Adam Handling’s first restaurant has been refurbished and expanded. It reflects the deserved success of one of the UK’s most promising chefs, writes Christopher Jackson
Kenneth Tynan once remarked that by the age of 40, writers have either written themselves in, or they’ve written themselves out. Adam Handling is a chef who has cooked himself in. His CV reads as an accumulation of steady achievement – and the kind which might be sustained: head chef at Adam Handling at Caxton in St James's Park (leading the team at age 22); 2013 finalist of Masterchef; first book, Smile, or Get out of the Kitchen, published at a Keatsian 26.
Nothing in his subsequent career suggests he has ceased to smile, as he doesn’t seem to have removed himself from the kitchen – or at least, from the kitchen business (the head chef at Frog EI is Jamie Park). After the Frog in Spitalfields opened in June 2016, Handling proceeded to open the group’s flagship restaurant in Covent Garden. Is this then another Napoleonic superchef whose business shall expand at the rate of this reviewer’s waist line?
Well, if he does, he is not doing it at such a rate that he isn’t prepared to revisit his first venture. Situated in Ely’s Yard, just off Brick Lane, the terrace area has been revamped to include – I quote from the marketing materials – ‘relaxing swinging seats, hops hanging from the ceiling, and extra dining space for guests’. There is also ‘an eclectic mix of chairs, sofas and cushions’.
We take a table in the corner, my male companion sitting on one of these swinging-seats which seems as though it might be slightly infantilising: they look like the kind of thing a young girl might dangle their legs from while eating an apple. Above us, hops-tendrils droop rustically – a suspended autumn. All around us are the vaunted cushions: some fittingly in frog-green; others technicoloured.
We are here to try the tasting menu. This begins with a smoked cod, crème fraiche and caviar – a finger of food served on a disc of shells. This was brief, and delicious. At the time I thought I could have eaten more of it, but the Frog knows what it’s doing.
Let me enlarge on that: the Frog really, really knows what it’s doing. The cod was followed by crispy beef, pickles and mustard – also succinct, also perfectly cooked. Somewhere around this time, another minor wonder had been deposited on our table – sourdough bread, delivered in a sort of mini knapsack, and chicken butter. A pattern of accumulating pluses had been established.
I had heard that Japanese flavours are part of Handling’s approach; so far he seemed a minimalist with a commitment to bringing out simple flavour. A moment later, we were presented with a moment of subtle fusion: a Nobu-esque plate of salmon, burnt miso, apple, and radish. Then, after a dish of celeriac, yolk, apple, and dates – a sort of quattro staggioni – came the hake, perched atop the best cauliflower I have had. The flavour came through its having been charred. It was as if cauliflower, that much-wronged vegetable, had finally found its true champion.
Fullness began to be an issue probably around about the bread; by the time the beef hanger, roast artichoke and anchovy arrived – accompanied by the cherry-ish subtleties of a Vin de Pays de Caux 2015 – I was confirmed in the opinion that this was a very fine meal. I had to rally; and so I did. And indeed, two dishes of true invention would reward me for what I still think of as my courage.
The first was a cheese doughnut. It was both a marvellous piece of decadence and a ball of sheer heart attack: it’s a good job I don’t live in East London, as I’d eat it every day and then I wouldn’t make it to Christmas.
The second showstopper was the ‘Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot’: this was the sort of unreality you might expect at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. On a plate wholly covered in beetroot powder, there were two filo pastry-sized slabs of beetroot. These were neatly ribboned in – you guessed it – beetroot. It’s rare for a dish to so quietly insist on an ingredient like this: like the cauliflower before it, it was both a meal and a celebration.
‘Absorbed in wonders,’ was how Traherne described the human condition. I don’t know if life is always like that, but as Frog testifies, sometimes it is.