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!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Yalla Yalla, Soho

On a recent trip to London, I met with my friend Hannah for some early evening drinks and dinner. I had left the decision-making of where to dine entirely up to her, which isn't something I usually feel comfortable with (note: not just for Hannah, but for anyone!). She'd assured me that she'd been there before and that the food was good. I'd been informed it was Lesbanese street food, so I was expecting something a little different to the loud music and bright lights of Yalla Yalla, hidden just far enough behind Oxford street to give it some breathing space from the hoards of tourists beating each other up with their huge Topshop and Uniqlo bags.

We decided to choose entirely from the mezze section of the menu as we are both secret fatties (see 2007: us as 16 year olds at Leeds festival eating Dairy Milk chocolate bars dipped into hot chocolate for breakfast) and like to try as much as is humanly possible. We were quite sensible this time and managed to reign ourselves in, which is also a good thing given the amount of pitta you end up filling-up on.

I was disappointed that they were out of Jawaneh Meshoue (chicken wings) but were told we could substitute it for another dish on the menu and have it at the same price. Cheapskates that we were (especially after drinking £8 cocktails on Wardour street), we went for the most expensive dish on the menu, the Lebanese equivalent of fritto misto - Makale Samak - sitting on a bed of crispy aubergine and garnished with pomegranate seeds, the latter a great trick in pronouncing something Lebanese. (I really wanted to try the chicken livers but Hannah's a wimp when it comes to stuff like that, so I'll blame her for what followed.)

At first, this dish was tasty, but as the batter wilted and the grease became more evident, it actually wasn't that nice. It was also a huge portion, particularly in comparison to the other dishes (normally, not a bad thing, but we couldn't finish this).

Baba Ghannouj - aubergine dip - was as good as any I've had. Garnised with mint and the compulsary pomegranate seeds.

Soujoc - essentially spicy sausage - insisted I order it. This lovely little morsel of meat can be found in an array of cuisines, from Turkish to Bulgarian. I first had it simply fried in Northern Cyprus with halloumi and pitta. This one came with tomatoes and parsley and was delicious; a dish that's hard to mess up.

Halloum Meshoue - oh, how I love halloumi. There isn't a better - or more fun - cheese. The squeaky sound it makes when slightly overcooked ensured a welcome introduction to cheese when the only other stuff I'd eat as a nine year old was mild cheddar. I'm sure this was probably fairly bog standard stuff but it was bloody tasty.

Apologies for the slight shake on the camera. Of course, we had to order their falafel, although I sort of wish we hadn't. They were huge, and definitely filling, and the accompanying salad was rather tasty but they weren't impressive, particularly not for a Lebanese restaurant. I'd rather eat the ones from Go Falafel at the end of Rusholme; now they do a good falafel.

The best dish of the night, and also the most unphotogenic, were some lovely little pastries - Samboussek Lahme - filled with lamb, onion confit and roasted pine nuts. These were delicious and I could have eaten several of them.... think: a dry lamb tagine encased in pastry. Greggs need to get these on their menu now, ha! I should also mention that you are given pitta and pickles as standard.

The food wasn't expensive, but nor was it cheap for food of this level. It seems that Yalla Yalla has caught on to the street food trend and is aiming itself at Londoners who don't fancy eating in a rundown Lebanese cafe (like the one by Marble Arch, whose name I forget, but which does amazing falafel). In general, it felt to me a bit like a Lebanese Wahaca, though not as good. I would go back, but only before my evening meal just to try an amuse of their chicken livers, if I have a willing accomplice.

Yalla Yalla
12 Winsley Street, London
020 7637 4748

Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 1 November 2012

October Foodie Pen Pals

I know, I know, it's November and I'm behind in blogging my parcel from last month, but these last few weeks have been super busy and I've generally been rubbish at life. We moved house, I quit a job, I've had three separate bouts of cold/flu & I am now looking for a job. Anyway, enough of my drivelling excuses, here's what I received from the lovely Sue at Sue In Training, all the way from Germany - my first international parcel!

My German GCSE came in handy
I was quite confused at first, especially with regards to the 'back-oblaten'. I really should be more patient, as there were instructions which helped explain everything. Sue had asked me about teas, and sent me a lovely little selection box of various herbal teas, which have complimented my home tea selection perfectly! The chocolate coated almonds are already half gone... very delicious! Inside there was also a madras curry spice grinder in the most beautiful packaging, quite a world away from the spice containers found in the supermarkets on the Curry Mile (where I have been spending a lot of time since our house move).

Now, for everything else... all of the other bits can be put together to make Lebkuchen! These are a perfect Christmas treat, and I shall definitely be making them in a few weeks time to get into the Christmas spirit. Even better, Sue said they usually last for a couple of weeks (if hidden from Jamie, I imagine) in an air-tight tin. I think I might even make some of these to give as Christmas presents, as I have decided to try and go home-made this year! I shall certainly blog about them so watch this space...

I sent my parcel to a lady called Rachael, who has two sons aged 3 and 6. She told me that they were as excited about the concept as her so I made sure there were some things she could share with them in it. Rachael didn't mention if she has a blog or twitter so I thought I'd show you what I sent her here:

Rachael had mentioned that she didn't drink caffeinated drinks so I sent her my favourite herbal teas. She also told me she had a sweet tooth so I sent some of my favourite Green & Blacks, & some healthy-ish chocolate coated rice crackers. I had the boys in mind for the yo yos, but I absolutely love these - and send them in nearly every box! Rachael had also asked me for some recipes so I included anchovy fillets to go with a broccoli, chilli & anchovy pasta dish which is so easy to make. I also wanted to send her some capers but my local supermarkets cater for students - meaning they have no interesting ingredients!! But I did still send a recipe for slow cooked mutton with leeks & capers which we will post here soon too...

Sign up for next month here.

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!