Archive for December, 2011

Dinner at Heston Blumenthal, London

December 21, 2011

http://www.dinnerbyheston.com

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London

Back in London, lunch with a best friend and the chance to try out a new opening – Dinner at Heston Blumenthal. It’s been pulling in the crowds and therefore some planning ahead is needed for reservations. It’s certainly a slick money-making operation for all concerned. I get a phone call 5 days before my booking to confirm (5 days!).

I’ve got a lot of time for Heston because works at being unique. He’s carved out a clear positioning for himself with a competitive advantage – cutting edge geeky gastronomy meets old english heritage. And even though he’s more and more on TV, he’s not spreading himself so thin that the food seemingly comes secondary. His mantra is probably “don’t do what Gordon does.” So this brand extension focusing on ‘old english’ really stands outs.

It’s a big hotel restaurant with double the covers I expected. The waiters are young, European and efficient to the detriment of real personality. I’m also not sure if I’m in a concept restaurant or not. We get explained the concept – British dishes ‘resurrected’ from the past, but the only other nod to it is jelly moulds as light shades. It’s not quite gelling together in the cavernous, but striking room.

Oh and the wine list is odd in terms of length & pricing. I’m well used to the concept of relative positioning – using choice & pricing to influence decision-making. It’s practiced heavily in the pricing of wine to encourage purchasing of a more expensive wine. at Dinner there’s a house wine (well priced 20GBP), then the next choice is 60GBP+. So it’s cheap or expensive, not a compromise 45/50GBP choice in sight. Mildly irritating. It encourages us to go cheap and get two bottles. Fuck it and another starter why not….

Enough of that, it’s the food that really matters. It’s good. Not fancy, just really enjoyable.

Lovely crust on the bread. The almost radioactive butter is deliciously rich & creamy with a good slug of salt. I personally can’t understand why anybody would ever eat unsalted butter, even in desserts….

I order the Rice & Flesh with saffron, calves tail & red wine

A beautifully savoury and meaty risotto. It’s a significant portion and ideal to share. The rice has good bite with little explosions of red wine & tail. Creamy & intense.

Meat Fruit:

The signature dish. The marketing men at Mandarin Oriental must be squealing with delight – people are coming here to order a mandarin…. Look I’m not about to order chicken liver parfait at a restaurant, no matter how cute it looks. It’s like ordering a cheese sandwich. Nathan does the honours instead…and it’s really something. Smooth as silk, rich with the mandarin jelly providing the balance. It’s a complete dish. It’s even got greenery. Still not going to break my role, but it’s worth the hype

The extra starter: Salamugundy: Chicken Oysters, Salsify, tongue & horseradish cream

Providing a little bit of balance to proceedings, it’s a decent mellow dish with a pleasing punch from the horseradish – more a man-salad with lots of ingredients to get excited about. But no fireworks

The mains: Black Foot Pork Chop with Spelt & Robert Sauce

A gorgeous hunk of well bred meat, served nice and pink. (if only all pork was served this way). Sauce was full flavoured with mustard and onions without it being cloying or too intense. Interesting accompaniment with the spelt and lardons. Some cabbage on the side did the veg proud.

Chicken cooked with lettuces (c.1670)Spiced celeriac sauce & cabbage

Again another dining no-no, ordering chicken, but it was recommended….The chicken, normally devoid of flavour was sensational with the lightly of spiced purees and flavoursome lettuce (yes, lettuce does have flavour). It was kick-arse, even though sous-vide cooking normally removes textural joy.

On so on to puds:

Chocolate Bar with passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream

Even if Chocolate Bars had not been invented in 1730, I’m sure we would have seen it on the menu. It’s an Alain Ducasse thing and it’s doing the rounds – layered textures of chocolate is no bad thing and this was something to send one into a chocolate coma with ginger ice cream the only thing to rescue the soul. Passion fruit jam was the merest of nods to sweetness, but it was mostly ignored in the face of excess.

Speaking of excess, I went for the final must order cliche: Tipsy Cake with spit roast pineapple

If the chocolate bar was all richness, this dessert was all sugar. If you’re going to go down a certain path then you might as well go hell-for-leather. It was great. The brioche drenched in sweet liqueur with caramelised pineapple. It was a dish that had to finished.

We finish with double espressos, a cut chocolate pot and shortbread.

It was a fine meal with excellent ingredients and cooking. All decent substantial dishes, nothing twee. I guess cooking in the past catered for men first and Heston probably had to work hard to fine some subtle lighter dishes! It’s always good to eat at a place with raison d’etre away from the normal interpretation of modern French. It’s partly why this restaurant has done so well I suppose. I’m not sure I buy the whole concept, but all the good stuff is on the plate where it belongs. That’s why it’s no flash in the pan.

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Pied a Terre, London

December 18, 2011

http://www.pied-a-terre.co.uk

34 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2NH

A trip back to London in November for my sister’s wedding. The perfect opportunity for my family to meet Nina… and also to check out some new restaurants and some favourites.

Pied a Terre does not fit into either territory having been around several years, the most sophisticated place in media-land. I’d never managed going (probably because I’m not the most sophisticated of people in media-land). A change of chef has recently led to a demotion in michelin status, but with a strong rep, it worth’s checking out.

It’s a walk-in booking and I get a decent spacious table at the back of the restaurant. The dining area is spread over a few small rooms and it has a good clubby feel, tailored towards the kind of lunches that seek to avoid going back to the office. It’s relaxing. The menu has a modern European feel, which essentially means modern interpretation of classics. It’s familiar, interesting and makes you hungry. A good place to be.

I aim for a light lunch and go for the menu-du-jour – a relative bargain at £33.50. Service is formal and they don’t scrimp on the canapes. A worthy mention to the foie-gras mousse. So good to be re-acquainted.

First course: veal carpaccio, autumn mushrooms, onions, parmesan crisp, salsa verde.

A thoroughly decent entree. Not traditional – the veal is seared, but it’s a really pleasant plate. It’s well balanced with decent textures. Honourable mention, surprisingly to the onions

Main course: seared cod with herb crust and roasted beetroots.

Although autumnal it’s a perfect light lunch dish. Excellent cooking with the herb crust providing meatiness of flavours. The baby beetroots are intensely sweet with accompanying ‘reduction’.

To finish – hello cheese trolley.

Mediocre cheese costs an arm and a leg in Australia. Here, excellent unpasteurised (!) cheese from La Fromagerie is a steel. It’s served with homemade crisp bread with poppy seeds (I want one of those trees…), honey and grapes. I’d made a note of the cheeses. I’m sure I’ll discover it in 6 months.

To finish – double espresso with a shed-load of petit fours.

From nougat, bakewell tart, truffle to my favourite, caneles, they all excellent treats.

It brings to close a thoroughly enjoyable lunch. It’s only the fixed lunchtime menu, but the cooking is clearly competent with a good touch of imagination. What’s notable is the genorisity in terms of canapes, cheese and petit fours. Although it doesn’t have a high-profile it’s worth checking out.

Sepia, Sydney

December 11, 2011

http://www.sepiarestaurant.com.au

201 Sussex Street Sydney 2000

Celebrating our 3rd anniversary and time to reflect on a momentous year, so we had to head somewhere decent – the recently 3-hatted Sepia. I’d been here before for a couple of good martinis, but had yet to experience what many people had raved about. A restaurant with a reputation for inventive food with a seafood bent.

I do like the room. It’s all dark woods, clubby and masculine. It’s the ground floor of a building that houses a bank and accountancy company, so they’re clearly appealing to a certain clientele. Nothing hip here. I like it.

We sit down and mindful we have baby-sitter decide not to linger on the decision-making and go straight for the degustation. It’s a no-brainer with a menu heavy on quality produce.

Straight in: Good warm sourdough rolls. Decent, salty butter.

It’s not the sort of place that’s going to sell roses to dining couples, but the nearest equivalent nowadays is the ‘oyster up-sell’. If you don’t go for the champagne, then it’s hard to go past the nelson bay oysters.

The fine citrus vinaigrette is superfluous with such fine, meaty and mellow oyster. A worthwhile choice.

The menu starts with a thoroughly decent amuse-bouche: Sea-urchin custard

Clearly fresh, it’s salty, rich and sweet. It’s a really pleasant taste.

Our first course: “Scallop sushi” Nori rolled scallop, pickled ginger, puffed sushi rice, avocado cream

A deconstructed sushi-roll. It’s a dish with verve and beautifully clean flavours. The scallop  is warm, almost translucent, covered immaculately in nori with accompanying creams and jellies. It’s so much more interesting than the run  of the mill sushi/sashimi courses often served (I mean you Rockpool).

Next up: Tartare of yellow fin tuna, poached egg yolk, soy and wasabi, sprouting caviar lentils, amaranth grains

A zeitgeisty dish. Slow-cooked egg yolk, sprouts & grains are so 2011. The tuna tartare is seriously meaty and it’s all really rather heavy. The egg yolk is gelatinous and there’s no lightness that calms everything down. It’s the sort of dish I generally love, but actually a little too intense.

The intensity continues with Queensland spanner crab and buckwheat risotto, mustard butter, shellfish essence

Of course, no rice, we’re continuing the seed theme. This is a kind of signature dish, capturing the ‘essence of the sea’ (of course). One is asked to mix the foam into the risotto for maximum flavour. It’s marvellous. Rich and satisfying without being overbearing.

Our 6th seafood course is roast hapuku (if I recall), scampi, shellfish custard, crystallised wakame, fennel, wild rice, licorice, shiso leaf

The cooking is excellent. It’s got the makings of a good main course. The fish is sweet and succulent, especially the scampi. The accompanying vegetables offer excellent contrasting flavours that keeps the dish constantly novel. Yet the shellfish custard is bruising. It seems you can have too much of a good thing….

And so on to the mains proper and we’ve got two (count them) hardcore meat courses:

1.Char grilled miso beef tenderloin, nameko mushroom, braised barley, smoked bone marrow, miso mustard white Barletta onions

Again, excellent quality, really interesting ingredients. The beef is perfectly cooked. We’ve got another foam and more grains. All good.

2. Cocoa and sansho seared Mandagery creek venison, baby beetroots, rhubarb, chocolate, beetroot

Venison with chocolate and beetroot. Love a bit of venison. Dark, intense with some much needed sweetness. With what’s come before it’s difficult to finish. We persevere.

Pre-dessert: Gin ‘n’ Tonic jelly

Whimsical and a bit jolly. Cutely British – Cubes of gin and tonic with cucumber ice (if I remember). It’s a much needed palate cleanser and brings us to the piece-de-resistance:

“Summer Chocolate forest” (deep breath) Soft chocolate, chestnut and praline, lavender cream, sour cherry sorbet, blackberry candy green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs, berries, crystallised fennel fronds

It’s a smorgasboard of a pudding – the detritus of a forest floor designed with cavalier nonchalance. Every spoonful discovers a new combination of tastes. It’s easy to applaud the imagination and effort, but not everything in forests taste that great, especially when there’s a huge menthol flavour that lurks like a crocodile in various parts of the plate. (It lingers for hours, even after wine & espresso). But there’s something about the textures at play…. the bits, the twigs that’s not altogether appetising. I’m not sure the idea of eating a forest really appeals. As much as I admire the concept, it’s not an idea to sow….I compare this to the chocolate textural pudding at Marque, which ticked all the boxes.

In summary, we had a lovely evening here. The cooking is certainly accomplished, and it was good to enjoy fine seafood cookery which is not as common as it should be in Sydney. The quality of ingredients were first class and clearly represent good value-for-money against other high-end places that are trying to reinvent secondary cuts. However, the cooking could lighten up. It was a sledgehammer meal with huge over-the-top intense elements, that occasionally made the food a bit of a challenge. However it’s better than the opposite of insipid lightness and it’s good to see a big heart on the plate. I would certainly go again, and try light(er) a la carte choices.