Hedone: Towards the Peak of Gastronomy

I visited Hedone in 2013, not long after its opening and did not find it sufficiently hedonistic. Yes, owner-chef Mikael Jonsson’s obsession with sourcing amazing ingredients showed on the plate and combinations were well thought out. Yet, something bothered me and I could not quite put my finger on it. There were instances of over and under-seasoning, but that was not the issue.

The problem was that, at the time, Mikael took clueless Michelin inspectors and intrigue-laden 50 Best judges too seriously. This was understandable for a 40 years old Swedish man who was a total outsider to the profession, and, often, an annoying presence in gastronomic events for noted chefs. Annoying, because he knew more about ingredients and cooking than 99.9% of the celebrity chefs, he asked too many questions, took issues with others, did not know when to end an argument, and last but not least, his ex-hockey player physical presence was intimidating. Do not misunderstand me. Mikael is a polite person and is oblivious to all kinds of politics and intrigues that cripple today’s high end gastronomy. But he always was, and still is, politically incorrect without intending to be so.

Now I understand what bothered me circa 2013. Mikael’s cooking was politically correct then. He was too eager to please, to prove himself in the eyes of some, and to be a “nice” guy. He used great ingredients and flavors were fresh and bright. But this was not quite the Mikael I knew as a friend, great cook (I stayed and had meals in his home at Monte Carlo), and my partner at Gastroville.com. The cooking was too modern, too “Japonisant,” as is a la mode nowadays because the Red Guide falls head over hills for it, and a bit too precious, too obsessed with “umami” concoctions.

Mikael personally liked restaurants, such as Passage 53 and Mirazur, but he also unashamedly sang praise for L’Ami Louis and L’Ami Jean. Somehow the latter dimension did not materialize in his cooking. That is, his cooking captured the technical precision of the former, but not the gustatory opulence of the latter.

For example, his filet of turbot with a very soft texture and a shiny “mother of pearl” surface was extremely subtle and the texture was too soft, geared for the Japanese palate. It lacked the gelatinous richness and unabashed fatty sexiness of turbot at Elkano or that once Mikael and I encountered at chez Passard when Passard used to cook. I still recall with quasi amusement and quasi affection when Mikael reached for my plate to “steal” a particularly fat and close to the bone piece of “turbot rotie entier au vin jaune” at Arpège. In the end we both shared the same orgasmic experience, and there was no need to spell it out. In contrast and using a similar metaphor, Mikael’s turbot in 2013 gave one the aesthetic pleasure of watching a beauty with perfect proportions without touching, kissing, and devouring her. It had too much restraint. This may be advisable in social life, but not in the pursuit of pleasure.

At any rate, Mikael has always struck me as an uncompromising hedonist. I thought his best qualities may have been hampered by his search for recognition in the eyes of those who should not count. I should add though, even back then, Hedone was possibly the best restaurant in England. But this does not mean too much. I thought Hedone should aim higher and come closer to realizing Mikael’s incredible potential.

A recent meal there in April 2017 moved me sufficiently to write about Hedone. To put it very bluntly, in my first meal I have had some good and very good dishes, but not a single great or signature dish. Now I have found three to four signature dishes. As such, I can say that it is a destination place.

What is most remarkable about Hedone is that Mikael, despite the appearance, is not a modern, contemporary chef. Nowadays celebrity chefs assemble, rather than cook. They are artists, focused on presentation and the wow factor. This makes working in their kitchen relatively easy for the sous chefs and interns. Kitchen stories belonging to the era of Point, Chapel, Robuchon, etc., now come across as fairy tales.

Mikael’s kitchen is a very difficult place to work. It is like a home kitchen, rather than a typical multi-starred Michelin kitchen. It should be very stressful to work there. As a consequence, the turnover of the staff is high. There are insufficient cooks, service staff and sommeliers. This is actually for the better because Mikael follows nothing but his own nose and palate in selecting and recommending great but not too expensive wines. The result is that Mikael has to be on top of and in charge of everything. This is good because he can put his stamp on things. But there is a drawback too. Some dishes come out of the kitchen when he is in the dining room without last minute control. Others are technically perfect and ingredients are flawless, but one may feel that they are a bit uni-dimensional. The good news is that I am talking about very few dishes. Overall, Hedone should now rank as among the best 20 in the Western World. I believe Asian restaurants should be ranked among themselves by those who can seriously judge them.

The amuses were very very good: a take on vitello tonnato in a cone; high quality foie gras terrine with quince jelly and paprika; inverted sushi with a favorite fish of mine: galinella. To accompany them we first had the minerally and bone dry Marie Courtin champagne, then the 2009 Dauvissat Chablis La Forest. The Dauvissat was ample, ripe, and rich, but also with great underlying acidity. It was a perfect match for a good poached oyster concoction: poached in nasturtium jelly with apple foam, cucumber ice cream, and oyster plant. Overall this was a clean and refreshing start.

The next dish was an excellent seafood dish which also went well with the Dauvissat: smoked eel, sea urchins, Spanish peas and pea puree, and quite good Chinese caviar from a large sturgeon, Kaluga.

After this we were served an oxidative and nutty-rich sauvignon from a natural wine producer from Touraine, 2011 Christophe Rouchet La Lunotte.  It had a saline and nutty aroma (indigenous yeasts). I was curious about the dish that would be paired with this. It turned out to be a memorable dish: unbelievably sweet crab from Dorset. The crab was whole because it was very fresh and was cooked on the plate. The shellfish consommé and hazelnut mayonnaise were also perfect. I believe Mikael chose an oxidative wine to match the hazelnut mayonnaise. Chapeau! This dish merited 20/20 on the Gastromondiale/Gastroville scale.

Then came a great Grosses Gewachs Riesling from Phalz: 2012 Okonmierat Rebholz, Kastanienbusch. What kind of dish would go with this exceptional wine? It turned out to be amazing scallops from the Mull island off the Western coast of Scotland. Some herbs, sorrel, and rocket flavors, together with a light dashi complemented the sweet-minerally pink scallops which were cut along the grain. Mikael said that he first steamed and then grilled the scallops at 42 degrees Celsius. This dish also merited 20/20.

Next came some amazing quality asparagus. With this we were served a white wine from Abruzzo, made from the Pecorino grape and with wild yeast:  2013 Cataldi Madonna, Frontone. I noted savory herbs, restrained fruitiness, and excellent acidity. I was equally impressed by the pairing, as I was delighted with the amazing asparagus dish. This dish consisted of green asparagus from Pertuis, with a vinaigrette of raw asparagus, Sicilian pistachios milled into a paste, and primrose flower.

Next it was time for fish: Barbu fish, which is more meaty than sole and less meaty than turbot. Mikael cooked it on the bone and created a fresh but also bold taste by using an herbal reduction with some cockles and broccoli leaves cooked in beef drippings. This dish was very good: 18/20. The wine matching was more than adequate: 2013 Lafon Mersault Desiree. It was superb.

Next we had incredibly high quality sweetbreads with excellent morels, all in a buttery wild garlic and paprika sauce. The seasoning was perfect, but unfortunately the sweetbreads were not crusted enough: 16/20. Yet my head is still spinning with the wine surprise: 2000 Pommard, Les Grands Epenots from Claudine Gaunoux. It was very concentrated and with no oak. It was fermented in steel vats. When I looked at the color and tasted it, my guess was a 2010 Volnay 1er cru. It was that vibrant.

We had two meat courses. The former was the only dish I will call merely good and rank it 15/20: Lamb chops from Mont Saint Michel, with jus, seaweed, mustard and smoked anchovy. This dish did not have the depth of flavor for which I was looking. I found the depth the following day when I tasted Stephen Harris’s local lamb at the Sportsman. But I wish I could have paired it with the old vines Ray-Jane Bandol at the Sportsman, as it went beautifully with the lamb at Hedone.

The spotted “Sika Deer,” native of Hokkaido in Japan, is gorgeous looking, but possibly, and unfortunately, the most tasty “chevreuil” I have encountered. Mikael concocted a masterpiece from this amazing product, because he prepared a true, thick and unctuous “grand veneur” sauce with spinach that tasted fresh from the garden and very firm chanterelles. We experienced a great pairing with the 1982 Chianti Classico Riserva from Castell’in Villa with its leathery and bloody aromas. Bravo! This was another dish with a perfect score.

At this point I was quite saturated, but still appreciated the amazing vanilla millefeuille drizzled with old balsamic vinegar. It was a masterpiece. Before this we had strawberries with yoghurt and coconut sorbet. The finish was a chocolate dessert with cinnamon ice cream and a vinegary syrup. Of course, I had no objections to the wines that were served: a Grunhauser Auslese, a 2010 Bott Geyl Pinot Gris, VT, and 1969 Madeira Sercial.

Mikael gave me the hope that the search for hedonism is still possible. He is now using more of his potential as his restaurant is getting closer to the summit.