Mystery Dining at The Phantom Pig
By Elisa Freeling
When you’re brought a beverage in a test tube, you know someone is taking experimental dining literally. I’d heard about the Phantom Pig, but based on its name I’d assumed it drew heavily from Smithfield Market and would not cater to a veggie like me. So I was pleased to find out that the pop-up restaurant was going vegan for January (or, in the silly mash-up neologism, ‘Veganuary’). I roped my meat-eating husband and two pescatarian friends into joining, with little idea of what the night—described as ‘whimsical delight on a plate’—would entail.
Phantom Pig dinners take place monthly at the Orchard Café, which is tucked away behind the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing and not at all where you’d expect a cutting-edge culinary experience. A set tasting menu is served (our seven-course vegan menu was £40 each), and it turns out that, if you ask in advance, they always offer both a veggie and a pescatarian alternative.
The evening began in a pleasantly relaxed way: we were told to arrive between 7:30 and 8pm for ‘mystery snacks and a tipple’. The former was mushroom shavings floating in a cumin and coconut cream soup, which was delicious, a bit of spice to warm us up and a highly promising start. The latter was the test-tube drink, lemony and nice and funny to watch everyone tip and sip.
By 8ish all the tables were filled and we began with the ‘Prologue’—‘sourdough . smoked almond butter’—warm bread that arrived in a paper bag and was quite tasty. Nothing else on the menu could be divined by its description. ‘Fallen Orchard: smithy’s . walnut . cheese’ included vegan cheese, of course, and the orchard reference was balls of apple alongside various greens, a lovely little salad. ‘Interlude: ginger beer . kaffir lime . weird beer’ turned out to be frozen, eaten with a spoon, and pleasantly gingery. But it never felt pretentious, in part because the setting is unpretentious but even more so because the host, Mandie, is so warm and welcoming, super friendly and informal. Instead it keeps the element of surprise, and with each dish you check the menu to puzzle out the flavours.
Every course was beautifully presented and had many complicated ingredients, and each was lovingly prepared. That sounds like a cliché, but at the end of the evening, Phantom Pig founder and head chef Vix Rathour came round to chat with each table, and it was clear that he loves his work. He too was friendly and informal; he was keen to know what we thought of everything, whether any of us were vegan, and he enthusiastically answered our questions. Our table’s favourite dish was Shroom Syndrome (‘shrooms . celeriac’). Surely that was pasta around the mushrooms? Nope, the little parcels were painstakingly made with just celeriac. Preparing the menu took a lot of trial and error, not least given the constraint for an omnivore chef of making everything from vegetables, but the way Vix explained the process made it clear he finds the kitchen fun.
As for the vegan aspect, while the mushrooms did have their usual fleshy feel, there was agreement among the four of us that a bit of meat/fish/cheese would have been welcome. But we had such a great time, found everything hugely delicious, and so enjoyed the experience that this only means we’ll be back for the regular/pescie/veggie menu.
Unless you have a seriously foodie teenager, this is of course not a night to bring the kids. If you haven’t had a seven-course meal lately, let me tell you it takes a long time—far longer than any child would tolerate. In that way it makes an ideal date night, since it’s the opposite of the snarfing-down-food-before-the-kids-lose-patience experience. I had almost forgotten how lovely it is to linger over a meal.
The next Phantom Pig dinner, on Friday the 23rd of February, promises ‘A culinary journey traversing Continents and Time Travel’. The £50 six-course tasting menu includes ‘The 13:40 to Mumbai’ (‘haddock . curry . yolk’) and ‘Dirty Dark Fields’ (‘beef . brassica’), and for a bit more cash you can get wine pairings if you like. Check out their Facebook page or make a reservation at openealing.com.