One thing I have learned from my adventures with food is that chefs love a challenge. Something that chefs love even more than a challenge, is a challenge from a another chef.
So when fellow DineInOut member (and chef) Jason Palin, challenged Ernst van Zyl to create a 6 course menu in his inimitable style that was completely vegetarian and even more difficult, under the £30 per head mark, not only was the gauntlet thrown, but the challenge happily accepted.
As a fan of all things food – and having experienced Ernst’s handiwork previously, I was happy to book a place as one of the lucky bunch able to sample the menu. In fact, Mr GFB took no persuading at all and discovering that our friends Simon (after a little persuasion), Elaine and Twitter friends Andy and Mike were enthusiastic too, meant we knew we’d be in for a fabulous night with Tania organising it.
After teasing us mercilessly on twitter with suggestions of what might be to come, we were all rather giddy by the time Mr GFB and I arrived (fashionably late). Greeted with a lovely glass of fizz, we were escorted through to the private dining room of the Etrop Grange and we soon settled into our seats in anticipation.
Before we even began to sample the food, we were presented with a hot towel for our hands and face, perfumed with grapefruit – something to wake up the senses.
To start, we were given a little amuse bouche that wasn’t on the menu – one of Ernie’s many surprises that evening. Presented on a clear glass bowl filled with smoke was a hay pannacotta with cucumber and textures of cauliflower and walnut. The film across the top of the bowl had a small hole meaning that the smoke escaped in little rings, mingling in your tastebuds with the light, slightly sweet crispy rice, creamy cauliflower, sharp vinegar, and slightly bitter walnut.
The second dish was one we had seen little hints about, but even these couldn’t begin to describe the actual dish itself. Crisp popped corn, creamy aerated peanut butter, soft earth mushrooms. The whole thing was delicious.
The third dish was the one that had intrigued me most. I love butternut squash – I was introduced to it many years ago on a visit to South Africa. So to have it as ‘tofu’ was going to be rather interesting. The texture was like a silken tofu and the flavour the whole essence of butternut squash, sweet, nutty and creamy all at once. Little slivers of parsley jelly & avocado and a fabulously crispy wafer, almost with the texture of pork crackling finished the dish.
The next dish turned out to be a huge favourite at the table. Salt baked celeriac, coriander and the most beautiful duck egg yolk, providing a creamy addition to the lightness of the other elements. In particular, the contrast of the celeriac – soft textured, nutty, meeting the creamy rich duck egg – proved the most intense. The table was silent, save for the sound of the knives and forks.
Our fifth dish, was for me the one I was most dreading. I’m not a fan of parsnip at all, so to find it as the main component of one of the dishes worried me a little. I really didn’t need to. The parsnip was smoked and retained the sweetness you get when it’s roasted, along with the smoke. The intensity of the douglas fir made my mouth almost tingle and the sweet nibs of gingerbread and candied pistachios provided contrast in both texture and taste.
A dining experience from Ernst is just that – there’s always theatre, surprises and treats involved. Our penultimate course, was to prove no exception and as you’ll see from the gallery, we were treated to a liquid nitrogen feast for the eyes as the granny smith part of the dish was created. The Jerusalem artichoke icecream was creamy, sweet and wonderfully earthy, the granny smith ice delicate, light, and fresh, the basil adding it’s characteristic taste as contrast.
The final dish proved to be a favourite of the ladies at the table, myself included. I’ve heard beetroot referred to as a vegetable chefs love because it’s so pretty. And this really was. Crisp cranberry paper added a sharp contrast to both the beetroot and the meringue. It was a pallet of textures and tastes, sweet, round, sharp balancing with crisp; soft creamy and solid textures. Absolute bliss. If there had been a second plate on offer, I’d have happily eaten it again.
Add to these the delicate little petit fours and we were all fit to bursting. Mr GFB had eaten more vegetables than he’d ever eaten in one sitting before and enjoyed every second. That’s a feat in itself.
DineInOut has a whole host of dining experiences planned and her next with Ernie is a Christmas event on a massive scale – 12 days of Christmas meets 12 courses. I’m going to check my diary…