Perfection in simplicity

Winslade cheese with duck hearts
PHOTO: Winslade cheese with duck hearts

If Simon Rogan looks a bit ill at ease, it's not without good reason. His is the wary stance of one who's been put through the wringer by the British press who thrust him in the limelight for taking over Gordon Ramsay's restaurant at the venerable Claridge's, and systematically took him down with one withering review after another within the first week of the locavore-inspired Fera's opening.

When we meet him in the tastefully pared-down dining room in the historic hotel in Mayfair, he has just returned from L'Enclume, his two Michelin-starred flagship in Cartmel - a five-hour drive from London to the Lake District. It was his first trip after working non-stop for six straight weeks since Fera's opening, serving lunch and dinner seven days a week in keeping with the hotel's 24/7 operations.

With Fera, L'Enclume and The French in Manchester under his wing, there is no free time for the chef who has to grapple with whingeing reviewers, fine-tune his signature multi-course tasting menus to suit time-starved fund managers, and turn in a sound profit at the same time.

You can't blame him for being disappointed with the critics' lukewarm reception to Fera, after all his hard work. "I half expected it," he says. "I think they just wanted to hate it." It's perhaps a quirk of local critics to be 'anti-establishment', favouring edgy upstarts over big-budget orchestrations such as the Claridge's. Considering that he earned indie cred with L'Enclume - which was voted best restaurant in the UK in the 2014 Good Food Guide - and his popular two-year pop-up Roganic in Marylebone, the shiny "corporate" surroundings in the Claridge's was perhaps interpreted as him "selling out".

But he had good reason for taking up the gig, when Ramsay pulled out of Claridge's after 12 years, reportedly because he was unable to agree with the hotel's management over the lease renewal. The hotel, in turn, courted Rogan and everything fell into place. "I always wanted to come back to London after Roganic," says the amiable Rogan, who practically pioneered the locavore movement by serving only ingredients found in and around Cumbria, most of which are grown on his own farm or reared by hand-picked farmers. "It was just about finding the right place."

It was also about the cost. "Opening a standalone would have cost 1 million pounds (S$2.13253 million) - and would I have a dining room like this? Impossible."

He knew the partnership with Claridge's would work because he'd already had success with The French, which is housed in Manchester's Midland Hotel - also a historic property. "It was my relationship with Q Hotels (which owns the Midland) that made me see how, if I wanted to come back to London, I needed to be with a hotel."

Unlike L'Enclume - where he has diners "in my hand for the whole night" because people who make the trip typically stay overnight or, at least, as long as it takes to enjoy the theatrical experience of 20 or so artfully arranged courses - Fera is like its city cousin. Impatient, short of time, and in no mood to have business discussions interrupted 17 times by someone explaining the next course. The idea, then, is to retain the DNA of L'Enclume, but tailored to fit the clientele.

"It's a different repertoire, but similar in style," explains Rogan. "It's more urban - with the same ethos, same principles, but a different way of delivery."

But more important for the L'Enclume fan, Fera is a godsend for foreign visitors with limited time who can't make the long trip upcountry. Of course, you miss the genteel surroundings and quaint village appeal of Cartmel. And the produce that didn't have to spend a few hours on the truck to the capital city. But in London you have Rogan in the kitchen (at least for now) - applying his magic touch to the specially grown and sourced produce that supplies all three restaurants ("In about a year, we'll be self-sufficient", he says of his farm operations).

At Fera, he is not purely locavore, in deference to a city clientele who would demand truffles in the right season. Although his ingredient net is cast wider in London, his food is simpler than before, more streamlined, with a lot more focus on enhancing the purity of flavours.

"It's still technical but simplicity is perfection and that's dictating our progression," he explains. Given that he owns his own farm and works exclusively with a neighbouring farmer who rears hoggetts (sheep), pigs and chickens ("next year we'll have our own cows"), he's able to dictate the quality of what comes out of them. "Our ingredients are so good that our menus practically write themselves - there's nothing we can buy that is anywhere near as good as what we can grow ourselves".

It's not a false boast. You can taste it in the puffed barley cracker filled with smokey cubes of eel and covered in ox daisy petals; a crunchy tempura-crusted ball bursting with rich, warm rabbit stew and a swipe of green lovage sauce; diced sea-kissed scallops resting with sweetest fresh peas in languid buttermilk sauce; duck heart cut into teensy dices enveloped in a pool of cheesey potato foam - and we're not even finished with the snacks yet.

There's also delicate briny lobster paired with sweet pickled golden beetroot, pleasantly bitter sauce of dittander herb and an addictive skinny shellfish keropok-like cracker. And like an edible garden show-and-tell, Rogan pulls together a heavenly and amazingly complicated salad of crispy roasted kale and broccoli, a shower of leaves and flowers, sunflower seeds and truffle shavings all piled onto a base of rich truffle custard. Want to turn vegetarian? Easy.

Although you'll be tempted by the dry-aged hoggett that reminds you of what good lamb can taste like - here it's dressed with cucumber strips that counter the saltiness of the blackberry sauce.

Rogan doesn't shy away from the fact that there have been teething problems from the start with staffing issues and getting used to the fast pace of London diners. But he's heartened by the enthusiastic response of the diners themselves, if not the critics who "say we're expensive and it takes too long to eat here". With tasting menus priced at 85 pounds (S$180) and 105 pounds, it's a bargain by Singapore standards.

He makes no bones about the fact that he's under pressure to make sure Fera is a financial success, but he's also confident that "we've got a good product and I'm determined to make it one of the best places in London". Despite the "unfair, inaccurate" comments - possibly fuelled by perceived arrogance by readers after a magazine misquoted him as saying he was targeting three Michelin stars when in reality he was merely expressing every chef's dream - Rogan has no regrets taking on the hot seat at Claridge's. But openings "are not the best of times, it takes a while to develop". And now that he's got the reviews out of the way, "we'll just keep our head down and work harder" to please the guests who are already loving the food despite the reviews.

"But - I've got to earn my money somehow, it would be wrong if it was easy!" he laughs. "It's a big job, but this is the place to be and a lot of chefs would give their right arm to be in my shoes. We'll get there - I'm ready for the challenge."

Michelin guide, are you listening?

Fera at Claridge's, Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4HR

Tel: (0)20 7107 8888


This article was first published on June 28, 2014.
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