There is a unique sense of surprise and elation when a friend pulls out a talent you never knew they had. I thought I knew everything worth knowing about my pal Temi when, out of the blue, he sat down to play the piano. Now, Mozart he wasn’t, but somehow his brief tickle of the ivories was both impressive and mysterious. He was Freddie Mercury for a few fine minutes. A musical mirage.
Though I always knew my pal Will could cook, my mind was about to be blown – again. He set up Room Service in 2015, as a pop-up in a pub. I salivate at the memory of their ‘Club Sandwich Luxe’ – which was an extravagantly haute version of the classic club sandwich. Think Daniel Boulud’s Rolls Royce burger.
Will is now the chef-owner of Room Service which has evolved into a catering and design collective that produces food and experiences for the likes of Nike, Spotify, Propercorn and now my group of mates.
Impressive as all this is, nothing could quite prepare us for what unfolded last weekend, in a tightly secured private dining establishment, in the once-beating heart of Shoreditch.
Asking a friend to cook a boys’ lunch is one thing, but to do it in place of a restaurant, serving lots of intricate dishes to a (mostly) discerning crowd, is a daunting prospect for everyone. Questions will be asked: From the punters: ‘What if it isn’t any good? ‘Do we tell him?’ ‘Do we get our money back?’ And from the chef: ‘why am I here?’ ‘are these even my real mates?’
This was a lunch to reunite eight hangry men after 3 months of lock-down watching barstool pizza reviews. We were celebrating our group’s new fathers, engagements and returns from abroad. The joie de vivre of old fashioned, famished friends.
Will was given the challenging brief of ‘high-end Tex Mex’ which in the wrong hands spells a boy’s lunch day of the dead. Instead he delivered a reminder of how good life is.
Starters; Pinto bean Puree, Burnt Corn and grilled polenta.
Giant fat polenta chips are an indulgent way to kick off your lunch and we indulged with aplomb. These were offset against a perfectly acidic pinto bean puree. Burnt corn was creamed, charred and delicious, setting us up perfectly for the next dish. Round 1 to Will.
Course 2: boneless chicken wings with a Piquillo pepper relish. Having the bones taken out of your chicken wings is a Caligula-like luxury, though if someone’s offering, then that’s OK! These were supreme bites. But what really stood out what the Piquillo pepper relish. This was perhaps the only sauce I’ve ever tried that beats Franks. Piquant perfection.
Next up; wild seabass ceviche, mescal, avocado with a cucumber escabeche. This was executed extremely well and perfectly zesty for a hot summer’s day. With ceviche the freshness is paramount and this tasted like Will had caught it himself that morning. A banging little fish-dish.
And then along came salt marsh lamb.
This was a barbacoa shoulder of lamb served with, salsa verde, roasted garlic crema further accompanied by homemade flour and goose fat tortillas, charged broccoli, almonds, chilis, isle of wight tomatoes, pickled onions and jalapeño.
The main dish is so often a disappointment when the starters have been so good. But this was without doubt the star of the show. The boys were fascinated and so Will spoke (at length) about how he had achieved the results…
He had brined the lamb shoulder for 5 hours before marinating for a further day in a blend of cumin, allspice, onions, chicken stock, oregano garlic, anchovies, Mexican ancho, guajillo and serrano chilis. Then he Barbacoad it – an ancient way of slow cooking meat over fire with tantric patience until you can basically eat it with a spoon. The lamb had been wrapped in banana leaves which, other than adding a natural smoke and earthiness, is a splendid way of revealing the prize at the table. Will took the presentation up a further notch with the addition of Hickory Liquid Smoke. Available at all good camping shops.
We all greedily fought for our share, devouring the unctuous beauty in minutes. Then a primal silence followed before a post-coital group sigh. More silence. Finally, encouraging comments such as ‘fucking hell Will’ , ‘wowzers Will’ and ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter, Will’ were heard.
We finished with salted chocolate ganache, pineapple, lime and pink peppercorns. The only way I can describe this is Nutella on acid. Crunchy pink peppercorns in chocolate was a euphoric eureka moment.
What makes Will’s food so enjoyable is the creativity. Nothing here is dull or something you’ve seen churned out on MasterChef year after year. He marries flavours like a culinary vicar, combining indulgent and multifarious ingredients that sit against each other perfectly. Will structures a menu like a jazz composition. Each course complements the last, building up to a crescendo and winding down with a soothing coda. It was a brilliant assimilation for the senses.
Like a group of seedy Shoreditch angels in sartorial cahoots, most of the gang turned up in the same white T-Shirt and N-95 mask. I missed the brief but, as you’re asking, I wore an elegant pastel pink linen shirt with black shorts, ice white socks and Air Jordan 3’s. High five emoji.
For someone who’s never been to Mexico this meal virtually transported me to the beaches and bays of Juárez, Oaxaca and Puerto Vallarta. And that’s what the best food can do.
Restaurants aren’t really restaurants for now and this style of in-house dining with friends is the truly the way to go.
The time had come to leave. My belly was happy, full and plump. I fell asleep in my cab and woke up smiling as I arrived at home. In these strange times, it’s never been more important to reach out to old mates. Who knows, they may even surprise you.