Henry’s, 4 Saville Row, Bath BA1 2QP (01225 780055). Meal for two, including wine and service: £90 to £110
Recently I took part in a conference event on the future of the dining experience. Or should I say “experience”? It felt like inverted commas were everywhere. It was all about “data capture” and “personalisation”. Us diners will trade gems of information for a meal that most closely matches our aspirations for it. Much of this was an extrapolation of what already happens. The request for information on allergies and dietary issues has become de rigueur. At best it saves people from going into anaphylactic shock over the grilled shrimp, which really can ruin dinner. At worst it’s a licence for picky eaters, trying to control the world around them through their dreary eating habits, just as they did when they were toddlers.
At the top end of the business, restaurant managers freely admit they already stalk their customers in what they believe is an utterly benign manner. If someone is about to drop a few hundred quid on dinner, isn’t a quick Google search the least you can expect? (Oh, the misery of constantly discovering that the only people who can afford to eat in your restaurant are grisly oligarchs with their hands in the till and blokes mourning the passing of the Presidents Club dinner on Twitter.)
The question is, how far can it go? Recently Just Eat were forced into crisis management when one of their drivers started harassing a woman he’d just dropped a meal to. Just Eat is a marketing operation, running a web interface linking to myriad independent restaurants. They can capture customer data until the cows come home. It turned out they couldn’t necessarily control what happened to it if it fell into the wrong hands.
Back in the lofty bit of the trade, when Heston Blumenthal reopened the Fat Duck in 2015, he made a noise about personalising the diner experience by performing a pre-meal telephone interview with guests. As I discovered, this amounted to little more than being given a postcard of somewhere I’d been to on holiday, by waiting staff who weren’t quite with the project. (For me, personalisation really plumbed the depths when Facebook cheerily shared with me the memory of the moment a few years before when I told everyone my old dad had died, after an acutely painful illness. Nice algorithm; shame it’s so electronically gauche.)
Listening to all this at the conference I made a prediction: that with the rise of data-friendly restaurants would come a counter-revolution; one which would ape the craft beer and artisan bread movements. Let’s call it the Craft Restaurant Movement: the small place that has no interest in data capture or personalisation, which does its own precisely delineated thing to its own eager, willing audience who are interested only in a table, a chair and a well thought-out plate of food.
Of course, this already exists. It’s Henry’s in Bath. There’s a simple dining room, sympathetic to the classic Georgian townhouse it occupies. The floor is bare boards from back wall to door. The tables are clothless. The paintwork is a subtle blue-grey. The sign outside is the signature of the man who cooks here. Henry Scott’s food is idiosyncratic without being overwrought. Most notably it doesn’t fob off non-meat-eaters with something involving beetroot and goat’s cheese. There is an entire menu of equal length – three choices at each course – for those who prefer their lunch to have not once had a pulse. We ordered from both sides.
The instinct with such an independent is simply to cheerlead, but that helps no one. Across six dishes, the score was four-two, with the good stuff on the winning side. A heap of glossy ratatouille, the vegetables chopped so finely that one is tempted to diagnose a compulsion, comes bound in an intense sauce. Every ingredient tastes both of itself, and of themselves combined. On top there are whorls of a truffle mayonnaise. Scattered over the top are crispy rings of shallot that Barbie could wear as jewellery. The meaty starter is a heap of crisp-fried then glazed sweetbreads, piled on a deep bed of sauerkraut which leans towards an umami sweetness. Tiny pickled capers prick the warmth with precise moments of acidity to save it all from slipping towards the cloying.
A brilliant green herb risotto, made by a cook who has clearly stood stirring a pot of this many times, is a complete winner. On top is a fillet of brill, the flesh pearly, the surface a buttery golden. The skin has been turned into a deep-fried cracker. Around it all is a moat of a langoustine reduction that has you holding the tines of your fork between your lips for just a little longer than is strictly necessary.
Its greatness is matched by an extremely clever warm chocolate tart, with a heart of pure liquid. It’s a chocolate fondant which, somehow, has been baked inside an individual tart shell of a delightful crispness. You break into its heart and molten chocolate flows out over the rim. On the side is a thick custard, flavoured with the high-altitude aromatics of Sichuan peppercorns.
What doesn’t work? A main course of roasted salsify with chickpeas that are first crisped and then given a soft lemon glaze, must get damned with the faint praise of “interesting”. It is begging for a deep broth, both for lubrication and to blunt the acidity. At dessert, Scott serves a Jerusalem artichoke crème brûlée, topped with candied hazelnuts and a compote of finely diced persimmon. On the one hand it’s exactly what it says: a Jerusalem artichoke flavoured sweet crème brûlée. On the other, just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should. All it made me think is, I wish he would take the vegetables out of this otherwise lovely crème brûlée.
Put that dish in the column marked “noble failure”. Henry Scott can cook, and has created a thoroughly lovely restaurant that is an expression of himself. It’s also great value. At lunch two savoury courses are £19 which means the bill, with a couple of glasses of wine and coffee, came to £90. Expect to pay a little more for dinner. Expect not to resent it. I’m all for data capture. Technology can be brilliant. But there does always have to be space for a restaurant like Henry’s.
Jay’s news bites
Bristol is full of idiosyncratic ‘craft restaurants’. Try the smart but simple Wilson’s in the city’s Redland district. Start with the likes of soused herring with pickled turnip and dollops of cod’s roe. Follow that with venison with a faggot of its own offal, or their own butter-yellow pasta, liberally dressed with truffles. Finish with a tarte tatin. It’s lunch, not rocket science (wilsonsrestaurant.co.uk).
The Roundhouse in Camden, north London, is to stage a new two-day food festival in which fruit and veg will take centre stage. Plant Life runs from 1 to 2 June, and will see the space turned into a series of restaurants and producer markets with talks, debates and workshops. Tickets cost £25, available from plantlifefestivals.com.
From 1973 to 2003 the Chinese restaurant Poon’s, in London’s West End, was something of a cult, partly on account of rare dishes involving wind-dried meats. Now Amy Poon, daughter of founder Bill, is bringing it back for a three-month pop-up, in Clerkenwell, from 17 February (poonslondon.com).