I had been wanting to visit the Cube by Electrolux since it opened earlier this year but one way or another, travel and other commitments conspired against me. And when I did finally get a chance to go, it was in the same week as the “Bosigate” drama broke. For those of you not intimately acquainted with the London food blogging scene (gasp – can there be any such persons left? ;o)), this was the unedifying spectacle of a bunch of professional chefs turning very publicly on a relatively unknown food blogger who dared to write a mediocre review of one of their restaurants. Liberal use was made on Twitter of the c-word – and one of the chefs at the centre of the storm was cooking my lunch at The Cube on the day of my visit. Nothing like the potential threat of physical violence to sharpen your appetite – and reviewing skills!
The Cube is a unique pop-up dining concept created by Electrolux to celebrate 90 years of expertise in both professional and domestic kitchens. It takes the form of a semi-transparent cube (well, a cube with protruding bits) which comprises a kitchen, bathroom, terrace and kitchen that can be picked up and deposited in various glamorous and usually inaccessible locations (such as on top of a triumphal arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire; or the roof of a palazzo a stone’s throw from the Duomo in Milan). In London, it appeared in June on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames and is set to stay there until 31 December 2012 as a n impressive array of chefs take turns to do a stint in the kitchen. Michelle and I did feel a little like we were Alice stepping through the looking glass as we rode the elevator to the top floor listening to the wonderfully bonkers scale-singing that signifies your ascent through the floors; and then being led out of a service door onto the roof of the Festival Hall and finally turning a corner to behold the unlikely structure of The Cube.
I had been fervently hoping for a sunny day but it was not to be, and we arrived on a rather damp and grey day – but the warm reception from the staff more than made up for the lack of sunshine. The maitre d’ in particular was all twinkly-eyed charm and he saw to it that we were soon sipping glasses of Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale 2002 and nibbling on canapés: crispbread shards topped with bay crab and sea purslane. It was slightly messy to eat and I know some of my crab landed on the floor when my cripsbread shattered on the first nibble, but delicious nevertheless. And once all the guests had arrived, we were ushered into the dining area where a maximum of 18 guests dine together at a single white table in a pared-down room, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass on two sides. At the one end of the table, our eyes were drawn to the irresistible view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament; while on the other end we had a view of part of the kitchen, together with the plating area, giving diners a unique glimpse into the workings of a Michelin-starred kitchen.
Once we were all seated and had introduced ourselves to our neighbours, chef Simon Rogan stepped out of the semi-open kitchen to introduce himself. Simon trained under Marco-Pierre White and has since 2003 been chef patron at L’Enclume in Cumbria – the restaurant holds two Michelin stars in the 2013 guide. Many of the ingredients used in the kitchens of L’Enclume are grown on the restaurant’s farm, meaning that ingredients are as fresh and as connected to the local land as humanly possible. Simon also subsequently opened Roganic, billed as a two year pop-up restaurant, in London in order to bring his unique and ingredient-focused style of cuisine to Londoners who seldom venture north of the Watford gap. I had been to neither but have heard a lot about Simon’s cooking and was keen to see what was on the menu. First up was the rather cryptically named kales and cod yolk, sorrel and squid ink. This consisted of various types of kale leaves, sorrel leaves, a squid ink emulsion and squid ink croutons, topped with a cod ‘yolk’ (salt cod mousse in a saffron-dyed capsule). It’s a playful visual joke – the yolk really does look rather real – that soon reveals its true colours when you cut into it to reveal the mousse. Sadly, I found the mousse to be a little underseasoned, but I did like the kale and squid ink combination – particularly the pitch black squid ink croutons! This was paired with a 2011 Hunters Riesling (Marlborough, New Zealand) which was a lovely example of a dry Riesling, if a somewhat unadventurous food match.
The next dish was pretty unusual and probably my favourite of the day: broth of turnip, Westcombe cheese dumplings, English truffle and apple marigold oil. Now I am not a huge fan of turnips, but this was a dish for people who think they don’t like turnips. The minuscule baby turnips in this dish would melt the heart of the most rdent turnip hater both with their adorable size and their sweetness. It was this sweetness in the broth that paired so particularly well with the cheese dumplings: imagine quenelles of panacotta with the flavour of mature cheddar cheese, gently yielding to the merest touch of a spoon. Wow. The batons of English truffles, from Wiltshire, reminded me of the mildly flavoured truffles I tasted in Provence in the summer rather than the pungency of Perigord truffles or the ubiquitous pungent white truffle oil. The apple marigold oil added sequins of greenery but no discernible flavour. No matter – the entire dish was delicate, balanced and wonderful. (The Hunters Riesling 2011 was also matched with this dish.)
Next up was without a doubt the prettiest plate of the afternoon – and also the one that relied the least on cooking skills as such: Anysome’s autumn offerings – fresh curds and puffed pork skin together with about 20 different teensy herbs and vegetables from the L’Enclume farm including radishes, baby fennel, minuscule carrots, baby beetroot, nasturtium leaves, loads of different herbs and something wonderful that resembled an orange cherry tomato but had the kick of a mild chilli. This was seasonal, whimsical and tasty, contrasting the creaminess of the curds with the crunch of the addictive puffed pork skin and the fresh flavours of the baby vegetables – and of course it was achingly pretty. This was paired with a 2011 Satzen Gruner Veltliner from Weingut Manfred Felsner (Kremstal, Austria).
This was followed by a more straightforward dish of plaice poached in brown butter, red Russian kale, mussels and oxalis. (For those who don’t know, is the scientific name for wood sorrel – clover or shamrocks to you and me. Although there is a widespread belief that it is toxic owing to its oxalic acid content, it’s useful to remember that oxalic acid also occurs in spinach, brussels sprouts and broccoli! You’d have to eat so much to harm yourself that the risk is practically non-existent.). Again, this was quite lovely – the plaice seemed to have been trimmed of the frilly, oily bit that I never like much, and anything cooked in brown butter gets my vote. The mussels were ridiculously plump and fat and the oxalis (in the form of small rounds of the fried sorrel roots (like mini-potatoes) added crunch together with the just-cooked kale sprouts. This deceptively simple dish was paired with probably my favourite wine of the day: 2010 Mantagny 1er cru, Domaine Roche Bellene (Burgundy, France). With its deep lemon yellow colour, lush palate full of green apples and citrus and a creamy mouthfeel, it was more than a match for the rich brown butter sauce without ever overwhelming the delicate fish. As an aside, I also must add that the wine waiters were outstanding in their knowledge of each wine, and were all super-personable, taking time to chat and introduce each wine to every diner.
From the start of the lunch, diners were told that we were welcome to get up, come over to the kitchen area and chat to the chef or help to plate the dishes, but it was only by course five that I disentangled myself from the really good company at my end of the table and went to check out the cheffery. Simon was pretty relaxed for a man in the middle of a lunch service and chatted happily to whoever was hovering around – if he harboured any murderous instincts towards bloggers, it certainly was not evident As we watched, they plated our next course: Reg’s guinea hen, leeks and offal ragu; pennyroyal and cowmire cider (Reg being Reg Johnson, one of the owners of Johnson and Swarbrick of Goosnargh, better known as purveyors of excellent duck and evidently also do Guinea fowl). The dish consisted of a piece of breast meat and a piece of leg, as well as a gutsy, rich ragu made from the bird’s liver, heart and gizzard – nose (beak?) to tail eating at its tastiest. The breast was surprisingly moist but with a perfectly crisped skin; and I loved the baby leeks, frazzled roots and all. The pennyroyal oil was presumably the pretty green droplets on the plate, but added no discernible flavour. overall, though, this dish was delightful and was paired with a 2012 Sancerre Rought, Domaine Serve Laloue (Loire, France) – a surprisingly full-bodied and fruit-driven Pinot Noir.
From there, we moved onto desserts and I sadly have to say that the first one did not move me: stout ice-cream coated in blackberry crumbs on a liquorice syrup and topped with a sea buckthorn mousse. Well, OK, to be fair, I liked bits of it better than others. The liquorice syrup was a turn-off for me as I have always disliked liquorice – but the ice-cream in blackberry crumbs was pleasant and I did love the tart sea buckthorn mousse. On a balance though, this was not really my kind of dessert. But I really did like the wine pairing: an unusual choice of 2012 Elysium black muscat, Quady Vineyards (California). made from one of the very few red muscat grape varieties, this is a dessert wine with cajones – an inky deep purple colour and a floral nose that presages the rich, Christmas-pudding flavours. I thought it was probably a bit heavy with this fairly light dessert though – it needed something richer to match with.
The final dessert was another plateful of whimsy: Cumbrian slate, pear, lemon verbena & hazelnut . No, don’t worry, we weren’t actually expected to chew on shards of slate, although you would be forgiven for thinking so by looking at the pictures! The dish had been constructed to reference various aspects of the surrounding countryside where L’Enclume is situated, like the local slate, moss and soil. To achieve this, Simon had made the lemon verbena into a dehydrated sponge cake (“moss”); coloured the exterior of the slabs of pear sorbet a deep charcoal (“slate”), and scattered crushed toasted hazelnuts around (“soil”). The “water drops” were lemon verbena syrup. Which was all very clever and quite tasty, but again, probably not a dessert I will be dreaming about for years to come. The wine match for this dessert fared better: a 2o12 Paul Cluver NLH Riesling (Elgin, South Africa) which had a glorious amber colour and a palate full of dried apricots and peaches.
To accompany our coffee, we were served some adorable pumpkin mini parkins which were nutty and not to sweet. And to our delight, as the sun approached the horizon it finally broke through the clouds and gave us the dazzling sunset show that such a meal deserved. Overall, I had a really wonderful experience at The Cube and in particular I want to mention that the staff were among the friendliest I have ever encountered in a fine dining situation. Yes, the idea of plonking a glass cube on random buildings as a dining venue is probably a little contrived but I liked the novelty value of getting to places that the public would not normally have access to. I also loved that the Cube puts paid to the well-known fact that restaurants with a view almost always serve awful food. Although I was too busy taking photos and chatting to spend much time in the kitchen area, I liked the concept that people could chat to the chefs during service and even help with the plating, providing an insight into a professional kitchen that few people ever see. And although for some people, dining at one long table with a bunch of strangers might be a negative, I thought this was one of the best aspects of the afternoon. So often, you go to a high-end restaurant with maybe one other person and sit in your little bubble at your table and, at most, chat to one other person – but with this concept, you chatted to a number of like-minded people and got to hear a broad range of opinions about each dish. I truly believe that this sort of social dining experience is the way forward – how else would you explain the popularity of supper clubs? The idea of having an ever-changing line-up of chefs is also good, particularly getting chefs from outside London to do a stint. The kind of food that Simon cooks is the kind of playful food I happen to like very much – my husband would call it fiddly or girly, but then he is a meat and potatoes man and I imagine that The Cube is probably not aimed at him. The sticking point for most, I suspect, is the price which is £175 for lunch and £215 for dinner (both prices include the matching wines). Considering that you can get 10 courses for £80 at Roganic (and some of them are identical to the food we had), it seems a very large premium to pay for a few glasses of wine and a view. But if this sounds like your kind of meal and money is no object, The Cube is in residence on the Festival Hall till 31 December and Simon Rogan will be cooking again for the final week of the residency. I imagine new year’s eve there would be quite something to remember.
Price of our meal per person: £175 including matching wines
Liked: the spectacular views, the uber-friendly staff, the social aspect, those astonishingly good cheese dumplings
Disliked: the high prices, the somewhat austere desserts
In a nutshell: Show-stopping location, Michelin-starred dining, and a social dining experience for Londoners with cash to flash
Wow factor out of 10: 8.5
DISCLAIMER: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of the The Cube but received no remuneration other than the meal. All opinions are my own.
The Cube London is open daily till 31 December and serves lunch at 12:00 (£175) and dinner at 19h00 (£215) – both prices include champagne on arrival and a six or more course tasting menu with matching wines. Reservations may be made up to 4 weeks in advance.
The Cube by Electrolux
Royal Festival Hall
Tel. +44 (0)20 7288 6450