Monday, 26 October 2009

Big Band Week

Like an X-factor hopeful, entering week 3 and finding themselves in front of a full 32-piece band (probably lots more, 32 sounds about right), so I find myself, standing beneath the soles of giants, in attempting both a meal and a review of a mighty culinary force – you could say that this week, I am taking a huge risk. For those of my readers for whom, in 2002, the year that La Tante Claire served its final meal, viewed eating out as a strictly dough balls followed by American Hot based experience, I should share the findings of my googling.

In 1970, a young chef called Pierre Koffmann arrived in London. Via Le Gavroche and the Roux brothers, and the Waterside Inn in Bray, Koffmann earned his stars (three of them) at his restaurant La Tante Claire, on Royal Hospital Road (where Ramsey’s place has kept the tradition going). Along the way, he taught great chefs including Tom Aikens, Marco Pierre-White and a load of others we should all know but don’t. To conclude this short story, LTC was open for 25 years, Koffmann was a legend, then he swore he would never touch another saucepan again and disappeared, only to be found 5 years later, cooking in a cave for Lord Lucan, Richie from the Manic Street Preachers and Glenn Miller. Or he quit to be a restaurant consultant. One of the two definitely. Fast forward to 2009. It is London restaurant week (apparently). And Koffmann agrees to lend his name and cooking skills to a specially erected cathedral on the roof of Selfridges. Such is its popularity that having initially been scheduled to stand for just one week, the £200,000 structure has been given an extra fortnight. And I was a fortunate beneficiary of this on Friday last.

Entering Selfridges after hours was almost too much for her as I thought she might make a break between entrance and lift, but navigating the shopping gauntlet with surprising ease, we ascended to the roof. I had been hoping for something more Willy Wonka-esque but we emerged into a nicely decorated corridor, beckoning you through to the main event. The sense of occasion was palpable for the second time in a week (thanks Nick Griffin). The menus arrived. Despite some slight eye watering at the £75 pricing, the excitement was definitely intact as we deliberated over our choices. Aided by extensive questioning of the knowledgeable waiter, we decided and waited for our food to arrive. And obviously had a nose around the room. The room was decorated very tastefully in two tone: off white and black, with the black coming from lights fashioned out of Magritte-like suspended bowler hats. The crowd was very mixed, young and old, fat and thin, local and B&T but before we could start staring at people too hard, our first (and only) free bit of food arrived. An amuse of duck rillettes on celeriac remoulade did exactly what it was meant to do, that is leave me whimpering for more food. I occupied some of this time in some serious mental exercise – that of navigating a discussion with a sommelier without spending more than I intended. I failed miserably, but my consolation prize was a very nice bottle of 2005 Chambolle-Musigny (for those of you that are interested). It was good and it adds a new grape variety to my limited arsenal.

My favourite course arrived promptly after. I had lobster and avocado cocktail; she had langoustines with pressed leeks. I believe the latter was once of the chef’s signature dishes (I think he had a few) and it was absolutely superb. The langoustines, thankfully peeled, were juicy and cooked to perfection, with a nice simple smokiness while the soft pressed leeks balanced the dish perfectly. My lobster and avocado cocktail, served in a martini glass (my second martini glass of the evening – I am normally so averse to them but the setting seemed to justify it) was good without being mind-blowing. There were small chunks of apple hanging out with the generous chunks of lobster which definitely added to it. To follow, I had “Royale de Lievre”, a hearty dish of hare cooked three ways, with a braised leg, slices of fillet and a slice of loin that’s been stuffed with foie gras. Although all delicious, the sticky and tender braised leg was the nicest meat I have eaten this year. The dish was rounded off to perfection with some soft buttery tagliatelle, a rich deep sauce that will never be bettered and a few carrots that looked a little lonely. Her Challans duck with herbs and spices was excellent also. The portion was too big which is a rare but honest complaint. I was selfishly a little preoccupied with Miffy though to be too interested.

Pudding was all about one thing. The pistachio soufflé, topped with pistachio ice-cream. As they served you this perfectly risen soufflé, they depth charge the ice-cream into the middle. This was food in action. Who needs El Bulli. Who needs Nazis on Question Time. They should try to launch it from distance next time. All of this needless piffle detracts from the adulation that this pudding deserves. The soufflé and the ice-cream were orgasmic, which was fortunate given how stuffed I was when I got home.

The execution of this meal was perfect. It was the best meal I have eaten this year. I recognise that I praised the Bull & Last somewhat vigorously last week so I am concerned that you might think my standards are just plain low. I assure you this isn’t the case. I have just had a combination of luck, good selection and silence on my bad meals.

[As a caveat, however, I am off to Tayyabs next week though, which is said to be good enough to permanently quell Pakistani/Indian tensions. If only Kashmir was closer to Whitechapel…]

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Best of London

I haven’t had anything to write about for a little bit. I would call it writer’s block but I find that a bit too self-congratulatory. I thought about writing a piece on the good food but disappointing room at The Bath Arms at Longleat. But aside from a lovely weekend, which not even a risibly cheap Bath parking ticket and the temporary closure of the monkey enclosure could ruin, there is not a lot that I can share with you from this. So I returned to my day job (this blog can’t quite support me yet) and with it, to the monotony of the EC1 food offering, where, like a good song, the best dishes are overplayed to the point of tastelessness. And so in order to unpeel myself from my gastronomic malaise, the girlfriend and I decided to do what shall now be referred to as “The Best of London”. We concluded half way through our evening that this is really the very best that London has to offer. Like previous commentators, I am tempted not to share the findings of last night with you, but unlike previous commentators, my small but dutiful following (made smaller by the recent break) probably knows where I went anyway, so I may as well spill the beans.

Last night I had dinner at what may well be the best gastropub in the world. If you work on the premise that London is the only place where good gastropubs are (a tall order to some, not me), and that this is without question the best one in London (despite Time Out spitting in their face with a Runners-Up award), then you arrive at my logical destination. The Bull and Last, of best chips in London fame, is the restopub in question, and it is situated on the other edge of Hampstead Heath. I have realised on previous posts that I haven’t tended to discuss the food in that much detail. I think this is because there is nothing that really jumps out at me. I cannot say this about the B&L. The food is amazing. In our/my normal fashion, we ordered a collection of starters to come whenever. I prefer this to having a main course. Friends have often laughed about this, calling it cultural (I call them anti-Semitic. Not very productive). I am so predictable in my ordering. Even within our ordering a collection of starters, I managed to squeeze in a starter which was itself a collection of charcuterie.

Last night, however, this method was vindicated (if it indeed had ever been in question). Starting with the charcuterie plate. Ahh. Such a charcuterie plate has never graced a table of mine before. A triumph. And this from a man who has sampled every permutation of charcuterie plate going. I even remember the exact contents, which nobody ever does. Contained on this sensational board was the following: a big dollop of chicken liver parfait, two slices of duck prosciutto, a pot of goose rillettes (maybe duck, my only ambiguity), a ham hock terrine with a tangy orange chutney, a little deep friend cube of pig’s head with “gribiche” (better than Helman’s), some amazing grape pickle, capers, caperberries, breakfast radish, cornichons and some nicely dressed watercress leaves. The board arrived, beautifully stacked (I really must take up photography) with a pile of hot brown toast. And it tasted comically good. The liver parfait was rich and smooth, the pig’s head full of flavour, the duck prosciutto as good as I have ever had (cured on site). And all of this for a tenner. Or twelve quid (I don’t remember). Either way, it makes nearly every other restaurant in London look absurb. I could eat this every night and not only not be bored but be positively elated with every mouthful. While I was buried in charcuterie gargling with pleasure, her roast pumpkin soup was producing similar results. Aside the soup was a small bowl full of the perfect amount of caramlised and roasted chestnuts, which made an already deep and flavourful soup even closer to perfection. Also battling for our affections were the chips. I don’t really know what I can say about these chips. They are thrice-cooked, or thrice-fried or something else involving performing three separate actions, but whatever it is, it makes the chips 300 times as nice as any chips you have ever eaten. Just go there. I can’t explain. I don’t even want to explain as it makes me too hungry. I think there was a salad which had something to do with chicory and pecorino and walnuts present also, but much like watching The Invincibles in the 2003-04 season where I was too busy marvelling at Henry and Pires and Vieira to notice that Freddie did a pretty good job too, it got somewhat lost in the brilliance of everything else on the table. To round off the meal, we rushed through a light and perfect fig tarte tatin with gingerbread ice-cream. The name of this dish speaks for itself. And it was better than I thought it would be. The bill was about forty quid including the perfect Bloody Mary that I guzzled down in the first five minutes. Amazing. As we drove off, we discussed where else in London comes up to the Bull & Last. Neither of us could think of anywhere. I will still be thinking about that meal the next time I go there. Which may well be this weekend.

I probably should tell you some more about the feel of the place, the clientele, the room, the provenance of the guys that run it (I used to play football with one of them at University. I wouldn’t exactly call us mates. He thinks my name is Stan, as in responding to the question what is your name, my weak diction announcing “It’s Dan” caused the obvious result) and I will, but not now. For now though, I implore you to go there and eradicate the memory of every crap meal you have ever had at a gastropub. And try to remember why you ever bothered going anyone else apart from there.

(I have realised that I have forgotten to tell you what else is included in “The Best of London”. This wasn’t on purpose. Take the short hop over to the Everyman in Belsize Park and have your post meal coffee or tea flopping into the practically horizontal sofa, watching a great film. And go home smug in the knowledge that your evening could not have been any better).

Sunday, 4 October 2009

One Things Leads To Another

A full weekend, punctuated by two contrasting brunches, prompts me to take stock and think about how this key weekend meal sets up the day ahead of it. On Saturday, I went to The Providores and Tapa Room on Marylebone High Street (my local). I followed this up with spending too much money in Selfridges (I have a fetching leather jacket to show for this – part of my early mid-life crisis collection, it sits well with my new car) before enjoying the very free V&A museum in South Kensington. On Sunday, I went to Raoul’s Maida Vale, then watched Arsenal train against Blackburn before wringing an hour of football out of my once-talented legs.

The Providores and Tapa Room, or Prov for those who like to abbreviate and are content at the loss of esotericism, is a fusion restaurant, which has been on Marylebone High Street since the beginning of its renaissance in the early 90’s. I am both intrigued and put off the place by the perennial large queue outside, the inhabitants of which I always think I would rather not share the same breakfast space as. However, as the girlfriend’s sister and husband (sister’s, not girlfriend’s) had done the queuing for us, I couldn’t possibly refuse. The writing of this blog has made me start thinking a lot more critically when I am eating out. This might prove to be a bad thing that precludes my enjoyment of a meal, or it might actually teach me something, so I intend to persevere. And now the food. The menu is a fantastically eclectic journey around the world. I visited Spain and North Africa with my chorizo, rosemary spuds with a soft boiled egg (actually poached) and a sumac (I had always thought this was poisonous) and saffron aioli. The girls went to Turkey for poached eggs, drowned in cream and chilli butter and to I-don't-know-where for their rice, maple syrup and miso porridge, with a very nice tamarillo (or tree tomato to you) compote on top. The most sensible man in the group, who I sense would have ordered the full English had they offered one, went for poached eggs with mushrooms. His choice of sourdough toast was extravagant enough. The individual dishes were all pretty good. Or mine was good. The potatoes and the chorizo worked surprisingly well with the eggs, and reminded me of the only decent thing I have ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant (the ante-cuisine). You couldn't fault the poached eggs and mushrooms. But if you are like me, and you like to try a little bit of everyones just in case someone else's is nicer, then you would have left with a confusion of unknown spices and tree fruits and Turkish butter. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe fusion food is not for sharing. Or maybe we ordered too exotically. Or maybe the whole place is a bit too much. The queue, the flavours. And the fact that I couldn't spread my newspaper out. The Virgin Mary was good though. I think. 

On Sunday, we went for a more intimate affair at Raoul's. They of the bright orange eggs and unexpectedly good dinner. There is never that much to say about Raoul's which I think other people might find that interesting. It is a good local canteen. It is not too pricey, it is very laid back. You can always fault one or two things with your meal, like the odd worm in your omelette (they did give it to us for free), or some cold hollandaise sauce (likely to count against them in the great Eggs Benedict Off of 2009/10), or the truly horrendous coffee (reminds me of revising for finals in the Edinburgh library). But they manage to salvage it somewhere. Despite the chilling effect of the hollandaise, the benedict was yum. Her pumpkin soup and side salad was excellent, particularly the parsnip crisps on the side salad which I inconsiderately inhaled. When you combine this with the fact that you can lay your paper out, that the service is snappy and that nobody questions the slightly odd guy next to you brunching alone with his iPod (why does this look weird but reading a paper alone doesn't), you have a place that delivers a dependable and desirable brunch. I think I have come to appreciate this more and more. I like to know what I am getting, even if it is only quite good.

So Fusion and Prov cued a day of shopping and musems, while solid old Raoul's led to solid old Arsenal and a bit of 7-a-side. I am not sure why but the symmetry of this really makes sense. 

Friday, 2 October 2009

London Review of Breakfasts (In One Post)

There is a fantastic blog called The London Review of Breakfasts.  It does what you would expect it do. Since August 2005, the authors have eloquently and exhaustively reviewed nearly every spot in London where breakfast in served. I cannot hope to match their strength in depth, but, much like the Arsenal 2008-2009 squad, I hope this selection of young promise and a few more experienced pros will be enough to guide your demanding morning tastebuds. (Additionally, if you are looking for a website that just makes you hungry, then the genius behind Simply Breakfast has done precisely that – this is pure breakfast porn).

The London Knowledge Breakfast List 


I went to Australia last Christmas and had a massive revelation (two actually, but one won’t be that interesting to you) – the Aussies do the best breakfast in the world. Hearty, clean, wholesome and healthy. And some bright spark had the idea to show London that this is the case. Saturday morning, mews behind Charlotte St., Monmouth coffee, sweetcorn fritters with smoked salmon and a poached egg. Mmmmmm. (Word of warning: closed on a Sunday) 


So you can’t get a full English in here. You can, however, get the equipment to make one. This café is situated at the back of the kitchen shop, and there is a cookery school downstairs, so they have no excuses in any department. This is more a place for an excellent pastry and a coffee, and although everyone I ever go with complain about how often I discuss it, I can’t escape from how great the “vibe” is in here (contra to my comments about the buzz in The Wolseley! – hypocrisy will form a key part of this blog) 

Smiths of Smithfield

In the days when I used to work weekends, Smiths was what got me out of bed. Founded by the half of the Masterchef presenting team that you would let cook for you, this solid multi-purpose venue does a mean Full English. There is something I love about eating somewhere where half the customers are starting their day (before heading South to the City) and half are finishing (falling out of Fabric).

Tom’s Kitchen

They teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, they nearly closed down because the smell made the neighbours too hungry (or something) and the proprietor has a Michelin star. If that is not enough to make you venture into Chelsea for breakfast, I don’t know what will. Pricey but excellent hearty fayre, and the best you’ll find in the area without a doubt. 

The Ambassador Cafe

Interior simple. Menu simple. Breakfast excellent. Exmouth Market has turned into a foodie hub and this café is part of the reason behind this. If post-breakfast meandering and eclectic window shopping forms a crucial part of your breakfast, then this is the place for you. 

Raoul's Cafe Maida Vale

An old favourite on a great little high street. The eggs they use must be, without exception, the most pampered, well nourished and well loved in the world if yolk colour is anything to go on. This place has everything you want in a breakfast place, and nabbing a table outside means you could stay for lunch and (to some’s surprise) an excellent dinner. 

La Fromagerie

Another one on my list who’s expertise is not in the preparation of breakfast but do a superb line in it nonetheless. While others have tried to imitate La Fromagerie’s “artisan chic” look, few can back it up with produce that is practically hand-picked and walked over from Italy and France. If you arrive and see a big queue, please persevere – you will not be disappointed.  

The Electric Brasserie

Although the location in the heart of Notting Hill might put you off, the food is unquestionably brilliant here. I have looked for ways to knock it every time I have been, but I can’t. Breakfast solo, breakfast date, team hungover breakfast. All work perfectly. Something I will consider over the coming months is who does the best Eggs Benedict in London. Some smart early money is on this place. 

Baker & Spice

Another Maida Vale stalwart and another place I could sit in all day. Three of their “pellet eggs” – like normal eggs but smaller, tastier (and a bit more expensive, naturally) – make for a superb breakfast. Pastries made on site, coffee is great and the bread is amazing. All you need to do now is hover aggressively for a table…

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Break Fast at The Wolseley

On Monday, I extended my nightly fast to 8pm in the evening. I am not sure why. Something to do with superstition and not wanting to break a sequence. If this blog lasts long enough, then you might hear some more on this.

I am told that the only place to break the fast in London is The Wolseley so with the opportunity to get the year off to a perfect start, I accepted the challenge and booked for two. With a slight delay and a great parking spot (my girlfriend is a trend-setter - she argues that people only park where other people park for fear of getting tickets - I call them petrolherds), we took our seats at this great London dining institution. I should probably confess that I have some pre-existing bias. I love it there. Which of course makes any positive comment I have irrelevant, and any criticism deep, powerful and lasting. Or perhaps I overstate my influence. Anyway, back to the restaurant. And how much I love it there. The room is a winner. You can be sitting next to the toilets, as we were, and still be sitting at a great table. The buzz in the dining room is…a buzz. I am never sure what people refer to when they speak of atmosphere you can cut with a knife, or roll with a rolling pin, or shape into small balls then blow through a straw. You get the feeling you are in the place where the locals in the know eat. There are sous waiters, and waiters, and junior managers, and managers, and senior managers, all designated and ordered by various forms of cloth and neckwear and accoutrements. I even think that I spotted the owner walking around with a yellow tie made of a richer silk mix than that of his senior managers. But back once again to the restaurant. I am determined to not let my unflinching love for this place flinch.

For starter, we ordered chicken soup and dumplings (for me) and a chopped salad (for her) – here we received special dispensation. They kindly agreed to chop the salad especially as only the non-chopped salad was available on the menu. The soup, served direct from its’ bronze saucepan, was too concentrated for a consommé but I do acknowledge that serving a Jew chicken soup and asking him to not find fault is akin to asking him how he is and receiving the answer you seek. The chef punished us for moving off menu by putting too much mustard in the dressing on the salad. By this point, our shrunken and atoned stomachs were already nearly satisfied but before we had time to consider this too much, my wiener schnitzel and her burger arrived. I was delighted. It was as good as you would find in Vienna. Probably better. That is what the Wolseley do. They take specialities from all over the world and make them better than they do in their homeland. And serve them on beautiful plates, with lovely silver cutlery. And deliver them to you using sharp-suited, well-humoured waiters. And you are too intoxicated by the splendour of it all to notice that the burger wasn’t cooked medium as asked for, or the chips are a little dry (and nowhere near as good as in The Bull & Last – by decree of my girlfriend, the best chips in London), or it takes a while to get the bill because your waiter is charming the table next to you.

But I forget all of this, because I can’t get away from the fact that I love it there.