Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Launceston Place

This recession has brought with it a few positives for food lovers. First, cooking from scratch at home is becoming trendy again as wallets are leaner, so the cookery book business is booming, and second, most the top end restaurants are trying frantically to get bums on seats and a buzz back in their businesses by offering affordable set menus. So, when we want to eat in, there's more than enough material online and on our bookshelves to inspire, and when we want to eat out, we can start trying out the fancy restaurants that would previously have bust the budget.

One of the many restaurants offering attractive deals is Launceston Place (among others: Quo Vadis, Bentley's Oyster Bar, Wild Honey, Modern Pantry, and Le Cafe Anglais). Granted, £26 per person for a 3-course set Sunday lunch isn't pocket money, but if value for money, wonderful produce, and a mastery for cooking bring a smile to your face, consider this a steal.

This old Kensington haunt is tucked in a beautiful residential village enclave. It was acquired by D&D London in 2007, owners of Coq d’Argent, Plateau, Sartoria, and Le Pont de la Tour, and is the stomping ground for Tristan Welch, former head chef for Marcus Wareing at P├ętrus, and his junior sous chef Steve Groves, who has just won the BBC's MasterChef: The Professionals.

Our 3-hour lunch began with a warm welcome into the smart and intimate boutique-hotel-style interior: thick linen tablecloths, mirrors, black matte walls, taupe carpets, and suede chairs. It had been a while since we had caught up with our friends, so we were hoping the atmosphere wouldn't be hushed and sombre, as these fancy West London places often are. We needn't have worried. There was a gentle buzz, and the partitions and soft furnishings prevented our enthusiastic levels of conversation troubling anyone else.

We went straight for the £26 set menu, my vegetarian friend being offered an a la carte dish for her main to substitute the fish/meat course for no extra charge. A welcome surprise, once Nina had chosen a decent bottle of French white, was the attentive and friendly service. They even graciously laughed at Jon's jokes! (sorry, Jon)

The first amuse bouche, a gentle, light and delicate cold pea foam floating on top of warm vicchyssoise.The set menu offered a choice of three starters: Pumpkin soup, beetroot and Berkswell cheese, Crab risotto, garlic and parsley, and Potted foie gras with Maldon sea salt. The pumpkin soup was ceremoniously brought to the table in individual pumpkin shells, and poured gently into the warm bowls. The tart flakes of cheese and cubed beetroot, with sweet pea shoots, worked perfectly with the silky soft, sweet and earthy soup. A triumph.
The Potted foie gras. Time for a quip from Jon about the line of salt...
Helen's vegetarian offering for the main course was a work of art: Spinach and homemade ricotta, nutmeg, artichokes, and sage butter. Petite though the serving was, from afar the combination of tastes and textures looked delightful.
The set menu mains included: Gloucester Old Spot pork, Scottish girolles, cobnuts and quince, Devilled Cornish mackerel, braised onions and capers, and Traditional roast long horn beef with vegetables and gravy (£6 supplement). The rare beef, selected from two cuts before being carved into bread-thick slices, was enthusiastically devoured by my companions, and I went for the pork, a generous plate of ballotine stuffed with pistachios and a sliver of belly with divine crackling. The accompanying vegetables were the only low point of the meal: the cubed celeriac in a cream sauce was over-seasoned, and the roast potatoes were hard and tasteless, not crisp and fluffy as they should be. I sympathise with the kitchen: roast pots are notoriously difficult candidates for oven re-heating, and don't cope well with sitting around for hours under hot lamps. If I'm being tough, I'd say better the kitchen stray from the standard Sunday lunch components and serve mash/dauphinois/sauteed potatoes than offer sub-standard roasts.
Before dessert graced the table, another amuse bouche was offered. This time, raspberry mousse with pear sorbet and tiny slivers of crisp caramel. Another contrast in temperatures that revived the palate and was light enough to stimulate rather than rob us of our appetites.
Finally, dessert. On offer: apple tart with homemade clotted cream (for two), Banana sticky toffee pudding with Guinness ice cream, cheese trolley (£6 supplement). The sticky toffee pudding, enjoyed by all, was delightful. Not overly sweet, the deep hints of treacle complemented the savoury banana. However, with palates muddied by all the previous courses, I couldn't detect the Guinness. No matter. All plates were clean in minutes. The afternoon light had slipped into dusk and most tables were vacant. Rather than trying to chuck us out (it was clear we weren't in the mood for boozing, and hadn't consumed more than a bottle between 5 of us), the staff who had cosseted us all afternoon sweetly let us linger. The final bill was £212 between 5 of us.

The kitchen is clearly filled to bursting point with talented chefs. A little more focus, perhaps, on those veg, might just bring it its first Michelin star in 2010. It has the style, and more than a modicum of substance. In the meantime, make the most of the set menu offers while you can.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Billingsgate Fish Market

Not being an early riser, this was tough. Up at 4am, to be at Billingsgate for a tour around the market at 6am prompt. I was there to learn about fish, and the experience was worth every nocturnal minute.
Believe it or not, it was starting to wind down when I arrived and took this picture from the offices that overlook the market. The fishmongers, chefs, and restaurateurs buying stock for their London businesses had been and gone, and those left scanning the traders' wares were about to clear off before the Canary Wharf commuter traffic took hold. We had an hour before the traders would start to pack up and head home, so hurried down.

The London traders I'm used to are those just minutes from our front door, on Walthamstow Market. The calls of 'pound a bowl!' ring in our ears as we pick bowls of apples, peppers, aubergines... that we never use up. I would agree it's a false economy, but the 50p-worth we manage to eat is still good value, and the rest goes on the compost. I digress, back to fish. The traders at Billingsgate have their banter alright, and are very friendly chaps, but the atmosphere's a bit more shifty. Competition is fierce, I suspect, and the fish business is a tricky and sensitive matter. Quotas, margins, and price fluctuations make life difficult for the fishermen who sell to them, as the traders know all too well.

Here are some pictures, which I hope will set the scene.

Assorted shellfish, including hand-dived scallops.
Beautiful mackerel, so fresh the fish were still in a state of rigor mortis.
Edible brown crabs.
Canadian lobster. You can see hundreds of eggs sitting under its tail. This was a sad sight: lobster shouldn't be caught and sold if it's still reproductive.
This, I was not ready for. Enormous live eels writhing around in chests of metal drawers (reason for this: they require a constant flow of running water. The water cascades through the drawers, keeping them fresh and happy).
After catching the sunrise as the porters packed up the unsold fish in freezer rooms to be sold cheap the next day, I and my soggy fish-stinking jeans squeezed onto the tube - and back to life as I knew it - for the journey to work.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

At Home: Pecan Pie

Thanksgiving's on the way, so what better excuse to face my fear of pastry and have a trial run with Pecan Pie.

There are a lot of recipes out there, most of them bastardized versions of the American classic. After trawling through books and blogs, I finally came across Melissa Kronenthal's version on her lovely blog, The Traveler's Lunchbox, and set to work. The flaky pastry ("crust") recipe sounded bizarre to a pastry novice: cider vinegar? Philadelphia cheese? No eggs? Melissa attributes it to Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, and my Ohio-born mother insists authentic Pecan Pie must only be made with cream cheese crust, so I wasn't going to submit to regular shortcrust. I needn't have worried: it was simple to make, easy to roll, and incredibly light and flaky. The mix itself took just a couple of minutes to prepare.

Unfortunately I cooked it on too high a heat, and the top burnt before the inside was properly cooked. I turned the oven down to finish it off, and hid the charred top with a liberal dusting of icing sugar. Lesson learnt.

And after...I'm going to have another go next week, making individual tarts as Thanksgiving gifts for family, and will cook them a little more gently this time. Pics to follow...

Well, here's one pic. They aren't as pretty as I'd have liked. The pastry stuck to the individual tart tins because I forgot to butter them, but I'm pleased to say they passed the taste test. I'll be taking a box to Automat for Thanksgiving dinner with mum and sister tomorrow night.

Friday, 13 November 2009

At Home: Double duck breast, pepper salad, lemon posset

At last, an opportunity to try one of David Tanis's menus from A Platter of Figs! With avid carnivores coming over for Sunday lunch, I decided on the roasted pepper salad with liver toasts, and double duck breast roast with baked figs.

It shouldn't be hard to get hold of duck breasts these days, but I had to order them in at our local butcher, two days in advance. Four large breasts for £11 isn't unreasonable, and I know many who love the rich, gamey flavour of duck meat, so why are no E17 supermarkets or butchers stocking it? I'd like to see cheaper cuts of meat (trotters, pork belly etc.) made more accessible, too.

Back to the grub. The double duck breast is an ingenious and simple dish. You simply rub the breasts with a spice mixture the night before (crushed cloves, juniper berries, allspice, peppercorns, salt and garlic), tie two breasts together - skin side out - with a few bay leaves in the middle to create two sandwiched roasts, and chill them overnight.
Next, sweet pepper salad. Tanis recommends removing skin not by sealing them in a plastic bag after grilling/charring, but leaving them to cool as they are. It stops them steaming and overcooking, and it was just as easy to peel off the skins. We served them with antipasti and thin toasts with foie gras.
Next, the roast duck... with wilted greens, dauphinoise potatoes and baked figs. The figs were a let down - they just collapsed into soggy wet mush.
And finally, a recipe from Richard Corrigan's A Clatter of Forks and Spoons for dessert. Sharp lemon posset, with a base of fresh raspberries.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Flying Fish and Arcade Diner, Memphis

Memphis, Tennessee, is a split personality city. It is the Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll, and key player in the Civil Rights Movement, yet has a soulless empty business district much like the identity-crisis cities of the Midwest or an '80's Canary Wharf, and sprawling, crime-ridden, impoverished suburbs.

Stick around for a few days, though, and it starts to reveal its magic. Beyond the world-famous Beale Street and Graceland, in the diners, coffee shops, takeouts, and pizza joints, we were welcomed with the renowned Southern warmth and generosity.

The Flying Fish restaurant, a bustling gem in a nondescript office block downtown, offers good cheer and hospitality by the plateful, along with the Arcade Diner. A small Southern chain of fish joints, Flying Fish serves up fish and seafood battered, fried, grilled, or steamed, with a no-fail ordering system: fetch chosen drink from chiller (preferably an ice cold beer), order and pay at counter, take buzzer to your table, buzzer buzzes when your food is ready to be picked up. Simple.

We were too busy eating to take pics of our food, but I can promise you the Grilled Shrimp Ka-Bob with Beans and Rice is mouthwatering, and a steal at $9. We returned the next evening to fetch takeout for a lazy hotel night in.

A brief mention of the Arcade Diner, Memphis's oldest restaurant (opened in 1919) and regular haunt for Elvis in his younger days. I can honestly say I have never had a better cooked breakfast than this simple home-style masterpiece.The bacon was heart-stopping, as was the syrup sitting proudly atop a mound of warm pancakes. I have yet to find streaky bacon in the UK as tasty as American-style smoked. I'm sure it's the dodgy colourings, preservatives, and added flavourings, but I love it! Two perfectly fried eggs and warm buttery grits made this the perfect breakfast. I wouldn't need a hangover to enjoy this every morning, just an elasticated waistband and reinforced arteries.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella is a London gem, hidden in the heart of historic Bloomsbury, on Lamb's Conduit Street. This Italian is one of just a handful of London restaurants that I can safely say will never disappoint.

They are not looking for Michelin stars or culinary accolades, so you won't find any adventurous dishes on the menu, or be titillated by the presentation, but they are looking to feed you home-style Italian food, and feed you well. It isn't trendy by any means, so mercifully (for purely selfish reasons) avoids inclusion in the usual London gourmet lists and guides. Until October, that is, when it appeared in this London Lite article: 'Where top chefs eat'.

As always, a packed restaurant is a failsafe sign of good food. Ciao Bella isn't on a busy tourist thoroughfare, so I used to be surprised to find I had to book two weeks in advance, but now full expect it to be heaving every time I return. When you do book, ask to be upstairs, as the basement is windowless, and rather cold and bleak.

What to recommend? Well, the Seafood Spaghetti in a Paper Bag is a show-stopper. An enormous plate of steaming, fragrant, garlicky pasta and seafood ceremoniously poured from its paper vessel by your waiter. If you're going for the full retro experience, have the Parma ham and melon to start, and I suggest sticking with the gorgeous pizzas and pastas. All dishes are light on the wallet, so you'll have ample change for a digestif in the charming Victorian pub, The Lamb, next door.

Ciao Bella on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Restaurant 7 Portes, Barcelona

One of Barcelona's oldest restaurants, Restaurant 7 Portes sits on a grand colonnade in the port-side district of Barceloneta. Being true to its name, this landmark of Catalan cuisine has retained its 7 original doors, sheltered by porticoes. It is listed and recommended in most travel guides and therefore often mistaken for a tourist trap. I cannot give a fair review of the atmosphere, as our appetites on this 2-day visit were set to UK time, and had us eating mid-morning and mid-afternoon in largely empty spaces, but no matter - the classics were sublime.

The space is split into 4 high-ceilinged rooms, all highly polished dark wood furnishings and crisp white linen. Cosseted in the smaller smoking rooms were tables of merry Catalonians having a long lunch, but we were guided to the main room where they herd all the tourists, it seems. We were even given menus that were translated into 7 languages. Trying not to feel ostracized and patronized, we headed straight for the Spanish classics: gazpacho, and paella.

I have tasted many a gazpacho in my time, even attempting it myself with British summer produce, but nothing came close to this. Please, please, take anyone with an aversion to cold soup here, and they'll be converted. It tasted so green, sweet, and fresh I had a bit of a turn, gasping, wide-eyed in my appreciation at every silver spoonful.

The paella was similarly tremendous, although I'll refrain from awarding it the 'best ever' title until I've tasted the real deal in Valencia. Perfectly seasoned, one paella was more than enough for us to share, and we got off lightly with a bill for less than 40 euros.

If you tire of tapas queues, bar seating, fried plates, and frantic atmospheres, 7 Portes will calm your senses and delight your palate.