Friday, January 29, 2010

Ken Hom's hot wok

In Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires, she describes taking a whirlwind, whiskey-fuelled tour of Flushing's Chinese restaurants with Ken Hom. Before reading it, I thought of him mainly in connection with the garlicky pages of our copy of Foolproof Chinese Cookery (the spicy chicken with peanuts is a favourite, although it demands a lot of chopping). Afterwards, I realised how much he knows, how long he's been at it, and that he shares the excitement about finding the good stuff that's common to most food people.

I was surprised to see him on the list of guest chefs for this year's Obsession festival at Northcote – the restaurant he consults for is in Bangkok and he lives between there and France, neither of which is handy for the Ribble Valley. Apparently, Atul Kochar was instrumental in setting up last night's event, and on screens in the dining room we watched Hom, 60, darting about the Northcote kitchen with a glass of white in his hand, tasting, plating and overseeing the service of his five-course menu.

Highlights were Vietnamese rice paper-wrapped spring rolls, served with crisp iceberg lettuce and leaves of basil, coriander and mint to form a fresh outer layer, and a poky dipping sauce with lots of lime. I don't generally see a recipe for a simple square of pale steamed fish and think 'yum', so the steamed turbot with ginger and spring onions and a soy and sesame dressing was an unusual treat, and pud – warm slices of perfect mango with basil leaves and vanilla ice cream – was great too. This being Northcote, the whole lot was bookended with excellent warm bread, a cheese course and coffee with tiny, very loveable Eccles cakes, and served with warm professionalism and humour.

The company was great, too; a communal table included Sam Allardyce and his wife (he likes elvers, she finds octopus freaky), Angela Hartnett (hates Tesco, loves Steven Gerrard), William Hunter (grows an awful lot of carrots) and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines. A Czech child refugee and one of Winton's children, she's past 80, full of life and devoted to helping young Czechs who work in hospitality find their feet over here. She's also better with a knife and fork than chopsticks, which made me feel a lot better about my own ineptitude.

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