Refinement uncoupled from ego

Refinement is a curious thing.

Cherished in dining; lambasted in sugar; heavily encouraged in writing such as this: the word that leaves all Masterchef contestants in a cold sweat. If we ask our old friends at the OED, refinement is both ‘the removing of impurities … or unwanted elements’ & ‘improvement, modification or clarification’. Something gained through loss.

Walking into the dining room at Lyle’s soothes the soul. The space is as elegant as they come, with generous windows and pristine white walls framing wooden tables. Details are pragmatic, but highly curated: pleasingly weighty water bottles, impossibly clean-lined menus & a coffee set-up that would draw a conciliatory nod from the most sceptical of drinkers. Things are left to speak — softly, confidently — for themselves, insulated from the surfeit of clutter and noise outside on Shoreditch High Street. Even the 80s disco soundtrack playing over lunch never recedes below the level of “absolute banger”.

This self-confidence extends to the menu, the food and the chef — former Young Turk & ex-St. John Head Chef James Lowe. Eschewing the parsimonious ingredient / ingredient / ingredient style which plagues so many establishments, provenance & harmony take centre stage. It’s a small distinction, but the addition of an ampersand or a region privileges natural pairings above wrenching skill: it’s the difference between food working and being made to work, refinement uncoupled from ego.

Ordering from the listed lunch menu — dinner is set — smoked eel yields to the slightest touch of a fork, redolent with rich, meaty smoke occasionally cleared by the purple-hued salinity and unrepentant greeness of dulse and kale respectively. Silken bresaola comes rouged with sticky beetroot, juice jewel-like and moreish, scattered with walnuts that bridge the gap between unctuous meat & earthen vegetable with a crunch. Textural play is a running theme: the softest of raw scallop is set off by citrus zest & dressing, with a hidden ingredient — pickled grapes, unmentioned on paper — providing a more material juiciness and piquancy that dances on the sweet fish, linking together acidity and texture.

The only minor dud is the pairing of beefsteak & puffball mushroom with soft-yolked egg. The zing of unripe blackberries provides welcome punctuation, but the combination is otherwise amorphously savoury, disappointingly lacking in identity. This is soon forgotten by dessert — fresh French black figs, sophisticated & delicate fig leaf ice cream perched on top of an intensely caramelised brown butter cake. Of course, the latter isn’t mentioned on the menu. A glass of Terre Silvate 2015 is stonkingly malic, crisp and refreshing, and comes from a generous and varied offering of wines by the glass.

Here refinement is not treated as a strangling paring-down, eliminating all extraneous elements & personality to find the unimpeded expression of an ingredient, idea or dish. Refinement starts at the source: meticulously chosen suppliers, the most seasonal of ingredients, ready to be showcased in their Platonic form. Process is a lightly frosted window through which food can be clearly seen, either alone or in concert with another element: at Lyle’s, refinement is often signalled by a simple ‘&’.

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