‘You try and make it sound really disgusting so by the time they eat it they’re like, “F***ing hell that was amazing!”
‘I’m too busy to be serious about Great British Menu, putting stuff on record players and stuffing them in CD cases and all the gimmicky f***ing nonsense so I just turned up and did some cooking and it was lovely.’
If you want bland, PR-massaged guff from a Chef looking to ‘cash in’ from national TV exposure, you should probably not ask Bath’s Gordon Jones.
You could read his attitude as a welcome antidote to the hushed, breathy reverence of Masterchef voiceovers, where a prime time audience in a country which orders close to 100,000,000 Domino’s pizzas every year and where McDonalds serves 3.5 million customers daily– is assumed to know its pommes aligot from its chou farci and its a la meunière and its boudin blanc, or its pané from its pavé.
But then, Gordon Jones doesn’t really play by the normal rules. That hasn’t stopped national critics falling hard for his food; in 2014 Amol Rajan called him ‘the next Gordon Ramsay‘, while Tom Parker Bowles simply went for ‘sensational’.
His stint on Great British Menu 2019 (each year seemingly needs a ‘maverick’ and this year it was his turn, succeeding Andrew Sheridan) divided the judges with his imaginative, risky dishes. There’s another issue: his reputation precedes him, and the problem with characterising anything British as ‘barmy’ or ‘bonkers’ is that you’re immediately in the realm of the haltitotic office sadsack, whose sense of humour manifests itself in wearing wacky socks or a South Park tie on Red Nose Day and telling you ‘I’m mad, I am- MAD!’ on work nights out. And it’s all you can do not to feed them face first into the nearest woodchipper.
Michelin-starred and three-time former banquet champion Richard Corrigan gave both his fish course and his starter 9 points, but the main and dessert only a 7 and a 6, despite praising him as a ‘really skilled Chef’ with ‘beautiful’ cooking. That made him his regional heat’s winner, ahead of Lorna McNee, sous-chef at the two-starred Restaurant Andrew Fairlie.
The judging panel didn’t agree, however- Matthew Fort called it ‘chaos’ (I have had to rewatch the episodes recently, as I may just have been distracted by the presence of Keisha Buchanan) and his main course again divided opinion with Corrigan’s ‘near perfect’ dish wringing at best muted approval from the panel.
So I’m prepared for the unusual.
There’s a ‘big high’ even before the meal: MGJ stands at the top of a FBH, where B is for ‘Big’ and ‘H’ is for ‘Hill’. If you’re visiting the city and planning to walk from Bath Spa, you may want to figure in that Holloway gradient. Half way up the climb we see a pair of plaques which commemorate the death of a work horse- (it’s not hard to feel a potent sense of kinship- finally, something in common with a horse!) and this may be an opportune moment to reflect on the city’s rich past. Or to catch your breath: I won’t judge. Don’t worry, we’ll get there in a bit.
The restaurant itself is an unassuming looking place, with more than a hint of an upmarket local Indian to it. ‘Let the Chef surprise you’ is the motto. It works on two levels- on the absence of any printed menu, online or on the table, anywhere in sight; and in serving up the unexpected, the daring, on a tasting menu which changes every day. A six-course £55 surprise tasting menu, at lunch, or £60 for seven at dinner, or nothing. (I’m hoping there’s not a third meaning, where he jumps out from behind a bush brandishing a santoku knife. I’m a lot taller, with a longer reach. But he looks pretty handy on a Pictish sort of sense, with woad optional.)
The idea is to surrender control, to go with the flow. The potential pitfall with that, of course, is that you may end with a bizarre cacophony where there should be harmony, with something discordant rather than mellifluous. And music seems the obvious motif- it is important here, an amiable mix of what used to be called ‘indie’ playing constantly and the open kitchen singing along at times. Decor is eclectic, quirky: a clenched-sphincter gaff this is not.
I tried to book this place a couple of years ago, at short notice: then, as now, it was full. (I ended up falling for Rob Allcock’s cooking at The Longs Arms that weekend, and I fell hard, so I neither ask nor deserve any sympathy). In an area hardly short of tempting options, Clearly the people of Bath have not only a hill-climbing lung capacity to shame Miguel Indurain, but know something we don’t.
The water tastes- really? let me double check- of rhubarb and custard. The boiled sweets, that is. A sudden flash on the inward eye- the shopkeeper’s back turned as she reaches up for the tall glass jar. It’s a neat trick. Test tubes and a wax-sealed packet stamped ‘The Bread Experiment’ arrive with a complex miso butter and a cep espuma which delivers everything you want from mushrooms in those intensely earthy woody notes (I do love ‘bosky’ in this context.)
A crisp little fritter comes on like a bhaji but turns out to be stuffed with haggis, a bhaji repurposed as something like a rich Sunday roast stuffing in a delicately crisp shell.
Pomegranate molasses, a thinner mix than you’d expect, a vivid herb oil: it’s a lot to take in for ‘just’ bread.
There’s a lentil soup with southern Indian flavours, topped with the tangy, Parmesan-like, Berkswell cheese. It’s warming rather than punchy, but all bodes well.
‘Raw fish and ice cream’ (yes, that old favourite) turns out to be a piece of Cornish mackerel, spankingly fresh, lightly singed.
It’s so good, It would be sacrilege to cook this stuff, they say. They have a point: it’s the lightest of cures finished off with a kiss from the blowtorch. From the Asian-inspired coleslaw, ginger and garlic come through subtly, as does the satay-style sauce; the ‘ice cream’ is actually a melon sorbet, lightly tart against the meaty flesh. It’s a tweaked version of the GBM dish: it’s not hard to see why Richard Corrigan rated it so highly.
Ibérico pork with white asparagus, sweet young leeks and apple crisps, Japanese ‘dancing mushrooms’, artichoke cream: what a dish. From a tart, acidic sauce to the deft handling of the morcilla de Leon, rather than the better-known rice-flecked Burgos variety, it’s a compendium of meaty pleasures which appeals passionately to my culinary DNA. Pork this impeccable is a joy.
The trick here is the deuteragonist blood sausage gently cooked down until it is effectively a paste, taking on a fudgy texture which coats your tongue with opulent minerality. It’s a beautiful plate of food, the sort of thing which puts a big daft grin on your face, the sort of thing- and I apologise for the pun- it is impossible to be ‘merely’ sanguine about.
The tiny kitchen- one of the smallest professional setups I have ever seen- is a thrum of activity, of concentration and precision. And yet it also feels relaxed, somehow, focussed but enjoyable. Confident in its abilities. It shows in the faultless cooking of the fish, of the way the line-caught (of course, and relatively rare) pink-skinned Couch’s bream gets on so well with ‘Bombay mashed potato’- an adroit balance of warmth and a subtle sweetness from the lobster butter.
The cuisson (oooh hark at me, proper food blogger now) on this fish is nothing short of sublime- delicate and flaky, but with the skin friable like crackling. It’s perfectly judged, with warming spices and a true a tang of the sea, and carries a surprise in the form of tiny shards of crisp chicken skin. It seems ludicrous that such tiny fragments could pack such a broadside of sheer impact.
Dessert is a beautiful thing. Rainier cherries in beautiful blushing shades are shown in their best light. This fruit may have a short life; but damn- what a way to go. Served as a parfait and piped with infused cream, with the slight chew of the pistachio madeleine and a blackcurrant sorbet, it’s a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures, dotted with an intensely-flavoured sauce: you could have served this on damp, dog-eared cardboard rather than its a beautiful teal plate, and I’d have still wolfed it down. On a day which turns out to be full of the best things in life, it’s one of the prettiest things I’ve eaten this year. I’d delve deep into my Blogger Bullsh*t Bingo bank and say it ‘tasted as good as it looked’ and was ‘cooked to perfection’ but then you wouldn’t respect me in the morning.
It’s a glorious thing, a collection of subtle flavours and colours and textures which brings things to a sumptuous finish.
A couple of hours of ballsy, clever, fun cooking, not always as ‘odd’ as I might have expected but absolutely worthwhile. Now, in the interests of balance I’m sure there will be some who will have a more jaded view. As ever, all I can do is shovel food into my face and then tell you how it made me feel. And this was lovely from start to finish, one of those times which always seem sunlit in the memory.
To use the obvious analogy: the off the cuff philosophy here runs the a clear risk. It has the potential to be ‘Later with Jools Holland’, where he has assembled your dream roll call- let’s go for The National, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, The Hold Steady and Tindersticks (it’s my roll call, my blog, other fantasy lineups are available)- but instead of the songs you love and breathe, they play only one of his interminable ‘jams’ with his bloody boogie woogie piano spewed all over it. (Or worse: they could gather together Clean Bandit, Robbie Williams, Dappy and Limp Bizkit, and fail to provide live ammunition.)
This was a thumpingly good lunch, some memorable cooking with wit and intelligence behind it, served by a team confident in its abilities and proud of its work. A beguiling meal, this, and heartily recommended: one to be savoured over time. Of course, you might find this cooking, some of these combinations, are not ‘to your taste.’ That’s more a risk here than in many places, I suppose. But at least it’s not predictable or boring.
Gordon Jones is probably unhinged, in the nicest possible way, and the people of Bath are lucky to have him. You’d be well advised to find out for yourself.
‘F***ing hell that was amazing!’ is about right.
Menu Gordon Jones
Tuesday to Saturday (closed on Sundays and Mondays)
Lunch service: 12:30 – 14:00
Dinner service: 19:00 – 21:00
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.