At Coworth Park, Adam Smith makes the most of ingredients like cock crabs, using the white meat in a pretty as a picture tartlet on a tasting menu, and the brown meat and shell in a hearty bisque fit for the brasserie. Michael Raffael reports
At Coworth Park in Ascot, Berkshire, executive Adam Smith buys the largest crabs he can find. The white meat is for a caviar starter in Restaurant Coworth Park, and the shell and the soft meat are the basis of a bisque, served in the Barn. Because one dish is overtly luxurious and the other rustic doesn't mean that one tastes better or requires less skill. They answer to different meal occasions: one puts delicacy and finesse on the customer's plate, the other is a classic shellfish soup given a modernist tweak.
However, both dishes come from the main kitchen, and it's only in the handling of the white meat that the crab in the caviar tartlet receives special treatment. Adam Smith insists that his gloved chefs check it for shards three times. For a dish that's a £30 supplement on his £80, three-course menu, he can't afford a mistake.
Cook the crab.
Pick the crab: separate the white meat, dark meat and shell.
Make the caviar tartlet: the pastry, cucumber balls and yuzu gel. Assemble.
Make the crab bisque.
Large 2.5kg-3kg crabs are around £9.50 per kilo. Adam Smith's kitchen works to an overall 68% gross profit. The caviar and crab tartlet is a £30 supplement on the £80 Á la carte. The bisque served in the Barn is one of six starters, priced from £10-£16. At about £750 per kilo, the oscietra caviar is a loss leader, but Smith recoups this on the bisque. Large cock crabs cost between £9 and £11 per kilo.
Preparing the crab
When the white meat is more important to a dish than the dark, buy cock crabs. Smith buys live crabs weighing 2kg-2.5kg.
Scrub the underside of the crab to remove mud and sand. Three-quarter fill a 20 litre stockpot with water. Add 50g-60g of salt (in seawater, salinity is 3%-3.5%). Bring to the boil. Drop one 2.5kg cock crab in the water and cook for 12 minutes (1). Take it out of the water and leave it to cool until it is easy to handle (2).
Break off the feet and claws. Remove the white meat from the feet. Start with the largest joints. Nick them in the middle with a sharp chopping knife (3). Twist and the shells will snap. Repeat with the shorter joints (4).
To crack open the claws, start with the joints next to the carapace (5). Next, crack the pincers and remove the meat (6). Thirdly, crack the joints and then the remaining two joints.
Lay the carapace with its smooth shell uppermost. Crack it down the middle with a heavy-duty knife to split it (7). Scoop out all the soft meat and reserve for the bisque (8).
Split the body in half (9). Discard the gills and pick out the white meat from inside the body (10).
The crab yields about 500g white meat. Put on disposable gloves and pick through the white meat to ensure there are no traces of shell (11).
Caviar tart, crab, cucumber, yuzu
- 30g white crabmeat plus 1tsp crème fraîche
- 1 x 10cm wide, 2.5mm deep, 2mm thick shortcrust pastry case, baked blind
- 20g oscietra caviar
- 5 cucumber balls (see below)
- Yuzu gel (see below)
- 10g crème fraîche
- Piment d'Espelette
Bind the crabmeat with a teaspoon of crème fraîche (12). Spread it on the shortcrust shell (13). Cover with caviar (14). Arrange on top the cucumber, interspersed with drops of yuzu gel (15).
Decorate the caviar tartlet with small seasonal flower petals (16). Make a quenelle of crème fraîche and put it to one side of the caviar. Dust the crème fraîche with piment d'Espelette (17).
Makes about 100 balls
- 3 cucumbers
- 250ml apple juice
- 100g dill
- 30ml San Carlos white balsamic vinegar
- 5ml Chardonnay vinegar
- 2g salt
Peel the cucumbers. Scoop out balls with a small parisienne cutter. Blend the rest of the cucumber, including the peel, with the other ingredients in a Vitamix and strain. Vac-pack the parisienne balls with the juice and leave for two hours or more to marinate.
Zest the yuzu. Boil equal amounts of the juice with water and sugar. Sweeten to taste. Infuse with the zest, strain and thicken with about 0.5% xanthan gum.
Crab bisque with lemon verbena
- 50ml neutral oil
- Carcass and shell from the picked crab
- 200g unsalted butter
- 2 heads garlic, halved
- 150g carrots, chopped
- 30g ginger, sliced
- 1tsp fennel seeds
- 2 lemongrass stems, bruised and chopped
- 150g banana shallots, chopped
- Maldon salt
- 150g tomatoes, seeded
- 2tbs tomato purée
- 150ml Armagnac
- 1 bottle dry white wine
- 200g lemon verbena
- 2 litres white chicken stock
- 1 litre double cream
- Zest of two lemons
- Soft meat from the crab carapace
- Optional: 30g white crabmeat per portion
Note: work with a 20 litre stockpot or, if scaling up, a bratt pan.
Coarsely chop the shells. Coat them in oil and roast either on top of the range or in a hot oven for five minutes or until they start to colour (18).
In a fresh pan, melt the butter to a beurre noisette. Add the halved garlic, cut-face down and cook for a minute. Add the carrots and cook for a minute and then the ginger, fennel seeds and lemongrass, allowing a little time for them to sweat out their aromatic flavours. Add the shallots and let them colour (19).
Season with a little salt (adding the salt in stages helps the flavour). Add the tomatoes cut-face down, then the tomato purée, Cook out for a minute or so, then deglaze with Armagnac.
Add the roasted shells to the pan. Pour over the bottle of white wine and reduce to glaze. Add half the lemon verbena, the chicken stock and a touch more salt. Reduce by about half.
Add the double cream, a quarter more lemon verbena and the lemon zest. Boil and reduce again. Add the rest of the lemon verbena (20).
Let the soup infuse off the heat for 15 minutes and then pass through a sieve (21). Add the reserved soft crab meat, blitz the bisque and check the seasoning.
If using the white meat, pile it in the centre of the soup bowl (22), pour the bisque around it and finish with a few lemon verbena leaves (23).
Adam Smith refutes the suggestion that Coworth Park is his spiritual home - "it sounds too cheesy" - but he would be hard-pressed to deny that the Dorchester Collection's Ascot outpost has met many of the goals he set himself as an aspiring Roux Scholar. Smith may have a 40-strong brigade under his wing, but he still works sections in the kitchen of an evening.
Smith, John William's former executive sous chef at the Ritz, moved to the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire, before arriving at Coworth Park. Hotels, he says, are his passion because they involve many more facets than a restaurant: "You have to achieve consistency across the board. The breakfast has to be right because it's the same guest who ate dinner or had afternoon tea. We don't want to have a flagship restaurant that's way ahead of everything else that we offer.
"We use the same beef in the Barn as we do in Restaurant Coworth Park. In one it will be steak and chips with a béarnaise sauce, and in the other something more refined. The style is different, but the ethos is the same."
By instinct and training he sees himself as coming from the tradition of classical cuisine. Some people, he feels, try and undermine it, but he's proud of his background: "It's the way we operate, the system, the hierarchy. I enjoy doing it this way. It's what I love."
Having that foundation doesn't limit him as a creative chef. Ten years at the Ritz helped shape his career, but he has since evolved. "Now is not what I did then. You learn from great people, but you have to become yourself," he says.
During his period at the Devonshire Arms - his first job in charge - he admits he was trying to replicate things that had worked before. "I was always questioning myself and that doesn't work. You have to move on."
With five more years' experience behind him, he has learned the skill of managing a brigade: "What matters is not what you cook personally, but what you cook as a team."
As an example of his collective approach, he has moved out of his office and installed a desk and computer in a corner of the kitchen. He still has the same stresses and responsibilities of an executive chef, but he never loses touch with the immediacy of those around him.
He also pays tribute to Zoe Jenkins, the hotel's general manager. Her years as the Dorchester's F&B director ensure she grasps not just the problems he routinely faces, but also why they arise: "She can speak to you on a level. We can have 'very frank discussions' and that's something I appreciate."
The bottom line, Smith says, is that he loves hotels. Making a chewy, gooey biscuit to go with a cup of coffee in the lounge is just as important to him as sourcing the oscietra caviar to top his crab tartlet.
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