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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Homage to Gaetano of Philly Market Cafe

Maybe you have not yet checked his blog out...but if you have (which you should), the omnipresence of his caneles cannot have escaped you...

Well, we confess we always wondered, in blissful ignorance, what the fuss was about: after all, these are just little custardlike pastries... or are they?

We finally discovered how wrong we had been in snubbing these delicacies when we sampled some as our "take home sweet thought" at Helen Darroze.

Well, they are unbelievably delicious, and a stark reminder of how very simple can be very good, and very good very simple. Apparently the theory goes that the copper moulds should be coated in beeswax to be ready for the simple egg-flour-butter-sugar-milk mixture, laced with rhum and vanilla, and matured for at least 24 hours in the fridge.

The perfect ones will be chocolate brown on the outside and custardy yellow holey inside

The Helen Darroze incarnation felt stunning to us. Thank you Gaetano for opening our eyes to this delicacy: now we have one more reason to travel to Bordeaux!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Trento December Pilgrimage n.3

ADDED FEBRUARY 2010: Walter Miori is, alas, no longer in the kitchen .

Gastronomic judgments are subjective, so we won't argue with Michelin's stunning decision to remove Walter Miori's star after fourteen (yes, fourteen) years.

We will just say that we saved Locanda Margon for the last day of our Trento pilgrimage, and that for us it was the usual dreamy experience of absolute culinary excellence.

Share the dream with us.

We start with pure seduction:

Pumpkin veloute', warm goat ricotta, amaretti crumble (served with warm olive focaccia)

A selection of breads that is better than any starred or mulstistarred venue we've been at:

A millefeuille of veal 'testina', celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke cream (and the best olive oil)

Just look at it!

Chestnut soup with chestnut slivers, strips of capon, Monte Baldo truffle, this is one of Miori's best:

We followed with Ravioli of egg white stuffed with Borlotti beans, sausage ragout: no photo, but let us tell you it takes some mastery to make elegance out of a sausage dish.

And yes, he also graced us with that eternal Trentino dish,

Canederlotti and Puzzone di Moena

here with Baldo truffles and made by such an assured hand that this dish alone is worth the trip.

The mains began with

Scallops, crispy artichokes, ginger, artichoke cream

We think you can SEE the flavours!

And the 'big' main for the final punch:

Slow cooked (60 hours!) pork belly, honey reduction, chicory.

One of those perfect dishes. Simple, classy, deep, sublime.

An interlude to refresh:

Banana sorbet, pineapple carpaccio:

The dessert was a

Tavolozza: tea chocolate fondant, chocolate and tea cream, crunchy chocolate and tea, chestnut mousse with sharon fruit coulis, pistachio parfait,

a little garden of Eden for the sweet lovers.

Have a look at the petit four, too

This entire tasting menu for...€55.

A chef always, always behind the stoves and checking every dish.

A remarkable lightenss of style: after all we ate we could have repeated it the day after.

To our taste, Michelin made a grave mistake this year. But no matter. Michelin or not Michelin, we'd choose this cuisine over and over again, over many multistarred ones, and we'll return at every available opportunity!


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hélène Darroze' at the Connaught Hotel

The day: 29th December 2009, Lunch.

The place: Carlos Place Mayfair, London W1K 2AL

The venue: Helene Darroze at The Connaught

The food: Modern French

The drinks: Beside the usual suspects, also very good value by the glass options.

We sought a lunch refuge from unremitting heavy rain in multistarred Helene Darroze’s venue at the Connaught.

(Us, drenched) ‘Hello, do you have a table for two?’

(Receptionist, looking dubious & worried) ‘Ehm, have you had a look at our menu?’

But we appreciated her concern that two miserable looking fellows like us might come to regret a fickle fine dining urge…

In fact, in this luxury, wood-panelled stucco-ceilinged Baccarat-crystalled environment, one of those places where service goes to the absurd point of not even letting you make the effort to open the bathroom tap as somebody does it for you,

we were on the verge of a fine experience which was very far from breaking the bank.

The amuse must be a clear self-introduction by the chef, and these

chorizo cake, leek and potato Vichyssoise with Bellini foam

suggest a liking for rich textures and muscular dishes, with no national boundaries. The velvety and lightly unctuous Vichyssoise is paired with pungent and strong, decisive flavours. And it works (except that the crumbly cake tends to disintegrate in your hands – maybe they should call the bathroom guy to pick up the crumbs for you, lest you get tired).

The bread, arrives after the amuse, a selection from a lined banneton taken from the rustic stone topped workbench that sits in the middle of the room, hosting a triumph of bread types, olive oil bottles, rosmery and sage pots, the look of which puts you immediately in a good mood... and we opt for a rye and a fig bread.

Two very different starters. One, an almost vegetarian dish, a

Poivrade Artichoke...simply roasted, herb and salad ravioli gratinated with Brebis basque cheese, Culatello di Zibello, Chicken jus pearled with Sicilian olive oil

which Man liked more than Woman, especially the cut of the artichoke (which you cannot appreciate, as it is hidden by the Culatello of Zibello sliver), the overall neatness of the presentation, the fine jus, the seductive sweet saltiness of the Culatello, and the ethereal encasing of the chunky filling of spinach and ricotta (a recipe Helen has probably stealed from the Sainsbury’s ricotta tub :)). Woman, ever the Italian, found the proportion between pasta and spinach in the parcel to be unbalanced, and the artichoke not particularly intense in flavour.

Whereas we enter international fusion territory again with this

Line caught Calamari...sauteed a la minute, black and creamy Carnaroli Acquerello rice, light bitter jus with chorizo and confit tomatoes, Reggiano parmesan emulsion

where a creamy, enveloping ink black risotto accompanies four slightly too hard yet obviously very fresh calamari. And if the parmesan cream, poured on the dish at the table, wasn’t just a touch over-salty, we would appreciate its overwhelmingly intense perfume and flavour and rich texture even more.

A venison reached the highest culinary echelons, and we will give it the place of honour, but this

Halibut...roasted with a crust of hazelnut and rosemary, potato gnocchi, watercress, walnut emulsion

wasn’t bad either…enveloped in its fine, tasty hazelnut crust, cooked perfectly.

Oh, look, the gnocchi even have the all-important indentation which is so rare to find even in Italy…but, but, wait a minute…they are very hard! We bite the bullet (ah ah) and are confirmed in our belief that Italian and French people have different concepts of pasta and starchy food in general… Gnocchi aside, we found this an elegant, well-structured and subtly complex dish, where the walnut foam was an intoxicating actor.

Our state so far can be described as extremely comfortable, relaxed and satisfied, both by the food and by the setting. The sweet offerings that followed did nothing to alter this state…

Chestnuts biscuitrs, chantilly, wafer, yuzu curd, yuzu sorbet

A chestnut triumph: the intense chestnut cream cubes are an impact piece. On the whole, very intricate and teasing play on flavours and textures, from the light crunchiness of the chestnut wafers to the soft chunkiness of the sponge base to the – perhaps the lime sorbet too much of a contrast, both temperature-wise and tartness wise. On the other hand…

Hazelnuts, home made pralinee', Carupano chocolate cremeux, lemon and ginger foam

The lime and ginger foam well suits the hazelnut dessert: striking flavours, very good, with multilayered textures: tangy and airy lime and ginger, frothy but consistent praline and creamy chocolate: yummy!

The service

Amiable and correct (except for a rather hurried tall blond). And generous, with a sense of pampering. They let you try the wine by the glass, which not everybody does even at this level.

The low

Some noisy customers who may have all the money in the world but obviously cannot buy themselves manners. And the hardish calamari, tsk, tsk…one wouldn’t expect them in this sort of restaurant.

The high

Roasted fillet of Venison with a coffee Bernoisette, celeriac fondant and crispy, intense jus perfumed with robusta, Stilton chantilly

What a sumptuous, very deeply and chromatically flavoured meat and reduction. We keep wondering what that delightful pungent burnt hint comes from; until we check the menu and remember the coffee. The meat is served not sliced as for some reason we were expecting, but in a whole succulent fillet chunk, on top of a very powerful celeriac (for Woman almost too powerful), and made memorable by the cheesy (Stilton) cream. As in many great dishes, an air of simplicity masks craftsmanship and complexity, and the flavours are at the same time robust and subtle.

The treat concluded with a nice filter coffee (we still tend not to trust espresso in French restaurants, despite our excellent experience at Hibiscus), a stunning selection of petit four, a whole trolley from which you can choose, and even a canele to take home (more on this story later...). How spoiled can one be?

we behaved...

The Price

The tasting menu would have cost a standard £85. Our 3 course (in fact more) lunch menu at £42 included two glasses of wine each, water and coffee, so that the total bill including service came to less than £95. Unbelievable value. Now, we are, as you know, tight fisted bastards; but with such generosity and quality one really feels one has to express some tangible gratitude, and so we did.


What the amuse bouche promised, the rest of the meal delivered: rich, solid, elaborate dishes, elegantly presented, classically conceived but with a search for interesting, unusual, complex combinations. To be stern, we can’t say that every single dish was executed or conceived faultlessly or that every one of them was a total success, in our opinion. But this is to be stern and maybe too much so. This is a place where one can enjoy a wonderful, relaxed, lunch of unquestionably high standard and technical complexity, in an elegant environment, and feeling pampered. At lunch, incredible value too. One feels strongly like going back.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Trento December Pilgrimage number 2

Second installment of our Trento Pilgrimage series, before the grand finale...

Right on the main square across the cathedral, we continue our pilgirmage by ignoring the cathedral, and turning our attention instead, for a light meal, to one of the best value sanctuaries for the gastronome, the 'upper' informal section of the starred and deeply buried Lo Scrigno.

One is tempted by various types of cheeses and 'salumi', but we opt for some more proper dishes.

Puntarelle with seared tuna for example:

fresh and delicious.

And in this salmon strudel

there is true inspiration. An admirable little dish, with that cabbage inside the croute offering perfect moisture and concentrating the flavour.

We absolutely adore horses:

Well, what can we do: we loved it!

This an operation of great intelligence, with fresh, simple and precise cuisine at good prices (remembering you are at a starred establishment in a most central location), in a pleasant, relaxed environment. Last but not least, oh no, not least, the by-the-glass wine list is stonking value, too.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pre-theater at Pied a Terre

Just some impressions, not a full blown careful review, about a short pre-theater December dinner at that long-standing bastion of Michelin excellence, Pied a Terre.

An impressive, generous, intricate amuse, whose list of ingredients is sufficient for a meal: pea pannacotta, toasted almond foam, jerusalem artichoke (right), foie gras in a sandwich of poppy seeds fillopastry (centre), onion and chorizo cake (centre left), parmesan and tomato gnocco (communist)

Sculpted flavours, multidimensional, and much unctuosity.

Wood pigeon in Madeira Consomme' and salt-crusted celeriac:

Deep flavours, dark flavours. Pity that the salt of the celeriac crust dissolved in the soup, defeating the purpose, we believe.

A beautiful Tempura prawns and butternut squash risotto

which stunned us for the idea, mixing two traditions, and the excellent execution of the risotto (and the toasted pumpkin seeds a perfect touch). Much unctuosity.

A brill:

perfectly cooked material of absolute quality, in a pungent reduction. For its (partly just apparent) simplicity, one the best dishes.

A lamb,
a dish of literally towering complexity whose naturally explosive flavours could have spoken for themselves even better, we think, with a simpler, lighter, less fatty preparation. But that caramelised chicory was a beauty, and that tender fillet, dreamy. Much unctuosity.

We were certainly happy, very impressed, though for some reason not totally ravished by this cuisine, in which we found expressed a flamboyant imagination and technique knowing no boundaries, yes, but which also struck us as somehow lacking lightness and the killer punch of simplicity (such as we recently found, for example at Heinz Beck's place). It's probably just a matter of subjective taste, as Shane Osborne is obviously a great professional. Dare we say it? To us it seems almost as if he is, after all these years, still trying too hard.

We were ravished, however, by the service, so friendly, charming and willing to offer all the time and attention in the world even to customers of the least profitable or least refined variety (like the guys who made a sandwich with the butter on the table). We'd like to compete for the least profitable competition, as we were there for a quick bite of the pre-theater two course offer at £32.50.

It would be nice to be back. But at full prices, and even at lunch/pre-theater prices, there's a long list of possibly more immediately compelling competitors...


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Trento December Pillgrimage n.1

This is the first of three sketches on our autumnal Trento pilgrimage...which commenced with our beloved Menestrinas, at Osteria Fior di Roccia.

We had the amazing Gran Bollito misto

in which even the humble potato becomes a rich treat, imbibed as it is with all that meaty delight.
Accompanied by the 5 prodigious sauces...

and this time also by pickled cherries

of wonderfully tart intensity.

But we could not let the chestnut menu go...

Chestnut gnocchi with walnuts and sultanas:

where the yummy materials are bound together so smoothly.

The Chestnut stuffed Hen:

Delicious, look at that golden meat.

Menestrina has the soul of a master patissier...

With the Bollito misto menu came

Bread and apple pudding with Schiava reduction:

And with the chestnut menu,

Chocolate and chestnut 'cupoletta', sharon fruit coulis

Chesnut and sharon fuit, that eternal autumnal combination, found on all tables from trattoria to multistarred (remember Hibiscus for example?)....but not everybody has a knack for it, nor the right raw material. At 2* Hibiscus, for example, the sharon fruit (and we must say, the whole dessert) was vastly inferior to the one we had here (at a small fraction of the price).

And have a look at the chestnut cremy triumph inside the gracious crunchy cupoletta, please :

As ever, in this simple and friendly trattoria, one finds materials of stunning quality cooked with passion and integrity, and, incredibly, with the precision and imagination of high cuisine. Menestrina modestly says: 'I'm not after masterpieces, I only do things as they should be done'. And he does!


Friday, January 1, 2010

food miles

Now in agricultural Fife, driving past fields of wheat, broccoli, sprouts and pigs, you very much visualise what ‘from the field to the table’ could mean. And who cares if not all specimens look the same, flavour should be king!

so no points for who can tell the local carrot from the supermarket one...

Happy New year to everybody!


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