Archive for février 2009

The Brits and their food-I

février 22, 2009

Bon Appétit-These two words epitomize a major cultural difference. In France Britain the way people approach food could not be any more dissimilar. The simple fact that there is no direct equivalent to this French phrase tells you all you need to know about the Britons’ view of eating.

 

In England good food, food that does not come readily prepared nor filled with additives, is quite a rare thing. One has but to look around to see how little people care about what they eat in this country. Pasta comes pre-cooked with whatever sauce you might imagine, hot dogs in tins, chicken or potatoes take on very singular shapes before being fried and frozen. You get the tenor of this, food can be quite disgusting here.

In addition to this, the attitude of the general public towards spending money on what they ingurgitate is not quite the same as where I come from (Europe). Someone who spends more than 10£ on a meal is seen as either a snob -which doesn’t pose a problem for me- or  a lunatic.

 

Hold on, some will say, doesn’t the “second best restaurant in the world” stand on this little island? Didn’t many great chefs come from here: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal?

Well, what can you say.  There are a few distinct features about British restaurants that are also apparent in the everyday products you might find at Tesco’s. The most striking one is the importance of design,  the appearance of the whole thing. People seem to go to restaurants not primarily to eat, but to see how they look like, how the food looks like, how the other diners are dressed. Haven’t a few British critics written thousands of words about designs of restaurants, when they were supposed to review the food? The very flashy packed range of Tesco’s Finest also plays on this role of appearance, on the wrapping of a cheese you will see a cheesemaker romantically holding his cheese, on a pizza you are likely to see all that makes Italy a great place to eat in. Once you open the things and taste them, you hardly believe this to be the “Finest” there is.

Ironically the restaurants which are the most boring in design are the best food-wise: The Sqaure or Foliage hardly feature unique flashy dining rooms but serve serious, honest and most importantly well executed food. Go to Ramsay’s flagship, which he claims to be the culinary equivalent of a Chanel handbag, and find out how incredibly boring and annoying 3* food can be. If Chanel were to produce such soulless, unimaginative fashion they certainly would have been out of business a long time ago, but that is another story.

Maybe it are just the ingredients that aren’t on the same level as on the continent (with some exceptions). Maybe it is the majority the chefs who don’t push themselves hard enough to be creative? Maybe the Michelin sets his standards for the UK too low, giving the chefs no incentive to work harder? Just think of Ramsay’s 3* or Robuchon’s 2*. Or are it the customers who are not as well educated food-wise and therefore do not have such high expectations when visiting a restaurant? It might even be the low prices they charge here that don’t allow the chefs to use the best produce.

 

Whatever it might be, British food and British restaurants (on all levels) are worlds away from what you can find in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium or anywhere else on the continent.

 Anyone who has ever enjoyed a meal in a European 3* will know what I’m talking about. You are likely to find products of extraordinary quality, an individual cuisine, perfect technique, plates which aren’t  full of useless little things and a general experience that is a memorable one.

All these are things that you miss when spending a few months eating in England. You might have nice meals here and there, but apart from a few dishes and possibly the Square, I have not had a single meal which I remember for it’s excellence. 

Publicités

The Square, London

février 18, 2009

The Square, a restaurant run by Philip Howard and Nigel Platts-Martin, has one of the most accurate descriptions for it’s own cooking: Howard claims to serve refined comfort food. You can hardly blame him for being pretentious. The restaurant itself lies opposite the local Brioni shop a stone’s throw away from Bond Street in the heart of Mayfair, just to give you an idea of the people you might find there. Apart from the beautiful Russian expressionist plates and the elegantly dressed tables, the room isn’t the most striking in terms of design and doesn’t do the cooking justice. For those interested in more background info, you’ll find the best resume  on my friend’s site, who along with Andy Hayler  joined me for this little escapade. 

Service throughout the meal was faultless: attentive, friendly, always present when needed and very knowledgeable. 

Bread is baked at the restaurant, which is a rare luxury in London, which even Ramsay is not able to offer. Of the three offered types the raisin and hazelnut was the best, brown the least interesting. Butter was from Brittany and very decent.

To start the meal Howard served us one of his signature dishes: Saute of Scottish Langoustine Tails with Parmesan Gnocchi and a Potato and Truffle Butter. Now, despite Britain being an island, most restaurants still don’t manage to source and serve decent langoustines. Here however, the story is very different. I challenge anyone to get me better and fresher langoustines. These were of marvelous quality and were cooked as good as  humanly possible. On par with the greatest restaurants in Europe. The Parmesan gnoccho (it was one), truffle emulsion and mushroom puree complemented the langoustine in a very harmonious way, turning  it into a most delicate  and greatly enjoyable dish. Here the (very) refined comfort food Leitmotiv is spot on. If there is one dish that I’ve had in London which came close to blowing me away it must have been this one. Outstanding!

Langoustine

Next up was a Red Mullet Escabeche, Red Mullet Soup. A soup made out of red mullet, somewhat reminding me of a light bouillabaisse encapsulated the essence of the mullet’s flavour. The escabeche (a marinated piece of fish, originally from Latin America) showcased, yet again the pristine quality of the ingredients Howard uses. In France rouget is rightfully known as the Becasse de la mer, as it is a richly falvoured but extremely delicate fish. The fact that it was served in an escabeche here, let the clean flavour stand out and resulted in a most pleasant texture. 

Rouget

The third course was a Ballotine of Chicken, thinly sliced with Jerusalem Artichokes, Charlotte Potatoes and Mushrooms. This was the only weak dish I tasted during this meal. Whilst all elements were well prepared from a technical point of view, the overly strong flavour of an acidified cream dominated the dish and did not let the chicken stand out. Also, the ballotine was sliced very thinly, maybe too thin.

Chicken salad

Poached Irish Rock Oysters with a Coriander Mousseline, Pomegranate Dressing and a Light Curry Cream got the meal back on the level we encountered at the start. Beautiful, meaty oysters sat in a subtly seasoned curry cream with some pomegranate seeds providing a textural counterpoint. The curry was a very interesting pairing with the oyster, that created a very rich taste-spectrum, ranging from the iodic, salty oyster, the rich coriander mousseline, to the sweet pomegranate and the refreshing slightly spicy curry cream. Again, this dish featured great products, perfect execution and no unnecessary complication. Excellent.

Oysters

Main course was a Roast Duck Breast with Spinach, Tarte fine with Endive and Blood Orange Sauce. This was the third dish from the lunch menu (35£) and was just as good as the sweetbreads or turbot from the a la carte (75£). Tender, nicely cooked (I like it a little more bloody) duck, amazing spinach, a very good duck jus, the slightly sweet endive tarte fine created a very complete dish. The blood orange puree (which features also on a foie gras dish) didn’t really add much to the whole dish, but might be a hint to canard a l’orange and did in no way disturb. One can hardly do anything but simply enjoy the food, which, here again is just as good as it gets in England. 

Duck

Cheese was decent, a relatively big selection, which did not really impress. The only one that stood out was a Blue Monday, which they source from Paxton and Whitfield. 

As time kept flying by, we eventually got on to the sweet part of our meal. The first dessert we tried was a rice pudding with rhubarb. a generous portion of heavily vanilla-ed rice pudding, which was topped with some rhubarb jelly, poached rhubarb and some sort of crumble. All in all very decent, a bit in the style of the riz au lait Thierry Breton serves at Chez Michel in Paris. This was another case where refined comfort food offered a very accurate description.  

rhubarb

The second dessert featured various banana preparations. A banana beignet, mousse with some praline feullantine based crumble, cylinder filled with vanilla parfait or ice cream and marinated crushed banana. This was much better than the previous dessert, mainly because it featured every possible texture: Creamy, cold parfait encased in the crunchy cylinder, the hot, crunchy and rich beignet and the refreshing mousse. Very good dessert where one can hardly criticise anything.

banana

A Black Forest Souffle proved to be another very pleasing dessert, where the airy souffle was studded with cherries and some chocolate bits that gave it an interesting twist. However, whilst being airy and not too sweet, a stronger chocolate could have made it more intensive, taste-wise. The star of this dessert was a small roulade of black forest gateau, which was terrific (unfortunately the portion was very small).

souffle

Another dessert was the real star of the sweet part of the meal. Just as good as the langoustines. Not surprisingly this too is one of Howard’s signature dishes. Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with Passionfruit, Mango and a Citrus Terrine. I can hardly say anything about this dish other than it being divine. The only cheesecake of that quality is Pierre Herme’s and that is as good a compliment as one can make. The lime ice cream coming with it was wonderfully refreshing, with some pieces of zest giving it a strong, clean flavour. The base of the cheesecake was just the way it should be, far from being soggy, it still had the crumbled pate sucree’s crunch and complemented perfectly with the mango puree. The only element that didn’t add to the dish was the spherical citrus-fruit ball and it’s base. Still I would say this was divine.

cheesecake

Another dessert with truffled cream, Earl Grey jelly and some canneles and financiers was a dish which none of us really liked. It certainly was very interesting, but on the other hand, it did not really give you any pleasure eating it seeing that it consisted only of a jelly a cream and some little cakes on the side, which did not have a relation to the dish. This just seemed a little odd, as all of the other dishes seemed very well thought-out. 

Petit-fours and coffee are perfect. The home-made nougat was simply to die for, creamy, rich.

petit

 

Overall, the Square must be one of the finest restaurants in England. Out of the 20 or so dishes we had, only very few weren’t at least very good. The only technical problem was a slightly over-salted sweetbread and, if you can call it a technical problem, a beautiful scallop which was (as everywhere in England) cut in half. WHY? Having a huge scallop sit in front of you is  a hell of an experience. Why do the Brits have to slice their scallops in half? 

Apart from those minor problems some dishes were easily on three star level: The langoustines, the cheesecake and possibly the scallop (had it not been cut in half!). These were dishes that provoked some emotions, something I haven’t had in a British restaurant before. With exception of the chicken, all others were very solid 2* and judged by the 3* Ramsay holds even 3*. Howard just has a much more original style that one can recognise instantly and seems very mature in that it doesn’t have  a mess on each plate (something all to many British chefs do). Here every element has it’s role in the dish, which must be the definition of a good kitchen. We spend some very pleasant hours at the Square, chatting, eating, drinking, enjoying life, forgetting about it’s troubles. I can hardly imagine another place on earth other than a restaurant or, where you sit down for nearly five hours and just completely let go of everything. Pierre Gagnaire once said that a meal is the only time of the day, when people sit down for a few hours and just enjoy themselves. The Square fits this description just perfectly.

Pied a Terre, London

février 5, 2009

You will not find many restaurants, serving a lunch menu that is better, or at least as interesting as the (more expensive) a la carte menu.  I can think of Pic, Les Ambassadeurs, Le Louis XV and, in London Foliage. Pied a Terre is another one of  these. Shane Osborn’s cooking is often criticised as being too complicated, featuring a multitude of unnecessary elements on each plate. If one looks at the reviews of others (Food Snob for instance), one sees that Osborn isn’t exactly a minimalist chef. He much prefers to construct dishes consisting of many, small, technically perfect components. The menu du jour (24.50£ for 2 courses) features Osborn’s cuisine, without the extreme complication of the normal dishes. Here, he focuses on top quality products and relatively classic taste combinations. 

The restaurant is relatively small, cozy and  it’s atmosphere is quite relaxed for a 2*. It is also noteworthy, that it is one of the rare restaurants without a dress-code.

At lunch, one is greeted with a spoonful of pumpkin foam and ginger oil and a little foie gras spread between two sheets of philo pastry. Both  are very well made and set the palate up in a most enjoyable way, especially the foie. 

 

amuse bouche

amuse bouche

As the restaurant had run out of both of the menu’s starters I was offered a Jerusalem artichoke risotto. This was a very pleasing dish, were one could only criticise the slightly overcooked rice (I guess that it was cooked this way to adapt to the Brits’ taste). Flavour-wise this was strong, simple and very comforting. Not quite what you see on the starters of the alc menu. Despite the cooking mistake, I would still say this was a very enjoyable dish.

 

Risotto

Risotto

After this, we were offered a dish from the tasting menu, which let us enjoy a remarkable piece of fish: Poached Sea Bass, Truffle Crust, Romanesco, Chanterelles. Pinenuts, Broccoli Veloute. Despite the complete standstill of the British economy during the preceding days and Osborn’s allergy against fish (he can only touch it with gloves!) this was on solid 2* level. Perfectly cooked, beautiful sea bass, with a crust that reminded me of the one I had a week earlier at Foliage (sole) and different broccoli preparations. All in all, every element had a very precise role on the plate and resulted in one hell of a dish. Excellent.

 

Sea Bass

Sea Bass

Pan-Fried Cod, Ragout of Chick Peas, Chorizo, Red Peppers and Sea Kale, Parsley and Lemon Emulsion. Yet another excellent fish dish! This might have been the best piece of cod that I’ve had since Erfort last year. The cod was of pristine freshness and cooked to utmost perfection. One can hardly say a negative word about the dish, as it was the second brilliant, if rather classical, dish from a chef who can not even touch the main ingredient!

 

Cod

Cod

My companion decided to take cheese, which featured a beautiful Epoisses, a nice little salad, the quintessentially British crackers and some rather mediocre chutney. 

The pre-dessert was another part of the tasting menu: Apple Mousse, Rhubarb Veloute, Yoghurt Crumble. The second time that I come across this strange British winter rhubarb, although it was a very pleasant meeting once more. The freshness of the rhubarb, the very present yoghurt taste in the crumble and the apple mousse were yet again a very pleasing, excellent combination of flavours and textures.

 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Coconut Rice Pudding, Mango Jelly, Coconut Biscuits, Mango Sorbet. At my last visit, the desserts were not on the same level as the previous parts of the meal. This time, the dessert did not fail to impress. An amazingly intensive, fully-flavoured mango sorbet, very light, fresh rice pudding wrapped in a delicate jelly and a pleasant coconut emulsion created a simple but very refreshing dessert. Excellent again.

 

Mango, Coconut

Mango, Coconut

After this we had their top quality petit-fours and some coffee and at 5pm, left as they finally closed the place for a well deserved break.

 

What can I say after my second meal here? In general, the relaxed atmosphere, extremely friendly, warm and attentive service all add up to the great food that Shane Osborn serves. The sommelier, Matthieu Germond, always suggests very interesting wines to accompany each dish and can offer a wide variety of regions, not always present in the UK’s top restaurants: Luxembourg, for instance, whose great wines are hardly known outside of the countries borders. Another strength of the wine list is Austria, which is present with different regions.

It might be the small room, the lovely service or simply the great cooking, but Pied is definitely one of the most comfortable British top-restaurants.