Nasturtium, meadowsweet, millet, orache, lovage, wood sorrel, chenopodiums (eh?), sweet cicely, verbena, hyssop, buckthorn – is there a hedgerow or coppice that hasn’t been picked over by Simon Rogan and his assiduous foragers?
Over the last 8 years Rogan has built a reputation for serious and highly individual food in Cartmel in Cumbria, famous for its Sticky Toffee Pudding (actually invented by Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay Hotel at the other end of the Lake District). Now Mr Rogan has been tempted to dip his toe into the piranha-infested waters of London’s restaurant scene. Roganic is a pop-up restaurant in Blandford Street. The site as a two year lease. I’ve known un-popped up restaurants that haven’t lasted that long. In spite of its clunking name, I hope that Roganic is simply the bridgehead for Simon Rogan’s expressive and idiosyncratic cooking in London.
I’ve been twice, the first time on the day the restaurant opened, when I did not pay, and for lunch a week or so later, when I did. In between the two visits, the original demanding menu structure – 6 courses for £55 or 10 courses for £80 – had been made more flexible with the introduction of 3 courses for £29. This still doesn’t make the bargain of a lifetime, but at least it makes eating at Roganic more accessible for the curious eater. In view of the fact that the restaurant can only seat 24 people, Roganics is unlikely to be turning tables, £29 is reasonable.
The small space is broken up into smaller spaces of irregular geometry, like a kind of deconstructed Rubic’s cube, and tricked out in spare, cool, grey tongue-and-groove paneling. The service is surprisingly formal given the supposedly transient nature of the operation. I suspect the staff have been trained at L’Enclume. A certain degree of decorum is still expected in the north of England, which seems a bit stiff in the more frenetic and relaxed London context. At least it ensures that the food arrives in a good order.
Simon Rogan has always followed was an idiosyncratic path. He was onto foams and jellies and striking combinations a good deal earlier that most, presented with a keen eye for visual impact. This has matured over the years, with the technical razzamatazz giving way to a passion for native floral and herbal materials. What stops this from being just frou-frou on the plate is very sound technical base and a balancing taste for serious, solid flavours. Whatever his flights of fancy, his cooking has been anchored by some down to earth elements and their flavours. The menu at Roganic included tongue, mackerel, hogget, sweetbreads and lamb ‘flank’.
By the time I went for my second lunch, Simon Rogan had returned to his Cumbrian eyrie, and the kitchen was run by Ben Spalding. I decided to test the quality of the £29 menu: crab on toast with squid, gem lettuce and fresh peas; caramelised lamb flank, sweetbreads beetroots, and nasturtiums; and white chocolate sorbet with rapeseed, plums and meadowsweet. Maximot was on some kind of minimalist eating regime. She settled for the crab dish, too followed by seawater cured Kentish mackerel, red orache, broccoli and warm elderflower honey. You see what I mean by garden hedgerow.
In fact each dish was something of a painter’s palette, a dazzle of brilliant reds, greens, yellows, purples, as flecks, dashes, slashes and flashes, disciplined by a precise sense of form. However, there’s no point to visual razzle dazzle, in my view, if the food doesn’t taste at least as good as it looks. On the first visit, the originality and quality were unmistakable even if from time to time that there was one element too many on the plate, or that one ingredient got in the way of another, unbalancing the overall effect.
I couldn’t make this criticism against the dishes that Maximot and I ate. There was a precision and point to each, and a fine sense of balance. The crab dish was a delight to eat, and a fine, fresh summery sequence of mouthfuls. The flank of lamb seemed much more like breast to me, and was all the better for it, the fat having been rendered, leaving a compressed wedge of deeply flavoured meat with a delicious crisp surface. The earthy beetroot and peppery nasturtiums gave the dish a robust muscularity at odds with the delicacy of the presentation. I’m not sure what a sea water cure is, but the mackerel was crisply-skinned, firm and fleshy, it’s pronounced flavour cunningly softened by the elderflower honey. Various green vegetables gave the dish a fresh edge, intensity and crunch.
Sometimes there’s a tendency to dismiss Simon Rogan as a make-weight Rene Redzepi, just as there was to dismiss him as a make-weight Marc Veyrat a few years back. Perhaps he does owe something to both men, just as all chefs owe something to their mentors and contemporaries, but Simon Rogan’s cooking has distinctive qualities of its won His food rises quite naturally from his – our – own native ingredients. They give his dishes a distinctive, and distinctively British cast, and one that is very different from other British chefs. The elaboration of presentation may be somewhat at odds with contemporary London fashions, but the heart of his food is rooted in this country and its traditions.
Roganic, 19 Blandford Street, London W1U 3DH
Tel: 020 7486 0380
Web site: http://www.roganic.co.uk
NB. According to Chambers Dictionary Chenopod is ‘any dicotyledonous flowering plant of the chenopodiaceae including leaf beet, sugar beet, beetroot, manglewurzel, spinach and goosefoot.’ So there