Which seems to be the code by which Dan and Andy, our Executive Chef and his deputy for the evening, run the show at Aulis at Fera, Simon Rogan’s “six seat kitchen development table” hidden in the backstage warren of the none more emphatically upscale Claridge’s Hotel. There isn’t an inch of the iconic building that doesn’t prod you insistently with its opera gloves to tell you just how much time and money has gone into making it so; the luxurious velvet sheen of the carpets, the exposed bronze plumbing in the gents, the galactically pricey cocktails surely only the celebrities whose faces plaster – sorry – gild the wall could afford; all of it is there to tell you that glamour doesn’t come easy, darling. It’s like stepping back in time to another era where a man wouldn’t dream of entering a dining room in anything less than white tie, and yet here are two chefs whose conversation is so relaxed, whose demeanour so casual, that if you recorded the evening’s conversation and listened to it again back home you’d swear they were stoned. How else would you come up with a line as obscure as “And then you get a kombucha vinegar in just five days, which is pretty cool”?
I was lucky enough to be taken by a great friend of mine who had been given cash by work towards a meal instead of a promotion (a raw deal from which I appear to have benefitted hugely), and rather than treating a group of friends had decided quite sensibly to purchase the company of one of the most sought after unemployed actors in the country. I’ll be honest, though I’d heard and read a great deal about Fera, L’Enclume and Simon Rogan himself, I wasn’t aware of the existence of Aulis until I was offered a seat at the table, the reality being that such extravagances as fourteen course tasting menus at chefs’ tables are so out of reach for a cash strapped parent that I prefer not to torment myself with the knowledge of their existence. Once everything was confirmed, however, I set about informing myself. And found out…very little. A minimalist website, some enthusiastically mystified reviews (full of praise, nonetheless) and a name which the internet tells me is either a port in Ancient Greece or a Finnish girls’ name meaning ‘willing’. Menus are a surprise, so you can’t find out what you’re having in advance. It’s not the sort of place you know about unless you’re fanatical about foraging, much less actually go to. I looked forward to it with feverish anticipation, but given the setting, the cost and the ticketing system in place I expected something very serious indeed. I wore a Sandro Navy Suit with Tailored Collar in Pure Wool and a slim fit shirt by Thomas Pink. Marcus wore casual skinny jeans and a striped knitted jumper, unmarked but almost certainly from H & M. Both of us were underdressed. News that Matt Damon was in the night before did nothing to calm my nerves. Thank God no one asked for my business card.
Full credit, then, to Dan, Andy and our sommelier (whose name I rather shamefully don’t seem to have noted), who were faced with the unenviable task of playing host for the duration of the evening (roughly five hours) whilst also having to craft Michelin quality edible artworks under the incessantly questioning gaze of their five guests, four of whom wanted to know the intricately detailed family tree behind every flake of reindeer moss. It was interrogation theatre, intimate and improvised theatre at that, and from experience I know it must have been exhausting. Not that they were letting it show; I can’t recall one single moment where I sensed the pressure was getting to them, or where I even sensed any pressure, despite (or more likely because of) the days of advance preparation that had gone into each plate. Nor did they ever let the mask slip, largely because I don’t believe there was one, just a natural warmth that made you feel instantly welcome and an instinctive understanding of how the native flavours of the British Isles work together, Simon Rogan clearly recognizing that whoever cooks at Aulis is not only chef but front of house and brand ambassador as well. This was key to the success of the evening, allowing one of the three hosts to riff excitedly on the beguiling pattern of transference of nuttiness from one variety of Hispi to another as winter turns into spring, all the while waiting for the invisible signal that tells him the latest course is ready. Et voila: under your nose, what only moments ago was a piece of artisan crockery with a burnt leaf on top is now as beautiful a celebration of all that is wonderful about British food – cabbage, Fowey mussels, pale ale – as I could muster in ten pages of flowery prose. And considerably easier to digest, no doubt.
It’s telling that as I look back over the photographs of a meal that I ate over a month ago, even my taste buds appear to be reliving the experience. The colours on each dish are impossibly vibrant, glowing their way out of the dim filter of the poor quality iPhone camera. Not just the natural colours of the raw ingredients, but the level and tone of colouring of the meat/fish/Jerusalem artichoke, all flashing just enough caramelization to titillate, and now making me feel really quite sordid as I browse the images in the privacy of my own home and reread what I’ve just written. These dishes were made for #foodporn, but they would be nothing without the substance to back them up, and this is where Aulis knocks it out of the park. Tiny snacks are as intricately detailed as miniature tin soldiers. Smoked pork fat, lemon sole and horseradish seems positively crazed, horseradish two ways; as pickled discs (certainly the first time I’ve ever eaten horseradish in such large chunks) and as powdery snow that vaporises on the tongue.Dan insists the effect was remarkably simple to achieve. I’m not sure I believe him. Swede, such an insipid flavour in the wrong hands, is turned into a dumpling, paired with an egg yolk then doused in a cheddar water, water (!), and buried under a mound of black truffle. The black truffle marbles the water and the swede is given so much flavour you can’t tell which is the egg yolk and which is the dumpling, which anyone strangely predisposed to find humour in high end food will tell you is absolutely hilarious, a Michelin starred joke on a plate.
The rest of the evening continues in this vein. Andy merrily scorches strips of translucent mackerel with a heavy duty blowtorch, then daintily studs the plate with tiny jewel-like cubes of rhubarb and rectangular ribbons of kohlrabi I’m pretty certain were checked with a spirit rule. I feel almost ashamed to touch it but can’t stop myself, like Fight Club’s I Am Jack destroying something beautiful, but this is more beautiful than Jared Leto and considerably less smug. Dan recites an elegy to Prawns from Gairloch and carrots from Cartmel which is duly translated to edible form in sunny shades of yellow and orange. This time I don’t even bother to restrain myself, diving in and eating half the plate before I remember to take a photo (we were on the wine pairing so by this point, four dishes in, we were enjoying ourselves). By the time we got to the BBQ cauliflower dish everyone was licking the plate to scrape up the plum wine sauce, but instead of being scolded for bad manners we were rewarded with more sauce. Same again with the smoky Jerusalem artichoke jus that came with the halibut and its accompanying oyster. Deep red belted Galloway beef came with three incarnations of celeriac (crisp, dried, puree) and velvet horn, which I’m assuming from the photo was either the samphire or the other tasty looking leaves dotting the plate. I’ve no doubt we asked and duly received an explanation, but seven glasses of wine had now taken their toll.
All of which, were excellent, by the way. Chosen on the spot on consultation with the chefs (I’m fairly certain our sommelier wasn’t told in advance exactly what they were cooking up either) and all the better for it. I could have done with maybe one more glass of red on the predominantly white list but it’s a minor complaint. She was an excellent judge of taste, so when she raised eyebrows at the inclusion of celery on the first sweet of the evening – Chamomile, celery and chocolate malt – I instinctively raised mine as well. With good reason, it turns out. For me, it was the only misfire of the evening. Not unpleasant, but not quite right either. Even so, I can’t fault the ambition, and in any case this is exactly what Aulis is for; to make bold choices, to try unusual combinations and, occasionally, to fail, all in the pursuit of perfection. The next pudding, Meadowsweet with Goldrush apple and sheep’s yoghurt, was absolutely spot on. In an evening of ten faultless dishes I think I can forgive one minor indiscretion.
I’ll be honest, it’s not for everyone. There’s a semi-educational aspect to the evening that will alienate people whose idea of a perfect meal out is a hunk of ribeye and several bottles of Malbec with mates. Aulis is not for them. This is for people with artisan coffee subscriptions who get excited by new varieties of miso and use the word confit in casual conversation. Let’s face it, we’re a bit of a bore. This is why we need a separate room. For those people, for me, a meal at Aulis is a privilege, a rare chance to watch the creative process of some of the very best chefs in Britain in action, and to ask as many questions as you like without fear of ridicule. It’s also rather empowering, in a funny sort of way. In the charming company of Dan and Andy I genuinely believed that I would be spending my Sunday afternoon joyously dessicating root veg and brewing coffee over a Bunsen burner. I genuinely believed that I would be fitting my kitchen with enormous art deco chandeliers and an indoor barbecue. I also genuinely believed, as I stumbled my way out of the kitchen and through the hotel lobby, that my finances could survive the catastrophic budget overspend caused by cocktails, a wine pairing and the appropriately enormous service charge.
Unfortunately, I am not Matt Damon. My face will not be gilding the wall just yet. I have been paying for it ever since.
UPDATE: Aulis at Fera is no more, following the parting ways of Simon Rogan and Claridges earlier this year. The experimental kitchen will reopen its doors in a location so secret you won’t even know where it is until you’ve handed over two hundred and fifty of your fine English pounds. It does sound very much like a textbook scam, but then I read it in the Evening Standard so it must be true. If someone else is paying I can highly recommend it. Email AulisLondon@simonrogan.co.uk for more details.
Monday – Sunday:
12:00 – 14:00
18:30 – 22:00
Visit Aulis at Fera‘s website.
Follow Aulis at Fera on Twitter.
 Yes, I’ve carved out a niche in convincing friends and loved ones to take me out to the world’s most expensive restaurants.
Matt Damon was there the night before us apparently. Somehow I imagine his arrival caused a little more excitement.
 Plus Fera meaning ‘wild’ of course. Make of that what you will.
 Which, in any case, is cheating. As my wife will tell you.
 Though no Manoir style anxiety.
 Entirely justified, in my humble opinion.
 His name isn’t actually Marcus. Nor am I Patrick Bateman.
 One gentleman on his own spent the entire meal glued to his phone without offering a single word of appreciation to the chefs or even a gesture of conversation to his fellow diners. Each to their own, but in such an intimate setting it does seem mildly antisocial, particularly when you park yourself between two other pairs who are trying to talk to each other but can’t because you appear to be physically blocking any actual human interaction.
 Though if you do have this on the menu then what do you expect to happen?
 I once had coconut served in a similiar fashion at Au Passage, sprinkled over raw tuna. It looked like coke.
 I’m not sure why Jared Leto has now appeared twice in this review. It certainly wasn’t intended.
 I’m still adjusting to the boring banalities of blogging. Sorry.
 So much so that I told our sommelier that the Crianza Oxiditiva 2011 from Galicia she’d selected for us was “like mouthwash, in a good way”. It was intended as a complement – it was minerally and cleansing – I’m not sure she took it that way. To her credit she didn’t let it sour the evening.
 Like a refined Reggae Reggae.
 Why does this always happen with pairings?
 Also delicious.
 I don’t think this actually happened but the photos look like it could have done.