As I sit here it's been a whole week since I had the privileged to eat at Gaggan.
If you've never heard of it, it's a pretty big deal.
The eponymous named restaurant is the brainchild of Gaggan Anand, an Indian Chef who's been credited with single-handedly proving Indian food can be cooked to the highest level of fine-dining (think El Bulli, Fat Duck or Noma).
Having applied all the way back in March, we were incredibly enough to get a reservation.
Our luck multiplied exponentially in May, when he announced the planned August 2020 closure of the restaurant was being brought forward a year. All bookings after that were to be cancelled.
It closes tomorrow!
All this went into making it one of the most memorable experiences, culinary or otherwise, of my life.
But how good was it and was it the best meal I'd ever had?
I can safely say that without a doubt it was the most imaginative and technically brilliant meal of my life.
Certainly since my brother Alex (admittedly little brother at that point) put a pack of sugar in a Bolognaise as he had a famously sweet tooth and figured why not...
Having worked in Advertising in London for much of the last 7 years. I've been lucky enough to eat at a fair few decent restaurants, many with Michellin Stars, but nothing on this level.
The menu at Gaggan is a 25 course tasting menu.
Specifically a 25 course emoji tasting menu.
If the food was anything other than brilliant, this probably would have bore the brunt of my anger. Fortunately I never got a chance.
Some of the emojis were obvious. The prawn was a prawn dish and the tomato a tomato dish etc.
However others were far more abstract.
For instance, the explosion emoji (course 2) is their signature dish. What comes is an unassuming white blob on a spoon. Put it in your mouth and it explodes into this rich but tangy yoghurt, laced with cumin. It's not subtle, it literally and figuratively explodes in your mouth.
It's name - Yoghurt Explosion.
Another was the tongue emoji (course 3), probably the signature for this latest menu.
The first thing you notice is the Kiss song "Lick it Up" playing in different parts of the restaurant. A lot of these dishes were teased by confusing sounds coming from elsewhere in the building, thus building excitement.
When your turn comes speakers are put on the table and you are explained that the chef was inspired by the song. You're then presented with a plate of intricately painted on sauces, commanding you to lick it up. Pick up your plate. You have 3 minutes.
If I did this at the family dinner table as a child I'd have my ears clipped (probably still). Yet here we were picking up a plate and licking it clean in one of the best restaurants in the world. This factor alone will make this the most memorable dish for me. It's exactly the same as going to Japan and finding out you can, nay should, slurp your Ramen as loudly as possible! I don't care how old I get, this kind of rule breaking will always be fun.
To add to that, every element was delicious. I could tell green chutney, mango chutney and tamarind. All classic curry house poppadom accompaniments, somehow elevated into the stratosphere.
For fear of this turning into a play-by-play recounting of each of the 25 courses, I'll move on.
Continuing the secret emoji menu theme, an element that ran through the menu was surprise.
Looking around the room, watching people put the bites of food into their mouths. The most common reaction was a sudden, very real, surprise. Beyond actual explosions of flavour in the mouth, this was achieved through subversion of expectations.
Black rocks turn into deliciously savoury potato and lentil puffs. Corn-dogs concealed luxurious foie gras and yuzu fillings. There is even a course where they blind-fold you and film you eating, only after do you find out you ate what I suspect is a brain mousse (but still not really sure).
The other major theme in the menu is Gaggan himself.
Unfortunately when we were there the man himself was in Japan, scouting out his next restaurant venture. However, even though he's not physically there he's so obviously present on every plate.
It's weird that only just last week I mentioned the notion that for the Vietnamese food is communication, and called it out for being a cliche. However cliches become cliches for a reason, and here it it particularly and purposefully evident.
The Yoghurt Explosion dish is supposed to be a tribute to the yoghurt that his family (and millions of other Indian families) make as a core pillar of their diet.
The incorporation of music clearly calls out to the fact he's a musician and has previously been quoting as saying being a drummer would be his dream job if not a chef.
There are whole swathes of the menu with strong Japanese influence. Look where he's setting up his next restaurant.
There are even explicit cultural references such as the final course, a vibrant mango mousse in the shape of Pac-Man - we now know the man is a gamer.
Heston Blumenthal is famous for trying to elicit emotional responses from his guests by playing on shared nostalgia and memories. I would argue Gaggan is doing the same, however wholeheartedly focusing on his own memories to communicate a notion of who he is - Music lover, Japanophile, Gamer, Comedian and Indian.
Oh yeah... and a bloody good cook!
So was this the best meal of my life?
Primarily it's a stupid bloody question!
Objectively, however, yes.
The man is a rock star! Absolutely delicious, fun and clever on a level I've never eaten before.
A common device for judging this kind of question is one of value. There is no hiding from it, this meal was expensive. 250 quid to be precise (RM1250).
This is obviously not cheap, but just consider that's just a tenner a dish... I think many of us have had crap starters in pubs that are that expensive.
Pound-for-pound, it's still a contender. Certainly worth every one of the 25,000 pennies I paid.
Instead, whilst considering this question over the last week, I've thought a lot about why so many chefs choose to leverage experience, memories and nostalgia.
The answer seems obvious. That is enjoyment of a meal is not objective, but entirely subjective.
Whilst these were clever interpretations of flavours that are so clearly dear to Gaggan. Mine, or anyone else's food memories are entirely different. These memories are so clearly influenced by event, surrounding the food too. Experience and flavour serving to cement them in your memory.
So for me it could be:
Any one of my Mum's brilliant chocolate birthday cakes
One of my Granny's rock-buns which came on every fishing trip I took with my Grandpa
The meat and potato pie my Grandma made for me when I broke my leg at 16
More recently that could be:
My first curry breakfast in Sri Lanka, eaten with my brother Alex (whose tastes have improved
Shawarma in Jerusalem
Sushi Omakase in Tokyo
Any number of dishes in the last year.
These are the tastes that have ingrained themselves into my mind.
This is why, at my supper club tomorrow, we finish with a treacle tart. Not Pac-Man.
As utterly brilliant as it was!