I was gifted a fish tasting menu at Tom Aikens' flagship restaurant in South Kensington, cooked and demonstrated by the Bad Boy of the London restaurant scene himself. Remember the incident, where he accused a customer of stealing a spoon from the premises after she'd spent an arm and a leg over dinner? I half expected an airport scanner when I rocked up.
However, our Tom was as geezer-like and non-plussed as you like. Not appearing to have celebrity airs and keen to get on with the day's demonstration, he got to it when all attendees were present. Five of us descended into the kitchen beneath, where we instantly got told what the dishes of the day were going to be. No fancy welcome or marketing spiel about how he was the greatest. Hot oil was on pans, and he was determined to do what he does best, cook like a demon.
The whole premise of the day was to show four fish dishes that were achievable, practical and impressive to serve. What was also useful was that all the ingredients were fairly easy to acquire.
Scallops on Pork Belly with a Balsamic Reduction: this dish required Tom to have prepared quite a bit the day before, but not much on the day itself. A whole piece of belly had been boiled and flavoured in a broth previously, and laid in the fridge between two trays in order to flatten it. It is then cut into even pieces and pan-fried with hand-dived scallops. Meanwhile, there was chicken stock bubbling in the background (Tom had a ready-made one too). Shallots, butter, bay-leaves and thyme are sweated down in a pan, where the stock is added to to conjure up a jus. Some aged balsamic vinegar is added to the jus, which gives it a mean, sticky edge.
The pork was surprisingly moist, and even had a crust to it from the pan-frying. The jus was rich, sweet, and despite the amount of butter used (these Michelin boys love their butter, eh?) wasn't at all greasy or sickening.
Turbot in a Pea Broth with Pea Shoots: Summer on a plate. Shallots and peas were sauteed in a pan, fish stock added (again this was quickly demonstrated out of principal with a ready-made on stand-by), to be whizzed in a blender to get a pea "broth". It was placed back on the heat, fresh peas and broad beans added. The turbot poached on the broth, and before serving, some chervil went in the pan. You don't often hear of chervil, but it's a great addition to fish and almost chive-like.
An extremely achievable dish by "normal" kitchen standards. The turbot still had spring and bounce whilst being meaty, it almost had a "grain" like meat when cut open. I loved the liveliness, bright colour and flavours of the green against the white fish.
Baby Artichoke Hearts and Dover Sole: an awesome flavour combination which was new to me. Tom prepared the baby artichokes, explaining the process whilst scraping away the tough green outer leaves to reveal the prized chokes. Pan-fried, seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Dover Sole was added to the same pan, stock again used to create a little sauce. Artichokes added a roasted, black pepperry flavour to the more chewy sole. I am convinced that a drizzle of stock is the way forward in adding depth and punch to cooking!
Roasted John Dory with Squid, Red Peppers, Courgette and Capers: we were treated to a fish-filleting demo here. Out Tom came with a big momma of a John Dory (they have scarily huge mouths when pulled out!), and proceeded to fillet it and de-skin. These were then seasoned and placed in the oven to roast. On the hob, squid rings were flash-fried, set aside and the diced vegetables friend one after the other. Everything was then tossed in the same pan and re-fried to bring the flavours together. The secret in this was no over-cooking. Minimal dressing and a sprinkle of coriander leaf.
The slightly serious and down-to-earth character before us was in contrast to the Iron Chef reputation and the gangsta stories on the street. Given his stature in the London scene (the youngest UK chef to earn two Michelin stars), the demo showed the basics of great cooking: preparation, patience and willingness to source good produce. I felt invigorated and inspired to try all the recipes we received, and came away feeling I'd also got a little insight in some tricks used in the professional kitchen. Dear friends, I truly enjoyed this birthday gift, can I dare to dream what happens next year?!