Sunday 28 December 2008

And So It Begins

On Dec 15, 2008, at 2:42 AM, Restaurante El Bulli wrote:

We regret to be late giving you an answer. The demand has been again extraordinary and is difficult to go on with the management. We have found a solution and have an option for you on

(DATE) of 2009, table for 4 people at 7.30 p.m. under the name:


Ferran Adrià will prepare a personalized tasting menu. You will try many different elaborations and it means many different products. It is very IMPORTANT FOR HIS CONFECTION TO KNOW IN ADVANCE if some problem exists, like ALLERGIES OR ANY OTHER PRODUCT THAT WE COULD NOT INCLUDE FOR ANYONE OF YOU.

I wait your news to fix the option and also with regard to this question to fix all the details at your reservation.

I also ask you to give us a direct phone number to contact you, only if necessary, during your time in our area.

Sincerely yours,

Luis Garcia


Cala Montjoi - 17480 Roses


Tel. +34 972 15 04 57
Fax. +34 972 15 07 17

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Book Review - A Day at el Bulli, Ferran Adrià

When is a cookbook not a cookbook? Perhaps when most of its target audience could never be expected to be able to make any of the recipes in it. I'm not just talking about difficult techniques, rare or exotic ingredients or even prohibitively time-consuming methods. I mean recipes that are literally impossible for any home chef to attempt, involving the use of expensive chemicals not available to consumers, bespoke culinary equipment and a range of techniques that are known to perhaps a handful of people in the entire world. A cookbook is not a cookbook when it's Ferran Adrià's A Day At El Bulli - but that should not stop you buying it.

Like many people, I bought the Heston Blumenthal book In Search Of Perfection not so I could try and recreate his Black Forest Gateau recipe in the comfort of my own home - oddly enough I don't consider my vacuum cleaner an indispensible kitchen utensil, and I intend to keep it that way - but purely as reading material, and very entertaining reading it was too. But the whole conceit of the Blumenthal book was that it was, theoretically (if not often practically) possible to make those dishes at home. Sure, it would take you days of tedious grind, cost you a fortune and it would be almost guaranteed you'd not end up with anything even remotely resembling the pictures in the book, but the challenge was there; the Peking Duck recipe for example involved painstakingly removing the duck skin from the flesh then sewing it onto a piece of chicken wire just so that when it was fried it didn't lose its shape. Professional Chinese kitchens would have a special duck oven where the animals are hung vertically and cooked in such a way that the same effect was achieved without the need to get the sewing kit and chicken wire out, but this was "cheating" - Blumenthal resisted any professional-level culinary equipment for the sake of editorial consistency. A Day at El Bulli makes no such concessions.

Take the dish Melón con jamón 2005 for example, which involves the use of Calcic, Algin and something called Xantana (isn't he a guitarist?), as well as a custom-designed syringe battery which deposits exactly the right amount of the thickened melon juice into the Calcic solution, one drop at a time, to produce a kind of melon caviar which swirls around in ibérico ham consommé like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Fascinating stuff, and the accompanying pictures are nothing short of food porn, but Calcic? Xantana? Clearly Adrià is not expecting us to have a go at any of this stuff ourselves. The "recipes" in the El Bulli book are not instructions, but painstaking documentation - an insight into the mind-bogglingly complex techniques of the kitchen without any desire to motivate the readership into copying them. A Day At El Bulli wants you to admire, to be inspired and even to worship the foods listed in its technicolour pages, but it is not asking you to participate. And quite frankly, after the Blumenthal book, that's almost a relief.

Much like some of the more outré creations from the El Bulli kitchen itself, the book does have a tendency for glorification and self-mythology. A whole four pages, for example, are taken up with amateur shots of the not particularly interesting coastal road down which diners travel (the symbolism is heavy-handed) on the way to the restaurant. There are close-ups of doors and aluminium kitchen workstations, various members of staff performing tedious bookkeeping jobs and and filling in work orders. "OK", you think, "This is all very well, but I want to know about the food, I don't care how they go about filling in their tax returns". But fortunately, when the recipes do make an appearance, they are simply stunning.

Like this:

The above is a dish called 3D al ras-el-hanout con germinado de albahaca limonera. "Ras-el-hanout", the book explains, "is a Moroccan spice blend". OK. And 3Ds? "3Ds are a brand of cone-shaped potato chip". Only Ferran Adrià could get away with opening a packet of Doritos and calling it haute cuisine. But doesn't it look fantastic? It's a shame we can only imagine how it tastes.

If you are one of the people who submitted your request to El Bulli in October and received that iconic rejection a couple of weeks later - and I know for a fact there are two million of you out there - then you should find a lot to like about A Day At El Bulli. You're not going to find any solutions for your next dinner party, you're not going to win a golden ticket into the restaurant and as they're essentially preaching to the converted it's unlikely to change your mind about the food there. But it's a comprehensive, detailed and lavishly produced account of the most influential kitchen in the world today, and if that doesn't rock your boat then there's always Nigella Christmas. Your call.


Wednesday 10 December 2008

Andaman, St James

There was very little sign of Credit Crunch Britain from inside the sleek, clubby bar at Andaman in St. James. Captains of industry flirted over champagne with suspiciously young Eastern European girls, and a multitude of staff with flamboyant Gallic accents circled the room, topping up glasses and nibbles. The scene was set, or so I thought, for a delicious evening of pampered escapism and a chance to try the food in one of London's newest and most exciting haute cuisine restaurants. I began with a martini.

Seemingly eager to impress, the barman rattled off a list of gins I could choose for my drink and whether I wanted an olive or a twist. These were good questions, and I was happy to answer them - most bars I'm lucky if I even get "gin or vodka?". But then all my illusions were shattered as he chose a warm martini glass from under the counter and a room-temperature bottle of gin from the shelf. The liquid was warm almost as soon as it was placed in front of me - not the kind of thing you'd expect from a top London hotel bar. Fortunately the evening improved slightly from then on.

Things started falling into place once we were seated at the impossibly tiny restaurant at the end of the bar. Despite a rather obvious gulf between the prosaic a la carte and the much more interesting tasting menu, we didn't have time for a full evening of food so ordered a starter and a main course. First to arrive, however, was a little wooden block of amuse - a shot glass full of gorgeous warm artichoke velouté (topped pointlessly with a hoop of smoked salmon with a straw through the middle) and a tiny delicate cone of cauliflower mousse. It was suspiciously close to the amuse served at the Square, but I didn't care one bit because they were both lovely - really, really lovely.

Starter proper was a "chartreuse" (a kind of terrine, according to Google) of dressed crab meat. Fresh crab sat on top of a disc of the green vegetable terrine, avocado being the main ingredient, alongside two stripes of light carrot sauce and, in one of Andaman's few concessions to texture and modern cooking methods, a clever little dollop of green vegetable "caviar". It was nothing if not fresh, competent and visually appealing cooking, if hardly enough to set Michelin pulses racing, but then at £12.50 it was actually pretty good value as well. So I was sated if not overly impressed.

My main course was a generous and professionally-cooked chunk of veal sat alongside what were described as "seasonal" vegetables but contained another asparagus shoot (note to Andaman: Green asparagus can generally only be described as "in season" around springtime). The veal jus was rich and silky, the vegetables cooked extremely well and the meat itself was as you'd expect veal to taste - rather characterless but juicy and pleasant. It was another solid dish, enjoyable but rather corporate.

For what would have been our pre-dessert had we had time for a dessert, the wooden presentation block returned, this time holding a little cone of delightfully zesty raspberry mousse (there's that seasonality again) alongside a nut-covered bite-size block of ice-cream. These were, again, really excellent and brought pangs of regret that we hadn't had time for the full tasting menu. Perhaps Andaman's cooking style works better on these petit plats than when charged with more substantial dishes - others certainly have had good things to say about the Full Monty - but I shouldn't really be making excuses for a place like this.

I don't want anyone to think I was disappointed or even underwhelmed with my meal at Andaman. In the context of some of the dross that passes for restaurant food in the capital, it's very good, with a potential to be excellent. But for a spot in an exclusive hotel gunning for (I'm led to believe) two Michelin stars from the get-go, I was preparing myself to be overwhelmed. And in the end I was just, kind of, "whelmed". It was nice, and not too wallet-blisteringly expensive, and we had a lovely evening. But if they think they can compete with the Square or Foliage based on this evening's performance, they have another thing coming.


Andaman By Dieter Müller on Urbanspoon

Monday 8 December 2008

Top of the Tree cocktail challenge, 4 London bars

For anyone who's ever plucked up the courage to order a Mojito in any number of bars in London, only to be handed an oversweet glass of flaccid liquid stuffed with week-old mint leaves, I do sympathise. There seems to be no way of knowing from the outside, by the prices charged or by the spirits lined up behind the bar, whether a place knows what they're doing when it comes to cocktail-making or if you're going to leave disappointed and the price of a Ryanair return to Barcelona worse-off. It seems that the old adage "you get what you pay for" is never more wrong as when used regarding cocktails - two recent examples:

The bar at the very swanky and exclusive St James Hotel near Piccadilly, where I was served an expensive, warm martini before my equally disappointing meal at Andaman last week. They didn't even keep their martini glasses in the freezer, for goodness' sake, and then charged me £13 plus service. Not one I plan on revisiting.

A selection of drinks made at The Bureau, behind an anonymous black door round the back of Kingly Court in Soho. Not only were they all expertly made with lovely fresh ingredients and looked as good as they tasted, but from the bar menu I could see that they didn't break the bank either. Bureau is my new favourite bar in that part of town.

You may notice I only looked at the bar menu in Bureau out of interest, because on this particular night these lovely cocktails were provided to a few lucky London bloggers gratis. We had been brought together by the people behind Whitley-Neill gin, who donate 5% of their proceeds to the charity Tree Aid and who had organised a cocktail-making competition amongst several central-London bars. First stop was the Lobby Bar at One Aldwych, a grand, columnated space which was a very welcome sight after a cold, miserable trudge through London in December. I will list all the cocktails we were served that evening at the end of this post, along with my scores, but I just want to point out that the nibbles we were served with our drinks at One Aldwych were superb, and if they are a regular feature and not just laid on specially for us that night then I will definitely be back. A plate of large, almost luminescent Italian green olives which tasted like butter, and a selection of dainty sugar-crisped physalis without a hint of bitterness. They brought a chorus of approval from all gathered there that evening.

Next we bundled into a cab for the private members bar at Quo Vadis in Soho. My thoughts on the food served at the restaurant below still stand, but the hidden bar above is quite lovely, cosy and smart and with some very interesting drinks. They do, however, have a rather worrying habit of serving the long drinks with a single, cylindrical chunk of ice running the length of the glass. A nice idea perhaps, but I'm afraid being the shallow, giggling infantiles we are it just seemed... wrong. Have a look at this picture over on Londonist Chris' Flikr page and maybe you'll see what I mean.

Next was the lovely Bureau, where we managed to somehow gatecrash Dianne Abbot MP and colleagues celebrating Barack Obama's win in the US elections. We timidly huddled in our corner while she made a speech, then got on with the serious business of drinking. Bureau even go so far as to make their own marmalade - just one example of the kind of energy they put into their drinks.

Finally, the old favourite Match Bar on Margaret Street served the final contenders for the prize. By this stage we were getting rather peckish so a couple of "Borough Market selection" were ordered, consisting of some cold meats and pickles. They were pretty standard, but did their job. I still like the Match Bar, despite it having lost its edge amongst the latest wave of London Bars. It was one of the first affordable cocktail joints in the city and it's great that it still takes its drink-mixing seriously and is prepared to enter competitions such as this.

So there we have it. Finally, apologies for the lack of photos but when I tell you that they all came out like this from my iPhone then I hope you can understand:

And now without further ado, the finalists and my comments and scores:

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: The Lost Cherry
Ingredients: 40ml of Whitley Neill
15ml Noilly Prat vermouth
15ml Maraschino infused with fresh cherries
Glass: Martini
Method: Pour all ingredients in a shaker and shake well, double strain
Garnish: 1 x large maraschino cherry at the bottom of the glass
Not sure about this one. I think we're missing an ingredient here because I definitely detected a lot of rose syrup, which overpowered all the other flavours. Also too sweet for me. 3/10

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: Africa
Ingredients: 1 Star anis
15ml lime juice
50ml Whitley Neill gin
25ml Amaretto
1ds sugar syrup
Glass: Martini
Method: Muddle star anis with sugar and lime juice, add other ingredients, shake and double strain
Garnish: Orange peel, cinnamon stick
Again, a bit sweet for me and with quite a strong Amaretto hit. Drinkable enough. 5/10

Bar: The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych
Cocktail name: Savannah Plain
Ingredients: 50ml Whitley Neill gin
10ml Sugar
10ml Lime
10ml Punt e Mes
10ml Southern Comfort
10ml Mango juice
4x Physalis
Glass: Martini
Method: Muddle star anis with sugar and lime juice, add other ingredients, shake and double strain
Garnish: Orange peel, Cinnamon stick
Lovely bitter aftertaste, mango the main fruit flavour though. Not bad at all. 6/10

Bar: Quo Vadis
Cocktail name: Une Amandine
Ingredients: 60ml Whitley Neill gin
20ml Almond Milk
10ml Maraschino liqueur
15ml lemon juice
5ml Elderflower liqueur
dash of Absinthe
Glass: Champagne flute
Method: Shake all ingredients and double strain into a champagne flute
Garnish: lemon twist (discard) and an edible flower
I didn't get to try this one! But others said it was nice.

Bar: Quo Vadis
Cocktail name: Reciprocal Cocktail
25 ml Whitley Neill Tincture
Pink peppercorns
Grapefruit Zest
10 ml white Cacao
Campari (rinse)
Glass: Pony/martini
Method: Stir with ice (except Campari) and strain into a chilled pony glass rinsed with Campari.
Twist orange or grapefruit zest over the glass from a height and discard.
Garnish: No garnish
One of the best we tried that evening. Sophisticated and balanced, this was almost a heritage cocktail, bringing to mind prohibition-era drinks such as the Old Fashioned. Very good. 8/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Tippler's Tree
Ingredients: 50ml Whitley Neill gin
15ml Giffard Abricot
15ml maple syrup
20ml lime juice
4 dashes chocolate bitters
Glass: Martini
Method: Shake and strain
Garnish: A chocolate maple leaf
Punchy, citrusy but ultimately quite straightforward. Moreish. 7/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Passing Thyme
50ml Whitley Neill
3 x sprigs fresh thyme
20ml lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup
2 dash of peach bitters
Top with soda
Glass: Collins
Muddle, shake, strain, top with soda
Garnish with lemon wedge and thyme sprigs
A lovely concoction that matched the thyme and juniper flavours to brilliant effect. Another highlight. 8/10

Bar: Bureau
Cocktail name: Rise Marmalade
3 bar spoons (two table spoons) of Rise Marmalade (see below)
25ml lemon juice
50 ml Whitley Neill gin

Rise Marmalade:
Starting with 250ml of water, ending with a volume of 200ml preparation
12 sun dried apricots
2 handfuls of sun dried wolf berries
1 handful of raisins
1 orange, peeled and cut
6 cardamoms
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cloves
3 pinches of crush chillies
1 tea spoon of sumac powder
2 tea spoons of ginger powder
big squeeze (around 40ml) of honey –up to your taste or whatever you have in the cupboard; I used Gale’s Wild Blossom
Boil high heat for 10 minutes. Cover and boil low heat for another 30 (or a bit less, depending on the consistency desired). Stir occasionally. Leave to rest overnight.
Remove the spices - you might blend it if seeking a smoother paste.

Shake and serve up (single or double strained depending on your taste)
Spray orange peel oils all over the glass
Another very impressive cocktail. Rich and satisfying as a Christmas dinner, this was seasonal and unique and went down very well. 8/10

Thursday 4 December 2008

Cheese of the Month - Tomme de Marc

Since returning from my trip to Nantes in April, I have been haunted by memories of that fantastic butter. I mentioned at the time that a quick Google had revealed at least one UK supplier to be Teddington Cheese, and I've had it on my wish list since then to put an order together. Well, last week I finally managed it and on Wednesday a huge polystyrene box arrived with three or four hefty cheeses nestled in straw, alongside a rather disappointingly tiny medallion of the butter.

The first thing I noticed that the label on the butter said 'Doux' where the godlike-cheese-from-heaven we had in Nantes said 'Demi-sel'. I had specifically picked the 'salted' option on the website so either the Demi-sel is not available here or somebody packed the wrong item. I'd like to take this up with Teddington Cheese, but they weren't answering their phone this morning so it will have to wait for a postscript. Besides, this wasn't the only thing that disappointed about the order, as it turned out.

Along with the butter, which was the real point of the whole venture, I had chosen three unpasteurised cheeses based largely on the descriptions on the website - Banon, a goats cheese from Provence, Chanteraine Poivre, a cow's milk cheese coated with peppercorns, and Tomme de Marc, a frightening looking thing coated in "marc", or grape pressings. The first I opened was the Chanteraine.

I knew something was wrong even as I lifted it out of the polystyrene box. It was soft - far too soft for a refrigerated cheese other than those which are supposed to be served in a pot such as the Epoisses. As it started to warm up I was worried it was just going to dissolve completely and run all over the place, so I took a gamble and ate a slice before it had reached room temperature. Even slightly cold it was heavily sulphurous, like an inferior supermarket Camembert that had been left lying around too long. The burn of the flesh killed any other flavour - it could have been coated in cat poo and vinegar for all I know - and the bitterness and heat of the sulphur lingered unpleasantly in the mouth. According to websites a well-kept Chanteraine should be rich and buttery, not burn like concentrated acid, so I can only imagine this example had been sitting around a Teddington basement for many months before it worked its way to me. Pretty nasty.

The next cheese was little better. Tomme de Marc is all mouth and no trousers, visually impressive but rather uninteresting in terms of taste. Get too many of the dried grapes into your mouth with the cheese, and that's all you taste. Scrape them off and it becomes just another dull mountain cheese, which may go well melted on toast but can't really justify a place on a cheeseboard.

At this point I would have opened the Banon but I was still feeling rather sick from the Chanteraine and I decided to leave it for another day. Of the two I did try, Tomme de Marc was the clear winner and gets the Cheese of the Month, but being better than that rancid old Chanteraine is really no recommendation. All hope of Teddington Cheese redeeming themselves rests on the shoulders of the chestnut-leaf wrapped Banon, and I will report back on that as soon as I can. In the meantime, I can only say that my first experience of mail-order cheeses was a bit of a failure.

Chanteraine Poivre 1/10
Tomme de Marc 3/10

Update: I got through to Teddington Cheese and they are going to send me out a replacement salted butter next week. As for the Chanteraine, they say that another from the same batch looked OK but it could have been a bit older than normal, which may explain the taste. I think this is one cheese I'll be avoiding in the future, even so...

Monday 1 December 2008

Abeno Too, Covent Garden

Abeno Too is an 'Okonomi-yaki' restaurant. I have no idea of the literal translation of this phrase, but as far as I can make out from my lunch there on Saturday afternoon, it's probably something like "egg and rice patties, cooked on a hot plate in front of you". Which isn't quite as catchy as 'Okonomi-yaki', so I can see why they've gone with the Japanese.

Apparently these kind of gaffs are all the rage over in Japan, and it certainly felt very authentic with the all-Japanese waiting staff and wooden bench seating. As for the food itself, well, maybe I'm missing something. I got the impression it was a twisted Japanese take on American food, in much the same way we consider Chicken Tikka Masala to be Indian. I ordered a Pork (actually bacon) Deluxe and a vegetable noodle omelette thingy, the omelette thingy arriving first and rather disappointingly already cooked from an extra hidden kitchen out the back somewhere. It was dressed with what was billed as "Japanese brown sauce and Japanese mayonnaise", but which tasted for all the world like Heinz and Helman's. It tasted pretty much like you'd expect - noodles and vegetables, wrapped in egg.

The Okonomi-yaki patty itself was, thankfully, cooked with a bit more theatre. The ingredients arrived raw in a metal bowl, with a whole egg yolk perched proudly on top. Our waiter then unceremoniously mashed up everything together vigorously and poured the mixture onto the hot plate. Once ready, we split up the patty with our little paint scraper tools into bitesize portions and wolfed it down. It tasted, again, rather like you'd expect fried egg and rice with bacon to taste - "familiar" I think is the word. In fact, it's probably true to say that were it not for the extra excitement of seeing your food prepared in front of you, the cuisine at Abeno would be considered too dull to be worthy of a prime location in the centre of our nations capital. I can perhaps see how this kind of thing would work in Japan, where the fusion of European and Japanese ingredients may seem exotic and different, but when I saw the contents of the metal bowl being mashed up and dropped onto the heat all I could think was "I could have done this myself, at home, and it would have cost about 50p".

But then again, maybe I'm missing something.


Abeno Too on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 25 November 2008

An Evening with Ferran Adrià, Southbank Centre

"You take a fairly straightforward tomato sauce", explained Ferran Adrià (via translator), on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's South Bank last night, "and inject it using a syringe into a child's balloon". The sell-out audience of nearly 1,000 people, expecting nothing less weird and wonderful from someone generally regarded as the world's greatest living chef, watched in fascinated awe. Adrià had been at pains to point out that the food cooked at El Bulli wasn't "science-y", wasn't "molecular gastronomy" and wasn't elitist, and yet these are clearly techniques and processes far beyond the reach of most professional kitchens, never mind your average home chef. And this being El Bulli, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The tomato sauce, for example, contained two different types of thickening agent ("because just using gelatine doesn't produce the right consistency"), and the next stage of the process involved rolling the tomato-filled balloon in a bath of liquid nitrogen.

The thickened tomato sauce "cooks", you see, on the inside of the balloon when it comes into contact with the extremely cold liquid nitrogen, the rolling helping to produce an even coating. And then the magic - the balloon is pierced and peeled away, revealing an impossibly delicate sphere of tomato. The end of this fragile translucent frame is carefully broken and injected (using something called an Isi Whip) with a light tomato mousse. The end result is at once beautifully simple and yet touched with childlike wonder - a fake tomato made of real tomato, if you like, a dance of textures and techniques that is like no other food stuff served at no other restaurant on earth. And should you be lucky enough to be served this at El Bulli in 2009 (when this dish makes its debut), it will be only one course out of more than thirty.

"To describe El Bulli as 'a restaurant' is like calling Shakespeare 'a writer'" - technically correct on one level, and falling far short so many others. El Bulli is the restaurant - a fairytale God-like palace of delights, a cross between Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, and Adrià has spent the best part of 25 years developing and re-imagining the food served there to the point where it's not only far and away the most influential kitchen on the planet but also the most in-demand. Every year over 2,000,000 emails chase 8,000 seats, turning securing a reservation into something like winning the food lottery (or perhaps Wonka's golden ticket), and helping to elevate the experience into the realm of myth.

I made my own pilgrimage on Sunday as part of a weekend break to the Costa Brava. The car park gates were closed and there was little sign of life from inside El Bulli's curtained windows, but I have a feeling the Oompa Loompas were in there somewhere, chopping and blending and preparing for June 2009 when the doors open next. I don't know if I'll ever get to eat there - certainly the odds are stacked against it - but it won't be for want of trying. For the last six years I have dutifully sent off my reservation request on the 16th October, and around 14 days later each year receive the same polite reply - "La demanda recibida en el primer momento ha superado de nuevo nuestras limitadas posibilidades para una temporada y sentimos no poder complacer más peticiones de reserva." So, that's a no, then. Oh well, here's to next year.

Back in the Southbank Centre, Jay Rayner (the evening's host) has asked how many people in the audience have not yet eaten at El Bulli. Predictably, nearly everyone puts their hands up. But touchingly, rather than being pleased his restaurant is in such demand, Adrià puts his head in his hands, crestfallen. "It's so sad", he says, "If I could give everyone in the world who wanted one a meal at El Bulli, I would". Such is the burden of a great chef. Picasso and Mozart can have their works reprinted and replayed and toured the world over, but the dialogue between a restaurant and its guests is ephemeral - different from one day to the next, even one hour to the next, a slave to human inconsistencies, technical variations, ingredients, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. And despite how often Adrià was at pains to point out last night that his food wasn't elitist, the reality is that unless you're either very lucky or very rich, you will never eat at El Bulli, and instead you will learn of the twists and swirls and foams of El Bulli second or third hand, becoming part of the myth without ever tasting the experience first-hand. Adrià knows this, and it hurts.

But then, maybe the myth of El Bulli is part of what has made it so powerfully influential after all. Like the gaggle of dysfunctional children gorging on chocolate in the hope of winning a golden ticket to the Wonka factory, we all want a piece of the magic and live in hope of being "chosen", and the more torturous the journey and longer the wait, the more we want it. From time to time, at events like last night's, glimpses of the wonders inside the whitewashed walls leak out, and the excitement increases even more. Perhaps one day I will revisit El Bulli, not as a geeky food tourist taking holiday snaps out of season, but as a paying guest, and I will walk up to that unassuming front door and make it inside. But if not, at least I'll be in good company. And anyway, what kind of world would this be if they were giving away the taste of paradise to every kid gathered at the factory gates?

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it

"Pure Imagination"
Lyrics and Music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Performed by Gene Wilder

Monday 17 November 2008

One City Road, The City

Last week I had a completely non-descript meal in One City Road, a new bar/brasserie place catering for the business lunch crowd just off Finsbury Square. Like the dutiful little blogger I am, I started off taking pictures and making notes of the atmosphere and service and I made sure I recorded any details that would help in the later review. Then, halfway through a bog standard Rueben sandwich and chips, I made the decision that I would not, in fact, write this meal up. Not because the experience was so dispiriting and soulless that it would depress me too much to write about it - in fact the service was rather charming and the chips were quite nice. But it was the conversation I was having with my chum over my salt beef and rye that made my mind up. We were talking about the US election.

It turns out that we had both stayed up until the early hours of the morning, flicking between the coverage on various channels, increasingly addicted to the numbers and percentages, rumours and results. The evening played out like a euphoric symphony, starting slowly with some teasing exit polls and predictable safe states, the melody building through crucial swing wins like Pennsylvania and Virginia to the final climactic announcements around 2am, accompanied by sweeping shots of cheering multitudes in Illinois and Times Square, the crashing of cymbals and a full horn section (metaphorically speaking).

I wasn't awake for the Grant Park speech, but caught much of it the next morning. Gracious and sincere, flanked by his family and before an ecstatic crowd of close to a quarter of a million, it was a genuinely world-changing moment. And to those who will say that the reality of the Obama presidency will surely struggle to live up to the expectation his soaring rhetoric has created, well you may be right. But just for now, and for as long as this moment lasts, his victory has united the entire world in the hope that things may just be on the up.

Then, a couple of days later, I went for a Rueben sandwich on City Road. It was OK. But who cares? Barack Obama is the President of the United States.


Tuesday 11 November 2008

Le Bouchon Breton, Spitalfields

The Bouchon Bordelais has been a fixture on Battersea Rise for as long as I've been living in the area, and I walk past its front doors almost every weekend on the way to the shops and stalls on Northcote Road. I went once, a few years ago, for lunch. It wasn't bad - they served nice skinny chips and I quite enjoyed my steak (this being before the time I really knew what good steak was) - but a friend's mullet was nasty (the fish, not his hairdo) and for the price I paid I decided it wasn't worth the outlay so I've never been back.

But a week or so ago I noticed a new menu posted outside the Bordelais. Kind of a cross between a French bistro and Corbin and King (the brains behind the Wolseley, the Ivy and others), it now has a larger selection of more varied dishes, from a simple bowl of soup to a 500g steak frites, much of it quite affordable and all of it, I have to say, very tempting. Turns out the Bouchon brand had been revamped by none other than M. Roux of Le Gavroche fame, and even has a sister restaurant newly opened in Spitalfields Market in the East End. And it was this new branch, named Le Bouchon Breton, that I visited for lunch Friday last week.

If first impressions were all that counted, Le Bouchon Breton wouldn't be at all bad. The room is airy and pleasant, having done the best they can with what is essentially a goldfish bowl on the first floor of a brand new office development. It's perhaps best described as a Parisien bistro reimagined by Norman Foster, but I liked the fresh seafood counter out the front and the atmosphere was buzzy without being oppressively loud. It's populated by an impressive number of smart "French" (more of that later) waiters with a ready smile and competent manner, and after being seated and presented with those exciting menus, I was on a high. I should have left there and then.

The first sign of trouble was that after our initial meet and greet it took us a good fifteen minutes to flag down a waiter to order, and when we asked for a bottle of house white he insisted we waited for the sommelier. We only wanted house white, and the intervention of the sommelier would hardly have convinced us otherwise, but procedures are procedures and pointless pretentious flummery is pointless pretentious flummery I suppose. After another five or ten minutes and the sommelier had steadfastly refused to appear, we managed to grab another waiter who took our order for wine without complaint.

There was yet more time for the hapless service to flounder during the food order. "Madame, s'il vous plait?" one began to a member of our party who happened to be French. Instantly she rattled off her order in her mother tongue, only to be interrupted mid-flow by the blushing waiter who quietly explained that he was, in fact, Russian and couldn't speak French. A sweet, and rather humorous incident you might think, but it just reinforced the impression that in the effort for that elusive notion of authenticity the management may have inadvertently just created a French theme restaurant. "Go up to people and introduce yourself in French", you can imagine the management saying. "They'll be too stupid to understand or reply, but they'll forgive all kinds of horrors with the food if they think this is how the French do it". Kind of a Gallic TGI Fridays, but with more expensive wine.

The food, when it eventually arrived, was only OK. My French Onion Soup had a great big crouton dissolving soggily inside it and had clearly been standing under a heat lamp for a while. It also had no toasted cheesy crust on the top, although the actual broth was satisfyingly beefy. It was no better than the £2.50 example you can get from the Eat sandwich chains on Mondays though. And my main course of lamb cutlets in rosemary jus would have been a whole lot nicer had they used decent meat - Hawksmoor, just around the corner on Commercial Street, serves the tastiest cuts of lamb in London for exactly the same price. Here they were fatty and tasteless and drowned by the strong sauce. Opinions around the table from my fellow diners were similarly mixed; a steak baguette was dry and uninteresting, the lobster bisque was overly creamy and didn't contain enough lobster. The overall impression was of a restaurant trying to increase its margins by cooking smaller amounts of inferior ingredients, and you have to have real skill in the kitchen to pull this off successfully. Le Bouchon Breton may have culinary genius M. Roux on its management team, but it's only with him in the kitchen that it would stand a chance turning out food worth paying for.

Perhaps it's silly to criticize a French restaurant in London for not being authentic, but the tragedy is that I can see what they are trying to do. Affordable bistro style food covering all bases, recognisably French and served in an informal setting - it sounds like most people's idea of a perfect dining spot. The fact that Le Bouchon Breton falls so short just shows how difficult it is to get that balance right. This may not be the last I see of the Bouchons - the £12.50 lunch menu is still generously priced and of course there's the revamped Battersea Branch that might yet win me back - but the experience on Friday lunchtime was summed up quite neatly by a fellow diner as she peered miserably into her insipid lobster bisque - "We should have just gone to the Fox again".


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Monday 27 October 2008 chilli cook-off, Islington

I am not, it's fair to say, one of life's natural athletes. I generally do my best to avoid physical exercise unless it's absolutely unavoidable and taking place in the strictly climate-controlled environment of my local gym, and even then my motives for going don't stretch any further than offsetting the guilt of yet another salt beef beigel or Northcote Road sausage roll. Lazy might be an oversimplification; I am, by nature, just not a very competitive person, and I can't pretend I'm going to Fitness First to achieve physical perfection when all I'm actually doing is just enough to stop me dropping dead of a heart attack by the time I'm 30. And no more than that.

One essential part of competition is passion - you need the motivation of a desire to see a decent result, and of course to fuel that motivation you need a genuine interest in a subject. I have no interest in exercise. Food, however, is another matter. And on Saturday in Islington gathered a group of highly motivated foodies allowing their competitive streaks to shine through in a "chilli cook-off", organised by Tipped and held in the pool room of the Mucky Pup pub.

The first thing I noticed was just how varied in style all the different (there were eight in all) chillies were. Some used chunks of stewing steak while others used mince, some had sweetcorn and herbs and vegetables whilst others were no-nonsense meat and tomato with little extra filler. My favourites tended to be not too hot but with a very obviously fatty/beefy hit - I particularly enjoyed one using liquid smoke to evoke genuine USA barbecue flavours.

But the winner, in the end, managed to bring together all the best elements of herby/Mediterranean flavours while letting the good quality meat speak for itself. Step forward Helen of Food Stories, whose submission "El Paso Heart Attack" was the favourite with the voting public. Her reward consisted of little more than a comedy chef's hat and a pat on the back, but of course the real prize was knowing that her product was appreciated by her fellow peers. For everyone else, it was hardly a wasted afternoon sat in a charming old pub drinking free Corona and eating free chilli. Now that's my kind of competition.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Cheese of the Month - Langres

Much as I like to sample as many different styles as possible for this blog, the fact is that pungent, soft cheeses are what I keep coming back to. Epoisses is an old favourite, Stinking Bishop a regular in my fridge, and now the new kid on the block is Langres from the Champagne-Ardenne region of France.

This particular example was from Whole Foods in Kensington, not really my favourite cheese shop (impressive at first, a more thorough investigation reveals a huge amount of rather boring cheeses, albeit presented quite nicely) but I happened to be in the area. The Langres caught my eye by having a lovely orange washed rind (with Champagne, naturally) and because it looked like it was sagging under the weight of its own ripeness like a little deflated pumpkin. Quite charming.

October is apparently quite late in the season for these cheeses, but the extra ripeness seems only to have improved the flavour and texture. The flesh was just soft enough towards the rind to have that syrupy Epoisses-style mouthfeel but the chalkiness in the centre held it all together enough to be able to serve it in attractive, gloopy wedges. It was, as I'd been let to expect, not quite as powerful as Epoisses but it still had bags of salty, creamy flavour.

The remaining Langres that we didn't manage to finish off on Saturday night now reminds me of its presence every time I open my fridge door, but I'm sure it won't last long. This characterful little cheese will be making a return visit to Battersea in the near future, I'm sure.


Monday 20 October 2008

The Bolingbroke, Battersea

I should really try to stop getting myself all excited when I hear about a new restaurant opening in Battersea. I don't know what it is about this part of town, but for some reason regardless of concept, skill of the chef or the charm of the front of house, as soon as the doors open to a new eatery in SW11 it's like all the life and joy is sucked out and you're left with a hollow shell of a place serving bland, expensive food to undiscerning punters.

Dos Hermanos, that bastion of independent criticism and flawless taste, had already dismissed Broome and Delancey on Battersea Rise, saving me the trouble of blowing £20 on a burger and chips and hammering probably the first nail in the coffin of the latest reincarnation of this site, which seems to have changed hands about 10 times in as many years. But what was this - The Bolingbroke, another new opening on Northcote Road, doesn't get a panning. It's hardly a glowing review, but it sounds solid and interesting enough for a visit and damn it, it's not like we're exactly spoiled for choice around here and if it turns out to be anything less than terrible I'd consider that a win. So, off I went.

First impressions were good - very good, if I'm going to be honest. They have that Prince of Wales Putney vibe, with a slightly rowdy and informal front room and a more traditional restaurant dining room towards the back, with whitewashed brick walls and a chalkboard daily special. And the menu read very well indeed, "Wild bay Devon crab, avocado, baby gem lettuce and deep fried duck egg" sounds almost worth the fee alone, and along with Ox tongue, slow-roasted belly of pork and roasted mallard it ticked all the right boxes in local, seasonal ingredients. If only the success of a restaurant was based on their skill in putting together a menu, the Bolingbroke would be famous the city over.

Starters were where things started going downhill. Ham hock terrine was fridge-fresh and although would have been tasty enough at room temperature just pointed towards sloppy practices in the kitchen. The "signature" duck egg starter was overcooked so that instead of a lovely runny yolk the insides were solid and cloying. My pigeon was cooked nice and rare and the accompanying mushrooms were lovely, but the foie was cold and solid, like a small lump of butter, a waste of such premium ingredients really.

As far as mains go, the only positive thing I can say is that the daily special guinea fowl confit was pretty good and was eaten without complaint. But the two fish dishes ordered that evening (Dover sole and a Halibut steak) ranked with some of the worst I've ever paid for. My Halibut with saffron sauce was overcooked, completely underseasoned and dressed with some entirely tasteless mussels. There was no sign of any saffron in the creamy sauce and the creamed leeks were as bland as only unseasoned, cheap boiled vegetables can be. But worst of all was the Dover Sole. When done well, this is the king of all fish dishes - my Sole at Scott's last year was just superb, with rich meaty flesh easing off the bone in large, satisfying chunks. Here it was overcooked way past the point of obliteration, the skin burned and the flesh a disgusting homogenous paste. Awful.

We did mention our numerous complaints to the waitress when asked, but apart from a smile and a short apology, nothing else was offered in terms of recompense. We had also asked them - twice - to turn down the music blaring out of the speakers just above our heads, but nothing was done about this either, so we had to endure our main courses (themselves being enough punishment you would think) between yelled conversation or in the quiet few seconds between tracks.

The Bolingbroke is not a good restaurant. Perhaps if I'd ordered differently I would have come away with the impression that it was merely mediocre rather than actively bad, but at these prices, and with competition from pubs such as the Prince of Wales and the Establishment only 10 minutes away, there is no excuse for such poor cooking. For all the fanfare and expense lavished on this building, it seems the curse of Battersea dining doesn't look like being broken any time soon.


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