What do talented chefs do after leaving a well established, Michelin starred restaurant? Set up a pop up restaurant of course! This provides an opportunity to showcase their culinary creativity without the hassle of finding suitable premises and recruiting a new brigade. This development has become increasingly common that the novelty has now worn off. And makeshift kitchens and marquees on rooftops are not the ideal places for cooking and eating.
But John Campbell’s “Pop Up at the Pass”, from 21st to 23rd June, was something new and really special. Firstly the venue: The Pass Restaurant in The South Lodge Hotel, owned by Danny Pecorelli and part of the Exclusive Hotel Group, provided a unique setting. With 22 covers on 11 tables – far more than any other restaurant offering a chef’s table – clients could enjoy a “dramatic dining experience.” Secondly, the assistance of the brigade of Matt Gillan, a Michelin starred chef in his own right, as well as those of loyal followers such as Olly Rouse, created a powerful, enthusiastic team cooking in a proper restaurant kitchen. Thirdly, the tasting menus offered the six services for lunch and dinner had never been served before – a real gamble but the sign of a confident chef at the top of his game.
Since leaving Coworth Park in Ascot, Michelin starred chef John Campbell has continued to develop and refine his cuisine. His seemingly inexhaustible energy and gastronomic imagination, coupled with a real understanding of the science of food, has led to a never ending quest for the perfect balance in every dish he creates. To help him in this task, and to make critical appreciation of his food more analytical, he has devised an ingenious circular chart of taste, smell, temperature and texture, juxtaposing similar and opposing elements. For instance, tastes range from sweet to sharp, smells from spice to burnt, textures from rubbery to woody and temperatures from warm to cool. With meticulous attention to detail, and in collaboration with his team, John Campbell was constantly tasting and adjusting the components of a dish to achieve the optimum balance, sometimes just minutes before service.
The seven course tasting menu revealed the breadth and depth of his achievement to date. Menu descriptions often understated the complexity of the dishes.
Seared – ceviche scallop, coconut water, ice salad, black salt
A single scallop had been briefly seared to give colour and flavour. The ceviche marinade featured the citral and floral notes of lime and coriander were balanced by the oily nuttiness and warmth of the coconut water and ginger. The subtlety of this mixture enhanced the dish, allowing the pure, clean taste of the seafood to shine through. Black salt crystals added both texture and enhanced the flavour of the other components. Wine: Chardonnay / Viognier, Botalura, 2009, Maule Valley, Chile
Duck leg brawn, presse of its liver, crispy tongue and acid turnip
The delicious disc of confit brawn simply melted in the mouth, whilst the liver presse had a characteristic foie gras taste and texture that gave a luxurious mouth feel. Texture was added by the crisp coating of the deep fried tongue, whilst fig flesh and acidulated turnip gave sweet and sour notes that balanced the rich oiliness of the duck. Wine: Gewurtztraminer, Turckheim, 2010, Alsace, France
Celery cooked quinoa, ash baked celeriac, walnuts and parmesan ice cream
Anyone who can make quinoa interesting deserves praise. But this highly accomplished vegetarian dish raised it to ethereal heights. The grain benefitted from being cooked in celery stock and matched with several harmonious elements. Girolles gave an earthiness, celeriac added a nutty note, whilst the rich oiliness of the parmesan ice cream was balanced by the sharp, citral notes of apple and cider vinegar.
Braised pork cheek, courgette and basil, smoked pineapple
This meat course was a triumph of sous vide cooking, the glazed cheek being unctuously soft and melting, with a rich jus enriched by ginger beer. The pineapple worked well with the meat, adding sweetness and smoky notes. A brilliantly smooth puree of courgette and basil, enhanced with the floral notes of mint, acted as a counterpoint to the nutty texture of samphire. This was another visually attractive dish, the hoop of potato strips giving height and crispness. Wine: Cornas, Les Cahailles, 2004, Rhone, France.
Lancashire cheese, Eccles fruit cake, sweet and sour aubergine
This playful dish dealt successfully with the transition from savoury to sweet courses. Following the traditional match of the most famous pastry from Lancashire with its celebrated cheese – in this case the mature Bomb covered in black wax – these components, yeasty, rich, oily and nutty were balanced by sharpness of sweet and sour aubergine and the spicy warm of the mizuna leaf.
Lemon yoghurt, wasabi meringue, malt oats
This dessert was a masterclass in matching familiar and unusual ingredients to produce a stellar dessert both in taste and appearance. Malted oats proved a yeasty foil to the sharp citral notes of lemon yogurt and jelly, whilst wasabi meringues added an interesting gentle, spicy element. Wine: Riesling, Jordan Mellifera, 2010, Stellenbosch, S Africa.
Spruce infused parfait, lemon do-nut and curd.
The last dish saw the rich chocolate parfait delicately infused (thankfully!) with Douglas fir and given a citral balance with lemon curd made with olive oil.
Overall, this menu was a stunning tour de force of invention tempered by a sensitive approach to the combination of ingredients, all of which married well in each dish. That this is was the first time these dishes were served makes it all the more remarkable. As one ex Michelin inspector who was present remarked of John Campbell’s sabbatical, he is too talented to remain out of his chef’s whites. Let us all hope that he opens his new restaurant soon!