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!

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