How do you feel about themed restaurants? They seldom catch my interest — gimmicks such as eating in the dark, being served by monks or eating from urinals in a former gents’ lavatory simply fail to appeal. But when the theme relates to food — and one of my favourite foodstuffs at that — it’s a different story entirely. So when popular purveyors of cocoa, Hotel Chocolat announced the launch of their own restaurant, naturally I was intrigued.
Located in the heart of famous foodie destination Borough Market, Rabot 1745 describes itself as a “cocoa-centric restaurant“, with the aim of bringing to Londoners what sister restaurant Boucan has delivered to St Lucians since 2011.
The restaurant name comes from a cocoa plantation named The Rabot Estate, situated on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. First established in 1745, it was purchased by the founders of Hotel Chocolat eight years ago and has become a key part of the chain’s branding since. Although only a tiny volume of the chocolate they sell originates there, the Rabot 1745 name has been applied to their collection of rare, high quality chocolates from all around the world.
Fronting onto Bedale Street , the downstairs is divided between a shop and café in which customers can enjoy a selection of sweet and savoury treats alongside their drink of choice (I cannot recommend the hot chocolate highly enough).
Unusually chocolate is made from bean to bar in one place, on site and on show. The norm is for cocoa farmers to have little involvement in the rest of the process with most of the profits going to the big companies who buy cheap cocoa and transform it into a higher value end-product. So Rabot 1745’s farm to plate approach is particularly innovative and refreshing, especially when combined with the company’s Engaged Ethics programme to empower local cocoa farming communities.
After climbing the wood-panelled stairs at the back, you reach the restaurant; it boasts a warm and elegant interior inspired by a traditional Saint Lucian plantation house and even features hurricane-felled Ironwood, brought across from The Rabot Estate. Visit during the day to enjoy the sunlight flooding in through floor to ceiling windows or in the evening for an altogether cosier ambience.
The menu, crafted by Executive Chef John Bentham, draws on culinary traditions from Britain and the Caribbean to create a confident and balanced list of dishes. Of course, cocoa features heavily – but not everything has chocolate in it.
In some dishes roasted cacao nibs are used for texture, in others cacao-infused balsamic vinegar provides a subtle flavouring; the menu even includes the flesh of the cacao fruit in a marinade for fish. Also worth noting is that the menu caters equally for meat eaters, pescetarians and vegetarians.
The scallop salad is a generous portion of perfectly seared plump Scottish scallops, colourful thinly sliced beetroot and watercress leaves in lightly curried cacao nib oil and a horseradish and white chocolate sauce. The nibs provide a welcome textural crunch.
Rabot’s Pearl barley scotch eggs are vegetarian, thanks to a non-sausage meat coating of nib-crusted pearl barley enveloping soft-cooked quail eggs. Served with roasted root vegetables and a goat’s cheese dressing, this applies a successful twist to a classic.
As a lover of top quality beef, I’m impressed by the 35-day aged galloway short horn rib-eye steak. Marinated in cacao and topped with slices of buttery marrow, it’s cooked exactly as I request. It comes with roast winter vegetables and a rich, glossy red wine and cacao gravy.
The roast saddle of rabbit is rolled in smoked bacon and served with Armagnac-soaked prunes, roasted carrots and a white chocolate mash that is sweet but works surprisingly well against salty rabbit and bacon. Another glossy gravy completes the plate.
It may seem a little contrary not to pick either of the two chocolate desserts but instead we choose a classic Perigord walnut tart served and a wonderfully moist rum baba soaked in Saint Lucia rum and served with cacao-infused cream. However, we don’t miss out on our chocolate hit, enjoying superb salted caramel and chilli hot chocolates in place of after-dinner coffees.
The entire Rabot 1745 experience is appealing: an attractive and relaxing setting, warm service from a well-trained team and a kitchen that turns out well balanced, confidently cooked and innovative dishes. If this is the future of themed restaurants, bring them on.