It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to have a meal cooked by a MasterChef TV star.
But that’s exactly what I got to enjoy when the highly acclaimed Arbinder Dugal offered a special tasting menu in Essex.
Dugal reached the semi-finals of MasterChef: The Professionals and is a Roux Scholarship semi-finalist.
Brasserie Dante, Maldon, was the venue for the limited edition tasting culinary experience.
As it was a tasting menu, the portions are small but there are plenty of servings and, for that matter, plenty of flavor.
And at £105, it’s costing you a pretty penny. So was it worth it?
I arrived just after 6pm on a Saturday evening; It’s cold and dark outside, but the owner, Mario, exudes a warm presence.
There’s a retro feel to the place – it’s tastefully decorated.
The music, which includes Antonio Carlos Jobim’s famous song, Águas de Março, makes for a charming accompaniment.
Now let’s move on to food.
The first course is a baked snail with a parsley and garlic butter, and there’s a Maldon oyster on the side for good measure.
Immediately I’m faced with a dilemma – how am I supposed to describe the taste of snail, when it’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before?
The best way to do it justice is to say it’s rich in flavor.
The Maldon oyster, more familiar to the palate, is an excellent taste translation of the pleasant landscapes and scents of the seaside.
There are only two other diners in the restaurant for the first 20 minutes or so, and conveniently for me they arrived a little before me – which means I have a preview of my next foie gras dish, with braised chicory with honey and orange and crisp bread with ginger and honey.
Again, it’s not something anyone – at least, anyone I know – really tries at home.
The crispy bread with ginger and honey offers a curious counterpoint to the slipperiness of the chicory and the richness of the foie gras.
The third course of salt-grilled cod is accompanied by an artichoke purée and a saffron and curry powder sauce which complements the cod perfectly.
The dish is served with muscles too.
Then there was a lychee sorbet with mint mousse, but that wasn’t quite to my liking.
Then came the time for the simmered braised beef cheek.
The soft-spoken owner, Mario Nargi, waits for tables all evening, and he says it’s his favorite dish on the menu – and I have to say, it was my favorite too.
This is a ridiculously luxurious take on the hearty Beef Casserole with Mash Vegetables – the braised beef cheek drowns in a rich veal broth you’d imagine you’ve been simmering for hours.
Fondant apple, shallots and wild mushrooms combine to create an immaculate side dish – it really is a dish to be savoured.
As for the desserts, these aren’t dishes I need to be fancy, although this one definitely is.
The dark chocolate mousse, cherry sorbet and chocolate wafer were certainly put together well.
As I finish, many other diners are on their third or fourth course and share a few good words with the owner.
One confidently states that they will return the next evening, and Mario jokingly offers them the key.
The majority, Mario tells me, are regulars – and it’s no surprise they keep coming back.
Dugal has complete free rein on this tasting menu and he more than repays the owner’s confidence here, producing a set of dishes that, quite predictably, fill the restaurant all evening.
There are no empty chairs when I leave, except mine – damn the 30 minute drive which meant I didn’t get to enjoy the wine to top off a great evening.
- Dugal will be back with a new Italian tasting menu at Dantès in April.