The Last Parsnip: Well, Worth The Journey
By Derrick Connors
Reprint courtesy of The Morning Standard
Wednesday January 11th, 2012
Few restaurants have created such enthusiasm and excitement in recent years as The Last Parsnip. The venue is the brainchild of the outrageously famous and famously outrageous chef Bryce Chartwell. Now in its fifth year, it has received accolades and awards all the way from the Nebraska Institute to the Belarusian Society of Chessex.
Although I had read much about the restaurant, and had listened curiously to its series of podcasts, I had never ventured forth to sample its cuisine. Curiously neither had any of my foodie friends – although one did try to visit there in October but was forced to turn back before reaching their destination. I chose a particularly dank December evening to head out past the M25 on my own voyage of gastronomic discovery.
The first thing that should be said about any visit to the Last Parsnip is that it is fiendishly difficult to locate. I relied on a 1970s Ordnance Survey Map and a local guide.
The restaurant is relatively unassuming, considering the extravagant gastronomic experiments being performed within. Its front appearance is that of a modest Edwardian terrace sporting neither signage nor outdoor seating. A small stone structure a few yards away provides an interesting architectural offset (it was once used for housing itinerant agrarian peasants), but otherwise the impression is one of a rather dull, unpretentious village home. Perhaps belonging to a member of the cloth or an up and coming steeplejack.
Beyond the threshold things changed dramatically – as my senses were assaulted by a fusillade of sounds and a volley of smells. I was guided to my table by a perspicacious and slightly pernicious waiter. I thought I could detect a hint of Hungarian about him, though he immediately corrected me be announcing that he was in fact Glaswegian.
The Last Parsnip offers two rather different, and equally daring, styles of cuisine. Every other Thursday, except in May and August, Bryce himself conjures up one of his Stochastic Cooking menus. This is a “computationally intensive and masticationally exhausting approach towards gastronomic perfection” that requires diners to have both deep pockets (each meal costs over £200) and the constitutional stamina of an ox (at least sixty-four variations on a particular recipe are served up during the evening).
Since I was dining on Friday I was provided with the a la carte menu of historical British recipes. The physical menu itself is not without interest – it is delivered on a small cart wheeled through the restaurant (“a la cart”) and is carved onto cedar planks. My Glaswegian waiter guided me through the choices with surprising aplomb, though he tried rather unsuccessfully to hide his obvious deep disdain for any Welsh dishes on the menu.
I started with “Wenches On Horseback”, one of Bryce’s signature dishes – and a firm favorite of John Prescott on his many visits to the restaurant. The “Wenches” (really nothing more than glorified rissoles) are served from the left in rows of three. Although the Axminster sauce provides a tangy balance to the natural saltiness of the meat, I still found the Wenches a little on the bland-side. I commented as such to my waiter, who chose to ignore my feedback completely.
In between courses I received on unexpected “amuse Gaul” – a delightful, if rather suspiciously shaped, parcel of joy. Alas I am unable to share any photos I took of this particular dish owing to legal advice. Suffice to say I was amazed with what they managed to do with the egg emulsion.
For my main course I was torn between two equally challenging and intriguing dishes – the Borfolk Hotpot and the Haggish. I asked my waiter for his advice, and he rather predictably steered me well clear of the Haggish (due to its Welsh roots). I naturally decided to give it a go.
For those of you that love haggis, I should state clearly that this is nothing like its Scottish cousin. Despite the best efforts of its Welsh creators, this dish resembles Burns’ favourite in name alone. Nevertheless it is an immensely challenging and satisfying dish - one that left me breathless and slightly senseless.
I took the advice of the sommelier (a rather wizened gentleman with a slightly bulbous nose) and decided to accompany my main course with one of The Last Parsnip’s excellent selection of real ales. “Papal Outrage” comes highly recommended, even including high ranking clergy among its most ardent supporters. The hints of sandlewood and musk balanced wonderfully, and provided a perfect accompaniment to the strong leek flavours of my dish.
After three pints of ale I probably shouldn’t have included a dessert – but my waiter applied a remarkably effective form of psychological pressure and I caved in. “Dame Marbury’s Pleasure” bookended my evening with a spectacular and, it has to be said, highly dangerous denouement. In a darkened room the dish was doused with a highly combustible spirit and set alight. Although I was partially blinded for several minutes I do remember the flames seeming to lick the ceiling barely inches from my chest.
Overall the evening was immensely pleasurable and highly intriguing. I was unfortunate not to meet the great man himself (Bryce was on a truffle-hunting trip to the Dordogne), thought I did get to meet some of his most admirable staff. The food was quite remarkable, and I can honestly say provided me with the “truly unbelievable dining experience” that is advertised. It goes without saying that I will be planning a return visit – and I recommend that you do the same. Just remember to bring a map with you.
Overall: 5 out of 5