A theatre critic once started a particularly damning review with the line “It’s at times like this I wish I were in a kinder business, like whaling or seal-clubbing”. Sadly, I feel the same as I start this write up. I so wanted to love Borago, as we had loved our Chile trip. The staff were delightful and proud in what they are trying to achieve. The internet is full of food critics hailing its genius. There is passion, there is intelligence and there is real technique.
And what it produces is a car crash. A multiple pile-up of a meal over of 15 disastrous courses. A lesser talent would simply have cooked a tasty meal; it takes for genuine intelligence and talent to be catastrophically misapplied in order to make things go this badly wrong.
James Joyces’ wife is said to have remarked to him: “why don’t you write books people can read?”. And my plea to Borago would be: “why don’t you cook stuff people can eat?”.
To take an example: “Ice Cream of Mushrooms”. Ice cream of mushrooms is a terrible, terrible idea that tastes as off-putting as it sounds. We were proudly told that (as with everything else on the menu) the mushrooms had been foraged by the team. But, honestly, they could have been picked by Incan children from between the toes of wood fairies and it would still be a terrible idea to turn them into ice cream.
Please don’t get me wrong. I can conceive that maybe, just maybe, a well applied dab of umami-ice cream to a dessert could be made to work. Hibiscus once produced a sensational combination of artichoke tart and ice-cream for dessert and, yes, I enjoyed Heston’s sardines. This was not that. It was a boule of unadulterated mushroom ice cream. Accompanying it was a small dab of a paste made from espino that had been through a number of complicated processes that had served to render it largely tasteless.
Part of the tragedy was that earlier in the meal – around about plate six but before increasing despair had turned into genuine anger – we has been served a “chupe” (puree-ish) of mushrooms that had been genuinely delicious. Absolute proof that the kitchen could do tasty things with mushrooms. Things that would have me mopping up with bread. But here’s the thing. In the same bowl as “tasty-chupe” came a “salad of plants from the near shores”. A foraged sea salad. And it was like a clumsy neighbour gate-crashing a party to which they hadn’t been invited. A couple of mouthfuls confirmed that the leaves were pointless and the dressing painfully sharp. Honestly I ate through the salad-y bit just in order to get it out of the way so I could actually enjoy the mushrooms unadulterated. I felt a bit like a child having to finish their greens before they can enjoy pudding.
And the salad captured two of the consistent frustrations which ran through the meal. The first was foraging. Almost the whole reason for the restaurant, the reason for the meal being conceived, was to showcase the natural ingredients of Chile. I love this idea. It’s part of why I booked. We had really enjoyed our time discovering a bit of Chile and the chance to see that discovery expressed on a plate was a marvellous prospect. And foraging is a dedicated and natural way to do it (and such hard work). However, as St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians said “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful” . My First Letter to Borago would read “All things may be foraged but not all things should be”. What seemed to be missing, time and time again, was any kind of self-critical filter that asked whether or not the latest foraged ingredient added anything over and above the fact that it had been foraged. Time and time again the explaination of the dish was intriguing (and the passion evident) but the flavour or texture or experience what was presented failed the “So What?” test. On several occasions it also failed the “What the fuck?” test.
Exhibit 2: Rock puree. This was part of the “rocks sequence” where everything that was served had been found on around or (sadly) under rocks - and were served on them too. (By now I was desperate to see a good old-fashioned plate, just one. God knows what their washing up is like. You don’t so much need a dishwasher as a cement mixer). There was a long explanation of what had been foraged to go into the puree and then the techniques that had been undertaken to puree it. After which it was coated onto an actual rock (to about a centimetre thick) baked, and dropped in a bowl (i.e. hollowed rock…) of very indifferent consommé. And it was tasteless pap. And it made me really, genuinely angry in a way I have never felt at a restaurant before. And I have wasted some very large sums of money at some very (as it turned out) mediocre restaurants. But never have I felt this boiling combination of disappointment, frustration and rage. Never, in short, have I been invited to scrape my own claggy dinner off a fucking rock.
The other theme of failure was one of flavour and balance. The nonsense started early. With a sugared doughnut ( a “berlin”) stuffed with chicken liver pate. It was a riposte (apparently) to a Chilean saying for asking for the ridiculous or impossible that “you might as well ask for a ‘berlin de pate’ “. This was genuinely witty. I laughed at the concept. And then winced at the execution. To see how to pull this kind of thing off just order Heston Blumenthal’s “Meat Fruit”. To see how not to do it, go to Borago and have chicken liver pate sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.
This was followed up by morsels of a large squid (very nice, perfectly cooked) served with tart apples soaked in lemon juice that was so acidic that for the first time in an extended career of heavy drinking, I actually found myself reaching for my glass of Sauvignon Blanc to tone down the sharpness a bit. Almost inedible. The acid equivalent of eating too much wasabi. Time and time again there was this extremity of primary flavour to an alarming degree, or just a lack of balance and cohesion
The chef was charming. All of his team were charming. And young and committed. The wine pairing was fantastic – complex, intriguing varied and un-obvious but well judged. But the kitchen is guilty of the group-think and loss of perspective that threatens the passionate believers in all cults. The lack of self-critical challenge or external reference. Maybe it’s because there is nothing else like this anywhere near to compare and measure against. Maybe because there is no-one in the kitchen who is saying “are you sure...?” or just “no, it doesn’t work”. And the result is that the concept has taken over the asylum and somewhere along the way a talented kitchen has forgotten the point of the exercise isn’t to be clever, or inflict a philosophy; it’s just to serve delightful food.
Apparently, the shortest theatre review on record was for a play called “A Good Time”. It simply read “No”.