Does chef Marcus Wilcox fill the Browns' famous shoes? Hannah Thompson ventures to Dorchester to find out
It's just as well that I managed to arrange an interview with 27-year-old Marcus Wilcox, the new head chef at Sienna in Dorset, because his menu gives nothing away.
This carefree yet carefully considered attitude is a Wilcox hallmark. In fact, if he isn't surprising people, he's probably not happy.
The Dorchester restaurant, which has just 14 covers, closed last year following 12 successful years under Russell and Eléna Brown, who won a Michelin star in 2010 and kept it. It seemed like it could be the end for Sienna until Wilcox took it on.
Wilcox has been quietly preparing for a restaurant of this quality for years. He was a quarter-finalist on BBC's MasterChef in 2013, and his career has spanned the Ledbury in London, Gravetye Manor and Ashdown Park hotel in Sussex, and the Rose and Crown in Trent (near Sherborne in Dorset).
"I'm my own boss now," he says. "I can put things on the menu that I might not otherwise have used, such as chicken oysters, and just let the ingredients speak for themselves." Said chicken oysters are served with aÁ¯oli, burnt red pepper sauce, plus truffle bread and walnut bread, as a 'snack'.
Flavours of apricot, pistachio, honeycomb
Asked about the pressure of taking on a place as much-loved as Sienna, Wilcox is remarkably unruffled. "I was Andrew Wilson's sous chef for nearly two years, and he's had the biggest influence on me. One day I just woke up and thought, right, I'm going to do it now. I've had good training."
This carries through to his menu, with dishes that he calls "simple" actually being fairly technique-heavy, using top of the range machines and meticulously tested ideas. Take the mackerel with goat's curd and cucumber (£6.75): marinated in a slightly salty pickling syrup, the fish is put in a vacpacked bag to be cured before being warmed under the grill. The goat's curd comes with a lime ponzu dressing, made by reducing ponzu and folding in the zest and juice of three limes. Even the cucumber is compressed five or six times, "which just intensifies the flavour".
Pan-fried sea bream, fennel, courgette, prawn tortellini
His best-loved dish is hake with mussels and chicken skin (£17). Born from an accidental discovery with leftover cod and chicken at the pub in Trent, the fish is boiled and cured in a 60:40 salt to sugar ratio for half an hour, before being washed and vacpacked and served with sweetcorn, spinach, mussels and crispy chicken skin, alongside a mussel and saffron risotto.
Wilcox stands by techniques that others may not favour, such as the oft-maligned waterbath, especially for his pan-fried pigeon (£8.50). "You can't get better than the waterbath," he says. "We still caramelise the meat, to get that flavour back into it, while the waterbath tenderises it and keeps the juices in." The dish uses golden, candied and red beetroot, in turn salt-baked, candied in pickling brine and smoked before being cooked in thyme and butter. The techniques, explains Wilcox, "all work together to counterbalance the strength of the pigeon flavour". It is all paired, crucially, with 2013 Sangiovese di Toscana, from Caparzo, Italy.
Slow-cooked pork belly, apple, broccoli, heritage carrots
Wilcox is a stickler for wine pairing; each dish has its own recommendation. The crispy ham hock (£6.50) is another example, with varied flavours such as tender ham, capers, rhubarb, tarragon, sherry vinegar, pepper and Dijon mustard, plus a finely diced raw Granny Smith and shallot salsa salad, along with pickled rhubarb. It's all matched with a 2013 Domus Blanc Colombard/Sauvignon. "Some people are scared of wine, so we've kind of done it for them," he says.
Wilcox says it's been a learning curve, but he's taking things nice and steady, focusing on textures, enjoying the freedom of a small restaurant, and not letting himself be dazzled by the potential for stars. I would love to have one, and being younger, I've got the energy to put the hours in, but I'd rather get established for a year without stressing myself out even more," he says.
And although Wilcox's Sienna is in no way a straight continuation of the Browns' place, it seems apt that as the site effectively hits its 13th year, a young man has stepped in, with the rambunctiousness to take it through adolescence and beyond.
One example of this contrast is worth mentioning: the strawberry parfait rolled in dehydrated meringue and strawberries, with elderflower jelly, dehydrated pineapple and coconut sorbet. So how does Wilcox describe this beautiful display of technique and style? "It's kind of like a Mini Milk," he says, referring to the children's lolly. "It's pretty special."
Indeed, there is a certain irony in the fact that the playful yet self-assured Wilcox will be the chef helping Sienna grow into itself - even if, like a teenage journal, the menu has no intention of unveiling all of its secrets just yet.
Strawberry parfait, coconut, elderflower
From the menu
- Heritage tomato, mozzarella, pine nut £6.25
- Cured sea trout, avocado, citrus, caviar £7.95
- Slow-cooked pork belly, apple, broccoli, heritage carrots £17.95
- Pan-fried sea bream, fennel, courgette, prawn tortellini £15.50
- Bitter chocolate ganache, yogurt, cherry £7.50
- Flavours of apricot, pistachio, honeycomb £6.50
36 High West Street, Dorchester, Dorset DT1 1UP
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