Thursday 31 May 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona

Another month, another handful of Michelin Stars to add to the old scrapbook. Yes, sometimes I think I do lead a rather charmed life, at least for the fleeting moments before my credit card bills arrive. El Cellar de Can Roca is a haute cuisine destination restaurant, thanks to its two Michelin stars, and is located in an unassuming (read: dull) suburb of the otherwise lovely city of Girona, Catalonia. It is run by three brothers - who in an almost mythical separation of duties handle the savoury courses, the desserts, and the wine, in turn. It seems to be a very Spanish thing to have family-run cooperative restaurants rather than a named chef, as I've spotted this a few times in the Michelin entries in the area; perhaps there's just less ego at play regarding food here than in France or the UK. You wouldn't find Gordon Ramsay sharing cooking duties with his brother - partly because Gordon has an ego the size of a planet, but mainly because his brother is a recovering heroin addict, and you need a steady hand for those lobster ravioli.

After being kept waiting and ignored for about half an hour in the waiting room area - not a great start - we were seated in a windowless room and the service picked up a bit. Amuse-bouches were a selection of various deep fried thingies including some home-made Quavers - sorry I mean cod crackers.

They were very nice though, melted in the mouth and had a huge amount of flavour.

Then - another nice surprise - a second pre-starter arrived, a trilogy of fois gras thingy, cauliflower somethingorother and indistinguishable brown doodah. Sorry, the waiter did do his best in pidgin English to explain what they were but a combination of the accent and the fact that they weren't on the menu means I can't really say much about them. Tasty though.

Starter was an apple and fois gras tartelets, and don't they look lovely? The flavour combination was astonishing too - anything sweet goes well with fois gras but the apple seemed to work particularly well and the crispy almonds on top were a good texture contrast. There was also quite a lot of food here for a starter, and for a self-confessed glutton such as myself this also won points. A very nice dish, if slightly overseasoned.

My next course was a pork terrine, and unfortunately I have to say I didn't like this one at all. It was very rich, just a big slab of fatty meat on a plate with not much else going on, and I was hugely disappointed. It was also massively over salted. Maybe I was missing something, but I couldn't help thinking that even at the highest levels of fine dining some tastes must just be so subjective that making every dish appeal to everyone is an impossible task. Or perhaps Catalan cuisine is sometimes too bizarre for it's own good.

The dessert was another surreal experimental masterpiece - a "lactic dessert" they called it, and once you'd got over the disgusting name it was nice enough. It was basically milk done a number of different ways (ice-cream, custard, etc.), with a little piece or two of fruit tucked inside to give it flavour. And perched on top like a toupee was an impressive quiff of silver candyfloss, which was probably quite tricky to make with milk but tasted like... candyfloss. Sugary. Still, you have to admire their imagination.

Wines suggested throughout were always spot-on, even if they did take the mick a little bit with a €40 glass of Muscat to go with the fois gras. I've had this happen to me before at the Greenhouse in Mayfair so really I should be wary of any fois-gras pairings - the waiter helpfully pointed out this eyebrow-raising item on the bill at the end, with a cheery smile. Perhaps he thought that even if I couldn't send it back by this stage, he'd at least have a good laugh at my expense. Well done him. And talking of the bill, the damage was around €120 per head, which puts it in the cheaper end of the 2* establishments in Europe, so definitely worth the trip down in the hire car. However overall I'd still have to say I left Can Roca slightly underwhelmed; it was a little disappointing to discover that Spanish food even at this level can fall foul of the same bugbears I have for 90% of the restaurants in this country, namely, too fatty, too oily, too salty, too much. But as an evening's entertainment it was very pleasant, and as another couple of stars to add to my personal roster it came at a reasonable price. But give me another lunch at Calella any day - when simple food can be that good, why try any harder?


Wednesday 30 May 2007

The Food Room, Battersea

Sometimes I think I'm really spoiled. At one end of my road, not 5 minutes walk away, is the Fox and Hounds, gastropub extraordinaire. And at the other, on an otherwise barren stretch of Queenstown Road, are two restaurants bravely setting out to create a mini foodie haven in my little corner of Battersea. One is a new Argentinian steakhouse called Santa Maria de Buen Ayre, which I'm sure I'll get round to visiting one day but have been put off slightly by the way they keep huge amounts of meat piled-up ready-cooked on the grill by the window. One tip for restaurants - if you're going to have the kitchen on show, make sure it looks like you're cooking nice fresh food and not just preparing for a nuclear holocaust.

Anyway just next door to this South American upstart is The Food Room, a low-key establishment aimed squarely at being nothing more than a "good local restaurant" - think Chez Bruce in Wandsworth or Lambert's in Balham. In fact, I've started to notice quite a few nice little local restaurants scattered around South London just at the moment - it's a very pleasing trend.

And what's more pleasing is that the Food Room is actually very good indeed. Our welcome was both French AND friendly - quite an extraordinary feat to pull off - although admittedly being the only diners in the restaurant all evening, I don't suppose the staff were overstretched. The homemade parmesan bread and tomato bread were tasty enough, and the glass of prosecco that came with our cheapo Toptable menu (£19.50 for three courses - brilliant value) went down very well.

Things really got interesting when my starter arrived - a perfectly cooked couple of pieces of crispy red mullet with a gorgeously creamy garlicky potato salad. Texture played a big part in this dish, and it also looked fantastic - a delight for all the senses! Top marks for this one.

I opted to pay the £5 supplement for beef fillet, fois gras & truffle sauce (well of course I did), and this was great. Perfectly cooked beef, probably could have done with a little more flavour, but saved by a lovely big slab of fois on top and a smooth winey sauce. If nothing else it was worth ordering just to have these otherwise premium ingredients at such a bargain price. I imagine lots of restaurants would have charged the same for this one dish as I paid for the entire meal, and I bet it wouldn't have been as good. It's also worth mentioning at this point that a fellow diner's pork medallions in red wine & rosemary sauce with parsnip mash was declared the best meal she'd had in months, so full points there too.

Dessert was an interesting dish - coriander parfait with maple roasted pineapple. The parfait had a rather offputting dry texture, and it had probably been prepared a while in advance as an extra dish was whipped up in a matter of minutes after one of the waitresses got the dessert order slightly wrong. But the actual flavours involved were sound, the sweet coriander working surprisingly well and the maple-roast pineapple being as tasty as you would expect. Nothing spectacular, but no major complaints.

And for three tasty courses, a glass of bubbly and attentive service in nice surroundings, £19.50 is - I'll say again - a hell of a bargain. The only extras were the wine; a nice bottle of Viognier for around £18 and a glass of a medium-bodied Merlot to go with my decadent main. Probably the most bargainous fine dining experience in London at the moment I would hazard a guess. Certainly South London anyway, and it deserves a lot more custom than it appears to be getting. I've been to the Food room 3 or 4 times now and it's never really been very busy, in fact the last couple of times we've been the only people in there. All credit to the staff, the food and service is always of a very high standard, but I'm desperately worried that this situation can't continue. Six covers a night isn't enough to sustain any restaurant midweek. So fingers crossed for the future of the Food Room - with cooking of this quality, it deserves to be packed to the rafters every day.


Tuesday 29 May 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Tragamar, Calella de Palafrugell

Thanks to the international reputation of restaurants such as Can Fabes, Can Roca and of course El Bulli, Catalonia's star is currently shining very brightly in the foodie universe. Labelled somewhat loosely as Nou Cuina (Catalan for Nouvelle Cuisine, though thankfully not bearing much of a resemblance to mid-80s food experiments with miniscule portions) there's not much that ties these places together other than a desire to please the boys from Michelin and to make a fortune from product endorsements, not that there's anything particularly wrong with that I suppose.

However at the other end of the scale, there's still a great deal of joy to be had from eating at local seafood restaurants, providing you do your research and don't just turn up anywhere expecting the meal of your life. I've still had enough bad experiences in supposedly rated restaurants (coming soon) to prove that Spain isn't - yet - as universally accomplished as France when it comes to regional cooking, but it's all moving in the right direction.

Perhaps it's also worth noting that if the sheer beauty of a restaurant's location can help you look kindly upon niggles with the food itself, then it's probably no coincidence that the Costa Brava finds itself so regularly lauded, with scenes like these:

This is the bay of Calella de Palafrugell, a stunning stretch of coastline in an area not short of stunning stretches of coastline. And nestled in amongst the whitewashed buildings on the beach is Tragamar, an old favourite from holidays past and never one to disappoint when looking for a good lunch. Don't expect me to translate all the items on the Catalan menu, but here we have clams in a kind of white wine/vinegar sauce, and very tasty it was too. The only thing I'd say is that I wish they weren't so rough with the clams because there were quite a few smashed and splintered shells hiding in that dish and eating them was a bit tricky without ripping your gums apart.

The main was pork medallions with shallots and (I think) bitter chocolate sauce, with a spectacular spray of fried red sweet potato on top, which as well as looking amazing really complimented the sweet sauce very well. Hidden round the back there are parsnip chips, and notice how lovely and pink the pork is. I really enjoyed this one.

And to prove that this presentation wasn't a one-off, here's a friend's monkfish main:

I'm told that this was good, not spectacular, but fine for a quick lunch. Which is all we wanted, so we skipped desert and headed back out into the blazing sunshine of a fresh April afternoon. Friendly, reasonably priced and characterful, Tragamar is the kind of place you wish existed in every seaside resort in Spain, but of course this is not an ideal world. I suppose the great con trick is that good local places make it all look so easy you wonder why everywhere isn't like this, until you try somewhere on spec and have a terrible meal and you realise "oh yeah, it's not that easy after all, is it?". But while the sun shines over Calella, Tragamar will continue to cast a spell over the discerning holidaymakers of Catalonia.


P.S. As we ate out quite a lot in Spain, I'm going to send the next few reviews through in installments. So stay tuned for more of the good and the bad of Catalonia 2007.

Thursday 24 May 2007

Galvin at Windows, Hilton Park Lane

On the 28th floor of the Hilton Park Lane, there's a restaurant tipped for its first Michelin star next year. Officially tipped that is, with something called an 'Espoir', handed out by Michelin to places which aren't quite good enough "yet". I'm not sure I agree with this new system; if somewhere is tipped to get one soon, is that a guaranteed thing? Or can an espoir sometimes come to nothing? If somewhere isn't quite good enough yet, why not just wait and give it a proper star next year, rather than just tease them with an Espoir before finally saying "ah no, actually turns out your truffle veloute wasn't actually as good as I remembered, we'll have that Espoir back thank you very much". Furthermore, if an Espoir becomes a coveted title in its own right, the natural progression is for Michelin to start giving out "Espoir Espoirs", for places that are likely to be good enough next year to get a Michelin star the year after that. It all just seems a bit silly.

However, if it is possible to get any satisfaction from such a flimsy accolade, then Galvin at Windows should. The quality of the food and ingredients was in the most part very good, and the level of service as you would expect from anywhere starry.

Service was attentive to the point of mania at times, with very cross words exchanged between two waiters who noticed that one of our party had to fill his own glass up with water. Staff were so desperate to pass the "napkin test" that they whipped the napkin out of mid-air just as I dropped it on my seat on the way to the toilet. It seemed that the relatively cramped room was stuffed so full of waiters there was barely enough room for the customers, and it was all a bit overwhelming at first, but it's funny how a glass of Aperitif du Maison (a Strawberry Bellini) can soon settle the mind.

The amuse-bouches were really really great. A kind of truffle-infused cracker with a heavily flavoured goats cheese pate on top, very difficult to describe but incredible flavour and texture contrasts. Went down very well with all concerned.

A starter of Asparagus Veloute and soft-boiled quails egg was full of flavour and looked very pretty. It was a good example of how to make something delicious and unpretentious but still make it look like it belonged in an haute-cuisine dining room. However by the end of the bowl the seasoning was getting a little too overwhelming - a complaint that carried to some degree through all the dishes on offer. Seasoning is a very personal thing, and for any chef you will find as many people that think they underseason than overseason, but I have to say, based on my own experience, that Galvin really likes his salt.

The main was really lovely - Coquelet (kind of a teenage chicken apparently, somewhere between a normal chicken and a poussin) with onion and thyme tart, with shallot puree and spinach. There were also some hazelnuts scattered around the plate which gave a great texture contrast. Lots of nice flavours that worked very well together and nothing too weird - classic French cooking really and very enjoyable.

The only slight disappointment was the dessert, which was a very nice subtley-flavoured cheesecake, well presented and surrounded by mini strawberries, good stuff, but with a great big blob of hugely overpowering strawberry sorbet on top, which I had to scrape off and eat separately. A real shame because the cheesecake was really delicious, and so was the sorbet, but together, a bit like a fight between Joe Calzaghe and Russell Brand, there could really only be one winner.

A few interesting little sweeties rounded off the meal, including a delicious homemade chocolate truffle and a slightly less nice passion fruit jelly, which was quite bitter and a bit odd. All-in-all though, it seems those Michelin guys are right on the money once again in spotting a good thing, and I'm sure with a few of the rough edges ironed out we will see the Espoir converted into a first star in 2008. And best of luck to them.


Galvin on Urbanspoon

Monday 14 May 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - New York City

NYC is, as you would expect for a major world city, packed full of incredible places to eat. I have it on good authority that the best steak, best BBQ and best sushi anywhere in the world (including Japan!) can currently be found in the Big Apple. So it's no surprise that those in search of great foodie experiences will find themselves here sooner or later. But just at the moment there's on extra very important reason that the British in particular are interested - the $2 pound. It wasn't long ago that American tourists in London would be fawned over by greedy restaurant and bar owners, a strong US economy and generous tipping culture making these visitors very welcome indeed. Now it seems the tables have turned, and it's the Brits who now find themselves taking advantage of Half Price City over the pond, swanning around like rich arab Sheiks with money to burn. So why not make the most of it while it lasts?

R.U.B. BBQ stands on West 23rd Street, near 7th Avenue, and is, I learn now, very well regarded in its field. I say this because at the time I had no idea whether it was supposed to be good or not, because I'd never heard of it. I visited out of necessity because I was hungry, jet lagged and because it was one block from my hotel. So on this occasion, it turns out my finely-tuned foodie sixth-sense actually worked for once and I was treated to a surprisingly tasty lunch. Rub apparently stands for Righteous Urban Barbecue - I suppose making its full title Righteous Urban Barbecue Barbecue, but let's not be pedantic - and is owned by a guy called Paul Kirk who, when not running this restaurant, travels the length and breadth of the USA on the competition barbecue circuit. I have always been slightly obsessed by the idea of competition barbecuing, and desperately want to go to one in the future. Only in America is the correct way to cook pulled pork turned into a competitive sport. Beats watching the snooker anyway.

So here we have buffalo chicken wings, half a barbecued chicken, onion rings, BBQ beans and something called "greens" which certainly included spinach as well as a couple of other ingredients I wouldn't like to commit to. And apart from the chicken being a little dry (we shouldn't have ordered it really - part of me knew that it would have been sitting around a little while because they can't get many orders for chicken in a place like this, but there you go) it was mainly delicious. The wings in particular had a lovely spicy flavour and the huge mound of onion rings were devoured in minutes. I can't remember how much we paid but I don't think it was more than £10 in total, and service was perfectly suited to the informal room - friendly and attentive. My first meal in New York, completely on-spec, and it was a hit!

R.U.B. BBQ - 7/10

Our evening meal that same day was selected in a similarly random fashion. I had fancied an early-evening cocktail in the Plaza Athenee on Central Park, but it was closed for renovations, so instead we rolled up to the Hudson Hotel on West 58th Street. It was a lovely warm evening and the garden bar was packed to the gills, but we managed to grab a couple of seats at the bar at the Cafeteria, an impressive converted warehouse with a lively central kitchen island. The decor everywhere in this hotel was very impressive - at least I think it was because for some reason the lighting is so subdued you needed eyes like an owl to make your way to the gents without bumping into something. A friend did warn me of New York's tendency to use very low light after dark - apparently it's to make your date look good.

It wasn't initially our intention to eat here, but the menus looked very interesting so we found ourselves ordering such delicacies as lobster cocktail, tuna tartare and fois gras. Those are three separate dishes, you'll be relieved to hear. The lobster cocktail was tasty if not astonishingly good, however where else at the moment can you get something so decadent (it was topped with caviar) for £10? The tuna was declared "delicious" and my fois gras was cooked perfectly. Cocktails were good enough and service was a bit stressed (every seat in the house was taken, it
seems) but I have since learned that you come to the Hudson for the atmosphere and experience. It's a bit of a "see and be seen" place - a New York equivalent of London's Sanderson. The only real disappointment was a creme brulee which really didn't have much going for it, but all in all it was a very enjoyable way to fend off the jet lag for a few hours. I think the bill came to about £2.50. Not really, but it wasn't much.

The Cafeteria at the Hudson Hotel - 6/10

Peter Luger's steakhouse in Brooklyn is considered one of the "must-visit" restaurants in the world, and has been a New York institution for the best part of 100 years. It is very popular, and getting a table can be a bit hit and miss, but we were lucky enough to have friends in lower Manhattan who did the hard work for us before we arrived in town. So it is here we found ourselves heading to in a taxi on the Sunday night, bombing across Brooklyn Bridge with huge wads of dollars in our pockets (Luger's is cash only).

Now lots of restaurants are very very popular and usually very difficult to get into, for various different reasons. Sometimes it is the reputation of the chef (Gordon Ramsay's comes to mind), sometimes relative value and location (Busaba Eatthai on Wardour Street) and sometimes just for serving great food. But you would hope, no matter how difficult a place has been to secure a booking at, once inside and at your table, service will not take advantage of their reputation and will try very hard to make your stay pleasant.

Not so Peter Luger's.

After being kept waiting half an hour, pushed around and shouted at by waiters in a frantically busy stretch of corridor despite being on time for our allotted booking, we were unceremoniously ushered to our table. Here is where, in any normal restaurant, you would be handed the menus but no - we had been informed that this is not considered the done thing; you had to just ask for "steak" and hope for the best. A thought did cross my mind that perhaps we'd better check the price, but that would have also been against protocol.

Luckily for all involved, when the food did arrive, it was quite amazingly good. Strips of bacon were deliciously flavoured and had just the right balance of juicy fat and smokey flesh. The spinach side was buttery and seasoned well, and the fat meaty prawns (or rather shrimp) tasted lovely and fresh. Best of all though - steak of course. Blackened and crispy on the outside, pink and juicy inside, dripping gorgeous fatty juices and tasting like beefy heaven, this really was the perfect example of its kind. Almost worth putting up with the rest of it for, and - dare I say it - at least as good, if not better, than the steaks at Hawksmoor, and probably about half the price.

So really there wasn't any problem with the food, and I don't mind having to empty my bank account of cash before I visit, if that helps them. What I object to is being taken for granted as a customer and for Peter Luger's to just assume that being treated like crap and looked at as a worthless tourist for asking for a menu is an acceptable part of a traditional New York experience. It's all very well saying "it's all about the food", but I draw the line at being abused and insulted for wanting to eat good steak. I get enough of that at work. Apparently Luger's sell the same gorgeously aged steaks from their butchers shop - you can order online. I bet if I bought up the premises next door and sold the same food with a smile on my face I'd make a killing. Worth thinking about.

Peter Luger's - 6/10 (9 for food, 3 for service)

Which more or less brings us to the end of my little trip to the states. Monday lunchtime I also came across one of the many "original", "famous", etc. Ray's Pizza parlours, and had a very mediocre pizza in a room full of screaming schoolchildren fresh out of the science museum. There's not much else to say about this, but here are the photos anyway:

After a 7-hour flight back to Gatwick, and 24 hours to get over the jetlag, I then hopped on another plane to the Costa Brava. A few reviews of restaurants there, in what is fast becoming one of the gastronomic hot spots of Europe, are on their way.