Archive for novembre 2009

The Harwood Arms, London, II

novembre 28, 2009

The Harwood Arms is one of the two gastro-pubs, which I actually enjoy. It is, like the Sportsman too, not the usual “gastro-pub”, where one pays way too much for forgettable, unpleasant food. Here, the chef Stephen Williams has worked at the Ledbury amongst other places. The room was as full as ever. Booking should be done a few days in advance, as it gets pretty busy for the weekends, a good week in advance should suffice.

La cheminee

La cheminee

The décor is very warm and cosy, making it a perfect restaurant for a cold winter evening, or lunch. Service is lovely, and happily accommodates pretty much any wish.

La Table

La Table

To start the meal, we had the obligatory Venison Scotch Egg. A perfectly creamy egg, is surrounded by a layer of venison meat and then thinly breaded. Topped with a healthy pinch of Maldon sea salt, this is pure pleasure. The combination of creamy yolk, crunchy coating, and hearty venison is just as precisely balanced as it can get. To make this classically British dish this well certainly demands a certain level of technical dexterity and a good amount of research. This is without doubt one of the better, or more enjoyable bites in London. Excellent.

Scotch Egg

Scotch Egg

Bread was very good today. The sour dough was crunchy, with good taste,as was the rye bread. Butter was also very good, and most certainly not from Bordier, but from Britain (if I’m not mistaken).

Pain et beurre (sorry for the poor pic

Pain et beurre (sorry for the poor pic

One of the starters was a Sweetcorn and thyme soup with Scottish Hedgehog mushrooms and cheddar cheese straws. This was a very thick soup, almost like a fluid puree. The combination with the mushrooms and cheddar sticks was very pleasant. This was precise, and clean flavour-wise, with just the right amount of sweetness, to counterbalance the richness. The soup was a good heart-warmer after a pretty cold autumn day. Good.

Soupe

Soupe

The most interesting starter on the menu was the Salad of Berkshire wood pigeon with pickled girolles, toasted hazelnuts and game tea. A small wood pigeon breast came nearly cold, dressed with a few radishes and green beans. Paired with one or two small, pickled girolles and hazelnuts, the dish was on the light side, less robust than the previous one. The dressing for the salad was very good,with a well-balanced taste, but to serve the whole thing lukewarm instead of cold would have been perfect. Cold meat is just a little less tasty and tender than warm or lukewarm meat. The game tea here is always great. A warm rush of pure gamey punch, which certainly doesn’t leave you cold. Perfectly clean, this is a textbook perfect consommé, which is better than a number of clear broths served in a few starred restaurants. Very good.

Salade de pigeon

Salade de pigeon

To have a taster of fish, I tried some Roast Cornish cod with a wild mushroom and Jerusalem artichoke tart and English truffle butter. The cod was certainly very fine, but not of exceptional quality. It was cooked well, seasoned correctly and nicely paired with the tarte. The latter was very good, with a potent mushroom flavour and crispy, airy dough. To say the least, it was a most successful fish dish, all the more, if one considers that this is a pub. One that focuses on game. Very good.

Cabillaud

Cabillaud

I had hoped to find something like grouse, pigeon or some other gibier a plumes, but it wasn’t to be for today. The grouse has to be pre-ordered, and is served for parties of 6 or more (at a very favourable price, if one considers how much these birds set you back in a shop). Thus, I had to make due with something else. The most interesting thing on the menu was the Whole rabbit leg stewed in cider and mustard with smoked bacon, prunes and Swiss chard. A nicely braised rabbit leg came in a creamy cider/mustard jus, served with steamted swiss chard, prunes and a few pieces of bacon. The only annoying thing on the plate was the very generous serving of mashed potatoes, which was good, but not really needed, at least not in such quantities. That probably is a concession one has to make, when cooking in a pub. After all, (some) people will come here to get fed. This dish really was the standout for me tonight. It was hearty, well cooked and perfectly seasoned. The combination was certainly not inventive, but if it is well done, one can’t ask for much more, and eats it with a little smile. Very good.

Lapin

Lapin

As I saw one garnish for another dish, which interested me, I asked if it was possible to have a serving of it. The cheese and cauliflower croquettes were most enjoyable. If a little more greasy than the stunning Scotch egg, they had a perfectly crunchy (if nearly too thin) crust, and a centre that was most creamy and pungent. The cauliflower was nicely tamed by the cheese, and thus did not dominate the whole thing. Served with their own home-made ketchup (which was very tasty), this was great comfort food.

Croquettes

Croquettes

Desserts were not on the bad side neither. The first was Caledonian ice with English quince, whiskey and toasted oats. Two nice chunks of whisky parfait were simply served with poached quince and crunchy oats. This was very well made and served without any unnecessary complications. The parfait had a slight taste of whisky, which wasn’t overpowering, and was perfectly creamy. With the slightly acidic quince and crunchy oats, one had everything that makes a good dessert: rich creamy parfait, crunchy oats, slightly acidic, fruity quince and the happy taste of whisky, which rounded things off. Very good.

Parfait

Parfait

The second one was the house classic: Bowl of warm Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar and whipped cream. As Andy Hayler wrote, Homer Simpson would have been very happy with these doughtnuts. They are indeed not bad at all. Today they were much better than on the previous visit, where they lacked a little fluffiness and were too compact. The bramley apple wasn’t that present, and could have been a little more powerful, but if dipped in the slightly sweetend cream, this is again, great comfort food. Very good.

Doughnuts

Doughnuts

The last dessert was a Buttermilk pudding with blackberries and Harwood Arms ginger nuts. Not too different from a panna cotta, this set buttermilk mix was served with some biscuits and a little blackberry jam. Clean, refreshing flavours, very good execution made this a very good dessert. Very good.

Buttermilk

Buttermilk

The food today was very reasonable in terms of price starters and desserts all are priced around £6, and the mains are more or less in the £15 area. The wine list is fairly priced. However, a meal here will not be a steal neither,  as the products used here are of very high quality, and will never be.

La salle

La salle

 

Food was great for a pub. I would say that if the cooking here is as constant as I have experienced it on my two visits, it should get a Michelin star pretty soon, as it can really challenge a few of the 1* restaurants in this country. Together with the lovely service, this restaurant is a very enjoyable place to spend an evening, without breaking the bank.

Yauatcha, London

novembre 26, 2009
DSCN1476

La salle

My first evening back in London after a long four month absence was to be spent at Yauatcha. I had been there once last year, but did not find it as good as Hakkasan for example. However, as it was a Friday night, a good number of other places were absolutely packed, so we decided to give it another shot.

La table

At 20.45h the place was full, but the incredibly beautiful receptionists (they surely have a much more impressive title, but I did not ask) were as smiling and helpful as they are over in Hakkasan. Service throughout the night was impressively good for such a busy place, they even knew what the dishes were made of and how they were cooked. This is similar to Hakkasan then (there were to be a few more similarities to appear throughout the meal).

We ordered pretty much everything on the menu that sounded somewhat interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I do not know much about Chinese cooking, so all I can comment on is the way it tasted, and if it did appeal to me, as a mere ignorant Westerner. We had a variety of different dim sums and started of with some steamed parcels filled with pork and prawns. These are identical to those served in Hakkasan, and were good. No ingredient was over- or under-cooked and it was well seasoned. Good.

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First

Another trio arrived, filled with mushrooms, if my memory serves me correctly. Same remark as for the first one, good.

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second

The next one was a step up. The rice flour based, rather fluffy coating encased a braised duck ragout, which was made with Hoisin sauce and had great punch. This really was a tasty little thing, and I found the texture to be very interesting and pleasant. Very good. (again something you also have on Hakkasan’s menu)

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third

Next up was a pretty poor steamed lotus wrap. This was a little taste-less and dull. Apart from that it was slightly crunchy, and acceptable. Mediocre.

fourth

The next set was very good again, oozing with a steaming, tasty mix, made out of chicken, but I do not remember the details. Good,

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fift

Another highlight was about to come. The venison puff is a house signature dish, and understandably so. The first time I had it, I hated it: Fatty pastry, venison that was dry (inside puff pastry, which is so buttery that even a piece of cardboard should be moist after being cooked in it) and devoid of taste. This time on the contrary, it was great. The pastry was not too greasy, felt light, and was crunchy. The filling had great flavour and was most successful. Very good.

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sixth

Moving to deep-fried goodies. Chicken and beans filled these little gems. Crunchy outsides and tasty, hot filling are always a winner, and in this case it was a fine match. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

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seventh

The crispy duck roll was very good. A mix of shredded duck and cucumber is served with Hoisin sauce and is most tasty. This was, again perfectly fine in terms of execution and quality. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

eighth

The following shrimp creation was less great. The coating was crispy, but the filling lacked any identifiable taste and punch. Mediocre.

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ninth

But, there were a few winners to come: The first was the pumpkin and duck fritter. This is really great stuff, as the crispy coating encases a pumpkin puree and some scrumptious braised duck meat. A match made in heaven, and absolutely great. Excellent. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

tenth

To finish off the savoury part of the meal, we had the classic Shanghai dumplings, which were fine, but didn’t really match the previous dish in terms of flavour or textural interest. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu).

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final

The desserts here are usually very good for Chinese restaurants. The pastry chef (who is French) worked with Pierre Herme and combines French technique with Asian flavours. He likes to use sesame, litchi, Yuzu, and a whole range of other products common in Asia, or least not often used in French pastry.

The first dessert was a chocolate tart with a cocoa sorbet and a poached slice of abricot. This was very well made and easily deserves that 1*, if not a little more. It was by no means worse than desserts in French restaurants of that standard, as it was not too sweet, very-well executed and based on very fine chocolate. Very good.

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Dessert I

The last dessert was very good too. A combination of chocolate, caramel and salted peanuts, this was a fine little thing. It was certainly worth the very reasonable price of £4.5. Excellent.

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Dessert II

All in all, this was a meal that easily justified the 1*. Flavours were in most cases spot on, products good, technique constant and service very good. Prices are surprisingly low (one can eat for around £25, excluding drinks). However, the problem is the frighteningly expensive wine list. That list is more expensive than, say The Greenhouse or Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester or even The Square, which all are amongst the city’s elite in terms of wine and food. However, a meal here is entertaining, good fun and not bad at all, which is probably all the restaurant wants to strive for.

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La salle

Zafferano, London

novembre 21, 2009

A room

Zafferano is nestled in one of London’s nicest parts- Belgravia. Around the corner you have Christian Louboutin, Bottega Veneta, Dior, Valentino,…and a few other things, that are nice and make you blend in with the rest of the crowd that lives here. The restaurant itself is pretty big for a starred-restaurant, but is cleverly divided into multiple rooms, which give you the feeling of a certain intimacy.

La tavola

Service was very good, despite a pretty full house (on a Monday night). From that side there was nothing to question, and in general everything was swiftly delivered and bread was refilled without me having to beg for it.The latter  however, was less grandiose. Typically Italian, everything (except for the grissini) was rather mediocre. It is certainly baked in the restaurant, but is devoid of crust, character or significant taste. The various types were all pretty similar from a textural point of view, which results in a rather monotonous bread basket. Olive oil was good, butter non-existent (as we were in an Italian restaurant, that was not a problem).

il pane

The first nibbles arrived promptly: Some mortadella, parmigiano reggiano, salami, and focaccia. These were all very enjoyable: The mortadella was of very good quality, as was the salami, but the parmesan was a little young to be served just like that. However, it did not hurt to have a little nibble whilst perusing the menu. Price-wise, three courses were around £45, whilst four are a tenner more. As, I came here with the purpose of eating white truffles from Alba, I had to add a further £35 to the bill for my truffled course. That is ten pounds more than at the Greenhouse for instance, but five less than the Square charges.

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Struzzichini

Another nibble was a cherry tomato, gratinated with pangrattato and fried parsely. This was pleasant and gave a good balance between sweet, lukewarm, rich tomato and crunchy breadcrumbs.

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Promodorini

A starter was a green bean salad with cuttlefish, tomatoes and olive puree. This was unexpectedly good. The products, I was told, are mostly bought in from Italy, and some have even argued that the chef has people photograph the vegetable stands in order to be able to choose. This particular plate was a perfectly acceptable bean salad, one would do at home too. The beans were good, well cooked, and perfectly seasoned. What was special about the dish were the cuttlefish. These were not only very, very tender, but also very tasty. Overall, this was a good dish. (excuse the burry picture)

insalata

My primo was simple: Ravioli di fagiano al rosmarino. A few pasta-parcels stuffed with pheasant meat came floating in a nicely reduced pheasant jus, which was infused with rosemary. This was a great autumnal dish, which combined the pasta’s rusticity with some rather well executed classic jus.  The ravioli were not as thin as they could have been, but that gave them a certain bite, which was more than welcome. The stuffing was most tasty, if a little on the drier side. A little foie gras or lardo di Colonnata would not have been unwelcome in this case. However, when sauced with the intense jus, it proved to be a most pleasant dish, that was very comfortably on 1*-level. Good.

Ravioli

But, the real reason for my coming was about to show up. A poached egg, with fonduta and porcini. There were also white truffles involved, which played the leading role in some sense. This was a great dish. Combining classical Piedmontese  fonduta with the white truffles and eggs is not really what one could call innovative, but in this case it was very well executed, and every element acted as a pillow for the truffles. These could fully express their magical aroma and taste, upon these rich, if not overly powerful partners. The combination with the porcini was very good, as the truffles do have a similar taste. In short, to have a plate set in front of you, and have a liberal serving of these little diamonds shaved on top of it, is quite an experience. The smell they create is simply unforgettable, and should be experienced by anyone. Not to forget the incredibly delicate, fine taste, which came out marvelously well in this dish. A truly fantastic dish.

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Dio mio!

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tartufi

Dessert was a chocolate fondente with gianduja ice cream. Simple, often the last thing on a menu I would order but very well done here. The ice cream was very different from the one at Louis XV, but not bad by any means. It was creamy, not too sweet, but unfortunately a little cocoa-heavy (for a gianduja ice cream). The fondant itself (invented by Michel Bras in 1981), was not much like the original, but very nice: Not too sweet, strong chocolate, and perfectly melting core. Not that this is particularly tricky from a technical point of view, but it is very enjoyable when well done. Very good.

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Fondente

Petit-fours were forgettable. They presented no real interest, nor did they impress with their extremely precise confection. Coffee was good, which should be the case in a better Italian restaurant.

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Petit fours

All in all, the truffle dish stole the show. Not that I expected anything else, but they are somewhat magical. The only time I have had some before, was in the kitchen of a Parisian 3*, which was an unforgettable moment. Here the dish gave them the perfect background to fully develop themselves. I absolutely loved the dish, which would have been most successful without them too.  Wine-wise, we had a Pinot Gris from Suedtirol (the Italians call it Alto Adige), and a few glasses of very nice I Capitelli from Anselmi.

This was a good 1* meal, with the addition of the truffles. It’s a good casual place, if one doesn’t want to go through the ritual of the more sophisticated French-restaurants. However, one shouldn’t expect any life-changing experiences here, only good products, well cooked and simply served.

The Sportsman, Seasalter – II

novembre 15, 2009
La table

La table

The Sportsman has become one of my favourite restaurants in the world. This simple British pub by the seaside offers a unique concept, that makes me look forward to meals here with the same excitment as some of the finer 3* restaurants do. After my fantastic lunch in June, shortly before returning to Luxembourg for the summer holidays, I was ready for a return. The crossing of the channel on the way back to London at the end of those holidays seemed to mark the perfect occasion for a return visit. So, after a long drive and a lovely ride on the ferry (with less a less lovely crowd), I was ready for another great meal.

At night the place looks even more cosy and warm. The wood reflects the candles’ light beautifully and bathes the room in a most hospitable light. Not much has changed here in terms of interior design, and those great Van Gogh toilets are still there too.

Wine wise the list has not got the widest selection, but does not fail to offer some real steals and most interesting wines. We went with some Pol Roger brut to start and finish the meal, a Pouilly-Fuisse and a fantastic Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses from William Fevre.

CHablis

CHablis

The first mise en bouche has not changed from last time: A piece of baked local oyster is served with gooseberry granite and a creamy sauce. The high quality of the oyster is apparent, and its iodine strength is curtailed by both the cooking process and the sweet/sour gooseberry granite. Very good.

Oysters

Oysters

Next up was one of the best snacks in England: The famous pork sratchings, served with mustard and a herring on soda bread, with apple jelly. The pork scratchings (from Old spot porks that are being fed apples at the moment) are delightful: Warm, crunchy, perfectly seasoned, a true delight. The herring is no worse than the scratchings, although in a completely different category. Here, freshness, acidity and the herring’s distinct flavour are the main protagonists, whilst the scratchings are a slightly richer affair. This is food, that so many English pubs could do without spending nor working much. After all, pork scratchings are an absolutely amazing thing. Outstanding, for both, although one could eat a few more of those little scratchings…

Pork scratchings

Pork scratchings

Another little snack appeared now. Angels on horseback, or deep-fried, lardo wrapped oysters. The lardo (pork fat, that is rubbed with salt and spices, then matured like ham in caves) is made by Stephen, and is absolutely great. Whitstable native oysters are, rather unique in shape (look at the shells) and taste, and do taste absolutely amazing. The combination is divine, and there is not even any overpowering saltiness here. It is perfectly balanced in every respect. The little dollop of apple sauce wakes things up a bit and gives it a little, very welcome tartness, that goes more than well with the dish. Outstanding.

Angels

Angels

Bread here is always a treat. This time, there was the classic focaccia, sourdough and soda bread. Together with Stephen’s own butter, it is quite simply outstanding. I probably have written about this already, but the crust of the focaccia (the bottom one) sees a beautiful caramelisation of the oil, that results in an absolutely outstanding texture. The sourdough was absolutely perfect too: Crunchy crust, nice, aerated centre and a very good taste. It’s a shame that many restaurants don’t manage to produce bread of that quality, but on the other hand: It is one more reason to come back for! Soda shan’t be forgotten, as it is no less well made. The butter has an incredible punch to it, that mass produced butters simply do not have. Divine. (no picture, but for those interested, look at the first post on the Sportsman).

As we came late, Stephen had to serve us one of the meat dishes a little earlier: The Local wood pigeon roasted in salt was fantastic however. Baked in a salt crust, it didn’t only retain its full aroma, but also the tenderness and moisture. Accompanied by a pigeon jus, cabbage and horseradish it presented a slightly modified version of a classic combination. I have very good memories of a Mieral pigeon, that I ate at Helmut Thieltges’ (3*) restaurant in Germany, with similar garnishes, and this one was very close to the 3* one. The incredibly concentrated pigeon flavour matched the jus and rather buttery cabbage perfectly and the horseradish gave the whole thing a little spiciness that complemented those rich, full-bodied flavours fantastically. Outstanding.

Wood Pigeon

Wood Pigeon

Next up was a very minimalist dish. The Slip sole in seaweed butter reminded me a little of a tradition Alexandre Bourdas has started in his Honfleur restaurant: the direct. He serves one product with one seasoning in the middle of the menu, to bring the diner the pure flavour of that product. This dish was very similar in conception and was very successful again. The only problem was the rather soft meat of the sole. Now, I do not know if that is due to the fact that it might have been matured or, to its tender age, but I do prefer the firm flesh of sole that is caught shortly before being eaten. Apart from this personal taste question, the dish was beautiful. The home-made seaweed butter (Mr. Bordier might want to have a look what’s going on over in Seasalter) gave the sole a much broader, complex and rich taste, that injected a full dose of sea into this delicate dish. It was incredibly powerful, but not overwhelming and was simply beautiful paired with such fine fish. I can imagine something similar with a nice, fat scallop… Excellent.

Sole

Sole

Following this, we got to the now well-known Seasalter Ham cured in April 2008. As mentioned earlier, Stephen wants to use every single part of the pig (the French have a saying that tout est bon dans le cochon) and thus started making his own ham. The fruits of this process are evolving, but the main problem remains the slightly dry meat. Compared to a good jamon iberico it lacks that incredibly luscious meltingly tender creaminess, but that certainly is no more than a question of time…

Ham

Ham

Steamed wild bass with smoked herring sauce. This sauce is a classic of the Sportsman, and one can easily see why. Not only is it incredibly fine, but also punchy and tasty. The concept must be rather similar to that, which Bernard Pacaud serves with his bar de ligne, only that the herring roe replaces the sturgeon’s. In combination with the rather soft, fine, but at the same time incredibly tasty meat of the bass, this sauce was a true winner. The slightly crunchy beens gave the dish the needed textural interest and thus acted as a counterpoint to the rather iodine flavours of the sauce and fish. Excellent.

Sea Bass

Sea Bass

I had asked Stephen if we could have some pork and pigeon, and he did oblige, as I was about to find out. Tenderloin and belly of old spot pork. Was an absolutely perfect dish. A nice serving of pork belly with its tenderloin, some mashed potatoes, a tiny courgette and a hearty jus is all one needs to be in heaven. The unquestionable star of the dish is the pork belly. With its incredibly crunchy crackling, it is likely to be one of the better bellies you will find these days. The braised meat, hiding under that lovely browned top gives way to a spoon, and thus makes that combination of incredibly crunchy top and meltingly tender meat absolutely divine. The person that cooked the tenderloin deserves special praise. Such juicy, tender and tasty filet mignon has never been put in front of me. This really was a mind-blowing piece of meat (even though it couldn’t steal the belly’s show). The mashed potatoes were very good too, but somehow didn’t stand out in the way the other elements did. The jus had a very enjoyable, highly concentrated, pure pork flavour that was phenomenal. This really is a 3* dish, without question. Divine.

Pork

Pork

Cheese was omitted this time, and we got straight to dessert. First up was an espresso cup, filled with “cake milk” and wild blackberry sorbet. This cake milk is rather interesting, as Stephen lets a classic pate sablee or pate sucree infuse in milk, giving it a very rich, sweet taste, which accompanies the slightly tart blackberry sorbet marvelously. Very good.

Cake milk

Cake milk

The actual dessert was an Apple parfait with wild blackberry sorbet. A healthy serving of bramley apple parfait was topped with a tuile and a quenelle of wild blackberry sorbet (for whose repeated use, the chef himself apologised). Around it was a little caramel and some home made popcorn. The remarkable thing about this parfait was the incredible taste. The apple’s tartness (Bramley apples are very tart, as far as I’m aware of) came through despite the heavy taste of cream. Here, one had a very strong, but not unpleasant flavour of apple, in a most interesting form.  The acidity here really was quite intriguing, as it cut through despite the healthy dose of cream, eggs and sugar in such a preparation. The parfait’s texture was a little hard, due to the fact that it was too cold, but once it was left on the plate a little it was just as airy, creamy as it should be. Very good.

Apple

Apple

To finish the meal, a small selection of little desserts is brought to the diner. On the menu these are inappropriately named Rhubarb sorbet, but in reality there was some chocolate mousse, a plum, slightly glased with sugar and a sponge, infused with the plum’s cooking juices. With it came ice cream made from the plum’s pits. The concept of using every part of an ingredient is fantastic, and Stephen really makes use of pretty much every bit there is in a plum. But let’s start with the rhubarb sorbet. This is a bit of a classic here, and does taste of pure rhubarb, with good texture and all one can expect of a sorbet. The chocolate mousse was less interesting, but the plum was fantastic. The fruit’s flavours seemed to be concentrated by the slightly higher temperature. The sponge wasn’t bad at all, and had a present, if less pronounced taste of plum. The absolute highlight was the ice cream though. I suppose the pits are cooked and infused in milk, which is then drained and used to prepare the ice cream mix. The flavour was incredible, and the texture very fine. This was great ice cream! It somehow reminded me of a fig milk ice cream that Andoni makes at Mugaritz, which also uses parts of a fruit, no one else uses anymore. Very good.

Mignardises

Mignardises

A final little nibble was brought out to accompany coffee and we were ready to go to London.

This meal was probably the best way of coming back to England. Not only is the cooking here incredibly regional, but it also has a purity, maturity that is rare and can only be attributed to the very great chefs of the day. In addition to this Stephen’s cooking makes the best of local products and the British culinary history. Dishes like the angels on horseback (oyster fried in lardo) or the pork scratchings show only too well, how one can make the best out of English cooking, without necessarily touching or changing its foundations. My favourites this time were the wood pigeon, fried oyster and the pork dish. These were absolute masterpieces in terms of precision, taste, product quality, and everything else. The other dishes were not less amazing, as the report hopefully demonstrates. The only room for improvement I can still see are the desserts, which can be a little less amazing than the rest. This being said, the plum ice cream was staggering.

ice cream

ice cream

It is absolutely great to see someone like Stephen driving things ever further. There is a passion for the job, a real dedication to delivering the best there is. I can only call on your reason, and urge you to go here. You will have to look far in England to find better food, and a more enjoyable dining experience. Service really is as uncomplicated and charming as it gets.

The last bite

The last bite

The Greenhouse, II, London

novembre 6, 2009
La salle

La salle

This post destroys the blog’s chronological order a little, but as the grouse’s season isn’t that long anymore, I thought it might be useful to publish it first.

The Greenhouse is real gem. Nestled in Hay’s Mews in Mayfair, its slick, very chic interior goes well with the clientele that dines here. The room is really well designed, and is probably as good as a basement, with low a ceiling, gets. It is both elegant, and comfortable, even if it does get loud, due to the parquet on the floor, it has unquestionable charm. Design-wise, I love absolutely love it.

La table

La table

On a Wednesday night, we weren’t the only table who wanted to try Antonin Bonnet’s cooking it seemed. The place was packed. Next to us sat Jancis Robinson with Nick Lander, on the other side, Marlon Abela, the owner of the place, who also owns Umu and a few other restaurants in London. Apart from the décor, three things make the Greenhouse special: The absolutely stunning wine list, the cooking and the cheeses. The wine list is easily the most extensive in London, and one of the most impressive in the world. The 3350 wines are mostly highly regarded nectars from the world’s most renowned producers and feature some vintages that not many restaurants sell anyomore. For people who enjoy a wine that is mature, there will be plenty of choice here, and prices aren’t outrageous neither (considering the standard of the restaurant). Krug’s Grande Cuvee is less expensive here than at most other London restaurants, not to mention Paris. At a mere 180 (until recently it was 155 pounds) the mark-up seems very good indeed. A glass of this godly wine is sold at 30 pounds, which is a fair price for coming one step closer to heaven. Things like Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Francaises cost less than in some shops here, but unfortunately my student budget, doesn’t allow me to go for such highly tempting diamonds. The sommelier Ronan Sayburn really knows his wine, and is best left carte blanche, trust me, you won’t be let down. We were served a selection of drinkable wines, and one treat, that was outrageous.

La Salle

La Salle

Service was great: Attentive, friendly, charming and knowledgeable. I found the gentleman in charge of the cheeseboard especially impressive. This was someone (his name escapes me) who has a real passion, who travels to the regions in which his cheeses originate, and who keeps close contact with Bernard Antony, who supplies all of the restaurant’s French cheeses. More about that later though. The only concern I had with the service was the fact that bread and butter were never refilled. One had to ask every single time, which is a little tiring. Especially if you ask for the fourth or fifth time, being a gready bastard like myself. However, any wish was directly obliged, which is all one needs.

Food-wise, we went for the tasting menu (80 pounds), which is very fairly priced for what is offered. I don’t want to suggest them to raise the prices or anything, but I sometimes wonder how places like this can survive on such pricing-schemes. Having experienced a number of 3 and 2* kitchens in action, I know how low prices in London are. A 2* chef in London recently told me that if it weren’t for the hotel that backed his restaurant, he would have been out of business a long time ago. This isn’t a a business in which one makes money, and people who complain should go and work in a starred kitchen for a good month. I wonder how many make it through the first week. To start us off with our Champagne, we were offered a rhubarb and apple sphere, and cheese crackers, filled with a cream, whose contents I forgot to note. The sphere had a rather acidic, tart taste, and was a good set-up for the palate. The crisps were much more pleasant though, as they went beautifully with the drink. A good start.

Pour grignoter

Pour grignoter

The amuse bouche was a spider crab/apple/celery salad, which came atop crab/dashi jelly. This had very clean, subtle flavours, and could have used a little more punch from the pretty neutral jelly. Nonetheless, it was already very much in the line of Antonin’s cooking: Incredibly clean, natural, perfectly executed and light. This was very precise in every respect, and the addition of tamed Asian elements (dashi) made it only more interesting. Good, although it was no where near as good as what was to come up…

Amuse

Amuse

Bread was great. The four types offered were warm and crunchy, and had nice, airy mie. All are made in the restaurant, as are the oatcakes served with the cheese (very good too). I couldn’t specify, which one I prefered, as all had their USPs, but generally speaking the level was very high. Butter too, was very tasty, especially the salted one. With the bread at ADAD, I would rate this as the best in London (as far as I can tell). Excellent.

Les pains

Les pains

I swapped the tasting menu’s beef carpaccio for something of a bit more interest: Terrine of Foie Gras and Bresse Chicken. With this I was served a 2005 Pinot Gris from Bruno Hunold, which went very well with the dish. A small rectangle of foie gras/Bresse chicken and fig terrine came with a pickled quince and some quince puree. Simple, very pretty and most importantly perfect from a technical point of view. This was precise, exact, simple and delicious. A classical combination and presentation, which was dressed in a most modern way. This combination is just made in heaven, it is fantastic and should be eaten by everyone at least once. Be it here or in other great restaurants.  The foie was of very good quality, and went beautifully with the chicken and quince. This evening promised to be rather good! Excellent. (The Simmental beef carpaccio was faultless too, if less interesting as this dish)

Terrine

Terrine

The second course read like a wild list of products, randomly paired: Scottish scallop in seaweed butter, caviar, goats’ cheese mozzarella, cucumber and rock samphire. This was served with 2007 Albarino de Ferrerio, Bodegas Mendes, Rias Baixas, which was most enjoyable. The huge scallop (not butchered to resemble slices of paper) was steamed and then gently roasted with seaweed butter. It was topped with salmon roe, which was marinated in sake, a goats’ cheese mozzarella foam, some cucumber, rock samphire and a dashi broth. What really struck me, was the huge scallop and the perfect cooking of it. This was again, most precisely timed and contrasted beautifully with the popping texture of the salmon roe and the other elements. The dish was harmonious as such, and the dashi broth’s flavour gave it a strong backbone, which I really enjoyed. Although it seemed a little hyperactive at first, it came out as a fantastic dish. The outstanding factor here was the scallop and the very precise cooking of it. Very good.

St Jacques

St Jacques

Moving on,  here came the fish course: Steamed brill with coconut broth, peanut tamarind and French beans. Paired with 2007 Neudorf Chardonnay, Nelson, it was a very happy couple indeed. The dish really was a study in reductionism and brought things down to the essentials. There was no more than what was really needed on this plate. The brill was covered with a peanut-crust and served with French bean cream and a coconut jus. A dish as minimalistic as this really relies on exact flavours, great execution and most importantly: Stunning products. What really was striking was the way, in which the flavour combination evolved. This wasn’t just an ordinary Asian-influenced coconut-milk based sauce, which often taste rather one-dimensional, and vulgar, but a most complex, fascinating concoction. Together with the perfectly cooked brill, it was a pretty perfect match. Besides the fact, that the fish was a little less firm than I like it (not caught that same day I suppose), this dish was a great thing. It really was one of the very few Asian (although not Japanese)-influenced dishes that worked in a “French” restaurant. Excellent.

Barbue

Barbue

Just before things got serious came the Pan-fried duck foie gras, spicy carrots, honey-glazed confit medlar and tamarind sultanas jus. The wine poured was a 2006 Torcolato, Maculan from the Veneto. A niece slab of foie gras was surrounded by a collection of carrot cream, a carrot piece and medlar. The sauce, which was rather sweet (given its main ingredients), finished things off in a beautiful way. From reading the course’s description, one might be inclined to think that this would be an overly sweet affair, but luckily enough it was a great game that balanced a subtle acidity with slightly restrained, muted sweetness (coming mainly from the sauce). The vegetables and fruit were cooked al dente, and were very gently spiced. The star of the show however, was the foie gras. This was a very fine piece of cooked foie indeed. In fact, a very knowledgeable diner, whom I was having dinner with was rather impressed by it. The outstanding thing about this piece of liver was the texture. It was unlike most warm pieces, which are stringy, feel heavy, full of veines and break into some kind of disgusting mash, when cut. Luckily enough, this was all the opposite. Most of the time, the foie gras isn’t choosen very carefully, and of pretty poor quality. Here however, Antonin Bonnet explained that they go through a good number of lobes a week (all of which is done by himself) and select only the best. Out of these, they then pick the big lobe, and use only the centre-piece. The cooking process resembles that, which Blumenthal uses on his foie dish, and really does give an amazing result. This was one of the rare pieces of warm foie gras that I absolutely loved. Exceptional.

Foie gras

Foie gras

Now, the initial reason for this dinner was what followed. I had missed eating a grouse last year, during my first year at LSE, so I felt obliged to rectify that. Having asked Antonin if he could prepare me one, he accepted, and so the magical moment came: Roast Grouse, coffee mashed potato. To go with this, we had a glass of 2002 Volnay from Nicolas Rossignol, which was very good, but probably the pairing I found the least convincing. In this case, I really didn’t mind. I was here to meet that Scottish bird for the first time. It really was a beauty lying in front of me. Again, the dish looked deceptively simple: the grouse, a crepinette of the thighs, some leaves and the jus. On the side there was a little cocotte with some coffee mashed potato. The grouse was a particular fine one, I was told by my dining companion, who has eaten his fair share of these fine little creatures. It was as tender as pigeon (and cooked in a similar fashion), with a much more powerful, potent taste. I know quite a few people who find grouse too powerful, but this one really was a stunning piece. It was absolutely outstanding. But there was more than just an exquisite breast, there was also that crepinette lying on the far side of the plate. Often these braised thighs of pigeon, wood pigeon, or whatever bird it may be, are delicious, but rarely are they as powerful and rich as this. It was a piece of heaven, and blew me away. Topped with the same coffee or cocoa emulsion as the breast, it had it all. An absolute stunning piece of cooking. The second round disappeared as quickly as it came, and will be warmly remembered. Before I forget, Antonin deserves some praise for serving a game dish without any sweet components! How often do you have that? This dish really was absolutely divine. (I have now eaten a few grouse based dishes, and must say that this one remains my benchmark, alongside one, I had at ADAD)

Grouse

Grouse

They wanted to skip cheese, which would be fine in any other restaurant in London, as cheese boards aren’t what they are in France over here. The Greenhouse has a little more, or shall we say something more interesting to offer. Another blogger has written about it before, but knowing that he hadn’t been to the great places for cheese in France, I didn’t really expect anything great. But, being here, I asked if we couldn’t at least have a look at the selection. One of the waiters is in charge of looking after the carefully selected Bernard Antony (for French cheese) and Neal’s Yard cheeses. This man really inspired me with his passion and love for cheese, and his immense knowledge. He likes his Camembert nicely runny, a treat, only seen to rarely nowadays and enjoys his other cheeses nicely matured too. That’s the way it should be, and if it puts some ignorants off, forget them. We had a few cheeses, notably that fabulous 4 year old comte, which was more like those I have had at Les Ambassadeurs and L’Arpege, than the one at Louis XV. This one was much more crumbly, with the crystallised salt pockets. A divine treat. The rest was at least as good as the best cheeses I have eaten in French 3*,  a thing I really did not expect here at all. Each and every single one of the 8 cheeses we tried was in perfect shape and among the finest specimens I have had. There was not a single cheese, which wasn’t fantastic. One should go here just for a grouse and some cheese afterwards. With a good bottle of wine to accompany that, it’s pretty much all one needs. To go with these terrific cheeses, we were served some 1999, Castello di Fonterutoli, Siepi, which was beautiful. Divine.

Fromages

Fromages

Pre-dessert was a banana sorbet with lime foam (at least if my memory serves me correctly). This was a very good sorbet, and in combination with the foam, it was an excellent first step into the sweeter part of life. Excellent.

Pre-dessert

Pre-dessert

The real dessert (yes there only was one, times are tough) were Black figs and honey, dried fruit jam, hazelnuts, bronze fennel and fig leaf ice cream. To go with that, we had a wine, I once was served at ADPA with a cherry dessert: 2006 Mataro, Alta Allela. This was a very happy marriage, which worked beautifully. The patisserie here is in stark contrast to that of ADAD and the Square (whom I consider to make the best desserts in town), in that it is much more delicate, in line with the kitchen’s style. The constructions are more delicate, which is one way of putting it, and a little more inventive, than at the aforementioned places. The individual elements in this dessert were each perfectly executed and created a real symphony, rather than a cacophony. The most enjoyable parts were the fruit jam and the ice cream, which was great. The fennel was interesting, but not really noticeable, which might not have been a bad thing. Very good.

Figues

Figues

Coffee and mignardises are very good here. Not only do they taste very well, but most of them are a little different from the usual suspects. There is the odd macaron here too, but there is at least one constantly changing part too. Very good.

Mignardises

Mignardises

The whole meal was just what I had hoped for. I had remembered the cooking to be great here from the last time. Today it was by no means short of that, being absolutely outstanding in some parts (grouse, cheese, both foie gras dishes) and mostly very good to excellent. The weakest part was the scallop, but even there, it was a tough call, as the only thing “wrong” with that was the dashi, which one could consider as being a little overpowering. Apart from that this was an absolutely faultless meal, which really was worth every penny. The cooking is clearly influenced by Michel Bras, as Bonnet worked with him before going here, but there is definitely a distinct style, that shines through. Dishes like the scallop or brill would not have seen the day in Laguiole I suppose. The amount of work that went into getting the best products available is quite astonishing here, and really makes all the difference, as we saw that night. If you plan to go to London, do it during the grouse season and eat here. You will be pleased with what you get, very much so….

Legumes comme le garguillou

Legumes comme le garguillou

Wines were very good too, seeing budget limit we had set. Service too, as mentioned before, did not make a single mistake and was great. Whenever it is grouse season, make the trip to Mayfair, eat one of them and forget about everything around you. It really is fantastic.

Le Louis XV, II, Monte-Carlo

novembre 1, 2009
La Salle

La Salle

I have rarely eaten at the same restaurant more than once in no more than 4 days. At Le Louis XV, I did this for the first time in my life. After the stunning meal I had eaten a few days earlier, I returned to Monte Carlo for the second time for another lunch.

La Table

La Table

The room was fully booked, unlike on my visit a few days earlier, where only 3 tables were taken. Despite this, the service was as great, perfect and charming as ever, and even Michel Lang, the Maitre d’hotel came for the lunch service (he often spends only dinner services in the restaurant).

 

Quel temps fait il?

Quel temps fait il?

After a word with the chef in the kitchen I started with Lanson rose Champagne (they only have the tete de cuvee by the glass for dinner), which was surprisingly good. The amuse bouches were pretty much the same as a few days earlier and were equally tasty and enjoyable.

Amuses

Amuses

Butter here is quite entertainingly served from a little mountain. They both come from Normandy, and were of very good quality. Bread was also on top form, even though it is always on the slightly softer side, good for cleaning plates, less so for people who like a good crust.

Le beurre

Le beurre

The meal itself started with Foie gras de canard de Chalosse au naturel, pain de campagne toaste. A slice of foie gras was simply paired with three preparations of figs and fresh almonds. Never on earth would I have imagined myself to be eating foie gras on a late summer day on the Riviera. Least of all places in this restaurant. However, Pascal Bardet did chose the menu and I completely understand his choice. It was a stunning piece of foie. The quality of the liver was of the highest order. I would challenge anyone to get me better livers than this one. Technically, it must have been the most perfect cold foie gras I have come across (I thought that I had eaten my fair share of good foie during my short life). It had the most amazing texture, somewhere between creamy, slightly firm and meltingly tender. It’s hard to describe that kind of very unique texture that a fine foie gras terrine has, but this was really a mind-changing experience. Obviously, the seasoning was spot on too, as was the combination with the meaty, slightly sweet figs and the crunchy country bread. I doubt that I will ever eat a better piece of duck liver in my life, as it was absolutely divine.

Foie Gras

Foie Gras

 

Next up was a highly seasonal dish: Ravioli croustillants et moelleux aux champignons des bois, un veloute pour saucer. A cepe cream served as base for three glased mushroom ravioli, a few pan-fried girolles and shavings of raw cepes bouchon. The intensity of the farce (made up of cepe puree and duxelle) and cream was remarkable. Despite them not being crunchy, the ravioli were little parcels of distilled joy. The cream, which was lusciously spooned on the ravioli boosted the flavours even more, and made this an absolutely outstanding dish. The quality of the pasta was nearly as good as that of ADPA, where I have found the best pasta so far, but had a little less bite to it. I am not sure how many Italian restaurants can produce better pasta, but many they certainly are not. Not only is the pasta as thin as paper, but it also is cooked al dente (as far as it is possible with such a kind of pasta at least). Excellent.

 

DSCN1423

Ravioli de cepes

 

 

On to the main course then: Canette mi-sauvage poudree d’epices a la broche, betteraves et figues marinees, sauce dolce forte. This is another one of the great dishes, that comes straight out of one of Ducasse’s books and is indeed most impressive. The canard colvert (half-wild duck) from the Bresse is rubbed with spices and then spit-roasted (in the old-fashioned style). Paired with two different servings of figs and small glased beetroots, the dish is a most simple, but powerful affair, which is unbelievably tasty. It is great to see a chef use whole birds and serve them in a traditional way, not only boiling them in a bag (sous-vide) and then reheating them. Not only is it most interesting to watch, but it also is a tradition that is both worth preserving, and benefits the diner. This meat stays much jucier, due to the fact that it is cooked on the bone and is wrapped with the protective skin. Also, it will reach your table warm, as it is only taken of the bone, seconds before one eats it. Crispy skin, intense taste and tender meat are all one can expect of a perfect duck breast. This one had it all, even though it wasn’t the most tender I have had. Taste-wise it was absolutely mind-blowing, as it the spice crust worked perfectly with the duck’s flavour. It was absolutely grandiose. The dolce forte sauce is basically a duck jus flavoured with miel d’arbousier, which is a little bitter and a little pepper. It is thus not only a slightly sweet duck jus, but rather a most complex concentrate of flavours. Together with the gamey, spiced duck it created a fantastic combination, that was unbelievably coherent, Excellent.

 

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Decoupe de la canette

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Canette

The second service of the little bird was a little less succesful. The thigh returned to the kitchen to be finished, but when it came back, it was very tough and nearly inedible. The pairing with the raw beets was great, but the tough meet (I believe that my particular bird must have had a "problem" of some sorts, as I can’t see them using anything that isn’t of the finest order) made it pretty forgettable. Mediocre.

 

DSCN1428

cuisse de canette/betteraves

 

 

 

The cheeses were equally good as those I tried on my previous visit, and featured a very good Munster, whom I greatly enjoyed. These are really some of the finest cheeses in France. The only drawback is the somewhat moist comte. Compared to other 4 year-old comtes, it doesn’t have as many crystalised salt crystals, which I so much adore. Apart from that, it is a pretty fantastic cheese board.

 

DSCN1429

fromages

 

 

The first dessert was the Feuillet de fruits rouges et noirs en gelee d’ete, crème mousseline. On a rectangle of red berry puree sat a tower consisting of arlettes, crème mousseline and various summer fruits. This delicate structure was simply accompanied by a quenelle of strawberry sorbet. Arlettes are thin disks of puff pastry that are rolled out with icing sugar, and thus caramelise beautifully when being baked. This creates a very thin, crisp and rich biscuit that worked beautifully with the fresh berries and the crème mousseline (half crème patissiere, half whipped cream). The strawberry sorbet had the perfect temperature and texture and thus was a most welcome addition to this very fresh, only slightly sweet dessert. Excellent.

 

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Feuillet

 

 

Up next was a relatively new dessert: Peches en vinaigrette huile d’olive/citron, sorbet, Tatin de brugnons. This is a dessert that featured in the latest edition of Ducasse’s Grand Livre de cuisine, but has evolved over the time. A salad of peeled, raw peaches is seasoned with a sweet vinaigrette, made from olive oil, sugar and lemon juice. This is then topped with a milk-mousse and peach sorbet. The left side of the plate sees a tarte tatin of peches brugnons, a particular variety of peaches, that I have only seen in different parts of France. What makes this dessert interesting is undoubtedly the vinaigrette, a sauce usually used to dress savoury salads, and not desserts. Here, the use of sugar instead of salt gives the dessert much more depth and a whole new dimension. In combination with the very fresh, slightly sweeter sorbet and the airy milk foam, it makes for a multi-textural mouthful, that is most harmonious. It certainly isn’t a novelty to eat olive oil in a dessert, after all one often eats it with ice cream in Italy, but in this dessert, it plays a totally different role. The tarte tatin on the side should be mentioned, as it was phenomenal. The pastry was crumbly, buttery, fragile and slightly salted, and the peaches beautifully caramelised and bursting with flavour. This was a delicate, much more refined tarte tatin than most others, due to the subtle peaches and the separate preparation of each element. This was, with the Monte Carlo and one other dessert my favourite of all I have tried here so far. Outstanding.

Peches

The mignardises were slightly different in that I had a tarte au sucre and a raspberry financier instead of a wild strawberry one and a tarte tropezienne. All of them were, again, of outstanding technical perfection, and disappeared fairly rapidly.

 

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MIgnardises

 

 

 

Looking back, this meal was as good as the one a few days earlier. Products were remarkable, cooking was incredibly precise, the dishes very much reduced to the essentials and the composition as successful as possible. The only slight problem was the duck’s tenderness. It could indeed have been a little more tender (the breast), and in the case of the thigh, it would have been better not to have served it in the first place. But, with such overwhelming flavour coming from it, I really did not mind at all, that it wasn’t the most tender piece of duck I have eaten so far, it was by far the most powerful one, which is more interesting than simple tenderness. In combination with the outstanding service, the most charming welcome and the absolutely crazy décor, a meal here is a memorable experience. In fact, it is one, that will not be forgotten any time soon. I for once, can’t wait for my return…although that won’t be before next year.

 

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la salle

 

 

It is quite astonishing how my view on this restaurant has evolved. The first time I came, I wasn’t stunned at all. I even found it a little disappointing, but three meals later, it is pretty close to being my favourite restaurant in the world.


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