I don’t know about you, but I generally tend to detest any sort of dining that falls under the term ‘fusion’. My feelings towards fusion have developed into a kind of irrational dislike over the years, as I simply fail to see why food should undergo such extreme permutations. However, my recent visit to Johann Lafer’s restaurant has forced me to concede that in the right hands, fusion food can not only turn into something pleasant, but in fact occasionally border on the sublime.
Situated at the Gainsborough Hotel in Bath, the restaurant certainly boats some high calibre credentials; Michelin starred chef Lafer has designed the menu, and implemented his philosophy through his ‘dining without borders’ approach to cooking. Lafer has long championed his fusion concept with the likes of Wai Look Chow, a Malaysian corporate chef, and has continued his tried and tested methodology by introducing his brand of cooking to the UK for the first time.
The hotel itself isn’t as swanky as its exteriors lead it to be, but don’t let that put you off. Head through the maze of white corridors to find Lafer’s restaurant, functioning as a trio of minimal spaces, decked out in industrial lighting and leatherback chairs. There’s a slightly clinical, masculine veneer to the place that’s occasionally undercut by some hideous pink glassware and placemats, but overall the effect is quite charming. The outer wings perhaps offer a slightly warmer atmosphere, customised in chalky blue interiors and crackling log fires.
As we had received vouchers for the Gainsborough as a Christmas gift, we decided to play safe by opting for the three-course lunch time menu, costing £28 per person. For those wanting to sample the a la carte, bear in mind that a single main can be over £28 alone, and can sometimes feature the same dishes that can be found on the standard lunch time menu. The restaurant also offers a six-course tasting menu, with a set price of £60 per head.
Unsurprisingly, I was a little apprehensive about the style of food on offer (my New Zealand sauvignon blanc managed to appease me slighlty whilst brooding over this notion.) Thankfully, my starter of caramelised white onion soup was a delight; wonderfully creamy and rich, with truffle ricotta and a dainty blue cheese beignet. The ‘fusion’ aspect to the food here seemed entirely absent, for which I was grateful. Soup can sometimes be notoriously difficult to elevate into fine dining territory, but the Gainsborough has managed to do so effortlessly. The textures and flavours married together beautifully, giving an exceptional start to my meal.
My boyfriend had chosen a ballotine of salmon for his starter, accompanied by horseradish cream, apple, pickled fennel, and a crab bisque. Here the fusion flavours became more detectable, and delivered in enigmatic style. Removing a dainty glass cloche, the smells of the far east began to waft around our table as our waiter described the delicate process applied to each ingredient. I don’t tend to be impressed by theatrics in the restaurant, but I did appreciate this purposeful touch to the dish. Light and meaty, teamed with that deep, bold bisque, the hints of fusion here worked well to deliver a subtle yet memorable plate.
The main courses fell slightly short of the expectations that our starters had so tentatively promised; I had opted for grilled fillet of plaice, with butternut squash samosas, roasted pumpkin seeds and yoghurt. The plaice was a bit of a flaccid disappointment, undercooked and in need of a dash of seasoning. This was a shame considering the rest of the elements on the plate were more than satisfactory. The star of the dish was undoubtedly the samosas; crunchy and sweet, they provided the texture that the plate so desperately needed. Teamed with smooth yoghurt and lashings of coriander, it was the fusion style of flavours that surprisingly excelled.
My partner’s plate was more consistent; roast loin of Wiltshire pork with Stornoway black pudding, cassoulet, and salt baked celeriac. Visually stunning, the overall eating of the dish was pleasant, and exceptionally close to becoming something special. However, the flavours were slightly overcomplicated through its use of two sauces; a rich meaty jus and a sort of spicy orange type liquid, which didn’t quite balance the plate. It seemed as though elements were being added as a gimmick rather than actually bringing something unique to the dish, as a single sauce would have perfectly sufficed. A solid plate, but perhaps not quite meeting its full potential.
I do admit that I’m nit-picking with some of my comments- It’s not as if the food isn’t agreeable by any means, but perhaps requires some tweaking here and there. Considering price and calibre, The Gainsborough proves its worth as subtle fusion style eatery, but not all the dishes seem particularly well thought out and can border on the experimental. A must visit for those with an adventurous palette, but be cautious if you tend to stick with more classical flavours.
The end to our meal was nothing short of superb; I had already made it clear to our waiter that I was keen for my chocolate dessert, and thankfully it did not disappoint. A beautiful chocolate ganache with hazelnut puree, popcorn and shards of caramel, topped with salted caramel ice-cream, it was everything a dessert should be. Sticking two fingers up at these tawdry ‘grown up’ desserts that seem to have come into vogue, The Gainsborough delivered a concoction of sweet, sticky flavours that worked as a playful, fusion-free end to our lunch.
When the Gainsborough gets its right, it’s food is something truly exciting. The restaurant has the capacity to deliver something unique to its diners, but perhaps needs a little more practice in perfecting its signature dishes. Having said that, the food was generally enjoyable, and must admit that my experience at the restaurant has certainly made me rethink my attitude towards fusion cooking (an achievement in itself). While it will never be my favourite form of cuisine, I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on this unusual and intriguing establishment.
Over the course of January, The Gainsborough will be offering a two-for-one lunch deal, excluding Saturdays and Sundays.