A Great Tasting Menu Can Be a Thing of Singular Delight
I’ve been trying to get a read on my appetite for over a month. December’s party slalom was traditionally boozy, fuelled by lukewarm finger platters. Christmas itself was suitably mincemeated and dickie-puddinged. January saw not so much a health kick, as an obligatory shunning of deliciousness in favour of virtuously ascribed fodder, meal after anti-inflammatory meal of unpretentious peasantry. This side of purge and penance my appetite is lost at sea, constantly shifting, a vibe to check and recheck.
To put it simply, I’m not sure what I want to eat – I can’t get my food libido up.
The problem with a shifting appetite, is not that it’s insatiable, that the thirst cannot be quenched, more that consuming too much of a good thing can leave you somewhat tired of a good thing. As the pressure to party or puritan abated, I’ve found myself, of late, dare I say it, a little fatigued with modern British cuisine. I need momentary respite from the modernity of modern British. A breather from bowls of buttered greens. I’m calling a truce with sponge pudding and custard.
Spring is lamb and Easter and hot cross bunnies with eggs. In the meantime, I want something less homely. Cleaner and leaner and exacting. Less creamy, more precise. No skillets, no fillets. It’s feeling very first world to be bemoaning an intolerable sense of comfort — poor me suffering the freshest, tastiest local plates, the Eccles-est of cake the Dorset-est of crab. But what is appetite if not the following of desire, of my ever-changing fancies, the micro-trends of what I want in my stomach? Right now, I find no comfort in home comforts. The truth is that I don’t know what I want. I just want to be surprised.
Now, I want to relinquish my control over my appetite. I offer the jurisdiction of my meal to a chef, someone to pen my meal, alliterative flavours, a limerick of plates. I want the kitchen to be a magician’s sleeve that offers a bunting of knotted amazements. And I do want the dining to be fine. I don’t need the heart taken out of the hearty, but I need to de-stodge my own predictability. It’s exciting chasing the dragon of a sophisticated supper, to bin off banana bread and sourdough and the other stalwarts of the pandemic.
Home cooking is a forever delight, but I want out and out refinement, something I can’t whip up myself without an evening short course honing my knife and pan skills. I want to travel beyond locally sourced assemblages of ingredients, I want to be transported and transfixed, my attention demanded rather than lightly titillated. I want master craftsmen. I want master craftswomen. I want the best of the best.
I venture to Hunan in Belgravia to take in a luncheon, a hall of fame spot for people who want to take the thinking out of ordering, to dodge humming and harring. There is no menu at Hunan, there are no decisions. There’s a sample list of dishes (few of which eventually end up in front of me), but the idea is that I trust the process. I flip the coin and let Hunan decide the myriad way it lands — heads, tails, mussels, bamboo. I get on the rollercoaster and don’t look back — chef Peng chooses my adventure.
Waitress isn’t the right word for the woman who seats us. She has an aura of a benevolent innkeeper, a Fraulein Maria who I sense can be stern at the drop of a hat but chooses not to be. She has a quiet, masterful confidence that soothes. It’s been seven minutes and I trust her with my life. And the room is best described as the kind of simmering refined class I imaged true luxury was as a kid. Hunan opened in 1982 and there’s a sophisticated 80s classiness, the sort of place incredibly wealthy men get seduced by big-haired women in psychosexual thrillers. This is a good thing. Pure white natural light rather than dive bar dinge. Envelope-pressed tablecloths. Nothing notable or tricksy. We’re a Michael Douglas cameo away from a set design Emmy.
It’s a miscellany of feelings and sensations, like I’m reminiscing especially potent lovers on my deathbed.
Thanks to chef Peng’s son Michael, Hunan’s wine list is legendary, one of the best in the city, but I have a thing later and some long-term issues with moderation, so I sheepishly settle for a Diet Coke (I down three over the 12-course sitting). We take a seat for a royal variety performance of dishes. The opening act is caterpillar-sized and caterpillar-coloured shards of green bean, nimbly battered, dotted with red chilli and thankfully un-caterpillar-y in taste. There’s a square dish of peanuts, from which I manage to chop-stick pluck a single nut — a total fluke I pass off as dexterity to my dining partner.
Because of the unfamiliar progression of foods, and the lack of a written-down easy-to-check menu, there are stupidly delicious and moreish dishes I cannot recall the names of. In my mind, it’s a miscellany of feelings and sensations, like I’m reminiscing especially potent lovers on my deathbed. A kaleidoscope of yum. Frisky slices of pinkish venison. Baby mammoth tusks of morning glory. A meat puck, a cluster of pumpkin, cuboids of spicy aubergine. It is a vertiginous parade of delicate but bawdy dishes, the be our guest montage from Belle’s first night in the castle. I try the grey stuff, it’s delicious. The meal is a marching band of soloists that complete culinary symphony, each incrementally more complex, yet never jostling for centre stage. Nothing exceeds a two-bite limit. Everything is mindfully current, dancing a speedy polka on your buds, a two-step on your tongue and then gone in a double munch, instantaneously liminal.
Standout for me in the cacophony is a pinkie of deep-fried prawn, juicy and just the right amount of rubbery. Hunan offers no cliché trappings, there’s a feeling of calm and precision, of time spent first well in the kitchen, and then out here on the floor. Full-moon pancakes are filled with a leg of roasted duck and slugs of plum sauce. Banana fritters, auspicious and sweet, complete the surprises.
There’s obviously a danger with 12-14 tasting plates, an undercurrent of eyes bigger than your belly, of gluttony, of who do you think you are, Henry VIII at a banquet? But the meal doesn’t sit heavily and it doesn’t linger for hours. Fine dining like this is seldom a pocket money situation, the lunch menu is a rather specific £58.80 a head. But I welcome the meal’s interception of my idle ease, its disruption of my status quo. Chef Peng and his kitchen have excavated me from my comforting food rut. Something about not knowing what you’re having next cultivates a frisson of excitement, your interest is never quite satisfied. All is anticipated, yet unknown, and pleasurably confrontational, like the scares in a horror movie without the gore. Each dish is a little surprise, a little relief, a little smugness you’re rolling with the punches – and a little relief that you can.
Plate after plate of small bounty, singular doubloons that satisfy your chest with treasure. In a world of decision and precision, the unexpected surprises and unplanned disruptions of menu-free dining might just be the shake-up our appetites need.
Raven Smith is a cultural commentator, best-selling author, and a columnist at Vogue. Buy Raven Smith’s Men, his latest book, and follow him on Instagram here. Follow Resy, too.