Saturday, November 28, 2009

Life of pie

I've just written a piece about mince pies, and as soon as I'd filed it, I had the urge to make some. It's too early, of course – this kind of caper should be saved for December – but the giant jar of mincemeat Tim brought back from Saino's should last all the way through to Christmas. The ones above are ready for their sugar sprinkles. I've just eaten the 'and', and I must say that using lard in the pastry is a masterstroke. Delia's masterstroke.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A work of tart

Sue Lawrence is regarded as a bit of a goddess round our house. She was a Masterchef winner in the Loyd Grossman era and went on to write several straightforward, spirited cookery books including one about her native Scotland and my favourite, Sue Lawrence’s Book of Baking. She’s a member of the Guild of Food Writers, as am I, and although our paths have never crossed I am told that she is a) lovely, and b) very slender for a woman who writes such brilliant cake recipes.

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

Come fly with me

Could you use some exotic booze? (And, really, who couldn't – we could only rustle up an M&S champers bottle and some old Absolut for the picture accompanying this post). Well, hold on to your hat. According to this Caterer story, Manchester Airport plans to restyle a decommissioned Terminal 1 control tower as a bar.

And not just any bar, either. "We're hoping this becomes a venue to rival some of the city centre's most sophisticated venues," says the airport's commercial director. "Our intention is to produce an experience that far exceeds all current expectations of a great bar."

An admirable ambition, but a tall order – even if you sidestep the question of what exactly qualifies as a sophisticated venue. Manchester has some skyline bars already, of course: Cloud 23 in Beetham Tower and The Modern at Urbis, coincidentally home to some tasty golden-age-of-air-travel graphic design. Both have that must-visit quality that doesn't necessarily translate into atmosphere or repeat custom. And airport catering? Rare is the table that hasn't left Hale and Hearty with the urge for a fistful of reds from the in-flight service.

Still, the airport project has USPs. Like, say, it's in an airport control tower. You can expect the 360-degree panoramas that are – I'm assuming – handy for air traffic control. Then there's the rural setting, albeit relative in the context of an international travel hub. It's also not a strictly airside concern. Get the right operator and the Cheshire fringe could have a new favourite watering hole.

Sinatra, of course, would have had you straight through check-in and non-stop to Mumbai. But then, he also thought you might enjoy a one-man band in 'llama land', so the sensible money's on waiting to see what happens next. If it opens, I'll certainly go.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Starry, starry nights, part two: Per Se

We booked our New York trip in a bit of a hurry, and as I excitedly outlined our eating plans to my friend Clarissa Hyman, her brow darkened with worry. Not only were we planning to visit Per Se, but we were excited about it. This, she suggested, may not be wise.

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.

The lobster course, a huge hunk butter-poached and served with a creamy lemon dressing, ribbons of radishes and a silky cabbage puree (I know. Cabbage!) was another topper, and enough to make the chef who cooked my lobster at Jean Georges weep with shame. Tim was horrified by the cheese course, a slice of ragingly creamy goats' cheese with pickled mushrooms (he hates good cheese and vinegar), but I thought it was great. And I will never know how to say 'mignardises' correctly, but I do know that even after nine courses, plus canapes, there's always room for a salted caramel truffle plucked from a custom-made, triple-decker silver trinket box.

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

I am the egg man (limited edition)

Here's how to do scrambled eggs: mix in some black truffle and serve with garlicky Lyonnaise potatoes and a croissant. You'll pay $14 for it at New York's esteemed Brasserie (add $5 for a side order of streaky bacon, plus $3.50 for coffee... maybe another $8 for fruit... then tax and tip), so it's not cheap. But it is delicious.

Brasserie's a characterful place, all told. It's 50 this year, with Sunday brunch big on English teas and family gatherings. The latter pack out a basement space decorated like a cross between a Prague subway station and the set of The F Word, with chairs that would fit right in at Manchester's old Simply Heathcotes.

Speaking of which, Paul Heathcote's Spanish restaurant, Grado, used to do a moreish truffly scrambled egg. Unless I'm missing something on the menus online, it isn't there any more. An incentive, if ever there was one, to try something similar at home.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cafe Metro: UK update

You'll recall Hale and Hearty recently blogged about the number of outlets bent on putting the Metro into metropolis, but here's an example closer to home.

While we naturally take all due care not to imply any resemblance between this panini, sandwich and refillable hot beverage joint – on Moss Lane in Altrincham, opposite the ramp down to the station – and newspapers living or dead is anything other than coincidental, that font does look mighty familiar.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Starry, starry nights, part one: Jean Georges

I took part in a rigorous fine-dining press trip in Las Vegas earlier this year and, when all the truffles and gold-dusted Rice Krispies were said and done, I began to suspect that an American Michelin star is not quite the same as a European one. The big star places were nice and all that, but they weren't up there with Lyon's Bocuse (three) or Nicolas Le Bec (two, and so exciting and wonderful that it's become our benchmark for posh eating). Now we're in New York, we're putting that theory to the test. What do you mean, we should be saving for the baby's shoes? He won't be able to walk for months.

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

Seafood wearing hats

One summer in Coney Island, my friend Louis and I paid 50 cents a go to view such quaint sideshow delights as the two-headed baby (actually a poorly rendered plastic infant in a large bell jar). That famous stretch of Brooklyn beachfront - faded glamour in the best possible way - is pretty much closed for business come November, lending a stroll in the late autumn sun an additional melancholy that, say, Weston-super-Mare will never have, with or without its burnt-down pier.

It's a treasure trove of crumbling Americana that would offer riches to even the world's worst photographer. One pleasing quirk I had never noticed, however, was the wearing of hats by the assorted clams, shrimp and crabs that adorn Coney Island's many boardwalk food stalls (you should head straight here, by the way, and skip the overrated hot dogs at Nathan's).

Were we in England, we would have to assume someone has taken the sartorial standard set by Homepride's Fred - faithful servant of the bowler since 1965 - and gone one grander. As we're not, we'll look no further than the topper, if not the cane and monocle, of a certain Mr Peanut.

I am the egg man (calorific uncertainty mix)

The celebratory rough-and-tumble of the New York Yankees' ticker-tape parade called for a robust breakfast. (What do you mean, you didn't hear about that? They won the World Series - everyone had a stake in it.) Before finding a suitable spot 20-odd rows back on Broadway we dropped in at the Europa Cafe on Water Street. Emma had a yoghurt parfait ($3.25) and I ordered Breakfast Special #1 ($4.69).

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

Jamie Oliver: an Essexman in New York

I've been leaving the holiday blogs to Tim because, frankly, it's all I can do to stay awake enough for basic conversation, let alone typing. But something so unlikely happened today that I have returned, briefly, to the typeface. Relish it, people.

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.

We'd just ordered lunch when Jamie Oliver came in. He's apparently working on a primetime eight-part American show which weaves his campaigny threads into one rich, slightly bolshy tapestry. He knows April and needed a kitchen to film in. What are the chances? Small, I tell ye. Anyway, he sat a foot along the banquette with his people and his big hat, trying dishes and explaining that the UK doesn't really have Iron Chef, while we had lunch.

It's a raw, rich, meaty menu and for me, the options were limited - everything seemed to involve goats' cheese, mayo made with raw eggs, and tantalisingly rare meat. I was pleasantly surprised by what I had dismissed as the ladies' option, to be served with a glass of fruit juice and a smirk. Sea bass with wilted, caramelised treviso and a punch-packing anchovy sauce was done well and, as they say on the Food Network, 'flavorful'.

Tim's lamb burger with cumin mayo and thrice-cooked chips (stolen, we heard the boss confide in Jamie, from the Hinds Head. No surprises there) worked very well as a kind of Middle Eastern slant on a Western classic. To finish, we shared an Eton mess quite unlike any we'd had before in that, being a whole meringue with a drizzle of lemony cream and a sprinkling of crunchy pistachios, it was categorically not an Eton mess. Good, though.

As we left, we noticed a huge SUV parked on one side of the road, and a sporty, sheeny pale blue scooter on the other. I imagine his Joliver a bit like David Cameron, wheeling along carefree while a big car follows with all the necessary equipment. But we'll never know - unless he turns up at dinner time, too.

Simple things, done well

There's an art to doing simple things well. Last night we went to Les Halles (see previous post) and, reasoning that a much-respected brasserie should be able to do justice to brasserie classics, ordered some. I had the steak frites (pictured) and creme brulee. See these on the menu of many UK restaurants and I'm not sure what is more off-putting: their familiarity as dishes, or the familiarity of the pitfalls in their execution. At Les Halles they were pretty much faultless.

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 other Hale and Hearty

Naturally, readers of this blog have excellent taste: chances are you have the site bookmarked to make it easy to check for updates. But imagine, if you will, the nightmare scenario. You're away from your regular computer, and our address momentarily escapes you. A quick Googling is called for - at which point your top hit may well be for a chain of New York soup shops.

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)

Lawn in the USA

The lobby of our hotel, where I'm writing this, is known as The Living Room. Last night it hosted an extended cocktail hour as Andrew Butler - him out of Hercules And Love Affair - played vintage disco; right now, it's filling up with suits taking advantage of the free wi-fi and plentiful green apples. The small tables double as chess and backgammon boards, restrained deep house skitters away on the PA and a couple of walls are backdrops for what in the rave days we called 'visuals'. It's not yet 9am.

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

Cafe Metro: Eat well, live well!

Visit any English-speaking major city and it's unlikely to be long before you're confronted with a multiplicity of metro-themed branding. Shops, services, commuter newspapers... you know the drill. New York is no exception. Our first morning here even offered some Metro Drugs; not something you would associate with my old beat (it was actually a pharmacy). Before we stumbled across that, though, there was this breakfast spot two blocks north of our hotel.

It maybe goes without saying that there's a Cafe Metro - or Metro Cafe, I don't have the data to hand - next to the Metrolink line on Manchester's High Street. As far as I recall that one doesn't sell syrup-heavy stacks of waffles, or favour the gratuitous excitement of an exclamation mark in an up-and-at-'em slogan, but it does do pretty decent fry-ups.

We took a different tack this morning: a Metro espresso and cinnamon Danish on the hoof, followed by good eggs benedict at Markt, an airy Belgian-themed place on Avenue Of The Americas. Lunch involved an opportunistic drop-in at Goodburger, back over on Lexington Avenue. They do, well, good burgers - very good, in fact. And there's an echo of Greater Manchester here, too: if you ask us, that branding is pure Mr Scruff.

Monday, November 02, 2009

I am the egg man (Aldo Buzzi remix)

One perk of working from home is the opportunity to cook your own breakfast at a sociable hour – in my case, one that might more properly be described as brunch-time. Eggs – they make you strong, apparently – have been a fixture, so I was pleased to stumble across a new but essentially foolproof recipe in an old review paperback.

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.

Jones adds a few tips of his own. Toast should be served on the side, rather than under the egg; use a duck egg (bigger, if surprisingly hard to come by given Hale and Hearty has rolling countryside south to Stoke and west to Chester); only cook one of them.

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: please 'cheese' me

My friend Lindsay has suddenly become a very tough woman to please, dinner-wise. She's always been prone to the odd bout of smoothie-making, but this time she's gone into hardcore detox mode. She's been feeling a bit rough recently, which she puts down to eating crap, drinking too much, and occasionally buying an Upper Crust baguette to eat on the train home from work, and then lying about it. According to her new tough-love regime, she can now effectively only eat raw vegetables. So when I met her for dinner in London last week, there was only one place for it: Saf.

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.