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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Zetter's Restaurant Rooms

The day: 13th March 2008, Dinner
The place: 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5RJ (020-7324 4455)
The venue: The Zetter Restaurant Rooms
The food: Fine Mediterranean Dining?? No
The drinks: Excellent wine list, very wide, well priced and good selection by the glass, too


Again in old London for a couple of days, we search feverishly for something sounding at least vaguely Italian to sample, and we land on Zetter’s restaurant rooms. It looks a bit expensive for the setting, but cheap bastards that we are, we scurry around the internet and we quickly find a 20% discount offer from Toptable, so we should manage within our £100 rule. So Zetter, here we come.
Well, hang on a sec, isn’t this that place we walked past several times, disliked at first sight, and swore never to go in? Mind you, it does not look ghastly, only one of those trendy looking places where you get the nauseous feeling that looks, ambience and fizz come way before food. Well, fear not, never judge by first impression… right?
The inside is, as noted, trendy, a beautiful bar on one side, a ‘look-me-inside’ kitchen on the other: surely they are confident about what they do at the stoves.
The tables are small, very small: lay out two A4 sheets (our usual unit of measurement), and you are done. The price per square inch is going to be high. The whole is graced by a white paper tablecloth (no pun intended), obviously they cannot afford cloth despite the fine dining prices. At least, the bread basket fits in.

One focaccia-like variety. The menu: starters go from the £5.50 of a Celeriac and pear soup with gorgonzola bruschetta to the £8.50 of e.g. crab salad with lemon-coriander dressing, avocado mousse and blood orange. Then there is a pasta and risotto selection of three dishes, the most expensive of which is a Linguine with seafood, chilli and tomato at £15.50, while mains go from the £15.50 of e.g. Grilled skate with saffron fennel, toasted almonds and caper vinaigrette, to the £17.50 of the Charcoal grilled English lamb with caponata and Greek yogurt.
Indeed, some of the dishes just mentioned all have a feeling of trying too hard (why would you want to put poor caponata with yogurt? Or avocado mousse and blood orange?), but anyhow we play relatively safe (at least so we think!) with the only other two primi besides the linguine already mentioned, namely:
- Taleggio and porcini tortelloni with tarragon and porcini butter (small, at £6.50; large portion available at £12)
- Prosciutto di Parma risotto with globe artichokes and mint (small, at £7, while the large version comes at £13)

With alarming speed, here they come. Try to imagine this: ‘speed’ and ‘risotto’, of course these words cannot go together, but here they did. Mondieu, it was overcooked, unbearably fat, overseasoned and crude. It was an ex risotto, a goner, a stiff. And what about any flavour from the artichokes? Something to try and put in the back of our mind as soon as possible.
Any better with the tortelloni? They really look horrible, don't they, immersed miserably in a fat-looking creamy puddle. Beside a little bit of dirt, which could even be excusable if the porcini were something to write home about… well, what are these? If it weren’t for the see through kitchen, one might have suspected that the dish had been quickly re-heated through a microwave. The sauce at the center of the dish had the temperature of a steel furnace, unlike the sauce at the margins. And there was plenty of sauce, an ominous reminder of previous experiences. To be sure, the flavour of Porcini was there, but this was all in the nose, the actual taste of mushrooms was negligible, all smothered by a triumph of butter: and who knows, there might have been taleggio there, but sure enough its taste was undetectable. The actual pasta: abominable for Man, Woman couldn’t fail to agree, with bits of it completely dry, others completely soggy. The thought of savage re-heating comes sneaking back…..
Ah, a charming waiter comes to collect our plates and… ‘hey, why did you not finish your sauce’? So, poor Man, by now tired of life and reproached like a naughty child and polite as ever, remains mouth agape and mumbles an imaginative reason (such as 'it was really very fat') for not scooping up the artery-threatening brownish buttery concoction on which the tortelloni floated. Now talk about adding insult to injury…
Never mind, though now we ARE worried about what is coming next:
-Saddle of rabbit wrapped in pancetta with olives and apple salad (£15.50);
- Roast monkfish with black olives, crispy polenta and lentil ragout (£17.50)

In fact, these were better than the primi. Not a big hurdle to pass, but still good news. The monkfish came in a nice and chunky piece, well cooked. The lentils were of apparent good quality, also well cooked, though definitely too salty. But all around… a lot of fat, and a salty tapenade of dried tomatoes: the whole very oily, very salty, poor monkfish, what a pity!
The rabbit, on the other hand, was thoroughly bland. At least, arteries can take a break! Apart from the julienne of (raw?) mangetout and the fact that it had been cooked properly, it would have been unmemorable, had it not been that it was the least bad performance of the evening so far. The comical and noticeable brown decoration was undetachable from the dish, irretrievably glued to it, so that we could not try it (maybe, we thought, the dishes are already produced by the factory with solidified balsamic vinegar, or whatever it was).
Now, how to close the dinner? Man: ‘Let’s share something’. Woman: ‘Come on, maybe they have a pastry chef? Man (looking stunned, again mouth agape, needs a second to recover): ‘PASTRY CHEF?!’ Woman (coming back to her senses): ‘I mean, let’s share something…’
So, in a damage limitation exercise, we go for:
- Dulce de leche crème brulee and banana split icecream at £5.50
What can we say, we have tried the real thing (Argentinian relatives, Uruguayan friends…), here there is a faint toffee flavour, to be fair the icecream with chocolate chips is not bad. Overall, probably the best dish of the evening. At least the trajectory is upwards.
With a 1 litre bottle of their own water at £2 (apparently, they have their own water source, so the description on the bottle tells us. Well, so do we in our kitchen…), and a bottle of (good) Delta Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 at £26.60, AND the all important 20% off the total, our final bill came to £75.39. Which means that without the discount, and with another dessert, we would have verged on the £90 before service. In this place? For this food? With this service?
This is possibly somewhere to keep in mind for drinks (the wine list is good and well-priced) and conversation, and maybe nibble something on the side, but proper dinner, it ain’t. Although the raw material is in general good, this is food you have to eat at uncomfortable tables, prepared with a skill far below the ambition behind it, and served by staff that are more apt for a cheap student hangout than for a trendy (why?) and quite pricey London venue.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ca dei Frati 2008

Like last year, we made our pilgrimage to the wine makers at Ca dei Frati to stock up on the new release of Ronchedone (vintage 2005). We found a few changes. While the old vines are still reassuringly there

many more iron totems for Man to adore are in the hangar:

(inside them, presumably, a lot of the better known white Lugana beside the red Ronchedone), the environment architecturally impressive, with huge stained glass windows (this really feels like a place for veneration):
complementing the old frescos you can spot on the outside of the building:
This time we took a tour of the cellar
...and walking along the barriques...walking...this is what you find, a metaphor for the power of ageing:
It was a beautiful winter drive around Garda. And the next stop after Ca dei Frati... obviously, the newly and deservedly Michelin starred L'Ortica, where we had a fantastic and unphotographed Tagliatelle with sweetbreads and artichokes, a classic for Romans but an audacious proposal by Chef Zanotti on the ethereal shores of Garda.


Monday, March 17, 2008

2 Camini

The day: 30th January, Dinner.
The place: Via Pontara 352, Baselga di Pine’ (TN), Italy (tel+39 0461 557200)
The venue: Ristorante 2 Camini

Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Traditional trattoria
The drinks: short but very careful selection of especially local wines

We briefly reported about this place last year, and now here we go with a fuller account of what you can have in this very warm and cosy traditional trattoria. It is an ‘Osteria tipica Trentina’: establishments adhering to this must offer a reasonably priced traditional set menu, source 60% of their materials locally, offer a good selection of local cheeses. Indeed, here you will find malga cheeses (a ‘malga’ is a small complex up the mountains including the farmer's hut and stables were cattle are kept during the warm season: they go up around mid June for the 'montegada', and come down around mid September for the 'desmalgada'), all kind of pork but also donkey meat salamis produced locally, local fresh water fish, and so on.

The restaurant has two main dining rooms, the one where we dined on the ground floor, adorned by a very welcoming fireplace; and another one upstairs, with beautiful views on the highlands surrounding the restaurant (we are at a 1000 meter altitude - bring a sweater). Tables are large, well spaced, with proper rich fabric tablecloth (nothing of the make-believe-authentic-trattoria you might have stumbled upon in London).

Besides the regularly changing traditional three course set menu at €21 (yes, that is £14!), the menu offers a varied selection of starters, from the €7 of the Piemontese style peppers stuffed with tuna, capers and anchovies; to the €8 of the Alpine Ibex (Stambecco) pate’ with tender salad. Primi are priced like starters, and include some rather glorious cheese canederlotti (i.e. type of bread dumplings) at €8 as well as traditional Rufioi (ravioli in the tradition of the tiny Valle dei Mocheni, that is filled with cabbage and cinnamon) at €7. Mains go from the €11 of the pork cutlets in mustard crust to the €14 of venison fillet with Juniper berries. There is a €2 cover charge per person, but all mains come with veggies.

While we peruse our menu, we are treated to an amuse bouche of Roe deer pate’. This was a one off special, as quite fortunately three wild specimens of the handsome creature had arrived in the morning, their flesh and entrails already beautifully combined in this terrine just in time for us to taste them: very good!

So we felt compelled to have more of the animals, and went for:

- Pappardelle with capriolo ragu’ (€7)

- Polenta dumplings with mushrooms, lucanica and Trentingrana (€8)

The pappardelle were dazzling: the ragu was succulent, juicy and extremely flavoursome, well concentrated and aromatic. The polenta dumplings were equally yummy: the (previously cooked) polenta is combined together with cheese and eggs, resulting in soft dumplings that soak up very aptly the butter sauce infused with the fat from the lucanica (traditional local type of fresh salami) and the fragrance of the porcini mushrooms, not to mention the strips of Trentigrana (local version of parmigiano, though we could probably be sued by both the Consorzio for Parmigiano Reggiano and the Consorzio for Trentingrana for this blatant inaccuracy, but you get the idea) melting on top… sure, you won’t be doing any favours to your waistline, but your tastebuds will be very grateful!

Next, we went for:

- lamb fillet with aromatic herbs (€14)

- stuffed rabbit (€11)

The stuffed rabbit is a longtime favourite of ours: the lovely bunny is boned and generously stuffed with meat and vegetables, served with braised fennel and courgettes. This is a rich dish, deeply heartening and satisfying, with the richness of the stuffing well tempered by the more delicate meat of the rabbit and the carrots and peas interspersed with the stuffing.

The lamb fillet was a more delicate yet very tasty dish, very refined, the high quality meat tender and sweet, with the herb underlining the gracefulness of the meat.

Both came with braised courgettes and fennel. There, no fancy jus, no pretentious arrangement, just deliciously and lovingly prepared veggies served the way you would at home.

Finally, puddings! Our choice fell over:

- Vanilla parfait with marron glace (€4)

- Bunet (€4)

In fact, feeling rather stuffed, we had asked for half portions. Well, those were pretty close to the full one, but here is trattoria hospitality for you!

The parfait was in fact closer to an ice-cream, and do not worry if the presentation is not at three star standard: we can testify to the beauty of its flavour! But the real king was the bunet. As we told you before, Franca and her mother Lucia are originally from Piedmont, where Bunet is a traditional pudding. It is a kind of flan, with the difference that the proportion of eggs to milk is different from your standard crème caramel, and the mix also includes chocolate and amaretti biscuits. Each single mouthful brings bliss a little closer, a fitting way to end our dinner.

With a bottomless carafe of pure tap water at €0 and a bottle of 2004 Teroldego Rotaliano Bagolati by Marco Donati at €16, our total bill came at €62.

This was comfort food at the highest degree. Honest, flavoursome home food away from home, in a warm, inviting environment that invites you to snug comfily on the sofa next to the fireplace to catch up with the news.

Carefully selected ingredients combined deftly to produce traditional dishes that make of 2 Camini the prototypical good trattoria, of which so few remain these days. On top of that, Signora Franca is a lady who knows a thing or two about wine (she is a trained Sommelier), so that your eating experience can be enhanced by the right liquid accompaniment to your meal, again something very rarely found in a ‘simple’ trattoria.

The restaurant is not all, there are also nicely appointed rooms where you can recover from the fatigues of your dinner: just one more reason to think of Trentino, and the Altopiano di Pine', for your next holidays!


Monday, March 10, 2008

Au Cheval Blanc (near Mulhouse, Alsace)

The day: 27th January, Dinner.
The place: 17 rue de Hecken 68780 Diefmatten (Mulhouse, France)

The venue: Restaurant Au Cheval Blanc
Closest airports: Basel (BA)
The food: Fine modern French
The drinks: Extensive and well priced list, obviously strong on Alsatians

Just a convenient 500 miles drive from London, is this family restaurant, the only restaurant indeed in this tiny little village at the southern end of Alsace. So rather than go shopping in Calais for the day, stretch your car a bit further, and here you are.

Chef Patrick Schlienger is at the stove, and should you feel too tired to drive straight back, you will be able to rest in one of the four cosy little rooms in another building opposite.

The interior is huge, and we felt a little lonely being the only guests in the dining room. But not to worry, another three diners arrive to take the pressure off.

The a la carte menu is relatively pricey, and presents a wide choice: besides a selection of foie gras starters (including e.g. Foie gras confit à l’ombre à la fleur de sel de Guérande, at €23: as for the specifics of it, your guess is as good as ours, indeed be prepared that English speaking waiting staff here appear to be few and far between), there are the ‘regular’ starters (well, still plenty of foie gras in there too), from the €15 of the Presskopf Sundgauvien Marie Therese style to the €25 of a lobster and foie gras salad. Mains cover fish, meat and game, and go from €23 for Filet mignon the Porcelet de Marcassine to the €32 of the Mignon de boeuf, foie de oie chaud at Reinette, jus de vin rouge reduit

In addition, there are at least nine different set menus, from €15 to €72, so there is plenty to choose from. We settled for the ‘March du moment’ three course set menu at €39 each.

In the meantime, here comes the bread:

A selection of home made rolls and slices from larger loaves, rather good. And as an accompaniment, some rather generous amouse bouche:

These were cold crayfish, warm mussels in their broth and a fish terrine. The first thing which strikes you is a strong smell of the sea. All was very fresh, and very good, complemented by a very effective use of herbs, with clean and fresh flavours. Well, this puts us in a very good mood! As for our meal, there were choices between several dishes. As for starters we opted for:

- Saumon fume du patron, Bouquet d’herbes et de salade (available a la carte at €19)

- Salade de gambas grillees a la plancha et copeaux de foie gras ‘Espuma de homard’

The salmon was nicely presented (ok, here Woman is less struck) and good, though admittedly not the best salmon we ever tasted.

As for the gambas salad, we agreed the best element in the dish was the lobster mousse, light and simply sublime. The gambas were perhaps overcooked, but still good. Man particularly enjoyed the array of flavours, while Woman was rather overwhelmed by too many of them, though admittedly we agreed they were all very distinctive and pleasant, with the foie gras “shavings” lending substance and body to the dish.

Moving on to the mains, we ordered

- Pave de Sandre rôti aux ‘legumes oublie’, beurre de safran;

- Delice de Pintade aux champignones et garnitures (both dishes were also available on the a la carte menu at €23 each)

The fish had been cooked well, the moist flesh retaining all its taste. All around it, a myriad of very pleasant flavours, with so many elements, a nice and accomplished dish… save for the pasta, and you know what we are used to (why o why do even very good French chefs keep serving this substandard pasta? It was simply awful, and if we could find a worse adjective we would use it. Just terrible). The accompanying mash was instead very good, with a tangy aspect that we could not pinpoint, and the remarkable saffron butter…delicious.

The Pintade was for Woman an even better dish (and rather less of a pasta misgiving here). The meat had been stuffed with the mushrooms, and although thoroughly cooked it retained all its moisture. Here, too, many components (a vegetable wrap here, some kind of mashy apricoty dollop there, chestnut spatzle everywhere) working effortlessly and very well together. A very accomplished and enjoyable dish.

Before our desserts (is this normal?) here come the petit four:

You can recognise two almond thins, chocolate and hazelnut shortbread, some spieced shortbread, coffee truffles and some almond frangipane. Very very good, so much so to wonder whether we should have let the desserts go. But let them that we begin to wonder if we should have let the desserts go – but let go we did not, and in fact we ordered:

- tarte tatin glace vanilla bourbon

- clafouti tiede aux fruit glace aux miel

We were very surprised with the Clafouti (we are spelling it as they did on the menu): it was very runny, more of a 'zabaione' than a clafoutis, with hardly any flour detectable. A mistery for us, nevertheless very pleasant. Tarte tatin was less than a success with Woman, who found the pastry too soggy, but Man had no such qualms, finding the dish balanced and satisfying, and anyhow we both polished off our plates with gusto.

We washed it all down with a bottle of water (€5.50 ) and a bottle of 2004 Pinot Blanc Theo Faller at €27.50, and the total bill came to €111.

Service was sweet (a kid probably apprentice in the kitchen), amicable and efficient, though the five friendly customers did not present a challenge. Though this is not the kind of sharp, focused cuisine that we favour above all, what we liked overall in Chef Schlienger was the lightness of the hand in some rather hearty dishes: in spite of all the advertised creams and butters, it was a festival of light and clean reductions. There is obviously solid and confident cooking in those quite opulent and very generous dishes. If you happen to drive this way, it is very well worth a visit. And if you stay overnight, make sure you also stay for breakfast and have maman’s home-made brioche/cake and jam from the fruits in the garden behind.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Sapori di Primavera

Strolling, lost in conversation or in thought, in a piazza in Italy, this can happen: you suddenly find yourself surrounded by mountains of food.

As it happens, this is Piazza Fiera in Trento, and we discover it it holds for a few days stalls from all over Italy to celebrate the imminent spring.

So the ‘insaccati’ from Umbria

are just in front of cheeses from Piemonte:

notably Castelmagno. Remember? We had a risotto with this cheese even in London.

There are some monstrously sized breads:

provided by a Sicilian stall:

It looks excellently made inside too:

And there is plenty more bread:

Now, we wonder, what could go with bread?...

We turn around and we find 'porchetta from Ariccia’:

This is a speciality from Lazio (and, in a different version with fennel, from Tuscany), a whole pig boned and oven cooked,

stuffed with herbs and spices.

(again, we had a refined version of it in the Michelin starred Arbutus in that world emporium, London.)

What about desserts? Mmmh, we think we’ll turn back to the Sicilian stall…

So it is that we Italians, divided on everything, even in these tough times find national unity in food.


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