Archive for January, 2012

The Ledbury (2), Notting Hill

January 23, 2012

http://www.theledbury.com

127 Ledbury Road, London  UK W11 2AQ

Our final meal in the UK before boarding the plane back to Sydney. It was also my birthday. A return trip to The Ledbury was on the cards. They were accommodating enough to accept Nina (they’d probably seen a picture), but we had a kind relative who was happy to take her for the afternoon. It made for a very relaxing few hours together.

I was interested to see how The Ledbury has changed since my last visit 18 months ago. It’s reputation has certainly grown over that time. Unfortunately we didn’t really have enough time to dwell over the tasting menu, so we opt for the A la carte.

We start with a foie tartlet – good, creamy & rich.

The bread rolls as before – bacon brioche (never going to fail) and a decent sourdough.

Drinks-wise I can’t resist a gin & tonic, followed by a decent red. An interesting wine experience. I ask the sommelier to make the decision for us in a rough price range. He just brings his chosen bottle of Chianti and that’s it. No more choice or mention of price. He knows his stuff. It was lovely.

To begin my wife opts for Buffalo Milk Curd with Saint-Nectaire, Truffle Toast and a Broth of Grilled Onions

Not a list of ingredients to inspire, but everything about this dish is perfect from the presentation, to the swoon inducing creaminess, acidity and sweetness and then there’s the fir truffle toast. It is Autumn on a plate and should not be missed. Plate envy

Not that I have anything to complain about: Breast and Leg of Partridge with Chestnuts, Iberian Ham and Chanterelle

Again nailing the autumn theme it’s meaty and foresty with good nutty and woody tastes. A real boys starter.

Despite not always being the greatest fan of truffle, Vanessa wasn’t about to give up her truffle toast. I asked for a slice of my own. It was no trouble.

Two of the best starters we’d had all year had put us in terrific spirits and then a complimentary dish from the kitchen arrived:

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso

A house speciality of sorts – the fresh and oily mackeral with a gorgeous crust with more meatiness from the eel bolstering the dish. Shiso provided the balance and freshness. A beautifully simple dish.

And on to the mains – from partridge to Roasted Breast and Confit Legs of Pigeon with Red Leaves and Vegetables, Foie Gras and Plums

Over-dosing a little on the ‘game’ in London, but you don’t get this kind of quality in Australia. The presentation was a car accident, but not in a bad way. Plums and beetroot provided anger against the rare breast strewn across the plate. Little cubes of foie gras were sought out amongst it all.

A side plate of roasted legs and offal on a liquorice skewer made this a seriously hefty main. Delicious.

Vanessa hit pay-dirt again with Native Lobster with Broccoli Stem, Natural Yoghurt and Indian Spices in Brown Butter

Another generous plate of food. I normally consider it a sin to have lobster anything but naturally with butter, but there was a very steady hand here that lifted the dish with indian spices. Very British…. The broccoli were just stem with shavings as the florets. Again a dish that could not be faulted.

And so on to desserts…..I had agreed to order the souffle and tried to change my mind to the banana galette. I was convinced otherwise in front of our waiter….

The passion fruit souffle

As we’d had before sharp and sweet with the cream providing much needed contrast.

A mille-feuille special.

Decent, all about the pastry and pretty fine

And a third dessert – Banana Galette with Salted Caramel,
Passion Fruit and Peanut Oil Parfait. They sympathised with the birthday boy…

banana, salted caramel, peanuts all good.

We finish with some delightful petit fours and of course a double espresso.

Our last meal back in the UK and one of our best. The confidence is clear to see and it comes through in an easy style that creates good bonhomie. It speaks volumes about the staff. The food for the most partis  exceptional. The only critique being the desserts that were unchanged from my previous vist and actually a little pedestrian. But what made a lasting impression was the generosity. You’re spending a fair amount, but it’s the little things that make a difference – truffle toast at no cost, no problem. The dessert that was really wanted. It all adds up to a terrific meal. One of Londons must-go-to restaurants.

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Alyn Williams, London

January 10, 2012

http://www.westburymayfair.com

Westbury Hotel, Bond Street, London W1S 2YF

Lunch for one in London. Was on the lookout for some place new. Alyn Williams at the Westbury had opened a few days prior with good buzz, having been former head chef at the ambitious Marcus Wareing. It seemed the perfect place to try. Just my paper & I.

It’s not one of the most recognizable of hotels, but perfectly located off Bond Street. The dining room is cosy and inviting with lots of pastels. It’s a lunch time and not too busy. Attentive service is not going to be a problem.

The menu is extremely well priced for a restaurant with potential. The tasting menu has many delights, with no throwaway dishes to be found. The focus is on British regional food. In a conversation with the restaurant manager, he mentions that the success of Great British Menu has fuelled an interest in native food, making it possible to move away from modern French/European as the staple of fine dining. Wow. I guess it’s a price worth paying then to listen to the insufferable Oliver Peyton.

So the tasting menu it is.

Nibbles are the obligatory gougeres – if it works for Alain Ducasse….

A personal selection of bread to fill up on.

A broad selection including lavash, beer bread & caraway seed butter. All are excellent.

The first course: French onion consommé/crab/gruyere/potato wafer

So we’ve regressed back to France, but it’s a doozy. Deconstructed without being detrimental to flavour. Crab is a mixture of brown and white meat and it’s beautiful and subtle.

Next up: Orkney/Mersea/Aquitaine

A riff on the old classic – scallop and peas – no complaints.

To follow: Dorset snails/malt soil/chickweed

A dish of the country and ‘hedgerow’. Earthy and moreish. It’s a novelty to see snails on the menu and not just drenched in garlic. A pleasing imaginative dish.

Moving into the substantial part of the menu: Guernsey bass/watercress/truffle/Barolo

Pan fried and moist with hit of truffle. A watercress puree provided substantial bite. The combinations made the bass a meaty dish fitting with the autumnal/winter menu. Though not sure all the elements were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Next up: Cotswold white chicken/hen of the wood/smoked egg/charred leek

A complimentary dish from the kitchen. I’d chosen the beef as my main, but the chef said it was too good a dish not to miss. I could not argue. Continuing a run of pretty fine chicken dishes in the UK, this was a front runner. Yet what really stood out was the smoked egg yolk – twice cooked and finished in a smoker it was wonderfully gelatinous. The combination of elements made it an excellent dish. It was the highlight of the meal.

The final main: Devon red beef sirloin/red wine/turnip/oxtail/croutons

Again a triumph of English flavours, including the much under-rated turnip. It was mostly about the beef and everything else was a conduit. Good depth of flavour.

Pre-dessert: Crème Catalan/pear granita/pine sugar

I’m not have a good run of palate cleansers and this was a little vague. It contained all the elements, but nothing really stood out. Not something to dwell on.

To finish: Tiramisu/Nutella brioche

A mild interpretation with only a light coffee flavour. Particularly enjoyed the brioche – a novel twist with the hazelnut and chocolate working particularly well. A decent close.

A whopping espresso to finish with chocolate truffles

It was a fine lunch from the pleasant service to the memorable food. It’s a new opening, so the eagerness is clear to see. Meeting Alyn Williams – enthusiastic and personable, you can’t help to wish him all the best of luck with his venture. It’s a far cry from the noticeable pressure of perfection at Marcus Wareing, which had made our meals there good, but not so relaxing. It makes a big difference. Clearly there’s a lot of technique in the food, but I didn’t find it over the top of detracting from the flavours, which is good since the British produce is excellent. It’s terrific value, so it would be rude not to give it a go.

Hedone, London

January 8, 2012

301 Chiswick High Road, London

2011’s foodie pilgrimage. This was London’s most important restaurant opening and has been covered ad-nausem already. Important because it’s about an ingredient obsessive following his passion to its logical conclusion and showing the restaurant trade how it should be done. The only down-side is that it looks easy and will inevitably lead to a lot of heartbreak as other food obsessives follow suit. I believe it was Anthony Bourdain who said that if you love food, the last thing you should do is open a restaurant because your heart can too easily rule your head. Hedone is probably an exception and it should be an inspiration to many.

It was the first place I booked on my visit to London. Chiswick is a pain to get to, but it had to be done. It also gave me the chance to catch up with a good friend who appreciates the finer things in life. I was glad the opportunity to spend some quality time with him again.

I was only going to have the one chance to dine here and so we chose the tasting menu. It was never going to satisfy my curiosity. It’s the sort of restaurant where it pays to be a regular and have what’s been sourced that day. As well as the nagging sense of not being able to try it all, the tasting menu followed a trajectory that threatened to derail the meal.

We start with ‘jammie dodgers’ – cheese sable & red pepper

Bread is simple, solid & excellent. No funny business.

The amuse: Seaweed Umami Flan – Sweat and earthy. Very good.

The first course: poached oyster in watercress jelly

It was excellent, evoking the south coast. Yet the presentation made the dish hugely underwhelming, making the tiny serving look miserly on such a huge plate. It was actually embarrassing since I’d talked my friend into dining here (i.e. You’ve cycled from Highbury so that you can have 90s nouveau cuisine portions). Great concept, but another oyster can’t hurt and please change the plating.

This continued with the next dish.

A substitution: crab with cauliflower and lemon grass cream

Terrific ingredients, but miniscule on such on huge plate. The combinations essentially worked with the cauliflower balancing the dish. There’s no doubting the quality.

My friend stuck with the Cévennes Onion with Pear Shavings. This is the kind of dish that drives normal people nuts. “You charge me how much for half an onion? Has the world gone crazy etc.” It was worth it: sweet, buttery and refreshing. It speaks volumes how distanced we’ve become from tasting great quality ingredients that dishes like these can be served & appreciated. It’s something that will certainly continue as food production becomes more mechanized. A tomato worth it’s weight in gold, who knows….

For me the meal really got going with turbot, cockles & cavalo nero.

A dish to showcase the king of fishes designed to capture the essence of the sea, with the liquor providing a touch of saltiness. It sounds wanky, but it’s what it evokes. The turbot had an iridescent shine and was amazingly fresh, treated with the lightest of hands.

Then it all got a bit serious:

Silka Deer Royale with foie gras, ceps & cep ravioli.

It was a badass dish, very rich. Hardcore French cookery at its best. The sauce was amazingly dense – a combination of bones, blood and maybe a hint of vinegar. Bizarrely it tasted almost chocolately. (speaks volumes of my frame of reference). Even though the venison, foie gras, and mushrooms were terrifically indulgent, it’s the saucing that will be remembered for its incredible depth. Loved it. Truly memorable.

Another knock-out main – pigeon, salsa verde, smoked potatoes & offal sauce:

Well aged with a pleasing funk. Pigeon was beautiful. Again the saucing was incredible, elevating the dish to a level of quality and interest not often found in normal London dining. A shout out to the smoked potatoes. Glorious.

The previous dishes had turned the meal around, soothed the initial sense of disappointment and we looked forward to desserts.

First dessert – pineapple carpaccio

More of a palate cleanser. It did nothing to excite. We had expected more, but it was certainly a fine rendition of one…Moving swiftly on.

Final dessert – Chocolate Bar

As mentioned all the rage in restaurants at the moment – chocolate upon chocolate. It was excellent and brought the meal to a pleasurable end.

My main disappointment with this meal is based around the frustration that I live in Sydney. With many restaurants the tasting menu gives you all need to know about it – it’s philosophy, it’s renowned techniques and signature dishes. It doesn’t really change. Hedone is seemingly different. It is one of a few restaurants that will reward frequency of visits to aid (re)discovery of the best ingredients and classical food that is for many only found in the darkest and most expensive reaches of France.

It’s not a place for tasting menus – it’s for proper sized portions of the best sourced food. My meal was not perfect, but it’s easy to see how with more visits it could be.

Hand & Flowers, Marlow

January 7, 2012

http://www.thehandandflowers.co.uk

26 West St  Marlow, Buckinghamshire SL7 2BP, United Kingdom

In the space of a year we’d gone from 3 close couples to 3 families. A short break in the Cotswolds was the opportunity to meet the new additions that we will hopefully see grow over many years. The break was over too soon with some decent home cooked meals, a memorable walk and drunken charades. Before venturing back to the city for dinner at Hedone, we had time for a pub lunch en route – The Hand & Flowers.

A renowned gastro-pub with the focus well and truly on the ‘gastro’ having being recently handed a 2nd Michelin star (the only pub to have such an honour)…. It was worthy of a detour and it proved to be an enjoyable meal, let down by its new found status that sets impossible expectations for a pub, which seems to be doing its things without trying to be cheffy. In these circumstances the Michelin Guide does more harm than good and serves to highlight the inconsistencies in its judgments. This is probably due to a lack of education on what star ratings are meant to denote.

There were four of us for lunch (with two babies – accommodated with no fuss). Deep fried whitebait was the amuse served in ‘traditional’ newspaper. Very cute, crunchy and moreish.

Washed down with a nostalgic half-pint of Abbots Ale. Growing up, my father always seemed to have a case of them in the larder and I would sneak one every now and again, even if they were a good few years out of date. It was ale and I was 15. I had no cause to be fussy. It tasted good.

Menu wise with the starters there was little to get excited about in terms of imaginative dishes. We are in the realm of pub food – terrines & moules etc.. Two of us opted for soups and the rest salmon tartare.

The soups were very good – rich, velvety and flavoursome with a couple of nice touches. The pumpkin soup has blue cheese gougeres. My parsley, bacon and eel soup had parmesan tortellini. Certainly satisfying, and a cut above, but nothing to get excited about (see it’s those bloody Michelin expectations).

Salmon Tartare with poppy seed crackers

The salmon tartare served with smoked salmon was fridge cold from being frozen and as we were told had to be left to thaw to be really enjoyed. I’m not sure any diner wants to be told to wait for their food to be edible. Again mildly irksome. I eventually had a taste. Again it was pleasant, but the temperature worked against the subtle flavours.

However, it’s the mains where this pub makes a statement.

Slow Cooked Duck Breast with Savoy Cabbage, Duck Fat Chips and Gravy

My wife had the Great British Menu famed roast duck – beautiful tranches of duck on the obligatory wooden board, served with duck sausage, cabbage & lardons and of course duck fat chips. Truly elevated pub food. No showy technique – just excellent ingredients and very well put together. It could not be faulted in terms of no-bullshit cuisine.

Breast of Suffolk Chicken with Pistachio Crumble, Lovage Poached Turnips, Soft Polenta and Winter Truffle

Two of us opted for the recommended chicken (ordering chicken again at a restaurant….). This was a glorious restaurant dish. A chicken that tasted of the country (i.e. not bland) served with chicken jus and freshly shaved black truffle. Every bite demanded to be savoured. With luscious polenta and an extra side of chips, that single dish was worthy of the (slight) detour.

The last dish was spiced Sea Bream with smoked aubergine and dahl. Indian food with finesse in a pub. nice. It was good.

We finished with three good desserts:

Tonka Bean Panna Cotta, Poached Plums, Honeycomb and Plum Sorbet

Warm Pistachio Sponge Cake with Melon Sorbet and Marzipan

Glazed Cox’s Apple Tart with Blackberry Sorbet

All good desserts each with a little something to get excited about. I particularly liked the pistachio cake – sweet and mildly nutty.

As a pub meal it was excellent, with very few pubs capable of equaling it. Food and cooking was generally terrific in a non-showy, traditional manner. The 2 star recognition is no doubt due to its best-in-class standing, but this will confuse people without proper context. It’s more about Michelin showing it is populist and gets pubs. However if you’re going to recognise the best in pubs, give The Sportsman 2 stars for its unique approach to ingredients.

Go expecting as good a pub meal as you will get, but no showy Michelin tricks. It makes it a fine regional destination, but not necessarily a road trip in its own right.