonstrate just how far British produce has come in the past twenty years.
Menus change every 6-8 weeks and future guest curators include Charles Campion, Fay Maschler and Bill Knott. The showcase restaurant will run throughout 2012.
Liked: the setting, the excellent starters, the option of 1, 2 or 3 courses
Disliked: the lacklustre dessert
On a scale of 1 to 10: 7 out of 10
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Great Taste at the Cadogan.
Great Taste at the Cadogan
21 Pont Street
Tel: 00 44 (0) 20 7235 7141
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