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Dec / Jan 2012
Palate Pleaser

Writer: Anissa Helou / Photographer: Mark Sherratt

Barely 32, Ollie Dabbous may have just opened his first restaurant a year ago but he’s already turning heads. Serving simple, refined meals at incredibly low prices, the only thing difficult at Dabbous is getting through the front door.

 

When I ate at Dabbous, I was lucky. As I was deciding which London restaurants to recommend to François Simon, the Figaro restaurant critic, I consulted Fay Maschler. As influential in England as François is in France, she immediately suggested Dabbous, adding that we needed to go there before her review came out - she was giving him a rare five-star rating. Glad I asked. 

Not only was our meal exquisite but from the day Fay’s review came out, it became impossible to get a table unless you were prepared to wait months. This was a year ago. It’s even more difficult now. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a deliberate strategy to keep the buzz. But Ollie Dabbous is doing something quite different from other chefs of his calibre - serving superb cooking in a relaxed, dare I say cool, atmosphere at accessible prices. Capping his extraordinary debut, he won the coveted Best Restaurant award at the London Restaurant Festival and a Michelin star.

Though his surname sounds Lebanese, Dabbous Snr. is French-Italian and Ollie’s only connection to the Middle East was a few years in Kuwait, where his father was an architect. He took the classic route out of culinary college, working in top restaurants like the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Mugaritz and Noma before becoming head chef at Texture in London and from there, branching out on his own. Given his tremendous talent, I was surprised to learn that no investors were involved and his limited financing came mainly from family and friends, amongst them Raymond Blanc from the Manoir. 

When Dabbous and partner Oskar Kinberg finally opened the restaurant, they were so tight on money that they only had 9,500 USD to spare. Fay’s unexpected review two weeks after opening came as a tremendous boon, assuring a full house when they’d initially had to rely on friends to make the restaurant look busy. 

As I ask Dabbous about his cooking philosophy he surprises me, comparing himself to a sportsman with a finite time at the top, adding that his intention was to work in the kitchen for 10 years before concentrating on the business side and opening establishments with his best chefs at the helm. Not only a brilliant cook, he promises to become a brilliant businessman and not by lending his name to multiple establishments where he never spends any time.

In fact, Dabbous can’t imagine spending much time outside his own kitchen. Strict about what goes on the menu, his dishes must be perfect before they are served. As a result, he works on his recipes, refining and testing them again and again until he’s satisfied. I ask if being such a perfectionist makes him difficult to work with and his answer makes me smile. “I’m not an arsehole in the kitchen. For me, the best kitchens are calm, focused and organised but still military in their discipline.” 

I agree instantly. The personality of a chef is definitely reflected in their food and Dabbous’ simple, elegant food displays his thoughtful approach. His dishes seem effortless. They are anything but.

For lunch, François and I chose the set menu and from the moment the bread and butter arrived, we knew we were in for something sublime. Served in beautiful brown paper bags, the sourdough was baked on the premises with a wonderful crust and the butter was so fresh, you’d think they churn it themselves. (They do.) My starter was an exquisite hand-chopped tartare. François had an elegant fennel salad. Next was a luscious joue de veau (me) and a delicate turbot (François). We shared a faultless baba au rhum for dessert but I think the most enchanting dish on the menu was the cold verveine consommé poured over thin cucumber sticks dotted with tiny violets, the perfect and memorable transition from savoury to sweet, which reminded me of how Noma uses vegetables in desserts. When I say how impressed I am by that simple, yet delectable dish, Dabbous looks pleased. He explains that dishes like that encapsulate his approach to cooking - using few ingredients and extracting maximum flavour. 

Our meal came to under 50 GBP (80 USD) for two - admittedly without wine - but given the quality, it was unusual for London and another reason why tables are so hard to come by. Want to try it for yourself? Either book months ahead (there’s no limit to how far) or take a chance and turn up for lunch and hope there’s been a cancellation. If not, head downstairs to the bar, have one of the house’s excellent cocktails and order snacks instead. Rest assured, they’re every bit exceptional as what’s served up above.

 
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