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Planning a gourmet break in London

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!

Impeded by the Crown

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.

Executive Deluxe Room at The Dorchester, Park Lane

We got there in the end – our executive deluxe room at The Dorchester

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!

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*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.

A foodie confession

There’s a great shame that haunts my life; an unforgivable horror which stalks me wherever I go. It plagues my daydreams and breeds my nightmares, this feeling of raging, unconfined guilt.

I can imagine myself at the Pearly Gates as St Peter carefully weighs out all the good and bad things I’ve done over the course of my life. The scales just about lean in my favour and I’m starting to believe that heaven awaits when the Keeper of the Keys produces this golem, tipping the balance irrevocably the other way.

“I thought you might have forgotten,” I say meekly, as St Peter opens up the shaft to hell. “Dear child, a sin so heinous shall never be overlooked,” he replies and casts me down.

As I descend, I’m almost certain the eternal terrors that await will be themed around my great folly, this moment of infamy that I will never be allowed to forget. And I’ll think to myself that I deserve it, while the crime runs over and over in my head.

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich.

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich!

I once spent £24 on a chicken sandwich!!*

Now, in a sane world, this would be the bit where I tell you about the big dollop of caviar that was plonked on top, or the truffle-ridden salad, or the side dish of whole lobster. You could mmm and ahhh an understanding and think to yourself “extravagant yes, but I can see where the money went”.

But it is not a sane world and the sandwich had none of these things. It had two slices of bread, nuggets of battered chicken, a green salad, tomatoes and a dressing. That was it. No fancy adornments, no side dishes, nothing.

Yes I was in the bar at The Dorchester. Yes it was my honeymoon. Yes it was a damn good chicken sandwich.** But £24? Just what was I thinking?!

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*What form a sandwich-themed hell would take, I obviously cannot say – I’m sure the devils are more creative than I am. But I’d bet a lot of money on it smelling like Subway. And I reckon those acrid cucumbers you get in Ginsters butties would also be involved.

**And I do mean impeccable. I couldn’t fault a thing. Even the tomatoes – my food nightmare in waiting should I ever become famous and get invited on Saturday Kitchen – were divine.

Best of 2011: Restaurant Meal of the Year

2011 has been a pretty amazing year for me in terms of food. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be recapping the very best (and worst) of it, starting with Restaurant Meal of the Year.

I’ve experienced five of the six best meals of my life during the last 12 months. In an incredible four-week period following my late-July wedding, I had fabulous dinners at Hibiscus (2 Michelin stars), Goodman Mayfair, The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars) and Northcote Manor (1 Michelin star).

However, one meal from the same period stood out above all the rest to be the best of the year, and indeed, the best I’ve ever had. That was the meal at 3-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester logo and dining room

I’ve spoken at some length about my beef Rossini main course and rum baba dessert, but I haven’t gone into much detail about the rest of my dinner, which was brilliant from start to finish. Seared foie gras was served in the most perfect duck blood sauce; sumptuously rich and smooth as velvet. A stunning piece of sea bass had its own wondrous adornment; a delicate citrus sauce which balanced like Nadia Comăneci in 1976.

Each of the extras gave me so much pleasure: the charming little cheese puffs that began the evening; the immaculate broccoli purée that followed. I’d struggle to fault the bread selection – every piece lovely in texture and full of flavour. Ducasse supposedly refuses to serve his bread warm as he doesn’t want his diners to fill up on it and spoil the rest of their meal, so I was surprised and delighted to find these specimens still hot from the oven. Strikingly good butter from Neal’s Yard and an interesting cream cheese provided fitting accompaniments.

But the best of the nibbles were saved until last. Flawless macaroons and chocolates were merely preamble to the treasure trove of treats that awaited on the bonbon trolley. Marshmellows, nougats, caramels, pastries, cakes – it was a feast fit for a fat kid with the most discerning of tastes.

Petits fours from Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester

I was too full at this stage so I got my waiter to fill a bag for me. I was able to gorge on it for the next three days and still had plenty left to give to friends.

Away from the food, things were just as special. The waiters gave a masterclass in service, effortlessly juggling attentiveness, efficiency and professionalism with enthusiasm, friendliness and charm. Along with the marvel that is the Alain Ducasse dining room – far prettier than it looks in pictures – and the palatial luxury of The Dorchester itself, the staff provided the backdrop and ambience to an evening I’ll never, ever forget.

Below is everything I ate in full. Regrettably, aside from Alain Ducasse’s signature champagne, I cannot remember what we drank with the meal, other than it being quite outstanding; equal to the food and setting in both quality and price.

Even more regrettable is the fact that I’m not able to add these orange cakes on at the end. They were presented to us as a gift as we left the restaurant and the following day my wife scoffed both in secret, not allowing me a single crumb.

If that’s not grounds enough for divorce, I don’t know what is!

A gift of orange cakes from Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester

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A LA CARTE

Amuse Bouche 1

Gruyère Gougéres, Paprika Gougéres

*

Les Pains

Sourdough, Black Olive Bread, Fougasse with Bacon

*

Amuse Bouche 2

Royale of Broccoli with Crispy Vegetables

*

1st Course

Foie Gras de Canard Poelé, Cerises, Amandes Fraiches

Seared Duck Foie Gras, Cherries, Green Almonds

*

2nd Course

Bar de Ligne aux Agrumes, Verts et Blancs de Blette

Wild Sea Bass, Citrus and Swiss Chards

*

3rd Course

Tournedos de Boeuf Rossini, Beau Quartier de Romaine, Sacristain de Pommes de Terre

Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes

*

Pre-Dessert

Macaroons, Chocolates

*

4th Course
Baba au Rhum de Votre Choix, comme a Monte-Carlo

Baba like in Monte-Carlo

*

Mignardises & Gourmandises

The Bonbon Trolley

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Not by any stretch worth the same number of words, but perhaps worth a bit of a laugh, is my Worst Restaurant Meal of the Year – a truly traumatic experience.

Cafe Rouge logo

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Café Rouge after an awful meal at one of its branches in 2005, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the bile served at my work’s Christmas Party. Food is always pretty terrible at Christmas dos, and indeed it’s part of the fun, but this was a serious ordeal; one that conjured up images of Vietnam War movies and Colonel Kurtz whispering “the horror, the horror”.

Unless you were there and had the parsnip and chestnut soup, roast turkey, and Christmas pudding, you’ll never be able to understand just what I and others had to go through that night. But I hope my descriptions of what I imagine made up each dish will at least give some insight into the tragedy that befell my senses and digestive system on that cold December evening.

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CHRISTMAS PARTY MENU

Soup de Panais

Diarrhoea of Polly Filler-Fed Dog, Essence of Chip Shop Curry, Tree Bark

*

Dinde Rôtie

Reconstituted Turkey and Woodchip, Mould of Soup de Panais, Memory of School Dinner Sprouts, Assortment of Miniature Rubber Dildos, Raw and Nuked

*

Pudding de Noël

Dried Guinness Poo, Cat Vomit

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Food #7: Alain Ducasse Rum Baba

At the very top of my restaurant wishlist, standing head and shoulders above all the other three-star Michelin places in the world, is Le Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

With its iconic Monaco setting, palatial dining room and a menu that promises to deliver all I’ve ever dreamed of, the ode to opulence that is Alain Ducasse’s flagship seems to offer everything I want from a fine dining experience.

The dining room at Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monaco

Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo

As you’d expect from a restaurant so revered, a number of its dishes have become very famous. The one that springs to mind quicker than almost any other is Ducasse’s signature rum baba, which has been so venerated over the years it has become the standard by which all other babas are judged. No mean feat, considering it’s such a classic dish.

My chances of getting to Le Louis XV and tasting the food there any time soon are somewhere between sod and bugger all, but thankfully there are a couple of options for people like me who want to get a little slice of the great restaurant in the UK. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and its ‘Baba like in Monte Carlo’ is, unsurprisingly, chief among them.*

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Ducasse’s debut London restaurant received a real beating from critics when it opened in 2007 and its reputation has yet to fully recover. Its three-star rating is the butt of many a joke about the UK Michelin guide and its absence from this weekend’s Sunday Times Food List, featuring the 100 ‘best’ restaurants in the UK, was glaring.

But more recent critiques from people I trust indicated that Alain Ducasse had gotten over its rocky beginnings and started producing very accomplished food,** with its desserts in particular drawing a lot of praise.

Two separate reviews saying that its rum baba was every bit as good as the one it was recreating from Le Louis XV were all I needed to hear to decide I wanted to visit. This was an item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list I was really going to go out of my way to eat.

A table at Alain Ducasse at The Dochester, London

The table setting at Alain Ducasse

Ducasse’s baba au rhum is a dish of real showmanship. A beautiful silver*** tripod with a domed lid was placed before me by one waiter, who allowed me to stare at it with lustful anticipation for a few seconds before sliding back the lid to reveal the treasure inside. A silver bowl, shined to mirror-brightness, held snug a perfect sponge; an exquisitely moist yeast cake, split down the centre in a slightly yonic manner to show the contrast between the golden sheen of its exterior and the fluffy white of its innards.

I was given a few more seconds to take in stage one of the spectacle before stage two began – a sommelier arrived with a tray carrying six different bottles of premium rum. Each was presented to me and described, and I was asked to decide which I wanted. I know this dessert wasn’t free, and in fact it was costing me about £20, but dear god did this bit make me feel like I was being treated by a very generous host. It was a dazzling bit of theatre.

I selected one that had honey notes and watched as it was poured liberally over the sponge, which imbibed half and bathed in the rest. The adorning of the baba was completed by another waiter, who with a pair of spoons expertly widened the split down the middle of the cake and heaped a couple of large dollops of vanilla cream on top.****

“Enjoy,” is what I think I heard the captain say as the three waiters moved away from the table. I was in a sort of deep trance by this stage, so I’m not entirely sure. Sat in front of me was arguably one of the world’s great desserts; razzmatazz had set the stage, and all that remained was for me to do my bit and eat the bloody thing.*****

No pressure then. I was almost nervous!

When you think about rum baba, it’s not that exciting. Sponge, cream, rum – that’s it. On paper a trifle is more exhilarating. But Alain Ducasse has helped to lift this very simple-sounding dish to oxygen-depriving culinary heights.

The sweet, light as a feather cake – which somehow managed to be soft and delicate, heavy and rich all at the same time – was a wonder on its own. Soaked in luxury rum and flawlessly complemented by the vanilla cream, it reached celestial levels. Each spoonful was indulgence in its purest, most wicked form; it was the ultimate comfort food.

The intoxicating aroma was every bit as important as the taste. I imagine the bowl had a lot to do with it, but it was like everything in the atmosphere around me and the food had been infected by the dish, making me feel I was eating in some sort of hedonistic, rum-fuelled dream. Food sweats added to the fever experience – admittedly not in a good way – and I began to feel a little drunk.

At one stage I worried I might not be able to finish. After three courses and the week of fine dining that was my honeymoon, it was probably a little bit much, but I persevered and got it down me. When you’re eating a dessert of the very highest standard, you can’t let a little thing like an engorged stomach stand in your way.

I went into this dish with monumental expectations and it met every single one. The food couldn’t be faulted, but it was the presentation that cemented the legend.

Is Alain Ducasse’s rum baba one of the world’s great puddings? You bet your arse it is.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Potted shrimp

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*The other one is Gauthier Soho, which offers a dessert titled ‘Louis XV’, a version of the legendary chocolate croustillant that’s always on the menu at the Hotel de Paris and will always be on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. The original has been called the best dessert in the world and chef Alexis Gauthier is fully qualified to deliver a masterful take on it, given that he probably made it thousands of times while working pastry for Ducasse in Monaco. I’m very keen to visit.

**I can confirm that this is true and we had an amazing dinner at Alain Ducasse. I’d say only the desserts were three-star worthy, but the rest of our meal was capably at two-star level. I loved the dining room, the service was sublime and as an overall experience, I think it offers one of the best in the UK. The key is to go in with an open mind and forget about the price.

***It’s gold at Le Louis XV. Apparently The Dorchester isn’t posh enough to have all the trappings of Monte Carlo…

****There’s a good gynaecology joke in this somewhere, but like a clitoris I can’t seem to find it.

*****If you want to see what it looked like, check out this pic from The Boy Who Ate The World.

Food #6: Beef Rossini

Every so often you come across a recipe which instantly makes you think to yourself: “How the hell have I never heard of this before? How is it that this food is yet to pass my lips? Where is the big pile of broken glass I can crawl over – fly unzipped – to get it?”

Beef Rossini (aka Tournedos Rossini), invented by king of chefs and chef of kings Auguste Escoffier* in tribute to the famous composer, conjured up all these feelings and more when I first read about it towards the end of last year and immediately went on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. How could it not when the basic recipe consists of pan-fried fillet steak, a slice of whole foie gras, a crouton, black truffle and a Madeira demi-glace sauce?

Have we all stopped slobbering yet? Good. Then let’s carry on…

I’ve harped on before about how much I love beef, but what I haven’t touched on is how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants these days – or at least how scared I am of ordering it in restaurants that don’t specialise in dead cow. I’m genuinely frightened of it being a disappointment. Beef is my favourite food in the whole wide world and if anything short of stunning arrives on my plate, I’m going to wish that I ordered something else instead.

So it says a lot about how appealing beef Rossini is that I ordered it without hesitation when presented with it on a menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester this summer.**

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester's dining room

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (exterior)

The menu at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The menu (interior). Our waiter arranged for chef Jocelyn Herland to sign it for us.

The version they serve at Alain Ducasse is slightly different from what I’ve described above. Instead of a crouton, there was a thick piece of toast. The truffles and Madeira demi-glace were combined in a Périgueux sauce. Crunchy cos lettuce drizzled with vinaigrette, which you’d imagine was just a side, was a fundamental part of the dish.

And it was all so perfect; I couldn’t imagine it being done any other way. The beef and the foie gras and the truffle sauce just belonged together, offering an exquisite marriage of richness and corruption that you only tend to find among Premier League football club owners.

The toast soaked up all the flavours beautifully and added some extra texture to the plate. The freshness and acidity of the dressed lettuce cut through the richness like a guillotine in 1793; its vibrant green helping my eyes to survive the onslaught of brown.

Combined, it tasted like the greatest burger you could possibly imagine. It was absolutely brilliant.

(You can see a picture of it on the Food Snob Blog here.)

The kitchen obviously deserves a lot of credit for cooking it all so precisely, and the amendments to the traditional dish (lettuce, toast) were masterful. The delightful sacristain potatoes that accompanied – peppery, spiral crisps that take a staggering amount of work to produce – iced the proverbial cake with further texture and flavours.

But the real kudos should be reserved for the inventor of beef Rossini – whoever that may be. My overriding feeling, as I pushed knife and fork into the centre of the plate*** and waited for one of the excellent waiting staff to take it away, was that I’d just eaten one of the world’s great dishes. A recipe conceived by a genius – one that if you stay faithful to it, will deliver time and time again.

I’ve had much better beef than the fillet steak I had here. I’ve had better foie gras too. In fact, I had superior versions of both ingredients mere days before my trip to Alain Ducasse. But I’ve yet to have a whole dish involving either beef or foie gras that was anywhere near as good as this beef Rossini.

To be honest, I might not have eaten anything as good in my whole life.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Rum Baba [at any Alain Ducasse restaurant]

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*This seems to be the most common belief anyway. I’ve seen it said that Escoffier’s roi de cuisiniers et cuisinier des rois forebear Antoine Carême actually came up with it – either way, beef Rossini is a dish with serious pedigree.

**I was also thinking that if I can’t trust a three-star Michelin restaurant to get beef right, I might as well just give up eating the stuff altogether.

 ***I loved the plate, by the way. It looked very plain, but there was a really subtle, almost imperceptible, decline towards the centre, which pooled the sauce and saved me having to chase it around the plate with the other ingredients. Just one of those little details that makes you realise the amount of thought and effort a restaurant like this puts in to trying to give you a perfect dining experience.

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…

A return to Northcote Manor

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.

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*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:

#2 A return to Northcote Manor reprise

#3 A return to Northcote Manor (reprise – part 2)

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