Last week we met four friends who’ve started up an informal dining club together, to get out and try new places across Somerset. Their eyes lit up when they discovered what I did. “Give us your best recommendations” was the question, and one of the answers just had to be Duende.
It’s no secret, but since husband and wife, Tim and Linda Zekki, found a permanent Somerset home for their previous Chilterns pop-ups, the awards have quite rightly rolled in... and one evening, we head over to their restaurant in the heart of Wiveliscombe to experience a five course fish tasting, Duende-style. It's definitely a night to remember and if the Somerset cool awards existed (who knows, one day they might ;)) Duende would be celebrating for sure.
The food is beyond stunning, but what shines through for me is Tim’s sheer passion for each dish he creates and the energy he pours into the idea behind every plate of food... combining flavours with the attention to detail of a scientist, pushing his own boundaries.
“You have to experiment or nothing moves on,”
Tim tells me as we chat after dinner.
“My menus are always dictated by what’s in season and I love sitting down to plan them, combining and creating the best flavours possible with the freshest local ingredients available. We’re definitely spoilt for choice in Somerset”.
And whether it's carrots pulled out of the ground that morning from Ray's Veg at Halse, or the finest cod delivered by a local supplier directly from Brixham market, when you’re working with ingredients that are this fresh, everything is subject to change. So, as Tim says:
“I don’t publish a menu beforehand. People know it’s five courses, they come and each course is a surprise”.
And a fantastic surprise it absolutely is!
When we sit down for dinner, there are no menus on the tables apart from the teaser of the wine pairings on offer and I love that approach. It’s refreshing, exciting and it definitely heightens our own curiosity about what lies ahead (of course, the guys cater for any food allergies).
As Tim says, it actually means you try things you might not normally, which is definitely the case when it comes to our first course.
We’ve never tried plankton and to be honest, we can’t get enough of the plankton and cucumber jelly in this beautiful salmon cocktail, bursting with the subtle flavours of the ocean in every single bite. The pickled cauliflower and cucumber is a fantastic contrast to the creaminess of the cauliflower foam and it cuts through the chunks of fresh salmon to leave a tangy taste on the tongue. And the colours... the vivid sea green of the jelly keeps tempting us to dive in!
Would we try if it wasn't a surprise? Perhaps not... and I’m so glad we do.
The next course on our foodie adventure is just as delicious. Feast your eyes on this melt-in-the-mouth mackerel, with pickled daikon and yuzu mayonnaise.
This dish is another wonderful treat. We try daikon for the first time... the white raddish-style root used in Japanese cooking and the Japanese mayo, freshly made by Tim, is smooth and delicate, adding a subtle touch of oriental spice to the tender fish. This is a flavour combination that definitely pays off.
As Tim explains, exploring Umami, the Japanese way of describing savoury taste, is his favourite focus when it comes to combining flavours. In fact, scientists now consider Umami to be it's own distinct taste, with fish, shellfish and fish sauces being renowned for strong Umami flavours. Having discovered a little about the approach Tim takes to his cooking, it doesn't surprise me that he loves experimenting with this concept.
And Umami or not, the mackerel is cooked to perfection and there are lots of appreciative noises coming from Graeme's side of the table, so it's a big hit for him! ;).
One thing about savouring every mouthful of each course, and not knowing what's on the way next, is that you just can't wait to find out! So, when our pan-fried monkfish with creamed chicory, orange and tarragon dressing is set down on the table in front of us, you could say we're chomping at the bit to get stuck in! ;)
Ahh... that buttery sauce is so warm and comforting, with the hints of orange and tarragon and we love having homemade charcoal bread to mop up all the juices. Heavenly!
And check out this beautiful dessert of olive oil cake with almonds, sweet roasted strawberries and tangy rhubarb sorbet. A glass of Moscato d'Asti compliments it perfectly!
Of course, there has to be a twist in the tale. Tonight, it's a cheese course with a difference, with Tim taking inspiration from the humble Caesar Salad to shake things up.
"I really wanted to do something different and this cheese course works really well with the unexpected twist of fish"
Ain't that the truth... and the flavour combinations work a treat! Parmesan custard anyone?
The meaning of 'Duende' is rooted in spirit - in passion and inspiration. It's 'a spontaneous feeling arising in creativity' and when you experience Tim's cooking, you realise that it's pretty much the perfect way to sum it all up. For Tim, it's a chance to entertain; to share his passion for food which is most definitely in the blood (his father was a cheesemaker and restaurant owner too), and the different twists and touches Tim includes, make it a very special experience indeed.
We can't think of many Somerset cooler surroundings to spend an intimate, chilled out evening in either...
So, if you're looking for somewhere relaxed to chat the evening away, over food prepared with soul and creativity, and with local ingredients taking centre stage... you're on to a winner here. We can't wait to go back to see what Tim cooks up for a plant-based 'woodland to seashore' wild food event, coming soon.
If you want to try Duende right now though, you're in luck because this weekend sees Tim create 'Elevation 413' - a five course tasting menu, taking humble ingredients to new heights. As Wiveliscombe is the highest situated town in the county, where better to experience the heightened flavours of Somerset?
Our review in three words: unique, relaxed, remarkable.
Go for: fantastic foodie evenings with friends or a loved one. Duende only opens for these special events, so be sure to check the website, subscribe to their mailing list and follow the guys on Twitter and Instagram, so you don't miss out.
To book for Elevation 413 (£45pp) on Friday 12th or Saturday 13th July 2019, or to register your interest for any Duende event, email email@example.com