Friday 20 June 2014

Grillstock 2014, Bristol

It's the smell that hits you first. Almost as soon as you step off the train at Temple Meads, you notice the air carrying a faint tinge of sweet mesquite, and by the time you reach the centre, it's unmistakeable. The city of Bristol has become a giant kitchen for three days, and an area the size of a football pitch on the waterfront, packed with hundreds of bizarre gently-smouldering contraptions resembling a nicotine-addicted Star Wars droid convention, is the culprit. This is Grillstock, not strictly the UK's only serious competition BBQ meet but, in my own hopelessly biased opinion, the best, and, for fans of American low-and-slow meat cooking, about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.

As with many such festivals, it's a combination of factors that makes Grillstock so brilliant. Firstly, and most importantly, this is a deadly serious BBQ competition, using the proper KCBS (Kansas City Barbeque Society) rules, and the overall Grand Champion, as well as pocketing £1000 cash, gets automatic qualification to the American Royal in Kansas City, USA, later in the year. This is, for anyone with even a passing interest in competition BBQ, a Very Big Deal.

It's also, only marginally less importantly, a music festival, the main stage being host to a fantastically diverse range of acts loosely relating to a Deep South theme - blues/country stuff, always entertaining and effectively lending the whole affair an extra level of authenticity. When the sun's out (which it sometimes is, honest), wandering amongst the drums, barrels and grills of the competition area, clothes slowly soaking up the essence of dry rubbed brisket, with an energetic five-piece Dixieland band bashing away in the background, you could almost be in Kansas.

And then there are the festival regulars. Presiding over the food side of things is Florida-based "Dr BBQ" Ray Lampe, probably as close as you can get to the archetypal BBQ expert in human form. Wearing matching flame-decal short-sleeved shirt and shorts (always shorts, whatever the weather) and a long white beard, when the competition rounds are being judged his running commentary is essentially a free BBQ masterclass - there is nothing this man does not know about how to judge, and how to win, competition 'que.

The other attendees, judges and competitors alike, are hardly less interesting. There's John Hargate from the highly-respected World's End BBQ Shack near Brighton, a man with a whole host of BBQ awards under his ample belt and who is another encyclopaedic expert on this kind of thing. There's Jackie Weight, the first and (so far) only non-American participant to win the Grand Champion title at the frighteningly important Jack Daniels comp in Tennessee. And manning his own custom-built mobile BBQ pit is Dr Sweetsmoke, a Louisiana expat now living, of all places, in Swindon. All these people come to Grillstock to share their love of low'n'slow meat cooking and because, on these shores, there just isn't anywhere else comes close. The point is, it's as much about the atmosphere and feel of the place as it is about the plates of tenderly slow-smoked ribs, chicken thighs, brisket and pulled pork, expertly arranged in parsley-lined plastic containers (as is the tradition) and marked out of 100.

If it's the serious "King of the Grill" competition that forms the backbone of the festival, it's the fringe events, and fringe cooking rounds, that give it extra spice and colour. This year two new categories were introduced, buffalo wings, and burgers. It seemed to me that the rigid specifications of the wings round (vinegar-chilli sauce, dairy dip) produced some genuinely lovely results (though whoever it was who decided to spike their entry with naga chillies deserves a good hiding), while the rather more loosely-defined "burger" allowed some people's imaginations to run away with themselves a little more than was healthy. Well done, for example, to the Beefy Boys and their commedably MeatLiquor-a-like classic with the meat-steamed buns; less well done to whoever thought spearing a beef & seafood burger with a deep fried mussel was a good idea.

But there's one fringe event, in fact, that is worth the journey all by itself. The chilli eating competition, on the main stage, is quite honestly one of the most entertaining half hours of the entire weekend, and if you're not in tears of laughter by the time the first unlucky contestant drops out and vomits in a bucket (usually to a chorus of "we've got a puker!") then you're dead inside. Grillstock don't allow live betting on the results, at least I don't think they do, but my own tip is go for the slightest, classiest-looking female; two years in a row now the only female contestant has munched through a pound of ghost chillies like they were breakfast cereal even as her male rivals were being tended to by the St John's Ambulance team waiting patiently in the wings (seriously). I'm not privy to the number of marriage proposals she received after the event but I'm sure it must have been in double figures.

Back now in the Big Smoke after another fantastic weekend in Grillstock Bristol, it's worth noting that for many lucky northerners, the fun is yet to begin. Grillstock Manchester kicks off 28th June, is attended by many of the same teams, bands and exhibitors that make the Bristol event such a success, and if it has even a tenth of the energy, joy and carnage it'll be sure to be an absolute riot. So good luck again Bunch of Swines, Jedi Swine Tricks and the rest of the brave participants, and commiserations in advance to the first of the chilli eating competitors to reach for the milk. You have my sympathies.

Train tickets to and from Bristol kindly provided by First Great Western. Some pics (mainly of the food) courtesy of @foodstories.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

The Hinds Head, Bray

Last weekend I was very kindly invited over to the Chase farm and distillery in Herefordshire, where they have been working on a very exciting new project with the Pizza Pilgrims guys - a limoncello, made with real Amalfi lemons. It's going to be great, like everything Chase do (I am a fervent fan of their marmalade vodka), with a lovely smooth taste of fresh citrus and naturally cloudy (this is a sign of good limoncello, apparently, and why most supermarket versions use clouded glass to disguise their inferior product). But this post isn't about Chase, or Pizza Pilgrims, or even the fantastic local Hereford beef I tried in the Verzon hotel (a revelation). This post is about a reservation we made on a whim for lunch on the way back into London on Sunday, at a pretty old pub in the commuter town of Bray.

OK, so, the Hinds Head is hardly unknown. The owner is Heston Blumenthal, arguably one of the most famous chefs on the planet, and has been part of the Fat Duck group for a decade. Last year, as well, it won a Michelin star, which won't have hurt its profile, and let's not ignore the fact that it's situated slap-bang in the middle of Bray, a town most famous for hosting two 3* Michelin restaurants and where the income of the local population seems to sit somewhere between Richard Branson and the Crown Prince of Dubai. This is a place that would never struggle to get by.

That it impresses on pretty much every front, then, is not just a surprise but a delight. The temptation would surely have been there to rely on the Blumenthal name to draw in the punters and serve a menu of Fat Duck Lite, perhaps snail porridge and liquorice smoked salmon and desserts with popping candy and dry ice, keep anyone too impatient to have a reservation over the road happy, and make some easy money. Or even go down the Ramsay/Oliver route of a proto-chain, laminated menus and short-order food with an eye on a nationwide rollout.

Instead, the food at the Hinds Head is unique, classy and full of personality, a million miles away from the usual celebrity chef fare and one of the most enjoyable lunches I've had in many years. It's best described as a sort of fantasy gastropub, with favourites like Pea & Ham Soup and Shepherd's Pie given a complete ground-up reworking, tweaking and the full range of clever cheffy techniques to make every element of every dish the absolute best it can be.

Take, for example, the straightfoward-sounding "Soused Cornish mackerel, grapefruit, radish and spring leaves". Sounds attractive enough on paper, summery, familiar, safe. Not so. The meticulously bone-free fillets of mackerel were not just gently (and very successfully) pickled but also - I think - roasted over an open flame, giving the skin a great crunch and colour. The vegetables performed a medly of form and texture, the soft grapefruit and bitter leaves combining particularly well, and a few slivers of fried bread added yet another level of interest. A joy.

"Cured duck salad" was, again, on paper a gastropub standard, but pimped by the Hinds Head into something approaching a masterpiece. The translucent folds of cured duck were extraordinary enough by themselves, a real achievement by whoever's in charge of this stage of the process. But it came with a precisely soft-boiled quail's egg planted in a blob of heavenly truffled mayonnaise, and a selection of wonderful summer vegetables, asparagus and artichoke and the like.

And completing the perfect trio of starters was this, "Hash of snails", which placed lovely meaty molluscs (gastropub gastropods) on fried bread just the right distance between crunchy and chewy, and was topped with toasty roast pistachios and fennel. And doesn't it just look beautiful? One of the very nicest things I've ever had the pleasure of eating.

We also found room for a Hinds Head Scotch egg, which was still every bit as good as I remember from when they entered the Ship Wandsworth's venerable Scotch Egg Challenge and came a very creditable 2nd place back in 2012. Soft, moist meat, a greaseless coating and - of course - perfectly runny yolk inside.

I know there'll be some people who see the photos of these roasts and think the portions look a bit on the small side. I think the problem is that as a nation we're used to piling our plates sky high with commodity beef and packet gravy in some misplaced idea of "value" when in fact it would be a lot better for all concerned if we just ate a normal portion of much, much better ingredients. So here's (not very good photo sorry, I do still make mistakes despite my new hardware) a gorgeous roast pork collar with a little sausage of stuffing, a pork cracker - very clever - and with it a compote-like silky apple sauce and gravy so good I wanted to eat it like a soup. And, in fact, did.

Roast beef was every bit as good. Quarter-inch slices of rare aged beef of obvious quality, and a delicate Yorkshire pud like the fanciest French patisserie. Potatoes were hardly anything so straightforward as roasted; they were golden-brown casings of delicate chip containing an interior so soft and creamy it was as if they'd injected it with butter mash. Who knows, perhaps they had. As with the pork, each element of what would otherwise had been a standard Sunday roast had been pumped-up, tweaked and upgraded to the very best you could possibly imagine it could be.

Oxtail and kidney pudding sat in a bowl of glossy reduced stock gravy, and contained the richest, most powerful mixture of oxtail studded with bouncy chunks of kidney. For once I'm going to let the pictures do the talking here - I bet you can almost taste it yourself.

Desserts now, and each came with a little bit of paper explaining the history of the dish. One of us thought it might have been rice paper and I nibbled the corner to check. It wasn't. So apologies for whoever got the slightly eaten description after us but though backstory is interesting, far more exciting was what was on the plate - a panacotta-style dairy pud studded with vanilla, and a lovely caramel-roasted banana topped with chunks of roast nuts. Texture, flavour, presentation all top-notch.

"Chocolate wine slush" is, as the description might suggest, a vaguely chocolate-y but mainly wine-y sorbet, paired with a salty caramel shortbread looking like a domino piece. With this our friendly barman had paired an Innis & Gunn oak-aged beer flavoured with maple syrup - the drinks list having clearly had the same level of care and attention as everything else. We also enjoyed, at various stages in this long, life-affirming afternoon, a Belgian blonde called St Stefanus and - more theatrically - a rum old fashioned finished with clouds of demerara-spiked dry-ice.

There were also petits fours - weeny chocolate cups of lemon (I think) cream. And even the coffee was good.

It was all rather overwhelming, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. The attention to detail made for some stunning food, but the monumental effort that must have gone into the dishes made me feel exhausted just thinking about it. How many sackfuls of potato must they have gone through to get those roasts so utterly right? How many combinations of meat and egg went into the development of the Scotch egg? How many duck farms and curing methods before they settled on that starter? It's boggling.

But the beauty of the Hinds Head - the sheer, blinding beauty - is that they've done all the hard work. All you need to do is rock up with a reservation and a wallet (oh yes, it's not cheap, but it is value) and let them do their thing. The charming Tudor building and equally charming staff (I'll forgive our French waitress not knowing what a shandy was; she didn't put a foot wrong otherwise) are just the icing on the cake of what is surely, unquestionably one of the best restaurants in the country. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how it's done.


EDIT: The petits fours were lime & ginger. Thanks Lizzie (read her report here)

Hinds Head on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Fera, Mayfair

For some people, this whole food blogging malarkey is simply a means to an end. I'm thinking particularly of the late, much lamented Dos Hermanos blog, whose writers (brothers Robin and Simon Majumdar) often said was less a guide to eating out than a sort of journal of their quest to find The Perfect Restaurant. Simon moved to Los Angeles to be a TV star (as you do) but Robin continued only as long as it took him to stumble across West London restaurant Hedone, and, just like that, all the pieces fell into place. He is still often to be seen propping up the bar at the open kitchen of a Saturday, with a good couple of hundred meals under his belt, and even has a brass plaque with his name on next to his favourite stool. Dos Hermanos quietly wound down, and for Robin, at least, the journey was over.

I have no plans to quit blogging any time soon, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but I do envy that sense of completion Robin must have received from the realisation that here, finally, was the restaurant he'd been looking for all his life. While it may be true that there's no such thing as the perfect restaurant, there must be, surely, somewhere, a place so utterly in tune with your own (necessarily subjective) ideas of what makes great food that to carry on looking for anything better would be more effort than it's worth.

I have not yet found my Perfect Restaurant. At least, I don't think I have. But if I was to pick just one meal in the seven years Cheese and Biscuits has existed that most accurately represents everything that I consider good food should be, it's Simon Rogan's L'Enclume, in Cartmel. Here was a parade of dishes, engineered with consummate skill, produced with flair and imagination, and presented with an artist's eye, on the one hand recognisably Of England but at the same time revolutionary and otherworldly. It was, for me, like they had reached inside my subconcious and given me exactly what I wanted before I even knew what it was I wanted myself. The sign, you may say, of a truly great craftsman.

With all this in mind, and knowing that Simon Rogan's food is perhaps the closest thing I have to a personal ambrosia (that's ambrosia with a lowercase "a", not the rice pudding), I was always going to like Fera. The fact that in the weeks since this grand space in the grandest of London's grand hotels - Claridge's - has opened not every review of the place has been entirely positive, didn't bother me at all because, much as I respect those opinions, I knew Fera, like Simon Rogan's other restaurants, isn't for everyone. It's for me.

I may as well start at the beginning. The very first "snack" was a cracker made of puffed barley, topped with smoked eel and watercress. I think there was also sheep's curd in there too, adding a lovely citrussy, dairy note. Who doesn't like smoked eel and curd, but the puffed barley was impossibly light, like the world's fanciest cream cheese cracker.

This is a little arancini-style crunchy ball of stewed rabbit, with a lovage purée. Lovage is a peculiar herb, very bitter and metallic, but with the soft, salty rabbit it worked incredibly well.

Sturgeon, seawater cream, caviar. Another delicate sliver of light cracker, topped with bouncy fresh fish and a generous dollop of black gold. My favourite of the snacks, but as you can probably tell, it was a close-run thing.

Gorgeous mini scallop shells filled with scallop poached lightly in buttermilk (I think), with pea and pea purée. Great fun to eat, scooping the mixture from the shells with your teeth like you would an oyster.

A morsel of chicken skin, next, with a pretty bowl of thyme and roast garlic dip. Again, everything that makes a great dish - top ingredients (the chicken was particularly noticeable, a shockingly concentrated flavour to it), top presentation, and lovely texture contrasts. It's worth bearing in mind at this point that we were still only halfway through the "snacks" - the menu proper hadn't even started yet!

Winslade cheese, potato and duck heart. The very finest, lightest, smoothest cheesy mash, and if that wasn't enough, some soft chunks of duck heart in a rich meaty jus plonked on top. I am ashamed of the noises I made when eating this.

The freshest crab, topped with slivers of sweet rhubarb and filled out with goat's cheese. There was some foraged herb of some kind on it too, but heaven knows what that was.

There's been an interesting new trend in modern restaurants to present the bread as a course of its own rather than as something to nibble on during other dishes. So here is a fresh, moist house loaf with bone marrow butter studded with bits of some kind of crackling, and a pot of sweet onion broth. We still had not yet started on the advertised 16 course menu by this point so forcing customers to go easy on the bread is probably a very wise move. I was so terrified I wouldn't have it in me to make it to the end of the meal I only had one mouthful of it.

Finally, the Fera tasting menu proper was underway. Beef tartare with smoked broccoli cream was clearly from the same mind as the venison with coal oil at the French, but this was a more subtle, and even more impressive way of adding smoke to tender raw beef. Apple juice added acidity, and scallop roe an enjoyably discombobulating note of surf to the beefy turf. Clever stuff.

Oxalis (a plant. Of some sort) with fudgy slow-smoked egg yolk wouldn't have been the most exciting thing in the world was it not for something called 'duck sweetbread' which were like little meaty flavour bombs. Perhaps I'm just not the world's biggest fan of slow-cooked yolk; I much prefer it runny. Still, objectively an imaginative and attractive dish.

Prawns with asparagus and shellfish butter was another great idea let down by a single duff ingredient, in this case the prawns themselves which were oddly grainy and tasteless. A shame, really, because the shellfish butter was gorgeous and would have really made this dish otherwise.

Fortunately, we weren't off-message for long. If you'd have told me that my favourite dish of a 20+ course tasting menu at any other restaurant in the world would be a salad, then I'd have reacted with some scepticism. But this is Simon Rogan, known for his way with vegetables, and this is no ordinary salad, not by a Cumbrian country mile. Firstly, the greens were crunchy, and smoky from the grill - dry roasted, somehow, to a fantastic delicate texture. Beneath them, and a generous shaving of fresh black truffle, was something called truffle custard, a light cheesy mousse that was like wrapping yourself in front of a thick fur blanket in front of a fire. Made of cheesy truffle. I know I occasionally overuse hyperbole on these pages but there is nothing that could have improved this dish. It was an absolute knockout.

Plaice braised in nettle butter was golden and green and silky, with an array of pretty miniature vegetables and boasting a nice meaty chunk of fresh fish. My favourite element though was a stick of roast salsify, a weakness of mine at the best of times but particularly nice here.

Hogget with pickled tongue and turnips, another glorious plate of food. The meat was perfectly tender, but then you'd expect that somewhere like this. More impressive was the extraordinary flavour, like the most lamb-y lamb with added notes of dry ageing and funky fat. A thick cheffy jus was poured on top, and coiled around the geometrically-cut turnips beneath.

Desserts began with "Pineapple weed, butterscotch and celery", a palate-cleanser of sorts using some weird and wonderful foraged herb next to one of those light mousse-sorbets that only the most experienced kitchens ever seem to be able to pull off.

I still - even despite Simon Rogan's best efforts - have issues with beetroot in desserts. I can kind of see what they're getting for here, with the earthy vegetable put up against another one of those lovely fresh sorbets but even so, I'd rather root vegetables stayed with their savoury friends than creeping their way into cakes and puddings.

This next course, though, was utterly wonderful. A neat row of gently alcoholic cherries next to a cherry "snow", a rich sheep's milk yoghurt which was more like a fresh butter (in a good way) and topped with delicate slivers of pine.

And apologies for the odd photos of this next dish but it was impossible to capture both the blackberry and lemon verbena cracker and the weird Sellafield Tower of sweet sauce it came with in the same focal length. Tasted good though, sharp and sweet and with another one of those delicate crisps that threatens to collapse under the weight of a hard stare.

Dandelion and caramel was essentially a spongecake topped with a sugar mousse, and was very nice too. Incredible colour as well.

Spruce drops - chocolate truffles flavoured with pine, a thin crust containing a soft centre.

And then we were done, the final petit four being "smoked meringue", little macaron-shaped things with a dairy filling, perfectly constructed and easy to devour.

So yes, I was always going to enjoy Fera. I am a shameless Simon Rogan fan, loved all his other restaurants and I consider this to be, while not quite on the level of the peerless L'Enclume, which has time and location on its side, still one of the few genuinely innovative and idiosyncratic restaurants in London. Relentlessly experimental, aiming for (the) stars with feet firmly planted in the sourcing (and growing) of exceptional ingredients, Fera is a towering achievement.

But the Perfect Restaurant? Not quite. At least, not yet. Simon Rogan may be better placed than most to eventually open the kind of place I'd happily spend the rest of my days, with my name on a brass plaque next to my favourite chair and the priority reservation number on speed dial. But today is not that day. And besides, there's the little matter of another restaurant I visited on a whim over the weekend that may have an even closer stab at the title. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Watch this space.


I was invited to review Fera

Fera At Claridge's on Urbanspoon