Lorne – Meal Kit Dinner
BY NEAL MARTIN | FEBRUARY 26, 2021
Red onion fondue and whipped goat’s curd tartlet
Crab and scallop raviolo with buttered leeks and shellfish bisque
Chicken ballotine, crispy potato and celeriac galette with creamed cabbage
Apple tarte tatin with Calvados custard
Salted caramel chocolate truffles
Hawaii Kona coffee (Arianna Farms) – Difference Coffee Company
|1971 La Fleur-Pétrus||91?|
|2017 Domaine David Moreau Santenay Cuvée "S" ||90 |
From Tokyo’s sushi bars to the pintxos bars of San Sébastien and from New York bagel bars to New Delhi tandoori. From bustling Parisian bistros to Florentine pizzerias and from the petiscos of Lisbon to dim sum restaurants in Kowloon. From the Chicago steak house to the East End greasy spoon. From The French Laundry in California to The Plucky Pheasant café just up the road... Everyone in the hospitality industry, irrespective of size, reputation, location or cuisine, has been negatively affected by the pandemic. The true cost of COVID-19 in terms of permanent closures cannot be fully assessed until communal eating and socializing is safely reintroduced. Only then can we measure the extent of the hollowing out. Those in the beleaguered restaurant industry fight for survival, clinging on to hope of simply getting through to the other side in one piece.
How you survive is another question entirely. For some it became financially unviable months ago; you walk past their tombstones, the boarded-up windows and rusty, padlocked doors, the weatherworn “For Lease” signs. For those whose restaurant is mothballed but solvent, they do whatever necessary to keep their heads above water. Restaurateurs have had to think on their toes and use all the ingenuity they can muster.
Meal kits have gained popularity during the most recent lockdown, particularly among top-end restaurants able to trade on their name and reputation. If the customer cannot go to the restaurant, the restaurant must come to the customer. The amount of preparation work obliged by your makeshift Gordon Ramsay or Anne-Sophie Pic varies from individually measured-out ingredients requiring basic kitchen know-how to bung-it-in-the-oven kits for incompetent chefs like the current Vinous reviewer for Bordeaux, Burgundy and South Africa.
I have dined at Lorne since the first day that its founders, former River Café sommelier Katie Exton and former chef at The Square, Peter Hall, opened their doors in Pimlico in 2017. Lorne is long overdue a Vinous Table feature. Running a restaurant is not for the faint-hearted, but having garnered well-deserved praise for their take on British and European cuisine and with reservation books full, everything was looking rosy until a burst water main turned Lorne’s basement kitchen into a swimming pool. They took the setback on the chin, closed for extensive repairs and reopened a year later – to my mind and palate, stronger than ever. Things were back on course when the pandemic struck last March and the shutters were pulled down once again. It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster.
Chicken ballotine and sauces ready to go.
Lorne launched their meal kit last June, and thankfully for me, they are one of the few to deliver nationwide, kits having already been dispatched as far as Devon and Glasgow. So instead of commiserating my 50th birthday with a burnt turkey burger and a baked potato, moping around and complaining to my long-suffering family about the knees-up I would have had, I decided to make the most of the current circumstances. I was intrigued how well Lorne’s dishes would translate from restaurant to home and to what extent it would compensate for the experience of eating out. I opted for their Valentine’s menu since it was the same weekend as my birthday. The four-course meal arrived in a recyclable packaging, each dish labeled and protected in insulating silver bubble wrap. The package also contained a sheet of instructions. The paragraph advising how to recreate “a little of Lorne’s ambiance” was a nice touch. It included a Spotify QR code to play their curated “Lorne at Home” playlist (top marks for including the sublime Lisa Hannigan). There was a suggestion to place any houseplant on the table, brandish cocktail in hand while prepping the food, and shout “SERVICE!” when plating up.
We went a bit further and dressed up for the occasion. I literally dusted off my tuxedo that I have worn just once, at a huge banquet at the Palais de Versailles, the kind of grand occasion that now seems inconceivable. Trust me, donning your best clothes makes a huge psychological difference. I felt as if I was doing something. My daughters acted as the evening’s cooks and waitresses, smartly dressed in their school uniforms. (If you don’t have children, ask a friendly neighbor if you can borrow theirs.)
The bisque sauce being poured onto the raviolo by my expert cooking team.
The instructions were detailed, though the cooks’ feedback was that a bit more prep work was necessary than just shoving it in the oven, though nothing a half-completed Food Tech GCSE couldn’t handle.
Here’s the $64,000 question: Does the meal kit adequately recreate the restaurant experience?
Well, in this case it came damn close. Let’s be honest; it is impossible to foment the same atmosphere and background bustle, the visceral thrill of the shared dining experience, the hustle and bustle. It made me miss all that even more. On the other hand, my God, it broke the monotony of routine during lockdown. In terms of the quality of food on the plate, Lorne did an A1 job. You might assume that the pre-prepared dishes make it foolproof, but you still have to get your timings correct. But overall, the flavors that I would expect in a restaurant setting translated across into my own kitchen.
Carefully constructing the goat’s curd tartlet. I would have awarded my daughters top marks for their Food Tech GCSE based on their performance in the kitchen.
Perhaps the rosemary focaccia just missed the consistency and intensity of flavor I would have liked. But we soon forgot about that with the superb red onion fondue and whipped goat’s curd tartlet. This necessitated minimal but, according to my waitresses, enjoyable prep work. It was absolutely delicious. Perhaps allowing the red onion to rest and marinate on its journey from London to Guildford enhanced its sweetness? The rocket pesto was just a little runnier than necessary, but I didn’t care; I was too busy licking it off the plate.
The crab and scallop raviolo with buttered leeks and shellfish bisque was another excellent dish. The waitresses, now working with Korean boy band BTS playing loudly in the background, which I am sure Lorne would never do, cooked the raviolo to perfection even though it would have been easy to over-boil. The crab and scallop stuffing delivered a subtle yet satisfying flavor that was not overwhelmed by the tangy shellfish bisque.
Chicken ballotine, crispy potato and celeriac galette with creamed cabbage.
The main course of chicken ballotine, crispy potato and celeriac galette with creamed cabbage was the one I thought might not translate across. I was wrong on that count and was pleasantly surprised how the ballotine more than delivered on both flavor and consistency. Likewise, the potato and celeriac galette had just the right bite and crispiness. Even the creamed cabbage satisfied this fussy eater, who used to run a mile if it was served when I was an even fussier kid. This was beautifully seasoned.
Apple tarte tatin with Calvados custard.
To finish, the apple tarte tatin with Calvados custard was exactly how I would expect to find it at Lorne. To be honest, the kids were not taken with the custard, whereas I happily polished off their share. The tarte tatin was gooey and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. I could have eaten two. To finish, we popped salted caramel chocolate truffles in our mouths.
To complete the restaurant experience, we made some posh coffee: the Hawaii Kona from Arianna Farms, courtesy of the Difference Coffee Company. This company specializes in importing sought-after, award-winning coffees and ingeniously serving them in capsules for minimal faff. This particular coffee, a 100% specialty Arabica, won the cupping competition at the prestigious Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in 2019. These coffees are not inexpensive, but like wine, the more you taste them, the more you appreciate and discern their nuances and understand why they are coveted.
Of course, before the coffee, we had been at the old fermented grape juice. Given that it was my 50th and my penchant for the 1971 vintage, it would have been unthinkable not to drink a birth-year bottle. That came courtesy of a 1971 La Fleur-Pétrus. To be honest, this particular bottle felt just a little more tired than a magnum I once drank in Pomerol. Yet it still offered attractive vestiges of red fruit, sandalwood, truffle and tobacco, while the palate was finely balanced, just missing a little grip toward the finish. But that is beside the point. The fact that I was drinking a 1971 on my birthday meant everything.
I opened a young Burgundy bottle as a backup: a 2017 Santenay Cuvée “S” from Domaine David Moreau. Bright and bushy-tailed on the nose, it offered red cherries and crushed rock, becoming earthier with aeration. I appreciate the brittleness on the palate that boasts crunchy red fruit and again, that essence of crushed stones. It displayed biting tartness on the finish that got the saliva flowing. Like many 2017s, you will not be arrested for cracking open a bottle of the Cuvée “S” even at this early stage, but it will drink well for another decade.
Unfortunately, the meal kit did not include Katie or Peter popping round to do the washing up. Once everything was chucked into the dishwasher, we repaired to the living room so that my waitresses could watch another surreal and slightly disturbing dystopian Japanese anime; I pretended to know what was going on while I sat on the sofa trying to comprehend that I had turned 50.
Overall, Lorne’s meal kit was a great success, even more than expected. That was partly because of the novelty “dining out,” but mostly because I feel that Lorne assiduously selected dishes that lost very little of their nuance in being pre-prepared and shipped down the motorway. “The menu is different from what we have in our restaurant,” Exton later told me. “We have to think about what travels well, what stays fresh, and what is simple to prepare at home. But it needs to still feel like us. We didn't want to create a new different brand for our takeaway. Our head chef Graham Brown has been in charge of the whole process.”
Not only did the meal kit break up the stultifying routine of lockdown, but I was doing a tiny bit to help an industry inextricably linked to mine. I am sure that anyone reading this Vinous Table craves the joyous day when restaurants spring back to life. The meal kit made me miss the many fine evenings spent at Lorne, and I cannot wait to return. Call me an eternal optimist, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I am convinced that there exists unprecedented pent-up demand for dining out of any kind. “The menu kits are not necessarily hugely profitable for us compared to business in the restaurant,” Exton told me, “but it's revenue. And at this point in the COVID journey, any revenue is needed. Staying open and working helps keep our brand out there on people’s radar, which is important as we are still a new-ish restaurant and need to keep growing our reputation. We have a lot of staff on furlough, but for the senior staff involved, it helps keep them engaged and motivated. The emails we get from people telling us how much they’ve enjoyed it have been an amazing morale boost in darker moments too.”
Meal kits are not the same thing as the restaurant experience. But what they are is a lifeline that could mean your favorite place to eat is still there when you eventually book a table.
Lorne’s meal kits can be ordered at www.lornerestaurant.co.uk and they deliver both in London and the UK (except Northern Ireland.) Subsequent to this article being written, the UK government announced that the indoor dining could resume from 17 May subject to conditions being met. I look forward to Lorne reopening their doors.