Mussels with Nduja at Elliot’s Café

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There are a few dishes on the Chowdown Showdown list that we are worried about. This was one of those – because Time Out warned that everything in Elliot’s is seasonal, so this could not be on the menu when you visit. Helpfully, they point out that everything at the ‘café’ is delicious, rather missing the point of the challenge they set when compiling a list of 100 top dishes! But luckily, Rachael spotted it on the menu and we rushed there the next day.

“A range of Mediterranean influences, from fresh Italian to complex, African-influenced Spanish”

I must admit I’ve not come across Nduja before. I can’t say I’ve a great deal of experience with it now, because this spicy, spreadable sausage had melted away completely into the soupy sauce in this dish, leaving the mussels bathed in a spot-on hot, tomato broth. I felt envious, because Rachael had a substantially larger portion than I did – I think they were trying to emphasise that all their dishes are for sharing by dividing two portions unevenly between two bowls!

The dish is balanced just right – and while the moules did take their usual place as more protein and texture than a taste explosion themselves, they take on a velvety, warming flavour and aroma that hints at a range of Mediterranean influences, from fresh Italian to complex, African-influenced Spanish. There’s a hint of citrus cutting through the oniony and herby vegetable bulk.

We each asked for extra bread, which is definitely needed for mopping!

18/100 top dishes according to Time Out

Squid and mackerel burger at Arbutus

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Let’s get the first thing out of the way immediately: this burger is a ‘burger’. It doesn’t have a bun. It doesn’t have salad garnish. And there isn’t any ketchup in sight!

“Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours”

What was surprisingly on-message, though, was quite how meaty the burger was. This could easily have ended up a squashed fish-ball, or a sloppy, fishy mush, or, worst of all (given the main constituent parts) a rock-hard bullet of seafood. Instead, it was genuine burger-consistency, and had a flavour that would satisfy a carnivore.

The main affair (though, it should be noted, this dish is actually a starter) is accompanied by razor clam, chopped and sautéed with shallots, plus fabric-thin strips of squid. Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours, and complexity was added by the unusual pairing of coriander in the ‘burger-meat’ and a generous sprinkling of dill across the dish. These herbs shouldn’t match, and yet they do, and even brought the whole dish together.

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Okay, so we’re under strict orders to judge just the dish, and not the whole meal, but it would be mean to fail to mention that the rest of the dinner was also spectacular. Cod fillet, crisp chicken wings (boneless), pink grapefruit, ginger and honey preserve was as delicious as it sounds, with every element perfectly matched. The silky, subtle cod bouncing off the sparkling ‘marmalade’ and complemented by the crispness of the chicken. Rachael had Grilled piece of beef, heritage carrots, cavolo nero, gratin dauphinois, which sounds like a fairly straightforward offer, but every part was oozing flavour, distinct, and stood up as part of a whole.

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“For sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty”

I was a bit jealous of her Vanilla and rosewater scented cheesecake, roast Provençal figs, which was a riot of different (and individually perfect) tastes, whereas my Chocolate ‘aero’ bar, pear, salted caramel suffered from having the only let-down of the meal: I felt the dark, aerated chocolate was on the side of being bland and bitter without that punch you get from a solid block of 80% cocoa chocolate. I even ventured that an actual Aero, sliced in half, might have been a bit more joyous. But the pear, wrapped round a fluffy salted caramel foam was spectacular.

I couldn’t eat this well every day. There was so much going on, so much sophistication that, when compared with the pared-down, use-the-best-ingredients-and-cook-one-thing-perfectly culinary culture rightly in vogue in London, it made me realise that sometimes twenty ingredients really does add up to something better than five. But there was so much competition for my taste buds that I couldn’t do it all the time. It wasn’t relaxing, and I felt like the next day I’d want a hearty soup where every spoonful was deliciously, comfortingly the same.

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Forget the last three paragraphs: we’re rating the ‘burger’, and, for sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty.

19/100 best dishes in London.