"It's not much but it's ours"

Sunday, May 31, 2009


It all went a bit pear-shaped on Saturday. The plan was to visit the gym (how do think I maintain a body like this – magic ?) , then visit somewhere for lunch with a swift return home to watch the FA Cup Final. A simple plan but ruined by an overindulgence in a mystery liqueur purchased on a recent trip to Lisbon and YouTube inconveniently having all my favourite music of all time ever that demanded to be watched. Result: a longer lie-in than usual precipitating Plan B.

A brisk walk down to Borough Market and its attendant hordes to get a couple of pies from Mrs King’s. A brief chat with Ian Hartland and I walked away clutching one Pork Pie, some Piccalilli and one of Mrs Kings Steak and Kidney Pies.

Re the latter you’ll recall HS’s post about being a judge at the 2009 British Pie Awards where he had the honour of judging the Vegetarian category (you can laugh but I had to deal with the fallout). Anyway, Mrs King’s PP was awarded a Gold medal but their S&K Pie made by Hartland junior was a Champion in its class.

Once I got back the all-important marrowfat peas went into boiling water with some bicarb. After an overnight soak I cooked them nice and slowly until they broke up and became, well, mushy. The pie was heated through and placed artfully on top of the peas.

An excellent pie with plenty of chunky meat within but even better was the pastry, all flaky and delicious.

Pie, Peas and a Pint – perfect (sorry just too tempting...the food I mean).

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009


After my uber-smooth proposal in Central Park both Sybil and I were in the mood to celebrate our engagement and to put the slightly depressing experience at Jean Georges behind us.

So, after sharing a bottle of Saumur with my chum Cathy at The Bubble Lounge, we wandered over for supper at one of New York’s most interesting new restaurants, Corton, where chef Paul Liebrandt is already winning major plaudits for his cooking and, judging on the packed dining room, seems to be bucking the recession fuelled trend away from fine dining in favour of more casual offerings.

The last time I had eaten in the space now occupied by Corton, it had been at Montrachet and, while that charming restaurant was by then past its sell by date, I rather liked the room. Not so Corton, which eschews intimate spaces in favour of one large dimly lit and rather unlovely room.

If the room does not engage, then service does and, for those following the Jean Georges comments closely, was charming and efficient from the moment we sat down to the moment we left. The food too hits the spot and from the moment we were presented with warm bread and suitably soft butter you could tell that this was a restaurant where proper attention was paid to small details.

We both chose the three course Prix Fixe at $79, which began with canapés as we sat down and continued with an amuse of foie gras mousse under a thin coating of asparagus jelly sprinkled with a coating of roasted rice. Liebrandt, a young British chef is known for his challenging ingredient pairings, but at Corton, he seems to have them well under control and every taste of the amuse spoke for itself with the texture of the rice adding a perfect crunch.

Sybil, in full Foie Gras mode chose another livery dish to begin, this time with the foie accompanied by a hibiscus beet jelly and blood orange, whose citrus cut through the fatty slab perfectly as she spread it thickly on exemplary crumbly brioche.

My starter too had echoes of my lunchtime dish, again comprising a soup making use of Spring garlic. This time however, with a soft poached guinea hen’s egg, meaty morels and snail. It was, in every respect, the superior of my Mid-day experience. It was correctly seasoned, the egg broke to allow the yolk to thicken the soup, the mushrooms added depth and texture and only the little ball of snail flesh seemed like an ingredient too far.

Rabbit and seafood can be a challenging combination. The first time I experienced it at L’Espinasse, Christian Delouvrier had paired Bre’er bunnykins with lobster and was serving with a glass of Ice Wine, a killer combination that I can still recall every mouthful. Here, Sybil’s elements of rabbit came with sweet potato and artichoke, while the rare cooked scallop had been exiled to a separate bowl to sit in a slick of foam to wait for its execution. I am always happy to see rabbit on the menu and this was certainly one of the best examples I have tried in a long time.

Better than my own choice of Pimento crusted lamb loin with an eggplant chutney and ricotta the sort of dish that, while expertly executed really just reminded me why I steer away from ordering lamb in the US. The presentation and style may have been thoughtful and well done, but the bottom line is that lamb I try in the US seems to lack any discernable flavour. This did not change my mind.

The pastry station at Corton needs work and, while we appreciated the kind gesture of swirling a note of congratulations on our plates (Sybil having mentioned the fact in an oh so subtle way to our server) the rest of what was on there was undistinguished. A dark chocolate fondant was barely worth the ten minute wait and likewise the effort they kindly went to, to remove the coffee element from a brioche with passion fruit and banana (coffee being one of the two things that consign me to a night of projectile vomiting) seemed wasted once I began to eat it.

One of Corton’s real treasures is its list of very well priced “French Country Wines” and a bottle of something from the Longedoc and a well deserved tip for service brought our bill to just under $250. No small amount, but for a meal that served as a perfect marker to our newly betrothed existence, worth every penny.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009


About two-thirds into our dinner, just after we’d finished our main courses, my dining companion (she wants to be know as The Brunette but obviously that’s not going to happen) popped out for a quick cigarette. She came back saying the bistro of The Eastside Inn looked a lot more appealing: more fun and the food simpler. She had a point. On our side of the tracks everything was all a bit, uh, beige.

In Britain some of the best food and most enjoyable experiences are now to be had in pubs and bistros. In this new restaurant world order the Eastside Inn – well the fine dining side at least - seems a bit of an anomaly, a throwback.

All the old tropes of high-end dining are present and correct here: the décor understated and snooze-inducing; the service a bit stiff and uninvolving; the tiresome attempt to get you to buy Champagne; the enthusiastic overfilling of wine glasses with the bottle placed out of reach.

There are endless amuses and pre-desserts which could be interpreted as generosity – they’re all included in the £45 prix fixe menu – but after nearly three hours at the dining table seemed more like cruel and unusual punishment. Some of these problems could and should be eliminated over time. More problematic was the food itself which in several instances was muddled in concept and execution.

Of the amuse bouches the best was a refreshing red gazpacho that had what I took to be ajo blanco ladled on top. A nice palate enlivener. Of the other two a thin sliver of foie gras was good (as foie gras often is) but very salty. A small cube of head cheese came with a blob of caviar and was a bit cold but okay. No bread was offered which is a bit odd in any level of restaurant these days.

Our old high-end chum Mr Foam made an appearance in a Foie Gras starter. It’s interesting how coffee can work well in savoury dishes and here in the form of an espresso syrup it combined well with the liver. The Foie could have done with a little more cooking - it was that side of softness that gave it a sloppy, unpleasant texture – and the foam covered most of the dish making it look like someone’s morning cappuccino.

Braised Veal Sweetbreads were a big disappointment. Sweetbreads when cooked properly should be have a creamy, melting texture within. These were overcooked – sautéing them may have been the better treatment. The dandelion would have worked better if the whole didn’t come drowned in one of those unsubtle sauces that coated your mouth and killed the taste of everything else.

It’s at times like these that it would be good to be able to jettison out of a meal. Given what we’d had already eaten I could, by extrapolation, work out what was to come and it didn’t look so appealing.

There were good elements to our main courses. The Brunette’s (damn) Turbot was a decent tranche of fish cooked very well, but, and I know it was billed as a blanquette, it was overwhelmed by the cream sauce. The limp skin had been draped unappealingly over the flesh with some more nappage in evidence. Fish by itself, fine. Sauce by itself, fine. Together, not so great.

Similarly, my Salt Marsh Lamb was very good, as were the Gnocchi but the sauces were all over the shop. The tapenade would have been enough. Funnily, enough I can remember an excruciatingly bad curry sauce I’d had with lamb at La Noisette. It seems that Mr van der Horst has, as we say “form” in this area. Someone should call the Sauce Police.

The Cheese trolley rolled up and The Brunette says yes please. Not so clever later on when she realises it carries a £15 supplement although this did include a couple of half glasses of wine (a Juracon and a Vin Jaune). Roquefort, an Irish Goats cheese and one similar to a Comte were in good condition but why not more choice ? I also got to taste the bread which disappointingly was not made in-house but brought in from, to quote the waiter, a big French bakery in North London. No, me neither.

We were both visibly wilting by now and The Brunette wanted to leave but dammit we were going to see this thing through to the end.

Several of the desserts had that quality which reminded me of the Johnson quote about women preaching. Exhibit A in this category was a small blob of sorbet tasting mostly of a herb, whose name escapes me for the moment, which was presented on a big block of ice.

The two Orbs which comprised the main dessert (no choice apart from Gold or White Orb) were presumably supposed to elicit ooohs and ahhhs but arriving when they did only invoked inward groans not least from one of the waiters who burnt herself lighting one of them. That’ll be the Vacherin Flambée then. They at least had the benefit of not being over sweet and were relatively light in texture. Likewise, the PFs which were pretty good.

Several years ago Nico Landenis and MPW handed back their Michelin stars and decided that the future of restaurants lay in a less formal, more casual dining experience. Time will tell as to whether I’m the only person in EC1 to concur and wonder at how prescient this now seems ?

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Monday, May 25, 2009


So I found myself at the counter of the Jack O’Shea concession in Selfridges on Saturday, gabbing with the man himself about meat in general and Beef in particular, when he asked me what I fancied. I scanned the display cabinet.

There were Veal Kidneys encased in a thick coat of creamy fat, to be roasted whole; a Popeseye, a cylindrical cut seamed out of the Rump, deep coloured and etched with a fine lines of fat; or my favourite the Ribeye on the bone – what the French call a Cote de Boeuf – beautifully marbled and crying out to be slapped onto a searingly-hot ridged grill, rested and served with a pile of matchstick frites and a tangy béarnaise. Decisions, decisions. In the end I went for the cut right in front of me.

Short Ribs (aka Jacob’s Ladder) are a mainstay of menus throughout the US. Sort of an equivalent to the British Lamb Shank. They’re also very common on Korean menus. It’s difficult to find them in the UK because, sad to say, British butchers are becoming rather thin on the ground. Finding a decent one is even harder. Finding one who knows what short ribs are , well, now you’re talking about something on the level of the P v NP problem.

Short Ribs can be braised or barbecued but after talking to Jack decided to slow roast them. The Ribs were brought to room temperature and sprinkled with some rock salt. They were put into an oven at 100C and left to cook untouched for several hours.

While the ribs were in the oven I cooked up some Razor Clams I’d also bought. Preparation is as for other shellfish like clams or mussels i.e. discard those that don’t close when handled and those that are still closed after cooking. There is a dark intestinal sac that can be removed beforehand.

Cook some chopped garlic in Olive Oil then throw in the clams and cook them until they open. Chucked on some chopped parsley and give them a squeeze of lemon juice. Done. Some bread to mop up the juices would be handy too.

After about four and half hours I lost patience and got the ribs out. All the fat had been rendered but the ribs were still moist. They had a little bit of a chew to them but were good and beefy. They needed little more than some peppery Watercress, Horseradish sauce and a bottle of red from the Monsant region in Spain that belied its six quid price.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009


I can’t actually remember the last time I wrote a letter of complaint to a restaurant. I am sure I have, fuelled by the flames of righteous (or should that be self righteous?) indignation at a lousy meal, lousy service or both. But, I know that I have never fired off a missive to somewhere as highly regarded as Jean Georges, arguably New York’s most famous restaurant.

So what gives? What caused yours truly, known throughout the dining world for his tolerant, understanding and giving nature, to write a note expressing concern at an odd lunchtime experience for him and his girlfriend that they had to cut short because she was so distressed?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. My friend Cathy, who is well known in the NYC restaurant biz had pulled a few strings to snaffle a table at Jean George. It was, I imagined, the perfect prelude to a rather large question I was planning to pop that night over supper at Corton and, the set lunch at the restaurant with two courses for $28 and each further course for $14, meant it would not break the budget for either of us.

Things started badly when they tried to give us one of those strange little tables where couples sit side by side both facing the room. I am told that some people actually like being seated in restaurants like they were on a bus, but it’s not for me and there was no issue when I asked to be moved to a better table.

The menu comprises around twenty dishes with the lightest at the top as starters and heavier dishes as you drop down the list so you can create your own tasting menu. Sybil and I each chose our two dishes and another to share.

Cold bread and rock hard butter are rarely a good sign in a high-end restaurant, but we each chewed away anyway at a piece of unimpressive sourdough until the amuse arrived. When they did, they were a delay rather than a pleasant distraction with herb soup tasting more of salt that anything leafy and a square of “re-hydrated” pineapple perched on top of some dense Mozzarella proving that it is a fruit only suitable to be paired with Carnation Milk.

Sybil was already suffering some discomfort at this point although, ever attentive, I did not notice and concentrated on our starters as they were presented with some formality. My “Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog Legs” was tepid and the salt they had planned to use in it had obviously run out after being used so liberally in the amuse. It was entirely missing in this dish. Worse still, any taste of the young garlic had been swamped by a heavy hand with the thyme.

Sybil’s “Foie Gras Brulee with Pineapple-Meyer Lemon Jam” was slightly disastrous with the effort of cracking the brulee only delaying her from finding out that the foie had probably been in the fridge as long as the butter and the jam confirming again that pineapple does not belong on any menu anywhere unless the other course is fish finger & chips.

Main courses were a slight improvement, with my “Halibut with Snow Peas, Ramps and Almond Milk with Chilli Oil” highlighting a perfectly cooked piece of fish and crisp, fresh vegetable accompaniments. Better still was Sybil’s dish of “Sea Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion” which incurred a supplement of $8. However, it was at this point that Sybil told me what was distressing her so much, the fact that she was being studiously ignored by every server who came to our table while they gave all their attention and explanations to me.

I thought, at first, she was being over sensitive, but as our last shared dish of “Parmesan Coated Confit Leg of Chicken with Potato Puree and Lemon Butter” was delivered I saw that she was right as the explanation of our final plate was directed to me alone. Quite odd and frankly slightly creepy.

That was the final straw and, after we ate what was a badly executed last dish where all tastes of the ingredients had been overpowered by the citrus in the lemon butter sauce, we declined pudding and got the bill of a little over $100, which arrived with some excellent marshmallows and petit fours that we took perfunctory bites from before leaving.

Sybil is not given to imagining such slights and was genuinely angry as we headed out to walk off our lunch in Central Park. I was angry too and sent off a letter to the restaurant shortly afterwards to point out the oddities of the service and the effect it may have on other diner's enjoyment. I could have also mentioned the food too, which, for a restaurant of this reputation, should have been so much better, but that, for once, seemed like a secondary concern.

As we sat in the sunshine in the park, I decided to bring forward my big question and asked Sybil to marry me. I am delighted to say she said “yes” so, even if the people at Jean Georges don’t think she is worth talking to, I do and for the rest of my life.

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