December 18, 2013
If you are looking for somewhere delicious and new to go out to eat in London, I have a recommendation for you.
I am a full-blown chocolate nerd. My interest is bottomless, my appetite matches it. But chocolate in every course, hors d’oeuvre, main course as well as pudding? I can’t say I am sure about that. In a radio interview for Overseas Radio in late 2012, while being grilled on all things chocolate in Paris, my interviewer asked me what my take was on chocolate in savoury food. The extreme elegance of the foie gras at Un Dimanche a Paris, shot through with fine Venezuelan, came to mind. But in truth I couldn’t answer, because most permutations of chocolate or cacao in savoury food that I knew paired my favourite bean with meat, as in the aforementioned foie gras or a classic Mexican mole. I don’t eat meat. But I don’t like not being able to answer questions, and I was beginning to hear rumblings that there was much more to be done on the subject than I had so far come across.
The loudest of these rumblings was coming from the direction of St Lucia, the Boucan restaurant at the Rabot Estate to be precise. The Rabot Estate in St Lucia is owned and run with real vigour and focus by the visionary chocolate company Hotel Chocolat. Angus Thirlwell and his team have done a great thing in creating a successful high street presence that caters to all levels of interest and diverse tastes, all the while ensuring that education about real chocolate and what it tastes like is at the heart of it. The cacao bean is front and centre. Bean origin, its characteristics and processing, are highly visible. There is complete dedication to informing about cacao, learning about it, and using it with delicacy and excellence.
The Rabot Estate in St Lucia is their flagship project, encompassing their plantation, a stylish hotel, and fine dining restaurant Boucan. I had read and salivated over reports sent back from Boucan, and long to go one day. Mercifully its sister restaurant Rabot 1745 opened in London’s Borough Market in mid November. One look at the menu had me counting the days until my lunchtime booking. It is not a story heavy with cocoa and beans. The menu reads like an exercise in lightness and temptation. It is innovative, yes, and there is cocoa or chocolate across every dish in some shape or form. But with so much variation and subtlety suggested I was just dying to try it.
I was not disappointed.
The restaurant is in the same location as the Roast and Conch café and shop Hotel Chocolat opened in the centre of Borough Market in 2010. A café and shop remain at street level, and the elegant but low key restaurant sits above, with a wall of windows looking out over the foodie mecca that is the market below. Decorated with clean simplicity, making much use of the appealing tones of wood, it is a light yet cosy room, modern but not cold. We were greeted by general manager Paul Van Zijl, who was warm and helpful, with a quietly efficient presence. None of that oleagenous glad-handling that restaurant managers sometimes feel a diner wants.
At our corner table we were served by Will, who continued the theme of informal and excellent staff. He was wonderfully enthusiastic about the restaurant and did an excellent job, without in any way intruding on our private lunch.
The restaurant’s opening shot is a little dish of three cocoa beans. Roasted that morning, Ecuadorian on the day we visited, they were a masterstroke. Munching on a superbly full flavoured, dark and smoky cocoa bean will instantly reset your expectations. If you were thinking about chocolate as we know it before you arrived, you will no longer be afterwards. Cocoa beans are not sweet, they are not pudding, they are intense, and complex, and a wake up call to the potential of the plant.
Choosing a drink I began to see some of that potential. I chose a Bellini made with a fine prosecco and cocoa pulp. Cocoa pulp is the white fleshy substance that surrounds the beans inside the pod. When you make chocolate this is at the centre of the fermentation process, but is lost when the beans are dried and then roasted. If you are not on a plantation, opening a fresh pod, you will not have tried cocoa pulp. But now you can, at Rabot 1745! Paul told me that they have found a way to bring it over, vac-packed for freshness, so that they can use it in their dishes and drinks. And it is simply delicious. In taste and appearance it is much like pulped lychee flesh, but with less sweetness. It is fresher tasting. It made the most divine Bellini, with a proper hit of zingy fruit.
As an amuse bouche we were brought a shot glass of ultra smooth butternut squash soup, with an accompaniment of cocoa nib focaccia. Cocoa nibs were used here, and across the menu as a well placed burst of dark flavour, and to add a fabulous crunch.
For my starter I ordered Red Mullet with Olive Gnocchi. A perfectly cooked piece of robustly flavoured, crispy skinned fish, was balanced by the comforting warmth of delicate fried ricotta balls and salty black olives. The cacao came in the form of a chocolate and mustard condiment. This was quite intense on its own, properly earthy. When eaten with the fish it made perfect sense, bringing out the caramelised notes of the crisped skin. Quite delicious with the fish’s natural savoury warmth.
My guest started with the sea tartare, which was an exercise in fresh flavours. The cocoa pulp through it was a great addition to this delicate but brightly flavoured dish.
My main course of the scallop salad was the dish of the day. All were good, this was simply excellent. The scallops were cooked perfectly, and their sweet nuttiness was complimented and given extra depth by their accompaniments. Beet carpaccio, comprising the thinnest slices of both dark and orange varieties, were earthy and fresh. Apple-beet matchsticks and wintercress leaves added freshness and acidity, crosnes added a hint of carb comfort. But the revelation was the absolutely spot on use of cacao on the plate, not an add-on, the star of the show. A curried nib oil was used with restraint, there was just enough to add a hint of spice and warmth to the flavours. Two thin lines of horseradish white chocolate condiment were a beautiful balancing of tastes, the white chocolate tempering the fire of the horseradish into a highly palatable flavour enhancer, with no hint of the chocolate’s sweetness remaining to intrude on what was a joyfully delicious dish.
For the full blooded among you I would also recommend the cacao marinated 35 day aged Galloway Short Horn rib eye steak. My guest went with the chef’s cooking recommendation, an uncharacteristic ‘medium’. He professed it perfectly tender, and made short work of it. The white chocolate and horseradish mash employed the same alchemy of those two ingredients that had lit up my own dish. A creamier more full-flavoured mash would be hard to find.
Of our side orders the green beans were well served by the added crunch and flavour of nibs and garlic. But the shaved fennel and citrus with white chocolate horseradish dressing struck the only duff note of the meal. The lightness of touch was absent, and white chocolate was too much in evidence. A slightly odd mish-mash of great zingy, crisp salad with a fresh but slightly puddingy dressing.
Of course actual pudding is a must here, you don’t come to the centre of chocolate making territory to leave un-sated. There is a tempting long list, including two nerdy options; chocolate genesis, a chocolate tasting journey, and the Rabot 1745 Mousse Collection. I am sure the Chocolate Genesis is a treat, but given how much chocolate tasting I already do I didn’t feel like it. The mousse collection intrigued me, and my guest was required to share it generously. Three fine firm mousses, from very different chocolates, were served alongside one another for comparison. The Saint Lucia 50% dark milk with sea salt was a wonderfully caramel-rich mousse, and sea salt the perfect added touch. If you like sea salt caramel you couldn’t fail to love this. The Vietnamese 80% dark with kirsch soaked cherries is the most challenging of the three, if you can call chocolate mousse challenging. It has the most acidity and complexity of flavour. The fruity intense flavour is well paired with the cherries. The Ecuadorian 90% is a very easy sell, milder than the Vietnamese, and particularly smooth in taste and texture. It has a deep nutty taste which is enhanced by its topping of a few shards of toasted almond. A great pudding, fun, interesting and tasty.
I chose the walnut tart. As a true pastry lover, and nut fiend, this represents heaven to me. A beautifully sweet, crisp, pâte sucrée encased an indulgent crunchy filling of fine walnuts. It was served with a cocoa infused cream. This made the unsweetened cream darker in flavour, a foil to the sweet tart. I don’t love cream, but this was a good idea. The Armagnac soaked prunes were a delicious and well-judged addition, and a nib encrusted ‘twig’ of chocolate was a very nice touch.
The chocolate content of my dessert was so restrained that I felt it would be rude not to eat a little more, and pay a visit to Louise, the Rabot 1745 resident chocolatier. Louise is visible in the street level shop, making chocolate from the bean on site. Her knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for the varieties of cacao she is working with, and the delicious and diverse chocolates that she can produce from them, is well worth your time. There is always something to try; on our visit a really stunning 70% milk from their St Lucia plantation. Louise also gave me a taste of the Marcial 70%, a chocolate I had tasted and liked before, but found dark, complex and not quite the finished article. This current harvest and process has produced a bar equally interesting, but truly balanced, such an easy one to love that I had to take it with me.
All in all Rabot 1745 is a significant venue for chocolate, worth a visit to learn about cacao and taste great chocolate. And the restaurant is an innovative, delicious and wholly successful addition to the Hotel Chocolat world.
If I happen to be quizzed live on radio again about my opinion on chocolate in savoury food I will be much better informed. Not only that but I can, hand on heart, call myself a fan.