Come with us on a mysterious journey. One filled with magic and wonder, mythical creatures and tastes from your childhood. There will be gasps, there may be tears, and there’ll definitely be a wizard conjuring up some truly provocative food.
Matt and Cat’s last dining club event of 2011 was in a rather unlikely location, the Michael West Gallery at the Quay Arts Centre. The centre’s café is a popular lunchtime venue, serving wholesome grub, delicious salads and splendid cakes. The menu respects alternative diets which means that a party of meaties, gluten-dodgers and vegetarians can all find something to satisfy their palates. The café isn’t normally open for dinner, but on the night Matt and Cat and crew visited, it willingly exposed its mischievous after-hours underbelly.
Weeks prior to the event, Matt and Cat had met with Quay head chef Martyn Cutler and café supervisor Craig O’Sullivan to discuss having one of their popular events at the venue. As soon as he heard their simple brief – requesting something different from the café’s usual menu – Martyn’s eyes shone like the Needles’ lighthouse on a foggy night. “Leave it with me“, he grinned enigmatically. Which they did. With only the slightest of hints and a single (misleading) image, Matt and Cat promoted ‘Art on a Plate’ with no real idea of what was coming. Even when Matt sneaked into the Quay kitchen the morning before the event, Martyn ensured that not a glimpse of the forthcoming meal was on display. Nonetheless the loyal dining club members were keen to sign up, trusting that their hosts would curate a memorable meal.
Thus, on a tempestuous winter night, thirty or so diners congregated in the echoing gallery space, sipping drinks, making small talk and admiring the art. In the middle of the room, between paintings of urban wastelands and gritty landscapes, a long table had been laid for the guests, twinkling with light from half a dozen or so crystal lamps. The visitors had turned up to see a performance, and found themselves on the stage. By contrast to the normally relaxed and informal start to dining club events, this one was slightly tense and expectant. The diners were instructed to be seated, and the show began. The chef himself took the floor to set things in motion, and it was clear from his obvious delight that he had something up his sleeve.
Each course was preceded by a ‘mise en bouche’. The first food the diners saw was tomato and red pepper mini tart, with crab apple and a pepper coulis. This matched their expectations of nouvelle cuisine-style food; a tiny flan and a single cherry-sized apple were on each little plate. Cat attempted to use cutlery on the miniature pastry but it was ridiculously oversized for the micro-surgery needed. So she popped the food in whole. Delicious, and the start of an amazing meal.
The first course proper was paraded out: a sumptuous platter of scarlet roasted beetroot and rosy beef carpaccio, layered in a stripy tower topped with spindly red lettuce. The cylinder of food was encircled by a tangy ruby-coloured chilli and crab-apple jelly. It looked and tasted fabulous.
Following an intermediate palate-cleanser of creamy mango sorbet, the main course was introduced. Martyn triumphantly exposed the ‘Art on a Plate’ concept: three courses, one of each primary colour with an amuse bouche to hint at what was to come. After the impressive first course with its commendable use of local ingredients and wonderful presentation, the diners were brought down to earth as the chef proclaimed the next course to be chicken in a basket. Which then arrived.
As they say on the internet, OMG! Yes, technically the yellow course was chicken in a basket. A fabulous container made of brittle Parmesan lattice held a bed of tasty sweetcorn fritter on which was a nest of delicate straw potato chips. Squatting on her nest was the bird; a macabre construction of maize-fed chicken breast, yellow pepper wings skewered onto the meat with cocktail sticks, a rosemary sprig tail and – perhaps in a nod to Brading Roman Villa’s cockheaded man – a real chicken head, bizarrely coiffed with saffron sauce. How audacious! As each diner received their plate, genuine shock registered. Guests exclaimed, laughed, gasped. Some looked aghast. There was a moment of drama when one of the vegetarians came face-to-face with the glassy eye of an ex-chicken. Matt and Cat instantly understood why Martyn had refused to divulge the details of the meal; how could they have successfully promoted such a freakish dish? After the initial squealing ebbed, there was much discussion about society’s desensitisation to meat and how the stuff in the supermarkets is deliberately divorced from its animal origins. The meal had become an artistic statement about our relationship with animals: Martyn’s work underlined, with gruesome force, how the delicious chicken breast had once been attached to the sightless head with its gaping beak.
Despite looking like one of those grotesque chimeras once on display at Brading Waxworks, the chicken was extraordinarily tasty. Although the fiery chilli was an acquired taste, the cheesy basket came in for particular praise. The luminous saffron sauce added to the range of tastes and with the soft peppers, crunchy basket and delicate breast, it was also a textural treat. Despite Matt’s initial shock and Cat’s hysterical laughter, they both thought the chicken in a basket was a tour de force; cheeky and thought-provoking, nobody was indifferent to this dish.
To calm the diners down, Martyn gave them the precursor to the blue course, a tiny caterpillar fashioned out of alternating blueberries and aqua-coloured marzipan balls. The sweet invertebrate had the desired effect.
Anyone who knows anything about food will be aware that there are not many naturally-occurring blue foods. Blueberries are so named but their flesh is more grape-coloured. Sloes are blue but must be eaten with caution. When the dessert was presented, it seemed that Martyn had eschewed conventionally-coloured ingredients and gone for a more artificially-hued and flavoured sweet of blueberry Swiss roll, chilled blueberry crème Anglais, bubblegum ice cream and bubblegum bonbons, sprinkled with glittery raspberry sherbert space dust. Thankfully there were no children in the room as their consumption of the space dust alone could have triggered a hyperactive attack of devilish intensity.
As with the other courses, the pudding was presented with great attention to detail. From the feathered crème Anglais sauce to the antennae-like bonbons on the top, it was a marvellous dish to behold. Also like the other courses, it was a great mix of textures. Cat extracted one of the cyan bonbons which she renamed infinite bonbons as, despite her thorough mastication, the tiny sweets were almost endlessly chewy. Contrasting with the toffee was the light and fruity sponge. However the most unusual component of this blue food was the soft bubblegum ice cream. Creating an inner conflict for Cat who had always been warned about the perils of swallowing bubblegum, here its ingestion was actively encouraged.
As the plates were cleared, Martyn returned to the stage to receive a well-deserved round of applause. Away from his day job of issuing wholemeal flapjacks and nutritious salads for yummy mummies, arty-farties and office drones, the chef had revealed his inner Blumenthal, Hirst and Wonka. His dinner was an outstanding combination of unexpected tastes, challenging imagery and childhood flavours. And, extraordinarily, his evening in the spotlight managed to make an ethical comment through food. In the uncompromising environment of the big art gallery, the diners were reminded that they were not in a cosy pub or restaurant – this was an arts centre.
Matt and Cat were thrilled to have introduced their dining club members to this talent and to support such a deserving venue. Like the legendary Sex Pistols 1976 gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, even as they were eating it the diners agreed that the meal could become part of Island folklore. In parts hilarious, occasionally horrifying, entirely delicious, Matt and Cat were pleased to give the Quay Arts Centre the opportunity to get truly creative.
Comments from Matt and Cat’s Dining Club members
Sue L: An extremely memorable dinner. The chef fulfilled his undertaking to create ‘Art on a Plate’ with panache. The beetroot course was my favourite in culinary terms, but the chicken in a basket is the one I shall never forget. It had real shock value and was so thought-provoking that I have revisited it, in my mind, many times in the days since.
Jan B: It was quite shocking to have a dead chicken head plonked in front of you. Sue’s face was a picture though!
Wendy V: The ladies next to me were hiding the dead heads under their napkins till the chef came round to collect them. It was rather ‘ew’; but then, fish is often served with the head on, and we don’t squirm too much about that… My overall impression was that novelty won out over attention to flavours. Apart from the beetroot with crab-apple and chilli jelly, which was delicious – as long as you like beetroot, of course.
Ian W: Was annoyed I could not get there on the night, but I get the impression I dodged a bullet. One fired from a particularly experimental contraption.
Mise en bouche: IW tomato and red pepper mini tart, crab apple, pepper coulis
Steve Cowley’s crab apple
Godshill Organics chilli jelly
Bembridge Bakery beetroot bread
Kemphill Farm carpaccio
IW tomato chutney
Intermediate: mango sorbet
Yellow main course
‘Chicken in a basket’
Saffron cream sauce
maize-fed chicken supreme
Brownrigg chicken heads
Steve Cowley’s Binchay straw potatoes
Godshill Organics Aji limon chilli
Intermediate: blueberry and marzipan caterpillar
Blueberry Swiss roll
Chilled blueberry crème Anglais
Bubblegum ice cream
Raspberry sherbert space dust
Special event price £29.95 per head