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25/02/2009

Breakfast on Pancake Day


Yesterday was pancake day. Normally I pay little attention to foodie anniversaries – and I doubt I’ll be marking Lent – but there is something rather cheering about a couple of warm, sweet crêpes on a February morning. (With some clementine juice - although seven of them only yielded a small glass.)

Pancakes – I’ll keep the English word for the French kind – are of course extraordinarily easy. Once you’ve made them a few times, you’ll have such a feel for the consistency of the batter, measuring scales become redundant. However, if you want, you should find the volumes below pretty foolproof.

It really does help to rest the batter - if not, it can spread somewhat unevenly across the pan, and the final product seems a bit flabbier. Half an hour gives a noticeable difference: mine sat happily overnight in the fridge. If you’re truly starving, though, it’s not the end of the world. Adding a little melted butter helps prevent the crêpes from sticking to the bottom of the pan, and brings a touch of richness.

You can stack pancakes one on top of the other, covered in tinfoil, and they’ll stay hot for a while. I’m a roller, personally, but some people prefer to fill them, then fold them in half, and then again, into the shape of a pizza slice. To make them in advance, cook up a batch and let them cool. When you want to eat them, microwave them on a medium heat for a minute or so. French housewives do this quite a lot.

In Brittany, where the crêpe originates, the locals traditionally drink cider with it. I’ll leave that part up to you, especially if it’s a weekday morning.

Ingredients

250g plain flour
2 large, organic eggs
600ml organic full-fat milk (semi-skimmed will do)
40-50g melted butter
Pinch of salt
Flavourless oil, such as sunflower or groundnut

Makes about eight large pancakes


Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl, and beat the eggs in gently. Pour the milk in, a glug at a time, to incorporate it fully into the flour. It goes without saying that this process is quicker in a food mixer. Add the melted butter and whisk until the batter is smooth. The odd lumpy bit here and there won’t matter. Rest the mixture for as long as you like, 24 hours being about the maximum.

Get a wide, heavy frying pan really hot. I use a solid cast iron job, perfect for this kind of thing. Pour a drop of oil into the pan and spread it round with a pastry brush. Too much oil will fry the pancake, making it terribly greasy. Briefly whisk the rested batter, then pour in a ladleful or so. Lift the pan and quickly swirl it round, so that the liquid reaches the edges in a neatish circle. Return to the heat and cook for 2-3 minutes on one side, then do your best flip or – like me – turn the pancake over with a spatula, and cook for about a minute on the other. Note the lovely differences between the two sides: one with a golden suntan, the other rather moley. Add your filling, and serve immediately.

Some suggested sweet fillings: caster sugar and lemon juice; jam, honey, or Nutella; sliced bananas, golden syrup and flaked almonds; apple compôte with cinammon; lightly stewed rhubarb with Greek yoghurt.

And if you fancy something savoury: cheese (grated Gruyère or cheddar - prepare and fill the pancake, then gently warm it in the pan to melt the cheese); chopped ham and béchamel; salmon with pesto and rocket; eggs and bacon; asparagus with parmesan and olive oil.

23/02/2009

Le Relais de Venise, City of London

★★☆☆☆


‘You can’t sit down until your whole party is here,’ declares the manageress, legs splayed like a pair of compasses. The dining room is a forest of unoccupied tables, but I’ve been backed against the wall with eight other people who dared to turn up one diner short. That’s how they do it in the original au 17ème, so that’s how they do it here, and in Marylebone and presently – God help us – in Bahrain. Paul Gineste de Saurs, who might have been French, opened the first Relais in 1959. Food to him being less important than wine, he opted to serve everyone the same meal: green salad with walnuts, followed by entrecôte with frites and a ‘secret’ sauce. Puddings were manageable and brief: ice cream, crème brûlée, cheese. The Parisians loved it, and still queue round the block.

The quirks of the original evolved by dint of circumstance. I find it hard to imagine that on that first day half a century ago, people were prevented from sitting down until all their friends had shown up, or that they weren’t allowed to book. Such rules can only be imposed when there are customers to justify them. It’s wildly irritating to have to stand before a load of sullen, empty seats. In fact, I won’t stand for it at all - and certainly not here, in the purported financial district. To reach this restaurant, you practically wade through slaughtered bankers; the area has suffered tens of thousands of job losses in recent months, with more likely. ‘You’re losing business!’ roars a fat City grandee at the maîtresse d’ when she refuses him a drink. He’s right. Give us a glass of wine, let us sit down: you’ll add to your margins and we won’t feel so unwelcome.

It all leaves a bad taste, this slavish devotion to the original. We’re not in Burger King, and they should feel able to tweak things. When de Saurs bought the first site, he couldn’t afford to change the street sign or the décor, so the name and interior stuck. The walls here are therefore smeared with preordained, garish scenes from the Carnevale. To me, they look jarring and bogus. There’s something almost Amish about this relentless, reactionary adherence to custom. I see some value in a menu of austere brevity, but a restaurant shouldn’t behave as if it had a huge customer base when it palpably doesn’t.

So much for context. Now to food. It stands to reason that if you’re only serving salad and steak, both have to be damn near faultless, and these aren’t. A slick dressing drowns and overpowers the leaves, which are garnished with a pinch of walnut dispensed with such scant generosity it might have been beluga. The lettuce is shapely and clean, though, the vinaigrette well emulsified with that quintessential French mingling of sharp and sweet. The chips are just about OK, hot and bronzed, though with more than a trace of greasiness. Steak is perfectly rare – and it’s good to be offered it blue – salted long ago, puckishly animal, and tender as a lover. But it wasn’t hung long enough, and lacks the deep, drawled savour of beef at its best. Passable, too, is that famous sauce, with an unusual, chameleon flavour. It’s hard to be sure what lies in its murk: a backdrop of herbs definitely including tarragon, some garlic and mustard, perhaps some anchovies, and without question, loads of butter. In all, it’s marginally better than the average steak in London. House red comes with Relais-branded labels and is a sound, oaky claret, not at all greedily priced at £14.

Purely for this review, I finish with a squidgy heap of standard profiteroles: dainty puffs of choux, squirted with soft, thick vanilla, and slathered in chocolate. Lucy has two very short tarts: a decent and not-oversweet lemon and a disappointing ‘cherry’, the grey, morbid little balls a pallid insult to the fruit. Perhaps it’s her fault for ordering them in February, but I don’t think they belong anywhere near a menu at this time of year.

I waddle home swollen and not quite satisfied. It’s good-ish steak, I suppose, which more or less lives up to the gimmicky one-trick menu. Finding better and cheaper, though, is easy enough in this town. There’s a 20 percent discount during the opening months, and without it, the bill would have topped 70 quid - a long way from reasonable. Such greed, though, rankles much less than something else: throughout the meal, more than half the tables remain resolutely empty.


Le Relais de Venise, 5 Throgmorton Street, London EC2N
Tel. +44 (0)20 7638 6325

See on the TFYS Map

Three-course lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, normally costs £47.90; £56.14 all-in including a bottle of house red, a 20% opening month discount and 10% service.

www.relaisdevenise.com

Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecôte on Urbanspoon

11/02/2009

Bocca di Lupo, Soho, London




Bocca di Lupo is in a part of Soho where most commercial operations have, shall we say, an established business model. Its manager is splendidly named Victor Hugo, and from the big windows looking out on the road you can watch misérable women traffic past. A well-heeled joint in a down-at-heel corner, then, it's also arguably London's most fêted recent opening. Giles Coren,Terry Durack, Robin Majumdar, Fay Maschler, Jan Moir - a chorus of harmonious ecstasy.

Respectfully, I have to part company with them. Bocca di Lupo is certainly a gripping new restaurant, and much of what it does is very good indeed. But it's enjoyed the sort of reception that presumably met the Earl of Sandwich when he turned to his card-playing chums and said, 'Lads, you know what I
really fancy...?' Reading review after gushing review - a good number of which manage to misspell the chef's name - I found myself repeating Anton Ego's fearsome order to the waiter in Ratatouille: 'Bring me some perspective.'

The best thing about the place is undoubtedly its menu concept, in which the great majority of dishes are offered in both small and large portions. This is simply a fantastic idea, and should be far more common. Restaurants are in fact likely to make more money on it, because customers - by which I principally mean myself - always order more when the food comes on smaller plates. Second, Bocca is commendably scrupulous when it comes to the geography of its food, going so far as to list the regional provenance of every dish. And though some of the tucker sounds reassuringly familiar (fritto misto, trofie pasta with pesto, boiled beef and salsa verde), a lot of it is very interesting. Panzanella is worked with poussin; one pudding contains chocolate and pig's blood; and there's even head cheese, which I've never before seen on a London menu.

First impressions are sound. Prosecco (costing £5.30 a glass) is suggested when I ask for champagne (which is £9.10, and still cheap). Bread is a simple and pleasant focaccia with a glood slurpy olive oil, though olives themselves are pellets of fridge-cold saltiness. I chomp them anyway, sitting at dark reclaimed wood and looking at the foodie paintings, on whose artistic merit I won't comment, since they're by the chef's mum. Jacob Kenedy, indeed, has a fine pedigree for a someone still in his twenties: ex-Moro - whose long bar is echoed here in Carrera marble - he's since worked at Boulevard in San Francisco, and has evidently travelled well in Italy constructing this menu.

James and I similarly roam far and wide. Fried bread (crescentini - and doesn't it sound better in Italian?) comes with finnochiona, speck and a clotted dollop of squacquerone cheese. It's decent, well-presented Bolognese. Then a passable salad with pecorino, celeriac, pomegranate and truffle oil. This tends somewhat towards dryness: chalky cheese and desiccated taproot, punctuated only by the red, jewelled seeds. Better is a cotechino, a fresh sausage of pork belly and fatback, flecked with pistachio, and given a kick from sweet-hot pear mostarda and perfectly cooked lentils in balsamic vinegar. We also order the apparent signature: fritto Romano, sautéed sweetbreads with a whole deep-fried head of artichoke. Much purple prose has been written about Bocca's take on this - which costs nine quid for a small portion - but I'm underwhelmed. It tastes of what it is: thymus, thistle and salt. And while I love these ingredients, and they work well enough without being greasy, burnt or stale, the rapturous critical response almost seems a folie à plusieurs.

Another salad of castelfranco, treviso and hazelnuts looks divine. Skye Gyngell is right to call castelfranco the most beautiful leaf of all; it crunches magnificently with the raddichio, bitter as a second son. But a risotto of bone marrow, more radicchio and Barolo is ruined. The wine was barely cooked off, and the dish cloys horribly with booze. Cime di rapa with garlic and chilli is brisk and healthy, beating with Scovilles. Best of all, though, is another home-made sausage of pork and foie gras over porcini and farro (the Roman legionary's favourite carb). This is a swilling, grunting, mud-bathing hog of a banger, fat and liverish, bleeding big sweaty juices over the ancient grain. After all that, I'm sorry to say, we've no space for pudding.

Unquestionably, there's much to enjoy about Bocca di Lupo. I can't help feeling, though, that it's a mite overgarlanded. Not every visitor has been hysterically positive (three very balanced reviews are by Andy Hayler, Helen Yuet Ling Pang and Jay Rayner), but the typical response is one of unadulterated worship, which seems to me to be overdoing it. I've forgotten to mention that the wine list is excellent, and sensibly avoids being hamstrung by any dogmatic restriction to Italian vino. Much is offered by the glass and carafe, in the way that all places should nowadays, new or old. It's all very good, but it's scarcely the best place in years. The name, by the way,
means 'mouth of the wolf': apparently a colloquialism corresponding to 'break a leg'. Whatever else, lunch here keeps the wolf from the door.


Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7734 2223

See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £46.50. £92.03 all-in with a glass of Prosecco, a freshly squeezed orange juice, a glass of Litorala Vermentino Cecchi, a 500ml carafe of Sangiovese and twelve-and-a-half.

www.boccadilupo.com


Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

06/02/2009

The Harwood Arms, Fulham, London

The Harwood Arms

★★★★★


Half-way through my lone and lengthy lunch at The Harwood Arms, Amy – a very bubbly waitress – stared at me and exclaimed, ‘You’re going to eat your way through the whole menu, aren’t you?’

Sadly not! After a while, even my appetite reaches a reluctant limit. I contemplated, um, making space for more, but decided against it. Were it not for the effort required, I'd have gladly munched every dish they had.

It was fabulous. A spin-off of the much-lauded Pot Kiln in Berkshire, where Mike Robinson feeds his customers a menu of laser-guided seasonality comprising game he's often shot himself, The Harwood Arms competes in a different league from the places it superficially resembles. Indeed, with Stephen Williams (formerly of The Ledbury) in the kitchen, it's scarcely playing the same sport. Yet it cleverly retains elements that made the gastropub the quintessential Noughties eatery - stripped floors, scuffed leather, chalked-up specials. Some touches are frankly lovely, such as the drops of fresh lime juice added to an earthenware jug of tap water, or the fine hessian napkins. Others are less welcome: the irritating piped music, say, or the wine list seemingly compiled as an afterthought, containing two measly reds by the glass.

But what a menu. Five starters, six mains, five puddings - and I could eat and enjoy any of them. Smoked trout with leeks and wild sorrel might be followed by a mead-glazed pheasant Kiev with champ, or Cornish cod with seaweed, purple sprouting broccoli and sea purslane. The wildness of the ingredients, the instinct for terroir behind them, are of course utterly contemporary; and how pleasant it is to visit a restaurant that accurately gauges the modern vogue without condescension or pointless gimmickery.

To business, then. A reddish, frothy pint of Good Old Boy from the West Berkshire Brewery is tender and hoppy, like a baby rabbit. When I order it, they call me 'sir', which is nice for a pub, though scarcely necessary. They bring it over with two warmed breads: yielding baguette with a crackling crust, and some marginally undercooked soda bread. The butter arrives on a slab of granite and is fridge-cold: isn't it remarkable how few restaurants, for all their triumphs elsewhere, manage to serve room-temperature butter?


A venison Scotch egg is an amber-shelled globe, glinting with salt crystals, crisply wrapping a mixture of sausagemeat and venison, and ekeing gold onto the plate. It’s a signature here: a sublime blend of spice, heat and comfort: Greggs lifted to greatness. Salad of wood pigeon follows: a perfect foil, with young shoots of baby cress and the restaurant’s ‘salad cream’ – home-made mayonnaise spiked with mustard, lemon and a splash of vinegar. It's simply the best salad I've had for ages: fingers of tender, slightly high breast offset by thoughtful rural details: toasted nubs of hazelnut; buttery roast chervil roots; a scattering of Warwickshire-grown enoki mushrooms. If Bear Grylls made salads, he'd make them like this - candid, drawn from earth and sky, and the more remarkable, I think, for being so good in the depths of winter.

A main course of grilled ox tongue is a bestial French kiss. The muscle was poached before searing, and now melds dense tenderness with an iron savour from the grill's vicious heat. It's accompanied by some sharp and crunchy home-pickled red cabbage, and a sheer hug of a gratin, made with melting Jerusalem artichokes and, unusually, floury potatoes. A slightly meagre pot of grainy mustard accompanies, and I wonder why they couldn't just give me the jar and let me help myself. But this is the sort of offal that makes you pray for a recession. Fillet be damned, I say.

Last: a splendid custard tart, syrup-glazed and vanilla-speckled. As with crème brûlée, it's a dish that can often be oversweet, but this one is unashamedly eggy, with the jungle aroma of nutmeg haunting every mouthful. The pastry is as thin as a 50 pence piece, and as short as Tom Cruise. Sultanas poached in pudding wine accompany: little grenades of flavour bringing interesting contrast of depth and texture. I slurp with it a glass of botrytised sauvignon blanc (from Iona, of all places) which is somewhat vaguer than its French equivalents, but nonetheless a solid counterpoint to this superb pudding.

The Harwood Arms is at once - nowadays, I suppose, all such places have to be - local, generous and honest. It is also consistently delicious. Williams avoids predictability or staidness by the quirky intelligence he brings to the dishes, and by his deft use of uncommon ingredients. How delightful to find an outstanding menu in which no main course touches £15, and where starters and puddings all hover between £5 and £6. Quite simply, it's a fantastic place, and you should go there this instant. Best of all, I live round the corner, which makes me very lucky indeed.


The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, Fulham, London SW6
Tel. +44 (0) 20 7386 1847

Lunch for one, excluding drinks and service, costs £27.25.

www.harwoodarms.com

Harwood Arms on Urbanspoon

02/02/2009

The Top Ten Meals of My Life

This restaurant blogging lark contains little to keep you awake at night. But there is perhaps one nagging doubt, lurking in memories of meals that predate your first post. Your readers - all sage, kind and impossibly good-looking - are unaware of what screenwriters would call your backstory. I started this blog last July by attempting to give Balconies, the execrable restaurant at the Royal Opera House, a bit of a kicking (negative reviews then seeming easier to write than positive ones). And since then, I’ve regretted not having been able to mention earlier, seminal meals. This is an attempt to catch up.

I should emphasise at the outset that, of course, everything that follows took place in restaurants, although I've widened the definition slightly. While, like you, no doubt, some of the happiest meals I can remember were cooked by or with friends and loved ones, those hours have no place here. Further, in keeping with the running theme of this site, this will not be an inventory of Michelin star trekking, nor a straightforward cookery competition. While there are some vaut le voyage places, certain choices may seem surprising. But they were the lunches and dinners that grappled themselves to my soul, and I'll remember them at the last hour.

Here they are, then, in reverse order:

10. L'Express, New York City, September 2007

My last night in America after a week of big siddy meandering, and David and I were rolling from bar to East Village bar, chattering and playing pool and darts. It was past midnight when we remembered we still hadn’t eaten. We found L’Express completely by accident: at one in the morning, midweek, there were no free tables: a downtown bouchon thrumming with insomnia. When they sat us down, we drank very good Bordeaux and ate rare rump steak with hot salty frites and puddles of Béarnaise, finishing with hot, sticky tarte tatin. I don't suppose there's any other town in the world where you can have that kind of menu at that time of night.

9. Al Capone, Verbier, winter 1995

Snails were not exactly regulars at the Thring kitchen table. And I remember my father’s look of bewilderment as my eleven year-old self piped an order – having never eaten them before – for escargots à la bourguignonne. We were in, of all places, a pizzeria in a Swiss ski resort; but this is largely a storecupboard dish (the critters, in fact, are likely to have been Taiwanese). A cassolette of six molluscs, then, the sizzling, beige-etched shells yielding hot peerless squelches of butter, parsley and garlic.

8. Louis XV, Monaco, January 2006

The fanciest place on this list – and, I guess, one of the fanciest there is. In this flurry of rococo kitsch, only the amuse and the pudding stood out. Both were deceptively simple. The sweetest crudités of tiny carrots – virtual infanticide - with a tapenade of perfect dank bitterness. Then fraises des bois poached in strawberry coulis, with fromage frais ice cream. Each strawberry, the size of a caper, exploded with perfumed, sexy juice, while the ice cream shaped and melded everything else. Magnificent.

7. Sihanoukville, Cambodia, August 2004

Charlie and I largely preferred the street food of Cambodia to that of its better-marketed neighbour, Thailand. Amongst other things, the Khmers greeted the arrival of the chilli – on boats, it’s worth remembering, from Lisbon – with more caution than others in the region. One night, we barefooted a mile down the black, lapping beach, and came to a small hut, framed by torches flickering over the sand. We ate a simple dish of rice with garlic and tamarind clasping stir-fried pieces of hours-old baby squid. It was the taste of that summer. We shared a bottle of Khmer whisky, and talked and smoked and giggled through the night.

6. The Fat Duck, Berkshire - October 2004

Heston Blumenthal's dazzling tasting menu, at a time when his restaurant still topped the World 50 list, featured signature staples of bacon and egg ice cream, snail porridge, white chocolate with caviar, and liquorice-poached salmon. James and I arrived just before seven and left at half-two in the morning, having rounded off the dégustation with an Armagnac tasting which, while impromptu, was sweeping. The spectacle of the dinner, its unadulterated theatre, are somehow counterbalanced by superbly down-to-earth staff, who prevent the experience from ascending up its own dehydrator. Such meals are not easily forgotten.

5. Venice, July 1999

On a summer's day of quite hysterical beauty, in scarcely the most hideous place on earth, two schoolfriends and I had spent the morning in the Ca' Rezzonico. We meandered over ponti and through serpent alleys, reaching a tiny square in the Dorsoduro. At a plastic table, with a paper cloth held down by a green ashtray, we ate pizza thin as size zero, draped with dense, fresh anchovies and dappled with black olives. We drank Nastro Azzurro and, later, very cold, cheap white wine. When the pizzas were cleared, we ordered more. And more wine. And we left sated and delighted, tipsily fancying ourselves grown-up, stumbling onto the train to Florence.

4. The Opium Den, Oxford, May 2003

It was fortune cookie-cutter Chinese: beef in a wobbly black bean sauce, bok choi tossed with oyster sauce, pancakes of duck, hoi sin and the mineral crunch of cucumber - all liberally dosed with salt and MSG. But the food was largely irrelevant. Emetic as it no doubt sounds, I was hopelessly in love, and if they’d served me locust purée thickened with liposuction and garnished with toenail clippings, I’d have praised it to the heavens.

3. Dal Pescatore, Italy, October 2008

It wasn’t until the gate at the airport that Cargs saw where we were going. I’d told her I was taking her for dinner ‘outside London,’ and she'd spent the journey guessing. Cornwall? The Lakes? Scotland? This was a dinner electrified by the thrill of surprising someone, lent meaning and depth by the journey. Tortelli of pumpkin and mostarda, with silken pasta sealing a sweet filling hinting at heat, was magnificent, while saffron risotto was a nubby paradigm. Nor have I ever felt as welcome in a restaurant as I did here.

2. Akelare, Spain, July 2008

Pedro Subijana roasted the red mullet's skin and bones separately, before sprinkling them over the gently fried fillet. It remains the most perfect piece of fish I've ever tasted - unadulterated, achingly fresh and pure. Add to this the setting, a revoltingly gorgeous view of the Cantabrian sea, and you have a deeply memorable lunch on your hands.

1. Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxfordshire, April 2003

When the second starter appeared, I realised something had changed. Inside a column constructed from sheets of pasta, and nestling in gently softened spinach, was a single poached quail's egg oozing amber yolk. Around it danced fresh morels whorled in mushroom jus. It was one of the most exquisite things I had ever seen, and the most exquisite I'd ever tasted. Haute cuisine, beyond that dusty, fusty phrase, can reach depths of pleasure like no other medium. It engages all the senses and thus, to misquote Forster, it is both the deepest of crafts and deep beneath them. With this simple but intensely thoughtful dish, I thought I saw what the fuss was all about - what could possibly persuade people to fly across the world for the sake of a meal. It was sheer virtuosic joy, it changed my life, and I'll never forget it.



And some honourable mentions:

Le Gavroche, London, February 2005 - a gaspingly accomplished mousse of foie gras, truffle and Bresse chicken.
The Waterside Inn, Bray, October 2004 - a lobster bisque that moved me to tears.
Bordeaux, September 2003 - the obligatory first taste of an oyster: how could it have taken this long?
Paris, September 2005 - my first taste of andouillette, blisteringly dense and heady.
La Taqueria, San Francisco, May 2006 - a tourist-trap these days, perhaps, but I maintain that the best street food in the world is a burrito stuffed with shredded pork, rice, guacamole, salsa, soured cream...