The Great British Menu comes to London

Stephen TerryBank holiday Monday; Susie was working. I went for a cycle, washed the dishes from last night, mopped the kitchen floor, found some great sounds on Spotify (Philip Glass, Arvo Part, Stereolab and the Dead Boys), and read my book (Dead Air by Iain Banks; promising so far …) in the garden. With rain in the air, I then came in and slumped in front of the telly, where Glynn Purnell, James Sommerin et al were trying to impress Oliver Peyton, Pru Leith and Matthew Fort in the new series of the Great British Menu. Queue happy memories of last week’s food highlight.

On Monday evening, the seven finalists of the 2008 series of  the BBC’s Great British Menu took over the Marriott Grosvenor Square to co-host a night of fine dining in aid of their industry charity, Hospitality Action. Here’s their spectacular menu:

  • Canapes (Jason Atherton)
  • Haggis, Neeps and Tatties (Tom Kitchin)
  • Smoked salmon with beetroot jelly, fresh horseradish, sour cream & caviar (Stephen Terry)
  • Poached halibut with cockle & smoked bacon chowder (Danny Millar)
  • Baked cannon of “Lonkshire” lamb, caramelised sweetbreads, Formby asparagus & samphire (Nigel Haworth)
  • Verbena blancmange, early summer fruit probio ‘Nutrasouptical’ & flower tissue (Chris Horridge)
  • Chocolate truffle (Glynn Purnell)

All of their dishes were interesting; inevitably, some appealed more than others. My favourites were Nigel’s sweet lamb, Chris’ blancmange (like eating shampoo, but in a good way), and – best of all – Stephen’s smoked salmon, which was rich, sour, earthy and tart all at once. A triumph that left me planning a trip over the Severn Bridge to eat at his restaurant, the Hardwick, and wanting to try cooking with beetroot.  

[This post was brought to you by the soundtrack to Kundun.)

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Chef dinosaurs and all the young punks

Rod StewartLondon food blogger extraordinaire, MsMarmitelover, has written a brilliant post, in which she compares our contemporary food giants to the Rock Gods of the Seventies. Back in 1976, she reminisces, Rod Stewart had ducked off to Hollywood to hang out with Britt Ekland and Mick Jagger was partying with Princess Margaret on Mustique. Queue punk.

MsMarmitelover likens today’s food stars to these unattainable icons:

The same thing has happened in cooking. The culinary world is ruled by people like Gordon Ramsay: rarely behind a stove; Heston Blumenthal: a mere 400 quid  to eat at his place; Ferran Adria: the waiting list for El Bulli is, well, book me in for the year 2020; Jamie Oliver: the tory Essex boy with populist roots done good,  settled down in domestic bliss. 
So what’s the culinary equivalent of the Damned and the Pistols, in 2009? The underground restaurant scene, in which MsMarmitelover seems to be a prime mover.
People want to eat at places where they can meet the chef, even have a drink with them afterwards, where they can mingle socially, where they can momentarily dispense with the hierarchy and isolation of a traditional restaurant.
I’ve not been to an underground restaurant. As I understand it, the idea is that someone welcomes strangers into their house and cooks for them, for enough of a fee to cover costs. What a magnificent idea. I’m tempted to try myself – but perhaps I’d better go to one of these events first, and learn more about what goes on.

Ducasse and Zafferano deal me a double Michelin whammy

scallop-roseSo much to report, while I wait for our Moroccan spiced lamb shanks with aubergine (with thanks to Nigel Slater’s Real Cooking) to cook through. I contrived to eat at two Michelin-starred restaurants on Friday, lunching at one Michelin-starred Zafferano with the MD of the London Fine Dining Group, Paul Singer, then dining with Susie at two Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. Belt-loosening stuff. Here are some highlights:

  1. Zafferano’s award-winning Peach Bellini: cloudy, perfumed and eminently quaffable.
  2. Little explosions of flavour from the crystallized salt in the aged crumblings of Parmesan served as antipasti at Zafferano.
  3. Zafferano’s homemade Papardelle with enough beefy morels to fill two cupped hands.
  4. Burrata ravioli at Zafferano: creamier than any soft cheese I’ve ever tasted.
  5. Bollinger rose champagne, served with choux pastry mini-buns that had bene dusted with black pepper and paprika, and which – pouf! –  evaporated in your mouth: a revelation. 
  6. The perfect beauty of the rose of marinated scallops, lamb’s lettuce and celeriac, and the earthy impact of its black truffle sauce.
  7. Ducasse’s roasted chicken and lobster, sweetbread, creamy juice: the flavour of the sweetbread seemed to coat and then fill your mouth.

[This post was brought to you by Zubrowka bisongrass vodka and Insomia by Faithless]

Hairy hogweed and alexander at the Goring Hotel

hogweedDinner at the Goring last week, with the hotel’s fantastic MD, David Morgan-Hewitt. After totalling a bottle of Bolly in the bar (we missed owner, Jeremy Goring reciting poetry to guests to celebrate St George’s Day by ten minutes, though he was on hand to bang on a gong and announce my arrival at the top of his voice when Susie and I walked into the hotel’s lobby), we headed into the restaurant, sat at Lady Thatcher’s favourite table and tucked into a bottle of St-George-St-Emilion to celebrate the country’s patron saint.

Derek Quelch’s food is always excellent at the Goring. I started with a glazed Scottish lobster omelette to die for – melty, eggy, oozy, creamy – then despatched a huge plate of Beef Wellington, which came with two extraordinary vegetables. The first was hogweed, which sounds like the sort of thing Hagrid would boil up for dinner in his cottage. Larousse doesn’t mention it, nor Harold McGee. All I could find were a couple of mentions on Google, but they seemed to be more about the stem, whereas what we ate were hairy leaves that were a little bitter and metallic to the taste.

The other was again described as a sort of spinach, and was blander than the hogweed. It was called Alexander, and I’ve been able to find no mention of it anywhere. The word doesn’t even register as a plant on a Wikipedia disambiguation search. Can anyone shed any light on it?

Spoiled & demoralised by Ritz executive chef John Williams

william-kent-roomSometimes, my amateurish attempts at cooking at home are thrown into start contrast by a restaurant meal of such great beauty and flavour that it takes your breath away. This was the case yesterday, when I went to a lunch in the new wing of the Ritz, the William Kent Room, hosted by the chairman of the UK’s Restaurant Association, Bob Walton.

The Ritz’s Executive Chef, John Williams, is a seriously good cook, and it showed in the menu he laid on for us:

  • Artichoke panna cotta with smoked trout tartare and ginger jelly.
  • Supreme of Bresse chicken with wild mushrooms, salsify and baby leeks, jus naturel and fondant potato.
  • Calvados creme fraiche parfait with caramelised apples and Granny Smith sorbet.

Sadly, the light in the room wasn’t strong enough to allow me to take shots. Take it from me, that all three courses were works of art. I can do ladle-fulls of sauces, stews and curries. Chefs can create perfect discs, pryamids, cylinders and cubes, and hair-fine strands of food. Perhaps I should just give up and write a blog about my favourite programmes on the telly …