Einstein discovered that when something moves really fast, the passing of time from its perspective is changed. But the human sense of time is even more fluid than in physics. Enter a state of flow, of intense, focused enjoyment, and time turns from trickle to torrent.
This occurs to me because, after we pay our bill and tarry for what we think is a little while at Dehesa watching chef Jean-Philippe Patruno (JP hence) doing his thing, we traipse out of the restaurant only to realise we’ve spent some two and a half hours there. And we were not even the ones in the flow – merely watching it from up close, and thoroughly benefiting from it. If 2016 produces a meal to top the one we had at Dehesa, it will have been a very good year indeed.
The experience went well from the very start. Dehesa is a good looking restaurant. Black tiles dominate the setting, and lighting is controlled but bright where it needs to be. As a result they manage to look both brooding and cosy at the same time. Tables are optimised for all group sizes, including a little outdoor area which would be brilliant on a breezy evening. The menu, based around small but generous plates, is also good for sharing round the long tables.
That’s all good. But thankfully it’s not what we did. Instead we stumbled into the best seats in the house, at the wood-topped bar facing the kitchen stations and the chef himself. It started off awkwardly; we were trying to focus on the menu, but all the while dishes were being assembled before us. Since many ingredients are thrown together to order, there is a lot to watch. We end up staring. What was that? What is this?
This, I can tell you, is a gorgeous menu – a variety of dishes, most of which sound simpler than they actually are. That it is on a single piece of card, for easy replacement when the menu changes, is also a good sign. Dehesa is named after the oak-studded grasslands in southern Spain and Portugal, which produce – and are in turn produced by – the Iberico pig. The best of those pigs, the ones that become jámon iberico de bellota, spend their lives foraging for acorns (bellotas) there. So meat, and in turn nose-to-tail eating, is a big thing here; there are plenty of the uncommon cuts on offer, and plenty of coaxing towards offal in the menu notes.
None of the coaxing works on my companion, though – not from the menu, and not from me. She will brook no tripe, not even in this form – lightly seasoned strips, deep fried and then dressed with finely chopped onions in olive oil. The loss is entirely hers. The tripe is crackling outside with little hits of salt, but just slightly chewy inside, full of meat and pepper. The dollop of sauce (Romesco, I think) below supplies more olive oil fragrance and a gentle pepperiness, at least until you stumble on the bits of chopped chili padi.
From here we try moving to something lighter, ergo the egg dish. By now we are expecting the central ingredient to be perfect, yolk with a silky duvet, which it pretty much is. Yet the assembly still yields surprises with potatoes two ways – sails of parchment-like crisps planted in a pillow of foam – and mushrooms sauteed to bring out their penetrating earthy aroma.
That plate of tripe is the only offal dish we have, but even without going inside a pig we have plenty to work with in the menu. Octopus, for example – we see tentacle after plump tentacle being taken out and sliced, and so we get it and get to see it made. We see the anchovies folded into rough mashed potatoes, watch strips of lardo go from alabaster to translucence the moment they are draped on the warmed, purple slices. There is, to be honest, no real need for lubrication from lard or olive oil; the octopus is plump, supple enough to star in moisturiser ads, its marine savour counterbalanced by punchy capers in the mash and a whiff of paprika. But one doesn’t eat lardo merely because one needs it. We eat all of it and everything else.
Octopus puts in another appearance in the gobsmacking pork belly dish. A neatly trimmed but hefty chunk of the layer cake of meat is lightly browned on the outside, while its interior has been nudged by the sous vide into something wobbly and supple and full of the pig’s oink. More slices of the tentacles lie around it, on top of a pool of reddish brown stew. With coco beans and tomato as the base for its own meatiness (bacon) and smoky paprika, it tastes like cassoulet hooked up with sauce espagnole.
After a previous brush with pandan ice cream at another place, I skip over it on the desserts menu, but the pal is insistent. I’m glad she was. They make the ice cream themselves, tumbling it out of the flask like a pebble of nephrite, the pandan aroma a persistent but subtle note that goes well with wisps of dill. Cream dominates, instead of sugar; rather the sugar is in the butterscotch pieces, ringing with caramel. Even the popcorn, often deflated by the time it’s used, is crisp and light here.
I ask JP about the torijas, and his description – caramelised brioche with creme fraiche piped in – seals the deal. He explains that it is his twist on pain perdu, which he does not like; to me it feels like a cross between churros in the texture of the brioche, and cannoli in the filling. It is all richness, and so the plum sauce below is appropriately perky and lively with a punch of anise and cardamom; JP took his inspiration from Chinese five-spice to give the chilled sauce a bit of warmth.
And the chef himself has got more than a bit of warmth too. After we decide not to order more food, he asks us if we drink alcohol, which sent a shudder down my spine. (We had been, like the cheapskates we are, washing it all down with mere sparkling water.) When we say that we do, though, JP quickly pours us two homemade cocktails – a Negroni, brooding and sultry, and a yellow concoction that tastes a lot more cheerful and sweet until the peat of the whiskey shines through. ‘This is one of those, you have one and you think you’re all right, and then you’re not all right anymore,’ JP says. ‘A dangerous drink.’
He’s right, as he has been all dinner, including when I wonder if we had ordered something wrongly and he chuckled. ‘There are no wrong choices, just different ones.’
So this is one of the rare treasures – a meal that gets just about everything right. Well, just about – being barely a month old, the service staff still seem a bit unsure of themselves at times. But that’s the sort of thing that can be ironed out, so right now you really have just two choices – go to Dehesa now, and help polish the diamond, or go in a month’s time to savour the properly honed experience. Me, I’m going to go there with small parties, book early, and make a beeline for the bar where I can talk to JP. Don’t fight me for that spot.
12 North Canal Road (map)
Mon – Fri: 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – late
Sat: 5.30pm – late
Closed on Sundays