A Taste of Venice with Russell Norman at The Compasses Inn, Crundale
In February, my favourite food pub, The Compasses Inn in Crundale, just outside Canterbury launched a guest chef series with an evening with Tom Kerridge in the kitchen. Tickets were like gold dust and in spite of sitting by the phone line, we were unsuccessful at getting a table. Next, they had Steve Groves, the head chef at Roux Parliament Square for what looked like a delicious evening of classic, seasonal spring dishes. My parents went and took lots of photos – I was elsewhere watching my best friend getting married. But, finally, after seriously wondering if there was going to be something that stopped me attending every single one of their guest chef evenings, my Mum texted me about an evening they were holding with Russell Norman. It was on a Wednesday night and I had nothing in the diary. I love Russell’s restaurants, so it sounded like the perfect evening.
It was a beautiful evening so we started in the garden for a couple of Cocchi Spritz (I find them so much more refined and apero friendly than Aperol) and some nibbles. Russell was hosting while Rob in the kitchen cooked recipes from Russell’s cookbooks and from his time spent in Venice. We had the most tender squid (it’s in season right now so find some if you can) served up as fritto, finished with a wedge of lemon and presented in cones made from Polpo menus (for those of you who don’t eat out in London, Polpo is Russell’s Italian small plates venture – I reviewed it on my first visit to the then new Notting Hill branch in 2014, and it is usually where my literary agent and I grab lunch when we’re in need of a good catch up!) and honestly some of the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. I ate far too many, and aside from the obvious use of good olive oil and super ripe, hyper local tomatoes, I think it was switching out the usual fresh basil (beautiful and aromatic but so easily bruised) for oregano, giving it a beautiful woody, herbal tone that really gave it the edge.
Heading inside it was time for antipasti, something I usually see as an afterthought unless, as Rob and Russell had done here, lots of time and care is put into finding the very best raw ingredients. The burrata was gorgeous and creamy, the salamis rich and oily, and literally my only qualm about this course was I think we were missing out not having some of The Compasses usual, unparalleled freshly baked bread served alongside.
The antipasti course also heralded our favourite wine of the evening; we went for the flight, pairing different wines with each course, and here we were given a Pallavicini Rubillo Cesanese from 2018. Super fruity, it was served slightly chilled which made it brighter. Something a bit different we were pleased to have tried.
Switching to white, the risotto course came next with Russell’s take on a risi e bisi, the classic risotto of simple rice and cheese (of course loaded up with a tonne of parmesan) I’m used to seeing versions of in Jewish cookbooks, as an Italian ghetto food. Russell explained how in Venice the risi e bisi is soupier, but how he’d given it a bit more bite to suit British tastes; what we would expect from a plate of risotto, if you will. It was light, clean, and yes I went for another big portion when he came around with a saucepan of leftovers.
Next came John Dory done with orange and pink peppercorns. Light, perfectly cooked, though I think slightly disadvantaged by the memory of the orange-dressed John Dory we had at Nathan Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen in the spring that is still strong on my tongue. However, it was the sides here that were the stars of the show: the zucchini fries, crisp, salty and juicy were just as good as the ones at Polpo, and I honestly regret not asking to take what we were too full to eat of our fennel, orange and black olive salad home with me, along with the bruschetta it was the star of the evening. Light, refreshing, herbal and with bright punches of flavour every time you bit into an orange segment, wonderfully wrinkly olive or a bite of herb, it lifted everything else on the plate. I immediately recognised the recipe as being almost identical to one in Leah Koenig’s new book The Jewish Cookbook (I’ve got a review copy – its out next month and I really recommend you order a copy) which as now jumped to the top of my ‘to cook’ list. Did you know that a lot of the staple fennel recipes in Italian cuisine actually came out of the ghetto as fennel was considered too poor an ingredient for regular Italians to cook with for many, many years?
Dessert – peaches with an amaretti cream which were beautiful (though I think my Mum’s version still has the edge, you can find her recipe here) – was served with a moscato Asti, a little sweeter than I’d usually go for, but it served as a useful reminder of what I learnt at The River Cafe last year, that Asti is a much overlooked Italian fizz, especially when it comes to desserts, and can sometimes be much cheaper than the (in my mind) inferior prosecco it is usually overlooked for. There was an excellent vin santo for afters, coffee and peppermint tea, though along with the chocolate salami, what really sticks in my mind were the beautifully perfumed esse biscuits that came alongside, perfect for dunking in my sweet, sweet wine.
I remember them telling me at the pub who else they were in discussions with about holding guest chef evenings back when the first one was announced. While I remember being excited by the line up, I have to admit it was after more than half a bottle of red wine, a glass and a half of champagne and on top of a serious food coma so I’ve actually forgotten. However, what I can tell you is to follow The Compasses Inn on Instagram to find out first about their next event – I’ll probably see you there, unless my diary is conspiring against me again!