Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Perfect Fish and Chips

Fish and chips was the first ever meal I cooked for Anna. It’s hard to imagine a candle-lit dinner of battered haddock – it’s greasy, messy, not in the slightest aphrodisiacal. Instead, if my memory serves me right, we sat on the backdoor step and ate it on a cool summer’s evening.  Romantic enough, I suppose.

I’ve been promising to make Anna the ultimate fish and chips for a while now. I even bought a nitrous-oxide powered whipping siphon to make Heston’s ultimate batter. They’re relatively cheap to acquire and have many uses beyond dispensing batter, and if you want to make decent foam they’re the best low-cost bet.

It’s a simple enough dish to pull off. Most foodies are familiar with Heston’s triple-cooked chip method and the batter is easy to prepare, put in the siphon and charge with nitrous oxide. It’s mostly about having that one piece of kit which will provide you with an incredibly airy, crispy batter. The addition of vodka to the batter helps achieve a less greasy coating since the alcohol rapidly evaporates in the hot oil, creating a protective layer between oil and batter. The malt syrup helps with colour and taste. Triple-cooking the chips is a tad laborious so you can opt out for a quicker meal - it won't be as good though.

The batter recipe is taken from 'Modernist Cuisine' and adapted from Heston Blumenthal.
For the fish and batter:

2 Cod/Haddock/Pollock/Coley fillets (choose any meaty white fish you like)
200g Plain Flour
200g Rice Flour
4g Salt
5g Baking powder

350g Vodka
200g Water
12g Malt syrup (can be found at Holland & Barrett)

NB: the batter is enough for four fillets so simply half for two people

-Sift together the dry ingredients for the batter
-Blend wet ingredients and incorporate into dry mixture
-Pour into siphon and charge with one cartridge of nitrous oxide
-Shake siphon and refrigerate

-Dust fish fillets in plain flour
-Siphon batter into a bowl and coat fillets with foam batter
-Fry in a neutral oil at 190-200 degrees c
-When batter is nicely browned (approx. 6-7 mins) remove and drain on kitchen paper

 For the chips

4 Large Maris Piper potatoes

-Cut the potatoes and rinse the slices under running water to remove excess starch
-Place in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil
-Simmer until almost falling apart
-Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and let steam dry
-Refrigerate for at least an hour
-Fry in 130 degrees c oil until lightly golden
-Cool and refrigerate again for at least an hour
-Fry in 190 degrees c oil until a golden crust forms
-Drain on kitchen paper

For the peas

1 Tin of marrowfat peas (or buy dried and soak overnight then cook until soft)
2 tsp malt vinegar
1 tbsp mint jelly
Pinch Salt and Pepper

-Place peas in a pan and bring to the boil
-Season with vinegar, mint jelly, salt and pepper
-Cook until the peas disintegrate and you have the 'mush'

Hope you enjoy the recipe and give it a go yourselves. It's worth it purely for the sound of a knife cutting through the ridiculously crispy shards of fried batter.

Monday, 24 September 2012

A weekend in Harrogate

My Mother reached a milestone birthday this year, and as her present, I promised to take her away somewhere nice for the weekend. I was a little slow in organising the trip: her birthday was in January, and we visited Harrogate on the last weekend of August! Having kept her waiting for so many months, I put great planning into where to stay and eat, to ensure that it was worth the wait.

We stayed at a fantastic B&B called the Baytree House, the perfect distance from the city centre for us to walk off our dinner each evening. I can also confirm that their 'award-winning breakfasts' are delicious (and award-winning! - the awards are framed in their breakfast room), and we sampled a variety of their menu - Eggs Benedict, a full English, smoked salmon & scrambled eggs, and porridge. The latter my Mum declared to be "nearly as good as [her] own" - I do hope the Baytree realise what high accolade she is awarding them here!

Harrogate turned out to be a fantastic place for a girly weekend, as we wandered the cobbled streets (though not so good for heels!), tucked into fruit tarts and scones at Betty's, tried on many a pair of vintage designer shoes, and visited the fantastic foodie shop, Lewis & Cooper, where they sold both cooking Marsala and Madeira, something Jamie had been trying to get his hands on for a while (yes, I was kind enough to bring some home with me for him).

I had asked the Twitter world for recommendations for dinner, and though I very much wanted to try the gastronomic delights of van Zellers, I didn't think it was quite my Mum's cup of tea. As one does on another's birthday (or 8 months after it), I ignored my preference and hunted far and wide (on Google) for somewhere that I thought she would really enjoy. Several people had suggested a restaurant called 'the Tannin Level' and after scoping out its menu, I decided this would be the best bet.

From reading their website, it sounds as though they have been running for around thirty years, but have perhaps recently re-branded. Their menu is is varied enough for everyone to find something that they would like (or most things in my case), and they do twists on classics. They also have a varied and reasonably-priced wine list. The atmosphere is very cosy as it is a basement site, with a 'rustic' feel to it.

We dined at 7pm without a booking and were seated immediately. The restaurant wasn't particularly busy, although it did pick up throughout the evening, and I was sorry to see that nearby chain restaurants were much busier. It's in a funny part of town - or seemed to be for someone who doesn't know Harrogate very well - somewhat out of the way, though this is certainly meant as no criticism. Service was fantastic throughout, and even though we were hidden away in the back room were frequently checked on.

As my Mum doesn't eat meat, I managed to persuade her to share the Seafood Tasting Board. This was made up of a variety of small dishes - (from left to right) smoked haddock fondue, salmon & leek fishcake (just visible hiding behind the next dish!), prawn cocktail, salmon terrine (hidden at the back), and crab salad with an avocado puree and gazpacho. Everything was very well seasoned and tasted delicious. The prawn cocktail had a hint of citrus which worked really nicely, and the fondue was rich and unctuous, a real treat as I've never had fondue before. I adore crab and so was very pleased when my Mum said she wasn't a big fan. This reminded me of a paired down version of Room's staple crab & prawn cocktail starter. My only complaint would be that it needed more poppy seed croutons.

For mains I chose one of the specials - hake served in a garlic butter sauce, served with prawns and asparagus. Now this was rich! The fish was beautifully cooked with a crisp skin (any of you who have read my LiveBait review will know this is a must for me), sat on a bed of potatoes, cooked through with sweet white onions. The prawns were cooked to perfection - something I have rarely experienced in restaurants - and the asparagus were encased in a surprising filo pastry. Personally, I didn't feel it needed this spring roll effect and could have done without it, but otherwise - a perfectly accomplished mid-range restaurant dish.

My Mum went for the Madras spiced Salmon, served with 'Bombay potatoes', cucumber and mint raita, and curried lentils. I thought they had done a really good job of its presentation and my Mum was certainly impressed by the raita stuffed cucumber. I was allowed a little taste, and unfortunately for my mother, was glad that I'd chosen mine! Whilst the flavours had penetrated the salmon well, it was a tad overcooked, and I felt the potatoes were a little watery. Overall, she seemed to enjoy it, but I felt it wasn't as well cooked as our starters or my main.

We were too full for dessert, so called it a night after finishing our bottle of wine. The portion sizes were very generous, and I think we both would have been sated from just one course. Overall, the experience was fantastic - in part due to the company - but also felt that the service and ambience added to it. The food was good on the whole, but I wouldn't recommend the salmon. By the way - as far as I'm aware it isn't a fish restaurant, we just happened to have a bit of an overload!

On the second night, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Timberlake's, literally a stone's throw away from van Zellers. I wistfully looked in the window of the fine dining restaurant, but ended up being perfectly happy with the tiny bistro we ended up in. It really is a small restaurant, and I would definitely recommend booking. We hadn't, but just managed to get in as many tables were turned away after us. I'm afraid I don't have any photographs to accompany the review, but had such a nice time there that I wanted to write a few words on it. It's quite an easy spot to miss in the evening as it is situated in a cobbled courtyard, surrounded by antique shops, and is the only restaurant there at night.

As I mentioned, it was full most of the evening, and there was just one waitress to serve everyone. Now I reckon in my waitressing days I could have just about handled that, but I'm always impressed to see someone else who can hack it! It also seemed that there were just two chefs in the kitchen, which I suppose was just about right as the dining room seated around 25. The menu is large, and I would say, seems to focus on 'bistro classics'; there are a range of well-thought out soups and salads, followed by a small selection of starters and mains such as slow-roast duck leg, Toulouse sausages, several steaks and also a 'curry of the day' (I didn't think this quite fitted but seemed to go down a treat with three out of four diners on the next table). The menu also states that they aim to source locally and everything is made from scratch. Many other restaurants could do well to take note from them!

To start, I opted for the chicken liver parfait, served with pickled pear, cornichons and toast. The parfait was served in a dinky kilner jar, which did prove a little fiddly to get out at the end, but by gum!, I managed it. This was delicious, and I can't fault the parfait. I would mention that a few more slices of pickled pears wouldn't go amiss... My Mum opted for the French onion soup, and again, kindly let me have a taste. This was as good as any I've had (and better than Jamie's, sssh!).

For mains, my Mum had the sea bream, served with artichokes and sweet red peppers. This was well seasoned and again, had a crisp skin. It also came with mashed potato, which I thought was a slightly odd accompaniment but it was enjoyed nonetheless. In a meaty mood after the previous day's fish overload, I went for the minute rib-eye. At just 5oz, I ensured I would not make the same mistake as the day before when I had over-indulged. Served with chips and watercress it more than filled a hole. The quality of the meat was very good and seemed larger than the 5oz described. Whilst the chips came in a mini deep-fat fryer basket, they didn't seem to have been fried long enough. Slightly pale, and not crisp enough, I would have halved their size and double-fried them.

All things considered, the meal was tasty and of good quality. I also noted they had a good range of beers for a small restaurant (such as Goose Island). Their prices are low - much lower than any restaurant I've visited in England in recent years - and I would definitely recommend a visit, even if just at lunch time for their soup and parfait!

The Tannin Level
5 Raglan Street, Harrogate
01423 560 595

1 Montpellier Mews, Harrogate,
01423 313485

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Heston's Chilli Con Carne

Cool Chile Co. do a fantastic range of ground and dried whole chillies, and are very reasonably priced.

Now, there are more recipes for chilli than I care to imagine and most home-cooks, never mind chilli cook-off veterans, have their own special additions. What I'm getting at is:  Heston's chilli recipe might not be to everyone's liking, and it's not the definitive chilli (as if such a thing existed), but it's a very good place to start. Plus, I'm not going to argue with a chef who's spent a good 20 years more than I have obsessing about food. Add chocolate, more spice, chipotle chiles, pinto beans, a splash of bourbon if you want - but follow the basic tenants of this recipe and you'll always have a great-tasting dish.

The keys to making a superior chilli are as simple as getting really good colour on your mince, brining the beans, and giving it a long cooking time. I remember not at all fondly the grey meat in a watery sauce with over-cooked beans and peppers that masqueraded for chilli in my childhood. Learning to cook the individual components so that they taste best is the key to creating a satisfying meal - and Heston's obsession with this fact is a great one to bring to your cooking.

It is quite an involved recipe - the addition of the store-bought peppers removes the need to char and de-skin peppers. The spiced butter can be omitted and you can instead fry the spices with the onions and add the ketchup etc. to the tomato and bean mix.

My recipe differs ever so slightly from Heston's (can't be too careful in the current climate):

For the kidney beans

10% Brine (e.g. dissolve 50g salt in 500g water)
150g Dried Kidney Beans
500g Cherry tomatoes w/vine attached

For the chilli

Oil (olive or groundnut)
500g Beef mince
1 Large Onion, peeled and diced
2 Star anise
1 Large carrot, peeled and diced
3 Cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste
2 Green chillies, de-seeded and finely chopped (add more if you wish)
2 tbsp Tomato Puree
375g Red Wine (optional, add more stock/water if leaving out)
3 Medium Tomatoes, diced
500g Beef Stock, good quality store-bought or homemade
Jar Piquillo peppers

Spiced Butter
2 tbsp Olive oil
1tsp each of chilli powder (ancho), cumin, chilli powder, ketchup
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, Marmite
125g Unsalted butter, at room temperature

-The night before, make the brine and soak the dried kidney beans for 12 hours. Remove from brine and drain.

-To make the spiced butter, heat the olive oil and fry the dry spices in it for a few seconds then pour over the butter. Mix in the Marmite, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce. Refrigerate. 

-Cook the cherry tomatoes in a pressure cooker (if you have one) for 20 minutes under full pressure with a splash of water. Remove from the heat, let the pressure cooker cool and wait for the safety plug to lower. Uncover then reduce the liquid by half over a high heat. Remove from the heat and add the vine to infuse. (If you don't have a pressure cooker, simmer covered until the tomatoes have disintegrated).

- Add the beans to this mixture (with vines removed) and cook in the pressure cooker for 20 minutes as per the tomatoes. Stir into the chilli at the end to warm through.

Pressure-cooked kidney beans
- Heat a thin layer of oil in a large saucepan until just smoking, then brown the mince in batches until a deep brown colour. Remove and drain of excess fat. Deglaze the pan with a little water and scrape with a wooden spoon to remove any stuck bits of meat. Add this to the mince.

Browned mince
- Add a little olive oil to the pan then add the star anise and onions, frying until the onions take on some colour. Then add the carrot, chilli and garlic. Cook until softened. Add the tomato puree and cook out (you can tell by the smell). Pour in the red wine (if using) and reduce by two-thirds.

-Add the cooked mince, diced tomatoes, and stock then simmer for 2-3 hours. Check seasoning, stir in the piquillo peppers, bean/tomato mixture and the spiced butter. Top with cheese, sour cream and lime zest .

The end result (minus garnishes).

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Salt-baked Sea Bass

I've seen this method of cooking fish twice in the last month. Firstly, by Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York; secondly, by Adam Byatt on Saturday Kitchen. Daniel applies it to Black Bass and Adam to Sea Bass, but the method could be used for any similar, firm, meaty fish. I'm guessing flatfish wouldn't be that suitable and, for me, salmon and trout are better confited. Many vegetables, such as potatoes, beetroot, and celeriac are salt-baked, with equally delicious results. 

The sea bass in this recipe is coated in a mixture of egg whites and salt to protect it from the heat, making it less easy to overcook the flesh. Daniel wraps the fish in crepes before applying the egg/salt mix so that the salt does not fall onto the fish when cutting off the crust. In my experience this isn't essential, since the skin, which is removed after cooking, will catch any falling salt.

So, to start, mix roughly 500g of salt (regular table variety) with enough egg white to give the consistency of wet sand (that is to say, make it spreadable but not runny). It might seem like a lot of salt, but it only costs 30p for a tub and, have no fear, the salt is not going to penetrate the fish.

Then, get your gutted, de-scaled an de-finned fish, and stuff the belly cavity with thyme, lemon, dill, or whatever you fancy. Spread a little of the mixture on a non-stick tray or silicone baking mat, sit the fish on top, then coat with the mixture using a spatula/palette knife (see below). You can make decorations in the salt crust a la Daniel Humm, but it's obviously extra work and not necessary.

Place the bass in an oven at 220 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes per kilogram. My fish weighed about 800g so that's 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and check the temperature. I use a digital thermometer to test doneness - for, me between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius is optimum. The more you go above 50 degrees the flakier and drier the fish will become.

Daniel Humm chooses to serve his bass with nothing but a drizzle of olive oil and some sea salt, whereas Adam Byatt goes for fennel and potted shrimp salad (recipe in the link above). I went for a combination of radish and potted shrimp, dressed in a lemon mayonnaise. Overall, it takes around twenty minutes to complete this recipe, even less if you go for a smaller fish. The salad can be whipped up while the fish is cooking and there's no stress about overcooking the fish as with pan-frying. Good, as well, if you have leftover egg whites from making mayonnaise.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Coronation Chicken

All you need for Coronation chicken - just add one medium sized bird!

Coronation chicken, the stuff buffets are made of... at least in my opinion. I don't think you can really call a buffet 'good' unless there's some of this around. Usually shop bought, I've always thoroughly enjoyed it, but it did make me wonder if this beautiful sandwich filler is that good when pre-packed and processed to high heavens, how amazing must it be if you make it yourself?

I was shocked and somewhat disappointed to learn that one of my favourite colleagues had never eaten coronation chicken. Fortunately for her, I was there to right that wrong. Being part of a team that never misses an opportunity to hold a buffet lunch, the perfect opportunity arose as the lovely Sophie was going on leave to become a married person! A theme had been decided around 'English Garden', so I jumped on the chance to make coronation chicken. I'd been dying to try out Felicity Cloake's perfect version although somewhat apprehensively as it seemed a lot of work was to be involved, and I wasn't mistaken...

For the recipe, please click the link to Ms.Cloake's column, and use this blog entry as an illustrated guide :)

The first step involves poaching a whole chicken. I used a bird that was around 1.25kg, and let it poach for what felt like foreverrrrr. I was slightly naughty and omitted the saffron, as this dish was already turning out to be as expensive as fillet steak topped with foie gras! We also didn't have any cinnamon sticks (which I thought we did) so used cinnamon powder instead. I don't think this makes a massive difference as the chicken is lathered in unctuous curry-mayo sauce anyway.

Not particularly attractive, but then I imagine most of us wouldn't be if feathered & plunged into boiling water either!

After letting it cool, I picked it apart (I love doing that!) and started on making the sauce. It was all fairly straight forward but there are quite a lot of ingredients involved, which led to me also forgetting to add any of the Worcester sauce (despite having neatly lined it up next to my other ingredients as seen above!). I was also nervous about toasting the curry powder as I have a habit of getting distracted and letting things like this to burn, so I usually leave it to Jamie. However, I followed my nose and as soon as I started coughing everywhere after inhaling the curry powder's er, fragant aromas, I took it off the heat, and it certainly did the trick. Do be careful with this bit though as the smell will overpower the kitchen for at least twenty minutes.

I felt that going to the effort of poaching a whole chicken and making the sauce more-or-less from scratch warranted the omittance of homemade mayonnaise, and used trusty Hellman's instead. I'm sure it would be fantastic if you did use the real stuff. (Jamie then decided to make homemade mayo the week after, grr!).

Once all the ingredients are mixed together, and cover the chicken you're supposed to refrigerate and top with toasted almonds before serving. As I made this the night before in order to bring in to work the following day, I toasted the almonds then and left them in the fridge overnight with it. I didn't find this mattered really, but was really pleasantly surprised at the difference toasted almonds make - they really enhance the flavour of the dish and introduce a nice bit of crunchy texture to the dish.

Tubbed up and ready for action!
I think this blog post is here to serve as a warning for those of us who aren't lucky enough to have a job which involves testing various recipes of the same dish (jealous, me?). Even though the dish is relatively straightforward to make, it does take a lot of time - I reckon at least an hour is involved in the prep, and then 1-1.5 hours poaching time. By the end of it, I was regretting my decision to home make this classic British dish, and was ready to throw the towel in and not even bother with those damned almonds. However, on presenting it at work the next day, I took it all back. The response I received was fantastic and everyone really enjoyed it. This version is much better than anything you'll buy at a deli or supermarket: toasting the curry powder really does add more depth of flavour, and the toasted almonds on top are a fantastic touch. Even though this recipe calls for poaching a whole chicken, I'm sure if you had some leftovers from Sunday lunch, that would work just as well and remove a lot of the time involved. I think it would also be great as a canape, and served mine in little lettuce boats a la Waitrose!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Modernist Cuisine At Home

Modernist Cuisine at Home Cover  [Photo Credit:Melissa Lehuta/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]Author Nathan Myhrvold [Photo Credit:Melissa Lehuta/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]

For those foodies who haven't heard of the Modernist Cuisine cookbook, I will venture to say that it is without equivocation the most detailed, interesting and downright beautiful book ever published on the subject of cooking. It is 'Le Guide Culinaire' of our times, detailing modernist cooking methods as well as classical techniques, and the science behind it all. With stunning photography, elaborate recipes, and hundreds of interesting facts and tips, it is truly a book to get lost in (if food floats your proverbial boat). Incidentally, it is on display at Waterstones on Deansgate and I recommend flicking through it if you've got an hour or two to spare.
Egg Variation  [Photo Credit:Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]
However, it retails at a prohibitively expensive £308.10. Thus, I was delighted to hear that the Modernist Cuisine team were releasing a new book aimed squarely at the home-cook, without so many recipes involving sous-vide machines, rotovaps, dehydrators, liquid nitrogen, colloid mills, pacojets, and generally the kind of stuff even the most die-hard foodies wouldn't have in their kitchen. Not to mention the lengthy list of modified starches and hydrocolloids which are not available or are hard to source in the UK.

Anyone who has perused the 6-volume opus will have seen the necessity for a condensed, home-cook-friendly version. Behold, Modernist Cuisine At Home. If you do happen to own Modernist Cuisine, or have downloaded one of the illegal pdf copies floating around the web, this book is more than a stripped down version of its bigger brother. It features 400 new recipes, brand new photography, and tips such as how to recreate the 'sous-vide' effect on a tight budget.

Anyone looking for a gift for the foodie in their life could do far worse than purchase this. I'm going to pre-order it on Amazon and it'll probably stay eternally on my bedside table. Much to Anna's chagrin, I'm guessing.

PS: I am not on the payroll for Modernist Cuisine; however, if on the slightest chance anyone working there reads this, I would like to be :)

Salad Cutaway  [Photo Credit:Chris Hoover/ Modernist Cuisine, LLC]

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Gresca, Barcelona

Sardine with spiced butter

Despite its seemingly low rating on tripadvisor, the customer reviews of Gresca were nothing but positive and it was thus almost immediately shortlisted for our culinary jaunt around Barcelona. Curiosity piqued by their lack of website, we were for once left to imagine what we might be served at what has evidently become one of the city's best 'bistronomics'. Chef Rafa Pena, yet another Adria disciple, trades on the concept of elevating humble ingredients to new heights by way of some modern cooking. This enables the restaurant to offer high quality, inventive cuisine without the hefty price tag.
When we entered, the restaurant itself was uninhabited save for a sole Japanese tourist avidly photographing her food and a couple of friendly waiting staff. As was confirmed by almost every other restaurant experience in Barcelona, this was in fact a very good sign. Seated, we were recommended a very nice Albarino and chose the tasting menu which was priced at a very reasonable 45 euros.

The amuse-bouche came in the shape of a parmesan crisp which, though not particularly inspiring, easily usurped the Doritos and Mini Cheddars of this world! The first course was a cooling salad of tomatoes, yoghurt and rye bread crisps - perfect on a sweltering August evening. The simplicity belies how incredibly tasty it was, with great textural contrasts to boot. I promptly swore to recreate the dish at home, something that I would do repeatedly throughout the trip.

Next came an assortment of sauteed wild mushrooms covered in melted Comte cheese. Comfort food, Barcelona-style. Stick the combination on a burger and you'd have a umami-rich treat. This was followed by foie gras escabeche (below). Escabeche normally involves marinating fish in an acidic mixture, usually vinegar but sometimes citrus juice, and is similar to a ceviche but for the fact that the fish is usually cooked before marinating. The pickled vegetables and tart liquid made a great contrast to the unctuous, rich foie gras.
Foie escabeche
The sardine with spiced butter (see top photo) came out looking so fragile and pretty that it almost seemed a shame to ruin it. I often feel a tinge of regret when I upset the expertly crafted plates of food in these establishments. (Yeah. I know. I'm weird!). The sardine was lightly cured, the butter like a second skin, the fennel pollen and lemon zest cut through the saltiness of the fish with anise and citrus notes, and the hazelnut crisps added a different texture. All in all, a very accomplished dish.

After that, a herb omelette encased in what can only be described as an iberico ham skin (shame there's no picture - but it wasn't exactly the most photogenic dish). Think caul fat but with a deeper, hammy flavour, wrapped around just-set scrambled eggs. Tasty but the texture as a whole was samey and not actually very pleasant. The same cannot be said of the 'Cod with rice' which was an example of how good the simplest of dishes can taste. A soup-like risotto of cod and peas with such a satisfying mouthfeel that it more than made up for the omelette.

The second fish dish consisted of a mystery fish which we've managed to work out through liberal use of google is almost certainly gilt-head bream. The waitress definitely said it was a 'dorada' at one point though she might have been saying that it was related to a bream. Either way, a good meaty fish, pine nut paste and charred, cinnamon spiced pearl onions made for an unusual but highly successful flavour combination. All the better for being surprising and inventive.
Mystery fish with pine nut paste and pearl onions
Now to the dish we had both had been looking forward to as soon as I set eyes on the tasting menu - veal sweetbreads with mustard mash. Seemingly uninspired, I know, but neither Anna and I had ever had sweetbreads. This is another way that Rafa Pena shows just how easy it is to take offal and transform it into something beautiful. To follow this was Pigeon with ginger & stir-fried baby vegetables - the gamey bird was wonderfully complemented by the bitterness of burnt ginger. A dish so frequently associated with duck, lifted to new levels through the use of an unsuspecting accomplice to Oriental flavours.

Sweetbreads with mustard mash

To paraphrase Raymond Blanc, you have to be serious with main courses but you can have fun with desserts. I particularly look forward to this part of the meal, even though I don't have a very sweet tooth, just because I know that the chefs will unleash their fun side on the desserts. The apple sorbet with roquefort was certainly fun in the sense that it was really playing with your palette, taking it one way then the other: crisp, sweet; salty, spicy. It worked but the blue cheese was slightly overwhelming. To finish - the spiced chocolate, which was garnished with rose petals, pistachios and another blend of spices summoning memories of German Christmas markets. By this point in any meal your palette has been pretty much overwhelmed. Suffice to say, a delightfully flavoured truffle.

Spiced chocolate
I would not hesitate in recommending Gresca to anyone visiting Barcelona. The bistronomic scene is thriving and it's easy to see why: these restaurants are located for the main part in stylish Eixample, yet they spurn all pretentiousness in terms of decor and instead put their total concentration into the food whilst offering incredible value for money. Just what the Spanish need in these tough economic times - a lesson which we Brits could do well to learn!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

"Are you sure we're in the right place...?"

Researching where to eat in Barcelona was a mixture of highs and lows. Highs, because practically everywhere we read about sounded delicious; lows, because nearly all of those places are closed in August.

We were staying in Sant Pere, a small area close to nearly everything - it neighbours Eixample, el Born, & el Barri Gotic. We found the apartment through airbnb and I would thoroughly recommend staying there if visiting Barcelona. It is small but perfectly formed, very reasonably priced & in the heart of everything.

It was also just a five minute walk to the well-known Santa Maria tapas restaurant - located on Carrer de Comerç, also home to the relaxed Picnic, and popular Comer 24 - owned by Adrià disciple, Paco Guzman. We'd heard a lot of great things about this place, and having previously had fantastic experiences in Gelonch and Tapas 24, other restuarants owned by ex-el Bulli chefs, were hoping for great things.

Unfortunately, like every other restaurant we really had our heart set on going to in Barcelona (with the exceptions of Igueldo and Gresca), it was closed. We found this out on our first day in the city, but remembered later in the week that there was a note on the door which seemed to imply it had moved locations. Stuck for somewhere to eat on Friday night (please see earlier frustrations with the month of August), we went back to decipher the Spanish map stuck to the door and decided it had moved to just the other side of the Parc Ciutadella.

Walking up Passeig de Pujades, we were concerned in relation to our attempts at translation. It didn't look like somewhere that would house a restaurant owned by someone who'd been taught under one of the best chefs in the world. We finally found it, and whilst rather fancy looking inside, it was totally empty. Realising that we still needed to adjust to the Catalunyan way of life by eating dinner after 10pm, we decided to have a drink at a nearby, er, 'pizzeria', a place where ex-Spanish mafia and O.A.Ps mingled. But hey, £6 for 4 beers, who's complaining?

We realised no-one had entered the restaurant in the whole time we'd been drinking our cervezas, but our bellies were forcing us to make a move, and so we began our expedition into what began as one of the most awkward dining experiences of our life (perhaps even more so than our first date at Ramson's, with the ever-"charming" Chris).

Even in Barcelona in August, it seemed odd that at 10pm on a Friday night there would be no-one in Guzman's restaurant. Maybe people hadn't realised they'd moved we thought? As a big Spanish momma sat us down and told us that she spoke 'very very little English', I started to worry. Fortunately, Jamie has spent time in South America and has a relatively good understanding of the language, even though he doesn't speak much of it. She took us through the menu and we anxiously ordered the menu degustacion. At this point, I'm not sure why we ordered it. We were sure we were in the wrong place (even though it said 'SANTA' above the door in the biggest writing I've probably ever seen) and we were the only people here on a Friday night. I felt much better when Jamie suggested that perhaps an opportunist con-artist had seen that Santa Maria was closed for August, and had popped up a makeshift sign convincing people they had actually relocated to this style over substance restaurant round the corner.

There was no music on, other than the tunes emanating from the kitchen's radio, and at this point we hadn't even been given our wine yet. I definitely needed a drink to relieve the awkwardness of the situation. Upon visiting the bathroom and seeing the cleaning rag left in the sink, I was about ready to bolt for the door.

To make matters worse the first item from the tasting menu was 'nachos'. "Shit Jamie", I said, "what if we really do just get nachos? What if they're just conning naive tourists who are blinded by the lights of anything that mentions an ex-el Bulli chef?"

The big Spanish momma was back, with wine. She offered us a taste. It wasn't good. Oh shit. We've been mugged, I thought. But then, I think five-year-old Anna crept out and saw her name on the wine bucket (not actually surprising considering Anna is a Spanish name - though usually with only one 'n') - and thought, 'this must be a sign, maybe everything's going to be alright...'. We were brought bread and olives, de-stoned and all. And tasty. Really lovely salty, spicy (covered in chilli) olives. I waited in anticipation for the 'nachos'....


And there they are, our nachos. Nothing like nachos. Thank fuck! We're in the right place. Lovely little tasty morsels of something resembling a potato and apple layered tortilla, covered with top-quality guacamole and salsa, with two mild deep fried Padron peppers on the side (I'm not sure I believe what they say about the ratio of hot ones to mild ones, I must have eaten about 25 of the buggers when I was in Barcelona, and not one was spicy!). To the right of the 'nachos', we had seared Iberico nigiri, and out of shot was a lovely little salmon futomaki, strangely fried on the outside, but actually making for a rather pleasant difference, in introducing a bit of warmth to the otherwise room temperature food. There was also a little pot of what I thought was going to be lamb tagine. Prawns had been used in place of the favoured meat, and it worked really well, although I did feel this dish would have benefited from being heated prior to serving. I'd like to say the star of the show were the chicken wings, which we were told (we think) were brined & confited before deep-frying. They were delicious and crisp, but unfortunately lacking in flavour and not particularly well seasoned. They were also sprinkled with - what I think were - Nasturtium petals, and I'm not really sure why. They did nothing in terms of flavour or texture, and I'm surprised that with Guzman's heavy influences from Asian cuisine (he's travelled heavily in the East, and worked as a chef in Tokyo), he didn't take more of a risk with flavour here. Still, pretty to look at...

Chicken Wings

Following these 'starters', we were presented with a deliciously fresh salmon and avocado tartare cheekily interjected with tiny pieces of gherkin. I would never have previously thought of putting salmon and gherkin together (though, thinking about it now - why not? capers and salmon is a classic combo), but it was a clever and witty nod to the classic tartare. We were then given the 'main' of - essentially - lamb kofta with tzatziki and a tomato and spinach salad. Nothing particularly ingenious, but it was tasty, the tomatoes beautifully ripe, and the tzatziki well-seasoned. There was also a spot of romesco sauce on the side, which worked well.

Lamb Kofta

One of my favourite dishes of the night was a beautiful palette cleanser, which we unfortunately didn't photograph: three types of melon, with a lemongrass granita and fine slithers of kaffir lime leaves. Beautifully refreshing and exactly what I needed after that mound of food! However, I felt Guzman defeated the point of this course with his next: pain perdu with tiramisu ice cream. The ice cream was delicious - and I noticed that tiramisu seems to be a hit in Barcelona - but the pain perdu was slightly too chewy, and I felt I would have been happier with a lighter dessert. I've got a photo but I don't think I need to show you what melting ice cream looks like! We were then given chilli & salt truffles. I know these are probably totally passe in foodie circles by now, but I've never tasted them before and they were fantastic.

Meal done, and we're still wondering what's the deal with this place? It definitely isn't the place we've read about, but it's no run of the mill restaurant you'd find in a part of town like this. Enter Paco Guzman to answer our questions. The chef pops his head over the kitchen counter and asks how we liked our meal. We start to chat and he comes round to talk to us for a bit longer. We learn that this chef, wearing his khaki cut-offs and looking distinctly different to the 'celeb chef' style shots we've seen of him in press, is the owner of Santa Maria and this restaurant, Santa. He tells us how he opened Santa five years ago (I believe Santa Maria has been going for around 14 years), catering to more of a business crowd, and where they are busy at lunchtimes. He seems disappointed that many restaurants in Barcelona have stayed open in August this year, whilst he took the decision to close Santa Maria for the month. He tells us he kept Santa open in order to do some work over the holiday period, though he's not expecting many customers, us being the only ones that day. He also vexes his frustration at the new gourmet burger fad which has recently taken off in Barcelona, and the pizzas of el Born stealing potential customers when you can eat at such joints for under ten euros. He also, disappointingly, tells us that he's selling Santa Maria and is keeping Santa as his focus. Reading about Santa when it first opened certainly showcases a more interesting and expensive menu. I try to gage whether his decision to close Santa is to aid a return to his early days at Santa, to showcase more of his creativity, but it seems from his response, that perhaps those years under Adrià hasn't created a molecular chef but someone who - despite their talent and fame - is struggling to make it as both chef and businessman.

Our meal at Santa wasn't out of this world, but it was good quality food, and I would encourage anyone visiting Barcelona to check it out, perhaps at a lunchtime, and not in August if you want some atmosphere (though you might miss out on the conversation with the chef!). It was 25 euros for the menu, inc. IVA (Spanish tax), which - for me - was good value. I feel someone larger than my build might feel there wasn't enough food, though Jamie was definitely sated by the end of it. With the potential for there being only one Guzman venture in the future, perhaps this will give him the opportunity to develop and refine what is already good quality food, and turn it into something spectacular.

Santa Restaurant
Av. Meridiana 2, 08018 Barcelona
00 34 93 309 7078

Thomas Restaurant

After only a month or so in the food blogger's game, Anna and I were very excited to receive an invite to a 'bloggers evening' at Thomas in the Northern Quarter. This might be, to my knowledge, the first time a Manchester restaurant has done such a thing (if not, please do set me straight); undoubtedly a savvy move by the owners. To be sure, The Fat Duck it ain't, but who's complaining when you get to try a new menu, meet fellow food geeks, and give feedback.

Our hosts, and the proprietors, were Nicky and Yvonne, the team behind the Bay Horse and former owners of Soup Kitchen. The evening began with a tour and a cocktail - I went for a Negroni (classic combo of gin, sweet vermouth and campari) and Anna chose the 'Joan Collins' which is essentially a Tom Collins with the addition of muddled grapes and sage. And very nice they were too. Nicky and Yvonne were extremely welcoming and seemed genuinely enthusiastic about showing off the new menu.

Crab cakes
The tasting began with a trio of starters. A perfectly executed crab cake with mango and chilli salad; a deliciously salty and wonderfully textured goat's cheese tart; followed by potted ducked wrapped in prosciutto atop a chorizo and borlotti bean hash. Having only visited Thomas once a couple of years back, I hadn't been sure what to expect, but I wasn't disappointed. The crab cake was easily one of the best I've had and the tart was, if not original, very well made. However, the duck dish was not as well thought out - the duck didn't shine, being overpowered as it was by the smoky bean crush and prosciutto, and, overall, it was a little dry.

The menu has a definite autumnal feel and nowhere was this more evident than in the main courses. The Yorkshire lamb shank, meltingly tender and very hearty, made me imagine fattening up to see out a cold winter. The nutmeg in the gratin dauphinoise and the redcurrant and marsala jus almost sent me forward in time to Christmas.

Yorkshire lamb shank

It was nice to see plaice on the menu as I had only just seen Rick Stein extolling its virtues as a fish. The fillet lay on a perfectly cooked potato fondant (sigh of relief, as I've seen many an undercooked one in my time) and was finished with a delicate coriander bisque, asparagus and spring onions. The artichoke risotto, the favourite dish at the press review, was a bit of a let down. It was slightly overcooked and tasted overwhelmingly of tomato and vinegar in my opinion. The crumbed egg yolk that topped it was nonetheless delicious. The consensus was that the Lamb Shank won dish of the evening and is very good value at £15.95 considering how generous the portion is.
Whitby plaice

The desserts were all extremely moreish, devoured quickly by the bloggers, and will meet with no complaints from me. It would be worth going to Thomas on the strength of the tiramisu alone. Apparently based on one of chefs' family recipes, it is a perfect example of how light delicate a dessert it should be. The lemon tart and tarte tatin were both suitably rich and filling. 

Yvonne was keen to push the wines and came across as very passionate about pairing food with wine. The Thomas Bassot Macon-Villages complemented the starters well, cutting through the fat and salt with its minerality and dryness. The perfumed Aimery Viognier would be delicious as an aperetif wine, but is perhaps too pungent to be paired with a lot of the food. The Villa Domiziano Chianti was bold enough to stand up to the strong flavours in the lamb dish.

The team at Thomas have done well to create a menu which will appeal to everyone and it is certainly pitched very well at this time of year - sensitive to the approaching autumn and the lack of summer. In aesthetic and attitude, they have always tried to stand out from the crowd of bars that pepper the Northern Quarter and the solid food and cocktails are sure to keep customers coming back for more.