It’s sunny, I have an unexpectedly free week, and I find I’ve got several half-formed recipes in my head to work over. I’ve decided to take a week away from blogging to catch up on some reading and sunshine, to slap aloe vera onto my angry-looking shoulders and to think hard about red wine – I’ll be back at the end of next week.
In London for a day of Ladies’ Nice Things, my Mum and I had decided to take advantage of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon’s (020 7010 8600) set lunch menu (£25 for three courses – cooking at this level is hard enough to find anywhere in the capital, let alone at this sort of price). There is little as good for the appetite as perching on the world’s plushiest bar stools and looking over the open finishing kitchen as a synchronised team of young French chefs waltz around each other in pressed, white formation, whipping potatoes, peeling baby artichokes, and slicing truffles.
We’ll start this one back-to-front, at the point where the bill arrived. We noticed the two glasses of champagne we’d opened the meal with (for what is worth celebrating more than a nice day out with your Mum?) had been omitted from the receipt, and called the server over to ask him to add them on. He didn’t miss a beat, but said ‘Not at all; if the champagne has not appeared on the bill, please accept it with our compliments’.
Good dining’s not all about what’s on your plate. Service, noise level, comfort and the beauty of the room (and this room is like a red and black-lacquered Japanese box with a living wall of leaves) all have their part to play, and here all those elements slot neatly together to result in a real joy of a restaurant. Robuchon, who was named Chef of the Century back in the 1980s by Gault Millau, has 25 Michelin stars divided between his neat squadron of a dozen restaurants in cities all over the world. I’ve eaten in the Las Vegas Atelier and the London one, and quality, style and service are absolutely consistent between the two restaurants.
Meals at l’Atelier are presented either as small plates which the diner can select tapas-style from the menu; as larger plates to be enjoyed as a starter, main course and dessert; or as a dégustation set (£110) of the smaller plates chosen by the chef. Some of these dishes have become famous in their own right and are always found on the tasting menu: the quail stuffed with foie gras; the mashed potato, which is 50% butter and whipped into a cloud of silk. Robuchon’s cooking is of the voluptuously rich school that he was instrumental in founding after France’s flirtation with nouvelle cuisine; your meal here will be smooth with butter and oils and dense with meticulous, slow-cooked flavours.
That lunch menu is a magnificent introduction to Robuchon’s cooking; at any rate, I’m not sure I could cope with the richness of the dégustation menu at lunchtime. There are two choices for each of the three courses, and the menu changes with the day’s market. Salmon rillettes were packed with dill and fresh horseradish (which is, incidentally, making an appearance on market stalls in Cambridge at the moment – local readers should head out and grab a root for a horseradish sauce recipe I’m planning for next week) – hot-smoked salmon whipped into crème fraîche, studded with fat jewels of cold-smoked salmon, accompanied by a sharp salad made from paper-thin slivers of fennel. Soups are always fresh and frequently thick with cream – my broccoli soup had a crouton floating on top, slathered with tapenade and a spoonful of sweet onion confit which reminded me of the French onion soup (so good I’m never ordering it anywhere else again) I had there back in March.
Razor clams are something you seldom see in British restaurants, and I always order them when I see them. They’re a beautiful shellfish, large, sweet and tender to the tooth. These were from Colchester, superbly fresh; and had been removed from the shell, then gratinated with a leek fondue, butter-soft, and Parmigiano. Not a trace of the fine, sandy grit that almost invariably clouds razor clam dishes – and I was thankful for an epi of bread from the basket which staunched some of the butteriness. Patte noir chicken was roasted (I suspect the involvement of a rotisserie grill) to a lovely, butter-aided succulence with a mahogany-crisp skin. We’d asked for a bowl of mashed potato in addition to the lunch menu – even if it’s not on the menu, they’ll find some for you – and agreed we could happily live on the stuff, and possibly in it too.
Wine pairings are suggested for each dish, and we asked for a glass each – a 2007 Montlouis to go with my clams, and a Stonier Pinot Noir from Australia with the chicken. Both beautifully selected, the Montlouis reflecting the butter-sweetness of the clams, and the Pinot Noir really European in character – plenty of fruit, but closer to a Burgundy in style; lovely stuff. I got back from the ladies’ (a dim spot in the excellent design – it’s all very elegant, but the lights in there make you look like the living dead) to find my Mum happily launched on a second glass, which she claimed would help her pudding down.
A set of five slim slices from different tarts is a dessert that usually appears on the £25 menu. I’m not a huge fan of the signature dessert, a Chocolate Sensation (you are likely to be far fonder of chocolate than I am – I suspect it’s a genetic abnormality, given that Mum’s really not into it either). The Chocolate Sensation was the only dessert on offer with the lunch menu, but I asked whether they had the tarts, and five minutes later two helpings arrived, beautifully plated and for no extra charge. And that’s absolutely typical of the service at l’Atelier. It’s both graceful and gracious, and they will bend over backwards to help you – witness the business with the champagne. The tart selection has changed every time I’ve visited, but if you are lucky you might encounter the cinnamon custard on filo pastry or the puckeringly sharp lemon tart. Keeping seasonal produce in mind, there was a strawberry shortcake topped with three perfect fresh strawberries and a sort of raspberry clafoutis arrangement – and even chocolate agnostics like us decided the chocolate, caramel and hazelnut concoction, smooth and dense, was about as good as such things get.
Coffee here is great, but I’d suggest you walk the 100 yards to the Monmouth St Coffee House for my favourite cup of coffee in London if you can get off the barstool. (I am 5’2″. I find such things challenging.) Mum was thrilled with lunch – I believe she’s taking my Dad back to l’Atelier next week for a date.
A quick and dirty supper dish: with the help of a food processor, this one will only take you half an hour to make. I’ve set fat Portobello mushrooms, roasted with a garlic and herb butter and covered with crisp crumbs, on top of sweet slices of brioche, with a few paper-thin slices of prosciutto draped over the top. Easy as anything, and cooking mushrooms like this really brings out their curious meatiness.
I’ve used panko breadcrumbs, which are gorgeously malty and crisp, to add some crunch to the mushrooms while soaking up some of the herby, buttery juices. If you can’t find any, just use some crumbs you’ve whizzed up from stale slices of bread in the food processor.
Look to serve each diner two open sandwiches. For each sandwich, you’ll need:
1 plump Portobello mushroom
1 clove garlic
1 small handful (15g) parsley
1 small handful (15g) chives
1 small handful (15g) oregano
30g salted butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Japanese panko breadcrumbs
1 thick slice brioche (make sure you get a variety without vanilla essence)
2 slices prosciutto
Salt and pepper
Dijon mustard to spread
Preheat the oven to 200°C .
Put the herbs, garlic, butter and lemon juice in the bowl of the food processor and whizz until everything is chopped and blended with the butter. Place the mushrooms, gill side up, in a baking tray, and dollop the herb butter mixture evenly on them. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the panko crumbs, and roast for 20 minutes.
Toast the brioche and spread each slice with a little Dijon mustard. Lay a roast mushroom on top, drizzling over some of the pan juices, and top with two paper-thin slices of prosciutto. This is oddly delicious with a very cold glass of Pinot Gris.
If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed a few references to Edwardian savouries and a writer called Ambrose Heath this week. The savoury used to be a course served at the end of a formal English meal. Salty, umami and often highly spiced, the savoury was packed in by English gentlemen after dessert while they discussed hats and feudalism. A salty nibble was meant to cleanse the palate of whatever gelatinous pudding you’d just eaten so you could happily assault it with a cigar and too much port.
The savoury didn’t survive the period of rationing during and after the Second World War (a period which rendered English food completely joyless – it’s only started to recover recently). A grave shame, especially for those, like me, who lack a particularly sweet tooth; I’d far sooner eat a bacon sarnie than an ice-cream. Recipes for savouries are, these days, pretty hard to find, but I have several in a pre-war book by Andre Simon, and I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a copy of Ambrose Heath’s Good Savouries in a second-hand book shop last week.
Ambrose Heath was a prolific food writer: there are more than 70 books to his name. One of the first cookery books I owned was his book on sauces, which, along with his other books, appeals to the systematising, cataloguing part of my soul that lives somewhere on the autistic spectrum. His books are exhaustive and meticulous treatments of their subjects – there are multiple recipes with tiny tweaks for many of the dishes, alternative approaches and ingredient substitutions, and a lovely sense of a rather plump, happy man behind the pen. (And isn’t that a gorgeous cover illustration?)
Most of the savouries in this book are based around salty ingredients like ham, bacon, anchovy or bloaters; they’re usually spiced vigorously with curry powder or chutney, and are presented sitting on a fried crisp of bread, a puff of pastry or a hollowed roll buttered and baked crisp. This recipe for anchovy biscuits reads as follows:
2oz plain flour
2oz grated parmesan
Yolk of 1 egg
A dash of mustard
Salt and pepper
His recipe will have you rubbing the butter into the flour/parmesan/mustard mixture, binding with the egg yolk and a little water, then baking for ten minutes. I changed the method a little, freezing the butter for 15 minutes and shredding it on the coarse side of the grater into the flour/parmesan mixture (to which I’d added a teaspoon of Madras curry powder), stirring everything together with a knife and binding the resulting mixture with the egg yolk and some ice-cold water mixed with four anchovies pounded in the mortar and pestle. I rested the pastry in the fridge for half an hour before rolling it out very thinly, cutting out 48 rounds with my smallest cookie cutter, and baking at 200°C for 12 minutes until golden. Rub the mixture in if you prefer, but grating in hard butter will give you a puffier, crisper result. I left out salt and pepper – the anchovies and curry powder will provide all the salt and spice you need.
To make the paste to spread on top of the biscuits, I pounded four more anchovy fillets, 1 teaspoon of curry powder (Madras again – Bolsts is my favourite curry powder, but you should use your favourite brand/ferocity), 2 tablespoons of parmesan, 1 tablespoon of chopped capers (in wine vinegar, not salt, which would just be too much with the anchovies), 1 tablespoon of oil from the anchovies and 1 teaspoon of smooth Dijon mustard in the mortar and pestle until smooth. This will give you enough to smear each biscuit with the tip of a knife – look to use a very tiny amount of the topping, which is strong and salty. If you are familiar with Marmite or Vegemite, you need to spread in about the proportions you would spread those on toast. Allow the biscuits to cool before spreading them or they will be too fragile to work with.
Pop the biscuits in an oven heated to 180°C for five minutes. The spread will go slightly puffy. Dress with a little parsley before serving warm. Rather than eating your anchovy biscuits at the end of a meal, I’d suggest you use them as nibbles with drinks – a very dry Fino sherry or a Dirty Martini will work beautifully against them.
Summer in the UK is a fragile, short-lived and unreliable thing (yesterday, in flaming June, we had tornadoes and hailstones), so when the sun shines and the air is balmy, especially here in Cambridge, we tend to overcompensate slightly with garden parties, great strings of barbecued sausages, silly hats, flowery frocks and that sine qua non of chi-chi English outdoor gatherings: a few jugs of Pimm’s Fruit Cup. A sweet, pinkish liqueur based on gin, Pimm’s is available in every off-licence and supermarket in the country; and we mix it with lemonade and what bemused foreigners interpret as a fruit salad, kick back and proceed to get completely sloshed in the sun. There’s a certain class thing at work here. Shakespeare in the Park? We drink Pimm’s. Wimbledon? Pimm’s. May Balls? Pimm’s. Opera at Glyndebourne? Pimm’s. We also drink it because it’s delicious, potent and tends to render pretty 20-year-old students of both genders delightfully cuddly.
This fruity, aromatic, rounded cocktail base was invented by James Pimm, who ran a tavern in the City of London. He came up with the drink, based on gin with fruit, herbs and quinine, some time in the 1820s, soon finding it was so popular that he was able to produce it on a large scale to be sold to other taverns and clubs. It’s been a popular summer drink ever since, although the amount of alcohol in the stuff has definitely been reduced by the company that now owns the trademark (Pimm’s has in my lifetime reduced its alcohol percentage from 35% ABV to 25%). You can remedy this by adding a splash of gin to your cocktail.
Pimm’s is a substance sadly missed by those who come to the university here for a year or so from overseas. When visiting friends we made at university who have since moved back to America or other Pimm’s-free lands, we usually try to bring a bottle for them so we can all spend an evening reliving our glided youth. But I bear glad tidings for the overseas summer alcoholic. You can actually make the base mix for your Pimm’s (which we shall now call ‘fruit cup’ – and indeed, Pimm’s is not the only available brand; try Plymouth Fruit Cup for a rather more aromatic option, or Stone’s Fruit Cup for a distinct ginger kick) out of a mixture of liqueurs you may well have in the drinks cupboard already – use 2 parts 40% gin, 2 parts red vermouth, 1 part Cointreau (or your favourite orange liqueur), 1 part sweet port and a dash of Angostura bitters. It’ll be a bit stronger than the pre-bottled stuff, but it tastes very fine indeed. If you do decide to make your own fruit cup from scratch, Hendrick’s gin, with its cucumbery overtones, really comes into its own here – and if you use Dubonnet for your red vermouth, you can award yourself the Queen Mother seal of approval: Dubonnet was her all-time favourite liquid.
You should build your drink in a large jug by gently muddling a small handful of mint in 1 part Pimm’s or home-made fruit cup, then adding 1 part lemonade and 1 part ginger ale, with a good handful of soft English summer fruits, some sliced cucumber and fresh mint bobbing about in the jug with some ice. I like raspberries frozen into ice cubes, so they float rather than sink to the bottom initially – this means that you can arrange for some raspberries to end up in everybody’s glass, and the freezing makes the cell walls burst, so once the cubes have melted, the liquid at the bottom of your glass will be syrupy with raspberry juice. Borage flowers (a blue flower with a taste reminiscent of cucumber) are a traditional addition, and look lovely in the drink if you can find them. One jugful will be enough for a lovely boozy evening for two.
Sometimes, you might find yourself in possession of a less-than-handsome steak. Now, if your steak is richly marbled, fat and nicely aged, I wouldn’t recommend you do more than rub it with olive oil, salt and pepper – maybe a little garlic too – and grill it briefly. The pieces of topside I found myself with needed a bit more help, so I came up with this recipe.
I’ve been spending lots of time hanging out at the Polish deli in Newmarket recently – I’ve already told you about the salt pork and cherry juice, and I’m really enjoying the smoked sausages and pickled herring. I decided to sample some Polish horseradish (chrzan) after reading an extremely enthusiastic hymn to it in a book I was editing a few weeks ago, and found that if anything, the author wasn’t giving it all the love it deserves. English creamed horseradish can be a bit wet and insipid, but this Polish stuff is fiery, sweet and intensely fragrant – just sniffing the jar caused hallucinatory roast sirloins of beef to parade before my eyes. Look out for it in your local Polish deli – some supermarkets now have a Polish aisle too. You might also be able to find a variant called cwikla, which is horseradish with sweet red beets. It’s delicious, but it’ll make the crust here an alarming pink.
The crust on this steak is soft and light under its buttery, crisp surface, and is full of flavours which make the very best of your steak. To make enough to crust four steaks, you’ll need:
1 large onion
3 heaped tablespoons Polish horseradish sauce (or whatever you can find)
3 heaped tablespoons crumbled blue cheese (choose something strong – I used an elderly Bleu d’Auvergne)
100g fine, fresh breadcrumbs (just whizz white bread in the food processor)
1 bunch (about 15g) chives
Salt and pepper
I also made some garlic-lemon green beans, which used the meat juices. If you want to make these too, you’ll need:
100g green beans
2 fat cloves of garlic
Zest and juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper
Get the steaks out of the fridge well before you want to cook them to allow them to come to room temperature. Rub them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and set them aside. While the steaks are coming up to temperature, prepare the crust.
Cut the onion into very fine dice, and fry over a low heat in two tablespoons of the butter, stirring regularly, until the onion is a lovely golden caramel colour. Put the cooked onion with its butter into a large mixing bowl, and melt the rest of the butter in the onion pan. While the butter is melting, use the back of a fork to blend the onion in the bowl with the cheese – try to distribute the cheese as evenly as you can. Stir through the horseradish, then stir the breadcrumbs into the mixture, adding the melted butter bit by bit until you have a mixture that is still loose, but that holds together when pressed. Stir the chives through the crust mixture, taste and season. (If your cheese is particularly salty, you may not need any extra salt.)
Cook the steaks for a minute per side in olive oil in a very hot frying pan – just enough to sear them on each side. Remove to a plate, keeping the oil in the pan. Divide the crust mixture into four and press it into the top of each steak. (If you find you have some left over, you can just make it into a little rectangle and grill it along with the steaks for a cook’s treat.) While you are working, some of the steak juices will come out of the steak onto the plate. Hold onto these for the beans, which cook very quickly, so you can do them as the crust grills.
Transfer the steaks with their topping to a grillpan and put under the grill for 6-8 minutes (or as long as you find your topping takes to go golden and crisp on top). Transfer to warm plates to rest for a few minutes before serving. I served this with some roast potatoes and more of that lovely horseradish.
To make the beans, warm the olive oil you seared the steaks in, and fry the garlic in it for a few seconds before tipping the topped, tailed and chopped beans in. Toss the beans around the pan until they start to turn bright green, then pour over the lemon juice mixed with the zest and the steak juices. Allow the liquid to bubble up and reduce a little, check the seasoning, then remove to a hot serving dish.
Regular readers will know that I have always had a mild distrust of those restaurants which purport to specialise in the foods of more than one culture. You know what I mean – those places offering up dim sum alongside sushi, or Thai food with Japanese soba. So I went to Asia, up at the Catholic church end of Regent Street in Cambridge, with a bit of trepidation. (Full disclosure here – I’d been invited by the owners and got a free meal.)
Asia (the restaurant, not the continent) is smart enough not to try to do Japanese food, but explores Chinese, Thai and Indian foods in a very similar way to that you’ll find in Malaysian cuisine, with food from all three cultures served up alongside each other – and thankfully, they do it all very well indeed. This is actually a combination of cuisines that makes really good sense. It can be a bit disconcerting ordering Indian and Chinese side dishes to go with a Thai main course, but once you get into the swing of things, the flavours – aromatic lime leaves here, Goan curry spicing there, oyster sauce and fermented beans over there – gel surprisingly well. Ask the very helpful waiters if you’re trying to work out some good flavour combinations; they know the menu backwards and are very ready to help. Ingredients are fresh and, where possible (obviously, you’re going to run into trouble sourcing mangoes in East Anglia), local.
It’s a big space, and just avoids that hard-surface thing where restaurant interiors become loud and boomy. It’s all handsome, contemporary dark wood and marble juxtaposed with Indian and South East Asian artifacts – a Thai screen, an Indian limestone frieze – and the odd bit of upholstery. It’s spotlessly clean, it’s a very pretty room to eat in, and the welcome and service, which was warm, friendly and helpful, didn’t seem to be at all different from what the guests around us were getting. So far, so splendid – and did you know that Kingfisher, the Indian restaurant lager people, are also doing a very good fizzy mineral water now?
We opened with my favourite Thai salad, Som Tum, all green papaya, sour lime, savoury fish sauce and dried shrimp, with two fat prawns. Dr W went for scallops, and the restaurant must be proud of these, because they’re stupendous and very unusual – sweet Scottish scallops, seared to a barely-cooked wobble with a coriander crust, served with salted yoghurt and, right out of left-field, olive purée. (They say the purée is Peruvian. No, I have no idea either, but it was good, and perfectly salty against the sweet flesh of the scallops.)
Mains are served individually, not family-style. This is not the Upton way of doing things, especially when everything on the table is so interesting, and we wanted to put the dishes in the middle so we could share. Waiters swished around elegantly as soon as I asked, conjuring hot, clean plates out of nowhere. And just as well too, because Dr W’s Goan halibut curry in a lovely rough tomato and tamarind sauce was a firm, moist beast, so there was no way I wasn’t going to eat half of it. We’d also gone for a dish of Kai Krob, a Thai chicken in pieces, cooked in a light, floury coating that was halfway between chewy and crispy – fabulous – with a good hit of sweetness and a scattering of intensely aromatic kaffir lime leaves.
Presentation’s great here, such that we found ourselves remarking that one of the side-dishes (shitake and oyster mushrooms with home-made garlic chilli sauce and yellow beans) was much less pretty than the other things on the table, particularly the Bombay potatoes, all scattered with crispy vermicelli and punctuated with bright green coriander. But beauty’s only potato-skin deep, and the Bombay potatoes tasted pretty ordinary, while those mushrooms (must have been the home-made sauce) had us wiping the empty bowl with a naan. A naan, I will have you know, that was studded with dates – if you get that Goan halibut curry, the date naan is a brilliant foil to it.
A short pause for hot hand towels soaked in eau de cologne. Rumpole of the Bailey once bit into one in a dark Chinese restaurant, mistaking it for a spring roll. You will know better.
The dessert menu is short, especially when compared to the pages and pages of mains and starters that go before, all divided up by origin and method (so tandoor dishes are listed on one page, classical dishes on another, noodles on another). To be honest, it was a bit of a relief; main courses and starters were so generous we were pretty stuffed by this point, and weren’t up to hard decision-making. Dr W nearly went for something called Funky Pie, then changed his mind (if you go and order a Funky Pie, do let me know what it is – I’m intrigued), settling for Indian carrot cake (Gajar ka Halwa), all dense and moist and achingly sweet. I went for the crème brûlée, thrilled to see that they’d got the accents in the right place on the menu, and ended up wishing I’d had the saffron-poached pears instead – it tasted beautiful, but the acid from the mango had turned it into watery whey and curds under the crisp sugar crust. A single dud in an otherwise really enjoyable meal.
There are currently some promotions on the restaurant’s website (click on the ‘information’ tab), which include a 10% discount for students. Without discounts, you’re looking at around £5 for a starter. Mains start at £7.25 – the price rises steeply once you get into things like lobster, but starving students looking to impress attractive art historians should head on over, try for a table by the huge window so you can people-watch, tell them I sent you, and get ordering.