I’m somewhat questioning the logic of my choice of lunch-venue, as I make my way past the side-streets of Covent Garden towards Frog by Adam Handling.
I’ve never watched Masterchef: The Professionals and so it’s not Handling’s runner-up title in 2013, which swayed my decision when presented with a spate of new openings to choose from. I haven’t been to the original yet either (located further East in Spitalfields), the Frog which was recently crowned “London Restaurant of the Year” by Food & Travel.
If I have to confess, it was Giles Coren’s (rather brilliant) Instagram Stories at Frog E1 recently, which piqued this millennial’s interest in the newer Frog WC2, inadvertently making a case for the P.R. myth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Of course by complete coincidence, the friend I’m meeting for lunch also happens to be a communications expert…
The endless haze of dry ice surrounding one of the “snacks” at the start of our five-course lunch does little to dispel the doubt that I’m now unforgivingly casting over my decision. We’re officially closer to 2043 than 1990, and yet our afternoon whizzes by with a steady flow of pretty plates fettered with foams, emulsions, reductions and a maelstrom of other Michelin-extolled techniques harking back to the ’80s.
But oh fiddlesticks, it’s ultimately these fiddly bits which fastidiously win over our jaded palates, composing an innovative – if at times unnecessarily complex – riff on textures.
We start with canapé-like snacks, which – for this vegetarian – include creme fraiche rolled within a crisp potato. It delivers the same satisfaction as derived from generously dunking a potato crisp in a sour cream and chive dip. Meanwhile, the dry ice surrounding Antony’s nibbles evaporate to reveal a sliver of razor clams (with apple and hazelnut), served on an actual razor and surrounded by a bed of rocks. The unnecessary trimmings aside, he tells me it’s actually quite delicious.
The bread and butter(s) which arrive next are the real treat. There’s chicken butter fortified by chicken juice (a move that adds an extra touch of creaminess) and speckled with crispy bits of chicken skin. A spoonful of gravy isn’t amiss, helping the butter to spread nicely over a hefty slice of sourdough bread.
Slicked with chive oil, my onion butter is spot-hitting too and it’s with much restraint that we keep ourselves from filling up fast, saving room instead for the five courses that are yet to follow. Each is ceremoniously brought out by the chefs calmly at work in the open-plan kitchen, their movements a practiced effort in meticulous precision.
The first, cauliflower, is my least favourite of the veggie lot. I’ve experienced far too many rambunctious renditions of this humble vegetable (The Barbary still holding pride of place), to find pleasure in its wobbly avatar as a panna cotta festooned with grapes.
But there’s much plenitude in the chatty dish that’s up next, featuring a finely-sliced celeriac enfolding julienned apple, chewy chunks of dates and the delightfully messy yolk of a duck egg. To top it all off, black truffles are generously (and I mean, really generously) shaved table-side all over the handcrafted plate. The ensuing result abounds with such meatiness, that it is of no surprise to see the dish as part of the meat & fish tasting menu too.
The Garden Salad is also a fine piece of work, involving farm-fresh vegetables speared onto a foam made with ewes cheese. An elaborate dusting of “leek ash” lends a pleasantly charred – almost earthy – note. And courgettes in all conceivable forms (including in a fondant of sorts) crop up in a fittingly-verdant penultimate course.
Without going into too much detail, the meat & fish tasting menu proceeds with similar panache. High-level hits include a sweetly-glazed halibut (tinged with parsley) on a bed of crabmeat. As for the addition of caviar: take it or leave it, Antony proffers diplomatically.
There’s also kingfish ceviche and pinkish chunks of Iberico pork which come with cauliflower and Korean kimchi, a nod to Adam Handling’s knack for incorporating Asian twists in his dishes. At the outset I’m familiar with neither Handling’s impressive background and achievements (he began his career in hotel dining when he was just 16, going on to win many culinary awards), nor his numerous appearances on telly – but I’ve certainly made sure to do my homework afterwards.
To finish, I break into a dark chocolate mousse which reveals softly-tart raspberries inside. Although whimsical in presentation, it’s merely perfunctory in taste and misses the mark for this comfort-craving chocoholic. The other pud features blackberry sponge and hefty helpings of frozen honey. Make of this what you will – you’ll either love it, or hate it.
We’ve been seated at the restaurant for nearly three hours by the time we finally settle the bill. At times the afternoon has been wildly silly, but for the most part I have to admit that it’s been enjoyably-entertaining, delivering a host of flavour-packed fun and for astonishingly good-value at that (£50 for the five-course vegetarian menu and £65 for the meat & fish menu). Although we don’t opt for it, there’s also the choice of cocktail pairing including non-alcoholic options.
It’s not a repeatable experience, but one which certainly carries a one-time novelty appeal.
Frog by Adam Handling, 34-35 Southampton St, London WC2E 7HF
For more new & noteworthy openings in London, have a read here.