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26/05/2009

Au Pied de Cochon, Paris

Au Pied de Cochon
★★★☆☆

In the middle of the night, food becomes an illicit thrill. I love eating by the humming light of the fridge - sticky spoonfuls of leftover risotto, chilled sausage singing with mustard, a Ben & Jerry’s tub, and best of all, I think, the fudgey glories of an unfinished crumble. One thing I don’t care for is yesterday’s pizza, although in my student days I was known to trawl the Domino’s box out the bin to munch that last, discarded slice.

At night-time, as opposed to the evening, restaurants offer a different kind of pleasure. Arching over it all is a body-clock weird-out from eating vast plates of food when you’d normally be tucked up, and it’s vaguely surreal to see waiters wearing black bow ties in that dark before the dawn. But for me at least, the experience carries giggling memories of midnight feasts, of sweets scoffed well past bedtime. And isn’t the communality of restaurants, the way they mesh sociable and private life, somehow sharpest at night? For once, conversations are held between tables, not just over them. There’s more jocular togetherness in the queue at the kebab shop than the most solemn gastro-temple, I promise you.

The Eurostar rolled in late. Au Pied de Cochon was round the corner from the flat where we were staying, and it’s open 24 hours. They claim they haven’t locked the doors here since 1946, a playground boast I’m happy to accept. Les Halles market, now no more, of course, used to be next door, and the restaurant fed its marketeers. The brasserie is decked in that faintly shabby splendour typical of Parisian bistros, and the menu is comfortingly predictable, with an offaly emphasis. By now, regular readers will know I eat with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.

So here's bone marrow with mustard: quivering, nutty jelly spiced with popping seeds, roared in the oven till brown and sweet, unabashed and globby on hot toast. It’s by far the best thing we eat. Onion soup, which looked promising under an exhausted crust of Gruyère, is ashtray rinse. Green salad is as fresh and exciting as a Robert Lindsay sitcom.

The signature at the Foot is called ‘La tentation de saint Antoine’. Nothing to do with Flaubert’s play, or anything else arty: Anthony is the patron saint of pigs. (And also of skin disease, but that’s just scratching the surface.) The dish is snout, trotter, tail, ears and chips – all garnished, if that’s the right word, with salt. Tempting it certainly is, and though it isn't set with skill or chosen out with care, I applaud its proud anti-vegginess. The snout’s the best bit, slathered in bearnaise; the trotter is hot and fatty; the tail is fun to dunk and chew; but the ears are horribly gristly. Charlie, who like me is watching his weight, orders kidneys flambéed in Cognac with cream. They’re perfectly pink, in a sauce bloated with potatoes and nubbed with chopped mushrooms, toothsome and reeking with the salty sting of urine.

I finish with perhaps the girliest dish I've ever been served. Rosewater ice-cream, strawberry sorbet and a little meringue, the lot gasping under a ridiculous amount of Chantilly. Pink as Piglet, all it needs is a cherry on top. It’s four in the morning, by now, and the evening has been long and lubricated. The pudding is far too sweet, fatty as a Texan, the rosewater smells like granny perfume, and the whole thing is probably quite disgusting. I lick the bowl clean.

We leave as light is beginning to break, though plenty of tables remain full. It's hard to dislike the Foot, with its pig-fuelled, sleepless menu. There are no great flashes of technique here, nothing that sets the world alight or dances on the palate. But it's blood and guts served with toil and sweat, and I can only admire the commitment and passion needed to keep the place running. Later on, after a snatch of sleep, we visited l’Astrance, where I had one of the greatest meals of my life. Then, the day after, we went to l’Ambroisie, where lunch was so distant from the ones I've most enjoyed, it could have taken place on Pluto. But that, my friends, is for another post.


Au Pied de Cochon, 6 Rue Coquillière, Paris
Tel. +33 (0)1 40 13 77 00

See on the Map

Dinner for two, with drinks and service, costs €100

www.pieddecochon.com

23/05/2009

Tagliatelle with Crab and Chilli [Recipe]


A desert island dish, this one: it would be part of my last meal on earth. It's delicious through the year, but is probably at its best in spring, when the crabs are sweet and wet garlic pongs gloriously on the shelves.

Serves 2

Ingredients

The white and brown meat from a large cooked crab
2 deseeded red chillies, finely chopped
300g dried tagliatelle, or linguine if you prefer
3 cloves garlic or about 6 cloves wet garlic, finely chopped
Glass of white wine
Big bunch of parsley, leaves and stalks separated, finely chopped
3 lemons, juiced, with the zest of one lemon removed and finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt and pepper


Bring a large pan of very well-salted water to the boil. Cook the pasta while you make the sauce.

Place a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry the chilli and chopped parsley stalks in the olive oil, then add the garlic. Let everything soften for a few minutes before adding the crab meat. Move it all around the pan to warm through, then turn the heat right up, pour in the wine and add the juice from one of the lemons. Season well. By the time the wine has almost completely reduced, the pasta should be ready. Drain it and, off the heat, add to the frying pan. Throw in the chopped parsley leaves, the juice from the other two lemons and several glugs of olive oil. Work the sauce through the pasta. Place in warmed bowls and serve, with extra lemon if people want it.

21/05/2009

L'Astrance, Paris

L’Astrance

★★★★★

The signature at l’Astrance looks like a strange sort of pie. Layer after layer of mandolined white mushrooms and slivers of apple, bulked and buffed by foie gras steeped in verjuice. There’s a slick of hazelnut oil to bring balance and depth, and a shining splot of roasted lemon. It looks weird and unsettling, like the greyish muck a vegetarian eats at Christmas - but pierced, flaked and fluttering on the tongue, it’s astonishing.

I’d always thought that the point of foie gras was its silken fattiness, that the most exquisite livers teeter just this side of disgusting. But here, the soily bite of the raw fungi, the vibrance of verjuice and lemon, the little dusting of mushroom powder, bring an exuberant, almost trivial lightness to the meat.

That’s the extraordinary thing Pascal Barbot does. His food is classically French in that it retains a solemn respect for ingredients, that everything on the plate justifies its inclusion, that surgical care and cultivated dexterity are behind every dish. But there’s none of the swamped pappiness you get from roux-based saucing, the stodged, stultifying luxury of a typical tasting menu. Nouvelle cuisine began modernising French cooking some decades ago, but anyone who’s visited Paris recently will have seen how hard such habits die.

L’Astrance is supposedly the city’s most elusive reservation: a single dining room with just 26 covers, and three stars in the Guide Rouge. Controversially – if only because rich people tend to enjoy ordering waiters about – there’s no menu. Well, not quite. You choose whether you want three, five or seven courses, detail any ridiculous diets or confected allergies, and the kitchen does the rest. There isn’t even a wine list, although the front of house does boast Gault Millau’s sommelier of the year.

The dining room is bright rather than frivolous, comfortable rather than cushy, with darkly silvered walls and splashes of yellow and gold. Bread from Poujauran arrives instantly, and is some of the best I remember eating – open-crusted, with a musty, startlingly sour taste, although the butter is much too salty. The first amuses are a slice of somewhat overcooked brioche with a dab of rosemary cream, and a teaspoon of Parmesan purée. It seems initially a gloopy, over-rich start, like beginning with the cheese course. But the point is made clear by the second amuse, a shot of pea soup with ginger foam. The spice blasts the soup like a defibrillator, balancing that initial cheesiness, and setting the scene for what follows.

Shockingly tender, a langoustine and a prawn are pinkly brothed in a crustacean fumet with a whisper of peanut. Blooming with petals, it’s among the most beautiful things I’ve ever eaten. Then a generous flop of monkfish with asparagus stalks thick as marker pens, a zipping citric sauce and an Asiatic quenelle of mango and papaya. Beside them is a razor clam imbued with garlic and thyme, the flavours floating like mist from the rubbery mollusc. Then red mullet with beetroot leaf and a nasty sauce made with fermented anchovies, smelling like rotten mackerel, piscine and algae green, choking the rouget.

A perfect nubbin of suckling pig is next, with pocked morels textured like tripe. A couple of foams make an appearance here, and for once their spawny lick brings something to a dish. Last of the savouries is a homage to pigeon: breast, thigh – trimmed so we can eat from the bone – and liver, with the sweetest, tiniest mangetout, no bigger than your thumbnail.

A sorbet of lime and chilli grabs us like a bear-hug, fresh and sparking with delicate heat. Then a witty pudding instead of cheese. What looks like a log of goat’s turns out to be tubular meringue wrapping purées of pistachio and red fruit; and then a passion fruit tart bleeding such concentrated flavour, it takes my breath away. Coffee, cognac, petits fours of jasmine egg-nog served in eggshells, hazelnut madeleines, fresh fruit, and we’re done.

Typically, after a lunch this size, I hoist my capacious bottom from its seat and waddle away, plump as a brandy-soaked raisin. Certainly, we ate well here, but there was an equilibrium to the meal, a deft amalgam of generosity and poise, which meant we could potter under Eiffel’s nearby tower without the rinsed bloating that typically follows a degustation. Barbot’s cooking is proof enough against those who sound the knell for French food and its pre-eminence. He treats ingredients as the French always have: absorbing, adapting, melding, and he does so with judicious, wholly individual flair. I’d go so far as to wager that this clean, globalised approach represents the future of French cooking. And I find that hugely exciting.


L’Astrance, 4 Rue Beethoven, 75016 Paris
Tel.: +33 (0)1 4050 8440


Lunch or dinner costs between €70 and €290pp, depending on menu and wines.

http://www.lastrance.abemadi.com/

11/05/2009

Eggs Baked with Spinach and Ham [Recipe]


A little English ham completes the classic 'oeufs en cocotte à la florentine', but you can leave it out for the more traditional version, or if you have a vegetarian coming round.

I often eat this on a Sunday night. It's one of the most comforting suppers in the world.

Serves 2

Ingredients

30g butter
1 shallot, finely chopped
250g fresh spinach, roughly chopped
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
100ml double cream
2 tbsps freshly grated Parmesan
Salt
Pepper
4 large eggs
2mm slice of English cured ham

Preheat the oven to 180 C, and boil about a litre of water in the kettle.

In a saucepan, melt 20g butter over a medium heat, and add the shallot. Sauté gently until soft, then add the spinach and nutmeg. Cook the spinach for a couple of minutes until it starts to wilt, and add the cream. Let everything bubble gently for about five minutes, so that the cream thickens and the spinach is ready. Stir in the Parmesan and season to taste.

Grease four ramekins with a little butter and lightly season them on the inside. Add a heaped tablespoon of the spinach mix into each one, and top with a slice of the ham, either trimmed to fit or, as I do, in lightly overlapping pieces. Carefully break an egg into each ramekin, top with a little dot of butter, and season with salt and pepper.

Bring the kettle back to the boil. Put the ramekins in a deep roasting tin and place on the middle shelf in the oven. Make a bain-marie by pouring boiling water from the kettle into the tin until the ramekins are half-submerged. Bake them until the whites set and the yolks are still runny: anything between 7 and 12 minutes. Serve immediately with hot buttered toast.

Tomato Salad [Recipe]


Edible proof that summer's here.

I saw and immediately pounced on these beautiful Isle of White tomatoes at the Real Food Festival. In winter, fresh tomatoes in English shops are flavourless balls of wool, so I make do with tinned. This is a wonderful reminder what we've been missing all these months.

I don't believe tomato salad should be mucked around with, but some torn buffalo mozzarella or a few curls of Parma ham would be delicious here. Some people add raw onion, garlic, capers, black olives and herbs like oregano and parsley, but I have to say I prefer it as simple and pure as this.

Serves 2

Ingredients

Three biggish, very ripe tomatoes, in different varieties or colours if you can get them
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt
Pepper
Basil leaves

Remove the stalks from the tomatoes and cut into 5mm slices. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, then drizzle generously with the olive oil. Scatter over the basil leaves and serve.

07/05/2009

Byron, Chelsea, London


Byron
★★★★☆

As the venerable poet said, ‘I like a beef-steak, too, as well as any’. Anyone except vegetarians, that is, and nobody listens to them. Contemptible bunch, vegetarians. Even the word sounds preachy and mealy-mouthed, like chewing a muddy parsnip. It took man tens of thousands of years to get to a state where he could eat flesh regularly. All those long millennia of hunting and rearing, that tortuous shift from quarry to livestock. It’s just rank ingratitude to chuck it back in the hungry, hairy faces of our Neolithic forebears. And don’t get me started on that ‘Eastern’ nonsense. If you want to eat like the Nepalese, put butter in your tea, and soy you later. Meat, meat and more meat got you where you are. Quite literally, it’s your DNA.

So anyway, Byron liked beef. As do we, especially when it’s ground, grilled, and bapped. I’ve always said that the hamburger’s the apogee of sandwiches. The Mohammed-Ali-greatest, simply-the-Tina-Turner-best. BLT, club and PB & J: they're all honourable, but there’s nothing like a burger. Bloody and beefy, sweet, juicy, grill-scarred and fat, blackened and blistered, chewy of bun, crunchy of gherkin, splashy of mustard and ketchup.

Byron is a newish chain of high-end burger bars. You might say that London doesn’t need any more high-end burger bars. You might say, in fact, that London needs another high-end burger bar like it needs a pandemic or Jimmy Carr. But we’re stuck with them. I was kindly invited by Chris to an evening hosted by the manager of the chain, Tom Byng. Also present were Niamh, Martin and Caitlin. The obligatory disclaimer: I was, of course, sweetened and swayed; my favourable opinions were bought the instant beef crossed my palm, and my corruptibility was assured with every big, boozy slurp. With that in mind…

We ate more or less everything on the menu. Tortilla chips are crunchy and light, and though the guacamole is overpuréed and slightly underseasoned, the salsa is excellent, particularly for the time of year. Courgette fritters have a crunchy, almost pankoey batter, but are flaccid and slightly slimey. Macaroni cheese – a fine accompaniment to any burger, and I salute those who order it – is magnificent, and infinitely better than the one I had in the overpriced and hateful Bumpkin last week. Slaw is vibrant and crunchy and I want the recipe; and the ‘iceberg wedge’ (an American concept, like extraordinary rendition) is one of the most horrible dishes I’ve tried in a long while. A quartered iceberg lettuce, that Lada of vegetables, slathered in soured cream and scattered with chewy spits of bacon. A salad for people who don’t like green, for £4.50. The chips, you’ll be glad to hear, are superb, bronzed and sizzled, and pace just about every other food blogger, I like the extra flavour from the odd snippet of skin.

Here’s the beef. A mixture of rump, chuck and brisket, in proportions Tom wouldn’t reveal. All bloody good and bloody bloody, as you can see from that charred and beautifully leaking specimen above. Not overminced, exactly the right size, and pinkly, perkily cooked. I also ordered the signature Byron, which was a mistake. One of the difficulties the chain has is that, while it offers a quality product, it has to cater for people more used to the golden arches. The patties are cooked to medium as standard, but some customers refuse all meat that isn’t grey. The restaurant thus suffers a constant struggle between credibility and appeasement. The Byron sauce turns out to be thousand-island dressing, a catch-all sop to those ignorant consumers. But it’s still a fantastic burger, with a lovely X of bacon and melting, unctuous cheese. Sourcing, incidentally, is careful and clever: Aberdeen Angus, aged for three weeks, a ‘fourth-generation East End baker’ for the buns.

After a delicious knickerbocker glory – don’t ask me how I found room – I toddled home. A brilliant place and a wonderful evening. With several litres of pinot noir sloshing inside me, not to mention a stout dose of Brooklyn lager, I was distinctly merry. I almost thought I could feel a presence, strange and benign, watching approvingly from above. Who was it said the best of life is but intoxication?


Byron, 300 King’s Road, London SW3
Tel. +44 (0)7352 6040

See on the TFYS Map

Cheeseburger and fries costs £9.50, excluding service.

Other branches at Gloucester Road, Guildford, High Street Ken, Kingston and White City.

www.byronhamburgers.com

Byron on Urbanspoon

04/05/2009

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies [Recipe]


These homespun beauties have a lovely chewiness. I soak the raisins in apple juice overnight, which plumps and sweetens them, but is by no means essential. The oats make the cookies vaguely nutritious too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Makes about 30

Ingredients

175g butter at room temperature
300g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 tsp of vanilla bean paste or 1 tsp vanilla extract
1 level tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
150g plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
250g rolled oats
Pinch of salt
150g raisins
Glass of good-quality apple juice (optional)


If you're using the apple juice, simply pour it over the raisins and leave covered in the fridge overnight. Drain the raisins of any excess juice when you start cooking.

Preheat the oven to 180 C. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. It goes without saying that this is much easier in a food mixer. Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Then add the eggs bit by bit, letting each dribble of egg incorporate fully into the mix before adding the next one. Add the vanilla (I've fallen in love with vanilla bean paste since I discovered it - such a fresher, deeper vanilla taste than you get from extract). Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon and bicarbonate of soda and add to the mix. Lastly, stir in the oats and raisins.

Layer a baking tray with greaseproof paper and dot with teaspoons of the cookie mixture. Leave plenty of space between them as they'll run a bit in the oven. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes and cool on a wire rack. These go beautifully with a banana and a glass of milk - children especially love them.