The Ethicurean, a late review
Being late to the party is a philosophy that's served me well over the years. Arrive after the tedious ice-breaking, nick off before the debauchery. I stand by the approach, but I'll be honest, it's not one that works well for restaurants. These days restaurants don't seem like they're made for the long game, so if you don't hit them in the first six months when everyone involved is full of passion and interest, frankly you're just hoovering up the scraps.
I don’t know if this is the case with The Ethicurean (it's been open a lot longer than six months) but its revered specialness was absent when I visited in late August. Gutting, as I'd heard nothing but good things about the restaurant from people whose opinion I trust. I'd been looking forward to going for ages, but always fell foul of its popularity and couldn't get a table. When I finally managed to book, I guess I missed the boat.
Things started badly with an insipid Blackcurrant Collins. I don't tend to order cocktails unless I'm in a place where the bartenders really know what they're doing, but I'd heard a lot about the Ethicurean's herbal infusions, foraged botanicals and homemade vermouths, so thought I'd treat myself and get this odyssey of flavour underway. And yet the watery, faintly berried, faintly junipery tumbler of ice I had was unbalanced, uninspired and over diluted.
The five course £50 menu kicked off with Walled Garden Tomatoes, Ewe's Curd, Dukkah, Jelly. The clipped brevity of this description was undone by an overly fussy plate of OK-ish tomatoes interspersed with various sweet sauces and jellies. I found the bed of dukkah odd; while it gave a textural crunch, the toasted hazelnuts married with the sweetness of the dish, making it a bit puddingy overall. What it really needed was some nice fresh lactic cheese, but sadly the one (ONE!) chickpea-size blob of goat's curd didn't cut it.
Smoked Cod's Roe, Crackling, Tapioca, Cucumber was a marked improvement, a generous, dextrously emulsified brandade with a satisfyingly fishy flavour. The pickled cucumbers were a fine foil, fragrant and brightly tangy, but the dish was let down by the tapioca crisps and cod skin crackling. They were too slight to provide a crisp counterpoint to the roe mousse, and the (soggy) tapioca crisps tasted like they'd been fried in overused oil, lending them a grimy fish oil flavour that was the only real negative here.
My heart sinks in describing the next two dishes. Lamb Shoulder, Agretti, Caponata, Walnut sounded promising, but what came to the table was a mess. An amorphous blob of fatty lamb coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried (for too long) in the same dirty oil as the tapioca crisps, on a bed of unflattering beetrooty 'caponata' with roasted onion sauce, walnuts and samphire-like Monk’s Beard (agretti). It may have been seasonal, but it didn't work for me. The lamb was greasy and over-cooked in its crumb coating, the caponata was too sweet and earthy, the sauce tasted of burnt onion skin, the monks beard was a pretty garnish but added nothing redeemable, and the dried walnuts were so rancid I had to spit a mouthful of food into my napkin – always nice when you're with company. Only the pickled walnuts were a welcome addition, their distinctive malt vinegary punch countering the greasy/earthy confusion of the other items. All in all: a pretty poor plate of food.
I vainly hoped that Aged Beef Bavette, Beetroot, Carrot, Peanut could turn things around, but by this point I lacked faith. Beef, to follow lamb? Hmm. Whatever else was happening on the plate, the crowning glory of the bavette steak was a disaster. Tough, chewy, woefully rare in the hope it wouldn't toughen the meat, but to no avail. It bordered on inedible. Beneath it, the celeriac and carrot were pleasant, tender and fulsome with their own distinct flavours shining through. Beetroot and peanut fell by the wayside. But the dish was the beef, and the beef sucked. Fibrous and unpalatable, it was like bloodied old leather, real caveman stuff. I left most of it on the plate, to the disregard of our server.
And then a miracle arrived in the guise of Apple, Caramel, Honeycomb, Clotted Cream, a pudding that while heavy and not really a fitting finish to what went before, was glorious. The 'apple' was a dense and sticky apple cake, well made and deeply satisfying, a cake full of generosity and autumnal sweetness. The clotted cream ice cream was spot on, clean and fresh while indulgently smooth, not overly sweetened so as to balance the cake. Then there was the honeycomb, another triumph. Burnished gold and beautifully light, it splintered and crackled on the tongue before dissolving into a reverie of honeyed sugary warmth.
So there we are. Not a great experience. There were positives (the stunning walled garden setting looking out towards the Mendip hills, the cod's roe, apple cake pudding, and the wine), but far too many negatives. Aside for the food, I didn't much care for the aloof service. I don't expect much from waiters bar professionalism, and while I prefer to be left alone than fussed over, I felt undervalued and uncared for at the Ethicurean. Food arrived and plates were taken away without regard. The rather arrogant 'so which was your favourite dish?' at the end of the meal was the only indication that someone gave a toss, but it came too late. I can only wonder what the food was like in the Ethicurean's heyday, and I kick myself for missing out. I hope they can get things back on track and find their mojo again. My advice would be to simplify the dishes, to take a less-is-more approach and concentrate on amplifying natural flavours and letting them shine through. And if I hear good things again, I won't wait so long in getting back there.