Sated was invited to a one-off tasting menu event by Head Chef Sebastian Merry at modern British restaurant Magpie (sister restaurant to the famous Pidgin). Elated as we would otherwise be at such an invitation, our interest was peaked further when it was announced that the night would be a celebration of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese…
It’s hard not to admit to suffering from some heady anticipation when turning down an alley just off Regent Street to find Magpie hidden away from the busy main road. Heddon Street’s nook of trendy restaurants is a perfect fit for the more casual, younger sister restaurant of Pidgin. The latter has built up something of a reputation in London thanks to it’s weekly-shifting never-repeating menu, and Magpie could be seen as an almost contemporary dining experience by comparison thanks to a menu shelf life of a month.
Immediately there’s no mistaking the heritage in Magpie: the sleek, black-painted exterior mirroring that of its predecessor. Even the interior – a pared-down but modern blend of white and black, copper and wood – feels reminiscent of Pidgin, however the venue also has much of its own unique charm. A sun-well at the back of the room drenching the space with light, drawing our eyes away from the glass of unfiltered Lemoss prosecco we’ve been handed and towards the open kitchen and a large, colourful mural on the far wall. It’s a place of variety and disparity, with classic wooden benches and tables running along the two-tone walls beside a string of contrasting modern seating to match the black and white paint. Weirdly, this works and a strict balance is struck that is at once simple yet decorative, trendy yet authentic.
It’s clear that Magpie, despite the prestige it was born with, is still setting out on its own path. And yet, while it typically strays from its sister restaurant by offering a three-course menu each with three choices, tonight the offerings are a little more unusual. Teaming up with Parmigiano Reggiano – the consortium of Italian cheesemakers producing the only genuine parmesan – Magpie and its Head Chef, Sebastian Merry, has invented a six-course tasting menu with this popular cheese at the heart of each dish.
So we know what we’re in for, we’re first set to tasting each of the three primary ages of parmesan. 18, 24, and 30-month old chunks are proffered, each with distinct tastes and textures. The youngest of the three is the lightest: smoother, creamier and sweeter than the rest. The 24-month parmesan sets the middle ground with its pleasant savour nature that tastes almost of melted butter. Then there is our favourite, the crumbly 30-month parmesan that has a distinctly nutty flavour. This is all served alongside a potato sourdough that is impossibly soft and chewy – a great accompaniment to the flakiness of the aged cheese.
With our taste-buds sufficiently prepared, the first dish is served: a tiny baby gem lettuce leaf cupping an 18-month parmesan foam, with a scattering of thinly sliced radish and chopped samphire. It is a delicate way to begin, the light, fluffy foam a perfect fit to the crispness of the lettuce. It’s fresh and soft and capable of resetting the palate after chomping on the chunks of strong-tasting cheese. It’s not simple and over too quickly, but a fantastic préempter for the inventive use of parmesan that was set to come.
It isn’t long before the next dish arrives: a colourful plate of dried and flattened ox heart that lies across a cool grey ceramic. A healthy heaping of leaves and herbs sits atop the flavoursome meat, which offers up a surprising depth of taste. This time it’s the cheese that sells the dish, however, the baked 30-month parmesan broken into chips and scattered on top. The cheese adds a deep orange-yellow to the bright red and green, at once resting proudly on top of the dish but also working in the background of the meal, complementing it both visually and with its strong, familiar taste. There’s an expected chewiness to the heart itself, but it carves up well and slides down even better, and already we’re impressed.
Almost as quickly as we’re done, the third course is on the table: a salad of grilled asparagus and courgette, with unprepared flakes of 24-month parmesan nestled within all that greenery. Here, the cheese is more subtle, mixing with the vegetables and sliced grape to add an extra layer to the distinctly different flavours rather than overpowering it. And yet it’s the soy-cured yolk that sells the dish, three vivid orange globs having an almost triangulating effect on not only the presentation of the dish but its ability to draw out each of the individual flavours. The edible flowers feel like an unnecessary indulgence though, the core ingredients otherwise strong enough on their own to be a masterful blend.
Onto the fourth course, a single stuffed raviolo with the head of the pasta poking out from its own lake of 18-month parmesan sauce. It’s clear here, more than in any other dish, that the age of the adaptable cheese has been smartly considered. It’s a rich sauce, creamy in taste and texture that simply wouldn’t have worked with the stronger flavours of the other two ages of parmesan. There’s a dash of bright green chilli oil that rests on top of the creamy sauce, which adds to look of the serving and gives it a noticeable spice, but not really helping the flavours in any considerable way. It’s a pleasant dish all the same, simple in its construction and all the better for it.
Without respite, the penultimate course is laid before us, and by comparison it is a much more complex dish than the previous. A thick cut of cod is the dominant ingredient here, sitting within a rustic bowl beside a quickly destabilising panna cotta and fried courgette. It’s surprising in its variety, the crispness of the courgette adding a tactile crunch to the softer components it’s paired with.
The fish itself has the right amount of crumble to it, falling apart as our fork digs in and embeds itself within the parmesan panna cotta. There’s less structure to the creamy accoutrement than is typical, but there’s a benefit to that; it begins to resemble a pool within the bowl, and as such seeps itself into the other ingredients of the dish. It’s a surprisingly rich – and oh-so-salty– course, a strong contender for our favourite with the only downside being the pairing of a deliciously sweet rosé that unfortunately doesn’t sit easily with the savouriness of the fish.
It’s with the sixth and final course that we’re starting to ponder just how the themed ingredient can make it into a dessert, and as a muted green sorrel cake is placed before us – a thick helping of 24-month parmesan frosting slowly holding the broken pieces together – there’s a certain apprehension. Unfounded, it seems, as the cheesiness is only a glimmer in the sweet frosting. The cake itself is a sponge, and in more than just the dessert sense; it absorbs the stronger flavours of the frosting and the bed of custard that the cake rests on, combining on the palate and not fighting for a portion of our taste-buds to let the real flavours of the dessert stand out. Those superfluous edible flowers make their way into the bowl once again, but not to the detriment of the dish as a whole. It’s a careful balance of sweetness that really benefits from the undercurrent of cheesiness, and an amazing way to end the evening.
As the evening comes to a close, it’s creativity and innovation that overrides our thoughts. Parmesan is hardly an original ingredient to leverage for a tasting menu, but Sebastian’s ability to adapt it to its surroundings proves not only the capabilities of the cheese but also of the team at Magpie. While it’s not clear just how much of this tasting menu are prototypes set to make their way onto the restaurant’s monthly choices, we’ve certainly been shown a number of alternative sides to an ingredient that is perhaps more commonly known as little other than a pizza topping – and for that we couldn’t be more thankful.
Magpie, 10 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BX
For more information about Parmigiano Reggiono, visit their website here.
To find out more about Magpie or to book a table, click here.
Words by Adam Barnes