You know how they say that you wait for a bus and then three come along at once? Well, I recently had that very experience with supper clubs in Clapton. Over the course of three evenings, I munched my way through almost 40 courses served on boards, bricks and the backs of hands, all plated up in front of me, drank copious amounts of cocktails and had riveting conversations with actors, chefs, PRs and TV producers. It was all a bit bonkers, but that’s Ben Spalding for you.
PuzzleProjects’ dinners, including the #AllGunsBlazing collaborations, are far from boring. The only rule is that there are no rules and so the menu is only limited by the imagination, of which Ben isn’t in short supply. Dishes are continually evolving to maximise their impact, with some last-minute improvisation on the night. When you buy your ticket, you don’t really have a clue what’s in store, and you’re none the wiser on arrival as the menu/placemat barely gives anything away. If you’re risk averse, you’ve probably already switched off.
For those who love the element of surprise, you won’t forget “Salad Madness” in a rush. A signature Spalding creation, its name and composition, plus the way it’s eaten, is in constant flux. Also known as “30-Ingredient Salad” and “Salad 49”, this complex collection is basically an edible Jackson Pollock painting. Unlike your average salad, there’s unexpected excitement in every mouthful, ranging from carrot jelly, cinnamon and crispy rhubarb to peanut powder, pickled sea purslane and purple beetroot. Equally surprising is how the fresh, spicy, sweet, sour and mellow flavours marry together so well. Eating it with chopsticks instead of a fork intensifies the activity as it forces you to slow down and savour each ingredient. You can either put your palate (or neighbour) to the test, or take the easy route and crosscheck each bite against the full list which arrives with the dish.
Another dish that I wish would replenish itself is the “Proper Ragu”. Cooked long and slow for 25 hours, the tender chunks of beef simply slide down your throat. Small dollops of crème fraîche and balsamic vinegar prevent the meaty richness from being overwhelming, while toasted pumpkin seeds keep it away from baby food territory. Other highlights are the infamous “Chicken on a Brick” (pâté smeared on a caramel-coated brick; served sans cutlery so you have to lick it, either off the brick or your finger), which will undoubtedly disgust the “We Want Plates” campaigners; “Goat vs Turkey” (goat is a very underrated meat in my view); and Grapefruit Skin Cake (formerly discarded skins combined with sugar and Douglas Fir accompanied by crumble and granita).
Less successful is “KaffirCumber”: a chilled cucumber hollow filled with an ice-cold kaffir and rose-flavoured granita. As palate-cleansing as it is, sensitive teeth sufferers will want to avoid this. The “Hamachi, Mini Eggs and Roe” may also divide opinion due to the intense flavour of the brined fish.
When Ben teams up with fellow chefs who refuse to play it safe, the evenings are cranked up a notch. The most recent collaborators, Adam Handling (chef owner of The Frog) and Calum Franklin (Executive Chef at Holborn Dining Room), aren’t afraid of challenging themselves in a bid to revolutionise perceptions and tastes. Adam’s Chicken Butter is, at its simplest, merely bread and butter, but the clever combination of chicken flavours and crispy crumbs of skin raises it to another realm. His smoked salmon is as silky as D’Angelo’s voice (I’ve been binge-watching Master of None) and punctuated with herbal notes; the fish finger sandwich, where cod is replaced by turbot, is comfort food reinvented; and the caramel-topped chocolate dessert entitled “Sex” sends you into raptures.
Calum’s offering doesn’t disappoint either: rabbit and bacon en croûte, lobster thermidor, pigeon pithivier and lemon tart showcase his mastery of pastry and are a celebration of British classics in an elevated format. Using the heart, lungs, liver and breast of the pigeon, the pithivier is intense yet subtle, and gives you a newfound appreciation for the bird. To end, a glorious lemon tart graces our table with just the right volume of sweet and sharp.
In a time when you decide whether to make a restaurant booking by drooling over their online menus or Instagram feed, it can be daunting to commit to a meal with very little prior knowledge. On the flip side, not having a full breakdown is liberating and encourages diners to embrace the event with an open mind. While some of the staples may remain on the PuzzleProjects menu, they will be reincarnated multiple times, thus ensuring that each dinner is unique. Part of the appeal is that they tap into the sensuality of food: picking it up with your fingers, licking it off your hand and slurping it from a bowl reconnects the diners with the physicality of the act of eating. Since describing each course in detail would double the length of this review, you’ll just have to try them for yourself. See you there.
Curious about these PuzzleProjects? If so, Chef Jonathan Tam of Copenhagen-based Relæ will be going #AllGunsBlazing with Ben on Sunday 25th and Monday 26th June. As of Thursday, 26th May, Ben will also be bringing his SmallPlates concept to Last Days of Shoreditch for a three-month pop-up. Tickets for all events are available on his website below.
Disclaimer: I was invited to the first dinner by Nisbets and paid for the remaining two (£55 pp, excluding drinks). As always, all views and photos are mine, unless otherwise stated, and remain the property of www.savlafaire.com.
Links: Ben Spalding & PuzzleProjects, Ben Spalding Review, Adam Handling Interview, The Frog, Calum Franklin Interview, Holborn Dining Room, Jonathan Tam Interview, Last Days of Shoreditch, Clare Walpole Photography.