Review: Ash Saman at Root

by Dan Izzard

06 December 2018

This vegetarian tasting menu was as lavish as any...

The shipping containers of Wapping Wharf take on a different feel in the depths of winter. Gone are the summer crowds and drawn-out, sunny evenings; by November the containers have morphed into cosy hideaways. From the inside of Root, the glare of the kitchen lights means that you can’t really see the outside world at all, come nightfall.

We’d come to sample the next instalment of Ash Saman’s blockbuster series of tasting menu events, so we took our seats and settled in. With previous stints at Casamia and The Chequers in Bath, Ash uses these events, quite rightly, as a showcase. His last outing, a seafood taster menu at the Malago produced some of my favourite dishes of the year, including a seared fillet of mackerel with pickled beetroot and olive oil ice cream.

Whisper it, but I think everyone has now reached the point where we can talk about a vegetarian tasting menu without having to launch into a song and dance about it. To leave out meat isn't a biggie any more. The elephant has left the room. So, I'd best crack on, then.

A taster menu is a culinary equivalent of listening to an album all the way through. It’s easy to forget what that’s like; we're all usually on shuffle. This kind of meal is a chance for a chef to take you on a journey to experience foods that you may not have picked yourself, to expand your culinary experience with new and novel ingredients and flavours. 

Some regard tasting menus as a phenomenon for hardened foodies. With hindsight, perhaps the complete opposite applies. They are actually a great way to go into a meal with no pressure whatsoever. There’s also no risk of FOMO (that’s fear of missing out), as everyone is getting the same, often at the same time.

The evening starts with everyone warming up their taste buds with some deliciously light fennel butter with warm homemade bread. Sat behind us is Ben of Novel Wines (a handy neighbour when trying to choose a pairing for the artichoke).

We're next presented with a chicory dish that has the sweetness and texture of stewed fruits with a subtle smoked finish. The balance is punctuated with several tart slivers of crisp crab apple and a savoury burnt oat crisp.

Allium is next to slide across the table, delivered by Ash with a small jug of sabayon –  a rich, foamy sauce made with egg yolks, sugar and Champagne. This vanilla-filled luxury coated my mouth to guard against the sweetness of the grapes on the plate. Probably a good idea that Ash administered that, otherwise I’d have nabbed the lot.

Salt baking is a technique often used with fish; as the moisture is baked out of the spaces between the crystals, the salt layer hardens and forms a protective barrier that actually keeps all the moisture within. It wasn’t fish that Ash has cooked this time in such a way, but artichoke. The flesh is easily pulled apart with a fork and when combined with a few flakes of nutty truffle completes a pot of wonderful autumnal flavours.

Proving that he is a fungi (ahem), Ash has created a mushroom dish comprising of wild mushroom, mushroom ketchup, concord vinegar and dashi (a savoury broth). It’s a dish of contrasting textures with the drops of vinegar formed into spheres that pop in your mouth and burst with an acidity to overcome the calm nuttiness of the wild mushroom and buttery ketchup.

Pillowy gnocchi (almost the size of actual pillows, I might add) come with a caramelised golden crust and are thick and gooey inside, hiding hazelnut in their centre. Pickled samphire adds a touch of acidity, although I could have done with more for the size of the dish. 

Celeriac ice cream is familiar to anyone who has ventured to one of Ash’s evenings before; this time it is paired with a sweet blackberry compote and honey caramel tuile. A dessert of tonka bean cheesecake followed by salted caramel petit fours in quick succession rounds off the evening.

Conversation turned to favourite dishes, and much discussion ensued. The allium with sabayon stood out for me as a dish that perhaps wouldn't have worked in any other setting, an album track that worked beautifully as part of the whole record but may have not seen the light of day otherwise. That would have been an awful shame as this was 'all killer, no filler'. Roll on the tricky third album.