Wednesday, May 30, 2007

To the Max

When I suggested taking some clients for lunch in Covent Garden I didn't really know where to start. One can hardly walk around Covent garden without tripping over a restaurant or someone who has sprayed themselves silver and standing motionless on a silver box, but that's a different matter! I haven't eaten in Covent Garden for such a long time so I don't really have a list of favourite eateries to frequent but after a little research I came across Brasserie Max in the Covent Garden Hotel which I thought would fit the bill perfectly.
And it was a good choice! Brasserie Max is a light airy place (how refreshing to be bathed in natural light and being able to see our food for a change) that opens directly onto the street with curvy mirrors and a touch of art nouveau. The chairs are ornate little bucket seats with the emphasis on little. Though fearing that we could get stuck in one they happily swapped them for a chair less figure-hugging. And it was possibly a good idea because there was Valrhona fondant on the horizon. But first we had to select our main courses. We eschewed starters for the very same Valrhona dipped reason.
One of today's special was lamb with rosemary jus on a bed of champ. And after pondering a rather tasty selection on the menu and toying momentarily with the steak clearly the champ swung it for me. And another wise choice, the lamb was excellent, pink and perfect. The champ was not disappointing and the jus was really tasty with a good strong flavour. And being a connoisseur of the odd crockery piece, I rather liked the little reclining on a chaise longue man on each plate. C seemed to enjoy here spring-in-a-bowl risotto and S his plump looking steak.
And to finish off our meal and the merest of glances at the menu it was Valrhona chocolate fondant and raspberry ice cream for each of us. We had to wait for 15 minutes but good things come to those who wait and it was very good. Very, very good!
I really enjoyed our meal at Brasserie Max, I would like to return and sample their apparently fine cocktails and if they do an afternoon tea I would like to give that a spin. It's got the look of a French salon so I think a crustless cucumber sandwich would fit in very nicely. Two forks I think for Brasserie Max.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Virtual chowder for two

Due to a strange coincidence both M and I decided to have Mussel & Smoked Salmon Chowder to eat today. It seems we both ordered it for the first time in our last Ocado delivery and it occurs to both of us that today would be a good time to try it. Clearly great minds think alike!
I added a few more tiny cubes of cooked Jersey Royals to make it even more substantial. It probably didn't really need it but I had some Jersey Royals that needed eating so it seemed as good as idea as any. It's very tasty, the mussels maybe could do with a tad less cooking, the salmon is moist and flavoursome but the whole soup is lovely and creamy. M declared is to have a thinner liquid than she would have liked but I thought it was just fine. Though maybe mine was a little thicker with the extra new potato cubes. It's a good hearty soup to warm he cockles of the heart on a grey day. Our spring has gone a bit wayward and we have grey skies, torrential rain and the tree outside looks like it is shaking itself into a frenzy. Hmmm, an English Spring, time to get out the comfort food!

Not so gastro this time

I am a enormous fan of M&S food, even before my friend 'big L' declared that the reason all Marks & Spencer's food taste so good is their inclusion of essence of wine gum into everything they make. I think his theory may be slightly off the mark but nevertheless M&S has fed me well and helped me out on many an occasion. I can't imagine not having the occasional cheese scone or one of our family Christmas parties without a prior visit to M&S or a picnic - a picnic without their tuna pâté would just be wrong.
And now with the proliferation of the M&S Simply Food's, you can grab some of their fine food at many of the larger train stations and that's what I did this week. I popped into the Liverpool Street M&S and spotted a brand new range of Gastro meals for one. They're not the cheapest meals by any means but I felt like spoiling myself and selected the Roast Oakham Chicken with boulangére potatoes, roasted flat mushrooms & bacon. Slightly decadent for a work lunch but a tasty treat nonetheless. I did my usual trick and eschewed a carrier bag at the till when the cashier handed me one as I really don't need another plastic bag. I put my lovely looking chicken dish in my bag carefully as it said to 'keep flat'. However what it certainly didn't say was that the merest pleasure on the sides of the box would pop the plastic top off as the lids don't seemed to be sealed at all in this new range. When I arrive at the office, I realise that the top has indeed popped off my dish and my entire bag is filled with bits of onion, bacon and chicken juices. Really not good! And then to cap it all when I retrieved the bits I realised that it wasn't microwaveable anyway. The not being suitable for microwave was my own misconception however, as the plastic box looked microwaveable to me but the fact they've created a new range with boxes that don't seal is much more of a very bad thing.
When I popped back in on another day I noticed several of these pricy one person meals tops had popped off whilst on the shelf. This seems a really bad idea, what would stop a top popping off and someone sticking their fingers in my potential meal and then slipping the lid back on? It doesn't seem a very good idea to me. I don't approve of excessive packaging as much of it seems to be unnecessary and often not biodegradable but unfortunately we also need adequate packaging to keep the food safe, both in tact and hygienically. I have written to M&S about this issue and hope they will reply.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Easy like a Sunday morning

Can there be many pleasures simpler than an eggy breakfast whilst perusing the Sunday papers spread out over the table? Today I had bacon and melted cheese on toast topped with a golden egg with the sunniest of sunny sides up. I do love relaxing with the Sunday papers, and today was better than usual as it is Observer Food Monthly day so plenty to read. And to cap it all there was a little bar of Lindt chocolate delivered with my Observer today. Hope fortunate, I always fancy a square or two of chocolate after a runny egg. I don't know why but Scrambled egg doesn't give me the same yearning.
The only thing that would have made it even more enjoyable would have been if after I'd read the latest OFM cover-to-cover I could have attempted to assist D and MC with their crossword. But this week they're doing their "mots croisé" over a croissant or pain au chocolat in France, hope you're having a fabulous holiday?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grand Menu Britannique

So we know who has booked their ticket to Paris to cook for the special banquet hosted by the British ambassadors showcasing all that is wonderful about British food and cooking.
I had all my fingers crossed on the way home tonight, I had Sky+'d the important final and was hoping that my favourites had gone through and also that the final menu would be a splendid feast as D and I have already committed ourselves to recreating it. And there were some of the final dishes that we really didn't want to attempt.
I might not be an enormous fan of Sat Bains, I thought he was a little mean to the rather sweet 'Marvin the paranoid android' Galton Blackiston in the first week, but apart from the two plus hours in a water bath poached duck egg, I rather fancied the Ham, Egg & Peas starter. D and I have already sworn that an element of artistic licence will have to be exercised in our recreation. We won't have an army of sous chefs, a water bath or a "sous vide" vacuum machine but we'll do our best. So what else have D and I got to tackle?
The winner of the fish course was the fabulous Richard Corrigan. The 'this chef's not for turning' Richard Corrigan who completely reinvented his Whole Poached Wild Salmon & Duck Egg Dressing with Wheaten Bread & Country Butter after it was slated in the Northern Irish regional heat. But in the final when his wild salmon was substituted for common or garden farmed salmon he had to pull all the stops out to sex up the flavour. And clearly he managed it, well done Richard.
The main courses were well fought, the judges had really feared that the French would laugh the 'rosbif' out of Paris if it wasn't the most amazing, earth shattering beef ever. So they went for two lamb dishes - Richard's lamb dish - Shoulder of mountain lamb with leek-wrapped loin and champ and Atul's Lamb rack and pan-fried lamb patties flavoured with rose petals. And as a fabulous finale Mark Hix's rather theatrical and I'm sure extremely tasty Rabbit & Crayfish Stargazy Pie. I have been a huge supporter of Mark Hix's food in this competition, I have tasted his food and the French are very lucky. And the French are going to be extremely surprised and I hope delighted at the first sight of their pie at the banquet. And I reiterate, there can be no way that any of the guests at the banquet could say "ooh, I had the very thing only last night", congratulations Mark.
And the most laid back chef in the world is going to have his work cut out for him in Paris. Out of the four final dishes Mark's fabulous looking, quintessentially British and extremely seasonal Perry Jelly & Summer Fruits with Elderflower Ice Cream was voted the nation's favourite.
We get to see them all produce their winning dishes in Paris in a few weeks. D and I will produce our own homage to the Great British Menu in the next couple of months.It may be take me that long to think of a suitable theme for the table.

Friday at Gerard's place

I hadn't planned to have a lunch out today but the traffic is so bad in the city I fail totally to get back to the office and I was hungry. Luckily I was passing a Chez Gerard and one of their finest plate of steak frites started calling to me. And it seemed rude to resist!
This is my idea of fast food, speedy but extremely tasty. And with béarnaise also. What more could I desire?
Ummmm, chocolate maybe! And luckily Chez Geard can help me that as well. Their petit pot au chocolat, the pure and simple dark Valrhona chocolate mousse with a cornucopia of toppings fits the bill perfectly. As well as a pot of unctuous chocolate mousse you get another petit pot of tart raspberry purée, fruit apricots and toasted chopped hazelnuts. A little dessert buffet if you will.
I guess not being able to get back to the office wasn't such a huge disaster today!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

There is such thing as a free lunch...

or even dinner!
I'd managed to accumulate enough points at Toptable to earn a free meal from a special menu at a couple of selected restaurants. I have let my accumulated points expire on so many occasions so I am endeavouring to use them up quickly before I lose them from now on. I've been wanting to check out the Savoy Grill for an age and when I glanced at their website at their "special" menu the 'Omelette Arnold Bennett' ensured an immediate booking. The other J accompanied me on this occasion, we only get to see her in the city on Thursdays so I thought I'd keep her out late this week!
It was a special menu so we didn't get the full Savoy Grill Michelin starred experience but it was a free lunch (dinner) so who's complaining! And our menu was the very respectable pre-theatre menu. The ham hock looked very interesting but when I'd verified that the smoked haddock omelette Arnold Bennett was on the menu it was the only starter I could really consider. I've been hankering after omelette Arnold Bennett for a while; when I was last in Cambridge I suggested we could whip them up for an elaborate brunch, but as LLcT is very cool when it comes to egg it didn't happen this time. And the the chefs here did create this omelette in Arnold Bennett's honour whilst he stayed at the Savoy whilst writing the Imperial Palace. Arnold loved this omelette so much he requested it was cooked for him wherever he visited. So as the home of this famous omelette, it would have been wrong not to try it on my first visit. The other J joined me in the ultra rich cheesy omelette and I can report that it was as delicious as I knew it would be. The only problem I think with the Savoy Grill is certainly not the wonderful food, the efficient and friendly service nor the elegant surrounding but therein lies my issue. We could hardly see our elegant surroundings and even though I am fortunate enough to have excellent vision I know others who would not be able to see the menu, the table or the food in such an environment. I am so much more aware of this increased forced ambience restaurants are encouraging appreciating how others would find this such a disappointment. Also, as a very minor concern it truly interferes with any possibility of taking a decent photograph of my food but if I ever did have the misfortune of losing my ability to see in such gloom I would truly miss much of the experience. Obviously I also wouldn't like to eat in a spotlight, I don't want harsh overhead lighting both unforgiving to both the diners and the restaurant itself but I am sure we could aim for a happier medium. So apologies for the seventies cookbook style slightly brown tinged photographs (trust me this is after Photoshop, before was coal mine black!) at least I got a photo off the Gordon Ramsay site of what the restaurant looks like with the lights on.
The slow braised beef featured too much tomato for my liking so it was potted lamb casserole with potato and cheese crust, creamed cabbage for both the other J and myself. With a vague shot of improving our five-a-day consumption we added the seasonal vegetables to the mix but as these contained mainly cabbage dotted with the odd French bean or carrot we didn't really add too much variety to the dish. And seriously, this was way more tasty than the murky photo indicates though the other J struggled to finish hers; I think this was entirely because I over faced her with the rich omelette.
The other J went for the crème brulee for dessert and I went for the Chocolate Royale. And a lovely chocolate cake disc topped with chocolate mousse and napped with the glossiest of chocolate coats went down exceedingly well.
I would love to go back to the Savoy Grill but next time I'll have the full tasting menu because it sounds utterly delicious and of course I'll pack my night vision goggles. Two forks for the Savoy Grill, the third fork I will save for the complete Savoy experience.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Having a ball

I promised the glamorous Swedish M that when she felt better we'd treat ourselves and eat out somewhere fabulous - purely for medicinal reasons of course. And for this recuperative mission I chose the Ballroom. The Ballroom is described as "plush but not pretentious, a haven of West End kitsch with genuine East End hospitality" and "a luxurious and spacious with soaring ceilings, gold pillars, polished wood tables and floors and an unbelievable pair of Posh 'n' Becks style gilt thrones." What really would a pair of divas really need for a night out?
I couldn't persuade gsM to join me in a plate of carpaccio so we went straight for selecting the main course. Whilst we are making our choices I spot that they sell the richly dark orb of pleasure othersie known as Chambord so ask if they make use a Kir Imperial with plenty of crushed raspberries. It seemed most appropriate in such an opulent environment, sipping exotic pink cocktails whilst we checked out the extravagant décor. I adore the chandelier and thrones (though they were occupied so we didn't have chance to check them out)
I'd read excellent things about the Ballroom burger with my beloved béarnaise sauce so we both thought we'd give it a try. Our Parisian waiter shook his head and said that he wouldn't have chosen the burger, I remarked that I heard it was their signature dish and thus thought it would be a good dish to try. He suggested we had steak instead. I said that I really fancied the creamy béarnaise sauce but he retorted that of course I could have steak with the béarnaise instead. But that wasn't even on the menu and unless I absolutely have to, i.e. every dish is positively dripping with tomatoes and goats' cheese, I try not to be too high maintenance. I've seen When Harry Met Sally, I don't really want to de-construct and reform each menu item before I'll eat it, well not every time anyway!
The burger was very tasty, the steak was moist and cooked too perfection there was an elegant sufficiently of the hand cut chips and plenty of spinach, cheese and béarnaise, and when asked we did get a little more béarnaise. The only downside was the burger bun is was a little too bland and dry and wasn't worth finishing. Good meat though!
To accompany the burger we choose a bottle of Chilean Merlot, This also didn't go down with our strictly old world school of wine waiter either; he said that we should order a French wine instead. We stuck to our Merlot decision though - clearly he'd met his match in these divas!
However he really did approve of our chocolate mousse and cherry dessert. He said it was his recipe and that it was the best choice. And it was very fine indeed; it was rich, unctuous, supremely chocolatey and a good petite size - even I have limits to how much chocolate I eat on one sitting!
I would be happy to go again to the Ballroom, I loved the ambience the food was pretty good and the service - well a little unusual but certainly memorable.
I guess it would be the perfect place to go if you prefer someone else to order your meal for you - i.e. the waiter. A gilded, dripping with crystal fork for the Ballroom!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Great British Fish

It doesn't look like any of the regional winning chefs chose to alter their fish dishes for the final, so the judges got to choose from :

Jeremy Lee's A broth of Scottish shellfish
Atul Kochhar's Crisp-fried spicy John Dory with grilled tomato chutney, cucumber salad and crushed peas
Sat Bains' Lemon sole and oysters with muscovado jelly and sweet and sour chicory
Bryn Williams' Pan-cooked wild salmon with Conwy mussels, crushed new potatoes and horseradish sauce
Mark Broadbent's Poached turbot and cockles with asparagus and brown shrimp butter
Mark Hix's Scallops, lobster and spider crab with wild seashore vegetables and oyster butter
Richard Corrigan's Whole poached wild salmon and duck egg dressing with wheaten bread and country butter

I do remember that the judges were particularly damning of Atul's John Dory so it'll be intriguing to see if he's altered it. And of course, Richard's salmon got rather slated also. I am so hoping Sat's rather odd muscovado jelly cubes accompanying his lemon sole is not in the final


So Richard did update his salmon dish and impressed the judges considerably more this time. Richard, who never changes anything, is certainly bowing to the judges' preferences and making a few artistic tweaks, clearly he's dreaming of the Eiffel Tower.

The three we have the pleasure of voting from are

Jeremy Lee's A broth of Scottish shellfish

Atul Kochhar's Crisp-fried spicy John Dory with grilled tomato chutney, cucumber salad and crushed peas

Richard Corrigan's Whole poached wild salmon and duck egg dressing with wheaten bread and country butter

I am particular excited about Jeremy being in the final and actually voted... multiple times!

Tomorrow we're back on the main courses again - my money is on Mark Hix, surely that crayfish and rabbit pie will just be truly British and utterly different than anything else.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Great British Twist!

Ah well, all my deliberations about which starters on the Great British Menu I'd select from the winning seven came to nothing as the chefs were allowed to change the dishes they were putting forward to the judges' vote for the final three if they hadn't passed muster in the regional heats.
The seven starters they had to digest, cogitate and deliberate were:

Mark Broadbent's Pigeon pie with sour green tiger tomato pickle and Cumberland sauce
Richard Corrigan's
Crubeens (pig's trotters) and beetroot with salad leaves and salad cream
Sat Bains' Ham, egg and peas
Jeremy Lee's Crab cakes and mayonnaise
Atul Kochhar's Seared scallops with grapes and mint dressing
Mark Hix's Oxtail sal
ad with summer vegetables
Bryn Williams' Warm salad of lobster with summer vegetables and herbs and a Welsh water vinaigrette

It was interesting to see that Mark Hix had swapped his unpopular goats' cheese for something a bit more palatable but they felt it was merely "meat with salad", that Richard Corrigan had gone all "chi chi" and Jeremy tried to pretty his crab cakes up but even though they loved the taste they didn't like the presentation. And I noticed the other Mark had also made rather a radical change, instead of the Salad of duck livers, hearts, snails and bacon with a dandelion and apple salad that he cooked last week, he opted for a pigeon pie with tomato.

The judges decided that the three most superior starters are:

Mark Broadbent's Pigeon pie with sour green tiger tomato pickle and Cumberland sauce

Bryn Williams' Warm salad of lobster with summer vegetables and herbs and a Welsh water vinaigrette

Sat Bains' Ham, egg and peas

Ooh, I'm fearing for Richard, Jeremy and Mark Hix, roll on tomorrow!

    Sunday, May 20, 2007

    Scrambled crab

    One of the first recipes that caught my eye in Gordon Ramsay's new book Fast Food was the Scrambled eggs with crab meat & chives. Being a fan of scrambled eggs after eschewing it for so many years this seemed the perfect new take on the eggy treat. I ordered a pot of picked fresh white crab meat from Ocado for the occasion but for the first time ever I received a substitution! The white crab was swapped for dressed crab so I had brown crab with a tad of mayonnaise, a layer of chopped hard boiled egg and finished with a layer of white crab meat. I figured I could still make my scrambled egg but as tasty as the brown crab meat is it does taint the colour of the happy golden yolks somewhat. Gordon's recipe is topping a slice of toasted country bread but I like my scrambled eggs and toast served separately. I think the scrambled eggs make the toast go soggy and the toast crumbs spoil the creamy unctuousness of the scrambled egg. Myabe the typical toast accompaniment was what turned me off scrambled egg for so long. I became a believer when I was given a little pot of creamy scrambled egg complete with chopped egg in a French brunch restaurant. I understand the point of scrambled egg now! I guess it's not the most elegant of dishes but it sure tastes good, so full marks to Mr. Ramsay for that one - and he's right, it's very quick.

    Saturday, May 19, 2007


    There has been some sort of egg renaissance recently. When I check out the egg shelves in Waitrose there are not just stacked with boxes of Clarence Court happy hen eggs like my beloved golden Old Cotswold Legbar and free-to-fly quail eggs but Burford Browns, Gladys May 's Braddock Whites and even mixed variety boxes. I don't think I'd ever tasted a duck's egg before so last weekend D and I thought we'd try the Gladys May's Braddock White duck eggs and see how well they'd poach. They turned out to be slightly milder and of course bigger than a hen's egg and very tasty indeed. We'd intended to impale them with some steamed local spears of asparagus and the fat duck's golden yolk would have been perfect with asparagus, but we had used the rest of the batch the night before. So we went for the simpler option of happy duck eggs and on top of just past blonde toast, that nasty black toast would have spoilt the delicate duck eggy flavour. Well I think so anyway!

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    Great British final

    So all the regional finalists for the Great British Menu have been decided and I have to admit that I am disappointed that some of my favourites have been knocked out. I decided a few weeks ago that my dream team for Paris would be Richard Corrigan, Jeremy Lee, Mark Hix and Marcus Wareing but I was thwarted at the last hurdle and Marcus didn’t make it through so I’ll have to say Bryn Williams instead.

    Next week they will be whittled down to the final four and we’ll have a menu to showcase Great British food and cooking for Paris. The judges will select their favourites from the seven winners and we, the general public get to vote for our favourite. D and I have promised to recreate the final menu again do I hope everyone votes well. I’ll be extremely gutted if I have to poach an egg in a water bath for two plus hours.

    And what would my dream menu be? Bearing in mind that once a chef is chosen to represent his region in a particular course he cannot be selected from again, so I am going to have to choose carefully.

    The starters are currently:

    Sat Bains' Ham, egg and peas
    Bryn Williams' Warm salad of lobster with summer vegetables and herbs and a Welsh water vinaigrette
    Jeremy Lee's Crab cakes and mayonnaise
    Richard Corrigan's Crubeens (pig's trotters) and beetroot with salad leaves and salad cream
    Mark Hix's Mixed beetroots and asparagus with goats' cheese
    Atul Kochhar's Seared scallops with grapes and mint dressing
    Mark Broadbent's Salad of duck livers, hearts, snails and bacon with a dandelion and apple salad

    The judges have these fish dishes to select from:

    Sat Bains' Lemon sole and oysters with muscovado jelly and sweet and sour chicory
    Bryn Williams' Pan-cooked wild salmon with Conwy mussels, crushed new potatoes and horseradish sauce
    Jeremy Lee's A broth of Scottish shellfish
    Richard Corrigan's Whole poached wild salmon and duck egg dressing with wheaten bread and country butter
    Mark Hix's Scallops, lobster and spider crab with wild seashore vegetables and oyster butter
    Atul Kochhar's Crisp-fried spicy John Dory with grilled tomato chutney, cucumber salad and crushed peas
    Mark Broadbent's Poached turbot and cockles with asparagus and brown shrimp butter

    And then for the main event, there are the following...

    Sat Bains' Poached dry-aged beef with textures of the onion family
    Bryn Williams' Roast rib of Welsh black beef with oxtail, onion purée and ceps
    Jeremy Lee's Fillet steak, pickled walnuts and horseradish
    Richard Corrigan's Shoulder of mountain lamb with leek-wrapped loin and champ
    Mark Hix's Rabbit and crayfish stargazy pie
    Atul Kochhar's Lamb rack and pan-fried lamb patties flavoured with rose petals
    Mark Broadbent's Plate of aged mutton, potatoes and broad beans with caper and herb relish

    And for the final flourish, these desserts...

    Sat Bains' Raspberry sponge with black olive and honey purée, fresh raspberries and goats' milk ice cream
    Bryn Williams' Strawberry soufflé with strawberry sorbet and Welsh shortbread
    Jeremy Lee's Raspberry shortcake
    Richard Corrigan's Carrageen moss pudding with oatmeal and dulse oatcakes
    Mark Hix's Perry jelly and summer fruits with elderflower ice cream
    Atul Kochhar's Apple tasting of the South-east
    Mark Broadbent's Strawberry knickerbocker glory

    After much consideration I’ve decided on the quite fishy menu of…

    Jeremy Lee's Crab cakes and mayonnaise
    Bryn Williams' Pan-cooked wild salmon with Conwy mussels, crushed new potatoes and horseradish sauce
    Mark Hix's Rabbit and crayfish stargazy pie
    Richard Corrigan's Carrageen moss pudding with oatmeal and dulse oatcakes

    Though it could be…

    Richard Corrigan's Crubeens (pig's trotters) and beetroot with salad leaves and salad cream
    Jeremy Lee's A broth of Scottish shellfish
    Bryn Williams' Roast rib of Welsh black beef with oxtail, onion purée and ceps
    Mark Hix's Perry jelly and summer fruits with elderflower ice cream

    But I wouldn’t be adverse to a seafood extravaganza of…

    Bryn Williams' Warm salad of lobster with summer vegetables and herbs and a Welsh water vinaigrette
    Mark Hix's Scallops, lobster and spider crab with wild seashore vegetables and oyster butter
    Richard Corrigan's Shoulder of mountain lamb with leek-wrapped loin and champ
    Jeremy Lee's Raspberry shortcake

    But all this entirely depends on my favourite remaining chefs getting through. As we know the judges can be a little hypnotised by certain chefs’ offering, it should be compelling viewing. Let’s hope we get a lot of the chefs and less of Jennie Bond, her random French admonishments and attempts to inflame the rival chefs will not be missed by me anyway. On y va!

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Skye's the limit

    When I arrived at Blueprint Café tonight and saw my name place card perched on the end of a long, long table I wondered how this would work. We don’t normally have place cards and so I generally hold back and slot myself in an available space. Mostly this has worked out perfectly fine but at the cookbook event before last I found myself at the end of the long table with no-one sat opposite and my only neighbour a strange taciturn gentleman who barely spoke a word to me all evening. The food was very good but I felt much less enthusiastic by the ambience and wondered if I should continue to attend these events. It wouldn’t have mattered so much if the room was quiet with intense concentration on the food and hushed tones murmuring requests for the water bottle to be passed but it was a big party that everyone else was having and I felt like some late gatecrasher, some Billy-no mates who was propping up some wall in a dark corner. But I did come back again and last time I cunningly placed myself right in the middle of the table before anyone else was sat down so I was guaranteed several neighbours but I needn’t have feared because it was a friendly lot that tucked into Sophie Conran’s fine pies with gusto and I had a great time. But would tonight be the same, fortunately I spotted a few friendly faces from last time, Sarah who actually works with Sophie and sampled many of her gorgeous pies and some of her colleagues. Sarah was moving around some of the place cards to be more appropriate and actually added a table on my other side, so I was in luck – I was going to have some neighbours so surely someone would speak to me.

    I pondered this sobering thought whilst tucking until tonight’s nibbles, a Jeremy Lee special – asparagus wrapped in filo and doused generously with Parmesan and cut into bite size pieces. Actually it all turned out perfectly and I needn't have been remotely concerned, I was on a great, lively table - I had Mrs W. from “The Weasel” column in the Independent’s Saturday magazine on one side, Mark Hix’s fabulous girlfriend C from Quadrille the book publishers on the other and opposite the lovely commissioning editor from Waitrose Food Illustrated. Yes I was in a media melee but fortunately even if my day job doesn’t qualify me to be in such illustrious company, at least my blog scribblings give me some vague credence.

    We are all here tonight to celebrate the talented Skye Gyngell of Petersham nursery fame and her book “A year in my kitchen.” Skye is Australian and a really innovative cook, though she does inject a touch of fusion and Thai flavourings that I’m not always a huge fan of. But that’s me; my Asian food gene just has never been really developed. However, I am very much willing to try.

    Tonight’s starter is tea smoked salmon with crème fraîche & nam jim. Nam jim is a new experience for me, it’s a hot Thai sauce with chillies, coriander, fish sauce and palm sugar. I was worried it would be hotter than it was and would drown out the delicate salmon but how could I have even considered it, Skye is way more talented than that. It was very tasty.

    And then we got to tuck into the spring lamb with borlotti, asparagus & anchovy dressing. The lamb was beautifully tender and just melted in the mouth. I found the borlotti beans a little tougher than I'd like, but I've then never been particularly partial to a bean! Our next course was goat's cheese with walnut oil & finely sliced fennel, which despite the lip-smacking words of 'yum' from those about me I decided to pass. There were others there who feel goat's cheese doesn't just smell and taste of goat and take all the other ingredients hostage but feel it it's a good thing - hmmm, each to their own!

    I saved myself for the utterly gorgeous steamed chocolate cake & burnt caramel, ginger and salt, I'm never going to feel that chocolate is not a good thing and maybe missing out on the goat's cheese (totally not a sacrifice!) meant I enjoyed it so much more. And if these unctuous chocolate wasn't enough we finished with pastel plates of sweets from Romanenga. Though the chocolate covered cherry was a bit of a surprise, they were quite large so I took a bite and a fountain of alcoholic Kirsh sticky liquid spurted out. It went everywhere. Chocolate cherry surprise anyone?

    We had another wonderful evening, Jeremy Lee was on fine form, Skye Gyngell was sweet and shy and I got to have some very interesting conversations with my fellow diners. I received some inside tips to help me indulge my cookbook habit, discussed the intriguing and occasionally bizarre letters received by Waitrose Food Illustrated, whether Gordon Ramsay is trying to shock in his latest F Word series and how tricky it is to get a table El Bulli. I tried to extract some inside knowledge about the Great British Menu from C but she was the mistress of discretion! I did find out that Mark Hix shares my passion for collecting cookbooks and it's high time I booked myself a table at Scott's or the Rivington Grill. I really hope Mark and therefore C get to go to Paris.

    The next evening at Blueprint Café is the summer party to showcase Jeremy Lee's Great British Menu Scottish heat winning dishes. It should be a very fine evening, I am positive that Jeremy will be on excellent form. Now when is your book being published Jeremy?

    When you wish upon a star...

    Whilst perusing Gordon Ramsay's latest missive a week of so ago - Fast Food, I remarked that I was thinking of how nice it would be if his next book wasn't a "get it out fast", best seller, TV-tie in but a glossy, coffee table style El Bulli type, real show-offy book to showcase his multi Michelin starred talents. Though I did acknowledge that I could possibly be in the minority with this craving and it wouldn't be as commercially viable as his lastest.
    But what do I discover tonight to my utter delight courtesy of the lovely C at Quadrille (the publishers), that this autumn my wish will come true and Gordon Ramsay's Recipes from a 3 Starred Chef will be released. And also a new Simon Hopkinson -hooray! And a very interesting sounding Tuscan one which if I can remember the name of, I will definitely check out.
    I think C may have been slightly alarmed about how happy I was about this little titbit of information but I was rather ecstatic. The cookbook gods had listened to me and as soon as I got home even though somewhat late, I signed onto and immediately preordered my new Gordon and Simon.
    Of course now I wonder if I have special powers and whether I should wish for something bigger. But what to wish for? I've been planning to tick off at least all the top ten in the Restaurants Magazine's list of the world's best 50 restaurants. But I'm off to the Fat Duck (No.2) in a couple of weeks and El Bulli (No. 1) maybe next year (a lot depends on the reservation that I can procure).
    When I was in San Diego on business a couple of years ago I was really hoping I could swing by the French Laundry (No. 4), being in the neighbourhood and all. But my cunning plan was thwarted by my inability to find anyone else mad enough to accompany me on the small nine hour round trip. Okay, maybe when I said I was in the vicinity I had slightly miscalculated! So I haven't been able to add the French Laundry to my restaurant scalps yet. But to make it more of a challenge, of course, the top 50 changes every year so even though Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (which I have been lucky enough to enjoy) was 14th in the world last year, it is now apparently only 24th.
    But really as much as I hope to complete my global restaurant pilgrimage one day, it's not the same sort of wish as hoping Gordon would get all cheffy on us again and give Ferran Adria a run for his money. So maybe I'll have to save my next wish and really consider what foodie item/experience is missing from my life that six balls plucked from the lottery wouldn't address.

    Monday, May 14, 2007

    Cowboy fare

    When Stephanie of Dispensing Happiness announced this month’s blog party theme to be Wild West – my heart dropped, I could not think of a single thing that I could turn into a dinky canapé or how on earth I’d serve it all in a cowboy fashion. Generally when I first hear about each month’s event I can immediately envisage a few tasty morsels and which plates and dishes from my extensive teetering crockery collection to deploy for that style and actually it's sometimes difficult to know where to stop - witness the comfort food effort and the black & white entire meal. I am fairly confident that most occasions I could happily cater for, but Wild West – no I was utterly stumped!

    I could only conjure up image of baked beans (yuck!), big hats, leather chaps and horses – really not inspirational! And as for serving dishes should I be pondering tin plates and enamel bowls? It was such a quandary!

    I tried to cast my mind back to Girl Guide escapades around campfires and could recall some flour and water paste wrapped round a stick called dampers, which made rather doughy lumps of bread and of course endless toasting of fluffy pink or white marshmallows on twigs. Neither of which sounded entirely suitable.

    After considerable head scratching and rejecting all sorts of options, I felt that considering the job in hand of an average cowboy they’d be an abundance of readily available beef in his life. So after all that deliberation, I came up with Beef Three Ways – Meatballs, Steaks and Beef Stew. For the meatballs I formed some minced steak into small bit size nibbles to be served skewered on small wooden cocktail sticks. Then I flashed fried very thin pieces of steak, topped with extraordinarily hot horseradish, folded in half and impaled with my new Georg Jensen mini forks. I had intended to let down the horseradish with some crème fraîche but somehow in the general melee forgot and was somewhat surprised by the eye watering, mouth burning titbit. The stew was one-pot of beef cubes, mushrooms and finely chopped onions and served mouthful canapé style on teaspoons. I really struggled to think how to serve them and finally settled on some individual butcher’s block chopping boards on top of a vaguely western style cloth – not my best work, I have to concede.

    I had problems with the drink choice as well; a rather bizarre topic for dinner table conversation over the weekend just gone was ‘what would a cowboy drink?’ There was talk of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam and various whiskies. I believe the suggestion of milk from the those handy cows was also thrown into the mix. I thought of what I consider to be very American drinks, western style aside and I could onky really come up with Dr, Pepper's (definitely the worse that could happen!) or what I finally settled on - Coca Cola. I did consider mixing some JD with the Coke but I've never had a taste for it so it ended up 'au natural'. A rather poor show I think!

    I'm positive that Stephanie's other guests will have summoned up a magnificent feast in the Wild West style, so check out their offerings.

    I'm really crossing my fingers that I won't be so challenged with whatever Stephanie opts for next month's blog party theme and hopefully I'll do better next time.

    Sunday, May 13, 2007

    Brain food?

    LLcT has a big exam tomorrow so we're all on test question duty. We know we need to conjure up brain food but no one really fancies a big plate of fish oil so we consider LLcT's little heart's desire and he has a yen for fondue and champ (well I probably craved the champ and encouraged him to plump for that!) He insisted on the simplest un-mucked about sausages (the rest of us had something a little more refined), some lovely organic carrot batons with our gorgeous buttery and spring onion packed champ.
    For the fondue request, we thought about cheese but the "solid little carnivore" didn't really think enough meat would be involved in that.
    We pondered a meat fondue but that was rejected when we realised we couldn't find the fondue burner. So we satisfied the meat craving with a big pile of cured meat for one and turned our minds to a chocolate fondue to dip the vibrant British strawberries into little cups of chocolaty loveliness. As an extra treat we have little cubes of magnificent Gü brownies to impale with the fondue forks and dunk. Delicious! And of course we're all feeling much brainier now!

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Bridging the gap!

    Every year the Old Bridge Hotel hosts a regionally themed wine festival weekend. And this year they were showcasing Australian and New Zealand wines with a fine wine matching dinner to start the weekend and a lively festival supper party to round it all off on Saturday. We had seven tickets for the supper and were duly seated in the main restaurant area by the appointed time. The bulk of the other diners were seated in a larger area but these places had been snapped up first. Though initially disappointed that we hadn't been quick enough it soon changed to delight because it was all a little insanely loud in the main area. We had a more refined meal in our be-feathered room and at least could share conversations. The way the supper party works is we have a set menu and our table is positively groaning with various part bottles of Antipodean wines that other quaffers have been enjoying at the earlier tasting events. There's plenty to choose from and sample and some of us are quite merry rather quickly - you know who you are!

    Our set menu is:
    Homemade breads with infused oils
    Portland crab, red chilli and galangal, crème fraiche dressing
    Grilled sea trout, asparagus, lemon miso dressing
    Chargrilled poussin, salsa verde, tabouleh & watercress
    Vanilla panacotta with grappa and champagne rhubarb
    Coffee with ‘bounty bars’

    We start with some soft bread and little dipping dishes of verdant basil and vibrant chilli oil which was swiftly followed by a very interesting tasty moist crab dish (and I'm not a galangal fan!). We were enjoying a particularly lovely Chardonnay, though I would normally go for the red - fortunately D very sensibly made some wine notes on the evening so I can jot down some of my favourites and update this. After the Chardonnay was swiftly dispatched I just stuck to the red Cabernet Sauvingnon that was placed closest to me, and it was very pleasant so I was happy to oblige.
    The sea trout was beautifully delicate with the asparagus.
    The poussin was nice and summery with plenty of lively salsa verde for us to enjoy the succulent meat with. And the peppery watercress was the prefect foil.
    Our dessert was a light panacotta with rhubarb, I think the abundance of wines could have been truly effecting us by then so I can recall little of the panacotta. Though the plates of exceedingly dark chocolate enrobed coconut bars I do remember, maybe because even though I don't really like the taste of coconut. Coconut always transports me back to ridiculous teenage attempts to tan ourselves as quickly as possible with entirely SPF-free coconut oil. How fortunate that none of us incurred lasting damage from our skin frying escapades.
    Our evening of Antipodean wines and food was very enjoyable. It wasn't a menu I would have necessarily selected by choice but it turned out much tastier than I'd anticipated. We'd missed last year's Italian wine festival due to prior commitments but are already looking forward to next year. I am hoping for French but am willing to be pleasantly surprised.

    The tale of Mark and the Stargazy pie!

    It's been a tense week! It's not that I wasn't delighted to see Michael Caines beat John Burton-Race in last year's Great British Menu but this year he's been a little too full of his own self-importance and contrasting with Mark Hix's horizontal laid-back style it has been most amusing to watch. Michael could not possibly accept that his competition (who frankly he didn't really believe was a worthy contender) could consider entering such an esteemed competition with a mere pie and a rather crazy rabbit & crayfish stargazy pie at that. What is the world coming to? He took every opportunity to rubbish it but as brave as the choice was the judges were impressed with the majesty of the occasion and had to admit that you couldn't get a offering more British or less likely that any of the French diners had enjoyed the very same dish only the previous day. Michael was amazed, his perfectly executed but rather French duck with curiously very wintry vegetables of celeriac and cabbage couldn't stand up to it at all. But fair play to Mark, he did admit that it could have gone either way with the judges either laughing all the way to the Eiffel Tower or applauding him - full marks to Mark for daring to be different! And I was also pleased that the judges did pick up on Michael's totally out of season apples again and the fact that his dumplings were extraordinarily ravioli like, or was it dim sum?
    I'm a huge fan of Mark's work so I was very pleased he got through! And next week? Go, Marcus, go!

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Does Gratin Dauphinois go with that?

    A silly question really, Gratin Dauphinois can pretty much go with any main course if you want it to. On the way home from collecting me from the station D and I had been meandering around Waitrose trying to decide what delights to conjure up for our Friday night feast. After much deliberation we settle on salmon en croute to serve with D’s remaining local asparagus. I'd offered to whip up some hollandaise but D has set her heart on Gratin Dauphinois so that idea swiftly goes out of the window. Obviously I am not going to miss an opportunity for some potato-ey creamy loveliness! And it did go with it very well!