Wednesday 18 July 2007

Cheese of the Month - Stinking Bishop

Well we've gone featurette crazy here at Cheese and Biscuits this month. I think it's long overdue that I had something on the site to justify the name, so what better than a regular spot where we review some of our favourite cheeses from Hamish Johnston. I may have inadvertently given the impression that I visit new restaurants occasionally for the site and eat dinner every other night in the Fox & Hounds - if only! The fact is our kitchen does suffer regular punishment in the evening, although to be honest much of the time the main course is just the necessary filler before we can start on our real love - the cheese.

I can't remember the first time we heard about Stinking Bishop, but it was certainly way before Wallace & Gromit brought it to the attention of the whole country. It's still not available in many places, simply because the guy who makes it, Charles Martell, intentionally keeps the production process small-scale to ensure quality. And boy, does it pay off - Stinking Bishop is a towering achievement, a king of cheeses. The smell is extraordinary, like a marathon runner's unwashed feet, and the sticky rind also invites comparisons with the famously strong French Epoisses cheeses, although unlike the Epoisses, Stinking Bishop's flesh inside is firmer and spongey with small pockets of air. Also, despite the incredibly strong odour, the taste is subtle and fresh, creamy with a slightly nutty aftertaste, and is generally not hot or sulphuric unless it's been allowed to get too warm. The name, by the way, comes from the variety of pear used to make the Perry that the rinds of the cheese are washed with, although I have to admit that I've never picked up on this flavour during tastings myself.

As you have probably guessed by now, I'm a huge fan of Stinking Bishop so this was never going to be anything than a glowing report. It is probably one of the finest cheeses I've ever tried, and believe me I've tried quite a few; in fact it may very well be one of my favourite foodstuffs of any kind. Produced slowly with well-sourced ingredients and with great care, it's a supreme example of how attention to detail and the sheer love of the craft of cheesemaking can produce stellar results. And now I've got that off my chest, perhaps next month I can start being a bit more objective....

Check out Wikipedia for more academic and impartial information on this cheese

Tuesday 10 July 2007

Top 5 Gastropubs in London (that I've been to)

It's not like me to do these little "featurettes", but I've found it increasingly irritating that most of the top-rated gastropubs in London (The White Swan, The Ebury, etc.) are actually not gastropubs at all. A true gastropub should ideally be no-tablecloths, order-at-the-bar, daily-changing-menu and very-rickety-chairs. It should be the kind of place that you should feel equally at home popping in for a pint of lager as a full sit-down meal. If you get silver cutlery, reservations, full table service and a separate dining room upstairs from the bar, well then that's not a gastropub, that's a restaurant. And the distinction is important because the name gastropub makes certain promises to the customer - that the food will be fresh and reasonably priced, the service informal and the surroundings rustic. The gastropub is on its way to becoming a great British institution, so lets celebrate this fact rather than rewarding only those establishments that keep the fine dining crowd happy.

5 - The Cow, 89 Westbourne Park Road, Kensington

A boistrous and characterful place, where you can suck back a dozen oysters with a pint of Guinness whilst watching the footie. That is if you can get a table - it's usually completely rammed in the evening, and only the boring restaurant bit upstairs accepts reservations. However if you're unfortunate enough to live in this otherwise deathly dull area of West London, then you're probably counting your lucky stars The Cow exists at all. So long may it continue.

4 - 32 Great Queen Street, Holborn

Despite my soapboxing above, this isn't actually technically a gastropub - more of a bistro really - but it conforms to the same informal style so I have included it. Lovely fresh produce, pleasant surroundings, and - the deal-breaker - little glass beakers instead of wineglasses. It's in the middle of bloody nowhere foodie-wise, but worth the effort to reach it.

3 - The Eagle, Farringdon Road, Clerkenwell

The original, and considered by many to still be the best, The Eagle is about as rustic as you can get without being actually painful. Noisy and cramped, and until recently (hooray!) eye-wateringly smokey, the Eagle is a spit-and-sawdust old man's pub serving very tasty british-influenced food. The open kitchen always provides great entertainment, but my only gripe is that sometimes the menu can be rather limited.

2 - The Fox and Hounds, Battersea

In terms of sheer consistency, the F&H is second to none. After two years living in Battersea, and over 50 visits, I think I've had a disappointing meal only twice. The food is mediterranean in style, so no burgers and chips here, but is always very fresh and served incredibly efficiently. The wine list is short and New World-based but is interesting enough, however it's the food that's the real star here. Expect herb-baked fresh fish, tuscan sausages with polenta, and various lamb and chicken stews. The cheeseboard is from Hamish Johnston too, which as any South Londoner knows is the finest cheese shop in the world. The beer garden out the back is also exquisitely pretty. Just go.

1 - The Anchor and Hope, Waterloo

I was seriously considering making the Fox & Hounds my number 1, but in the end I had to recognise that the cooking at the Anchor & Hope is generally of a higher standard and is as inventive as anywhere you're likely to find in this country. Specialities may include whole roast slow-cooked leg of lamb, or a cassoulet for four people. It's mediterranean (French) influenced, but they're not averse to the odd portion of chips either, so that's nice. It is unfortunately often a victim of its own success, and as you can't reserve you're just as likely to be perched on the end of another party's table as you are to get one of your own. But you will put up with the cramped room and the impersonal seating arrangements for the glorious food, which has never been anything less than top-notch.

Monday 9 July 2007

Browns and Claridges, Mayfair

Afternoon Tea is one of those strange ironies - a supposed British institution that most British people have never tried. Instead, we seem to leave it largely to American tourists and wedding parties to sample the delights of ludicrously dainty cucumber sandwiches and cake, which is a shame because it was actually rather good fun.

Brown's is as close to a London institution as it's possible to get without being a palace. Founded in 1837 (according to the website), it was refurbished a couple of years ago and certainly does look very grand in its position on a gleaming white Mayfair terrace. Inside, the decor is actually more 'comfortable' than 'opulent', but an in-house pianist lent the atmosphere a certain sophisticated edge, even if he did occasionally spoil it by playing The Bee Gees.

Eventually, after making our selection from a list of more than 20 different types of tea, the much-anticipated selection of sandwiches, scones and pastries arrived on a dainty little tiered serving thingy. From memory, we had a choice of cucumber and cream cheese, smoked salmon, cheese and tomato, egg and cress, and peppered ham. All were perfectly good, but nothing spectacular. We made sure we got our money's worth though with five refills on this tier alone - more fool the waiter for offering, I say.

Scones were nice too, with clotted cream and jam (3 refills), and finally the pastries (2 refills) were delicious - including a pimms jelly, a tennis-ball shaped passion-fruit mousse, and a little strawberry shortcake. Some sort of Wimbledon theme going on I think. Also, after making sure we'd stuffed our faces on these courses, they surprised us with extra cake at the end, which was either a bit underwhelming or we were just so full we couldn't really do it justice.

The bill was £32 each, which is a lot for sandwiches and cake, but we did have a lot to eat and the service was generally of a high standard. And this is Mayfair after all - it's more or less compulsory to pay through the nose in these parts.

Speaking of which, a short waddle away up Bond Street is Claridges Hotel, where we decided to entertain ourselves with a £14 cocktail each before the long journey home. This is a spectacularly impressive place, from the art deco grandeur of the lobby to the intimate plush luxury of the Bar, where every drink is exquisitely prepared and the gorgeous homemade nibbles delivered by faultless service. On this occasion I had something called a Barb Wire (for such a classy place, they have a slightly worrying habit of naming cocktails after Pamela Anderson vehicles. Another item on the menu was Bay Watch). The moral of this story is, you get what you pay for - my drink consisted of fresh rhubarb and Chambord with vodka and lemon juice. It was superb. Overpriced is a state of mind.

Brown's Afternoon Tea 7/10
Claridges Bar 9/10

English Tea Room at Brown's on Urbanspoon

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 3 July 2007

The Side Door, Liverpool

Last week, a trip up to see the family in Liverpool provided a perfect opportunity to try some of the new wave of eateries opening up in the trendy Georgian District of the town center. Hope Street (connecting the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals - symbolic in a city once riven with sectarian mistrust) has a number of fashionable new restaurants, amongst them The Munro (Liverpool's first gastropub), The London Carriage works and 60 Hope Street, each regarded as amongst the best in the North West. The Side Door, an attractive converted townhouse serving bistro-style British food, was more in our price range on this visit however, so in we went.

Inside, it's a busy but airy room, and the service, like so many places in this city, is very friendly if very slightly incompetent. Sorry if that sounds a bit unkind but it's generally not too much of a problem - the fine dining scene in Liverpool is pretty much still in its infancy, and I imagine the levels of service I'm used to in London will take a while to filter up here. In the meantime, if people are at least friendly and enthusiastic, well that will do for now.

The Side Door has a very strange custom of placing "serve-yourself" portions of ice and lemon on the table at the start of the meal. I can see what they're trying to do, but these tables weren't big and it very soon became very cluttered, certainly after the warm bread and oil & balsamic vinegar were added to the mix. The picture above gives you an idea of how busy it all was even before the food arrived!

My starter of salt beef and pickles wasn't brilliant to be honest - the home made horseradish was OK, as were the pickles, but the beef itself was dry and not particularly pleasant. However the tuna burgers from the set menu were "delicious" and fragrant with coriander, and the goat's cheese tart also got the thumbs up.

Again, my main was a bit of a disappointment - the calves' liver were a bit chewy and (a rare complaint from me) there was slightly too much of them. But the roasted shallots and the wine sauce were very tasty, and the celeriac mash was gorgeous. In fact, come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had a bad celeriac mash; maybe it's just one of those things that's very easy to get right. Other main courses were much better - lamb kebabs were very tasty and came with good home-made chips. A slightly confused dish geographically (kebab and chips - maybe they were aiming at the 3am post-club fine-dining crowd) but good fun.

One small gripe though was that the staff insisted of offering black pepper after all the courses - starters and main - had been served. Quite why they couldn't have just left the mill on the table and allowed us to help ourselves I don't know (we all had the standard compliment of two arms each), and we had to endure this irritating wait, food gradually cooling, whilst each dish was attended to by the waiter. There's no need to borrow the practices of budget high-street Italian restaurants to "posh-up" the service like this; and anyway, why get us to serve ourselves lemon and ice but keep the black pepper for themselves?

Desserts were the real star of this meal. A lemon tart was zingy and fresh, coconut panacotta creamy and moreish, and sticky toffee pudding was just as good as you'd expect. Everyone was most impressed by the sweet dishes, and it rounded off the meal with a welcome flourish.

There certainly seemed to be a healthy demand for unpretentious, reasonably-priced bistro food of this level, as the room was busy the whole time we were there. But I can't honestly say that Liverpool has yet really got to grips with the details that make a good local restaurant. By way of contrast, look at 32 Great Queen Street in Covent Garden - similarly-priced, equally informal but a more mature approach to ingredients and service that highlights that little extra mile that the North West has yet to travel before we reach parity. But there are no shortage of other dining options in Liverpool these days, much of them very good indeed, and it's only a matter of time before the scouse eateries are up there with the best of them.


The Side Door Bistro on Urbanspoon