Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Break for the Border

Tonight it’s the turn of Tex Mex for the team. I can’t explain what I find strangely abhorrent about most Mexican food but it would be fair to say I’ve probably never had it anywhere near its best and so far I’ve never actually enjoyed it. And to be frank, re-fried beans – actually fried twice more than is acceptable in my mind. Ughh, and then it resembles, no I won’t say. All those of you who love re-fried beans may well be put off and those of us who deeply mistrust them know already what it looks like – and it’s not good!

I think some of my wariness is based on a very bizarre Christmas meal thirteen of us out went for at a brand- spanking-new Mexican restaurant when I first started working in the city. So new that we were the first customers and so new that the staff didn’t seem to know what the food was, where the toilets were and what on earth they were doing there. It was a terrible, terrible night on so many levels. So awful that they invited us back a month or so later when they’d got they act together. On the second visit some of our party managed to get extremely drunk and not notice that an extra zero had been ‘added’ to the bill and then spent a fun filled fortnight or two trying to get our money back. Hmmmm! And they had horrible mud coloured re-fried beans! I believe this restaurant is no more, clearly other people thought you could eat better else where, actually anywhere on earth could feed you with more talent!

Maybe it’s a bean thing with me, I don’t really like beans with the possible exception of green beans and broad beans. I guess I can cope with a haricot in a cassoulet, though my problem with haricots is their frequent proximity to tomatoes and clearly for me that is a pitfall. I also don’t like chilli beans though I don’t seem to have the same problem with jelly beans! I can vaguely recall playing a bean based game whilst a Girl Guide. This is a dim memory but I think it was an elaborate game of tag coupled with a exploration of the many varieties of beans. The tagger would shout out various beans and we would respond accordingly. For example, she yells out “jumping beans” and we’d jump, “frozen beans” and we’d shiver, “baked beans” and we’d mime sweltering, “French beans” and we’d reply “ooh, la, la!” and then “runner beans” and we’d all run away and try to avoid being tagged. If tagged you became the bean caller I think for the next round. I don’t remember anyone ever yelling out “haricot beans” as the ensuing mime would have been somewhat obscure. I don’t feel that this game resulted in a bean related trauma that still affects me today but it’s possible!

And here we are again at the spiritual home of the bean in a Tex Mex restaurant - On the Border and I’m trying not to be too suspicious. When we availed ourselves of the Mexico’s finest fare last year I made the heinous crime of ordering (prompted by DD of course) duck confit and garlic mash. It’s probably best not to relive that as it was the stuff of nightmares, but admittedly that was poor ordering in a Tex Mex restaurant! Today we start first with some platters of miscellaneous Mexican morsels. The hot chicken wings are rather feisty yet tasty so I stick with those – well if it ain’t broke… For the main meal we take to the tables and consult the menu which has helpful photographs of the potential delights on offer.

I’m never really sure about the ordering from pictures, it’s the culinary equivalent of buying from Argos and smacks of wondering around touristy cafés in Spain and Cyprus looking for some good food in places devoid of murderers. I am often biased against places with pictures maybe as many of the pictures look tired and strangely tinted which can be unappetizing. I want to read the delicious ingredients in the dish I am about to eat not necessarily wonder what that strange lump of something is lurking next to the main attraction.

But this menu looks much better than the Tex Mex hex we experienced last year so things are looking up, I go for the Bandera Sirloin – a centre-cut Choice sirloin topped with an avocado relish served with grilled vegetables and cheesy pepper Jack mashed potatoes. The steak was quite nice; it was well cooked and had a little kick from its Mexican makeover. The plate was certainly well packed if that's considered a good thing. The mash wasn’t entirely to my taste but a very fair job all round. As American J says – "low cost, high value" – hmmm enough said really!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Not so much a menu but an obligatory

Tonight is a special night for American E, he doesn’t know it yet but the reason there’s a mysterious extra large party here is that we’re toasting and roasting him in anticipation of his retirement next year. We have congregated at the Salt Creek Grille to enjoy some drinks and a meal before the speeches begin. DD, another J and myself test the bar staff to see if they can rustle up a bottle of Chambord and to our astonishment they can, so a little more Kir Imperial for the divas!
With such a large party they have simplified the menu by saying we are starting with Tomato Bisque, then a Salad, the main course is choice of Salmon or Filet Mignon and to finish there’s a Mixed Berry dish with Chantilly Cream. I have to be awkward (I know, had to believe!) and decline the soup, there seems little point in me wasting a bowl and then I am not sure if the salad will have more tomato in (it does) so I eschew that also and go straight for the steak.
It is a very tasty steak grilled with the aid of mesquite chips. Now I am not an expert but I believe these are wood chip added to the barbeque to impart a true Texan smoky flavour to the food gently caramelising above. Whatever they did it managed to intensify the juicy and well-marinated steak.
The dessert was a little too much Chantilly creamy for my taste (that would be any) but I’d recommend the steak at least! It's hard to judge them on really one dish so I think one tiny fork for a good steak.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A re-union at USC

There’s something very cosy about Union Square Café, it’s like a big warm hug of a restaurant. DD and I have declared it to be ‘our’ restaurant and no visit to New York would really be complete without a visit. I guess we set a precedence last year by lingering over a long and late, luscious lunch on my birthday and then hanging around the bar even longer to toast KK’s birth with gorgeous pink cocktails (me initiating DD to the delights of the Chambord orb!), wait long enough for the famed bar nuts to materialise and put off the inevitable, unenviable task of departing from Manhattan to spend the rest of the week in the culinary dearth of deepest New Jersey. This time we were determined yet again that our final hours in the big apple would be at USC’s pleasure and we’d also introduce another J to our fave NY hangout. It’s clear that plenty agree with us. One of the fabulous quirks of the menu is that there are daily specials based on the finest ingredients they’ve picked up at the green market in Union Square and weekly specials that are well known and locals will revisit on the say Monday for the special ‘USC’s Lobster “Shepherd’s Pie” – with Mushrooms, Mashed Potatoes, Spinach, Carrots and Lobster Sauce’ night and just have that before heading home or out. We met one of these locals who regularly popped in for a spot of sustenance and sat at the bar whilst his favourite dish was delivered to him. And I am sure I would be a very regular diner if I lived just a little closer!

We were sat at one of the linen clad tables by the door as we hadn’t booked and could experience the full cheesiness of the ‘meeter and greeter’ who had just that specific tone of indifferent and insincere feelings that I expected ‘and you’ll find your exits, here, here and two over the wing…’ to waft over to us any minute. But we couldn’t be distracted by her false smiles for long as the very serious business of the menu being examined at length bought a hush to our table. We decided that we’d start our meal with a Kir Imperial and then share a plate of Seared Foie Gras with Toasted Cornbread, Roasted Mission Figs and Grape Relish before DD tucked in to the Herb-Roasted Amish Chicken with White Wine Jus, Sautéed Wild Mushrooms, Greenmarket Arugula and Parmigiano Bread Pudding, another J selected the Pan-Seared Sea Scallops with Balsamic Butter, Roasted Autumn Vegetables, Guanciale, Currants and Pine Nuts.

I just had so many to choose from prevaricated over the infamous Lobster Shepherd’s Pie or the Crispy Lemon-Pepper Duck or the Grilled Lamb Chops Scotta Dita with Potato-Gruyère Gratin but eventually plumped for the special of the day the Bacon Wrapped Monkfish with Porcini Risotto and Sautéed Escarole. It was imperative that I ordered Union Square Cafe’s Mashed Potatoes with Frizzled Leeks and Sautéed Broccoli Rabe “Mama Romamo style” for us all to share.

The seared foie gras was stunning and delicious and once polished off we turned our attention to pondering extensively about the Amish chicken. I am not terribly familiar with Amish lore but felt that a chicken probably wouldn’t really miss buttons, cars, electricity or even insurance as really they just want to scratch, perch and have the odd dust bath. If the Amish order that bred these very fine chicken was only permitted to use horse and buggy I could imagine that getting the plump chickens to market might be a challenge but perhaps exceptions are made. They were certainly very fine chickens, juicy and oh so flavoursome however deprived of electricity they were. DD’s Parmigiano bread pudding was soft and tasty also.

Another J relished her scallops and even let us appreciate their sweet plumpness for ourselves.

My monkfish was a deliciously undemanding and comforting dish to eat; with unctuous risotto (not quite as stunning at that one at Café Gray but gorgeous all the same) and of course there was some sublime mash to enjoy alongside the verdant broccoli.

We were going to seriously struggle to tear ourselves away from such magnificence. And we turned out to be so stuffed that we couldn’t even face a dessert with three spoons. It was with great regret that we stopped pondering our nicely rounded tummies, settled the bill and ventured into the cold again in search of our luggage and a long train journey.

I can promise the justifiably three-forked USC that we will be back as soon as we can. Please have our usual table waiting adorned with fresh Kir Imperials and herbed, spicy nuts to share. Hmmm, mmmm, mmmm. What shall we say DD, table for 7 o’clock?

A couple of New York melts

We’ve got a day in the biting New York cold (so desperately different from Sydney and even London when I left it) I am finally planning some shopping as everyone else seems positively dripping with carrier bags and I feel deprived. But before that we need fortification as so off to our local deli for a couple of New York melts and a chance for DD to ensure his Tiffany ring gets another airing on the World Wide Web. They certainly gave us a little central heating so now we can venture forth to Saks 5th Avenue where I have plans of a sparkly nature!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Packing in some meat in the Meat Packing district

Another J has also jetted in today to join the party and after a spot of shopping (well it seems almost rude not to) she is meeting DD and I in the Hudson bar for a pre-show cocktail before leaping into a yellow cab and heading for the meat packing district.

The Hudson is certainly a happening place (though DD will vouch that it stays happening and banging way later than a jetlagged person should have to endure!) and we enjoy a cocktail under the “toddlers let loose with a box of wax crayons and a gallon of Sunny Delight” ceiling.

Our trusty concierge has suggested Florent for us tonight; I mentioned something about the meat packing district and something authentic and a 24 hour French roadside caff often hailed as a New York institution is recommended. And he is so right, it’s just what we needed, some uncomplicated yet hearty French bistro food in a real, totally unpretentious New York establishment.

The signs are made out of those white letters you might have seen on a board outside the local Odeon proclaiming the latest Hollywood blockbuster and the tables are Formica. One wall is draped incongruously in silver foil strands possibly left over from a party or just to hide the less than perfect walls, and the lights are dim enough (hence the alarming 70's style sepia photos) not to alarm a wee small hours of the morning reveller who has stopped by for a restorative tureen of onion soup crowned with a Gruyère topped crouton.

I start with a little pork liver pâté with green peppercorns, I had hoped for the duck mousse pâté but they’d run out. I normally like my pâté less coarse and more of a parfait but the pork liver pâté had a feisty taste.

Then we all realised that being in the meat packing district we really should have steak frites – a grilled New York sirloin with all the trimmings even though the mac & cheese, chicken and salmon looked pretty good also.

And for a dessert a few spoons of a mousse au chocolat to complete our fine French bistro fare, we could be in a little starkly light and plastic flower adorned café that litter the French countryside but no we’re in New York. A meat-packing fork for Florent, I feel they may feel it would be deemed pompous to have any more.

Obviously a world away from Café Gray last night but that’s what I like about dining out in New York, the multitude of choices and one can't always fine dine - well not always!

Hard Rock Fork

H had agreed that after DD and I have enjoyed a brief spot of shopping (I was feeling deprived) we'd join them, H's sister and friend just flown in from Dublin at the Hard Rock Café in Time's Square. Not that any of us were hungry after our Sarabeth's brunch, it just seemed a suitable central meeting place.
The plan was swiftly changed when they realised it wasn't the most ideal place for KK and they went off in search of something a tad less 'rocking' but I did have to grab a picture of what would happen if my blog joined the dark side.
I guess this could be my antithesis of the diamond fork - the devil fork!

Superb brunch at Sarabeth's

Our trusty Hudson concierge recommended Sarabeth’s as a perfect late brunch place that was fun, family friendly and located close to Central Park. We were meeting H, R and KK who having rented an apartment just off Time’s Square had actually moved to Manhattan (albeit temporarily) and were exploring the delights of Central Park on this ever so crisp Sunday morning. Actually it was unbelievably chilly but coming from London this wasn’t as huge shock whereas DD, being more accustomed to a Sydney temperature, had a huge culture shock. How lucky he’d picked up a little Armani (did I get that right, DD?) cashmere scarf yesterday whilst on his major shopping excursions yesterday before I’d landed. As we crossed endless streets on our way to Central Park we pondered what delights we’d like for our brunch and I express a particular desire for that stalwart of brunch menus – eggs Benedict, possibly with the more traditional ham or as I’d missed the salmon in my bagel this morning, maybe with smoked salmon.

When we arrived at Sarabeth’s we could see that it was enormously popular, apparently when H and R had passed by earlier with KK in her pushchair there were queues around the block. By the time everyone arrived the queues had fortunately abated and all seven of us were led to the back room to a big round table. KK was tucked up underneath a cream cashmere canopy with no evidence of her presence except a highly desirable cute pink pair of Converse All Stars (I think they’re called Chucks!) poking out the bottom. She slept on whilst the grownups perused the menu.

And it is, as expected, the perfect brunch menu. Under the heading of ‘extraordinary eggs and omelettes’ there is the Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict I’ve been hankering after but there are plenty of other options I would have been happy with. What about Goldie Lox – scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and cream cheese or the extremely tasty sounding Farmer's Omelette - leeks, ham and chunks of potato with Gruyere or Green and White which is scrambled eggs with scallions and cream cheese? There’s also fat waffles and the intriguingly names Baby Bear, Mama Bear, Dada Bear and Big Bad Wolf porridge. I may not be a fan of porridge but I do like the names!

My eggs Benedict dish with Irish smoked salmon is exactly what I was craving and hit the spot perfectly. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of a well-made classic Hollandaise sauce or a perfectly poached egg.

And because we felt it had to be tried H and I shared the Individual apple Crumb Pie with the caramel ice cream, and rather good it was indeed. As KK had just woken up I thought she may want to join the girls in a not so girly dessert of sweet crunchiness, soft apple and gorgeous ice cream but she was really only interested in collecting all the spoons, she seems to like spoons! I was a very tasty dessert and crowned a perfect New York brunch, two forks for the two-named Sarabeth.

A very bright New York bagel

DD being two days ahead of me in Manhattan is not only two days ahead of me in terms of shopping (I intend to redress that today) but has cased the joint with regards to local eating establishments. He has recommended a local café for a bagel and promises me one of a more normal size not like the loaf I was offered last year. I had intended having it toasted (I know, many think this is just wrong) with chived cream cheese and salmon but in my confusion/jetlagged state I am distracted by the crucial inclusion of chives and miss the exclusion of the salmon. Never mind, it is indeed a fine bagel, top recommendation DD. We’re back!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Anatomy of Gray's

Start spreading the news… there’s a diva in town. Well actually two!

Plan A after disembarking at JFK was to hot foot in into Manhattan, check into the Hudson and then cross the road to the Time Warner Centre (probably spelt center, but that distresses me) and finally head for a highly covetable table at Per Se. DD and I were on the waiting list for a table at 9pm, I landed at 7pm and therefore had plenty of time! I hadn’t actually mentioned the possible table at the fabulous Per Se to DD; I just thought it would be a lovely surprise when we arrived! But I hadn’t heard from the restaurant before the flight so I hadn’t changed in the toilet before we landed and it turned out to be fortuitous. For some inexplicable reason the journey through immigration was unusually torturous and I would never have made a 9pm table reservation anyway. On arrival at the Hudson, possibly the darkest hotel in the world, I threw myself on the mercy of the concierge for a rapid replacement reservation. I suggested maybe Italian and definitely not too far from the hotel. I mentioned that I had been waiting to hear from Per Se and he suggested an interesting idea, Café Gray at the Time Warner Center. (I figured if I have to write Gray, then I can get over center!) It met my criteria for a very short walk and though not Italian seemed the prefect spot to grab something not too heavy but elegant all the same, so a table was booked for 10.30 pm. After a quick spruce up we headed over to see what Gray’s would have to offer.

We would shown to the bar and took in our surroundings – clean lines, bright (yeah!) enticing aromas wafting around us and a despite the fact that I should have tucked up in bed (London time) ages ago, I was rather peckish. In fact the jet lag/hunger combination did cause me to have a bit of a diva moment when I saw the little banquette I had my eye on being snapped up by another couple who arrived after us. But they swiftly appeased me and led us instead to a little linen-clad table in the main part of the restaurant where we could spy on the chefs’ ministrations in the open-plan kitchen, a much better table!

We were delivered a gorgeous amuse bouche of spoon of ginger and spaghetti of some vegetable possibly squash that I cannot recall for sure but I have asked the restaurant if they could remind me.

But I have no problem recalling the starter. DD and I opted to split the RISOTTO mushroom fricassée between us. And it was seriously gorgeous. The risotto came served in a little silver pan topped with an unidentified top-hatted gentleman. And it was an unctuous very tasty starter. We were given a pan each but only half filled, I am guessing the full portion would have the pan brimful but we both agreed that actually it was the perfect size and a very memorable risotto.

I went for an unusual choice for me and that was SKATE SCHNITZEL – butternut squash, red wine apples and caper brown butter. There was a good choice of amongst others roasted veal, cheeks and sweetbreads, braised short rib of beef and grilled organic poussin but the skate intrigued me. And it was a wise choice; it was light, a crispy coating and tasty autumnal vegetables and a vibrant and verdant herby sauce.

We weren’t sure if we could squeeze in a dessert but felt we could just manage to share a chocolate soufflé. Unfortunately the last had just been sold so we swapped our plans swiftly to CHOCOLATE CRÈME BRÛLÉE with apricot compote instead. And it was the perfect way for two divas to finish our first meal together on our second bite of the Big Apple. It was the crunchy chocolate brûlée topping, the rich, creamy interior contrasting with the tangy, juicy apricots.

I was initially disappointed that my cunning plan had been thwarted by Per Se but was delighted to discover Café Gray and frankly I was in no state to do a full Per Se tasting menu justice. I was disoriented as my crown-less watch needs a special magnet to change its time which inconveniently I have left at home. This means that I can’t really adopt New York time as on every occasion I catch site of it I am transported back to what time my body thinks it should be, never mind maybe I can track down a Rado stockist tomorrow and adopt a New York state of mind. What a fabulous excuse to go shopping!

That mushroom risotto was sublime, the skate a wonderful and unusual change and the chocolate hit as a finale, very fine indeed! Gray Kunz is definitely a chef to be reckoned with and personally if I were asked to compare Masa with Café Gray (both inhabitants in the high faluting food court come shopping mall aka the Time Warner Center) I would choose Café Gray any day over the shabby service and frankly shabbier food of Masa - a place that will always remain a mystery to me.

Three well deserved shiny grey forks for the accomplished cooking of Café Gray and they made a weary diva feel very welcome.

Mile high grub!

Airline food doesn’t normally warrant a comment but I thought Virgin Atlantic (Premium) did pretty well today. I am so relieved that they’ve abandoned the annoying bendy plastic cutlery in favour of dinky Robert Welsh designed stainless steel hardware. And nice crisp large red cloth napkin also, so much more civilised! I was on my usual tomato watch and the obligatory chicken dish is often a fine contender for some tomato sauce so I went for the beef with green beans, baby carrots and rather a nice surprise, mash. And not too bad mash either. This was accompanied by a fresh seedy roll with cheese and a cheeky glass of Tempranillo. And as a finale that was an always welcome little pot of Gü, just perfect! Not a bad late lunch for a flight at all.
I'm sure I would have enjoyed the meal in Upper Class even more, I was rather taken with the aeroplane salt and pepper shakers that I saw being popped onto one of the hallowed trays and wondered how many of these 'accidentally' end up in naughty passengers' luggage. We don't have such fripperies in our cabin, so no temptation here. There was a time when I couldn't bear to eat anything on a plane as the homogenised mingling aromas finished off which that coffee in a flask smell would turn my stomach every time without fail. I finally realise that if I had a little of something to eat, I then didn't seem to be so bothered by the cacophony of odours any more. It's not such a problem now, I think the quality of food has definitely improved and as long as a waft of that dreaded over stewed coffee doesn't hit me - I'll be fine!

Friday, October 26, 2007

All fright on the night

And hasn't the month gone quickly again! In fact Stephanie gave us longer than usual for this month's blog party and yet still I rush to complete it by the deadline. Ah well nothing changes! This month is was all about Halloween. I was thinking spooky food, creepy food, some sort of witch's brew or maybe more sensibly orange and black food - or as it ended up orange food served on black crockery.
I realised that I'd never tackled carving a pumpkin and felt that this was the time to master this skill hitherto lacking in my repertoire. I didn't heave the largest most obese pumpkin from the pile but bearing in mind that I wanted to contrast my carved pumpkin with my canapés I selected the smallest. In fact I was hoping to find a little squash but only the oversized orange vegetable was available for my delectation. I also picked up some vital pumpkin carving tools and particularly liked the little saws.
And after sketching a miscellany of scary, pointed teeth pumpkin faces, I totally changed my mind and went for the 'J' and the lone bat. Somehow it seems much more me!
I was planning on using the pumpkin interior chopped up into cubes and skewered with some chipolatas. However as veteran pumpkin carvers are surely already aware there's really nothing but seeds and some stringing fibrous pumpkiny bits within so entirely useless edibilty wise!
So instead I made some carrot with a touch of ginger soup and served it in the tiny Nigella espresso cups. Though it looks a little like orange sorbetit really is carrot.
Next I made little welsh rarebits (or it really should be "rabbits" but apparently the original name confuses vegetarians) with cider and double Gloucester to ensure a more carrot topped hue. I am rather partial to a rarebit, it just seems a couple of notches up from cheese on toast. I loved the slightly glazed topping and the ever-so gooey circles were maybe not particularly spooky but more importantly, delicious!
And for a blood-curdling drink I went for the very refreshing freshly squeezed orange juice with a dash of raspberry.
All very chilling I hope you agree. And when I catch up with the other ghoulish blog party entries, they will be here...

PS - I stumbled on so much bat-speckled and ghost strewn crockery and also a plethora of pumpkin table paraphernalia when researching for this party, but I resisted! Though if I had stumbled across little orange pumpkin table confetti I might have caved in!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Murdering my darlings!

I was asked a seemingly simple question the other day – “what is your favourite cookbook?” And it threw me, a dozen or so titles rushed into my head like little butterflies and then flitted out again. But as for a favourite, one that is above all others, that is very tricky! I’m not sure if I can really equate it to having to select a preferred child, but it feels so wrong somehow!
Firstly there’s rather a lot to choose from, I stopped counting years ago but it’s a few hundred maybe about five. They outgrew my bookshelves many moons ago and now they are stacked higgledy piggeldy in frankly rather a precarious fashion on top of one another and often challenge me when I wish to consult one from ‘the middle’. And I even had to buy a special step stool for reaching the uppermost level. But as I run my fingers along the shiny colourful spines the question again arises, which of all these delicious cookbooks is my number one? The problem is that some are old friends like Alastair Little’s Keep it Simple, Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food, John Pawson and Annie Bell's Living and Eating, Richard Corrigan's cookbook, Patricia Wells and Joël Robuchon's Cuisine Actuelle and Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and other Stories. Then there's the new kids on the block - Stéphane Reynaud Pork & Sons, Jamie Oliver's Jamie at Home, Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate & Zucchini, Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy and the very new and very fabulous Simon Hopkinson's Week in Week out. There's books I like to consult when I'm in the mood for a certain sort of food - Mark Hix's British Regional Food, Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries, Margaret Costa's Four Seasons or Sophie Conran's Pies. Or maybe I wish to be reminded of a much loved particular dish like Gordon Ramsay Beef Fillet from Secrets, those little cheese fondues from Gary Rhodes' Keeping it Simple, crispy bacon and cheese salad and many other dishes from Nigella's Lawson's How to Eat or the poached egg inside a ravioli from Anna del Conte's Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes.

I still haven't decided which I want to declare as 'my ultimate favourite' but here's twenty that I love for starters. Though the more I think about it, the more I want to alter my list. I always felt for the Rob character in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (recreated so wonderfully by John Cusack in the 2000 film) when he is asked to name his top five records of all time. He is in a similar quandary and constantly reconsiders and refines and hones his list until he finally believes he has got there. And he is right, selecting tunes poses a particular conundrum, there's that song to remind you of that precious moment so long ago, the song to raise your spirits when a little blue and the song that always, no matter what you're doing, makes you stop and smile and maybe even send a little frisson or a little chill through your body. Okay, it's hard to convey the same sort of passion with cookbooks but many are my trusted companions and others are the ones I hope will join this select circle of friends and you have to admit - friends are extremely important so I must choose wisely!

A test for the Blueprint Café

Anyone who’s ever read my blog knows that I am a huge fan of Blueprint Café and Jeremy Lee. I love the seasonality and simplicity of the cooking. Each dish is always bursting with flavour from quality ingredients that have been elegantly assembled. I trust the Blueprint Café to entertain clients, to celebrate special events and most importantly to always feed us wonderfully. One particular client had reservations about the Blueprint, it wasn’t base on a previous experience but a belief that nothing good can come out of a kitchen in a restaurant owned by a man whose family made their fortune importing rubber. Well it is true, Terence Conran who once had Blueprint Café in his vast restaurant empire (now he has handed over the day to day running to D&D who took over most of the ex-Conran restaurants in a management buyout) and yes, his father did indeed import rubber but I’m pretty sure this didn’t permeate into the restaurant kitchens. Jeremy’s cooking had never conjured up images of burning rubber to me and I was hoping that I could demonstrate this to C eventually. Well this day had come and I climbed the steps to Blueprint Café with a degree of trepidation as this was a test for a place that I am very fond of and I desperately hope they won’t let me down.

There are five of us today and we’re all waiting with eager anticipation what delights our lunch will bring. H asked me what salsify and Parmesan was and I explained it was a particular favourite of mine here. They are wrapped in the thinnest of filo pastry jackets showered with gratings of Parmesan and baked. They are soft, savoury and a real revelation. I had my first salsify here, enjoyed the same treatment with asparagus in their short season and always enjoy them on every occasion. My glowing report seems to do the trick and H and K (plus bump) order a plate as a starter.

C and I both opt for the cauliflower and salsify soup and American J a salad. The cauliflower and salsify soup may not have set the world alight with its looks, though pale and interesting but had such a creamy, sublime flavour it was a true delight – yes, Jeremy has done it again! H and K really enjoy their salsify which is their first experience of this intriguing vegetable root which is a distant cousin to the sunflower. C was attracted to the salsify but I mistakenly likened it to asparagus, which I shouldn’t have done as salsify is so much softer, some say like an oyster. I’m not sure if either comparison is right but thanks to the Blueprint Café, I now know that I adore salsify.

There were eight choices for the main course and it was a tricky choice. I would have happily devoured Plaice, leek & mussel broth, Onglet, watercress, mustard & horseradish, Grilled leg of black faced lamb, lentils & green sauce, Lemon sole, lemon & parsley butter, Sea bass & clam Chowder or the Roast partridge, potato cake & pickled damsons or even the Baked Middle White pork, mustard & parsley crust. I was tempted by the plaice, leek mussel broth or even the sea bass and clam chowder but then my entire meal might have been a little soupy. And I am not ready for an all liquid diet yet. Knowing Jeremy’s love of a fine and feisty mustard I thought I’d order the Middle White pork with mustard and parsley crust. K joined me in this, as we’d discovered recently that her bump seems to have gone off fish, well certainly fish that has been fried. We're not sure how it feels about lamb or mustard.

The rest of the table all go for the Lemon sole, lemon & parsley sauce. And it does look an excellent choice; the fish is spanking fresh and just glistening and unadorned. Our pork is extremely tasty also, so tender and melting. I am not too crazy about the beans however, but we have some tenderstem broccoli, new potatoes and spinach so I can leave the beans to one side and tuck into those instead.

Well I think the Blueprint Café passed its test today, the plates were pretty clean apart from K’s lamb at it turned our that her bump wasn’t too fond of the rich punchy mustardy topping served with the lamb. But then K’s bump seems to prefer chips (of the French fries variety), custard tarts and doughnuts rather than anything else. Today we don't have time for dessert but we're pretty full anyway so it's not a major sacrifice though the lemon posset, the vanilla & apple shortcake and the St Emilion au chocolat could be heard calling from the kitchen. But maybe next time!

Jeremy wasn't in the kitchen today as he was in Paris celebrating his birthday, but his kitchen exceeded itself as usual.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The good, the bad and the Gaucho

I love Gaucho's. Well I love their juicy Argentinian steaks, the warm, oozy cheese bread, their cow hide décor, the abundance of chandeliers (I'm a sucker for a chandelier) and of course the theatre that is the meat presentation. But there are some things I don't like about Gaucho. They are generally way too dark and possibly because of the gloom the service can be a little random. Maybe the waiters and waitresses genuinely can't see their diners are deficient of something or in one case are even there at all. I was told by American J to not be too harsh about our visit to the new Gaucho near London Bridge tonight but to make up for the superlatives I've heaped on them in the past I also want to tick them off for various transgressions.

Firstly, there were nine of us but they opted to seat us at a table which I would think would normally accommodate six but we're friendly and a round table is so much sociable so I'll forgive that. We got a few bottles of water but our waiter/waitress (we had several) didn't pour any for American J and then squirreled the remaining water away out of reach.

We had the slabs of meat show and tell and most of us opted for their fine steaks and we ordered a multitude of sides to share. I bucked my usual trend and opted for a rump steak with béarnaise sauce. The cheese bread was a fabulous as ever!

But it really started to go wrong when the steaks, sausages, fish and an allotment of vegetables turned up. Eight mains were laid in front of the grateful recipients but it was difficult to squeeze in all the side dishes. One spot that seemed to be the most accommodating was directly in front of H, in the space that we may have expected her steak to reside. But repeatedly the incredibly observant waitresses would plonk a dish in front of her. And each time I enquired "where on earth would her steak go?" Apparently the answer was nowhere as our smart waiting staff didn't seem to notice that even though there were nine of us there were only eight main dishes. Eventually someone conceded that an omission was made promised to conjure up the missing steak and H started on the fat chips. However when the steak turned up it wasn't even the one H had ordered so long ago. Cue more promising to resolve the mysterious steak swapping issue and recompense and in the mean time H had a few more chips. Eventually it was decided that as we'd nearly finished our meals that H would eat the wrong steak and wouldn't be charged. I asked what they were going to do about most of the side dishes now being cold. This threw them entirely and they mentioned something about a free dessert also.

Now as generous as this seems, surely when you go out with a group of people you want to enjoy your meal with the rest of them, not eat a late, incorrect steak with tepid vegetables and then be rewarded with a free dessert. I guess the only saving grace was as that H had been amusing herself by eating their rather fine fat chips she wasn’t too bothered with eating any steak after that.

As they were so very keen to order dessert we ordered a few for the table to share which were carefully squeezed in the centre. And then we though how are we to share these out. So we asked for a dessert plate, someone rushed off and duly grabbed a stack of plates but apparently straight from the dishwasher. Now typically when eating hot food I am very keen on a hot plate to maximise enjoyment but the contrary is also true when I am eating a cold dish. Well I don’t necessarily want a cold dish but definitely not one that is hot. And straight from the dishwasher will guarantee a hot dish and that’s what we had. And as we scoops the parfaits, the ice creams and sorbets they almost instantly wilted and melted on the hot dish. Hmmm not the finest finale!

I am still a huge fan of Gaucho’s, the excellent steaks ensure that but the service can be very haphazard so as much as I’d still visit I’d be loathed to inflict a possibly chaotic meal on a client. So Gaucho will remain a solely 'understanding friend' experience from now on.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The summit of the blogging mountain

Finally I’ve made it! I have reached the summit of my blogging mountain, it was a Herculean effort to records all those errant epicurean escapades and the last couple of weekends I have become rather a blogging machine to catch up. However I am quite giddy with delight that my blog is finally completely and utterly up to date.
I have back-posted amongst the many - all the cruise, the subsequent restaurant visits to the Fish Market and Plateau, the brief trip to Spa
in, birthday celebrations and more Clotilde fabulousness, Simon Hopkinson's gorgeous new book, another new Gordon Ramsay cook (table) book, my attempt at fast food, yet another Gaucho, three more visits to Blueprint Café, a sublime meal at Gary Rhodes 24, my first book launch party, why me and Leon can never be friends, numerous hastily rustled up and one ot two slaved over meals at home and the latest audience with Mark Hix at Divertimenti.
xt weekend I fly to New York on a brief business trip, though when they ask again on immigration if “I’m there for business or pleasure” I always say "it's mainly business but it would be rude not to do both wouldn't it! " And pleasure generally means more blogging to do on my return!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday, Sunday so good to me...

I had some lovely surprise visitors today! D and MC were apparently in the area so thought they’d pop by. As they know my Virgo nature demands a bit of preparation before guests descend, or my hostess with the mostest skills falter somewhat. But despite the impromptu call they won’t be persuaded to let me feed them so I wait until they’re sadly back on their way home before rustling up some Sunday lunch for me. It’s definitely all autumnal today so I want a good bit of roast chicken and all the trimmings for a bit of internal central heating.

I have some sweet Chantenay carrots which please me especially by retaining their pleasing carrot shape. The plumptious chicken breast bronzes rather beautifully in the oven with a couple of roast roasties and the chipolatas adding that certain sausage-y hit. The Brussels sprouts are parboiled and then lightly sautéed to add a little nutty touch and then I have a pretty perfect roast chicken Sunday lunch. Shame no one is sharing it today!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A gently comforting ham hock

This ham hock in a parsley sauce with Chantenay carrots looked rather appealing, comforting and stress-free after a long week. I know that Nigella would just have conjured up something fabulous from her magic pantry whereas I grabbed this from Waitrose's as good as going out range on the way home. Though I did get the makings of more of a hands-on, home-made Sunday lunch so I don't have to hang up my apron and Global knives just yet.
Though I can imagine the domestic goddess herself raising a perfectly manicured eyebrow and tutting at the merest thought of having to resort to the dreaded ready meal but some of us really do have a crazy life and I still believe that a good ready meal would beat most takeaways hands down.
Though talking of her new rather irritating show, some of the recipes are great and they definitely did help me feed D, MC, LLcT and E(D) on a Friday night before Saturday turned up but I can't understand why we have to see her pretending to catch a bus (I don't believe it for one moment), putting her children to bed way before I think they would normally and meandering so slowly to school that it was probably break time before they'd even arrived. It's just very odd, why don't they just concentrate on the food? Do the programme makers think us viewers with our less than glamorous, show-biz free life need to believe that Nigella 'is really one of us' before we'd accept her advice on getting some tasty food rapidly on the table? I'm fairly sure I'm not unique in believing her new show doesn't quite hit the mark and the strange little 'mes en scène' is putting me off the food and that will never do!

Friday, October 19, 2007

I don't really get Leon

It is to my regret that I have to admit that I don’t get Leon
I love the concept, the healthy beliefs, the fact that you could eat here all day if you wanted to, starting with breakfast, lunch-to-go, afternoon tea and cake and then a candle lit dinner to finish. I like t
he décor, the squashy sofas and fairy lights. The diners all seem friendly, the sort of people that I’d like to hang out with. But I don’t like the food! It’s just a tad too wholesome for me. And I do lament that fact because I know I’m in the minority and I wish I could change my mind. Today I thought I’d try for one last time as last time I came in, I stared at the menu and left but today I was determined. It cannot be too difficult for someone as awkward as me to be accommodated in this much lauded eatery, or can it? Okay, it’s fair to say that there’s a list of food stuffs that I really cannot take namely tomatoes, yogurty dressings, mayonnaise, coriander, non-risotto rice, noodles, chilli and beans, chickpeas, Indian spices and coconut. I’m also not crazy about sweet potatoes, avocado or mint unless inside an After Eight mint.
So with that little list in mind I consult the menu. How abou
t soup? Today’s choices are pinto bean, black bean and chorizo (I like the chorizo) or miso and soba noodle (hmm I’ll pass I think), what about one of the ‘bigger dishes’, I scanned the options – chilli con carne (no), Moroccan meatballs (beware lots of tomato!), roasted sweet potato falafel (again no), the Leon Gobi (more sweet potato, chilli, coriander and coconut milk – arghhh!), and then there’s the chicken. Chicken is normally a good bet – I think the grilled free-range chicken with herb oil and lemon sounds most to my tastes. But there is only one choice of accompaniment to complement all the bigger dishes and that’s brown basmati rice and open-sesame slaw. Uggh basmati and then brown, I’ve wandered in some sort of whole food personal hell! And the slaw, well it sounds better but I’m still not keen. I asked for the chicken without rice and slaw but the first one I was handed had both and the second just had lots and lots of slaw. Ah well, it is better than brown rice I think. I don’t know why I didn’t like the slaw, to me it taste yoghurt-y or mayonnaise-y or something I don’t like. I liked the chicken though! But I don’t like wasting all that food and the staff seem to find it just too strange that I don’t fancy either their brown basmati or slaw.
I know it's virtuous, supremely good for you and run by very earnest worthy people who care about the food they serve but it's just not me, I’m just not a Leon sort of diner it seems. I'll have to find my good-for-you fast food elsewhere.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Full marks for Mark and his mellow fruitfulness

It was with eager anticipation I arrived at Divertimenti tonight.

I'd spoken to Mark Hix very briefly last night and enquired about his menu. He mentioned game and mushrooms and then asked if I could remember what starter he'd made when I last attended this event back in March.

And I had to admit I couldn't instead as all I could immediately recall was the red mullet. And that's for two reasons, well three - it looked so fabulous on the slab, the almost bejewelled rosy pink scales glistening enticingly, then of course the wonderful taste and finally before we had the joy of devouring it watching Flavia and Sarah painstakingly pin-bone them.

I do hope they're in for an easier time tonight. I did check the menu from our last soiree (I couldn't get a place from the summer one but I convinced myself that it would be positively awash with tomatoes so I didn't feel too deprived!)

There’s a typically fabulous Mark Hix style harvest of British seasonal produce laid on la Cornue’s range for our delectation.

The grouse looks dark and inviting, there is a forestful of plump, woody mushrooms, British apples all lined up for action and a curious pink coiled beast that I first think may be eel but it turns out to be huss. I am not familiar with this fish and frankly it hardly looks the prettiest of beasts lying naked there. However I am sure all will be revealed later.

As we get ourselves comfortable on the bar stools around the range, which is frankly a little tricky Mark starts preparing the grouse for the grouse on toast with wild herbs. He recommends this recipe as a good way to eke out one of our fine British game birds as they can bulked out with a rich pâté made from the tiny grouse livers (or if sadly lacking as ours were, supplemented with chicken or duck livers). There’s a momentary pause when it materialises that we have no bread for the toast but someone is quickly dispatched out to the far from mean streets of Knightsbridge to locate some. The grouse breasts are anointed with generous amounts of butters and popped in the oven briefly for only about 12 minutes whilst the stock for the risotto is started.

Mark’s recipes notes say that when they make this at Le Caprice they use lashings of carrots, leeks and tomatoes but he simplified our recipe for today and wisely removed the tomatoes. There’s a teaspoon of tomato puree that goes in which give me a momentary shudder but I rationalise that the tomato to butternut squash stock ratio is very low so I choose to forget I’ve seen it go in. I am seriously impressed by the effort going into the butternut squash risotto stock, all the squash peelings have gone in there with some carrots and a little saffron for yet a more orange-y colour. This mixture is allowed to bubble with the parsley stalks whilst we move back to the matter of the grouse.

With the bread crisis over were are served the very tasty grouse on toast with wild herbs which is a juicy grouse breast on top of the pâté (ours also have some of the wild mushrooms from the main course as the grouse arrived almost liver-less) topped with the shredded grouse leg and sprigs of the very English country garden chickweed, silver sorrel and lamb cress and finished with a ‘light drizzle’ of sherry vinegar and walnut oil. It is, not surprisingly, awfully good!
Our appetites whetted we look with eager anticipation at the risotto of butternut squash and Parmesan taking shape in front of us. The aroma is intense and tantalising; all the ministrations with the stock seemed to have paid off as we have a generous serving of a deep satisfying autumnal risotto. Top marks again!

Next it’s the turn of that ugly naked snake like fish. But any thoughts of ugliness are banished when I realise that it had one bone down the middle of its length and wonderfully ne’er a pin bone in sight. This could easily become a new favourite fish! I haven’t heard the name huss before but some of its aliases I have seen on menus like rock eel or possibly a little inaccurately rock salmon. I haven’t knowingly eaten a spurdog, smoothound, tope or dogfish. Huss is a second cousin to the shark with its wide apart eyes and sandpapery skin; fortunately neither is present in our specimens. The flesh is firm and meaty and lends itself well to a more rigorous treatment like a braise. Today Mark is serving us huss with red wine and wild mushrooms, highlighting the ability of the huss to take a meaty red wine gravy. The deboned pieces of huss are lightly dusted with flour and pan-fried whilst the wild mushrooms are sautéed. We are going to eat our huss with some creamy mash potatoes and I pixie-ishly evoke the name of the king of mash Joël Robuchon, and the normally unflappable Mark suddenly decides that the mash needs a little more treatment and sends Mary off to administer a buzz with a Bamix (hand-blender) behind the scenes.

I am sure it would have been lovely anyway but as Flavia was forced (for the sake of expediency) to squeeze the potatoes through the ricer when they were cold and it is often more a challenge and they aren't always as fluffy. The resultant mash, however, is very fine indeed and despite not having equal parts potatoes to butter, could stand alongside Joël’s nectar!

And the huss is really a delight also, this is definitely being added to my repertoire.

Not that we really need anything else but there’s some apple fritters to finish, the original recipe called for Guinness to go in the fritter batter but today Mark used cider which personally I like with apples better. The little fritters balloon up like tubby doughnuts. Before we tuck in these puffy apple are dusted with cinnamon and caster sugar. These were much lighter than I expected with the apple almost souffléed inside the crispy cidery jacket. A fabulous finale to a very fine British autumnal meal – I am feeling full of mellow fruitfulness now and I don’t think it’s the good red wine! I was hoping to return to Mark Hix’s next foray at Divertimenti but his reputation preceded him and all the places have been snapped up. Ill just have to cross my fingers that someone falls sick or something!

UPDATE: I almost forgot the hot news is that Mark Hix is planning a new restaurant venture in the vicinity of Smithfield Market. He is leaving behind his executive cheffing at the Ivy, Scott's et al after a long stint there (17 years I think) and will hopefully have a oyster bar and chophouse in his own name next year. I for one cannot wait!