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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.

Best of 2011: Restaurant Dish of the Year

As you’d expect given the incredible foodie year I’ve had, I’ve eaten some truly sublime things in 2011. Here I run down the best dishes I’ve eaten overall, and the best dishes I’ve eaten in my home city of Manchester, during the last 12 months.

TOP 10 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (OVERALL)

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

  1. Warm Raspberry Soufflé [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

Out of everything I’ve eaten this year, this is the one I find myself day-dreaming about the most. My mouth moistens, my memory goes back to a perfect summer’s evening and I want more than anything to be sat in the dining room of The Waterside Inn, gazing out over a moonlit river and eating this faultless raspberry soufflé.

I’ve had many more profound eating experiences during 2011; revelations that changed my whole outlook on food. But this relatively simple dessert handily beat each of them in the most important category of all – taste.

I had often wondered what the fuss is with soufflés; this featherlight version, with the texture of a celestial cloud and the intense flavour of fresh English raspberries (aided by a tart raspberry coulis), explained it better than words ever could. A symphony of pleasures from the moment it arrived on the table to the last spoonful, no dish has ever given me greater joy – and I think it might be a long time before another gives as much again.

2.      Roast Foie Gras, Isle of Skye Sorrel, Gooseberry & Cardamom [Hibiscus, London – July]

3.      Fillet of Beef Rossini, Crunchy Cos Lettuce, “Sacristain” Potatoes [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

4.      Seared Scallop, Pea Purée, Toasted Coconut and Morteau Sausage Emulsion [Hibiscus, London – July]

Done correctly, scallops can be remarkable little morsels – jewels of the sea – but I had no idea how good they could be until I had this dish, with a big, fat, hand-dived specimen at its centre. The accompaniments were impressively made and the whole dish was beautifully presented and cooked, but it was Mother Nature who made it sing through the creation of this exquisite central ingredient. So fresh and so sweet, it almost makes me scared to order scallops again in case they’re just not this good.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number ten on this list, here, via Nordic Nibbler. I think I might’ve actually been there on the same night as him as I had the first four dishes he had, as well as the same amuse bouche, pre-dessert and first dessert course.)

 5.      Roasted Challandais Duck with a Lemon and Thyme Jus, Potato and Garlic Mousseline [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

The Waterside Inn is all about the duck. They float down the Thames as you sit out on the terrace, pictures of them adorn the walls and menus, and the smell of them roasting permeates every inch of the restaurant (delightful when you’re waiting for your food, not so delightful when you wake up hungover in the morning).

I believe it hasn’t been off the menu since it opened well over three decades ago and I found out just why when I had the chance to try it: it’s a total classic. I loved the theatre of the whole duck being presented at the table then carved in front of us. I also loved the little puff pastry duck served alongside it. But, as you’d expect, the dish was really all about the duck itself, which was stunning.

It was supremely old-fashioned, and it looked it, but this is my sort of food. If I ate at The Waterside Inn ten more times, I don’t think there’d be a single occasion where I wouldn’t order the duck.

(You can see a picture of the dish, as well as a picture of the number nine on this list, here, via Food-E-Matters.)

6.      Porterhouse & Bone In Rib-Eye Steaks (150-day Corn Fed USDA Angus Beef), Hand Cut Chips [Goodman Mayfair, London – August]

7.      Baba like in Monte-Carlo [Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London – August]

8.      Macerated English Raspberries, Fine Puff Pastry Layers, Lime and Yoghurt Custard, White Chocolate Shards [Northcote Manor, Langho – August]

9.      Terrine of Foie Gras with Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets and Glazed with a Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves and a Violet Mustard-Flavoured Brioche Toast [The Waterside Inn, Bray – August]

 10.      Tartare of King Crab, Sweetcorn, Meadow Sweet & Smoke Kipper Consommé, Sea Herbs [Hibiscus, London – July]

This dish was my intro to two-star Michelin cooking and I could immediately see the difference between it and everything I’d had before at one-star level. “The Red Guide inspectors aren’t completely clueless,” I thought. It was an unusual dish, absolutely nothing like anything I’ve ever had before or since, but it was such an awesome way to start a meal. A fascinating exploration of different tastes and textures, it was a real treat for the senses, and one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

TOP 5 RESTAURANT DISHES OF THE YEAR (MANCHESTER)

1.      Bone In Sirloin (Belted Galloway), Bone Marrow, Mushroom, Chips [Smoak, City Centre – October]

2.      Rib-Eye Steak, Chips, Humitas, Baby Gem salad, Tender Stem Broccoli and Peppercorn Sauce [Gaucho, City Centre – July]

Gaucho might not do the best steak in town anymore, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still do a bloody good job. Had an excellent meal there on my stag do, the highlight of which was a main course featuring humitas (a paste of sweetcorn, onions and goat’s cheese, boiled in a corn husk). I’ve never been a big fan of sweetcorn, but these were a revelation – a wonderful sweet accompaniment to the perfectly-cooked beef.

3.      Eccles Cakes with Double Cream [The Mark Addy, Salford – November]

When I got married earlier in the year, I had an Eccles cake mountain instead of a traditional wedding cake (below). It looked good, it tasted good; the guys from Slattery’s in Whitefield did a great job. But when I tasted the Eccles cakes at The Mark Addy a few months later, my first thought was: “Why the hell didn’t we get these guys to do our Eccles cakes instead?” Absolutely gorgeous and, as I said in the comments here, the best I’ve ever had.

Eccles cakes wedding cake, Slattery's

My Eccles cake wedding cake, or as Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier described it: "Brilliant croque en bouche a l'Anglaise."

4.      Pigeon, Bury Black Pudding, Belly Pork, Apple [The Lime Tree, West Didsbury – November]

5.      Chicken with Garlic [Kyotoya, Withington – November]

Food #5: Goose foie gras

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

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

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

The Waterside Inn view

The view from The Waterside Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had no balls.

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

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

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

Verdict: N/A

NEXT UP: Beef Rossini

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

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

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