Monday, 22 October 2012

Linen Autumn/Winter Menu

Popping candy toffee apple
A recent relocation to Rusholme and subsequent dearth of free time mean that it’s been a while since our last blog post. So, what better way to show our faces again than with a review of Linen’s new Autumn/Winter menu? 

Head chef at Linen - Jaromir Hlavsa
It’s been a good two years since Anna or I have been to Linen so we were quite excited to see if and how things had changed. The addition of new head chef Jaromir Hlavsa has been the catalyst for a new menu and a new direction with the food.

For those who don’t know Linen, it is the restaurant at the Manchester235 casino, located on a mezzanine floor, a decent distance from the gambling tables. And, after a wonderful ‘Basil Smash’ cocktail (courtesy of the Drinks Enthusiast)and an inspection of the chef’s table, the conversation turned to people’s perceptions of Linen and whether the association with the casino is a detrimental one. 

Having walked through the casino to get to the restaurant, the experience is, shall we say, a little odd – escalators and roulette tables aren’t your normal precursors to a great meal. But, with a new entrance from the AMC complex and a high standard of food, this is nothing a bit of well-done marketing can’t solve. If I were a gambling man (pardon the pun), I'd bet that a lot of people wouldn’t expect a restaurant of Linen’s calibre to be found in a city-centre casino.  

We were seated at a table with Kat from Echo Pr and fellow twitter foodies DineInOut and StokieSimon amongst others. After an appetizer of bread and olives we were presented with a trio of starters, all introduced by head chef Jaromir Hlavsa, who has recently moved from Malmaison and was keen to promote his seasonally-inspired dishes. There is something in his manner that very much reminds me of Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (I'd like to know if anyone else can see the similarities!).

The house-smoked salmon and beetroot salad was a beautiful-looking plate of food - three different colours of beetroot with dots of horseradish and vodka creme fraiche and tender, delicate hot-smoked salmon. Usually a bolder smoked fish, like mackerel, is paired with beetroot and horseradish, but the salmon more than stood up to the other ingredients.

Smoked salmon and beetroot salad
The rustic pork and pistachio terrine was well made - it made me think of Raymond Blanc who asserts that you can gauge the standard of a restaurant by its terrine. I've seen the combination of duck and pistachio in terrines quite often, but never pork and pistachio. The classic accompaniment of pickled vegetables worked well and the overall feel was quite light, if a little dry. A nice change to pâté which, though delicious, I sometimes feel can be too rich for a starter. 

Pork and pistachio  terrine
The pigeon breast with hummus and red wine jus was superb - the pigeon was cooked to a glorious scarlet, nicely mirroring the beetroot. The hummus was made as usual but substituting roasted beetroot for the standard chickpeas. Earthy, vibrant, and very seasonal. I believe that every menu should have a pigeon dish at this time of year - it's a great alternative to duck and has a more assertive flavour than pheasant or partridge. 

Pigeon breast with beetroot hummus
Next a trio of main courses, two meat dishes and one fish. The Cumbrian lamb loin chops were divine, complemented exquisitely by some Scottish chanterelles, garlic confit, potatoes forestiere and a truffle jus. When I'm in the mood for something rich and delicious, this ticks all the boxes. Meat and mushroom give a powerful umami hit; the garlic and truffle jus bring everything together. Garlic and truffle love lamb and mushrooms. 

Cumbrian lamb loin chops
I confess I've never eaten wild boar which is having its own mini-renaissance at the moment. The wild boar steak with venison chorizo was thus a new experience for me and a very pleasurable one at that. The boar was not as gamey as I'd expected - obviously similar to pork but slightly darker and more intense, nutty and sweet. It's hard to judge it, as I've nothing to compare it to, though it did strike me as perhaps being a little overcooked. The tiny cubes of venison chorizo were tasty but I think it would be impossible to detect the flavour of venison underneath all the garlic and paprika. The highlight of the dish was the mulled wine jus - a traditional mulled wine recipe, reduced almost to a syrup. Delicious with boar, I can imagine it worked well with duck which loves those oriental spices.

Wild Boar

The bream with salsify, purple potatoes, and saffron sauce was one of the highlights of the night and another dish that seemed perfectly fitting for the time of year. The earthiness of the potatoes and the salsify perfectly complement the muddy, sweet flesh of the bream and the rich saffron sauce livened up the dish. The fish was wonderfully cooked. A dish I'd highly recommend ordering.

Fillet of bream
Turning to the dessert menu, I was immediately drawn to the ‘Raspberry Rippled Baked Alaska’ and the ‘Toffee Apple Creme Brulee’. To my delight, the Jaromir had chosen both for the tasting – a fact which led me to utter an ecstatic and uncharacteristic whoop! 

I'm a sucker for a good brûlée and I wasn't disappointed. It was perfectly cooked with cubes of apple inside and a thick caramelised crust, and the normally redundant shortbread here complemented the apple with their cinnamon notes. A tiny toffee apple coated in popping candy was the proverbial icing on the cake. It made me think of bonfire night and also brought me back to the idea that desserts should be fun. The Graham Beck muscadel, our dessert wine, was the perfect match with its nuances of caramel, raisin and apple.

Toffee apple creme brulee
The baked alaska, that childhood classic, was transformed into something more adult and inspiring with the addition of toasted coconut and a rum sabayon. A great contrast of temperatures and textures - freezing, smooth ice-cream cocooned in warm, crispy meringue. If you hadn't guessed by now, Jaromir likes to use booze in his cooking - he confessed that his office is more like a bar! 

Baked Alaska
The only dish that disappointed was the Baileys cheesecake - a sure-to-be favourite over Christmas, the batch we had was almost unanimously considered under-sweetened.

So, all things considered, there were very few negatives to take away from our evening at Linen. Kat Atakuru and Sophie Baxter did a great job of sussing out of opinions of Linen and didn't ram their marketing spiels down our throats (which can happen all too often at these events) and we're really looking forward to the food that will be coming out of the kitchen in the future, thanks to new head chef Jaromir Hlavsa.

Saturday, 6 October 2012



Time for another moment from the Barca back-catalogue.

As soon as I visited Igueldo's website and saw the picture of their tartare of beef with beer yoghurt, I was sold. Not the most outre fare, granted, but the draw of a good tartare is irresistible. And the Spanish love them - tuna, salmon, mackerel, tomato, you'll find one on most menus. 

So off we wandered to Eixample and once again entered a restaurant where the staff outnumbered the customers by at least three to one. Surprising in a way, since, as you can see from the above photo, that this is one of the finer dining rooms in a swanky neighbourhood. Then again, we were probably a little early for dinner: it was nearly 10pm.

The tasting menu was too well-priced to pass up despite it being our third in a row. A little unusually, the head chef came to take our order, though I imagine this will prevent any communication breakdowns with front-of-house. After chatting to Paco Guzman later in the week it does seem like chefs are beginning to break out of the kitchen and trying to interact more with diners. Or, they're just that bored in Barcelona in August!

Wine ordered, we waited for our amuse-bouche, while being lulled into a romantic mood by the soft lighting and even softer music. This was definitely the most intimate dining experience, bar the fact that we were sitting with a view into the kitchen, watching some inactive chefs slouch around. I don't mean this as a criticism - there were only three diners when we entered so I wasn't expecting to see a flurry of activity.

To whet the appetite, a miniature hot-dog with a sweet wholegrain mustard sauce. A delicious morsel but not amongst the most exciting amuse-bouches I've had. But like petit-fours and desserts, this is the time to have fun and it was nothing if not that.

Next the beef tartare (below). Well balanced, well seasoned, and just about the best tartare I've ever tasted. And I've had a lot. The beer yoghurt added interesting yeasty and sour notes which cut through the richness of the tartare nicely.

Beef tartare with beer yoghurt

Next up was the most unpleasant dish we were to eat all holiday: Iberico ham and foie gras ravioli. It looked extremely unappetising, hence the lack of photographic evidence; the mouthfeel was simultaneously pasty and slimey; the taste was overly rich due to a the butter sauce with which it was topped. It may have worked should the chef have noted that the best things come in small doses, but he plonked two large ravioli on the plate, with no thought for presentation. A disaster of a dish that left us both feeling a little ill.

Thank god for hake and clams. Perfectly cooked fish with delicious clams all coated with a chilli and garlic sauce, sat on a bed of wonderfully seasoned, thinly sliced potatoes. We were confused - the chef did understand simplicity. The slate was wiped clean.

Hake and clams
...only to find a pile of braised oxtail underneath. Served with a vanilla and sweet potato puree and wrapped in a savoy cabbage leaf, it was superbly flavourful but was too much considering the amount we'd eaten already. For a tasting menu, these were some of the most generous portions we'd ever seen. Good for your wallet; bad for your stomach.


Finally, something to snap us out of the ensuing food-coma: a lemon sorbet. The granita on my tongue felt like long-awaited rain on parched earth. This came perched atop lemon mousse, which was rich and refreshing in equal measures. However, it was hindered by the lemon vodka sitting in the bottom of the glass which created bitter sensations on my palette.

Lemon sorbet

I could have happily paid up and left feeling far too full, but there was still one more course. A somewhat British inspired cheese souffle, served with raspberry ice cream. The souffle was underdone, the ice-cream delicious.

Cheese souffle with raspberry ice-cream
At the time I would have said it was a great meal but with time I look upon it less fondly. It was only the tartare that made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but perhaps it also shows that a fantastic dining experience isn't always about having the best meal of your life: the ambience of the restaurant was romantic and soothing, and the service quietly fantastic. It was a peaceful and cool break from the hustle of the busy city and an enjoyable evening.

There's a small part of me that also wonders whether myself & Anna would have looked on the restaurant more fondly if the head chef hadn't recommended a diabolical bar called el Boca Chica; style over substance if ever I saw it, where we only managed one drink after wanting to shoot the wannabe 'Desperate Housewives of New Jersey' sitting next to us.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection

It's that time of year again. Michelin mayhem: sleepless nights for chefs, winners leaked early, joy and pain in equal amounts. The power of the guide to grant chefs' dreams is undeniable; but only if you strive to 'dance to the Michelin drum' as Marco Pierre-White poetically claims. Is anyone else skeptical about the reliability of the guide, anxious about its impact on businesses, and most importantly, is it relevant?

These are some of the questions posed by William Sitwell in the 2010 BBC documentary 'Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection'. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about or incredulous as to the worthiness of a guide that started out as no more than a petrol station finder, then this piece of programming is a good place to start. Despite being two years old, its relevance seems ever present regarding the weight of Michelin, particularly at this time of the year. If nothing else, its worth a watch for Pierre-White's intense glare and rhythmic speech.

The pernicious influence of the guide is best demonstrated by the fate of French chef Bernard Loiseau. A notorious perfectionist, Bernard committed suicide after his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was rumoured to be demoted from three to two Michelin stars. A tragic example no doubt of the pressure faced by award-winning chefs, but the documentary glossed over the fact that Bernard was also heavily in debt and suffered from bouts of depression.

Is it the fault of the guide or do the chefs themselves attach too much importance to the coveted stars? Marco Pierre-White, who famously handed back his stars, believes it is the latter, saying that chefs must accept that they are being judged by people who have less knowledge and skill than they do. Raymond Blanc, who publicly criticized the Michelin guide, wants chefs to aim for perfection rather than aim to please the whims of the Michelin inspectors.

The pursuit of Michelin stars undoubtedly drives chefs to be more creative, more exacting and hopefully leads to better food; but shouldn't chefs who want acclaim have these standards anyway?
And is the guide biased towards certain chefs? The programme claims that with the guide's heritage based firmly in the finesse of French cuisine, it naturally favours classically trained French chefs, citing the example of Alain Ducasse whose restaurant at the Dorchester was slated by well-respected food critics such as Jay Rayner, A. A. Gill, and Sitwell himself, yet was still promoted to three stars in 2010.

The big boss of Michelin explains that such decisions are not made lightly and when it is the case of awarding or removing a star the restaurant in question is visited numerous times throughout the year by different inspectors. One would therefore imagine a degree of objectivity and that bias is weeded out, but who truly knows when it comes to such a secretive organisation?

The best approach is surely one of ironic detachment. By all means, play the Michelin game but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out the way you want. There are great chefs producing amazing food who aren't deemed worthy of a star but should be very proud of their talent and achievements.

What do you think - do you turn to Michelin for places to dine on special occasions or do you shun this potentially outdated authority and rely on other, more modern authorities? 

Monday, 1 October 2012

September's Foodie Pen Pals

This month I was treated to a lovely box courtesy of Helen at the Patient Gardener. After spotting the fantastic box she sent to Offally Good I did cheekily request some of her fantastic home-grown shallots, which I very kindly received. These have since gone into a mushroom risotto which I made using the dried porcini mushrooms Helen also sent...

Chestnut & Porcini mushroom risotto
I also received some lovely Amaretti biscuits which I naively learnt (from the ingredients!) are made using apricot kernels (and I call myself a foodie, huh!). These are going down a treat with a cup of coffee. Tyrrells are my favourite crisps so I was very happy with these, and vegetable ones always make me feel less guilty about eating deep-fried snacks. Helen also sent me a couple of old school chocolate bars - a Chomp & a Fudge for similar reasons - their size makes them appear guilt-free. Great for a post-work pick me up at this time of the year, when I struggle back from Castlefield in the pouring rain.

I'm saving the olive & cheese crackers for an after dinner cheeseboard when entertaining in our new home. We move on Thursday - I can't wait! Thanks for a lovely box, Helen. Oh, I forgot to mention, she had decided on an Italian theme for the box.

I sent a box of many little treats to Gemma (click for blog) who is currently trying to swim lots - and I thought lots of little snacks such as dried fruit & oat biscuits might be a perfect way to up sugar levels after a big workout. I also sent a couple of less healthy treats such as a mini bar of my favourite Green & Blacks chocolate (butterscotch), a tub of smoked sea salt, & the dark chocolate, macademia nut, cranberry & coconut Eat Natural bar. I hope she likes them!