Wes Stanton dines at Frog by Adam Handling in the West End, and finds enticing dishes and a superb atmosphere for a good price.
There can be few MasterChef aficionados that haven’t at least heard of Adam Handling, runner-up in both MasterChef: The Professionals in 2013 and the British Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year awards in 2014. He’s certainly a fast mover – Handling cut his teeth at Gleneagles at the tender age of 16, and now owns two restaurants in London (the original venue is in east London’s Spitalfields and is well worth a look)
However, it was the newest incarnation that drew me toward Covent Garden last year, the aptly named Frog by Adam Handling. It’s a brave venture on the part of the intrepid chef – competition (not to mention rent) is obviously nightmarish in the West End, and the ever-choosy clientele are notoriously fickle.
Yet despite the surfeit of options in this part of town, I can’t help but feel Handling is on a pretty sure, if not exemplary footing this time around. Just five minutes from Charing Cross tube station, Frog by Adam Handling’s allure resides in the atmosphere (which even on a damp Monday was fantastically buzzy), Adam’s inspired cooking and the basement Eve Bar, which is now one of London’s best venues for a cocktail, regardless of the superlative work happening upstairs.
On arrival, we were quickly shown to the snug bar, which was rapidly filling up with suits, couples and an assortment of tourists. It boldly commands patrons to ‘resist everything except temptation,’ hardly a difficult rule to follow. Service was slick and spot on, as were the truffle popcorn and glasses of rose Champagne, which were every bit as good as you’d hope.
Of course, such things are mere – if very pleasant – distractions from the main event, which is Adam’s flair in the kitchen. Known for his penchant for Asian culinary accents, Handling has moved away from this, and now there’s only a slight hint of Asian flavours in a handful of dishes. But what he has continued is using the finest ingredients, from truffles to lobster and caviar.
Indeed, as a sign perhaps of his rising maturity, this culinary stage is slicker and more refined than the sister venue further east. Gone is ‘Hipster Paradise,’ instead expect seats that look like they belong in a design show, an open-plan kitchen complete with a marble-effect bar running along its entirety and copper ceiling lamps that act as the heated pass. During our visit the kitchen appeared calm and collected – profanity was absent, professionalism evident at all times.
Tables are fairly close together, so don’t expect massive amounts of space from your fellow diners. But the menu allows ample space for Adam Handling’s natural brilliance to shine, with a sensibly compact selection of a la carte dishes (four courses each course) and two tasting menus – either a five or an eight course. Handling puts great emphasis on the quality and locality of his ingredients; our waiter went into great detail about the provenance of everything that appears on your plate, including background information on the suppliers he works with. And judging by the volume of diners in his restaurant, if sex sells, then so does provenance.
So we start with razor clams on a bed of dry ice, paired with apple and hazelnut. Clean, fresh flavours hit the spot, although they were slightly prosaic compared to the now famous ‘chicken butter’, which is chicken scratchings mixed with a rich, creamy butter. We order a second helping; I could happily have eaten it all night.
Which, of course, would have been criminal. My companion was lukewarm about his kingfish ceviche with jalapeño and avocado, reporting an uneasy marriage of flavours that obliterated any of the inherent delicacy of the kingfish. Yet my celeriac was flawless, an enticing amalgamation of textures from cream to crunch that’s generously topped with truffle shavings, another favourite of Handling’s. Underneath the celeriac is a runny duck egg, julienned apple, cream and sweet chewy date pieces – a combination that set dangerously high expectations for the fish course.
This great marriage of flavours continues with a small fillet of halibut, which sits atop a rich and moreish lobster sauce that is as divine as the fish itself. My companion, between eager mouthfuls, informs me that his iberico pork with charred cauliflower is ‘spot on.’
The manager insisted we try their blackberry sponge with cucumber and honey, as if we would need any convincing. Covered in white chunks of frozen honey (again by a chef at your table), dessert is rich, decadent and yet not overly cloying, the sponge in particular is utterly moreish. And more importantly, there’s none of this faddy, deconstructed rubbish – just proper puds, prepared with flair and imagination.
Moreover, all this wonderful nourishment doesn’t come at expense account prices, and the food, service and atmosphere are all superb, not to mention an expertly curated wine list, full of more esoteric varieties in addition to the old favourites. And so despite a healthy amount of local competition in Theatre Land, Frog by Adam Handling still manages to come out on top.
Frog by Adam Handling
34-38 Southampton Street,
London WC2E 7HF
020 7199 8370
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