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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Au Valet de Coeur

The day: 30th December 2008, Dinner.
The place: 40 route de Ste-Marie-aux-Mines F-68150 RIBEAUVILLE (tel: +33 (0)3 89736414)
The venue: Restaurant Au Valet de Coeur, Hostel ‘La Pepiniere’.
The food: French
The drinks: Adequate for a starred French venue, interesting wine-menu pairings at €25, 32, 40.

For the second year in a row family events prevent us from taking a proper break over the Winter holidays. But on the road back to London we allow ourselves one treat: driving along the axis Basel-Strasbourg, just past Colmar (where we stayed last year), we turn straight towards the freezing Vosges forests and, upwards on the icy road next to the charming village of Ribeauville’, we find this hotel restaurant. As we notice not infrequently in our pilgrimages to Alsace, the restaurant seems to be one step ahead of the attached hotel in terms of comfort and overall quality. With its Michelin star, and given the excellent levels of Alsatian cuisine, we are expecting a bloody good dinner! There is a religious pilgrimage route nearby in case we want to expiate our sins later (but there is also a ‘cremant’ wine maker almost in front of the route, making for a hard choice, or an intriguing combination).

The décor is warm, in light brown and white tones, pleasant, unpretentious and varied, with several areas in the large room and the (slightly corny to be fair) ‘heart’ motif all around, even in the butter on the table. The tables are very comfortable and well-spaced. The jovial Maitre d’ adds to the sense of comfort.

Several menus are on offer, from the largest 6 course tasting menu at €85, to the 4 course ‘Menu decouverte’ at €65, to the 3 course ‘Menu saveur’ at €45. And a ‘Menu du marche’ at €33.50 features on weekday evenings and Saturday lunches. A la carte choices afford less good value, with starters at €25-35 and mains at €29-38, and with some items only available in the set menus. Had we gone a la carte, we would have tried the ‘Cour de saumon mi-cuit/mi-fume, Remoulade de Celery et Caviar d’ Aquitaine, Blinis’ (€35) as a starter. For mains, we’d been happy with our set menu which you’ll see in a minute.

We go for the Menu Decouverte (€65), and we begin with a little snack of puff pastry with poppy and sesame seeds, or topped with some kind of bechamelle sauce and lardons:

Well, not your average Gregg's offering, these are high levels of bakery.
And the bread rolls are already expecting us:

Beautiful to look at (again the corny heart motif), excellent taste, made with strong flour as we like it, and really well made. Good start, if they can make Man and Woman happy about the bread!

And an amouse bouche:

A salmon mousse, St. Jacques on a mousse of green veggies, and a chestnut mousse. The cold salmon mousse regales a surprising sweetness, and is bodily, buttery, rich and compact, satisfying. Equally pleasing is the scallop, also cold, with a peppery punch that Man appreciates more than Woman, who finds it close to overpowering. As for the chestnuts, we detect potatoes in the warm, delicate and airy combination. We must say that this beginning already reveals an assured hand, with clear flavours, variety and seasoning judgement.

Our starters:

- Raviole de Foie Gras de Canard a la Farine de Chataigne dans un Bouillon Corse’.
- Delicate gelee de Crabe Royale, Creme de Crustaces et Harenga.

The foie gras is intense, carried by the delicate bouillon with sweet fine carrots in abundance. We appreciate the good texture of the chestnut ravioli, while the truffle is more of a decoration. This is a good dish but not altogether convincing: most of the work is really done by the great foie gras, with the rest adding little and not integrating appropriately, in our judgement.
But the Gelee...the gelee is on a different level of cuisine, the technique presenting us with a sumptuous multitude of flavours (the crab is dominant –it’s a king after all- but the lobster mousse/cream and the non-salty jelly are a very valid support) and a ravishing soft-solid consistency: this is an occasion where richness (mayonnaise is present) comes with absolute balance and lightness, leaving on the palate a satisfied sense of freshness. This is haute cuisine.

Next we have:

- Maree du jour accomodee selon l’Inspiration du Chef
- Le Baeckeoffe de Homard Gratine’ aux Poireaux

The ‘fish according to the chef inspiration’ is an Atlantic seabass on risotto and a creamy lobster reduction. Fresh and cooked perfectly (‘crispissimo’ on the skin and moist inside) and sitting on a pleasant risotto ‘cake’ which also has a crispy outer layer, still the fish is slightly inexpressive on the palate. The rice is a tad over (Woman here unusually sterner than Man on risotto), but as Italians we’ll always say that in France… The lobster reduction is, conversely, fantastic, providing a backbone of pungent burnt flavour. A very sound dish where once again several cooking skills converge.
The beackaoffe is, as you know, a traditional Alsatian casserole, typically a rustic dish which here the chef offers instead in an ennobled and sophisticated version, with lobster instead of, for example, game. The result is totally convincing: the lobster is simply wonderful and cooked just so, held together by a texturally interesting eggy quiche-like filling with leeks adding vegetable depth. Another definite hit.

What delights. We arrive to the main mains:

- Dos de Cochon de lait Laque’, Boudin maison et Pomme de Terre Ecrasee a la Fourchette
- Pigeonneau en croute Feuilletee aux Choux Vert et Foie Gras

Oooh: In the eye-pleasing pork dish we encounter the first (and only) serious cooking flaw of the evening: it’s rather dry (remember: this is moist suckling pig, so it takes a real error to dry it up). A pity, because the rest is perfect, its flavour, its elegant ‘laque’ exterior, the exemplary reduction. And the potato and boudin ‘cake’ is to scream for, rich and velvety and decadent, a punch of strong traditional cuisine flavours classily reinterpreted.
And talking about potent flavours… the foie gras stuffing in the pigeon, which you reach after going through a pretty and texture-wise very apt ‘puff pastry’ enveloping the juicy, tender bird, is an explosion (notice the similarity of this dish with what we had here) that calls for even more screams of contentment. All accompanied by an excellent Savoy cabbage. What a movingly good dish!

And we have come to the desserts:

- Baba au vieux Rhum, Crème legere et Minestrone de Fruits Exotiques
- Carre’ Chocolat Grand Cru, Glace vanille’

For the baba’ we have a conceptual disagreement with the Chef…We appreciate the humour of the deconstruction, serving the (excellent) rhum and (equally excellent) vanilla mousse separated: but for us the pleasure of baba’ has always been and always will remain that of the rhum enveloping your palate at the first, soft bite. So we’d say this is a deconstruction too far. This aside, there’s also a problem with the baba’ itself which, while good in flavour, is inelastic and (of course) dry and heavy. The ‘minestrone’ is, however most tasty and welcome.
No such problems with the other dessert: accompanied by a fine vanilla icecream, stunning chocolate and masterful technique combine to create a ravishing, marvellously beautiful cake: you go through the several layers (the chocolate ‘ganache’ covering, the chocolate mousse, some thin praline layer, the jelly/chocolate cream, the white chocolate) dream.

To conclude, the petit four:

They are all very pleasant, the almond madeleine, the hazelnut praline - especially fine is the jammy density of the apricot jelly, and we also like very much the sort of chocolate brownie, which is lighter than a brownie.

(We prefer to forget this...

...just look at it! And that heart shape again, this is begining to be a little obsessive)

We said we went for the Menu Decouverte. In fact, to be precise, we went for a ‘Formule carte blanche’ (€250) which included a night in a large room for two, the Discovery menu for two, and the €25 wine paring plus water – so let’s say our dinner for two all inclusive cost €180, well deserved for the quality and quantity we experienced (the wines we tried were a Muscat d’Alsace, a Riesling 2006, a Vouvray 2006 and a Haut Medoc 1998, all nice, especially the Medoc - Chateaux Hantellan).

The service was smooth, correct, less rigid and more human than can be the case in French venues.
As you have seen we enjoyed a great dinner. Chef Christophe Cavelier is not God and does make the occasional mistake (and we even had our ‘conceptual’ problems!) but the variety of perfectly executed and conceived dishes he put in front of us, with very strong, powerful but at the same time balanced and clear flavours, always classically and elegantly presented, must make this one of the best examples of cuisine in Alsace. Not an innovative cuisine, one deeply rooted in tradition but also in a profound technique and cooking mastery, thanks to which heartiness is married to modern criteria of lightness. The menu itself was also nicely designed. And after you are satiated, the choice is yours: a religious pilgrimage, a peaceful walk in the steep woods, or a visit to the sparkling wine maker. Whatever you prefer, we recommend that you go to the Valet du Coeur!


Monday, January 19, 2009

Wandering in Mayfair...

...maybe after an exhausting shopping day, or maybe just because you're lucky enough to live there, you may stumble in one of our favourite Italian restaurants in London. We’ve had several delightful dinner at Semplice (fully reviewed here). On the last occasion in December, just before our non-holiday, we tried, for example, these memorable pheasant ravioli with potato sauce

To non-Italians such a type of dish may look overly rich in carbs, and while this might well be the case in pure dietary terms (not that it has harmed us so far)…on the palate there is really no sense of imbalance, the dense, starchy texture and sweet aroma of the potato sauce forming a really apt ligature for the freshly made pasta and the fragrant game filling.

And just to keep our carb intake at our needed levels for the night…we were also blown away by this perfect execution

of egg Sedanini with venison ragout in a black cabbage sauce. The picture and the colour perhaps convey something of the depth of flavour of a properly made pasta and ragout. This is a dish of both heartiness and composure.

They say at Semplice that the pasta is made every day. Opinions split as to whether one can really detect the difference between pasta made on the day and pasta that has been frozen (as most Italian restaurants, even the best, normally do, for obvious logistics reasons). At home we regularly freeze the excess pasta we make. Be that as it may, we merely underscore the integrity and conviction of a restaurant where such laborious practices are followed.

At the end of the meal (which also included a lot of proteins, e.g. in the form of this mouthwatering beast (do take a guess at what it is):

we are treated to a sample of a semi-hard cheese from the Val Brembana, with a nice brioche

whose one thousand aromas blew us away. This is ‘alpeggio’ cheese: made from milk of cows grazing on pastures at altitude in the Alps: and it does make a difference! The Italian cheese list at Semplice is probably the most interesting in London (together with the one here), worth a trip on its own if you want to learn about Italian cheeses.

Semplice have now expanded to a nearby ‘Trattoria’, where simpler food is served in a more informal setting: more on this story later!

By the way, they have just received a Michelin star: congratulations to Marco Torri and all his staff.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Au Moulin de la Wantzenau

The day: 22nd December 2008, Dinner.
The place: La Wantzenau (Strasbourg)

The venue: Au Moulin de La Wantzenau

Closest airports: Strasbourg

The food: French

The drinks: Not too long, mostly Alsace and Burgundy, on the pricey side

Yet another stop in Alsace. After our other experiences (here, here, here, and here) we are beginning to think that Alsatians restaurateurs can do no wrong, that this is a blessed culinary land where no disappointment is possible or even conceivable. Let’s try this new (for us) venue, charmingly located (together with a hotel) on the premises of an old mill (the original dating back to the 17th century).

The room is attractive, in its dominant wooden and red tones, very warm,

the mise en place showing the little touches of somebody who cares, like the dried fruit decorations on the table:

You wouldn’t expect it from the tepid welcome of the manager, who looks like a real @!&#! (Man wanted to write ‘asshole’, but fortunately Woman prevented him). What is a host doing there if he can’t even bring himself to greet the (smiling) guest? Go to sleep then! Providentially, there is also the sweet and smiling maman to put us at ease.

The a la carte menu is rather heftily priced, with entrees and mains in the twenties and thirties. Luckily, there’s plenty of set menus, ranging from €25 for the menu marché to the €65 for the full tasting menu.

We opt for:

- Menu gourmet (four courses at €48)

- Menu saveur et santé (flavours and health, sound interesting!), three courses at €34.

Our bread appears:

It looks wonderful, but the taste, while not poor, does not quite match the expectations. The crust is not as crispy as it could be.

Oh, a nice looking amuse bouche is placed on our table – pity that the @!&#! waiter only describes one item and then, maybe bored, leaves.

It comes in the guise of a mussel mousse with some caviar, a warm carrot cream/soup, bread with a sort of sausage inside, and a mushroom flavoured cheese cream. Very good, if a little elaborate, Man thinks: both agree on the great variety, really ‘amusing’ in the sweet-salty contrasts, in the temperatures, in the textures (liquid-mousse-cream-chunk).

The entrees for both menus arrive:

- Foie gras (from the gourmet menu)

- Vegetables sautéed (from the healthy menu)

The foie gras is excellent, resting on a bed of delicate stock jelly and accompanied by a warm brioche. But those little tomato cubes, tasting like potatoes: what an absurdity in December.

The simply boiled root vegetables appear a little extreme in their blandness even for a health menu. On the other hand, the pied de mouton mushrooms yield some pleasure and are well presented in a crispy crepe, with a whiff of pepper and rosemary all round (the rosemary branch is pretty but uncomfortable, thinks Woman, who has done the donkey work of clearing the spikes away by the time uncomplaining Man gets to it…). But, once again, that terrible mushy tomato!

And now the second entrée of the gourmet menu:

- Dublin Bay Prawns, seabass and chanterelles.

The prawns are fine on the palate but their extreme, excessive softness makes one suspect that something untoward has happened in Dublin Bay... Again, the seabass rewards the palate, being fresh and well-seasoned, but for us it is overcooked and the skin is far from crispy (mercifully also far from completely soggy). To complete the triptych, the mushrooms, first rate but not cooked precisely and left a little watery. The boiled rice is…well, it’s boiled. Mmmh.

For mains we are treated to:

- Veal (from the health menu)

- Hare stuffed with fois gras (definitely from the unhealthy menu)

Is this veal really a ‘saveur et santé’ specimen? How supremely tender, succulent it is, and lifted by a great combination, the pungent reduction with the sweet vanilla pods. The topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) puree tasted to us like celeriac, but was pleasantly fresh, as was the accompanying cabbage. And there is a strange but welcome touch of little cubes of candied orange peel. Overall, an impressive dish.

The hare and foie is not for the faint hearted. The flavours are most potent, animal, coming at you in an undisguised fierceness and richness in which you have no choice but to immerse yourself and give in: it’s not subtle, but it is very good. There no relief in the concentrated reduction, dense, salty (maybe with blood in it), but we find in an accompanying apple compote with sultanas an almost perfect match.

Nice side additions of red cabbage

and (very) buttery spatzles, too.

Finally, our desserts:

- Winter fruits (from the health menu)

- Pineapple with coconut sorbet (from the unhealthy menu, really!)

Here, a role reversal: the health menu looks somewhat more unhealthy than the other one, but they were both pretty good.

Cubes of what tasted like gingery pineapple with some spirit (Cointreau?) were huddled in a hulled pineapple, with a fresh coconut sorbet nesting in a hollowed passion fruit struck Man for their nice presentation. Woman, less easily swayed by a pretty face, still had to agree this was a successful dish, the coconut sorbet being particularly good. The ‘but’ comes from the fact that these same two specimens also figured in the healthy dish of winter fruits, accompanied by an endearing mango mousse (of the consistency of Italian meringue) and a very convincing plum tatin, plus assorted sliced exotic fruit (which are not really that available in Winter, except from the Equator down, but there you go). In spite of repetitions and deviations, no hesitation (note: this is for readers who follow the BBC comic radio program 'Just a minute'): quite a satisfying way to end our meal, in fact.

Well, here is where it really ends, although the petit fours were brought before the desserts:

Meringues, aniseed biscuits, chocolate brownie, sort of gingerbread biscuit, and a ‘croccante’ with hazelnuts. Very good.

With a jug of free tap water brought with no sulks and a bottle of Pinot Noir Trimbach Reserve 2005 ‘Cuve 7’ at €32 (a little square but with personality), the total comes to a most reasonable €114.

The service was disappointing. Some of it was not the fault of the front of house: the dinner took more than three hours with very poor pacing: very annoying. But some members of the FOH contributed with some of their own. Dishes only partially described, impatience, lack of any warmth, brusque manners in laying the plates.

Well, so we have discovered that even in Alsace one can have somewhat mixed and frustrating experiences. Even putting to one side the wait and the service, which may have been the result of an off night (the place was heaving on a Monday night), the cuisine left us overall satisfied but not fully convinced. On the positive side, there was great generosity, in the portions, in the labour going into the dishes, and in the pampering extras. But there also was also unevenness, occasional cooking imprecision and heavy handedness and lapse of taste. Mind you: this was still a well above average performance, with good flavours and techniques on display, so take our criticisms as relative to the best fine dining we’ve experienced (and we will experience: more on this story later) so far in Alsace. Overall we probably would not go back given the terrific other choices in the vicinities, but we are happy to have stopped by at Le Moulin and we would definitely patronise it in less blessed culinary districts.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Euston delights by Santino Busciglio

Whenever we look at Theo Randall’s menus, which have won him a best Italian London restaurant of the year award (we still find it hard to believe), we find an irresistible urge to sleep: the ingredients may be good, their cooking just so, but boy o boy how boring, stiflingly conservative do those dishes look to engrained Italian eaters like us. Instead, in unglamorous Euston there’s a place where every dish looks interesting. We had tried Santino Busciglio’s cuisine at Number Twelve last year and we were impressed. Recently we’ve had another fine dinner there: below we offer some sample snapshots with our sparse comments – see the full review for a more complete description of the restaurant’s style.

Actually, before the snapshots, we’ve got to tell you about a big change in the front room. Gone is elegantly restrained Fabio (who joined Michelin starred Apicius), and in comes volcanic and enthusiastic Antonio (Cerilli), an initial partner in our fave Latium before the advent of Giovanni (Baldino) first and then Umberto (Tosi). The room, part of the Ambassador's hotel, is also undergoing changes, in our opinion for the better.

Let’s begin with the great bread (an innovation compared to our first report: not any longer served one piece a time from a tray, but placed in a basket on the table – as we like it)

And these are refined Cannelloni of duck, with a celeriac cream (we think we remember), mushrooms, lentils and cavolo nero (again from memory, too many other dishes in between!).

This humble turkey (yes, turkey) was a real show stopper:

Turkey must not be an easy meat for a restaurant, and you don’t see much of it around: so lean, with the risk of terrible blandness. But here excellent raw materials and Busciglio’s technique combine beautifully. Cooked sous-vide with great care, the meat has none of the dreaded dryness, and it expresses a beautiful flavour, coming both from the quality of the beast itself, and from the tasty filling, ‘rabbit style’, made up of the giblets and also chestnuts. The variety and complexity of the dish is enhanced by the presence of a side bread sauce for moisture, of a (very, very well made) potato puree with a crispy bacon slice on top, a very sweet and concentrated ‘berry jam’, a fine reduction and… yes, that Christmas loved/hated classic: four tiny, beautifully presented Brussel sprouts (this would have made Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall happy). There is courage and humour in this dish.

And this dessert, too, is not something you’ll see anywhere else around:

It’s a Genoise made with olive oil (instead of the regular butter), which makes it crispier beside yielding a different flavour, sitting in a generous pool of melted chocolate to scream about, together with four ‘cubes’ that provide a salty background. On top of it, a Guinness ice cream: yet another layer of flavour, bitter this time. Opinions divide and discussion ensues. We don't know if the chef will keep this on the menu, but this is culinary freedom! This is fun!

Chef Busciglio has obvious passion and integrity. He creates a cuisine that, while showing an eclectic side, is ultimately Italian in spirit: doing Italian cuisine means for him using the best ingredients he can find, not only from Italy (as is obviously the case for olive oil) but nearer home – we think of a fantastically aromatic honey (on the left) from Dorset

or of the rose veal Ossobuco, slightly darker than the classical Italian version-

and making these ingredients express themselves unmasked, gently enhanced by the cooking techniques and enriched by sagacious combinations: Italian style.


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