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Friday, July 27, 2007

A passion for Ravioli


Last time we were at our very fave fine Italian in London, recovering from a rather poor experience at another place (more on this story later - in a few days...) we got the guinea pig treatment with these:

Where is the fuss you might say? Look again:

They were exceptionally good: dessert ravioli, chocolate ones with a ricotta and candied peel filling, and white ones with a “deconstructed” apple strudel filling, and specks of chocolate. We won’t tell you about the accompanying sauces...

They might feature on the dessert menu as early as August: you have been warned, miss them at your peril!


Monday, July 23, 2007


The day: 14th July 2007, Lunch.
The place: 63-64 Frith Street W1S 2XS, London (020 7734 4545)

The venue: Arbutus

The food: modern French

The drinks: mostly French, good range of prices, excellent the ‘carafe’ option, normal to low mark-ups.

Back home in the UK after the long stay in Trento, we thought we’d take a little break from Italian, and try one place that had been taking the food-loving London quite by storm since its opening about a year ago: we are at Arbutus, in the heart of Soho. Here is where chef Anthony Demetre opened his ‘superior bistro’ after gaining a Michelin star at his previous upscale restaurant in Putney.

From the outside it is (nicely) unassuming.

Inside, it consists of a series of rooms in the curious shape of a horse shoe: the first room, which also has a bar section with a counter laid out for diners, suggests this place is generally heaving with customers - for why would you otherwise want to have lunch perched on a stool and facing the barman at the same price you would pay sitting more comfortably at a table? Nevertheless, when we visited this part was completely empty. All the better for us, as acoustics is not great (the long period spent Italy has not destroyed our British understatement), and with more people we suspect this might turn too noisy. The décor is minimalist and stark.

The tables were easy to measure, almost exactly two (long) sides of an A4 sheet: just enough, but more or less in line with the rest of London.

Oh, there is no tablecloth; let’s hope their savings on laundry go into their raw material bill.

A pleasant and helpful French waiter brought us bread French style: we could choose which slice to get, though….

We thought we were being quite silly in worrying, as bread starvation was what we feared in Beaune, too, where we ended up with a ‘bottomless bread plate’, which we could have replenished as often as we wished. Well, not at Arbutus, as it turned out, since once Woman had finished her slice, the bread dish was taken away for ever… see Man hoarding all his crumbs .

The menu is short but interesting. At lunch one can go either for the a la carte selection, or for a set three course lunch at £15.50, which is definitely very good value. The set meal allows you to choose between two each of starters, mains and desserts. A la carte, starters go from £5.50 of the Plum tomato gazpacho to the £9.50 of either the Dorset crab salad and garlic mayonnaise, or the Squid and mackerel ‘burger’ with parsley and razor clams; mains go from the £12.95 of the red wine risotto with radicchio and taleggio cheese to the £18.95 of the Traditional Bouillabaisse (Marseille style). Puddings all go for £5.95.

Being very determinate to stay within our £100 rule, the more so in a place with no tablecloth, we opted for a set lunch and an a la carte selection.

While waiting, we discovered that beside there being no tablecloth, there were no gifts from the kitchen to keep us busy either (apart from a piece of butter, under which we had the forethought not to place our solitary slice of bread, which could then last longer…). OK, this saving too is surely put into their raw material expenses.

We began with:

- Pork porchetta with Granny Smith apple puree (set menu)

- Ravioli of oxtail with ginger and spring onions (£8.95).

Yes we know, quite an Italianate choice, but this is the slant of Chef Demetre’s mostly French cuisine (and he is British).

Now, porchetta. This is pork meat, and it is very typical from the hills around Rome (ask any Roman, they’ll tell you that the real home of porchetta is the little town of Ariccia), where Woman is from. The theory goes that a whole pig is boned, seasoned heavily with garlic, rosemary, pepper and salt, then roasted. The usual way it is eaten is as a cold chunky cut, which generally ends up between two thick slices of country bread. Demetre’s interpretation was definitely more refined. The porchetta came sliced very thinly, covered with the apple sauce and a tender watercress-like salad, with a sprinkle of grated cheese. Woman really did not want to like this very weird interpretation, but boy o boy was it good! The thin layer of apple sauce melting in the mouth with the thin (a bit fatty) slices of porchetta, very well assorted. Man enjoyed it too - though, rustic as he is, he was never able to fully come to terms with its tamed taste and bite compared with the heavily spiced and thick original version. He acknowledges with respect the chef’s interpretation, though…

As for the oxtail ravioli: the reduction was most flavoursome while very light, the filling of each of the (three only) ravioli generous indeed and chunky, the sweetish meat as intense as we would have expected, well assorted with a delectable selection of vegetables. The pasta itself was also good. An impressive dish (and if you read this blog you know we are quite spoiled on ravioli…), which would have held its own in the best of Italian restaurants (no prize for guessing our favourite in London).

Next, our mains:

- Roast black leg of chicken with gnocchi, peas and broad beans from the set menu;

- Saddle of rabbit, shoulder cottage pie and runner beans (£14.95).

The chicken – regrettably rarely seen nowadays on fine dining menus - was fine and well cooked. Though we are not fans of creamy sauces, the one accompanying this roast was subtly and pleasantly scented with plenty of herbs. Woman found the bed of cabbage a bit too hard. Man disagreed and found them perfectly cooked. A satisfying French style dish: not ravishing, but please think of the price!

The rabbit instead was another stunner, tending to “comfort food” in the most elevated way, with buttered green beans and the potatoes from the cottage pie. It was a richer dish than the rabbit we recently had at Au Tilleul, but not heavy. The rabbit was simplicity itself, just the meat with a bit of very flavoursome innards. Very interesting in concept was the combination between the sharply flavoured rolled rabbit and the nicely presented “side” rabbit cottage pie,

with light shreds of stewed rabbit shoulder. Only criticism, the green beans were slightly too salty to Woman’s taste.

Finally, the puddings:

- Ile flottante (from the set menu).

- Morello Cherries clafoutis (£5.95)

The Ile flottante is a soft meringue (whipped sugary egg whites poached in either milk or water, or cooked ‘bain marie’) over custard: this was very good, perhaps the whites too sweet, hovering languidly over an excellent custard.

The real disappointment came with the Clafoutis, a regular home made guest on our home table. It was very rich, Wintery rather than Summery, definitely too much fat for Man, who could not regain composure after bashing his teeth against the first cherry stone: no, the cherries had not been stoned. Which, OK, may happen in Picouly's house (suggested reading) or our home, but you would not expect it in this kind of place, where desserts should offer pure comfort with no effort. And anyhow we had nowhere to put the stones: were we supposed to gulp them or spit them around? Man (who endures energetic recriminations from Woman when he himself does not stone the Clafoutis cherries...) still shakes his head incredulous at this bad ending after the previous masterful display. Woman was just disappointed by the calories from fat/pleasure ratio.

All in all, with a quarter (i.e. 250ml) carafe of 2005 Austrian Blauer Zeigwelt , Anton Bauer, Donauland at £9.50, a quarter carafe of 2004 Cote du Rhone Domaine de la Renjarde at £9.25, a bottle of 0.75 litre of water £2.95 and two (rather forgettable) espressos at £2.50 the total bill came at £81.06.

Are you surprised that there are no petit four with the coffee? Here must be the final bit of savings toward their raw material bill…

Service was very friendly (though not all looked as helpful as our lovely waiter, who even gave us the wine list to take away for our records). This is clearly a good haunt for food lovers thanks to the truly excellent cuisine. However, the choice of the management has clearly been to bet everything on the cuisine: the complete lack of complimentary gestures, the meanness of the bread offering, the stark atmosphere and the very basic mise en place somehow reduce the comfort of the whole experience (and those serry thtones, Man by now toothless, still grumbles). If you were to go completely a la carte it would also be noticeably more expensive, while the lunch menu is very good value, with the wine ‘carafe’ option making it even more remarkable. Not really the place to wind down and relax and be pampered then, but rather a nice venue to focus on and relish the offerings of a superior chef, whose mastery of both French and Italian cooking styles impressed us.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Zola in Nashville, Tennessee

The day: 7th July 2007, Dinner.
The place: 3001 West End Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee
The venue: Resataurant Zola
Closest airport: Nashville International Airport (or if you fancy a drive, Atlanta is five hours away, and you can get there directly from London with BA from Gatwick)
The food: Modern fusion

The drinks: American wines with some European

So we wanted to try fine cuisine in the US. Probably, having had the choice, for this experiment we wouldn’t have selected Nashville, a city famous for other offerings. But this is where work brought us to, and anyway we had heard nice things about Zola, where Chef Debra Paquette (co-owner with husband Ernie Paquette) produces dishes inspired by Mediterranean (notably Spanish/Moroccan) and French cuisine.

Let us come clean at the outset: the experiment was not successful. We don’t want to play the part of the snotty Europeans (though what else are we?) so we would prefer to attribute the failure to a seemingly impassable gulf between our concept of fine dining and the Nashvillian one. We also want to point out that the amiable and professional Ernie Paquette had kindly offered us interview time with the chef, time in which we might have attempted to cross the cultural barrier and to foster mutual understanding between the races… but our time (and probably also Chef Debra’s, to judge from how busy Zola was) was too limited to take up the offer (and, also, we wanted to go ‘incognito’, as usual). So please read the negative comments below in this light. And if at all possible, please don’t bomb our countries.

The exterior is unassuming, but inside there are several environments, variedly and colourfully decorated with paintings and other objects. The room was totally full so we did not want to disturb the other customers by taking photographs. The reception involved a long wait to be seated, the first thing we are not used to, though the numerous other customers waiting with us seemed to be perfectly comfortable with it (cultural gulf number one?). After this, anyway, the service got into its stride according to the best of American standards.

The menu has a good range, offering for example from ginger pork belly to crab and potato Martini to Med Lamb salad as starters (in the range $8-$10.50, with a meze platter at $14.50), and for Paella to lobster omelette to New Zealand venison to to Angus fillet for main courses ($20-$40).

Bread was on offer from the waiter (no basket). We skipped the parmesan focaccia and we went for oat, walnut and raisin brown bread. Also olive oil in a bowl was offered (still too good to use in a car, but not the best of qualities).

Our choice of starters:

Crab and Mango Salad ($9.50) and Tuna and Avocado Charmoula ($9.50) for starters.

The crab exemplifies our cultural problems with the cuisine style: to our eyes there are many ingredients thrown in seemingly without a coherent assemblage: the complete description of dish is Bibb lettuce cap filled with mango, crab, maple, smoked bacon, pistachios and sweet potato chips, honey, tarragon vinaigrette. They are fiddly to pick up and eat, with the salad not tossed with the condiment. To top this, the crab lacked flavour, a real disappointment. The sweet note was dominant (maple, honey…), not unpleasant but excessive, completely burying whatever taste the crab might have had.

The tuna came with a Moroccan vegetable salad. Once again, the main disappointment was the amazing lack of flavour in the main ingredient. In addition, the tuna tended to be dry despite being rare. The herbs were nice. A very un-American touch was the meanness of the portion: three very fine, small slices of tuna.

OK, maybe we are snotty Europeans, but be warned that there's more to come...

Our choices of mains: Pork tenderloin ($20.50) and Grilled Vension ($22.50).

The pork came with chorizo brown rice cake topped with caramelized poblano and manchego, shrimp mole, almond vanilla relish. Again no shortage of ingredients...The pork itself was not too tasty but good, tender and cooked well. The accompaniment, though, was slightly problematic, reminding us of stodgy and bland preparations of student days.

And the venison was accompanied by ginger black bean relish, pistachio crusted sweet potato fries, blackberry sauce, mango butter. Once again, the meat's taste was hard to notice. It was New Zealand, mild venison, but as you know from our enjoyment of Franca Merz's cuisine we have no preconception on this provenance. The meat was disconnected from the orgy of other ingredients, which however in themselves gave some satisfaction. Man looked pleased by the sweet potato with nuts, while Woman by now just looked disappointed.

For dessert we shared a Warm Blueberry Cornmeal pudding with three nut brittle ice cream at $6.95 (other desserts all within the $6.75-$7.50 range).

perhaps the best dish of the evening. Nice were the nuts in the icecream, itself fatty but -at last!- tasty. And the blueberry 'cake' was satisfying.

With a bottle of Hess cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from California, Napa valley, at $36 (and free water), teh bill including taxes came to $111.93.

As you might have guessed already
the main problem for us was that the multitude of ingredients expressed only muted flavours at best. We prefer dishes with fewer ingredients, but with clear, well extracted flavour. We read in an interview with Chef Paquette (you see, we really do our research) that fun is an essential feauture of her cooking philosophy. And no doubt her cuisine looks joyful, if ungenerous in the meat portions. We wish good luck to Zola, which anyway does not need our wishes because it clearly meets the local taste.

We must confess: we were much more thrilled by our dinner the next day at the simple Ted's Montana Grill nearby, a traditional American Grill, where we had really American portions of a really American bison steak (a first for us: an interesting, gamey taste) and intriguing beers. You see, maybe we are not snotty Europeans after all: maybe we are really a cowboy and cowgirl at heart.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Au Tilleul restaurant in Strasbourg

The day: 2nd July, Dinner
he place: 5 Route de Strasbourg 67206 Mittelhausbergen (Strasburg, France)
The venue: Restaurant Au Tilleul
Closest airports: Strasbourg (Air France from London Gatwick)
The food: Fine modern French
The drinks: Impressive list of French wines (around 400 labels)

On our way back to London from Trento (and en route to...Nashville, Tennessee – more on this story later…) we took a break midway in Strasbourg. As usual we chose with our stomachs, but as bonus came the pretty little village in the outskirts, just 5 minutes drive form the main train station in Strasburg.

The Lorentz family have run a simple hotel since the 19th century, but it is with young chef Jacques that they have been put on the gourmet map of Europe. There are in fact two restaurants in one, a more rustic Stube offering traditional Alsatian fare, and a more formal and gastronomic one, La Table de Jacques, where Chef Jaques gives free rain to his culinary imagination (careful: this is closed on Tuesday evenings and all day on Wednesday). Of course this latter choice is what we went for.

This is the outside for both venues:

The main room is warm and elegant without being pompous, with large and well spaced tables:

(Woman was struck by the old dough mixer you can spot under the large painting). The menu pricing is very simple and quite stunning for cuisine at this level (as we shall see!): three courses (Entrée’, fish or meat main, and cheese or dessert) at €32 and four courses (where you can have both fish and meat) at €37. A la carte the prices are 12.40 for entrees, €17.20 for fish mains, 18.80 for meat mains, €6 for cheeses and €8.30 for desserts.

Although we skipped aperitifs, we were generously entitled to some nibbles meant to accompany them:

Roasted and sugared walnuts and pumpkin seeds, and green and black olives. Nicely unconventional to set the tone (call us provincial but we are used to salty pumpkin seeds).

The room manager insisted that we choose the entire menu ‘au debut’, forcing us a frantic early scan of the dessert list: this touch unconventional too. So we go for... (to convey our strain in ordering –we speak very little French- we give them in French, leaving the accents as an exercise for the readers who wish to brush up their French , and we describe what we ate below) :

Entrees : Creme glacee de petis pois a la trouffe d’ete, fichelle au trois sesames; and Petis farcis de Provence servis froids, et coulis de tomates au basilic

Mains : Rable de lapin farci au homard europeen, fricassee d’artichauts et tomates cerises confites, jus au thym frais ; and Cote de veau aux petites legumes, risotto Carnaroli a l’orange, jus de veau au citron.

Desserts : Creme brulee aux abricots et pistache, sorbet abricots ; and fondante au chocolate noir de la Maison ‘Weiss’, cœur Grand Marnier, creme anglaise au basilic, sorbet chocolat.

The bread arrives :

Two mini-baguettes and two brown rolls (rye ?) with oats. Nice.

But as a reward for exercising our lousy French, there is also an ‘amusant bouche’ (another shock, we’ll never use our usual term ‘amuse bouche’ again!):

Warm asparagus cream with truffle oil, and cold cod and potato quenelles. The cream was a fine one, very thin but not in a negative way, strongly perfumed of truffles and very balanced in Woman’s opinion (Man though enjoying it thoroughly too found the truffle almost too dominating). The quenelles were really excellent, with very clean flavours. There was a perfect interplay of textures and temperatures between the two components of this very well conceived dish: a classy start.

And now the the entrees:

The ‘crème glacee etc.’ was a cold pea soup with black Summer truffle and mangetout. The latter had been cooked excellently and the soup was very perfumed, with the truffle coming out without killing the peas. Perhaps a tad too salty to our taste. Overall very good.

The ‘Petit farcis…’ consisted of three different stuffed vegetables: an artichoke heart filled with olive pate’ and cut into two, a cherry tomato filled with sweated onions, and a round courgette filled with a finely chopped ratatouille (aubergines, peppers, courgettes and tomatoes). The presentation was admirable. The base of tomatoes and basil was very good, and the whole was a triumph of flavours from the garden.

At this point an unexpected interlude:

A passion flower granita (coarse sorbet) marinated in red wine with honey. Delicious flavours, the honey and the wine tannins playing in your mouth, the only negative note being some too large icy chunks.

So we were ready for our mains:

The ‘Rable…’ consisted of rabbit saddle boned and lined with 'homard europeen' (homarus gammarus, a type of lobster), rolled and sliced in small pieces. It came with artichokes (where did he find them in July?) and confit cherry tomatoes, with a thyme reduction. The slight dryness of the saddle was perfectly complemented by the moist confit tomatoes and artichokes, with the homard lining yielding a subtle flavour. The potent reduction was excellent, for Man almost the protagonist of this dish.

The ‘Cote de veau…’ was in fact a nice piece of veal which had been stuffed with morels, olives and vegetables, roasted and then sliced in two very generous chunks – any London restaurant could have easily got away with one. This too was a very successful dish, with an intense lemon scented reduction. The orange flavoured risotto on the side (on its top you see a piece of ‘crispified’ ham), continued the citrus fruit theme; while a little too ‘compact’ by Italian standards (i.e. not al dente, it provided an interesting match to the meat. The meat itself was cooked excellently.

Man found these two dishes a joy to look at, in their pseudo-rustic and colourful robe, expressing great personality. Woman kept munching

Now the bit Woman likes best, desserts!

The apricot crème brulee was well made, with the half apricots giving a nice bite. We trust the pistachio was there, but we did not detect it. The accompanying apricot sorbet was also powerful, very pleasing.

And how about the chocolate fondant? Supreme, with a delicate and creamy Grand Marnier core, and very thin basil custard (here again we did not distinguish the basil, but it was still excellent). Woman is convinced that the chocolate sorbet was in fact chocolate ice-cream, but who cares about terminology when the thing is this good?

We finished with two coffees, definitely not the strongest point of the dinner , which came with a small selection of petit fours:

Coffee meringues, chocolate ‘thingies’ (we did not taste them), and… in place of those red dots on the right there were two blackberry jellies which we were too greedy to leave there for the picture!

With a one litre bottle of water at €4.20 and a bottle of Minervois Domaine de Gally Cuvee Pierre Joseph Cros 2001 at €30, the bill came at €103.20, much below our expectations: next time should we splash on a €75 Pinot Noir to get up to our £100 limit?

We found this operation charming all the way: service is friendly and unstuffy, remarkable for this kind of establishment. Congratulations are due to the whole Lorentz family, but of course most of all to the young (he is a Jeune Restaurateur d’Europe, so must be below 40 years of age) talent Jacques. A real pity, because this way we’ll never try the Stube…unless he cooks there too. Why this place hasn’t got a Michelin star (from the same guide that gives a bib-gourmand to the place we reviewed here) is completely beyond our comprehension. As few other of the places we have reviewed so far (most notably Latium/Maurizio Morelli, both the former Fior di Roccia/Walter Miori and Osteria fior di Roccia/Michele Menestrina , not to forget L' Ortica/Piercarlo Zanotti), this is exactly what we are looking for: top level cuisine, real passion and stunning prices. Go there if you happen to pass by Strasbourg.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The failings of restaurant guides

One of the reasons for us starting this modest blog was the unreliability of the ‘official’ guides. If you think about it, it is just impossible (apart from any more sinister consideration ) that homogeneity and accuracy of judgement can be produced by a guide across the board when there are thousands of restaurants to inspect and classify. Mistakes, and some gross ones at that, are not only unavoidable but probable. So we find all guides mostly useless.

Nonetheless, we confess: sometimes we succumb to laziness and instead of doing proper research we do rely on guides when deciding which restaurant to visit. The last time we did that, our moral frailty was met with a just punishment…but at least we found a confirmation of the absurdities present even in the most illustrious of publications.

We picked a restaurant in Bologna (Italy) rewarded by the Michelin guide with the coveted Bib Gourmand title: it’s the Ristorante Posta, Via della Grada, 21/A 40122 Bologna, Italy, which specialises in Tuscan cuisine (the owner/manager is from Tuscany). Apart from the cuisine, which was generally mediocre, we were flabbergasted by the lack of interest and knowledge on the part of all staff for the food they served, and this in a ‘trattoria’ style place where the simple cooking will not mask any fault in the raw material. For example nobody, not the waiters, not the manager, could tell us where these mushrooms (€13) came from:

‘Probably from Yugoslavia’ was the best we could get from the manager. While the lack of knowledge is nothing more than a worrying signal of how the restaurant is run, the sheer badness of this simple dish was memorable. The mushrooms themselves were watery and lacked any primary flavour, but the inept grilling had conferred them one single flavour: burned bitterness. Yugoslavian or not, these mushrooms should not have been served.

Having made our way to the desserts, we asked the waitress whether these ‘peach al cartoccio’ and chocolate cake (‘morbidina al cioccolato’) were made on the premises:

‘The peach is made on the premises, but the cake is not’

Ah, and where is it made?’

‘I don’t know, it comes from a box’.

Funnily enough, the chocolate cake was one of the best dishes of the night, though Man and Woman worried about the list of ingredients they might have read on that box…

The impression we got was that this establishment focuses on appearance more than on substance look for example at how cute the room is:

It is sad that the Michelin inspectors should fall for this type of operation. While ultimately only the mushrooms were seriously bad, the rest being merely forgettable, there are hundreds of better trattorias than this one in Italy, which are based on real care for the raw materials and on simple but expressive cooking. Remember: in Italy the raw material is at the core of traditional cuisine, and any serious owner or chef will scurry around and make a strenuous effort to find the supplier which is ‘just right’.

We are afraid the Bib Gourmand does not belong in Ristorante Posta in Bologna (rather, for example, here and here).


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