La Belle Assiette; Reading

When it comes to research, my curiosity knows no bounds especially when it comes to food. So, when private chef agency La Belle Assiette asked if I’d like to review their services of course, I said yes. But I was a bit anxious about it all. La Belle Assiette began in Paris about 6 years ago by two friends, Stephen and Giorgio. Parisians love to entertain at home, and apparently they love this concept, but it’s not really the sort of thing I would do. It’s not the sort of thing my friends would do. I was hesitant about the idea of having a stranger come into my kitchen and make us dinner; it seemed like fertile ground for awkwardness.

If you’ve never had a private chef experience, which, let’s be honest, means most of us, then these concerns seem perfectly valid. But once you’ve dipped a toe into this culinary world of ease and indulgence, you’ll be looking for any excuse to do it again. The whole process is so simple – you choose a date and a menu from the chef’s page on the La Belle Assiette website and then he or she comes on the agreed night with all the food and equipment needed to cook, serve and even clean up, leaving you to enjoy the rest of the evening with your guests.

Servicing our area was chef Mark Apsey who specialises, but isn’t limited to, dairy-free, vegan and modern gastronomic cuisine. But I was worried and poised to micro-manage; we like meat, we had a pescatarian in our party of five and I was concerned that we’d get hungry with tiny morsels of super-fancy food, but Mark assured me that with his French-training and career experience and even with my penchant for dairy, that we could work it all out. And that yes, there would be bread. Mark’s menu consisted of five courses, all of them sounding wonderfully (and a little terrifyingly) exotic but after a chat on the phone, I felt assured that this would be a night to remember.

Mark arrived on time, which was an hour before dinner would be served. With his big, black bags of food and equipment containing everything from live scallops to plate-warmers, he made his way out of the dark November evening and into our kitchen. Our guests arrived shortly after and with the table set, the candles lit and the music on, the only thing left to do was pop the bottle of bubbles. I’d never hosted a dinner party where I wasn’t racing in and out of the kitchen, sweaty and a little flustered. I didn’t know what else to do but enjoy the company of my friends; a bit different to the usual, but much, much more fun. An hour passed before we knew it, we almost forgot Mark was in the kitchen until he entered the living room to announce that when we were ready to sit, the food was ready to serve.

Some warm bread was bought to the table with a goat’s milk butter, both delicious. To arouse our palates, Mark bought us each a small glass of Thai consomme. A few slivers of spring onion, corriander and a scattering of miniature mushrooms swam about in the gold and fragranced broth. Coming from Australia I’ve been spoiled with the best Thai food outside of Thailand, and so I’m a bit fussy when it comes one of my most beloved cuisines, but Mark absolutely nailed it, the consomme was perfectly nuanced and utterly divine. We were off to a good start.

The second course, Drunken Scallops, is one of Mark’s signature dishes, and I can understand why. Everyone savoured this course slowly and in silence, so as not to mindlessly squander one precious mouthful. Sliced, ceviche scallops lay in their shell, sprinkled with pomegranate, super-fine shards of chilli, micro herbs and tiny globules of ponzu gel (soy and yuzu juice). The scallops, Mark told us, were alive until only moments ago and were marinaded in a blend of pisco (Peruvian brandy) and tiger’s milk, the name given to the Peruvian citrus marinade to cure the fish in ceviche. Mark used lime juice with ginger, chilli juice, coriander and lime zest, which we all slurped down rather greedily after the tender, sweet scallops were all eaten. But of course you can do that sort of thing when you don’t have to worry about restaurant manners.

Fish bought up from Cornwall that morning featured in the next two courses, with torched mackerel served with foraged mushrooms and a crispy potato ring up first. If I had made this dish, (as if I could make this dish) it would have set off my smoke alarm for sure, but Mark managed to whip this savoury, sculptural speciality up without a fuss. Despite it’s blackened appearance and the strong umami flavours, the mackerel tasted beautifully sweet and fresh, and was cooked to perfection. Following this came pan-fried wreckfish (a traditional Cornish term) served with a saffron emulsion and potato dumplings. A shift in flavours, veering into a more Italian-style realm, this dish was less dynamic but equally delicious and hearty enough for a cold autumn night.

Dessert was a vanilla set cream with caramelised chocolate (which cooked over 12 hours) and passionfruit sorbet. As we debated the value of chocolate and fruit pairings, arguing the merits of chocolate and raspberry, we all agreed that this particular combination was undoubtedly delicious. The last of the Beaujolais was poured as we finished up our final course and I was relieved that indeed, there was enough food. More than enough. And each dish was flawless; everything from the freshness of the ingredients, the technique, the flavour combinations and presentation – this was a meal that you would easily pay upwards of £50/head at a restaurant of repute. 

Tonight though, we ate in the comfort and warmth of our home for less than that. The evening flowed seemlessly from amuse-bouche to dessert without a whisper of awkwardness. Our meals were served and plates collected with perfect timing and discretion. Our chef described each course as he served it and was happy to answer any questions we had about the ingedients or inspiration. We didn’t have to deal with overly-attentive waiters and crowds or the long journey back from London. We didn’t have to worry about a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen, in fact I think it was left cleaner than when Mark arrived.

It was as if it was all some sort of delicious dream. The only evidence that there’d been a dinner party at all were the empty glasses on the table, and a group of smiling friends.
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