Monthly Archives: August 2011
In the world of vintage champagne, three brands stand out above all the rest: Krug, Cristal and Dom Pérignon.
No doubt there are other sparkling wines that are just as good; alternatives that can match the Big Three for reputation and even price. But when it comes to name-recognition and status, nothing comes close.
It’s because of this prestige that each one is represented on my list of Foods to Try Before I Die. And it’s because of this prestige that I thought it would be a very long time until I had one.
You see the funny thing about status wines; the thing you’d never guess of drinks consumed by the rich and famous is they cost an absolute bloody fortune.
The cheapest Dom Pérignon years will set you back between £80 and £130. The lowest priced Cristal is around £140 to £170. Vintage Krug starts from approximately £165.
To put that last price in perspective – because, let’s be honest, it’s the Krug I want more than any other* – for £165 my wife and I could get return train tickets from Manchester to London and eat the set lunch at Le Gavroche, complete with a bottle’s worth of wine.**
So imagine my surprise on Saturday, as I wandered into Burnage Tesco (of all places) to buy something cheap for tea. I’d bought some champagne glasses from the LSA Bar Collection that afternoon and was looking for a bottle of cava to break them in.
I got a couple of yards down the wine aisle before coming to a very sudden halt. Before me was a sign I couldn’t quite believe and I was having to concentrate very hard to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
The special offer read:
Dom Pérignon Champagne – £49.99
My wife asked me what was up. If she was my grandma, she’d have asked me if I was trying to catch flies – my gob was hanging wide open, and all I could do was point. The price was just ridiculous. £50 for a wine that I knew probably cost £100 at least?!
The bottle wasn’t actually on the shelf. Tesco keep products that expensive in the back, so I had to ask a grumpy old man in a blue shirt to go and fetch me one. I was expecting the 2002 Brut, I got the 2000 Brut, I didn’t care – like I would know the difference. It was going in the basket, it was going to be bought, and it was going home with me to be drunk.***
High quality champagne isn’t meant to be served super-cold. According winedoctor, you want it between 8ºC and 10ºC, which you’ll reach after around an hour in the fridge. I gave it half an hour in the freezer and then a few minutes to warm up before serving. I think I got it about right.
Before the Dom Pérignon, the most expensive champagne I’d ever had was probably a basic non-vintage Laurent Perrier, which was worth about £40. The best I’d ever had was either an unknown rosé that I was given compliments of Diego Masciaga at The Waterside Inn or the Paul Drouet Speciale Reserve Alain Ducasse Brut.
Comparing any of them to Moët & Chandon’s prestige champagne is like comparing Arsenal with Manchester United. You used to think they were good, but put them up against the true elite on an August bank holiday weekend and they’ll lose 8-2.****
The first thing that struck me as I tasted the Dom Pérignon was how fresh it was. You don’t really expect a liquid poured from such a dark and broody bottle to offer that cleanness of taste, but it did.
And then the bubbles took over and I couldn’t help but think they were perfect. I’ve never understood why some people love sparkling wine so much – the fizz can get a little wearisome after a while. But I don’t think I could ever tire of these bubbles. It felt like a swarm of pixies kissing the inside of my mouth.
However, the true wonder begins once you’ve swallowed and the flavour begins to hit. The complex taste***** lingers on your palate and continues to develop there for well over a minute. I’ve had nothing like it before! All I could do was close my eyes and allow my tastebuds to take me on a journey through the depths of this extraordinary wine.
It took about an hour for my wife and I to polish off the bottle. When it was finished, I strongly considered going back to Tesco and buying six more. “It’s an investment – we won’t be able to buy it at this price ever again,” I said.
Regrettably, the cooler side of my brain prevailed and I decided we couldn’t afford it. Sure, we’d save money in the long run, but at this stage of our un-rich lives, that’s money much better spent on boring house stuff like fixing damp and replacing rotting windows.
Still, for £50, champagne of this quality is an absolute steal – it’s light years ahead of anything else you’ll get in a supermarket.
So next time you’ve got something to celebrate and you’re in Tesco to buy a bit of fizz, look past that thoroughly mediocre bottle you’re about to waste £25 on and consider going that extra mile instead.
Verdict: Highest possible recommendation – at least as long you can get it for £50
NEXT UP: Old Fashioned (cocktail)
*In particular, the 1985, which would cost the best part of £900 for a magnum. Decanter’s 100 Wines to Try before you Die list would seem to suggest the 1990 is superior, but who cares what the critics think? The sheikh in Paul Torday’s ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ always orders the 1985, so that’s the one for me.
**Le Gavroche is at the top of my UK restaurant wishlist (yes, I have a list for that as well). As the first UK restaurant to earn three Michelin stars, it has a rich history, and while it lost its third star 18 years back, its reputation remains extremely strong. In fact, towards the end of last year, Andy Hayler suggested it might well be London’s best restaurant. Dinner will set you back a fair whack, but you could eat the set lunch there (complete with half a bottle of wine) twice over for the price of a Dom Perignon.
***And after being drunk, the empty bottle was going to be turned into a candle holder, because it’s stunning and much too cool to throw away.
****I actually had the chance to put the Dom Perignon up against one of those champagnes as I quaffed three glasses of Laurent Perrier the following night at Northcote Manor. It was no contest.
*****I don’t really do tasting notes. I prefer to focus on enjoying the wine rather than stepping out of the experience to think about what individual flavours I can pick out. But if you’re interested, here’s what Robert Parker has to say:
“The 2000 Brut Dom Perignon is a gorgeous, seductive wine that floats on the palate with remarkable grace. Toasty aromas meld into freshly cut flowers, apricots and pears, with sweet notes of mint and licorice that linger on the long finish. This perfumed, inviting Dom Perignon is elegance personified, and in this vintage the wine fully merits its lofty reputation.”
I was hoping to put a review of Northcote Manor up tonight, having had another excellent meal there on Sunday.
Unfortunately, the post I wrote sucked a big fat one, so I’ve scrapped it and I’m going to start again.
In the meantime, here’s a copy of the five-course menu we enjoyed and the view from my bedroom to whet the appetite:
Chicken Livers, Pickled Damsons, New Seasons Garlic & Cob Nut Salad, Toasted Brioche
Gewürztraminer, Rolly Gassmann, Alsace, France, 2002
Slow Cooked Native Lobster, Scorched Young Leeks, Warm Jelly, Chervil
Chardonnay, Neudorf Vineyards, Nelson, New Zealand 2008
Banks Tomato Consommé, Courgette Spaghetti, Lemon Caviar, Tomato Brushcetta
Abbeystead Grouse, Blackberries, Bread Bits, Roast Potatoes, Heather Jelly
Beaune, 1er Cru Les Gréves, Domaine des Clos, Burgundy, France, 1999
Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards
Moscato, Innocent Bystander, Victoria, Australia, 2005
A Selection of British Cheeses served with Northcote homemade Bread Wafers and Walnut and Fruit Loaf
Ramos Pinto 10 Year Old Tawny, Quinta Da Ervamoira
Steak and chips is my all-time favourite meal. I probably eat it once a fortnight as a minimum. Nothing fancy, just a big slab of medium-rare meat, chips fresh from the fryer and a side of sautéed mushrooms.
If it’s a special occasion, like my birthday, I’ll probably triple-cook the chips and do a béarnaise sauce with it. But that’s about it. I like it nice and simple, with little in the way of distractions from the beef itself.
Until I started to develop a keen interest in food about six or seven years ago, I ordered steak pretty much everywhere I went. However, because I didn’t go to many places of real quality, the choice tended to be limited to just three cuts: rump, sirloin and fillet.
If I was lucky, there might be a rib-eye I could choose instead, but they never had the one cut I really wanted.
The one that always seemed to be in films.
The one with the cool name.
The one they called… T-bone.
When I put The List together T-bone steak went straight on there. I’d pined after it for the best part of two decades and still not managed to come across it, so it was an obvious choice. Its appeal had also advanced beyond the fact it sounds like a gangster rapper. I now knew it was made up of different parts of the cow – the top loin and the tenderloin (aka the fillet) – so you get two steaks in one.*
Unfortunately, a couple of days later, I had to take it off The List. I remembered that I had actually eaten a T-bone, five years earlier at a random pub in York. It was a rubbish experience – owing to poor quality beef and shoddy cooking – but one that clearly meant it was disqualified.
Undeterred, I started looking for an alternative; a cut of beef that could match the T-bone for flavour and sex appeal. In the end, I came across the porterhouse, which actually sounded much, much better.** It might not have made it into the Wu-Tang Clan, but it was definitely going to make it on to my plate.***
Goodman Steak Restaurants in London are meant to be among the country’s best steakhouses, if not the best. They offer extremely high quality USDA beef, as well as British varieties, and cook it all on a Josper Grill, the Rolls Royce of charcoal ovens.
Andy Hayler, the food critic famous for having eaten at all of the world’s three-star Michelin restaurants, raved about the steak he had at the branch on Maddox Street in Mayfair. What better place could I visit to give the porterhouse a spin?
My wife and I went to Goodman (the one on the purple bit of the Monopoly board) on the third day of our honeymoon. I was immediately impressed by the huge, wooden-handled shank that was placed before me on the table instead of the usual steak knife. Any restaurant that gives me a weapon to carve up my beef clearly means business.
We skipped starters and went straight for the steaks, ordering a 600g bone-in rib-eye and 600g porterhouse to share between us.****
I tried the rib-eye first and it was incredible. From field to plate, you could tell the love that had gone into it. It was a beautiful piece of beef, perfectly aged and perfectly cooked. The char on it was awesome; the taste mega. Stalin would go to bed at night dreaming he had the authority this flavour commanded.
It was in a totally different league to the best steak I’ve had in the UK (at Gaucho) and even topped the best I’ve ever had, at Ben & Jacks Steakhouse in New York.
Nevertheless, it couldn’t hold a candle to the porterhouse, at least as far as my tastebuds are concerned. It was clearly of the same standard, but I found myself preferring the milder, cleaner and much more defined flavour of the top loin. It was like putting a Humvee up against an Aston Martin – I can appreciate the big, hulking juggernaut, but I’m going to choose James Bond’s car every time.
Still, even an Aston Martin seems a bit lame next to a Bugatti Veyron, and so the top loin did here. The tenderloin wasn’t just in another league, it was on another planet.
Whoever it was who said fillet steak doesn’t have any flavour needs to be hunted down and beaten to death with a top tier porterhouse. Andy Hayler said he’s had superior beef at a couple of places, but I can’t imagine how this could be bettered. It just sang.
Two days earlier I’d been at Hibiscus eating roast duck foie gras and thinking: “Is this ambrosia – the food of the gods?”
In Goodman, Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared and answered my question. “No,” he whispered. “There is another…”
I had beef Rossini at Alain Ducasse a few nights later. Afterwards I concluded that it was probably the best dish I’d ever had, but the fillet of beef itself couldn’t compare to the tenderloin at Goodman. It went beyond wizard; it was full-on Jedi.
And as a Star Wars geek, my praise doesn’t really get any higher than that.
Verdict: Highest possible recommendation, but with the caveat that you try it somewhere really good. It doesn’t matter how great the cut is, if the beef’s not of a high quality or it hasn’t been aged well or cooked properly, you won’t have a special experience.
NEXT UP: Dom Perignon 2000 (technically it should be something else, but I was so excited when I drank this Champagne today, I figured I’d let it jump the queue…)
*The tenderloin may not be substantial on a T-bone, but you’re still getting a bonus steak. It’s like going to a brothel and buying 60 minutes with an alright prostitute and then finding out you get 5 minutes with a really good one as part of the package.
**The porterhouse is very closely related to the T-bone, with both cuts being taken from the short loin of the cow. So similar are they that apparently some butchers will label a porterhouse as a T-bone, in order to avoid confusing customers. The porterhouse is actually taken from the larger end of the short loin, so it comes with a much bigger portion of fillet.
***Sorry, that was a much longer introduction than expected.
****We didn’t intentionally go for exactly the same as Mr Hayler, but it seems we’ve got similar tastes where beef is concerned. I do very much enjoy a rib-eye steak and I was interested to see how it tasted cooked on the bone and how the porterhouse stacked up against it.
As per usual, I said “no” to sauces – I wanted to taste the beef all on its own.
Jem&I is a restaurant about a mile away from where I live in Didsbury, Manchester. It’s fairly casual, family-friendly and enjoys a very solid local reputation, mostly due to the Bib Gourmand it held in the Michelin Guide half a decade back.* It always seems to be packed and there are no signs of its popularity abating anytime soon.
This is despite having one of the drabbest, dullest, most uninspiring lists of starters I’ve ever seen on a menu. It’s a startling display of laziness; a collection that could almost be a Who’s Who of reject plates from the first round of MasterChef.
You know you’re facing something truly terrible when you’re struggling to make that difficult decision as to which dish you’d mind eating the least.
Everything on there is a piece of piss to make. Everything screams: “We couldn’t care less about starters.”
And everything seems to come buried under an enormous pile of rocket.
Once upon a time, I was a big fan of rocket. There used to be an excellent little restaurant in Newcastle called The Comfort Food Company**, which served it alongside rump steak and it worked perfectly.
Mostly I’ll ignore salads with steak. They’re generally a pointless, irritating afterthought taking up valuable chips space. But at Comfort Food the rocket had a real purpose – it was designed to complement the meat, and complement it did.
That’s how rocket needs to be used; how it needs to be approached. It’s much too strong an ingredient to be plonked mindlessly on a plate. It requires something robust enough to stand up to it, like a steak or a thick piece of ham.
My theory: anything that goes well with English mustard will probably go well with rocket.
At Jem&I they don’t subscribe to this way of thinking. A week on from my last meal there, I still feel sorry for the scallops. They were of a decent enough quality and someone had taken the care to cook them very nicely. And then someone without care had buried them under a forest of fierce peppery leaf.
I felt like a pioneer as I became the first person in history to forage for shellfish inside a bush.
I looked across the table to see another trailblazer at work – my wife was having to do the exact same thing with her fried squid.
Now you could say I’m being deliberately unfair here. I knew my starter came with rocket salad and I knew my wife’s came with rocket salad. I’m not sure why they did, but it was at least listed on the menu. Most of the other dishes on there didn’t mention rocket, so presumably they came without it.
But this is the fourth starter I’ve had at Jem&I over the years, each of them completely different, and every single one has been served with this type of leaf. I generally think: “OK, well they probably won’t go together, but if I just focus on the primary ingredient, which is the main reason I want the dish, it’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, the scallops or the squid or the smoked salmon – or whatever – never turn out to be the primary ingredient. Through sheer quantity***, rocket is always the daddy on the plate. Capi di tutti capi, the don of the starter.****
And as I’d mentioned, the list of starters is crap anyway. It’s not like I was spoilt for choice with delicious-sounding alternatives that could entice me away from a meal featuring this bloody plant. “Maybe they’ll surprise me and it’ll actually work this time,” I thought.
I think my cynicism needs some work.
My main course of fillet steak was good, if a little overpriced. Dessert of crème brulee was perfectly serviceable. The bottle of Valpolicella I selected, thanks to some very helpful tasting notes in the menu, was excellent.
On the whole it was a solid meal and I had a pleasant time. But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that sodding rocket since.
In light of that, I’ve made two decisions:
1) I’m not going to go back to Jem&I again. I don’t mean to put you off trying it. I’ve had at least one very good meal there and I’m sure you won’t have a bad experience. You could certainly do much worse in Didsbury, and I’d say it’s superior to local rival No.4 Dine & Wine if you’re ever deciding which to go to. But I’m just tired of it now. Better, more interesting food is available elsewhere and for a more reasonable price.
2) I’m going to make more of an effort to avoid rocket. I know it can still be good when used correctly, but I feel like I’ve got a bit of a complex about it now. It’s tarnished. I’m frightened that if I buy rocket I’ll have nightmares about it trying to take over the world like some sort of Triffid. Next time I make a ham sandwich, I’ll just go with mustard instead.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 43/100 (OK)
*I can’t count the number of times people have told me it has a Michelin star. The guide makes some strange decisions sometimes, but I don’t think it’s completely lost its senses yet.
**I only found it had closed (a victim of the credit crunch) just now as I hunted around for a link to its website. Pity, it was a real gem of a place, hidden away down a back alley in the city centre. Absolutely tiny, but rustic, and with a really strong focus on British cooking and local ingredients (all of their producers and suppliers were listed at the back of the menu, along with contact details). I had hoped I’d be able to go back one day and try some of the seafood.
***The dish cost around £10.50. You’d think the high price was because there were four scallops on there, but I wonder how much was rocket. It must’ve been at least half a bag, so if we call that 40p’s worth wholesale and give it the standard three times restaurant mark-up, you could be talking £1.20.
****Not even the shop-bought-tasting sweet chilli sauce that seems to appear almost as often (yes, a big river of it was served with the scallops and the squid that night) or the similarly prolific crème fraiche could stand in its way.
Foie gras is something I’d been desperate to taste for years. Like caviar and truffles, I think it’s well established as a must-try luxury food item – something an ordinary person can’t afford to eat regularly, but would probably be excited to eat if given the opportunity.
For some people, the controversial methods used in foie gras production (below) are enough to put them off.
In my case, it probably makes it even more appealing. It’s not that I revel in cruelty towards animals (and I should stress that this is perceived cruelty; the video does some debunking of the cruelty allegations), I’m just of the opinion that they wouldn’t bother with this production method (or be allowed to) if the end product wasn’t wonderful.
And I’m not about to walk away from the chance to taste something ‘wonderful’ just because it was made by forcing grain down a bird’s throat.
It was two-star Michelin restaurant Hibiscus in London that presented me with this chance at the end of July, rolling out a dish of roasted duck foie gras half-way through a ten-course tasting menu. The title of ‘best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life’ had already changed hands twice that night, so it was going to have to go some way to impress.*
And boy did it ever. Richer than a Russian oligarch, smoother than a Cuban cigar and with more bottle than a crate of potcheen, it was (and remains) by far and away the most flavourful thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.**
I was really surprised by how strongly the duck flavour came through. I’m not sure what I expected it to taste like, but extremely ducky wasn’t it. It tasted like they’d made a concentrate of duck breast and fat, one with a flavour ten times more powerful than that of your standard duck, and infused it into a block of clarified butter.***
I felt like I could get gout just by smelling it. And as it passed my lips, thoughts turned to the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. But as I chewed for the first time and the foie gras melted on my tongue, thoughts of anything that wasn’t directly linked to the tastegasm I was experiencing just evaporated away.
It was monumentally brilliant.
I was too distracted by what was happening in my mouth to remember how to speak, so when my wife asked me whether I was enjoying the food, my answer was simply a moan of pleasure. She apologised and said she didn’t realise I was having a bit of a moment. “Would you and the foie gras like to get a room?” she asked.
But I just ignored her. You see, the only thing that mattered in that moment was not that it was the first night of our honeymoon; the beginning of a lifetime of marital bliss. It was me stuffing my face with a fatty duck organ.
I find it very hard to express just what a revelation this dish was to me. I had no idea food could be so big and deep and powerful in flavour. It awakened parts of my tastebuds I never knew existed.
For my wife it was too much. After loving the first couple of bites, the richness began to take its toll and she stopped enjoying it.
But on me it seemed to have the opposite effect; it made it rather addictive. My stomach, my bowels, my entire digestive system began to beg for mercy, but my tastebuds were saying: “Keep shovelling this down your gob. I don’t care if your eyeballs bleed dripping and your veins turn to suet, you will keep on eating this until there is no more left.”
When finally it was all gone, I felt like I could weep. Tears of sorrow that the love I’d had was lost; tears of joy that I’d been able to love at all.
(I’m probably going a bit over the top again, but whatever, it’s my blog.)
Later on in the evening, on the table next to mine, I noticed an Australian bloke who looked like Marcus Brigstocke eating the same dish. Asked what he thought of it by a waiter, he described it as being merely “alright”.
It’s that kind of attitude that lost them the Ashes.
I didn’t think anything was going to top the foie gras during the rest of the meal, and alas nothing that followed came remotely close. Over the course of the week, as we went to a couple of three-star places and a magnificent steakhouse, a few dishes emerged that just about pipped it.
Unfortunately, the only other duck foie gras I had on the trip, at Alain Ducasse, paled in comparison. That version was seared and had a much more subtle flavour. It was still very good and indeed my wife much preferred it in this more toned-down form, but it failed to blow my socks off like the foie gras at Hibiscus.****
This was exactly the kind of experience I was after when I made The List of foods to try before I die. Hopefully there’ll be many more just like it.
Verdict: Highest possible recommendation
*Reigning champion, Big Fat Scallop, had seemed remarkably confident as the rookie ingredient made its way down to the ring. He’d ripped the belt from the claws of Raw Crab earlier in the evening and already made an impressive first defence, tapping out Marginally Overcooked John Dory in a matter of seconds. But the hulking bruiser was no match for Engorged Duck Liver, who had a move set he’d never seen before. Realising his charge didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless assault, Scallop’s trainer, the Welk, threw in the towel after two minutes.
***Incidentally, the bread at Hibiscus, in combination with a vivid yellow butter, was out of this world.
**** I think it says a lot that I barely remember what else was on the plate at Hibiscus, but my most vivid memory of the dish at Alain Ducasse is not the foie gras, but the magnificent duck blood sauce that was served with it.
Northcote Manor in Langho, Lancashire holds a very special place in my heart. Two and a half years ago I went there for my first ever Michelin-starred eating experience and had an incredible time. Not least because I proposed to my now wife and she said yes (well, obviously).
Everything about our stay there, as part of a one-night gourmet break package, was perfect. The food was excellent*, the wine impeccable**, the service faultless***, our room immaculate****. All our fears about it being an oppressive, stuffy joint, with staff straight out of the Ferris Bueller school of table-waiting (below) came to nothing. I’ve only ever felt more welcome at the homes of family and friends (and not even all of them, to be honest!)
Our big worry had been my wife’s dairy allergy. We’d eaten at some good restaurants before and all had made really half-arsed attempts to cater for it. They’d take items off her plate but provide no substitute. They’d forget and give her sauces that clearly contained cream. Desserts were always just a pitiful pile of fruit, with a bit of meringue if she was lucky.
Such a lack of effort can ruin a meal and it has ruined several. Even places like Michael Caines at Abode and The French Restaurant at the Midland Hotel – two of Manchester’s top restaurants – have done poor jobs of catering for her. You basically have to remind the staff before every course and you’re made to feel as though you’re being immensely difficult. You’re that pain in the arse customer they wish hadn’t walked in through the door.
But at Northcote, we needn’t have worried. In fact, they handled it better than I ever could’ve imagined.
I’d mentioned the allergy when I made the booking, a good five months or so before we went. Given that length of time and past experiences, I was fully prepared to have to bring it up again as soon as we sat down to eat. And I was fully prepared to spend pudding time feeling sorry for her as I tucked into something amazing and she got lumbered with yet another bowl of raspberries.
But the only time it came up was right at the very start, as we supped Champagne in the lounge before the meal. We were asked which of us had the food sensitivity and they then handed her a specially prepared menu. Here she wasn’t a problem customer – she was a VIP.
Our starters were exactly the same, but she had a completely different fish course that was (almost) as good as mine. The main required a small substitution, but little enough to make no difference.
And her dessert – rhubarb soufflé with rhubarb granite and apple foam – blew mine away.
I probably just imagined it, but it felt almost as if the pastry chef was so thrilled by the challenge of creating a dish without cream in it that he/she decided to do something spectacular. I was very jealous. It’s still the best pudding she’s ever had.
In retrospect, what was even more amazing was that they even came up with stuff just for her in the pre-meal nibbles. That didn’t happen at two-star Hibiscus when we were there the other week. At three-star Alain Ducasse they did it, but there were a good few minutes in between mine arriving and hers, during which time I wouldn’t be surprised if the words “shit, she can’t eat any of the normal stuff, sort something out ASAP” were uttered.
From a food perspective, I’ve had a few better meals since. But nothing has quite lived up to the overall experience of that first trip to Northcote – which is why I’m very much looking forward to going back next Sunday!
I’ve been pimping the restaurant out to anyone who’ll listen since we went there. “You have to go,” I’ll say. “It’s a dead easy train journey from Manchester and you’ll have a fabulous time.”
A friend of my mum’s took the advice and loved it. Several of my own friends have stuck it on their wishlists and plan to take the trip. And now it’s my parents turn to go and they’re taking us along for the ride!
I’m probably more excited for them and my brother than I am for myself. I really hope they love it as much as we did and have as good a time.
I’ll update on how we get on next week.
*I’ve still got signed copies of the menus, which I intend to frame and put up on the wall at some point. I ate three things there that no doubt would’ve made The List had it been drawn up before we went:
1. Duck ham – interesting, but not much more
2. Flavoured foam – way better than I expected given how critics often slate it for being a pointless gimmick. It added a flavour and texture to the dish that I don’t think could’ve been achieved with a standard dollop of sauce.
3. Roe deer – until a few weeks ago, the best thing I’d ever tasted
**We ordered matching wines. The quality of the pairings improved throughout the meal, starting off as merely good and rising to sublime. Better than the lot though was the £14 half bottle of Merlot we had in our room afterwards, which was recommended by the sommelier. Still the best wine I’ve had that didn’t run into three figures.
***I’ve had fantastic service in some three-star places, but Northcote that night was still a cut above anything else I’ve come across. What set it apart was that the staff weren’t just trying to do a good job, they really seemed to care about giving us a great evening. When we left with big smiles on our faces we got genuine smiles back, as if they took great pleasure in helping to make us so happy.
****As good as a five-star hotel, but with the added bonus of board games. The Dorchester is the best place I’ve ever stayed by a mile, but even they didn’t have Scrabble like Northcote.
Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this post below:
I’ve wanted to eat steak tartare ever since Mr Bean did this:
Why it took me 17 years to get around to it is down solely to the fact that no restaurant I went to until I turned 25 actually served it.
It wasn’t a particularly big deal. I still managed to satisfy my desire for blue meat – a carpaccio at Didsbury’s The Lime Tree during my teenage years was particularly memorable. But lingering at the back of my mind was always that need to try the tartared beef that Rowan Atkinson tried so hard to hide.
(Hehehe – he put it down his pants!)
That’s why, despite being told that steak tartare is generally very bland because it’s made from beef fillet and is often served too cold, it made it on to The List.
And finally – after a lifetime of waiting – three months ago at a meal out for my dad’s birthday, I got the bugger.
The Second Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols came highly recommended by a foodie friend of mine who once worked in the shop. It has a very pretty dining room with great views over Manchester and while you’re stood up waiting to be seated because there’s no space at the crowded bar, you can stare longingly at a £4,000 bottle of Château Pétrus 1982.*
But easily the most remarkable thing about it (because it’s a good restaurant but it’s not that good) is that it does steak tartare, which is as rare** in Manchester as a fat scally who understands that a pair of tights is not singlehandedly an adequate substitute for trousers.
If I’m honest, every starter on the menu at the Second Floor sounded better than this patty of chopped raw beef, with ginger and a langoustine. That’s not to say the steak tartare was unappealing, it was just less so than all the alternatives.
(And eating with four other people, I had the opportunity to taste a lot of the alternatives and they were all pretty damn good.)
Still, I was going to order it and nothing was going to stop me – not even the waitress explaining that there’d been a problem with the supplier and they didn’t have any langoustines in.
I was thinking earlier today about how to describe the dish; what I could compare it to in order that those who’ve never had it before can get an idea of what it’s like. It probably says a lot that the first thing that popped into my head was ‘tinned tuna’.
Steak tartare is more robust in its chewiness than John West and, needless to say, it’s much less fishy. But it’s not – at least not in the version I had at this restaurant – any more spectacular, in looks taste or texture.
It’s a total one-note food. One forkful was OK, after that I was bored. I spent most of my time eating it looking around enviously at what everyone else was having and thinking I’d made a mistake.
For a split second, I even considered hiding some in a woman’s handbag.
The thought didn’t cross my mind because I was eating some disgusting monstrosity that I wanted to throw away. It wasn’t that bad. I was simply looking for something that might help liven it up a bit. Something to stop it from being so dull.
It turned out everything I’d heard about steak tartare was true. Aside from a slight metallic taste that you get with cold, uncooked beef, it was flavourless. If you took 1,000 people, gave them all a chewy steak to eat, went around a few hours later with a toothpick to remove the bits of meat stuck in their teeth, assembled them together to make a burger and then stuck it in the fridge for a night, I doubt it’d be too dissimilar.
In short, it was another item off The List that turned out to be a colossal disappointment. I’m just glad that this time I wasn’t paying for it.
Verdict: Strong recommendation to avoid
NEXT UP: Duck foie gras
*1982 was a pretty amazing year for a lot of France’s top wine producers, including the legendary Château Pétrus. While I know I’ll never be able to afford to try wines from all the top estates (and I’ll almost certainly never have a vintage as good as the 1982), it is my ambition to sample a couple of bottles one day. Thus, The List includes the goal of tasting at least one First-Growth Bordeaux (Châteaux Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion or Mouton Rothschild) and at least one other prestige wine (Château Pétrus, Romanée-Conti, Château Cheval-Blanc etc).
I won’t start talking about Champagne or sweet wine or we’ll be here all day.
**Pun not really intended
Out of all the places, people and events that have led me down the path to rabid foodiedom in the last few years, the sadly defunct Paul Heathcote venture Grado is probably the most significant.
It was the place where I fell in love with mushrooms and learned just how breathtaking a good wine can be. It was where I first discovered the joy of scallops a la plancha, and poached duck eggs, and rabbit braised in Rioja. It opened my eyes to exciting Spanish versions of some of my favourite foods – the ‘morcilla’ black pudding; the ‘crema catalana’ crème brûlée.
(It was also the restaurant where I began to stop caring so much about price and my wallet started to hate me.)*
So it was somewhat fitting that just a few weeks before it closed its doors and transformed into the far less interesting Living Ventures property The Grill on New York Street, Grado gave me the first opportunity to tick an item off my list of Foods To Taste Before I Die.It was local restaurant critic Paul Ogden (in a piece for CityLife) who turned me on to Joselito Gran Reserva Ham. Describing it in a review, he managed to make it sound so magical to me I could imagine it was cut from one of Harry Potter’s legs and dry-cured by Merlin inside the Ark of the Covenant – with help from sous chef Mary Poppins.
This “precious”, “magnificent” piece of pig, with its “awesome” depth of flavour capable of evoking thoughts of high-end wine, was simply irresistible. It was one of the first things I put down on The List and I was thrilled to see it on offer as I wandered over to the Grado stand at the Manchester Food & Drink Festival (MFDF) in October last year.
I love the MFDF and, as per usual, I was enjoying a very nice day out at it. I’d watched some chef presentations in one of the tents, I’d sampled a bunch of freebies and I’d just finished my second jar of Robinsons Old Tom.
Even that rare beast, a blazing Manchester sun, had made an appearance in the sky.
All that was needed to cap off a glorious afternoon was a potentially mindblowing eating experience. And there was Grado, ever reliable and exciting Grado, to deliver it. Nothing could go wrong.
But then it did.
Because unfortunately, this landmark moment, this defining chapter of my budding food odyssey (I’m going wildly over the top here, but humour me), failed to materialise.
I managed to buy the ham; that bit went OK. It cost me £10 for something like 30g.
(It felt like rather a lot of money for not very much ham, but when you buy a slice of Harry Potter, that’s what you expect.)
I went back to my seat (that bit also went OK) and I raised the polystyrene dish up to my nose so I could give the two-inch, wafer thin slices of pretty, red flesh a good sniff.**
(This bit turned out to be a bit pointless – you get a better aroma from a pack of supermarket Parma ham.)
And then I put a slither of the Gran Joselito in my mouth and opened up a whole world of disappointment.
I’d expected a taste bang, I got a whimper. This fine wine I’d been promised turned out to be watered down. The depth I’d been told about was nothing but a paddling pool.
Don’t get me wrong, it was nice – far better even than any ham I’d had before. And the flavours Mr Ogden promised (“the texture in turns firm and melty, the taste salty and sweet, then slightly bitter and all the time there is a nuttiness from the acorns”) were all there.
They were just muted. Not subtle, but flat. Pleasant, yet enormously meh.
Now, it might be my palate simply isn’t refined enough for what’s meant to be the world’s best jamón. Or it might be I killed it with the free shot of whisky, the free shot of Benedictine (*shudders*) and the magnificent but very strong dark ale I’d drunk beforehand.
(At the very least, I’m sure it didn’t help.)
Maybe this type of ham just isn’t to my taste.
What I am sure of is that it was a crap way to kick off The List. Sure, my expectations were probably way too high/misguided and I could’ve given my tastebuds a better chance of appreciating it. But it was still a big letdown and left me worrying whether any of the stuff I’d jotted down would live up to the hype.
Verdict: Not recommended
NEXT UP: Steak tartare
*I could go on and on about how much I loved that restaurant and the impact it had on me, but those are words probably best left for a separate post. I found a copy of one its menus on the internet the other week and it made me sad to think that these great dishes are no longer being produced in Manchester. It’s a real shame.
**My wife thinks it’s weird that I give my food a good smell before I eat it. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.