Saturday, 21 September 2013

Manchester House

That dish
Fine dining restaurants in Manchester are a bit like buses. You wait ages and they all come at once. 

Hot on The French's heels is Manchester House, the collaboration between Chef Aiden Byrne and Living Ventures. In the words of LV's CEO, Tim Bacon, it's a restaurant that the city can “potentially be very proud of”. A modest admission for a man who has made no secret of his intention to give Manchester its first Michelin Star.

Bacon is someone who acknowledges that there has been a “lack of traction with fine-dining in the city”, so the £3 million he's invested  in this venture will seem to many as pure extravagance; and a cynic might say that he is trying to buy greatness. It’s a lot of pressure, also, for Aiden Byrne. "Dancing to the Michelin drum" as Marco-Pierre White puts it, has been many a chef's undoing.

To have hope of winning over the Michelin inspectors, the food will have to be better than anything on offer in  Manchester. So what of it? Well, to analyse the dishes in too much detail would be superfluous. This, after all, was no ordinary service. It was well orchestrated 'press lunch' (i.e. complimentary); everyone on their best behaviour for the BBC's cameras. We all ate the same seven-course tasting menu. There were no slip-ups in service, save for a bit of pea in the pea juice ("It's supposed to be clear", the waiter explains, rushing to fetch a fresh one).

The offending pea juice
Better to judge the food at a later date, during normal service. Though, for those on a writer's wage, it's going to be a long time before the next tasting! First impressions were unanimously positive with the food impressing in many areas; and letting down in other respects. It's perhaps telling that the 'WOW' dishes like those from Byrne's Great British Menu repertoire (the paleolithic beef dish and the 'prawn cocktail') were outshone by the breads: the first, a bun filled with oxtail and served with oyster mayonnaise; the second, a bacon brioche served with pea butter and pea juice.  

The decimated prawn cocktail

The trickery of the prawn cocktail's melting passion fruit sphere seemed a time-consuming effort for a dish that didn't have its desired impact. Too much of the fancy maltodextrin powder, and not enough flavour. The beef dish was lovely but, at £58 for two people to share, it wasn't that lovely. The sea water and soil distillation that smoked out of its bed of false grass failed to hit its multisensory target.

Sea water and soil distillation 
The pigeon dish with black cherries and pistachio was, however, a standout: the one plate that could please the gods of Michelin. So good was it that Manchester Confidential's Gordo prematurely named it 'Dish of the Year' in a fit of shameless self-publicity. But one plate of that calibre won't be enough to achieve Tim Bacon's dream. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Manchester House is a restaurant that can get better with age; Byrne won't allow it to be otherwise. 

Perhaps, more interesting than any food was to hear what the two collaborators had to say about their vision for the restaurant.

During the post-dinner Q & A, Byrne came across as simultaneously humble and ambitious, eager to get the point across that he wanted to challenge himself. Reinvention was born out of boredom: “I wanted to throw away my recipe book.” Strange then that a couple of the dishes we tried were well-known dishes from his time on The Great British Menu. One guess as to whose decision that was.

The award-winning pigeon dish

Byrne was preoccupied but took the time to stop at tables and have a chat. It’s evidently been a tiring year and already a tiring day – Byrne and his team have been here since seven in the morning and last night’s shift finished at 2am. Maybe that accounts for the negative language (the word frustration is scrawled on my notepad/menu in huge caps); maybe its the whispered troubles he's had with Tim Bacon. Perhaps it's competition with The French that worries him. He made a point of distancing himself from Simon Rogan: "Simon's product and mine are a million miles from each other." Here's hoping that these worries won't consume Byrne and he can put his full attention into making the food truly exceptional. Easier said than done, with £3 million riding on it.    

Sitting next to Byrne, Tim Bacon took a different tack and endeared himself to the common folk: first by talking about how Byrne phoned him whilst on holiday in the Maldives, and later by reminding us that the “combined turnover of [his restaurants] would blow your mind.” Well, customers aren't going to be thinking about turnover when they're eating at Manchester House and the only thing they want to blow their mind is the food.

Tim Bacon's got the money and believes Manchester can give London a run for its money; and Aiden Byrne was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star. So, perhaps they're a match made in heaven. I'm not so sure.

Manchester House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

V Zátiší Restaurant, Prague

I consider myself to be a fairly liberal sort of person: I read the Guardian, eat hummus and don't set vulnerable people on fire. I vehemently disagree with prejudice but of course, would fight to the death someone's right to be an ignorant racist. I've realised lately, however, that I have a prejudice of my own. I say have - fortunately several restaurants Jamie and I visited in Prague earlier this year have managed to correct that - I can now proudly say HAD; I had a prejudice of my own.

"So what's the prejudice?" I hear you cry, pleading with me to tell you (read: bumping up our bounce rate to 99%). Well, until recently, I was under the impression that Asian food was never very good on the continent. If you read our post on Sansho, you'll know how wrong I was. Perhaps it was that lemon chicken I ate in Amsterdam, forever associated with an entirely horrific rite-of-passage 'Dam experience, maybe it was the millions of photographs of horrific-looking plates of south Asian food I'd seen advertised in tourist areas, or the fact that Asian restaurants in Europe seem to assume that no-one can handle any level of spice outside of the Balti triangle. Whatever it was, I made a judgment. A bad judgment. And I'm pleased to say, I'm pleased to admit to y'all here today: AH WAS WRONG, my brothers and sisters, I was wrong.

So where was it that proved me wrong? Well, I should really stop pretending to be readers asking me questions, particularly ones with answers that are based in the title of the post. As you may have guessed it was a rather posh ol' place down a quaint back street in Prague: V Zátiší (meaning cosy and peaceful - it was both of those things save a lone American tourist asking, "what the hell is turboh?"). Part of a group of fine-dining restaurants, this place clearly knows what it's doing: an opulent building, plush interior, perfect service and damn tasty food is always going to be an equation for a successful business operation.

Look at the size of those salt flakes!
I was initially drawn to the restaurant as I spotted they offered tasting menus - but not just that, they offered MIX AND MATCH tasting menus. Those with an affinity for spending vast sums of money on small plates of food and wine kept out of arm's reach (myself included) will be aware that this is practically unheard of. Next to a tasting menu description, you'll usually see the words "to be ordered by the entire table". One person alone may not enjoy a tasting menu, nor an experience different to that of their companion. The rules associated with tasting menus is, perhaps, a discussion for another day.

Anyway, I was excited: this meant that Jamie and I could each have a different menu and try more food. Hurrah! Oh, and then it got interesting. There are three choices of tasting menus: one, which I suppose consists of the classics of the restaurant; one made up of modern-Czech dishes; and one from "our visiting Indian chef's menu". Jamie went for the first, and I the latter.

In retrospect, maybe Jamie should have opted for the Czech menu as the 'menu degustation' he opted for whilst *ahem* positively delightful, was nothing really special, just very well cooked food. There was the unctuous foie gras, served with an orange puree and brioche, the pretty-as-a-picture asparagus salad (and heaven knows what else was on there now, this was back in July, but it tasted as fresh as it looks), and the perfectly-pink steak seasoned as if Jamie had poured the salt shaker on it himself. 

Curry & Mash. I'll never understand.
And, whilst the Indian menu was by no means flawless, there were some delicious dishes: the tomato and lentil soup with green pea and "tiki croquettes" - the latter like little fish-roe explosions of flavour - the mustard tandoori tiger prawns, which I will try and recreate until my dying day, and the tandoori chicken makhani, as good as any you'll find in Mughli. The lamb-lime curry was also delicious but far too rich for the fourth course in the meal, and I'm really not sure what they were thinking when pairing it with saffron and mushroom mash. The potatoes, entirely delicious on their own, would have been lovely with a stew but with an Indian lamb curry? No no no no. The blueberry kulfi with gulab jamun balls has even seen me attempt Indian sweets at home since.

By the end of five courses, we were full to say the least. At first it felt like an expensive bill - and I think it was for Prague - but paying around £45 each for the quality of cooking and service back in the UK would have been more than reasonable. I'm not saying you should rush and book a table if you're planning a trip to the Czech Republic, but if you fancy a taste of the curry mile whilst you're there, and have a fussy bunch of eaters who are hard to please, then V Zátiší is the place for you. It was worth it for me, if only to cure me of my prejudice.

V Zátiší
Liliová 216/1, 110 00 Prague 1
Reserve online here.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Duped by Dinner

Dinner by Heston. It was probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2011; it was definitely our most anticipated meal of 2013. Were our expectations too high? Did the allure of Michelin stars and San Pellegrino Top 50 lists cloud our judgement? Whatever the case, we left thinking: ‘How on earth has this restaurant earned such a great reputation?’

It’s not the food that's the problem. It’s still ‘fearsomely expensive’ and, dare I say, over-rated. It’s rather the service that caused the whole evening to feel off kilter. Now, I’m no veteran of Michelin-starred establishments but, having been to a fair few, the service, at its worst, has always been discreet if a little formal. At its best it has elevated the evening and the dining experience. At Dinner, we often felt uncomfortable and at times downright harassed.

Imagine it’s the anniversary of a special occasion and as you raise your glasses for that celebratory toast, your waiter clumsily chimes in like a pissed wedding guest in the middle of the best man’s speech. Your gauche, French sommelier asks if you’d like to see the wine list and proceeds to hold on to it, so much so that you are forced to peer at it until he graciously hands it over. Why do that? This wine list caused the waiting staff much vexation. Surely they had more than one? Yet, each member of staff seemed intent on retrieving it from our grasp despite many protestations.

Add to this a dining room devoid of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that every other table is more important than yours, the realisation that most people are here on business, staying in the Mandarin Oriental and have charged a steak and chips to their room – and the entire experience quickly lost its charm. Perhaps my account is a little revisionist, tainted by some not so rose-tinted glasses? Maybe we were just naive? But I expected more: the glowing reviews; the high standing; the endless superlatives.

I wish these were the only caveats and I could now utter as Jay Rayner did ‘Oh, but the cooking!’ It was very nice in parts but that obsessive compulsive attention to detail that Heston is always bragging about didn't materialise.

As per usual, we’d agonised over what to choose beforehand (this was after all a very expensive meal and we didn’t want to make any costly mistakes) so the choice of starters was already a foregone conclusion.

Ever since I saw Ashley Palmer-Watts cook the scallops and cucumber dish, it had made my shortlist. It was as I expected and no more: refreshingly clean with a lovely minerality from the scallops and seared cucumber and great acidity from the cucumber ketchup. This is really more about the cucumber than the scallops, treating the ingredient in ways that many will not have seen before. The best dish of the meal. The salamugundy was full of wonderful textural contrasts – slippery marrow studded with crispy chicken skin, crisp chicory, juicy chicken oyster.

The special of Royale of Beef (which brought to mind Pulp Fiction) with ox tongue, smoked anchovy and onion puree was a delicious exercise in savouriness with a great depth of flavour. The Turbot with cockle ketchup was expertly cooked and balanced. To be honest, I'm struggling for things to say. Whether it was a side effect of the service and ambiance or not, everything rang a bit hollow. Come to think of it, Jay Rayner's review must have also exerted some subconscious sorcery on us as we unwittingly chose exactly the same menu. Great minds...or maybe fools never differ.

If you happened to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, it would however definitely be worth popping down for a dessert. The tipsy cake brought a smile to my face and the buttery, syrupy brioche pudding actually recalled of all things a krispy-creme pudding I'd had some weeks ago at a FireandSalt supper club. Bearing in mind the accompanying pineapple is roasted on what must be one of the world's most expensive spits, it has that air of overindulgence. The brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel was malty, salty, sweet goodness that actually might have salvaged the meal.

So, an evening of highs and lows. The food might have disappointed less had we not been to Simon Rogan's new opening at The French in the same week. And I doubt we would have been so critical if the service were up to scratch. I'm wouldn't write the place off on the back of this one meal but at these prices I'm not hurrying to return. Frankly, there are better places in London to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Friday, 14 December 2012

Aumbry, Christmas Dinner

The pass at Aumbry

To quote Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian circa 2010, ‘Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Prestwich, the suburb’s suburb.’ I would go further and venture to say that Aumbry is not the kind of place you’d expect to find in Manchester.

With the exception of the Wine Glass at Etrop Grange, Manchester doesn’t boast a wealth of restaurants where the chefs have honed their skills at the Fat Duck. Nor does it boast many restaurants that have garnered national acclaim: Mary-Ellen McTague won Up and Coming Young Chef of the Year in the Good Food Guide 2011.

With this in mind, Anna and I had high expectations of this small but much-lauded neighbourhood restaurant. It had been on our ‘to-go’ list for some time and then all of a sudden came an invite from Echo PR to attend a Christmas dinner.

We took the tram and found ourselves, fashionably early, sipping champagne and snacking on some wonderful smoked almonds in the upstairs reception area. A light snow, the first this winter, had just begun to fall and, as I eyed the Christmas decorations and the 9-course menu, a sense of contentment washed over me. I felt as though we were in for a real treat.

The reception area
Right, overblown rhetoric out of the way, let’s talk food.

To whet our appetite we are given bread accompanied by an ornate bowl of beef dripping and roasting juices, cleverly masquerading as oil and balsamic. The conversation turns on the idea of beef fat solidifying in your arteries. It’s so delicious that no-one cares.

The amuse-bouche was pig’s head terrine – a delicious morsel that it is hard to say much about, so I shan’t.

Pig's head
The obligatory smoked fish dish was an undeniable favourite. The mackerel was so delicately cured; it makes a nice change to see it cold-smoked. The garnishes of pickled beetroot and mustard cream were, albeit standard, perfectly judged. The presentation, too, was spot on (we're still wondering whether the beetroot was the most perfect puree I've ever seen or a spherification).

Smoked mackerel
Heston’s influence shows through in the next dish – Bury Black Pudding Scotch Egg. Anyone who watched the How to Cook Like Heston series or owns a copy of Heston at Home will be familiar with his warm scotch egg hiding a perfectly runny yolk in the centre. It is a tricky feat to pull off but so satisfying – bursting a perfectly cooked yolk always seems to elicit quasi-sexual moans from diners. No wonder this dish has become a signature at Aumbry.

Black pudding Scotch egg
The celeriac soup which followed will become the stuff of legend, the story passed down from generation to generation about the origins of the world’s greatest soup. Prestwich in the 2020s will be full of well-heeled types mumbling to themselves: "celeriac, truffle, chestnuts.." Never have I heard such ecstatic praise for a bowl of soup in all my life. And it wasn’t even superfluous. Perfectly seasoned, light yet rich celeriac soup with a perfect amount of truffle oil and some meltingly soft chestnuts at the bottom. Go and try it!

Celeriac soup
Everyone is in high spirits as we move on to the main courses. The Royal Roast consists of a ballotine of duck, pheasant and partridge with bread sauce, stuffing, roast potatoes, and brussel sprouts. There was some speculation in the taxi home as to whether the meat had been cooked sous-vide. It was exceedingly tender but the texture of the duck in particular was strange. To my surprise, the highlight was the brussel sprouts, thinly shredded and cooked with bacon and chestnuts. Mental note to try this at our Christmas dinner and to recreate the seriously flavoursome stuffing. Anna was a little disappointed with the roast potatoes - not quite as good as ours!

Three-bird roast
The Lyme Park venison stood out for me as the richest and most savoury of the dishes. The medium-rare, scarlet loin paired with slow-cooked haunch, sweet parsley root and woody, bitter brussel sprout tops – close to perfection! This is the kind of dish I long for. This was served with a Austro-Hungarian wine, Meinklang 'Konkret', a bold red with soft tannins which complemented the venison perfectly.

By now I will admit to being sated and not at all in need of dessert. My memory also becomes hazier the more wine I drink. Funny that. The sherry trifle etched itself into my consciousness with the mandarin and thyme syllabub that accompanied it. A flavour combination I don’t recall having before. The Christmas pudding was notable for the sheer amount of dried fruit it contained. And the mince pie was, well, a very good mince pie. I have admittedly glossed over the desserts but I do think although appropriate on a Christmas menu, they were never going to have the impact that the savoury courses did. A special mention goes to the 2009 Chateau Jolys, a buttery wine with hints of honey and peach, it worked well to enhance some of the slightly more bitter notes of the syllabub.

Christmas pudding
I’ll end on a note about service. I wish I had noted down the name of our waitress because throughout the nine courses she gave a masterclass in how to wait on a table. Her timing, knowledge, humour and the right degree of formality made the whole meal flow beautifully - not to mention that she also doubled as a fantastic sommelier. I hope Mary-Ellen reads this review and gives her a Christmas bonus!

Christmas is a time of year for comfort and decadence, yet it can sometimes prove difficult to merge these two feelings. Aumbry have managed to grab hold of both of these feelings and delicately transformed them into a beautiful tasting menu. At £45 for seven courses, it is exceptional value. We were lucky enough to be guests of the restaurant, but would have gleefully paid this amount for food of such quality. I have it on good authority that dishes of such high standard aren't just a Christmas treat for Aumbry visitors, and look forward to returning in 2013 to see what else I can be simultaneously soothed and seduced by.

2 Church Lane, Prestwich
M25 1AJ
0161 798 5841

Aumbry on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Q&A with Ernst van Zyl, Etrop Grange

I have to say I was a little disappointed when I found out that Manchester Confidential had begun a new column, interviewing head chefs around Manchester. Jamie came up with the idea at the PR evening at Linen, after we met Jarmoir and saw what a lovely chap he is (there's an interview with Jaromir to follow). We thought it would be interesting to find out more about what inspires the talented chefs of Manchester, not just those with celebrity status. Still, there's room for more than one lot of interviews in the same city!

Ernst van Zyl, head chef at Etrop Grange, has been much talked about in foodie circles of late. After reading about his food on Mrs Petticoat and The Lady Sybil's blogs, I knew I must visit! I casually dropped a few thousand hints to Jamie, and last Monday he met with Ernst to discuss a menu for my birthday (at the end of the month), and took the opportunity to quiz him on his background and inspirations... It's quite long, but listening to it, I found it hard to edit - everything seemed interesting, I hope you think so too!

Jamie: For those of our readers who don't know much about you, tell me a little about yourself, and your background...

Ernst: I was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the U.K at the age of 21. I'd already been cheffing for 3 years - I completed a year of catering college, then worked at a place very similar to Etrop, but with a golf course, 45 minutes outside of Cape Town. I started just round the corner at the Hilton, Manchester Aiport, and transferred to London for a couple of years, working at the Hilton Kensington, a 600 bedroom hotel!

When you work for Hilton, everyone talks about the Park Lane hotel... so I worked there for three months over the Christmas period. We would do 1200 covers for silver service - no problems - to see that happen is amazing. Eventually, I had enough of London: it's a cold place and time flies when you're there, because you work so much. I think it's a nice place now, but mostly because I know I can leave when I visit!

After a short spell in Belfast, I came back to Manchester and became the second in command at the Radisson across the road. There, we had 2 AA Rosettes. It was a different experience, we did lots of different functions, and I managed to gain a lot of exposure - for example, if the head chef was off, I was in charge - a hotel with 360 rooms and 20 chefs. It was educational... we would have kosher functions; watching a rabbi turn the oven on isn't something I've seen in my other jobs!

I felt ready to be a head chef, and began working for Prima hotels - a small chain, and I began in Wilmslow. It was a fantastic property and weddings were a massive part of what we did. The MD (managing director) approached me after two and a half years there, asking if I would take on a different role, a sort of executive chef role. I did, and it gave me the opportunity to see a different perspective as a head chef. As a chef, working in a kitchen, you see that as the whole world - but you need to understand how the whole outlet fits in with what you do, because it has a massive effect on your work.

Jamie: Is that why you're into social media?

Ernst: Yes, very much so. It's nice to talk to customers and see how they see things, to teach me as a chef, and us as an establishment. I enjoyed my time as an executive chef, but after a year, I missed wearing my whites... I tried teaching for a while, but I don't think I'm ready for it yet, not quite the right age. At the beginning it was brilliant - to see how excited the kids on apprenticeships were - but then the kids cared less and less, and they didn't turn up... The frustration made me want to look for something else - and the hours! I worked Monday - Friday 8am - 5pm - I've never done that before, not even when I was in a suit for a year.

So, I began handing out my CV at the hotels round here. The GM (general manager) here called me in, and I began in my spare time whilst teaching. He kept asking me if I was still happy teaching, and I ended up beginning full-time in August last year... still here and cooking like crazy, and some amazing opportunities - the GM asked if I would be interested in spending time - doing a stage (a culinary internship) - at the Fat Duck so, I went!

Jamie: How was that? It must have been quite different working somewhere like that...

Ernst: That style of cooking... so much of it is impossible to recreate... but the modernist approach is what I appreciate, the thought behind it. I came back to Etrop and decided to write to Noma. Eventually, I ended up with an e-mail saying there was an opportunity there.

Jamie: And do they use modernist techniques there too?

Ernst: Yes, but in a subtle way... we have this image in our mind of Heston, with his canister in hand, but at Noma they don't shout about it - they just do it and use it. I spent five weeks there - the most educational five weeks I've had in 15 years of cooking.

Jamie: What did you learn? How to treat your ingredients?

Ernst: Exactly... For example, I look at their carrots - grown on a biodynamic farm, no pesticides, natural sweetness - it's phenomenal. I'm looking at food in such a different way now. So much is served raw there, and seafood that's just a couple of hours old... 100 kilos of scallops every Tuesday - they're still moving when you take them out of the shell! Their emphasis is on freshness and quality, the seasonality, the complete respect there - if it's not Danish or Scandinavian, they're not interested. Foraging is core to them - and educating people through foraging. Sometimes things don't get cooked, just placed on a plate.

Jamie: When you came back, did it totally change your outlook?

Ernst: My food is more modernist than ever. Noma has really influenced me - in mentality, and in thought process. I saw some amazing techniques at the Fat Duck, but the strongest influence is definitely Noma... the most mentally and physically challenging five weeks, but amazing.

Jamie: Do you go foraging here?

Ernst: We try... It's something I've become interested in but it can be difficult to explore, and to find someone to come and show us is quite a challenge. We've done a bit, elderflower, nettles, Jack by the Hedge. We've begun growing herbs that I can't get from my suppliers as well - yarrow, lemon balm, lemon verbena.

Jamie: Jack by the hedge... what's that?

Ernst: It tastes like garlic, but as you chew and digest it becomes like mustard. It's stunning - bright green - you blanch it, make a puree... perfect with fish and lamb.

Jamie: I can't imagine getting that anywhere else in Manchester, you're certainly doing something different...

Ernst: Yeah, it's a way for me to challenge myself. I love doing these bespoke menus for people - it's like a blank canvas - to get a list of things people like, pulling on my knowledge from the Fat Duck, Noma, and more recently Le Manoir... It gives me an opportunity to show my guys things they wouldn't usually see, and break service up a bit. My guys feels excited about the bespoke menus - using familiar techniques but with different ingredients. We absolutely love doing that stuff! It gives Etrop a different perspective, and for people to come along and try something unusual...

Jamie: It must be difficult for you to eat! What kind of things do you like cooking and eating?

Ernst: Me? I'm a very unfussy kind of guy. I've eaten at so many places, I like to be unfussy. At this time of year, root veg and game... In South Africa, it was BBQ seven days a week, a lot of seafood and meat, all phenomenal. Ostrich was quite normal for me as a child... crocodile, springbok. I guess I've always been exposed to unusual things. I wouldn't try serving an 8oz steak to a South African, you'd probably end up in hospital if you did that! I just love to eat good food... I don't have a signature dish, I think every dish can be your signature. We do a bespoke tasting menu, there's five signature dishes right there. It's great to be parodied like Heston with bacon & egg ice cream, but there's so much more to the Fat Duck than that...

Jamie: You mentioned before your time at Le Manoir, what was that like for you?

Ernst: different! Classic, but using modern techniques - the same as I found at the Fat Duck and Noma - but no challenging taste combinations, just ones that have stood the test of time. You get a wild mushroom risotto... but it's with seven different kinds of wild mushroom, and a phenomenal mushroom stock, and the best Parmesan money can buy. It's a phenomenal risotto. Their food isn't my style, but two weeks there showed me so much.

Jamie: And what about the garden?

Ernst: It's absolutely amazing, I would go back tomorrow just for that, it's so beautiful. The mentality of the place is about care. One day, Raymond did this speech about leading the way in training and in the hospitality they provide... it was inspirational to hear that.

Jamie: We recently blogged about a TV programme about the madness of Michelin... What do you think of Michelin?

Ernie: I saw the programme... It would be difficult to get one here, but it is a dream of mine. I'm not in a rush... well a big part of me isn't, but there is a small part that is! A star would be a cherry on my cake career. I'd love a thank you one day, given the blood, sweat and tears I've given... but I've eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world, and you give yourself to that world. The guys at Noma do 100+ hours a week - and they live for that restaurant: it takes everything you are, your mind, body and soul. I'm still young, so maybe one day.

Jamie: You only went to Noma recently, so you're starting again in a way?

Ernst: True... When I arrived at Noma, it felt like my first day in a kitchen again!

Jamie: Where's next on your stage wish-list?

Ernst: Alinea, Chicago... though there were guys at Noma who had been there who said it was worse, more grueling than Noma! I don't know how it can be worse? I'm apprehensive about that. The French Laundy as well... and more recently, Frantzen Lindeberg in Sweden. They look awesome! Actually, I e-mailed them last night... 11 Madison Park in New York. But if I had a real choice, it would be Frantzen Lindeberg. There isn't even a menu - they cook daily whatever they lay their hands on! 2 Michelin stars, amazing.

Jamie: What books do you use for inspiration?

Ernst: Modernist Cuisine... everything you could ever want to know is in those six books! But I never put down Noma. It takes me back there, gets me going again, inspires me to look at a vegetable in a different way. I always reach for Noma first, followed very closely by Modernist. Marque, 11 Madison Park and the Fat Duck, they're all amazing too. They're on the same table - I end up with the same books around me whenever I write a new menu.

Jamie: I can see how excited you are talking about cooking?

Ernst: Yes, I love it! I would go mad in an office... not being able to play with liquid nitrogen or a water bath?? It would make me mental. That's why I think cheffing is so cool, because no day is ever the same. My suppliers are fantastic - my fruit and veg supplier goes to Paris once a month to get inspiration for themselves - that helps me to get inspired, because they are. The guys - the chefs - they work so hard too. I love just making my sourdough bread, our starter is 8 months old now. It's like a child, you have to feed it, look after it, love it...

Jamie: Yeah, like a pet without the noise!

Ernst: Exactly - it just sits in a corner nice and quietly. It's great, to go with our homemade butter... We're not just satisfied with rolls, we make our bread and our butter... To have the permission to bubble whipped cream is nice... they used to say "don't overwhip that cream!", but here, that's what we want!

Listening to Ernst and Jamie talk (like two kids in a sweet shop!) has made me excited beyond imagination about my birthday menu... I can't yet recommend the food, but I can tell you I have heard few chefs this passionate about what they are putting on a plate, so watch this space to see what I'm presented with on November 30th!

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.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Pollen Street Social

An artist's impression of Pollen Street Social

We couldn't think of a more fitting way to start our food blog than with a celebration. Jamie turned 26 last week and the surprise venue for the birthday meal was Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social, which won Time Out's best new fine-dining restaurant award last year. We have admired Jason since he won Great British Menu in 2008 and subsequently became a judge for the show (albeit a very stern one); so you can imagine our excitement at finally being able to try one of his menus.

Compared to somewhere like Pied A Terre, where we went two years ago for the same occasion, Pollen Street Social is more sleek and showy yet maintains a modicum of intimacy, despite the seemly endless processions of staff. Admittedly, it was surprisingly busy for early evening on a Tuesday; a good indicator of things to come, we thought. We were sat at a table from which Anna had a bird's eye view into the kitchen and near to which was the epicentre of all the waiter's activity - so no complaints there!

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we would have the tasting menu. So, after a brief perusal of the à la carte menu, we opted for the 7-course menu à degustation and ordered a couple of cocktails to whet our appetites. Anna's 'Curiously Clear Manhattan' was, well, curiously clear, being as it was made with unaged whiskey; and my Dry Martini (made, incidentally, with Death's Door - a very fine American gin) was expertly mixed.

Our amuse-bouche was a trio of olives, cod brandade, and the airiest of pork scratchings (imagine, bizarre as the image is, a pork skin meringue, only lighter). The meal began with the Cornish crab vinaigrette: a perfectly dressed crab with wafer-thin pear, pickled cauliflower and a small mound of peanut powder. Delicious. And the delicate crab wasn't overwhelmed due to the mildness and sparsity of the other ingredients.   

Scallop Ceviche

The same cannot be said of the scallop ceviche (above). It's always a pleasure to eat scallops (in fact most seafood) in a fine-dining restaurant since the best quality ones are usually prohibitively expensive to buy from the local fishmonger. When grilled, scallops take on a fuller flavour due to those lovely Maillard reactions; when 'cooked' in yuzu, the flavour is so subtle that even radish and cucumber drowned it out. The micro-planed horseradish snow was, however, sublime.

Slow-cooked egg

Next came a dish that could not fail to please. Chorizo. Patatas Bravas. Slow-cooked egg. Baked Potato Foam. Combine those four ingredients and you have in my humble opinion some of the best comfort food ever made. The best thing is getting all the flavour of a buttered baked potato without any of the stodge. 

Turbot next. More excitement at having a fish that is also particularly expensive. Perhaps the novelty of the flavour combinations was the reason for my not enjoying this dish. The fish was slightly under-seasoned but it was the coco beans with their pungently perfumed taste that really got in the way. The fish was well cooked, the bisque delicate and flavourful, the courgette nicely al dente, but my palate could just not comprehend those strange little beans.   

Cornish Turbot

The choice for the meat course was then between the duck or lamb. So, naturally, we chose a different dish respectively in the interest of culinary adventure.

The lamb (below) came with aubergine puree and olive reduction and a unappetizing swirl of brown stuff (what were they thinking!). It was described by Anna as tasting like a Turkish kebab. No bad thing obviously, but not much more interesting than that.

Salt marsh lamb

The duck was better but we couldn't help feeling a lack of imagination when it came to the main courses (and that the standard had started to slip in the kitchen). The braised leg and breast were both tender and moist, the purple sprouting broccoli looked a bit like felled trees, the mandarin and clementine jus wasn't as sharp as expected, and the jersualem artichoke was incredibly salty. 

Creedy carver duck

Hooray for the desserts! The food that came before could have been of the most mediocre sort and the meal would have been rescued by what followed. 

A beetroot and strawberry sorbet of the most exquisite texture was just what we needed after such rich main courses. The sorbet was adorned with the tastiest English strawberries I've ever had (apparently due to our mild spring) and a basil ash meringue (still not sure what this is, see photo).

Beetroot and strawberry sorbet

 It's always great to finish a meal with a panna cotta or a crême brulée - the creamy, unctuous mouthfeel is so satisfying. This time the panna cotta, a white chocolate and coconut version, was the best dessert we've had in recent memory. Served in a bowl, which is apparently customary since if it could support its own weight it would be too set, the rich panna cotta was dotted with mango, candied pistachios and topped with lemongrass granita. I can still taste it now. Simply amazing!  

White chocolate and coconut panna cotta

We ordered coffees feeling not as uncomfortably full as anticipated but then were undone by the smallest and cruelest of petit fours. We were presented with a single, tiny, innocent Madeleine that tipped us both over the edge. Damn you madeleine! Sluggishly we paid up and waddled to the nearest bar for a nightcap. 

The consensus among critics is that Jason Atherton is at the top of his game in London - a strong start and a stellar finish meant it certainly lived up to expectations, with informal and welcoming service throughout. If you can't or don't want to plump up the cash for the tasting menu, there's a very reasonably-priced lunch option.

A satisfied customer

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