Wednesday 31 October 2007

Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, Mayfair

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Gordon Ramsay used to spend most of his working days in a kitchen, making food for people to eat. And he was really rather good at it too, his flagship restaurant in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea achieving 3 Michelin Stars which, despite his recent more hands-off approach, it still holds to this day. And back in the days before F Words and Kitchen Nightmares and Hells Kitchens, when Mr Ramsay still claimed to cook in the restaurants he put his name to (an affectation long since dropped) came Gordon Ramsay at Claridges. Britain's best chef in Britain's best hotel cooking Britain's finest food. At least that was the plan.

For some reason, Gordon Ramsay at Claridges never achieved the level of success awarded to the Chelsea place. True, it has a Michelin Star, which is something, but then so does Benares and that's rubbish. Could it be that as his TV career was taking off Gordon just never bothered spending the time perfecting the kitchen at Claridges, or was he spreading his talent too thinly? Alain Ducasse famously has a string of 3-star places under his wing, proving it is possible to "farm out" cooking expertise to some extent. For whatever reason, Claridges just feels like the forgotten Ramsay venture, an experiment in the classiest of classy fine dining that never really got the attention from the big man it deserved.

However, I have a confession to make. I love Claridges. I love the cozy, hushed bar with the spacious leather seats and impeccable service. I love the stunning Art Deco foyer and Afternoon Tea room with the Dale Chihuly glass chandelier. And I still love Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, which despite a few niggles in the food department is a gloriously decadent way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

After a perfectly made martini in the bar to whet our whistles, we padded through to the dining room 10 minutes late, which turned out not to be a problem as our table still wasn't quite ready. This was actually a blessing in disguise as it allowed us to sample the lovely canapes of truffle mousse and taramasalata which I immediately recognised from my trip to Royal Hospital Road in February. A very good start.

Once seated (no more than 10 minutes later I don't think), we made our choices from the set lunch menu and sipped on a couple of glasses of house champagne. Pre-starter, appropriately enough for late October, was a pumpkin veloute, which was creamy and rich and expertly made but suffered only slightly in comparison to a divine truffle veloute I had been served at the same restaurant last year. Still, they weren't to know.

Starter proper was a duck liver terrine with beetroot pickle. Again full marks for seasonality which really paid dividends in the fresh taste of the beetroot. But some of the textures in the terrine were a little unpleasant - some slimy veg didn't really add much - and even some of the fois (though strangely not all of it) was dryish. Otherwise, not bad.

My main course was Welsh lamb fillet wrapped in (I think) parma ham with seasonal vegetables, and it was delicious. The lamb was juicy and tender and the vegetables were really interesting too - all sorts of things going on in the mix and was great fun working out the flavours in each mouthful. There was also a scattering of roasted pumpkin seeds to provide a bit of texture. More of an assembling of ingredients than a technically difficult dish, but I had no complaints.

For dessert I paid the £4 extra for a selection from the impressive cheese tray, and had a creamy but slightly bland goats, a Comte, an Epoisse-style gloopy cheese and a nice salty blue. I know I've said before I don't often pay for cheese in restaurants when I can get it myself for a fraction of the price, but I wasn't disappointed with my choices here.

Finally, before the bill arrived we were presented with 3 chocolate truffles, which was slightly odd as there were only 2 of us. Perhaps it was designed to create tension and conflict and Gordon Ramsay was actually secretly filming us for a starring role in his latest reality TV project. Either way, they tasted very nice, and I had the extra one.

The damage came to around £150, which is a lot but included some excellent wines by the glass and luckily I had a £50 voucher from my old job to go some way towards it. Service throughout had been as charming and efficient as you would expect in any of London's best restaurants, and the whole experience had been superb entertainment. I will almost certainly be back at some point in the future. I think I deserve it.


Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's on Urbanspoon

Friday 26 October 2007

Brindisa Tapas, Borough Market. Nearly.

Wishing to complete a trio of tapas reviews, I scooted on down to Brindisa Tapas near London Bridge last night, heartened by recent recommendations and very much looking forward to a few slices of nice "jamon" and a dry sherry. However, it wasn't to be. Having told on stepping inside at 6:30 on a thursday evening that the waiting time would be "an hour", we were forced down the road for an anaemic steak at the execrable Black and Blue. To save your stomachs, I won't show any pictures of Black and Blue - suffice to say it was expensive, tasteless, tourist trap trash and to give it even a casual mention is to elevate its importance too far.

But I will try again to get into Brindisa very soon - even if it means bringing my sleeping bag and camping outside for a table.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 16 October 2007

The Princess, Shoreditch

What's better than a lovely meal at a good gastropub? That's right, a lovely FREE meal at a good gastropub. My new employers yesterday kindly treated me to a boozy lunchtime at The Princess, just up the road from the Fox on Paul Street. We had a good meal and the service was excellent, but before I come to that, let me just go off on a little rant to explain why I hadn't been back to the Princess, good food notwithstanding, since a disastrous first visit some time in 2004.

It was mid-December, and had booked a table at the Princess with a group of fellow foodies. We turned up slightly early and after a couple of drinks downstairs to peruse what we thought was the food menu, we climbed the rickety spiral staircase to the dining room, where we were somewhat surprised to be presented with the same menu, only £5 more expensive and with "Special Christmas menu" printed on the top. Oh no, we said, we're not on an office party, we'll just have the normal menu please.

But apparently this wasn't possible. For the "privilege" of booking ahead and for guaranteeing the Princess a table for 6 on a Tuesday night, we would be charged £5 extra per head for exactly the same food as if we'd just wandered in off the street. It was completely bonkers. Even more incredibly, once we had called the manager over to complain, he didn't budge an inch, his argument being that there is a high demand for tables at the Princess for office parties and he was more or less doing us a favour letting us eat there at all!

It was a ridiculous situation. "Just suppose," I ventured, "that we all got up now and left, and immediately came in again and asked for a table for 6. Would you be able to serve us the normal menu?".

"Well, we'd have let your table go to a different group of diners."

"What, in the ten seconds we were stood outside waiting for you to clear the christmas crackers from our table? People are hardly queuing to get in."

But all we got out of our attempts to make the management see sense was a free bottle or two of house wine. It was a breathtaking example of opportunism by a restaurant blatantly attempting to squeeze seasonal expense account diners and by doing so forcing the rest of us to pay through our noses. So that is why I have not been back to the Princess until yesterday.

Which is a shame because the food at the Princess is really rather good. My starter of shredded pork belly was simple but tasty and came with pickled gerkins which I love. The main of breaded ox cheeks (again, that foodie instinct to order the oddest thing on the menu kicking in) were interesting but didn't really taste of a great deal, although the accompanying boiled cabbage was very nice, flavoured with cloves I think. Finally everyone enjoyed the raspberry pannacotta for dessert - not very seasonal I don't think but I suppose you're allowed to freeze raspberries if you're just going to make compote with them.

So out of the Christmas season I can really recommend the Princess. However I will be keeping a very close eye on the place this year to see if they try their "special Christmas menu" trick again - and I urge anyone reading this to fight the injustice of seasonal ripoff menus wherever you see them!


Princess on Urbanspoon

Monday 15 October 2007

Pinchito, Old Street

Pinchito is barely a few months old, but already has the atmosphere of practiced ease of a much more established restaurant. That's not to say everything about the place was great - it wasn't - but it feels "comfortable" in an almost indefinable way, as if it's been there for years. In fact it's strange the tapas revolution that seems to be sweeping London at the moment has taken so long to take hold, as the idea of nibbling away at a number of different plates of good quality ingredients cooked simply alongside a glass of chilled sherry should appeal to everyone. Well, it appeals to me.

The best compliment I can pay Pinchito is that it's at least as good as Barrafina and a little bit cheaper. The recommended Tio Pepe chilled sherry was lovely. The platter of cold meats, comprising chorizo along with a couple of other spanish salamis was very tasty. The Iberico ham however was a little disappointing - the red meat had a nice rich smokey flavour but there was too much fat through it and the overall effect was a little sick-making. And it was £12 a plate.

Tomato and bread turned out to be a bowl of tomato juice with crispy mini toasted bread, and was nice enough. Albondigas were meaty and satisfying, and the deep fried squid was delicate and moreish. We also enjoyed the pimentos - grilled peppers - even though they were quite heavily salted and the waiter even suggested loading them with even more salt at the table. We didn't, they were fine.

Service went through peaks and troughs; initially they were attentive and smiley but halfway through the meal a group of young Spaniards arrived and thereafter they seemed more interested in chatting to their mates than acknowledging my frantic silent requests for another half bottle of sherry. But this was a minor complaint, and they made up for it with the enthusaism of the presentation of the food and the drink. Everyone seemed genuinely excited about the produce on offer, which was marvellous.

All in all it was a very pleasant hour or so, and a perfect example of the kind of place that London seems to be churning out at a healthy rate these days - informal, friendly, enthusiastic and genuine.


Pinchito Tapas on Urbanspoon

Thursday 11 October 2007

San Lorenzo at Osteria dell'Arancio, Chelsea

Just a few words on the very enjoyable wine and cheese tasting evening I was lucky enough to be invited to last night at the Osteria dell'Arancio on Kings Road. San Lorenzo specialise in importing gourmet and artisan Italian produce into the UK - they're kind of the Italian Brindisa, only perhaps not quite as eye-wateringly expensive. And last night a select group of London food bloggers (and those who had been so desperate for a freebie they had filled in the online form on the San Lorenzo website, like me) were treated to an entire meal based around cheese and honey.

Being quite a cheese fan myself, more so free cheese, I once again arrived embarassingly early and immediately started enthusiastically on a very nice Italian champagne - not Prosecco, our hosts were quick to point out, which is inferiorly produced and not the same thing at all. Then once a few hours had passed to allow the Italian guests to arrive fashionably late, we were seated and tried a sample of the 5 cheeses & honeys that were to be incorporated into our meal that evening. These included:

Castelmagno d.o.p, with Forest honey - strong and slightly bitter on the roof of the mouth like a mature cheddar, with a firm texture.

Bagoss and Chestnut Honey - The cheese had a very interesting crumbly texture and a sweet, slightly spicy taste, but the honey was extraordinary. I'd never really paid much attention to the flavour of chestnuts, but this was a minor revelation - it tasted of smoke and autumn leaves. Very seasonal.

Parmigiano Reggiano d.o.p extra aged 36 months and Acacia Honey - Not just any old parmesan, we were quickly told, but one aged for three years, which is quite unusual outside of Italy. Parmesan is apparently still made in the same way today as when it was first invented in something like the 14th century.

Best of all though was something called Testun al Barolo - this was a creamy, complex cheese with a rind covered in pressed grapes. In fact its flavour is so unique it was not paired with a honey at all - and still managed to be my favourite. It's very difficult to describe the taste, as it seemed to give various different flavours in the mouth and as aftertaste, in turns sweet, smokey and spicey. Quite an experience. For a cheese.

The following meal combined a few of the above with, in turn, artichoke salad, risotto, beef fillet and finished with a cake made from the chestnut honey. Sorry for not going into too much detail but after about 5 glasses of the champagne my memory started to fail. I think I enjoyed them though, as I don't remember leaving any on my plate.

So thanks again to the good people at San Lorenzo, particularly Sara, and here's hoping the people of London all get the opportunity to try Testun al Barolo some time soon.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Pearl, Holborn

Say what you like about dining offer sites like Toptable or Squaremeal, but there's absolutely no way I would have visited Pearl in Holborn on a random Tuesday night if I hadn't learned of the £30 set menu. Normally meals like these are "special occasion" events, and I think it's fantastic that just for turning up slightly early (actually 7:30 isn't even really that early) on a weekday evening you can have starry food in spectacular surroundings for almost half the price of the normal dinner menu.

And the surroundings were almost worth paying £30 for on their own - a huge high-ceiling room, marble columns, sumptuous chandeliers dripping with glass pearls and well-spaced, round tables laid with fresh flowers. Our welcome, and treatment throughout the evening was the ideal of charm and efficiency, and what's more the staff seemed to genuinely enjoy being there. The sommelier in particular was so enthusiastic about his craft he introduced each glass of wine as if they were priceless artifacts in the British Museum. And speaking of wine, Pearl is the proud owner of a Cruvinet system, a clever piece of kit which can keep opened bottles of rare and exotic wines for a long period of time, allowing punters to try just one glass at a time. I took full advantage.

Even on our cheapo Toptable menu we were presented with prestarters of Scallop Cerviche (delicate and fresh), Smoked Eel (nice enough, if a bit cloying), Ratatouille (topical!) and Venison carpaccio with parmesan, the latter two which were tried by my dining companion who liked the Rat but thought the venison was swamped by the cheese.

Shockingly for me, I went for the vegetarian option for starter - Terrine of baby leeks with tarragon mayonnaise and shaved asparagus. Technically at least this was a very impressive presentation, with the leeks packed vertically inside a tightly-bound block. However they did just taste like... cold leeks, nice but hardly mind-blowing. Accompanying potato bites and the tarragon mayonnaise were great though. And though I hardly ever do this, I will just mention my companion's quail breast with chicken liver parfait, which was as dreamy and decadent as any starter I've ever tried. Clearly the wrong choice there, never mind.

Next course was grilled pork fillet with roast shrimp, kind of a surf and turf deal. The pork was cooked expertly, as you might expect, and the lentil salsa was actually a great accompanyment, not overpowering the meat but contrasting nicely in texture. Way over on the other end of the plate was a prawn tail which I embarassingly bit into without realising it still had a shell on. Oh dear. Anyway, once I had choked and fished around inside my mouth for the bits of shell for a minute or two whilst my companion looked nervously around the room and attempted to ignore me, I managed to swallow some, and it was pretty good. Not the freshest bit of seafood I've ever had and the red pepper sauce perhaps could have done with a bit more seasoning, but overall a very interesting dish.

Unfortunately, again, the best main course was my companion's gnocchi which was rich and satisfying, heady with truffle and with great texture contrasts between the creamy gnocchi and small slices of crispy toast in each mouthful. This was a brilliantly concieved dish and if I had my time in Pearl again (which I surely will) I would have the quail followed by the gnocchi, followed by:

Salted caramel mousse with almond crumble and hazelnut ice cream, which was the best dessert I've had at any restaurant for years. By this point we were both quite full and it is testament to the greatness of this pudding that we both finished every scrap of it off, from the crispy sugar casing to the creamy and amazingly light caramel inside. Chunks of lovely (I think) bramley apple provided texture and moisture to the fluffy mousse and the hazlenut icecream was made perfectly. There was no part of this dessert that was anything less than brilliant.

So at £50 a head all in (for the food and 3 perfectly chosen glasses of wine including a delicate Muscat for dessert served in an extraordinarily tall glass) this is a meal to remember at almost a budget price. Just go now - have the quail, the gnocchi and the caramel and you'll die a happy diner.


P.S. Apologies for the dark pictures - I was told off by my dining companion for trying to use flash and thanks to a weird underlit table the food was very difficult to capture. Rest assured it all looked a lot better on the night.

Pearl on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - El Roser 2, L'Escala

Like a number of other restaurants in this town, El Roser 2 tempts passers-by with an impressive large tank full of crabs, lobster and oyster. In the early 80s when the place opened I imagine it would have been quite a unique experience - for British diners at least - to be able to wave goodbye to your main course as it was plucked out of the tank and carried off to the kitchen. Nowadays, outlets in London such as FishWorks and LiveBait have been brave enough to register the link between nice fresh seafood and the live raw ingredients, although I don't think I've ever seen lobsters kept in a fish tank anywhere in London. I wonder why?

Having railed against the continental attitude to driving under the influence yesterday, it seems slightly hypocritical to complain about the location of a town-centre seafront establishment, but unfortunately in a tourist area such as L'Escala it seems some places do take advantage of their good fortune. El Roser 2 serves good food and is a successful restaurant, but look at some of these prices:

€18 for a plate of Whelks, which are available from the supermarket for a couple of quid, €60 for sea cucumber - they're not that rare and not that big although admittedly do need to be collected by hand - and a whacking €100 per kilo of "Grilled national lobster", actually probably flown in from the UK but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Passing trade and a decent local reputation keeps El Roser 2 busy most nights of the year - even out of season - but you can't help feeling they're exploiting their situation somewhat.

Thankfully, the quality of the food generally was almost worth the vast amount of money we spent on it. Tapas of local anchovies on tomato bread were of course delicious. My swimmer crab starter was literally just a couple of boiled crabs on a plate, but were nice and fresh and I enjoyed using the weird dental equipment to scrape out every last bit of flesh from inside the legs. But this is a course I could have made myself. It's not really cooking, just boiling crabs, is it? I've mentioned before I rarely have a cheesecourse at restaurants these days (unless it's included in some sort of set menu) because I can do the same myself for half the price after a visit to Hamish Johnston.

Also, in common with past visits the service isn't really anything to write home about either. To give just a small example, I asked our waiter (who spoke pretty good English) whether any of the seafood courses were served with any veg or sides. He said no. So I said, where are the sides on the menu? There aren't any, but he could do us some potato and veg if we wanted. I've seen this before in Spanish restaurants - very few courses are served with salad or even bread, but why not just put a couple of extras on the menu anyway, rather than having diners to come up with their own and pay a mystery amount of money for it? We did get our sides of potato and veg, but it was pretty dull. And cost €4.

My main was a Lobster stew (Catalan: "Xup-Xup") with sea cucumber and clams. And to be fair, this was cooking, and very good cooking - it tasted fresh and rich with a tomato-seafood sauce and huge satisfying chunks of lobster and sea cucumber. Thanks to the generous portions it was probably also just about worth the €55, but again this is a premium price and the service did not live up to it.

It may sound like I had a horrible meal at El Roser 2, and honestly I didn't. But I did pay through the nose for decent food and mediocre service and overall I'm afraid I felt a little ripped off. The night before, back at the apartment we'd cooked juicy fat prawns dipped in homemade aioli, and turbot steaks with fresh herbs from the garden. I think the whole meal cost around €10 each - seafood will always come at a premium, but the trick is getting your money's worth. In a region blessed with so much great seafood, and so many different ways of getting it, the restaurants of L'Escala will have to try harder to provide real value to their diners.


Monday 1 October 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - La Llar, Roses

Thanks to the worryingly relaxed attitudes to drink driving in Spain, La Llar is situated right next to an ugly duel carriageway, quite a way from the nearest town and only accessible by car. Try and imagine a Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK at Sandbach services on the M6, or in place of your nearest Little Chef. Doesn't really work, does it? I have no idea why so many of these places are so difficult to get to - El Bulli is the ultimate example of this, being half an hour down a potholed, dangerous clifftop road only the most brave would attempt even sober, never mind on the return journey after sunset a few glasses of wine later. I once remember having a meal in front of a cafe in Roses and watching an elderly French couple finish off two bottles of Rose between them before climbing into their Citroen and driving off. It's all very continental and liberal, I'm sure, but I think there's something quite selfish about the way some countries feel they have a right to drive around pissed and to hell with the consequences. Still, a half an hour in the car is a small price to pay for a great meal, so I'm glad we made the effort for La Llar.

The decor inside the restaurant is very odd. Think alpine ski-lodge crossed with Dadaesque surrealism. A pair of huge metal scales swung ominously above our table, whilst in the next room various stuffed animals stared down at diners with a dozen beady eyes. Pictures of everything from French peasant women to Picasso-styled portraits covered every available wall space, and the drinks trolley appeared to be an old wooden wheelbarrow. I think the word is "eclectic". Also, when I tell you the service was excellent you have to bear in mind that for most of the evening this consisted of one woman (the chef's wife I believe), who never seemed harried or hurried but nevertheless replaced cutlery, served a myriad of complex courses and topped up wineglasses with practiced ease for about twenty covers. It was most impressive.

The food, then. Being the adventurous types we are, we elected for the "Menu sorpresa", a selection of five mystery dishes, cheese and desert, although in reality this turned out to be very similar to the listed "Menu La Llar" with an extra meat course.

Cheese puff straws and salted almonds were a nice change from the usual olives and bread but nothing special. However, the pre-starter "tapas" were extraordinarily good. Lolipops of "Botifarra" (local sausage) made sweet with what I think was maple syrup were crunchy on the outside and soft within. A miniscule portion of goats cheese with a tomato jam was bursting with farmy, fresh flavours and was a sensation. But best of all a martini glass of Vichyssoise had just the right balance of creaminess and potato - I think I also detected a cauliflower flavour in there somewhere but with the ingredients not being on the menu I can't swear to it. It was comforting and heady, and made me want to lick the glass dry. Overall, a brilliant start.

The next course was "Tartar de llobarro i salmo fresc" which we decided through a rosetta-stone style reading of the multilingual menu was seabass and salmon pate. A reasonably straightforward dish in terms of presentation and tastes, but again thanks to good fresh ingredients was full of life. A garlic paste served with it was also good fun.

A tomato soup with lobster meat and olive oil was perhaps slightly on the rich side but was bold in flavour and the tomato soup itself was pleasantly velvety. Also I don't think you can go far wrong in my book with great big chunks of lobster.

The next course was the one real dud unfortunately - scallops which were bland and plasticky in flavour and rather unsatisfyingly uniform in texture. The sauces didn't taste of much either. Best forgotten, this one.

Luckily the next course was the great redeemer - a meaty, gorgeously seasoned end of John Dory with a fantastic onion sauce that delighted the senses. Also served with this were a few tiny wild mushrooms whose incredibly strong flavour belied their size. Everyone enjoyed this one.

The last of the main courses was a lovely chunk of beef fillet steak in a red wine sauce, served with a kind of pear sauce with a crisp sugar coating, and more of those delicious wild mushrooms. You can't really do much to mess up beef fillet and red wine sauce, so of course this was a very tasty plate of food indeed, if not the most complex. But it went down very well again with all concerned.

Next up, a nice little selection of three cheeses which weren't written down anywhere so I'm afraid I have no idea what they were. The best by common consensus was the little medallion of goats cheese, which was satisfyingly strong. However all 3 were slightly on the cold side so probably weren't at their best.

Saving their most theatrical flourish for last, after the cheese course Mrs. Chef arrived pushing a huge dessert trolley loaded with a mouthwatering display of cakes, mousses and fresh fruit. Once our selections were made, the bitesize portions were arranged artistically on a plate and the correct sauces poured on top. Again I should mention that despite the labour involved in this task it was performed expertly and confidently and each plate was given the attention it deserved. The desserts themselves ranged from OK to very good, but the sheer choice left nobody feeling short changed. Best of all in my opinion was a passion fruit and peach soup - georgously silky and moreish.

A couple of chocolate truffles and a brandy snap to finish, and we were done. Spain's high-end restaurants are pretty much without exception very good value, and for a little over £70 each for all that food, a glass of cava each and a bottle of white, so was La Llar. If you're lucky enough to be holidaying in this part of the world, I can recommend a visit - just go easy on the alcohol for the journey home.