I shan’t forget the first time I encountered restaurateur Will Ricker’s duck, watermelon and cashew salad. It was 2001 and he had just opened E&O on Notting Hill’s Blenheim Crescent.
It was a cute area of London; a cluster of roads off Portobello Market, a sweet spot that housed the great deli Mr Christian’s, the newsagent Rococo with its magnificent collection of magazines, the fabulous Italian Osteria Basilico, the Nu-Line Aladdin’s cave of a hardware store and the fashionable restaurant 192, gasping its last breaths.
Into the mix came the pan-Asian E&O, quickly hoisting any remaining celebs from 192, which closed a few months later.
E&O’s bar spilled on to the street and behind a large screen was a room whose banquettes and tables cosseted glamour. The menu burst with gorgeous shareable nuggets, rock- shrimp tempura, black cod and that salad.
Perhaps it was stolen – as the best food ideas are – from somewhere a long plane-ride away, but it personified the words of 18th-century epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: ‘The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.’
It was a generous bowl of sweet chunks of watermelon, with crisp bites of duck and the crunch of whole cashews, married with a sweet sauce but tempered with bitter leaves. Eaten with chopsticks, it made E&O an exotic pleasuredome.
Eighteen years later and I was ordering another plate of it. This time at the reopened sister restaurant E&O in Chelsea, gutted by a fire but now, décor-wise, back to its former self with a great bar, large screen and the din of a fashionable crowd.
This is now one of three E&Os, the third being in Athens. I know this place because as the Man in the Moon pub, it once had a small theatre and I trod the boards in a play as Dodgy Kevin who had something to do with a dead body hidden beneath a sofa.
We sat and ordered a smattering of dishes and some wine. The wine was slow to arrive, but not four of the dishes, which seemed to crash out of the kitchen and on to our table within seconds. If the chef claims they were cooked to order, I hereby challenge him to a duel.
The prawn and chive dumplings were lovely. But the chilli salt squid came as flattened, teeth-breaking tempura, dried out so one needed more a chisel than chopsticks to hand. There were several pieces that were just dull bits of batter – call it tempura of concrete.
And there was an avocado chopped salad, as well as my beloved watermelon and duck salad. The latter was a messy dollop on a plate: four bits of watermelon, tiny pieces of cashew and dried duck, all mixed with a sugary sauce so cloying and sweet as to ruin any semblance of flavour and subtlety.
This was a fast-food calamity of a once great dish. And then the white wine arrived, infuriatingly late – but not as bonkers tardy as the plate of appetiser edamame beans, which arrived after that first assault of dishes.
Then we waited. And waited. Was it 25 years? We had certainly aged. Nails grew, beards sprouted, tumbleweed floated across the table.
A good hour later, and with a flurry of apologies and promises of dishes being removed from the bill, came another old favourite, the shrimp tempura.
The 2019 version comes with truffle aioli, a match as inappropriate as wearing a mankini in church on Christmas day. It was a pointlessly trendy wrecking ball of a sauce. No shrimp should die for this. There was also a piece of overcooked sea bream drenched in a thick and gloopy Szechuan sauce, which we ate holding our noses with a competent bowl of egg-fried rice.
What tragedy there is when a once glowing star crashes to earth, leaving nothing more than soot, dust and forgotten dreams.
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