I’d like to buy the world a Coke…

Vegas Coke bottle
…because seriously, most of you are drinking total garbage. I spent half an hour today subjecting my digestive system to a foaming, fructose-laden onslaught of bubbles, colourants and aromatic aldehydes, all in the name of helping you, dear reader, avoid some of the worst the world has to offer in sodas and mixers. I am now nearing diabetic coma and peeing for all I am worth.

Those of you who have driven down the Las Vegas Strip before can’t have failed to notice the hundred-foot Coca Cola bottle nestling (for Vegas) unobtrusively next to the squatting green mega-casino that is MGM Grand. The giant bottle houses a discount show tickets booth and Everything Coca Cola. This is a place (optimistically referred to as a ‘museum’) mostly devoted to Coca Cola merchandise – if it is your dearest wish to be clothed from head to foot in Coke-branded nylon and festooned with Coke pins and magnets, Everything Coca Cola will be right up your alley. Up on the first floor, there’s a bar where you can order the obvious in something called a Collectible Heritage Bottle and sip it through a straw while watching Japanese tourists take photos of one another in the arms of a fibreglass polar bear. The bar also offers one of America’s strangest tasting menus – a selection of 16 ‘International Flavors’. These are drinks produced by the Coca Cola company and sold in places far away. The sort of places where you should be very, very careful when ordering something wet to go with your meal.

We started with Lilt, from the UK. I’m familiar with this stuff; my Grandma used to keep a fridge-full of it, and it’s sweet, but not bad – an orange-tinged soda which tastes approximately of grapefruit and pineapple. Kin Cider from Ireland was also inoffensive. It’s essentially what we Brits call lemonade; a clear, fizzy, lemon-flavoured drink; Kinley Lemon from Israel was another lemonade, this time slightly cloudy and sharpy citric. South African Stoney Ginger Beer was also cloudy, with a pleasantly gingery kick – very different from Krest Gingerale from Israel, which was a lavatorial colour, packed no heat and ached with blandness. Mezzo Mix is German, and appears to be a mildly spiced sort of cross between a cola and a lemonade. I’d actually consider buying this to cook a ham in; it was less sweet than Coke and had a really good balance of spices. And Fanta Blackcurrant from Hong Kong is really very good indeed; it’s flat, and not too sweet, like a very dilute glass of Ribena (a British blackcurrant cordial which most of us toted around in flasks at school).

Things started to go wrong with the eldritch green Fanta Melon, also from Israel. I don’t know what the Israelis are doing to their melons, but they should stop immediately. VegitaBeta from Japan was flat, orange, and tasted of ghastly mystery. China’s Smart Apple was a glass of apple-smelling nuclear waste; Smart Watermelon was bright orange and very similar to something I had washed my hands with at Circus Circus the day before while reminiscing about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Unprompted, I do not think I would have applied the word ‘smart’ to either drink, but clearly Coca Cola’s marketing people know better.

Passionfruit from Argentina was lurid but actually pretty tasty, and reflected its name (amazing, this, given how little some of the other drinks resembled their suggested ingredients). Mexico’s Lift Apple was the colour of nicely oxidised apple juice, and was delightfully unassuming when compared to the Smart Apple, which I can still taste somewhere deep in my digestive tract. Central America started to get seriously weird with Costa Rica’s Fanta Kolita. I was under the impression (thanks to a bleary night with Wikipedia trying to work out what on earth Hotel California is about) that a colita was the flowering head of a cannabis plant, but the orange stuff in the glass appeared to be much less exotic – a Latin version of Scotland’s truly awful Irn Bru, which is advertised in the UK, with good reason, as being made out of girders. Simba Guarana from Paraguay was also downright alarming: a heavy sarsparilla fizz the colour of weak tea.

All this pales into an insignificant froth when compared to the quinine-laced horror which, according to the Coca Cola-clad barstaff, Italians drink voluntarily. I would be unsurprised if they’re using this stuff in Guantanamo Bay to force confessions. Beverly looks totally innocuous. It’s clear and fizzy, like an alluring glass of Perrier water. It tastes of death. Sugary, but chemotherapy-bitter death, a bit like chewing on the icing-frosted pith of a pomelo from hell. I checked with the staff that our drink had not been swapped out for poison by a humourist in the kitchen. They shook their heads sagely and said that sophisticated Romans drink Beverly as a delicious aperitif, presumably to set themselves up for an evening’s pizza, romance and street-fighting.

Today I discovered that the world has still not learned to sing in perfect harmony. Some of us like our drinks overpoweringly sweet. Others like them flat. Others still like violent fizz and medicinal flavours. But the Italians – they’re dangerous. Stay away from them and their death-drinks, because if they’re habitually drinking something as revolting as Beverly they are either crazed or plotting something brilliant and totally, totally evil.

Lotus of Siam, Las Vegas

Catfish saladI’m back in Las Vegas, one of my favourite eating destinations, for the Christmas holidays. One of the restaurants I’d been very excited about visiting for the first time was Lotus of Siam, a tiny Thai place in a mall about a mile away from the north (grotty) end of the Strip.

Strip malls aren’t the kind of place I spend a lot of time in when I’m in Vegas. This particular mall sports Serge’s Wigs (a shop for showgirls looking to buy luxuriant hair), and a pole-dancing club. But Gourmet Magazine announced a few years ago that Lotus of Siam is the best Thai restaurant in North America, so there wasn’t any question about it – we were going. Saipin Chutima, the lady in charge of the kitchen here, learned to cook from her grandmother, and as a result you’ll find some fascinating family recipes from northern Thailand on the extensive menu.

Don’t visit Lotus of Siam at lunchtime, when the rather undistinguished Chinese buffet is on offer; instead, go in the evening and ask for some of the more unusual offerings on the menu, like the Issan dishes which come on a separate menu. We heard other tables being asked what sort of chilli spicing they preferred on a scale from one to ten, but unfortunately we weren’t offered the choice and ended up with some less tongue-numbing food than we’d have preferred. This isn’t the place to ask for a green curry, a Pad Thai or whatever else you usually order in your local Thai – these dishes will be excellent, but why would you order something you recognise when you can ask for something like the exceptional sour Issan sausage (a little like a Thai cross between mortadella and salami), a dish you won’t find anywhere else?

Lotus of SiamWe asked for Nam Kao Tod – that sausage in a crispy rice salad (see left) as one of our starters. There were tastes here I’ve never experienced before; darkly crisp, deep-fried rice grains marinaded before cooking in something deeply savoury, mixed with the slightly sour sausage cubes and aromatic herbs. Issan pork jerky was less thin, dry and chewy than I’d anticipated – it was juicy and caramelised, served with a little tamarind sauce to drizzle over. Dr W, gargling with porky joy, attempted to annex the whole dish for himself.

A crispy catfish salad (see the picture at the top of this post) was my favourite part of the whole meal. It’s seldom you find catfish that doesn’t taste slightly muddy, but this was fabulously fresh and delicate. The tiny pieces of catfish were fried to a crisp, and heaped on top of a sweet lime-drenched salad made from more handfuls of fresh herbs, roasted cashews, thin strips of carrot, apple, ginger, onion, cabbage and other vegetables. These lively and fresh-tasting salads provide a brilliant foil to some of the darker and more syrupy flavours in the main courses we selected: Kra Phao Moo Krob, a crispy preparation of belly pork with a deeply savoury sauce and lots of Thai holy basil; and Nua Sao Renu, strips of charcoal-grilled steak, still pink in the middle, anointed with another tamarind sauce. (This needed lots of rice to mop up the sauce, which was so packed with flavour my tastebuds could barely cope with it.)

We were too full to manage dessert – a shame, because the coconut rice in particular sounded glorious. Is Gourmet Magazine right in calling this the best Thai restaurant in North America? I’m not sure – these flavours are so different from the Thai meals I’ve had before I find it hard to contextualise, and I’ve been to very few American Thai restaurants. But I am certain of one thing – it was so good that we’ll be eating there at least once more before we go home after Christmas.

Anthony’s Restaurant, Boar Lane, Leeds

Anthony'sI started visiting Leeds about ten years ago, when I met Dr Weasel. Back then it was already a pretty darn pleasant city to visit, with fantastic shopping in the Arcades, a branch of Harvey Nichols and some amazing municipal architecture. Since then, the place has only got better – the city is positively bristling with good restaurants these days, and Anthony’s (0113 245 5922) is one of the very best.

To be entirely honest, I remain unconvinced by most molecular gastronomy I’ve tried. It’s often fiddly, a bit pretentious – the tubes of slightly (and repellently) high, sticky foie gras wrapped in red pepper toffee I had earlier this year at Midsummer House in Cambridge remain a very expensive nadir of chefly masturbation. (I have not reviewed Midsummer House here, because bad reviews are too easy to write and it’s no help to the reader if I write an armful of invective where a simple ‘don’t visit; they don’t deserve their two stars and they cost too much’ would do. In short, don’t visit; they don’t deserve their two stars and they cost too much.) I’ve tried other restaurants offering molecular gastronomy which have been much more successful. Jean Ramet in Bordeaux, for example, is worth a visit, but only uses molecular techniques in a few courses in the menu. I’d pretty much given up on finding a good meal served in this style in the UK until time and wallet allowed a visit to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck.

So I was intrigued when, looking for somewhere to take Dr W’s family for a pre-Christmas meal, I read about Anthony’s. The head chef and restaurant director both worked for years at El Bulli in Spain, which is widely considered Europe’s best restaurant and the very best in the world for molecular cooking. (El Bulli’s waiting list for reservations is currently standing at two years, so don’t expect a review any time soon.) Chef Ferran Adria is incredibly picky about who he employs, and Anthony Flinn is the only British chef to have worked at El Bulli. After three years in Spain, he came back to Leeds to set up his own restaurant with his father – a quick glance at the online menu had me on the phone immediately, booking a table.

The restaurant is a very short walk from Leeds station (just as well, given the weather on the day we visited – dead umbrellas littered the pavements and little match girls were perishing in every doorway). We were welcomed into a very comfortable bar area with sofas and low tables, where we were greeted with a wine list, and, joy of Christmas joys, a beer list. I skipped over the wines and went straight for the beers – there was the very pricey but creamily delicious Deus Champagne beer, which is brewed in Belgium and then shipped to the Champagne region of France to be bottle-conditioned in the same way Champagne is, resulting in tiny bubbles and a high alcohol content. I settled for a glass of my favourite Kriek, and we tucked into a jar of juicy purple olives.

Downstairs, in the restaurant proper, we found a large table, beautifully dressed. The lunch set menu is unfathomably well-priced at £19.95 for two courses or £23.95 for three. I chose from the a la carte menu, largely because I had been fantasising about the restaurant’s signature white onion risotto with parmesan air and espresso ever since booking.

An amuse bouche arrived for the whole table (very nice, this, given that one of our party wasn’t eating a starter). A glass of goose jelly, topped with achingly sweet brown shrimp and a nutmeg foam was one of the very best things I’ve eaten all year – right up there with the poached oysters and caviar at Picasso in February.

Two tiny loaves of fresh, white bread came to the table, accompanied by three soft butters. One was salted, one creamed with vast amounts of parmesan, and one, introduced as ‘toast butter’ tasted of . . . toast. Lightly browned, glossily buttered, delicious toast. Suddenly molecular gastronomy stopped looking quite so silly, and began to make a very perfect kind of sense.

The white onion risotto arrived. I have been trying to work out what bits of molecular chef’s kit went into packing such a tremendous load of flavour into those little grains of rice – I’m guessing that a vacuum was involved somewhere. The parmesan foam was a wonderful foil to the strong but sweetly creamy onion of the rice, and the small amount of espresso at the bottom of the bowl was a remarkable and successful contrast of flavours. This was a very generous portion for an appetiser, but I’m very grateful that it was; I could have happily bathed in this stuff. The set lunch starters were a celeriac velouté with a ham hock ravioli – the pasta skin was made from a sheet of scallop – and a very delicate crab filo presentation with cucumber salad. All delicious.

The set main course that everyone else at the table chose was a roast poussin, beautifully presented in a mirepoix of vegetables and a very rich jus with potato puree. I chose the pan fried cod cheek with oxtail. Several fatty little fish cheeks were arranged on the plate in a cep puree which was so darkly mushroomy it tasted curiously of gunpowder. The sticky, gelatinous oxtail was a fantastic contrast, but the thing on the plate that best set off the cod was a pair of sweet malt jelly cubes covered with grated black truffle. Something about the dark, back-of-mouth sweetness of malt, the almost bodily warm odour of the truffle and the cleanly fatty cod together made a kind of magic.

Professor Weasel opted for cheese for dessert. Another time, I’d like to pay the extra £10.50 for what the menu calls the Eleven Cheeses Supplement – Prof W’s three cheeses were beautifully presented little squares, and had him making happy noises through his beard. I asked for the Pear Crumble – tiny, quite hard pears dipped in what seemed to be a very thin beignet batter, deep fried and sugared, accompanied by a smoked brie ice cream (creamily soft and not strong, but a good contrast to the pears), an unsugared walnut jelly and tiny cubes of black olive – surprisingly good with a mouthful of pear.

Coffee was excellent, and again, although only a few of us had asked for coffee, petits fours in the form of chocolates came for the whole table. White chocolate fondant, a creamy pumpkin square and a sesame ganache left us a family bursting at the seams, but absurdly happy. Thank you Anthony’s – we’ll be back.

Mexican squash and corn cream

butternut squash pureeDo try this one – it’s seriously good and has worked its way up to being a frequent star alongside my roast dinners. This silky, sweet puree works unbelievably well as an accompaniment, especially with poultry – I hope some of you will try it with your Christmas turkey. It’s rich and packed with flavour; and like many recipes which utilise creamed corn, it’s a favourite with children. It also works as a great quick main dish (and is lovely if you’re entertaining vegetarians – try it over rice with an interesting salad).

Butternut squash originates in Mexico, and it has an affinity for other Mexican ingredients like the corn, the coriander and the chillies. I’ve used crème fraîche here to loosen the mixture – an authentic Mexican dish might use crema, the thick, Mexican, sour cream, but really the difference between the two products is minuscule. If you can’t find smoky ground chipotle chillies where you are, just substitute your favourite crushed, dried chillies or chilli powder.

To serve two as a main dish or about four (depending on greed) as a side dish, you’ll need:

1 butternut squash
1 can creamed corn
3 heaped tablespoons crème fraîche
1 tablespoon salted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon ground chipotle chilli
1 large handful roughly chopped coriander

Peel the squash (you’ll find a serrated knife the best tool for this job – that peel is tough), remove the seeds and stringy pith, and chop the flesh into pieces about an inch square. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes until the pieces of squash are tender and soft when poked with a knife.

Drain the water off and return the squash pieces to the pan. Add the corn, butter and crème fraîche to the pan and mash with a potato masher off the heat until smooth. Season with the salt, pepper and chillies – you’ll find this dish will require quite a lot of salt for maximum flavour because of the natural sweetness of the vegetables.

Return the pan to a low heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Remove from the heat again and stir in the coarsely chopped coriander. Serve immediately.

This squash and corn cream freezes well.

Win a year’s supply of Kinder Bueno!

The lovely people at Kinder Bueno emailed me yesterday to ask if Gastronomy Domine could host another competition. This is just perfect for Christmas – by answering one easy question, you can win a whole year’s supply of chocolate.

This is the question:

The Kinder Bueno site (where you can also pick up some handy party tips) asks visitors to choose what the best thing about Christmas is. What options does the site give you?

A – The parties and family

B – The parties and prezzies

C – Family and prezzies

Simply email your answer to gastronomydomine@gmail.com with the title “Kinder Bueno Competition” by 31st December 2007. A winner will be selected at random from the correct answers. One lucky reader will receive a Kinder Bueno bar for each week of 2008!

Terms and conditions

The competition is open to UK residents only. The winner will be the first entry drawn at random after the closing date of 31st December and will win 52 Kinder Buenos.

Onion rings

onion ringsIf the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, these things are gastronomic Viagra. These onion rings have sweet, tender middles and a fantastically crisp coating. I use a tiny amount of parmesan cheese in the breading, which doesn’t give the onion rings a cheesy taste, but does make them deeply savoury and helps create the excellent colour. Cornmeal (rough polenta) gives them a wonderful crunch, and rice flour a pleasing crispiness.

Rice flour is a useful ingredient to keep in the kitchen. It’s usually available in Indian and Chinese grocers, and it has one very useful property – coatings made with it stay crisp even after the food has cooled. This makes it invaluable for summer picnics, when you can make breaded chicken, cool it on a rack, pop it in some Tupperware, drag it in a knapsack over miles of public footpath and take it out hours later, still crispy. These onion rings were never going to get the chance to go cold, but they do benefit from the delicate crisp you get from rice flour.

I always use a wok and a jam thermometer for deep frying; this way, you get through much less oil, and can easily control the temperature. When we finally get around to remodelling the kitchen and I have a bit more room to play with, I may end up buying a machine for deep frying; but deep frying is a cooking method I only use about five times a year, so I’m not completely convinced it’s worth the money and the counter space.

You’ll probably have some breading mixture left over. Just pop it in a bag and freeze it – you’ll find you can use it directly from the freezer on another occasion.

To make onion rings to serve four (or fewer, depending on greed), you’ll need:

2 large onions (buy the biggest ones you can find)
5 heaped tablespoons cornmeal (coarse polenta)
5 heaped tablespoons rice flour
3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Madras curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
Milk to soak
Flavourless oil to deep fry

Slice the onions into thin rings (about half a centimetre thick). Set the oil to heat. Mix the cornmeal, rice flour, parmesan, curry powder and salt in a large bowl.

Separate the rings out. Dip each ring first into the milk, then dredge them in the breading mixture. Drop the rings into the hot oil (your thermometer should have a ‘deep fry’ marking on it – otherwise, use a machine) in small batches, and fry for about two minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a tray lined with kitchen paper in a single layer, and keep the tray warm in a very, very low oven while you cook the rest of the rings.

I served these with a steak (on which I’d used Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Blackened Steak blend – a hearty recommendation here if you can get hold of some) and mashed potatoes.

Lamb casserole with apricots and preserved lemon

Moroccan lambLooking back over the last couple of weeks, it strikes me that I’m cooking an awful lot of orange stuff. (There are things you’ve not seen, too – I find myself repeatedly making potatoes mashed with swede and carrot as a side dish, and roasting butternut squashes for my lunch.) I am guessing that this has something to do with shortening days and a craving for sunshine, and that after we start getting more sunlight again after December 21, I’ll start moving towards yellow food and onward through the spectrum until we get back to the tomato season again.

This is another recipe for those of you who made the preserved lemons from a few months back. They’re smelling just wonderful now; all the flavour has been pulled out of the spices in the jar and has lodged itself in the flesh of the lemons. Strangely Christmas-y, via Morocco.

The other ingredients in this recipe are largely Moroccan (although I doubt that a real Moroccan would look very kindly on the flour-thickened cider sauce). A few companies in the UK produce harissa, but I only recommend one – Belazu, who also make preserved lemons if you don’t have your own, do a very fine, warmly spiced harissa made with rose petals. It’s available in most supermarkets. I’ve tried a few other brands, and they are nothing like as good.

To serve two greedy people, you’ll need:

2-inch piece of ginger
5 cloves garlic
4 shallots
12 apricots
500g lamb neck fillets
1 tsp harissa
½ a preserved lemon
1 litre cider
1 sprig rosemary
1 tbsp flour
Oregano to garnish
Olive oil

Cut the lamb into cubes and heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan (as always, Le Creuset pans are your best bet here for a really even heat). When the oil is hot, brown the lamb pieces a few at a time and remove them to a bowl when seared.

When you have browned all the lamb, look at the pan – if there is only very little oil left, add another tablespoonful. Bring the heat down to medium and add the shallots to the pan. When the shallots are beginning to take on some colour, add the sliced garlic, the julienned ginger, the lamb, the diced skin of the half-lemon (reserve the flesh) and the apricots to the pan. Cook, stirring well, for another five minutes, then add the flour to the pan, stirring to make sure the flour is coating everything.

Pour the cider over the lamb and add the diced flesh of the lemon, the rosemary and the harissa to the mixture. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover and leave to simmer for two hours. When the two hours are up, taste the sauce. You may not need to add any salt (there is lots in the lemon), but I found an extra teaspoonful made the balance just right. Garnish the dish with oregano.

The cider will have turned into a sweetly fruity sauce, and the lamb will be extremely tender. I served this with mashed potato, but it’s also very good with couscous.

Sweet potato and halloumi sauté

Sweet potato and halloumiSweet potato is a great winter ingredient – all that sugar and gorgeous colour make for a really uplifting meal. The tuber is so packed with sweetness that cooking it in this way will make the edges catch and caramelise in the butter, leaving each soft little cube with a coating that’s halfway between chewy and crisp. Alongside the salty halloumi, this mixture of textures and flavours is a real winner.

This dish makes a really tasty main course for vegetarians. I also like it as a side dish with some good sausages. The magic in this is all in the spicing – it’s worth taking the time to set to the spices with a mortar and pestle until they’re really well blended (you can also use a coffee grinder) – whatever method you choose, make sure that the anise and cloves in particular are well-pulverised, because neither ingredient is good to bite down on in large chunks. You’ll end up making more spice mixture than you need, but I view this as a time-saver; just pack the extra mixture into a freezer bag and pop it in the freezer. Next time you come to cook this dish, you can use the mixture directly from the freezer.

To serve four as a side dish or two as a main course, you’ll need:

1 sweet potato
1 block halloumi
1 large shallot
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon flaked chillies
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon onion salt
1 ‘petal’ star anise
3 cloves
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

Take the cumin, fennel seeds, chillies, cinnamon, onion salt, anise and cloves, and grind them thoroughly in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Peel the sweet potato and cut it into large dice, about the size of the top joint of your thumb. Sprinkle two teaspoons of the spice mixture over the sweet potato pieces and toss well until they are coated. Cut the halloumi into dice the same size as the sweet potato pieces and dice the shallot finely.

Heat the butter in a non-stick frying pan over a medium-low heat (make sure you use a non-stick pan or this dish will stick like glue) until it starts to foam, and tip in the spiced sweet potato. Sauté gently, turning the pieces every few minutes, until the sweet potato is soft all the way through (about 20 minutes).

Turn the heat up a notch and add the shallots and a crushed clove of garlic to the pan. Stir well to distribute the shallots and garlic around the pan, then add the halloumi, making sure that all the halloumi pieces are in contact with the bottom of your pan. Cook for another five minutes without stirring, turn the halloumi pieces and continue to sauté for another five minutes. The shallots should be brown and a little gummy, and the halloumi should be seared a golden colour where it’s been in contact with the pan.

Turn out into a heated serving dish and garnish with parsley.

Gordon Ramsay at Claridges

I am not really a lady who lunches. I would very much like to be, but my options are limited, given that I live in the middle of a field in Cambridgeshire. All the same, about once a month I try to meet up with a friend who lives in London, where we lunch as if it’s going out of fashion. I am fortunate in having found a friend who, like me, gets such an absurd amount of pleasure from good dining. She’s one of only a couple of female friends I have who do not just sort of dibble around with wet salads which they do not finish, and it’s good to have a lengthy conversation about hollandaise sauce without being considered a fatso.

Why do so few people I know manage to eat and drink without fear and shame? We worry about the ethics of eating, about the size of our bodies. It’s absurd; food is such a pleasure. Imagine the joy that suffuses your whole body when you eat something as simple as a good bacon sandwich, let alone as glorious as the foie gras mosaic I had at Gordon Ramsay at Claridges. Imagine how good for you all those endorphins and cheery feelings are – and now compare this to the mealy-mouthed, guilt-ridden attitude we’re being encouraged to have to food. You know exactly what I’m talking about – the press releases and government factsheets announcing that any amount of bacon will give you cancer; that eating meat will kill the planet; that thick-sliced bread is making us all obese; that toast cooked beyond the palest gold will fill the female body with specific feminine carcinogens; that the French duck population is being tortured to death to satisfy your shameless greed; that a properly salted meal will raise your blood pressure and stop your heart beating. Where does this awful gastronomic puritanism come from? I believe strongly that the joy, companionship and straightforward sinful pleasure of eating well are in themselves so good for you that any negative effects dealt out by that bacon sandwich are squelched immediately.

This year’s standouts, lunch-wise, have been Le Gavroche (review to follow) and last week’s visit to Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s. Both restaurants offer a really keenly priced lunch menu, and are usually booked out a couple of months in advance – make sure you plan well ahead. The Claridge’s lunch menu comes in at a bewilderingly low £30 (although once you’ve supplemented this with an aperitif and a glass of wine or two, you’ll find the bill creeping skywards).

Gordon Ramsay, for those who have been eschewing food, newspapers, television and conversation for the last twenty years, is one of only three chefs in the UK to hold three Michelin stars – he’s actually been awarded a total of 12 of the things spread among his various restaurants, which starts to look a little greedy. In recent years, he’s also carved out a television career so successful that he’s starting to become almost tiringly ubiquitous. He’s also something of a sex symbol, which might explain the high proportion of female diners at Claridge’s, one of whom was shoving a salad around her plate. (I have never seen the sex symbol thing myself; Ramsay is not referred to by other chefs as Old Celeriac Head for no reason.) Primarily, though, he’s a thoughtful, artistic chef with an eye to the whole dining experience, so service, table dressing and ambiance at his restaurants are given great weight.

The dining room at Claridge’s is surprisingly feminine. Like the rest of the hotel, it’s a glorious slab of art deco frivolity, with soft apricot and oyster touches. It’s a pleasantly quiet dining room with all the soft furnishings and moulded walls, so you can have a conversation with your dining partner without having to listen to everything the people at the next table are saying. I’ve read about Claridge’s daft mineral water list, which can go up to £50 for a litre, but we just asked for sparkling water and were given Badoit – probably my favourite mineral water – and didn’t have to sift through the list of deep-sea Hawaiian stuff and the juice squeezed out of volcanoes.

The amuse bouche was a butternut squash soup. The title fails to do it justice – it was simple but perfect; a creamy, buttery, velvet-soft pool of liquid gold. GSE’s cured trout starter was tender and sweet, and came with delicate little crisps made from Charlotte potatoes and a lovely little salad of cucumber. My own mosaic of pheasant, foie gras and winter vegetables was one of those things I’d be perfectly happy to smear all over myself and run up and down in. It was simply glorious – a perfect foie gras terrine punctuated with jewels of sweet, poached root vegetables and tiny morsels of pheasant. The vegetables lifted the deeply savoury foie to sparkling, twinkling heights, and an earthy little beetroot salad at the side of the plate provided a quiet and sensitive foil. It was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten this year.

Update, Jan 2008 – a couple of months later, Gordon Ramsay published the recipe for this gorgeous terrine in the Times. Good luck sourcing some raw foie gras – if you do make this, I’d love to hear from you.

Partridge, skin seared crisp and then dressed in an almost impossibly glossy, buttery jus came next. It’s good to see partridge at this time of year served innocent of pears – like rabbit and baby carrots, it’s a conceit that is funny the first time you see it, but which quickly gets tired. It came on a bed of diced celariac which had been cooked in more of that wonderful butter – nutty and lactic.

I chose the dessert on the strength of its accompaniment – a ball of star anise ice cream. A plate arrived with an almondy, apple-y paragon of tarts, while the ice cream had a wonderful, almost custardy texture and an intense fragrance from the anise. GSE’s winter fruit crumble, with another ice cream (ginger this time) disappeared before I got a look in.

I’ve only one complaint – my coffee was not, as requested, decaffeinated. We’d planned on some shopping after lunch, and this, in London at Christmastime, is best approached without extreme caffeination. I thrummed and palpitated my way down Oxford Street jittery, but happy beyond belief.