RSS
 

Archive for the ‘Elsewhere’ Category

Roman crumbs

07 Jun
The slipper lobster

The slipper lobster

Before we close the book on our little Roman escapade, I should mention the other treats we encountered.

Just south of the Spanish Steps, down the Via Borgognona is Nino, a tiny trattoria with dark wood panelling and high ceilings where the tables are very close together and the uniformed old waiters compete to see who can be the grumpiest. There are no secret places in that ritzy part of the city and Nino is a bit too proud of its unpretentious looks, self-consciously old-school ambience and  traditional Roman cuisine. Still, people fall under its spell. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes held their wedding rehearsal dinner there, according to the guide books, all of whom seem to be batting for Team Tom. The food is simple  – really good grilled fish, roast veal with potatoes, heavy pastas. The highlight was a bowl of the best straciatella I’ve ever tasted – pure chicken broth, nimbus-cloudlike egg, just enough parmiggiano.

Nino, Via Borgognona 11,  06/678 6752, www.ristorantenino.it.

On the advice of my friend Sid Cross, Vancouver wine and food guru, we had lunch at Perilli when we found ourselves south of the Aventine hill in the Testaccio area. It’s quite like Nino only far less self-aware and the prices are more than reasonable. The feel of the room reminds me of a railway restaurant from the 1960s with old posters and photographs on the wall and a faded mural of a rustic scene. The owner sits at a lectern near the kitchen door, occasionally rising to serve customers he knows from the small but excellent buffet of vegetable antipasti. They had told us at Nino that the artichoke season was over but that was nonsense and we started at Perilli with two perfectly poached little globes – artichokes in their tender adolescence. The prize there is the carbonara – heavy pasta tubes tossed tableside in a large bowl with an egg yolk sauce. The elderly curmudgeon who served us ladled some of it onto a plate for Wendy then set down the remaining majority in the mixing bowl before me. The real deal. Warning: avoid the house wine.

Perilli, Via Marmorata, 39, 06/5755100.

And then there was Crab, on the same street as the Hotel Lancelot, where we were staying, just east of the Colosseum. This is an expensive evening but worth it. Crab is a modern seafood restaurant, chic and glossy, with an irresistible display of oysters and seafood behind glass near the door. We started with a platter of raw seafood for two – four kinds of impeccable French Atlantic oysters, various species of prawns and clams, langoustines and mussels that had been briefly steamed. Then we shared a slipper lobster from Sardinia, also known as a cicala or “batti-batti.” If you’ve never seen one, slipper lobsters are extraordinary creatures, spectacularly primitive. They really do look like a clog but they are full of superbly flavourful meat. The restaurant serves this tender flesh out of the shell, cut into large chunks in a Catalan sauce that’s mostly emulsified olive oil and lemon juice like a warm, runny mayonnaise, surrounded by tart, firm little cherry tomatoes, raw onion, crunchy celery and soft boiled potatoes. It was the dish of the entire week and one of the most expensive things we’ve ever ordered. I misread the price as 17 euros a kilo but it was actually 17 euros a hectogram so the final price was 170 euros. Sheesh… But worth every cent.

Crab, Via Capo d’Africa, 2. 06/77203636.

 

 

Agata e Romeo

03 Jun
Wome

Wome

The highlight of the early days of this Roman holiday was dinner at Agate e Romeo, a small restaurant on a grand and sombre avenue near the crown of the Esquiline Hill. We thought we had stumbled across an undiscovered treasure but that turns out not to be the case – the ristorante already has a Michelin star and a loyal following among Rome’s cognoscente. Getting in can be a challenge. We had reserved online before leaving Canada – and  were obliged to share credit card details – but received no confirmation and could not reach the restaurant by phone once we got to Rome. So we just showed up at 7:00 p.m. outside the discreet entrance, looking smart and hoping for the best. The door was locked and we were wondering whether we shouldn’t just go round the corner to the always-reliable Trattoria Monti when a waiter appeared. “Momento.” He disappeared and came back with the chef and co-owner, Signora Agata Parisella, who looked us up and down and told us to come back in half an hour. We never did find out if they had registered our reservation but, once we were inside, the staff, led by chef’s husband, Romeo Caraccio, were entirely welcoming.

The dining room isn’t large or particularly posh (Agata Parisella’s forebears ran it as a porchetta joint back in the 1890s) but it has an idiosyncratic charm with hundreds of antique and vintage teapots displayed against the pale green walls and some colourful abstract canvases commissioned for the room. Downstairs, a fabulous modern wine cellar fills every nook and cranny – the pride and joy of host Romeo who was one of Rome’s first certified sommeliers, back in the day. We were served by his young lieutenant who proved perfectly adept at matching each dish we chose with something from the small list of wines available by the glass. We could have opted for the long tasting menu or a second set menu featuring some of the dishes Agata Parisella is best known for – including a renowned, super-rich version of spaghetti with cheese and pepper. Instead, we ordered à la carte and did not regret the decision.

The first amuse bouche was like a quick musical overture previewing some of the themes and stylistic nuances that lay ahead – three tiny, perfect, technically complex bites of food daintily set out on a plate. The first a slice of sea bass bottarga on a dab of ricotta, the bitter-salt marine flavour of the pressed roe delightfully contrasted with the bland, sweet cheese. The second was a miniature ball of crisp, greaseless golden batter concealing a zucchini flower and a dab of near-molten mozzarella. The third was a sphere of fried cheese, intensely flavourful and dramatically spiked with white pepper.

Then the breads arrived – four distinct and freshly made styles including tiny pizza, heavy foccacia and little round brioches in paper shells. Bread is so foten disappointingly dull or borderline stale in even quite good Roman restaurants that such bounty was a pleasant surprise.

The second amuse appeared – so simple but so amazing – about a tablespoonful of raw marinated whitebait, each no more than half an inch long with a wee black dot of an eye against the pale flesh. They were dressed with lemon juice and olive oil on a morsel of crisp bread and they tasted like the ozone-charged scent of the sea.

My first dish was Chef Agata’s vision of how oysters should be served. There were three huge, plump, firmish French Atlantic oysters removed from their wet shells and set upon the plate beside a nest of samphire. Daubed onto those tangled, crunchy green fronds were three shapes of white foam that turned out to be oyster mousse, as aromatic and salty as the ocean itself. The big contrast of the dish, like an island of earthy sweetness, was a ball of red onion ice cream. It sounds weird but it was no more than extrapolation of a mignonette, I suppose – strangely delicious and a brilliant purple colour, topped with a jaunty little yellow Szechuan button that I saved to the end, using it as a tongue-numbing finale to the dish. The young sommelier paired it with a sharpish, resonant 2010 Verdicchio from Bucci in Il Marche and it worked like a charm.

All this time, Wendy had been tucking in to her own first course, a five-part treatise on trout. She had smoked trout teisted into a rosette and used as a cup for trout roe with a stripe of fresh cream for dipping. There was cured trout smothered with a salad of aromatic seedlings. Then a slice of poached trout flattered by capers, sundreied tomatoes and chopped black olives. A little hill of trout mousse was topped with herb butter and a deep-fried scrunchion of ethereal pork fat. The final movement was a sliver of citrus-cured trout with a sauce of lemon, grapefruit and orange and a pearl of grapefruit sorbet. A wedge of black bread, twice-baked and both dyed and flavoured with cuttlefish ink, was a fine idea.

That bread reappeared with the pea soup, a super-rich purée so thick it held a peak until the bowl looked like a sculpture of the sea. Snow white against the green was a mound of slivered cuttlefish, marvellously tender and somehow managing to be both raw and warm.

By now we had twigged that Chef likes to take an ingredient and play with it every which way. Next up it was artichokes, still just in season in Rome and one of my favourite friends from the world of vegetables. Here, they came in disguise, turned into an artichoke crème brûlée; transformed into a delicate little tart like a miniature quiche with a grill-browned top and some flecks of bacon; fried as tempura; and finally simply steamed with a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint. All this as an accompaniment to four impeccably fried pieces of sweetbreads.

There are all sorts of reasons why main courses are often more straightforward than appetizers or the final dessert. It’s like a symphony, where the speed and invention of the first two movements give way to a more meditative slow movement before the final allegro vivace. To be sure, my main course of duck (breats sliced pink, leg frenched and confited, foie gras grilled with a zigzag of red fruits sauce and a wee quenelle of sticky black rice) and Wendy’s of lamb (three joined-up chops so pink and tender, a nest of fried shoestring potatoes) were perfectly executed. If they seemed somewhat conventional after the drama and fun of the apps, the effect was intentional. But the pre-dessert that followed set the ball spinning again. Just a shot glass with layers of various creams – a base of cake, about five millimetres thick, then sambucca-flavoured panna cotta, a plum fool, half a teaspoon of very dark chocolate sauce, a crystallized rose petal. It was by no means sweet but it roused the palate like nobody’s business.

And then dessert – “la fragola” – strawbery mousse topped with strawberry gelee on a whisper of sponge. Three chocolate-dipped strawberries. An intensely refreshing strawberry sorbet. A compote of strawberries and black pepper.

It was all splendid, quite expensive (a Michelin star does push the prices up) and I recommend the place highly. The web site and the business card disagree about whether they are open on Saturday nights but they are certainly closed on Sunday – and there’s no earthly point in showing up before 7:30. They’ll just send you away.

Agata e Romeo is at 45 Via Carlo Alberto. Telephone 06 4466115 (good luck, mate). www.agataeromeo.it.

 

 

 

When in Rome

30 May

la quercia

To Rome for a week of spontaneous vacation, spending the days slightly off the beaten track and finding some splendid treasures. We’re staying at the Hotel Lancelot which is lovely, quiet, friendly, very close to the Colosseum, and owned by Mrs. Khan, who was born in Grand-Prairie, Alberta, we discovered at dinner the first evening, though she has been in Rome for over 40 years.

There are parts of Italy – Puglia, for example – where it is impossible to find dull food, where even the humblest osteria will blow the buds away. Roman cuisine, on the other hand, is more simple and robust than passionate and wandering into the nearest little place or sitting down at a breezy table in the corner of a piazza is no guarantee of pleasure. So far we have found two restaurants worth writing home about.

Osteria La Quercia (23 Piazza della Quercia, 06 68300932, www.laquerciaosteria.com) is on a small square between the brilliant, charming and eccentric Palazzo Spada and the forbidden Palazzo Farnese. Local businessmen and French people who work at the French embassy inside the Palazzo Farnese come here for lunch, paying little attention to the modern wooden interior of the restaurant but concentrating hard on the food. Highlights of our experience included super baccalao carpaccio, the juicy slices of reconstituted salt cod sprinkled with poppy seeds, olive oil and lemon juice and flanked by two shavings of salty pecorino. Of course there were also stuffed zucchini flowers, which are everywhere at this time of year. Here, they filled them with mozzarella and anchovy, deep-fried them in a crispy batter and good fresh oil and served them on a square of brown paper.

For a main course, I had a very hearty and homespun mound of fried lamb’s liver and kidney (with soft onions and a bit of lamb’s brain) on toast – the offal exceptionally tender and fresh-tasting, the bread soaking up the tangy juices. Alongside it, a salad of puntarella was the ideal refreshing accompaniment. Puntarella is that weird kind of chicory that looks like a tangle of green and white pasta. It’s more stalk than leaf, crunchy, bitter and has a flavour somewhere between endive, fennel and celery. At La Quercia, they dress it in a thick, anchovy-scented dressing and top it with an anchovy fillet and black olive.

Wendy had a heavyweight pasta that looked like priest-stranglers tossed with a pigeon ragu, asparagus tips and shaved truffle – major carbs for a day hiking the Campo and Navona districts. We didn’t feel like dessert but the friendly waiter brought us slivers of apple cake and jam tart with our coffee. Thus fortified, we set off into the afternoon, heading for the museum devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte’s family, where we wandered entirely on our own through the dignified salons.

Next up – a spectacular dinner in Esquilino.

 

Christmas in Norfolk

31 Dec

Very flat, Norfolk

This Christmas we made our escape to Norfolk (England, not Virginia), renting a tiny 17th-century cottage near the coast. It was built as a royalist magazine during the English Civil War, cunningly disguised as a chapel to hide its stores of gunpowder and weaponry from the Puritans. They say there’s a secret tunnel leading from it to the sea but we never found it, preferring to hole up around the blazing log fire after dark, listening to the buffetting wind and walking on the vast, deserted beaches and sand dunes during the daytime. This is the Eastern bulge of England that sticks out into the cold, grey North Sea – marsh and wetlands and tidal channels down which the fishing boats creep to catch crabs and lobsters and small, flavourful brown shrimp. We bought some almost every day from a hut on Brancaster Staithe with bags of cockles, mussels and oysters as relish. The weather was gratifyingly bleak and rainy but we had mornings of unexpected sunshine and nights when the wind died away around three a.m. and the full moon shone like a searchlight through the mullioned windows of our attic bedroom.

Local mussels at Titchwell Manor

We ate very well, needless to say. For Wendy’s birthday dinner we splashed out at The Neptune  (one Michelin star) in Old Hunstanton and tasted grilled partridge breast with sweet red endive leaves, dots of quince jam and dainty sandwiches of fried brioche filled with a paté made from the bird’s lights. We followed that with lobster agnolotti and juicy kohlrabi in a lightweight lobster bisque. Then perfect fillets of baby halibut with crosnes and artichoke hearts.

There were many other feasts, of course. When our daughter came up from London to spend a few days we took her out to lunch at Titchwell Manor for pails of  huge, glossy local mussels steamed with butter and shallots and turbot fillets with hollandaise, roast chestnuts and brussels sprout leaves – a side of green kale with chopped white anchovies almost stole that particular show.

Brancaster oysters, each one the size of a serving spoon

Our favourite spot, however, turned out to be the White Horse at Brancaster, a pub on the edge of the salt flats that stretch out for miles towards the sea. They serve local oysters there – huge, soft, creamy ones that taste of melon and brine and go down spectacularly well with a malty ale called The Wreck, brewed in the village. I couldn’t resist the lemon sole amandine but Wendy’s choice was even better – a slab of grilled smoked haddock perched on a mound of smashed potatoes with wilted spinach and a final flourish of chive oil. Unpretentious pub food, but as good as it gets anywhere. If only we had had time to see our friends in London, but we stayed away from cities this time. Notwithstanding, it was an altogether splendid holiday.

 

 

Philip’s mezethes

26 Aug

My koubaros relaxing

So we went up to Philip’s bar the other night for the much-anticipated mezethes. I should begin by explaining that Philip has owned and run the kafeneion for as long as we have been coming to Loutses – 33 years. Back in the ’70s, it was one of several places to find a drink in the village – a long, crowded room that was as much a community centre as a pub, with a wood stove in the winter and peanut shells on the floor. It also boasted the only telephone in Loutses and we would wait our turn to step into the private closet to call home. Sometimes it took half an hour to get through to England or Canada; sometimes it didn’t work at all. Philip befriended us and we befriended him; he stood as godfather at our son’s christening, to the astonishment of the local priest who hadn’t seen Philip in his church for decades. In doing so, he became our koubaros and we became koubaros and koubara (surely the same root word as the Neapolitan “gumba”) to his entire family.

Over the years, that relationship has endured. The bar is smaller now since Philip’s renovation in the 1980s and is decorated with a lifetime of souvenirs including paintings of Philip and his late father, Leonidas, arcane photographs, a lithograph of Hopper’s Nighthawks, a ballerina’s shoe from the time when we lent our house to a group from the National Ballet of Canada, some taxidermical caymans from Philip’s time in the Merchant Navy, etcetera, etcetera… This summer, he decided to add a gastronomical component, building a small but very well-equipped kitchen behind the bar and bringing in Spiros Syriotis as chef and partner in the enterprise. There are smart new blue tables and chairs outside on the terrace that overlooks the valley and a new air of energy as locals and tourists and English expat residents drop by to wile away the evenings and watch the newish moon set behind the hills like a sliver of tangerine in a Martini.

Philip provided a great many recipes that Wendy and I used in our book, A Kitchen in Corfu (about to be republished in England) and we have eaten many splendid dinners with him in his home behind the kafeneion. He has an organic garden and much of the produce that now goes into the mezethes comes from there. I reminded him of an antique method for preserving fish by frying it and then confiting it with vinegar, rosemary and raisins. He chuckled and disappeared into the kitchen, re-emerging with a saucer of the identical fish (firm and sweet and tangy and altogether scrumptious) along with some delicate white anchovy fillets marinated in olive oil, vinegar and garlic.

Chef Spiro’s offering were more in the meaty line – small pieces of very tender pork, some in a piquant sauce of mustard, vinegar and rosemary, others in a different treatment of tomato and hot paprika served with crisp fried potatoes and halved cherry tomatoes from the garden. There was chicken in a sweeter, herb-fragrant tomato sauce, and juicy keftedakia – crisp-surfaced little meatballs of minced beef, garlic, onion, parsley and breadcrumbs. When some of our friends held a mosaic school at the bar over a long weekend in June, Spiro made tiny vegetable pies of pumpkin and zucchini in phyllo – irresistible.

Baked feta with philip's tomatoes and peppers

Why start offering food after so many years of refusing his friends’ pleading requests to feed them? Philip shrugs and cites the economy. “When things don’t go so well,” he explains, “I act. Instead of crying and complaining and lying on a sofa feeling sorry for myself, I adapt. I found someone I can trust in Spiro, and we will see what happens. I don’t know how long the experiment will last. I may get tired of it. For now, it’s enjoyable and people seem to like it.”

To be sure, it adds a delicious new dimension to life in Loutses. My favourite dish was feta baked in a shallow earthenware platter with baby tomatoes and hot green peppers until the cheese was almost liquid. Triangles of Spiro’s homemade pita bread were the perfect utensil for digging in. Tomorrow there will be other things on the menu, depending on what is growing in the garden. To wash it down, nothing beats a stoop of Philip’s own rosé wine or a bottle of his own rosé “champagne” – an entirely unexpected creation aged in his apothiki storeroom that combats the relentless heat of Greece in August to perfection.

 

On the road

23 Aug

Alongside a quay in Stockholm, this extraordinary piece of art draws attention to the plight of refugees everywhere.

On to Stockholm for four or five days – a city I had never seen but must now place high on the list of favourites. We came upon free rock concerts just across the water from the Parliament buildings, paused to admire the mounted brass band and timpani of the Royal Guard as they played in the courtyard of the Palace, visited some exceptional museums (especially the one built to house the Vasa, that remarkable but unlucky ship that sank after sailing only a few hundred yards on her maiden voyage in 1628) and tasted many delicious things. Best of all was the grilled reindeer at Slingerbulten (incredibly tender, lean, sweet meat) and the mildly salted bleak roe on fried bread at Sture Hof. Almost as good was a dinner in one of the labyrinthine basement rooms of Den Gyldene Freden – a bit of a tourist trap but full of charm. I had heavy cured herring with capers and perfect little boiled new potatoes; delicate, much more lightweight herring with sour cream and a bitter spicy edge from horseradish; sweeter, saltier herring with honey and cherries; and cheese that had been drowned in aquavit for two days. These dishes comprised the first course, to be followed by wild duck (the breast pink and pleasingly tender, the leg frenched and confited).

Wendy and I had hoped to visit our old friend Goran Amnegard who has built an extraordinary hotel/restaurant/vineyard a couple of hours west of the city (his Vidal Icewine wins prizes regularly at the major French wine fairs) but he and his family were away on holiday in Italy. Next time…

Then it was a quick hop to Berlin where we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a lavish dinner at the 2-Michelin-starred Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer. The room was delightful – like a peaceful library in a large country house but with a view of the Brandenburg Gate – and the service exemplary. Chef Hendrick Otto’s cooking is in the very haute modern French-European style – complex and clever and evolved. Every component is orchestrated to the nines but such is his mastery of harmony that nothing is ever remotely dissonant: it’s like listening to Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic – super if you love Haydn. A parfait of goose liver for example, was graced with brioche cream, orange, coffee and polenta, the natural texture of each ingredient transformed… Silver salmon received the blessing of a white bean fumé, an escabeche of vegetables, tiny cubes of jellied salt water as well as mango and bell pepper. Scallop and pork belly flirted with a curry emulsion, moments of banana, fennel, artichoke and passion fruit… And so on. The wines chosen by the sommelier were all fine but nothing breathtakingly good and original – things like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner that seem fairly commonplace in Toronto (I was hoping for some spectacular German wines). But it was all very fine but ultimately not nearly as satisfying and pleasurable as the whole turbot we shared for lunch the next day down on Quarré’s sidewalk tables along Unter der Linden. It’s not a fish one comes across often any more – and I can’t really afford it when I do – but we were still under the anniversary spell.

And now we are in Corfu, at our old house, getting ready to go up to the bar where our koubaros, Philip (aka Pakis) has finally decided the moment has come to offer food as well as drink. He has built a small but impressive kitchen, taken on a business partner in a chef called Spiro, and proposes a small menu of mezethes that will change every night according to the whim of the management. We have been asking Philip to do food for more than 30 years but he has always dismissed the idea, though he is a fabulous cook. How will tonight’s mezethes turn out? Please watch this space.

 

The Admiral Codrington

23 Feb

Three cheers for the Admiral

Admiral Sir Edward Codrington GBC RN (1770-1851) was not one of Nelson’s original Band of Brothers – the captains who fought under him at the Battle of the Nile – but he certainly belongs in the broader Band. He commanded HMS Orion heroically at the Battle of Trafalgar, went on to become Captain of the Fleet, fighting the Americans, during the War of 1812 and later defeated the combined Turkish and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino. So it’s no wonder that there should be a London pub named after him – the Admiral Codrington on Mossop Street, a quiet backwater around the corner from the posh Chelsea neighbourhood of Sloane Avenue and Draycott Place, home to Daphne’s and Bibendum and other renowned and ludicrously expensive eateries.

            Many a London pub has closed its doors in recent years; others have struggled to reinvent themselves as restaurants. “The Cod” does so with distinction, retaining the proper ambience of a pub in the bar while adding on a long dining room at the back, decorated in a cheerful but dated 1990s style and featuring (who knows why?) a retractable glass roof. The roof was closed recently when I had dinner there with my daughter and her fiancée and we sat in a comfortable green velvet booth and told each other outlandish stories.

            I was impressed with the service and with the food. The menu is eclectic but nothing we ordered was anything less than excellent. I started with tender squid rings that had been deep-fried in a crisp, robust, fish-and-chip-style batter then smothered in finely sliced green chilies and chopped scallions and strewn with coriander and salt. The scrunch of batter and the tongue-tingling hit of chili proved distractingly pleasurable.

The artichoke splayed

            Clams can so often end up like little nubbins of India rubber snipped from the blunt end of a pencil – especially those tiny palourde clams that usually meet their maker as spaghetti vongole. The Cod, however, steams them to a becoming tenderness and piles them in their shells into a bowl of lightweight but intensely flavoured broth featuring flecks of smoked bacon, chopped shallots and fresh, sliced sage. It’s heavenly, slicked up with a final knob of butter and, but for the necessary work of extricating the clams, the whole thing would be gone in a trice.

            I don’t often see a whole globe artichoke on a menu – certainly not in February – but we ordered it and were not disappointed. The picture gives some idea of the attractive presentation – outer leaves pulled off leaving the heart like a conical alien bloom. The kitchen serves it with a thickly emulsified vinaigrette for dipping and a deliciously stiff walnut aioli. And I couldn’t resist seeing how they did a Welsh Rarebit. Pretty good, was my verdict – nicely seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, the melted cheddar rich and bubbling on crusty brown toast though there was too much Dijon in the recipe… Ah, but my WR standards are impossibly high having been set long ago by my Grandmother’s impeccable version.

            Mains took matters to a new level. I had the Cod’s cod – a big fillet of moist white fish that parted into juicy petals at the touch of my fork. The fish had been thrice coated – once with a layer of tomato purée, then with a waistcoat of mushroom duxelles and finally with a green blanket of breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme and grated parmesan that held together under the heat. A most accomplished dish.

            Grilled Dorset lamb cutlets were the cod’s equal – the meat good and lamby with a sweet layer of fat and the proper, slightly chewy texture that speaks of actual grazing in green pastures. A gratin of very thinly sliced swede reminded me how much I love the flavour of that particular root (we call it rutabaga here) while caramelized onions and salty little capers completed the dish.

            Desserts are usually worth waiting for when you eat at a pub – definitely so here. Sticky toffee pudding was almost too sticky, almost too buttery and too thoroughly drowned in toffee – almost. Vanilla panna cotta was as rich and slippery as a Russian billionaire.

            You can find the Admiral Codrington at 17 Mossop Street, London SW3. 020 7581 0005. www.theadmiralcodrington.co.uk.

 

Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis

01 Jun

L'exterieur

When Canadian friends are going to London the question they never ask is “What is the best restaurant in London?” What they do want to know is “Where is a good little place to eat that doesn’t cost the earth?” So I have been looking for such a gem, while also thinking of next July when I’ll be hosting some Canadians over here for the Olympics, courtesy of Gold Medal Plates. Tonight we went to check out Chabrot, a 65-seat bistro in a tiny alleyway running between Knightsbridge and the park, just a pierre’s jetée from Harrods.

Open about three-and-a-half months, it’s the fulfilled ambition of four friends – society florist Pascal Lavorel, wine guru Philippe Messy, Yann Chevris, who set up a number of big-name spots such as Nahm, Nobu London and Atelier Joel Robuchon, and chef Thierry Laborde, who worked at Le Gavroche and with Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV. The name this influential quartet chose refers to a ritual from the Dordogne whereby gourmands pour a little wine into the bottom of their soup bowls to allow every last drop of potage to be consumed. Suitably obsessive… The credentials of the partners caught my eye, to be sure, but so did the menu, gleaming with treats from the south-west of France – sardines marinated in white wine; grilled black pudding with cooked apple; whole roasted foie gras for two (or three); cabbage stuffed with veal, chestnut, foie gras and ceps… So off we went.

The premises are hard to find. Cabbies know Knightsbridge Green and there is a cluster of little restaurants in the knuckle of the laneway that turns back southwards to Knightsbridge. Chabrot lies to the north, up a narrow passage where cars cannot go. It’s a slender little property on two storeys run by a team of young and anxious French people who try very hard to be friendly. We were guided up the steep flight of stairs to a wedge of a salon with painted brick walls, a wooden floor, tiny tables clad in red-and-white striped linen of industrial tea-towel weight, hard wooden chairs and large framed sepia photographs of French bistro scenes. “This will be noisy when the other tables fill up,” we surmised – and so it proved. Good reviews have ensured the place is packed, even on a Tuesday night. A lone waitress coped womanfully with our storey, keeping her temper, bringing excellent crusty brown bread and sweet, firm butter, giving us time to read the menu carefully. The dishes here are unabashedly simple – almost too simple, some might say, though others would disagree. It’s a tough call.

plain but very good - the broad bean salad

A salad of broad beans and ewe cheese is a case in point. The wee dish offered some absolutely impeccable, timed-to-perfection and shelled broad beans with a hint of mint. They were crowned with a dollop of sweet, bland sheep’s milk cheese with the texture of cottage cheese and the same amount of flavour. A sprinkling of piment d’espalette powder, south-west France’s gentle answer to paprika, added a soupcon of seasoning. A dose of very good olive oil offered much more. It was a brilliant little dish, such as one makes for a picnic montage in a Merchant-Ivory film when love is running hot and smooth. Puritan gourmets say “oui, superbe,” but others who might have hoped for a bit more dash and imagination grumble.

Ditto a dish billed as warm duck liver paté. If you have made paté you know there’s a moment when everything is cooked and warm in the pan and ready to be mashed and pressed and cooled into a paté. One can’t help but taste it. Well this dish has arrested the process at that point, presenting a ramekin of warm chopped and sautéed duck liver with capers, herbs and oily juices. Beside it is a giant gougère, the size of three Yorkshire puddings with some Comté cheese baked into the crust. It’s hollow of course, as a gougère should be, but where most gougères are dainty and ethereral little bites this one is the size of a child’s head. So we break bits off and use the undulating hollows of choux pastry as receptacles for a little of the embryonic pate. It tastes wonderful but the premise is a little like eating raw cake mix. What might this dish have been if the paté had been made? As Bubble used to answer in Absolutely Fabulous, Who can say?

Marinated sardines in white wine vinegar are a yummy crowd-pleaser, the fillets firm and juicy, just tangy enough. They come topped with chopped cherry tomato, chopped white grapes for sweetness, shredded basil and tiny dice of oil-fried croutons, crunchy and juicy with good olive oil. Again, it’s lovely but far from special.

my petit chou

Mains loom out of the menu and I find I can’t resist the stuffed cabbage leaves – savoy leaves as it turns out – my favourite cabbage. Inside is a dense meatloaf of finely ground veal studded with soft nuggets of chestnut and cep, enriched with foie gras. On top are some crunchy little croutons and a few burst cranberries which bring the whole thing to life, for the flavours of the cabbage roll are gentle and wistful, like an auntie’s kiss on the forehead. The tart cranberries have decided to make trouble but there are too few of them to bring the too-too-solid flesh to life.

Grilled octopus skewers, partially breadcrumbed, are as tender as the night. That espalette paprika makes a repeat appearance but has nothing to say it didn’t say already. A warm salad of halved fingerling potatoes in olive oil and lemon juice is divine. “But is it art?” Again the question arises.

Paillard de veau is a piece of veal beaten and tortured until it’s as thin as vellum then grilled and sprinkled with rosemary and sage. Any Italian would scoff, having tasted the tender Milanese equivalent. A small mound of well-dressed salad leaves on the side of the plate murmur comments without getting involved.

ma baba avec son verre d'Armagnac

Oui, we had desserts. A bowl of gariguette strawberries with crème chantilly – very nice but too polite and the cream was too sweet to be wicked. Praline ice cream – excellent, but ice cream usually is. I had a baba (okay mostly so I could look the waitress in the eye and say “a baba!”) but this was served in an unusual way. The baba lay in a bowl beside a pillow of crème chantilly looking enchanting, but as I admired it the server whispered that I must now choose one of three vintage Bas Armagnacs (at decidedly vintage prices) to complete the experience. There was also a cheaper hors d’age Armagnac she confessed, but she made a most discouraging face when she mentioned that one. I chose the 1979 and awesome it was, though I couldn’t make out the producer’s name on the label. The waitress poured it into a snifter and murmured that I should now soak the spongey, very fresh, slightly syrup-impregnated baba with the precious eau de vie. Quelle dilemma, mes amis! To pour or not to pour? Whether tis better to annoint the baba or save the armagnac til later – that is the question. I decided to soak my cake and eat it while cunningly saving half the generous snifter for a post-baba libation! Lights flash, bells ring! That is the right thing to do.

There is wine at Chabrot – a lovely list indeed, strong in french regional bottles from cool, well-chosen producers but at London prices, which are higher than we are used to in Canada. The final verdict? We had a good time but next time I will fall back on a more comfortable favourite across the road – Racine.

Closed on Sundays, Chabrot is open for lunch and dinner. 9 Knightsbridge Green, London SW1X 7QL, 207 225 2238, www.chabrot.co.uk.

 

Slouching to Jerusalem part three

18 Mar

The road to Jericho

 

Overheard in the crazily crowded alleyways of the covered shuk in the heart of old Jerusalem’s Moslem quarter, an earnest English dad telling his equally earnest five-year-old daughter: “Yes, I promise we’ll absolutely keep an eye out for camels.”

The concert in Jerusalem is a resounding success. The program is part of the ongoing exploration of chamber music written by exiled composers of the 1930s, men such as Miecyslaw Weinberg, Walter Braunfels, Paul Ben-Haim, as well as the more renowned Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold, who were persecuted by the Nazis or by Stalin’s regime and whose work is rarely heard. Simon Wynberg is Artistic Director of the Artists of the Royal Conservatory ensemble and has a passion for reviving this remarkable music. Hearing it played so exquisitely in Jerusalem of all places adds an extra emotional resonance. Many people in the audience are old enough to be emigrés themselves – children at the time of the holocaust – and it is impossible not to hear the music as some kind of testament from the past, poignant with thoughts of what was lost or might have been created.

 Next day, the musicians fly out to Amsterdam for two concerts at the Concertgebouw; Wendy and I head off into the Judaean desert, driving to a beach beside the Dead Sea to wallow in the strange, opaque, silky water and smear our startled skins with black mud. Then on to Jericho, prowling the archeological remains of the world’s oldest city. Wendy has a degree in Ancient Near Eastern Studies and is highly over-excited, leaning over the rail to ogle Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s trench and the incrdibly well preserved base of the oldest defensive tower ever excavated. The nearby ruin of an 8th-century Umayyad palace is even more spectacular, though utterly deserted except for the custodian of the site, a thoroughly urbane gentleman in a tan suit and tie who makes wry jokes in impeccable English and has clearly stepped straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Our cab driver, Abdullah, is more interested in boasting about the qualities of the miniature bananas grown in the oases of Jericho. To make the point, he pulls over to the side of the road and buys us a hand of the little beauties. I thought they were going to be sticky or overly sweet like long yellow dates but the truth isn’t nearly so crude. Even in their skins they have a fresh banana aroma that is most compelling. When peeled, each one is as long as my index finger, fragrant, perfectly textured between ripe and firm and with a surprisingly subtle but persistent banana flavour – altogether delectable.

The cat at Manta Ray using powerful hypno-vision to charm steak from Wendy's plate

And then back to Tel Aviv for our last evening in Israel. A week has changed everything. From cold horizontal rain and crashing breakers it is suddenly summer, the sea a placid, glittering blue, the combed beaches crowded with sunbathers and frisbee players. Cyclists and joggers jostle along the miles of promenade; families stroll with ice cream cones. The afternoon is perforated by the endless, arythmic percussion of wooden bat and hard rubber ball – beach tennis – played all day long until the sound of it threatens to bring madness.

For our last dinner we walk back along the beach towards Jaffa to Manta Ray, a renowned, 12-year-old seafood restaurant built out onto the sand. It’s a ramshackle semi-circular construction that shows a glass façade to the sea and its unadorned rear end to the city but it looks cool after dark with huge amphorae filled with pussy willow boughs reaching up to the blue plank ceiling, six-foot photographs of faces superimposed onto glass, wooden troughs full of perfect vegetables. Tourists and locals are equally at home here, jollied into the details of the menu by a staff of self-confident young women. While considering our options, we drink Onyx Chardonnay 2006 from the Benyamina region, a wine that is showing its age in a rather sexy way, the bloom of fresh fruit departed but a worldly-wise, oxidative character creeping in, the structure still firm.

By now, we are used to the pattern of a meal in this part of the world – the same Ottaman-inspired routine as in Greece or Turkey, Lebanon or Armenia, that begins with bread and a dozen salads on little plates. Here at Manta Ray, those salads are far more inventive than usual and most involve seafood. The server sets a great tray of them beside the table and invites us to choose as many as we like. I’ll just stick with the highlights: a jumble of soft chickpeas, pitted black olives, sliced calamari (beguilingly tender) and slivers of crunchy kohlrabi, all in oil and lemon and parsley. Another intriguing and ultimately delicious combination involved cold steamed cauliflower florets, chopped apple and onion and dots of a soft, white, creamy cheese. Then there was a forthrightly acidic ceviche of fresh sea bass, onion and crunchy raw fennel: the final effect was closer to pickled herring than anything South American, but none the worse for that since I love pickled herring. Shelled shrimp and chunks of ripe canteloupe hiding in baby spinach leaves turned into a game of hunt the protein, the sweet melon-juice dressing a tad overwhelming.

Sea bass with gnocchi at manta Ray

One of the main courses was particularly notable – fresh sea bass simply pan-fried and served with soft, middleweight gnocchi, whole cashews and chunks of juicy eggplant that seemed to be masquerading as mushrooms all in a thick rich butter sauce flavoured with coriander and cured lemon.

The cat that owns the restaurant, a zaftig jellicle cat who looks as though he’s wearing a Mexican wrestler’s mask, instantly spotted a patsy in my wife and ended up with most of the decent entrecote steak she had ordered. Dessert was too scrumptious to share – a glossy beige log of fluffy halva mousse (so sweet but so irresistible) served with crushed cocoa nibs, “halva strings” that looked like asbestos but tasted divine, and a crunchy tuile wafer speckled with nigella and sesame.

And now it’s back to Toronto to launch Harry Rosen’s new web site and wait for our brief, intense northern springtime to show up.

halva mousse - a brilliant confection

 

Jerusalem

14 Mar

Moon over the Red Sea, a dessert at La Rotisserie, Jerusalem

Before we left for Israel, I asked a few friends where we should eat. Bonnie Stern very sweetly emailed me back a bunch of excellent recommendations. Passionate about Israel’s amazing produce and fascinating new gastronomic scene, Bonnie just got back from co-leading her fourth culinary trip to the country, sharing the captaincy with rabbi Elyse Goldstein who covers all aspects cultural and spiritual. It sounds like a great way to see – and taste – the  country, for there is much to be said for having a guide in these parts, especially in the old walled city of Jerusalem where so many cultures, faiths and philosophies are superimposed. Bonnie’s advice has also been invaluable when we made a rendezvous with our friends and needed somewhere to eat where we could be sure the food was excellent and the prices reasonable. Left to our own devices, Wendy and I have encountered a mixed bag in terms of quality, though one or two places have been exceptional.

Last night we followed Bonnie’s guidance and ate at La Rôtisserie. This is part of the Notre  Dame de France Roman Catholic complex built by the Assumptionist Fathers in 1887 and restored to pristine splendour in the 1970s. No one would guess there was a restaurant in there (our friends’ taxi drivers were totally foxed) or that it would be so elegant, a modern space of white stone walls and vaulted ceilings with a very chic bar. Tables are dressed in snowy linen and embroidered grey cloths: it looks like a million dollars so we were all pleasantly surprised that the bill came to only about $40 per person, before wine (all right it was quite a lot more than that, cum vinis).

Fried eggs... or are they?

La Rôtisserie is the domain of Spanish chef Rodrigo Gonzalez-Elias who brings some pretty sophisticated and contemporary notions into play while not forgetting such classics as pata negra ham, foie gras or steak tartare. I started with three soft, superbly tender baked red onions stuffed with soft apricots and crushed pistachios set in a shallow pool of chive-scented cream. It was one of those dishes where you have to be careful loading the fork to achieve the ideal effect, a correct balance not overburdened with fruit or onion. My main course, paupiettes of sole wrapped in bacon, were expertly done, crusted in breadcrumbs then fried and served over a lemon and saffron sauce. Sole has the ideal texture for the dish but there’s always the danger that the bacon will take over in the flavour department.

Chef really lets rip with his desserts, borowing some techniques from the molecular gastronomes and showing a flair for whimsy. Witness “Moon over the Red Sea,” a food-painting on a black plate with tahina sorbet, honey sorbet and date ice cream as the principal mediums and a beach of granola. I ordered “fried eggs,” the lacy-edged whites made of creamed lebanese cheese thickened with xantian, the yolks two runny-centred, wobbly balls of peach purée that burst at the touch of the fork – very egg-like and clever and yummy over sliced butter cake “toasts.”

(La Rôtisserie restaurant & bar is inside the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, 3 Paratrooper’s Road (just outside the New Gate of the Old City), 02 627 9111.)

The night before, we had a very different but equally memorable experience. We’re staying at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a gorgeous hotel that was once an Ottaman pasha’s palace before being taken over by a family of American philanthropists, the Spaffords, in the 1880s. They turned part of it into a hotel circa 1902 and it was a particular favourite of Lawrence of Arabia. These days, it is one of a couple of places that are seen as “neutral territory” by both Arabs and Jews and the charming Cellar Bar with its discreetly dim lighting and low, vaulted ceilings is often full of murmurous diplomats and journalists.

Pasha's wonderful meze

In this neighbourhood, restaurants outside the hotel are Palestinian and we found a fine spot a ten-minute walk away. From the outside, Pasha’s looks like any number of places in Greece or Turkey – a bungalow with a private garden where fans of the hubbly-bubbly hookah can hang out unmolested. We left it up to the owner to feed us as he thought fit which turned out to be a preliminary spread of 15 different salads. You can see from the picture how lovely they looked to our hungry eyes. Aside from one dish of insipid canned mushrooms, everything had a personality of its own, the commonality being a lightness of touch in terms of spicing and also, more importantly, texture. I’ve never had kubbeh or falafel so light, the shells crisp, the insides fluffy and moist and gone in a trice. Experience has taught us discretion where these meze are concerned so we found room for the main course of grilled lamb chops, cut thin, and kebabs of impeccably moist chicken, lamb and oniony minced lamb. We drank Taybeh, a local beer like a honey lager, and a pretty decent arak. It was only later we found out that there is another more adventurous menu of domestic Arab dishes such as Lamb spleens stuffed with garlic and parsley, or mansaf of seasoned lamb cooked with pine nuts and served with rice and Bedouin yogurt. Next time… (Pasha’s is at 13 Shimon Hazadik Street, East Jerusalem. 02 582 5162.)

What next? Tonight we attend the concert given by the Artists of the Royal Conservatory. Watch this space.