Friday, September 29, 2006

C.A. - Cookbooks Anonymous

Okay I admit it. My name is J and I'm addicted to cook books! I don’t think there’s a local chapter of cookbooks anonymous but clearly I have a problem! I have been trying to cut down as there really is no room at the inn but there have been a slew of new good ones recently and I can't resist. What makes it worse is that they've been turning up every other day at the moment because many I pre-ordered from as soon as I got a whiff of its (pre)existence so I am overdosing. As that C time of the year is coming (for you D I will try not to mention the C word!) I guess the publishers are sending them out from mid September and all my parcels are coming at once.

I am still drooling over Anna Del Conte's fabulous collection and then Gennaro Contaldo's new book “Gennaro’s Italian Year” turns up, hot on the heels is Tamasin Day-Lewis's Classic Kitchen arrives and then yesterday a huge box turns up and I gulp thinking what have I ordered and it turned out to be Giorgio Locatelli's enormous tome “Made In Italy”. I hadn't actually pre-ordered Giorgio's but Nigel Slater waxed so lyrically in OFM this Sunday I felt obliged!

So where do I start? Gennaro's book looks really great; he has so much passion and is another incredibly instinctive Italian cook. In this book he goes back to his hometown on the beautiful Amalfi coast and talks about eating well and sympathetically with the seasons and is full of hearty Italian peasant food. I’d barely had a glance at Gennaro’s before Tamasin’s turned up.

I first discovered Tamasin Day-Lewis in 2000 when I was in Ireland for H’s wedding and thought I should supplement my then much smaller cookbook collection with a good set of Irish recipes. After flicking through a few fairly standard ones in a bookshop I fell upon Tamasin’s West of Ireland’s Summers which she’s written a couple of years earlier and I really enjoyed her style and recipes. I then started to see her on television and she brought “The Art of the Tart” out (which allows you to eat fabulous savoury flans without using the Q word!). Then there was “Tarts with Tops on” which was more about pies – never a bad thing. My Northern roots will always mean that there’s a special place in my heart for a pie! Her next books “Weekend Food” and “Good Tempered Food” didn’t seem to quite hit the mark and I wondered if they’d been thrown together a bit too casually. The next one “Tamasin’s Kitchen Bible” was back to the old excellent form and this new, slimmer book, though hardly as exhaustive at last year’s volume, looks mighty interesting. On first glance there’s a very intriguing recipe for Crab Custard, Risotto Balsamico which I must try and the madly names Piggy Figgies which is Figs in Lardo. Not an all time classic but interesting nonetheless.

And then there is the massive Giorgio book – definitely not one for the next flight! In fact it’s so heavy you may need protective clothing. I managed to drop mine and the corner caught my ankle and I now have a small hole. I may be scarred for life by a cookbook; maybe it is time to join Cookbooks Anonymous! No, maybe not. Giorgio’s book looks like a total winner. I hadn’t been able to even get past Antipasti before I had to leave for France and there was no danger of this fitting in my carry on bag. Nigel Slater in his review said the pasta chapter was worth buying the book for and I haven’t even had chance to gaze adoringly at it yet. Just the first few pages convinced me how obsessive Giorgio is about his food and the preparation and the sharing of it. He talks about he importance of conviviality or La Convivialità and of friendship and celebration. I can’t wait to get back and read more. The sign of a true addict I guess!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scone? It's gone!

Some days only a M&S cheese scone will do. And you’re so lucky if you find one as the cheese scone aficionados move in very quickly when the cheesy delights are removed from the oven. Their arrival heralded by the just most wonderful moreish aroma wafting through the store and then you hear the stampede and the rustle of the bags as they are quickly smuggled into the shopping baskets. Or that’s how it seems. This one was left behind, all lost and lonely and I liberated it! I have nothing more than a bit of butter to anoint it with today, but it needs nothing fancy.

Scone! Well it is now!

(This joke (?) requires the correct pronunciation – i.e. rhyme with ‘con’ not ‘cone’)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A whiter shade of pale

Bankside is a place H and I had previously had bookings for but had to cancel due to various changes in plans and have never got to eat here. But I was walking past today mightily hungry and thought it'd be worth checking out. The restaurant and bar are underground but it wasn't at all dingy, there's bright artwork on the walls and acres of pale wood tables, a single orange flower at each table and crispy linen napkins.

Most of the tables are for two but there are a few big oval tables and curvy light suede banquettes for sharing.

The menu is very simple, just three different prices with a couple of supplements if the dish contains a particularly extravagant ingredient. This is a curious note in very small print that states that - "a complimentary selection of fresh organic wholesome bread is served on your arrival". Now this struck me as odd. Had they previously worried diners into believing they'd be charged exorbitant rates for the basket of wheaty comestibles? Did they fear that their clients wouldn't recognise it as wholesome or be alarmed at this wild custom of proffering bread at the beginning of a meal? All a mystery but the bread was very lovely with seeds and fruity bits.

The menu was labelled a summer menu and has quite an extensive 'best of British' section with Cumberland sausages and mash, fisherman's our, big pork chop with mustard mash and apple fritters, salmon fishcakes, a couple of chicken dishes, calves liver, fish and chips, Welsh lamb chop and Scottish rib eye steak. I plumped for Smoked Haddock and Poached Egg on Spring Onion Potato Cake with Rarebit Glaze. I amazed myself by eschewing mash potatoes but funnily enough the potato cake turned out to be really spring onion mash in the shape of a potato cake! I ordered a side order of Cauliflower Cheese -clearly I was on a comfort food bender. And it was very comforting and pale and interesting also. The haddock was thankfully undyed and hence pale and translucent on top of pale mash sorry potato cake. On top of that was a poached egg that remained almost invisible until I exposed its golden centre. The cauliflower was of course just off white and the cheese sauce equally pale. If it wasn't for a few green leaves it would have been a plate of whiteness. However it tasted really good, an effortless thing to eat, complete nursery food I guess. And I loved the rarebit glaze which was more of a sauce than a glaze but very yummy!

I am so used to sharing a dessert now, but even though it was just me I fancied a few mouthfuls of something sweet. One of the desserts was Mrs Bourne Cheshire cheese with sweet beer chutney, which sounded very English, but I selected the Dark Chocolate and Walnut Brownie with Ice Cream. The brownie was okay but the ice cream was a bit of a mystery. I could see it was streaked with pink and had an occasional fruity nugget but I couldn't really identify it. I knew I didn't really like it and I asked my friendly waitress to put me out of my misery and she did by informing me that it was 'sour cherry'. Personally, I'm not sure that it worked well with the brownie.

I thought Bankside was very pleasant, I would eat there again but I wouldn't bother with the sour cherry ice cream and I've given it one white fork.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Another surprise!

I only realised yesterday that the holiday in France (to near this place in photo) I booked ages ago is actually this weekend, I knew it was coming soon but not so soon. What a fabulous surprise! I am off on a digital photography course which has gourmet food thrown in – I think I will be in complete heaven!

I also get a chance to really put my lovely black baby Leica C Lux through its paces. It took me two days in New York to remember how to select the setting to take black and white only shots – I always think New York architecture looks so fabulous in black and white. Unfortunately it took me so long to change my options, the torrential rain had arrived so no architectural monochrome photographs for me!

I am hoping to return with much more proficient photos to scatter about my blog. I am a huge admirer of the photos on Posie’s Place, even if I don’t particular fancy the food – a curry with tomatoes in (I cannot explain what that does to me!) - the photography is just so incredibly vibrant. I should really get around to asking Pam the secret of her incredible photos. If you're reading Pam, how do you do it?

So I am off to learn from an expert who does the photography for adverts and for many of the food magazines I admire. We get to visit markets with a view to finding some photogenic foodie subjects to work with. And of course to eat!

Say ‘cheese’ or should that be ‘fromage’?

Amaretto, apple cake and artichokes surprise!

Way back in June when I last attended one of the fabulous cook book club events at Conran’s Blueprint Café hosted by the equally fabulous Jeremy Lee and guest ‘chef’ Charles Campion, I signed up for the next event planned for October 11th. Over the evening I had consumed my body weight in chicken livers threaded onto rosemary skewers – just so delicious – and had some wonderful wine and Champagne so I hadn’t actually written down what the event was, who was the guest ‘cook’ or ‘chef’, which cookbook was being featured etcetera. Well it all seemed just so far away and it was. On checking the website now, I was extremely delighted to see that it is Anna Del Conte and her Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes book that I’ve been raving about ever since I bought it. I am sure we’ll have a fantastic evening and some stupendous food and of course I will report back here.

If you haven’t heard of the Blueprint Café Cook Book evenings, I urge you to check them out. Though I understand if you struggle to extract the details from the Conran site – they seem to have almost entirely buried them for some reason.

At each event a guest chef/cook/food writer who has recently written a cookbook comes in with a stack of cookbooks (to give you the opportunity to add to your collection if you haven’t already done so) and with the help of Jeremy and his brigade whip up a few tasty morsels from their latest missive. You get the opportunity to meet them and ask questions and of course to eat fine food! Jeremy is an ebullient host, they are always fun yet intimate evenings and you get a great view over the Thames from your table (there’s even a set of binoculars if you want a good old nose about!).

And there are some eclectic people there. Various other chefs and food writers come along, the odd critic and Sir Terrence often comes along with his colourful wife, a box of vegetables from their garden and a rather intriguing walking stick. And scattered around the tables are other memorable characters. Not naming names but the gin magnate who bought a house from one of Sunday supplements, the one from Lullaby Bay, the one who was totally stressed looking after her country dogs in the city and the restaurant reviewer who just lurves Jeremy – but then who doesn’t. I always attend alone as it promotes better mingling with all these wonderful people but others arrive en masse. At a previous event, I even got the chance to meet Nigel Slater – my food hero! I am so not worthy!

I might see you there then…

Sunday, September 24, 2006

I have been watching Celebrity MasterChef with John Torode and Gregg Wallace – thanks to the fabulous gadget of Sky+ I hasten to add, as I wouldn’t be home in time. This is first time “celebrities” have been put through their paces but there have been two series of MasterChef goes Large with amateur chefs. Seeing MasterChef again has reminded me how inconsistent and random John and Gregg seem to be with their judging. I am particularly aghast how they can have one set of rules for one contestant and than the exact opposing rule to another. For example, one contestant will applauded for sticking to what they know best be it type of food or a certain region and then another will be accused of being too narrow and not able to diversify. Another contestant will be rebuked for not having tried a recipe before “ as this is MasterChef” (cue flash of lightning and roll of drums) and another will be reprimanded for sticking to a clearly very familiar recipe and not stretching themselves. Or one will receive a despondent shake of the head as to the number of ingredients and the next will get a disapproving cluck for creating something too simple “Don’t they release that it’s MasterChef…?” And John Torode has a very curious habit of opening his mouth as wide as possible before enveloping the small forkful of food he has prepared. He either has no spatial awareness or this helps him appreciate the food – anyway it annoys me and it’s catching because Gregg is starting to follow suit.

And whilst I am on my soapbox I might as well throw my hat in the ring and state I also agree that it was a complete travesty that ‘Digger Dean’ didn’t win the second series of MasterChef goes Large and Peter did instead. And a quick google has made me realise that I am not alone in this opinion, someone even created a “deanformasterchef” website – wow! Dean was the most improved and definitely was the best team player, (clearly the prettiest of the three – but that’s not important!), yes he made some mistakes but then so did Peter! It seems at least that Dean has gone on to start a career in cheffing whereas Peter was looking for an agent at last report, hmmm! Anyway, it’s probably best not to get me started – you’re very lucky this blog didn’t exist when the last series was aired (January to March this year) and I’ve had several months to calm down!

But back to Celebrity MasterChef, I don’t feel as strongly about the contestants this time but I still think John and Gregg change their judging criteria from moment to moment – but I guess they believe that it’s their prerogative. The four remaining contestants are Roger Black (now a sports presenter), Richard Arnold (GMTV presenter), Matt Dawson (former rugby player) and Hardeep Singh Kohli (comedian). They seem to be pretty talented in the kitchen though I think Matt might have got in by the skin of his teeth, as clearly he’s the most inexperienced. I can’t deny that it certainly appears to be a tough competition, first you have to make two dishes from a box of mystery disparate ingredients which as John and Gregg takes pains to point out shouldn’t be all used. Then after having your efforts criticised you are thrown into a professional restaurant’s kitchen where after probably exhaustive prep you produce a particular dish whenever a diner orders it over a busy lunchtime. Then peeling off your chef’s whites you hot foot it back to the studio and then produce your ultimate two-course meal for the inconsistent judges. And that’s just to get through to the next stage, and then it gets even harder!

I did once consider applying to take part in the show but the ultimate aim of the competition is to change your life and run a restaurant. And I am under no illusions how tough that is. I have spent some time in chef’s whites in a restaurant kitchen fortunately cooking for us and not for paying customers. And as much as I enjoyed it my abiding memory is how unbelievably hot it is and how weird it was for me to wear white!

I am sure John and Gregg have many further challenges for the contestants planned before the first Celebrity MasterChef is crowned. It should be interesting. If only John Torode would not eat in that way…!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Veal-ly delicious!

I am so pleased that humanely reared English rosé veal is having the resurgence it deserves. Naturally with our extensive dairy farming the by-products are calves. And if these calves have no use in the United Kingdom they may be shipped over to Europe and not always in the best of conditions. I am huge advocate of animals being breed in a humane environment, where they are given plenty of decent food, comfortable place to sleep and a place to roam outside. It seems ironic that the apparent solution to a veal calf having a happy life is to keep them in the United Kingdom and raise them as rosé veal with access to a nursing cow and not keep them in a tiny crate and just fed milk substitute as many traditional white veal calves on the continent are. Male dairy calves have the toughest position, clearly they are not going to join the herd as milk producers and unless they come from a dual-purpose breed, which could be used for beef, they will either be slaughtered or kept for veal. I’d enjoyed some incredible rosé veal at Gary Rhodes and there has been several food programmes discussing veal recently. Janet Street Porter on Gordon Ramsay’s F Word campaigned outside supermarkets to encourage them to stock rosé veal on their shelves and Food Uncut had Sophie Grigson talking about why we should eat veal. So I did. I am delighted to eat veal if I am assured (like any meat I eat) that it has led a happy life and therefore I made my way to Waitrose. F Word mentioned that they were stocking rosé veal and I read that Waitrose's veal buyer Andy Boulton, thinks standards of production are no longer a reason to avoid the meat and said "Waitrose has been leading the way in animal welfare and customers are aware that veal is no longer a culinary taboo." I have tried on several occasions to score myself some veal but it has been reported to be flying off Waitrose’s shelves which is why this is the first time I’ve able to lay my hands on some. And what did I do with my veal? I’d seen Jean-Christophe Novelli whip up a veal dish on Food Uncut with ham, cheese and a provençal sauce (which contained an alarming quantity of tomatoes) so I went for my own interpretation. I flattened out the veal fillet and topped it with a piece of smoked ham and then a spoonful or two of fresh pesto. This was then topped with a little piece of Tallegio and the veal was folded over. I didn’t bother flouring the fillet and pan-fried it for several minutes on each side. There was some oozing but I just poured this over the finished dish so there was no waste.
And the verdict? – (if you’ll excuse the pun) - veal-ly delicious!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ready, Steady (Mother Hubbard) Cook!

If I’d thought ahead I would have scheduled an Ocado delivery to arrive after my return from New York – but I didn’t and the cupboards were seriously bare. So if I wanted to satiate my hunger I’d have to see what was still alive in the fridge. Normally I’d relish the challenge to whip up a hearty meal from a few disparate ingredients or leftovers but I would rather have tackled this challenge when not so jet-lagged.

But hunger prevailed. There’s always pasta and I found an unopened and not past its sell by date packet of dry cure smoked bacon, a pot of half fat crème fraîche, a lump of fine Parmesan and an rather ancient yet unopened jar of very good Harvey Nichols pesto.

Seems like a feast to me! And it was extremely tasty and definitely hit the spot!

Luckily my new Marks & Spencer Black Damask crockery turned up in the biggest ever box this morning which fortunately I was around to sign for and I thought it would be rude not to test it out. I think it’s a fine addition to the crockery collection.

I think Mother Hubbard would have been proud of me!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

(F)light reading

I had a brilliant idea for a little light reading on the plane; I’d been dying to really tuck into Anna Del Conte’s “Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes” but hadn’t really considered how heavy the book is – even for a paperback. And with the current restrictions on hand baggage, it was a tight fit cramming the book, my handbag and a few emergency packets of Minstrels in my carry on bag. But I was extremely grateful that I brought it along – I starting reading the first chapter “pasta” and started salivating. Pasta with fennel and cream, with garlicky béchamel, with artichokes, with pumpkin sauce, with mozzarella, anchovies and parsley, with a creamy courgette sauce, fish ravioli, with a fontina and cream sauce and all utterly tomato free! Where is a kitchen when you want one? I was just desperate to grab my knife and start creating. And then I espied a recipe for a “one egg ravioli in clear broth”. What was really amazing about this is that I’ve been trying to find this recipe for years. I’d enjoyed a stunning dish of a poached egg inside a ravioli at Gary Rhodes’ original restaurant City Rhodes and had been trying to find the recipe for it since. And here it was, way above the clouds I had eventually found the elusive recipe. Anna Del Conte’s method is to build a wall with a ricotta and spinach mixture onto of the 4” rounds of fresh pasta before popping the egg yolk into the middle and topping with the second pasta round. I have always wondered if I should attempt pressing the fresh pasta round into a mould of some sort and then drop the egg into the resultant indentation before topping off with the other round. This sounds a bit fiddlier and is probably what Gary would do!

On arrival at JFK I stocked up with a couple of US food magazines that I hadn’t read for a while – Bon Appétit and Gourmet. I used to subscribe to both when there was a dearth of food magazines in the UK but now this has been rectified and I read Good Food Magazine, Observer Food Monthly, Waitrose Food Illustrated, Olive, Delicious and Fresh. I used to also try and get “Elle - A la table” and wade slowly through the French. When I picked up the September edition of Bon Appétit it fell open to a recipe for “Soft Egg Ravioli” which as you’ve guessed it was the second time in several hours I’d read a recipe for a dish that I’ve been trying to locate for about eight years. The Bon Appétit recipe used a ricotta and finely zested lemon mixture to build the retaining wall. I have a few Italian cookbooks wending their way to me soon and it will be amusing if they all contain this impossible to find recipe!

Update: I have finally, after first tasting it so many years ago, made my own gooey egg in a fresh ravioli – see here for the results.

The next chapter is “risotto” and one of the first recipes I find is another old much-loved friend – “risotto with lemon”. This innocuous recipe is a favourite of Nigella’s and Anna Del Conte’s recipe appears in “Nigella Bites”. I have mentioned in the past that I’ve been caught out by the quantities as even though Nigella claims it’s a recipe for two, it produces a river of risotto and in my experience is really too much for two, however hungry. Now I’ve got the original recipe with the same quantities I can see that Anna thinks this will feed three to four!

After the fabulous “risotto” chapter it’s “polenta” which I’ve been meaning to get more into, then “bread”, “pulses”, “fish” and “molluscs”. I’m not even a third through the book and I just crazy to get cooking. Nigella is so right about Anna Del Conte, she is the person to turn to when in need of bolstering and comfort and just incredible Italian food.
I am hooked!
Now where’s my knife…?

Friday, September 15, 2006

The final bite of the Big Apple

It’s still pouring with rain and all possible thoughts of a last minute Manhattan shopping expedition have gone out of the window as I hadn’t accessorised this outfit with an umbrella. K had organised an afternoon tea with another lovely client but after eating my body weight in lobster, I was seriously balking at the thought of the tiniest part of a crust less cucumber sandwich. Fortunately we couldn’t seem to find anywhere to partake of a jam scone and ended up in the bar “District” in the Muse Hotel where we didn’t need to consume anything more demanding that a nice glass of wine. Though S and I did manage a few mouthfuls of a shared Oreo cookie and mint ice cream refreshing dessert. This was a great idea because as much as I loved the lobster, I fancied something a little palate cleansing before I hit the roads for the airport.

Our client, B had bought along some really impressive photographs of a recent luxury Alaskan Cruise holiday, which has given me serious food for thought for a future trip, myself. They’d enjoyed helicopter rides, bear watching expeditions, a dog sled ride and even the opportunity to meet the husky puppies. They’d also, very importantly had some amazing food. I’d also coincidentally seen a travelogue in my hotel a few nights earlier on the very same holiday and had particularly enjoyed seeing behind the scenes operations involved in servicing such a cruise ship. I’d never considered before what would happen to all the rubbish and food waste created on board.

I thought this was my final bite of the Big Apple but I think New York got the last bite. A tiny sabre-toothed something took quite a few little bites out of my arm; I wonder if whatever it was will be reviewing their meal and how many forks will it give me? I’ll be keeping an eye out for “have fangs will travel”!

Bye bye Big Apple.

Totally lobstered!

On a very rainy day in Manhattan we had decided to take a lovely client out to lunch at City Lobster. We could see some of the lunch menu moving languidly around their large tank as we took to our table. The décor not surprisingly is American diner meets New England seafood shack which plenty of ‘Pinchy’ (note Simpson’s reference here!) memorabilia emblazoned on the wall. On consulting the menu I felt it would be rude not to order the ubiquitous lobster so plumped for one of the day’s specials - Seafood Bisque with Lobster, Scallops and Crab. I enjoyed it but found it was rather a large portion and was worried that I might struggle with my main. I also had a taste of K’s Warm Blue Crab, Artichoke and Spinach Gratin, which I thought was seriously good, and wish that I’d selected it.

We were convinced we’d end up covered in pieces of lobster during out ministrations so we draped ourselves in napkins and lobster bibs and armed with claw crackers and lobster forks for wheedling out those juicy bits and awaited our main. I’d ordered a New England Lobster Bake with Littleneck Clams, Mussels, Summer Sweet Corn and New Potatoes for main, thinking that it would be a another kind of gratin dish but it was just an enormous plate of whole lobster, whole corn cob, a pile of mussels, another of clams and potatoes filling the remaining space (though there actually wasn’t any). The plate was piled so high it was difficult to know where to start, there seemed to be no flat surface to start making inroads.

S had just gone for a lobster, a large one, a monster lobster, one that perhaps had been crossed with a whale! Not realising how totally enormous my main dish would be I’d also ordered Lobster Mash Potatoes – well it would have been rude not to, and a small vat of this turned up also.

My lobster was really good, the lobster mash was utterly fabulous and if I’d been honest, I could have had just this. In fact this has to be one of my ultimate comfort foods, good mash with really tasty lobster – what more could one want? The clams and mussels weren’t at their best unfortunately, both a little dry but there was just so much other much tastier stuff that I really didn’t care. The new potatoes were beautifully sautéed and with a touch of rosemary – very good indeed! I certainly wasn’t able to eat all of it and none of us could remotely face a dessert. After lobster served three ways I had to admit that I was utterly, totally lobstered. City Lobster deserves two lobster forks – especially for that awesome mash! Okay. it's not as sublime as Gary's may be, but it's seriously comforting!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The duck hat-trick (or the Masa mystery)

After a very fond farewell with DD, French S and R - K, N, S and myself set off back to the bright lights of Manhattan. New York fashion week meant that the hotels were all full to the rafters so we were split between three different hotels. S was staying at the trendiest – The Hudson so it seemed wise to start at the bar there. And my what a funky bar! The floor is glass and lit from beneath, I kept hoping that as I stepped from square to square they would change colour or flash or something – but it didn’t happen! The ceiling has a huge painting that actually looks like a herd of children have been let loose with giant crayons – and I may speculate the children were boys, as there seems to be lots of bullets incorporated into the design. Is that sexist? Maybe, but all the little boys I used to know would draw bomber planes, fires, monsters and dinosaurs when let loose with a box of crayons. And the girls would draw cats and houses, flowers and fairies – me included, apparently I had a predilection for pink flowers! But back to the Hudson, for those “Sex in the City” fans I would say that there were a few ‘modelisers’ artfully sprawled in the clear chairs – remember what I said about New York fashion week? I think there were quite a few hopeful men hanging around!

We were trying to decide on a restaurant but all the places I mentioned seemed too far. I had a craving for a nice little Italian; I was hankering for some freshly made ravioli with a light creamy sauce and probably with a little pesto. K suggested we strolled over to the Time Warner Centre as it’s across the road and there are a few restaurants there. We ascended the escalators and admired the sculptures made from Illy coffee cups and the first place we spot is Per Se. Well this is indeed a surprise! I have been dying to go there but had been unable to get a reservation. It just seemed wrong to turn up at 10 pm and see if they could accommodate us; I had been planning enjoying their fabulous tasting menu and if they did allow us to order this we’d probably still be eating at 2 in the morning. It was impossible to tell if there was room for us as the big blue door remained firmly closed.

Next door to Per Se was Masa, and even though I wouldn’t generally opt for Japanese, we were all hungry. My taste buds have certainly been globetrotting on this trip – why not add Japanese to the list.

The décor was quite curious, stark and industrial with what looked like bullet holes in the concrete walls with what seemed to be rust! Hmmm! Pale linen banners hang from the ceiling shielding the diners from the rest of the restaurant and the bar. Occasionally our surly New York waitress would waft through the banners and give us the minimum of service and assistance with translating the dishes on the menu. Clearly she wasn’t looking for a tip or is this laissez faire attitude the ‘thing’ now? Whatever the case, we were completely unimpressed! I didn’t think that tomato avoidance would be especially required but I also don’t like rice or noodles so I was keen to decipher the all appetiser menu. Eventually I selected Tai Sea Bream with Summer Truffle and “Jazzy” Cucumber Petals – Pekin Duck and Foie Gras. If I am totally honest, they look very elaborate but and beautifully constructed but I can’t really pick out the individual flavours. The cucumber has a pleasing crunch and coolness but I am not aware I am eating duck for the third night in a row. And don’t get me wrong, I adore duck but as I deftly chopstick the artistic little creation into my mouth,I can’t actually detect duck. And I have to remind myself that the other sophisticated little parcels contain summer truffles, maybe I am just tired! Next I have Kobe beef with Maitake Mushroom Sukiyaki (which apparently means cooked in big pot). I am huge fan of Kobe beef, it has a beautiful marbling which is part breeding and part the traditional beer and sake diet. It is also reported that the cows Kobe comes from, known as Wagyu (which means Japanese cow) are massaged to help promote marbling and one assumes makes for a happier cow. I’m afraid that I just can’t appreciate the fabulous-ness of Kobe beef in this dish, I do better than K who finds gristle in her Chicken Yakitori and N says her noodles are dry. And I can’t remember if S found his noodles to his taste, he was probably just trying to stay awake and not slump into the aforementioned noodle dish. Whilst I am trying to be bowled over by my Kobe, I recall hearing of Masa before and whip out my BlackBerry to consult this blog. And yes, I have researched Masa when I was first tried to choose a restaurant for DD and my special birthday meal. Not knowing a huge amount about the New York restaurant scene, one of the first things I looked at was the newly appointed Michelin stars. And there it was, Masa had been awarded two Michelin stars by the illustrious French restaurant critics and I’d also commented that Jamie Oliver had raved about this place. As we were all fairly surprised - the frankly insolent service, the lack lustre food and strange pock marked interior - I ask our ‘friendly’ waitress if they indeed do have two of the finest Michelin stars. She shrugs and says that New York magazine have awarded them five stars and wafts off again. Being a committed gourmand I actually have the printed list of New York magazine’s 101 best New York restaurants in my bag – okay, I am slightly obsessive. I leaf through, I already know that Le Bernardin is considered to be number one, but to my surprise Masa is number two! Our waitress meanders back to declare that they do indeed have two Michelin stars, so clearly the guys from Michelin had either had their sake spiked or had been given a totally different experience. What were they thinking when they awarded the super friendly, really tasty fresh food of Union Square Café with nothing and Masa two? I can appreciate that perhaps we were a little jaded after a long week but despite the fabulous company they was just nothing remarkable about our Masa trip – I can’t even decide whether to award it one fork, maybe I have to add another category, ‘no forks’ and add them to that!

On my return I have done further research and it appears we were in the Masa Bar and not the Masa restaurant and I read that Masa is a seriously jaw-droppingly expensive experience. Clearly we just weren’t paying enough to appreciate ‘the full Masa’, I am still very confused. The oddest thing is though, the upshot of my Michelin enquiry obviously provoked our waitress into a little more service, 'too little too late frankly' but I’d love to know what the higher powers she consulted thought when I asked such a foodie question. Suddenly everyone felt the need to swing by our table and enquire as to our enjoyment, but we’d finished by then and were just looking forward to sinking into our respective beds.

So in conclusion, Masa – a total mystery to me!


There are places all over the world that are just legends in their own right – the Viper Room in LA, Studio 54 formerly of New York and Harry’s Bar in Venice. These places just have a certain notoriety or special ambience that draws the ‘right’ people and hedonists, they flock to hang out, have a drink (maybe even a drink that was created there – Harry’s Bar Bellini, for example) and just feel they are in a home from home. You expect some over-sized comfortable chairs where you can sip your chosen cocktail or glass of something stronger or maybe just to watch the ‘beautiful people’ go by.

Now there’s a new “destination de jour” that’s mentioned in hushed tones, a place where you can try on sparkly jewellery (don’t ask!), tuck into a bowl of Minstrels or sip fine wine or maybe a Verve Clicquot. What is extra special about this place is that it was so exclusive and underground that it was only open for five days.

This place was 311 (aka Diva Mansions), it was a fleeting sanctuary for thirsty travellers from all over the world, it was a place where we could ponder whether one of us really had bodies buried in their allotment (sorry, they turned out to be turnips!) or compare stories and wonder if it is always necessary for procurement people to be just so pedantic and officious! You could also have your photo taken with a genuine diva and practice being a Bond villain. Where else could you do any of that?

311 – the place to be – albeit briefly, don’t forget where you heard it first!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A fan of Pan Asian?

After last night's rather dubious Tex Mex restaurant I will admit that my heart dropped somewhat when I realised that we were off to Elements of Asia for tonight's feast. Though it being DD's birthday, it did seem so very suitable. However I thought, it can't always be French food! As soon as we walked through the door they started serving us huge boats of sushi and sashimi. And I have to admit; the salmon was seriously fresh and very good. Not being a fan of rice, I plumped only for the sashimi.

I consulted the menu and crossed my fingers that they had crispy duck and pancakes because I have to say it’s really the only option I’d choose in a Chinese restaurant. I am sure that there are other fabulous things to eat there but especially as I don’t like the taste of soy sauce and countless other flavourings, many options are ruled out.

I am very partial to duck, spring onions, hoisin sauce and pancakes so I haven’t found the need to explore the options further yet.

The artistry of our dishes was amazing; I was kept busy snapping everyone’s beautiful dishes including birthday boy DD’s sea bass. My duck pancakes didn’t look so artistic but certainly couldn’t be accused of being a meagre portion. The waiter stood by our table at a special stand and carefully shredded an entire plump duck, and then proceeded to hand me plates and plates of pancakes. Needless to say I couldn’t (despite how yummy they were) consider eating my body weight in duck so I shared them round the other tables.

N ordered a striped bass and even though it looked good was definitely a case of style over content, was rather lacking in flesh and was a lot of effort for little reward!

Sorry N, you should have had the duck – there was enough to sustain an entire village!

P and K very thoughtfully bought DD and I a bottle of Verve Clicquot each – extremely suitable for a pair of divas!

And we were presented with bowl of pistachio ice cream and a vanilla ice cream with a birthday candle in so we could blow them out. Thoroughly spoilt!

And in case you’re wondering – P didn’t get us lost tonight! Those breadcrumbs we sprinkled on the road must have helped or was it the kind yet explicit instructions from the fabulous French S?

Little crispy shells of heaven

I am a chocolate evangelist! To continue my attempt of educating the masses about the therapeutic effect of the gorgeous Minstrels I figured that the meetings in the US would go so much smoothly if oiled with a few packets. Though I have discovered that Minstrels can suffer from jetlag. The ones in my carry-on bag were totally fine but the ones in the hold suffered from unfortunate chaffing. It didn't spoil the flavour, you could still just let the crispy shell melt deliciously on your tongue but the gloss had all but gone and DD complained that many were cracked.

But despite this small setback it seems after all my efforts, that many more are addicted to the little crispy shells of heaven. I even left a packet for Ryan as a thank you for such extensive comments on my blog! Galaxy Minstrels really should go global; I can vouch for world-wide appreciation! My work as a chocolate evangelist is done here!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Tex Mex Hex!

Mental note to self: don't ever order French food in a Tex Mex restaurant. What possessed me?

Tonight's meal was at the Santa Fe Grill which had initially alarmed me because just the concept of refried beans makes me feel a little weird. I needn't have worried amongst the burritos and enchiladas and there was an eclectic mixture of chicken, steak, tuna and my favourite duck. DD immediately spotted the Duck Confit with Garlic Mash and declared he knew exactly what I was having. And in a moment of insanity I ordered it. Okay the fact that it was still quacking when it came to the table was my fault as temporarily forgetting I was not ordering steak, I opted for rare! And the duck was okay-ish, though didn't seem very confited but everything was just so tepid. Well the vegetables were just nowhere near cooked enough for cooked vegetables and overcooked for raw! And the garlic mash you may ask, well that was 'just wrong- seriously wrong!' and everything would just have benefited from some more heat.

The lovely L (of Sydney) commented when I started my fork ratings that I should award rotten tomatoes for restaurants that deserve it! If I don't enjoy a meal in a place I often blame myself as I could have badly ordered or the meal could have fallen foul of my anti-tomato zoning laws which is when the evil red things have turned up in my carefully constructed exclusion zone. It seems that others don't always feel the same about tomatoes! But I think may have found the restaurant that deserves the first rotten tomatoes, DD's steak was tasty but the starters were rather odd and even the Tex Mex food was apparently not remotely impressive. Take a bow Sante Fe Grill, you are the inaugural member of the Rotten Tomatoes club for your 'just bad' food, we won't be back!

And thank you to our designated driver P (next year maybe also a designated navigator?) for getting us lost again - what the...?

Monday, September 11, 2006

BBQ at B's

The annual B BBQ is a much anticipated event, the steaks are always extremely wonderful and the corn in these parts is legendary and is served to perfection in the B house. DD hadn’t been to the B residence before and felt that some Australian wine should be bought as a gift for L and not to be outdone, I bought a bottle of Pimm’s – how patriotic are we?

We started with tasty sausages and a really good artichoke dip which is definitely something I shall try and recreate. The corn was as fabulous as previous years (though L was mortified that a little accident with a blue gel ice pack wasted some of the lovely cobs) but there was still plenty to go around. The corn is much paler here than I normally see but oh so much sweeter! L had also put together a very attractive dish with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, which I admired from a very safe distance. E toiled over a hot BBQ and produced a veritable mountain of yummy steaks. There was pltes of marlin, bowls of fruit and green salads, piles of french bread and some fabulous pies – apple, peach and apple and blackberry (I hope I got that right?) whatever the flavours, they were really good. We all had a fantastic evening and it was just left to our designated driver - P to get us completely lost in the dark streets of New Jersey.

Thank you so much E and L – I’m already looking forward to next year?

In remembrance

I am sure like many; I have so many poignant feelings about the 5-year anniversary of the terrible, terrible thing that happened in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. I will never forget when I first heard of the heart-rending events unfolding when I was on a cooking holiday in a little farmhouse in Normandy, France. I felt so very far away from all my friends and colleagues in New York, I had no access to email, the Internet or even a television. I was desperate to find out if everyone was okay, as it turned out they were but clearly so many thousands weren’t so lucky! New York has always been a very special place for my family and me and we have many, many fond memories. I am personally so grateful that New York has not bowed to the terrible atrocities and is still the most vibrant and amazing place to be even though we all know that the world will never be the same again.

I haven’t forgotten and I never will.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Nuts about Union Square Cafe

DD and I hadn't made any plans for my birthday lunch and having always been a fan of Union Square Cafe I thought we should try and get a table for a light lunch, as we were still full from last night. Though when we sat down all thoughts of 'a little salad' seemed to fly out of the window.

Though we did opt to share both the starter and the dessert but also had to squeeze in a few nuts!
I know that Nigella Lawson is a huge fan of the Union Square Café’s nuts that they serve at the bar between lunch and dinner and I figured if we lingered long enough over our meal we could try them out.

But first we shared a portion of Frascatelli Genovese – Handmade Tiny Semolina Dumplings with Green Beans, Potatoes and Pesto Cream. These were exquisite, so tasty and just perfectly fresh.

Union Square Café is famous for getting the freshest, most luscious ingredients from the Union Square Greenmarket, which is the popular farmers’ market, held in the nearby Union Square. And the chefs Danny Mayer and Michael Romano attribute some of the daily specials to a stroll amongst the stalls there. We did go for the salad and both had the Grilled beef Sirloin and Rocket Arugula Salad with Mushroom Vinaigrette and Parmigiano Reggiano. Again, an inspired choice, the salad was dressed really well and the beef was really succulent. I was able to satisfy my meat craving from last night! And in the name of investigation I had to order the exceedingly fine Union Square Café’s Mashed Potatoes with Frizzled Leeks. DD declared that he hadn’t eaten mash for many years and when Y cooks sausages and mash he has sausages and salad instead. I am speechless! However, he declared the USC mash to be very fine indeed.

We round this off with a shared portion of Honey and Vanilla Ice cream, Peach Sorbet and Raspberry Sorbet, which is really refreshing. (Note DD’s Tiffany ring in the picture!)

The nuts weren’t ready but we retired to the bar and watched all the staff prepare for the dinner sitting. They put all the olives into little white bowls and sort out all the other bits for the tables. They first have their own meals from big stainless steel tureens and chat about the day so far. When the fabulous nuts we brought out of the oven, the area fills with a spicy, herby aroma. The peanuts, cashews, brazils, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds are tossed with melted butter combined with rosemary, cayenne pepper, brown sugar and salt. They are very good indeed even if you think you have no room to ever eat again!

As we lingered at the bar we thought it would be rude not to have a fabulous fizzy pink drink to toast both KK and me on our birthdays and when I realised they had Chambord, well the decision was easy. We had Kir Imperials – which is the delicious black raspberry liquor Chambord served in the ‘orb’ bottle with Champagne. Cheers!

The staff here were so fantastic as well, they were really friendly and when I was trying to take a photo of our Kir Imperials they offered to hold up a napkin so the beautiful pink colour could be seen.

A fabulous meal with truly fabulous company and a fabulous birthday – three forks for Union Square Café – maybe Michelin doesn’t think they deserve a star (their sister restaurant Gramercy Tavern has one) but I think they do. And they do fabulous nuts as well – what more could you want!

Finally, I also HAD to pick up their latest cookbook to add to the burgeoning collection. I am seriously nuts about USC

The largest bagel in the world!

Well after being criticised by a native New Yorker on this blog for extolling the virtues of a toasted bagel I thought if better have myself one of New York's finest. DD and I found the first bagel shop on leaving the hotel and I ordered a sesame seeded bagel with the ubiquitous salmon and cream cheese. Well I ordered a bagel but I was handed a loaf! I can vouch for the fact that it doesn't come toasted and it does taste very nice but it's just so huge. I was able to make tiny inroads into it before I slipped it into my bag defeated. I didn't discover it again until the evening.

By then it was much flatter and I could have then eaten it much more easily but there really wasn't any room at the inn. At least I can say I've had a New York bagel now - though in all honesty I think the bagel had me!

Happy birthday to me... And bump!

H's bump is no more! Clearly she felt that she didn't want to bake any longer and appeared a month ahead of schedule. So happy birthday to J and KK. Pink champagne anyone?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The sauciest meal ever!

We had several menus to choose from at Le Bernardin and we opted for the Chef’s Tasting Menu. DD encouraged me to go for the wine pairing as well – well, when in New York…

We were led to our table early, which was a great relief as I was desperately trying not to remember that it was 2 o’clock in the morning for me. And we must have managed, as we were eventually the last to leave the restaurant.

Our first little amuse gueule was a tiny pot of lobster in a black truffle butter – a fabulous start! And then onto the main menu:


Foie Grass Terrine; Dashi “ en gelée”; Mâche-Hijiki Seaweed Salad

served with (fortunately not a full glass of) Heribert Boch “Trittenheimer Apotheke” Riesling 1990

Very tasty great start and always pleased to see my favourite Mâche.


Royal Osetra Caviar on a Nest of Tagliolini, Quail Egg and Bacon Carbonara Sauce

with Kistler Chardonnay 2004

This was totally stunning, I really loved this and DD and I immediately said we’d have liked another little tasty Carbonara nest – yummy!


Spicy Langoustine Sambal; Chayote and Pear Julienne

with Prager “Gruner Veltiner” 2004

Chayote is a kind of Mexican gourd or squash and went very well with the tangy langoustine.


Olive Oil Poached Hawaiian Escolar; Grapes and Sweet and Sour Saffron Shallot Verjus-Lemon Grass Emulsion

with Chateau Smith Haut-Lafitte Blanc 2000

This was a really delicate tuna with a subtle lemon grass sauce and the first of several airings of our silver sauce spoon. And I still haven’t discovered why there’s a little notch in the spoon.


Barely Cooked Wild Alaskan Salmon; Chanterelle and Black trumpet in a Wild Mushroom Pot au Feu

with Vosne-Romanée “Beaux Monts” Domaine Rion 2001

Another really tasty mushroom-y sauce accompanied by another sauce spoon.


Surf and Turf of Crispy Pork belly and Skate Wing; Gingered Squash Mousseline and Brown Butter Flavoured Jus

with Gigondas, Santa Duc 2003

And finally, the meat! The crispy pork belly was a wonderful accompaniment to the skate and another sauce! We’ve probably worked our way through an entire canteen of cutlery by now.


Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Sea Salt

This was totally amazing and probably the star of the meal. The waiter was especially excited to serve this as he’d probably experienced the huge appreciation of this little pre dessert. He gave us explicit instructions on how to consume it, explaining that the spoon should be dipped into the egg shell and we should carefully spoon a little of each level ending with the Maldon sea salt. Seriously gorgeous! And no sauce!


Yuzu Cream, Caramelized Rice, Grapefruit, Green Tea Ice Cream, Crisp Meringue

Tokaji Aszu “5 Puttonyos” Domaine Disznoko 1999

This was really refreshing and the caramelized rice was really magnificent. Another amazing creation! And a delicious dessert wine.


Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart, Red Wine Reduction, Banana and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream

This was not part of the Chef’s Tasting Menu but the final dessert on ‘Le Bernardin Tasting Menu’ but I’d explained to our waiter that I would really appreciate a chocolate dessert with our meal, so he delivered this and the Yuzu-Green Tea. I thought he would substitute but clearly he could see a couple of avid eaters so we had both! It was very delicious and gave me my yearned for chocolate hit. I left the bananas to David though!

And just in case we hadn't eaten enough we had a plate of beautiful petit fours - there was a yummy soft chocolate truffle-y thing, a crispy macaroon, a tiny berry tart, a white chocolate case filled with a delciate apricot sauce and a nutty biscuit-y thing. All really delicious!

This was a scrumptious meal with excellent service, well worth all the accolades and stars. The only tiny criticism I had, and I admit it is a totally unfair criticism to give a seafood restaurant, is that I really hankered after a little more meat. Clearly my carnivorous roots are showing!

I am still not crazy about the decor of the restaurant - but with food like this, who cares!

Le Bernardin has a very much deserved three fishy forks and if I had a section praising fabulous sauces – it would be there also!