Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Monday, December 07, 2009
Friday, December 04, 2009
At the weekend (a long time ago now, but that’s the way it wiggles) we drove out to proper Cheshire – as opposed to our little fringe – to have lunch at Cabbage Hall. Robert Kisby has been at the posh pub since March and has eradicated most remaining traces of former owner Francis Carroll’s horribly flamboyant interior.
Lunch was fine rather than world-beating. Our winter warmer platter, a big plate with its indentations filled with Kisby’s takes on chicken kiev, Lancashire hotpot and the like, looked a bit like yesterday’s man, and if the cottage pie-stuffed jacket potatoes had been made that morning then I’m a pickled cabbage.
We did, however, make a worthwhile discovery, and all thanks to me being off the booze. The barman brought us each a bottle of crisp, tart-and-sweet Cox’s Orange Pippin apple juice from nearby Willington Fruit Farm, and as we sat mulling over its deliciousness offered directions to the farm shop near Kelsall. Obediently, we went.
Willington Fruit Farm has a farm shop in the old-fashioned sense, a world away from the sexy (if you like marmalade) sheen of nearby The Hollies and its caravan site and extra barn stuffed full of Christmas gifts. It’s basically a cold shed full - and I mean full – of apples. They grow, pick and sell or juice a huge range here, and I thought immediately of my friend Rosemary Moon. I had never really understood her obsession with our native apples until we saw, spread before us like Yeats’s dreams, Chiver’s Delight and Belle de Boskoop, Melrose, Holstein Cox and Egremont Russet.
Sod’s law, of course, meant that I was about to come away for a week working in that London and couldn’t, in good conscience, buy any. We did pick up six bottles of gorgeous juice, though (£2.15 for a big bottle, as opposed to £2.50 at Hollies). One of them is from a dessert apple called Katy, a cross between James Grieve and Worcester Pearmain which apparently has a slightly acid and refreshing flavour. That one is earmarked as a Christmas gift for our friends Helen and Adam and their daughter Katy. Luckily their tiddler, Jacob, is too young to be upset about his lack of fruity namesake.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
On Saturday night we had our friends Bryony and Ric round for dinner. Nice to see them and all that, but basically it was an excuse for me to cook two recipes that I’ve had my eye on for some time. One of them is Tamasin Day-Lewis’s chicken Savoyarde, a creamy, tarragon-scented gratin that Hale and Hearty will no doubt revisit soon – it was delicious. The other one is Sue Lawrence’s chocolate-crusted lemon tart.
I’m usually unappealingly smug in the kitchen. Things don’t often go far wrong and if they do, I know how to fix them. Not on Saturday. Baby hormones have made me clumsy and short-tempered and I was miles behind. The tart caused trouble because I was too cack-handed to get the bloody thing in the oven without the filling overflowing the boundary of the friable chocolate crust and pouring out onto the baking sheet. So it was not perfect, but it was still good.
The tart is made with a chocolate pastry comprising plain flour, butter, equal quantities of cocoa powder and golden icing sugar, and an egg yolk. This could be a nightmare to work with, but the protracted resting time advised in the recipe – three hours minimum – took the edge off. After baking it blind, you sprinkle the hot pastry case with a generous amount of finely grated chocolate, so that it melts and forms a smooth’n’sultry layer on the pastry. Then it’s in with the filling – lemon zest and juice, eggs, sugar and double cream. Of course, I didn’t have time to let the case cool a bit before pouring the filling in, so the pouring disturbed the chocolate and bits of it floated to the surface. Then it all leaked. I was furious with myself, but surprisingly it lifted out of the tin like a dream and the recommended dusting of icing sugar hid the rest of my blushes.
As you can see from the picture, there’s a clear seam of gooey chocolate between the pastry (biscuity, although not quite pâte sucrée biscuity) and the lemon filling, and that’s what makes it a winner. Tim described it as refined and dignified, what with all the lemon and dark chocolate, and it did have a bit of the ‘Ambassador, you are spoiling us’ about it. The Scottish ambassador for cakes, that is.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Clarissa is a great cook, a brilliant writer (a view confirmed by her two Glenfiddich wins) and a sharp, experienced assessor of all restaurants great and small. Not long after Per Se opened, she went. Reader, she hated it. Small portions, stiff and stuffy service, huge prices, and full-length mirrors in the loos offset so that you could almost, but not quite, watch yourself wee. Some good dishes, some misguided. From what I've read in Phoebe Damrosch's book about working there, Service Included, Clarissa is not the only one who resented the formality and awkwardness of the early days.
As we discovered on Monday night, Per Se retains the loo mirrors and the big (though still mighty good value) bills, but it has plenty of charm too. The room, high up at the Time Warner Centre, has great views of the city and the park – you can almost look Christopher Columbus (statue edition) in the eye – and there isn't really a bad table. It's all flickering firelight and glowing bronze floors and nice men pouring Champagne; as soon as Tim got up for the loo, the maitre d' came over to keep me company, revealing that, despite his Italian heritage, he has an aunt and uncle who run a pub in Droylsden. Someone else spotted us looking enviously at the truffle box (they're shaved, suitably generously, over risotto for a $150 supplement) and beckoned the bearer over so that we could have a sniff.
Staff loveliness and views aside, what did we get for our $275 per head (service included)? A whole lot of tasty is what. Thomas Keller's nine-course American-French tasting menu was riddled with the good stuff, starting with the famous salmon cornets and a fabulous truffle custard hidden in an eggshell and topped with Marmitey black truffle ragout, and butter-rich rolls the exact shape of a bum. I was totally convinced by the pro-potato statement made in a salad of different coloured ones, cold, sliced and served with an egg mayonnaise and little pickled onions. Even the frisee garnish was there for a reason, and that is rare indeed.
I won't go on. It was forking brilliant, the best meal we've had since last year's absolute stunner at Nicolas Le Bec in Lyon, and worth three Michelin stars whether they be European or American. When I saw Clarissa recently at Booths supermarket's lovely food shop and restaurant in Kendal, I said as much. She was surprised but, I think, delighted.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Jean Georges, the three-star restaurant which sits at the base of a gilded Trump building off Columbus Circle, is a constant at the top of the New York must-eat lists. I have no idea how you pronounce Vongterinchen, the surname of the JG in question, who has a string of places across the city, but luckily we didn't have to say it. We just had to go and eat the tea.
It's a small room and we were expecting it to be ragingly formal, but the number of people in there on a Saturday night - some dressed as Germanophile 1970s mobsters - took the edge off. The prix fixe (which is not the pov option, just the alternative to the full-on tasting) is $98 for four courses plus bells and whistles, including a visit from the mournful man who extracts a long marshmallow from a jar and solemnly cuts it with silver scissors.
And the food? It wasn't that exciting, frankly. Highlights were the turbot with Chateau Chalon sauce, which was heady and rich, and Tim's lamb (pictured), which had an utterly delicious sticky, shiny chilli crust. We weren't sold on the idea of the desserts, which are all 'tastings' on various themes, with four mini dishes, but they turned out to be the highlight. We swerved the spice one and the autumn one, and went for 'chocolate' and 'apple'. A chocolate fondant ('FONDONT!') was marvellous and Tim was impressed by a feather-light mini apple tart and a white chocolate and caramel apple dome.
Low points were a noodling combination of halibut with a huge amount of chilli foam, cucumber ribbons and soft creamed potatoes; the potatoes belonged on a French plate and everything else on an Asian one. My lobster with basil and spaetzle, the crazy German short pasta, was... nice. The chocolate plate also held the real aberration of the meal, a minty mouthwash-flavour bowl of green goo, with chocolate vermicelli that looked like little brown worms and were all texture, no flavour.
Until we get back from Per Se on Monday night, we won't know quite where Jean Georges sits. I'm not sure it's three stars worth of delicious, but it certainly beats my plans for next Saturday, when I'll be queueing for the swine flu vaccine at the doc's. You can bet they won't have a man with silver scissors.
Saturday, November 07, 2009
What you see - other than a couple of rounds of foil-wrapped buttered toast, just out of shot - is what you get: bacon, two eggs your way and breakfast potatoes, fried with peppers and onion. What's interesting is the calorie count. Everything at Europa is given one, and this particular special clocks in at 520-820 calories. It's the eggs that do it: lose the yolks and don't add oil to what's left and you'll be getting near that lower limit. But really, where's the fun in an egg-white omelette?
Friday, November 06, 2009
As a restaurant critic I have a childish fondness for seeking out the new. I've put that into practice over here despite the fact that pretty much every restaurant they've got is new to me. So we went for lunch at The Breslin, a new venture from British-born chef April Bloomfield, who co-owns the Michelin-starred gastropub The Spotted Pig. It's part of the almost comically cool Ace Hotel (pictured, plus stranger hailing taxi), styled pubbily with tartan overtones and a bit of shabby chic. You'd know you weren't in England, it's very dark, and you can't tell the staff from the civilians, but there's something very satisfying about the whole business.
The meal put me in mind of something William Grimes, former restaurant critic of the New York Times, said recently. He's just published a book, Appetite City, documenting the history of NYC's dining scene, and we heard him talk about it at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Grimes would be the first to admit you can't fully explore the subject in just one volume: New York's food culture, from the first immigrant markets to today's highly evolved triumphs, is a genre in itself.
That doesn't mean he can't follow a clear thread of his own, of course, and Grimes's is straightforward: New York is the restaurant capital of the world because, weighing up quantity and quality, it offers the finest examples of global cuisine found anywhere outside their country of origin. Typically this means simple things, done well - which is, after all, what most of us are hoping to achieve every time we get out the pans. We have some high-end reservations of our own lined up this weekend, but so far the basics have been hard to beat.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
The branch in the picture is a couple of blocks north of here on Lexington Avenue and, in fairness, the menu looks pretty good. From a British perspective, it's certainly more interesting than the Pret A Manger on the same block, with the tomato Cheddar soup a top-seller (I have my eye on the Senegalese chicken with peanuts).
Further consideration will have to wait, though. Earlier today we emerged from a subway station to find ourselves outside Anthony Bourdain's brasserie, Les Halles, and it turned out they had a table for later tonight. He probably won't be on the hobs, of course, but - new wild game menu notwithstanding - the promise of 'American beef, French style' is all but impossible to resist.
(American TV postscript: Saw a billboard today for a new Steven Seagal show, Lawman, which will follow the erstwhile action hero as he carries out his real-world duties as a deputy sheriff. It starts on A&E next month and, if it ever makes it to the UK, is surely unmissable)
If all that sounds painfully hip, relax: in the best NYC tradition, it's pulled back from the abyss by an unselfconscious and decidedly mixed clientele. That, and the indoor lawns. Grass is a big theme at the W, from the palm-sized glass cubes on those tables to the mini batting track opposite the lifts. That's it in the picture; Mario, the guy with the electric clippers, is charged with trimming it each morning. The longer you're here, the more of it you see: today there are half a dozen oblong blocks of turf on reception, and a couple of waist-high planters out the front.
If it's not quite Central Park by stealth, it's still more entertaining than American TV, which by and large remains rubbish. Other than the good stuff we know about back home (HBO, FX, some of the comedy), the most beguiling channel is BBC America, a not entirely seamless blend of last season's British prime-time (Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Graham Norton, Robin Hood), dial-a-psychic adverts and lots and lots of Matt Frei. There, as among the suits in The Living Room, much talk this week has been of Michael Bloomberg winning a third term as New York mayor. City redevelopment will be a priority, apparently. Back on a green tip, he could do a lot worse than extend the excellent High Line project.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Monday, November 02, 2009
Despite endorsements from David Furnish and Simon Cowell, Mr Jones' Rules (a how-to guide 'for the modern man' from the suitably ovoid headspace of GQ editor Dylan Jones) is an amusing and not particularly smug or prissy read. The section on food and drink is home to some pleasingly eccentric finds, among them a fried egg recipe from a treatise on cooking by the late Italian polymath Aldo Buzzi.
Like so many great recipes, it's the finer details that make it. You must crack the egg into a cup, then add the white to a pan on a low heat. Season this, then add the yolk carefully to its centre. When it's almost cooked, add a lid to the pan and lightly firm the top of the yolk. Transfer the result to a warm plate.
You're a modern man, remember, so there's a beer in it for you, too. In keeping with the Italian theme, I'd suggest the elegant attire and gluggable heft (6.6%) of Peroni's Gran Reserva. After that, you'll probably be ready to forget the work and take up another of Jones's serving suggestions, watching sport on TV. Just don't blame me if Sky Sports News fails to sustain the glamour of la dolce vita.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
Saf opened a while ago in Shoreditch, so all the London critics have been and gone and left it for the proper people. I can see why they like it; it's long and dim and quietly stylish, with a pretty garden, or at least the illusion of it, visible through floor-to-ceiling windows at the back. The staff don't all know which table is which, but they're willing.
The menu is all vegan and 50 per cent raw which, when you think about it, means not many carbs either (bread, rice and potatoes need cooking, of course). There's soy milk in the coffee, a lot of cashews pounded into 'cheese', and not nearly as much tofu as you might imagine. There are a lot of facsimile items (nut ricotta, vegetable noodles, parsnip rice). Anything that's been cooked is marked with an asterisk. Danger! Warm food! We kept getting whiffs of the Thai green curry, which is cooked and smelt fabulous, but seemed a bit like cheating.
By the time we'd all assembled there was only time for one course. Lindsay had the pad thai, which uses ribbons of courgette and carrot instead of noodles and a drizzle of chipotle sauce for flavour. Cold, of course, as was Natalie's lasagne, a very pretty stack of various pulverised vegetable pastes and layers, served on a nails-down-the-blackboard slate. Good, with individual flavours on show, but oddly heavy.
I had a long, elegant tasting plate, with two kinds of the fabled cashew cheese, with olives and sun-dried tomatoes, with flaxseed crackers to spread them on with satisfactory results. Little beetroot parcels stuffed with cashew ricotta (pictured above, courtesy of Saf) were lovely, as were the soy-spiked seeds and nuts. Vegetable maki, stuffed with parsnip chipped into rice-like bits, tasted too much like parsnips. Dolmas, which they forgot to put on and arrived later, after enquiries, were stuffed with cauliflower rice and flavoured so heavily with cinnamon they reminded me of American apple pie.
How much did we like it? Just enough. It meant we could have an interesting dinner together like normal people, despite what Lindsay is doing to herself, and I like to think of London's vegans being able to do the same. I'm just starting to feel the baby move, like little bubbles popping, and he was fizzing away happily in appreciation of such a healthy dinner. Although if he's his mother's son, he would have been equally delighted by a bag of Cadbury's caramel Nibbles.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Despite the apparent best efforts of everyone at the Festival, the food and service at the Palace were absolutely shocking. If that's what they do to impress Manchester's hospitality high fliers - not to mention the Hairy Bikers - I dread to think what's on the menu at the annual industry bash for, say, the people who make plastic, or sell air conditioning.
Nevertheless, some joy was available. As ever, I was on the judging panel for the awards and although not all my first choices picked up gongs, it's lovely to see some hard graft, clever thinking and good cooking being rewarded. And the winners are:
Retail outlet: Barbakan, Chorlton
Healthy and sustainable: Gabriel's Kitchen
Coffee bar and casual dining: Folk, West Didsbury
Family friendly: Dough (presented, masterfully, to strains of Kylie and Robbie's Kids)
Wine list: Gaucho (presented by Corrie's Anthony Cotton, who said "I'm going to burp, sorry. After one bottle, they all taste the f*cking same")
Pub: The Lass O'Gowrie
Newcomer: Damson, Heaton Moor
Chef: Ian Matfin, Abode
Restaurant: The Modern
Henrietta Green, who was sitting next to me, rather sweetly enquired who Noddy Holder was when he took the stage to give the lifetime achievement award to George Bergier. Quite rightly, the silver charmer got a standing ovation as he extolled the virtues of education, service and product knowledge. Perhaps he could take The Palace in hand.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Monday, October 05, 2009
Friday, October 02, 2009
It's much easier to produce something pretty and cute for a christening or girl's birthday than it is to come up with a manly cake which doesn't rely on a comedy golf theme, so I went for simple and colourful. Even this required a visit to our local cake decorating shop for supplies, and apart from eating the sponge offcuts slathered with raspberry jam, this might be my favourite part of the process.
Sugarcraft shops, where they bake on site and decorate behind the counter as well as selling bits of specialist kit, have a lovely sweet smell and a language all their own. You can have a half-hour conversation about guide sticks, edible glue, drums and dowels, and charmingly, everything still seems to be calculated in inches.The staff tend to be highly skilled and very helpful, and if they're not, you just go somewhere else next time. I could have spent hours looking through the spools of ribbon and little pots of glitter, but I had a cake to make.
If you have a fancy for cake fiddlings but don't know where to start, have a look at Peggy Porschen's website and her first book, Pretty Party Cakes (the new one, Cake Chic, isn't nearly as good). Her designs are ridiculously chic and accomplished, so much so that I've never attempted more than a few of her decorated cookies. But her recipes and quantities for good base cakes and instructions on filling, stacking and icing are immensely useful, right down to the boring stuff like covering the cake board (which I didn't do properly for this one. Fule!).
PP, as I like to think of her, has also let me into one of the professional cake decorator's biggest secrets. Even under a thick mantle of icing, there's no way a sponge cake is going to stay fresh and moist for the many hours between baking, filling, decorating, transportation and the big do. The solution is to give the sponge a liberal soaking with sugar syrup, flavoured with vanilla, lemon or booze, before you put it all together. It's this discovery that means I'll be able to hang around at the party rather than scampering off, shamefaced, while everyone wonders why that nice-looking cake tastes like sawdust.
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Monday, September 28, 2009
If you're after the full round-up of gongs, you're best off with Caterer, but from 20 awards, the highlights were a nice spread of out-of-London winners and Raymond Blanc's acceptance of his lifetime achievement award. We were treated to archive film showing off Blanc's luxuriant haircuts past, before halfway through a humble, earnest speech, a tired and emotional John Burton Race leapt onto the stage. I thought it was going to go a bit Kanye West, but the white-haired kitchen lothario kept it to, "He's the most fantastic bloody cook we've got. I love him!" before bounding off.
Other winners, who received an air kiss from host Natasha Kaplinsky, resplendent in cerise, included Sat Bains for his new ranking of five AA rosettes, Marcus Wareing, a very popular winner of the Chefs' Chef award, and Richard Corrigan, whose Mayfair restaurant was chosen as AA Restaurant of the Year London. Predictably, though, given that the audience was largely men of a certain age, the biggest whoop whoop went to Glynn Purnell. Apart from being a figure of merriment and delight in the industry and winner of AA Restaurant of the Year England, he took it upon himself to kiss and squeeze Kappers with the enthusiasm of a sailor home on shore leave.
Monday nights, when many restaurants close, are a fine time for this kind of event, but the tiredness was showing for chefs who may normally be snoozing on their night off. Poor Helene Darroze looked thoroughly exhausted and made her excuses soon after the lovely people from The Connaught, whose table I was on, picked up their award for Hotel of the Year London. And as I passed Angela Hartnett on the way out, she could be heard to respond to the suggestion of further drinks and dancing with, "Christ, no. It's Monday night!" A woman after my own heart. And so to bed.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Nonetheless, we persevere.
This week's duff-looking curry comes courtesy of Michelle Hart, a Manchester PR who persuaded Danny Moore of Intafood to send me something nice in the post. Now, freebies or no freebies, H'n'H does not endorse rubbish names, and Intafood is most definitely one of those. But they have had a good idea which is especially useful if you live in the land that integration forgot. Away from the urban whirl, we're no more likely to be able to score lime leaves than a bag of brown, so Intafood's Thai green curry recipe pack (£2.99 inc postage) is a marvel.
You get a pack of little sachets containing green curry paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, Thai holy basil and lime leaves, and a shopping list for bits like coconut milk, aubergine and whatever protein you fancy. Follow the instructions on the back, adding the contents to the pan in order, and you end up with a curry that has the correct tangy whiff of fish sauce, lime and unswept streets which Tim recognises from past Thai holidays.
The greens won't like it – there are too many bits of plastic – but we did, especially because, unlike a lot of off-the-shelf curry action, it has a bit of poke to it. The Inta dudes also do packs for teriyaki, Sechuan and other dishes, and they all include at least one ingredient that's hard to find. It's a business plan with a natural end, of course – it wasn't too long ago that coconut milk was a mystery to most supermarkets, and baby, just look at us now – but for the moment, it's not a bad idea.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
The first episode in what I’m sure will be an extremely pleasurable occasional series allowed me to do both. The teenagers behind the tea counter at Altrincham Garden Centre are unfailingly sullen, but the scones they push over the counter with a grunt and a scowl are home made and often still warm. So it was that, looking out over the sheds and planters of the nursery, we conducted Hale and Hearty’s first Cream Tea Appraisal.
It was my friend Bryony who first alerted me to the notion that we may have an award-winning scone on the doorstep (she lives in Sale). Since then, it has become our Sunday afternoon refuge of choice, and we have tackled many thorny issues – work, mainly, leavened by the occasional family trauma – in the garden centre's conservatory. We may be sporting decorating trousers and greasy hair (it’s the weekend, innit?) but by virtue of our relative youth, it’s the one place we still look pretty dashing.
The fruit scone was overbaked, dark and far too crusty, and the plain one, though light enough inside, lacked the kind of scone magic conjured at The Wolseley (although I have heard bad things about it recently), the Ballymaloe House cafe, and – very occasionally – in my own kitchen via Delia and some rare good luck. As the Apprentice voiceover man would say, Emma’s search for a good scone continues. And if I get to the south west before the baby’s born, it’s going into overdrive. Who could deny a pregnant woman a cream tea or three?