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Restaurant Critic Round-Up, 21/12

The Ashmolean Museum restaurant, Oxford. Great setting, shame about the food. Photo: The Ashmolean.

My weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics is live at iStarvin.

Click here to read.


Paul A Young's confit oranges [Recipe]

It's impossible not to like Paul Young: he's a calm and affable Yorkshireman, and an exceptionally talented chocolatier. I went to a tasting at his Camden Passage shop a couple of months ago, which sparked what I suspect will be a lifelong love affair with Amedei. His chocolate pairings can be sublimely inventive; I tried, and adored, his salt caramel ganache, as well as his unusual – and almost as successful – Marmite truffle.


The best winter pubs: The Bear, Oxford

The Bear. I nicked this photo from Google Images, and I'm afraid it doesn't come close to reflecting the pub's cosiness or charm.

The Guardian has asked me and 49 other alleged "bon viveurs" to recommend their favourite winter pub. I chose The Bear in Oxford, a place I grew to know and love when I was a student. It's under the shadow of Christ Church, my old college, and I always return to it with a strange blend of nostalgia and relief.

Click here to read – I'm number 31.


"Sharing" plates: the grim trend of 2009 [Article]

The trend for tiny food. Photo: crafster.org

My piece for iStarvin this week is on restaurants' bizarre recent fixation with teency-weency portions designed for sharing.

Click here to read.


The history of Christmas pudding [Article]

Allied Tastes: A French soldier eats Christmas pudding, 1914

I've written something for Foodtripper on the history of Christmas pudding. (More interesting than it sounds.)

Click here to read.


Restaurant critic round-up, 14/12

The Modern, Manchester. A 'chilly, self-important horror'. Photo: The Modern.

My weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics is live at iStarvin.com

Click here to read.


What is it about French waiters? [Article]

The notorious French waiter.

My piece for iStarvin this week is on the galling Gallic waiter.

Click here to read.


Classic Christmas food TV [Article]

Fanny Cradock stuffs a turkey.

I've written something for The Guardian about classic moments in Christmas food on the telly. There's some YouTube clips too.

Click here to read it.

Douwe Egberts advertisement [3/3]

The last of three videos from Dutch coffee giant Douwe Egberts.

I've finally clicked which dulcet Ulsterman has been narrating these: it's James Nesbitt. I must say I can't remember the last time I saw Nesbitt act in anything: he seems to exist solely for adverts and infomercials like this. However, at least this time he got a decent script.

We're on to cappuccinos, and this is particularly worth watching for the shots of the Colombian jungle where the highest-quality beans, the arabica, are grown. Every week, apparently, we drink more than five million cappuccinos and lattes in the UK alone, which is kind of staggering. Coffee has flooded Western life like the melting of Greenland. I'd be lost without it.

I can't pretend to be the world's biggest fan of the cappuccino (though there's an interesting story behind the name), but I'll use this opportunity to bang a favourite drum of mine. One of the most ridiculous gastronomic snobberies is the 'rule' about when to drink cappuccinos. It's mornings only, they say.

Nonsense. If people want a milky, soothing coffee after dinner, that's up to them; it's not a world away from cocoa, anyway. Italians allegedly think that drinking milk after a meal affects digestion: somewhat odd when you consider their fondness for milky puddings. Regardless, I've tested this, and sipped a sacrilegious cappuccino after dinner. I was fine.

As with the last two videos, I've accepted a fee for posting this.


Restaurant critic round-up - 7/12

The cannoli at Mennula. Universally popular this week. Photo: Mennula

My weekly round-up of the national critics is live at iStarvin.

Click here to read it.


The pointlessness of 'authenticity' in food [Article]

'Chicken battered balls' from The Authentic Food Company. Unknown in the Orient. Photo: The Authentic Food Company.

I've written about the eugenic, irrational devotion to 'authenticity' in food over at iStarvin.

Click here to read.


Restaurant critic round-up - 30/11

The kitchen at Galvin La Chapelle. Photo: Galvin Restaurants

My weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics is live at iStarvin.

Click here to read it.


Restaurants at Christmas: misery [Article]

The office Christmas party. What larks.

I've written something for iStarvin on the wretched misery of restaurants in the festive season.

Click here to read it.


Douwe Egberts [Advertisement 2/3]

The second of three videos from coffee maestros Douwe Egberts. This one features cafetières: I'm currently compelled to use one after my university espresso machine died a clunking death a couple of months ago.

I particularly enjoyed this video for the splendid slurping noises made by the company's chief blender-taster, Etienne Morno. He tastes up to 300 cups of coffee a day, but impressively still drinks it for pleasure. DE suggest three minutes as the ideal time to brew the beans before plunging, which is a useful factoid.

Disclaimer: As with the last video, I've accepted a fee for posting this.


Restaurant critic round-up - 23/11

Harvey's, Ramsgate. Seemingly hated by all. Photo: Caterersearch.

My weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics is live at iStarvin.


Fire & Knives

Bit of a celebration this week: I was published in print for the first time. That is, if you don't count the school magazine (restaurant reviews), the student paper (ditto) and some journo work experience, unaccountably overlooked for the Pulitzer. But the inaugural issue of Fire & Knives - 'new writing for food lovers' - just trundled off the press, and I've held my copy and smelled the pulp, glue and ink, and known that it represented a small landmark in a germinal career.

The list of contributors is impressive. As well as the editor, Tim Hayward, there are essays by Matthew Fort, Tom Parker Bowles, Emma Sturgess and similar illustrious folk. There's a cracking short story; there's an article - I wish I'd written it - about food in Withnail & I; there are photo essays and interviews; there's a satirical masterpiece by a mysterious critic known only as The Gastrician. It's big and clever and looks stunning thanks to its splendidly-named art director, Rob Lowe.

I've written about dinner parties: history, role and form: why their classic model is an endangered species, and why they're worth saving.

To read it, you'll have to buy the magazine - or better yet, subscribe: it's only £20 for the year. Top Christmas present, of course. And if you've gone the other way round, and come to this blog via Fire & Knives, a big hello to you. I don't bite, unless you're a toastie.


The horrors of restaurant websites [Article]

Sketch's website. A glimpse into madness. Photo: Sketch

My latest piece for iStarvin.com is on infuriating restaurant websites, with their horrible music, pointless Flash, clunky graphics and other malignant quirks.

Click here to read it.

Complaining in restaurants [Article]

A fly and some soup. Photo: Flickr

After Giles Coren's tweet yesterday about Seven Park Place charging him twice, I've written something for Word of Mouth on complaining in restaurants.

Click here to read it.


Douwe Egberts [Advertisement]

An interesting and snappy video from Douwe Egberts about the history of the espresso. I knew coffee originated in Africa but I hadn't heard the (perhaps apocryphal) story of Kaldi, a ninth century Ethiopian goatherd who purportedly discovered its effects. This is especially worth watching for the shots of Brits drinking coffee in the 1950s, doing their best to adopt 'the unhurried philosophy of the Parisian at his pavement table' - with varying success.

Disclaimer: I've accepted a fee for posting this. But it's a particularly good video.


British lager producers vs. Camra [Article]

A crushed Stella tinny. Photo: Sonny Meddle/Rex Features

My latest piece for the Guardian's Word of Mouth is on the fracas between small-scale British lager producers and the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra).

Click here to read it.

Update: This has proved my most popular story on Word of Mouth so far, drawing over 150 comments and ending up the most viewed article across Life & Style. It's been invigorating to read such strong opinions on both sides. (17/11/09)

Restaurant review round-up at iStarvin

La Rueda, Clapham. Photo: La Rueda

My weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics is now live at iStarvin.com.

Click here to read it.


The spread of the British burrito [Article]

A burrito being assembled at Daddy Donkey, Leather Lane Market, London. Photo: PR

I've written something about the burrito's spread across the UK at iStarvin.com

Click here to read it.


My Weekly Round-Up of National Restaurant Critics on iStarvin

Cider-braised pork belly at The Princess of Shoreditch, one of this week's round-up.

I'll be posting weekly round-ups of reviews from the national restaurant critics on a new and devilishly handsome website, iStarvin.com.

Click here to read my first instalment.


Bom Jardim, Lisbon [Review]

Bom Jardim


Roast chicken is the greatest cliché in the kitchen. The trussed, homely, tits-up bird, fatted, auburn and steaming, stickey-out calves and oysters in its back, sleek skin pocked and follicled: brown thigh, ivory breast, muscle speared, sliced and gravied. Everyone knows it, everyone has a Proustian chook. Ask five strangers what their favourite meal is and I bet one of them will say roast chicken, probably their mum's. It's the first thing you roast when you're learning to cook: it's a culinary chapter heading, a gastronomic phylum, and if you do it half-right (and though difficult to do perfectly, it's easy enough to do acceptably) it'll seal, settle and fix something inside you that you'll take to your grave.


A Buffet Revival? [Article]

The buffet at Taybarns.

I've written something about buffets for Word of Mouth.

Click here to read it.


Seven Park Place, St James's, London [Review]

Seven Park Place


Just had swine flu. What a mare. One minute you’re trotting around, snouting about London and feeling just swill, and the next you’re on the straw squealing like someone out of Defoe. Last Sunday, I had lunch with relatives (my own), troughing away like a pig in proverbial – but went home with a lardy shiver and encroaching dread. Woke up on Monday feeling someone yanking my eyeballs into my brain while cattle-prodding my temples and heaping bar-bells on my belly.


El Bulli, Roses, Spain [Review]

El Bulli


We went up smelling of Roses. You shoelace up the hill, past rock, scrub and dirt, the heaving sea, and the tapas-and-sangria town shrinking beneath. This is a destination in both senses: worth a journey on its own, and you'd always travel to get here - you'd never just pop in, even if you could.

And you really couldn't. In specific foodie circles, in the interorbital centre of that little Venn diagram, a table at El Bulli is easily the most coveted in the world. It's the reservation grail, it’s Dorsia. A typical goggle-eyed statistic states that two million people apply every year for 8000 covers - a figure that either makes you fear for our species (it's only a bloody restaurant, after all) or, if you're of a more curious bent, increases the draw and mystique of the place.

So when I announced to my chirpy clique of food-loving friends that a gorgeous miracle of a human being - a reader of this blog, to boot - had offered me his table, behind the rictus smiles and hollow congratulations was the seething stench of ill-masked fury: you lucky, lucky sod.

And Jack, once again, thank you.

Criticism thrives on similarities and differences, chugs along on oppositions, syncopates on links and gaps between As and Bs. Relation is all. Restaurant reviews often come to life when they answer two questions: what’s this like, and what’s it not like? But that's impossible with El Bulli. I can't tell you what it resembles: it doesn't resemble anything. If I say it serves food, that only increases the chasmic distance between reality and definition: often, it doesn't even register as food, and certainly doesn't look like it. It's rootlessly unwieldy, sprawlingly unmanageable, slippery as a Cussons in a tub of glycerin.

Of course, it's spawned acolytes, and you can eat pallid approximations of its food from chefs who’ve done a stage here, you can see apings of technique and experiment, the pervading, brass-rubbed influence. Every cuckoo-spit foam swamping every ponced-up plate in every self-regarding restaurant on earth frothed ultimately from this mothership. But nobody, including Heston Blumenthal, creates - I can't say 'cooks' - with the rubber-necking aplomb of Ferran Adrià, or shares the same wilful difference, the pathological desire to be relentlessly, exorbitantly, obtusely unique. (And a brisk tsk to anyone who says that 'unique' is an either-or word - I think you know what I mean.)

You don't expect it to be here, though. The location of the 'best restaurant in the world', as it's usually called, is as unexpected and strange as its food. I hadn't been to the Costa Brava before, and I don't know when I'll be back. Most of the late-summer tourists were French, and every English or American voice we heard, we heard again in the restaurant.

But in a sense, El Bulli could be anywhere. Its dinners follow no pattern, have no basis in region or style, no comfort zone. Across 38 courses, most of them eaten with our fingers in a bite or two, we swung from sweet to savoury and back, the dishes oscillating from ambient to frozen to hot to frozen again, in a geographically scattergun parade, a mad method. Sometimes there were Asiatic notes of yuzu and soy (as in the above dish of raw cockles); sometimes there were variations on a single ingredient - almond or soy; sometimes there were reworkings of traditional things. For example, a submarine roll stuffed with egg and beef turned out to be a savoury meringue sandwiching truffle shavings, almonds and spots of egg yolk. The double-take, the opposition between eye and tongue, were clever and delicious - and not some party trick or silly gimmick. It was a skilled and lovely dish, an adroit assembly of harmonious ingredients in a form that hooked and drew several senses.

The famous 'spherical olives' did something similar. They're balls of agar jelly, a bit bigger than broad beans, encasing olive oil. You put one in your mouth and it gloops and blobs across your tongue; there's a gentle, Freudian pleasure in passing this round the palate, the sensation of sliding it into the gaps between jaw and cheek, the liquid loll across the tastebuds. They have a whispering fragrance of olives, but really they're just playful bubbles - the pleasure is in the soft, ovoid texture more than the flavour. But then you press one gently against the roof of your mouth - there's no urge to bite or chew - and it bursts. And fills and swamps your palate, drenches your tongue and soaks your grinning gob in the sheerest essence of olive, the smooth, oozing bitterness of the fat green fruit, the grassy, ancient flavours lingering, lingering, lingering. And though you've tasted olives, this is pure olive, ur-olive, better than God's olives, and simply incredible.

Other things: deep-fried tuna roe: hot, sweet and maternally milky, comforting as an old quilt. A single langoustine severed down the middle (presumably while still alive), then cooked to lie straight as Franco's architecture, with variations on sesame for its head-meat. Raw rose petals laid out like artichokes with an artichoke sauce: like old lady's perfume, and bordering on unpleasant. 'Pond': a dank briney puddle of sea anenome and caviar, tasting of the stinking, slippery things that lurk in lagoons. Or 'Roots': chocolate and dark fruits assembled to look like a tree yanked from the earth and then inverted, the soily powders falling to the plate in dark dusty heaps of cocoa.

Some of it was perfect. A deep-fried chicken skin smeared in a slick of concentrated chicken sauce; abalone with pork fat and shimeji mushrooms; 'cherries' metamorphosed into miniature balls filled with kirsch. A dish of lamb kidney with camomile made little sense to me, but it was a rarity, and doesn't dim the triumphs of this meal.

People tie themselves in irrelevant knots debating whether El Bulli counts as art or craft. It's both, of course: and science, and more. Its unworldliness provides the encouragement and perspective necessary to ask fundamental questions about the act of eating. The restaurant challenges almost every assumption we lazily swallow about food, queries every apathetically inherited kitchen tradition, every ragged culinary hand-me-down. Food is so often petrified in deferential custom that we never pause to ask why method or technique or recipe are as they are. Adrià's obsessive innovation makes anyone with a passing interest in what they eat wonder why sweet food should necessarily appear at the end of a meal; it lets them question the merits of a eugenic belief in terroir. The food here combines the familiar and the unfamiliar in stunning synchrony, but though there's a palpable delight in surprise and pleasure, it's never about showing-off or wizards and curtains. Dinner at El Bulli reminds us plainly and honestly that eating is as much emotional and intellectual as it's physical - and that's a hell of a lesson to take back home.

El Bulli, Caja Montjoi, Nr. Roses, Spain

See on the Map

Reservations via email only, usually in October for the subsequent season: bulli@elbulli.com


All pictures mine except the first shot, courtesy of TripAdvisor, and the second shot, courtesy of About.com


Absolut vodka [video]

I’m about to post a review of a famous restaurant in Spain - but in the meantime, here’s a short message from my sponsors, the impressively blond folk of Absolut.

Their new ad, which looks a bit like a mobile phone company’s, plays a lovely discordant jangle of Joy Division, has shots of people assembling chunks of ice into giant words, and pushes an airily upbeat slogan. Posting this reminded me of being 14 and covering my bedroom walls in Absolut’s ‘Artists’ series - which was exceptionally pretentious behaviour even for me. I've just looked again at that campaign, and though there are duds, some are really worth a look - a brilliant way to flog booze.


Sureny and Gresca, Barcelona [Restaurant Reviews]

Sureny - 0/5

Gresca - 3/5

Battlo House, Barcelona

I was in Gaudy Barcelona not long ago, that jerry-built sprawl hemming a grey Gothic slice: heat, dirt and fumes tapering to polluted sea. What a mishmash it is: whispering Romanesque alleys; sternly patrician nineteenth century civics; Gaudí's globular fish-eye windows, shooting spikes and hyperboloids; and the hot red dust of the suburbs.

Would you live there? I wouldn't - it's as expensive as Paris, and swollen with fat British kids creeping like snails round the museums, by Yank Eurorailers looking for McDonald's, by daytripping Marseillais snubbing choc 'n' churros. But it's too easy, as Orwell knew, to be wooed by the visible decency of the Catalan, their straightforwardness, their generosity, and by the strange and alluring madness that's gripped their chefs.

We stepped off the plane and went straight to La Boquería, the big foodie bazaar. I wanted to compare the mercat, so we ate fruit, ham and fish, all prime, the pig plumped on rooted acorns. We wolfed fat sardines, slivers of red pepper dribbling olive oil, and heavy hunks of crusty bread. But we had to wait for it. They never serve you till they feel like it, which is always the forgotten first shock of Spain: the minutes of the mañana men.

Two restaurants, then, that illustrate the weird overturning of Catalan cooking, the seismic shift from pork, peppers, sardines and toms, remença fodder, to the mad, bad and dangerous. Along with a clutch of places in the Basque country, El Bulli - the legendary temple nearby - takes the credit for electrifying cooking in northern Spain. But there are dozens of apparatchiks and imitators, men who would be king, frothing their foams and savouring their ices: some twee, some triumphant. Here's two.

I've racked my brains to try and explain Sureny, and I've come up with just one reason for its existence. Someone evidently conceived its dishes in a vision in a dream, fragmented, or on some horrifying acid trip. It's a neighbourhood tapas joint schizo with ragbag delusion. It dumps decent local produce in a petri dish of festering misery - the food is a vanity trick, a pointless folly, for the chef's fancy. We were served things like this:

'Scallop, jabugo ham essence, artichoke cream and vanilla oil'. Two roeless scallops and a puckering morsel of pig, swimming in radioactive pond. Easily the most revolting thing I've not eaten all year. What lunatic frenzy, what gibbering insanity overcomes a man that he should pair scallops with vanilla? They were like gnawing on sea lion testicles, spermily off-white, in a flecked puddle of lurid bile. I have simply nothing positive to say about this; I lack the words to bring home to you the horror, the horror.

Then 'cod with a courgette cream, sweet and sour tomato and lime'. Tepid baccalà, the historic salt cod of the Basques, collapsing like a starved slave, penitently crossed by cold and flabby courgette strips, with some flesh-hued sorbet. Miserable, and the rest of it just as bad: foie gras with mango jam (God, man, why?); black pork with tamarind and freezer-cold shiitakes. Unapologetically, imperturbably disgusting. Pudding was the only edible dish: a salted caramel fondant, bursting salt-sweet goo like a lanced boil.

Gresca, though, is better, with a chef - Rafael Peña - who can cook. Peña, an Adriàn disciple, is as prone to bonkers invention and unusual pairings as the madman at Sureny, but he does so far more encouragingly. The restaurant is in the Eixample, a chichi part of town; one of Gaudi’s wobbliest-looking designs is next door. It's a refrigerated corridor: stiff, sturdy tables lining two sides of a halogen-bleached room.

We started with a mackerel fillet with crystallised ham: fantastic: the fish dense and salty, the brittle ham crackling over it like a splintered sky. Then plump dumplings of chicken in a healing broth, and a raw langoustine - inexplicably popular these days - shrouded with superb jamón. But the star was some pigeon, electrocuted when slaughtered so it held all its blood, cooked sous-vide and finally seared. Its breast held a livery richness, it was like juiced iron, an elixir of gore.

Pudding was a let-down. A ghastly deconstruction of Roquefort, apple and biscuit: blue cheese paste that smelled like a 15 year-old's rugby sock, a heifer's skid-mark of sorbet, and a biscuit that crumbled, perhaps because it realised it had no defence.

The food in these places is mad, then: mad and adventurous, and thrillingly globalised, with the enthusiasm of a puppy and the inventiveness of Dr Frink. The pudding at Gresca would have been far better as a piece of Roquefort with a biscuit and an apple: all that fiddling afforded it nothing. But the raw energy of Catalan cooking, its lawlessness, are undeniably exhilirating. It's the Wild West of the food world, presided over - can I get away with this? - by Chief Sitting Bulli, of whom more shortly.

Sureny, Plaça Revolució De Setembre De 1868 17, Barcelona
Tel. +34 932 137 556

See on the Map

Gresca, C/ Provença 100, Barcelona

Tel. +34 934 516 193

See on the Map

All photos mine except the first shot: Shawn Lipowski / Creative Commons