Dine High Club

It occurred to me, writing this as I hurtle across the Atlantic in a huge steel tube at some ridiculously fast speed, that I don’t think I’ve ever read a review of airline food. Well, not in the same breath as a review of a restaurant anyway. OK, this isn’t quite Gordon Ramsay despite the best efforts of most airlines to tout an “Executive Chef” (and possibly also a Sommelier), neither of whom you’ve heard of. Maybe Qantas and Neil Perry may be a slight exception to that, but you get my point. And so I find myself on that culinary barge, also known as an American airline. I’ve flown on many nation’s fleets over the years but it has to be the American ones that have more than their fair share of ubiquities when it comes to reflecting a nation that, frankly, only thinks the word “constraint’ relates to child seats.

Clearly, even before food is served, there is the catalogue (sorry, should be catalog for this piece) of guests / diners / passengers who struggle to get the tray table to line up in front of them. I suspect i may have seen a John Candy movie along these lines at some point. Maybe they should design tables such that, if you can’t actually get it in front of you, it loses stability to actually prevent food from being placed on it. Now that’s a constraint I think many would welcome.

The food itself tends to have the usual lexicon that most non-Amercians have tuned (not pronounced ‘tooed’ BTW – see below) into by now but still cause foodies to squirm before the soup arrives. American-only substitutions is one (arugula, cilantro), the unfathomable nod towards a vague sense of being healthy with the “salad course” (not sure the French would even know when to eat that one) and then there’s the eternal I-pronounce-it-differently-than-you-except-I-can-fully-understand-how-you-pronounce-it-and-what-you-mean-so-why-can’t-you-understand-me problem (tomato, water, tuna).

Anyway, on the plus side I have to admit that in the case of Delta, whose company I share today, their food is remarkably good. Onion soup that is hot, not tepid, and actually has onions in it; fillet steak that is properly medium rare and has some flavour and a cheese board that, trust me, was actually rather good. The other upside to flying on a US airline is that everything turns up while you’re still working out what movie to watch or why your seat massager came on during take-off and is now attracting glares from the old couple who think you’ve hidden a bomb in your pocket. I mean, the Yanks KNOW how do do service. Compared with BA that I flew with only a few weeks ago, it is the difference between Harvester (BA) and a reasonable, albeit low-end bistro (Slug and Lettuce but not in anywhere dodgy).

I am also, in case you hadn’t guessed, on my way to the US for the umpteenth time so I expect to have more to report back on of a culinary nature. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience of Barbie’s mum serving you Claret (pronounced “cla-ray’).

Kitchen Confidential

Yesterday I found myself having lunch with Piers Morgan. OK, not sat next to him, but he was close enough to be within earshot which qualifies in my book. He’s an odd fellow close up. Less worry lines that I thought he’d have. Maybe all those months out in LA have resulted in the inevitable Botox injections that seem to be the price of entry to most places there now. I found it rather heartening though that Piers and I should have the same taste in restaurants.

The restaurant in question is Gordon Ramsey’s latest cab-off-the-rank, the aptly named Bread Street Kitchen (http://www.breadstreetkitchen.com/home) since it is a kitchen on, umm, Bread Street. After the proliferation of confusingly named restaurants that seem to have popped up all over London – which includes BSK’s close neighbour, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa – it’s rather pleasant to have a nice, honest, no frills restaurant name. Which, coincidentally, could be a very good description of the inside of the restaurant itself. Your first observation is that the builder’s must have left in a hurry. It’s all rather industrial with heating ducts and wiring exposed, lots of bare metal and avant garde lighting. Maybe Gordon went for dinner with Bruce Willis during his Die Hard years.

All that being said, you’d be forgiven for not knowing this was Gordon’s place. Unlike Mr Oliver next door whose name adorns every sign and menu, Mr Ramsey’s impact is a lot more low key. Which is good, because you can then focus on the extremely well constructed menu. There are some staples on here (steak etc) as well as an outstanding raw bar which is as fresh and vibrant as you’d find anywhere. I ordered the seared yellow fin tuna with parsnip mash which was extremely good. Not your usual slab of flesh, this had been tastefully cooked and sliced yet still very pink, and topped with featherlight parsnip crisps. Perfect lunch food – not a huge portion, with the emphasis on quality, not quantity. Others round the table had mutton and potato pie, a refreshing change to see such a traditional meat being used in such a modern way.

Service was right out of the old school book of Ramsey – impeccable. Attentive, polite, knowledgeable and friendly. Hardly surprising when you consider the severe punishment that mad Scot would no doubt dish out for anyone dropping a plate or toppling a food tower.

You should try BSK, if only so you can experience Ramsey doing Bistro food rather than thin wafers of owl, or carpaccio of beaver which is the usual fayre in his posh gaffs. And who knows, you might even end up enduring a shamed newspaper editor on the table next to you.

Watch out Jamie

It seems quite apparent that the restaurant scene in London is not suffering too much from any double-dipping (well, of the financial rather than culinary variety that is). Restaurants that I’ve been in recently all appear to be bursting at the seams, with vibrant clientele all willing to splash the cash.

Last night was no exception, as I found myself in Madison (http://www.madisonlondon.net/), one of the newest restaurants to hit the streets near St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is situated on the roof – quite literally – of a brand new complex of shops and restaurants, also home to Messrs Oliver and Ramsey’s latest eateries – although more on that later. The restaurant has a terrace area which was over-flowing with puffa-clad twenty-somethings supping on a variety of wine and cocktails braving the cold for one of the most spectacular views across London you’ll see this side of Galvin on Park Lane. It is both stunning and beautiful at night, with a front-lit St Paul’s Cathedral and the London Eye creating an amazing pastiche of old and new London. Inside is no different with floor to ceiling windows making the best of the views, albeit in a rather warmer environment. Just check out the link above to see what I’m referring to.

The restaurant is about 50% bar and 50% dining room, all open plan, and there is a vibrant buzz delivered from mostly professionals enjoying some after-work imbibing. The waitress and menu arrived almost instantly and we were presented with a really eclectic collection of modern cuisine ranging from steamed halibut to 4 or 5 different types of steak. I selected pan-fried squid with a squid-ink dressing followed by lobster. Both courses were stunning, and worth double their modest price. The lobster in particular had been cooked expertly, and I should know having had a fair number all round the world in my time. As side orders, we had kale with braised ham hock which gave it a seasoned saltiness that matched the lobster perfectly, and truffle fries which you could smell the instant they arrived on the table.

As noted above, the ambience was lively without being overpowering and conversation was easily heard – the perfect blend in my opinion. (I hate quiet dining rooms.) Service was attentive and polite, even down to adjusting one of the courses for my dining guest without any hesitation.

Given we were 5 floors above Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, and having eaten there a couple of times before, I have to say this wins hands down. The menu was far more interesting, the restaurant itself far more inviting and it was considerably cheaper. And, to top it all, you’re eating looking out over London rooftops rather than the blank walls of the office building opposite. Not sure whether Mr Oliver has had chance to pop upstairs to review the competition but, on the evidence last night, he ought to be more than a little concerned that his less well-known neighbour is about to take away a large slice of his potential clientele.

A Culinary Cultural Difference

I don’t know what it is, but I seem to always revisit my blog around the time that I’ve been to the US. Part of me thinks it’s a reminder that the culture in the US has a huge food angle to it, and maybe it’s something to do with the check-in at BA asking if I was going to pay extra for being over the weight limit (for me). Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love eating out in the US, and especially in New York. I find the food vibrant, ever-changing and it clearly attracts some of the most talented chefs in the world.

I do, however, try wherever possible to try eating steak every night. Seems crazy for someone living in the UK where the average is benchmarked at Harvester. (Any American’s reading this – PLEASE do not go to Harvester. It represents the culinary equivalent of trailer-trash). I did have a superb evening again at Tao but found myself with a group of salesman at the New York Striphouse (http://www.striphouse.com/) a couple of days later. It’s a weird place. Very dark and I mean VERY dark, apart from at the tables themselves. Not sure if this is intentional or if the credit crunch is forcing the dimmer-switches down a click.

As steakhouses go, this is one of the best. I would class myself as something of an aficionado of all things bovine and this ranks incredibly high. We bailed the starters and went for the special which was a bone-in ribeye for two, which was exquisitely cooked and carved off the table. Nice touch that they then brought the bones back in case there were any gnawers in the party. And if the steak wasn’t enough, the serving of creamed spinach with truffle was amazing. I mean, truly amazing. I’ll be stealing that one for future dinner parties.

And then the bill came, which I was carrying. The bill. The emotive bit. Don’t get me wrong, I will always give credit where credit is due in a restaurant. In fact, I think I’m quite good at getting the tip right, on both sides of the pond. Not here though. Through a mathematical miscalculation, I ended up adding on 6%. That’s the American equivalent of saying “your food was tasted like shit, and your waiters were trained by Pol Pot”. I was even more surprised when the waiter came chasing after me asking if everything was OK and pointing rather antagonistically at the bill (check). Only when I left did my sales brethren, who were clearly more on the mathematical ball than I that evening, point out my culinary faux pas (and Alex, who lives nearby, swearing profusely at me for ruining any chance of being able to go back to his favourite restaurant).

The thing is, if this was in Britain, nobody would have batted an eyelid. I’ve been in restaurants where we’ve spent well over £1000 for 4 people and tipped £20 (not by me, I hasten to add). Silence. But I’m fortunate enough to have read Waiter Rant so I know that US waiters get paid bugger all and therefore the only way they make ends meet is the tip. So how bad do i feel now ?

So, for the waiters and staff of the Striphouse, I am most sorry. I promise to buy the Chateau Ducru next time and donate a second bottle to you.

New York, without the anvil

I’m just about to head out to New York for a few days. New York is an amazing city for food, make no mistake, and some of the best meals I’ve eaten in my life have come from chefs in New York. It does have a few advantages after all:

  • It is on the coast, and can therefore benefit from some amazingly fresh seafood and fish.
  • It is a vibrant mix of cultures from all over the world
  • Americans love to eat
  • Americans REALLY love to eat

In fact, some of the best food I’ve eaten in my life has been prepared by chefs in New York. If you’ve never been, I heartily recommend it. Speaking of heartily brings me to the one thing that I really struggle with in my numerous trips to the city that never sleeps. I come back feeling like I’ve swallowed an anvil. I’m amazed that they don’t charge me extra when checking in at JFK. There’s just something about the way in which the food is so plentiful that you almost feel obliged to eat what’s on the plate. Not helped, of course, by the fact that I was brought up to actually finish everything on my plate. And, before you say it, I don’t want my leftovers bagged thanks. I ate cold leftovers as a student and, now that I can afford to eat in Michelin star restaurants, I’d rather not have a half-eaten steak festering in my fridge thanks.

I have therefore taken a pre-emptive step in anvil-avoidance. For the one business dinner I had the flexibility to arrange I’ve gone for something that you really would not want bagged up for tomorrow: Japanese. I will, of course, let you know whether my plan works, or whether they’ll be putting me in the hold with the oversized luggage…

My Signature Dishes : Jordanaise Potatoes

This dish goes down as a legend in our house. Not sure how I came up with it – messing about with ingredients probably – but once you’ve tasted these spuds, I guarantee you will cook them over and over again. They go with almost anything, but tonight they’re going with roast chicken and roast root veg.

Chances are, you’ll be heating the oven anyway for the chicken / lamb / pie etc but if not, heat it to 200 celsius. Then you’ll need:

Potatoes (waxy are the best) cut into 1 inch cubes
2 x tbsp plain flour
1 x tsp paprika
1 x tsp cayenne
7 x cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp dried oregano
4 x tbsp groundnut oil
Good pinch of sea salt

Put the potato cubs in a bowl then add the flour. Mix until potatoes thorough coated then add the rest of the ingredients, saving 1 tbsp of the oil, until the potatoes are thorough coated. They should have a red / orange sticky coating on them by now.

Pre-heat a shallow baking tray in the oven with the final 1 tbsp of oil. When really hot, add the potato mix and spread evenly.

Oven bake for about 40 minutes, turning the potatoes every 10 minutes or so. May take less time, or more time depending on how many potatoes you’re doing.

I promise you, this is proper comfort food.

So easy, even a child could do it

I know this is probably easy for me to say, but I do think a lot of cooking is dead easy. I look at the rows of ready meals in Waitrose and my heart sinks to think that people cannot even conceive to put a simple dish together. And don’t get me started on ready chopped and peeled carrots. I mean – how hard is it to peel a carrot ??? I don’t even buy the whole “I’m too busy” argument either. I’m up to my eyeballs in work right now and I’ve still just put on a lamb saag – from fresh ingredients – which took me all of about 10 minutes to prepare. I think there are a lot of people out there that are scared to find out about cooking, and so resort to lazy (and often unhealthy) food as a result.

It’s got to start at childhood though I reckon. I learned all the basics from my mum – an absolutely fabulous “home cook” – and have built on it ever since. And it’s not even that hard to introduce to your kids either. Baking cup cakes or cookies is, quite possibly, the simplest thing in the world to make. And, you know what ? Most kids would just love the opportunity to get their hands mucky and end up eating what they’ve made.

And so, this teatime, my eldest daughter and I made tuna fishcakes. (No cries of “urrrgghhh fish” please.) I tell you, this is the simplest thing you’ll ever make and kids will love it. Mashed potato, a tin of tuna, bit of salt and pepper, then coated in beaten egg then breadcrumbs. That’s it. Healthy, easy, bit of veg on the side, and both my kids wolfed them down. So easy. even a child could do it…and in this case pretty much did from start to finish. And here’s the proof:

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