Masterchef Adam Handling’s sophomore restaurant is a breath of fresh air in the ritualistic world of fine dining, discovers John Underwood
‘Adam Handling is 27 years old. I cannot begin to imagine what he will do next.’ When I wrote those words four months ago, still dazed from the virtuoso tasting menu at Adam Handling at Caxton, I certainly didn’t expect to be writing another piece on the Scottish wunderkind (wunderbairn?), late of Masterchef: The Professionals, quite so soon. But just weeks after my visit to his precise, formal hotel restaurant in Westminster, Adam Handling announced his intention to leave SW1 and head to Shoreditch, where he opened The Frog in June.
Invited to try a newish tasting menu that had inherited perhaps half its dishes from its Caxton predecessor, I couldn’t quite imagine how the intricate, story-driven feast that had nearly brought me to tears could survive translation to a small, bustling restaurant off Brick Lane. As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried. While the two restaurants have DNA in common, they are thoroughly, thrillingly distinct. If Adam Handling at Caxton was Heart of Darkness, The Frog is Apocalypse Now.
The Frog’s tasting menu runs to nine courses (ten if you pay the supplement for a cheese doughnut, which you’ll look back on as the best £3 you’ve ever spent), and costs just £45. While some of the dishes are indeed familiar, they’ve been pared down since I last encountered them. The fish course, for example, is now hake rather than turbot, although the accompaniment of limestone potato and tarragon has stayed the same.
Against all the odds, I prefer the humble hake to the dethroned king of fish – it tastes more painstakingly prepared, more loved. One of the chefs, who left their old jobs en masse to follow Handling across town, tells me that with their ingredients budget slashed to the bone, it’s no longer a case of buying the best and relying on its quality. ‘It’s not that we didn’t make the most of our ingredients before, but we take extra care now.’
This extra care is apparent throughout the meal, from the chef’s G&T (heavily garnished with fennel fronds, it’s exactly what you want and never get from a green juice) to the gently roasted lamb rump, served amid an impasto riot of sour cream and black garlic. Another returning favourite is the slow-cooked egg yolk with celeriac, truffle, apple and dates, which was dramatically served in a wooden box at Caxton and is, if anything, tastier for being on a plate.
A four-dish ‘snacks’ course would make world-beating bar food anywhere else in the world. Chorizo and cheese are bound into a tiny croquette and served on a dot of intense onion sauce, while a mouthful of delicate crab is sandwiched between two potato crisps and sprinkled with seaweed dust. There’s also something called chicken butter, which I presume is butter whipped with schmaltz and which tastes like it’s what they use to baste roast potatoes in heaven.
Although a wine flight is available, the warm evening and contemporary atmosphere push me towards the list of five paired beers, which are served in the underused third-of-a-pint measure. For a basically unreformed CAMRAite like me, the list leaned a little heavily on Brewdog’s assortment of pale ales, although the dark and aromatic schwarzbier from Copenhagen’s Mikkeller brewery was a truly memorable drink. A Québécois beer flavoured with hibiscus makes a beautiful match for the dessert course, while wine drinkers are served a kombucha bellini that is far and away the best way I’ve found to drink kombucha. (The jury’s out on what prosecco does to its supposed health benefits.)
Put simply, The Frog is a great place to go for dinner – great drinks, cracking service and food in a league of its own. But there’s something else that sets The Frog apart, not least from Adam Handling’s last restaurant. I adored the meal I had in March, but I couldn’t imagine going back to eat it again; a few days after my visit, the intricately structured menu and darkly luxurious dining room were like a curious dream, to be revisited only in the memory.
Conversely, the Frog is the most relaxed first-class restaurant I’ve ever encountered. Everything from the open-plan kitchen to the slightly battered tables feels welcoming, while Adam Handling’s unmistakeable food – still ingenious, still baroque, but feeling distinctly freer – is perfectly at home in E1. Would I visit again? In three weeks’ time I’m going for my birthday.