Shadwell is a bit of London that seldom makes it into the news for good things. You’re more likely to read about muggings in Cable Street than excellent meals – and yet there is no logical reason why this should be so. Shadwell is a stone’s throw from both the financial powerhouse of the City as well as the luxury of St Katherine’s Docks and Limehouse Marina, and a large chunk of it is within a block or two of the river. It even boasts its own piece of water, the Shadwell Basin, which I discovered on an East End riverside walk years ago. It’s inevitable that the gentrification which has slowly spread westwards from Limehouse and eastwards from St Katherines Docks will eventually also move northwards into Shadwell, but for now it’s still a little pocket of urban grittiness amidst islands of great wealth. What better location, then, for a slightly edgy imported pop-up restaurant than on a deserted cobbled street opposite a massive Victorian shipping warehouse in Shadwell?
Chef Laurent Quenioux grew up in Sologne, France and learnt his trade there working the some of the finest kitchens in France. He moved to the United States and in 1985, he opened the 7th Street Bistro in Los Angeles and later also Bistro LQ in July 2009, serving groundbreaking French Nouvelle California cuisine. In 2011 he closed Bistro LQ to take an extended culinary and creative sabbatical during which time he has been experimenting in temporary venues with the idea of bistronomy - serving gastronomic dishes in a bistro setting, at affordable prices. His LQ Foodings pop-up events combine unique culinary offerings, art and seasonal ingredients to create a one-of-a-kind event in each location they visit. Chef Laurent draws on local ingredients to provide the menu while each location provides the atmosphere, service and soundtrack. It is this LQ Foodings concept that has now been brought to the UK by Chateau Marmot, a company started by Danielle Treanor and the charming Theo Cooper to run fine dining events in unique temporary locations.
Walking into the space for the London event took me straight back to my university days when the architecture students would hold discos in cavernous industrial venues and project arty slideshows onto walls and sell drinks from a trestle table. The venue is more often used for photo shoots and is a high-ceilinged white shell with about 20 tables of varying sizes and a small makeshift stage in one corner. One wall is totally dominated by a video art installation that is projected in a loop throughout the meal, and in another corner is the extremely tidy and organised bar. Any resemblance to student parties stops at appearances though – this is a very slick operation indeed, run with near-military precision by staff that are without fail engaging, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. If only all London restaurant staff could be more like this!
The drinks menu is small but perfectly formed, featuring four cocktails (all £10 or under), 7 wines (all £35 and under), 2 Champagnes, 2 exclusive Chateau Marmot craft beers, spirits and cordials. I tried the Marmot Negroni (made with Antica Formula and Aperol instead of Campari and Vermouth) which was a little sweeter than a classic and a gentler introduction to this classic drink if you find the original a bit full-on. If you don’t want a full bottle of wine, all are available by the glass, or you can choose between two different flights of five wines each, designed to match each course. The set tasting menu (there are three on rotation during Chef Laurent’s London residency) consists of six courses plus an optional cheese course.
We started with the razor clam served in its shell with guacamole, carrot pico de gallo, chipotle chile and huitlacoche. Razor clams are something that I don’t think we see nearly enough of on UK menus and these were excellent – full flavoured and tender. The chipotle was infused into the guacamole and pico de gallo, lending them some chile heat, and the huitlacoche lent some balancing sweetness as the three little black dots on the right of the plate. This course was not matched with a wine. This was followed by South Downs venison tartare with a quail egg, chicken liver paté, basil seeds, yuzu kosho shiso gel and chocolate soil. As with most of the dishes, there was a lot going on here. The chicken liver paté on which the quail egg was resting was smooth and rich, and I dearly wanted more of this. The intensely yuzu kosho shiso gel took the form of a chutney-like blob on a small toast round that tasted like a shot of pure smoky umami, and the green blobs visible in the picture are soaked basil seeds. Was I the only person who did not know that basil seeds become gelatinous when soaked?? Think miniature basil-flavoured tapioca pearls and you won’t be far off. The venison had a wonderful meaty depth of flavour when mixed with the quail egg – I normally prefer my tartare more stridently seasoned, but this would only have distracted from the flavour of the venison. The only element that contributed nothing for me was the chocolate soil which seemed out of place amongst all the other flavours here. This course was matched with a 2011 Richard Rottiers Moulin a Vent (100% Gamay) with a typically juicy, meaty nose and a palate full of juicy fruit, soft tannins and a lovely smoky spiciness that provided a great match for the gamey venison.
Another fishy course followed in the form of halibut crudo, aji chile amarillo, parsnip/swede/turnip salad and a watercress & tarragon varnish. This was the prettiest plating of the night, with the various elements arranged in a crescent following the curve of the plate. I am not a fan of root white root vegetables, so the little cubes of these did not do it for me but the halibut draped over it was fantastic with a fresh clean flavour. The electric orange aji chile amarillo paste was creamy and sweet at first taste but left a lovely glow of heat in its wake, while the herby green “varnish” added more colour than actual flavour. Both of us loved the bright yellow fish roe that was served with this dish, with its satisfying pop on the tongue and tangy saline flavour. This course was matched with a Californian 2011 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay with a lovely buttery, candied citrus peel nose and balanced palate which was never strident enough to overpower the delicate food. This was followed by a double-barrelled dish of chestnut chowder with bacon, corn, pumpkin pie spices and a truffle-poached hen’s egg with a hushpuppy on huckleberries topped with foie gras. I’m not entirely sure that the two halves of this dish belonged on the same plate, other than they both referenced Southern cooking (chowder and hushpuppies). The hushpuppy (a fried cornmeal dumpling) was a little hard and heavy but the jewel-coloured tart huckleberry compote was a fabulous foil for the topping of fatty foie gras slivers. But the part of the dish I really adored was the rich and intriguing chestnut chowder with its floury bits of chestnut and smoky bacon flavours, intermingled with the truffled poaching liquid of the egg. Heaven. We were told that the wine served with this dish was intended more as a palate cleanser than a match, and the Laurent-Perrier Brut NV with its fine mousse did a fabulous job on that score.
The final savoury course was also the meatiest: slow-cooked pork cheek with banana mashed potatoes, Cointreau and confit shallots. I did blanch a little when I read the banana bit, but I am happy to report that the banana manifested itself as nothing more than a hint of sweetness in the mashed potato rather than a dollop of banana flavour. I’m not sure where the Cointreau fitted in, but the sweet confit shallots were a buttery joy, while the pork cheek was tender enough to be forked apart. Delicious. This dish was matched with a 2010 The Charge Rioja with it spicy cinnamon nose, good structure and fruity vanilla finish. Last but not least was the dessert course which I have to say was probably mt favourite of the night – and I am not usually a dessert fiend! The persimmon pudding with corn streusel, corn pannacotta, barley ice-cream and cranberry gel managed to combine all the elements of a successful dessert on one plate – the dense, cakey pudding enriched with gingerbread spices; the condensed milk sweetness of the corn pannacotta, the tartness of the cranberry gel all balanced each other beautifully. But it was the unlikely sounding and surprisingly fabulous barley ice cream that really impressed with its comforting not-quite-sweet cereal flavours and creamy texture – a hit with both me and Nick. I did not think that the match for this course worked as well as it might have – the (admittedly fabulous) Henriques & Henriques Rich Madeira had a fantastic flavour profile of hazelnuts, sultanas and burnt caramel but I found that it rather overwhelmed the dessert. I suspect that the other dessert wine option (which we had with our cheese course) would probably have been a better match.
Our final course was an optional cheese course – but when the French chap who selected the cheese comes over to tell you about them with such palpable delight and enthusiasm, it’s hard to say no! Cheeses came from Hamish Johnston Fine Cheeses on Northcote Road and included an Ossau Iraty (a hard sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees); a 10 month old Comte, and a fantastically creamy English goat’s cheese, served with crackers and homemade chutneys. I would be hard-pressed to choose a favourite but oh my, the Comte was fabulous. Together with this we had a glass of anber coloured Moscatel de Setubal from Portugal which tasted like a Mediterranean summer, full of apricots and sultanas.
There was also live music during the meal – something which I usually dread – but this time it was a very accomplished blues pianist who ran through a fantastic repertoire of blues classics, at a volume that still allowed for conversation – not a feat that live musicians often pull off. The excellent music, the lovely staff, the adventurous and beautifully plated menu, as well as the surreal knowledge that in a week’s time none of this would be here, made the entire evening a special experience that you really did feel you were unlikely to encounter elsewhere. Add to that the very reasonable price (6 course tasting menu for £49; matching wine flights from £27) and you have a winning formula. For information on future pop-ups, have a look at the Chateau Marmot website. You can also follow Chef Laurent on Twitter.
For another perspective on this event, see Rosana’s review.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of Chateau Marmot but received no further remuneration to write this post and all views are my own.