Archive for February, 2010

Have a butchers at this

I’ve commented before on how I worry about the effect supermarkets have on people’s eating habits. Cut price invariably means bland, water-injected or tasteless. And so, over time, people’s tastebuds become neutered and they accept this as the norm. It’s a crying shame, in my opinion, not only because it symbolises the reduction in acceptable quality but, more ominously, because it threatens the livelihoods of the butchers, bakers, fishmongers and greengrocers who fervently defend great quality and often local produce.

We had an absolute Friday Food classic this week. There is one of the best butchers I’ve ever come across near my daughter’s school called the Game Larder (http://www.localfoodadvisor.com/Producers/TheGameLarder-3897.aspx). Not only does it have passionate and knowledgeable staff, supported by Paul the owner, but has some of the most amazing meat you’ll find anywhere. They care about where meat comes from, ensuring it has the highest provenance, and how it is butchered. But, more than that, they also age the meat transforming it from the insipid bright red slabs of meat you find sweating on plastic trays in Tesco, to a deep and inviting crimson which introduces mouth-watering tenderness and depth of flavour.

Friday brought us two of their finest rib-eye steaks which had been dry-aged for at least 30 days. The marbling was almost renaissance-like which, combined with the ageing, injected fabulous texture and flavour into every bite. This truly is what steak should taste like. I often wonder what regular supermarket-goers would think if they did a blind taste test between this and the usual fodder that is pedalled their way each week.

You should seek out a good butcher and experience this for yourself, unless you’re fortunate enough to live near the Game Larder of course.

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World’s Worst Bars No. 3

I try and not comment on drinking establishments as a rule. I think they’re quite a personal thing and, invariably, no two people like exactly the same things in a pub or bar. Obviously, the nature and quality of the alcohol would seems to be pretty important but even here opinions are markedly different. Chilled beer or room temperature ? Bottles or pints ? High-end wine ? Optics or free-pour ? I would also add that, personally, the clientele are as important as the availability of good quality booze. I don’t particularly like being surrounded by lairy or obstreperous co-drinkers whose sole purpose on any given evening is to get as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible. In general, whether pub or bar, I like the atmosphere to be relaxed, refined and with a volume level that accommodates good conversation.

So, in almost every respect, the polar opposite to a bar I found myself in this week. The bar in question is called Abacus (http://www.abacusbar.co.uk) on Cornhill in the City. Abacus is one of those after-work drinking places that has ideas way above its station, complete with a roped entrance to control all the queues of people that weren’t there. It started badly when I was forced to have a small ink stamp saying “Abacus” branded on my hand as I walked in. As tattoos go, I’m not sure this is one that the Beckhams would be particularly proud of.

The bar itself is the usual fodder of loud music, crass patrons and awful drinks. It was packed, largely due to the “half price drinks on a Thursday” offer that seemed to be in force. OK, so that’s one way of filling your bar full of Essex’s finest but everywhere I went I bumped into vacuous secretaries drinking Bacardi breezers or City trash propping themselves up on cheap lager and WK’D. I counted at least three tables doing “chasers”. As far as food goes, I think the bar must own shares in Tefal since everything I saw being carried out was deep fried. Yes, everything. Oh, and did I mention that it was so loud that I’m sure my ears started to bleed ?

It was truly, truly awful. So bad that I toyed with whether to soil my blog even writing about it. But, being the public-spirited individual that I am, I thought I would warn the rest of London so they do not fall into the same trap. What’s even worse is that one of London’s best bars, 1 Lombard, is only a few doors away. Good job I only stayed for one drink and left.

I never thought I’d blog about Mcdonalds, but…

I read this week that McDonalds have now introduced free Wi-Fi into all their restaurants. This is of interest to me only insofar as it is another well-known hotspot with which I can use my various Wi-Fi enabled gadgets and not, just to be clear, because I have any intention of actually eating any of their awful food. I’m proud of the fact that neither of my children, now both of school age, have never eaten in a McDonalds. In fact, to my knowledge, they have never even asked to eat in one. Long may it continue. I, on the other hand, have eaten in a McDonalds but not for quite a long time. (The last time was actually in Sydney, Australia strangely enough.)

So, in a break from tradition, rather than discuss what culinary delights I’ve experienced under the shadow of the big, yellow “M”, and to honour the fact that they are now trying to coerce impressionable techies into their dens of detritus, I thought I’d post a few facts about Maccy-D’s for your delight and disgust.

  • You would have to walk for seven hours straight to burn off a Super Sized Coke, fry and Big Mac
  • One in every three children born in the year 2000 will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime
  • McDonald’s distributes more toys per year than Toys-R-Us!
  • Left unabated, obesity will surpass smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in America
  • In 1972, $3 billion a year was spent on fast food – today it’s more than $110 billion
  • McDonald’s feeds more than 46 million people a day – more than the entire population of Spain
  • Only seven items on McDonald’s entire menu contain no sugar
  • Willard Scott was the first Ronald McDonald – he was fired for being too fat
  • McDonald’s: “Any processing our foods undergo make them more dangerous than unprocessed foods”
  • The World Health Organization has declared obesity a global epidemic
  • McDonald’s calls people who eat a lot of their food “Heavy Users”
  • McDonald’s operates more than 30,000 restaurants in more then 100 countries on 6 continents
  • Before most children can speak they can recognize McDonald’s
  • Most nutritionists recommend not eating fast food more than once a month

So, anyone fancy a Big Mac ?

British Classics (that nobody can agree on)

I like the idea of countries being identified through food. It’s the sort of living heritage that we should be really proud of. Indeed, many countries go to great lengths to protect the identities of their classic, home-produced food and drink. The French have their appellations and the Italians their Denomionazione. And with them are clearly identifiable products : pasta = Italy, Camembert = France. And Britain ? Well, Britain is a rather confused nation that doesn’t really have one overriding classic dish. But I actually like that some prefer fish and chips, some prefer Ploughman’s lunch, some prefer steak and kidney pie. But I’m sure we’d all agree that once in a while there’s nothing better than the great British Sunday lunch. We’ve all been there, whether it’s beef, lamb, pork or chicken. Absolute foodie heaven.

I cooked what I believe to be one of the best Sunday lunches imaginable today: rib of beef, still on the bone, that’s been aged for 30 days so that it is deep burgundy in colour with exquisite marbling. And with it, classic roast potatoes cooked in goose fat, proper gravy made from a good, full-bodied wine that has bubbled its way around the roasting tin, deglazing all the gorgeous crunchy bits as it goes. And not forgetting horseradish sauce, fresh broccoli, roast parsnips and garden carrots. Salivating yet ? As I piled my way through far too much of it I wondered where on earth the Sunday lunch found its origins.

According to Wikipedia, the great British roast dates back to when the squire would treat his serfs to a meal of roast oxen every Sunday to reward them for a week’s work. Seems perfectly sensible to me and I applaud the fact that it has continued as a tradition to the present day. It does dismay me though that this culinary equivalent of your favourite pair of old shoes should be absolutely annihilated by cheap pubs around the country. Any establishment that can live with itself selling a “Sunday pub grub” lunch for a fiver, where the beef is so overcooked you may as well be eating your favourite shoes, where the roast potatoes are deep fried (yes, I have seen this) and where the gravy came from some dust in a packet that has never been near a cow in its life, well in my view they should be hauled in front of a magistrate for treason. Is it any wonder that our nation is growing up not admiring or respecting our traditional dishes when they are so appallingly murdered like this ? I wonder what the patrons of these places would think if they sat and ate the rib of beef that I did today, cooked to medium rare as it should be.

Would they be able to tell the difference ? Probably not – their tastebuds having been destroyed by 40 Lambert and Butler and Skol a long time ago. Well, all I can say is good luck to them with their Sunday chamois leather and lard gravy. Means more great quality beef for me to thoroughly enjoy.

Oysters and a Guest List

A great friend of mine was over from New York this week. We’d arranged to go for dinner so, naturally, so I was left with the challenge of booking dinner for us. Probably quite understandably for someone who lives in New York, he’s not massively into eating portions that could feed a small city so I wanted to find somewhere that was light, but served excellent food. An obvious choice was seafood, but it may come as no surprise at all that I’ve not been near oysters since the dreaded Oystergate in New York last month. So I guess I surprised even myself when I booked us a table at that greatest of London seafood institutions, J Sheekey (http://www.j-sheekey.co.uk).

In the oyster bar.

We’d had pre-dinner drinks and went to the restaurant for our reservation. It was such an immediate meeting of minds (he thought it was too quiet, I saw oysters and immediately felt queasy) that within 30 seconds we were bidding the doorman our excuses and we were back on the street. Where to eat in the heart of London’s tourist mecca ? Aberdeen Steak House ? The Greasy Grill ? El Tacky Taco ? A stroke of genius from my guest and moments later we found ourselves in the excellent, but confusingly named, Asia de Cuba in St Martin’s Hotel (http://www.stmartinslane.com).

Asia de Cuba shouldn’t be in a hotel. In the menu construction, the ambience and the clientele, everything tells you it ought to be in Mayfair somewhere. Perhaps it’s the Philip Starck influence but everything about Asia – and indeed the hotel itself – just exudes stylish funkiness. The restaurant decor is avant garde to say the least but it was nice to see that it remains as popular as ever.

Asia’s menu is an eclectic, Nobu-like Japanese-cum-Fusion affair with some strange ingredients and combination flavours. I was immediate left with the feeling that it was trying to hard to be, well, something but not entirely sure what. But our server was both attentive and knowledgeable and suggested many items on the menu that she must clearly have tasted. Nice touch. The food was expensive but absolutely exceptional. The Thai beef salad had some of the best beef carpaccio I’ve tasted in a long time while our other starter of Ropa Vieja of Duck (duck confit) was beautiful and, in keeping with my strange ingredients comment above, came with shredded calabaza (a variety of squash so I found out later). Our shared main course of black cod was even better than that I’d had in Zuma which is really saying something. It was really nice that you just didn’t feel like you were in a hotel restaurant though which I guess is a combination of the decor and clientele.

St Martin’s Hotel is a strange old place though, and we had an after-dinner drink in the guest list-only LIght Bar (even though we weren’t on the guest list). Think about it. A bar, in a hotel, where you have to book. Pretentious ? Moi ? And given it was half empty, either the door staff were being too choosy, or there was actually no need for door staff. I’ll let you guess which. But given all that, I do like the fact that even in a desert of the world’s worst restaurants, you can find an oasis such as Asia to eat fabulous of, even if it does have an identity crisis.

Top 5 Most Memorable Meals

I was asked recently by a fellow blogger to think of the top 5 most memorable meals I’ve had in my life. Must admit, it’s a toughie, not because I’ve only eaten out a few times (far from it !) but because it’s hard to think of that unique combination of place, who you were with, occasion, location, music, food etc etc. This is not just about having really good food, but that blend of all the things that come together perfectly all at once. Could be a Michelin star restaurant, or fish and chips on Brighton Pier. Either way, there’ll be something that you just remember because it was so perfect at the time.

I ended up thinking of only three that truly stick out in my mind, but I’m sure after I’ve posted this I’ll think of others. Thanks to Mairead for offering up such a challenge !! Anyway, here goes:

1. Oceana, New York. This was our first wedding anniversary and it was during the time that I had a brief spell living in New York. My wife was still working full time so came over for the long weekend. I remember referring to Zagats to find the best seafood restaurant in the whole of Manhattan and we were certainly not disappointed. Absolutely superb.

2. Brown’s, London. Our first long (very long) lunch together and also our first proper date. Took the whole afternoon and I remember everything about it : what we were both wearing, what we ate, even down to remembering the pianist on the grand piano. The start of something life-changing !!

3. XXX, Milan. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant (it’s opposite Prada just near La Duomo) but we were in Milan for my 30th birthday. My wife was pregnant at the time which meant she wasn’t able to enjoy the fine wine (a Pommard if memory serves me correctly). But I just remember thinking how traditional the whole thing was. Copious amounts of waiters in starched suits and waistcoats tending to your every need. And the most incredible food imaginable. Every bit as good as any Michelin starred restaurant I’ve been to.

So, what’s yours ?

Who needs Mary Poppins ?

I like to think that I understand restaurant etiquette well enough that I don’t end up embarrassing myself in front of even the most critical of waiters or sommeliers. I put that down to a combination of having eaten out in restaurants a lot in my time (watch and learn) but, more importantly, from my parents who taught me good table manners from an early age. It’s kind of built into me that you don’t put your elbows on the table, you hold your knife in one hand and fork in the other (and don’t, for heaven’s sake, keep swapping them over as the American’s do), and move your fork to your mouth and not the other way around. You would not believe the number of people that I’ve seen in some of the best restaurants in the world incapable of adhering to these simple guidelines.

So I also pride myself that, as my kids grow up, they will be imbued with good table manners. I think there’s no better test of what you’ve drilled into them at home than to take them to a restaurant to put it all into practice. This is no mean feat of course, given the overwhelming distractions that most restaurants throw in their direction : other kids, chatty waitresses, wine. Oh no, that last one’s daddy’s.

We took the kids to Giraffe on Saturday (http://www.giraffe.net/) which I have to say was a total surprise. Any restaurant named after a wild animal would instantly say to me “children’s parties” and the commensurate noise and disarray. Furthermore, it would also say to me that the restaurant’s focus is exclusively children so parents would end up with sub-standard, mass-produced pap. Well, I have to say, none of my assumptions were correct.

Yes, Giraffe did have lots of kids in it, but then most high street restaurants on a Saturday lunchtime probably would. What’s nice about Giraffe is that you don’t really feel like it’s a restaurant designed with kids in mind. The menu is well thought out with lots of freshly made offerings. Sure, you’re not going to find fois gras, but that’s not what this is about. This is about being served great tasting, freshly made food whether you’re 7 or 70. I indulged my childhood (this was a secret table-manners test after all) with a fish finger sandwich which obviously had freshly made tartare sauce on it, and was completed with beefsteak tomatoes and proper “floppy” lettuce (as my wife would put it). The kids’ food was outstanding, right down to the artisan rolls and home-cut fries. Service was great without the sort of obsequious servility I usually associate with this sort of place – a la TGI Fridays – and was attentive and efficient. Giraffe must be doing something right given we arrived at 12.30 and from that point forwards, every table was full and we saw many people being turned away. Excellent.

All that said, don’t assume Giraffe is only for people with kids. Their brunch / breakfasts looked amazing and we saw plenty of twentysomething couples enjoying a relaxing Saturday morning with the papers. Certainly somewhere I’ll be going back to before too long.

And, of course, my kids were impeccably behaved. No need for Mary Poppins to make a flying visit.