Archive for January, 2010

Parallel Lives

I’m often asked if / when I’m going to invest in / own / run a restaurant given my passion for food and cooking. I guess my stock (‘scuse the pun) response to that is that a) they’re incredibly low margin, and b) a LOT of hard work with very, very long hours. At the back of my mind though I do have a view on what I think I’d like my restaurant to be like, if I do end up owning one at some point.

I was looking for somewhere for Fi and I to go out to at the end of the month and I’m often told that the best restaurant nearby is Drakes (http://www.drakesrestaurant.co.uk/) in Ripley, Surrey. I’ve never eaten there but, having read about the place, then THIS is the sort of restaurant I really like. Steve Drake sounds like a top bloke.

Anyway, hope there’s more on this topic a month from now.

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Has the world gone diet mad ?

It may come as no surprise that upon returning from the US, I have the distinct sensation that I’ve swallowed a small anvil. Portion sizes in the land of the free clearly don’t get any smaller and the proliferation of red meat is staggering. So, I’ve decided that for the next few weeks I shall eat a little healthier, a little less and return my body to the temple it was for the majority of last year. (Stop sniggering at the back.) No, this doesn’t mean I’ll spend all day eating rabbit food, just a little bit of enforced moderation.

This being lazy Sunday I decided to look up some new recipe ideas on t’internet. It’s amazing that as soon as you put the word “healthy” into any search you are absolutely bombarded by every type of diet imaginable. Some I’d obviously heard of – Atkins, Weight Watchers, etc – but have you ever heard of the “Prison Loaf diet” ? Or the “Hospital diet ?” (dread to think). The list goes on. See if you’ve heard of any of these:

  • Cookie diet
  • Daylight diet
  • Edenic diet
  • Grapefruit diet
  • Israeli Army diet
  • Liquid-only diet

and the best of all

  • the Negative calorie diet (lots of throwing up I presume)

I reckon I counted well over 100 weird and wonderful ways to supposedly lose weight. In my view, they’re all totally unnecessary. It’s a simple equation : if calories burned > calories consumed, you lose weight. The other way around, you gain weight. That’s it. So eat less, exercise more.

Perhaps I’ll come up with a name for it : the Duh-It’s-Not-Rocket-Science Diet.

The Food Diary of a Weekend sans Femme

Mum is away for the weekend so Dad has to step up a few gears to keep the kids a) interested, b) occupied, and c) from turning into couch potatoes. I figure they’re more likely to want to eat foot they’ve cooked themselves and it also meets objectives A to C above.

Lunchtime Saturday : Spicy lamb fajitas. Great assistance from my youngest daughter / sous chef. Still need to work on her knife skills – the red peppers looked a bit like they’d been hacked by a rogue spoon. A bit over-zealous with the spice too, causing my eldest daughter’s eyes to water. Still, lots eaten – can’t complain.

Teatime Saturday : Homemade tomato ketchup and chicken goujons. Again, great assistance from my youngest daughter, my eldest having deserted me for her best mate. Typical !! I’m sure most of the breadcrumbs ended up on L and on the floor but there’s sufficient coating on the chicken I reckon. Ketchup was a breeze – you should try it – although not sure about putting the Tabasco in. Macdonalds-style food but healthy and done the AJ-way. Genius.

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…and went down a treat !!!

Sunday breakfast : Dry-cured bacon on toasted bagels. Not much help this morning but, on the whole, went down very well. As I was cooking I was thinking about that awful bacon you get from supermarkets that leaks white milky stuff. Yeugghh !! None of that with this Gloucester Old Spot. Next stop, full traditional British roast for lunch.

Sunday lunch : the works. There’s one thing I could practically do with my eyes shut – cook a roast lunch. This time it’s chicken, along with all the usual trimmings. Sous chefs were more willing today, although a bit more practice needed on the peeling and chopping front. Still, no major blood-spilling so all good. Chicken carcass, left-over gravy and various other bits and pieces now simmering for stock. Perfect.

Knights of the (Chinese) Round Table

Had a quality night this week out for dinner with the Board. I was grateful to be asked to suggest where to go, not because I don’t trust my assistant, but because it was only when I found out on the day we were supposed to be going out that nowhere was booked that I just felt I had to take control. OK, maybe I don’t trust my assistant.

I was trying to think of somewhere where we could talk freely and openly, since I knew there’d be lots of work talk, the Board meeting having been only hours earlier. I also didn’t want somewhere crazy expensive (the CFO was with us), so I settled on getting a private room in one of the best Chinese restaurants in the City. Imperial City (http://www.orientalrestaurantgroup.co.uk/) nestles underneath the Royal Exchange, a few doors down from Hermes. It’s deceptively large, given it’s basically underground, but the decor is tasteful, tables are large and well spaced out and plenty of waiting staff on hand to dish out the prawn crackers.

Our private room was large also, with one huge round table at the end, our own mini-bar etc and the customary spinny-thing in the middle. I always worry a bit with private rooms that you can hear a pin drop and you don’t get the atmosphere of the main restaurant. Certainly, that’s the case in the likes of 1 Lombard or Quaglinos, at least in my experience. Not so with Imperial City, partly because we made our own atmosphere (!!) and partly because it was so close to the main restaurant that you didn’t feel shut out.

I’d eaten at Imperial City several times before, but quite a long time ago, so had forgotten just how good the food is. The plum sauce with the shredded duck was clearly not out of a bottle with fresh and vibrant flavours mixing perfectly with the tender duck. The various main courses, both fish and meat, were excellent if a little obvious. I would particularly recommend the steak with cracked black pepper and lemon grass and the steamed scallops with chilli. Wine was a rather lively Rioja – perfect. If I had to level any criticism at all it would be that the mixed vegetables were a bit heavy on the MSG. I could still taste it the day after, but doesn’t really detract from what was an excellent display of quality Chinese cuisine.

Duck Thai Curry. Would you like tamarind with that, Sir ?

There are some staple food classics that get cooked often at Chez Jourdain. I’m sure over the course of the next few weeks and months, they’ll all appear on this blog (many thanks to Delia and Mr Ramsey). One of my mid-week faves is duck Thai curry with jasmine rice. Absolute pure food heaven, and all credits going to Delia on this one.

Now, normally cooking a Delia doesn’t present too much of a challenge. She really is the cook for the people – after all, she did manage to make good telly out of an egg-boiling demonstration. But for some reason, she went a little off-track on this one. Basic ingredients for this dish are probably fairly obvious : thai curry paste (homemade or shop bought – actually doesn’t really matter), coconut milk, duck (obviously), french beans. Oh, and for some reason Delia like putting extra tamarind in hers. Lots and lots of tamarind. If you’ve never cooked with tamarind paste, it’s a bit like savoury treacle – a blend of sweet and sour – and very, very sticky.

My wife is an excellent cook and excels at putting together mid-week masterpieces. I’m actually proud of the fact that in 10 years of marriage we have never cooked a ready meal. So, true to form, she followed the recipe as planned. All I can describe the output as is a sort of “duck in tamarind gravy”, in both look and appearance. Oops. Was edible but it was a bit overpowering, and not much in the way of Thai flavours going on. I think teaspoons somehow got mixed up with tablespoons. Easy mistake, and glad it was tamarind, not chilli powder.

I’d call Delia to let her know her recipe’s a bit broken but I think she’s out at Sainsbury’s flogging omelette pans.

A great British-Italian Institution

I do find Italian food in Britain a bit hit and miss. I think it’s largely down to its mass commoditisation through mediocre chains like Bella Italia, Est Est Est, Pizza Express and, dare I say it, Pizza Hut. OK, maybe not Pizza Hut – that’s more like American junkfood. That’s not to say that you can’t get good Italian in Britain, but you do have to search for it. Interestingly, I find people become very loyal to good Italian restaurants, sometimes fiercely so, almost like it’s their one and only best-kept-secret.

Pomodoro in Knightsbridge (http://www.pomodoro.co.uk/) is one such place. Nestled in an eclectic run of restaurants on Beauchamp Place – which includes the notorious San Lorenzo (and yes, bizarrely, I nearly knocked down Sven Goran-Eriksson as he went in) – Pomodoro is one of those places that just “happened”. But, as history has shown, it happened in a very, very big way. Plastered across almost every wall are photos of the great, good, famous and infamous people who have graced the place with their presence. Johnny Depp, Sharon Stone, Robert de Niro – you name it. Such gregarious name-dropping even spills over onto the menu whereupon you find each pizza has a comment next to it (“Sharon Stone’s favourite, Tom Cruises’ favourite). I did cross-check with the waitress and they swear blind this is baked in fact, and I actually believe it in this case.

The restaurant is strange in this overt shrine to stardom. From every other angle it really shouldn’t be popular or famous. Its tables are cramped, the decor is a bit hit-and-miss, and the menu contains a fairly obvious mix of standard Italian classics i.e. pizza and pasta are order of the day. But what it lacks in kitchen-creativity it more than makes up in glamour-chic and absolutely amazing food. The various pizza breads and pizzas have dough bases that would not look out of place in Rome or Milan. The salads are fresh, inviting and could feed a small army. And the pasta is clearly made to order – in every sense of the word. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t change it.

Apparently the live music transforms the place into a great live venue but the act playing when we were there was more like an X Factor reject than an American Idol winner. Luck of the draw on a Monday night I guess.

You’ve got to go to Pomodoro, in one of its various locations, as it really is a great place to eat. Relaxed, fun and with fabulous food, even if it is a bit simple (I’m sure the Italian purists will be sticking pins in my effigy by now). Or, put another way, I think I had a far better time than Sven a few doors away.

Home comforts, Chinese-style

I arrived back in the UK feeling rather jaded, having slept a maximum of 3 hours on the plane, and probably not helped by the Sam Adams I consumed beforehand. It was great to be back with Fi and the girls but, come the evening, I was seriously craving comfort food.

We’ve only had Chinese takeaways from one place for what seems like forever. It’s not an authentic China-town experience, but then that’s not what I look for when I’m eating Chinese at home. I want comfort food, Chinese-style and that’s precisely what The Summer Palace (http://www.thesummerpalace.co.uk/) give you.

Their spring rolls, aside from being as big as my arm, are absolutely amazing. I’m sure they can’t come from the local cash-and-carry since their ingredients taste really fresh. Chicken in chilli oyster sauce, with Indonesian rice, is fantastic too. Salt and chilli ribs have loads of real, fresh chilli and garlic and you find yourself going back, just for one more. Sure, there’s more than a hint of MSG going on in there but frankly, I don’t care when I order from the Summer Palace. What’s also nice about TSP is, as well as being great at cooking food from their home country (China) they also excel at food from the region : Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all feature on their menu. It’s like Far Flung Floyd in a takeaway.

Postscript: when I was on the phone to them last night, they told me I can place my order online now. My challenge in this blog now is to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a website. A tough call I reckon, and a real sign of the times.