Category Archives: Gourmet Breaks
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.***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The full menu along with wine pairing is below:
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
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.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 75/100 (Brilliant – worth a special trip)
*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.
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.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 56/100 (Very Good)
*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.
“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.
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…
…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.
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.)
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 45/100 (Good)
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.
Dining Room: 4.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*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.
“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.
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
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.
Dining Room: 3.5/5
Overall score: 95/100 (Brilliant – Worth a Special Trip)
*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.
I never intended to write a review of Paul Rankin’s Cayenne.* In fact, I never intended to visit in the first place.
It was a spur of the moment thing, born out of my wife thinking my idea of roaming around the streets of Belfast until we found a chippy wasn’t the most sensible way to ensure we had some tea on the first night of our visit.**
I expected very little from the place. Actually, that’s not true, I expected to be annoyed by it: underwhelmed by the lifeless fusion cooking of a celebrity chef trading solely on his name; pissed off that the myriad of mediocrity would cost me substantially more than takeaway haddock and chips.
Neither the menu nor the look of the restaurant really appealed to me. I booked us in simply because it was an easy walk from our hotel*** and I’d heard of it. The decision of where to go was being made late the night before we flew – I wasn’t much in the mood for shopping around.
Looking back more than two weeks on, I’m pretty glad that I didn’t.
We arrived at 6.30pm and the dining room was already buzzing; the majority of the tables filled up and everyone exuding Friday Feeling. The lighting and decor were a little garish where we were sat (see above) but this suited the atmosphere, which was much more night-out-on-the-town than relaxed or romantic evening.
Getting into the spirit, and already feeling rather better about the choice of restaurant, my wife ordered a gin and tonic and I a beer while we weighed up our food options. I’ve never been one for set menus, usually being attracted to the far more interesting-sounding dishes on the a la carte instead, but Cayenne’s seemed too good value for money to overlook. £60 would get us 3 courses each, plus a fair bottle of wine, and half the dishes sounded more appealing than those on the main menu. It was music to my wallet’s ears.
Both of us had spiced soft-shell crab to start and it became immediately clear that all my preconceptions of what Cayenne’s food would be like were wrong. Paul Rankin is a TV chef who really gives a shit.
Where I expected flaccid textures and muted flavours, I found crispy freshness and careful spicing. Where I dreaded boring combinations and stingy portions, I got refreshingly different tastes and a hearty plate. It was a dish created by someone who knew what they were doing, cooked by someone who’d been drilled to do it properly.
All the pains of the day, the two-hour delay at the airport, the trauma of leaving Britain for the first time in 8 years, the annoying wrestling fans queued up at our hotel looking to get WWE autographs, were washed away with that dish. There was nothing fancy about it; nothing that would blow anybody away. It was just simple, delicious comfort food, perfect for a man who had done nothing but moan for the last 9 hours of his life.
I’d kill for a place in Manchester that sold that crab dish, and did so by the bucket.
My main course, sesame-crusted hake with lentils and Asian greens, was very much in the same vein: simple enough to remind you of the pleasures of really good home cooking; precise enough in the combination of traditional British and Asian flavours that you know if you tried it yourself, you’d cock it right up. The plate was of the piping hot temperature I dream about when going to restaurants but so rarely ever get. All I could think about was how satisfying it all was; how for a restaurant of this style and at this price point, it really was ticking all the boxes.
Unsurprisingly, the chips I ordered as an extra also hit the spot.
The only misfire of the meal for me was the cheese I ordered for dessert – a fairly bland board, with little in the way of good biscuits or condiments to help it out. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it did have me wishing I’d ordered something else. Far better was my wife’s rhubarb and raspberry crumble – a flawless rendition of the classic pudding which drew a little moan of pleasure from me when I tried it. Your grandma wishes she could cook it this well.
Service was excellent throughout: efficient and friendly despite the busyness of the restaurant. It was interesting to compare this with the relative chaos we experienced at the more upmarket Deanes the following night. Guess which one of the two didn’t tack a discretionary service charge on to the bill?
We left the restaurant with big smiles on our faces, thinking we must recommend it to our friends. This need to share how good the experience was and encourage others to go is the reason why I decided to write this review.
While I’m sure my low expectations probably helped, I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate at a restaurant that was so firmly on the money. If Cayenne was anywhere near where I lived, I’m sure I would’ve already been back.
If you’re in Belfast city centre and you want a nice meal without too much expense or fuss, you definitely need to check it out.
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 49/100 (Good)
*Because I wasn’t expecting to write a review, I didn’t bother taking any pictures.
**I hear there are some fine chippies in Northern Ireland. Annoyingly I didn’t get to try any.
***I say easy walk, but after taking a wrong turn and ending up miles away in a decidedly rough-looking part of the city, we ended up getting a taxi to Cayenne anyway.
Suggest to me a trip away and my response is immediate: “Where’s the best place to eat?”
Doesn’t matter where it is or what we’re going for, as long as there’s going to be spare time while we’re there, my preoccupation will always be to find the finest local restaurant.
My wife really wants to go to the Edinburgh Festival one day; The Kitchin’s already planned.
My family visit a relative on the Isle of Wight every year; The Hambrough is on the agenda for the next time I go along.
I simply can’t help it, it’s just the way my mind works. When some friends of mine announced they’d be getting married near Belfast, I began searching for the city’s best restaurant before I even got the Save the Date.
The place I eventually settled on was Deanes, which is probably the most famous restaurant in Northern Ireland, having held a Michelin star from 1997-2010*. With a convenient location in the centre of Belfast, it seemed the natural choice for the four-day visit.
The first thing you notice about Deanes – and this hits you as soon as you walk in the door – is the atmosphere. This isn’t some temple of gastronomy with a congregation of food pilgrims silently worshipping every dish that emerges from the blessed kitchen. Nor is it a cold, expense-account-fest, filled with uninterested businessmen trying to show off to their clients. It doesn’t feel as if you’re trespassing at an elite club either; a dining room where if you weren’t public schooled and your credit card’s not platinum, you’d get snooty looks from patrons and waiters alike.
Instead, Deanes is a place of celebration, packed full of ordinary locals simply looking to have a good time. It’s informal and lively and you can’t help but get infected with how vibrant it is. Out of all the Michelin and would-be Michelin-starred places I’ve eaten at – and there’s been a few – this was definitely the first where I was certain I’d have a fun evening before my bum touched its seat.
Alas, the second and third things I noticed weren’t quite as positive. Service, while well-meaning, was a little on the chaotic side. One of our main waiters was excellent (hence the decent score below) but the rest were scatty at best. From being asked three times if we’d like to order after we’d already ordered, through requesting the sommelier who never arrived, and having to ask for the bill more than once (and then, after a ten-minute wait, having to ask for someone to let us pay it) it was a bit of a patience tester.
And I was disappointed to find that a couple of fine dining’s more conventional trappings were missing. There was no amuse-bouche. Bread had to be paid for. £4.50 bought a decent but not particularly interesting board; I would’ve expected better for free. Petits fours seemed stingy too, not that we got any as we chose to drink brandy instead of coffee. The two tiny macarons I saw make their way over to one table barely seemed worth the effort.
But these were relatively minor quibbles in the context of an otherwise great meal. It’s the dishes you order which matter the most after all – and, for the most part, they absolutely delivered.
My starter was a celebration of squab pigeon, flawlessly cooked: two succulent and tender breasts served with a delicately flaked leg confit and gory chunks of kidney and liver. The plating was precise, as were the flavours and textures; each mouthful highlighting the quality of the ingredients and the skill and knowledge of the kitchen which created and cooked it. It was easily one-star Michelin standard – there was nothing to fault.
My wife’s scallops with chorizo dish was almost as good. The scallops, while small, were still of stunning quality, fresh and sweet and singing of spring. I’ve never got on very well with chorizo but this was nice too, a more subtle flavour than I’m used to and a perfect accompaniment for the shellfish. The only complaint was there could’ve been another scallop – at this size, two seemed a rather measly portion, and given the relatively large amount of chorizo on the plate, the dish was a little unbalanced.
Both of us were sucked in by the day’s meat special: a 14 oz rib steak with chimichurri and triple-cooked chips. While I regretted not ordering a main that could better showcase the talent of the kitchen, it was still a very strong dish; a substantial piece of high-quality beef, well-cooked with a dazzling Argentinean sauce, full of spice and zing***. I did get a little bit bored with it halfway through and I think it would’ve been better served with the chimichurri on the side so I could mix up the flavours a bit, but it was still one of the best steak dishes I’ve ever had. The Rioja Viña Bujanda 2008, Crianza that was recommended by one of the waiters provided a worthy match.
I had a difficult time choosing dessert, mostly because none of the options sounded that appealing, but I eventually settled on a chocolate pudding with rhubarb several-ways. I don’t think rhubarb and chocolate go particularly well together but this was a fair bash at making it work, helped along by a really first-rate chocolate fondant.
The recommended sauternes (we weren’t told specifically what this was and I don’t recall seeing it on the menu) seemed a rather lazy wine match but it went down nicely anyway, and actually ended up outclassing the food, which lacked some of the harmony and confidence I’d expect from a Michelin-standard sweet. It was a beautiful drink in a beautiful glass.
We rounded off the meal in fine style with shorts of Rémy Martin XO**** and left feeling generally happy with the overall experience. Deanes is not a restaurant I’d make a special journey for, and at £100 a head it was hardly a bargain. However, if I lived in Belfast I’d definitely go back, and if every meal was like this, I’m sure it’d become a firm favourite.
Does it deserve to win its Michelin star back? That’s hard to say. The starters were definitely up to scratch, but the dessert wasn’t and it’s difficult to judge a steak on that sort of scale. If pushed, I’d say it certainly has the potential to win a star again. But my hunch is it’s not quite there yet.
Dining Room: 4/5
Overall score: 67/100 (Excellent – must try for locals)
*The loss of Deanes’s Michelin star in the 2011 guide was blamed on a flood, which forced the restaurant to close down for four months during a time when inspectors were likely to have been doing their rounds. However, it is notable that Deanes failed to regain the star when the 2012 guide came out.
**Apologies for both the starter images – I forgot to take a pic until after we’d started eating.
***Another issue with the service was how the dishes were described – in great and enthusiastic detail by the good waiter or in sparse, confused mumblings by everyone else. The steak in particular could’ve done with more information. The chimichurri was very spicy, which I liked but I know would be too much for a lot of people. A throwaway comment about it being “a sort of salsa” did little to make it clear what it is, how hot it was or how prominent it would be on the plate.
****This was the first time I’d had Rémy Martin XO and it was lovely, but nowhere near as good as the Hennessy for me. It had a richer and deeper flavour, but the Hennessy is just much more sophisticated, with its many subtleties and floral notes and striking bouquet. I really must try the Hine now…
Nothing ever seems to go right for me when I plan a gourmet holiday. Shops and markets are never open on the days I want them to be; restaurants are always booked up. I can’t count the number of times my schedule has been waylaid by mysterious ‘private functions’, which crop up with unnerving regularity whenever I dare to make a booking inquiry.
Have I told you that the queen ruined my honeymoon plans last year? Well, she did. We’d been planning to go to The Waterside Inn on night one ever since we got engaged and the whole week was arranged around it. So desperate were we to guarantee our table that I rang them up the very second the booking window opened to make sure we got in.
“I’m sorry sir, but the restaurant is closed that evening for a ‘private function’. Would you like to book for another day?”
Turned out the royal family had reserved it for some sort of celebration.* We were forced to reorganise the entire bloody week!
Naturally, as I shuffled hotels and restaurants around, more issues cropped up. We couldn’t get into Gordon Ramsay. Then we couldn’t get into Le Gavroche. I had no problems booking Alain Ducasse – which was always on the itinerary – but when I rang them up a few weeks beforehand to inform them of my wife’s dairy allergy they said they had no record of the booking at all!!
The guy at the end of the phone fortunately agreed it was the restaurant’s fault and sorted us a table anyway, but he didn’t manage to do so before my head exploded, splattering big gooey lumps of excitement and good will all over my bedroom wall.
The original plan had been to do all the country’s three-star Michelin restaurants in a week, in this order: The Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck, Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester).
After a month of headaches, we eventually settled for: Hibiscus, Goodman, The Waterside Inn and Alain Ducasse (with a night at The Dorchester). Not too shabby really, but a bit of a pain to cobble together.
Annoyingly, I’ve been going through the exact same pain again as I try to set up another gourmet holiday in London this June. It’s gone like this:
We wanted to spend the last night with a room and dinner at The Ritz.
The Ritz was unavailable.
We booked a night at The Dorchester instead and tried to get into Le Gavroche.
Le Gavroche was unavailable.
I uttered the following phrase: “God this is irritating. Ah well, at least we won’t have a problem going back to Goodman – who books a steak house so far in advance?”
Goodman was unavailable.
I uttered the follo… actually, that probably doesn’t bear repeating.
I just seem to have no luck with these things; no luck at all. I know these places are popular, but when I go to book them as soon as is humanly possible, I’d expect to hit more often than not. It’s not like I’m trying to get into an El Bulli or a Next or somewhere where you might have to pay a few hundred quid on eBay in order to be sure of a reservation.
I know two different couples who are going to Le Gavroche in April and booked without a hitch. How is it they got in so easy? I expect the Jubilee has something to do with it. Yet again I’ve been thwarted by the queen with her sodding celebrations!**
Anyway, I should probably stop complaining. If there’s anything to be learned from going through this experience again, it’s that you should always have a back-up plan for this sort of holiday. And the great thing about London is it’s pretty damn easy to come up with a back-up plan that’s just as full of awesome.
My restaurant itinerary for the four-day trip is as follows:
Dinner at Hawksmoor Seven Dials
Lunch at The Ledbury
Dinner at The Square
(we’ll eat here when we stay at The Dorchester)
There should also be time for a visit to Borough Market…
…and a macaron raid on Pierre Hermé.
I’m pretty happy with that!
It’s almost inevitable that some things will go wrong when the week actually comes. Lowlights from last year included a three-hour train delay on the way down and a ‘meal’ at an Angus Steakhouse.
But as long as the latter doesn’t happen again, I think we’ll be alright. I’m very much looking forward to it!
*Or at least I’m fairly sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a more interesting story with the queen involved, so let’s stick with it…
**I don’t mean that really. I love the queen. She can thwart me all she wants.
I have plans for 2012. I have plans that involve a new passport, trips to Belfast and Bangor, and London and Paris; plans that must be executed before a bun appears in my wife’s proverbial oven, forcing them all to be put on hold.
My plans will see me scratch the itches left over from 2011 and tick the boxes I thought by now I might’ve already ticked. They should take me on a fabulous roller-coaster ride of flavours, textures and aromas, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
My plans will see me cross many more items off my list of Foods To Try Before You Die.* It is my greatest hope that they will see me eat the meal of a lifetime.
These are my restaurant plans for 2012:
And these are the Foods To Try Before You Die I’ve got my eye most closely on:
Éclair au Chocolat [from Jacques Genin]
Macaroons [from Ladurée]
Macaroons [from Pierre Hermé]
Omelette Arnold Bennett
Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Sweetbreads & Morels [at Koffmann’s, London]
Roast Rib of Beef
Tarte au Citron [from Jacques Genin]
I wish you all a Happy New Year!
*My apologies for neglecting the primary focus of this blog in the last few weeks. As you’ll have seen, a killer Japanese restaurant, end of year lists and Christmas have been taking centre stage in my mind. I haven’t completely forgotten about The List though. I’ve been adding new items to it as ever – it’s now up to 66 – and another of my plans will see me recap the eating of these four bad boys in the coming weeks:
Food #9: Confit de Canard
Food #10: Raw Oysters
Food #11: Valrhona Chocolate
Food #12: Victorian Mince Pie
I like lists, as you can probably guess. This whole blog has been built around one and, in the coming weeks and months, more are going to be built to go around the whole blog.
One of my favourites is my Restaurant Wishlist – a top 25 (or thereabouts) of the restaurants I would like to eat at more than anywhere else in the world. France, as you might expect, is the dominant player, occupying ten of the places. Three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris make up four of the top ten, in positions 2, 6, 7 and 8.
If you’d asked me to predict what would happen when I worked through my eight-point system to decide where to eat in Paris next year, I definitely wouldn’t have guessed #7 would come out the winner.
(click that link for a refresher of the rules before we begin)
Ledoyen looks like an incredible restaurant, right at the cutting edge of world cuisine. It got the full 30 marks for Step #1: Food Quality and was the only restaurant to pick up the maximum 20 for Step #2: Menu. Its most famous dish, Spaghetti, Jambon Blanc, Morilles et Truffes is on my list of Foods To Try Before I Die, but pretty much everything it offers looks like it’s worth shoving down my gullet before I snuff it.*
It’s cheap as well, at least by the standards of three-Michelin star restaurants in Paris (ie not cheap at all, but relatively so). The tasting menu at Ledoyen will cost you around €199 a head. Only L’Astrance is cheaper. It’s even less expensive than Le Jules Verne at the Eiffel Tower – and that only has one star to its name.
I’d go vegetarian for an entire month – the most extreme endurance test I can think of – if someone would take me. But Ledoyen is not the restaurant I will be visiting next year.
L’Ambroisie is another place with a fabulous reputation and a very appealing menu. It’s not as modern as Ledoyen, but it more than makes up for it in opulence. Luxury ingredients dominate the various courses and its dining rooms have the grand, palatial decor to match.
After Steps #1-4, it was equal with Ledoyen at the very top of the leaderboard and surged ahead after Step #5: Website.**
If someone rang me up today and said they’d booked a table and would fly me out there on the condition that I cut off a toe, I’d tell my wife to run and fetch the pliers. But I won’t be going to L’Ambroisie next year either.
Besides these two restaurants, there were just three others left in the running by the time I’d reached Steps #6/7: Price/Maths. Le Bristol and Guy Savoy, neither of which are on my Restaurant Wishlist, had both done much better than expected, thanks to consistently solid scores and excellent (English) user-friendly websites. Nevertheless, they too fell at the final hurdle.
The failure of these two I didn’t mind so much. Neither scored the full 30 points for food quality and, as such, I doubt either could deliver the ‘meal of a lifetime’ I’m after. I don’t want to settle for a dinner that is merely superb; I want a magnum opus of cookery. An experience so wrought with divinity that when I have kids I can point to it and say: “Look at what the expense of your existence has cost me – and for what?!”***
It’s the kind of meal I’m hoping will be delivered by the clear winner of my three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris competition: Le Meurice.
Le Meurice is a restaurant that seems to have it all: an attractive menu, food of the highest order, a massive reputation. Its Palace of Versailles-inspired dining room could stand toe-to-toe with the purdiest I’ve ever seen (Le Louis XV in Monaco and The Ritz in London, if you’re interested) and give it the old Rocky Balboa. Its website smokes those of Ledoyen and L’Ambroisie like a pair of Woodbines, and while it’s €40 a head more expensive than the former, I wouldn’t need to sell any kidneys in order to be able to afford it like I would with the latter.
Here are the full results:****
I should say, the more I’ve looked into Le Meurice since it came out on top, the happier I’ve been with it as my choice. It’s in an iconic location, opposite the Tuileries on the Rue de Rivoli. It’s in a world class hotel – part of The Dorchester Collection – where I might consider staying the night.*****
And the fact that it’s in a hotel and one that’s historically kind to English speakers reassures me that there will definitely be no issues with language.
Hopefully they’ll be used to thicko foreigners like me!
January 2013 note: Yannick Alleno, the chef who won Le Meurice its third star, has now left the restaurant to focus on other ventures.
*If you don’t mind dribbling uncontrollably on to your keyboard, take a look at these gorgeous photos of Ledoyen by one of my favourite food bloggers, Ulterior Epicure. He’s been to quite a few of the other Paris three-stars as well, although unfortunately not the one I’m going to.
**This wasn’t exactly hard. The information on Ledoyen’s barren website would struggle to fill a lonely hearts ad space.
***I’m going to be an awesome dad
****L’Ambroisie is so extortionate that its price dragged it down to last place, although it’s probably a bit better than the 19 given here – they’ve launched a new and improved website since I marked it. If you want a more detailed breakdown of all the figures, just ask.
*****One thing I’ve found in recent years is that it’s so much better once you’ve had an amazing dinner to be able to just retire upstairs to bed, rather than have to go out into the street and find your way back to wherever else you might be staying. Having to travel on a full stomach, even if you’re just walking down the road or taking a short cab journey, somewhat spoils the experience, I think. Stay in the same place and the fun doesn’t have to end until after breakfast the next day, by which time you’ll probably have had enough.