Tuesday 30 October 2012

Chooks, Muswell Hill, and Orange Buffalo, Brick Lane

"Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series'?"

"There's too many of them?"

"That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is, 'people like them, let's make some more of them'."

The joke in the above exchange between Alan Partridge and the Chief Commissioning Editor of the BBC was that, bereft of successful ideas himself, Alan merely spotted the most convenient bandwagon and attempted to ride it to success. And as well as being a handy way of shoehorning an Alan Partridge quote into a food blog, it has a (slightly tortured) parallel with what's happening in certain corners of the London restaurant business.

The Giraffe group has by no means the monopoly on bandwagon-jumping but they have definitely been one of the highest-profile offenders over recent years. Strike One was Guerilla Burgers back in February 2010, where, spotting the frenzy surrounding the Meatwagon appearances in South London, they decided there was money to be made selling 'authentic West-coast burgers' in a desirable Marylebone location. Unfortunately 'authenticity' is a subjective term, and to various people's crushing disappointment, not least my own, Guerilla Burgers turned out to be a glorified pub burger served with frozen crinkle-cut chips at a massive mark-up. It was quietly rebranded within the year.

And now, as any food geek will tell you (don't look so surprised, you know who you are), the Next Big Thing is going to be chicken - whether fried, rotisseried or served as wings. Giraffe knows this, too, so they've rushed into field with Chooks, a desperate trend-chasing exercise in creative bankruptcy that has recently reared its ugly neck in Muswell Hill. It is, and I'm saving you the miserable experience of travelling to Muswell Hill to find out the same for yourself, completely awful; overpriced, ineptly constructed food served slowly by inexperienced staff in a room that's a bit like - actually, very like - Meatliquor with the hard edges filed off. The sweet Margaritas are served in jam jars, the cutlery comes in white metal tins, there's even ironic corporate "graffiti" in the toilets. As for the food itself, well, the fried chicken tasted of water and grease, and flabby buffalo wings came with a "blue cheese sauce" that was as thin as mouldy milk. Please promise me you'll never go.

But! But. Thank God not everyone with the desire to operate a food business in central London has timid investors to please or the imagination of a sand fly. I'm not going to waste any more words on Chooks, it doesn't even deserve the SEO score, so instead let's focus on a stall just off Brick Lane that treats its chickens - and its customers - with respect.

Orange Buffalo care about what they do. The wings themselves come in a choice of four flavours, from 'Original' (tangy, mild) through 'Woof Woof' (hotter, more complex) and to the top level 'Viper' which I'm yet to try but given that it contains the fearsome naga chilli I assume packs quite a punch. They are deep fried to a marvellous crispy skin then (correctly, as per the authentic New York state method) rolled in the hot sauce by hand before being presented on a paper tray of chunky blue cheese dip, sticks of celery and side of either onion rings or fries.

The wings themselves are fantastic, made with skill and using very good quality, meaty chicken. The onion rings are little bitesize things, greaselessly fried and with a good crunch, ditto the fries. The blue cheese dip, though, was almost the standout element - a chunky, creamy pile of cooling dairy that provided the absolute perfect antidote to the chillified chicken. Six wings, with the blue cheese dip, celery and a generous pile of either onion rings or fries was £6.50.

I know Orange Buffalo aren't the first people to serve chicken wings. The Meatwagon weren't the first people to serve bacon cheeseburgers, Big Apple didn't invent gourmet hot dogs, and Banh Mi 11 didn't invent Vietnamese pork paté baguettes. But each of these operations were successful - and great - not because they saw a trend and tried to make some money from it, but because they started selling the kind of food they wanted to eat themselves, and their passion for doing so was evident in the end product. The lesson to be learned, time and time again, is this - make the kind of food you want to eat, make it with care, and to hell with what anyone else thinks. A bandwagon is never a good enough reason for a restaurant.

Chooks 2/10
Orange Buffalo 9/10

EDIT 01/11/12: I have been asked to make it clear that the relationship between Chooks and Giraffe is familial not financial - Chooks is owned and run by the son of the founders of Giraffe and is a separate entity. That said, you can see the family resemblance...

Chooks on Urbanspoon

The Orange Buffalo on Urbanspoon
I was invited to review Chooks

Thursday 25 October 2012

Copita, Soho

There was quite an interesting reaction to my post about the new Brindisa place Tramontana in Shoreditch. Let me repeat that I had a great time there - I thought the food was very accomplished, the staff friendly and I loved what they'd done with the room and open kitchen. But, it seems, not many other people did. You can read the comments from disappointed customers yourself on the post, but as well as those, no less than food & wine writer Fiona Beckett, whose tastes normally overlap mine fairly reliably, didn't think much of it.

I'm not sure which is stranger, though - that different people could have such different reactions to a meal in the same restaurant within the space of a week, or that, given our wildly differing fetishes and foibles, we ever have enough in common to recommend a restaurant at all. I mean think about this - some people don't even like Tayyabs. I know! Madness.

Following Tramontanagate then, and given the practical impossibility of finding an objectively good restaurant, it perhaps shouldn't have been too much of a surprise that much-loved and award-winning tapas bar Copita didn't excite me as I thought it was going to. But I was mainly disappointed not because I was expecting it to be brilliant, but because I really wanted it to be brilliant - another reliable ham-and-sherry outlet in the centre of London is always cause for celebration.

The first problem was with the Iberico ham, and given my hopeless addiction to the stuff I find it quite hard to forgive problems with Iberico ham. It was £15 for a fairly mean portion - close to the same amount that José sell for £9 - and was pretty badly carved, shredded and hacked into weird irregular bits and pieces, much of it dry and chewy. The flavour was still good, but the way it had been treated made me sad inside.

The rest was better, fortunately. Mussel croquettas weren't anywhere near as weird as they sound, in fact they were better than those at Tramontana, with a nice golden crust and creamy filling. Crispy cauliflower & piquillo sauce began enjoyably, delicately encrusted and seasoned well, but the sauce was underpowered and there wasn't enough of it, so very soon all you were eating was fried cauliflower and wishing you weren't. A lamb bun with harissa was very good though, my favourite overall, with tender chunks of slow-cooked lamb and a good kick from the harissa.

We got a cheese board too but as the waitress merely dumped them and ran off without explaining what they were, I can't tell you much about them other than I liked the gooey goat's and spongey blue, but the harder (mountain?) cheese was a bit bland. £11, mind.

With the cheapest bottle of sherry, itself a whacking £39, the total for two came to £88 and it's really in the value-for-money department that Copita loses most of its stars. The food was good, but not extraordinarily so, and I'm sure Soho rents have as much of an effect on the bill as the cost of ingredients which were generally of a high standard, but I couldn't help feeling that we didn't get a great deal for our £44 a head and had we been hungrier and thirstier the results could have been disastrous. Then again, perhaps you'll visit yourself, have a great time for a pittance and wonder what the hell I was moaning about. Such is the strange business of writing about restaurants.


Copita have been in touch to point out that their cheapest sherry is £15 for a half bottle, so a bit cheaper than the £39 full bottle we had.

Copita on Urbanspoon

Monday 22 October 2012

Grillstock, Bristol

With its great sweeping Georgian terraces, cobbled hills and shimmering waterfront, much of Bristol is quite disarmingly attractive. Walking from where I was staying in villagey Redland, down the dramatic incline of St Michael's Hill and through the medieval Christmas steps, it's enough to make you come over all Bristol Tourist Board, but for some reason when I lived here as a student I never stopped drinking and sleeping long enough to appreciate it. It was only last year I returned for the first time since my final exams, and found myself completely smitten with the place. And then, this summer, Grillstock happened, and suddenly it was a full-blown love affair.

The idea of hosting an authentic, US-style, Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS)-rules competition in dear old Blighty is actually nothing new. Various attempts have been made over the years to run a regular, respectable event showcasing the best of US BBQ but all have either gone under or morphed into that more traditional home-grown beast - food cooked over charcoal grills. I'm sure Laverstocke Park's Field to Fork Festival (to pick one example) is great fun, but real American 'cue fanatics hanker after the "low and slow" approach with pork butt, beef ribs and chicken thighs coated in dry-rub, smoked for hours over cherry wood chips and served with a sweet, sharp sauce.

And this was exactly what was happening, on an impressive scale, at the Grillstock festival in Bristol back in June. I was lucky enough to have been invited as a judge on one of the less important rounds (they weren't about to let a chancer like me loose on the pulled pork, brisket and chicken rounds) but would have happily paid to go; the weekend was about as much fun as I can remember having at any food event, with 21 teams from all over the UK and Europe (US competition BBQ is especially popular in Estonia, interestingly) competing for the King of the Grill title. The quality of the food was astonishing, the serious business of BBQ given due reverence, and the whole of the harbourside was hung with the smell of smoked brisket. It was heaven.

But with the Grillstock festival itself being an annual affair for just a couple of days at a time, where do you go for the rest of the year for proper competition-style BBQ without booking a flight to Memphis, TN? Well, at lunchtimes in St Nicholas Market in the centre of Bristol you can now go to Grillstock's very own stall, where a daily-changing menu of authentic American treats like brisket, pulled pork and chicken wings are served by enthusiastic BBQ lovers. I must declare an interest, in that not only was anything attached to the Grillstock name always going to make me go all-of-a-wobble, but a friend of mine Dan (better known as @essexeating and one half of Bristol supperclub sensations The Basement) is the chef. But even the most hardened cynic would be won over by the food - and the prices - of this little stall.

Beef rib on the bone, surely the best part of a kilo of meat served with a bun and slaw, was an unbelievable £6.50. Inside the dark crust of a herby, salty rub, slow cooking had rendered the meat so tender you could slice off thick, moist strips of it with even the plastic cutlery it came with. Pulled pork - something silly like £4 - was piled high and had some good colouring from the rub, and tasted like they knew exactly what they were doing. And a hot dog, appearing on the Grillstock menu for the first time, was sourced from the same butchers that hot dog legends Big Apple of Old Street get theirs, and was predictably brilliant. It came with yet more pulled pork and Dan's special 'fry sauce' which you can read more about here.

So the Grillstock stall is very good indeed, and reason enough for BBQ-loving citizens of Bristol to be very happy. And judging by numbers filing through this corner of St Nicholas Market on Saturday lunchtime it already has many devotees. But it gets better. Not only do we have the 2013 Grillstock to look forward to (11th-12th May), but next year for the first time ever Grillstock is coming to London (15th-16th June), meaning far more of you have the opportunity to go, and serious fanatics have the option of going twice. I'll be the one with the BBQ sauce-stained shirt and the delirious, meat-sated smile on my face.


Thursday 18 October 2012

Tramontana, Shoreditch

Poor old Brindisa. Once upon a time they were the unchallenged masters of Spanish food in London, beloved by punters, raved about by critics, showered with awards. Then one day some upstart employee called José Pizarro gets ideas above his station and decides to open his own place, an insultingly short walk away from the Borough Market flagship bar. And as if that wasn't enough, next thing you know this José character has them queueing out of the door every night and starts collecting awards like they're going out of fashion. The cheek.

Of course, they have nothing to worry about. While faddish foodies (guilty) chase after the novelty and the new, Brindisa's mini chain of restaurants (now four in number) has been quietly and confidently getting on with producing some of the best Spanish food this side of the Pyrenees. I have never had a bad meal at any of their sites, and if last night is anything to go by, the latest addition to the fold will be nothing but another roaring success.

Tramontana have kept the basic internal layout of previous occupant Saf, but the vast open kitchen has really come alive now it's hung with legs of ham and lit by flaring pans instead of being a plating area for sad little piles of vegan food. (I'm told Saf have a stall in the food hall at Whole Foods Kensington these days, if you miss them terribly. Anyone? No, didn't think so.) It's a really lovely room, and the quiet garden out back will be fantastic, too, once summer returns - in the pissing October rain it's a slightly less attractive option.

There wasn't much to fault with any of the food. Boquerones were sharp and soft, draped over rustic house potato chips. Croquettas, while not quite as good as the supremely accomplished versions from the Other Place on Bermondsey Street, still were perfectly good, stuffed full of rich béchamel and salty nuggets of Iberico ham. And a separate plate of Iberico ham - surely a foodstuff that's as close to proof of the existence of God as you can find - was utter perfection, sliced into exact squares each containing just the right amount of fat and meat.

A daily special of mushrooms and truffle was probably only disappointing next to the quality of other dishes, but I did think it could have done with a lot more truffle and a lot more seasoning. Fortunately the same criticism couldn't be levelled at some little slices of cured tuna, which were incredibly punchy - pretty little things too, glowing in deep red.

Strangely, considering I've spent most of my holidays in Girona every year since I was 8 years old, this was the first time I've ever had fideuà. Best described as a Catalan version of a paella made with noodles instead of rice, this version contained huge, meaty prawns and cubes of squid, the noodles clumping together in satisfying chunks. Bacalao (Catalan for salt fish) was gorgeous too, moist and rich and balanced on top of a commendably light mayonnaise.

Then finally, if Tramontana hadn't already ticked enough boxes in my personal "how to do restaurants right" list, they also do a burger. The slider-size "black and white" is made from white Catalan butifarra sausage and morcilla (black pudding), and is so good it even gives the Opera Tavern's Iberico & foie gras version a run for its money. And at £4.50, it's also a bit of a bargain.

With a £30 bottle of Fino, all this came to just over £97 including service, and between three people I think that's very fair. In all honesty, I knew I was going to enjoy Tramontana - I've been a fan of Brindisa for almost as long as they've been serving food in London. But a restaurant as enjoyable and accomplished as this is never simply inevitable. It's the result of hard work, attention to the important details and, of course, being incredibly good at what you do. That their fourth restaurant still has the capacity to surprise and delight is testament to an extraordinary talent, and London is all the richer for having them.


Tramontana on Urbanspoon

Sunday 14 October 2012

London Restaurant Map 2012


Just a little something I've been working on over the last few weeks. There's no particular rule for the places I've picked - some areas (Soho) are blessed with options, and some (Warren St) are a little more tricky. But I think it just about works.

Any comments/suggestions gratefully received as ever. Click the image to enlarge.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Golden Pie, Battersea

A few months ago a new pie and mash shop appeared on Lavender Hill. A new pie and mash shop. Somewhere you can knock back plates of jellied eels and liquor, washed down with a cup of builder's tea, the kind of place that hitherto has only existed in obscure parts of Hackney and in Anthony Bourdain travelogues. A new one opened in Battersea. Its arrival was, to say the least, unexpected.

I've been twice now. My first visit was on the way back from work on a Thursday evening, at the time the only day of the week it stayed open after 6pm. I bought a little box to take home with me and it cost £3.50, a bargain even if it had been less than good, but I was quite pleased with it - nice crispy pastry, good flavour in the beef filling (even if there wasn't very much of it) and plenty of salty luminous green parsley sauce.

I didn't go back for months after that because of their wilfully odd operating hours. It opened after the morning commute and closed before the evening commute (in Battersea for God's sake) so your only chance was either to go on a Saturday (and I don't know about you but I have higher hopes for my Saturdays than pie and mash on my own) or, as I eventually did, pop in on a weekday lunchtime whilst working at home waiting for someone to come round and fix the boiler.

This time I ordered a big plate of pie, mash and eels for £7.

"I'll give you a little plate for the eel bones." The lady behind the counter said in a broad East London accent, with just a hint of friendly concern that I hadn't quite understood what I'd just ordered. "Would you like a cup of tea, darling?"

I don't drink tea or coffee, so I ended up half-heartedly choosing a can of Lilt from the cabinet. "It'll just be another couple of minutes for the eels, alright darling?". That was two mentions of the eels within my first five minutes - I think she was expecting the penny to drop any second and for me to realise my mistake. But instead I took a seat and cracked open the Lilt.

As before, the food was pretty good. A large portion of not overly-buttery mash soaked up a good pint of that green liquor, and the handful of eels, though surprisingly gelatinous for the 'stewed' option (I hadn't asked for 'jellied'), still provided a decent 'surf' to the beef pie 'turf'.

Halfway through my lunch an old local boy struggled in with one of those wheeled shopping trolleys and ordered a "single" (presumably a single portion of pie and mash, though I didn't see any mention on the menu of any way of doing a "double"). He and the waitress chatted away happily for a few minutes, then before I had even had a chance to spit out my first eel bone, it was "See you Friday darling" and he was gone.

It was all very… strange. It's odd enough that in 2012 a brand-new pie and mash shop has opened anywhere in London, never mind in comfortable, boring commuter-belt Battersea, but the homely service, the wildly unsuitable opening hours and the nostalgic pricing seemed more suitable for the set of a soap opera than a functioning restaurant. I'm compelled to write it up partly out of curiosity but partly because I have this eerie feeling I will be walking past one day and it will have completely disappeared and been replaced by an estate agents, with neighbours claiming no knowledge of its existence and nothing but the faint smell of pastry to mark it had ever been there at all.

Or perhaps it's an elaborate theme restaurant, a kind of Cockney TGI Fridays. Just like Polpo needs its Aperol Spritzers served by tattoo-ed hipsters and TGIs its slappable "Hi my name's Jerry!" cretins with their braces and fifteen pieces of flair, Golden Pie wouldn't work without walls hung with pictures of the Queen and a motherly Eastender offering a cheery hello and making sure you have enough tea. Perhaps they even hire their own themed customers - I mean Lavender Hill is all estate agents and hairdressers. Where on earth did they find a octogenarian pie-and-mash-loving regular barely six months after opening?

But there it is anyway, and if you ever happen to be wandering around Battersea on a weekday afternoon with £3.50 burning a hole in your pocket then you can certainly do worse. And if you can't find it, I can only promise it was there and I didn't dream it and for a brief moment in 2012 there was a bloody pie and mash shop on Lavender Hill. Because if I hadn't been there myself, I wouldn't believe it either.


Golden Pie on Urbanspoon

Monday 1 October 2012

El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona

For a meal that eventually - thank God - managed to be worth the trip to Girona and then some, it couldn't have got off to a worse start. The first fifteen minutes of our lunch at El Cellar de Can Roca were blighted by "service" from a belligerent, monosyllabic waiter who spoke next-to-no English, threw our first few trays of amuses down with distracted haste and at one point, when I tried to ask him a question, actually turned his back on me mid-sentence and grumbled something under his breath as he walked off. This kind of thing is sadly quite common in Catalonia, but the last place you'd expect to find yourself emotionally battered and bruised is in the garden of a 3-Michelin-star restaurant recently voted the second best in the entire world. The guy shouldn't have been allowed to man a toll booth on the A-7, never mind wait on tables.

It took a timely intervention from another much more pleasant and capable member of staff (that's him above), then, to make us feel even welcome, least of all like we were enjoying ourselves. But eventually, after a brief tour of the glamorous Can Roca kitchens and a few glasses of Cava, nerves were settled. And through all the initial trauma, it has to be said, the food still shone. Like El Bulli three years ago (how time flies), the astonishing level of attention to detail and effort that went into every element of the 20+ different dishes was staggering, but unlike El Bulli, here there was nothing that was shocking for the sake of it or experimental to the point of inedible. And if you're thinking it seems odd to praise a 3-Michelin star restaurant for not serving inedible food, you haven't eaten at El Bulli.

The first thing diners are presented with at Can Roca is a spectacular bonsai olive tree hung with caramelised anchovy-stuffed olives. We were still suffering at the hands of El Bastardo by this point, so as our tree was slammed down one of the little olives detached and bounced onto the table. After it was (wordlessly and charmlessly) replaced, we enjoyed them as much as you can enjoy an caramelised olive-stuffed anchovy. Which is quite a bit, actually.

"Campari bonbon" were masterfully done - the cocoa butter casing was so delicate that the thing dissolved almost as soon as it touched the tongue, releasing a bitter, citrusy nectar. "Marinated mussels" were little blobs of seafood broth encased in some kind of edible (I hope) gel, and were similarly fun to eat. And there was a neat row of cylinders made from some kind of rice cracker, stuffed with blitzed calamari and topped with little nuggets of deep-fried, battered salmon eggs. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of work involved in making each these items, which disappeared down our greedy English throats in a matter of seconds.

Once shifted inside the stunning, Zen-like restaurant and safely away from the influence of El Bastardo, we were presented with what they described as a "mushroom brioche" but was more like a Chinese-style har gau dumpling casing, injected with a powerfully truffly mushroom paste. It probably took some poor bugger about three weeks to make.

And if all the above is impressive, the next amuse (we hadn't even got to the first starter on the tasting menu yet) made me want to go and give everyone involved in making it a hug, partly in thanks and partly in sympathy. Dubbed El Mundo (The World), it consisted of five exquisitely prepared morsels, each inspired by a different country. We were asked to guess which was which, and although the sashimi & rice of Japan was fairly obvious, as were the Asian herbs in the astonishing Thailand (a similar technique to the Campari bonbon, fish stock inside a thin casing), I managed to mix up Morocco, Peru and Mexico somehow. All of them tasted great though.

Finally, our first course. "Oyster with black pearl, wrapped in its own juice" is a rather inelegant translation of an extremely elegant dish. Pickled vegetables of various kinds (the celery was particularly good), and I think a melon sorbet, accompanied a meaty bivalve that had been treated in who the hell knows how many different chef-torturing techniques to give it extra flavour and texture. I didn't know there was anything you could do to a raw oyster to improve it other than sprinkle it with Tabasco, but now I do.

"Green wheat with smoked sardine" came with "toasted bread ice cream" which I've decided is my new favourite ice cream. The sardines were strongly flavoured and the smoked fish and grapes worked brilliantly. Nice presentation, too - in an indent carved out of a thick stone slab.

"Olive paste" was a kind of thick gazpacho studded with various different preparations of olive. That description doesn't really do it justice, because this unlikely thing was one of the highlights of the entire meal. There was something strangely beguiling about the way all the various types of olives (Gordal, black and Manzanilla) combined in the mouth; the little black olive fritter in particular was incredibly intense.

"White asparagus Comtesse" was as hilarious as it was delicious - "Comtesse" is the Spanish brand name for Wall's Vienetta, and you can see the similarity here. It had a simply stunning flavour, creamy and savoury, shot through with black truffle. Another highlight.

And then, the famous Can Roca king prawn dish, and I'm afraid my meagre writing skills are going to fall hopelessly short in conveying just how utterly magical this was. On the one hand, it's a deconstructed prawn, with the head and legs freeze-dried and deep-fried (somehow), a sauce made out of the head juice (somehow) and then (somehow) the tail meat infused with chargrilled flavour without drying them out. But the results were mind-blowing, like every prawn I'd ever eaten in my life was just leading up to this moment. The tail meat was soft and sweet and smoky, the head and legs deeply savoury and salty and greaseless, the sauce rich and just the right side of bitter. If I'd paid €165 for just this one dish I'm not sure I'd have cause to complain. Unbelievably - literally unbelievably - good. I'm still in awe.

A dainty little fillet of bream was surrounded by an arc of vegetables treated in various different chef-tortury ways. The vegetables, really, were the highlight - all kinds of things going on and it was fun working your way through them to see which were pickled, which were raw, which were grilled, etc. The fish was pleasant but I'm afraid I do miss a crispy skin - you can probably tell from the photo that it was a bit... gelatinous, and gelatinous isn't the first thing I look for in a good piece of fish.

"Salt-cod brandade" was an experimental but otherwise pretty much perfect fish soup. Not being much of a cook myself I couldn't tell you exactly what they'd done that was so right here, but the broth had a deeply satisfying flavour of fish stock, and the bacalao itself was soft and refined.

These little cubes of Iberico belly pork, each with an expertly-judged amount of fat and meat, were surrounded by a variety of colourful fruit and veg and were, of course, perfect. By this point we were enjoying ourselves so much (helped I'm sure by some incredibly good wines from possibly the best value 3 Michelin star wine list in the world - I can particularly recommend the Blancs del Aspres '09 for €19.50) the chef-guilt factor had been put to one side, but going through the menu again now I'm noticing with horror that the 'fruit and veg' I dismissively referred to are in fact eight different preparations of mango, melon, beetroot, black garlic, onion and orange. They probably cost someone their mental health.

"Red mullet cooked at a low temperature" was presented in a gorgeous scarlet-red sauce and with three towers of fruit-flavoured... things, one of which I think was grapefruit. The fish itself, as you might expect, had a great flavour but again I'd have preferred a more traditional technique and a crispy skin. But maybe that's just me.

"Charcoal-grilled lamb breast" was presented theatrically under a glass dome filled with BBQ smoke, a nice touch. The lamb was excellent, a neat little square of just-so meat, not too fatty and retaining some bite. A sweetbread was similarly expertly done, crispy on the outside and juicy within. I'm glad I didn't detect much of the advertised liquorice in the sauce, though. I don't hold with liquorice in food at the best of times.

"Wood pigeon liver and onion" was another masterclass in making the most of great ingredients. The "liver" just looked and tasted like a normal bit of pigeon breast to me, but that's hardly a criticism, and the curry-caramelized walnuts were the kind of thing I could eat a kilo of in one sitting - that is, if they didn't take a team of trained chefs four days to make (I assume). Lovely orangey tang to the sauce, too.

First of the desserts was this arty arrangement of "Maple syrup cream with pear, hazelnut and cardamom". Very pleasant but I'm afraid just slightly lacking next to the theatrics of earlier dishes.

All the desserts were a bit subdued, in fact. This caramelised apple was little more than sugar wrapped around sugar sitting on top of sugar. It looked impressive, but the savoury courses had matched stunning visuals with equally stunning flavours.

"Moka millefeuille" was probably the best of the desserts, all crispy and soft and not as overwhelmingly sweet as the first two. But it was still only "very good" where earlier dishes had been world-beating. I wonder if this had anything to do with Jordi Roca, the brother who normally heads the pastry section, being out of the country on a conference? Not an excuse, but an explanation perhaps.

And after a selection of fairly uninteresting chocolates and madeleines presented on a tray that looked like a flattened Rubik's Magic, we were done. The relatively unexciting desserts (not to mention early service catastrophes) weren't enough to take the glow off what had been, by and large, a truly exceptional meal, from some uniquely gifted chefs. Can Roca is worth visiting for nothing more than to gasp in open-mouthed awe at the amount of time and skill and creative energies that have gone into every element of the menu, and although it's not cheap (the bill came to €200/head give or take) in the context of what they have achieved it's something approaching a bargain. And so, in short, if you have the means, you should go. The Roca brothers will be waiting for you. El Bastardo - with any luck - will not.