Another season, another one of Joanne Todd’s afternoon teas. I was invited to visit the Royal Horseguards hotel again last week for an afternoon tea timed to coincide with this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, all the patisseries flavoured, this time, with flowers. Add a pot of flowering tea, some chocolate butterflies and leaves attached to the cake stand with melted chocolate (no picture of these; my partner-in-tea snapped them off and ate them before I got to them with the camera), the compulsory scones, and a stack of neat little finger sandwiches, you’ll find yourself with a very good reason to skip lunch.
It’s the application of a fierce imagination to what’s on the plate that so charms in these afternoon teas. A Felchlin chocolate cremeux was flavoured with lavender – and popping candy. Elderflower cupcakes; chocolate chip loaf spiked with orange blossom; a lemon drizzle cake where much of the citrus aroma actually comes from lemon thyme. The raspberry and hibiscus flower jelly tart and a violet cupcake had me grinning like a lunatic. These patisseries are beautiful, they’re superbly delicate, and they make for one of those rare examples of something that really does taste as good as it looks.
The Garden Par-tea had a short run and finishes today, but Joanne is, as ever, keeping busy: look out for another Wimbledon-themed tea this June, and a children’s afternoon tea later in the summer, complete with alphabet shortbread, toy soldiers and jelly bears.
I’ve been visiting the hotel for Joanne’s teas for a year now, and it’s great to see the little refinements made to what’s on offer every time. The scones have shrunk to a much more manageable size (I still couldn’t get through two, though, especially on top of all the lovely little cakes); the sandwich fillings are becoming more complicated – and this time, there was a handsome amount of chocolate kicking around to round things off.
The hotel has undergone some renovations in the last few months, and the outside terrace (closed to diners when I visited because it was such a windy day, but I managed to get outside to take some pictures) has been completely revamped.
I’m wondering if I can convince someone to lend me their children in time for Joanne’s upcoming kids’ afternoon tea. I like the sound of those jelly bears.
It’s been a deceptively quiet couple of weeks on this blog – it’s been very busy here at Gastronomy Domine Towers. Those of you who enjoy the posts on food travel are in for a treat: I found out yesterday that I’ll be in Texas and New York for two of the next three weeks. As far as I’m concerned, this is great news, but I’m extremely sorry if you’re one of the people I’ve had to cancel appointments, meals and get-togethers with at the last minute, and grovel accordingly.
In the meantime, here are some pictures from Ottolenghi in Islington, where I went to meet some other bloggers (big wave to Niamh and Ailbhe) and the lovely ladies from the Irish Tourist Board a couple of weeks ago. The way things work here is tapas-like: everything on the menu comes as a small plate priced around £10, and you’re encouraged to try about three of these dishes per head. There are fifteen of these small dishes on the menu, which changes nightly, and as fortune had it, there were five of us, so we had one of everything on the menu and stuck them all in the middle of the table to share. No commentary here – I was enjoying myself too much to stop eating and talking to take notes – just be advised that it was every bit as good as you’d expect from Ottolenghi, and a very, very fine evening was had by all. I’ll try to make it back for another visit where I’m paying a bit more attention later in the year.
I’ll be posting from Texas next week, in search of barbecue.
Secret restaurants will not be a new idea to you if you’re a London foodie – they may be a little more of a surprise if you’re not based in the capital. Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve met more and more people running small, uncertified restaurants from their home dining rooms. You’ll hear them referred to as supper clubs, underground restaurants and secret restaurants; the usual procedure will involve you buying a ticket at one of these word-of-mouth places’ websites, and being emailed an address to turn up at the day before the meal. Many of the secret restaurant folk also write at the extremely extroverted end of the food bloggery spectrum. (You have a food blog either because you are a genteel introvert who wants an excuse to spend the day with a spatula and a keyboard, or because you love to share your sticky, greasy passion with as many people as you can. I like to feel I fall comfortably in the middle.)
The Secret Larder is one of these outfits operated by James Ramsden, a man with a smile and manner of the kindest, cockle-warmingest sort. (Check James’ website for details on the restaurant and bookings.) He wears an impeccable white apron, and has a heap of the kind of soft curls that are fun to ruffle on a ten-year-old. He has a brother, also radiating waves of loving-kindness – this family could start a cult – who was on waitering duty the night I visited; a sister also helps on other evenings and provided much of the artwork in the room we ate in.
Clearly, in order to operate a secret restaurant, you need an eye-bleedingly spectacular space to run it from. An Edwardian découpage screen separates the kitchen from a vaulted living/dining area full of soft chairs covered with throws and cushions, and limed, pickled and painted wooden furniture. Fairy lights twist around the cast iron rods holding the high ceiling in place, and there are books of the sort you’ll want to steal all over the room. A good conversation starter, actually; I know I’m afflicted with a horrible urge that makes me stock the bookcases downstairs, where people might actually see them, with some of the more interesting crags and peaks of the Upton book mountain, and I’d love to know if that copy of Take a Buttock of Beefe, the two (two!) copies of the Silver Spoon cookbook and the books on Joseph Beuys had been positioned with the same venal impulse.
Although the Secret Larder can cater for dozens of covers, the night I visited was much more intimate; a table was laid for eight. The room was velvety with candles, those fairylights and the lovely luminosity that only a bloodstream full of fermented grape juice can give a lighting scheme. The books, the pictures, the furniture, the lights – just the sort of environment calculated to get people talking even before we all got settled on the food and drink.
I was, along with some other food bloggers, here as a guest of Prosecco Riccardo, who were providing the evening’s wines. The brand is new in the UK, and the owners of the vineyard, held up by weather over Verona, arrived an hour or so later than the rest of us, at first appearing slightly nervous about the restaurant being – you know – in somebody’s flat. This secret restaurant thing has not yet percolated as far as the sunlit hills of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. Happily, any lasting resentment against the British left over from their awful flight with BA was instantly soothed by the application of a fillet of fresh, oily mackerel on an earthy base of artichoke purée and a glass of their own fizz. I was reminded that my Italian needs some work. I trained years ago as a classical singer, and this meal really brought home to me that a vocabulary consisting of vaguely operatic stuff like: “Lo! Gentle shepherd! A thieving magpie! What is life without thee, Euridice?” and phrasebook stuff like: “I would like two tickets for the exhibition and a hot chocolate, please; oh, and some stamps for the United Kingdom,” does not serve you well at a dinner with wine producers. As always, though, a big smile and some elegant miming will mitigate most of the damage.
Prosecco hasn’t always been a sparkling wine; until World War 2, the Glera grapes went to make a still wine, and it was only after some bored experimentation with a demijohn in the 1940s that the standard Prosecco became a fizzy one. The still wine is still produced, but only makes up about 5% of production from the region (which now has Denominazione di Origine Controllata status), and seldom makes it out of Italy. We tried a couple of bottles of this fizz-free Tranquillo, and it knocked my socks off. At 11% ABV with the odd bubble from natural fermentation, it will remind you of a Portuguese Vinho Verde. All tart apples and flowers, it’s a lovely wine against the sort of dense earthy flavours we were tasting in the mackerel with its artichoke puree and shallot marmalade.
It’s a challenge to construct a whole menu around Prosecco, but James worked it in seamlessly. The Brut we started with – easy-drinking, not too dry, with a very jolly bubble – worked as an aperitif and performed really well against ramarino in culo, which translates loosely as “rosemary up the bum”. Little balls of steak tartare are seared on the bottom, with a spear of rosemary pushed into the still-raw top giving the whole mouthful a resinous lift. Gorgeous. The (perfectly seasonal, as was most of the meal) strawberry salad worked pepper flavours from the balsamic dressing and fresh leaves of rocket against the Brut in a way that had me making a note to try matching the wine to peppery dishes myself; I’ve spent far too long treating Proseccos as wines to drink without food, or as something to make Bellinis with.
A switch to the Tranquillo for the fish and the back to the Brut again for pork belly, served with chicory and a punchy salsa verde. My notebook has a drop of olive oil on it from this point in the evening, and a scrawl which I can’t interpret. I think I am trying to make the point, sozzled, that this is a very nicely prepared slab of pig, the fat rendered out over hours of slow cooking, the meat tender and herby and the flavours balanced, especially with that sharp salsa verde, the bitter chicory and the mouth-filling richness of the pork itself. What I have actually written appears to be “Not too swiney! Fat – whee!” Perhaps I should consider a dictaphone for these things in the future.
James produced something so good for dessert that I considered kidnap. Peaches caramelised in Marsala pushed into the bottom of glasses were topped off with a boozy zabaglione. And he’d made cantucci. And terrific coffee. A glass of Riccardo’s grand cru, the Cartizze Valdobbiadene, was pushed into my hand. I have to admit to a certain haziness to proceedings at this point, but I have scribbled “refined, sweeter, minerals, small bubble” just underneath the thing about the pork, and seem to remember enthusing about what a superb digestif it made.
I will (and did, thanks to pints of Prosecco – I shouldn’t have, it was rude and I apologise) admit that something about being served in someone’s home, especially when they are a mere ten feet away and so much of your conversation is about the food, is a little uncomfortable. I ached for James and Will to take a seat and join us in putting the culinary world to rights rather than slaving over a hot pig. This, though, is just a result of the fact that they made the whole evening’s experience feel like going to a friend’s house for a dinner party. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough, especially if you’re going to be sharing a table with friends – something about this set-up makes conversation flow, and the food is joyous.
I found myself invited to two very different terraces on the Thames Embankment yesterday. The Royal Horseguards Hotel, near Hungerford Bridge, is offering a Wimbledon-themed afternoon tea for the whole of this year’s Wimbledon fortnight – just the ticket for those of us who don’t like tennis, but who do like patisseries. And just off Waterloo bridge, a few hundred yards upstream, the terrace at Somerset House has been transformed for the summer into an open-air restaurant fronted by Tom Aikens, with a spectacular bar and summer-casual menu.
The Royal Horseguards is one of those super-swanky, highly polished, five-star hotels, all harpists in the lobby and marble floors. Doormen and concierges line the halls, and a customer visiting for tea is treated with as much care as one staying in one of the most expensive suites. We were there to visit the very pretty terrace café, shaded by a line of plane trees along Victoria Embankment.
The Wimbledon tea is only running for a couple of weeks, so you’ll have to get in there quickly – and then you can sit back and be spoiled for an hour or so while you work your way through a very generous and gorgeously presented high tea. Proceedings open with a strawberry and grenadine Bellini, to glug your way through while you listen to Big Ben clanging away in the background before a big silver pot of tea arrives.
We were served (underarm) a long glass tray packed with pretty little patisseries, two glasses of a strawberry and Pimms consommé and a bucket of white chocolate truffles masquerading as tiny tennis balls – totally charming, tooth-hurtingly rich, and utterly addictive. Joanne Todd, the hotel’s new pastry chef, is behind this very frivolous and very romantic (seriously – take someone you want to impress, because those tennis balls alone will work wonders) outing; she’s only been at the hotel for a couple of weeks, and if this tea is anything to go by, there will be other good things in the Terrace Café’s future. The little cupcake with the logo was delicately scented with elderflower; that’s a perfectly squishy strawberry macaroon with a perfumed rose ganache hiding behind it, and a strawberry vacherin. The little truffles come with three fillings: champagne, strawberry and a fresh, creamy mint that I could have kept eating all afternoon.
It’s just as well I didn’t, because a tray of scones came out next, two plain and two with fruit and spices – along with a ball of clotted cream so enormous you could have played tennis with it. The Terrace Café runs non-Wimbledon afternoon tea for the rest of the year, from £28 for the Champagne tea (finger sandwiches, pastries, a cream tea and all that good stuff) down to £13.50 for the Westminster Tea, a straightforward cream tea. It’s well worth a visit if you’re having a day out. I spotted one of the new intake of MPs and an actress I shall not name because she was obviously trying to have a private moment (not with the MP) while I was scarfing my scones. If you don’t have a date to take, head on over with your Mum to impress her with the crowd you mingle with.
I barely had time to get started on digesting tea before heading over to Somerset House to meet Tom Aikens and sit down for a meal at Tom’s Terrace, a pop-up restaurant overlooking the river. Tom’s Terrace opened at the end of April and will only operate for 22 weeks over the summer, closing in September – it’s packed out every evening, so you’ll need to book ahead. I hate to get all Enid Blyton, but food really does taste better outdoors, and Tom’s Terrace has been designed to make the most of the unpredictable English summer, with architectural covers over the tables, sculptural heaters (not used on the night I visited, when the weather was positively balmy) and coloured lights punctuating the restaurant.
The menu is short, outdoorsy, unpretentious and simple, full of good ingredients prepared well. There are beautifully selected charcuteries; a whole clutch of summery salads; grilled chicken; a burger cooked to a perfect medium-rare. (You can see the whole menu on the restaurant’s web site.) There are fat, truffle/parmesan chips, parboiled then fried twice to a shattering crisp outside, with fluffy middles. The coronation crab salad pictured here was sweet, fresh, and perfectly balanced – a dense, marie-rose-type sauce lifted with a very subtle dose of curry spicing, diced mango and toasted almonds had me swiping the inside of the empty glass bowl with my fingertips and sucking them. To top everything off, you’ll find a really interesting range of cocktails (and a short but well thought out wine list), which you can enjoy either at the table or at the bar area at the other end of the restaurant. It’s refreshing to find a bar that pays as much attention to non-alcoholic cocktails as it does to the boozy ones; ultimately, I couldn’t work out whether I enjoyed Tom’s Tequila or the virgin blueberry cocktail, made with floral syrups and fresh juices, more.
This is great summer’s evening stuff, pre- or post-theatre, or for sharing with friends. The staff are great – our table found itself sparking off competition between two bartenders over who could produce the best drink, and the service staff will bend over backwards to explain the menu and make suggestions if you get stuck. I could have stayed for hours longer, bibbing blueberries and ordering more mango rice pudding; I left at 10.30 to get my train with the greatest reluctance.
Many thanks to both restaurants for the invitations, and here’s to a great summer.
I’d been invited to Bob Bob Ricard (1 James St, Soho W1F 9DF – see the restaurant link for menus, phone and email reservations) to try a new cocktail: an English 75 with an Earl Grey syrup. What was meant to be a quick sip at the bar turned into a lengthy series of vodka shots in tiny, iced crystal glasses; a selection of really interesting cocktails; and several jewel-like little plates of Russian appetisers, the better to set off the drinks. Leonid “Bob” Shutov, one of the two owners (Richard Howarth is the “Ricard” part of the equation), spent an hour or so leading Douglas and me through the menu, structured around English club food with the odd injection of Russian standards; around the restaurant, outrageously lovely in a sort of Trans-Siberian-Express meets Japanese lacquer box way; and through the cocktail menu and extravagantly stocked wine cellar.
I’m not usually much swayed by good interior design in a restaurant, being approximately 95% motivated by food even when I’m not eating, but the attention to detail and quirky beauty of BBR’s dining room is so good that it acts as a seasoning. I mentioned to Leonid that I seriously, seriously coveted the wallpaper panelling the room, all midnight blue flowers and tiny flocks of sparrows sweeping in gorgeous waves across the walls. “It’s Japanese bookbinding papers. We had to do it four times before it was right; the pieces the paper is supplied in are this big.” (Uses hands to demonstrate a disquietingly small rectangle.) I spent the rest of my visit staring, but I couldn’t see any joins anywhere.
You’ll find a gold “press for champagne” button at each Pullman-booth dining table, marble panelling feathered with veining so sumptuous that I thought it had been painted on, bronze lap dogs to guard your umbrella, magnificent deco lighting, marquetry floors and handsome brass fittings. As it turns out, the restaurant was designed by David Collins (the Wolseley, Claridge’s bar, all that good stuff). It’s highly individual, and such a beautiful space that I decided I needed a spot more exposure to it. I finished my surprise lunch and immediately booked a table for later in the week – BBR was so interesting that I was very keen to see what the evening service was like, and how things go when you’re not there as a guest of the owner. (In brief, things go very well indeed – it’s a wonderfully romantic spot for an evening meal, and the quality of what was on our plates didn’t waver.)
Before you launch on anything else, you’ll need to make a cocktail/wine decision. Cocktails are superb and enjoyably imaginative (I ended up going the cocktail route with Dr W, so more on those later), but BBR’s wine cellar and markup policy are something rather special. The restaurant has a cellar to suit the wine tastes of any business tsar (sorry) you bring for dinner, but marks itself out by never charging more than £50 markup on any bottle of reserve wine. This curious bit of policy means that where you’d spend £923 on a bottle of 1999 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes at somewhere like Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, that very same bottle at BBR will rock up at a positively reasonable-sounding £294. A 1986 Chateau Leoville Las Cases is £338 here (£905 at le Coq d’Argent) and, for dessert, a 2002 Chateau d’Yquem that costs £310 at Ducasse at the Dorchester is less than a third as expensive, at £96. This is still a bit too rich for my blood, but for a very special occasion, I can see myself jumping on a bottle of 03 Sassicaia Tenuta San Guido at £129 – especially given that you can’t actually find the wine anywhere else in the UK. BBR bought up the whole stock from that year.
Happily, there’s plenty available for less hair-raising prices, and plenty on offer by the glass too.
James Walker, ex of le Pont de la Tour, is in the kitchen doing all kinds of thrilling things with quail eggs and caviar. The menu here is a funny amalgam of Edwardian nursery/chophouse and Russian swank, and I loved it. The rich, salty, oily Russian starters on the menu (denoted with a little Russian flag beside each item) are the perfect foil to the gloriously austere Kauffman collection vodka or the slightly fiercer Russian Standard Imperial – drunk before a mouthful of yolky quail’s egg topped with keta (Russian salmon roe), a bite of cured herring, a darkly salted cucumber or a fork’s tip draped with a silky, beautifully fresh quail eggs mayonnaise. These little shots, clinked together in shimmering little crystal glasses straight from the freezer over some unashamedly pretty food, turn out to be a perfectly joyous way to start an evening out, and a great sharing experience with friends. And the prices on these lovely little bites (you might look to share four as a starter between two people) are very encouraging – the keta with quails’ eggs was £4.50, the herring £3.50.
At a Russian friend’s wedding a few years ago, we ate a braised beef brisket, cooked for hours and shredded, then suspended in a disc of aspic. A delicious thing, a bit like the inside of a very jellied pork pie without the crust. Most of the wedding guests at our table were squeamish British sorts, and Dr W and I found ourselves the only people at the table to finish the dish and then to steal it off everyone else’s plates. I’ve not seen the same preparation since (despite some concerted effort at eating Russian in Helsinki), until lo – BBR has a version as good as anybody’s aspic fantasies. Here, the meat used is shredded tongue, and the little roundel of aspic is packed with sweet, fresh peas, slivers of carrot cut into fanciful shapes with an aspic cutter, threads of cress, and more dense, beefy flavour than you’d believe you could fit into such a small space. (There is also a quail’s egg in there, of course.) A little timbale of a sweet and mild Russian horseradish is a beautiful foil to what turns out to be a weirdly delicate, literally mouth-melting plate.
Although wild Beluga is available, most of what’s on offer caviar-wise is the farmed roe from Aquitaine. I’m a huge enthusiast for farmed caviar; it’s a reliable product and it’s helping to democratise the price of a very special ingredient. The nutty, pearly roe is served with blinis, or as part of an Eggs Royale – an Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon on the muffin instead of ham, a gout of really good hollandaise, a plump poached egg…and a giant dollop of caviar. It’s the first time I’ve come across caviar treated as a condiment, and thinking about the dish is still making my mouth water nearly two weeks later.
The cocktail list is enormously good fun. A rhubarb gin and tonic (the restaurant’s signature cocktail, now available year-round), made with a poached rhubarb syrup and one of the pinkest, prettiest drinks I’ve had in ages, uses a gin without too much in the way of botanicals to let the floral, rosy headiness of the rhubarb sing. There’s a clear Bloody Mary, made with the clear juices of fresh tomatoes, extracted overnight. It’s a drink that packs a glorious vine scent and a real hit of umami on the tongue. There’s intense tomato flavour with no redness – it’s positively discombobulating. You’re given a little bottle of Tabasco and some Worcestershire sauce to spice your own drink with, so the beautiful clarity of the drink isn’t spoiled before you’ve had a good chance to play with it for a bit.
Pork cheek was poached in a dense, rich jus full of star anise and tomato. Glossy and malevolently dark, it’s served with some very fine Yukon Gold mash. And I went for the evening’s special, a rose veal Rossini, which came in at a positively bargainsome £24.50, giving me a great excuse to order another cocktail. I’ve always liked veal better than beef in a Rossini; the more delicate flavour of the meat works better, for me, against the strong flavours of foie and truffles in the dish, and this was cooked to a lovely pinkness, moist and tender to the tooth. My little lobe of foie was seared glass-crisp on the outsides, melting velvety-smooth inside. And the truffly, oily, garlicky smear of duck pate on the crouton that sat on the side of the plate was so good that Dr W, having been offered a bite, made a noise I haven’t ever heard before.
The plate of cakes we asked for for dessert was a bit dry, and each of the six little bites was really rather ordinary. I was so full I didn’t really care, though – and an Affogato coffee was exactly the sort of alternative I was after, the ice cream shot through with vanilla seeds.
You can go to BBR and spend your entire inheritance in one night, if you try. You can also go and, with some judicious ordering, come away with a wallet not particularly lightened. Head along at night, when the restaurant positively twinkles, explore the more curious corners of the menu, and tell them I sent you.
If you were on Twitter yesterday at lunchtime…and for much of the afternoon…you’ll have noticed that fourfood and winebloggers and I were furiously live-tweeting a lunch from Roast in London’s Borough Market, where wi-fi had been laid on to encourage us to look like total nerds as we ate. It’s a restaurant perfectly placed to make the most of the fresh produce from the market – the emphasis here is on seasonality and wonderfully British things like haggis, pork belly and black pudding. Matching wines were provided, at a rate of two with each of the five courses along with a beer and a welcoming glass of fizz, by Chapel Down Winery. I’ll recap my tweets and pictures from the meal below for those not on Twitter – as noted on the day, I’m afraid the quality of prose and photography drops as I work my way through the wine. And read down to the bottom, because the restaurant is offering blog readers a special menu with wines if you can make it to Roast on November 24, and Chapel Down have very generously provided a special offer on a case of wine for you as well.
Something of an experimental post, this – it’s the first meal I’ve live-tweeted. Let me know what you think. (It’s likely to remain a rare event: eating with a laptop on my knee is something I’d only do at a restaurant’s request or suggestion, ‘cos it made me feel geek-tacular.) You can read more of my daily ramblings on food if you follow me @liz_upton.
Ensconced at Roast, gargling Chapel Down fizz. Expect quality of tweets to worsten as the lunch progresses – 2 pairings/course. 1:14pm, Nov 10
Smoked, dry-cured Loch Etive trout w crab cakes at Roast – trout outstanding. @wine_scribbler says shallots overpowering the wine – I like ’em! 1:33pm, Nov 10
@wine_scribbler I’m actually preferring the Pinot Reserve – and I’m not sure why I’m tweeting this, given we’re sitting next to each other. 1.36pm, Nov 10
The smoked trout *was* a tricky thing to match wines with – next up, some haggis. 1:41pm, Nov 10
A bottle of Chapel Down porter has just appeared in front of me – currently 5 glasses on table…getting confused. 1:42pm, Nov 10
Bloody hell, this porter is good. Oak chips in barrel apparently – a winemaking tech and very splendidly spicy and tannic. 1:44pm, Nov 10
We’re all making Black Velvets with the Chapel Down Vint Res Brut and the CD Porter. Delicious and also slightly shaming. 1:53pm, Nov 10
Haggis and oxtail on celeriac/spud mash. Heaven, especially w a Black Velvet!
Just been given an obscenely good slice of grilled black pud to sample. Ramsey of Carluke in Lanarkshire – superb. 1:58pm, Nov 10
Leaving the red undrunk. This is *highly* unusual for me. 1:59pm, Nov 10
…and we pause briefly while we collect ourselves. Jealously guarding my glass of Black Velvet from the v attentive wine waiters. 2:02pm, Nov 10
@foodguardian is having trouble liveblogging because of his “Fisher Price phone”. I have no sympathy. 2:04pm, Nov 10
A wine made with the Bacchus grape (English) has just arrived. Rather excited. 2:09pm, Nov 10
I’m getting tuberose and rubber off this wine – Bacchus not a grape I know well, but v intriguing. 2:10pm, Nov 10
I lie – that was an 06 Pinot Blanc in an ident. glass. The Bacchus is actually weirdly sweet and unacidic – and v nice. 2:12pm, Nov 10
BTW, I think we should open a book on precisely when we are all going to be too pissed to continue tweeting. I say by course 4.2:13pm, Nov 10
Roast’s signature dish – pork belly w mash spuds and apple sauce. Hubba – look at that crackling. 2:23pm, Nov 10
Pork belly outstanding – soft, tender meat, killer crackling. And there’s almost as much butter in this mash as at Robuchon. 2:25pm, Nov 10
Chatting to restaurant owner about these spuds, which I could happily *live* in. King Eds at the mo, but only because seasonal. 2:33pm, Nov 10(On speaking to the chef later, I discovered that actually they’re Maris Piper year round. Damn good, anyway.)
Christ almighty. Apparently, portions usually x2 this size – that pic was just the *tasting* portion (of which I ate ½). 2:36pm, Nov 10
Winemaker a bit unconfident about what’s up next – UK dessert wines a bit difficult. This is pretty good, but more aperitif-y.2:45pm, Nov 10
Spiced clementine custard w anise biscuits – pud like Grandma used to make. Chapel D Nectar gorgeous, but questionable match! 2:51pm, Nov 10
So I *really* like this Chapel Down Nectar, but not necessarily with food. The pannacotta underneath is fabboo. 2:54pm, Nov 10
You might notice that at this point in proceedings the quality of writing and photography is descending *fast*. Sorry. 🙂 3:01pm, Nov 10
And an 08 varietal English Pinot Noir. Chocolatey, dry, unoaked. Prolly my favourite of the Chapel Down wines so far. 3:07pm, Nov 10
Warm chestnut & pear cake w hot choc sauce. Melting, so excuse me while I eat. 3:18pm, Nov 10
Chef has emerged, with a light coating of sauce. 3:25pm, Nov 10
Chef’s belly tips – Stanley knife, rub salt & lemon, C230 for 30 mins, then down to 165 for 3 hours. 3:31pm, Nov 10
…And I’m shutting the computer down now. Feedback’s very welcome – how do you lot feel about live-tweeted lunches?
Roast and Chapel Down are offering a special menu with wine pairings for blog readers on November 24. They asked for our help in selecting three of these courses to point you at, and we ended up going for the menu below (with pairings selected by the folks at Chapel Down).
On arrival, a glass of Chapel Down Brut Rose
Ramsey of Carluke haggis with celeriac and oxtail sauce, with a glass of Chapel Down Rondo Regent Pinot Noir NV
Slow-roast Wicks Manor pork belly with mashed potatoes and Bramley apple sauce, served with a glass of Roast Bacchus Reserve 2007 (NB this will be the full sized portion, not the tasting portion from the pics above)
Spiced clementine custard with anise biscuits, served with a glass of Chapel Down Nectar 2007
Tea or coffee
With the wines, the menu will cost £44.50. If you want to book, call the restaurant on 0845 034 7300 and mention that you are booking for the Chapel Down Roast Bloggers’ Dinner on November 24.
Chapel Down are also offering readers a case of their Pinot Reserve 2004 for £99 for a case of six, including delivery to any UK mainland adddress. (A case usually retails at £150 plus delivery.) All you need to do is call the vineyard on 01580 763033, ask for Lizzie or Wendy and quote Blogger Offer.
A confession – I have a (probably pathological) dislike of writing about my absolute favourite restaurants here. There aren’t that many which fall into that category; a couple in London, a couple in the US, a couple – OK, more than a couple – in France; but there’s an unpleasantly selfish part of me which really, really doesn’t want to share. It’s irrational, and lately I’ve pledged to get the hell over this particular issue, which is good news for you, because you are finally getting to read about places I keep returning to, like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Le Gavroche (the pic is pinched from Wikimedia Commons – I hate bringing a camera to places like this). You’ll also get to read about several of my favourites, so far jealously unshared, in October, when Food Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 Extraordinary Places to Eat Around the Globe is released – it’s a National Geographic publication, and 20 of those extraordinary places were written about by me. More on that when the book finally comes out.
So. Gavroche. You know the chap – grubby urchin in Les Miserables. And you’re probably aware of the food royalty that own and still run the restaurant, founded in 1967 by Michel and Albert Roux. The kitchen is now run by Michel Roux Jr (son of Albert), and both older chefs still take an active interest in the place; good news for chefspotters. (I’m an avid one, and I was as pleased to see Albert Roux walk past my table on Monday as I would have been to see Brad Pitt, who is doubtless much less deft with artichokes.)
As usual, I rolled up for a weekday lunch, part of what I consider the freelancer’s dividend. I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’re in a position to do this, it bears repeating: many of London’s best restaurants offer surprisingly well-priced lunch menus in the week. The weekday set lunch menu here is, at first glance, pricier than elsewhere, at £48 a head – but this sum includes half a bottle of wine (you’re given a choice of four, which are always beautifully selected – ours was a 2004 St-Emilion Grand Cru from Chateau Vieux Sarpe, carefully decanted at the table); half a bottle of Evian; and coffee and petits fours, which most other places will have you pay for separately at lunchtime. The food itself is as good as you’ll find in the UK, and generous amuses bouches and petits fours (who knew that physalis, caramel and coconut was such a good combination?) round things out so well that you’ll leave thrilled at the value of what you’ve eaten.
The amuses are always good – to be honest, they’re often extraordinary. Artichoke Lucullus, cut into elegant crescents and stuffed with summer truffles, foie gras and chicken mousse; sea bass carpaccio; little toasts with a blue cheese mousse so beautifully balanced I could have eaten a dozen more for a main course.
Once you launch onto the menu proper, you’ll find there’s some clever work going on balancing luxe ingredients like truffles and foie gras with delicious things which cost the kitchen far less – a perfectly poached egg balanced on a Russian salad of potatoes, peas, carrots and celeriac sounds good but dull until you realise there are a couple of gargantuan slice of summer truffle perching on top, and a creamy truffle emulsion binding the vegetables together. Girolles are paired with a slow-cooked lamb’s tongue, cut into meltingly tender slices. It’s one of those menus where you’re hard-pressed to make a decision, everything sounding so perfectly edible – I should also point out that it’s one of those menus that’s written entirely in French. I used to live in Paris, and I’m the sort of anal-retentive who takes great pleasure in memorising the French for things like guinea fowl and fairy-ring mushroom. Even so, I came unstuck and had (horror!) to ask for help from the waiting staff. My friend and I were pretty sure Maigre was a sort of fish – but what sort? And what was a Sauce Antiboise? (It’s a white fish related to the sea bass, it turns out; and Antiboise simply means ‘from Antibes’, which I should bloody well have known. It’s a raw tomato concasse with basil and olives…and probably much more, but my dining companion was very sensibly preventing me from eating everything on her plate under the pretext of making notes.)
The staff (to a man/woman, French) are supremely helpful and will offer all the help you need with translation – you are clearly not expected to know what a maigre is, which makes me question the usefulness of the monoglot menu. Two of them are also supremely disconcerting. They’re identical twins, with matching extravagant hair dye, matching statement glasses, and matching mis-matched earrings. Cue a nanosecond of worry that an hallucinogen has been slipped into your Salade Russe.
This is the sort of restaurant where I’m happy to order veal liver. There’s a certain mental accounting you need to do when you next encounter it on a menu. Consider for a moment how much veal you see in British restaurants. There’s very, very little; even saltimbocca is usually made with pork these days. Now consider how much veal liver you see on menus (a surprising amount), and how many livers the average calf has. (That’s one, for those without a Biology GCSE.) There are simply not enough veal calves being eaten in the UK to provide the number of livers you’ll see on menus. The inevitable upshot is that much of the stuff you’ve ordered under the guise of veal liver has actually been beef liver – with the coarser texture, strong odour and flavour that that implies – so I never, ever order veal liver unless I’m somewhere I’m absolutely confident won’t palm me off with a superannuated gland. The liver at Le Gavroche is the real thing, so fresh it gives to the teeth like the flesh of a ripe plum, and its delicate flavour is seasoned sensitively with a very gentle green peppercorn sauce and a shallot confit. Ask for it to be served pink – simply beautiful stuff.
The cheeseboard is simply enormous, stacked high with French bliss, but we had our heads turned by the poached peach with champagne and raspberry mousse. A whole, peeled white peach, stone still in, had been poached to perfect silky softness in champagne, like a solid Bellini, and stood up in a swirl of raspberry mousse, just tart enough to offer a contrast. Regular readers will know that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but even I would have turned down a fine bacon sandwich if offered this instead. (This doesn’t sound like much of a compliment. Believe me, it is. I will do almost anything for a fine bacon sandwich – husband, take note.)
Of course, not everything here is perfect, or I would have set up a tent under one of the tables by now. Gavroche, the eponymous urchin, appears thumb-sized and in glorious 3D at the bottom of the shaft of all the cutlery, and frankly, he’s hideous. Like the decor – this restaurant perfectly apes a 1980s gentleman’s club, down to the carpeting, the green leather banquettes and the awful art on the walls. When I was a kid in the 80s, we had a very wealthy hotel-owning, huntin’, shootin’ neighbour, who affected plus-fours and displayed photos of himself with strings of recently murdered trout on his walls. He’d be right at home here with the ugly beaten-metal sculptures
of edible birds, which the restaurant sells for thousands of pounds to…someone. The room, and its clientele, is overwhelmingly masculine – we were the only all-female table in the place. But I don’t care – they welcomed me with a crescent of artichoke full of foie gras, truffles and chicken mousse, so they can be as ugly and male as Rasputin for all I care.
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.
If you’d asked me last week, I’d have said that it was impossible to accidentally book a table at a two-star chef’s new restaurant while remaining firmly under the impression that you were booking something quite different. My poor Dad, on phoning to confirm the table at what used to be one of his favourite restaurants, even started the conversation with: “Hello. Is this Lundum’s?” And the person picking up said “Yes.” (The correct answer would have been “No. Lundum’s closed six months ago. This is l’Ambassade de L’Ile.”) The waiter did acknowledge that we are not the first party this has happened to. It’s a bad way to start a meal, and I hope they sort things out at their reservations desk; l’Ambassade has no need to rely on the reputation of the excellent restaurant that used to occupy this building, and everyone in our group started the evening extremely irritated at the mix-up.
Still: on getting there, we decided to stay; we had all, after all, travelled between two and three hours to get there, we were seduced by the colour scheme (aubergine shag-pile carpet! White panels of leather with what looked like a dear little belly button in the middle of each one!), and I’d read about the chef, Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex before. I was secretly rather thrilled to have the chance to try his cooking. His L’Auberge de l’Ile in Lyon has two stars; he used to cook for Christina Onassis; he only has one arm. Prices here are extraordinarily high, but we were celebrating; it’s nearly Christmas; and I’ve been cooking tofu, pork hock and oxtail and other budget proteins for weeks, so was feeling like a bit of cream and truffles. The à la carte had numbers on it which looked to be denominated in rupees rather than pounds (no starter came in under £25), so we all went for the £90 tasting menu, reasoning that three à la carte courses weren’t going to come in at much less than that.
I’m still a little uncomfortable about the price, especially given that we fully intended to pay for our half, but had our credit card batted away by my Dad, who gets into Father Christmas mode at this time of year. £90 (without wine from the pricey list – and my Kir Royale alone cost £15) seems a hell of a lot to pay for a meal in the current financial climate, especially when you find yourself picking your way through a clot of tramps swigging lager outside South Kensington tube station on your way home.
Ansanay-Alex’s tasting menu does, at least, try as hard as it can to justify its price. It’s almost a pastiche of Lyon’s rich, buttery, creamy cuisine, and there’s a sense that somebody has sat down with a checklist of the most expensive ingredients, making little ticks as he works his way down through scallops, lobster, caviar, white truffles, black truffles and foie gras. The problem with constructing a menu like this is that all sense of balance goes out of the window, with creamy veloutes, buttery Béarnaises and sabayons, absurdly dense reductions and heavy, rich farces rampaging through the menu like a herd of oily buffalo.
L’Ambassade is generous with amuse bouches at the start of the meal and with friandises at the end. A heap of herbs fried in a tempura batter arrives before you’ve even ordered, and our amuses included a really lovely croquette of black pudding in a cider reduction alongside a tiny clam shell filled with a truffly mirepoix of sweet vegetables, topped with the poached clam.
The menu opens as it means to go on – with a mind to the eventual death of your liver. A velvet-smooth cream of scallop soup had a mosaic of lobster-marinaded scallop slices and squares of melting butter resting on the surface. A teaspoon of caviar (the farmed French variety) was inserted into a soft-boiled hen’s egg, surrounded by a thankfully tart lemon sabayon. Sea bass, its oily skin cooked to a salty, crisp bark, sat on a fondant potato (always a show-off accompaniment – they’re hard to cook well, and are a tremendously chefly thing to put on a plate), sitting in an ornamental pond of really dense, buttery Béarnaise, full of a tiny dice of clams and tomatoes. Venison loin, wrapped in a caul with a foie and black truffle farce, was bathed in London’s densest jus. The tiny tower (why is it always towers?) of beetroot and pear was a joyous contrast to all this richness – but oh, so small. At this point I would have paid almost anything for a salad.
Another soup – this time a chestnut veloute with celery leaves, crisp little puffs of parmesan and a slice of white truffle. It’s white truffle season at the moment, and the smell as the dishes approached was glorious. Some white truffle oil was drizzled into the dish – gorgeous, but I wish this buttery, sweet, creamy, nutty, truffly concoction had been served at the start of the meal, when my appetite for all this richness still had legs.
Coffee tart, peanut ice cream, a little disk of hazelnut meringue. “I wish there was some fruit,” said Dr W. “The cream-tasting bit of my tongue doesn’t work any more.” Everyone at the table concurred heartily. (And the pastry in that tart was the single dud of the evening – cakey and rather solid.) We thought this was the end, but the food just kept on coming – a positive bucket full of salt caramels, most of which found their way into my Mum’s handbag; fresh, hot, citrusy Madeleines; almond macarons with a fresh, creamy chocolate truffle centre. Finally, here were cones of gingerbread filled with liquorice ice cream, topped with a hard caramel shaped like, and flavoured with, star anise. This was the lightest, most digestible item we ate. So much so that I gave mine to Dr W to digest.
The (gargantuan) bill arrived sealed with a dollop of aubergine-coloured wax.
This is gorgeous, beautifully presented food, and it’s so French I was fully expecting it to go on strike. But it’s all a little too much at once – this is rich stuff in every sense of the word, and I wonder how it’s going down during the credit crunch. I’d certainly expect a restaurant of this calibre to be far, far more busy on a night shortly before Christmas than it was when we visited. If you’re set on visiting, try lunchtime, when a two-course menu comes in at £25, and a three-course one at £30.
Does anyone know where I can buy some aubergine shag-pile carpet?
A friendly publisher mailed me just before I left for New York, asking if I’d review a couple of books here for them. Always up for a freebie (I am nothing if not venal, especially where books are involved), I said yes – and was very, very pleased when Breakfast at the Wolseleyturned out to say A.A.Gillon the cover. If you’re not a consumer of English newspapers, you may not have come across him; he’s an author and journalist with a liking for smoking jackets and waspish prose. These days, Gill is the restaurant critic for the Sunday Times, and his is usually the first page I turn to when reading the papers in bed. His writing is unapologetically baroque and often vicious – his description of the Welsh as “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls” in the Times about ten years ago (he also said that “You can easily travel from Cardiff to Anglesey without ever stimulating a taste bud,”) nearly caused a Celtic uprising and sparked so many complaints from outraged Welshmen (no idea why – I’m married to one of the pugnacious little trolls, and it seemed fair enough to me) that the Press Complaints Commission and Commission for Racial Equality had to weigh in. We Brits love a Commission.
The Wolseley is a café-restaurant next to the Ritz in London, set in a building which was originally a gorgeously opulent showroom for Wolseley automobiles in the 1920s. That aesthetic runs through the restaurant itself as well as the book: the hard cover reproduces the design of the marble floors (themselves copied from Brunelleschi’s floors in Santo Spirito in Florence, according to Gill), while a tiny black dust-slip does double duty by carrying the title and author while acting as a slim belt to dress up the cover. I do not usually witter on like this about the outside of a book, but this one is very pretty, and the copious and beautiful photography inside keeps the loveliness factor high. They top it all off with a black satin ribbon bookmark. If this book was a person, it’d be wearing a velvet opera cape.
The book opens with an essay on the Wolseley’s history, then one on breakfast; Gill then walks us through a night’s preparation in the restaurant kitchens for the breakfast rush, but somehow takes us there via the Turkish siege of Vienna (croissants, pastries, espresso), Capuchin monks in Venice (cappuccino) and the beekeepers of South London (who supply the Wolseley with honey and beeswax for their cannelés de Bordeaux). My only complaint here is that because he’s writing about something he really enjoys, Gill is having trouble being as poisonous as usual, and I love him for his poison. Every now and then, though, the sliver-tipped dagger slips through the silky prose, so the restaurant’s customer database becomes “a benign Stazi report”; we are ticked off for moving from the “sugar-crusted, multicoloured, zoomorphically shaped processed carbs of childhood for the sombre, brown, bran-rich, blandly goodly flakes of colonic probity and adulthood”.
More short essays open each of the food chapters – Vienoisserie; Eggs; English Breakfast; Fruit and Cereals; and Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate. Rather wonderfully, you are offered bulleted instructions on how, for example, to prepare the perfectly poached or scrambled egg; a perfect cup of coffee (a discussion of the coarseness of your grind and whether you should select an Arabica or a Robusta); tea types and terminology. The night churns on – Polish plongeurs (“slim-featured, pale-eyed, all of them with the same contrary mixture of relief and resentment: a battened-in, taciturn, steely ambition”) flop about with rubber gloves and misery. I said above that Gill’s prose is baroque and it can be an acquired taste, but it’s a taste well worth acquiring if only so that you can read what he has to say about yoghurt.
The essays are punctuated with a good solid armful of breakfast recipes (not by Gill). These are the dishes we all secretly love and avoid eating regularly for the sake of our arteries and pancreas – eggs Benedict, pain au chocolat, omelette Arnold Bennett, lamb’s kidneys with Madeira, crèpes, haggis and duck egg. My heart throbs with the writing, my salivary glands do that squirty thing with the recipes. No recipe for the darned cannelés de Bordeaux, which saddens me, because I love the things.
I am torn between keeping this book in the kitchen so I can practise poaching eggs (a trick I have never quite got the hang of) or on the bedside table so I can read about the English breakfast’s “cacophony of meat” before bedtime. I suspect I’m just going to be running up and down the stairs a lot. Just as well, given all the black pudding.