Market Restaurant and Bar, Del Mar, San Diego, California

So here I am in Southern California, getting too much sun and doing a lot of hiking. We spent most of Sunday clambering over stuff up Palomar Mountain, a few tens of miles of orange groves away from San Diego. Chef Carl Schroeder has been raking in the plaudits at Market (3702 Via De La Valle Del Mar, CA 92014, tel. (858) 523-0007) for his minutely, obsessively prepared dishes full of bouncingly fresh farm ingredients, so we swung by that evening, in the middle of the white corn season, to see what was on offer.

Andouille and fresh corn chowder
Andouille and fresh corn chowder

For me, the best of Californian cooking is all about the produce. This is one of those menus where the provenance of every last green bean is described, along, of course, with the sourcing of all the meats on offer. Schroeder is using whatever is at the peak of its season here, so those beans, the picked-this-minute sweet corn, and tomatoes bursting with the Californian sunshine all find a place on the plate. The chowder above was gloriously, thickly complex. Dense stock, a really good andouille sausage providing a velvety background of pork and spice, and astonishing depth of flavour from a whole garden of vegetables and herbs supporting the sweetness of some corn picked at the height of its ripeness.

All types of cuisine can be had at the many restaurants San Diego California has to offer.


Braised short rib
Braised short rib

I ordered Schroeder’s signature dish, a beef short rib braised in Cabernet – the beef and the wine local, of course. A stupidly American portion size (what you can see in the picture above is only half of what was on the plate), and I was a little ashamed to finish the whole thing. Blame the hunger caused by a day’s hiking and the fact that this short rib was really pretty darn fabulous. All its connective tissues were reduced by long, slow sous-vide cooking to a perfectly tender mouthful, the dark Cabernet jus penetrating all the way through the joint. This was once a well-marbled and cheerfully pudgy cow, and all the fat had melted through the beef, carrying flavour and a lovely mouthfeel. More corn here, and some balsamic cippolini onions alongside a sweet onion and potato mash, just in case you don’t feel affairs on your plate are rich and dense enough already.

S'mores (kind of)

Another signature dish for dessert – pastry chef James Foran’s take on a s’more. If you’re English, you may not have come across s’mores. Imagine your Girl Guide/Boy Scout marshmallow-on-a-stick souped up, American style. Here, kids around a camp fire sandwich that marshmallow between two Graham crackers (nearest UK equivalent: the humble digestive biscuit) with a chunk of chocolate, and perform complicated grilling manoeuvres until the innards are melted. Here at Market, the chocolate is a fondant in a shell bearing only the barest resemblance to a Graham cracker – which is to say, that shell is crispy – and topped with a swirl of marshmallow. The shell is cheek-suckingly rich, flavoured with chocolate and cinnamon, and that marshmallow is made with brown sugar and a little smoked sea salt. Add a scoop of malted chocolate ice cream, and you have one hell of a dessert.

It’s a warm-feeling room, all chocolate leather, persimmon walls and modern-googie design touches. And there’s a fantastic and thoughtful wine list (although I ended up with a bottle of Kanchiku junmai sake, which was a great accompaniment to everything I’d ordered). A couple of duff notes: some insipid and tasteless asparagus with a smoked salmon starter, which stood out after the great season we’ve just had in Europe and alongside the other impeccably seasonal vegetables, especially since the kitchen had tried to remedy matters with a far-too-sharp dressing. Tables are uncomfortably crammed in. I felt awkwardly party to every detail of the second date going on to my right and the birthday on my left. And there’s really no excuse for making your parking valet-only, Market, when it takes less than ten seconds to walk from the end of the car park to the restaurant door. Still: all in all, a lovely, bright and fresh meal, and a restaurant I’d definitely visit again.

Bremen food and drink roundup

Bremen town hall. Image from Bremen tourist board.

I wonder if there’s a body out there that can rescind qualifications you’ve acquired in the past. Since a GCSE passed with flying colours 20 years ago, the only German I’ve encountered has been sung at me on my iPod by David Hasselhoff and the odd choir – and you can tell. Reduced to gurning, miming and pointing over schnitzel and pig knuckles, I am reminded that the brain is a muscle, blah blah blah, and that a mild attempt to keep up learned skills in adulthood might not have been a bad thing. If you intend to enjoy eating while travelling in a European country where you don’t speak the language, you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of Eating Out in Five Languages, which fits nicely in your handbag or a coat pocket and covers 10,000 restaurant and food terms in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. I found it invaluable, and it’s always reassuring to know that the words for lark, nettle or lung are just a quick flip away.

If there were such a thing as a bloggers’ licence, I should probably have that rescinded too. I’ve just spent a week in a city a-throb with UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I managed to leave my camera out of the hand luggage while trying to get the case to meet Ryanair’s weight restrictions, and forget to put it back in again. All the pictures you see here are courtesy of the Bremen tourist board.

So, you’re in North Germany. You’re probably thinking sausage, and you’re definitely thinking beer. The local cuisine is heavy on the meat, light on the vegetables, tends towards onions for flavouring rather than garlic, and favours mustard and caraway above pretty much every other spicing. You’ll find the local foods all over the city, in bierkellers, restaurants, and in the biergartens strung like beads along the river Weser.

Your first destination in Bremen should be the market square. This is where all the UNESCO World Heritage goodies are – a statue of Roland and the gothic fruitcakery of the Ratshaus (town hall), both built around 1405. If it isn’t supper time yet, you can fill any gaping holes you might possess with a wurst; there are three permanent stalls here to the left of the town hall where you can pick up a sausage in a bun, with some potato salad, or without any accompaniment at all. Currywurst (in Bremen sometimes called Kanzlerschnitzel, or Chancellor’s Schnitzel – any German speakers know why?) is a popular choice: a grilled sausage slathered with sweet tomato sauce, then dusted with garam masala. There’s no chilli heat at all in one of these beasts, but plenty of flavour from the curry spices.

Bremen Ratskeller. Image from Bremen tourist board. Kobolds etc. probably lurking in barrel.

Underneath the Ratshaus, you’ll find the Ratskeller, an enormous cellar tavern which originally housed all the wine sold in the 15th century city. Now, if you are someone with a horrible addiction to computer role-playing games of the medieval fantasy sort (not that I know anyone like that. Oh no), you’ll be all over this place. It’s the perfect instantiation of ye olde cellar tavern, all vaulted ceilings, sconces just aching for a flaming torch, cast-iron stands for your coat and your sword, and gorgeously baroque dark wood carvings. Seated next to a gargantuan wine barrel with armorial markings from 1740-odd, I was perfectly primed for an attack from a party of kobolds while I wrestled with my Bremer Knipp.

Knipp (pronounced with a hard “K”) is a very local dish you’re unlikely to find elsewhere in Germany. The closest you’re likely to have come to it in the UK is a haggis; Bremer Knipp is made from oats, beef liver, pig’s head and pork belly, seasoned with onion and some sweet spices, all minced together into a patty and fried crisp in lard. You’ll be thankful for the pickled gherkin it’s served with, which neatly cuts the fatty richness of the Knipp. We found ourselves big fans of Bremer Knipp; if you’re someone who enjoys offal, you’re likely to like it too. (If you’re a haggis-avoider, give it a miss.) The local dishes seem to be by far the best at the Ratskeller: try the Labskaus, a sort of corned beef, potato and onion hash.

Two minutes’ walk away you’ll find Böttcherstrasse, about 100m of narrow medieval street as reimagined by 1920s expressionist architects in brick. It’s a jewel of a place (look out in particular for the Haus des Glockenspiels, where a carillon of bells made from Meissen porcelain plays an eight-minute concert on the hour in the daytime) lined with little shops and restaurants. We particularly enjoyed the cavernous Ständige Vertretung, a beer hall themed, rather weirdly, around German politics. My, the conversations we ended up avoiding for reasons of cultural sensitivity over our herrings. Beer here – frothy, crystal-clear Kräusen from the local Haake Beck brewery by default, although you can choose other beers – is sold in little 20cl glasses, which are topped up as the evening goes on. (They’re fragile; clink, if you must, with the bottoms rather than the tops. My friend T ended up with a shard of glass in his pilsner.) A tally is kept on your beermat; it’s easy to drink a lot like this, but when you feel you’ve had enough, just pop your beermat on top of your glass.

Take a left at the top of Böttcherstrasse, and with another few minutes’ brisk trotting, you’ll find yourself in the Schnoor district, a maze of medieval streets. Restaurants here tend towards the touristy (avoid the Beck’s restaurant), but Schröter’s Leib und Seele, especially on a sunny day, is a great lunch spot – and there were more vegetables on the menu here than I saw anywhere in the rest of the city. It’s attached to Schröter’s Konditorei (cake shop), so save plenty of room for dessert, which is the best part of the meal here.

Paulaner's beer garden in the evening. Image from Bremen tourist board.

The city’s set up for long, drinky evenings. You’ll find atmosphere in buckets in all the places I’ve mentioned, but on a sunny day you’re best off by far along the river embankment (Schlachte). Here, you’ll find a line of terraces under the trees, where you can eat from the restaurants opposite the river. At weekends, pigs appear on spits, mackerel is grilled over coals and things get substantially busier than they are in the week. We spent a lot of time sitting at the picnic tables here, soaking up a positively professional amount of beer with sausages and schnitzel. My favourite spot along the Schlachte is Paulaner’s, where there are actual honest-to-god beer wenches, with boobs hoisted up near their chins on a sort of lacy shelf arrangement. Great schnitzel, too, served at this time of year with beautiful fat white asparagus and hollandaise (everywhere has a seasonal menu featuring asparagus at the moment; I wish we’d pick up on this idea in the UK), along with a totally unnecessary lake of butter.

Alcohol-aided bravery might be necessary for you to try out another local trick in the beer gardens: white wheat beer with a shot of flavoured syrup. You’ll find banana (a really surprisingly good flavour match to the hoppy Weissbier), cherry and Waldmeister (woodruff), which turns your beer a startling green and gives it an aromatic, honeyed flavour. Woodruff beer is also called Mai-Bier (May beer), and is meant as a particular springtime drink. Just be ready for a little teasing when you order one of these – on ordering a Pilsner and a banana-flavoured Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse I was told by a smirking fella in an apron: “Hier ist das Bier für einen Menschen. Und hier ist ein Bier für ein Mädchen.”

Even I have enough German to understand that.

Kaiseki menu at Hakubai, Kitano Hotel, New York City

Cornus flowers
Cornus display in the Kitano lobby

The Kitano, a few blocks south of Grand Central Station, is one of my favourite places to stay in New York. The hotel is Japanese owned and run, and stepping off the Park Avenue sidewalk into the lobby is a bit like stepping through a teleporter, straight into an Asian hotel. There’s Japanese floral art, a service ethic imported straight from Tokyo, a green tea machine in every bedroom – and it’s wonderfully, extravagantly clean. Best of all, there’s a simply superb Japanese restaurant in the basement; one of those inexplicable well-kept secrets, which you won’t read much about in guide books or online. I am assured by a Japanese friend that given the decor, kimono-swathed waitresses, and lacquered tableware, it is very easy to mistake Hakubai for somewhere similarly swanky in Kyoto before you even get to the food.

I was there for the food rather than the hallucinatory experience of being in another city, but I have to admit: going from a view of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings to a restaurant that feels half a world away is a great sensation.

Hakubai was on my list of must-eats in New York because it is one of the very, very few restaurants in the city that offers a kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a bravura food-as-art performance of a meal. This isn’t hyperbole; a kaiseki meal really is regarded as art, and like other kinds of art, it has a formal structure. You’ll find many exquisitely prepared tiny courses, which are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Looks and taste are equally important here, and there should be a very wide variation in textures between the courses. Modern kaiseki usually proceeds with an appetiser, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, and a steamed course (not necessarily in that order), perhaps with additions from the chef. The courses are served at carefully timed intervals on decorative lacquer and porcelain dishes, decorated with real leaves, flowers, and tiny pieces of edible garnish. This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course; Hakubai offers two kaiseki menus, one at $170 a head, and an oknomi kaiseki (what-you-like kaiseki, which is what I ended up ordering) at $95.

Because a kaiseki meal is meant to appeal as much to the eyes as it does to the mouth, the best way to take you through what I ate is through pictures. This is a meal worth saving up for if you happen to be visiting the city. We had the excuse of a couple of celebrations – a birthday, the end of a university course – but if I were you, I’d do my very best to make up some reason to celebrate, sell the car, and use the money to hotfoot it to Hakubai.

Cold sake
Cold sake in a Venetian glass bottle, crushed ice and sakura blossoms. I'm struggling to think of a nicer way to start the evening.
Sesame tofu
Sakizuke: an amuse-bouche-type starter course. Sesame tofu with a raw okra and fresh wasabi garnish. The tofu, made in-house, is delicate, silky and has a subtle sesame flavour.
Hassun: a course emphasising the seasonal theme. From top right, clockwise: monkfish liver; a cold grilled cod salad in a very light rice vinegar dressing; herring roe; spinach and bonito salad. The monkfish liver, sometimes called aquatic foie gras, was a real seasonal treat, but the standout here for me was the herring roe, which is very hard to find.
Herring roe on kelp  (komochi konbu)
A closer view of the herring roe on kelp (komochi konbu). This was only the second time in my life I've eaten it. Komochi konbu is hard to find; it has a short season, and western diners can be a bit squeamish about raw roe, so it's not very popular, which is a great shame, because it's fabulous stuff. The herring lays its eggs on each side of a piece of kelp - you're looking at a cross-section of the egg mass. The kelp is the dark stripe in the middle. This is all about texture - it's beautiful, sea-tasting roe with a soft crunch, wonderful dipped in a very little soy.
Futamono: a lidded course. This is chawan mushi, which you might have encountered elsewhere: a steamed savoury egg custard. This was densely flavoured with pork, mackerel, crab and herbs, with a tiny ball of sticky mochi in the centre.
Mukozuke: a sashimi course. Sashimi on crushed ice in an earthenware oyster shell. From the top, you're looking at chu toro on a spicy perilla leaf, fluke and amberjack (a Japanese fish which, again, is hard to find outside Japan) with lemon. All impossibly fresh.
Takiawase: a course of vegetables and fish, meat or tofu, prepared separately. The grilled scallops are served with lightly dressed, steamed spaghetti squash. Above them is a tofu and seasonal vegetable salad with some very fresh bamboo shoots, and to the right a grilled Spanish mackerel dish.
Shiizakana: the most substantial course. There was a choice between sushi, tempura or steak (with a $30 supplement for Kobe beef). This was so good I went back a few nights later for a sushi-only meal. Back row, top to bottom: toro (fatty tuna), hirame (fluke), ika (squid), tai (red snapper). Front row, top to bottom: amaebi (sweet shrimp), anago (sea eel), uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe).
Mizumono: a course of seasonal desserts. Green tea ice cream, vanilla ice cream, and mochi (glutinous rice flour cakes) in caramel. The mochi were so soft they only barely held their shape. A lovely (and necessarily - I was very full by this point) light finish to the meal.


Rose and Crown, Great Horkesley, Essex

White onion and thyme soup
White onion and thyme soup amuse bouche - dense flavours just right for a tiny serving.

That little episode was, I think, the longest break from blogging I’ve had in about six years. I read somewhere that we are due to get flu every ten years or so, and I managed to have this decade’s dose while on a flight back from New York (scratch one week’s blogging, while I was having fun on holiday) a couple of weeks ago. It’s been exactly two weeks today (scratch another two weeks’ blogging, while I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling and wishing I was dead), and I’m still not better. But at least I can look at a monitor now without splattering goo all over it and getting a blinding headache from the backlight.

So. To the Essex/Suffolk border, where about a month ago, I was invited over to the Rose and Crown in Great Horkesley (01206 271251) for a lazy Tuesday supper. Chef and patron Ed Halls set up shop in the sort of place that estate agents describe as having a “wealth of beams” almost exactly a year ago, after spells cooking at starry places like Morston Hall in Norfolk, and Pétrus under Marcus Wareing. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I discovered half-way through my meal that my buddy Krista from Passport Delicious is a part-owner of the Rose and Crown.)

Warm salad
Warm salad of black pudding, smoked bacon, shallot marmalade and soft boiled quail’s egg. As good as it looks!

Ed marks a very clear line in the fuzzy territory between the pub scampi-in-a-basket menu and the sort of fine dining that might intimidate your gran. This is an accessible menu that you can easily put in front of the family; but it’s also full of little un-pubby gestures like a little amuse bouche – in our case, a little cup of dense and pepper-hot white onion and thyme soup –  some exceptionally good olives, and ingredients like quail’s eggs, shallot confit and polenta. (Lady at table next to us: “What is this poo-len-ta on the menu?” The staff are brilliant, and had her all set in no time; and yes, she ended up ordering it.)

Alongside the less pubby flourishes, you’ll find all of the things you’d hope to find on a pub menu: stellar onion rings made with a beer you can get on tap at the bar; proper, twice-cooked chips; gargantuan portions of calves liver; and the thing that really drew me to the Rose and Crown in the first place: dry-aged Dedham Beef steaks, cut thick and chargrilled perfectly (in my case) medium rare. Don’t be put off by the slightly George Foreman Grill-looking char marks on your steak. My bone-in ribeye really was a great-tasting piece of meat, raised properly, fed with grass, like cows should be, and cooked simply and well. (Witness the fact that I polished the whole thing off; I am almost never able to finish a whole steak.) Ribeye, especially with the bone, is far and away my favourite cut of steak, and you don’t see it on menus as often as it deserves. It’s tender from extensive marbling, and full of wonderfully beefy flavour: this is a muscle that gets used a lot, and the proximity to the bone adds flavour and sweetness.

Rib eye steak
Ribeye steak, with slow-roasted garlic tomatoes and watercress salad. Stellar chips and onion rings out of shot, disappearing into Dr W.

You can choose saucing for your steak from a short list, and I heartily recommend the chunk of Stilton offered as a kind of hard sauce.

The quality of the cooking shines through in little details like the breathtakingly rich fish stock making a base for the scallop risotto, and the desserts, which were shockingly good. Not at all what you might expect on a pub menu: here was an orange and passion fruit crème brulée, topped off with bitter macerated oranges and a spectacularly creamy white chocolate ice cream. Those bitter, sour oranges paired with sharp passion fruit were such a good foil to the dense, rich custard that they made my head spin. Dr W interjected that the head-spinning may have been caused by the Greene King ales we were drinking. The brewery, at Bury St Edmunds, is only 25 miles away, and there’s a definite, and very positive, difference to the taste of the beer when it’s not had to travel too far.

Great Horkesley is just outside Colchester, and near all of those lovely day-out places like Long Melford and Lavenham; it’s also a great place to stop for lunch if you’re out on your way to the Suffolk coast. It’s great to see more pubs taking food seriously, and Ed is a really interesting guy to chat with; if you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

Pecan pie
Pecan pie with maple syrup and butterscotch ice cream. There must be a magical ice cream elf in the kitchen; all the ice creams we tried were spectacular.

Barbecue in Austin, Texas

Beef brisket
Beef brisket from Lambert's. Not the prettiest picture, but it's a good example of the smoke ring (the pink layer beneath the charred crust - call that crust a "bark" if you wish to impress Texans) that you should look for in good smoked meats.

Is there any food whose “proper” preparation gets people more worked up than America barbecue? Regional styles differ all over the continent, but most dedicated barbecuers you meet have a strong opinion that their favoured way of doing things is the only right one – witness Yelp reviews on pretty much any barbecue restaurant in the country, where arguments on vinegar sauces versus sugary ones, Memphis versus Texas, wet versus dry brining and mesquite versus oak rage beyond all relevance to whether the food’s actually any good or not.

Austin’s a great place; it’s very unlike the rest of the state, in that it’s leafy, humid and green rather than dusty and dry, and packed with hipsters rather than cowboys. It feels a bit like a West Coast college town plopped in the middle of Texas. With added barbecue. Passions run high – my friend G, for example, complained at the top of his voice on finding I’d booked us lunch somewhere other than the Salt Lick, a small barbecue chain which, he says, “does a proper sauce”. All traditional Texas barbecue sauces are sweet, tomato-based, thick and spicy, but there’s a world of variation within that definition.

Mexican Coke
Mexican Coca-Cola. This is Coke made for the Mexican market, and you'll find it in a lot of Texan barbecue restaurants and ethnic groceries. It's made with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, and has a distinctly different (and I think nicer) flavour than regular Coke. It's also a great accompaniment to barbecued meats.

No amount of asking would get G to tell me what he meant by “proper”; every barbecue joint in town has a different saucing and rub, which is also on sale at the counter so you can anoint the food you grill at home with it. I’ve a good, and pretty faithful, Texan barbecue sauce recipe you can use here if you want to have a go yourself; use it as a marinade, or pour a dollop on the side of the plate for dipping.

I found that there are two ends of the barbecue spectrum in these parts: traditional, pile-em-high casual eating where you use your fingers and get sauce on your elbows; and “fancy barbecue”, with cutlery and (whisper it) salad. Everywhere we tried offered a regular sauce alongside an extra-spicy one; some also made their own sweet mustard. And there are standard accompaniments on offer everywhere: potato salad is a must, often sweetened and gussied up with a bit of the in-house sugary rub. You’ll also find baked beans everywhere, sugary, spicy and seasoned with bits of smoked brisket end.

Beef’s the standard in Texas, but most restaurants also offer some smoky porky bits and pieces alongside the traditional beef. Beef – brisket, ribs, or a good old-fashioned steak – is usually your best bet here. This is, after all, where longhorn cattle come from.

Beef ribs
Beef ribs plate from The Ironworks. Note bottle of local root beer in background. Fizzy drinks are a way of life hereabouts.

For casual barbecue, all paper plates, chequered tablecloths and sticky fingers, my favourite in town was The Ironworks, on Red River St. This is one of those restaurants with celebrity endorsements plastered all over the walls. If it’s good enough for Chewbacca and The Fonz, it’s good enough for me. I was lucky enough to go for the first time in a group of 12, so we were able to order a sample of everything on the menu – which is to say, a honking great mountain of meat. Fat beef ribs, crisp, smoky and sweet from the rub, are the restaurant’s speciality, and were, to my tastes, the very best thing on the menu. These are a bit of a challenge to eat politely, but persevere. There’s a great home-smoked hot sausage on offer, pork ribs (much less good than the beef ribs), halved chickens, pork loin, wonderfully smoky ham – you can order these meats by the pound, or, if there are fewer of you, you can each get a platter of one of the meats with some traditional accompaniments heaped alongside on your paper plate. Potato salad mixed sweet, like so much food in Texas; pickled cucumbers; pickled chillies; slices of raw onion; baked beans; and a big slice of Wonder Bread are more than you’ll probably be able to manage in one go, but they’re great to browse on. There are big, ice-filled coolers out front, where you can pick up a local beer, a bottle of root beer (awesome, as they say out here, with the beef ribs) or a Budweiser if you have no tastebuds.

After something a bit more spiffy and shiny? You need to head to Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, in the new Second Street shopping district. There’s a little stage upstairs where you can listen to live music, a fabulous Sunday brunch that’s part buffet, part waiter service, and a simply superb lunch and evening menu. And cutlery. And cloth napkins.

Lambert's interior
Settling in for a monumental Sunday brunch at Lambert's.

My first visit to Lambert’s was an evening one, when I was served a ribeye steak cooked with a mustard and brown sugar crust, much like you’d find on a crème brûlée. One made of solid meat. I know I’ve been complaining all week about the sugariness of Texan food, but it was hard not to notice that this was the first time in my life I’ve finished a whole ribeye. This steak was cooked over oak chips, served with a roasted head of garlic, and was so good that I’d have married it if I could. Dr W (to whom I am married, making any potential steak-marriage impossibly bigamous) ordered a slab of brisket, rubbed in brown sugar and coffee, and smoked until blissfully tender.

Staff here are impossibly hip. There are enough tattoos on the restaurant floor to upholster a really creepy three-piece suite. Everybody’s as nice as pie (specifically, a lovely little crescent-shaped, deep-fried apricot pie, served with some excellent ice cream); and in common with many places with ultra-hip servers, there are some ultra-good cocktails on offer. Try the tart cucumber gimlet, which is a great foil to the sweetness of some of the food.

Devilled eggs, asparagus
Devilled eggs and asparagus from the brunch buffet at Lambert's - an unusually non-meaty plateful.

We were back again for brunch, which gave me a chance to branch out into the rest of the menu a bit. There are actual salads on offer – asparagus vinaigrette, great coleslaw packed with coriander, the ubiquitous potato salad and a fruit salad for any health nuts who have stumbled through the wrong door. Great gravadlax, cured to a nutty tenderness then gently smoked, so the outside is barely cooked, is served with a Texan favourite, crisp fried capers. There are devilled eggs topped off with farmed caviar (I am a sucker for a devilled egg);  grits, home fries, macaroni cheese and all the American carbs you could wish for; and a butcher’s block manned by a fella with a big knife who will lovingly slice some of the restaurant’s smoked meats for you. There’s also a long list of small plates you can order fresh from the kitchen, and a groaning table piled with patisseries. The coconut profiteroles, chocolate pie and a blueberry muffin so densely filled with fruit that it was more blueberry than muffin would have beaten a less dedicated group of diners, but Dr W, G and I manfully made our way through it.

After a week’s serious eating, Lambert’s comes out as my top Austin pick by far. Happily for me, more trips to the city seem to be in the offing; next time, I’m planning on ordering their cold-smoked, stuffed quail, and a slab of their thick strawberry Texas toast. It’s beyond me how anyone in this city can stay slim.

Sugar shock at Hudson’s on the Bend, Austin, TX

Foie gras
Foie gras on maple corn bread

I write this at the Oasis, a café with an enormous terrace overlooking Lake Travis in Austin, TX. The sun is beating down, the water is blue, turtles (actual turtles) plash beneath me, and a nice man is coming in a few minutes with my bowl of guacamole. My mission here has been largely barbecue-oriented, and I’ll have a whole list of barbecue tips for you here next week. Last night, though, I realised I couldn’t take any more in the way of brisket, at least in the short term, so I headed out to Hudson’s on the Bend, a cottagey little restaurant out near the lake, famous for its game and rare meats.

My husband used to live in Austin in the summers when he was a student, and has always held Hudson’s up as a pinnacle of his early restaurant experience – the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia are a powerful thing. Enter through the back, from the car park, where you’ll find a patio strewn with white fairy lights, carpets laid out on the rock floors to soften things underfoot. And some very pretty food, some aloof and indifferent service, and more obnoxiously sugary glazes than I’ve ever encountered in one place.

(Oo. Here is my guacamole.)

Lobster risotto
Lobster risotto

Hudson’s menu is a positive circus of wildlife. It opens with a rattlesnake cake (“coiled atop a spicy chipotle cream”), taking a schizophrenic route through the plains of Africa (yak), America (buffalo) and Canada (elk) via a French flowerbed (escargots). You’ll be disappointed to learn that I simply couldn’t face that much meat after a few days’ hunting down the city’s best barbecued beef ribs, so I ended up with a portion of foie gras (I have still to meet the level of protein consumption that will stop me from finding a chunk of foie appetising) and a quail salad. Dr W also remained untempted by exoticism, and there’s plenty on the menu for those not up for a slab of yak, like the lobster risotto and Nieman Ranch pork chop he eventually settled for.

(Bleedin’ awful guacamole, this. I will give the Oasis café a bye; the view is good, the friend I’m with claims to be enjoying his veggie burger, and they do make a reasonable cup of coffee. There’s also a mural depicting twenty chihuahuas being served drinks by a longhorn cow, and a larger-than-life fibreglass parrot wearing a Hawaiian shirt, which is so fantastic that I’m hard-pressed to be down on them.)

Things started well, last night. A Margarita, puckeringly and curiously sweet, and some complimentary spring onion and dill bread with flavoured butters. The bread had reached great puffy, yeasted heights, thanks to a very generous amount of sugar in the dough. Sugary butters, too – chipotle-honey and some sweet herbs.

Fresh spinach with hot pig vinaigrette topped with smoked quail in a honey cilantro ginger glaze

In concerningly short order, our waiter, facial expression suggesting his best friend had died recently, rolled out with starters. The foie came on a plate shaped like an artist’s palette; weirdly annoying, shaped plates and whimsy, but something I’m prepared to forgive. As it turns out, cornbread and foie is not the best textural combination – the gritty nature of cornbread, especially when, like this bit, it’s been drenched in oil, is compellingly wrong alongside silky, buttery foie. The richness of foie is a no-brain match with sweet accompaniments, but this cornbread, dense with sugar; the slippery, syrupy crust on the foie; and the red strawberry and balsamic sauce alongside were too overwhelmingly sweet to support this teeny a slice of liver.

I can’t comment on the lobster, thanks to an allergy in equal parts deadly and annoying. Dr W says “Toothsome, with plenty of saffron, and very sweet”. You may see a theme emerging here.

Quail, on a bed of spinach leaves. Hopelessly pretty, gently smoked, nicely boned, cooked to a lovely tenderness. And so tooth-hurtingly, pancreas-winceingly sweet, that I was hard-pressed to work out how, honey aside, the little bird had been flavoured. This was a dish so sugary that the baby tomato halves in the salad cringed into sourness against the sticky, sticky meat. I stole a chunk of Dr W’s chorizo-stuffed pork chop, and blenched. I’ve eaten ice creams more savoury.

Pork chop
Chorizo-stuffed Neiman Ranch grilled pork chop with mango jalapeno sauce

This is all such a shame, because the plating is gorgeous (as you can see from the pictures), and the environment at Hudson’s is so green, twinkly and romantic that you find yourself willing them to buck up a bit. I couldn’t face the dessert section of the menu – sculptural glasses full of custardy-looking concoctions kept coming past on the way to other tables, but my teeth were already vibrating with desire for a toothbrush, so we called it a night.

Perhaps this is not Hudson’s fault. Perhaps it is a Texas thing. After all; this is a place where sugary barbecue rubs and sauces are sold on every corner. Maybe after a while, your palate slips, and high-sucrose seasoning is merely standard. (I did have a steak at another restaurant a few nights ago – of which more later – with a crème brulée crust, which actually managed to be very tasty indeed.) All the same, If I succumb to some sort of diabetic crisis before I manage to get home, you’ll know who to blame.

Ottolenghi, Islington, London

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.

Roast aubergine with tahini and yoghurt sauce
Roast aubergine with tahini and yoghurt sauce - probably my favourite dish of the evening.
Stuffed zucchini blossom
Stuffed zucchini blossom, light and herby, with goat's cheese and wild thyme honey.
Pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps, mushrooms, seaweed and truffle oil salad
Pan-fried sea bass with garlic crisps, mushrooms, seaweed and truffle oil salad.
Pepper and coconut crusted prawns with green mango, cashew and coriander salad
Pepper and coconut crusted prawns with green mango, cashew and coriander salad - I loved these. Beautiful bright, fresh flavours and stupendous texture.
Turkish vine leaves
Turkish vine leaves. Apparently, these contained barberries. Anywhere else they'd have been outstanding; here they were good, but less interesting than much of the rest of the meal.
Pigeon breast in saffron, rosewater and hazelnuts with caramelised pear and pickled walnuts
Pigeon breast in saffron, rosewater and hazelnuts with caramelised pear and pickled walnuts.
Roast sweet potato, spring onion, mixed nuts, chilli with mint and burnt aubergine sauce
Roast sweet potato, spring onion, mixed nuts, chilli with mint and burnt aubergine sauce.
Yellowfin tuna wrapped in nori and panko with wasabi cream
Yellowfin tuna wrapped in nori and panko with wasabi cream.
Char-grilled fillet of English beef with sweet coriander-mustard sauce
Char-grilled fillet of English beef with sweet coriander-mustard sauce.
Passionfruit meringue
Passionfruit meringue, half-eaten.

Da Lat, San Jose

Beef pho
Beef pho

Thanks for the emails and messages on Twitter – my Mum and Dad have finally managed to get out of Cairo, and are flying to the UK as I type. I feel as if I haven’t exhaled in a week. It’ll be good to have them home.

I met up with my most excellent Auntie L in San Jose for a couple of meals last week. Apparently she rang my Dad before seeing me to check whether it’d be OK to eat in what she terms “hole-in-the-wall joints” (like many people who read this blog, she’d somehow conceived the opinion that I don’t go to restaurants that don’t have Michelin stars). Dad, of course, said that holes in the wall were just the thing, so Auntie L and I found ourselves at Da Lat (408 E William St, 95112 San Jose. Tel (408) 294-6989) for Vietnamese noodle soup.

The Vietnamese, not content with having invented the world’s best sandwich in the banh mi, also make a contender for the world’s best soup. Pho, like so many of my favourite dishes, has a mixed heritage, with some of its roots in French (the beef, not eaten in Vietnam until the colonial era) and Chinese (the rice noodles) cuisine. The name of the dish is pronounced “fuh”, a little like the French “feu”, possibly deriving from the pot au feu that the colonial French were eating. Surprisingly, for something that tastes as if it’s been developed over centuries, it’s only been around for about a hundred years.

A good pho is all about the stock, a broth made with beef bones, browned onions and a mixture of spices, cooked over many hours. The dish succeeds or fails based on its broth, and the broth that my aunt found in a tiny, dark restaurant opposite a garage in the middle of nowhere in suburban San Jose was about as good as you’ll find anywhere. (So good, in fact, that I dropped in very quickly for another bowl on my way out of town the next day.) Get there early; the local police and fire service are based nearby, and Da Lat fills up very quickly after 12 o clock with lunching men in uniform and a huge number of local Vietnamese people.

Auntie L says that Da Lat reminds her of the restaurants we used to visit together when she lived in Malaysia, all the emphasis on the food rather than the interior. It’s clean, but the decor is ancient, and in places a bit peely in that way that formica gets after a couple of decades. It all goes to give the restaurant bundles of character, to go with the bundles of beansprouts you’ll be scattering in your pho. My aunt and I weren’t the only people doing intergenerational lunch – tucked in among all the policemen and firemen there were Vietamese grandparents spooning soup into their grandchildren, a group of old gentlemen saying something instructive in Vietnamese to two young men over a table straining to bear the weight of all the food they’d ordered, and a few mother/daughter (or possibly aunt/niece) tables.

Vietnamese pork dishes
Pork dishes - from top, clockwise, pork and noodle omelette, rice, vegetable pickles, shredded pork with ground rice, barbecued pork

It’s worth opening proceedings with the banh xeo, a crisp savoury crepe made with rice flour, filled with pork and prawns and studded with beansprouts and herbs. Wrap a mouthful in a piece of lettuce leaf with some of the fresh coriander and mint that has been put on the table, and dip it all in the nuoc cham, a strong, piquant sauce made from fish sauce, garlic, chillies and palm sugar. We also tried the fat, fresh battered prawns, and some spring rolls or cha gio (there’s a recipe for cha gio here on Gastronomy Domine if you fancy making your own). It’s not all soups and starters – Dr W ordered a platter of pork dishes so good that he overate quite spectacularly.

Auntie L recommends you try the Mi Da Lat Dac Biet (no 59 on the menu), a house special noodle soup that comes with a crab claw sticking out of it and plenty of pork and seafood lurking in the bottom of the bowl; she ordered it “dry”, with the soup broth on one side and the noodles in a separate bowl, which seems to be a popular way of doing things. I kept it traditional by ordering Pho Dac Biet: beef pho.

What can I say? Glorious stuff, with a broth simultaneously rich and light – it’s unusual for me to finish off a whole bowl of noodle soup, especially when it’s this big, but with the juice of a lime squirted into it, a handful of herbs stirred through and a big fist of beansprouts dolloped on top, this stuff is as good as it gets.

It’s cheap, too. That bowl of pho was only $7.95 – less than you’d spend on a meal at McDonald’s. Bring the family and eat yourself silly.

Samurai Sushi, Lake Tahoe, five years later

Mostly pictures today; I have a triple-whammy of jet-lag, a dose of the plague or something caught from an unsanitary bloke on the plane, and a complementary dose of blind panic about my Mum and Dad, who are stuck in Cairo. The odd text message from them is escaping Egypt, along the lines of: “Tanks outside window. Your father is having a snooze”.

I don’t usually post about restaurants more than once here, but Samurai, a little place up in South Lake Tahoe which remains one of my favourite sushi restaurants anywhere for its freshness and consistency, deserves a new post. I’ve been back to the restaurant a few times for post-skiing sushi every year since 2006, and standards at the restaurant remain as high as ever. Thanks to Geoff and Helen for being such brilliant hosts, and for making me and Dr W feel like regulars on the strength of a handful of visits separated by 12 months each year. So without further ado, some pictures. I am off to cough my lungs out and try to make a phone call to my besieged parents.


Escolar nigiri
Escolar nigiri, a comp from Geoff, who guessed (correctly) that this buttery fleshed fish from the Gulf of Mexico would be something we wouldn't find in the UK.
Hamachi collar
Barbecued hamachi (yellowtail tuna) collar - tender, intensely savoury, with a gorgeously crisp skin
A big heap of sushi - those are quail yolks on the flying fish roe. Just gorgeous.

Let’s do the Timewarp again

A perfectly harmless-looking salad

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have noticed that I’m in America for a few weeks. I’ve been spending part of the time here skiing up in Lake Tahoe, an alpine lake on the border between Californa and Nevada which Mark Twain called “the fairest picture the whole earth affords”. The clear air and the long blue views up here are good for the soul, but they seem to have a curiously retarding effect on the cooking. Many of the restaurants around the lake have menus which haven’t changed in the six or so years I’ve been coming here, but that’s nothing; there are a good few menus here which don’t look to have changed since the 1960s, when many of the properties here were founded, and Frank Sinatra (who owned the Cal Neva Lodge, a hotel and casino on the north shore) and his pals Marilyn and JFK used to drop in for a steak.

Lew Mar Nel’s, at the Station House Inn in South Lake Tahoe (a note to Best Western, the owners: “The world’s largest hotel chain” is probably one of the worst tag lines you could have chosen), is one of these joints that’s been around since before they filmed the Godfather Part II a few miles up the road. Detective work centred around the drinks menu and the art on the walls (a Vesper and Dirty Martini are called Lewis and Nelson Martinis here, and splodgy oil paintings of vases of flowers on every wall have MARGIT signed assertively at the bottom right) suggest where the name might have come from back in the day, although there’s no trace of Lewis, Margit and Nelson left now besides the cocktails and pictures. The restaurant is built in a log-cabin style, with bare wood walls, a rustic log bar, and benches in the booths covered with a very slightly sticky burgundy velour. It’s all lit with wobbly orangey dimness, so any stains are well hidden. The menu is a historical record of steakhouses long vanished – all Wienerschniztel, peppercorn steaks, trout amandine and escargots – and Glenn Miller’s band warbles softly over the PA system.

This might sound charming, and I’ll admit that I was coerced in by the retro menu, but it is not an unalloyed good thing. You’re paying heftily for the privilege of taking a trip in Tahoe’s equivalent of the Mr Fusion-ised DeLorean, and while a couple of hours channeling your youthful grandmother on a slightly pissed night’s jolly might be a giggle, it’s not necessarily worth the $100+ we paid for a meal and a couple of glasses of wine, especially given the food, which was of a quality that any self-respecting 1960s chef would have drowned himself over in the lake next door.

Not-quite-cheese fondue
Not-quite-cheese fondue

In keeping with the retro nature of what’s on the menu is a retro method of ordering: although there are plenty of appetisers on the menu, you are presented on arrival with a cheese fondue with a hunk of bread – “fresh-baked sourdough”, they say, but it’s actually just a lump of commercial baguette par-baked in a factory somewhere else, and finished off in the kitchen – and a salad with your choice of dressing, whatever your main course choice happens to be, so those appetisers remain unexplored for all but the hungriest. The fondue is made with something the Americans seem to call cheese (at least, our waiter did), but which European visitors, or Americans who are familiar with the output of an actual cow, may balk at. It’s curious stuff; silky in the mouth with a low melting point (lower than that of, say, cheese), very salty, very umami and very rubbery when dripped on something cold and left to congeal. It is the yellow of motorway maintenance men’s jackets, and tastes almost nothing like cheese.

The compulsory salad was a high point; it’s hard to get a salad particularly wrong, and I am a fan of blue cheese dressing, which actually managed to taste cheesier than the nominally cheesy fondue. Garlic croutons appeared to have been made in the kitchen, and there was a certain charm to the moulded pyrex plate it all arrived on (I am a sucker for things which remind me of my Grandma, whose salads were lousy – getting them wrong might be hard, but she made it look effortless thanks to an addiction to Heinz salad cream – and always involved a pyrex plate).

Veal cordon bleu
Veal cordon bleu, and what might just be the worst sauce ever conceived.

I ordered the veal cordon bleu. When do you ever see a veal cordon bleu on a menu these days? It was overcooked and dry (the cheese and ham sandwiched inside it went some way to mitigate the dryness), and came with a little gravy boat full of what might just be the world’s worst mushroom sauce. Echoing the restaurant’s decor, this stuff was a glossy brown. And full of woody chunks of mushroom. Like the banquettes, which every now and then revealed a coin-sized spot of mystery goo to the palm you forgetfully rested on them, it was further enhanced by the occasional discovery of a slithery something on your tongue. And the flavour is hard to communicate in words, but reminded of that day when you were a kid and you confused chunks of leftover OXO cube in the kitchen for chocolate cake crumbs, surreptitiously swiped them, then honked everywhere.

I will not mention the vegetables.

Apple pie was a soggy affair, but at least it tasted of apples. I ordered an Amaretto coffee to try to drown out the memory of the mushroom sauce, and was presented with a glass full of bitter black coffee into which the waiter poured a shot. I must have looked confused, because it was only on seeing my face that he said “Would you like cream?” I said cream would be lovely. Mistake. He went to the kitchen, came back with a can of squirty cream, and depressed the nozzle over my coffee for a generous count of a whole two seconds. Then ran off.

The really weird thing about Lew Mar Nel’s is the more stratospheric bits of the wine list. They claim to have Robert Mondavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon for purchase in every year from 1966, the vineyard’s first year of operation; and Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve in every year from 1957 ($1500 a bottle). Someone here, pyrex plates and all, is either taking the piss, or is a giant chancer; after all, who would order a wine like that in a place like this? Apparently, the Wine Spectator has given them a nod for their list six times (although it’s unclear whether or not that happened in this century).

I’d actually suggest you pop in just to sit at the bar and soak up some of the old-time atmosphere and the bronze cowboy statues. Avoid the food, though – and let me know if you order any of those dizzying wines from the cellar. I’d be interested to hear whether or not they really exist.