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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Le Grappe d'or (Lausanne)

The day: 9th January 2008, Dinner.
The place: Rue Cheneau-de-Bourg, 3, Lausanne, (Switzerland), tel: +41 (0) 21 323 0760

The venue: La Grappe d’Or
The food: (Very) Traditional Italian
Airport: Geneva (BA)
The drinks: Short list, mostly Italian, a couple of Swiss wines

We are condemned to Italian cusine. In Lausanne for a couple of days, we had been tipped off by Chef Edorovio to go to Le Pomme de Pin, but alas on a Wednesday night it was fully booked. So, egged on by various raving reviews, off we go to Le Grappe d’or: we expect to find a temple of French cuisine, (eg. Frommer hails it as ‘the most sought-after citadel of food and drink’) but uhm, a bit weird, an inspection of the menu reveals vongole and tomato pasta, risotto… oh well, no time to lose by now, this is our third attempt to get some food tonight (yes, we had also tried and book ‘Le petit grappe’: according to the always knowledgeable internet guides, the name is due to it being run by the son of the more famous owner of the more formal and expensive “La grappe d’or”. But wait: we phone up, and some rather upset local answers rudely and hangs up on us. Undeterred, we turn up at the place in person: o-oh, at the address it really looks like a private home, where has the restaurant gone? Seems like the only alternative is to splash out on its more expensive, turned Italian “parent” next door…. We are condemned to Italian cuisine. This time it is by chef
Giorgio Zanini, formerly at the Villa d'Este on Lake Como.

Inside, and we step in a time warp: what we presume must be the owner is a middle-aged-to elderly straightened up gentleman with jet black, slicked back hair and a pair of pointed moustache that would make Dali envious. The Head waiter is a grey haired, suave and soft-spoken gentleman that reminds us of so many Italian immigrants gone to look for fortune abroad (if you have seen Nino Manfredi in “Pane e cioccolata” you know what we are talking about. If not, that’s a title for your next rainy Sunday afternoon in front of your TV). The décor is elegant for sure, but feels slightly stiff and decadent.

But let us talk food now. Starters go from the 22CHF (1 Pound = 2.2 CHF) of the Bresaola maison, goose ham and rocket to the 25CHF of the not better specified “Antipasti ‘La Grappa’”, while 'paste' go from the 24CHF of the 'mezze maniche' (half sleeves) with sausage in a pecorino casing to the 27CHF of the clam stracci with cherry tomatoes. Mains include Rosemary beef tagliata at 45CHF and grilled langoustines and radicchio at 46CHF. There is also a truffle menu, but if you consider that the exchange rate was roughly 2.2 CHF in the pound, the prices for the truffle dish appear worryingly low (between 30CHF and 38CHF, with the exceptions of a lombata with truffle at 56CHF).

There were also specials on the board, and while perusing all this in comes the amouse bouche, grilled aubergines and courgettes slightly marinated in oil and vinegar

Ok, really nothing to write home about, but we do not want to start by being put off by this perhaps too simple beginning, what is wrong with you Woman, can’t you appreciate the basics?!

Ah, and the bread comes in, too, a ciabatta and some focaccia, as we were to learn later both baked in house.

Now for the real thing. We began with:

- Tagliatelle all’Ischitana (tagliatelle with rabbit and tomato sauce) (24CHF)

- Tuna ham risotto with basil and gold leaf (26CHF)

Now: tagliatelle, which are also made on the premises (but have a rather different texture from what we are used to, perhaps they dry them more) were rather rough on the surface (and we mean it as a compliment), not because they had been rolled out with a wooden pin, but because of the drying process that had let the durum wheat do the job (well, at least according to chef Zanini, who at some point came out of the kitchen to talk to his customers). But the sauce was quite bland, possibly because it had not been reduced enough to concentrate its flavour; it was too liquid, and we would not have minded a bit more strength in the pasta. Overall, though, it was not unpleasant, thanks mainly to the herbs, basil and thyme, which were coming out with character. But the rabbit was only playing second fiddle.

As for the risotto: well, initially we thought this might have been some homage to the old gold leaf risotto pioneer, Gualtiero Marchesi, but in fact it was quite an ordinary risotto (by which we mean no trademark sour butter (burro acidulato) here), in fact not too good cooking-wise (we elaborate: the mantecatura was rather unsuccessful, the rice was at the same time dry, a little undercooked and a touch too stodgy), but good in flavour. On the other hand, the Tuna ham was really superior, truly excellent. The combination of flavours? Well we did not mind parmesan and tuna…

To follow, we opted for:

- Suckling pig in ‘mirto’ sauce with potato mash (43CHF)

- Goose breast and leg “ciucco style” (slang for ‘drunk’, in practice with a Barolo sauce) (59CHF)

The goose was perhaps just a little dry, but overall it was very flavoursome. The accompanying polenta was also exceedingly good, the wine sauce though not particularly tasty.

The suckling pig was simply fantastic; the meat superb, moist, tender, succulent, flavoursome… we could go on and on. The cooking of it was equally good, bringing all the best out of these beautiful cutlets. The mash was also a pleasure: no compromises, just rough potato mash with high quality potatoes. The thyme sauce to be fair was not particularly aromatic.

To conclude, we ordered:

-Amaretto pannacotta with chocolate sauce (12 CHF)

- Limoncello Baba with yogurt ice cream (12 CHF)

The baba was very well made, airy, springy, spongy, soaked in Rhum. Well, in fact rather too much of it. The accompanying vanilla ice cream was also superlative, and the striking profusion of fruit made it a fresh and pleasant dish.

As for the amaretto pannacotta, taste wise it was good, but texture wise… Now sorry, yes Woman is bitchy, but we cannot let this really off-putting layer of gelatine on top go unnoticed (she knows well, something that happens all too often at our place), so here is exhibit number 1 for the prosecution:

Gelatine has to be dissolved thoroughly and mixed in, not let drop at the bottom. Ok, rant over, all is forgotten when out of the kitchen the chef appears with a shiny copper cauldron full of sabayon: it is served at another table, but there is plenty for everybody to enjoy, and could we not join in?

As simple as it was delicious. And when this was over, off went the dishes, and on came a bottle of grappa and one of limoncello, for us to help ourselves.

With a bottle of Swiss Pinot Noir Clavien 2005 at 58CHF (steeeep) and half a bottle of water at 5.20CHF, the total bill came at 221.20CHF, just making our £100 rule.

The service was mainly provided by a clever young waiter who'll go far, and the head waiter, though a little wobbly in his knowledge of the dishes was also pleasant and professional. The kitchen is well organised, as the good timing of the dishes showed. This is definitely not a temple of refined French cooking, but rather a very upmarket version of a traditional Italian trattoria. The portions are movingly generous, there is a sense of true Italian hospitality, and it is the kind of cooking that goes straight for your stomach and your heart, making little effort to tease your palate in any subtle or complex way. The sauces are thickened not with cream but with starch, probably too much of it – as one can see quite clearly in the pictures. To us the whole felt very 70s. Having said that, this is - a couple of notches more refined - the type of home cooking you may still find in many places in Italy. The ingredients are all of absolutely top quality, and this came through particularly in the mains (though let's not forget that tuna ham!), where both goose and pig were seriously good, in spite of the taming effect of the sauces.

On the other hand, we did have the chance to put this place in context in the following days: Lausanne is definitely a place where you can eat well, and somehow Le grappe d’or (but why did they not change their name when they took over the place?) falls in between rustic fare and haute cuisine. We do appreciate Chef Zanini’s effort to bring a piece of that kind of misty eyed hard working Italy of the olden days gone by with good ingredients and an evident passion. And also, perhaps, it makes sense commercially to find a throughly recognisable Italian niche in the midstof so many portentous straight French competitors. For us, though, it is a bit old fashioned to tease us back on our own, though should we have to come back with those difficult-to-please-eat-at home parents, we may just try it again.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Down with Starbucks (but please don't sue us)

A cold late December morning outside a non-descript bar, near a non-descript hospital, in a non- descript residential suburb of Bologna (if Bolognese readers want to take a guess...go ahead!). Outside you get this on the right:

and this on the left

You cannot get much more anonymous than this, can you? But now, get inside.... a whole new world of plenty: would you care for chocolates?

Or perhaps you fancy the more traditional "paste"

Well, they also have a lab (a lab in a bar, can you imagine?!), and people working in it:
We could not take a picture of the coffee counter, so crowded it was.
Moral: How can anyone in his right mind ever be tempted, we wonder, into the aseptic (at best) Starbuck world? Long live the independent bar!


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Leoni brothers at Ristorante Il Sole (Bologna, IT)

The day: 28th December 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: Via Lame, 67, Trebbo di Reno (BO), Italy (tel +39 051 700102)
The venue: Ristorante Il Sole (aka Antica Locanda il Sole)
Closest airport: Bologna (BA from London Gatwick)
The food: Fine Italian Dining, with strong regional influence
The drinks: Good list, many regional but also other choices, all prices but very reasonable markups

We had been in this Michelin starred establishment, just 8 kilometres in the fertile plain around Bologna, before several times, this being an old time favourite with Megaman and Megawoman, but never with a camera handy. So here we go to pay a solo (well, in the sense of duo, of course) visit with all the necessary equipment.

The restaurant is run by two brother chef patrons Marcello and Gianluca Leoni, justifying the nice menu cover, as Leoni is the Italian for “lions”

The interior, divided in several relatively small rooms (almost empty during our visit), with huge, well-separated tables and comfortable chairs, exudes relaxed, cheerful elegance and care for detail. It feels like the living room of a (wealthy) friend: since we have no wealthy friends we come here instead. There is also a pleasant outside space in the Summer.

This is that type of environment in which you almost sense you can look forward to a good experience…

The menu (ah -should we bother to remind you?- alas, here too as often in Italy, the sexist practice of not showing prices on ladies’ menus is still going strong) offers a good selection. Starters go from the €25 of the black truffle sea bass wrapped in cabbage with pumpkin tortelli to the €35 of astice and foie gras salad with lentils. To follow, there are soups (e.g. Savoy cabbage soup with gallinella chunks, at €25) and pasta dishes (all priced between €25 and €28), many of them going for a “sea/mountain” combination, e.g. ravioli filled with amatriciana sauce (tomato, guanciale (pig cheek) and pecorino) with astice in light pecorino sauce. Mains go from the €25 of pigeon with Tropea onions flan and Chinese pepper peach mash, to the €30 of most other dishes, including Astice with artichokes and lemon in a burrata sauce.

The set menus are good value for money, especially in the light of the a la carte: a nine course set menu at €95 (for the whole table), and a five course set menu (only for two people, and we assume also for multiples thereof) at €60. This being, for reasons we’ll spare you, the only serious meal of the Christmas-New Year period for us, we decide to fill up with the five course menu. We detail the dishes as we go along.

In the meantime, as you would expect, the bread arrives:

Plain grissini, thyme grissini, chilli grissini, and rosemary focaccia. Uhm, just grissini you wonder? Well, we are in Italy, just you wait…

The bread comes in full glory just handy for the first course:

- CulatelloMaialarte

Culatello, as you know, is a particularly fine cured ham produced in this region. “Maialarte”, which translates into something like “porkart”, is not some fancy name for the presentation, rather the name of the producer, who apparently holds strong views, and thinks that the meat should be fat enough that curing does not dry it up, rather than having to rely on the operation of marinading in wine as tradionally done, which would interfere with the ‘true’ taste. And we can assure you it was simply so good we felt no desire for any flavour addition: well done!

Before our next course, in comes bread number 2: two trays both looking like this

where you can recognize a tomato flatbread, an olive roll, a walnut roll and a bit more of rosemary focaccia. Just in time to accompany our

- Fresh herbs rabbit loin with chestnut flan and vanilla:

It came with thin and crisp polenta shavings (for want of a better word), and the white sauce you see around it is a burrata cheese (if you don’t know it, imagine a cream filled mozzarella) sauce. Quite stunning, the rabbit perfectly moist (we later learned it had been simply grilled on chrome plates), accompanied by the delicate, sweet chestnut flan, with the burrata sauce balancing and moistening the dish by lending it its nice acidity. Very well, we are really starting to relax. And talking about relaxing, we have to tell you a wine story later…just keep reading.

What is next? Well, the menu stated

- from our tradition: tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne…”.

When ordering, Marcello Leoni (who pleasantly entertains guests while his brother Gianluca slaves in the kitchen) told us that unfortunately tortellini were not ready yet, so would we care for passatelli in a parmesan soup. Of course we could not say no, and we thought this was it for tradition (this is a 5 course menu, right?):

They came with a black truffle shaving, its perfume sprinting first to the nose. But then, the parmesan took over, and this luscious rich soup wrapped in sweet-acidic velvet the passatelli. Rather wonderful, and not at all as heavy as you may think, with the dash of olive oil elevating the whole. One for the glutton, we agree (our friend-who-knows-what-he-is-talking-about would call it “goloso”), but good nonetheless. A kind of Bolognese version of canederlotti with Puzzone di Moena, the ever-popular traditional combination from Trentino (an example of which we had here), this cheese and carbohydrate acidic combination. Hearty, perfect winter food, but at the same time light and balanced. Ah, but wait, we are not done yet with tradition! Here come the traditional tagliatelle with ragu (‘alla bolognese’, of course, but here they do not need to specify it):

Please, care to note that this is nothing of the sort that goes by the name “bolognaise” in Anglophone countries: this is the real thing, and tomato is present only in very concentrated form, to stain the dish. The pasta here is “tirata a mano”, that is rolled out by hand, and its bite is plain fantastic. The sauce is rich, but the hand is delicate (the more remarkable as the cuisine in this part of the world is rather generous with saturated fats (like here).

Finally, the third bit of tradition, lasagne al ragu:

Thankgod portions are not huge (but still generous), as this is turning into a massive seven course menu. The quality is yet again excellent, a traditional lasagne with all the trimmings, including béchamel sauce, it merits a closeup inspection of its dribbling innards:

Of the three traditional dishes, this was the heaviest, unlike the previous two a little too much, at least for our taste.

Next, we move to the main dish, though at this point this distinction is rather pointless:

- partridge with black cabbage and pan brioche in a Jerusalem artichokes sauce:

This must be the best partridge we have had this year: amazingly, simply grilled on the above mentioned chrome plates. The breast, in fat chunks, was just exactly cooked through with the faintest of pinkiness left, and still moist (this being meat that dries easily we even thought it had been partly steamed or cooked sous-vide, but no: just chrome plate grilling and a great hand); while the rest of the meat had been reduced to small cubes and cooked in a very sweet tomato sauce, sweeter than the pan brioche (to which Man would have preferred a slice of polenta, and so would Woman, perhaps our experiences in Trentino are becoming a little addictive...). Both the Jerusalem artichokes and the black cabbage had their flavour springing out distinctly and fully concentrated. Overall very impressive, though perhaps again a touch too fat to our taste.

While taking stock of all the above, a nice gift from the kitchen, a

- Sicilian cassata ice cream.

As we have explained elsewhere, Sicilian cassata is definitely not ice cream, rather a very sweet ricotta cream with candied peels and other fruit, in a sponge pastry case, the whole covered in sugar paste. Here what came through potently from the original was the very marked taste of ewe ricotta Very smooth, very striking. But now for the ‘real’ dessert, a

- Mont blanc with marron glace and cocoa sauce:

This was a stunner: on the left, your standard montblanc, this time with marron glace' rather than chestnut puree, which was anyhow sitting a little bit behind it (quite gorgeous). A lot of whipped cream, a lot of marron glacees, a good sprinkling of crushed meringue. On the right, a superb chestnut icecream, very very smooth, sitting on a dab of chestnut paste. Still in keeping with tradition, very well made: moving, really.

But this is not all, and heroically we plough on with the final effort, petit fours:

Left to right, we have a chocolate filled with chestnut puree, a chocolate truffle with crème patissiere, a liquorice panna cotta, an almond (?) wafer, and some other biscuit we cannot name. You can guess yourself they were all good.

The bill needs a bit of explanation. As we said above, the food part came at €120. On top of that, we pick a €4 bottle of water from the water menu (confession: Woman picked the cheapest one, if you want to splash, go for a bottle of Evian limited edition 2007 at €15, must do miracles at that price), two coffees and a bottle of Barbera at around €40. However: we start off with our ‘Barbera’, which is rather good…in fact very good…in fact too good…

indeed it is a Barolo, and a fine one too! (yes, you are right – Man, who had ordered it should have noticed right away when shown the bottle, but has no eye for the detail, though he was quite amazed by the complexity of this supposed Barbera when tasting it…). Well, while mulling the matter half a glass down, Mr. Leoni comes back noting the mistake (rather excusable, with 13,000 bottles to choose from) and offering to change the bottle. But, we are quite in love already with our Barolo by now: no, no, let’s carry on! Ah, blessed ignorance… and blessed Mr Leoni, too. Our excellent 2001 Barolo Cerequio by Roberto Voerzio was on the list for €180, reduced to €120 (in the US it retails at an average $218, in the UK for more than £150 from a wine merchant). As in previous conversation it had emerged that the average markup is around 50%, we guess we got it at cost, which seemed to us a very fair compromise, having been offered and having declined the opportunity to get away with half a glass of this nectar at zero cost. Of course, as you know by now, we would not have ordered that category of wine, but there you go. In short, then, while we had initially carefully worked towards not overshooting our £100 rule by too much, we failed miserably, totalling up €240 (i.e. around £160) – you’ll notice that not only did we get the wine at a bargain price, but also water and coffee thrown in. Quite a treat.

Beside Marcello Leoni, a nice foreign waitress (though her pronunciation of the dishes’ names offers ample scope for improvement) helped in the front room, which had only one other table with (three) customers beside us unfortunately not an unusual sight in starred restaurants at lunch in Italy.

What a lunch! We were impressed by the cuisine. It bears some of the marks of the regional tradition, which is skewed towards heaviness, but just a little so: comparing for example with the two-starred San Domenico the dishes are lighter and neater here. The gentle creativity rooted in tradition, the balance, the generosity, the technical soundness and especially the truly outstanding patisserie department will make any lover of Italian food happy at Il Sole. We understand the two 'lion' chefs have plans for a move, and we will watch them carefully: for the moment, continue in this way!


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Amazing langoustines at Au Tilleul

On our way to Italy for a non-vacation in December, we need some relaxation ahead of a very diffcult period (we spare you the details). And where best to find it than during the natural stop in Alsace, at our discovery of last Summer, Jacques Lorentz's Au Tilleul? As you'll recall it is in the village with the typically French sounding name of Mittelhausbergen, off Strasbourg, here:

We had another wonderful and stunningly inexpensive dinner at Au Tilleul. Among the many superb items, the Langoustines were particularly superb. The dish arrives to your table like this:

with the langoustine resting on a bed of cereals and grains. Then, the waitress pours on it a clear consomme', et voila':

This dish is light, this dish is beautiful, this dish is elegant, this dish is tasty: in a nutshell, this dish is great. The delicate, sweet, succulent meat of the Langoustine is just caressed by the equally delicate consomme'. The cereals and grains then add some texture and crunch. Perfect.

And, just to to tempt you a little more if you have a sweet tooth, here's how we concluded the dinner...


Thursday, January 3, 2008


The day: 9th Decmber 2007, Dinner.
The place: 14 Hanway Street, London W1T 1UD (020-7637 7720)
The venue: Kikuchi Restaurant
The food: Japanese
The drinks: Japanese beers and sake.

In the year when the Michelin critics regaled Tokyo with an amazing array of stars, including three for a sushi bar in a station, it seems appropriate to pay a visit to Kikuchi, our favourite Japanese joint in London town. It’s tucked away in a seedy street off Tottenham Court road; if you notice several Mercedes parked there, be aware that they are not for Kikuchi customers but rather for the nearby much posher venue of Hakkasan.

The interior is Spartan with wooden tables

but very pleasant, tastefully decorated, warm, inviting, with embellishments, hygiene certificates and knives hung here and there

And of course the sushi counter (of which we could not take a detailed photograph not to disturb the other guests seating there) with Mr. Kikuchi himself, in traditional attire, concentrated on his delicate and refined cutting tasks - needless to say, this is not your easy-going Yo Sushi with pre-prepared sushi and sashimi items rotating on a conveyor belt and slowly oxidising: the fish is cut and assembled in front of you just before you eat it, a spectacle in itself:

The menu offers some fixed price set selections (sashimi, or teriyaki, or tempura) all at £35. We instead go a la carte, which offers an extensive number of choices. We begin with one of our favourites,

Saba no ponzu ae (Horse mackerel in ponzu) at £8.50 (from the list of specials).

First, the small plate you see beside the fishbowl is a little present that you get when you order alcohol (beer or sake). We did have a couple of Asahi beers, and this time (the offering varies every time) we were presented with this delicate finely cut marinated aubergine.

Now to the mackerel. This dish embodies for us (admittedly totally ignorant and naïve in the matter) all the best in Japanese cuisine: the stark, elegant and yet vivid presentation; the neatness of the flavours; the delightful freshness and melting, buttery consistency of the fish. Not to mention that the fatty acids in the mackerel are good for you…what do you want more? We could eat wagon loads of this stuff…

…but for the sake of variety we don’t, going instead next for some Edamame (soy pods steamed and salted, at £3.80) which we did not photograph since (1) they look like in any other sushi bar (2) our camera batteries were running low since one of us two which is not ‘me’ (!) had forgotten to change them…we shall spare you the argument between Man and Woman, which could only be placated by this:

Hotate Kinoko Butter (scallops fried in butter with mixed mushrooms), £ 8.00 (from the list of specials).

Scallops at their best are a treat for your palate, at their worst just a rubbery inconvenience: we can assure you these were a treat, perfectly fried so as to be both tender and gold coloured, with a nutty butter flavour, and very well matched by the mushrooms.

Next, of course, comes the sushi. There are two ‘chef sushi selections’ (besides the a la carte choices), one with 12 pieces and one with 9, both priced at around £2 a piece. We go for the smaller one:

Just the week before we had had a sushi in a nice but inferior place, and it was good we did, because we could appreciate even more the quality of the sushi at Kikuchi. As you can see it comes simply served on a wooden tray, with radish paste and finely sliced ginger (bottom left corner). Tonight’s selection consisted of prawns, two types of roe, mackerel, tuna, salmon, scallop, and two white fishes that we admit were not able to identify. This ensemble regaled us with the usual kaleidoscope of soft textures and delicate flavours that come with top level sushi. Delicious…

..but we are still very hungry: we are two carbohydrate addicted Italians after all. So we decide to satisfy our craving with two noodle soups:

- Inaniwa-zaru udon or su udon, £6.00

- Zaru-soba or kake-soba, £6.00

The first soup has thick white noodles while the second one has thinner buckwheat noodles. They both come in cold or hot versions (we put both names above but we don’t know which is which…) , and given the miserable weather outside and our scooter means of transport, we thought well to store up some heat. Both were excellent, the broth clear and intense.

You won’t believe it, but we are still hungry. So we conclude with:

- Nasu dengaku (grilled aubergine with sweet miso), £7.50 (from the list of specials).

In fact this turned out to be an excellent way to conclude the meal: a sweet, glistening, dribbling, melting, nutty, luscious roasted aubergine presented .

With the two Asahi beers at £4.00 each, copious amounts of green tea for free (bottomless cup) and a
10% service charge, the bill came to £72.30. Moreover, the more cheap bastards among you will be pleased to know that you get a £5.00 discount voucher for the next visit for every £50.00 you spend.

The service is extremely efficient, almost verging on the martial though with a charming smile. When you enter or book you are warned that there is a minimum £20.00 food charge per person. But don’t be put off: this is a lovingly run operation, and many restaurateurs would learn from studying how Mr. Kikuchi organises his front room staff. We like the homely atmosphere, and the many Japanese people who crowd the room seem to think the same. And although the décor is rustic the prices for such quality of ingredients are truly remarkable.

As we said we are no experts in Japanese cuisine, still we find nothing but fresh, good flavours and textures at Kikuchi, and this is enough for us. The dishes we went for were mainly ingredient based, calling chiefly on the demanding skills of the sushi chef. Although every time we go we say we must try also the teriyakis, the tempuras and all the rest, every time we cannot resist the tempting call of top quality deftly prepared sushi and sashimi. Well, maybe we’ll manage next time…


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