A Pop Up usually makes Nick, like Goering, reach for his revolver. Adam Simmond’s pop-up however is shot through with some smart ideas.
I ate Adam Simmond’s tasting menu at his old stomping ground Danesfield House. My memory is of creative dishes that shone despite a room with more wood in it than the current Conservative cabinet. Little bit of politics there, as Ben Elton used to say.
So to find him literally moving in next door to our office in Frith Street, Soho, into the recently abandoned Barrafina, was a bit of good news.
It took a bit of time before I went in though, other things got in the way. There was a rather off putting, and I think unnecessarily spiteful, review in a Sunday paper as well. The place used to be, as I say, Barrafina, and so it has no tables just a long right angled marble top bar as befits a tapas/small plates place.
This works for Adam, he says, because the idea of the Test Kitchen is for the customers to eat informally, see what his team is creating and to talk to the chefs. He proves this by talking to me.
Sometimes testing can be traumatic, my partner once got a half-price haircut because they were testing out new stylists. The result had her hiding at home for a week.
Adam is not sending out amateur dishes though, the setup is about getting customer feedback on dishes - which are liked, which are not - and to see what can be improved. The idea is that this will inform the menu of a new restaurant when the pop up ends.
So it is not, it seems to me, a place for ‘a meal’ per se, but somewhere to go if interested in food. Pop in and try one or two dishes and then move on. In fact, even if you were to eat everything on the menu you’d probably still leave hungry anyway.
This is food for supermodels. So what did we test? Salt baked swede with blackberries, cocoa nibs and goats cheese, for one. The microplaned cold cheese is like eating savoury snow.
I like it against the sweet blackberry and the soft as sin swede, but the blackberry seeds get annoyingly caught in my teeth. That may just be my problem but my verdict is to use either more refined blackberries or try another fruit.
M, who is a bit prejudiced against ‘fancy food’ and who has been brought in against his will, has white asparagus, linzer potatoes, caviar and whey. He likes the asparagus, but is disappointed out that the potato is perhaps in total about half a potato, and a small one at that.
I try a forkful, the side by side seating makes it easy to share, and the caviar salty pop goes well against the asparagus which is not as bitter as the white variety often tends to be. As for the whey, we both wonder why.
From the fish section he tries the rock oyster with caviar ( he is sucker for posh ingredients) with cucumber and kiwi fruit. He likes the plump briny oyster, is not sure about the kiwi, but eats the lot anyway. I try it and like it all, the kiwi really works with the shellfish, the cucumber adds freshness.
I also like my cured red mullet, although it could be a bit more cured, and the green tomatoes acidity is pleasingly zingy. Fresh almonds are rather fiddly to pick up and perhaps superfluous. It’s a dish that combines a few simple things to pleasant, if a little disjointed effect. I was happy though that in this case the portion was substantial.
For the meat I thought I’d test myself and order lamb. I do like lamb, but then I don’t. It all depends on the quality of the meat, the cut and the cooking; sometimes just the smell of lamb puts me off. This was good; properly pink and the fat seared enough to take away the aroma that I find unpleasant.
It was teamed with salsify, a root vegetable that looks like a parsnip that’s been on the barbecue but which tastes pleasantly of oyster. A vegetable not served enough in restaurants. There was a King Oyster mushroom that was very meaty in itself and some pickled shallot and milk skin.
It certainly made for a nice photo, although milk skin can send people two ways - shuddering revulsion or total joy. I’m a fan; as a child I used to skim off my milk skin and quietly, happily, eat it in a closed eye reverie.
Veal sweetbreads are a bit divisive too and some people are doubly appalled, once by what they are and once again by the veal part of it. I like them a lot. These with broccoli, black garlic and girolles was perhaps the most straightforward, yet still exciting, of all the dishes, and was my favourite perhaps for that reason.
M now legged it claiming a meeting, but not before ordering dessert, so I ate them both in the spirit of research. Noble of me as I don’t like desserts much, I don’t have a shade of a sweet tooth.
Which is why I chose Brin d”amour cheese with a rosemary crust, pineapple and a tapioca crisp. Great cheese and the rosemary not as overpowering as expected, the pineapple an unusual pairing but one that worked. The tapioca crisp was more elegant decoration than anything else.
Strawberries, red pepper and basil seeds was a good refresher, but I wasn’t sure about the basil seeds as they didn’t seem to taste of much. Better to plant them, that’s what I do with mine.
So what do we think? Well firstly that it’s not a good idea to think of it as a standard restaurant - the clue is in the name. The layout is not suitable for groups or couples, the focus is on the food and on what’s happening behind the counter.
Second, you won’t be disappointed by the creativity but you may be by the portion size. I appreciate the idea is to eat widely and share, but the prices don’t really encourage mass consumption. I feel that some kind of ballast should be provided, like limitless bread or or a voucher for the nearest kebab shop.
Of course that last is a joke, but I have in the past had to stop off on the way home from fine dining to get a bag of chips.
The Test Kitchen then is not for everyone, but if you’re interested in food beyond burgers and smoked meats, about the interplay of textures and flavours and the possibilities of what the modern kitchen can achieve, then give it a go.