Core by Clare Smyth: The Spring Season

London: June 2021

Continuing our Core by Clare Smyth: The Classics post, today we cover the seasonal menu, Core Seasons. 

As we explained exhaustively in our last post, Clare Smyth endeavours to encapsulate what the British Isles have best to offer in her food. Thus, seasonality is an obvious choice. In spring, this means that crab, morels, wild garlic and lamb make an appearance in the menu.

The dishes are as refined and conceptually mature as those in the Core Classics menu. Both menus share the same appetisers and mignardises described in our previous post, but Core Seasons commences with a bang with an impressive starter.

The Steamed Colchester crab is a dish of pure and fresh flavours blended with thoughtful mastery. Flowers, wasabi, peas and crab merge into an ethereal bite. The presentation immediately reminded us of Robuchon’s attention to detail and his passion for dots of purée or fluid gels. Here, a decadent pea and wasabi purée is dotted with circular symmetry. In the centre, a light wasabi foad covers a veil (gel) of rose geranium which, in turn, wraps the sweet and tender claw of crab. The crab is suspended by perfectly cooked peas that feel like vegetable caviar. They explode with green and sweet flavours that round the power of the wasabi and heighten the delicate notes of the crab. The result is outstanding, no other adjective suits this dish better.

With the second starter we experienced that great sensation that we have described in other posts. While still imbued with astonishment from the previous dish, the next arrives and delivers to the same level. The Morel and wild garlic tartlet did that. 

Looking with close attention, one realises that the dish exploits the complementary relationship of wild garlic and morels in its different facets. The tartlet is constructed from a thin and crisp tart filled with a layer of diced morels, a second layer with two set gels of morel and wild garlic respectively and a mound of morel halves on top. The morels were delicately crunchy, probably simply sautéed until they released all of those coveted savory and earthy notes. Meanwhile, the wild garlic provides that very familiar taste which is excellent to elevate the flavours of any mushroom. This duo of wild garlic and morel also provides a beautiful contrast of colours which is used repeatedly in the plating, but it particularly shines through the sauces. Both sauces are poured simultaneously in front of the customer, accentuating with dynamism the clash of the green and the brown. 

And the sauces per se deserve high praise. They are elegantly executed, slightly aerated to render them light, but rich in flavour. Morel and vin jaune is a pairing of which we have talked extensively, actually twice. This particular rendition as a sauce was scrumptious. Ordering a glass of Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Chaumées from Philippe Colin proved to be a smart pairing.

Apparently this is a seasonal tart that swaps the morels for ceps in autumn or Jerusalem artichokes in winter. Certainly a reason to come here again.

The first main dish came in the form of a Cornish sea bass, a perfectly cooked fillet of fish in a vegetal and grassy broth with lovage oil. The notes of celery and lovage bring the brightness to the dish whereas sliced cockles and clams provide a more saline note and textural heterogeneity. A good dish driven by the use of coastal herbs, although more mundane when compared to the rest of the menu. 

Onion bun, served alongside the ‘Cheese and onion’.

The next dish was a reinterpretation of a classic onion soup. And frankly, it’s clearly superior, even more than Christian Le Squer’s sorrel and onion soup. For ‘Cheese and onion’, half of a sweet onion is first cooked until soft. Then, its layers are disassembled to introduce an aged cheddar between them. The resulting assembly is returned to the oven for the cheese to be served melted. Once at the table, an incredibly rich broth of intensely caramelised onions is poured alongside it. Fried onion slices and cheese croutons provided the garnish and crunch to the dish. We have no other words, but sensational, if we were to rate this soup…

Lamb, hogget, mutton completed the set of mains. With the aim of proving that hogget and mutton (older sheep, over one and over two years old respectively) can be as complex and delicious as the more popular lamb (a young sheep under 12 months), Clare Smyth has concocted a dish that plays with classic flavours with a twist. 

On the left, lamb is shown at its best. A cut from the rib rack was cooked until beautifully rendered and crispy, and topped with sheep’s milk yogurt and dices of celtuce. Here, savory replaces thyme, whereas black cardamom replaces black pepper to give a note akin to smoke. This Chinese lettuce adds nutty notes alike to those of Jerusalem artichokes despite its bright celery-like colour. The combination is instinctively pleasurable and feels inspired by Middle East flavours despite its Far East ingredients. Meanwhile, on the right, proving Smyth’s point indeed, the loin cut [Note: We are not sure if this was hogget or mutton] displayed more depth of flavour than lamb, but not in detriment of its tenderness. The lamb glaze, the same as the one in the lamb carrot, delivers just as well and acts as a bridge between all the components.

As a sort of pre-dessert and palate cleanser, ‘The other carrot’, not to be confused with the Lamb carrot in the Classics menu, is a good prelude to the surprise to come in the next dessert.A trompe-l’œil of carrot made out of cream cheese infused with clove, all spice, cinnamon in a gel shell. It is served on a crumble alongside a carrot sorbet, whose raw carrot and grassy flavours bring freshness to the dish. 

The final dessert, before the mignardises, is the ‘Core-teser’, a very personal dish. Whereas other dishes focus on showing how great British produce can be, no matter how humble, this one comes from her love of Maltesers. And Clare delivers here the lightest Malteser we have ever tried. Feathers of milk chocolate float on a cloud of sugar (a set foam). A cloud that shatters under your spoon, but melts in your mouth as though cotton candy. Under the cloud, an oblate spheroid full of a light and creamy ganache awaits. Light yet rich and indulgent, it paired beautifully with the apricot and orange marmalade notes of a Moscatel from Bentomiz.

The Core Seasons menu is perhaps the most true to Smyth’s vision. The best ingredients can only be sourced with years of relationships with suppliers, understanding their produce and how it’s farmed or bred. The best suppliers ooze with passion about what they do – sometimes to the extent of only selling to those who appreciate their products. In order to truly respect this produce, one must realise that sustainability is paramount and for it, seasonality becomes a non-negotiable requirement.

Only seasonality opens the door to the best ingredients out there. Moreover, it provides an ever changing canvas on which to show her mastery of techniques and skills. Her food is heavily influenced by French gastronomy, especially that post-nouvelle cuisine style pioneered by Robuchon and perhaps absorbed and transmitted to Smyth through Gordon Ramsay or Ducasse’s kitchen. This evolution from the nouvelle cuisine focuses on elegance of execution, perfectionism and seasonality, but is not coherent enough to be considered as a movement. Its biggest exponents are Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Savoy, all with their own personal style. It would not be adventurous to forecast seeing Clare Smyth among those names sometime this decade.

Clare Smyth can also boast about her upscale pastry section. Regrettably, we don’t have as much experience in analysing such elaborate desserts as we would like to. However, we tried to employ the same approach as we usually apply to interpret food and wine. 

Opinions about the importance of the pastry section in restaurants seem to be quite divisive. We have spoken to several people in the industry, and have searched through an uncountable amount of complex pastry recipes. Some chefs cannot imagine being a specialist both in savoury and sweets. While others would proudly say that no world-class chef ought to concentrate only on one of them. To top it all off, there is some sort of animosity towards pastry chefs in restaurants, perhaps chefs think of the pastry being less ‘heavy labour’ compared to cooking. No matter which side you take, pastry requires some specific techniques and extensive experience, and so does cooking.

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