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…]

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