The Return Of The Amuse-Bouche (And A Recipe To Make One At Home)
Jalapeño popper gildas. Photograph by Mr Benjamin McMahon, courtesy of Rita’s
In almost every respect, Rita’s in London’s Soho is a textbook example of contemporary-restaurant cool. The lighting is subtle and seductive; the wines are interesting and generally low-intervention; at launch, there was, if memory serves, a member of the waiting staff rocking both an ironic moustache and an ironic mullet. But if you start a meal here in the proper manner then you will begin with an unexpected blast from dining’s past. You will begin, specifically, with devilled eggs: two split halves of delicately boiled white, spiced yolk piped into glossy, swirled peaks, a scattering of chives and, generally, the unmistakable air of a retro dinner party amuse-bouche. The 1970s called and it wants its appetiser back.
But then you pop one in – that familiar heat and creaminess, undercut by the sweet, piercing umami of toban-djan fermented bean chilli paste – and any lingering bafflement gives way to pure, dumbstruck joy. Your bouche, as mine was the first time I tried one, will most definitely be amused. And this is the precise intended reaction. “The devilled egg is definitely quite kitsch, but it’s also a real Southern [US] thing,” says Mr Gabriel Pryce, chef-owner of Rita’s and creator of the dish. “And if you can make it surprisingly delicious, then what you’ve done is welcome someone in, told them not to take themselves too seriously, but also let them know they’re going to have a good time.”
And Rita’s, as it turns out, is not the only modern restaurant currently trafficking in this mode of nostalgic, one-bite playfulness. Not just in the specific form of devilled eggs. But in all manner of unexpectedly retro ways. In shattering, finely crisped tartlets and ham draped over segments of melon. In the intricate, raisin ketchup-dribbled coronation chicken skewers at Sheffield bistro Bench or the rolls of trout and apple at the Michelin-starred Osip in Somerset. Or even at dinner party spreads, which are increasingly marked by little lettuce boats of prawn cocktail and gordal olives skewered for gilda. “It’s not a million miles from pineapple and cheese on a stick,” laughs Pryce, referring to the Basque-inspired bar snack ubiquity.
Yes, at all levels, the hushed, minimal seriousness of pre-Covid snacking seems to have given way to dishes that wake up the palate with irreverence, play and vivaciousness. It is a development that – with a mouth half full of tinned fish toasts and modernist devils on horseback – I heartily approve of.
But what, if anything, is driving this revival in decidedly old-school bites? Well, as is often the case, it’s instructive to go back to the very start of a trend. The dawn of the amuse-bouche can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s emergence of nouvelle cuisine as a lighter, fresher counterpoint to the heavy saucework and nap-inducing portions that had defined high French gastronomy up until then.
Conceived as a way to innovate outside of a set tasting menu (in the strictest interpretation, amuses are the “complimentary”, unbilled snack that precedes a multi-course meal), they soon evolved into tiny vehicles for intense competitiveness among chefs. Intricate, one-gobble miniatures of taste, texture and technique that were like edible calling cards.
“They’re an introduction to a meal… They’re a nice way to set the tone a little bit because they explain origins”
It is this facet of amuse-making – particularly in the age of Instagram and aggressive dish virality – that feels most relevant to today’s boom. It is not a coincidence that snacks (“Finally tried those gnocco fritto!”) are invariably the biggest buzz-generators on any menu.
“They’re an introduction to a meal, but an ice breaker for a restaurant,” Pryce says. “They’re a nice way to set the tone a little bit because they explain origins and how you work quite quickly.” Food, after all, is non-verbal communication. And if the message of nouvelle cuisine appetisers was ultimately drowned out by overly finicky porcelain ladles of foam and micro herbs, then this new wave feels a lot more about hitting an earthy sweet spot between effort and impact. This is where you feel the pandemic – with its grimness, isolation and locked down boredom – has definitely supercharged our collective appetite for snacks that signify comfort and a lack of fuss, but also a sense of occasion.
“Vol au vents and all the rest are very Fanny Cradock,” says Ms Felicity Cloake, author and recipe writer at The Guardian. “They’re theatrical and about putting in the effort. When I started having people over [when I was younger], it was all about big bowls of crisps, dips and crudités, Nigella-style. All quite casual and help yourself. So, I wonder if this is a reaction to that, and an urge to be more formal.”
This is demonstrably true. If you are looking for a culinary riposte to those restive, somewhat feral months of meeting friends on drizzly park benches, then piping out the chilli-spiked yolks for a dozen devilled eggs will do it.
“Even if the main food you’re doing is quite straightforward, if you bring out the devilled eggs or skewered rollmops, then it’s quite impressive”
There is a raised eyebrow, some glamour and a degree of skill to the new amuse-bouche. But, crucially, the vibe is achievable frivolity rather than intimidating cheffiness. And this has led to a vital interplay between professional chefs and domestic ones (try deep-fried olive at restaurant, attempt for friends, rinse and repeat) that equally feels like a product of the time.
“I think people are realising these things are quite simple and doable at home,” Cloake says. “Even if the main food you’re doing is quite straightforward, if you bring out the devilled eggs or skewered rollmops, then it’s quite impressive.”
What’s more, if we shift focus to gilda and those other seemingly effortless nibbles that are heavily influenced by continental drinking culture, the lasting hangover of lockdown may be manifesting in a different way. “I think that what people have realised they miss from travelling, especially around Europe, is that kind of food,” Pryce says. “A bar slices some meat they didn’t make, opens some fish they didn’t pack, pours some wine they didn’t produce – and yet it’s still remarkable.”
Fundamentally, this desire to spark those joyful associations – of sweltering holidays in San Sebastián, Porto or Venice – are part of the same nostalgic impulse that has many of us raiding the 1970s for amuse-bouche ideas. Rightly or wrongly, what all these vibrant, lightly camp snacks represent is a conscious retreat to what we might term our respective happy places. Done correctly, the retro amuse bouche is both knowing wink and culinary security blanket.
“Everything is cyclical,” Cloake says. “It may be that, in fashion terms, the devilled egg is the cargo trouser of the culinary world. But I think there’s something about our childhood memories of what was exotic or glamorous. Maybe it feels quite safe to us.”
This is the sensation that you will find skewered on the end of a stick or heaped onto a little nduja-smeared piece of toast. Silliness, a naggingly familiar brand of surprise and – after the undulating difficulties of the past couple of years – a reminder that great food should leave you with a whacking, great grin, rather than a contemplatively furrowed brow. Are you not amused? If you are eating correctly at the moment, you certainly will be.
Recipe by Mr Gabriel Pryce
Jalapeño popper gildas
· Gordal olives
· Blue cheese
· Cantabrian anchovies
· Fresh jalapeño
· Chilli oil
· Stuff a gordal olive with blue cheese, fold a Cantabrian anchovy in half and cut a thick slice of fresh jalapeño.
· Skewer all three on a cocktail stick
· Drizzle with chilli oil
· Do that as many times as you need