Saturday, 1 March 2014

Stripped Back - Ben Spalding at Camp and Furnace, Liverpool

Ben Spalding was accidentally responsible for one of my favourite meals of 2012. I'd booked for his taster menu at the John Salt in Islington before Christmas and it was cancelled at exceptionally short notice (as in the same day) which lead to an over-indulgent night in Goodman where I spent the evening drowning my sorrows with steak.

I'd been waiting to give him another chance as well as being after an excuse to head over to Liverpool and give Camp and Furnace a try, so when Stripped Back was announced I booked my tickets immediately. Wandering through what's become known as the 'Baltic Triangle' in the dark probably didn't give me the best impression of the rejuvenation that's going on but I definitely spotted a few shops that piqued my interest for another visit in the future.

With it being just that little bit out of town (ie 15 minute walk / 5 mins in a cab) I had expected it to be relatively quiet but Camp and Furnace was absolutely heaving. The venue itself is really impressive, with a small bar in the entrance before you enter an absolutely huge warehouse space lined with tables and with bars and street food vendors (it was a Food Slam night). There isn't really anywhere like it in Manchester, the recent Guerilla Eats evenings opposite Salford station are probably the closest but nowhere near as successful as this.

I didn't explore the other food options but did spot Barnhouse Bistro and Fire and Salt BBQ serving their wares. I tried a rosemary gin cocktail from one of the bars that tasted like a straight gin and tonic (so no real complaints), minus points for having to choke down a piece of rosemary that found it's way up my straw.

Back to the main reason for the visit - Ben has previously worked at numerous high end restaurants including the Fat Duck and Roganic. He takes influence from the chefs he's worked with but with very much his own twist of personality. To my slight disappointment, it dawned on me that there wasn't going to be a separate room to eat in but we'd be sat in the corner of the warehouse having a fine dining meal in the middle of an early 2000's indie / pop-punk disco. Think Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, classic Pulp and so on. 

The concept remained the same as I'd seen advertised at the John Salt, laid out like a train route menu with each of the 'stops' being a course - being taken on a journey by the food for those that need it spelling out. As a disclaimer I should apologise that these photos aren't the greatest - I was sat in a dark corner of a warehouse between two particularly bright spotlights, far from ideal conditions for photography.

Snacks to start - pig skin with a powerful kick of the tom yum mayonnaise and 'Japanese spices' was a powerful tasting yet generally underwhelming start, the pig skin wasn't crispy enough more the consistency of a prawn cracker. Salt and Vinegar celery was much better, sharp crunchy celery filled with a very neutral tasting thick spread (I believe celery but it didn't have the harsh celery kick) and then with very tasty extremely salt and vinegery crisps.

The following bread courses were a highlight - baked sourdough following a Hackney Wild recipe, which was so fresh that steam was rising from the slices as it was served. This was accompanied on a shattered tile by some Lincolnshire Poacher cheese, mixed with oil and served with large crunchy granules of salt and sugar giving a very enjoyable sweet and savoury taste.

A second bread course was one of the more imaginative dishes of the evening and was served by the chef squirting a dollop of bread mousse onto my hand from a stainless steel cream dispenser and then being told to lick it off quickly before it broke down into a pool of liquid. A taste that I would compare to that of a thick creamy bread flavoured yoghurt.

The chef I was sat in front of had been preparing scallops for the past few minutes which was a total tease. They were served with blue cheese mousse, a wipe of nettle sauce and dotted with tiny pickled cubes of butternut squash and a taste of buttermilk. I'm a huge seafood fan and this scallop was absolutely perfectly cooked, almost melt in the mouth texture wise.

I was sat with a great view of Ben who had been preparing one of his famous dishes - the 40 ingredient salad, since the time we'd been seated and this was the next course to be served.

We were very kindly provided with a list of ingredients - 6 month cured bacon crumbs, adzuki beans, apricot, basil salt, beeswax, black death, broccoli, butter beans, cabbage oil, carrot, cracked black pepper, crispy puffed barley, dried tomatoes, farmino lettuce leaf, grape syrup, green algae powder, green apple, hazelnut praline, hemp seeds, lime zest, linseeds, miso dressing, monkey nut dust, nasturtium leaf, nutmeg, orange reduction, original beans, parsnip caramel, pickled celery, pine nuts, pinto beans, prunes, red onion jam, senla oil, sesame oil, shredded wheat, sunflower seeds, sweet corn puree, sweet potato puree, yoghurt.

This single plate was like a meal in itself with a vast array of flavours, pastes, consistencies, powders - I don't have enough adjectives to explain just how impressive a plate of food this was. Clearly incredibly well thought out and balanced, one of the most memorable courses I've eaten in the past few years.

Next up was a generous lump of goats curd filled with liquid basil, served in a hot Vimto soup and with a mound of biscuit crumbs. The savoury cheese and basil was a very odd combination with the sweet Vimto and biscuit. My first taste was overpowered by the basil and sweet amaretto biscuit but as the ingredients mixed it became a very enjoyable combination, essentially a extremely savoury cheesecake.

Cured Salmon belly in cucumber juice with preserved grapes was probably the weakest dish for me. Thick chunks of the salmon belly were mouthwatering on their own or with a slice of the grape but the cucumber juice was exceptionally sweet. My dining partner absolutely loved this one, it was certainly very refreshing - almost a pallet cleanser ahead of the desserts.

Next sub-course was a bottle of Holy Fuck sauce, made famous by The Rib Man in London was circulated for a taste - as I have a stash in the fridge at home I passed on this occasion.

Final course ahead of the desserts was pig cheek with crispy wild rice, shallots with thyme a granita with an exceptional dry flavour, almost like the after-taste of a shot of vodka.

The dessert course was titled 'Rainbow' - a very beautifully presented plate to share made up of a large smear of plum sauce and numerous dots of lemon, wasabi, sea buckthorn and orange then sprinkled with M&M's, pieces of plum and chunks of sponge cake. The sweetness of the various ingredients was very challenging with the wasabi, but overall was a pleasant combination which brought about recollections of funfair treats from my childhood.

By this stage of the meal live band karaoke had started at the far end of the room and as I'd mentioned, with it being just one giant warehouse there was nowhere to hide. I'll forever be haunted by the memories of drunken men screeching Muse covers as I ate.

So to sum it up for the money paid (£37 per person for 10 plus courses) it was exceptional value for money and I doubt I will have many meals food wise this year that I will enjoy more. Every course had it's own very strong identity and ideas but I just wish it had been at a more appropriate venue, the highly informal venue certainly made it memorable in more ways than one.

Ben Spalding - not to be missed. Camp and Furnace - I'll reserve judgement this time (but will definitely be heading back)

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