Wednesday 30 April 2014

Cheese of the Month - Cornish Blue

Philip Stansfield turned to cheese making, in his words, "in desperation", as the bottom fell out of the milk market and it looked like his business was about to go under. Largely self-taught, he didn't know the first thing about how to make cheese as recently as 2001, and the fact that Cornish Blue exists at all is testament both to his enormous bravery and extraordinary passion and skill in finding a way of making his dairy cows earn a better living than the one offered by the gouging, price-fixing supermarkets.

It's still, happily, a very small-scale operation. Milk from Philip's own herd of cows is run through his own pasteurising machine, the curd cut by hand, pressed into moulds and then manually salted and turned before ageing in a couple of converted shipping containers heavy with the scent of ammonia. Animal rennet is normally used but Philip does do a vegetarian version occasionally as required.

All of which would mean little if the final product wasn't up to scratch, and in fact would have made a rather embarrassing moment at the end of our little tour around the farm. But fortunately for all concerned, Cornish Blue isn't just a good cheese, or even a remarkably good cheese given its brief biography and circumstance surrounding its creation. It is, quite honestly, a world-class cheese, right up there with the Roqueforts and Sticheltons and Gorgonzolas of this world, with a salty, creamy flesh and wonderfully vanilla/buttery aftertaste. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you need to try it yourself; if you don't think it deserves a regular spot on your cheeseboard then I'll eat my starter culture.

Philip has a couple more people to help these days, and modest plans for expansion, but once supply is boosted just a little more he plans to hold it steady and let market forces do their work. This softly-spoken man, who has fought the long war in this most difficult of industries, has a glint in his eye when considering this next "retirement fund" stage. It is thoroughly deserved.


I was a guest of Cornish Blue cheese

Tuesday 29 April 2014

The Green Room at the Retallack Resort, Cornwall

Cornwall holds a magic spell over anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to visit, something that’s quite hard to explain to the uninitiated. I remember the first time I stepped off the train at St Ives, and saw the impossibly blue waters, the vast golden beach, the whitewashed cottages spilling into the sea, it was a semi-spiritual experience, like all the trials of humanity were designed so I could one day return to this, the chosen land. Plus, the pubs serve this 6% cider called Rattler which, if you have enough of it (a couple of pints is usually more than adequate) makes you think you’ve met God. It’s a killer combination.

So when First Great Western asked if I’d like to try out the new Mitch Tonks seafood menu on the Pullman fine dining car I hardly needed another incentive to plan a return trip to the West Country. But what began as a quiet weekend in Padstow and a chance to fill in a couple of gaps in my Cornwall restaurant list soon snowballed into a 3-day food extravaganza, with visits to a local butcher, farmer, cheese maker and Rick Stein’s seafood school, as well as - needless to say - a healthy dose of the region’s finest restaurants. The reason for this upscale in scope and ambition was a meeting with the lovely people at Cornish Sea Salt who with Retallack Resort and Visit Cornwall offered to pull together a foodie’s wet dream of an itinerary, a non-stop tour of the very finest chefs and producers the area had to offer. And as anyone who knows Cornwall will tell you, this is not a part of the world short of talent in those areas.

I therefore have a lot of people to thank, and a lot of gushing write-ups to write, but to save Cornwall-fatigue for anyone not very interested in the minute details of what four lucky food hobbyists managed to blag of a weekend, I’ll try and space them out over the coming few weeks amongst the usual restaurants closer to home. I’ll start, though, with the backbone of the trip, our base of operations at Retallack resort and a quite unexpectedly wonderful meal at James Nathan’s Green Room restaurant.

It seems a bit churlish to describe any meal as “unexpectedly” good, especially one cooked by Masterchef 2008 winner James Nathan and even more especially one using the finest local ingredients such as St Enodoc asparagus and wild garlic. But as essentially a hotel restaurant in a purpose-built holiday resort 6 miles from Padstow, with a reputation (so far) that hasn't stretched much further than the county border, it's fair to say we weren't expecting our dinner at the Green Room to stand up particularly well next to the haute-cuisine theatrics of Paul Ainsworth at No.6 we'd enjoyed mere hours previously (more on which in due course).

But you know when all your worries about a meal disappear as soon as the first bit of food appears? When one mouthful of expertly crafted amuse is enough to reassure that you are, after all, in safe hands? So it was with a spring pea and mint veloute, warm and rich and velvety, served not with a spoon but in a mini teacup. And relax.

Monkfish came on the bone, grilled in a delicate pepper crust, decorated with pretty wild garlic flowers and on an I think saffron-tinted cream sauce. Almost the highlight of this dish for me, though, were a scattering of weeny fried potatoes, crunchy outside and gooey within, with an astonishing concentrated flavour. If I was a proper food journalist I'd find out where they got them from, but all I'm going to do is tell you to go to the Green Room yourself to see what I mean.

The aforementioned St. Enodoc asparagus, with brown shrimp, quail's egg and bottarga butter was, by any recognised standards, a world-class dish. A spear of jade green asparagus lay next to a puck of glorious seafoody butter which seasoned and livened the vegetable. But just how special this dish was, wasn't completely obvious until you cut into the kind of briochey cake next to it, which had - miraculously - a perfectly soft boiled quail's egg baked into the middle of it. Add a few brown shrimp on top of that and you have one of those plates of food that is destined to be a signature of Nathan's cooking. Quite brilliant.

Next to the asparagus, pigeon breast would have had to jump through a great many hoops to match up to it, and I'm afraid it didn't quite make it. Though prettily presented and with a good display of that gentle-sweet pickling the Japanese do so well, the pigeon itself was under-seasoned and lacking in, well, pigeon flavour, and needed some extra ingredient to make sense of all the sugar and vinegar. Still, I think there's more to be made of the pigeon and pickle idea so perhaps this is ripe for development.

We were right back on track with confit shoulder and noisette of lamb, though, which as well as having the most beautifully slow-cooked meat, drenched in those kind of silky reduced stock sauces (also redcurrant & rosemary) that takes some poor bugger all week to make, had with it a very clever carrot & cumin puree, displaying an admirable willingness to innovate but not at the expense of coherence. There was an amusing little 'finger sandwich'-shaped rack of soft and creamy dauphinoise potatoes, and various other painstakingly crafted bits of veg. A lot of work had gone into this dish, but more importantly it showed.

Pre-dessert of elderflower and passionfruit sorbet was everything you needed. Elderflower is, I've noticed, a very Cornish ingredient, cropping up in ice cream, cordial, you name it, but topping it with passionfruit added a lovely citrusy counter to the floral sorbet. Also, I bloody love passionfruit in all its forms so this was always going to go down well with me.

Dessert proper was Nathan's famous lemon sable with citrus syllabub, one of the dishes that won him the Masterchef title back in 2008 and every bit as convincing today. It must take an extraordinarily steady hand to plate up that mini stonehenge of strawberries and biscuit, but the beauty was more than visual; the strawberry 'soup' that surrounded it was like concentrated summer, and what an incredible colour.

Petits fours were lovely, too - edible chocolate cups of fruit mousses, physalis and shards of sesame cake. No bought-in chocolate truffles or half-hearted cupcakes here.

An excellent meal, then, and more than enough to put (in this humble blogger's opinion) the Green Room firmly in the top flight of restaurants in the country. But here's the kicker - all the above, all seven courses of local, ingredients-led loveliness, is available to you for £40. That's a full tasting menu for what some restaurants I could mention charge for a single main course. Well worth the trip to this part of North Cornwall, and indeed despite its requiring a designated driver to get to for anyone not staying in the resort, there was a steady stream of customers. A destination restaurant in the best sense of the word.

All great meals are worth a journey though, and in fact the setting, when not thrashing down with rain, is quite lovely; I thought at first the wetlands and lake that forms the centrepiece of the Retallack resort was a flooded quarry, but did in fact - hilariously - used to be one of those 'JCB World' parks where you pay to drive around in a big digger pretending to be a Transformer. Our rooms were so low and close to the water the first thing I saw upon waking up the following morning was a mother duck and her ducklings sailing past the lounge window. It's idyllic, but then Cornwall does idyllic in its sleep. That it's also swiftly becoming the second food capital of the UK is a more recent, and exciting, development.


I was a guest of the Green Room and Retallack Resort

Thursday 24 April 2014

River Café, Hammersmith

Some restaurants have regulars. Some restaurants have fans. Some restaurants inspire the kind of loyalty that have customers happily queuing down the street for just the chance to spend money within their hallowed walls.

But surely there's only one joint in London inspires a kind of fervour that's best described as cultish. How do I even begin to write a post about the River Café, probably the closest thing London has to a restaurant sacred cow, whose customers regularly describe the place as "the best restaurant in the world" without fear of being rebuked, and whose staff are so fanatically loyal a stint of 5 or more years is normal in an industry where most people are doing well to last 5 weeks. The merest mention on Twitter I was headed there for dinner prompted a dozen feverish replies whose terrifying subtext - "say something bad, I DARE YOU" - could hardly have been more obvious.

So I approach the following with some tripidation. Let me be clear from the outset (he says changing the locks on his front door and booking a flight to Rio) there was nothing I ate that could be described as disappointing. When you get lovely fresh ingredients, cook them according to years of international top-flight experience and serve them with a smile, well, only a real curmudgeon would feel the need to sit down and pick fault. But if the best Italian food is about cooking great ingredients, simply, surely that rustic approach should be reflected even slightly in the prices? Since when did a meal for two of pasta, grilled fish and dessert cost nearly £300?

Maybe it's just my Hedone Complex flaring up again. I had just heard so many breathless superlatives about the place beforehand that my own experience, when it did arrive, would struggle to match the place I'd invented in my head. I sat there baffled, uncomprehending, despondent. The famous "cevenne onion and pear" tasted like what it was - a boiled onion on a plate, with some pear shaved on top. Scallops were scallops. Chocolate tart was chocolate tart. I was prepared to believe - still am - that I had some part of my brain missing which renders me incapable of distinguishing merely a "very good" ingredient with a "world class" ingredient, but if that's the case, I can't be the only one?

Langoustines at the River Cafe, then. A grand fan of six of the finest Scottish beasties, smoky from the grill, served with a pile of salty agretti (that's saltwort to you and me) and drizzled in (presumably very good) olive oil. They were absolutely perfectly cooked, not too dry or too watery, and each lump of tail meat came away from the shell as a satisfying, bright-white whole. Now there's nothing the River Cafe can do about mother nature, but each animal contained about a teaspoonful of meat, and the plate cost £30.

Asparagus next, and here a more generous portion - eight spears, sat on a pleasant cheese sauce, under grated parmesan. They were nice in the way that asparagus are often quite nice, insofar as they taste of asparagus. If you like asparagus then you'd probably like these. £19.

At some point some artichoke hearts frito arrived, which were very pleasant too. Surface dry as a bone, inside soft and moist. If you like artichoke hearts, then... etc.

OK, so admittedly the pasta courses were more impressive. Crab and chilli spaghetti has a marvellous texture - bouncy and with a good firm bite - and there was lots of crab. Nettle panzotti (sort of folded ravioli) had an equally accomplished touch. Each were lovely, rustic plates of traditional Italian food, technically faultless but still rather... familiar. I mean to say, if you went to a good Italian restaurant you'd expect the pasta to be good, wouldn't you? What you might not expect is for five vegetarian ravioli to be £17...

I'm sorry to keep going on about the numbers. Plenty of you will not mind paying the extra for what many undoubtedly consider the best Italian food in the country, and I honestly wish I felt the same. I am aware we have it easy in London - competition, and the fact that we still have a lot of "selling" to do when persuading British people to eat out, has traditionally kept prices relatively low and forced wily restaurateurs into more inventive ways of making a profit - turning tables in no-reservations places, for example, or using cheaper ingredients in more innovative ways. £30 starters and £60 main courses are something approaching normal in Paris, and even a restaurant where the starters "are around the €140 mark" finds its bookings sheet full.

But this is not a 3* Parisian temple of gastronomy serving lobster and caviar ten ways and with thirty members of staff for each customer. This is a riverside Italian in Hammersmith, serving grilled meats and fish and pasta. And while prices for the first couple of courses were merely uncomfortable, the cost of each one of the secondi at River Cafe could have bought you an entire four-course meal in most other trattoria in the capital. A whole roast pigeon did indeed taste lovely, pink inside and with a great salty, browned skin, wrapped in speck and on top of a slice of bread soaking up the roasting juices. It was, undoubtedly, a very good pigeon dish, the kind of thing you'd happily pay, I don't know, even up to £25 for. This was £37.

Three big, soft scallops, grilled to a perfect browned crust and surrounded by broad beans, chilli and rainbow chard, were also a fantastic eat. And I don't know enough about where to get the best scallops, or what makes a "perfect" broad bean to know exactly how much these raw ingredients cost. All I can tell you is that I know how much a dish of scallops, broad beans and chard cost in most other restaurants I've been to, and that figure has never threatened to approach £36.

The "chocolate nemesis" cake is apparently famous. I tried a bit of it - tasted alright to me but then I'd never normally order chocolate cake in a restaurant. I preferred my lemon tart, with its grilled top and lovely smooth fresh lemon filling. This was a half portion for £4.5, and though maths was never my strongest subject at school a quick calculation estimates the price of that full pie to be about £60.

Oh I do remember one of the cheeses being particularly impressive - a Robiola goat's milk cheese from Piemonte, all pungent and gooey. And the bill lists three scoops of ice cream which I don't remember at all, but that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen.

But maybe I'd better stop there. It is not that the River Café is a bad restaurant - it clearly is not, and the staff should be rightly proud of everything they've achieved over the years (except perhaps Jamie Oliver, but I won't get into that now). But all these achievements in service and sourcing and wine - oh yes, the wine; the lovely Emily O'Hare, who I first met at a charity dinner a year or two ago, presides over a fantastic list and her enthusiasm when talking about it is infectious - is overshadowed by a pricing structure that goes all the way up to the bumper of "we saw you coming" then accelerates past it screeching with laughter and flicking you the Vs into its rear-view mirror. It's a shame, but as I say, this may just be me, as I was in Hedone, blank-faced and uncomprehending as everyone else around enjoyed the time of their lives. Well, good luck to 'em. I'll be in Donna Margherita.


River Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Bibo, Putney

It's the cosmopolitan dream, isn't it, to have a reliable, relatively inexpensive restaurant about 10 minute's walk from the house, where it's neither regularly indimidatingly empty or so full you struggle to find a walk-in table, and where the food is never less than decent. By necessity, the food can't really be much more than decent either, as then you'd be attracting nerdy foodies like me from across the capital, with our cameras and Twitter accounts and before you know it, they're winning Michelin stars, doubling the prices, and managing a 6-month waiting list. I'm looking at you, Harwood Arms.

So the trick of a good neighbourhood restaurant is to stay slightly under the radar, do what you do well but without too much of a fanfare, and make a healthy living turning happy locals into regulars. It's every restaurateur's dream as well, I imagine, to run such a place - to host a buzzy room of contented diners, attended to by a small team of enthusiastic staff doing the job they love, and supported by a kitchen turning out the kind of dishes they'd want to eat themselves.

It is for all these reasons that I really shouldn't be telling you about Bibo. True, being a brand new restaurant in wilds of Putney it would probably appreciate a step up the publicity ladder, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time before it's got a steady stream of local bookings and a healthy balance sheet. If Bibo became a "destination" restaurant, you wouldn't be able just pop in on a Wednesday evening for a plate of pasta and a tiramisu, you'd have to book months in advance and give your credit card details, copy of your birth certificate and agree to take the 5pm-7pm slot at the table next to the toilets with the wonky leg. Not that Bibo would do anything like have a table next to the toilets with a wonky leg, but you know.

Anyway here goes. N'duja crocchette had a good amount of spice, and a pleasant crust/filling ratio. Only £3.50 for five sizeable pieces too, which was generous.

Chicken liver crostini had a fantastic earthy flavour; it's not difficult to enjoy even quite mediocre chicken liver pate (I don't think), but when it's done well it's one of my favourite things to order in an Italian restaurant. Texture was provided by delicate salty slivers of grilled pancetta, and chopped capers cut through the fat in the pate mix. Good work.

Next, as is customary in any decent Italian restaurant, we were encouraged to prepare our stomachs for the impending secondi with a vast amount of pasta. Spinach and ricotta ravioli was the best, glistening with oil, dressed with fried sage and containing just enough mixture to give you something to bite into, but then I would say that because ordering it was my idea. Rabbit cappelletti had lovely chunks of pancetta and bright green peas, and octopus tagliarini was good too, all about the meaty chunks of braised octopus and the sea-rich stock they bathed in. If I was to take issue with anything I could say the pasta was a little thicker, firmer, more heavy-handed than it's possible to find, but then perhaps this was entirely deliberate (see first paragraph).

In the end, three pasta courses put paid to any fleeting ideas we might have had about secondi, and though I'm sure the ox cheek and marrow brushetta and the lemon sole with anchovies are lovely (they certainly sound it), we skipped straight to desserts. And boy, am I glad we did, because these bambolini (mini doughnuts) were too good to reluctantly force down on a full stomach. The pastry was impressive enough alone - warm and light and moist inside, fried to order and timed just right - but the amalfi lemon curd they came in was the kind of thing legends are made of. If every new restaurant deserves a signature dish that gets people talking - the Harwood Arms venison scotch egg for example, or the veal chop at Zucca - this lemon curd ensures Bibo's will be the bambolini. Plus, "Bibo's bambolini" has a great ring to it, doesn't it? Sounds like an Italian pop song.

I'm not going to show you my photo of the ice cream as it truly is terrifying, like one of the cuts made to a 15-certificate found-footage horror film, but they were home made and involved the words "salted caramel" and "rhubarb" so I'm sure you can fill in the gaps yourselves.

Now, I'll be the first to admit we could have taken it a bit easier on the booze, and yes, the Fernet was my idea, but most of the other glasses were expertly chosen by blogger and general wine person Zeren Wilson, who is overseeing that kind of thing in the first few weeks while Bibo finds its piedi. I've long since decided the best way of approaching a wine list is to ignore it completely and just let the experts do their job, and the glasses we enjoyed this evening were top notch, particularly a low-alcohol dessert fizz I've completely forgotten the name of. "Low-alcohol dessert fizz" should get you halfway there though.

As I said before, Bibo deserves to do well, and is probably going to do well. It's not too expensive, staff are lovely, the room is - well the room is a bit odd actually, with all the action happening towards the back and a large underused bar at the front making the place look empty from the street when it isn't - but apparently there are plans afoot to redesign this. The point is, it's a nice, normal, friendly local restaurant that should serve the people of Putney very well as long as the rest of London can just please leave them alone to get on with it. So, yes, ignore all of the above. Forget I said anything. As you were.


Bibo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Romesco, San Diego

Back in what has firmly become my second city and home-from-home, San Diego, and a belated write-up of what is fast becoming my favourite restaurant there - Romesco, in Bonita. You may remember me waxing lyrical about the extraordinary Mision 19 in Tijuana last year, a world-class celebration of the finest Mexican food (and believe me, the competition in that category is quite fierce) from chef Javier Plascencia. Romesco actually predates the Tijuana joint by a few years, but is still the only Plascencia place in USA - all the rest are in his home town - so for Californians wanting to try innovative and exemplary Mexican food without negotiating a border crossing, it's a great place to start.

Which is odd, because on paper (literally, I mean the menu), Romesco is doing a lot of things very wrong. It calls its food Mexican-Spanish (or even "Mexiterranean", would you believe it), but has a vast, rambling list of dishes encompassing Greek salads, lasagne, risotto, tapas, tacos and steaks enough to strike the fear of God into anyone who's ever suffered at the hand of so many other unfortunate "fusion" restaurants. I'm usually the first to ridicule anywhere that claims it can cook, say, Malaysian, Thai and Chinese food to a competent level in the same kitchen but those cuisines at least all share the same subcontinent; how on earth would Mexican-Spanish be any more successful?

The answer, to everyone's great relief, not least my own, is a whole lot. Romesco dismisses worries about the oddness of its concept and geographical fuzziness with food that, sampled over two visits and at least two dozen dishes, is rarely less than stellar. Perhaps this success is down to the wise decision to largely keep the Spanish and Mexican elements (and American, and Greek, and Italian, and so on) distinct but separate, rather than attempting too many linguini tacos or chicken mole paellas. So despite being somewhat experimental, a tamarind margherita, for example, is unmistakeably Mexican - and very nice.

House bread (a French baguette, just in case they hadn't quite covered every single country in the world just yet) went remarkably well with pickled garlic (Lebanese? Syrian?), bouncy and crunchy and bright.

OK so maybe some dishes are literally Mexican-Spanish fusion after all. "Grandma's Tacos de Fideo" (I hope she doesn't want them back) were made with that noodly stuff the Catalans use, and also included Spanish chorizo, a rarity in this part of the world more used to the chilli paste (think Mexican n'duja). And very nice they were too.

Even better were the beef cheek tacos - no fancy fusion business here, just a great big glistening load of heavenly-rich beef, and a steamer full of those fresh masa flour casings that make Californians go all wobbly and sing the Star Spangled Banner.

Croquettas were, if we're going to be brutal, perhaps not quite as impressive as examples I've tried in London - using Cheddar cheese can't have helped - but a fluffy aioli perked them up a bit, and they were still enjoyed.

And then. And. Then.

And then the bone marrow sope.

Try and imagine - you won't be able to, but try - three golden brown, piping hot cylinders of roast bone containing a marrow so unbelievably smooth and rich and intense it was like eating the result of an experiment designed to distil the very best beef on the planet into a single mouthful. Each perched on a neat little circle of crisp cornmeal, and topped with a sprig of greaselessly deep-fried curly parsley, delicate enough to collapse into essence after little more than a hard stare.

We're not done yet. Next imagine a little bowl of chile de arbol sauce, with the haunting flavour of wood fires and citrus, presented alongside. Next to that, another bowl of what Romesco coyingly refer to as "beef glaze" but which goes nowhere near describing the wonder, the utter life-changing glory of this, God's own demiglace, a silky, heady reduction of red wine and beef stock so extraordinary simply knowing it exists makes me feel infinitely better about the state of humanity.

Then imagine combining all of the above and enjoying it as a single, divine entity. A symphony of animal and vegetable, taste and texture. Impossibly good.

Sorry I think I lost myself for a second there, but if there's one dish that was worth travelling 5,000 miles for it's that bone marrow sope, and I'm going to make it my mission to eat it on every future trip to San Diego.

Prawns - sorry, shrimp - in garlic butter were authentically Spanish, and perfectly cooked so as to retain a good firm texture. And even the desserts didn't disappoint, fluffy fresh churros served with a good homemade ice cream and creamy dulce de leche dip.

What else? Oh, the service - this, too, was something special, our waiter on our most recent visit (I'll namecheck - he was called Alfonso) a relaxed, seasoned career professional of a kind that exist hardly anywhere else in the world. And the icing on the churros was the bill - with the wine list being half price on Wednesdays we got a whole bottle of Californian Pinot Noir for about a tenner.

Looking back at the Romesco menu even now, after two trips, I still can't quite understand how it all works. This bonkers collection of influences and inspirations should have been, and heaven knows usually is, a disaster. Javier Plascencia is a supreme chef, of course, but being a skill in the kitchen is one thing; making a success out of a fideua taco is quite another.

But, in the end, who cares how it works. You need to know only this - it does work, and it's good value, and the staff are lovely and it's all just... just really, really good. Sorry, I've run out of words. I was thinking about the bone marrow sope again.


Romesco Baja Med Bistro on Urbanspoon

My flights to San Diego were very kindly provided by British Airways. Prices start around £717 return.