Thursday, 16 July 2009

Corrigan's Mayfair

First of all, I must apologise for the heavy sepia photographs. I was loathe to use flash in the hushed atmosphere of what is one of London's most exciting new restaurants.

It was my birthday this time, a landmark one, and the air had been thick with heavy hints for months. Corrigan's Mayfair was a destination I wanted to make a bee-line for at the earliest opportunity. J safely secured a reservation (I'm not sure he felt brave enough to risk a wild card).

Richard Corrigan's new culinary triumph sits comfortably on a salubrious Mayfair street, a perfect match for the decadence, generosity, and Irish charm the restaurant exudes. We were initially seated at a small low table in the bar area, and felt rather cheated. We were a hair's breadth away from the restaurant proper, but sitting in what felt like a concourse, with nondescript bar music ringing in our ears. We asked the maître d' if we could be seated at a better table, and she happily obliged. The layout, low ceiling, and retro 1930's furniture reminded me of Locanda Locatelli's, and gave the room an intimate clubby feel. I would have liked to see a few less tables of businessmen clearly charging dinner to an expense account (who always seem to be there despite the food, rather than because of it), but they were rather jolly, and it was by no means going to put a dampener on the night.

Sipping two perfect G&T's, we were handed an A3 monster of a menu. Size is clearly everything: it was a masterpiece, a tour de force that made decision-making virtually impossible. Effortlessly merging British classics with seasonal and modern tastes, continental twists, and the odd nod to our friends across the channel, Richard Corrigan offers as many dainty, delicate dishes as he does big hitters. But where was the linguine in red wine with pecorino? This was a controversial dish when the restaurant first opened 6 months ago, and has since disappeared. We have made the dish at home (you can find the recipe in Corrigan's new cookbook, The Clatter of Forks and Spoons) and found it to be a winner.

After a plate of warm bread, including the wonderful signature Corrigan treacly soda bread, we started with Octopus carpaccio, baby squid, chorizo, and feta, and Duck liver rolled in hazelnut, pomegranate, and lentils. Both were exquisite, particularly the duck liver dish, which was bursting with complex earthy and fruity flavours: creative alchemy at its best. The crunchy hazelnuts and bittersweet pomegranate seeds worked perfectly with the soft, rich liver.

Gone are the days of amuse-bouche, it seems. The wonderful Lyndsay House (sadly no more) used to offer them in abundance, but Corrigan clearly feels there's no room or need for them here. I think he's right.

Our mains were as impressive as the starters. Satisfyingly generous servings of rabbit and suckling pig (Rabbit cutlet, dandelion, carrots and bacon, and Suckling pig ballotine with rib covered in crackling, apple purée, creamed potatoes, and leeks.). The pork was memorably soft and tender, the baby leeks lifting the dish to summery heights before the warm black pudding and potato brought it back down to earth. Balanced and refined in both taste and presentation. A finely diced ratatouille (lapse of concentration from the waiter here, who called it 'risotto'), and salad of watercress and bitter leaves were delicious, and far-from-perfunctory side dishes. (One tiny, tiny thing: someone wasn't paying attention on the pass - both our dishes had a little piece of silver foil on them.)
I do wonder how we had room for dessert, but here we go...
Rhubarb soufflé: a seasonal special. Light and fluffy as it should be, with warm vanilla cream carefully poured into the centre by our lovely waiter.
Chocolate and Hazelnut: an assortment of achingly sweet delights - coffee ice cream, hazelnut mousse, brandy snap filled with a light cream foam, and a rich hazelnut and chocolate genoise-style cake. The kitchen sweetly drew a chocolate drizzle birthday message around the plate, and gave me a copy of the menu signed by the man himself. The menu suggested a lightly sparkling Italian red, Brachetto, as an accompaniment - suitably celebratory, and delicious.

Being greedy sods, we didn't stop there. We headed to the bar to have a digestif of whisky and Armagnac, where I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Corrigan. Thanks, J, for calling me 'his stalker'... fortunately, he was unperturbed. We enthused briefly about Bentley's and Lyndsay House, and he was an utter charmer.

With starters ranging from £7-32, and mains from £22-68, Corrigan's doesn't offer cheap thrills (our dinner-for-two bill was over £150). This is a special place, for a special occasion. Corrigan is most certainly at the top of his game: every food lover should make this their mecca.

Corrigan's Mayfair on Urbanspoon

Portrait Restaurant, National Portrait Gallery

Don't let the picture above fool you. The Portrait Restaurant at the top of the National Portrait Gallery was a mixed bag. Yes, they are entitled to a modicum of pride and bravado given the unparallelled view of London they afford the customer, but not if the customer leaves with an empty wallet and unsatisfied palate. We were there for lunch, and I was the lucky one: the Scallops with smoked bacon, pea shoots, and cauliflower purée (pictured above) was perfectly executed. The scallops were fat and luxuriously soft, and the bacon just crispy and meaty enough to offset the silky texture of the rest of the dish. But £22.50 for four scallops?! (I requested a main course serving, as it's only on the menu as a starter.) This eclipses Bentley's, purveyor of the capital's best seafood in my opinion, and is hard to justify.

I'll keep the descriptions of disappointments brief. J's Nordic pickled Herring Plate was a badly crafted dish, and elicited only a grimace and heavy silence from its recipient. A's Smoked Chicken Caesar Salad was likewise uninspiring: a satisfactory yet bland lunch dish that obviously passes through the kitchen galley from fridge to plate with just a cursory glance from the chef, if it's lucky. A quenelle of dark chocolate ice cream for dessert was rich, but somehow devoid of chocolatiness - the flavour disappearing as soon as it hit the tongue.

The service was enthusiastic and friendly, if a little chaotic. I spotted Jon Snow by the window, deep in conversation when we arrived and nursing a coffee when we left, and the rest of the clientele were well-heeled types, clearly bedded in for a long boozy lunch. I can't fault the restaurant for its setting and atmosphere, but do think the menu needs a little more attention before it truly hits the mark. I hear it's a rather special place for dinner, with the lights dimmed and the night skyline offering a romantic panorama, so may just return to give the food another try, armed with a glass of champagne.

Portrait Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Petersham Nurseries Café

Beat this. A sunny summer afternoon of lazy lunching at Skye Gygnell's residency in leafy Richmond, a barefoot walk through the park, and a few glasses of fizz watching the sun go down. Not the way I'm used to spending Friday afternoons, regretfully, but all the more special for it.

Petersham Nurseries is quite a treck from central London, but the setting more than makes up for the journey. It's one of those blissful corners of the world where time stands still, and the sun always shines. But enough of the yawnsome eulogy, and back to the food.

I love Skye Gyngell's recipes in the Independent, and my friend adores her book, A Year in My Kitchen, so Petersham had been at the top of our 'must eat at...' list for some time. Skye, the Australian head chef, runs her café in an enormous airy dirt-earth-floor conservatory. You first enter the garden shop, full of fashionable tableware, fancy pots, and garden tools. Walk through to the back, and the rickety tables and chairs welcome you to Skye's lair (she was there holding the fort on our visit).

The menu, which changes every week, is simple and strictly seasonal. With just three options for each course, procrastinating over what to eat was not going to be an issue. We plumped for the £22.50 for 2 courses, intending to head to the courtyard next door for cake afterwards (the desserts didn't inspire: we were hoping for something more inventive than panna cotta, chocolate tart, cheese, or sorbet). With an aperitif glass of rose prosecco safely in hand, we started with Smoked haddock carpaccio with crème fraiche, pea shoots, and nasturtiums, and Figs with anchoïade, burrata, and parma ham. The flowers and pea shoots set off the pale smoky fish perfectly, and mustered enthusiastic murmurs of approval. Parma ham, figs, and soft cheese are a familiar sight on restaurant menus these days, but Skye had pushed it up a level with a delightful earthy piquant walnut anchoïade. Salty ham, milky wet, yielding cheese, and soft plump fig make for a seductive little plateful.

The main courses offered a little less inspiration.
The meat option was a chicken salad, hardly earth-shattering. Mackerel with spinach and rocket didn't tempt us either, so we both went for the Roast fennel with beetroot, sweet potato, bruschetta, crème fraiche, and basil oil. It was tepid but sublime. I'm not easily impressed by vegetarian restaurant offerings, but this was carefully thought out, beautifully presented, and meaty enough to satisfy our appetites. Granted, you could put this together at home, but you'd be hard-pressed to replicate the delicate flavours. Perfectly chilled glasses of Provençal rosé (Bandol) and muscadet were gentle and unobtrusive, with enough character to linger on the tongue, but not overwhelm the food. Although we hadn't been keen on the four desserts, we did succumb and share a sharp and intensely fruity raspberry sorbet, served in a cute little Moroccan tumbler, to cleanse our palates.

We just managed to fit in a slice of fig cake (ok, but not figgy enough) and a sticky Chelsea bun in the courtyard next door, and a sprint around the nursery, before they called 'time'. What a shame they close at 4:30pm, especially when we're blessed with long, light summer evenings.

If you find Chelsea 'boho' nauseating, and £50 trowels offensive, this might not rock your boat, but let go of your city cynicism for a moment, soak in the convivial atmosphere, and you'll be hooked. There's no getting away from the fact that £86 for a weekday lunch for two is pricey, but the standard of produce, and the level of care and attention it's given, justified it. If I'm perfectly honest, I was expecting the menu to be a little more gutsy and adventurous, but it won't stop me returning.

Petersham Nurseries Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 July 2009

At Home: Chorizo and Red Pepper Risotto

Serves 2-3. Cook time: 35-40 minutes.

• 2 chorizo cooking sausages, or 6 small ones
• 3 long or bell sweet red peppers
• 8-10 shallots (depending on size)
• olive oil
• 1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio risotto rice
• 250ml dry sherry
• 1 tsp sweet smoked paprika - La Chinata (see right) is the best, and is widely available
• 1 pint hot vegetable bouillon

Roast the sausages and red peppers in a 200ºC oven for 20 minutes, so the fat cooks out of the sausages (you don't want all that fat in the finished risotto), and the peppers char and soften. Turn halfway through cooking. Meanwhile, peel and slice the shallots, and cook them slowly in a large pan with a tablespoon of olive oil over a low heat. Remove the sausages and peppers from the oven to cool a little, discarding the fat. Add the rice to the onions, stirring constantly until the grains are thoroughly coated in the oil. Slice the cooked sausages and add them to the pan with the smoked paprika, stirring, then add the sherry. Simmer and stir until it is completely absorbed. Peel the skin from the peppers, deseed, chop or slice into strips, and add to the pan. Now, patiently start adding the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly to help the rice absorb the stock, for 15-20 minutes, over a low heat. You may need more or less than the pint specified. Season.

A great weeknight dinner.

At Home: 10-Minute Gooseberry Cheat's Cheesecake

Impressive and delicious, yet simple and speedy. Serves 2.

• 225g punnet of gooseberries
• 1-2 tbsp caster sugar (to taste)
• 6 gingernut biscuits
• 2 tbsp butter
• 100g creme fraiche
• 100g mascarpone

Cook the gooseberries in a pan over a low heat with the sugar and 1 tbsp water, for 5-10 minutes, until soft and syrupy (or bake in the oven if you prefer). The mixture may start caramelizing: don't worry at all. I left mine on a few minutes too long, but the caramelized juices resulted in a more intense flavour. Meanwhile, place the gingernut biscuits in a plastic bag, and bash with a rolling pin until crumbled. Melt the butter in the microwave for a few seconds, then add the crumbled gingernuts. Divide between two ramekins. Combine the gooseberries and their syrup with the creme fraiche and mascarpone, and spoon into the ramekins. Serve immediately, or cover and chill for a few hours.