An experiment published in 2014 in the journal Flavour (reviewed by scientists, not chefs) gave 60 people exactly the same ingredients in three dishes: a ‘neat’ arrangement, a traditional tossed salad and one that had been constructed to look like the Kandinsky painting, Painting number 2001. Both before and after consumption, the Kandinsky-inspired dish came out top for complexity, artistic presentation and overall enjoyment, and the testers said they would be prepared to pay twice as much for it in a restaurant than for the other versions. It’s hardly surprising, then, that London’s best chefs have long been aware of the power of presentation – the plate becoming a blank canvas for swooshes of jus, intricate structures and nature’s colour wheel of ingredients, rendering their creations almost too good to actually eat.
ART ON A PLATE
Colour is in fact one of the defining features of Peruvian food, with brightly hued vegetables, sauces and edible flowers often assembled to reflect the art of the culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than at chef and restaurateur Martin Morales’ restaurants, including Senõr Ceviche and Casita Andina in Soho. Inspired by his roots and Peruvian ‘picanterias’ – traditional family-run restaurants frequented by the local community and travellers – the interior is a tasteful yet fun mishmash of bright colours, woven textiles, traditional knick-knacks and specially commissioned artworks.
Just as pleasing to the eye – if not more so – is the food, lovingly created by Morales and executive chef Vitelio Reyes, who was previously at Michelin-starred Peruvian gem, Lima London. Each plate – whether traditional ceviche, lamb sweetbreads with coriander, dark beer sauce, carapulcra potatoes and peanuts, or watermelon and black quinoa salad – is a dynamic mixture of components that almost ‘jump out’ at you.
Yet there’s much more to these dishes than pretty presentation, says Morales, with their appearance inspired by the heritage, tradition, creativity, textiles and beauty of Cusco in the Andes of Peru. “The design of our dishes at times replicates a textile weave or embroidery, whereas the colour often reflects the muted earthy tones of quinoa and maca, or the bright textile tones of rocoto chilli,” he explains.
Undoubtedly, there has been a big trend for ‘humble’ ingredients in the past few years with many hot new London restaurants championing the vegetable above all else. Aside from price point and our heightened environmental consciousness, with a variety of shapes, colours, textures and tastes to play with they certainly make for a versatile medium. One new restaurant to capitalise on this is Perilla in Stoke Newington.
Head chef and co-founder Ben Marks has drawn on his experience working at Claridge’s and Noma to create a seasonal menu that gives classic European ingredients a modern twist. Fried duck egg and chopped mussels with parsley is delicate and almost whimsical to behold, with the mussels taking on a completely different and – unusually for shelled mussels – attractive appearance. BBQ mullet with grilled radicchios and basil is a simply presented plate of whole barbecued fish scattered with fresh basil and radicchios, yet it’s somehow dramatic. Even the butterhead lettuce and herb salad looks as if it has been arranged with the skill of a florist putting together a beautiful bouquet.
It’s interesting to consider that in many restaurants now, the artistry goes beyond the plate – the ‘theatre of eating’, so to speak, being a factor. Magpie, a stone’s throw from Regent Street, is the latest project from James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy, co-founders of the Michelin-starred Pidgin in Hackney. Like Pidgin, Magpie celebrates modern British produce, but this time Ramsden and Herlihy wanted to switch things up, creating a system whereby diners select their small plates from a traditional dim sum-style trolley.
“It seemed like a fun and novel approach to our current eating-out habits,” says Ramsden. Renowned chef Adolfo de Cecco is at the kitchen’s helm, producing small plates such as mackerel crudo with blueberry kosho and fennel pollen, with swirls of dark purple jus, pops of green and that beautiful shimmering mackerel skin combining to resemble an edible abstract painting.
Evidently many restaurateurs are now pushing the boundaries of what it means to eat out, creating a novel experience that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Ever since Tom Sellers opened Restaurant Story on Tooley Street, close to Tower Bridge, in 2013 he has won rave reviews for his imaginative menu, earning a Michelin star within just five months of opening. With a modern approach to British classics, Sellers’ menu features the likes of crispy cod skin with cod balls and bread and dripping – ‘normal’ enough until you realise that the candle on your table is to be eaten (yes, really) because it is actually the beef dripping to go with your bread.
This technical yet fantastical approach to cooking is nothing new to Heston Blumenthal, whose creations are like something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Two Michelin-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, is no exception. The menu – “a celebration of historic British gastronomy” – features recipes that have been inspired by ones dating as far back as the 14th century, which are mind-blowing in their originality (because eating was one of the few entertaining pastimes then). Together with chef director Ashley Palmer-Watts, Blumenthal has come up with a meticulously planned menu including Meatfruit (c.1500), a chicken liver mousse created to look like a mandarin orange, and Tipsy Cake (c.1810), sponge soaked in sherry and brandy. Incidentally, these are two of the world’s most Instagrammed dishes.
EAT WITH YOUR EYES
From one form of entertainment to quite another, social media has become one of the most powerfully influential mediums, with apps such as Instagram having the potential to drum up an unprecedented amount of business. One restaurateur who quickly clocked on to the power of the picture-sharing platform is Leonid Shutov, his achingly stylish Bob Bob Ricard in Soho recently having undergone a redesign. The brief? To make the restaurant more ‘Instagrammable’. And that it is, with its unmistakable Art Deco logo, patterned Japanese wallpaper and, of course, those famous ‘Press for Champagne’ buttons at every table. As for the menu, that too has been given much thought. The beetroot and goat’s cheese gateaux looks as eccentric as it sounds, a fanciful arrangement of pink beetroot discs and sprigs of lamb’s lettuce on a perfect little round cake fit for Marie Antoinette.
Another Instagrammers’ obsession, Sketch in Mayfair has been so breathtakingly designed it is a work of art in itself. Everything from the ‘millennial pink’ David Shrigley room (featuring the visual artist’s work), to the futuristic egg-shaped lavatories, is fairytale-like. The food is a fundamental cog in the wheel of the overall aesthetic – afternoon tea, for example, is a towering selection of hand-cut sandwiches (think Norfolk goose egg and mayonnaise), immaculate scones, cakes and, of course, those painstakingly created petits gâteaux including blueberry and vanilla choux.
Whether a result of rising expectations or social media, we are obsessed with the way things look. And thanks to the fiercely competitive skill and creativity of some of our best chefs, food is no exception. It seems our eyes are bigger than our stomachs.