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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

cold, flu and memories

Both Man and Woman have had the flu, forcing a little pause with restaurant tastings. So, waiting for the next experience, we live on memories…

Among the outstanding recent dinners one was at our London fave Latium, which unfortunately we did not record for posterity.

(but those ‘barzotte’ eggs with truffles and chanterelles mushrooms, mmmh!).

The other outstanding dinner was at Locanda Margon. We present it here with no comments, even the photos alone tell you what superior kind of experience this was.

We will omit some extras, but not the bread, of course:

And here we go: Sea fish ravioli in clam water with garlic foam

Potato ‘zuppa’ with wild mushrooms

(not what you expected for a zuppa, admit it!)

Sebass fillet (and much more)

Suckling pig fillet (and even more)

Carrot ‘tortino’, apples and beetoroot

Pears cooked in Chardonnay grappa

This year Locanda Margon retained its Michelin star. Its great location, consistency and excellence of cuisine with raw materials of absolute excellence deserve more – but for us maybe better not: we might never again afford such dinners for €140 – wine inclusive (Pinot Nero Pisoni 2003) and treated like royalty!! (Bizarrely, one well-known Italian guide has lowered the value-for-money rating of the Locanda. Dear friends, you know very well that we are always sternly, almost obsessively, mindful of the pecuniary implications of our adventures: but if this is not value for money, we don’t know what is. People passing certain judgments probably focus on money alone without looking at value.).

Analogous observations go for
Latium in London: though its standards are both more consistent and superior to any starred Italian restaurant we have tried in the city, the lack of a star so far probably has allowed us to preserve the tumescence of our wallets while at the same time delighting our gustative souls. Anyway, for this year the star game is still on….


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lo Scrigno del Duomo (upstairs)

The day: 3rd November 2008, Dinner.
The place: Piazza del Duomo, Trento
The venue: Scrigno del Duomo Osteria and Wine Bar
The food: Simple Fine Italian
The drinks: Short but strong list, Italian based, with several lesser known varieties

We are temporarily in Trento and we are thinking of paying our beloved Franca Merz a visit …but it’s a Monday! I Due Camini, like many other places, is closed. So why not stay in the very centre of town, and try the less formal sister venue of the Michelin starred Scrigno del Duomo? While the formal restaurant is in a basement, this is at ground level. The interior is warm and appealing – it reminds us a bit of the Vinothek in Bad Mergentheim (which also had an associated starred venue).

The menu is short and offers simple but very enticing dishes. First of all, you can just have a selection of Salumi (cured meats) and Cheeses (€8.50 for 5 items and €10.50 for 7). The Cheese section especially would offer you a comprehensive sample of the best of the Trentino production, including of course the fabulous Puzzone di Moena. There is a €33 three course menu. And then there are various individual dishes or salads, such as Spinach ‘sformatino’ with Puzzone cheese and Finferli (i.e. girolles) mushrooms at €9 or Octopus carpaccio with vegetables, oil and lemon at €12.

In the meanwhile, the bread arrives:

A nicely presented ‘basket’, with a small selection of superior bread.

The bread is made out of stone-ground high quality flour and leaven. The result speaks for itself.

For first courses we go for:

- Homemade tagliatelle with roasted duck (€10)

- Val di Gresta potato cream with veal meatballs and braised savoy cabbage (€10)

Well well well these are very nicely presented dishes for an osteria! The potato cream is just slightly gluey, but the potato flavour is striking indeed. The meatballs are larger than we thought and just perfect, moist and fulfilling, obviously made with good raw material. And the olive oil is top notch which, as ever, elevates the dish.

The tagliatelle are good if a bit ‘nervous’. But what amazing taste, here we are at fine dining, not osteria, levels: the reduction is intense and velvety; the aromatic tang of the rosemary tends to dominate but it integrates splendidly with the reduction and with the excellent duck. A pasta dish among the best we’ve had of late.

And the secondi:

- Roman ‘puntarelle’ with tuna morsels and balsamic vinaigrette (€15)

- Warm beef salad with vegetables and Tropea onions (€11).

The puntarellle, a typical vegetable from the Lazio region (of course also in London we sometimes find wonderful version of them here), are pleasantly fresh and crunchy, while the tuna, although slightly overcooked is still tender. The acidic base is apt, with the flaked almonds adding a gentler, sweeter finish.

The beef is boiled, shredded and composed with the finely sliced onions, fennels and small carrots. A moist, light and succulent dish, in which once again the acidic hint adds to the sense of freshness. Very agreeable on the palate.

All in all, with some water and two glasses of wine, the total came to around €60. Good value given the quality.

The service was friendly and correct. We are very happy. We are happy because with all the things that are going wrong in Italy it’s nice at least to come across places who uphold the standards of our cuisine in this way. It does not seem to take much to prepare a simple rewarding Italian dish: excellent, possibly local, ingredients, correct cooking, don’t go too heavy with the fats, and a sprinkle of personal touch – you don’t need to master complex preparations as in French cuisine. Yet so few manage to get it right. They certainly do it at this Osteria. We find it much better value than the starred sister venue downstairs where, despite the presence of a good chef, the experience can be a little hit and miss (the place where to go for fine cuisine in Trento is here). None of it here, where everything, but really everything, was most pleasant and well priced. Try it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mews of Mayfair

The day: 24th October 2008, Dinner.
The place: 10-11 Lancashire Court, New Bond Street, London W1S 1EY
The venue: Mews of Mayfair
The food: French
The drinks: Interesting, reasonably priced wine list, few choices under £30.

In the heart of Mayfair, we were attracted to this restaurant by a combination of factors: its menu (we’ve had mostly positive run of late with French cuisine), a promisingly negative review of AA Gill, and a 50% discount on food (why do these places do that instead of setting directly more reasonable prices?). The restaurant is on the first floor, from which you can contemplate the wall of vociferous crowd standing out of the bar downstairs:

A climb up the narrow staircase and a warm environment engulfs you: floorboards, cream walls and upholstered benches along the walls, spacious tables. Unfortunately the tables for two are very close to one another – but then again space is expensive in Mayfair (otherwise we’d live there, no?).

On the menu, starters are in the £6-10 range, with an intriguing ‘Le Landes’ Duck and Ham Hock Terrine with Figs (£8). Among the mains, we are tempted by a Peppered Monkfish with Red Wine and Oxtail Risotto (£17), but we’ll opt for something lighter.

The bread arrives:

Offered from a tray, and always refilled, it’s either rosemary or plain. Not much of a variety, you may argue, yet quite good - and you know we do not use the ‘g’ word very often when referring to bread.

Our starters appear:

- Pan Fried Sea Bream with celeriac and thyme (£7)
- Seared scallops with cauliflower and Cox’s apple salad (£9.50)

The scallops were seared wonderfully according to Woman, and you can see from the photo what she means - whereas fussy Man found them very good but ever so slightly rubbery, i.e. overcooked (but just). Nevertheless the cauliflower sauce, in psite of its offputting purple appearance, was incredibly luscious and intense on both palates. An excellent variety of flavours came through in the garnishes and accompaniments (aside from the cauliflower, the tangy fine apples, a remarkable basil flavoured olive oil, and fresh sorrel). An impressive, gustatively complex and good looking dish: a motive that will continue.

The seabream tail, while not fantastic in terms of raw material, was cooked egregiously, with mustardy and smoky flavoured sauces and finely sliced mushrooms and beautiful garnishes adding richness and finesse to this labour intensive work.

Here are our mains:

- Pan Fried John Dory with calamari and parsnip tart (£19)
- Fillet of Pollock with braised lettuce and shrimp gnocchi (£16.50).

With the Jonh Dory a truly regrettable incident happened: Man, carried away by his enthusiasm for its masterful cooking, gobbled up bit by bit the entire piece of fish without leaving anything for Woman! So you’ll have to trust him on the cooking…The miffed Woman can only add her favourable opinion of the reduction (probably veal) and of the tender and flavoursome fine calamari. And as usual by now, many interesting plays and subthemes going on in this rich, meaty dish, the parsnip tart and the ‘polenta’ soaking up and sublimating them. (One of the subthemes were unadvertised frog legs: were they afraid of scaring the public?).

The masterful cooking theme continues with the humble Pollock. However the ‘gnocchi’ were not gnocchi: served in an Italian restaurant, they would have made their way directly back to the kitchen with the complaint that they were just a floury mess with no shrimp flavour to speak of: but these objects being merely a supporting piece in a French dish, we took a more relaxed view…The pollock wasn’t very flavoursome, but conversely, the braised lettuce was a delight, so simple but so intense and well executed, and so well fitting the other material.

And to conclude:

- Pecan pudding with bay leaf ice cream (£7)
- Pistachio parfait with bitter chocolate sorbet (£7.00)

The pecan pudding is very good, very soft, very moist, honey flavoured. The strong pine nuts truly burst out on your palate. A pity this dessert is marred by the melted ice cream (and the bay leaf is very evanescent).

The parfait is good and has an impressive texture, but the pistachio taste has, like the bayleaf above, remained in the chef’s imagination without reaching the dish. It makes way for an alcoholic punch with a whiff of almonds. Very good were the pistachio praline’ and the chocolate ‘sorbet’ (it felt like an icecream).

The water consisted of an expensive 0.75 litre bottle at £5, and the wine of a good Bourgogne (Faiveley 2007) at £29.50. With 12.5% service added, and deploying our 50% bill buster, we reduce a total which would have overshot our £100 rule by more than a tenner to a very reasonable £76.94.

The waiter was pleasant, humorous and swift (we admired his strong but polite and professional attempt to push the specials of the day). Service is informal, with wine and water left on your table and glasses not constantly refilled (we actually like it this way!). The kitchen must have been slightly under pressure, as a swift starter was followed by a long wait for mains (nothing too dramatic anyway). Quite an attractive set of dishes we had at Mews, full of intriguing combinations of neat, rich flavours and rather elaborate preparations, handled by an obviously very able chef. The materials were good even if sometimes probably not top notch. Perhaps because of this, or in part because of this, we were merely pleased, but not ravished, by most creations. So, all in all, an enjoyable and interesting culinary experience which, while perhaps we just about wouldn’t come back to at full prices, is excellent value with the special offer.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Bart's (London)

The day: 1st November, dinner (full board available as standard).
The place: West Smithfields, EC1A 7BE
, London
The venue: Barts
The food: Traditional English
The drinks: Sorry, no alcohol.

Snow in London in October: ghastly! What better than a short break to beat the winter blues? So we head to West Smithfield.

Forget Carluccio, forget Club Gascon, forget St. John: Bart's, here we come!

This is the glorious St. Bartholomew's hospital, known to everybody who uses it as Bart's. Man is an assiduous (a bit too assiduous in fact), long established and affectionate customer.

The interior is a bit basic, so we skip pictures - we would not want you to be put off.

As for the food, there is plenty to choose from: fruit juice or soup as a starter, then minced meat and potato pie, tuna, tomato and courgette pasta, and cold turkey, not to mention a selection of sandwiches on white and granary. Man opts for the Lentils lasagne, with potato croquettes and peas on the side.

In this colourful dish, let's see the lasagne first: the decisive cooking confers on them a nicely crispy outside and a moist and creamy inside, with an intense lentil and spice (nutmeg?) flavour. Celery, carrots, tomato, peppers in a triumph of all season flavours. The texture of the pasta is exactly what you would expect in this kind of establishment: you can definitely say that it melts seamlessly in the cream

The hand of the chef is evident also in the croquettes, the crisp outside coating to bite through to reach the luscious interior. Man especially appreciates the light hand with seasoning. To finish the dish off, a generous garnish of boiled peas: just them in their pure essence, no other flavour is allowed to contaminate their pure taste.

For pudding, Man eludes tinned fruit and fruit juice jelly, and goes for rice pudding with a generous helping of custard.

The rice pudding was also similar in melting structure to the pasta, nicely liquefied in keeping with the leit motif of the menu.

Service was cheerful and professional. Man washed this down with excellent premium apple juice from concentrate, the cost of this... well, not a penny. Quite a bargain! But be aware, the treat is by invitation only.

All jokes aside, you do not come to the NHS for top level cuisine. But for top level health care, be assured that, in spite of the scary headlines that hit the tabloids every now and then; in spite of some occasional grumpy nurse here and there; and gritting your teeth through some crumbling facilities, you will in the end get the result that really counts, the most important of all, provided by all the real professionals working at Bart's. Thank you NHS.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tortue du Sablon

The day: 11th October 2008, Lunch.

The place: Rue de Rollebeek 31 (Sablon) – 10000 Bruxelles

The venue: La Tortue du Sablon

The food: ‘Our cook proposes you refined cooking using lobsters, fishes, grilled meats and game (during the season) but also the most famous Belgian dishes.’

Airport: From London use the Eurostar.

The drinks: Simple, well-priced wine list, and some beers.

2.30 p.m. in Bruxelles, hunger biting and veering toward desperation, we spot in this most touristy, boutique and restaurant littered, Rue de Rollebeek a restaurant that has one reassuring quality: it does not display on its window any endorsement by any guide, none whatsoever, and yet it has an enticing menu. One worrying sign is that it is open all day – but Rules is too, and we’d be very content to find food of Rules quality here. We go in to find the room completely empty, and the only waiter/manager obviously make us seat near the window in the hope of triggering a chain reaction when the passers-by note these two celebrities in the dining room…(it won’t happen, but there’ll be a couple of more tables occupied – oh my, do these Belgians eat late!).

The room is prettily set up,

with a bar area, shells and nautical mementoes all over, and some promisingly alive shellfish in a vat keeping us company while we wait. A large mirror allows the waiter to spy these two strange fellows who keep taking notes.

On the menu, lots of seafood, e.g. among the suggestions Coquilles St. Jacques fraiches a l’huil d’ Argan (€24.50), Langoustines grille a la paprika doix et tagliatelles noire (€29), and many types of moules (in the mid-twenties). On the regular menu, the entrees features a sumptuous sounding Carpaccio de homard (lobster), St. Jacques et crabes aux essences balsamiques truffee (€29) and ‘les plats’ propose a Maigret de canard aux 6 epices, sauce gingembre, citron vert confit at €25.50. To us this is all very enticing. There are also some reasonably price menus, from long tasting ones to quicker lunch ones).

While mulling, the bread appears:

Well, no variety but it’s a bread basket at least, as we like, and it’s not bad. A nice looking butter accompanies it, but we confess we do not eat butter and therefore we could not tell its quality.

Oooh, an amuse bouche:

A scallop with oregano olive oil: it’s marinated, with (half of) the scallop still attached to the shell. It’s very fresh, and in very good olive oil: we begin to be happy.

For starters we have:

- Tartare de thon a la coriander et aux aromates (€15.50)

- Ravioli de Homard Cressoniere (€17.00)

The tuna is excellent. Cut coarsely, with coarse salt grains and honey, it is a delicious interplay of flavours, and most light, too. And as usual, Man falls for the nice presentation.

The ravioli themselves are very fine, and generously filled, expressing the lobster intensely. The accompanying sauce, with finely chopped tomatoes and herbs, is accomplished, very balanced and it truly elevates the dish. Once again, we (well, Man you know) find the presentation a gentle treat for the eye. We are not easy to please with ravioli, and certainly these are not Italian style ravioli, but how good!

And the mains:

- Trilogie de poissons du marche’ aux pistils du saffron (€22.50)

- Thon Grille’, taglaitelles de celeri, essence balsamique (€24.50).

The tuna is a very, very thick chunk. The waiter cannot tell where it comes from, it only says ‘it’s of sushi quality’ (for godsake, how can a waiter, possibly the manager, in restaurant of this level not know such basic information, nor offer to find out?). It’s just slightly less succulent and moist than we’d like. There is a discussion (to which the waiter/manager does not participate) whether this is due to the quality of the tuna (Woman) or the ability of the cook (Man). The vegetable ‘tagliatelle’ are delightful, and the sauce is pleasant, too (there is tomato but also much acidity, vinegar perhaps?).

The three fishes are advertised by the nice hapless waiter as salmon, mullet and cod, but there is in fact no salmon. It looks like hake. We are ravished by the pungent celeriac mash with mustard seeds, which complements the many vegetables (green beans, broccoli, carrots, mangetout) very well. And a different layer of flavour is provided by the remarkably intense saffron sauce (certainly they did not skimp on saffron here). Ah, we were forgetting the fish: fresh, good, with the mullet in the outstanding category. A very good dish, which would be even better with a different selection of fish.

We have no dessert (we were coming from an excellent dinner in Rotterdam – of all places-, and were beginning to get anxious about our waistlines). So, with a bottle of half a litre white wine on offer at €20.50 (an excellent Montravel Chateau Fyol-Luzac 2007), and Vittel water, the total is a reasonable €106,. to which we add a generous tip which we hope will be spent on a course on tuna provenance.

We have been teasing the waiter (he really could not possibly have been the front room manager), but in the end he was a quite sweet, polite and charming fellow. He just wasn’t briefed. We also had to take him out of the restaurant to persuade him that the menu displayed outside was not the same as the menu he had given us. Although La Tortue does not boast about any named chef, we thought there was some extremely accomplished cooking going on here, far superior to that of many a named chef we have been sampling of late (right, Mr. Pomata?). They may have not been the greatest culinary inventions in the world, but whoever conceived them certainly knows a thing or two about assembling flavours and presenting them in an appealing way. This was very sound French cuisine using fresh, good raw materials: a combination that made for a very satisfying lunch.


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