Rabbit, marmalade, carrot, soil at Van Zeller, Harrogate: how dishes look is now right up there with flavours and ingredients. Photograph: Rebecca Lupton for the Guardian.
Restaurant plates have never looked more lovely. But do they have to be so complicated? The Guardian’s restaurant critic considers five modern masterpieces, from the Ledbury and Sat Bains, to Hedone and the Sportsman.
It was Noma that started it. When Copenhagen’s two Michelin star restaurant first launched its now legendary signature dish – vintage carrots with camomile – in the Noughties, a generation of chefs gasped in awe and reached for their tweezers. Suddenly, vegetables everywhere were to be lightly pickled and teased into decorative little tubes of myriad colours, tottering down a specially designed plate in a wave of exquisiteness.
But they were still just vegetables, right? Did the intricate and painstaking presentation make them taste any better? Apparently so: a research team at Oxford University found last year that a salad plated up to resemble a Kandinsky painting was judged by human guinea pigs to be more delicious than exactly the same ingredients delivered any old how. Beauty, as ever, matters.
If almost every high-end restaurant in the world is to be believed, how their dishes look is right up there with flavours and ingredients. Gone are the 1990s, when food came in vertiginous towers that required servers to have the balancing skills of a circus act. Today, a dish’s components must appear to have been insouciantly strewn by Tinker Bell in a bewitching melee of dots and splodges and tiny, edible flowers.
Diana Henry is the author of another book rammed with pupil-dilating, photogenic food: Change Of Appetite (I can’t stop perving over her perfect, limpid poached white peach with rose jelly). I ask her why the appearance of what she eats is important. She is adamant: “I honestly think that if a plate of food looks good, it can taste better.” Eating isn’t simply about taste. Cliches are cliches for a reason, hence “you eat with your eyes”.
Anyone who’s ever wandered in a mesmerised trance around Tokyo’s dazzling depachikas – the football pitch-sized food halls underneath department stores – can’t fail to realise how important the visuals of food are to the Japanese, from jewel box-like bento to a single, perfect melon wrapped in tissue paper and presented in a gilded box. The Japanese fetish for beauty in food – which covers everything from crockery to glassware to the correct use of negative space – even has a name: moritsuke. Food slants like a cedar tree (sugimori) or is high like a mountain (takamori). Their kaiseki-ryori (haute cuisine raised to an art form) is about presentation every bit as much as the unimpeachable quality of the ingredients: nothing is ever left to chance. And culinarily, where Japan leads, the world follows.
I wonder what an artist might make of it. Apart from musing on something that occurs to a lot of us when presented with the over-elaborate dish (“Someone’s been fingering that for quite a while”), Grayson Perry has a typically perceptive take: “Square plates – especially rough-hewn glass ones – seem to be an unofficial warning that the food is likely to be all show and no taste. I’m also averse to smears on the porcelain.” He makes me howl with laughter at a current gastropub trope: “I went to one place where the chips were served in a little galvanised pail, but went off the idea when I discovered their urinals were made from larger galvanised pails.” This is an unfortunate side-effect of the restaurateur failing to think his moritsuke through.
I can only nod in enthusiastic agreement when Henry says, “I have a belief that the small things in life are very important. If we don’t get pleasure from the small things, the rather ordinary things, then we’re stuffed. Caring about making your food look lovely is part of that. Cumulatively, it makes you happier, however mad that sounds.” An independent observer of the Oxford experiment came to the conclusion that, yes, expectations were raised by the artistry on the plates and that, crucially, this meant people were prepared to pay more for beautiful food. They seemed a little perplexed by the discovery. How daft: of course we prize beauty. I just wouldn’t try this at home.
Flame-grilled mackerel with avocado, Celtic mustard and shiso: the Ledbury, London W11
The mackerel is pan-roasted until its flesh is oily and tender; its skin is then flamed over stone until it’s a crackly mackintosh of just-charred crispness.
Pillows of cucumber agar-agar (a jellying agent) with a filling of mackerel tartare, plus the sting of shiso and the balm of avocado. The taste is fresh and vivid.
Avocado puree: the calming presence in an intensely flavoured dish.
Garnish of sliced small cucumber, an almost Thai touch of fried shallot, various micro-leaves (baby purple shiso, baby coriander, oyster leaves that taste, miraculously, of actual oyster). And, for once, the ubiquitous dandruff of micro-leaves actually adds something.
Ham, egg and peas: Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
‘Shonka ham’: nope, me neither – but it comes from award-winning butcher JT Beedham in nearby Sherwood and is lovely stuff.
Duck eggs, water-bathed for two hours at 62C, so that the proteins set into the texture of a thick creme brulee. A tribute to Japanese onsen (‘hot bath’ eggs) and often, drearily, the signature of the wannabe molecular chef. Not here, though.
Pea sorbet, bright with the fragrance of fresh mint with the tiniest lick of sweetness = purest essence of Britishness, albeit one that’s been Pacojeted into sheer smoothness. A burst of summer on the palate.
Sherry caramel: a sweet slick of booze-boosted syrup to bring out the pungency of the ham and play up the sweetness of the peas. I’d like to die in a vat of sherry caramel.
Rabbit, marmalade, carrot, soil: Van Zeller, Harrogate
Rabbit: the loins are poached and served at ambient temperature. The parfait is silky, and draped with a perfectly crystal clear fold of jellied rabbit consommé.
‘Marmalade’: blobs of intense orange and carrot puree, slivers of orange peel. Its sweet-sourness gives the shy rabbit an extra layer of personality.
A hedgerow of different-coloured carrots are all given distinct treatments: blanched, salt-baked, lightly acidulated and raw. Plus their ferny tops. Edible flowers add to the sense of the countryside on a plate. All very Peter Rabbit.
Pigeon: Hedone, London W4
Young squab pigeon is given a complex cooking process – oven-roasted whole, rested, pan-roasted in beef fat, then salamandered so the skin is bronzed and crisp, and the meat is blushing rose. The leg is left whole, with claw: a touch of the feral.
Golden beetroot, roasted, then given intense fragrance from a smoking with flamed cloves; a nod to chef/owner Mikael Jonsson’s Scandinavian background, this echoes the spices used in the pickling process.
Oven-roasted red beetroot, plus a puree made from crapaudine beetroot. The name comes from the French for female toad: a rare and bizarre, carrot-shaped root with bark-like skin and astonishing sweetness and earthiness of flavour.
Slip sole, seaweed butter: The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent
The stark simplicity of the fish (slip sole is young Dover sole) is allowed to sing its own hymn to beauty. Caught locally, it is aged into tenderness, allowed to loosen up – straight out of the sea, this fish is too tough to eat - then trimmed of its skirt and deboned into flawlessness.
Chef/owner Stephen Harris’s homemade butter, made from cultured crème fraîche. The fish is baked in it, then grilled with even more butter. The Sportsman’s butter is one of the most delicious things on the planet.
The attractively-named gutweed (it looks like intestines) grows in rockpools on the beach over which the Sportsman looks out. It’s dehydrated in house before being added to the butter to deliver a startling blast of umami.