Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Marc Wilkinson comes to civilisation

I haven't got much against the Wirral, except that depending on which bit of it you're going to, it can take ages to get there. A recent visit to Heswall involved two trains and two buses and took two-and-a-half hours – no wonder that, against all the odds and a bump that gets in the way of what my instructor calls 'peep and creep', I'm trying to learn to drive.

One of the nicest things about the peninsula, apart from my mate Liz and her lovely baby daughter Nancy, is Marc Wilkinson's restaurant, Fraiche, in Oxton. He works alone, very hard, and his food is great: inventive without being stupid. His Michelin star, awarded last year after a frustrating wait, is well deserved.

After being clouted (accidentally) in the heed by a pensioner on the bus, my day has improved considerably with the news that Marc will be plying his craft in Manchester for one night only. Harvey Nichols have just sent news that he'll be cooking a 40-cover dinner in their restaurant on January 25, showing off dishes from his signature menu, which is the one between entry level and 'hold on lads, I'm going mental'. Five courses with matching wines, water, coffee and service is £90, which is perfectly reasonable for a taste of Fraiche without the tear-stained Merseyrail ticket and 40-minute delay at Chester, where they have helpfully demolished the ladies' loos on platform 7.

It should be the most confident, interesting food that's been served at Harvey Nichols for a while, and hopefully he'll be bringing Gemma, his young and extremely capable front of house, to oversee service. And it's a Monday night, so there should be plenty of off-duty chefs in attendance. That could make for extra sport, especially if they get drunk and start throwing stuff at me. It's always a risk.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Kitchen W8

There's nothing like gastric distress to ruin a girl's birthday weekend in the big smoke, but before things went bad we did at least get a few proper dinners in. Chief among them was Kitchen W8, Philip Howard's relatively new venture just off Kensington High Street. Howard has two Michelin stars at The Square, has faithfully cooked at Nigel Haworth's Northcote food festival every year since it began, and has talked openly about overcoming his addictions to drugs and booze, which has nothing to do with anything but makes me suspect that he's a good egg.

He's not on the hobs at Kitchen W8 – head chef is his former sous, Mark Kempson – but between them they've mustered enough humour and lateral chefly thinking to take the blander edges off a sleek, mushroom-coloured dining room. Dishes from The Square have been transferred and tweaked, and between them they've turned game into a hot dog, made a girly fish dish into something obscenely, satisfyingly luxurious, and upended the ubiquitous lemon tart so that creme fraiche, usually the accompaniment, becomes the star of the show.

If ever a dish was designed to catch the eyes of food geeks and restaurant critics, it's the starter of game consomme with bacon cream and a small game hot dog. It's like the protein in two services (suckling pig and a sausage roll, p'raps) at Hibiscus: ignoring it would be unnatural. The hot dog, in a brioche bun with a seam of home-made brown sauce, was neither here nor there, but the mug of soup was like a wet, hot, immaculately clarified country house. It tasted of leather, cigars, mahogany and tweed, and the bacon cream benefited hugely from being proper cream rather than wishy foam. A little arrangement of 'thinly sliced' smoked eel with grilled mackerel really had been through the mandolin. The paper-thin approach makes for effective flavour delivery, but the slices were slightly weighed down by hefty chunks of yellow beetroot, some of which retained too much rootiness.

Howard seems to like putting cheese in odd places (see the passion fruit and lime mess with Brillat-Savarin cream), and halibut with a Beaufort crust is a Square classic. Here, and I'm sure there, the crust is a fine, elegant affair the colour of pale gold, and the accompaniments, a sweep of cauliflower puree and buttery 'melted' onions, are brutally rich; on a plate of beiges and yellows, I missed greenery. Ox tongue with shallot puree and a foie gras baked potato reflected the incipient trend for posh spud stuffings, and reflected it well.

A visit to Lutyens a couple of weeks ago confirmed that while restaurants are still happy to serve chocolate fondants, they're reluctant to admit it. So while theirs, when it's on, is called hot chocolate cake, Kitchen W8's is known as a warm bitter chocolate pudding. It is extraordinarily good, but of more interest is the caramelised creme fraiche tart. Wobbly and sweetly farmyardy, the creme fraiche takes the place of a lemon tart filling, while the lemon curd, in a blob and an ice cream, is relegated to the sidelines. It's a quiet joke which works extremely well.

We were in and out for under ninety quid, especially sweet since we'd been at the River Café the night before, and, as is customary, paid the bill in a manner best described as half willing, half wincing. It's nice to know that, should you wish, it's cheaper to be cossetted in Kensington than mildly patronised in a barn in Hammersmith.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Chef's hat

I took this picture (click to enlarge) in Hyde Park this morning, on the path out of Winter Wonderland. It's a rather chilly-looking Heston Blumenthal, preparing to do some filming. If you could pan around to the right, you'd see a camera crew, several runners and a not particularly effective canopy; to the left, the shadow of the 'Bavarian village' and a not particularly festive ghost train. Anyway, it was just starting to rain, so we didn't hang about. Stay tuned, as they used to say...

Friday, December 04, 2009

The apples of our eyes

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.