I think, as a general rule, I much prefer savoury over sweet. My usual preference when dining is to have a starter and a main – I can go without a dessert. However, as is true for so many of my friends, I have a particular weakness when it comes to chocolate. It’s something you hunt for in the garden as a child at Easter; it’s a consoling treat when you’re having a teenage meltdown (I’ve seen specifically branded “emergency chocolate” in the shops for this exact purpose); and I know I’m not the only one who reaches for some at 4.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon when the work is piling up and you don’t see how you’re going to get it all done. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s my favourite guilty pleasure, but it’s certainly an indulgence I hate giving up at lent! So, when I heard that Hotel Chocolat have restaurant, I had to try it.
I have to say, Hotel Chocolat isn’t my usual port of call for luxury confectionary. Ever since being introduced to it by my flatmate some 2 years ago, I have been a Cherbonnel et Walker devotee. And part of me was dubious when I first considered the concept – chocolate doesn’t go with everything, does it? But then I thought about some of the other instances where I have come across chocolate in non-traditional guises, and these doubts were quickly banished. Think the sumptuous feast Juliette Binoche throws for her friends in Chocolat (as it happens, the film which sparked my Johnny Depp obsession at 14); or the wild, unpredictable and delectable narrative in Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, where just a taste can send the characters on a crazed romp or on a path they never before comprehended. Chocolate has a power over of us – and it’s much more than just a candy bar. Historically, chocolate originally was prepared as a drink – archaeologists have discovered evidence showing its use in beverages as far back as 1900BC. The Maya drank it warm, whilst the Aztecs preferred theirs cold. It was brought to Europe by Columbus, and became a Spanish court favourite – the Europeans, though, added sugar, honey and vanilla to counteract its natural bitterness. Chocolate wasn’t produced in solid form until 1847; and milk chocolate didn’t come into existence until 1875. Chocolate as confectionary, then, is a relatively young concept. So the possibility that an entire menu could be created with it is hardly revolutionary.
Rabot 1745 is located in Borough Market (one of my absolute favourite places in London – watch this space!) opposite, coincidentally, the supposed home of one Bridget Jones – another chocolate devotee. In the film franchise, Bridget lives above the Globe pub at Borough Market. I can’t help but think she would approve of her new neighbour. It describes its menu as being inspired “by the best of West Indian and modern British cuisine, enhanced with the subtle savoury spice of roasted cocoa”. It is sleek and chic in design – granite-topped tables paired with sparkling glass and multi-faceted wood panelling – but, the observant visitor will note that the chocolate theme is never too from the surface. We had a booking, so sat in the upstairs restaurant, and noticed that the booth on which we were sitting actually looked like a chocolate bar, being made up of long panels of rich brown leather. Above us draped down the walls were strings of giant wooden cocoa beans. And, on the table were little dishes containing raw cocoa (make sure you take the shell off first before eating).
Cacao is in almost everything on the menu – the extent of choice and creativity was mind-boggling. To drink, we sampled several of the cocktails; to my delight, there was a Vodka Martini on the menu made with cacao bitters, and I added a twist of orange. The Pretty Pink (cocoa gin, lemon, rose water, honey and prosecco) came garnished with a deep purple flower – an indication of the importance this establishment places on the presentation of its wares. Even the red wine was silky smooth like chocolate.
As we were at a restaurant devoted to something which, in my mind at least, is usually sweet, I diverged from my usual rule and we ordered mains and desserts. I had the market fish (hake) with creole-cacao spices, almond puree and Jerusalem artichokes – one of the best fish dishes I have ever had. The almond puree won me over – I adore almonds almost as much as pistachios; and the combination of its smoothness with the somewhat spicy flavour of the fish was a winner. Also on the table were the Choc au Vin, the rump steak burger, the steak and cacao pudding, and the braised lamb shoulder.
Of course, I’m dining with some of my longest and best friends (it’s a chocolate restaurant – prime girls night out material!) so we tried each other’s dishes, and I have to say I think the best choices were the burger and the steak and cacao pudding. Both were incredibly rich – you could definitely taste the cacao far more in them than you could in my fish dish or the Choc au Vin – and so different to anything else I had ever tasted before. My friend said of her burger that it was one of the best she has ever had – which is a high accolade from someone who has a penchant for burgers and is the biggest chocolate-lover I know!
On the side, we ordered some of the warm potato chips, which came with a trio of cacao-infused dips. Of these, my favourite was definitely the cacao aioli – it was sweeter than the chocolate balsamic vinegar and thicker than the cacao ketchup.
Despite the rich nature of our mains – which we were determined to finish – we still had to order dessert. You can’t come to a chocolate restaurant and not have dessert. Anyway, isn’t it often said that one has a separate stomach for the dessert course?! I had the Official “BAFTA” Dessert (so I guess it was once served up to our national treasures at the awards dinner) which was sumptuous. Salted caramel is another favourite of mine – I love the combination of the salt with the smoothness of caramel. The Brittany shortbread is not just on the base of the dessert either – there was also a layer on top which added a surprising texture to a dish which could otherwise be overly creamy.
Also on the table were the trio of chocolate mousses – we each tried a little of these and all had different favourites. My favourite was the 90% with roast nibs – the least sweet of the three (which surprised me actually – I’ve stopped trying to kid myself into favouring dark chocolate over milk chocolate!), but I think the goldilocks of the trio was the 78% with toasted nut crumble: not too bitter and not too sweet.
The molten chocolate lava pudding was also a winning choice – it was perfectly poised. Anyone who watches Masterchef knows how hard it is to cook a perfect melting chocolate pudding. And, if it’s all been too much and you really can’t face a full dessert, you can simply have three champagne truffles, which come in a champagne glass on a bed of cacao beans.
The staff were attentive and patient (you really are spoilt for choice – and post-cocktails it was increasingly difficult to make a decision between all the delectable options!) and the atmosphere was relaxed and smooth. On the way in, we passed the door out to the terrace, which overlooks the main hall of Borough Market and must be a delight to sit out on when the weather is warm and the market below is in full swing. Some people might say that a restaurant such as this is a gimmick – a one-trick pony – and certainly I wouldn’t be able to eat there every week. But to see such innovation all based on one natural ingredient is really pleasing – not too mention it was all delicious! Perfect for a girls night out.