Archive for the ‘English’ Category

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.

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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.

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.

King of the Super-Masterchefs

Anyone who vaguely knows me probably knows that I was a finalist on the original Loyd Grossman-version of Masterchef back in 2000. Seems like a few centuries ago to be honest, but proud of my achievement nonetheless. There was something quite comforting about the format of the show when I was on it. Sunday evening, around teatime, lots of middle-England battling it out in their granite kitchens, trying not to destroy their window-sill basil plants. Loyd was the strangely urbane host whose accent was pitched somewhere Google Maps would probably struggle with, and his guests were an odd combination of professional chefs (Gary Rhodes’ spikes made him the same height as me), and B-list actors who are on to try and plug some strange adaptation of an Arthur Miller play in Stratford. But, alongside the 18-foot salt and pepper pots it somehow worked.

When that version went into the archives, and the new “professional” format came out, I have to admit to not being at all interested. It’s a bit like loving a Ferrari for its racing looks then watching someone take it on an off-road track. To me it just didn’t work. I hated the overly aggressive contestant hell-bent on getting that £9000-a-year sous chef’s job and the exuberant presenters who clearly thought they knew it all but didn’t.

And so, I almost surprised myself when I became hooked on the latest edition of Celebrity Masterchef. No idea why, but I did. Maybe it’s the fragility of the normally bullet-proof contestants, or the faux “OMG, they dropped the tart” startled look of Greg and John. Or maybe it’s because if you’re a Celeb, you somehow aren’t exposed to the contrite and often brutally honest attacks that wide-boy Greg and slimy John are prone to dishing out. Don’t know, but I’m hooked.

I like cooking competitions on TV. I think it shows that ordinarily ordinary humans can step up and be a bit creative. And I like that. But the question I’m getting increasingly asked now is, when I am going to take on the Greg and John show ? Who knows….

No Eggs Please…We’re British

We had an absolute classic in Chez Jourdain last night. I think most families have the 3 or 4 meals or dishes that they have over and over and never get bored of. Those comfort-food stalwarts that never fail to please. Well last night probably ranks on the top 3 in our house and, for some, probably at number one.

I think you could canvass views from over a dozen foodies, or chefs, and none would agree on what makes a great Fish Pie. Some put cheese in the sauce, others are purists and rely on the poaching liquor and a heavy hand of parsley. Others like to come up with about 300 types of fish for that complex flavour sensation. But while I’m at it, the one ingredient that I absolutely cannot understand is hard boiled eggs. Eggs and fish ?? What’s that all about ??!? Apart from the fact that I really don’t like boiled eggs, the very thought of coming across part of one in an unctuous and velvety fish pie just makes me wretch. So, note to everyone – don’t ever invite me round for supper and put eggs in your fish pie. You’ll probably end up wearing your creation during pudding.

Anyway, back to our version of the great British classic. It must have decent smoked fish, either salmon, haddock or cod (or a combination thereof). We are completely spoiled in having one of the best fishmongers I’ve ever been to near us (Williams and Blunkell – brilliant) that even has its own smokehouse so everything we buy from them is filleted and smoked on premise. And it shows. Next it must have the freshest mussels, pre-cooked in fish stock and wine, with the cooking liquor reserved for the sauce. And we put crayfish tails in ours. Don’t ask why, but the sweetness is a delight when you find one amongst all the other ingredients. And then prawns, super-fresh again, but uncooked going in so they don’t taste like bullets when they’re cooked and the pie is served. No cheese sauce either in our house, but no problem there given the flavours built up from preparing the other fish. And finally, the creamiest of mashed potato with a generous topping of grated cheddar. Then the whole thing baked to perfection for about 45 minutes. Not an egg in sight, just creamy, velvety, fishy wonderfulness.

Feeling hungry yet ?

Like an old pair of shoes (but not to eat)

There are some places you go where things are just…well…right. Places you visit while on holiday, to eat or to socialise – it’s that unique blend that gives you a distinct sense of belonging. Often you can’t even put your finger on why, but you’re drawn back again and again for more like moths to a flame.

I first went to The Avenue (http://www.theavenue-restaurant.co.uk) way back in 1997 back when I was eating out far more than now and probably far more than was healthy for me. I can’t even remember why I went there in the first place, other than I think I may have seen a review and thought it looked quite appealing. I do remember walking in there for the first time and seeing this gigantic bar stretching away from me into the distance, lit from underneath like some throwaway piece of scenery from Miami Vice. The high ceilings stretched upwards to give this amazing feeling of space, almost like you were outdoors. Some may feel a bit put off by bars like Avenue with their stark minimalist interiors and upmarket clientele but I knew straight away that I was going to enjoy it there. I subsequently went on to eat there very regularly indeed, sometimes visiting more than once a week. It was like walking back into a sense of belonging every time I visited, like being welcomed home, and knowing that what you were going to get was superb.

Yesterday I went back to Avenue for the first time in quite a while. I always liked the fact that every time I returned having not been for some time, the decor had been refreshed and a new artist would be presenting their work on the walls for your enjoyment and, hopefully, purchase. Last night was no exception, although not entirely sure I’ll be buying this time. Pre-dinner drinks were expertly created as usual from the vast (and I mean vast) array of spirits and wines behind the bar. I counted no less than 14 different vodkas and 8 types of gin. And when my guest ordered a very specific order of Martini, the bar tender even checked on how dry and whether he wanted olives, a twist etc. Attention to detail that’s very rare in these days of Eastern European or Antipodean bar staff.

The menu had changed too from the last time. It used to be larger and would change every day but the choices available last night were outstanding. I chose gin and juniper cured salmon with savoury melba toast which was absolutely outstanding. My rack of lamb was perfectly pink, accompanied by smoked aubergine and fennel, and the side dishes of creamed potato and sprouting broccoli were excellent. Other choices around the table were equally inviting.

And that’s the thing about Avenue. I really don’t think, in all the many, many times I’ve been there, I’ve ever had a bad meal. I mean really, not once. For a restaurant that is over ten years’ old now, I do think to achieve that level of consistency is something quite special. And the nice thing is that, because they’ve not followed the Michelin Star crowd and tried to over-complicate matters, you can always get a reservation there although it is inevitably very busy.

As the title says, I guess it’s the restaurant equivalent of a old pair of shoes that just…well…fit. Perfectly.

No weird names please….we’re British

Had a business lunch today with a great chap who moves lots of money around the world. LOTS of money. His office was near London Bridge so, although I used to work in the vicinity and have therefore experienced my fair share of social venues there, I left it up to my guest to pick a venue. Davys Winebars have a sprawling collection of winbars-cum-restaurants in London but none with a more ridiculous name than Skinkers (http://www.davy.co.uk/skinkers). I’m sure there are those out there who will quickly jump to Davy’s defence and tell me how it was named after a collection of dungeon adornments, or it’s part of a ship, or you use them to make pies, or something but frankly you do feel a little odd telling people you’re having lunch in “Skinkers”.

But the strangeness does not end there. No, upon entering the restaurant I was informed that we were booked into a private “room” which I can only describe as a large phonebox. Sure, we had our own coatpegs but this “room” was literally as big as a smallish table for four, and no bigger. Not only did you feel on display, given it was quite visible in the corner of the main, unpenned restaurant, but the waitress kept insisting on closing the door. I now know how people in the Big Brother house probably feel. Hemmed in but with the world looking at them thinking how on earth did you choose to put yourself in that position. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

The food was probably best described as British classics (if I’m being kind) or posh pub grub (if I’m not). 5 types of steak, bangers and mash, fish and chips – you get the theme. Sure, I could have ordered a £700 Chateau Ducru with that but somehow the avant-garde seating and the stodge would have left it feeling rather misplaced. The food was, as it turned out, rather bland. I selected bangers and mash as the most healthy option on the menu (!!!) but the mash was thin, soggy and unseasoned and the bangers looked like they had been parboiled before a final crucifixion in an underheated frying pan. A side of spinach was no better which I’m sure came from the grass clippings box of my lawn mower. Our waitress was, of course, from Eastern Europe (are there no British waiters left in London ??) and she seemed rather preoccupied with another group in a slightly large room – “The Boardroom” – who had clearly decided the best route through the bland menu was to pour fine claret down their necks and, subsequently, their fronts in roughly equal proportions.

All in all quite a disappointing lunch, saved only by my lunch guest who was fascinating and great company. Just goes to show you – even sheep can have a good time.