Set just off The Strand, cramped between a handful of London’s standard healthy fast food chains and a Costa, is Frog by Adam Handling, not to be confused with The Frog – another of his restaurants based in Shoreditch.
Adam holds a range of high profile accolades such as being “Chef of the year 2014” by the British Culinary Foundation. He had a notable surge of fame through being a finalist of Masterchef the professionals which has allowed him to launch a small chain of restaurants around the UK. His restaurants appear to be doing fairly well, receiving generally favourable reviews from most of the notable food critics and the standard awards that come with such things. Frog is currently going through its phase of being “one to watch” on a few London tourism websites.
It took a minute to find the restaurant, staring blankly at google maps hoping for a hint after blindly walking past it twice but on arrival I was greeted courteously with all expected formality and shown to my seat on the marble effect bench overlooking the finishing kitchen. I like this, the theatre of watching the chef work was one of the things that made Umu so memorable for me so this is a good start.
On the face of it the wine selection seems considered, extensive and generally very good. Covering a wide range of price points, regions and types of wine and there is also a Sake list which I found innovative. Both tasting menu’s come with wine pairing options but the unique thing here is the offer of a “drinks flight” which is explained to me as a selection of cocktails, tailor made to pair with each course from the attached cocktail bar. The cocktails flight intrigues me; I love the idea of the bar having true creative control over the drinks they serve and being able to make something truly special rather than it being a matching process with products that already exist.
Moving to the food menu; the A la carte is not a cheap option by any means with starters going from £15 and mains from £23 but it is not out of place for where it is or the ingredients used here. The other options are a 5 course tasting menu (£65) or Adams menu (£95). Both tasting menus come with optional drinks; a wine, premium wine, cocktails or mocktails could be an added to either selection.
Sadly…. (its such a hard life) I am here to do a job so for me I will be taking on Adam’s menu with the additional cocktails flight.
Shortly after ordering, the first thing to arrive is the cocktail pairing for the snacks. A combination of Gin, Pink lady cordial and calvados. It is strong and sweet but very refreshing.
The first snack to arrive is smoked cod inside a crispy wonton wrapper with caviar. Strong punchy flavours leave me taken aback a little bit as I am so used to underwhelming subtlety in fine dining but this is having none of that. The drink pairing is perfect as the flavour of the smoked cod lingers a little too long but is quickly removed and the palate is cleansed ready for the second snack.
Their version of beef and beer is how it is described to me. Beef tartare on a beer and tapioca cracker. Technically very good and continues to deliver on the bold flavours from the previous bite. Although I made every effort to find it, the notes of the beer seem overwhelmed by the flavours used in the tartare. The sweetness of the drink pairing matches harmoniously, heightening what was already a good dish.
The third and final of the snacks was forgotten until it came to writing this and looking over the images. A single mussel decorated with herbs and set into a theatrical bowl of dry ice. The visual spectacle is nice but the flavour is monotone compared to the previous snacks as everything else in there is
overwhelmed by the acidity. The drink was needed after this one.
Then arrived the bread, a thick slice of dense sourdough with a very hard crust and light fluffy interior. Very well made bread. Then comes the chicken butter… I have had nothing but bad experiences with this creation due to the layers of different fats causing it to make you feel slightly nauseous. Thank Christ that Frog is the exception to this rule, making an almost perfect incarnation of it which could only have been improved by draining the fat from the crispy chicken skin crumb added to the butter. The addition of a little jus made it so much better. No cocktail pairing for this one.
Then along came mother, like she was returning early just to spoil the party going on in her house. Mother is described to me as a celeriac parcel containing cream cheese and dates, topped with julienne apple. This was accompanied by the second cocktail of the evening: a combination of rum, beetroot and fennel cordial. It felt like a full stop in an otherwise exciting experience so far and an unexpected jump to the subtleties of traditional fine dining. Adam Handling himself had arrived now and was beginning to take over the plating counter directly in front of me, telling me that “mother” had been on his menu for over 6 years – sadly, it felt like it. His menu has clearly moved on and this no longer belongs despite the clear sentimentality of it. Although nice on its own the cocktail pairing was not subtle at all.. immediately killing the flavour of the food.
Thankfully confirming what I thought about “mother”, the kingfish dish was a welcome return to the
strong punchy flavours of the snacks. Feeling like Adam’s take on ceviche, the fish was thinly sliced and raw marinating in a vibrant citrusy sauce. This is very, very good food. The jalapeño is almost a background flavour, ensuring that the heat does not overwhelm the palate. It feels well thought out and inventive. The only potential criticism I could offer is that the flavour of the fish itself is lost to the sauces but it does deliver a very pleasant texture to mop up all of the flavours. The cocktail plays off the flavours already on the plate consisting of Gin, carrot, coconut water, jalapeño and lime; a perfect compliment as the mild sweetness of the carrot is enough to cleanse the palate of these bold flavours before taking another bite.
Probably my favourite course of the night (Adam’s too apparently) is the wild mushroom agnolotti which followed. Very well-made pasta containing a dense mushroom filling, covered in more roasted mushrooms and a rich creamy sauce is decorated table-side with shavings of nitro frozen foie gras. The foie quickly melts into the sauce making the whole thing all that richer. While I do see the benefit of it – for such a luxurious ingredient, id much rather know I am eating it. The cocktail for this one was a strongly sweet mix of pisco, white port, elderflower and lemon. The sweetness and mild citrus was the perfect counterpoint to what was already the stand out dish so far.
I am not sold on what follows. Described to me as a posh potato salad, it definitely delivered on those
flavours but my question is why…? Like mother this is another dish that while technically very good, feels out of place. This one, however, belongs with Adam’s bold flavours, just not where it sits in the running order. The creativity is not lost on me, but it feels like this single bite has more of a place as part of the snacks beginning the menu as it broke the continuity of what had taken place so far.
Continuity is quickly brought back with the hake dish though; another outstanding course of bold flavours, eerily reminiscent of the few previous courses but this is certainly not a bad thing for me. The mix of crab, semi-dried tomato and hake is a great flavour combination, paired with another bold, rich sauce. The cocktail pairing for this one seems to take it off on a wide tangent though, using classical fish flavours of butter, parsley and lemon. The cocktail on its own is nice and I can certainly see it working with a different fish dish, just not this one.
The final savoury course was beef with asparagus and wild garlic. There is nothing wrong with this course, but it feels like a piece of meat that you could get at any standard fine dining restaurant. Standard is not a word I would use to describe any of Adam’s previous courses so ultimately this detracts from the experience despite being technically good. It feels safe. The cocktail pairing was a mix of monkey shoulder and tropical flavours; this works… its strange and I don’t know why it works. It tastes like it shouldn’t mix well at all when the tropical flavours take over the palate but something pulls it together making it a unique experience that id repeat.
Unfortunately, the desserts did not hold up to the savoury. While the quality was there, they pale when compared to the few outstanding savoury courses which proceed them. The mandarin sorbet had an amazing depth of flavour which was exactly what I was hoping for from the desserts but the rest of the plate did not hold up in the same way. I like the idea of nitro-frozen orange pearls but in practice, the super low temperature prevents you from tasting anything resulting in a bland textural experience. The madeleine was dense and chewy resulting in an odd textural combination when combined in the mouth with the other melting components. The cocktail pairing; a mix of tequila, smoked paprika and cranberry was intriguing.
The subtleties of the final dessert was lost on me. As with the nitro-orange pieces, the snow added table-side seemed to lack a flavour of its own, likely due to the temperatures involved in its creation. The ice cream was intense and creamy when tasted on its own but got lost in combination with the raw rhubarb batons as the sourness cleansed the palate before the flavours could be really enjoyed. A sweet cocktail of plum cognac, bay and brown sugar rounded out the meal well.
Coffee was as good as you’d expect but the cold doughnuts with warm jammy centres brought a final little flourish of creativity to the table.
Overall Frog is good, exceptional in some areas. My view is that everything on the menu could hold its own and the only real thing lacking from Adam’s menu is a thought to the coherence and flow of the meal. There were things in there that came close to some of the best food I have ever eaten but the courses in between that genius like “mother” and the beef feel like a hurdle in between what is otherwise an outstanding experience. The drinks pairing is a great idea which could have amazing potential going forward as a highlight of the restaurant. Overall, one of the few London restaurants I would head back to given the opportunity.