Flour and Ash
Flour and Ash Hosts Gill Meller
It's a beautiful thing, to cook for friends. It's informal, relaxed and nobody really cares to some extent if it's good or not- the act of cooking is a primal indication of love, for which sometimes if the occasion calls for it, you put on a nice shirt and suddenly decide to take an interest in politics and how, exactly, a "foam" is made. A restaurant that can foster a sense of a home away from home is adding yet another string to its bow. Flour and Ash earned a reputable name, it would seem at least in part, due to their highly regarded 'Ox cheek ragu pizza'. To hear that one of my favourite cooks was to make a guest appearance, I felt squidgy with nostalgia.
I'd always liked Gill Meller, particularly because of just how mental Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall appears by comparison; a cherub-faced squiggle that just can't wrap his head around why some mums still go to Iceland and don't own a smallholding or a double-barrelled surname. And God bless him, I wish him all the best. Gill, however, is gently spoken and quietly confident in his demonstrable knowledge, skilfully harnessing the use of restraint when creating dishes, respecting the ingredients and always somewhat serene in his execution. Experiencing this approach to food as a 'guest chef' scenario in a cosy, timber laden late-night pizzeria seemed like something a millennial would go to and I should know, because I am one and I did.
With a sepia glow, I remember my friend's auntie. A wonderful, vivacious and rippling personality, hair wild and eyes kind. Although famous for it, her pavlova was always a war crime and everyone knew it- gritty meringue that's impossibly textured, like pallid improvised boiler insulation. Seeping beneath was a seedless jam because that's the sort of person she was. The cream was often either cream cheese with grains of caster sugar, squirty cream and on one particular occasion, a kind of chimaera that forced you to wonder who or what had hurt her in the past. We loved Miriam and part of love is forgiveness.
But another part of love is also war, deception and seething resentment- especially when you're bankrolling it.
The opening volley is the mussel and lovage croquettes. A crisp and deep amber exterior chambers an almost bechamel-like interior, suspended in which is a heartening amount of mussel. Desperate ribbons of parched loveage lay slain around these albeit deliciously silky and well seasoned hot pockets. Alas, we wilt together.
Handing someone a plate of food that more or less amounts to nothing short of an apology, hurts me in a way people alone cannot. Tonight this takes the form of grilled chicory, squash purée and hazelnuts- that strain of dish that a sadist brings to the barbecue, all the while laughing up their sleeve, safe in the knowledge that no one can argue that they haven't made an effort, even if it's an entry-level contribution. They prey on peoples politeness and aversion to conflict, whilst making a B-line for the your homemade guacamole and glazed short ribs. It's a cold dish, making the chicory shudderingly unctuous and clearly prepared with the help of Miriam. I've finished everything on my plate and I can't reason why, other than to appear polite. I've been hoist by their petard and I'm overcome with shame.
Crab, fenugreek and eggs. Surf and turf is a culinary trope that I am always happy to see taken to it's most tenuous of extreme. Pearly little shreds of crab sit as a tuft atop a straight forward, cold garlic toast. There's half a runny egg and a wibble of aioli, both embarrassed to be there. Instantly, I'm reminded of that ilk of war films that seek to deglorify war by depicting the horrors of it. One massive explosion and suddenly people are looking for their limbs, deaf and crying out for their mothers; chaos reigns and nobody knows who's in charge. Despite this, the crab is delicate, sweet and elevated by the aioli. The dish would've been enriched by the egg but tepid and coagulated yolk with frigid, chewy toast is nothing short of abject textural misery. A Fyre Festival in the mouth, even.
But that's all water under the bridge when you know a goat dish is imminent. Smoked, with beetroot and horseradish in-tow, goat is perhaps one of the most underrated meats of all time and whilst the flavours listed aren't wild, great cooking will make this excellent, surely?
Instead, I'm reminded that innocence is always the first casualty of war.
Fibrous tears of dry-edged goat resembling amateur jerky are stacked like a first attempt at building a campfire, perhaps to obfuscate the wound of beetroot mash feigning to be a purée as did the squash. Hacks of beetroot sit woefully undercooked and visibly upset. The horseradish element comes in the form of a sauce that seemingly anoints the dish before it goes forth into the world to ruin lives. The dynamic is, by this time, odd. I've been had. Tricked, duped, hoodwinked, even.
Then it hits me. This place is timber-laden because I'm in an actual Trojan Horse.
Fudge, raisin and hazelnut brittle. Here she is. The spectre of old Miriam. The Et Tu, Brute? A dessert that looks more like a thought process actively succumbing to stress. Although the fudge element takes the form ice cream both silky and pleasant, it leaves a saccharine cloy in the throat. The raisins appear prune-like, tightened and reeling from the cold. They suddenly evoke clearly suppressed memories of playing rugby in the winter over twenty years ago and to that end, why I packed it in. The frostbitten brittle eats like glass and my tongue scans my teeth for casualties. Like being locked in Fabric Land overnight and coming up ferociously on cheap pub grub whilst trying to feel my way to an exit, I'm in a textural nightmare.
By the end of it all, I'm at solidly the 'bargaining' phase of acceptance. I posit to myself that I wanted an experience of honesty and humble truths and actually, that's precisely what I got. I should, in many ways, shut up forever. I don't want to be that customer that says 'I know your breakfast menu stopped at 10:30 am and it's now 11am, but could I have a breakfast?' and then kicks off on Trip Advisor and somehow pursues small claims action. The sort of customer that thinks Babyccino's are actually a good idea and says stuff like 'still, at least it's Friday, eh?!' to bar staff at happy hour. It's an exercise in walking away and sometimes you can, especially when you've prepaid via a website.