Adam Handling’s autobiographical tasting menu is awe-inspiring (and delicious), writes John Underwood.
With a clutch of awards and a finalist’s spot on Masterchef: The Professionals under his belt, Adam Handling hung out his shingle in St James’s Park some eighteen months ago. Adam Handling at Caxton is a calm, unfussy space, discreetly broken up by screens and alcoves, jazz trickling from the ceiling. It doesn’t look especially like the home of one of London’s most innovative chefs, which I suspect is the point.
I was visiting to try Handling’s new 11-course tasting menu, billed as a coming of age story that encompasses “some of the most important people, moments and adventures in Adam’s life”. The stage was duly set for either a triumph or an object lesson in the refined megalomania exclusive to chefs and Bond villains – that sort of description leaves no room for half measures.
We were settled into our corner by Cornelia, possibly the only waitress I’ve ever met who had very clearly tried every dish and every wine on the menu. I was later told that nothing is offered for sale until it’s been sampled and approved by the entire restaurant team. “We understand Adam’s passion for cooking,” explained the sommelier, “and he has to understand our passion for service.” Of all the unexpected highlights of our meal, this was the one that could (and should) be most easily replicated elsewhere; I’ve never come across such engaged, informed and enthusiastic staff.
Once our cutlery had been confiscated (it eventually came back, but not until the fourth course) and exchanged for a tiny, mysterious key, the food started to arrive. The first plate bore a tiny, perfecly crisp lozenge of pork, dotted with beads of lovage sauce that practically glowed with chlorophyll. Lovage is too often relegated to the status of garnish, but here it took centre stage, scything through the rich meat on behalf of every grass stalk ever uprooted by a grazing animal. I didn’t even bother to pretend I wasn’t licking my fingers.
The second course, ‘Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot’, built on the earthy notes of its predecessor whilst laying the groundwork for something both reflective and playful. Beetroot pannacotta is hidden in an inch-long sugar tube, nestled into a slick of beetroot and yuzu gel on what appears to be a matching red plate. A stray fingertip, however, is enough to reveal the truth. The third preparation of beetroot is an intense powder covering the (black) plate, which adheres gleefully to any passing skin and must be licked off; or, if you prefer, bathed away in the superbly balanced prosecco which accompanies the first two courses.
Next came ‘Silver and gold’. Olive oil butter is wrapped in white chocolate, then in gold leaf, then piled with caviar, truffle and an edible flower and accompanied by a phial of platinum kombucha. If you or I tried to make something with those ingredients, we’d end up with a dog’s breakfast of competing luxury flavours. Somehow, Handling makes them taste of pea shoots and cut grass. I haven’t the faintest idea how it’s done and I don’t want to know. It might be magic.
There is, alas, not nearly enough room here to break down all eleven courses, all seven wines (plus brandy), every theatrical tweak and Proustian flourish. I will tell you that I nearly burst into tears three times, and that although I haven’t met Adam Handling (he normally delivers at least one dish to the table himself, but is currently in Cuba), I feel like I could write a book on the man. ‘Coming of age story’ is, if anything, an understatement – this is nothing short of an Inception-style journey into someone else’s memory.
I’m not telling you what the key unlocks, or which dish is cooked tableside in a bath of liquid nitrogen, or the precise point at which you will have to blink, hard, to convince yourself you’re not at the seaside. You are going to find out yourself. This tasting menu is being billed as London’s most reasonable (£66 for 11 courses or £50 for 7, plus some of the most inspired wine pairings I’ve ever encountered), and I would be amazed if there’s another meal in the capital to match it for elegance, wit and genuine narrative genius. And, most importantly, it’s tasty – really, really tasty. This is the work of a chef with both feet on the ground, telling a vivid and relatable story without forgetting that his audience wants to go home not only awestruck, but also full and happy.
Adam Handling is twenty-seven years old. I cannot begin to imagine what he will do next.