Photo: Fruggo, Wikimedia Commons
Ben Spalding wants you to lick his bricks. No, that isn’t a euphemism. The ex-Roganic chef, a much-tipped rising star, is about to start cooking at a new Islington bar and restaurant, John Salt, where the menu will include his signature “chicken on a brick”. The dish is an elaborate combination of chicken liver mousse and crispy chicken skin, served on – you guessed it – a caramel-glazed house brick. Forget slate. That’s so 2010. Now, we’re all about eating off other building materials. In fact, customers will be encouraged, says Spalding to, “actually lick the brick”.This outbreak of brick-licking started spontaneously, insists Spalding, with curious diners slurping at the caramel, which, when warm, releases bitter flavours that offset the liver’s fattiness. Nonetheless, it’s all a bit WTF, no? I’m all for a injecting a bit of fun into restaurants. I’m all for sensory adventure. But – and I suppose it depends on how much you have had to drink – I can’t help but think that I’d feel a bit self-conscious, sat in a restaurant, licking a brick. I would be plagued by the nagging doubt that, behind the swing doors, the kitchen staff were sniggering into their Thermomix. “Look at that knobhead, he’s actually licking the brick.”
But perhaps this reflects the general trajectory of the modern restaurant. Increasingly chefs are playing with the customers’ senses – in a way that often challenges people to step outside of their comfort zone – to heighten the dining experience. More and more we are asked entertain ideas which, 10 years ago, would have seemed ridiculous. The benign end of this spectrum is a waiter relaying how the chef suggests that a dish should be eaten or, as at Goodman, a pre-dinner, tableside preview of that night’s meat cuts. Personally, I would find that butchery class unnecessary; an intrusion into what would ideally be a relaxing night out.
Sucking on an amuse bouche of “pebbles” at Mugaritz may be a hurdle for some, but Noma’s sometime serving of live shrimps takes the whole process of forcing the diner to perceive, engage with and question what they are eating to a new and confrontational level. By contrast eating at the Fat Duck is more likely to make you feel a bit daft rather than guilty.
When I ate there, I’d promised that when it came to the Sound of the Sea (the dish where you’re asked to pop in iPod headphones and listen to a shoreline soundscape), I was going start singing Live Forever, point at the headphones and shout at Mrs N: “I THINK THEY’VE GIVEN ME THE WRONG ONE.”
I didn’t, of course. And I’m glad I didn’t, because while I can’t say that the soundtrack transported me to the seaside or, so far as I could consciously tell, enhanced the fishiness of the dish, it’s too easy for us Britons – with our admirable but occasionally debilitating fear of being seen as pretentious – to take the piss. Undoubtedly, there is something in that kind of sensory manipulation. Even if we don’t fully understand it yet. For years, those blacked-out restaurants where you dine “blind” have insisted that it enhances your experience of taste and smell. If licking a brick adds a new dimension to a dish, why deny yourself that pleasure? Surely a kind of open, curious scepticism is the best approach to these things?
Licking a brick is certainly more enjoyable than what you might encounter elsewhere. From being told to sit up straight and chew your food properly, to having to cook your own steak on a volcanic rock, there are many things that you might be asked to do in restaurants, which, frankly, I don’t want to. Not if I’m paying for the privilege.
What’s the most ridiculous thing that you’ve ever been encouraged to do in a restaurant? And did you end up enjoying it?
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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