Ants pack a surprisingly bitter punch for such little critters, I now know
You can pick the ants off if you prefer,’ the waitress suggested sweetly as she placed our amuse bouche on the table.
The ants hadn’t accidentally met a sticky end atop a blob of sour cream — although from the way their shiny black torsos were contorted you could be forgiven for thinking so — but had been purposefully placed there by the mischievous chefs at Blanch and Shock, a pop-up restaurant currently running at Kitchen Party near Exmouth Market.
I am not one to pick ants off my food — for a start I will try almost anything once, and having read too many reports about how we’re all going to have to subsist on insects soon, I feel I might as well get stuck in early and develop a taste for them. Ants pack a surprisingly bitter punch for such little critters, I now know, and so when insect-eating goes mainstream, I’d market them as a protein-rich lemon substitute.
‘It’s not the ants I object to,’ said D, a little forlornly, untouched by my gruesome fascination. The ants were served with a thick slice of radish, the radish arranged on a charcoaled tree stump.
Pictured above: Blanch & Shock's Dave and Mike on their Nitro Ice Cream Stall in December 2011
I happen to like radish, but I can appreciate it’s not to everyone’s taste. That said, Blanch and Shock are experimental, slightly crazy, and aim to challenge diners: this isn’t a cuisine for conservatives — as I told D, to rally him on.
Instead, my spirits flagged next when the shell was lifted off the next dish to reveal a tiny mound of Cornish brown crab and a cold green hill of sorrel ice. The crab was delicious but the sorrel ice was uniquely unpleasant: sour and grass-like (eating grass was a childhood experiment, so I speak with authority here), with an uneven, lumpy texture.
Hogwarts and hogweed
Next on the Harry Potter-ish menu were carrots cooked in hay, with air dried beef and hogweed cream. My instinctive reaction (voiced out loud, because we’d just had a Bourne & Hollingsworth cocktail at the bar next door) was that the dish smelled of Frazzles. This was probably thanks to the salt beef. My more considered response was that it was really quite fantastically tasty — the carrots, cooked so delicately, were, for want of a better description, super-carroty, sweet and earthy, and the salt beef added a savoury kick and a bit of texture.
I still feel fairly unsure as to what hogweed actually is, but the waitress told me that the chef had foraged it somewhere in Scandinavia the week before, which doesn’t seem quite in keeping with the ultra-local, back-to-nature ethos usually associated with the foraging movement.
Pictured above: 125 permutations of eight ingredients from February 2010
The stand-out dish, D and I both agreed, was the main course of lamb neck cooked like salt beef, with pickled sea lettuce, smoked cauliflower and chervil. The lamb was meltingly tender, and perfectly matched the slight acidity of the sea lettuce — like a slightly whacky version of salt beef and sauerkraut, which I’m sure was the intention.
We finished with a yoghurt mousse with sour meringue, caraway shortbread, rhubarb and mint — which was a fun, varied dish and just sweet enough not to feel cheated out of dessert, but not too sickly.
In all, the menu was a little hit and miss, but with Blanch and Shock offering four courses at £36, I’m much more amenable to the odd disappointment in exchange for the chance to try the kind of unusual ingredients and modern techniques you can only find at far higher price brackets and in far stuffier environments.
Watch a video featuring the chef behind Blanch & Shock