Nick considers the dishes that no restaurant can afford to take off their menus.
I can still remember sitting in my office at the top of L’Escargot in Soho one day some time during the 1980s with our chef Martin Lam and several others and saying, ‘If only we could come up with a signature dish, one that everybody would feel compelled to order whenever they came here.’
We never managed this and our customers had to make do with the Cumberland sausages, the black pudding and all the other excellent dishes Martin used to serve upstairs in the restaurant – plus, of course, the chocolate snails that we used to give away with the coffee. I think I was too young then to recall another phrase that nobody should ever neglect: ‘be careful what you wish for’.
The issue with signature or iconic dishes is that they quickly begin to dominate any restaurant’s menu. Scores of customers come for them; they order them; they take up a large proportion of the orders that flood into the kitchen; and quite soon, those in the kitchen into whose section this dish falls, cut corners, lose interest or just become sloppy with the execution, and then the quality of the dish that everybody has come for, and on which the restaurant’s reputation has come to depend, suffers.
This was almost the case with perhaps the most iconic of modern restaurant dishes, une escalope de saumon à l'oseille created around 1970 by Pierre and Jean Troisgros at their establishment in Roanne, eastern France.
This was a revolutionary dish at the time: the salmon was cut thinly across the body of the fish; it was cooked for the minimum amount of time in a dry pan – as opposed to being poached in liquid, which was the standard practice then. And, most importantly, the salmon was laid on top of the pale green sauce, composed of sorrel, crème fraîche, fish stock and a squeeze of lemon juice, rather than underneath it, as was also common at the time. Speed of execution is vital as is speed of delivery. In an interview, Michel Troisgros says that it should not be more than 12 seconds from the kitchen to the customer!
The initial reaction to this dish can only have been mixed – between shock/horror when first seen to gasps of pleasure when first tasted – but it came to dominate orders at Troisgros. So much so that eventually there was only one option – salmon in a sorrel sauce had to come off the menu chez Troisgros.
In the same interview in 2014 Michel explains how the dish is executed to the interviewer and also how he came to be cooking it again. ‘I was being asked by César, our elder son who cooks alongside me, about the dish and the part it played in establishing our name and that of the restaurant. And now I am extremely grateful to him because I no longer feel that I have the shadow of the past hanging over me. It is a dish that I like to describe as the French equivalent of sushi.’
Other iconic dishes come to mind. The rich soufflé suissesse at Le Gavroche in London, which over the years Michel Roux Jnr has lightened up considerably and moved from the à la carte menu, where it was universally popular, to the tasting menu. Then there is the dish of roast bone marrow with a parsley salad at St John, where the key ingredient to my mind is the sea salt in the dressing. Fergus Henderson, the chef whose name will forever be associated with this dish and this restaurant, once commented ‘I am married to this dish’.
One common factor in these dishes is that, with the exception of the Le Gavroche dish, which is just richness combined with more richness, they offer a precise combination of flavours, predominantly sweetness (as enjoyed in the salmon or the extraction of the marrow from the bones) with acidity (in these instances, the sorrel and the sauce and the sharpness of the salad respectively).
Then there are the occasional standalone iconic dishes. One created by Shaun Searley at our son’s Quality Chop House restaurant may sound simple. It is called ‘confit potatoes’ and full instructions can be found on page 140 of their cookbook. It comes with the warning that the potatoes have to be cut as thinly as possible with a mandolin and the whole process takes at least two days before the potatoes are deep fried in duck fat.
This iconic dish was created as recently as 2013, which may be an encouraging thought for any aspiring chef. It came into being not that long after those behind Dishoom restaurant, Shamil and his cousin Kavi Thakrar and various other members of their team, created the bacon naan roll that has featured on their breakfast menus since Dishoom first opened in London’s St Martin’s Lane in 2010.
This is a dish that does not actually exist in the city of Mumbai (Bombay), which Dishoom tries so hard to replicate. But as the cousins began to write their first breakfast menu, encouraged by Robbie Bargh of The Gorgeous Group and ably assisted by consultant Stephen Parkins-Knight, they began to ask themselves what Irani café owners, an enterprising and resourceful bunch and their role models, might serve for breakfast. The obvious answer was bacon, initially from the Ginger Pig and today from Ramsay of Carluke. Eventually, the bacon naan roll appeared.
Its popularity took some time. ‘At first it was only ordered by Kavi and myself along with some chai’, Shamil told me, ‘and then it became extremely popular. At least a fifth of all our customers come in for breakfast. I am sure Marina O'Loughlin describing it as "bloody GAWJUSS" helped’, he added. When last open, across six branches of Dishoom over 250 bacon naan were served every morning.
For anyone currently missing this dish, there is an answer. Dishoom have started producing a bacon naan roll kit that is now available via Deliveroo from their Shoreditch, King’s Cross and Kensington branches and can be ordered nationally here. For £16 the order includes chai for two, and every purchase allows Dishoom to make a donation to Magic Breakfast, a charity that provides breakfasts to vulnerable children.
As everything these cousins do, the kit comes elegantly packaged, in a cardboard box in this case. The contents are obvious, the bacon neatly wrapped, the containers of the naan dough and those with all the accessories – the tomato-chilli jam, the coriander and the cream cheese – clearly distinguished. These are clearly laid out down the left-hand side of the printed instructions, while down the right-hand side are what you will need to create this dish, from a frying pan to oil and a rolling pin – or a bottle. There is even an instructional video at www.dishoom.com/bacon-naan-roll.
On the back of the accompanying document are the eight steps of the cooking instructions plus the recipe for the masala chai. They are easy to follow and the result, I have to say, was very good. The right combination of saltiness and meatiness from the bacon and the sweetness of the naan were offset by the tanginess of tomato-chilli jam and refreshed by the coriander.
There it is: an iconic dish for £8 per person. The result of a benign mixture of culinary ingenuity leavened with good luck and an equal, if not bigger, measure of patience.