Archive for the ‘England’ Category

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.



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.


Christmas in London

27 Dec

Lodovico - bravissimo

This is Lodovico, a most self-possessed and well-behaved infant. He and I sat across from each other for Christmas lunch at the Savoy and I can only say that in terms of la gourmandise, he left me in the dust. The empty dish before him was his second bowl of polenta. Before that he had enjoyed some of Gordon Ramsay’s “pumpkin soup” (spread across a side-plate to cool by his father, who is a chef and owns a super restaurant in the Abruzzo). Lodovico and I were both guests at a wonderful party for 27 hosted by very dear friends of my mother in a private salon called the D’Oyly Carte room, just on the left of the American Bar. It is an annex of the Savoy Grill downstairs, a restaurant now in G Ramsay’s portfolio, and was the perfect location for the festive gathering. Somehow the kitch art-deco horror vacui of the newly redecorated Savoy has not reached this charming chamber, which was once a most discreet little bar where the theatre producer Michael Codron used to host famous lunches when I was a nipper. I was never privy to those glamorous occasions but my mother remembers them well.

I had been looking forward to the Ramsay version of the Christmas feast and much of it was lovely – the turkey itself, to be sure, and the awesome roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts with bacon – and the pigs in blankets (chipolatas wrapped in bacon and roasted) once they had been sent back to the oven to achieve a crisping and a tan. But the great man nodded where the Christmas pudding was concerned – pale, bland mounds, gummy with flour, that tasted as though they had been rustled up that morning, not last year, and came with a sort of brandy butter aïoli that was a very far cry from the echt hard sauce which was always my brother’s speciality. We began with a studied collation of smoked fish – salmon, mackerel and sturgeon with a horseradish mousse, buckwheat blinis and devilled quail’s eggs. My mother can’t eat oysters so she asked the waiter to make sure there were none on the plate. Alas, he misunderstood and set down six perfect Colchester beauties before her instead of the fish. As soon as he was gone we swapped our plates so everyone ended up happy. Very happy, to be sure, for the company and the conversation was stellar and the wines magnificent – Domaine Didier Morion Vent d’Anges 2008 Condrieu with the fish and Hudelot Noellat Chambolle Musigny 2004 with the bird.

For me, it was a flying visit to Lunnun Tarn but there were other culinary highlights. The city looked pristine, though it seemed oddly quiet on my late-night perambulations, walking through the echoing labyrinth of Chelsea streets I grew up in, now empty and guarded and somewhat foreign, though marinated in my own nostalgia. England’s economic austerity can be felt. I hope it will prove to be the carfeully controlled deep breath before the glorious plunge into the Olympics this coming summer.

Meanwhile my mother roasted pheasants for our first supper (living in Canada, I crave game that has been properly hung in the feather) and then we turned the carcases into a spectacular soup. I found some dressed Essex crabs no bigger than the saucer of an espresso cup and ate far too many of them. There was a very memorable Vacherin at its unctuous Yuletide best – and my mum taught me her recipe for Welsh cakes. Dear friends of my youth, neglected this time around, I shall have you all over for tea when I come back in the spring and we shall see how well I have learned the technique.

And then it was Victoria Station at six o’clock in the morning, the hell of Gatwick and Easyjet to Athens and Olympic to Kerkyra… And here I am tonight in room 52 of the Cavalieri hotel in Corfu Town, the esplanade warm and dry under a new moon, the streets bright with Christmas lights and thronged with merry-makers – but more of that anon.




A little bit more Yorkshire

09 Jun

There's a welcome in the Dales...

This sign was spotted in the front window of the Green Dragon pub in the Yorkshire Dales. I imagine it’s a joke as I can’t believe anyone in that idyllic part of the world would harbour such a grudge against the flower people. Then again…

As predicted, dinner at the Wensleydale Heifer proved spectacular. My roast hake was especially good, a perfectly timed slab of the soft white fish, its texture somewhere between that of plaice and haddock, its flesh juicy beneath a crisp skin. The chef had set it above a ragout of chopped chorizo sausage, white beans, red pepper and brown shrimp – a merry-go-round of flavours that still allowed the fish its due – so simple but very delectable. Gastronomically this meal was the highlight of the week, an opinion with which our guide, Mark Reid, concurred. He ordered fish and chips and pronounced them to be some of the best he had ever had. From a Yorkshireman that is high praise indeed.

On the following evening I encountered another unique treat at a restaurant called Chaste, in Hawes in Wensleydale. This was a liquid treasure, a “gin” made from cider apples by a gentleman called William Chase, creator of the famous Chase vodka. His tale is an interesting one. A potato farmer, Mr. Chase provided the raw material for Tyrrell’s crisps, a popular brand of potato chip. Alas, there was a row with the supermarkets that sold the crisps and Chase found himself with a great many potatoes on his hands. He turned them into a vodka that went on to win the prize as Britain’s best vodka. The apple gin is his latest venture, a clear spirit with some of the sweetness of Calvados but unaged and laid over with juniper and other traditional gin botanicals. It’s rich, fruity, nicely spiced and rather powerful at 48% alcohol by volume. Brilliant with tonic.

Bolton Castle, glimpsed from the maze

Forgive the dashing about in this posting, the lack of linear narrative, but now I will whisk you miles up Wensleydale to Bolton castle, towering above the village of Castle Bolton. It’s open to the public but our Gold Medal Plates group was fortunate enough to have a private tour from Tom Orde-Powlett, whose family has owned the castle since it was built in 1399. Parts of it, including the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots stayed, are in remarkably good nick and there is a handsome little garden and falconry demonstrations involving a number of different owls and raptors. To the delight of our party, lunch had been laid on in the Great Hall – a feast of smoked salmon followed by a fabulous selection of local pies and cheeses including the creamy, subtle, Jervaulx Blue, a local cheese that tasted like the suave younger brother of a Stilton. One eats so much when everything is within reach and I had no room left for the finale – a goblet of strawberry Eton Mess. I ate it anyway.

venison, duck breast, ox tongue, scrumptious pies and Wensleydale cheese - all part of lunch at Bolton Castle

The last event of our week was a demonstration out on the sunny terrace of Simonstone Hall in which I attempted to explain the reasons why it matters what goes into a Pimm’s. I tried to paint a vivid picture of the origins of the drink, how young James Pimm, a tenant farmer’s son from Newnham in Kent came to London to seek his fortune not long after the battle of Waterloo. He set himself up with a barrow from which he sold oysters in the streets of the City but by 1823 he had parlayed that into an oyster bar that became a popular lunch spot for London’s businessmen and financiers. Seeking a gimmick that would set him apart from his rivals he began to mess about with signature cocktails and finally ended up, circa 1840, with Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a tankard of chopped fruit, lemonade and the unique elixir he had created from gin infused with spices and fruits.

Life was good for Pimm. His drink caught on, sold door-to-door by boys on bicycles and new “numbers” were introduced – No. 2 Cup (based on Scotch) and No. 3 (based on brandy and still made today as a spicier version called Pimm’s Winter Cup). Eventually Pimm retired, selling the oyster bars and the secret recipe for Pimm’s to a fellow called Frederick Sawyer who sold it on to Horatio Davies, the future Lord Mayor of London. His dreams were bigger than Pimm’s and soon the stuff was available all across the Empire, wherever Englishman lifted a tennis racquet or an oar. Other “Numbers” followed in the 20th century, based on rum, rye and vodka, but the 70s and 80s were a time of hardship for the drink. Just as I was discovering its glories, most of England was turning away. The oyster bars disappeared and so did most of the Numbers. Even at places like the Henley Regatta, the drink was poorly made – something warm and flat and sticky by the end of the afternoon, attractive to wasps but otherwise useful only as a crude tool of seduction.

A mighty drum of Jervaulx Blue

Today all is once again happiness and light! A good Pimm’s remains a super drink on a hot day. Some people have their own ways of making one, using ginger ale or Champagne instead of fizzy lemonade and that’s fine, as is the normal (rather puny) ratio of 3 parts pop to 1 part Pimm’s. But this is the recipe I favour: Slice up one cored green apple, one orange, 12 strawberries and a four-inch piece of unpeeled cucumber (slippery seeds removed) and tip them all into a jug. Pour on one 750-mL bottle of Pimm’s and a fistful of mint leaves. Add 1.5 L of ice-cold fizzy lemonade such as Sprite or Seven up. Give it a quick stir (but not enough to lose the fizz) and pour over ice cubes in half-pint tankards, letting lots of the fruit slip in with the liquid. Garnish with tiny blue borage flowers. Drink swiftly and have another one right away.


Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis

01 Jun


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,


Bute Street farmers Market

29 May

A merry market for a Saturday morning

London abounds in excellent farmers markets. I’ve written before about the gastronomic glories of Borough Market or the tiny, expensive Pimlico Road market watched over by a statue of the boy Mozart. The one my mother uses is a street market that closes quaint little Bute Street in South Kensington every Saturday morning. It’s already a food-conscious thoroughfare the rest of the week with a super fishmonger called Moxon’s, a number of cafes and bakeries and some of London’s best gelato at Oddino’s. Saturday brings over a dozen stalls offering all sorts of delightful treats. So dangerous to venture in if one is hungry…

English strawberries have a different flavour than our fragrant Ontario varieties. Sweet and juicy but less aromatic these are just the babies to mash up with cream and sugar or pop one at a time while enjoying the spectacle of England’s batsmen punishing the Sri Lankan bowling.


Madame Gautier Traiteur is a company created by two French cooks offering an irresistible range of prepared dishes, some hot – whole pot-roasted chickens (so tender, so full of flavour) with a pungent herb stuffing bathing in simmering gravy, a massive chuck of beef in a sort of sauce chasseur – some cold – duck confit, Catalan meatballs of lamb and mint, boeuf bourgignon, etcetera.


Moxon’s specializes in the harvest of the still-fecund seas around Great Britain: dressed crabs and oysters from Essex, brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay, North Sea herring and Dover sole, Cornish mackerel, smoked eel, Scottish salmon…


Nut Knowle Farm is a goat milk dairy in East Sussex. Their smoked St. George cheese was recently voted Britain’s best goat cheese; their more recent endeavour, Martlet Gold, is even better – a powerful cheese with a real lactic tang – and absolutely delicious with a glass of strong, dry cider.


The Ritz – irresistible

03 Jan

The Ritz hotel in London

I’m in England for a few days to welcome the New Year, heading off first to West Sussex on the slow train that stops ten times on its way to the coast. The snowdrifts have all gone from the little valleys tucked into the downs, though the ground is hard and the air sharply cold on the short dark afternoons. Roast pheasant is the big meal, beautifully cooked in the Aga, juicy and moist and tasting subtly but delectably gamey, as pheasants should, but never do in Canada.

Back to London for a quick burger at Joe Allen on Exeter Street. I haven’t been there for 25 years but little has changed. The burger is still not on the menu (you have to ask) and the walls are hung with many of the same old playbills, photographs and signed photos of thespians. Our cheerful waitress spotted a bottle of Inniskillin Icewine I had brought as a present for my English friends Thelma Miller and Steve Grocott and recognized it at once. She explained that she has recently come back from a year in Toronto where she worked at Allen’s on the Danforth. John Maxwell (owner of Allen’s) recommended her for this London job. Maxwell once worked here too and was co-owner and manager of the Toronto Joe Allen from 1980 to 1985. It’s a small world, nicht vahr?

Today, other very kind friends of long standing, the actress Angharad Rees and her husband, David McAlpine, treated my mother and me to an exceptional lunch at The Ritz. Built by César Ritz in 1905, the hotel has been a London landmark ever since, a sturdy colonnaded chateau on the edge of Green Park. But it had suffered in the 1980s, standards slipping thanks to careless foreign owners, the gorgeous interior stonework painted over. In 1995 it was purchased by two brothers, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, who spent 10 years and 50 million pounds on a tremendously detailed restoration. It is sumptuous now, a Louis XVI palace inside, and the restaurant is often described as the most beautiful dining room in London. Champagne and cheese carts glide silently across the acreage between perfectly accoutred tables. The well-informed young servers all wear black tails but are not remotely formal or stuffy, understanding that a friendly smile is much more attractive than a haughty glance.

The chef is John Williams who was at Claridge’s before he came here. His cooking is light, contemporary and refined, based on French technique but using superb British ingredients. He can also do molecular, as witnessed by the amuse he sent out – a little glass containing a Virgin Mary of seasoned tomato essence topped with a celeriac foam. A fragile wand of a parmesan crisp lay across the rim of the glass; beside it in a spoon was an “olive,” that was actually tangy olive oil in a skin of green olive purée partially solidified to a quivering jelly by alginate.

We had sipped Taittinger Prelude while pondering the menu. For our first course, David chose a refeshing young Meursault, the 2008 from Domaine Coche-Dury that he enjoys drinking in its youth. It was perfect with my lobster salad – half a tail and a claw, lightly poached so the flesh was rare but flavourful, removed from the shell and laid elegantly on the plate. The garnish involved citrus in various guises – tiny morsels of fresh grapefruit and lemon, dots of pungent sauces and purées, slivers of crunchy fennel. For all its elegance and balance there was drama in the creamy lobster and sharply acidic fruit.

I ordered venison loin for my main course. It was a deliciously sapid little drum of very lean meat cooked just a tad more than I would have liked but exactly as I ordered (one man’s medium-rare is another man’s medium). With it, the kitchen presented a roast parsnip, a comma of parsnip purée, a block of potato mille-feuille, two crosnes and a dainty little roll of crisp dough filled with something we had trouble identifying – mushroom duxelles perhaps? Or was it offal? Finely shredded tripe even? I meant to ask the waiter but was distracted by the wine we were drinking, Château Lynch-Bages 1998, with its demure nose but marvellously intense, impeccably balanced flavours, a moment of liquorice hiding in a basket of black fruit.

We declined cheese but David and I each ordered the chestnut and vanilla soufflé that arrived with a scoop of delicious marmalade ice cream. With this we had a glass of Château d’Yquem 1991 (dark, subtle, sophisticatedly dry) and another of the 1998 for comparison. Then the excellent sommelier brought a taste of the 1999 to complete our education.

It was a flawless lunch, light and clever, and I am astonished that The Ritz restaurant still lacks a couple of Michelin stars. The hotel is fully honoured in Michelin’s hotel guide (one of only 11 properties in England that get the maximum five points out of five) but the restaurant and its chef certainly deserve recognition.

The magnificent mural above the staircase in the William Kent House

After lunch, David and Angharad led us through a mirrored door and into the William Kent House. This was a house built for the Hon. Henry Pelham (the future Prime Minister) by the architect and artist William Kent in 1742. Sir David and Sir Frederick acquired it in 2005 and have restored it to the full magnificence of its original conception. Such remarkably beautiful rooms! The hallway has a sweeping staircase without supports that draws the eye up to an extraordinary mural of 18th-century society. The dining room is splendid with crimson walls, elaborate gilding and a stunning painted ceiling in the Italian Renaissance manner. There are two suites on the higher floors and several salons and sitting rooms. The Ritz uses it as an event space. It also keeps an eye on the place when it’s empty. We were quickly joined in our explorations by a member of the hotel staff who had been sent to investigate our intrusion. He recognized our friends as guests (they are staying at the hotel for a week or two over the holidays) and was charm itself.


England’s top 100 restaurants?

13 Oct

News from London, England… Which may come in  very handy if you’re going there any time soon.

The National Restaurant Awards are the result of an extensive survey that asks chefs, food critics and restaurateurs from all over England to select the seven best restaurants they have eaten in during the last 12 months. From these votes, Restaurant magazine (origin of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants awards) compiles a list of the UK’s Top 100 Restaurants. The following from food writer Becky Paskin of BigHospitality:

The Ledbury named Restaurant of the Year at National Restaurant Awards 2010

  The Ledbury has tonight been named National Restaurant of the Year, beating The Fat Duck and Bistro Bruno Loubet to the top spot the year’s National Restaurant Awards 2010.

Led by Australian chef Brett Graham, the Notting Hill restaurant also received the Best Front of House Award.

Other awards handed out by Restaurant Magazine at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London tonight (11 October) included The Restaurateurs’ Choice, which went to Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, and Best Gastropub, which went to The Hardwick in Abergavenny.
Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London, which earlier this year broke into the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, tonight also won the Chef’s Chef of the Year award.

William Drew, editor of Restaurant magazine editor said: “The UK restaurant sector is back in great shape after the shake-out of the last couple of years – and the standard of the winners in the National Restaurant Awards reflects that.”

“The Ledbury’s coronation as the National Restaurant of the Year is fully deserved: Brett Graham has quietly built it into a quite brilliant restaurant where his stunning but never flashy food is matched by outstanding service in a smart but unstuffy environment.”

 The UK’s Top 100 Restaurants for 2010 are:

1 The Ledbury, London
2 The Fat Duck, Berkshire
3 Bistro Bruno Loubet, London
4 Hibiscus, London
5 The Walnut Tree, Monmouthshire
6 Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
7 Bar Boulud, London
8 The Square, London
9 The Waterside Inn, Berkshire
10 Galvin La Chapelle, London
11 Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Rock
12 Pied a Terre, London
13 The Hardwick, Monmouthshire
14 Hix, London
15 l’Anima, London
16 Le Champignon Sauvage, Gloucestershire
17 Terroirs, London
18 Arbutus, London
19 Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxfordshire
20 Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Perthshire
21 Wild Honey, London
22 Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, London
23 Bocca Di Lupo, London
24 The Kitchin, Edinburgh
25 The River Café, London
26 Northcote Manor, Lancashire
27 Hix Oyster and Fish House, Dorset
28 St John, London
29 Galvin Bistro de Luxe, London
30 Polpo, London
31 The Sportsman, Kent
32 Maze, London
33 Hand and Flowers, Berkshire
34 The Star Inn, North Yorkshire
35 Hakkasan, London
36 L’Enclume, Cumbria
37 Trullo, London
38 L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London
39 Roka, London
40 Simpsons, Birmingham
41 Elephant Restaurant, Torquay
42 Chez Bruce, London
43 Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
44 La Becasse, Shropshire
45 Harwood Arms, London
46 Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, London
47 Koffmann’s, London
48 Midsummer House, Cambridgeshire
49 Petrus, London
50 Mya Lacarte, Berkshire
51 Hereford Road, London
52 Jack in the Green, Devon
53 The Modern Pantry, London
54 Zuma, London
55 Le Café Anglais, London
56 Porthminster Beach Café, Cornwall
57 Galvin at Windows, London
58 The Quilon Restaurant & Bar, London
59 Viajante, London
60 Zucca, London
61 The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye
62 Le Gavroche, London
63 Hipping Hall, Kirkby Lonsdale
64 The Dogs, Edinburgh
65 Restaurant Martin Wishart, Edinburgh
66 Great Queen Street, London
67 21212, Edinburgh
68 Fraiche, Oxton
69 The Hinds Head, Berkshire
70 Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, London
71 Gidleigh Park, Devon
72 Corrigan’s Mayfair, London
73 Racine, London
74 James Street South, Belfast
75 Launceston Place, London
76 Ondine Restaurant, Edinburgh
77 Kitchen W8, London
78 L’Ortolan, Berkshire
79 Lucknam Park, Wiltshire
80 Purnell’s, Birmingham
81 Ode, Devon
82 Scotts, London
83 Bell’s Diner, Bristol
84 The Cinnamon Club, London
85 JoJo’s, Kent
86 Pipe & Glass Inn, East Yorkshire
87 Cafe Spice Namaste, London
88 Indian Zing, London
89 Hawksmoor, London
90 Barrafina, London
91 The Magdalen Arms, Oxford
92 Petersham Nurseries, Surrey
93 Tom Aikens, London
94 Wabi, West Sussex
95 Tyddyn Llan Restaurant with Rooms, North Wales
96 Koya, London
97 Browns Hotel, Tavistock
98 Murano, London
99 Braidwoods, Dalry
100 Yauatcha, London


Coming down again

01 Sep

I have always relied on the kindness of others. So when a dear friend offered to use some of his airline points to fly me to and from London this summer, I very gratefully accepted. My gratitude knew no bounds when I found out the tickets were first class. “There were no other seats on the days you wanted,” explained my benefactor. Lucky me.

            In the normal course of life, regular travellers see little of their first-class companions. They have their own check-in desks and lounges. The impatient line-ups at the departure gate must step aside to give them priority. They turn left, not right, as they enter the plane and are gone, protected from the vulgar gaze by curtains, vigilant attendants and the innate sense of social propriety that beats fiercely in the hearts of all who choose to fly British Airways.

            So, what’s it like in that far forward cabin? My dears, all is comfort and light. On the Boeing 777 that flew me home there are only a dozen or so first-class seats – though seat is the wrong word: it’s more like a space-age chaise longue that turns, miraculously, into a bed over six feet long at the touch of a button ( pillows, sheets and a duvet are in the overhead locker). There is shelf space for books or in this case the magazines I took from Heathrow’s first-class lounge – publications devoted to yachting, power boats, polo and gossip. The kind attendant brings a little parcel of cosmetics, some socks and slippers and a pair of black pyjamas sealed in a bag. One has only to whisper “Champagne” and a flute of Laurent-Perrier Brut Millésimé 2000 appears, the vintage chosen by Jancis Robinson herself. I have three windows through which to look (the Atlantic a plumbago blue, its surface textured like the skin on a mug of hot milk) but the in-flight entertainment lets the side down – only a dozen banal American films to choose from and a tiny screen the size of a wallet on which to watch them.

            Which lets me concentrate more on lunch. The menu reads well and I’m tempted by the char-grilled sirloin of Herefordhsire beef, if only to see how they can reheat that in an aeroplane galley without destroying its texture. Instead I settle for fish, starting with the Loch Fyne smoked salmon. It has been cut into small pieces and briefly marinated in lemon and lime juice before being lightly pressed into a tian. There’s a suggestion of onion but no binding agent to turn it into a tartare and the flavour is remarkably pure and simple, lifted nicely by a wreath of amaranth seedlings and a subtle lime crème fraîche. The attendant offers a good selection of breads, all warm and soft, light and moist, nothing at all like the clammy lump of putty we are used to from other flights in steerage.

            My main course is a trio of fish, each served hot and though they are cooked through and slightly crusted someone has figured out how to keep them juicy. The little cross-cut cutlet of salmon has a delicious flavour and a small salad of watercress, sorrel and crunchy, lightly pickled fennel to keep it company; the fluffy knob of monkfish comes with a warm orange and thyme cream like a hollandaise sauce that’s been on holiday somewhere exotic; the little fillet of gilt-head bream has a tangy, slightly piquant salsa of fire-roasted red pepper. A discreet amount of mashed potato is also present on the plate, presumably to mop up the precious sauces. A glass of complex, peachy, citrussy Catena Chardonnay from Mendoza is a fine accompaniment.

            Dessert? Peach melba with toasted almonds, perhaps, or dark chocolate fondant with almond brittle and white chocolate ice cream? I think not… Some cheese then – a wedge of young, fresh Cropwell Bishop Stilton, some mild Cornish goat’s milk Gevrik, delectably creamy Gubbeen and a piece of decent Camembert lest the French feel neglected. And with that, not the port but a glorious Australian sticky from D’Arenberg called The Noble Mud Pie 2008, a botrytis-affected Viognier with a dash of Pinot Gris and Marsanne that is all tangy pear, honey and ginger.

            Later there will be a proper tea with dainty sandwiches, scones and strawberry jam and clotted cream but for now I will settle back and simply enjoy the old-fashioned experience of being able to stretch out my legs on an aeroplane. That space, as much as the fine food and drink, is the luxury that travelling first class brings – but both are trumped by something I realize only halfway through the flight. Thanks to the angle of this ever-so-comfortable seat, I can’t see any of the other passengers without making an effort. And they can’t really see me. The secret joy of the elite traveller is the measure of privacy he can buy, even in an aeroplane filled to capacity. I doubt I will ever fly first class again in my life. At least I now know what I’m missing.


St. John’s Burger

01 Aug

Here I am in England for a few days to see family and friends – and to join one of Charlie Burger’s mysterious dinners. This is the first one he has organized in Europe and he could scarcely have chosen a more interesting location – St. John, the restaurant opened close to Smithfield meat market by English chef Fergus Henderson in 1995.

 I’m intrigued to find out who Burger really is. I’m even more excited to eat at St. John. This is the food that changed the way the world thought about English food – changed the way the English thought about English food, come to that. Scrupulously honest cooking, using up every part of the animal, not at all fancy, substantial and satisfying, deeply unpretentious. As is the building where the restaurant is located, right across the road from the meat market, along a short passageway. Famously, it was an old smokehouse and equally famously Fergus Henderson and his partner did very little to it. One enters the bar – like a covered alleyway with a big zinc bar and some tables and chairs. Lots of people in shirtsleeves and jeans having a pint or glass of wine. I realize that I am, as so often, overdressed and quietly slip off my pencil-thin tangerine-and-cream-striped Jaeger tie, quickly rolling it and concealing it in the pocket of my off-white Brunello Cucinelli trousers.

 I’m very early (London traffic is not what it was in my day). I climb the iron steps and into the odd-shaped room – the dining room. The greeting is pleasant, humane, not remotely fawning. The servers – and there are many of them – have the discreet self-confidence you would expect at one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Even if the room looks a bit like a works canteen with its high ceiling, white walls, painted but scuffed wooden floorboards. A line of coat pegs runs all round the room about seven feet off the ground (the right height given the height of the ceiling, but oddly high). They remind me of my prep school – as does the lack of any art on the walls and the reinforced glass in the windows. On the tables, white paper covers white linen; glassware and cutlery are very ordinary, the hard wooden bentwood chairs as plain as can be. The whole place, indeed, is very plain and under-decorated – aggressively so, or passively so?

 That question is very much at the heart of Fergus Henderson’s position in gastronomy these days. Anthony Bourdain addresses it in the introduction to the 2004 reprint of Henderson’s seminal 1999 cookbook, Nose to Tail Eating. When he first ate at St. John, Bourdain was so overwhelmed and impressed by the simple integrity of the food that he read all sorts of political motivation into it. “I saw his simple, honest, traditional English country fare as a thumb in the eye to the establishment,” says Bourdain, “an outrageously timed head butt to the growing hordes of politically correct, the PETA people, the European Union, practitioners of arch, ironic Fusion Cuisine and all those chefs who were fussing about with tall, overly sculpted entrées of little substance and less soul.” Having come to know Henderson, he now sees there is no hidden manifesto, just a respectful homage to good food. I’m sure he’s right about the place Henderson is coming from. But that doesn’t make his first reaction wrong. This food, and the cookbooks Henderson has written about it, have been incredibly influential, the influence felt in New York, Toronto, even Paris and Sydney.

 The answer perhaps is in the mood of the restaurant-goers tonight. They are merry, casual, unpretentious – just people having dinner, not people making a socio-gastronomic statement. It is all very democratic but not archly so, not cocky or defiant.

 Charlie Burger and the other guests arrive. Our table is positioned right in front of the open kitchen. Burger and Henderson have devised the menu between them – six courses featuring some of the chef’s most iconic dishes.

 The bread comes – thick slices of the crunchy-crusted, fragrant brown and white sourdough loaves that are baked at Henderson’s other place, St. John Bread & Wine. A square of ordinary salted butter on a saucer.

 The first course is devilled crab, served cold – huge bowls of Portland (Dorset) crab broken into large pieces, the shells partially cracked but not removed, cooked in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, ginger, chopped spring onions, fresh coriander leaves, lemon and lime juice and very finely julienned red chilies. We are all given hooks and pliers and a spare napkin. I decide discretion is the better part of fashion and remove my beige Bugatti blazer. Charlie Burger and I consider the snowy expanses of each other’s white shirts and weigh up the merits of tucking a napkin into the collar. Neither of us do it. Let the sauce fall where it may.

 It’s a delicious dish. The chilies are a subtle warmth behind the more obvious citrus and ginger tang. The crab meat is juicy but not watery (because they were boiled in water as salty as the sea). The wine, Domaine Francois Crochet 2009 Sancerre, is an elegant match, undaunted by the sauce. It takes us almost an hour to do justice to the generous helping and there is no possibility of daintiness as we crack claws, lick fingers and pry the treasured flesh from the chitinous chambers of the crabs’ bodies. Several fingerbowls and napkins later, the social ice has been broken and melted away. My shirt and Charlie’s are pristine.

 The second course is another Henderson trademark – trotter gear and quail’s egg. Trotter gear is awesome stuff. To make it, you must blanche pig’s trotters then braise them for at least three hours with onions, carrots, celery, leeks, garlic, thyme, peppercorns, chicken stock and half a bottle of Madeira until they are, in Henderson’s words, “totally giving.” Drain off the liquid and reserve it. Then pick and shred all the flesh, fat and skin off the trotters, add it to the reserved liquid and keep it in a jar until you need it. “You now have Trotter Gear,” writes Henderson in his second book, Beyond Nose to Tail, “nuduals of giving, wobbly trotter captured in a splendid jelly.”

 Tonight we each receive a ramekin of warm trotter gear with a couple of quail’s eggs cooked in it. It’s rich, unctuous, the many subtle textures of the semi-solid gear slipping about in the looser melted-jelly cooking liquid. The eggs are cooked through and provide an island of substance. We all use chunks of bread to mop our ramekins clean. The wine takes a friendly back seat to the experience – a Domaine Jean-Claude Lapalu 2008 Brouilly Vielles Vignes.

 Onto the main course – tripe and onions slow-cooked in milk with mashed potatoes. I have a checkered past where this dish is concerned. My grandmother used to cook the identical recipe for my dad. She was brought up on a farm in North Devon and this was something of a staple in those parts. It was my father’s favourite dish but to me, as a child, it always looked terrifying – the yellowish sponge-like flubber trembling in the gently moving milk. The thought of eating it nauseated me. It was only as an adult that I learned to love the stuff.

Henderson’s recipe couldn’t be simpler. He thickens the milk with a roux of butter and flour, adds chicken stock and a little mace then poaches the tripe and thinly sliced onions. Where his mastery is apparent is the timing. The beige tripe (from Irish cattle) is incredibly tender – I cut it with a fork – but still has that faint soft crunch that you also find in Cantonese jellyfish dishes. Here it is more like eating a giant morel than a sea creature, a morel bathing in chicken stock and bechamel. The firm mashed potatoes are more of a sop for the sauce than anything else.

And the wine? My ideal match for this dish is a dry cider from Somerset or Brittany. We receive Domaine JP Matrot 2007 Meursault Rouge.

 The fourth course is intended to keep scurvy at bay, according to Charlie Burger – a salad of watercress and soft roasted purple shallots, heaped on a platter and wet with a vinaigrette dressing spiked with crushed capers. It’s tangy, rich, moist, delicious – and just refreshing enough to be welcome.

 Onto the savoury – a classic buck rarebit. Melt strong Cheddar into a bubbling pan of butter, flour, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, Guinness and Worcestershire sauce. Let it cool into a paste then spread the paste as needed onto a slice of toast and put under the grill until bubbly. That’s a Welsh rarebit of course. Turn it into a buck rabbit by putting a poached egg on top. Tonight, it makes an ideal contribution – spicy, rich, the crunchy toast beneath the piquant molten cheese a substantial presence. This time the wine pairing is brilliant – Fonseca 1977 vintage port, as rich and spicy in its own way as the rarebit.

 The finale is Dr Henderson ice cream and it splits the party neatly into lovers and haters. This is an ice cream made from two parts Fernet Branca and one part crème de menthe, a drink that the chef’s father enjoyed as a hangover cure. It is certainly a peculiar ice cream – bitter, herbal, minty, sweet, medicinal… Most of our group agrees that crème de menthe is one of the very few alcoholic beverages we hate. Burger points out that the other mass-market French mint liqueurs Jet 27 (clear) and Jet 31 (green – or is it the other way around?) are even more vile and toothpaste-like. As an ice cream, however, the combination works for me, the bitters ruling the roost. A shot of Vieille Prune cuts through it nicely.

 With the bill (an extremely reasonable 145 pounds (Charlie Burger’s events are not-for-profit)) come some freshly made, hot-from-the-oven madeleines. In the kitchen, head chef Chris Gillaud, who cooked for us tonight, is busy shaving a piglet for tomorrow’s service.

 We conclude at midnight – four and a half hours after we began. The tireless Burger leads a group to a drinking establishment he favours in Covent Garden. I head home, extremely pleased with the evening, clutching my copy of Beyond Nose to Tail, signed by Fergus Henderson with a handwritten promise that he will come to Toronto “some day” and cook a Charlie Burger event. That will be a home-and-home I won’t want to miss.