|More Chill Than Thrill At Hedone|
Jackie Lee's expectations not met
I am sure that no restaurant reviewer ever goes to a venue wanting to say something bad. What would be the point in that? To go with a negative attitude would be both disappointing for the reviewer and for the restaurant. Unfortunately, sometimes these things happen - maybe the reviewer had a bad day, maybe the chef did; maybe a member of staff was simply discourteous to the patron, colouring the view of the experience. It is such a personal thing and there are so many more factors involved than simply the food, that when one does have a bad experience, the opinion can only be that: an opinion. However, for me, Hedone in Chiswick, though with some high notes, was a supremely underwhelming and disappointing meal.
Located on Chiswick High Road, a little ways up from Chiswick Park tube station and next to Christ Church on Turnham Green, Hedone is, by all intents and purposes, bang smack in the middle of Chiswick. A strange location, perhaps, for the clientele the restaurant aspires to, for it is "not a restaurant for Chiswick," as owner/chef Mikael told me. "We are aiming for something much, much more." He informed me with a hint of pride that top reviewers from all over the country had been pouring in through his doors since its opening a few weeks prior to my visit; one in particular had been back three or four times and was located way over on the other side of town. "We are not a local restaurant," he repeated firmly. Why had he chosen Chiswick to be the epicentre of his first endeavour as a restauranteur, then? "I walked past and saw its windows. It was a great venue - I saw its potential."
Knowing that Mikael and Hedone take great pride in their produce, I did a little research and read about their 'horse fat fries', the fat flown in fresh from France, the fries fried to perfection. The flavour is, according to some, 'remarkable,' but for me, eating chips fried in the fat of gee-gees? A little too much, surely. How about the live scallops, then? Mikael assured me that I would be able to see them moving around - they were fresh, they were live.
I remember being in a Japanese restaurant once where the table behind us were eating live lobster sashimi. Watching them giggle and poke the lobster, chasing it around the table before finally digging in and tearing chunks of flesh away from it as it wriggled and died, was a fairly traumatic experience I did not want to repeat, let alone for another creature. I'm not even particularly squeamish when it comes to farm-to-table mentality: I'm Chinese. I've grown up with selecting my own fish in a restaurant to eating 'drunken prawns', live prawns poured into a vat of alcohol and then a match thrown in with them, but Hedone's "live produce" felt different. Maybe it was the fact that it wasn't a little back alley restaurant in China.
The ingredients are fresh, the produce unusual - you probably won't find them anywhere else in Chiswick (maybe even in London) - but how far is too far? How much of a "foodie" would you have to be to enjoy such delicacies?
My companion and I arrived at the restaurant to find the place deserted but for a sole patron at the bar - it wasn't even very early. The tables were many, the furniture dark wooden pieces, and dimly lit cylindrical tubes hung in a corner of the restaurant. Mikael and his sous chef looked up from the open plan kitchen briefly, turning back to their preparations. The maitre d' seated us in the corner by the large glass windows with a curt nod and a flickered smile, informed us that Mikael would be preparing a "special menu", then disappeared to man her station, a whirl of black fabric and tight curls. Something felt a little off and it took us a while to realise that it was the uncanny silence. Apparently their sound system wasn't working yet and we awkwardly twiddled our thumbs, practically whispering our conversation. By the time we left a couple of hours later a further two tables had been filled - a slow night in comparison to the previous day's full house and, apparently, the following day's promise of the same.
Our waiter brought us bread, water and the first proper smile of the evening, the sommelier offered us a wine tasting to pair with our meal, and then the food began to arrive.
Clearly, a lot of thought had gone into the meal: parmesan sable biscuits were dusted with blackcurrant powder; a bright red, blended, strained and thickened gazpacho was paired with a chilled dill flower cream; mackerel, flame-grilled, was served alongside blanched almonds, cucumber and sea aster, chilled and silently evoking the sea upon your tongue; and so on and so forth, all beautifully presented. However, something was lacking, there was an unfortunate blandness to it all - the parmesan didn't come through and the blackcurrant was too sharp for the pairing; the gazpacho reminded me a little too much of gloopy ketchup, the flavours all too subtle; the mackerel was undercooked, underseasoned and underwhelming. In fact, the best dish of the entire meal was a very simple slow-cooked hen's egg, served with Scottish girolles, wafer-thin peach slices, a little rocket and a bone-tingling vinegary sauce. The sommelier paired it with a sharp wine, the acidity cutting through the richness of the egg. Silky smooth and delicious, this one dish was perfection.
"How was the dish?" The maitre d' asked us, removing our plates that had been practically licked clean. "This was beautiful, was the egg cooked en sous vide?" - a process whereby ingredients are vaccuum-packed and then cooked slowly in a water bath at a steady temperature. The maitre d' shook her head and gave a small derivative laugh. "No, no, not at all. It was slow-cooked in a water bath."
The remaining few dishes, hand-wrung squab pigeon being the only meat of the meal and two different desserts consisting of an almond blancmange with slow cooked apricots, and the 'Hedone Chocolate Bar', were unfortunately mediocre at best; there was simply nothing special here, though we greatly enjoyed the pairing of the apricot sweet wine and the port.
"I couldn't help but feel that after all of the talk about produce we were served very cheap ingredients," my companion noted and I had to agree. It was simple, yes; it was fresh and there were definitely a couple of costly things in there, but good produce cannot stand on its own two legs if the method of preparation simply doesn't work. I know and love food but Hedone just didn't do it for me. The food and atmosphere felt so cold it was almost clinical and I left still feeling hungry and vaguely irritated, though I wasn't sure why. With set menus at around £100 per person (including wine) I simply didn't feel that it was worth the money.
Perhaps it was an off night, but it was a real shame; sadly Hedone is one restaurant I will not be returning to any time soon.