Restaurant Review: Northcote

As one of the best restaurants in the north-west for the past two decades, Northcote’s inevitably achieved some great things over the years. Yet head and shoulders above all its accolades, its 3 AA rosettes, the Michelin star it’s held since 1996, the brace of Great British Menu victories, was one day in February 2009, when the restaurant tenderly took my Michelin virginity and a certain special someone took leave of her senses and agreed to my proposal of marriage.

Now, one of these events is obviously not as important as the other but nevertheless it was the reason why we were paying our third visit to the Ribble Valley’s finest – what better way to celebrate a first wedding anniversary than a return to the place of our engagement?*

We went on our one-night gourmet break at the end of July, now dab hands at getting the most out of the experience after the two previous stays. We got a deluxe room with a view of the garden so we could see the chefs picking the produce we’d be eating that night. We made time to admire the great menus that bedeck the walls of the corridors and lounge, and I remembered to take a picture of the really interesting one.** We relaxed in the bar and enjoyed free botanical drinks in our room and made damn sure we didn’t go for lunch at the curryhouse down the road again.***

Northcote’s gardens, as seen from the window of our room

“The really interesting one” – menu from Joël Robuchon’s legendary Jamin, May 1993

By the time we went down to the lounge for pre-meal champagne and canapés, we were well set for a wonderful evening. As ever, Northcote didn’t disappoint.

The canapés were two: a rich tartare of dexter beef and an exquisite florette of cauliflower, perfectly tempura’d. I’d always thought cauliflower an insipid vegetable – this buttery little morsel sort of blew my mind.

We finished the Louis Roederer Brut Premier and made our way to the dining room, so much lighter and smarter and comfier than on our first visit 42 months before. An amuse-bouche of beetroot and goat’s cheese was a casual delight; ice cream in a sea of foam, fresh and clean. My wife’s amuse was a similar palate cleanser, a play on the theme of melon: sorbet floating on soup.

Beetroot Amuse-Bouche

Melon Amuse-Bouche

Bread arrived and I feasted. Butter was a fine companion but the olive oil with black treacle was special. A wicked Lancashire cheese roll awakened feelings previously reserved for The Ledbury’s bacon and onion brioche and Northcote’s own roast onion bread was almost as good. More came with the starter, an accompaniment to hand cut raw dexter, white radish, garden sorel and a quail’s egg yolk. I got marrowbone toast with caper butter, a delicious, crispy soldier of salt that married well with the beautiful plate of food. My wife got toast topped with cured scallops, which was infinitely, infinitely better.

Bread

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel

Marrowbone Toast

Tail and claw of west coast lobster followed, carefully cooked and served in winning tandem with scorched leeks. Caviar, real and fake, added a classical sparkle to the dish though I was less convinced by the potato gel, which had a slightly bitter, chemical taste.

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chilled tomato soup with slow-cooked watermelon, sheep’s curd, avocado and peppers took us on a surprise – and in my case, unwelcome – trip to Mexico; a journey through flavours I don’t particularly like. Yet bizarrely this was perhaps the most impressive part of the meal, each element dazzling in its purity. So sweet was the tomato, so fresh was the melon, you’d think you were sat in the Med.

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado

Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

A side of stone-baked garlic flatbread helped to link it with the main course, lamb loin and breast with elephant garlic, pressed potatoes and marjoram. This was one stunning piece of meat away from being a lovely dish though the new season Yorkshire lamb didn’t quite deliver, the loin lacking succulence, the flavours somewhat overpowered by the herbs.

Loin of New Season’s Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

My meal ended with what appeared to be a basic construction of malt wafers and stout ice cream but which broke open to unleash the most incredible, velvety blackcurrant coulis. A small swipe of liquorice added subtle depth but really this was all about the home-grown blackcurrants, the quality of which made the dessert into an utter joy.

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

I was enjoying my pudding too much to try my wife’s but she loved hers as well: thyme meringue with lemon curd, celery sorbet and celeriac. It was probably her favourite course of the day, tomato soup aside.

Thyme Meringue, Lemon Curd, Celery Sorbet, Celeriac

We returned to the lounge to finish up, tea with petits fours. I had the house’s take on a Crunchie, a chocolate truffle and an excellent mini Eccles cake. My wife had her own honeycomb and a jelly made from champagne. A fine brandy capped it all off.

Petits Fours

Petits Fours

The full menu along with wine pairing is below:

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GOURMET MENU

Dexter Beef “Hand Cut”, White Radish, Garden Sorrel, Marrowbone Toast

Clos Mireille, Domaines Ott, Côtes de Provence, France, 2010

West Coast Lobster, Scorched Leeks, Scorched Leek and Potato Gel, Caviar

Chardonnay, Neudorf, Nelson, New Zealand, 2010

Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, Leagram Organic Sheep’s Curd, Avocado, Stone Baked Garlic Flat Bread

Loin of New Seasons Lamb, Slow Cooked Breast, Elephant Garlic, Pressed Potatoes, Marjoram

Gran Reserva 904, La Rioja Alta, Spain, 1998

Organic Northcote Garden Blackcurrants, Malt Wafers, Bowland Cromwell Stout Ice Cream

Elysium, Black Musat, Andrew Quady, California, USA, 2010

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This was another excellent meal at Northcote, probably the best we’ve had there. Service was as good as ever and the breakfasts seem to keep getting better too.

Following my second visit I suggested I probably wouldn’t return for an overnight stay again as I’m keen to explore other places. Having broken that vow once and had such a fantastic time, I think I’m going to have to keep breaking it, at least every few years or so.

Northcote’s a special place, special to me personally and just special full stop. I look forward to going back.

 
Northcote Manor on Urbanspoon

 

Food: 20/30

Service: 8.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 8.5/10

Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)

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*Erm, that’s “not as important” from the perspective of a food blog… yes, that’s definitely what I mean…

We were actually boring a member of staff with the story as he took us up to our room and he said that only a few weeks earlier they’d had a proposal and the woman spent the rest of her meal on the phone breaking the news to friends and family. I had the good sense to propose beforehand – wouldn’t want any distractions from the food now, would I?

**I’m not a big fan of my first proper write-up of Northcote but I do go into some detail about the menus so it’s worth checking out if that’s your thing.

***If you’re feeling a bit peckish and think you’ll just walk into Langho for a bite to eat, don’t. You’ll end up at this Indian restaurant and you’ll hate yourself for it. Stay in your room, bite the bullet and fork out for room service instead. It will be worth it.

Restaurant Review: Hawksmoor Seven Dials

Source: thehawksmoor.com via Hawksmoor on Pinterest

If top meat and a badass grill are all you need for a decent steakhouse, then Hawksmoor Seven Dials is absolutely superb.

Their Longhorn beef, supplied by The Ginger Pig and dry-aged for a minimum of 35 days, holds the sort of flavour that makes you lose control of bodily functions. Your eyes close, your face contorts to a gurn, and you moan and slobber like a zombie in sight of an attractive blonde named Barbara.

After the first bite, if you’re married, your spouse may ask the question “is that really necessary?” and you know without opening your eyes they’ll be looking at you with a mixture of amusement, embarrassment and scorn. Yet you can’t apologise because to do so would be to tell a lie. This beef is as good as beef gets; a producer of such juicy, voluptuous, carnivorous joy as cannot be described.

If your natural reaction to it is that of a stroke victim having his prostate examined, it’s something you can live with.

Of course the grill has a lot to do with provoking this response as well. I’m used to (and generally prefer) my steak being cooked on a Josper these days, its hellfire heat turning the meat’s exterior into glorious, crispy carbon.

But Hawksmoor’s charcoal-driven beast is just as effective despite its gentler persuasion. Where it can’t match the Josper for texture or retention of juices, it tops it through the flavour it imparts, the woody smoke of the char elevating the beef to even higher heights.

It’s just a pity really that I want my steakhouses to offer a bit more than that.

I’m not quite sure what it was that spoiled my meal at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. I left the restaurant feeling I’d had a fairly enjoyable experience but the more I think about it the more negative my feelings become. Yes, the 900g porterhouse my wife and I shared was awesome, and the bone marrow – wow! What a stunning example it was.* But almost everything else rankled.

First there was our waiter, presumably moonlighting from a job as a payment protection insurance salesman, who was so relentless in his efforts to sell us a starter you’d have thought his children’s lives depended on it.

Then there was the potted beef starter we eventually ordered to get him to go away and its Yorkshire puddings that had something of the Aunt Bessie about them. £8 for a jar of offcut meat, some onions and two circles of poorly risen batter – the beef was excellent but I didn’t feel like we got our money’s worth.

With the mains we had mushrooms: flaccid rounds of soot black which’d had all the life sweated out of them. They tasted of nothing at all. We had triple-cooked chips too – not the beef dripping chips we’d actually ordered – and they were so dry and saturated with fat they could’ve been used for kindling.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these had been cooked from frozen,” I said, after trying a couple. They really were poor.

Even the steak couldn’t escape criticism, my wife declaring it to be too salty. I have a high tolerance for salt and thought the seasoning, while high, was just about acceptable. But she felt it really spoilt it.**

It was a while before we were able to attract a waiter’s attention, get them to clear the table and present us with the bill. The cost of brilliant steak and bone marrow, a decent bottle of wine and a fair dollop of disappointment was around £180, which didn’t feel the best value. Our outstanding a la carte lunch at The Ledbury the following day was only about £40 more expensive, to put it in context.

I think on the whole I actually prefer my local Gaucho to Hawksmoor Seven Dials. And that’s certainly not something I was expecting to say going in. While Gaucho’s steaks don’t bear comparison with Hawksmoor’s, they offer a far more complete experience than we got on this London visit. Through half a dozen meals I’ve never had a complaint about any of their side dishes.

Afterwards I took to Twitter to say the beef had been great but Hawksmoor is Championship standard versus the Premier League of Goodman. On reflection, given that Goodman Mayfair gave us a faultless steakhouse experience when we visited last year, I’d suggest the gulf is far bigger than that.

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon

Food: 14.5/30

Service: 7/10

Dining Room: 2.5/5

Experience: 6.5/10

Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)

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*Thanks to fellow blogger Mrs Petticoat (@MrsPetticoat) for the bone marrow recommendation.

**There were other irritations too, although once I hit my stride I think I just started being picky. As such, I’ll just mention them here in the footnotes:

The dining room reminded of the hall where I used to sit my music theory exams albeit with much poorer lighting conditions. Tables were heavily regimented and if the room hadn’t been packed I think it would’ve felt very cold. It was certainly buzzing and I reckon a lot of people probably like the stripped back, casual look they’ve gone for, but it wasn’t a room I personally felt comfortable in.

I also felt the steak knife looked cheap and rubbish. I know it’s only a small thing, but when I went to Goodman and saw the knives they have I thought “this is a place that means business”. At Hawksmoor Seven Dials the cutlery reminded me of a Beefeater, in that I immediately thought “even Beefeaters have better knives than this”. It didn’t make quite the same first impression.

Hamper Review: Forman and Field

As a food blogger, even one as insignificant as me, PR firms are always lining up to give you something free in exchange for publicity.

More often than not what I get offered is crap. Only a few weeks ago I said “no thank you” to representatives of a well-known, cheap food brand, whose most popular product I blame for a spectacular bout of food poisoning suffered last year.

Perhaps they misunderstood where I was coming from with Foods To Try Before You Die, read it as some sort of cuisine-themed suicide note. “We’ve made him violently ill before so he’ll love this!”

At the very least I’m certain they hadn’t bothered to read any of my posts. I know not every item on The List fits into the luxury category but the lack of budget ready meals really should’ve been a clue. Economy supermarket is not the undiscovered niche I’m looking for.

So I must say it was refreshing to be asked to review a hamper by the folks at gourmet food retailer Forman and Field, a company much more in-keeping with the quality focus of my blog. I hadn’t tried any of their wares before but I had been on their website and liked what I saw. Indeed, in the early days of The List, when it was basically just an offline Word document with pictures, porchetta was listed as an item solely off the back of seeing it on Forman and Field’s site. I thought it looked awesome so on there it went.*

Thus when I was asked to review one of the company’s hampers my answer was a bit of a no-brainer. “Why yes. Yes I would.”

I was a little surprised by the quality of everything as I rummaged through the picnic basket. I’d expected luxury but I hadn’t expected the very best. Cheese (Stichelton, Innes Log, Berkswell and Ardrahan) was from Neal’s Yard, a supplier of Michelin-starred restaurants up and down the country. Smoked salmon was from H. Forman & Son**, a century-old pioneering producer, as reputable as you can find. The pork pie was Mrs King’s, arguably the finest Melton Mowbray in existence.

I couldn’t wait to dig in.

The banana bread was the first to go, scoffed down with a mug of tea. Moist and flavourful with a faultless crumb, it was a WI award winner if ever there was one. A similarly good chocolate brownie, the greatest pork pie I’ve ever had and some cheese in immaculate condition followed. It was a strong start.

The next day I tried Paul Wayne Gregory’s tea-infused chocolates and they were what you’d expect from an award-winning chocolatier: texturally perfect. The lapsang souchong wasn’t really to my tastes and the Earl Grey flavour was perhaps too subtle but the jasmine in the middle was “just right”. My wife made the obvious Goldilocks joke.

Potted lobster was enjoyable on rye bread toast though, if I’m honest, I expected a little more from it. They weren’t stingy with the lobster and there was nothing wrong with the cooking but I spent the entire time wishing it was potted shrimp instead. Given my favourite shellfish-based spread is much cheaper, I don’t see why anyone would bother buying this.

Regardless, I’d say the Alderton ham was perhaps the only bit that was sub-par. It was very nice ham, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be confident I could take a 20-minute walk down the road and find something better. I genuinely couldn’t say that about anything else – certainly not the smoked salmon. The London cure was up there with the best I’ve tasted; the wild vastly superior. I took to Twitter to say I’d never eaten anything better in my own home, and I wasn’t lying. It was divine.

Afterwards I had the lemon curd, which was never going to compete, but was excellent nonetheless. I made it into a little tart with a base of crushed digestive biscuits and later vowed that I should eat lemon curd more often. It was delicious.

Here’s what was in the box, with pictures.

Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon (H. Forman & Son)

London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon

Wild Smoked Scottish Salmon

Potted Lobster (Forman & Field)

Chocolate Brownie and Banana Bread (Forman & Field)***

Lemon Curd (Forman & Field)

Hand Carved Ham (Alderton Ham)

Pure Indulgence Chocolates (Paul Wayne Gregory)

Tea-infused chocolates (left to right): Earl Grey, jasmine, lapsang souchong

Pork Pie (Mrs King’s)

Selection of Dairy Cheeses (Neal’s Yard)

Innes Log – unpasteurised goat’s milk

Berkswell – unpasteurised sheep’s milk

Stichelton – unpasteurised cow’s milk

Ardrahan – pasteurised cow’s milk

Overall I was very impressed with the hamper sent to me by Forman and Field. The food was all extremely high-end and I think it’d be difficult to find better quality in your local area, even at specialist shops or farmers’ markets. Certainly assembling produce this good on your own would take a lot of time.

One thing that’s put me off buying food online in the past is concern over freshness. How many days before this was posted was it packed? Is it going to be stale or past its best? I’d look on something like Maldon Rock oysters as pure food poisoning bait, and why pay for a stomach bug when there’s a company out there willing to send me one for free?

But I think, based on the evidence of the cheese (the biggest freshness test), I would trust Forman and Field to send me just about anything. Apparently cut on the same day the hamper was posted, it was in better condition than any cheese I’ve had outside a Michelin star restaurant.

And I can’t praise it much higher than that.

Visit Forman and Field

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*As you can see, I eventually took porchetta off The List when I decided to make it exclusively about food that I’d genuinely be disappointed not to try in my lifetime, rather than just stuff that I liked the look of. But I would still like to try it.

**H. Forman & Son is linked to Forman and Field, so I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by that one.

***I forgot to take a picture of the chocolate brownie. Sorry.

 

Restaurant Review: Koya

“It’s only a noodle bar,” the bemused builder shouted from down the street. “Who the hell queues to get in a noodle bar anyway?”

As I stood outside Koya, hoping the line of people wasn’t so long that it’d fill the tiny dining room completely before I managed to get a seat, I wondered the same thing. Everyone appeared sober and the place didn’t seem to sell kebabs. It was 5.28pm on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening and my Salfordian brain couldn’t fathom what was going on. Does nobody watch Neighbours in Soho?

We got seats but only just. The two foreign language students who sat next to us were the last customers through the door before people started getting turned away. It was now 5.31pm and the restaurant had been open for exactly one minute.

“It must be good if it’s this popular,” my wife whispered across the table. “I hope so,” was my reply.

Things got off to a strong start with some tempura – two large prawns with an array of vegetables, including courgette and sweet potato. Some of the veg was underdone and I would’ve liked more flavour from the prawns, but tempura lives and dies by the quality of its batter and this most definitely lived. It was the sort of batter you always hope for but so rarely get; ultra crisp yet exceptionally light. I was picking at the scraps long after the prawns and veg had been consumed.

I took time out from scrap picking to take this fascinating picture, which I call ‘the tempura aftermath’

My wife enjoyed her opener too: a special of duck, poached and served sliced in a cold broth. In most noodle bars this was would be a disgusting dish – low-quality meat in a cloying, pond water sauce. But at Koya it was serene and refreshing; a nice bit of duck, carefully cooked, submerged in a delicate stock. I was very impressed.

Unfortunately, the meal was about to take a bit of a downward turn, and it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Carried away with the starters, I’d forgotten that I had absolutely no idea how to eat noodles with chopsticks. No idea, even, where to begin. My buta miso hiya-atsu arrived, I looked down at the two pieces of wood and the little spoon that had come with it, and thought to myself: “How the hell am I meant to get this food out of the bowl and into my mouth?”

Regrettably, my ignorant brain went into solution mode:

Right… I need an expert to show me what to do, fast… someone Japanese, I don’t trust these gajin… OK, there’s one in the corner – just watch… fuck me, look how high up she’s holding the chopsticks… mad skills… she’ll do… right, what precisely is she doing…  looks like she finds the end of the noodle first, then she lifts it completely out of the broth… seems easy enough, I can do that – what next… OK, so she drops the noodle down gently on the spoon and then circles it round into a neat little pile… that looks pretty easy too – not much to this so far… now for the eating pa… eww, I did not see that coming… I would’ve thought that was bad manners… did she really slurp it…. yes, she really slurped it… she’s still supporting it with the chopsticks but she’s definitely just sucking it into her mouth… well, I guess I best follow suit… when in Ro…

“How the hell are you meant to eat these?” my wife hissed across the table.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” I said confidently. “I’ve been watching that woman over there. She seems to know what she’s doing. Think I’ve got the technique down, so just follow my lead…”

OK, my turn… the wife’s looking to you for guidance on this, so don’t mess it up… first things first – find the end of a noodle… hmmm… no, that’s not one… that’s not one either… where do the ends of noodles live… I can’t find one anywhere, this is trickier than I thought… I wonder if the noodles in my bowl even have ends, they just seem to be made entirely of mi… aha! …got one… we’re cooking on gas now… easy street… right, time for stage two of the operation – this’ll be a cinch… lift the noodle from the bowl… OK, no need to panic, I’m just still lifting it from the bowl… and STILL lifting from the bowl… are my noodles longer than hers, I think they’re longer than hers… still lifting… I’m going to run out of arm in a minute, bloody hell… OK, no worries, here we go… nearly there… get the spoon ready…

***SPLASH!***

…what the fuck was that, where’s my noodle gone… it was there one minute and now it’s… oh my god, I think it broke under its own weight and went back in the bowl… what a splash that was… must’ve fallen about a foot… am I wet… no, I’m not wet… oh shit, are the customers sat next to me wet… no, thank god – they don’t seem to have noticed… has anyone noticed… oh great, the wife has… she’s pissing herself laughing…

There were three more unsuccessful attempts to copy the Japanese lady before I gave up and developed my own highly inefficient technique. The illusion that nobody had noticed the splashing was shattered when the customers next to us asked if they could move to a different table, shooting me a disgusted look as they got up to go. I don’t think they wanted to be my friend.

Buta Miso Hiya-Atsu: cold udon noodles in a hot broth with pork and miso paste

The udon noodles – when I finally got them into my mouth – were excellent and I loved the broth they came in. I couldn’t quite get over the pork and miso paste looking like the poo of an ill dog and I felt it spoiled the flavour of the stock the more it filtered in. But by this stage of the meal I’d more or less forgotten about the food and was thinking more about what a tit I’d made of myself. Oh well.

I arrived at Koya looking for a top cheap eat in the West End and I think I found one. It reminded me a little bit of Yuzu in Manchester, an oriental hidden gem doing food far better than a lot of restaurants twice the price. Of course with its Michelin Bib Gourmand and Observer Food Monthly awards Koya’s already well-discovered, but the feeling of a small kitchen punching above its weight is the same.

I would love to go back and try the tempura again. I may give the noodles a miss!

(Thanks to Hungry Hoss for the recommendation.)

 
Koya on Urbanspoon

Food: 10/30

Service: 5/10

Dining Room: 2.5/5

Experience: 7/10

Overall score: 45/100 (Good)

Restaurant Review: The Ledbury

Restaurant bloggers love to fill their posts with photographs but pictures can be deceiving.

Everything I’d seen of the dining room at The Ledbury suggested it was bland and lifeless; all whitewashed modernity without a hint of character. Even the professional photos on the restaurant’s own website carried a cold, unwelcoming air – it looked like the waiting room of a dentist with a feng shui fetish.

So I was amazed to walk in the door and find such a fantastic and welcoming space, bright and airy with a high ceiling and large windows. The sun shone through the greenery outside, the smart table settings provided understated elegance and I immediately got the impression that this is a room where special things happen.

“The photos really don’t do this place justice,” I said to my wife as I took my seat, as relaxed as you possibly can be outside your own home. A couple of minutes later I was saying the exact same thing about the food.

I’ve never liked the look of a Brett Graham plate. Photos showed his dishes to be overly busy, messy even. I always got the impression he was simply trying too hard to make up for a lack of genuine design talent. Yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth during my lunch at The Ledbury; there was this indecipherable, indefinable beauty to all the food placed in front of me. Dishes that I must’ve seen hundreds of times before just had this wonderful harmony that no photographer I know had ever managed to catch.

They say you taste with your eyes – this meal was great before I even started sticking forks in my mouth.

A nibble of foie gras parfait with apricot kicked us off; a dazzling little morsel which punched above its flavour weight like it was Stanley Ketchel in 1909.* I’m used to top restaurants being more generous with their pre-meal snacks but I wouldn’t swap any of their quantity for the quality of this. A one-bite canapé has no right to be so good.

The bread arrived next and I continued to be wowed. Two of the rolls were unremarkable but I don’t think there are anywhere near enough remarks to describe the incredible bacon and onion brioche: a wicked, buttery-rich pastry, delicious in that ‘all my arteries are clogging at once’ kind of way. If you had a heart attack through eating one, you’d think it was worth it.

Flame Grilled Mackerel with Smoked Eel, Celtic Mustard and Shiso is probably Brett Graham’s most famous dish so it seemed rude not to order it for our starters. Fresh as rain, it provided a nice contrast with the above-mentioned greasy spoon in a bun; the stunning mackerel fillet in perfect balance with the rest of the ingredients.

The plate was full of little wonders but I think the smoked eel took the prize. Flaked and dressed, it was housed in a supremely delicate cucumber parcel, so thin as to be almost transparent. It was magic.

My main course was another Brett Graham signature: Saddle of Berkshire Roe Buck with White Beetroot, Red Wine Lees and Bone Marrow. For me this was even better than the mackerel, the venison of spectacular quality and flawlessly complemented by everything around it. From the ingredients listed in the dish’s name to the crispy layered potatoes, venison sausage and the deep, sweet sauce that were also served, each element was a joy.

Usually I guard my food like a hippo mother guards her babies and begrudge giving any away so others can taste. But with this roe buck dish I was so excited and so desperate for someone else to know how brilliant it was I couldn’t stop passing forkfuls over to my wife. “You’ve got to try this!” I kept saying. “It’s amazing.”

Of course I got a few forkfuls back in exchange, allowing me to sample her Roasted Breast and Confit Leg of Pigeon with Red Vegetables and Leaves, Foie Gras and Cherry Blossom. It was another excellent dish – the foie gras particularly good, the pigeon the best I’ve ever had – though my roe buck was a bigger star.

I wanted to order pretty much all the desserts listed on the menu but, never able to resist the puffed up combination of egg whites and cream sauce, eventually went for Passion Fruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream. It didn’t disappoint. Light and fluffy and full of passion fruit flavour, it was a textbook example of one of my favourite sweets. I preferred the soufflé I had at The Square two days later, but only just. The sauternes ice cream was a faultless accompaniment.

Service was outstanding from start to finish; The Square’s spirit of generosity just as prevalent here at its sister restaurant. Before the petits fours (a jelly and a liquid centre chocolate, both very classy) our waiter brought out some complimentary sorbets as an early anniversary present. He didn’t care that our anniversary was two months away (!), he just seemed to be looking for an excuse to give us a present.

Our sommelier, who’d been so good** throughout the meal I wanted to take her home with me, followed this up with another gift. Seeing I’d finished my pudding wine (an electric 2009 DonnafugataBen Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Sicily) before I’d made a proper start on the sorbets, she came over and poured me a full new glass!

It’s the little things that make life so great.

With two Michelin stars, first place in the Times Top 100 Restaurants list, 14th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a legion of critics and bloggers fawning over it, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you need to go to The Ledbury. But I’ll say it anyway.

In my experience, this restaurant is as good as any in London. I have the feeling that it’s only going to get better. So go once and then keep going back. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Food: 28.5/30

Service: 9.5/10

Dining Room: 4.5/5

Experience: 9.5/10

Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)

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*Yeah, a Stanley Ketchel reference. That’s how cool I am. In case you don’t know who he is and the analogy went over your head, he was one of the best middleweight boxing champions of all time and a ferocious puncher. Well-known for fighting heavyweights, who would often weigh a couple of stone more than him, he’s arguably most famous for flooring one of the greatest heavies of them all, Jack Johnson, in 1909.

**My dad complained the other day that I don’t talk about wine enough, so I should at least mention what else we drank under the sommelier’s expert guidance. With the mackerel we had a half bottle of the 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Lamm from Austria and with the mains we had another half of the 2009 Ridge Vineyards Geyserville Zinfandel from the US. Both top choices.

Restaurant Review: Aumbry revisited

If there’s one thing I’d like to echo from Giles Coren’s mixed-to-positive review of Aumbry in the Times the other week – and believe me, there are few things of his I would ever want to echo – it’s that their treacle tart is awesome.

On my first visit in February I was relatively underwhelmed by the puddings and wondered whether the kitchen lacked passion for the sweeter parts of the menu. But second time round I ate this mini-masterpiece: a skilfully-made pie with tart lemon jelly and a deep frothy warming cup of Earl Grey cream tea on the side. It more than proved me wrong.

It was the balance that was so exceptional. I’ve had better desserts this year* but I can’t think of any that was so well-conceived. The marriage of flavours was wonderful and all my dining companions agreed. My dad claimed it was the best sweet he’s ever had.

The other big highlight from the six-course tasting menu was the potato and wild garlic soup, which swung bag after bag of flavour at my grateful tastebuds. When you get soup of this quality, it makes you want to question why higher-end restaurants don’t do it more often. Done right it can be such a beautiful thing; here, with a glass of chardonnay on the side, it was.

Head chef Mary-Ellen wasn’t in the kitchen this evening but there appeared to be no adverse effect on the food being produced – certainly there were none of the technical errors Coren wrote about. I wanted more from the slow-cooked wood pigeon dish, which seemed to lack the usual Aumbry wit and needed another element to lift it, but the cooking was faultless. I was particularly impressed by the accompanying chicory, a bitter leaf which has murdered many a game bird in its time but was held firmly in check through careful braising.

Here’s the menu with pictures. My dad and I also shared a cheeseboard at the end.

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TASTING MENU ǀ SIX COURSES

Amuse Bouche

Potted shrimp

Home Smoked Mackerel

Poached rhubarb & mustard cream

Potato & Wild Garlic Soup

English truffle oil

Cumbrian Wood Pigeon

Braised chicory, grilled grelot & lemon balm

Grapefruit Posset

Celery granita & grapefruit sherbet

Treacle Tart

Lemon jelly & Earl Grey cream

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Cheese

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After February’s meal I declared Aumbry to be the best restaurant in the county. Eating there four months on with my family in toe, there was nothing to make me want to rescind that statement.

Admittedly, I wasn’t quite as thrilled by the experience this time round. Greater familiarity with the menu (I’d hoped for more change between the two visits), staff who kept dropping things (spilling a glass of wine all over our table was probably the worst of the half dozen or so slip ups) and a random diner who kept looking at me like she wanted to stab me in the face all helped to dampen the magic.

Nevertheless, it was still a top meal, better than any other restaurant has given me for about four years round these parts. I’ll look forward to going back.
Aumbry on Urbanspoon

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*These superior desserts would be the ones I had at The Square and The Ledbury, so it’s not really a fair fight. If there’s a pudding better than Aumbry’s treacle tart in Greater Manchester right now, I’d love to know about it.

Restaurant Review: The Square

“Technically there is no wine with this course, but I could just pour you both another glass of that Riesling you loved so much. Would you like some more?”

Two unsolicited sentences and some pouring was all it took for our young sommelier to capture the spirit of The Square – the generosity of it, the eagerness to please.

I’d expected no wine with the immaculate cheesecake in front of me. Why would I? The menu – helpfully propped up on the table in front of us – made it clear there wasn’t any and I was perfectly happy with that. Being the second to last course of an incredible tasting menu, I’d had a skinful already and was very content.

But customers being “very content” doesn’t seem to fit in with the ethos of The Square, or at least not the one that prevailed on the night of our visit. Mere satisfaction didn’t seem to cut it. If I’d told one of our waiters I was only happy, presumably they’d have gone into the back and self-flagellated to repent their failures.

Everyone appeared determined to go above and beyond; to exceed even the highest expectations. It made for a magnificent evening.*

The effort I’ve alluded to was clear right from the off when a vast array of nibbles on the theme of taramasalata arrived. A lot of top restaurants make little attempt to cater for allergies at this stage, either shrugging their shoulders at the appalling notion of providing a dairy free substitute for my wife (I’m looking at you, Hibiscus) or trotting out a hastily assembled, inevitably rubbish raw salad.

But the tempura veg The Square offered up was supreme; the truffle-based dip they delivered probably better than mine. It was a very good start.

We moved on to some excellent house-made breads and then through to the tasting menu proper, where even an opposition MP would struggle to pick fault with the dishes. Tiny pickled Japanese mushrooms, an unexpected accompaniment to the cured fillet of beef and utterly delectable, were the first bit to blow my mind. They were surpassed two courses later by one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes, a luscious lasagne of crab with a cappuccino of shellfish and champagne foam. The cylinder of perfect pasta and sweet crab almost seemed to float in the texturally ethereal sauce, buttery rich and intensely flavoured. I didn’t want my eating of it to ever end.

Better yet was still to come. You don’t really expect the simplest dishes featuring familiar and ordinary ingredients to be the most dazzling, but that was the case with the saddle of lamb. It was a basic Sunday roast risen to heights of hypobaropathy by an exquisite piece of meat and spherified golden mint sauce, which literally burst with flavour.

“I never knew lamb could taste this good,” said my wife. Neither did I.

By the time the desserts were set to arrive we were positively giddy. Everything had been so wonderful and then the sommelier rocked up and offered us another glass of what was probably our favourite wine so far. Joy doesn’t begin to describe it.

Brillat-Savarin cheesecake is another Square signature and it was easy to see why. Simple and brilliant had been the kitchen’s hallmarks all night and this bore them both. Vanilla soufflé with rhubarb ripple ice cream, the next and final dish of the evening, did the same job and more. I adore soufflés and had eaten a stunning passion fruit version at The Ledbury two days earlier. This was better.

My wife had been able to eat most of the courses, some with the odd tweak, but where complete replacements were needed no half measures were taken.  Instead of the crab she got a beautiful lobster dish, which was £10 more expensive on the a la carte. Instead of the Wigmore cheese she got breast of barbary duck with a tarte fine of caramelised endive, new season’s turnips and cherries – also superb. For pudding she had a celebration of strawberries with meringue followed by something magical involving spheres of Alphonso mango.

When I asked at the end how she felt the restaurant had done catering for her dietary requirements her verdict was simple: “They win.” Being able to eat all the petits fours – delightfully fun lollies of coated fruit, jellies and swiss roll, and malted chocolates, an extra box of which was given to us to take home – was the icing on the cake.

Here’s the menu I ate in full. The wine matching was top notch, but I think by now that probably goes without saying.

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TASTING MENU

Roulade of Octopus with a Citrus Vinaigrette, Taramasalata and Mussel Beignets

Côtes de Provence, Symphonie, 2010, Château Sainte, Marguerite Cru Classé, Provence, France

Cured Fillet of Aged Beef with Tête de Moine, Tardivo, Grilled Potatoes, Scorched Onion and Truffle

Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, 2010, Champ Morel, Rhône, France

Roast Isle of Orkney Scallops with White Asparagus, New Season’s Cepes and Parmesan

Pinot Blanc “Mise du Printemps” 2010, Josmeyer, Alsace, France

Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam

Savigny les Beaune, 2009, Simon Bize, Burgundy, France

Sauté of John Dory with Turnip Tops, Snails, Morels, Peas and Parmesan

Chorey-Les-Beaune, Domaine Maillard, 2008, Burgundy, France

Herb Crusted Saddle of Spring Lamb with a Purée of Peas, Asparagus and Mint

Carignano Del Sulcis Riserva Rocca Rubia  2008, Santadi, Sardinia, Italy

Wigmore with Truffle Honey and Rhubarb

Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Schlossberg 2009, Selbach-Oster, Mosel, Germany

Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with New Season’s English Strawberries

Vanilla Soufflé with Rhubarb Ripple Ice Cream

Roussillière Doux, Vin de France MMX, Yves Cuilleron

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Having booked the meal at The Square several months in advance, I was interested to see chef Phil Howard on this year’s Great British Menu and get a (no doubt heavily-edited) glimpse into what he and his food are all about beforehand. Throughout the programmes I was glad to see that while other competitors were obsessing over new techniques and trying to do something different, his main priority seemed to be ensuring the food tasted damn good.

And that’s exactly what I got at his restaurant. There were no real gimmicks, no attempts to do anything ‘ground-breaking’. It was just fabulous, assured cooking from a team confident and mature enough to stick with what they know best. The waiting staff more than lived up to the food.

In the final episode of GBM, which was still on air when we arrived at The Square, Phil stated that the business he works in is all about pleasing people. I’m sure after all these years at the top I don’t need to tell a lot of you this, but he’s bloody good at his job.
Square on Urbanspoon

Food: 28.5/30

Service: 10/10

Dining Room: 3.5/5

Experience: 10/10

Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)

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*Interestingly the serving team at The Square apparently had quite a poor reputation until a few years ago. On this occasion they were about as good as it gets.

Food #12: Victorian mince pies

Everyone thinks Victorian mince pies sound nice until you tell them what they actually are. I’m not sure what it is about the word ‘Victorian’ that does it but it makes boring old mince pies into bouncy-castle-style thrill-fests for those who hear the name.

Almost every conversation I’ve had about them has gone the same way. You see that bright-eyed excitement as they take their shoes off and prepare to enter the inflatable moshpit, their little minds teeming with the possibilities created by PVC, air and violent children. They couldn’t be any more in their element, desperate to jump on in there and enjoy what is no doubt going to be the ‘funnest’ day of their lives.

And then you, being an utter bastard, take out a big pin and pop their dreams.*

(I’m only exaggerating a little bit.)

“Ooooh, Victorian mince pies sound lovely! How are they different from normal ones?”

“Well, they’re exactly the same really. The only difference is that the mincemeat contains real meat.”

“Oh… that sounds disgusting! Ewww!!”

And they look at you like you’ve just raped their world and you wish you’d never mentioned them in the first place.

Fortunately for me, not everyone reacts in the same way. When I declared that I’d be ticking this particular item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list over Christmas, my good friend Andy volunteered to help taste test. Wives were drafted in** and the stage was set for a food I’ve been eager to try for as long as I can remember.

Mincemeat with real meat

There are various recipes for Victorian mince pies out there – some using lamb, some using beef. Mine, a sirloin steak variety, was written 160 years ago by the fabulously-named Mrs Rundle, and you can read it here (or watch the video).

Now, in my head, a Victorian mince pie would be exactly the same as a normal mince pie, except instead of currants you’d have beef mince. That this mixture sounds so bizarre and revolting is what made me put it on The List in the first place – it’s the sort of interesting experience I feel I have to try.

So imagine my raging disappointment when I realised after all these years that the amount of beef in this thing could be measured in quantities of bugger all. A 450g steak seems decent enough until you see the recipe also calls for 450g of sugar, and 450g of suet, and 4 large apples, and 1.35kg of currants, and a whole host of similarly heavy ingredients. For every pound of beef in the mix, there were eight or nine pounds of everything else!

When the mixture was cooked down and ready to be put into the pastry, my wife came into the kitchen and asked whether I’d put the meat in yet. She couldn’t even see it for how little there was in there. And there were no other clues to the presence of real meat either. The mix smelled beautiful – a purer fragrance of Christmas you will not find – but there were no beefy odours emanating from the pot. It was just the standard aroma of mincemeat.

By the time the pies had been through the oven and we sat down to eat them, I was starting to think we wouldn’t even be able to taste the steak at all. I’m still wondering whether I made up the fact that I could.

Mince pies with real meat

The mince pies were excellent, as good as any others I’ve made from scratch. They tasted exactly like normal mince pies with just a couple of tiny differences, the first of which was so subtle it might well have been a figment of my imagination.

There was a hint of extra richness in there which I’ve not come across in a mince pie before. My tastebuds couldn’t pick it out specifically, but they just had this little flavour tone running through them that I couldn’t match up to anything other than the steak. “You’re clutching at straws” read the expression on everyone else’s face when I suggested this was the case, but I stand by it.

Less debatable was the difference in texture. The meat had been finely chopped but of course it doesn’t break down like the fruit does, so every couple of bites I’d come across a little chewy lump of beef. This was reasonably pleasant although it added little more than novelty to the dish. Certainly, it could’ve easily done without it.

And really, that was it. Nothing amazing, nothing disgusting, nothing particularly different at all. The only significant impact the inclusion of steak had was on the bill, which it more or less trebled.

Was it worth it? Absolutely not.

Verdict: A waste of time and money, though if ignore the steak part, the rest of the recipe’s well worth following.

NEXT UP: Rose veal

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*It’s important to note that, on occasion, I have been accused of having an overactive imagination.

**I should specify that’s ‘our’ wives, as opposed to a selection of random married women. I imagine I would have got into some trouble if the latter scenario had transpired, and no doubt I would’ve had to go through the bouncy castle story all over again.

Food #11 continued: Valrhona chocolate

Click here to read Part 1 of this Valrhona chocolate post.

There were no fat old ladies this time around; no suspicious shop assistants either. There was no long deliberation process by a scruffy man.

As I walked back into the Harvey Nichols food section I knew precisely which chocolate bar I wanted and I’d had my hair cut. That’s 200 words of preamble saved through research and an £8 trip to the barbers.

I’d been tempted by the El Pedregal 2011 Vintage, 64% on my first visit; held it up against the other Valrhona bars and mmmd and ahhhd. The packaging was good, the blurb was great. It looked so much better than the chocolate I actually bought and the price suggested it was too, approx £6.50 for 75g versus £3.99 for 70g.

I swooned at the idea of a ‘vintage’. Of course it’s a gimmick but like any good one it still appeals once you’ve seen right through it. There are few meaningless words capable of stirring up such irrational feelings of lust.

El Pedregal was left on the shelf on the first Valrhona buying trip simply because I was being cheap and wanted to try three different bars instead of two. Having read a couple of decent reviews of it online, there was no question of that happening again. Valrhona’s champion had been chosen and it was time to put it to the test.

Valrhona El Pedregal 64% Dark Chocolate

The El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was a much more conventional-looking bar than the others I’d tried previously, and classily dressed. Appearances matter with ‘luxury’ items and between the smart exterior and golden foil wrapper, it all looked reassuringly expensive.

Chocolate lovers bang on about snap and smell, and to my novice ears and nose there were no letdowns here either. The aroma was strong and spicy; attractive in a way that makes you want to actually eat the bar rather than keep sniffing it.* The audible thunk it gave when I broke off a piece was as rich and assured as that of a car door.**

And the taste was complex and interesting. With every chew came a different wave of flavours – dried fruits, coffee and liquorice, to name a few – all complemented by a wonderful melting texture, far superior to that of any other bar I’ve had.

The different flavours kept coming for several seconds after I’d swallowed. It wasn’t a Dom Pérignon-level epic finish, but impressive nonetheless for a bar of chocolate. I certainly didn’t expect it to linger so well.

Yet, for all the intriguing things going on with the El Pedregal as the taste continued to develop in my mouth, I found myself waiting for one crucial component that never arrived. The key element I needed before I could declare Valrhona chocolate a winner:

Pleasure.

It’s difficult, but the best way I can think to describe it is to imagine you work in a highly specialised industry where it’s important to keep up to date with the latest trends. Something big happens, so you set aside some time and read all about it. It’s interesting in a professional sense – you lap it up because change is always exciting relative to the general mundanity of your job.

But outside of work you don’t read about it, you don’t talk about it, you carry on as if nothing has happened. And you do this because there’s no enjoyment to be had. Without the context of your employment, it’s too boring to mention.

And that’s just how the Valrhona El Pedregal 2011 Vintage was for me. It’s undoubtedly a very fine bar of chocolate and it was fun to try in the sense of ticking an item of my Foods To Try Before You Die list. But in the sense of everything else, it was really, really dull. If I didn’t know I was going to write about it, I’d probably have forgotten the details along with those of the lesser Valrhona bars.

It’s sad but I think that’s probably it now for me and straight chocolate. I’m still open to ‘chocolates’ (as in ‘a box of’) but I definitely can’t imagine spending good money on a high-end bar again – Valrhona or otherwise. I just don’t seem to get them, and can’t seem to take any enjoyment from eating them, so what’s the point in buying them at all?

It’s possible I may come back to this in years’ time, as my palate develops and different flavours become more appealing to my tastebuds. But right now, you can forget about foods to try before I die – chocolate is a food I could quite happily never try again.

Verdict: No recommendation

NEXT UP: Victorian mince pie

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*This is unlike a lot of brandies, and also Tic Tacs, where the aroma rather than the taste comes across as the main event.

**A slightly groan-inducing image, perhaps, but one that I can’t seem to shake. I find it amazing how much effort goes into ensuring a car door makes the right sort of sound when it closes. Left to their own devices, you’d get quite a tinny noise when slamming a metal door shut, which isn’t something people associate with safety and security. So they engineer the doors specially to make a more robust sound which people are more comfortable with.

I’m sure Valrhona don’t spend millions on this like the car industry does, but the sound the chocolate makes when it breaks is clearly an important consideration when they go through the tempering process.

Foods To Try Before The Radio

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen that I was on BBC Radio Manchester (95.1FM) this week, giving a live interview about my Foods To Try Before You Die list on Heather Stott’s show.

If you live in the UK, you can listen to it here – it should be available until May 9th. I was on Wednesday’s episode (02/05/2012) and my five-minute piece with Matt White is about 2hrs 40mins in.

It was a lot of fun doing this and hopefully I can go back on in the not too distant future and give an update on some of the foods I’ve been trying and what new things have been catching my eye.

Items from my list that get mentioned this time around include Chicken Cooked in a Pig’s Bladder, Potted Shrimp, Goose, Capon and Steak Tartare!

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