It’s not always about the money and sometimes following your dreams pays off. Andy Richardson visits a pop-up restaurant showing promise...
This is not a restaurant,” boasts James Sherwin, one time BBC TV MasterChef contestant on his website.
Fine. Then this is not a review. It’s an affectionate remembrance of a delightful evening at a bi-monthly pop-up that can be a bit ragged around the edges, that doesn’t pay sufficient attention to detail, but that provides wonderful food and hospitality in convivial surrounds.
It’s a word of encouragement for a bloke who’s chosen a path less travelled by following his dreams and doing something for the love of it, rather than a fast buck.
And before we go too Public Image Limited – This Is Not A Love Song – this is not a grovelling, nausea-inducing excuse for a critique. There are aspects of James’s pop-up diner that require a good shake-up. There are dishes that ought not to be cooked again. But there are enough flashes of promise, enough good cooking – and most of all – enough enthusiasm, energy and passion to suggest he’ll be okay.
James is right about one thing. James In A Space is not a restaurant. It’s a moveable feast. Hell, let’s cut to the chase and let the red-haired chef spell it out. As his website says: “This is guerrila cooking, this is turning up in an unconventional space and thinking: what can we create here?
“This is not about beautiful linen or massive portions, it’s about interesting food that you will not get in other places presented in intimate interesting venues.
“These nights are to be one-off experiences, the menu will be published on the website, you buy a ticket the way you would if you were going to see a band and you and very few other people will enjoy a one off night.
“This may all sound very pretentious but this isn’t about eating for the sake of being hungry, it’s about enjoying, discussing and being part of the experience not just a consumer.”
Or, to cut a long story short: James can’t afford a restaurant so he borrows premises and makes the best of them. And that’s enormously exciting. For he comes up with something new, something out of the box, somethings that defies convention and takes the diner on a trip. Guerilla restaurant. Tickets for gigs. Cool. Let’s rock.
Ginger & Co, in Shrewsbury, were hosting on the night that I ate an eight-course tasting menu. Except it wasn’t really eight courses. I’d say it was four with a plate of raspberries and a few starters. More of which in a moment.
James takes bookings to fill his ‘restaurant’, with guests securing a table, turning up and dining from a surprise menu. Wild Shropshire was the theme for mine, with ingredients foraged, grown, picked and processed from a 20-mile radius.
There was one exception to that – I’m pretty sure it was chocolate, which, try as he might, can’t be cultivated in the county. Well, not yet. If global warming continues at the present rate, Shrewsbury’s Quarry Park will be filled with cocoa trees by the turn of the century.
James took to the floor before dinner and gave a little speech. “I hate doing this,” he said, unconvincingly, before telling us about the evening’s dinner. He might have felt uncomfortable, but the absence of hatred and boredom was one of the most obvious elements of the night. James was cooking from the heart, demonstrating creativity, enjoying an evening of self-realisation. He was a culinary artist, trying to create gastronomic fireworks from an interesting array of ingredients. Some dishes went whizz, bang, pop: others went pppffhhtt, splat and failed to sparkle.
Bread with duck fat butter was a pleasant enough start: though calling it ‘snacks’ instead of ‘bread’ is almost as pretentious and pompous as the bloke who writes the Shropshire Star food reviews.
Where were we? Ah yes. Duck fat butter. Yum. As rich as an Arab sheik and as indulgent as a Tom Ford suit, it was lip-smackling good. John Lydon ought to make adverts for it. Bakers ought to fashion rolls especially for it. Sainsbury’s ought to clear the shelves of inferior alternatives. It was fan-flipping-tastic.
A nasturtium leaf with beef, however, was merely pretty good. Edible flowers rock. They don’t just look pretty, they taste sensational. Begonias taste of citrus, calendulas taste spicy and bitter and carnations have a nutmeggy/clovey taste. The next time I go to a florist, I won’t buy a bunch of flowers – I’ll eat them. The dish lacked refinement, however. It was a leaf wrapped round a slither of beef – good, but unimaginative.
A pork and gooseberry pie with edible flowers was also close but no cigar. The pie was served in a pastry case, as though it were a dessert, which is was not. No matter, the flavours were decent even though the idea was a little iffy.
Peas with a summery dressing were a delight. Potatoes cooked in lavender with a side of blackcurrants and whey were not. They were the emperor’s new clothes. They were like floral porridge. They were rubbish. There are great technicians in Shropshire who can transform base matter into gold. And there are chefs – the great mass – who know their limitations and respect good ingredients by cooking them sensibly. Potatoes in lavender – flowery potato foam – was neither. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Let’s stay friends but never talk of it again.
Duck with fermented and fresh beetroot alongside woodruff and sorrel was interesting, without offering any sort of transcendence. It was the closest James came to a restaurant dish. The duck had been beautifully cooked, the beetroot was sweet and earthy; it was a decent dish, if not particularly refined.
Raspberries with raspberry leaf followed – raspberry tips are lovely, they taste of coconut – and we finished with an Aero-like white chocolate cylinder that was dressed with elderflower vinegar. The hit of acid was a moment of inspiration and though it was impossible to eat with a spoon – try digging one into an Aero bar on a slippery plate and you’ll get the picture – the taste was delicious.
James In A Space is deserving of your attention. He’s one of the good guys, one of the fellas who’s in it for all the right reasons. He is to be applauded for celebrating great, unsung heroes like lovage, gooseberry, chamomile, whey, woodruff and the delightfully elegant sorrel. He’s to be saluted for serving a dish that is acid and chocolate, or for offering a bowl of peas or a plate of blackcurrants when they’re bang in season.
There are times when dishes smack of Mad Professor. But they are soon forgotten by the introduction of smarter, better tastes that aren’t available at many other places.
Oh, and then there’s this. In James’ ‘this-is-not-a-restaurant’ there are warm front of house staff, a chef who wears his heart on his sleeve and cooks for the love of it and a determination to eat real, slow-grown food that hasn’t been killed by chemicals or industrial processes.
James’ ‘not-a-restaurant’ is like a food rave. You turn up with a vague idea of what to expect and are transported – in this case, to the wild, foraged fields of Shropshire. He’s precisely the sort of guy we ought to support. He deserves every encouragement.