Chef Lee Westcott produced something truly special in the East End of London, and his Veuve Clicquot night was a one-off to remember, writes Christopher Jackson
Champagne is a liquid tap-dance – it’s a continuing reason for optimism in this century of computer glitches and Steve Bannon. The writer John Mortimer used to begin each day with a glass – and it did him no harm. Chekhov was prescribed it on his death-bed by an old friend from medical school. That didn’t arrest his mortality, but it was a fine exit.
Yet it must also be said that one’s own encounters with champagne are often glancing – the first glass which tees up a wedding, that what-the-hell finish to a night. Too often it’s a hint of what summer might be, when the suspicion remains that champagne ought to be summer itself.
Naturally enough, Veuve Clicquot thinks we underappreciate its versatility. Another who is happy to explore its possibilities is one of Britain’s finest chefs, Lee Westcott – whose star rose in the firmaments of Aikens, Noma and Per Se. Westcott and Veuve teamed up for a night in May to create an evening in Typing Room – Westcott’s celebrated coming-of-age venture, which opened in 2015.
A stone’s throw from Bethnal Green tube, Typing Room itself is housed in East London’s Town Hall Hotel. It is named, it says, after the building’s ‘original typing room in which all communications from the mayoral, council and judicial system were put to ink’. One curiosity of the evening then, is that champagne – that global symbol of celebration – is poured glass by delicious glass in a building redolent of closely fought council elections.
The room itself is cosy, a slight sense of local government underfunding offset by an open kitchen backed by light spilling in from Cambridge Heath Road. The first glass of Veuve arrives and the evening begins to dance with that crisp biscuitiness which we all know.
But the Extra Brut Extra Old is the ostensible reason for the evening: in 2011, cellar master Dominique Demarville and his team at Veuve had the idea for a new champagne based on 100 per cent of Veuve’s legendary store of reserve wines. With preemptive reverence, we give it a try. It has, at first, a creamy feel. But then it lightens into a cupful of opaque deliciousness: it makes one feel expansive, able to enlarge profitably on any hunch about life.
But that was just a Veuve solo. As soon as Westcott’s cooking begins to pair the champagne we become the happy audience of a culinary pas de deux. IPA bread with marmite butter comes first – I haven’t had marmite butter before and hope to have it one day in paradise. And if I do, I hope it shall be accompanied by the cloud-like gentleness of Westcott’s homemade bread.
But that has hardly been dispatched when before us is an edible celebration of primary colour: a plate of heritage tomato, ricotta, cherry and chamomile. The ricotta melts over the crunchy tomato, and then the second glass of Extra Brut Extra Old – nimbler than its name would suggest – rushes in to tell us that it is good.
Westcott, in his thirties now, proceeds to impress us with Dorset char, white asparagus, celeriac and wild garlic. Next the crispy cod skin, salt cod brandade, oyster and dill emulsion and smoked paprika arrives. Sometimes Westwood’s flavours were light, a harmonious accompaniment to the champagne. But sometimes – as with the crispy pig’s head, smoked apple pure – a duet of texture would ensue. The sweet liquid would mingle with the crispness, like the salving of a difficulty.
It used to be said of Peter Cook that his humour couldn’t be relayed – the moment of each witticism could only be understood in relation to its particular timing. And we have to take other people at their word that Paganini was a superb violinist. Perhaps all the best evenings are essentially unrepeatable. This one was. The elderflower set cream with honey, and the petit-four green tea and lime cake did their supreme work, but would only do it for us this once.
Outside, champagne was in all things – the trains flowed with yellow fluidity, the taxis bubbled along, and a distant shout from somewhere near Roman Road was a champagne cork popping. Announcing to each other in champagne-confident voices the brilliance of the evening, we hailed a taxi and poured ourselves home.
Christopher Jackson attended the Veuve Cliquot Edition at Typing Room. For more information www.typingroom.com