Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Monday, July 30, 2007
I've eaten at Blueprint Café many times and never tire of it but this was unusual as I'd organised this visit as a surprise for M. She'd seen Jeremy Lee strutting his most fabulous stuff on the Great British Menu and Market Kitchen and had hankered after his fishcakes, seafood broth and any other delights he whipped up. This was also the perfect time to show off the Blueprint Café as a summer evening would hopefully mean stunning views along the Thames when you have both the seeped in history raven-infested Tower of London and the incongruously blue Tower Bridge intermingled with the ever so modern diamond glassed Gherkin and the winking lights of towers of money at Canary Wharf.
The surprise element of the evening worked especially well as I was able to give the taxi driver instructions to head for Shad Thames out of M's earshot. And then even though I'm fairly sure I didn't tip them off prior to our visit they continued the celebratory theme. First we were furnished with a welcome glass of
It was an easy decision. I went for tonight’s special which was Chicken livers and immediately transported me back to the night of Charles Campion’s Food from the Fire cookbook club evening and how I overdosed on his succulent chicken livers threaded onto rosemary skewers. M couldn’t resist the much lauded fishcakes as I suspected and didn’t hesitate to plump for the Smoked haddock fishcakes with aioli.
Whilst we were waiting for these to arrive our waiter ever so kindly brought us a plate of Feta, tomatoes, mint and black olive crumb. This is such a lovely surprise; if Jeremy were cooking he may recall my total recoil from tomatoes and it would have been even nicer. But then I have been spoilt by many a gorgeous asparagus spear or salsify wrapped in filo and Parmesan on previous occasions and M completely loved it! I just left a neat little stack of the tomatoes. And the olives!
But the chicken livers were as expected entirely delicious, the crusty caramelised edges were just the best. And the fishcakes went down very well on the other side of the table. And as an extra bonus the appetite-of-a-bird M donated the final one for me to try. Yum!
They were as both as stunning as ever. The pink salmon against the most verdant of herb sauces was just beautiful. And though it was tricky, we just managed to squeeze in a little shared slice of St. Emilion au chocolat. Though I only just managed to grab a photo before M tucked in!The Blueprint Café just never disappoints! And M is already planning a repeat visit.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Normally when I am planning a meal for friends I spend happy hours browsing through stacks of cookbooks and food magazines plotting and planning my menu for this grand feast. I'll write lists, scout for obscure ingredients and draw my little gastrograms where I sketch the proposed meal, what ingredient goes with what and what each dish is to be served in. And this isn't a chore; it is a crucial part of the whole process. If I had to do this every day or even every week and whip up a satisfying meal for hungry hoards with differing tastes I guess I wouldn't be so keen but as I don't, it is all part of the pleasurable process.
Years ago I'd produce a Sunday lunch for a random collection of itinerant people most Sundays. Some would bring additions generally the accompanying beer, but one quite regularly would turn up with broccoli (apparently his favourite vegetable) for me to cook and pink
I'm sure that if I was whipping up a family meal daily this would always be the case. However as I don't cook for others as much as I used to I seem to want to turn each of these rare occasions into a sumptuous and memorable feast complete with stylish yet witty table décor. But on this particular Sunday there was no frantic flicking through a Nigel, Nigella, Jamie or even a Gordon, it was grab the pile of what had looked good and not too strenuous on an extremely weary crawl round the late night M&S after returning from the Tate Modern last night. We'd scoured the rather dinky M&S looking for inspiration and from the somewhat locus ravaged shelves secured a plump chicken, a selection of summer green vegetables, new potatoes, a bag of our ubiquitous lamb's lettuce and a pot of vibrant fresh pesto. A feast was unfolding! The best thing about only cooking for three was having a little more room on the table for crystal fripperies and being able to pile the bronzed bird and accompaniments on Royal Doulton Gordon Ramsay platters on the table.
So today, all I had to do was concoct something fabulous from the ingredients we’d hastily grabbed from M&S. Firstly, I’d been determined to whip up some minty fresh canapé in preparation for Stephanie’s party so crushed broad bean and crab crostini it was.The chicken looks a good tasty one so it doesn’t really need a lot of treatment but I like to separate the skin carefully from the flesh carefully so as not to puncture it with my long nails anyway. I smear herby, garlicky butter on the flesh and smoosh it with my fingers, I’ve always been intrigued by the mysterious lumps protruding through the chicken skin. But obviously this all serves as to create fabulous alchemy during the cooking and ensures a super succulent breast (insert your own joke here if you must!). The potatoes were parboiled and inserted around the bronzing chicken and got gorgeously sticky with the chicken fat. The asparagus spears, broccoli and spring cabbage got steamed and showered with shards of salty Parmesan and splodges of verdant pesto. The lamb’s lettuce got its usual treatment of a good dousing of Belazu balsamic vinegar. And despite my Northern roots I am not a particular gravy fan (strange, thick, meat-free "not really gravy" gravy trauma from my childhood!), but I do believe that you can never have too much pesto so I served extra pools of the green stuff in the little new Gordon Ramsay dipping bowls. Truly delicious!
I hadn’t realised how much I miss making Sunday lunch regularly; maybe I need to rattle those pots and pans more often.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
We started off at Blind Light the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. And there were some amazing sculptures to admire. I know many have said he’s too self-absorbed but when so many of his works have his own naked form incorporated in the piece, it is a fair conclusion. We spent a pleasant few hours exploring and counting Antony Gormley effigies dotted around the concrete
We headed for the Tate Modern, this would provide us with additional cultural sustenance and more needed bodily sustenance. We went straight for the restaurant at the top of the former power station and waited impatiently for it to reopen for dinner. D and I wiled away the required half an hour by drinking pretty green flowery tea in equally pretty pink flowery teacups. And MC had cider (he told me to write that!)
Eventually we secured a table, not with the magnificent views we’d hoped but it was getting to the stage where food was way more important than a fabulous view and anyway we’d been able to admire it already whilst sipping our respective teas and cider.
As you would expect from the Tate Modern, the space is open, sleek and modern with vibrant artworks on the wall and we were pleased to see some quirkier options on the menu. One of the swirly pieces I was particularly interested in had been commissioned in memoriam of a deceased art lover; I was most intrigued by this. Rather more dramatic than a park bench somewhere, I feel. Maybe I will have to consider such a thing for my last will and testament, though I don’t think an art gallery is as appropriate for me as say a restaurant. Perhaps I could have some sort of sculpture made out of forks placed strategically in one of my favourite restaurants, hmm food for thought!
But back to our food, a nd were we hungry? I started wit h
But back to our food, a
we hungry? I started wit
hPotted Cornish devilled crab with sourdough toast, D relished the Ox tongue with dandelion salad and beetroot and MC the Leeks vinaigrette with soft Burford egg, black olives and capers.
It's such a pleasure to be able to take photos of our dishes and still be able to see them when I look at them the next day. Maybe the answer to my continued frustrations with gloomily lit restaurants is to only eat during the day, and hopefully bright days at that!
And before we hit the art again we finished off our meal with a platter of British Farmhouse cheeses with oat biscuits and gooseberry jelly for MC and D and I predictably had a Chocolate plate for two to share.
I think the Tate Modern's food is appropriately clean looking, accomplished and tasty. We were so exceptionally hungry so possibly would have eaten anything but instead we ate well. A modern pair of forks for the Tate Modern restaurant.
Friday, July 27, 2007
D and I had planned a day of culture today but then we decided we needed to eat also. Obviously we couldn't possibly try and match the magnificence of last night's jaw-dropping food at L'Atelier but we're not going to just throw in the towel either. D has the brilliant idea of partaking in an afternoon tea and when I recalled the afternoon tea with the designer fashion theme with the dinky handbag shaped cakes, a spot of googling revealed that we should book ourselves a table in the Caramel room at the
And with the Berkeley Hotel being in Knightsbridge and us with some crucial shopping to be done in that neck of the woods we postpone the culture until tomorrow and head for bright lights of Harvey Nichols and the local environs. There are many sparkly things to ponder over but I tear myself away from all the fabulousness and we make our way over to stately elegance of the Berkeley Hotel. They stow away our shiny carrier bags and we down at our little round table in the window.
We are delivered a pretty Paul Smith tiered cake stand stacked with the infamous designer pastries and cakes, gorgeous little canapés and a tray of sandwiches. We start on the sandwiches carefully splitting everything in two, well as long as it was the smoked salmon, cheese and ham or other goodies and there’s no mayonnaise or tomato for me. The waiter seems amused by our careful division and delivered another tray of the tiny sandwiches.
The mini canapés on the bottom tier are stunning, especially the smoked salmon rolls, the roast beef and creamy horseradish filling, sesame seeded tuna slice and the asparagus wrapped in a herbed pancake. Again we dissect each canapé precisely so as we can both try all the delicious flavours. But again the waiter whisked by and delivered another plate of the delectable titbits. They seemed delighted that we were enjoying the savouries so much, and how could we not as they were really yummy. And such a refreshing change from an ordinary afternoon tea. Not that I object to some crust-less cucumber sandwiches and a scone with a dollop of home-made strawberry jam but the seemingly never-ending savoury canapés were an extra delight on this occasion. My favourite was the roast beef with the gooey cream cheesey horseradish filling and our waiter brought another plate of these to share.
In fact when we were ready to attack the little Anya Hindmarch blue Carker lemon handbag, Alexander McQueen lavender floral crème cone, Emmanuel Ungaro blackberry mousse accompanied by a Manolo Blahnik high heeled shoe we are struggling a little. Note the fabulous little Manolo Blahnik stilettoed bisuity leg sticking out of the intensely blackberry mousse.
We we finally admitted that we'd eaten enough canapés we were given new Paul Smith plates and cutlery to embark on the patiserrie part of our afternoon tea. The little designer cakes were just so inventive and clever, the most vibrant being the Giambattista Valli strawberry crème hat with a dusting of red velvet white chocolate and the stripy chocolate tower based on the heel of a shoe.
We leave the inspired by designer Melissa Odabash bikini biscuits to the last and our waiter kindly wraps them up in a little pistachio green cardboard handbag so we can transport them home. The cakes are so gorgeous to look at, some I guess are not very flavoursome with really the artistry being the point but then again we have rather hit the sandwiches and savoury canapés so I don’t really need too much of the sweet delights.
We have such a fabulous afternoon in the Berkeley’s Caramel Room, we consume the delectables over three hours and several Paul Smith designed teapots of various flowery teas, I tried the chocolate mint, clearly buoyed by the chocolate and temporary forgetting that I am not crazy about mint tea! It wasn’t bad but I preferred the flowery non-mint teas.
As you can imagine most of our dining companions are the ladies who lunch, we spot a couple of possibly très elegante hen parties and/or baby showers but strangely enough very few men. The ones that were there seemed to be tucking into impressive looking manly hot meaty sandwiches and weren’t partaking of a handbag shaped cake. But I guess that makes sense.
This was such an unusual and delightful experience for afternoon tea, three cake forks for the Berkeley Hotel for their wonderful Prêt-à-Portea. It occurs to us that the Berkeley would be the perfect place to stay for a gourmet weekend. The two Michelin starred Petrus presided over by the wonderful Marcus Wareing where we enjoyed such a fabulous meal at last year is on one side of us and another one from the Ramsay stable, the Boxwood Café with Stuart Gillies on the other side. I guess if you tire of all that amazing eating you could always do a spot of shopping! And as it was late night opening, that's exactly what we did!
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Some of the seminal moments in my cookbook gathering life have taken place whilst I’ve been away from home. I have mentioned before that the discovery that set me on this maniacal cookbook collecting was stumbling across Alastair Little’s Keep it Simple whilst staying with friends on their farm. I’ve always browsed through friends’ cookbooks as others may flick through the LP and now more likely CD collections. So Alastair Little started me on this wantonness and another favourite foreign acquisition is ‘West of Ireland Summers, a Cook Book: Recipes and Memories from an Irish Childhood’ by Tamasin Day-Lewis which I found rather serendipitously whilst at H and R’s beautiful wedding in
But why was I so enraptured by Joël Robuchon’s recipes? I think that not only could I could just taste the food as I read the recipes and drunk in the fabulous Steven Rothfeld photography but I was transfixed by Patricia Wells’ metamorphosis as a cook just being in the presence of such a culinary magician as Chef Robuchon. The rather innocuous recipe that leapt out at me was potato purée. The attention to detail, the repeated passing through the finest mesh sieve of the mash to achieve the smoothest, creamiest, buttery most delectable mash captured my imagination and there and then I swore that by hook or by crook I would one day dine at this 3 star Michelin chef’s restaurant. A few years later I was on a French cooking holiday in
When D suggested a cultural trip to
When I enthused about dining at Joël Robuchon's place at work today, no one had any idea who I was referring to. I wonder if I made as similar announcement in a Parisian office whether they would have echoed my excited anticipation. I would have thought so, Joël is such a passionate doyen of fine French cooking and a perfectionist, a master and I gather a celebrity chef in his own right. He should be lauded in the manner we seem to preserve for footballers now, I'm not sure if he is but I suspect it would be considerably more likely in France than the
Maybe the name of Heston Blumenthal would pop up; he has been on television fairly recently and with a thought provoking program with the singularly most pervasive theme tune. Or would he be famous for putting snail porridge on the culinary map? I guess some may have heard of Tom Aiken, probably only for his notoriety of branding a fellow chef with a red-hot knife and accusing a diner of stealing a silver teaspoon (which was later found!), not necessarily for any food artistry. I'm sure the name Jamie Oliver would be mooted, he has done much to get the nation boshing a few Italian ingredients together to produce an artful tasting plate and worked tirelessly to highlight the atrocious slop dished out in the name of school dinners (though apparently his overhaul of their turkey twizzler, fatty, pappy food has not always met with enthusiasm from the pint-sized diners – well they miss their chips!). Though his restaurant Fifteen is not in Gordon, Heston and Tom's league of dizzying gastronomic brilliance it is extremely popular nonetheless and I do intend to try it for myself one day. But I guess there is one very good reason to dine at one of
And how excited were we that I’d been able to? Our eagerness meant that we were early but that was fortuitous as we were able to discover the ever so stylish red and black bar. If I had only known I would have dressed in red and black accordingly. We had suitably coordinated raspberry red cocktails with, in my case, a very exotic lemon grass foam in the sumptuous surroundings and severely coveted the glossy little vases and the slick black coffee tables and admired all the stylish, deeply aromatic dark red roses everywhere. The anticipation levels rise higher and higher as we try and guess what the evening has ahead of us. And when we can wait no longer we ascend in the lift up to La Cuisine on the top floor.
La Cuisine is designed to look like you’re sitting in a black and white kitchen with pots and pans, multiple rolling pins, jars of multi coloured macaroons and rather inexplicably, giant wooden apples left about. It is pretty empty when we arrive and the dreadful thought of rattling around in a atmosphere-less empty restaurant flits through my thoughts, maybe no one has heard of Joël Robuchon! But fortunately the restaurant soon fills up with eager diners and we get down to the more important task of selecting tonight’s gastronomic pleasure. After deciding on the menu decouverte, I start examining the fabulous black and silver chargers before they are whipped away from us. In fact our chargers were whisked away most swiftly so we took a surreptitious glance at the bottoms of those on the neighbouring table and I could jot down Bernardaud for further research, I recognised the black stripy crystal water glasses also. You can tell this is going to be very good, I am even thrilled about the tableware!
We only had to make a couple of tweaks the the tasting menu, I of course had to alert them of my ardent tomato avoidance and both D and I abhorred the thought of goats' cheese in the ravioli so our seemingly rather inexperienced waitress promised a goats' cheese and tomato free substitution.
A hush descends on our table and our AMUSE-BOUCHE arrives - a little pale glass filled with foie gras, a port wine reduction and topped with Parmesan foam. Wow, this is truly stunning! Each spoonful cuts through the delicate strata and gives you the sublime trio of creamy foie gras, intense port and the Parmesan. The man is a genius, believe the hype! Oh, this was seriously worth the anticipation!
Next was LE TOURTEAU, the crabmeat in tomato jelly with avocado. And yes you’ve read correctly, tomato jelly! And I did eat it, it wasn’t my favourite flavour but the crab was so tasty and tantalizing I tried to ignore that niggling harsh tomato taste intruding on the crabby loveliness. Though D would never back me up on this I suspect, she thought the tomato was just perfect. Each to their own!
We were given funny burgundy plastic spoons to scoop the crab and jelly mixture up out of the rather fabulous ceramic egg this was served in. I guess this is to ensure the taste is not tainted, much like you may have a ceramic egg spoon or a bone caviar spoon. Well it worked anyway!
Next it was LES GIROLLES – pan-fried girolle mushrooms with ‘Iberico de Bellota’ ham shavings. And another joy this one, the meaty, earthy mushrooms with that lovely touch of Spanish ham and dreamy dressing, delicious!
Next we have the most wonderful egg cocotte I’ve ever seen placed carefully in front of us. It arrives in a martini glass – so very diva! – and is described as egg cocotte topped with light wild mushroom cream. I’ve baked eggs before but have had a recent renaissance after falling for them all over again after reading Clotilde’s fabulous Chocolate & Zucchini but this one is the crème de la crème of egg cocottes. The foamy mushroom cream hides the perfect golden egg ready to erupt and send its golden yolk mingling with that delicious cream, mushroomy heaven. This is one awesome egg cocotte.
We move on to the first courses. The tasting menu says we should have goat’s cheese and basil ravioli, lemongrass scented prawn broth but as we both eschew all that is goat we are delivered a rather lovely crispy langoustine fritter with basil pistou instead, a much more preferable option and very melt in the mouth. The basil pistou is especially good.
Continuing with the fishy theme it’s the turn of the LE ROUGET, the red mullet on crisp pastry base with a citrus fruit dressing. Unfortunately the menu didn’t mention the pool of tomato-ey relish the red mullet was swimming in so I politely declined to try it. I would normally have a little around the edges but the tomato aroma was heady and not in a good way. It fair assaulted my senses but hey, it looked pretty. The lights have been turned down, maybe in an attempt to hide the tomato indiscretion or just to hinder my photography, but yet again I struggle to capture the true beauty of our meal. I wonder for the umpteenth time if I can surreptitiously carry my own light source. Though a light source that would discretely illuminate my plate but not the disturb any other diners, rather tricky I think! However as lousy as the photos are at least they act as an aide memoir for me. I do rather like pictures, though I would like them even better if I thought that anyone else could enjoy them also.
When our waitress realised she’d forgotten out ‘tomatoes are evil’ conversation she was truly repentant and promised a little something later to compensate. Okay I’ll forgive her then.
So drawing a line under the fish we turned our thoughts to the meat course, we had been given a choice of L’AGNEAU - lamb cutlets with fresh thyme or LA CAILLE - free range quail stuffed with foie gras served with truffled mash potatoes. Okay, absolutely no prize for guessing which option we chose. The mash was calling us and with truffles as well, this could some earth shattering experience. As it was truly breath-taking, the quail and foie gras stunning and the mash, well yes there was a flash of light, a fanfare of golden trumpets and the potato fairy waved her sparkly wand over us. This is mash mimosa, the most exquisite few delicate forkfuls bursting with flavour in our mouths than I've ever had. We wanted more! Though the truffle mash was almost too good to have some more but we asked if we could try some of the more infamous heavenly mash sans truffle. And realising we were true believers, a bowl was duly delivered for us to lap up. Everything I have read about this mash is completely true, it is the most fabulous that you can imagine. The book must be closed on the mash hall of fame, no one could produce better. We encouraged the couple on the next table to also order a portion of this potato paradise, they were suitably impressed also.
The décor of the restaurant extended to the dramatically appointed black bathrooms, they were tiled with black tiles and in a dark recess was a stack of black hand towels. Hmm very intriguing! I wonder if anyone without 20-20 vision has ever come unstuck in them, either struggling to dry their hands or perhaps even the door to leave!
The lights dim further (as is so customary now) and to bring us down gently from the mash clouds we are flying in we were delivered an extra sweet treat, this was our recompense for my red mullet/red tomato distress. And this is truly the first time I’ve tasted green chocolate and whilst I am at it sweet celeriac jelly, cardamom, cumin and lemon cream. It is a delicate dessert, it wasn’t entirely apparent initially that the green top to our bowl was edible, but it was and with such unusual and refreshing flavours also.But this was our additional dessert we still had the mysterious François’s duo of desserts to come. And this was came with a little laminated card inscribed with Sensation, cream, cocoa, oreo, crispy, sugar, choco, milk… C’est bon. And c'est bon it is, in fact très, très bon. It's like a chocolate lucky dip, one mouthful is crunchy, then smooth and creamy and unctuous all topped with wafer (pronounced 'waffer' of course) thin squares of coloured, delicately flavoured chocolate. The next spoonful has a biscuity bite then just an intense chocolate rush. I really have died and gone to heaven now, this is another stunning dish, we are in the presence of a true culinary God. Give that man more Michelin stars!
We finish with some restorative Earl Grey tea and liquid centre chocolates, served rather beautifully on a striped card topped with a little laminate. I am fairly sure it wasn't for eating, so we didn't!
I have yet again run out of superlatives for this phenomenal meal, it is just too, too fabulous. I hope he never dreams of retiring again because the world needs to experience this delectable food.
Just to cap our wonderful evening we are asked if we'd like a tour of the whole place, we are taken down to the bar where a shorter version of our menu is prepared to the expectant diners perched on bar stools watching their every move. Well I would be doing so anyway! We spot even more wooden apples of varying sizes scattered around and gaze at the wooden frames filled with spices and condiments and try desperately to identify them all.
The dream conjured up in that little Parisian garrick bedroom when I first heard of the great man has finally been realised and I adored every minute of it. And I intend to leave it no where near as long to experience this brilliance again.
The crown has been passed on, this is my new diamond fork meal, my most magnificent, marvellous and extraordinary dining experience. I don't know if Joël Robuchon's cooking is superior to Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes or Gordon Ramsay but I was served truffle mash. Enough said!