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Sienna – Menuwatch

12 March 2010

Yell.com lists 16 "café and coffee shops" in Dorchester and Sienna isn't one of them. With only 15 covers, it couldn't seat half a coach load of trippers touring Hardy Country's capital. Instead, owners Russell and Eléna Brown are coping with extra traffic from the restaurant's 2010 Michelin star.

The couple opened Sienna seven years ago in a cubby-hole ground floor property at the top of the town's main street. The name suggests a typical trattoria but Russell's cooking is on another planet from salsa di pomodoro and ragù.

His 14 x 9ft kitchen uses every inch of its space. There's no room for a water bath, he doesn't have a Thermomix or a Pacojet, but he turns out crafted dishes that would challenge a large brigade.

Russell didn't cook professionally until he was 27. Inspired by Pierre Koffmann's Memories of Gascony, he signed up as a commis chef in a country house hotel, Alverton Manor in Truro, and five years later he became a head chef. Four more and he set up his own business.

His short set lunch (£21.50 for two courses, £24.50 for three); dinner (£32.50, £39) and seven-course tasting (£48.50) menus overlap. They are speciality-free and built around supply. When the partridge season ends Russell moves over to wood pigeon.

"I don't put anything on my menu unless it has been properly tested," he says.

Russell says a Michelin inspector once told him he always left any irrelevant garnish on the side of his plate. The message registered.

"I like to use clean flavours that balance the richness of a dish," he explains.

"We try to think hard about its contrasting temperatures, textures and tastes." Everything has to fit together.

As a backstop, restaurant manager Eléna is ready to challenge him. Will an extra element improve what's already there? If not, it's better left out.

Prawn bisque with butter-roasted tiger prawns and piquillo pepper cream typifies Russell's approach. Three shellfish tails sit on a bed of wilted spinach, while an espuma mousse replaces the classic rouille. Soup, flavoured with saffron, cardamom and cognac, is poured, piping hot, at the table from a jug. Meanwhile, pigeon breasts rest on Savoy cabbage with roasted beetroot, fried potato gnocchi and a red wine jus.

Russell describes himself as a compulsive reader of cookery books. Elements from his studies filter through to his recipes. In his duck liver and foie gras parfait with Thompson raisins, verjus dressing and toasted brioche, for example, the brioche comes straight from a Roux pastry book. The red wine jus that gives bite to a roast fillet of Cornish cod with cep purée and sautéed potatoes owes a debt to US chef Charlie Trotter.

With the exception of Genesis Farmers pork belly, Sienna doesn't clutter its menu with attributions to suppliers. Descriptions are short, complete and to the point. Iced lemon parfait with ginger beignets, lemon curd and candied ginger or Tahitian vanilla cheese with blackcurrant jelly and poached apple are just that. It's not a minimalist approach; it is precise.

Russell sticks to three canapés, five starters, five mains, five desserts and three petits fours. There's no walk-in fridge, no larder and no cellar. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, he receives daily deliveries of all fresh raw materials.

He works alongside one or two aides, starting the day's mise en place with pastries and bread doughs before the kitchen heats up. He bakes, for instance, his brioche ahead, then cools, slices and freezes it, ready for toasting to order.

Before winning the Michelin star, Eléna accepted chance customers at lunch, which could sometimes cause headaches for Russell even when the dining room only had a couple of bookings as he would have to serve meals while he was also prepping for dinner. Now, it's reservations only and both feel that the restaurant is running more smoothly since the change.

The dining room is the size of a living room; it's small enough to see every plate that's served. If Russell were the kind of chef who clattered pans or lost his rag customers would know about it. Instead, Sienna has the feel of a French provincial restaurant: the kind where a husband and wife team work in tandem, professional and in control.

Sienna
36 High West Street, Dorchester,Dorset DT1 1UP
Tel: 01305 250022

WHAT'S ON THE MENU

  • Chargrilled rump of Jurassic Coast rose veal with white beans, Arbequino olive oil and pickled carrots
  • Caramelised onion risotto with roasted salsify and red wine reduction
  • Slow roasted Genesis Farmers pork belly with homemade white pudding, caramelised apple and parsnip purée
  • Poached loin of venison with truffle mash, wild mushrooms, artichoke velouté and red wine jus
  • Roasted butternut squash tortellini, Parmesan mousse, sage and beurre noisette
  • Apple tarte tatin with clotted cream and cider sauce
  • Iced lemon parfait with ginger beignets, lemon curd and candied ginger
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