Big shoes – and a tiny kitchen – to fill for new restaurateur
Marcus Wilcox is turning out some innovative food at Sienna, finds Mark Taylor
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.
Sienna, 36 High West Street, Dorchester, Dorset, DT1 1UP.
Tel: 01305 250022. www.siennadorchester.co.uk