When, just a couple of weeks after Dabbous opened earlier this year, the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler - the doyenne of restaurant reviewers - gave it an almost-unprecedented five stars, the effect was instantaneous. Word spread like wildfire (après Fay, le déluge) and by the end of the week rumours abounded that the next available table at Dabbous was sometime in early 2013.
As I found out, this wasn't strictly true - and the fairly fundamental flaws, as I see them, in Dabbous's approach to managing reservations are something I'll come to later - but the undeniably huge impact that review had on Dabbous's early success surely must silence those people, mostly restaurant bloggers, who say that the traditional print-media restaurant critic is headed the same way as the dinosaurs.
Dabbous's corner site on Whitfield Street, parallel to foodie enclave Charlotte Street, is currently blighted by scaffolding, although stepping through the huge oxidised metal door into the grungy, industrial interior I found myself wondering if the scaffolding wasn't in fact part of the design. I loved the room, finding it ultra-modern without any hint of pretension, but diners more accustomed to the plush, beige comfort of traditional high-end restaurants are in for a shock.
My lunch date James Ramsden had already eaten at Dabbous, and it was his plaintive comments on Twitter about how much he longed to go back if only he could get a table that prompted me to invite him along. We were given three menus to choose from, the a la carte, an eight-course tasting menu (available, as is usual, only for the whole table) and the set lunch menu, offering two choices for each course for just £21 for three courses or £24 for four. Wanting to try as much as possible we ordered the latter, giving us eight different dishes to share - a better option than the tasting menu which would have limited us to having the same for each course.
The first courses appeared while we were still sipping our (excellent) pre-lunch Negronis and scoffing the baked-daily rye bread, which comes to the table in a date-stamped paper bag along with nearly-melting homemade butter. Any annoyance I might have felt at not being allowed to finish our cocktails before our food arrived quickly disappeared at my first taste of 'peas and mint', far and away one of the most astonishing dishes I can remember eating anywhere.
A chilled, minted pea puree was interlaced with pea shoots and shelled peas, a split-open pod lying across the middle offering up its plump contents, and beside it a small mound of vividly green mint granita. The intensity of colour was matched by purity of flavour; peas have never tasted more like peas, mint never mintier. The mixed alliums - red and white onion, so I did wonder why they couldn't have just been described as such - were also wonderful, poached to translucence and swimming in an incredible consommé-like liquid that, finally, showed me what is truly meant by umami.
Next came fish. Charred organic salmon with marjoram, samphire and muscatel grapes was good but there was a slight acidity somewhere that, while not overpowering as such, somehow managed to drown out the very quiet flavour of the fish. Much better was grilled wild ling - a lovely fat fillet of this firm white fish - with beetroot, watercress stems and iodized sour cream, which looked as beautiful on the fork with its tricolore of hues as it tasted, the salty tang of the sour cream and the earthiness of the beetroot combining with the subtly-smoky ling.
Our meat courses, too, were brilliant. Barbecued lamb shoulder was so sweet and pure-tasting that it was almost possible to discern the milk the little bleater had been fed on. Runner beans, given a new depth of flavour from char-grilling, and lesser calamint - a relation of mint but with much lighter flavour - were clever accompaniments. Homemade black pudding, topped with a coarse, sweet mango chutney and a fried egg might have seemed out of place on a lunch menu but was stupidly delicious; at risk of my being forever banished to Pseuds' Corner I can only describe the pudding as moelleux, a lovely French word for which there is no direct English translation but approximately means sublimely soft, gooey and sticky - which it was.
The only small disappointments of the meal came with our fourth course. Not knowing how similar lovage was to celery, which I am allergic to, I was unable to try the iced lovage but felt that, in any case, this was the kind of insubstantial palate cleanser that is usually offered free and certainly not as a course in its own right. Our 'artisanal cheeses from the British isles' - the only dish on the set lunch menu to attract a supplement (£5) were wonderful, especially a spreadably soft Crozier Blue, but were served in such minuscule quantities that I felt the supplement to be entirely unjustified even at these great prices. I couldn't complain though about the chunk of caramelised baked apple that stood in here for quince jelly; it was lovely.
Feeling that, apart from service from James's doppelgänger Gabriel our meal had lacked something sweet, we ordered a custard cream pie and were rewarded with a glorious cornet of cracking crisp pastry filled with layers of salt-caramel, butterscotch and whipped cream. It was splendid, so much so that I wondered why it wasn't being offered instead of the iced lovage. Still, at just a fiver it didn't add much to our bill and was oh-so worth it.
Despite the great value of the set lunch, our bill soared to about £65 a head with the addition of our aperitifs, a carafe each of Viognier and Malbec from the superb and very reasonable list, a glass apiece of Churchill's 10 Year Tawny Port and 12.5% service. It still felt like a very fair price for what was, I have to say even knowing how hyperbolic it might sound, one of the most exceptionally conceived, cooked and presented meals I've ever eaten. I liked Dabbous so much that before I left, I did something I only ever do very rarely, and booked to come back.
Yes, you heard right, I booked to come back. And not in February 2013, or at a weirdly early or late time, but for lunch in the last week of August, admittedly some way off but soon enough for my liking. Because believe it or not, you can get a table at Dabbous if you're able to be flexible and can get through on the phone or, if you live in or are visiting London, drop in during opening hours and ask.
The difficulty in getting a table, and this really should be addressed, isn't that there aren't any, but that Dabbous haven't quite got to grips with how to handle the demand. Tables aren't being turned, which meant that when I arrived for our 12.45 booking only one other table was occupied and many didn't finally fill up until their booked time of 2pm. Diners desperate to eat at Dabbous would, I am absolutely certain, have no problem with being offered a midday lunch slot on the condition that they vacated the table by 2 o'clock, but instead tables are standing empty.
Also, Dabbous isn't a tiny place with only a handful of tables; downstairs there's a huge bar, bigger than the restaurant itself, which throughout our visit had only one customer. Surely that could, indeed should, be being used as additional capacity? It might be argued that the kitchen couldn't cope with the extra covers but based on our experience, I don't believe that. You don't need to be Fay Maschler to recognise that Ollie Dabbous, the man in charge and whose name is above the door, is clearly something of a genius, producing the most innovative, exciting and inspiring food in London right now. I'm sure that, for the sake of the frustrated many who've yet to make even their first booking, he could do it just a bit faster, and more.
Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF Tel: 020 7323 1544 http://www.dabbous.co.uk/
Readers who enjoy food photos can find everything we ate in glorious pictures over on Rachel Khoo's blog, if so inclined.
Posted by +Hugh Wright