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….

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Hey, Blog. It’s been a while…

I’ve been trying to work out why it’s been so long since I updated my blog. Let’s face it, it’s not like I’ve not eaten anything (in fact, quite the opposite as my jeans keep telling me). Am I short of time ? Well, yes. I guess I have been. Selling a company does kind of take up a bit more of your time that blogging would allow. But that’s no excuse, especially as I’ve been to some amazing restaurants in the time I’ve been on extended vacation from the Blogosphere. I’ve been to Minneapolis for the first time (land of steak, steak and more steak), New York again (land of pretty much anything you want), Cornwall (land of Ricardo Steinos) as well as the four corners of London (land of annoying tourists).

Clearly I’m not about to back-date my blog with all the places I’ve been to. Not sure my keyboard would thank me for that. So instead I thought I’d put the high point and low point down and leave you, dear reader, to fill in the gaps in between.

The High Point

Drakes Restaurant (http://www.drakesrestaurant.co.uk)

OK, this one deserves an extra special mention and is, without question, the culinary high point of the year. Not only have some other foodies deemed it worthy of a couple of Michelin stars, but it also goes down as one of the most spectacular meals I’ve ever eaten. And for someone who has wined and dined in some of the world’s very finest restaurants, that really is one hell of an accolade.

I’ve long been of the opinion that the best Michelin-starred restaurants are outside of London (Fat Duck, Manoir, etc) and, having experienced Drakes, this is further reinforced. It’s a typically French restaurant in all respects, from waiting staff to menu, and from the moment you arrive you just get this overwhelming feeling that you’re….well, special. Service is a delicate balance between attentiveness and servility, but Drakes has it spot on. Given this was a joint celebration of closing the Deal, and our 10th Wedding Anniversary, we both went for the 9 course tasting menu. They didn’t even flinch when I asked for two of the courses to be swapped round. Now that is the sign of a restaurant who treats its customers well. (And, before you say it, I have eaten in restaurants where they would rather have murdered your entire family than deliver something that wasn’t to “chef’s design”.)

Each course was exquisite, there’s no other word for it. The selection and balance of ingredients harmonised with a delicate and very well trained chef’s hand delivered course after course of breathtakingly good food. We had also chosen wines from 2000 across each course too which, while they almost required a second mortgage to buy, ensured that the food / wine combination was consistently perfect from amuse bouche to cheese (Puligny Montrachet, followed by Chateau Margaux – what else ?). The Sommelier was top rate too, offering up a cheeky little Barsac to have with cheese. I would never have paired dessert wine with cheese but, believe me, it works perfectly.

I will remember that meal at Drakes for a long, long time to come. In fact, I would struggle to fault any part of it. Take note, Ramsey.

The Low Point

The Seafood Restaurant (http://www.rickstein.com)

Now, this must have come as a surprise already for those that know me well. I adore all seafood. I would trade a dry-aged fillet steak for a lobster any day. And, you would think, there comes no finer that Mr Stein, the king of fish himself. Well I’m sorry to say, this was anything but the case.

We’ve eaten at the Seafood Restaurant 4 or 5 times before and never been disappointed. It is normally one of those places where you are guaranteed to have a top class dining experience using locally sourced, fresh ingredients. On all previous visits this has been very much the case. A relaxed dining experience, no rush, a low hum of conversation floating round an airy and light dining room, Stein himself probably propping the bar up trying to explain to some Japanese tourists that no, he wasn’t Gordon Lamsey.

This time was different. The restaurant has had a major refit since the last time we went and now features a circular bar in the middle that makes it look more like an All Bar One than a fine dining restaurant. But the thing that struck me most was how packed in the tables were. I could literally hear every word of our neighbours conversations and, rather than it being a low hum, it was loud and brash which is not what you want when you’re expecting a nice, relaxing evening. The other thing that I think sets apart top restaurants from the rest is the treatment of the wine. Average restaurants put the wine on the table in front of you and below-average restaurants make you pour it yourself. I spent the evening pouring our own wine. Not good. The food itself was as good as ever but the other aspects of the dinner just tainted it. And when you’re paying £370 (we both had lobster and Montrachet before you ask) for a meal for two you really do expect it to be good.

I just can’t explain it. Why Rick Stein has done this to his flagship restaurant is beyond me. What was once the pinnacle of fine dining anywhere in the South West of England is now just an average, up-market bistro which in turn makes it extremely over-priced for what it is. Disappointed ? You will be. Maybe I should have told the Japanese where they could find Lamsey after all.

So there you have it readers. The highs and the lows of the past few months. Clearly everything I’ve cooked at home beats all that hands down but I’m not one to boast so thought I’d write about someone else’s cooking for a change.

Watch out for more. This blog is, most definitely, revived.

Italian with a Brazilian

It’s been a while since I last visited Friday Food. No particular reason but I guess it’s been a bit of a slow few weeks on the whole food front. Last night we most definitely got back on track with a visit to La Casa (http://www.lacasa-restaurant.co.uk/), a fairly traditional Italian restaurant that has undergone quite a few reinventions in its history.

Good Italian to me is a bit of an oddity. I guess it’s because it usually means some fairly non-Italian food to most people (Domino’s pizzas with cheese in the crust spring to mind). The thought of regional Italian cooking, or speciality dishes from Naples or Tuscany just don’t really feature on most people’s radar. La Casa tries to blend the traditional with the modern offering up the standard pizzas and pasta but with some really sound Italian dishes which, I have to admit, I much prefer.

Starting with superb portobello mushrooms cooked with dolcelatte and pancetta (which were excellent, I must admit) I then went for a superb steak dish, again cooked with mushrooms, which is a speciality of Florence. Absolutely outstanding cut of meat, cooked to perfection and accompanied perfectly with an excellent Amarone della Valpolicella. This being a Friday night, the whole restaurant was buzzing, with not a single table spare and everyone, young and old, thoroughly enjoying themselves. Rather bizarrely, the waiting staff were not all Italian and our particular server I found out to be Brazilian (and a big football fan too as it turns out). Not that it mattered, of course.

It’s nice to find somewhere that just has the word “relaxed” written all over it, and La Casa does that in spades. It’s not really place you’d go for a romantic or celebratory meal but if you want really, really good Italian food and to chill out with a good bottle of vino collapso you can’t go far wrong.

Friday Food Friends

I have to admit that we don’t often go out on Fridays nights. I guess that comes down to the fact I write about Friday Food in the first place – the end of the week is all about chilling out, relaxing after a hard week with serious comfort food. But an exception to this will always be an invitation to enjoy Friday Food that someone else has cooked !

Last night we found ourselves round at our neighbours for that great British Friday classic, curry night. I am an absolute sucker for a good curry and have had my fair share over the years, including ones in India. That doesn’t necessarily make me overly critical but I do tend to shy away from the formulaic restaurants that dish up Lamb Bhuna and Chicken Tikka Masala. We have, for example, an outstanding Nepalese curry house in Weybridge which beats your bog-standard offerings hands down. It was, therefore, an absolute delight to have on offer a rarity in British curry cooking, the fish curry. I think fish in a curry is much underrated and actually offsets some of the more delicate spices perfectly, when done well. And last night’s fish curry was done well, very well. Great combination of flavours, not overpowering chilli and set perfectly against a chicken curry which was also excellent. No formulaic cooking going on in this house I can tell you. Oh, and the Gordon Ramsey cheesecake for pudding is something I shall be stealing for myself in due course too. Absolutely beautiful.

But it wasn’t the food alone that made last night’s evening the great evening it turned out to be. It was also that other vital ingredient in enjoying food – great company. Whether it’s an intimate dinner for two or, like last night, six like-minded individuals thoroughly enjoying some excellent food, with wine and conversation flowing in equal quantities, who you dine with has just as much bearing on a great meal as the food itself. I guess it goes back to the dawn of time, the idea of people sharing food together. And last night really was one of those great examples when it works to perfection – great food, great company, great conversation, all very relaxed. Sure, I like the theatre of fine dining but, you know what ? This is a perfect way to end the week – Friday Food with Friends.

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.