Now, you all know I like bentos, but my first introduction to the world of compartmentalised cuisine was the humble steel tiffin carrier - the school/office lunchbox and preferred picnic basket of all Burmese people.
As a child, there was little I loved more than deconstructing a tower of edible treats and digging into each part - fluffy rice in one section, fried chicken in another, and crunchy salad in the last.
Keeping the foods separate meant that the leaves didn't go limp, the chicken stayed crisp, and the rice stayed pristine till it was time to tuck in.
So when I was invited to visit the Glass Kitchen, a pop-up at Harvey Nicks, and found out that it was devoted to a similar concept, I couldn't resist dropping by.
The Glass Kitchen is a ten seat tasting bar run by traiteur chef Franck Pontais, winner of Iron Chef UK, caterer to the stars (he did Stella Mccartney's wedding), and owner of Food Creation, a food consultancy company.
The dishes he serves up come from his 2008 book Terrines and Verrines which provides recipes for both of these very French foods.
Everyone knows what a terrine is, although what you might not know is that it's named after the earthenware dish in which it should traditionally made (compare casserole).
Verrines on the other hand were unfamiliar to me, but my A-Level French meant I suspected they had something to do with glass.
And indeed verrines are layered food in a glass, a traditional way of eating in France which was introduced to the US ten years ago by Joel Robuchon, but which has been fairly unknown in this country until now.
The traditional verrine glass is small, rounded and squat, but since (like tiffin carriers) the aim is to keep the individual parts fresh until they're eaten, the new wave of verrines come in separate sections - a new take on modular meals.
The savoury options on offer at the Glass Kitchen have as their main elements duck, smoked mackerel and salmon, carpaccio of beef, and Morrocan vegetable chorba, but on top of these bases are built two further tiers of, for example, parmesan parfait, and garlic, fennel and oak leaf salad.
I chose terrine of poached chicken in cardamom and seared chicken liver, plum fruit and spring onion, salad with steamed ginger, topped with crisp of lotus root which was made there and then for me by Franck.
He explained to me that everything is prepared on-site fresh that morning or the night before (except the smoked meats and fishes for obvious reasons) so when it comes to serving up, it's just a case of constructing from mise en place. This is the traditional traiteur way.
And moments later, I was presented with a tiered glass tower which looked stunning. Of course, as they say, looks aren't everything, but when I carefully unstacked the rainbow of verrines and dived in, it was wonderful - the flavours were well-balanced, fresh and exciting, which is especially impressive considering that this was a cold dish. I particularly loved the seared chicken liver, which was beautifully seasoned and had just the right amount of give.
Franck explained to me that the most important thing is to have a variety of textures and flavours so eating is as fun as the presentation, and this was spot on.
For pudding, I chose pomegranate in rose water jelly, white chocolate mousse and cherry confit, black forest fudge and muscovado tuille biscuit. Again, Franck prepared it for me to order.
This came in the traditional verrine glass, like a small goldfish bowl so although not as playful as the tower, it was still very pretty.
The different textures worked very well together - the crumbly fudge, brittle biscuit and soothing mousse and jelly. I wasn't quite as blown over as I was by the chicken, but this may be because I'm a savoury girl at heart.
Otherwise I'm pretty much won over by the Glass Kitchen. The only criticism I have is that you're given a knife and fork for the savoury dishes, which is awkward when the mouths of the verrine glasses aren't huge and can lead to much scraping and clanging against glass (which I find a bit painful).
It would make much more sense if spoons or just forks were offered, or even some slender chopsticks which are perfect for this kind of "hunt and peck" dainty dining.
The verrine glasses are very cool though, and a tiered set of three is £20 which is fairly reasonable. You can also buy each section separately as well as other shapes and sizes. They're made by Durobor and as the name suggests they're pretty tough and can be stuck in the microwave or dishwasher.
Of course, you don't have to fork out on specialist tableware to indulge in Franck's food at home - I should think that the recipes in his book can be recreated regardless (although don't tell him I said that). Signed copies of "Terrines and Verrines" are also available.
Franck Pontais and team will be at the Glass Kitchen, Fifth Floor, Harvey Nicks until 10th April, from 11 to 8, Monday to Saturday and 12 to 6 on Sundays.
It's drop-in only, so you can swing by at lunch or after work without having to book. There's also takeaway available, and you can buy the smoked meats and fish that he uses.
If you'd like to learn how to make verrines yourself, Franck is also hosting workshops from 6-8pm on 16 and 23 March. Places cost £60, inc tasting menu, glass of wine, and signed copy of "Terrines and Verrines". To book, call 020 7201 8689 or 020 7201 8632, quoting ‘Glass Kitchen Workshop’.
I was a guest of Andre Dang and Taste Lab
If you're ever round Birmingham way, there's a fab Bento restaurant called Mount Fuji - http://www.mountfuji.co.uk/ - right by Jamie's Italian! I keep meaning to do a review but never get round to it.
Btw, the food looked beautiful.Did they fill you up?
@Winkypedia - That would be cool - they are extremely beautiful glasses.
@Kavey - I spent ages just staring at everything like a kid in a sweet shop.
(they do look pretty though.)
Must get the book too.
And speaking of books, fingers crossed!
@Food Urchin - Ssssh, it's £12 on Amazon.
@chumbles - Every time he made a set for someone else, I kept gawping at it. And thank you :)
@Anonymous - Not really - there's no Spanish influence in any of the dishes if I recall correctly. If anything, there's a distinct Asian flavour to the verrines, eg with the use of herbs and lotus, and of course in its mode of display.