This May marked two years since Simon Rogan launched Fera at Claridge’s in the space vacated by Gordon Ramsay. I was lucky enough to get in for dinner within the first few weeks, when Simon Rogan was cooking there on a daily basis. Since then, it’s gained a Michelin star and settled into its rhythm. So, almost two years later to the day, I returned for lunch to see what’s going now, having heard some worrying reports over the last couple of years.
On my first visit, the set menu dinner offering was twenty items long: seven introductory mouthfuls and thirteen courses; it took four or five hours for us to go through. Now it has been cut back, and the longest option is eleven items: four single-mouthful “snacks” and seven courses. This is in line with what I had heard, and also in concert with Rogan’s Manchester restaurant after its initial opening.
Once launches are out of the way, punters have started spreading the word, and critics have been wined and dined, the issue of moolah rears its ugly head – profits have to be made. Invariably this means cutting back on quantity without reducing prices in turn, and cutting back on raw ingredient costs by using cheaper cuts. Thankfully, top restaurants don’t cut quality as they know that to do so would mean the end of revenue rather than an increase.
When I first dined at Fera and gorged on those twenty delectable dishes, they were simple, yet sophisticated, and packed with incomparable amounts of flavour. Dishes ranged from oxtail with smoked yolk, carrots, juniper and duck sweetbreads, to (then his signature dish) grilled salad, Isle of Mull, truffle custard and sunflower seeds and onto cod cheeks poached in dulse stock with artichoke, beetroot and sea orache. While the options presented by the set lunch menu are somewhat smaller – there are eight options over three courses with the additional inclusion for £10 of the snacks, three introductory mouthfuls – it is clear that the Fera style is very much the same, a style some critics have attacked for being too similar to L’Enclume. It may not be different in the same way Rogan’s Manchester offering is, but so what? In the end, how many of us have the time, above anything else, to head to the Lake District and Rogan HQ? Let him do the same style in London. It’s what most of us want, and it’s the only way we’re going to get the chance to try his two-Michelin-starred wares, even if London only technically has the one.
A lunch menu, of course, will always be smaller and less prestigious, but it has one great advantage – other than the chance to have Michelin food at less than half the price – it can allow you to try most of the menu between you and one other. To start came caramelised cabbage accompanying confit duck, rhubarb, turnips and whey, and a smoked hake mousse with asparagus, kohlrabi and elderflower. The cold hake mouse and duck couldn’t be more different: the first was floral and fresh like the dew on a summer’s morning, while the duck was warm and had a beautiful piquancy from the combination of the whey and rhubarb, though more of it would have been nice. While I preferred the cabbage and duck as more to my taste, my companion preferred the mouse, which was more to hers – and it showed off Rogan’s trademark technique of charring the brassica oleracea family, though the sauce made it a little soft, undoing somewhat the flavour and texture of the caramelisation.
Cotswold white chicken with Jersey pearls, tarragon, smoked celeriac and assorted onions, and the steamed cod with buttered greens, salsify, broccoli and shrimp cream were the next plates delivered for our scrutiny, judgement and enjoyment. The chicken was pure perfection, with the very baby “pearl potatoes” and the triumphant smoked celeriac working in perfect harmony with the slightly acrid taste of the burnt and caramelised onions. And all this was achieved despite the poor wretched creature to whom the breast had belonged having been unfortunate enough to have been born sans half a breast. Why this ridiculous trend of providing only part of a breast or a leg has taken off I cannot fathom. I know it’s more cos-effective, but frankly it just looks tight-fisted; if you’re going to do that, scrap the breast and just give me the thighs. They’re always the best part anyway.
The cod was perfectly cooked, and you’d expect nothing less, but it suffered, drowned in the shrimp sauce which, sublime as it was in its richness, overpowered the dish and made it very wet. Odd that there should be two dishes with too much sauce, as the usual sauce complaint is that there isn’t enough of it. Maybe in their attempts to ensure no such complaints are forthcoming, the kitchen has gone too far the other way.
Dessert was a choice of two teas. I can’t remember the last time I read a dessert menu without some sort of tea-flavoured dessert on it. The decision was between chamomile custard, frozen buttermilk raspberries and sweet cicely, or Earl Grey ice cream with pickled apple and anise fritters. Both were delicious, and thankfully the Earl Grey wasn’t too overpowering, while pickled apple was the perfect accompaniment.
The best dishes, though, were the three single mouthful snacks added on for £10 each at the start: stewed rabbit with lovage; seaweed cracker, scallop and alexanders; Tunworth, yolk and salsify (an addition that can be made with the set lunch and the a la carte, but is included along with a mushroom cake, juniper and fennel with the tasting menu). In each case the mouthful was an explosion of flavour, just as the seven were that started the meal of two years ago. These are the real stars coming from the kitchen; the amount of flavour they pack into such little things is quite incredible. Best of all was the Tunworth and egg yolk, while the stewed rabbit was intense, even if the crispiness of the coating of the lovage was not quite there, yet had been on the menu two years back.
Service at Fera is friendly and immaculate with that hint of flamboyancy, something reflected in the contraptions used for serving coffee and tea – all looks very nice and does the job very well but is somewhat open to the epithet “OTT”. I would make one comment: although the water carafes are lovely in design, they pour very poorly; not once did they fail to leave water on the table and, on one occasion, a waiter’s spillage was like the Exxon Valdez.
So were the worrying reports I’d been hearing justified? Yes and no. The good news is that, while the menu (and I include all the current menus in this) isn’t as long or perhaps as imaginative in terms of cuts and ingredients, the high quality has not been compromised. One won’t be able to fault the food, save for the occasional idiosyncratic sauce surplus. The problem really only comes when you eat there more than once, as those from whom I had heard the worrying reports had. It explains why some critics weren’t huge fans even at the beginning, as they saw it as the same as L’Enclume, which they had already experienced.
The first time you eat Rogan’s food you are blown away. Each plateful, each single mouthful taster is a revelation, the latter so good I would have a meal of them alone if it were possible. When you return it is no longer so astounding, and judging it against the previous experience will always make it seem flat. So, when you return to Fera, wipe clean the slate, and take the superb meal as it comes.