Monthly Archives: September 2011

More Foods To Try Before You Die and other updates

Just a quick update before the football starts!

I’ve added a few more things to the list of Foods To Try Before I Die in recent days, taking the number of items on there up to 60.* I’ve also started linking the items I’ve been able to cross off to their related posts, so if you want you can treat it like an index.

Sometime in the next few weeks I’m planning to put up a list of all the restaurants I’ve visited (mostly in Manchester) and my ratings for them. I might show you the scoring system I’ve developed – that depends on whether I’m feeling uncool enough that day or not. I’ll put links in that so it can be used as an index as well.

Finally, feel free to follow me on Twitter (@FTTBYD). Eight people – well, seven people and one piece of automated spam software – can’t be wrong!

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*Bordier Butterheralded by many as the world’s best butter.

Bresse Chicken Cooked in a Bladder à la Mère Filliou [at Paul Bocuse, Lyon] – the name of this is pretty self-explanatory, but if you wish to witness the joy of bladder cookery for yourself, check out this short video. The chicken’s removed from the bladder and carved at tableside.

 

Gaja Barbaresco probably Italy’s most prestigious wine.

Macaroons [from Ladurée] alongside Pierre Hermé (already on The List), Ladurée is considered to produce the world’s finest macaroons

Truffle Soup V.G.E. [at Paul Bocuse, Lyon] – I’m putting this back on The List after taking it off an early draft. It’s truffle soup served under a puff pastry dome and it’s arguably the world’s most famous signature dish.

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A chocolate adventure

I’ve never really liked chocolate. Crisps have always been my unhealthy snack of choice if I’m feeling peckish. Sweets are what I go for if I want something, well, sweet. Even with biscuits, I’ll choose plain Hobnobs and Digestives over their chocolate-covered counterparts.

In restaurants I avoid chocolate-heavy desserts like the plague. When people bake cakes for charity at work, I tend not to buy one if there’s chocolate in it. In fact, it’s incredibly rare I buy chocolate at all.

Occasionally I’ll get a Kit-Kat Chunky or a Twix to fill a hole while I’m waiting for my train to arrive at the station, but I don’t particularly enjoy them. I buy simply because chocolate is an acceptable food to eat while you’re hungry, and people give me funny looks when I eat slices of Warburtons Toastie straight from the packet.

I feel no different about chocolates. Sure, I eat them when offered or when my allergic wife gets given a box or two at work, but they never register higher than a ‘meh’ on the pleasure meter. I sometimes wonder why I bother eating them at all.

‘Good’ chocolate hasn’t done much for me either, although admittedly I’ve not had much of it. I tried a few of William Harcourt-Cooze’s bars, which were nice but forgettable. My parents brought me back a fantastic little box of chocolates from Belgium a few years back, but it didn’t exactly have me rushing out for more.

Even this fabulous pudding at Northcote Manor two years ago left me wishing I’d had something else instead:

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“Tiny Chocolate Desserts” Liquid Chocolate, Chocolate Brúlee, Jelly, Sorbet, Malt and Smoke

Bouteille Call, Bonny Doom, Santa Cruz, California

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My list of Foods to Try Before I Die tells the story as good as any. There are just two chocolate-based items on there: Valrhona chocolate, supposedly the best chocolate in the world, and Le Louis XV’s famous chocolate croustillant, supposedly the best dessert in the world. The word ‘best’ is the only reason they’re included – the thought of eating them doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement.*

Chocolate has always been, quite simply, not for me and it was never going to be for me. At least until one day when, out of nowhere and almost by accident, a man named William Curley entered my life.

I think he might’ve begun to change my mind.

William Curley chocolate adventure at Harrods

Harrods

Harrods Food Hall – or rather, series of halls – is one of the best places to visit in London. Each room is beautiful in its own right, but packed to the gills with the very finest ingredients, carefully displayed, they become a sort of culinary cathedral; a place where foodies go to worship.

I defy even the most indifferent of eaters not to be amazed by some of the produce on show. At the very least, some of the prices should make you go weak at the knees. From the hampers and the fish hall to the patisseries and the bread, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of gastronomic delights.

Had I purchased everything I desired as I walked through the rooms, I think I would’ve gone bankrupt within five minutes. Instead, in what I consider quite a remarkable feat of restraint, I managed to restrict myself to just two things: a sandwich** and a box of chocolates.

Box of William Curley chocolates from Harrods

William Curley chocolate box

Perhaps chief among the wonders of Harrods Food Hall is the chocolate room. Even I, utterly apathetic about the brown sugary stuff, had to marvel at it. Artisan chocolates are everywhere you look, with stand after stand featuring shelf after shelf of world class confectionary. The stalls are grouped by country, so you get to tour the globe as you do your circuit. The Italians are there, the Swiss, the Belgians, the French, the Brits… all looking positively splendid. I wouldn’t like to choose which was most attractive.

A very nice young woman collared me as I entered this temple of cocoa. “Would you like to try a free sample of our Apricot and Wasabi chocolates?” she asked. “Probably not, but it’s free and I’m greedy,” was my unspoken response. A few seconds later, the free sample was heading down for a fiery bath in gastric acid and for the first time in my chocolate-eating life, my tastebuds had started up a chant of “We want more! We want more!”

The flavour was almost beyond description. It was like discovering a new colour. An epiphany where you realise everything you thought there was to know about different flavours is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

It shouldn’t have worked at all, yet it was breathtaking.

“I think I’ll buy a box,” I told the woman.

It was only as I walked away from the till that I realised the name of the chocolatier was William Curley. I’d heard of him before, usually alongside words such as ‘alchemy’ and ‘genius’ and ‘best chocolates in Britain’. I could definitely see where he got his reputation from.

A box of nine chocolates cost me £12. I picked them myself and selected Rosemary and Olive Oil, Blackcurrant and Juniper Berry, Raspberry and Toscano, Thyme and Scottish Heather Honey, Sea Salted Caramel, Japanese Black Vinegar, Szechuan Pepper, Yuzu, and Apricot and Wasabi.***

It took me around three days to eat the lot because I wanted to savour every one. Without exception they were flawless; each a game changer in its own right. The flavours were powerful but perfectly balanced; unique from each other and completely different to anything else I’d ever tasted before. At £1.33 a pop, they were a bargain.

And as I mentioned, they might’ve begun to change my mind.

William Curley chocolates

I’m still not totally sold on chocolate. This experience makes no difference to my opinion on all the types I’ve tried before. But it has made me realise that there’s stuff out there that can capture my interest and offer sensations just as good as the very best that other foods have to offer.****

Tentatively, I want to start exploring this world and see what else is out there. Paris next year is probably as good an opportunity as any, but I want to go further into the British scene as well. I’m desperate to try William Curley’s chocolates again and every single other thing he produces while I’m at it. Then I want to try the work of contemporaries like Paul A Young and Gerard Coleman. After that, well, we’ll see. The choices are wide and varied.

From a state of ennui, I’m suddenly about to embark on an adventure.

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*OK, that’s a little bit of a lie about the croustillant, although it’s not the dish itself that excites me. More the idea of eating anything at the world’s best restaurant.

**If you’re keen to purchase something from Harrods, but like most people you’re not a millionaire, a sandwich is probably your best bet. The fresh turkey and cranberry one I purchased was superb and cost £4.30. When you think of the crap you’ll get for £3 at a supermarket, the price is good.

***I’m not stupid. If the rest had been horrible, at least I’d have one great one to cling on to. You can see the full range of flavours here.

**** I should probably mention that a few days after the Harrods trip, I had some truly masterful chocolates made by Jacques Genin, who supplies Alain Ducasse’s restaurants (including the one at The Dorchester where I was eating). I was told by a waiter that the kitchen produces all of its petit fours apart from the chocolates, as “Mr Ducasse does not wish to compete with the best chocolatier in the world”.

They weren’t quite as good as William Curley’s…

Restaurant Review: The Mark Addy

If you want to know what The Mark Addy is like, all you need to do is take a look at its waiting staff (all female on the night we went to visit).

There are no divas amongst them. Nobody posh or snooty or who gives the impression they’re in need of high maintenance. Nobody with delusions of grandeur or a rod stuck up their arse. Just an extremely nice group of honest people – friendly, charming and a good laugh.

You could imagine marrying the lot of them. And you’d expect to be made very happy indeed.

The Mark Addy dining room overlooks the River Irwell

Such is The Mark Addy on the Salford bank of the River Irwell.

I don’t think I’ve been to a restaurant before with a bouncer on the door to turn away scumbags. I certainly can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant with worse toilets, where you can expect to line up alongside the head chef at the urinal trough. Stepping into the bar area was like breaking open a time capsule to a low-end 1980s pub. The only thing missing was a pool table with a ripped cloth and a missing cue ball.

Before we’d even sat down, I’d said to my wife: “If the food here’s as good as it’s meant to be, I think I’m going to fall in love with this place.”

The Mark Addy dining room

You see, there’s nothing pretentious at all about The Mark Addy. It’s a very honest restaurant, true to its roots and the city it’s in. The formality of restaurants can be intimidating to some people, but you get the impression anybody could walk in here and feel right at home. I really like that.

It’s also clear, if you look past the slightly grubby facade, that a lot of care goes into the place. On appearance, you’d expect the bar to be selling flat lager in plastic glasses – the sort of drinks that taste and smell like bananas because nobody has bothered to clean the lines for half a decade. Instead they’re serving top quality ale in glass pint mugs. My pre-meal Mark Addy-branded beer was, for that particular moment in time, as close to perfection as you can get.

A lot of thought also seems to go into the dining area, where the tables are nicely spread out and candlelight lends further atmosphere to the gorgeous brick-arched ceilings and broad views over the river. It looks fantastic. In this recent, and slightly unfair, review, the critic kept banging on about The Mark Addy being a pub that sells food. But sit down to a meal on a Saturday evening and you’ll be in no doubt that you’re in a restaurant.

And what a good restaurant it is too. I’ve already hinted at the great vibe and fine service, but the food – which is obviously the most important part – delivers as well. It’s big, hearty, interesting British fare, at prices most good places in Greater Manchester haven’t had on their menus since years started with a 1 and a 9.

Deciding what to eat and what to drink with it was a bloody nightmare. My stomach only had enough room to rescue some of the dishes from the kitchen; the rest were going to have to be left behind.

I had shrimp soup to start – a shrimp bisque served under a dome of puff pastry. It was extremely simple, but bang on the money for a rainy night in Salford, warming me right down to the tippy toes of my soul.*

(Incidentally, I would’ve killed for someone to make it for me earlier this week when I was suffering from a cold. It was that sort of food.)

For my main, I had a whole roast grouse with a large fondant potato, bread sauce, jelly, gravy, potato crisps and a gun cartridge (!) stuffed with herbs.** The grouse was overcooked, and the potato was perhaps a little under, but there was still a lot to like about the dish – being able to pick up the bird carcass with my hands and gnaw away at the bits of meat I couldn’t get with the knife chief among them.***

It was probably half the price of the grouse I had at Northcote Manor last month, but it was just as much fun to eat. All the condiments were excellent and it made for a nice little feast.

I was already full come dessert, and the cheeseboard pretty much finished me off. The cheese itself wasn’t anything remarkable, but the accompaniments and quantities had to be applauded. Four large triangles of cheese, four full sticks of celery, a dozen biscuits, half a bunch of grapes, about 50g of butter… It was what I would call “a proper cheeseboard”.

I managed about two-thirds of it before throwing in the towel and called for the bill. But in fractions signalling victory rather than defeat, the cost was about two-thirds the size of what we were charged for a vastly inferior meal at Jem&I a few weeks earlier. It was a satisfying way to end the evening.

It’s been a while since I walked away from a restaurant in Greater Manchester with such a big smile on my face. It’s been even longer since I walked away from one thinking that I really got my money’s worth. And my memory definitely doesn’t stretch back to a time when I’ve walked away from somewhere already planning a return visit.

The Mark Addy isn’t a looker in the traditional sense. Neither is it snobby, precious or grandiose. It’s just a very good restaurant – generous, affable, kind.

And it rocked my world.****

Mark Addy on Urbanspoon

Food: 9.5/30

Service: 6.5/10

Dining Room: 4/5

Experience: 7/10

Overall score: 49/100 (Good)

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*Or it would if I still had one. My memory’s a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure I sold it to a friend for some sweets in my early teenage years.

**There may have been more things – it was kind of awesome.

***You’ve got to love a restaurant where you can feel comfortable doing that. Without using my hands and teeth in tandem, it would’ve been impossible to get all the meat off the roasted bone marrow my wife had for her starter.

****These asterisks exist because I forgot to mention the wine. They’ve got an excellent list, short, comprehensive and relatively cheap. We had the rather lovely Soldiers Block Shiraz, Mclaren Vale, Australia 2007/8, plus a glass of Krohn Colheita Port, Portugal 1978 with pudding. Sadly they were out of the 1968…

Food #5: Goose foie gras

When I had duck foie gras for the first time at London’s Hibiscus restaurant (2 Michelin stars) it stole the show. There were lots of other great things about that meal and there were even some dishes that were as good. But the foie gras just had this star power that made it stand out head and shoulders above everything else.

When I had goose foie gras for the first time at The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars) in Bray a few days later, it did nothing of the sort. In fact, if I made a list of the most remarkable things about the meal that night it wouldn’t even crack the top five.

Now, to be fair, it was up against stiffer competition. The dining room at the Waterside and the view over the River Thames (below) was amazing and it’s hard to top that. Similarly, the service – which was just this week named best in the country by Zagat – was unfathomably brilliant. The restaurant’s staffed by Jedis who respond to your wants a good minute or so before you’ve even wanted them.*

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

Then there was the spit-roasted Challandais duck, presented and carved at the table in a delightful bit of theatre, which made me think it was the greatest dish I’d ever had. And the stonkingly good raspberry soufflé, which made the memories of the best desserts I’d eaten in my life wave little white flags and surrender like cheese-eating monkeys of unspecified nationality.

And who could forget the ridiculous amount of alcohol my wife and I consumed in the space of about three hours?**

So the goose foie gras had a mountain to climb if it was going to stand out as much as its echo-defying quack cousin. And given it was served in the form of a terrine and not roasted or pan-fried – the cooking processes that turn it into such a flavour monster – it didn’t really have a chance.

Still, if I’m trying to be fair, I should probably do more than just judge it against the other stuff I experienced that week. And looked at in isolation, the goose foie gras was very strong indeed.

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Terrine of Foie Gras, Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets, Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves, Violet Mustard Flavoured Brioche Toast

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Flavour-wise, it was incredibly subtle and refined. There was a certain ethereal quality to it, like you’d get if you cooked an elf sous-vide. Just graceful and sophisticated and seriously, seriously classy.

The combination of it with the rabbit and the jelly and the salad leaves and the brioche was a match made in heaven. A sort of divine pâté on toast.

But in terms of texture and appearance, it wasn’t so special. Dense and a grey-ish monochrome, it reminded me of the kind of space food HAL serves Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just looked dull, and I think that sums the whole dish up more or less. The foie gras was lovely, but not particularly exciting. To be something great it needed the other ingredients alongside it, and even with them it didn’t exactly shine. It was too polite, too safe.

It had no balls.

A few days later, I ate pan-fried goose foie gras and it more or less lived up to the experience I had with the duck variety. Obviously it tasted a bit more goosey, and I wasn’t quite so blown away because it wasn’t my first time, but it was marvelous nonetheless.

Then last week, I bought some duck foie gras and had it cold on toast. It took me right back to the terrine experience again. Nice and boring.

What I learned, I think, is that it doesn’t matter so much whether you have goose foie gras or duck. What really matters is how it’s prepared/cooked. Cold, you’ll like it but wonder whether your money might’ve been better spent on something else. Pan-fried/roasted, you’ll be searching for dead bodies to climb over to get your next bite.

Verdict: N/A

NEXT UP: Beef Rossini

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*Going to the toilet here is an amazing experience. Move to get up and there’ll be a waiter there to pull your chair back for you before your arse is an inch away from the seat. No need to ask where the toilets are or even speak – they know what it is that you want and the arrangements have already been made. “Step this way, sir,” you’re told while you’re still trying to figure out where the hell this Mr Benn shopkeeper-esque staff member came from and how he’s able to read your mind. You recover just in time to notice the hand signals he’s giving to the other waiters and realise that he’s just told eight of them to clear a path so you don’t need to walk without two yards of another person as you leave the room. Someone else takes over at the door and points you in the right direction before you’ve even noticed they’re there. As you head to the bathroom, you just about glimpse the man who keeps the toilets in perfect condition disappearing around the corner so you can relieve your bladder in peace. Slick.

**Here you go: two strong gin and tonics, followed by two glasses of champagne, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of red wine, two dessert wines and another two glasses of champagne. We had to ask for petit fours to be served in our room for fear we were too drunk to be out in a public dining room. Whoever it was who said you don’t get hangovers from expensive alcohol was a terrible, terrible liar.

A holiday dilemma solved

(note: if you’ve not read A holiday dilemma, this might not make much sense…)

San Sebastián is a bloody trek. Looking up flight information from Manchester Airport, the cheapest journey I could make would see me fly Ringway to Gatwick, then transfer to Heathrow, then fly to Madrid, then fly to San Sebastián Airport. That’s three flights and as many train/bus journeys in between.

And, of course, the trip doesn’t end there. No, no, no – that would be much too easy. San Sebastián Airport, as it turns out, isn’t in San Sebastián at all. It’s in an entirely separate place called Hondarribia.

Presumably, I’d have to get another bus.

Now, obviously there are ways to shorten such an expedition; to reduce the number of flights and speed it up a bit. But unfortunately, there are no ways to shorten it enough. It’s too much travel for me. I’m just not willing to make that sort of commitment.

So we looked for somewhere else to go. Somewhere easier to get to, but which still met our needs. Barcelona seemed to fit the bill very nicely, but for some reason my wife didn’t really fancy it.*

Nothing interested me in the rest of Spain, so our thoughts moved across the border and we started thinking about France instead.

“Sod it, why don’t we just sack off the coastal town idea and go to Paris?” my wife said.

“OH HELL YES!” was my reply.

So it’s decided then. In October 2012, for my first trip abroad in eight and a half years, I’m going to the culinary centre of the entire universe. And I cannot wait.

Visits to Ladurée and Pierre Hermé are a must. We’ll head to one of the city’s three-starred Michelin restaurants as well – although deciding which to go to will require a lot of thought.

But where else to eat, drink and be merry? If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

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*When I say ‘some reason’, I mean ‘no reason’.

5 Restaurants To Visit In Manchester (A Hitlist)

I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my life relentlessly saving money. I squirreled away every penny I could, firstly to buy a house and then to pay for a wedding.

For some people the saving experience can be a positive one. It proves they’ve got the willpower to keep their spending in line; it makes them feel good about how sensible they are.

I’m not one of those people. I wanted to shoot myself in the face.

Going out to restaurants is one of my favourite things to do in the entire world. Dozens of the best evenings of my life have been spent in nice restaurants with good food, company and conversation. When everything is on song, it’s a near peerless way to spend a couple of hours.

But for the last 30 months – big gourmet honeymoon aside – I’ve had to put this part of my life on hold. And it’s been excruciating. I’d get excited about big new openings and places that had picked up rave reviews and then have to stop myself from getting carried away because I knew I couldn’t go.

Since the self-imposed restaurant ban came in to force, several highly-regarded restaurants have opened AND closed. I feel genuine pain at the thought that I never had the chance to try them.

Fortunately now, as a finally married homeowner, I no longer have to live this way. For the next few months at least, the saving shackles are off and I’m going to dive back into Manchester’s restaurant scene head first to find out what I’ve been missing.*

Here are the five restaurants at the top of my hitlist. If I can get to at least four before the year’s out, I’ll be a happy man.**

Anybody know anyone who has been to these? Are there any restaurants that I’m missing?

1. The Mark Addy

Stanley Street, Salford, M3 5EJ

0161 832 4080

Why

I’ve been wanting to go ever since seeing chef Robert Owen Brown’s highly informative and piss-myself funny presentation on game birds at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival (MFDF) a while back. Handing out dead birds at the end to anybody who fancied one sealed the deal. This is my kind of chef.

2. Aumbry

2 Church Lane, Prestwich, Manchester M25 1AJ

0161 798 5841

Why

This came to my attention when it was named Best Restaurant at last year’s MFDF and I spent hours trying to figure out why the hell anybody would open a nice restaurant in Prestwich. I’m still puzzled by that, but the menu looks great. I love that they’ve got the confidence to stick just 12 dishes on there. Classy.

3.The River Restauarant

The Lowry Hotel, 50 Dearmans Place, Chapel Wharf, Manchester, M3 5LH

0161 827 4041

Why

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m drawn to expensive things and this is pretty much as expensive as you’ll get in Manchester, with a typical starter over £10 and a lot of the mains in the mid-£20 range. Reviews are good and it’s got a few accolades, but I really just want to see if it can live up to its price tag.

4. Vertigo

36 John Dalton Street, Manchester, M2 6LE

0161 839 9907

Why

From what I’ve read about the place and what I can see on the menu, the chef’s got a lot of ambition, which is rare in Manchester. Whether he’s trying too hard and attempting stuff that is beyond him remains to be seen, but I do like a tryer, so I want to give him a chance. Plus, Vertigo’s an awesome film. How can you say no to Hitchcock?

5. Smoak

Malmaison, Piccadilly, Manchester, M1 1LZ

0161 278 1000

Why

Two words: Josper Grill. Smoak’s desperate need to be cool, as demonstrated by its vomit-inducing website and we’re-too-hip-to-spell-properly name, makes me want to self-harm. But if it can deliver a top notch steak, as its equipment and menu suggest, all will be forgiven.

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*If I’m totally honest, it wasn’t quite as bad as I’ve been making out. Thanks to very generous relatives and the odd lapse, I’ve been able to eat at all these generally well-thought-of places in the last two years. Some of them (mostly the ones which weren’t crushing disappointments) more than once:

Chaophraya

The Damson

EastZEast

The French Restaurant

Gaucho

Grado

Jem&I

The Modern

Michael Caines @ Abode

No.4 Dine & Wine

Rosso

Sam’s Chop House

Zouk

 

Note: As of August 2012, I’ve still yet to visit Vertigo or The River Restaurant though I have been to The Mark Addy four times and Aumbry and Smoak twice.

The perfect afternoon snack

I’ve read quite a few interviews with famous chefs in which they’ve said foie gras, toast and a glass of sauternes would be the perfect final meal. I’m not so sure about that, but it definitely makes for a great afternoon snack at the end of an F1 grand prix. Particularly when you throw in the excellent cranberry and pinot noir sauce from the Michel Roux signature range.

Duck Foie Gras, Artisan Black Bread Toast, Michel Roux Cranberry and Pinot Noir Sauce

The sauternes I had is out of shot because I don’t think these things through.

A Saturday feast

Had a lot of fun shopping in Didsbury’s The Cheese Hamlet today, as you can see from the picture below.

From top left: 2006 Tesco Finest Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, Confit de Canard, 2007 Tesco Finest Sauternes, 2009 Codorniu Cava, Black Bread, Southport Potted Shrimps, Focolare Italian Ham, Bresaola, Foie Gras de Canard Entier, Posciutto di Parma, Margerita Olive Bread, Wild Boar Salami, Sausage and Black Pudding Roll, Truffle Salami

What better way to spend a Saturday than watching sport and feasting on this little lot?

Drinks #2 and #3: Old Fashioned and Manhattan

I don’t wear aftershave. It’s just another name for perfume, isn’t it? If I splash some on myself, I might as well start wearing eyeliner and waxing my chest. It’s just not something real men do.

I feel the same way about cocktails. Besides a relatively brief dabble in Black and White Russians as an impressionable student in love with The Big Lebowski, the only cocktail I’d ever really had until five weeks ago was a Friar Tuck at the Sherwood Forest Center Parcs. I was six years old.

Cocktails are, without question, for women. Men drink beer instead. During the one year I spent doing physics at high school, I’m pretty sure I was told it was one of the primary laws of the universe. To mess with it could be disastrous. Imagine if men started to spend as much on a single drink as women do. The banks would collapse all over again.

And so, as a real man who didn’t wish to contribute to yet another global economic bust, I stayed away. When I drew up my list of Foods To Try Before I Die last year, I stayed away.

Then I started watching Mad Men and it all went horribly wrong.

There’s no doubting the masculinity of Don Draper. He’s what Gary Cooper would be if he drank too much and had an overactive libido. Women want him, men want to be him. He’s seriously cool and screams testosterone.

And he drinks Old Fashioneds.

Remember before when I mentioned being impressionable? Well, that didn’t stop when I left university. If Don Draper was going to drink Old Fashioneds, then I was going to at least give them a try.

It went on The List.*

The Aubrey Bar at The Kensington Hotel

The Aubrey Bar at The Kensington Hotel

The Kensington Hotel in South Kensington is a very fine place to stay should you ever be down in London. It has a very serious-looking, award-winning cocktail bar called the Aubrey (pictured above) and my wife and I found it a fantastic place to relax during the four days we spent there.

It also seemed to me to be the ideal location to try an Old Fashioned.

Now here’s a lesson for anyone in a good cocktail bar who is after a drink that isn’t on the menu – ask for it anyway. These guys have spent years training to be mixologists and they’ve trained on the classics. Unless you’re after something really obscure, they’ll be able to make it.

There’s also a chance they’ll care a good deal more about the drink they make for you. They do the stuff on the menu all the time – they’re bored of it, they can do it in their sleep. Something off-menu is a challenge for them. It gives them an opportunity to be creative; to test their skills.**

This was precisely the case when I asked for an Old Fashioned. The barman couldn’t have been any more indifferent when I ordered my wife’s Icognito***, but when I ordered my drink he was clearly excited. Which whisky should he use? Which bitters? Should he throw a cherry in? What about lemon peel?

I told him to make the drink as if he were making it for himself. He went with bourbon, I was fine with that. It’s what Don would have wanted.

He waited at our table after bringing it over. He wanted to see me take that first sip, eager to make sure he’d done a good job. I smiled at him. “Very nice,” I said. He smiled back with relief and returned to the bar feeling pleased with himself.

The problem was that the drink didn’t go any further than ‘very nice’. If it’d cost £6, I would’ve been happy. But it was more like £16, so it didn’t quite hit the mark. It wasn’t the barman’s fault – I have no reason to doubt his skill and I’m sure this was an excellent Old Fashioned. The cocktail itself just isn’t particularly impressive.

It tasted like bourbon that had been padded out. Padded out cleverly, yes – it didn’t taste watered down, the whisky taste was still strong. But there was nothing more to it. There was no real depth. The bourbon flavour was there, but gone were the different layers and subtleties that I’m sure would’ve existed before the other ingredients were thrown in.

Surely a whisky-based cocktail shouldn’t leave you wishing you’d just ordered the whisky instead. I needed to be certain. I mentally added another cocktail of this ilk to The List, the Manhattan, and made it my next order.

Now to be honest, I always thought the Manhattan sounded like a superior drink. Ingredients-wise, it looked similar to the Old Fashioned, but just a bit classier; a bit more elaborate.**** Unfortunately, it was far too girly for me. The glass it’s served in is excessively effeminate. Don’t get me started on the mandatory cherry.

And then there’s its name. Gone are the days when Manhattan was synonymous with King Kong and the testing of nuclear weapons. Now it just reminds you of Sex in the City. There’s nothing more girly than that.

But I figured I’d already put one foot over the line, so why not go the whole hog? I was doing a test anyway. Science is manly isn’t it? Of course it is, it involves logic.

(I’m sorry. If it helps, I winced as I wrote it.)

So I ordered my Manhattan and it delivered everything the Old Fashioned didn’t. It had extra gears. Once my tastebuds were done with the whisky flavour, which was still nicely prominent, they had other places to travel to. A whole new dimension to explore that had been added by the vermouth.

It was a joy to drink.

The next day, the global markets fell. The US had lost its AAA credit rating and my cocktail drinking was clearly somewhat responsible. But I didn’t really care.

I had another Manhattan at the Aubrey that night. A few days later, I had a complimentary whisky-based cocktail at The Dorchester, which knocked it into a cocked hat.

The whole week made me realise it was time to set aside my prejudices. As far as this type of drink is concerned, it’s all fair game.

And I’m pretty sure I’m still a real man.

Verdict: I’ll give a solid recommendation for the Manhattan, but the Old Fashioned’s not worth going out of your way for.

NEXT UP: Goose foie gras

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*After checking the ingredients, obviously, to ensure it was suitably manly. Whisky? No question – fine. Bitters? Sounds like two pints of beer – fine. Sugar? The foundation of fermentation – fine. All good.

**They also might mistake you for a connoisseur. It’s amazing how much better people will treat you if they think you share their passion and know what you’re talking about.

***The Aubrey’s version of a Mojito.

****Whisky, sweet red vermouth, bitters.

A List update and other shenanigans

You might have noticed a few changes to the blog over the last few days. If you like them, thank the stomach bug that left me incapable of doing much else between Saturday and Tuesday.

(I’m blaming a dodgy steak and kidney pie.)

At the top of the page, I’ve finally put up a full version of the list of Foods To Try Before I Die.* I’ve also added a slightly dubious list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) and given the About section a little bit of a tweak.

Furthermore, I gave the sidebar a thorough fiddling to hopefully make it a tad more user-friendly.

You should be able to see on there that I have now signed up to Twitter. I know that in the past month alone I have renounced it as being “a platform for evil” and declared that I’d never sign up to it because my attention span is too long.

But I’m a hypocrite. So there you go.

Feel free to start following me!

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*I’ve added a few more items:

Abalone – these are large sea slugs.

Beijing Duck (at Made in China, Beijing) – apparently the best Peking duck in the world. If you watched Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Perfection’ programme, you’ll have seen it on there.

Chicken Sashimi – this is just what it sounds like: raw chicken. Obviously not something you should try with an intensively farmed chicken from a supermarket – that might make you die.

Matsutake Mushrooms – a type of mushroom, highly prized.

Victorian Mince Pie – this is the traditional mince pie, where the mincemeat contains real meat. I plan to make a few this Christmas; I don’t expect anybody else to want to try them.

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