Masterchef Winner turns Nanban
It's great fun to meet your chef idols in person, and last night some friends and I made the hike in the bitter cold to Dalston in East London. There we met up at The Prince Arthur pub for dinner at Masterchef champion Tim Anderson's Nanban pop up restaurant. At 26, this Wisconsin native became the youngest winner of the UK Masterchef competition in 2011 by preparing mouthwatering-looking Japanese and American influenced dishes. Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I never watched Tim in action (although I have a vague recollection of watching him on BBC Breakfast the morning after his big win was televised). Until last year, I eschewed the whole Masterchef craze, writing it off as another contrived cooking competition. You can read all about my eureka moment in an earlier blog here. So it was a friend of mine who had set a "google" alert to let her know of any activity Cheesehead Tim was getting up to. She's a groupie and I was prepared to fall in love with the food much as she had done watching him.These pop ups by celebrity chefs are all the rage and it offers both diners and chefs an opportunity to feel each other out. Last year's Masterchef winner, the delightful Shelina Permaloo has just opened up a little spot inside Selfridges. Her food on the show won raves and looked absolutely divine, so perhaps another spot to investigate and learn how these chefs manage once the realities of running a culinary business set in and the cameras are turned off. My meal at Pierre Sang at Oberkampf in Paris last fall was a testament to how well some of these TV chef competitors can cook in the real world, but sometimes you have to wonder if making the transition from amateur cook to celebrity restauranteur without paying the usual dues and being put through rigorous paces, is a little much.For £29 I was looking forward to an "umami" (his word) rich menu of six courses all influenced by southern Japanese cuisine. The name "Nanban" translates into southern barbarian, Tim explained to us in a little introduction to the meal. Apparently, nanban is how the Japanese referred to the Europeans who arrived to conquer their country because they always came from the south - clever, no? Chef wandered around the intimate pub and poured saake for all his guests, chatting amiably, and answering questions from other fans who'd come out on this arctic evening. And then the parade of plates began.First course was a plate of blanched spring onions, the green part cleverly wrapped around the white, with a sweet thick miso dipping sauce. Yummy but if I'm going to nitpick (and I'm afraid that's sort of what I do) I wouldn't have called that a course, I would have served it as an amuse bouche and not listed it on the menu. The dipping sauce was so good that we asked to keep it on the table for later. Next up was grilled mackerel stuffed with a chilli-cured cod roe. This one I really didn't care for - way too many strong fishy flavors all mixed together with no relief in the addition of any greens, any sauce. And the chilli-cured roe wasn't a terrific match paired with this unctuous fillet. Just too full on for my taste buds (but this one could really be me as mackerel and I don't really agree). Next course was two slices of really delicious pork belly braised in soy sauce, sugar and a rice liquor. The broth the pork was sitting in was so good I would have happily drunk it like a soup and the little dollop of sinus-clearing mustard on the top was the perfect ying to the sweet broth's yang. Also lovely was the sprinkling of shiso microgreens on top which lent the whole dish a lovely herbiness that somehow smelt like freshly mown grass.Halfway through and I was still starving but looking at the menu at what was to come, was very hopeful. Next up was a mini ramen served up in a Chinese take-away container - very cute. In his opening remarks, Chef had told us that in his soon-to-open restaurant he wanted to offer smaller sized ramens so that people could try and enjoy them but not have to commit to an entire meal in one huge bowl (that takes hours to eat!). That's maybe the best idea I've heard this month! Also, the Chinese take-away container is no accident, as I learned that these brothy soups originated in China and were brought to Japan. Bring it on. Anyway, chef's chicken and pork broth had a terrific deep flavor and the noodles were delicate and delicious. I thought his seafood could have used a little seasoning, it just hadn't picked up enough of the flavors of the broth (which makes sense since you don't want to cook scallops, mussels and squid for hours as they'll get really tough). I did love the tiny brown shrimp and they added a nice saltiness to it all, but again, the veggies could have used more oomph. Occasionally I got a piece of thin pork or pickled ginger and there was a lovely harmony to it all, but it wasn't consistent throughout the dish. At the end I wanted to pick up my container and slurp down the remaining broth in my box but couldn't figure out a way to do this gracefully without ending up with more broth on me than in me. Sigh.
The final savory dish was a grilled rice triangle filled with grilled chicken in a yuzu marinade. I loved the grilled rice exterior and the nice toasty crunch that gave it. That combined with the sheet of seaweed that you were supposed to wrap your little rice parcel in, added interesting texture to the dish. I would say that it took an awfully long time to get through all that rice to the lovely chicken yuzu mix in the middle. On the menu this dish had been described as rice BALLS and I think it would benefit from being more like that - something to pop in the mouth and be bursting full of juicy deliciousness. Dessert arrived after a very, very long pause (the service timings throughout the meal meant that it took us three and a half hours to be served six courses and pay). This sweet was a very unsophisticated affair - black sesame sponge that looked sort of like it went wrong when they were rolling it, wrapped around a small bit of banana puree with green tea whipped cream on the side. I liked the concept of the dish and the idea that he'd used bananas because when he lived in Japan, Chef was near Mojiko, the first harbor there to import bananas. Sadly, the whipped cream really didn't taste of green tea, the banana custard was more mushed banana than custard and I didn't really pick up on the black sesame taste in the sponge.
Now, I really hope you don't think I'm being critical just to be critical. Chef Tim seemed like a terribly nice guy when we spoke to him after dinner and there were bright moments throughout dinner. A couple of us were surprised that he didn't come around and ask us for our opinion of his efforts as it seems that's sort of the point to this exercise. We had to seek him out and then it was for a picture and some niceties as it was very late I was already dreading our hour long journey home in the cold. I absolutely wish him all the best but I did feel that we didn't really get value for money here (Pierre Sang charges 35 Euros - about the same - for six courses and they're hefty and filled with lovely ingredients). I also felt that there was a lack in consistency and a little bit of sloppiness. If I was in a similar position, I'd like to hope that I would be absolutely putting my best foot forward, showing off all of my techniques and playing with all of the many recipes I'd developed in my time since winning the competition. Consistency is the name of the game, is what they drill into you at culinary school and at your internships with restaurants. Presentation is a key detail. Years of experience and trial and error gets you to the point that young Chef Anderson finds himself in. These dishes sounded lovely on the menu but in reality were rough around the edges and were also served in a slapdash manner (many were served family style but without small plates for each of us, just being one example). Small details, but the devil is certainly in them.