Are you a neophobe or a neophile?
That opening question is a far cry from the usual, ‘would you like water for the table; still or sparking?’. I’ve also never been asked my age and gender just after being seated, hardly polite table etiquette is it? This start gave me an inkling that this was hardly going to be a polite dining experience, this was an experiment… and here we were, two tables of hungry, intrigued, and perhaps somewhat nervous guinea pigs.
Leading us through this experiment were two truly talented (but quite frankly mad) scientists; psychologist Charles Spence who has worked with another well known gastronomic experimentalist with a very expensive restaurant, numerous tv shows and even a range of appliances, and Jesse Dunford-Wood, creative chef extraordinaire and owner of The Parlour in which we were dining. When I received the invite with the rather ambiguous description of the evening I had no idea what to expect; after listening to these two enthusiastically introduce the concept, I decided there was no point trying to anticipate what was coming and just go along for the ride!
We warmed up with a couple of tests… I discovered that bit of paper stuck onto my fork was not shoddy table setting as I first suspected but rather something to put in my mouth to test my tastebuds. For the record, the result was extreme bitterness which apparently indicates I have loads of tastebuds; good news as I thought most of them had burnt off with me rushing to eat food when it’s way too hot! Next we were told to grab a jellybean, hold our nose then pop it in our mouth to taste… nothing but sweetness. Stop holding your nose and suddenly the flavour of the jellybean comes rushing out, much to my delight because I got peach but less exciting for those with vomit or stinky socks. Yep, you’ve been bean-boozled!
The real adventure started with the next round of ‘hands free courses’, a mixture of the dishes which were not as they seemed or exactly as they were named. There were McTucky’s popcorn chicken nuggets, quite simply a plate of delicious crunchy nuggets and popcorn, and the hummus on rosemary pita bread, made more unusually from chestnuts instead of chickpeas and to be eaten directly off the coaster emblazoned with a mooning man.
In a normal restaurant, you feed yourself but in this experiment we fed each other; raw sea bream with citrus fruits and olive oil, whether you ate it off a spoon or a ladle depended on where you were sitting, though it was so good, I would have happily it eaten it off the ladle any day. Asparagus and parsnips were next, followed by a question on how aroused we were – I told you this was not your usual polite dining experience. The answer? Not very… apologies to my dining companions but even they couldn’t sex up a parsnip or asparagus!
The duck liver pate with figs, honey was yesterday’s bread was a triumph, Jesse said his wife married him for this dish and after greedily slathering it onto the bread, I could understand why. The backdoor salmon, quite literally smoked on their back door, with crispy salmon skin and salmon caviar was another crowd pleaser, much more successful than the raw vegetable ravioli with goat’s cheese which I just found a little ho hum in comparison to the other dishes.
And then there were the eggs; like the infamous eggs at Hibiscus, these were not your run of the mill farm variety. They were instead filled with blue cheese custard, topped with hazelnuts and served with a marmite-less twiglet; creamy, not at all overpowering and rather fun to eat, these eggs were wonderful.
When it came to the main event, some of the diners might have felt slightly disappointed when they looked down at their plate, not least because we had no choice in the matter but because they were presented with mashed potatoes or cabbage, while the rest of us had far more exciting things. There was The Parlour’s famous dishes of cow pie and chicken kyiv (which I proudly had in front of me) while others also had sea bass, cardoon, rosemary and pine nuts, or plaice with potatoes, capers and nutty butter, or even mushroom flan with bantam egg and artichokes.
Some of us may have been rather smug tucking into our mains but we shouldn’t have been because minutes later it was time to swap… by this point in the night, I was hardly surprised at another twist. What little of the chicken kyiv I had was very good, crispy and golden on the outside which opened up to reveal moist chicken and creamy sauce but I was more than happy to trade for a bit of the cow pie which had the most rich, unctuous, meaty filling. Swapping aside, I was so lost in my mains it almost felt like an ordinary dining experience…
And then I was jolted back into the mad world of our scientist ringleaders with the arrival of a strange little pill and a shot of lemon juice. I’m not sure what science or sorcery was involved but I took the pill, took a sip of the lemon juice and discovered it was sickly sweet instead of eye-wateringly sour as expected. Even better was when I sipped my red wine to find it tasted pleasantly like ribena! Where do I get these pills from…
Cementing us back into the bizarre were the arrival of headphones playing songs related to all things sweet and tasty, foil being rolled across the whole table and a flurry of activity by Jesse and his team of chefs. This was a true Willy Wonka experience. As the music played I watched the table be filled with all sorts of sweet treats, I was in dessert heaven – macarons, baked Alaskas, apple tarts, cakes, ice cream, arctic rolls, chocolate drizzled everywhere. It was elaborate, over the top, the quite the show-stopper, the perfect end to a spectacularly eccentric meal!
This meal was hosted by The Tabl, the new site which brings together exciting pop-up kitchens, secret supper clubs and exciting dining adventures just like this one! The team at The Tabl are all about bringing people together for truly unique meals for both hosts and guests – go find your next food adventure here!
Thanks to The Tabl, Charles Spence and Jesse Dunford-Wood, and The Parlour delivering the most bizarre dining experience, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!