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Novelli takes over
Hall, the grand stately home in Hertfordshire is the latest location for
Jean Christophe to show off his culinary talents.
It was just over a year ago that we visited Novelli EC1, the brasserie operation that the eponymous chef had just opened next door to his fine dining room, Maison Novelli, the subject of the present review.
Even then we were wondering how he could possibly find the time to open all these restaurants, and cook! Since then, he has opened a restaurant auberge in Normandy, Le Moulin de Jean, and his posh restaurant in Mayfair is now well established: Les Saveurs de Jean-Christophe Novelli - it sounds quite a mouthful.
Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell remains the heartbeat of the Novelli empire. It was his first independent adventure after leaving the Four Seasons where he had won his second Michelin star, the first being at Gordleton Mill in Hampshire. Although he never worked for Marco Pierre White, White gave freely of his advice and encouraged him to do his own thing. Within three months of setting up Maison Novelli in 1996, it too was awarded a Michelin Star. It wasn't an easy time, but though he may have had stars in his eyes, Novelli discovered he had entrepreneurial skills that matched his proven culinary arts.
He probably spends less time in the kitchen than that other empire builder MPW, but he applies himself with tremendous energy and concentration, inspiring his able team of chefs with new creativity as well as ensuring that signature dishes retain the authentic Novelli stamp.
The food at Maison Novelli is highly decorative, artistic even. In contrast with the more traditional French grandmère style next door at Novelli EC1, here at Maison Novelli Head Chef Richard Guest produces dishes that have a sharper metropolitan edge to them. Prices are keen though, reflecting the more down to earth atmosphere of Clerkenwell.
My starter of a cervelat of pork knuckle was technically very accomplished: held together en gelee, it rested on a foundation of Pommes écrasses - bashed rather than mashed potato - garnished with strongly flavoured salad onions. This was good honest fare given a sophisticated twist or two.
Most dishes are built up on top of an interesting variety of bases from the rough potato mash under my pork knuckle - or aubergine caviar underneath a ravioli of goat's cheese - or lime couscous whose lighter texture provided a delicately tangy support for my guest's seared scallops. Such foundations extend to the main courses, where a ragout of chick peas infused with cumin and rosemary underpinned a roast rump of lamb, paying homage to the North African influence on the cooking of the Midi. Novelli's secret here is to cook the chickpeas with cumin then purée them before mixing them with mashed potato and spreading it out on a tray to cool and set. It can then be cut into appropriate shapes, rather like you do with cold polenta, and flash fried before service.
Indeed, my guest's main course was an immaculate circle of beef fillet tournedos set on a bed of mustard grain polenta. Refried or grilled polenta foundations can be just like chewing gum, but this was light and fluffy, so it may well have been its first and only outing.
Wonderfully tender pink slices of venison, well roasted on the outside, came piled cleverly on a delicious butternut squash tarte tatin. The pastry base provided both crunchy substance and something to mop up the very rich reduction. We found the reductions thick and gooey if a little too sweet, which we thought applied also to the pre-starter, one of those once trendy capuccino soups, this one made from celeriac.
Novelli also likes to use risotto as the foundation upon which to build up his fishy creations (his first serious kitchen job in the UK was at Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant in Padstow). He uses exotic flavourings with the risotto like puréed coriander with a little marscapone and parmesan. The plate is also streaked alternately with lime oil and chilli caramel. When we visited, the risotto was flavoured with ginger and the decor was a lemon froth. Pan fried gilt head sea bream is then placed on the rice, caramelised skin up as is the fashion, with cunningly fashioned crispy slivers of carrot on top of that.
Very clever desserts are another of Jean-Christophe's hallmarks, indeed, It was Marco who is alleged to have inspired the creation of the Novelli "Boite Surprise" illustrated which with its caramel squirls has become more a trademark than a signature dish. In the chapter on Novelli in Richard Bramble's book, he tells you how to make it, but I bet not many people could master it without J-C's hands-on tutelage! Reading the recipe for the Hot and cold, dark and light chocolate plate, that I so enjoyed, reminds me, as if I needed reminding, just how skillful these pastry chefs are.
(The picture right is from Richard Bramble's Star Chefs Cookbook). Incidentally, Novelli's own book has just come out, called Your Place or Mine. Your place any time, Jean-Christophe!
The cost of your meal at Maison Novelli:
Starters £5.00 to £8.50 (foie gras £11.50), main dishes £15.00 to £21.50, desserts £6.75, coffee and pettis fours £2.75
Maison Novelli, 29 Clerkenwell Green, Farringdon, London EC1
Tel: +44 (0)171 251 6606 Fax 490 1083
Maison Novelli is closed all day Saturday and Sunday
Dine Online's earlier review of the next door brasserie Novelli EC1
Clifford Mould February 1999
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