Monday, June 23, 2008

Eleven reasons to eat at 'eleven'

I am on a flying visit to Lisbon in Portugal because I’m standing in for JD as his wife’s imminent 4th baby necessitates him to stand by with towels and hot water and despite just being here for work; a girl’s got to eat! I meant to do my foodie research before boarding my plane but just ran out of time so thought I'd rely on local knowledge. After enquiring at my hotel for their finest local fare they recommended eleven, and it turns out to be the perfect combination of gourmet dining and a wonderful view over the twinkling lights of the Lisbon harbour. I arrive at a large red wooden shed that totally disguises the delights beyond the heavy door. I'm escorted to my table with the most stunning view down the hillside.
It is cunning as you are initially greeted with a windowless structure but on being seated you see the back of the restaurant is entirely glass and you can view the brooding clouds tinged with pink (a good day tomorrow perhaps?) drift by. As the last vestiges of sun disappear behind the indigo sea and the sky bruises (thanks to Uncle Monty of ‘Withnail and I’ fame for that reference!) my cloud watch turns to a bat watch as a lone bat (okay there could be several but I never see more than one) performs an elaborate ballet to delight us. When I ask the waiter he says 'he is our friend!', so clearly is a regular visitor.

I've never been asked in a restaurant if I'd like my water cold or 'natural'. I thought he was requesting that I select from bottled or tap (and naturally as I've been well taught by Giles, I plump for natural) but he actually meant chilled or room temperature.

Water sorted, view checked out, now it’s time to study the menus. And I am totally spoilt for choice, there are not one but two tasting menus and get this - a lobster tasting menu plus the à la carte. I want to taste this infamous chef's bounty so plump for the least tomato-infested tasting menu. I explain my 'condition' and this is duly noted. I can tell this is the case as when the waiter is explaining the first amuse bouche he gets to the third one and as he utters the words 'mushroom and tomato pizza' he suddenly stops in his tracks, apologises, whisks the plate away and scuttles off. He returns with three spoons - cod fish, pesto and breadcrumbs and goose rillettes with smoked goose and my pizza substitution which is shrimp on top of guacamole. In the meantime I notice for the first time ever that another diner is photographing his food. He has a hefty SLR with all the accoutrements and laboriously shoots his lobster from every single possible angle. I am sure that my fellow diners don't always want to pause whilst I record the repast forever but at least I hope I'm quicker than him. His companion looks on slightly bored taking delicate bites into her scallops and still the click, click, clicking!

My second amuse bouche is sardine bruscetta with peppers. Maybe not my favourite dish but when in Portugal... Actually I'm trying a little to go native; the locals would generally consider starting their meal at 10pm when many of my non-Latin friends would be safely tucked up in bed. I don't want to be a complete tourist so opt for 9pm (I tried for 8.30 but that was waved away!) And whilst eating at a local time, I also enjoy some typical Portuguese foods, but definitely with an accomplished and modern twist. And the sardine is smaller than the size of my thumb so it's hard to be too offended.

Now the actual tasting menu starts with gusto, the foie gras terrine with chocolate caramelised orange segments and spices bread. The foie gras and the candied orange slice do a pirouette on my tongue, a sublime combination! The chocolate is very subtle but is picked up by the small glass of Bacchus Austese, which is a sweet German wine produced especially for the chef. And is extremely moreish!

The cod fish soup with peas, "rocha" pear and French garlic is delicious and creamy with just a couple of translucent flakes submerged in its frothy depths and is accompanied by a whisper of bread, almost like a cracker. It is served in one of those terribly modern large bowls with a bowl in the middle about the size of half a peach.

The John Dory-type fish (which sounded like Trager) is the Chef's Choice today and is just fabulously fresh and beautifully white. This is the essence of Portugal, swimming in spinach puree and foamy lemon cream. Truly delectable! I ask the waiter about the foam but he doesn’t understand the word ‘foam’ and decides I’m referring to the mousse. Okay fair enough, but it is indeed a foam!

By 10.30 the joint is jumping, I can hear many more voices than I can see and surmise that there is even more to the restaurant than meets the eye. In fact I suddenly realise that what I thought was a mirrored wall is in fact more than double the length of the restaurant again. It's a shock when I realise what I thought was our reflections are in fact further happy diners basking under the inky sky!

Staying on a fishy theme my next course is green risotto and crunchy shrimp and meat juices. Prawns wrapped the finest of pastry jackets and crowning the dense herby and spinach risotto. I've always been laissez faire about prawns, I can't see the point of them cold, wrapped in Parma ham or pastry and warm and then I'm more interested. But I realise most of the world would cross hot coals to eat them, I can take them of leave them though these Portuguese examples are maybe the finest I've tasted.

Next I enjoy the welcome breather of a palate-cleansing sorbet Cava eleven. This one is a delicate peach which is then deluged in cava. So refreshing and intoxicating all in one go!

The wine to accompany my duck is Fagote, a rich and dense red wine from the Doura region where the port is produced. The Crossed duck from Challands with ancient mustard sauce, pumpkin couscous and small vegetables is delicious. I've never really understood the point of couscous (so bland they named it twice). I will concede that pressed onto the fork with a bite of lamb seems to extend the mouthful and the couscous mops up the juices. But by itself even with the addition of pumpkin just does nothing for me.

It is way past 11 and I have ominously a selection of cheeses followed by assorted desserts to contend with. Thank god the smell of the sandwiches of the British Airways flight over was so vile that I couldn't even take a tentative bite like both my neighbours (see it's not always just me being fussy!) They discarded theirs whereas I realised that one of two cheese sandwiches was heavily laced with tomato and the other slathered in an eye watering carrot chutney. Hmmmn not my favourite food, not my favourite airline! Well at least I was spared the totally unnecessary trumpet fanfare and round of applause that greets an as-scheduled landing of that other airline.

I have a little pause whilst the cheese trolley does its rounds and then I'm introduced to a plethora of Portuguese cheeses and for the faint-hearted a couple of French also. Eschewing the goat and blue, they make a small cheese plate up with the final flourish being a spoonful of vibrant pumpkin jam. This goes remarkably well with especially the harder cheeses and as delightful as the fruit and nut bread is, I'm starting to feel a little utterly overwhelmed now.

I notice there's another man sat by himself taking photographs of all his food, how passé my photography must seem to eleven’s staff!

I have been asked to return my linen napkin for another crisp square; clearly I should have so besmirched my other (I haven't) that it would need upgrading. Perhaps that is their signal that the savoury door has closed and the sweet dessert is opening.

Then a coffee mousse with raspberry cream and madeleine . Not loving coffee I just enjoyed the madeleine with the raspberry swirl.

It's now past midnight, where I should be turning into a pumpkin, I take solace in my oh so stylish boutique hotel bed being about 15 minutes away but more cutlery has appeared the end is not quite nigh.

Now a beautiful square plate arrives topped with Chocolate and ginger mousse in raspberry sauce, Lemon sorbet and rhubarb sorbet, Macaroon sandwiching vanilla ice cream and Raspberry tart. Sadly this rather defeats me, I'm am able to note the texture of the sorbet, the ice crystals are completely indiscernible and makes a fine, elegant finish.

The Mignardises or petits fours atop their silver pedestal don't hold a candle to the vibrancy and 'eat me' quality of the dessert plate and I cannot contemplate the merest morsel of food so I leave them be.

I am guessing that this is far from an atypical Portuguese meal, the chef Joachim Koerper is weaving his international wand with a whisp of his homeland, but then I've always been led to believe salt cod is an acquired taste so maybe that's a good thing. I'm even given a Portuguese cake prettily wrapped up to take home (in case I'm peckish in the cab perchance!) It's not one of the infamous local custard tarts that I intend on partaking in, but there's always tomorrow.
As I didn't touch the petit fours being entirely overfaced
I could say that I had an eleven course menu at eleven, and they really were truly fabulous. Joachim Koerper certainly has a fine pedigree and his talent shines here, so a very much deserved three (not eleven) forks for eleven. How clever am I to unearth THE Michelin starred restaurant in Lisbon, what a useful talent.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Short and sweet!

When Stephanie suggested ‘chocolate’ for the theme of June's blogging party, I should have jumped for joy as chocolate is one of my favourite food groups but I ‘did’ chocolate for the Christmas dessert theme and also savoury bites are easier to conjure up as an alternative presentation to a meal or two I was going to have anyway. But I had a few sweet thoughts that I wanted to play with and then of course a pretty crazy couple of weeks got in the way. So I had the idea that if I delayed my chocolate canapé creation for a day, then D and I can devour the fruit of my chocolaty labours. My cunning ‘plan a’ was for D and I to meander and graze through the Taste of London event and then on returning home, whip up some chocolaty delights for the evening's finale. But I think you can see the problem here. We’d spend the entire evening consuming all these fabulous little goodies so the last thing we wanted to do on dragging our weary selves home was eat another morsel and also I’d kept D up past her bedtime so it would never happen. Therefore the rapidly emerging plan b was tuck into some chocolaty goodies early Saturday morning before we head over to Kensington for our lunch - yes more food-relating frolicking. But really I think D was humouring me; there was no way she was going to have chocolate for breakfast as she only wanted toast! But the dedicated, some say obsessed, food blogger in me made me determined that the show would go on. So it did! Firstly I had planned an individual chocolate fondue with some chocolate brownie portions to dunk into the liquid chocolate. I had intended on gathering some Gü brownies at the Taste of London but unfortunately the whole of London had a similar idea so their cupboards were bare, so plan c was looming. Not being to lay my hands on some suitable cakey dunker, I thought I try some cocoa dusted chocolate truffles impaled with my new crystal cocktail sticks (I just had to have them and hadn’t bought any cocktail sticks for an age!) and dipped into the unctuous rich chocolate fondue and apart from the truffles shrinking rather alarmingly in the hot chocolate mixture (which frankly just added to the richness) they worked very well. I made the chocolate sauce with some of the rather fabulous Hotel Chocolat Aztec Chilli Liquid Chocolat laced double cream. It says on the jar that a ‘gentle warmth tingles the mouth’, well maybe I’d been a little generous with my spooning as my liquid chocolate slapped you round the back of the head it packed such a punch. Tasty though a little violent!
D gave me that look that means that she thinks I’m being a tad fanatical fulfilling my blogging party commitments and still refused to indulge beyond toast. But the look turned to incredulity when I explained my proposal for gripping the wooden sticks of the mini Magnums (tiny choc ices thickly coated in either milk, dark or white chocolate) in a magnetic metal strip. It would have been a perfect scheme to line them up tantalisingly but they didn’t want to play and threatened to both melt and cover everything in their vicinity with chocolate and the rolling of eyes in the corner meant that I needed to switch the presentation to something less precarious, and quickly!
For a drink I wanted a homage to the Costa Coffee Double Chocolate Flake Frescato, so with the aid of a scoop of Haagen Daz Belgium chocolate ice cream, milk and chocolate sauce I made a rather intriguing iced chocolate drink, though I don't think Costa Coffee needs to worry!
For a rather wonderful edible coaster (surely what every party cries our for!) I designated D the task of slicing some chocolate bars into the required shape. Costa Coffee may have the edge on Frescatos (and they really do!) but I win on presentation, I serve mine in a lead crystal champagne saucer, and on top of a chocolate coaster!
So sorry Stephanie I'm tardy, again, and it's not as chocolate-tastic as I'd planned but my chocolate eating partner-in-crime was seriously doubting my sanity so I had to keep my 'amuse bouches' extravaganza short but sweet. Perhaps I should have chosen my fellow chocolate eater better, if I'd gone for E(D) as well I think the plates would have been cleaner. But despite D protestations, everything was rather yummy, I wonder what the theme is next month?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The one that got away!

So here we are kicking our heels in Axminster and wondering what we should do before hitting the long road home. And whilst we ponder I catch up the latest Mark Hix column from the Independent on Saturday which I just happen to receive on my BlackBerry – yes I know I can hear cries of “food geek!” And lo, he is talking about his latest venture in Lyme Regis and what little pearl of Dorset just happens to be in our vicinity? Yes you are right, Lyme Regis! So even though we read that Hix Oyster and Fish House is not due to open until mid June we thought we’d head that way and check out Lyme Regis anyway.

After meandering along the front watching the happy sun-seekers licking their tightly grasped Mr. Whippys and admiring the pastel coloured holiday cottages we find the lovely looking, wood -clad restaurant perched on the hill with a cracking view of the seaside activity on this surprisingly stunning summer’s day.

The staff looked poised for action but if they were serving up food it was for invited guests only and even though they suggested returning tomorrow, we had to be city bound again. We’d enjoyed a tasty full English breakfast with jewel-bright fruit as a chaser at our lovely guest-house not that long ago so we probably would have struggled to polish off the merest morsel of a crab sandwich anyway but it was still disappointing. But all wasn't lost, we just fed off the view of the sparkling sea and added this to list of things to do if we're ever Dorset-way again.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hugh's the daddy!

Watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his team on River Cottage Spring this week had an extra frisson of excitement because I knew in a couple of days we’d be communing with those chickens, listening to the eager but gentle buzzing of the Park Farm bees and most importantly tucking in to some delicious seasonal victuals round one of the reclaimed timber tables in honour of the collective belated birthdays of D and MC’s.

For some curious reason this annual fest has taken on a French, duck or French and Duck theme. I guess it started in May 2003, we are celebrating D’s birthday in France with their Nicky and Regis in their fabulous Normandy manor house Le Manoir de L'Aufragere near Fourmetot. We had many delicious memorable meals on this trip but one that struck a chord was the first time we had duck carpaccio and inadvertently this became a theme for feasts to come. The next year, D said she fancied some sort of French theme to her birthday in Cambridge and to ensure authenticity N and I snuck over to France, drove down to Boulogne in Baby Blue (known as “l’objet de culte” when en France!) and stocked up on a plethora of French goodies in Boulogne sur Mer (for once we didn’t go as far as Abbeville). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to partake in the oozy French cheeses, the plump Magret duck breasts and the rest of the French spread but it was still a surprise for D and MC. In subsequent years, to commemorate a special , D and I dined in a duck restaurant in Lille and inspired the duck-tacular meal that I prepared for D and MC on their way back from Morocco.

Last year we went to the Fat Duck (surely the theme is screaming by now) and this year we decided to indulge in a River Cottage experience. Maybe we didn’t eat any duck but there were some lovely contented ducks waddling around the farm and before we’d left for our long journey to Dorset D and MC had presented me with a very attractive little black and white rubber duck that for some reason had reminded them of me!

We dropped our bags in our well chosen guest house, strapped on our obligatory ‘sensible shoes’ for cavorting around a farmhouse and headed for Park Farm. This is not just like going out for a meal in a restaurant; this is a whole food related extravaganza.

We stand at the top of the valley admiring the splendid view and waiting our carriage (actually a tractor pulling a trailer filled with about 25 expectant revellers).

When we arrive we are escorted into the yurt by our friendly host of the evening (Pete – thank you to D for remembering - is that bad, I can recall the names of the cheeses, even the one I didn't eat but names of people - shocking!) and furnished with a very fine English sparkling wine. Obviously we daren’t call it Champagne but it was very passable. As we quaff this and pass round a few nibbles we are introduced to the farm and invited to go and explore before dinner. And these are not your usual nibbles, no we are offered cubes of brawn with beetroot hummus and flatbread. D and MC go off to compare their allotment progress with Hugh’s various sprouting vegetables.

There are lettuces plump for picking that we may find on our plates tonight and others just shyly poking their green leaves above the rich soil. I spotted the bees in their new home during our ‘tractor pull’, we saw in last week’s show that Hugh had wanted to relocate them a little further from the main buildings, maybe some of his guests were a little bee-phobic. As Hugh is almost synonymous to the plights of sad, cooped up chickens is was a pleasure to meet his extremely happy chicken scratching around in the last few rays of the days. And I heard a rumour that we were going to consume some of their yummy happy eggs later so it seemed extra apt to thank them for their hard work.

After our nose around we are corralled into the barn for our five course dinner. The barn is decked out like an oversized farmhouse kitchen with a big dresser filled with rustic dishes and cookbooks at one end and a bar and little shop at the other. Okay, maybe it’s not like every farmhouse kitchen!

The ceiling lights are made from recycled wine bottles and formerly floorboards tables and laid with mismatched cutlery. We have been assigned a seat at the one of the two long tables, each seating thirty. We have to sit in our designated spot as we’ve been asked about our dislikes, allergies and strong food aversions – did anyone mention tomatoes or goats’ cheese?

Our chef for the evening – Nonnie, introduces us to the menu and explain the provenance of the delights that will be laid before us. Our starter is the delight we saw a few weeks on River Cottage Spring, the just-laid egg, freshly picked asparagus spears and cheat’s hollandaise. And the ‘cheat’s hollandaise’ comes with instructions. First you decapitate your egg, then pop a little pat of butter on top of the yolk, top up with a little cider vinegar and then dunk the spears into the eggy mixture. It does taste rather wonderful!

Next we have chicken and air-dried ham croquettes with a salad sprinkled with a few marigolds and spring onion flowers. The air-dried ham is cured on the farm and I am guessing the chicken is home-grown also. The leaves were from some lettuce crossed with an elephant but had a fresh taste.

A main course was a piece of stunning spanking fresh from Plymouth line-caught sea bass served with sautéed fennel with an orange and lemon ceviche and crushed newly dug-up new potatoes seasoned with fennel top fronds.

D had sea bass at lunch and even that that was good, this was outstanding. It certainly was the finest piece of sea bass if not fish I’ve ever had, the flavour was truly sublime and you could really believe that they was only very recently snaking their silver finned bodies around The Hoe. Those white meaty flakes were very moreish but the non-fish eaters either side of us weren't left out, they tucked into a generous hunk of pork belly which looked pretty damn good also.

The cheese course was a little wedge of Blue Vinney and a sheep’s cheese called Little Riding accompanied by some excellent home-made digestives and some soon to be seen in the Guardian apricot jam. I am not partial to a blue cheese but the Little Riding, apricot jam and digestive combination was rather fabulous. We have some unusual tayberry wine alongside the cheese.

The River Cottage staff had been busy harvesting the elderflower from the hedgerows to concoct us some rather wonderful elderflower sorbet with some early marinated strawberries. I’ve managed to smuggle a little silver heart-shaped candle holder and accompanying silver candle to our very accommodating hosts and they surprise D and MC with the added illumination. Fortunately this is not the sort of place where they suggest a few choruses of “happy birthday”, this was subtle but suitably celebratory. Luckily as it turned out as I think there were several birthday being honoured tonight so we might have been singing until dawn!

Our taxi had insisted we were on the first trailer out of there so we didn’t linger after the coffee and cocoa dusted chocolates and bid a fond farewell to the River Cottage. We had a spectacularly seasonal meal in conducive albeit slightly too crowded company, it wasn’t as theatrical and showy as last year’s Fat Duck but the main star of the evening was definitely the food. It wasn’t fancy, clever or perplexing, but they were 'keeping it real' and it was really delicious and the staff really make you feel looked after. Three gardening forks for The River Cottage dinner, we are already pondering a pig-in-a-day for our next trip down Dorset way so we might be able to mingle with the ducks and chickens on another day. And we're also considering next year's dual-birthday event, maybe French, possibly duck-themed or even after Heston and Hugh another chef beginning with 'H'.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Steak and spears!

I had one of those moments on the way home. I was stood staring at the frankly denuded shelves of the teeny tiny M&S Simply Food at the station and tried to get inspiration. The decision should have been easy as they was so little choice. You can't really go wrong with English asparagus so I grabbed the last packet of asparagus tips (M&S don’t seem keen on the rest of a asparagus spear so they can appear a tad stumpy) and a fine hunk of fillet steak liberally encrusted with peppercorns. The multicoloured peppercorns looked more attractive in the packet and took the opportunity to either fall into the pan or char slightly when the steak got a little frying. But despite it looking a little singed and crusty around the edges, it was perfectly cooked, rosily rare and with a hint of the piquant charcoal-ly pepper jacket was succulent-ly tasty. The asparagus tips just got steamed and napped with a spoonful of fabulously Parmesan-laced creamy butter sauce, still one of my favourite ways to anoint my spears or tenderstem sprigs. And with a small bunch of lamb's lettuce generously doused in balsamic as the final flourish, a not too shabby feast for a Friday night fast food fix, a ne'er a golden arch in sight!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The best muffin, man!

I know, a muffin – not terribly exciting in the world of gastronomic delights but this one was a little special. Firstly I could tell it had spooky powers as whipping through the coffee shop at one of my clients, I had no intention of purchasing anything but a whiff of chocolate made me turn on my heels and a basket of these muffins caught my eye. And what an exquisite sight they were, all higgledy-piggledy looking so home-made with their little rustic brown paper cases. I could believe some jolly cheeked cook clad in a large white apron topped with a mop cap keeping stray tendrils from her hair escaping had produced a slightly battered muffin tray from her Aga, just for me. Though in reality, they probably emanate from a large steel industrial oven in a soulless warehouse on some North London trading estate and this new homespun look is all a clever marketing ploy to lure an unsuspecting passing chocolate muffin-fancier. And it worked! But it would all have been to no avail if it wasn’t a pretty good chocolate muffin, with crumbly slightly chewy lumps of chocolate nestling in moist oh-so-moreish rich chocolate cakeiness. And the final flourish of a sweet white drizzle was indeed the icing on the cake!