With great expectations often comes great disappointment. When Adam Handling opened The Frog near Brick Lane last year, the menu read like an absolute dream. Nonetheless, my expectations weren’t particularly high; I’d imagined The Frog might be one of those restaurants wrought by an overambitious chef who over-promises but under-delivers. I was wrong. The Frog E1 (as it’s now stylised) has since become one of my favourite restaurants, and when the announcement of a new, bigger central London space was announced to open – just over a year after the original – I quickly became eager to visit. But would this gallant new powerhouse deliver?
Frog by Adam Handling, the new restaurant near Covent Garden, works as the group’s flagship. While the Shoreditch restaurant is emphatically casual (as Giles Coren recently – embarrassingly – discovered), the new space is subtly more formal, suiting the cooking showcased. Decidedly more polished than the original, the 40-cover restaurant is bedecked with plush furniture, heavily polished cutlery and wine glasses slender as filo pastry. Still, tablecloths are evidently forbidden and there’s not a whiff of stuffiness. At the back of the dining room, a marble counter separates diners from a clinically clean open kitchen, with each table and seat positioned to face the restaurant’s stage, if you like. We’re in the heart of Theatreland, after all. Chefs are each dressed in pristine whites and in turn present various dishes at the table.
Service is also charming, with all servers confident with their knowledge of the menu, restaurant, food. Our waiter suggests the five-course tasting menu (£65 per person), which is constantly evolving, over the a la carte or eight-course offering. Showcasing Adam Handling’s unique cooking style, the menus all feature carefully sourced produce, with seasonal ingredients selected from the group’s West Sussex farm. In addition to wine pairings, cocktail pairing is also available with the tasting menus. Here, various juices (more Petrus than Pret) are cultivated in the downstairs bar, Eve, to perfectly complement specific dishes.
An introductory round of canapés is joined by a basket of sourdough with the chef’s famous whipped chicken butter. At The Frog E1, the butter fell flat, tasting of little other than salt. Here, chicken butter 2.0 is a whole new sensation. Shards of crispy chicken skin crown the knoll of butter, nestled above a blob of thick, opulent chicken gravy to enhance the flavour of Britain’s favourite Sunday roast. Bisto, this is not. The first course, proper, a tranche of mackerel seems minimalistic, but harbours an explosion of flavours. Potent flamed mackerel is rich with characteristic oiliness, topped with precise rounds of radish that hold up against the fish’s opinion dividing eminence. Three accompanying dots of dill purée have profound depth of flavour, also.
A real standout dish, ‘celeriac, truffle, apple, dates’ comes with a story. Created for his mother, on turning vegetarian soon before opening his first restaurant, Handling’s signature vegetarian dish is befittingly special. A cone of paper-thin celeriac crowns a poached duck egg whose yolk erupts across the plate, curiously astonishing with cleanness of apple and sweetness of dates. With sublime balance of complementary flavours, the wow factor comes with a generous grating of black truffle, presented at the table – naturally delightful with rich egg yolk.
The first of two main courses, a sizeable fillet of lavish halibut is treated with due care and respect. Properly cooked and creamy in texture, the fish is topped with a suggestion of caviar and perched on a bed of sweet dressed crab, finished with an intentionally split sauce of chives and buttery crab bisque that champions woefully under-appreciated crab. Iberico pork, on the other hand, is served pink with florets of blackened cauliflower, a sauce flecked with fiery Korean kimchi and a pastilla-like wrap of more kimchi. The cooking of the pork is outstanding, but if I’m being extra pernickety (as is my job), the bold flavours showcased do supersede the trait acorn fattiness of Iberico pork.
Of three desserts, the waiter suggests ‘chocolate, raspberry, vanilla’ and the new ‘mandarin, madeleine, clove’ dessert. A brittle cup of tempered chocolate ensnares a hot chocolate mousse syphoned for feather lightness, its richness deterred by raspberries, marshmallows and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream. The mandarin dish, however, features five “textures of mandarin”, each working in harmony with the underlying taste of clove – redolent of Christmas.
Desserts are fine, but a meal of this caliber deserves to be finished with cheese and truffle doughnuts. Two spheres of greaseless dough are pumped with molten cheese, finished with a generous grating of black truffle and pecorino. A rare treat that makes me want to close my eyes and block my ears in attempt to thwart all senses other than taste; a welcome remedy to the plague of terrible savoury doughnuts available in London. Alongside Michel Roux Jr.’s Soufflé Suissesse and A Wong’s xiao long bao, these doughnuts are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
Against all odds, one of my most anticipated launches of 2017 has materialised as one of the year’s best new restaurant openings, thus far. Adam Handling has leapt to the top of his game with the cooking showcased here: it is the sort of unfaltering brilliance seldom experienced in new restaurants. Enjoy it before booking a table at a reasonable dinner time becomes impossible.
Frog by Adam Handling can be found at 34-38 Southampton Street, London, WC2E 7HF.
Photography: Tim Green