You can’t get a table at Dabbous during the week until August. If you want to go over the weekend, you’ll have to wait until October. There hasn’t been a phenomenon like it since the Fat Duck spread its 3 Michelin-starred wings all those years ago. Among metro-centric restaurant critics, bloggerati and the grazing herd who feed on their utterances, Dabbous has been greeted with a fervor you might have thought better reserved for the second coming.
Dabbous takes its name from chef/prop Ollie Dabbous. It’s small – 40 covers or so – and decked out with the currently highly fashionable garage funk: dark walls, concrete floor, bare pipes, air conditioning pipes snaking about overhead, lights like strange, glowing creatures from the Mariana’s Trench. No tablecloths. Actually, the effect is less light industry and more like the atelier of a highly skilled, youthful craftsman, which it is. Dabbous has all beguiling energy and shape of a young chef, whose energy is focused entirely on his food. It says ‘we don’t give a damn about the palaver of fine dining. This is a laid back, no nonsense, classless place where people come to eat.
And eat anyone can. If they can get in, that is. At this stage, the pricing of the food at Dabbous is remarkably reasonable for food of any ambition. For dishes of the accomplishment that I and Tom PB put away, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling. The tasting menu is £49 for 8 courses; the set lunch menu £21 for 3 courses, £24 for 4; and on the a la carte, the cheapest dish is £5, the most expensive £14. We ended up with a bill for £183.38 for two, but that is largely down to the fact that we drank copiously and well from a wine list that is as intelligent and interesting as the restaurant itself. Ok, it was £101 for 2 bottles plus a couple of glasses if you must know. Easily done, particularly after the first bottle.
Tom and I ate: mixed alliums with pine infusion (£5); coddled free range egg with woodland mushrooms and smoked butter (£7); beef tartar with cigar oil, whisky & rye (£8); braised cod (it should have been ling, but the ling wasn’t up to scratch, apparently), iodized sour cream, beetroot & watercress stems; squid with seaweed, radishes, toasted buckwheat in light broth (£12); braised veal shin, spelt, celery, kinome (£14) ; barbecued Iberico pork, savory acorn praline, turnip tops, homemade apple vinegar (£14) ; iced lovage (£4); fresh milk curds, black sugar and rose petals (£5). I’ve laid it out in full because a) not many people will have the pleasure of eating such dishes in the foreseeable future; and b) the titles of the dishes tells you quite a lot about their substance.
On the one hand there is a pleasing lack of self-advertising techno babble, apart from the iodized sour cream. If some of the more fashionable of contemporary cooking technology and techniques – water baths, espuma machines, spherification, Pacojets and all the rest – are used, and, to be honest, I couldn’t really tell if they were or not, they simply serve the purpose of the dish, they are not an end in themselves.
On the other hand there is a certain winsome detailing – woodland mushrooms? Watercress stems? Basil moss? Homemade apple vinegar? Hmm.
At the same time, all the menu prosody hints at a certain lightness, delicacy and freshness. This is clean-limbed food, with broths and infusions in place of sauces and reductions. There’s the odd trace of dairy ingredients (incidentally, they churn their own butter at Dabbous), but it’s used sparingly and with precision, frequently with a lactic tang to it. And there is note of refined contrasts running through many of the dishes, frequently employing less familiar ingredients such as pine infusion, cigar oil and whisky, iodized sour cream, apple vinegar and black sugar.
These have the effect not unlike the lighting on a play, of suddenly throwing the other elements of a dish into a new perspective. So the elusive medicinal whiff of pine essence rebalances and underlines the sweet fruit of the onions. The cigar oil moderates the fleshy bloodiness of the beef tartar, and itself is toned down by the whisky and rye. The acorn praline gives the pork dish a sweet, earthy creaminess defined by the light point of apple vinegar. And so on. Beneath the apparent artless naturalness of the surface, there’s a great deal going on in Ollie Dabbous’s dishes.
At the same time, he is remarkably sure-footed. I never had the sense that the dishes were overworked or carried unnecessary ingredients. Indeed, there was a beguiling sense of ease about them. There were no frills for the sake of frills, no striving for effect. They were what they were because that’s how they were supposed to be. It’s a difficult thing to nail down. Mr Dabbous seems to have a precise sense of what he wants to achieve with each dish, and so each dish expresses his own, very individual culinary personality.
It’s a personality that stands out strongly in the current London restaurant scene, perhaps less strongly if you look at the UK as a whole. Simon Rogan, Sat Bains, Tom Kerridge, Daniel Clifford, Tom Kitchin, Stephen Harris, Glyn Purnell, Lisa Allen to name only a few all have as distinctive an individuality, and sometimes rather more to express. That Ollie Dabbous fits easily into that exalted company says a great deal about his qualities as a chef. But, very fine though the food is at Dabbous, it isn’t the second coming. Perhaps that’s just as well. After all, if that were the case, there wouldn’t be much room for development, and I get the feeling that we have still to eat the best of Ollie Dabbous.
Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF.
Tel: 0207 323 1544