Deciding what to do with a meal can be fraught. Usually in a good way. What’s our risk appetite? How can I persuade the group to indulge my food craving? What mood am I in? Will I abide those terribles seats for that great food?
Having some principles makes life easy: I don’t queue for tables; I don’t pay restaurant prices for sit-down street food; when I’m tired, I take greater comfort in good service than good food.
The fraughtness that makes these choices exciting is offset by the occasional fumble. With the best intentions and firmest convictions, I can find myself exposed to an experience at once on brief and wide of the mark. I walk myself into something diametrically opposed to what I wanted. Exquisitely wrong, with only myself to blame.
The Ninth states, in block capitals at the top of the menu, that all plates are for sharing. The table is a little undersized but the idea is appealing, because the list of dishes proposed is collectively diverse and individually desirable.
It feels generous and democratic. Let us sacrifice an extended, singular engagement for a nibble across more of the rich fruits of the kitchen. We can all push food at each other and juggle plates. We will have travelled further and bonded more closely by the end of the meal.
Except that, with rare exception, it doesn’t happen – and it doesn’t happen at The Ninth. The stakes are set so impossibly high. Peril lurks at every turn. It is a juggling act from all involved at all stages of the meal.
Having lured me in with a menu that had me dribbling like a runny egg, The Ninth throws me by listing the pasta dishes before the raw and cured offerings – a perversion to set alarm bells going. I wince as the waiter compounds the issue, cheerily offering to bring dishes out of the kitchen as and when.
This exercise of free cooking is reasonably well executed by Jun Tanaka’s team. Dishes come with some sense of course maintained – seafood, pasta, mains. A double-order of langoustine ravioli came bathed in a pungent, earthy, elemental fish sauce that lingers long on the tongue and in the heart.
But it’s far from perfect, and it these prices it should be. A cocktail order is misheard. A fried red mullet is desperately salty. A hand slaloming a fresh dish onto the table knocks a thin-walled glass over, sending shards and slivers everywhere. The waitress laughs cheerily as though this is all an accepted part of the experience, a small price to pay for the joy of sharing plates.
But these minor scrapes and grazes are superficial. It is the very principle of sharing plates that is the challenge. By what reasonable logic would one ever decide that the buffet is the best mechanism by which to engage with good cooking? A raw bar, an egg station, even a dessert trolley – the humble buffet can do ingredients and preparations well, but it does true cooking very poorly.
The incremental freshness of having that buffet delivered to the table does not offset the misguided generosity that is myriad flavours and textures, awkwardly vying for attention and dominance in this single sitting. It’s death by a thousand cuts. An onslaught of mini experiences that sums to nothing. If I want to eat the menu, I should by now know that one sitting will not suffice, even if the menu protests otherwise.
It has been noted that we, today, have greater appetite for stronger flavours: we like our beer hoppier and colder; we like natural funk in our wines; we bathe in sriracha. And for a country whose preference for bland food, juicy red wine, mellow coffee, this is to be welcomed. But there are limits.
Sharing plates need to sum to a coherent whole, and when you are left to freestyle across a broad menu, it simply isn’t possible. Spices never destined to be friends scramble in competition to establish themselves on your tongue. No dish is respected with any sustained attention – it’s an unreconstructed flurry of flavour.
In restaurants as at the hotel buffet, choose wisely, and with discretion.
The Ninth 22 Charlotte St, London W1T 2NB