Imagine a world where your bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich comes in one surprising multitextured bite of Essence of BLT. Where Death of Elvis is a completely bizarre and completely delectable mouthful of solid yet somehow softly melting banana, peanut butter, nutella and jam. Where the cheese never seems to end and where the wine flows like the water dripping from the ceiling…
It sounds like Wonderland, but don’t be fooled by the 7 foot tall cross-dressing Alice in spectacularly tall heels opening the door. It’s 99, a pop-up restaurant run by friends Whetham and Dave, who have combined their impressive and inventive artistic, hosting, and culinary talents to create a spectacular and stomach-busting evening of performance, gastronomy and often a topsy-turvy combination of the two.
I was honored to be invited along to help out in the kitchen on the final night of 99’s first run. Donning pristine chef’s whites in the kitchen of their Victorian mansion in Hackney, I joined chefs Dave and Hugo to whip, dip, bread, layer, chop, and see the magic happen behind the scenes.
I sailed into the kitchen late in the afternoon with much of the prep and difficult work already done so I jumped straight in helping to prepare some venison scotch eggs. Dave had already made a venison sausage mixture and soft-boiled eggs and my job was to dip and encase in bread crumbs, dip and encase. All the better to deep fry with. Mmm. I’m quite excited to make these on my own sometime soon.
Here’s a glimpse of Hugo’s pop art plated version, with a shockingly green wild garlic sauce, sliced radishes, and some sort of tasty mayonnaise.
And now sliced open to reveal the precisely timed, perfectly joyfully oozy soft-boiled egg within…
I also did a bit of whipping. Specifically, I beat some cream into shape and talked some sense into some egg whites as well for a gorgeous layered syllabub of rhubarb essence, ginger biscuit, chocolate shavings, and other colorful delights. A saucy dessert combined with a saucy faced waiter, post-Alice costume change.
Some amazing dishes I had absolutely nothing to do with – the aforementioned Essence of BLT, made up of a stack of secret ingredients in all sorts of flavors and textures. I’ll give you a hint: there was lots of bacon fat involved. The pictures just don’t do this surprising mouthful justice, so we’ll move onto the third dish (after the BLT amuse bouche and the meal-in-itself Scotch egg) the sweetcorn veloute with chorizo foam: a steaming hot shot of creaminess with a rich meaty plop of chorizo infusion on top.
Lest you think the diners were anywhere close to done, up next came the squid ink risotto made from a deep reddish and minerally seafood stock, stirred lovingly by Hugo…
…and served up with a smile by a mysterious man clad in pink and green.
He wasn’t the only one waiter in a fabulous outfit – I enjoyed chatting with the stunningly talented costumier Nicholas Immaculate in pink puffs and pads and pleats below.
Things got a little unexpected with the next dish: a cold celery sorbet topped with a spritz of walnut foam. Being a bit of a celery detester, I figured I wouldn’t particularly like a cold mouthful of celery flavor, but tried it anyway out of curiousity. Verdict: icy cold celery is only marginally better than regular terrible celery. But even my least favorite vegetable is improved with a blanket of walnut foam and a pretty tile to rest upon.
As if everyone wasn’t already stuffed full of food, then came…the main course. I’m not even kidding. Smoked breast of pigeon, a square of sinfully rich celeriac dauphinoise, and black salt-sprinkled, butter-bathed baby turnips with a stripe of red wine reduction and an accompanying squeeze of garlic sauce.
The twenty-odd diners all seemed ecstatically happy, although I’m surprised they could even move out of their chairs. I didn’t take this picture, but I think it captures the general celebratory atmosphere of the 99 dining room, deluged with a gastronomic tidal wave.
Of course, this epicurean adventure (with matched wines!) wouldn’t be complete without sweets. And not just one, or two, but THREE desserts were to be had, including the lovely layered syllabubs from the beginning and the homemade Jaffa cakes below.
And then came the insanely addictive little morsels of mini heart attacks on a plate – Dave’s Death of Elvis creation featuring an unidentified powder that isn’t an illegal addictive substance but might as well be. Here he is holding a tray of his dangerous weapons of culinary delight, a single bite of structurally composed banana, nutella, peanut butter, and jam. I do honestly think he might have been trying to kill everyone with the gluttonous orgy of food.
Because then…then came the cheese. Not just any cheese. A theatrically displayed, rope-and-pulley-raised, antique cupboard-housed, ceremonially lowered array of Neal’s Yard masterpieces including some of the most enormous hunks of Colston Bassett Stilton, Montgomery Cheddar, Stichelton, and Waterloo I’ve ever seen outside a cheese shop. One might call these cheeses the pride of Britain and rightly so.
Somehow the diners remained upright and chatting rather than bursting at the seams. I’m not quite sure how, given the mammoth proportions of food served at 99 that evening. And in fact, something did in fact burst at the seams – the kitchen ceiling at about 3am in the morning, due to a bit of a watery incident from earlier in the day. Thank god it didn’t happen during service. But I do think it’s only appropriate, and yes it has to be said – it’s one of the few home-cooked meals I’ve ever eaten that actually deserved to bring the house down. Congrats Dave, Whetham, and Hugo on a job well done.
For more information, visit the 99delights website.