Big shoes – and a tiny kitchen – to fill for new restau­ra­teur

Mar­cus Wil­cox is turn­ing out some in­no­va­tive food at Si­enna, finds Mark Taylor

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Dining Out -

IF there’s a tougher gig than open­ing your first restau­rant at the age of just 27, it must be the added pres­sure of tak­ing over an es­tab­lish­ment that had gained a Miche­lin star un­der its pre­vi­ous chef-owner.

When for­mer Mas­ter-Chef con­tes­tant Mar­cus Wil­cox took the reins of Si­enna in Dorch­ester in 2015, he was step­ping into the shoes of Rus­sell Brown, who had run it suc­cess­fully for the pre­vi­ous 12 years.

In that time, Brown had held onto his cov­eted Miche­lin star for five years and put this mod­est restau­rant on the na­tional map but by the time it came to re­new­ing the lease, he de­cided he had taken Si­enna as far as he could and moved on.

Now 30, Wil­cox has put his own stamp on Si­enna, which was given a facelift ear­lier this year.

A for­mer shop on the high street di­rectly next to a bus stop, it’s a sur­pris­ing lo­ca­tion for a restau­rant of this cal­i­bre. Seat­ing just 14 peo­ple on five ta­bles, it’s cer­tainly com­pact and Wil­cox works solo in a kitchen much smaller than most of us have at home. With such a small kitchen and one chef, it makes sense to keep menus con­cise and at lunchtime there is a set menu with two choices per course.

In the evening, there are three tast­ing menus with plenty of over­lap on cer­tain dishes. When you have lim­ited space and staff in the kitchen, tast­ing menus are the most sen­si­ble way to keep both prepa­ra­tion and waste to a min­i­mum.

On the first Satur­day lunchtime of De­cem­ber, I was sur­prised to be the only per­son in the restau­rant, al­though I’m told it’s fully booked most evenings, when book­ing is es­sen­tial.

The diminu­tive size of the kitchen doesn’t seem to ham­per the am­bi­tion or cre­ativ­ity. Wil­cox makes ev­ery­thing him­self, start­ing with the ex­cel­lent mini loaf of warm potato bread with malt-flavoured but­ter so soft that I ended up dip­ping the bread into it rather than us­ing a knife and adding to the chef ’s pile of wash­ing up.

Menu de­scrip­tions are terse and dis­guise the amount of work that goes into each dish. A starter sim­ply called “sal­mon, cu­cum­ber, ap­ple, dill” was un­der­play­ing it some­what.

It was an ar­rest­ing dish, beau­ti­fully pre­sented, with the firm, fleshy cured sal­mon teamed with juicy and re­fresh­ing com­pressed blocks of cu­cum­ber and a sweet ap­ple purée. Sal­mon can be a bit of a bully that over­shad­ows del­i­cate flavours but this was a clean, har­mo­nious dish with real clar­ity.

Next, a thick piece of duck breast had been cooked “sous vide” (slow­cooked at a pre­cise low tem­per­a­ture in a wa­ter bath) and the re­sult was the soft­est, most ten­der meat imag­in­able un­der a knob­bly layer of crushed pis­ta­chios. A layer of sweet, silky cele­riac purée, a few poached cher­ries and some bit­ter wilted chard com­pleted a well-han­dled dish that com­bined clas­sic flavour com­bi­na­tions with cut­ting-edge tech­nique.

Wil­cox isn’t afraid to throw in the oc­ca­sional curve­ball when it comes to flavours, which shows a level of con­fi­dence.

A dessert of cho­co­late “soil” and an Earl Grey tea-in­fused cho­co­late cake was teamed with an in­tense black­berry sor­bet and an ice cream made with ceps. Mush­room ice cream for pud­ding was a first for me, and the jury’s still out on whether its woodsy, for­est floor flavour re­ally worked with the cho­co­late, but it was cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing.

Still, with three cour­ses for just £24.50, this was re­mark­able value con­sid­er­ing the work in­volved and the qual­ity of the in­gre­di­ents (there’s a list of West Coun­try sup­pli­ers and pro­duc­ers on the back of the menu).

It may oc­cupy a small and unas­sum­ing site, but Si­enna is serv­ing some of the most in­no­va­tive and in­ter­est­ing food in Dorset.

RAT­ING 4/5

Si­enna, 36 High West Street, Dorch­ester, Dorset, DT1 1UP.

Tel: 01305 250022. www.si­en­nadorch­ester.co.uk

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