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Monday, August 29, 2011

PS to Koffmann's

Just a small addendum to our Koffmann's review. We went for Sunday lunch yesterday and we had the grouse: heavenly! We can hardly think of another place in London where one can have a more delicious one: if you have the chance to be there (and if you like gamey stuff, as it is potently flavoured, as one expects from a dish at Koffmann's), a must-try.

Addendum to the addendum (added 24/12/2011): some pictures of game at Koffmann's are here.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Koffmann's (London)

We would like to keep this brief - although we probably will not succeed - because there isn't much to say about Koffmann's at the Berkley Hotel: It is simply a place where you eat darn well and where you can be truly happy. We could finish here.

But of course we won't.

Freed from the constrictions of three Michelin star cooking (for he held 3* at the famous Tante Claire), the old man (just a manner of speaking, Pierre...), often - believe it or not - behind the stoves himself, with his brilliant team serves you dishes that, while backed by an immense culinary knowledge, are there not to comply with the formal fussiness and strictures of multistarred Michelin dining, nor to show you how clever, funny, artistic, inspired, etc. the chef is, but simply to please you, the customer. You are the centre of the experience at Koffmann's, you are the king and the chef cooks for you, not for himself.

This is not at all to say that food here is boring or drab. To the contrary, there is sometimes a gentle humour, like in this Squid Bolognese

where the squid has been meticulously sliced and reduced to tagliatelle, while the tentacles have been made into a ragout. Splendid savoury flavour and splendid, concentrated tomato sauce (only criticism: verging on the salty side).

The classic Scallops with ink:

are the embodiment of simplicity and elegance. Cooked until the exact second when they had to be removed from the heat, this is a triumph of sweet, salty and umami balance.  Some people overdo it with scallops in excessively complicated preparations, others underdo it (in the next review we'll provide an example). This is the just middle. This is wisdom.

In passing, can we say that the Koffmann breads are for us the best in London? For a French restaurant, of course, for who can beat good Italian breads? :) Strong in structure and in flavour, they have a lovely homemade feel, though of course they are technically perfect - and the "melting" quality of the flaky roll is lusciously decadent

We've been here several times, and of course we've tried the legendary pig's trotters, which are extraordinary as they say (although certainly not to everybody's taste because of the fatty gelatinous texture with not too much to contrast it, something that irks some people). In the colder months we also never miss the profoundly satisfying game pithiviers. But this report is from Summer (besides, you can find the trotters photographed and reviewed everywhere), so this time we go for something lighter. A clever seafood paella with some of the freshest and best molluscs you can find in London and lovely moisture with intense flavour.

And then a roast monkfish with lentils

The fish of excellent quality (by the way, all seafood is wild here) and cooked as you would expect, the lentils concentrating masses of flavour.

Among the desserts, we can never miss the stupendous Pistachio souffle':
It was partially destroyed by an otherwise superbly talented new member of staff who hadn't yet mastered the art of inserting the ice-cream in the souffle'... but this dessert is beyond destruction, it is indescribably good, really, go and try it.

The chef being an encyclopedia of French cuisine, this venue is also a splendid opportunity to sample some classics. This time we tried a Peach Melba,

exactly as you would expect it: a beautifully poached (white) juicy peach, vanilla icecream and raspberry puree, simple, light, elegant, delicious.

One word for the service. Over time we've seen various people come and go, but we've always felt very well treated by each and every team. The current team is particularly sweet, from the maitre d' down to the last waiter. On this occasion we were also very well advised by a confident, knowledgeable (and also enviably tanned) Sicilian sommelier.

We had three starters (the unpictured one was a gazpacho), two main courses, two desserts, a £32 wine, a £8.50 dessert wine, tap water, and we spent  less than £150. How did we do it? Well, there's a fantastic value lunch menu of three courses at £26, and we had one of those. And unless you plump for the reeeeally expensive dishes from the a la carte (Dover sole and Lobster will set you back £40 and more each, but now that we are in Scotland of course we do not need to have expensive seafood in London any more...), the dishes for choice are really not that expensive considering that you are in one of the most luxurious parts of London. The nice, interesting wine list, including carafes and by the glass, also offers wines for all pockets, from cheap bastards like us to Russian tycoons.

As feared, we didn't keep it brief in the end... For us, a meal at Koffman's represents the pure joy of eating simple (mind you, relatively speaking!) dishes prepared by a master. Many say this is bistro style, but it isn't quite that really - there is far more subtlety. His joy in cooking is evident, you can see and taste it, he must have transmitted it to his assistants. Unless you go there looking for 3* food or a revival of La Tante Claire, you too will be joyous, and your palate (if not you coronaries, unless you choose the lighter dishes, as we did...) will say a big thank you.


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Craig Millar @ 16 West End (St Monans, Fife): beauty, but flavours?

Sometimes good conversation at a restaurant distracts from the pure enjoyment of sublime food. Other times, food needs just that bit of distraction, as, while pleasant enough, it would not be able to stand too severe a critical analysis.

The latter is how we felt while eating with friends at the reincarnation of the old Seafood restaurant in St Monans (the sister restaurant in St Andrews still stands). Reincarnation mainly in name, as the chef, Craig Millar, is the same, and so is the style of cuisine.

The short seafood based menu is appealing. The dishes look good and are well presented, some exceptionally so.

At the taste test, however, the experience was mixed. The gazpacho amouse bouche that kicked off proceedings was delicious (and softer on the palate, as often in the UK, than a 'real' Spanish one); however an intense Thai mussel broth

featured less than ideally plump mussels, and verged on the over-seasoned.

And a very fresh, perfectly cooked and picture perfect stone bass

failed to reach great heights in terms of flavour - the culprit being perhaps the raw material, which we believe was farmed (we didn't ask), or otherwise had lost intensity along the way in some mysterious fashion.

The cooking, too, slightly wobbled at times; as in a risotto with scallops, well below the threshold of underseasoning (something of which we hardly if ever complain, poor sensitive palates that we are),

where the risotto did not really qualify as a risotto, and the scallops, cut and dispersed over the dish in a valiant effort to look as a larger quantity, were on the overcooked side. The truffle slices were close to inedible. Summer truffles, while never sublime like white Alba, can be seriously good - yet these ones had the characteristic cardboard consistency that makes you wonder what the point is of them in a dish, except for having the word 'truffle' on the menu.

A final pannacotta was acceptable to Man as it was at least as wobbly as the cooking and was accompanied by pleasantly acidic and fruity notes, but Woman is much, much harder to satisfy on that front...

The smiling service offered hints of confusion, pressure (YOU ARE NOT HAVING ANY INTERMEDIATE COURSE?), indifference (no questions on how we liked the food), a bill delivered to us unrequested (while a perfunctory 'take your time' was proffered, the hint that at 10.30pm we had overstayed our welcome was obvious), and a second copy of the bill delivered a second time by a different person! We really had to go...

Despite the faults, we cannot say we ate poorly overall. Craig Millar has talent in our view; just look at how beautiful his dishes are and you can perceive the very serious professional as well as the artistic bent of mind behind them. But at £40 for three courses and £45 for four we felt the meal wasn't really good value given the ordinary quality of the produce (the real downfall of the evening), and the lack of generosity in the portions and in the absence of petit fours (with tea and coffee taken by half of the table).

Go for the great view and for acceptably good and pretty food if you fancy it. But in the next village along the coast, Sangster's offers in our opinion far better value, not to mention the best of them all, The Peat Inn, on which a new report is long overdue.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Galvin at Windows (London): a perfect lunch

We used to have the '£100 rule', because we maintained it was possible to fine-dine in London for around that figure (for two and with an acceptable wine). Then, defeated by inflation, we gave up. But on a beautiful Summer afternoon, we seem to have gone back in time: the £45 three course lunch at Galvin at Windows, inclusive of water, wine and coffee, took us by surprise with dishes that went well beyond what one expects in such value lunches. Please follow us to the 28th floor of the Hilton on Park Lane.

An amuse of  cold clear tomato 'consomme' with peas (and the very attentive service) are immediately striking.  Not to mention the all important bread, which - we agreed with an Italian waiter - was excellent (the waiter said it was made in-house, though other sources conflict).

After the amuses, a table by the window becomes free, and although we are sitting at a perfectly nice table 'in the second row', well-spaced from the others, some offers just cannot be refused....(but to stress the point: the room is laid out really nicely, and one can be happy wherever she is seated).

For starters, we had a delicate but flavoursome, dense San Marzano tomato gazpacho (with garlic in Anglosaxon rather than Mediterranean quantity), very fresh. Only the mozzarella did not offer much flavour. And a superb flamed mackerel, one of those simple looking dishes that take your breath away for the precision of the flavours (the side microveggie were stunning).

A duck main dish is elegantly presented and prepared,

a shiny cherry jus supporting the main produce robustly and intriguingly.

But the cooking (in butter) of a cod was out of this world, making it translucent, moist and tender (skin wisely removed). The seasoning was bold. We often complain about dishes being over-salted. This dish is a lesson on the fact that it is not just a matter of sheer quantity of salt, and that much depends on the overall balance. The egg and the chicken jus somehow combined with the cod to provide a strong sensory attack that nonetheless remained, even for us, on the right side of the threshold.

We were looking forward with some trepidation (given our fussines with this specific dessert) to a Tonka bean pannacotta. But the specimen passed muster with flying colours, having achieved a delicious creamy consistency. And for something lighter, the vanilla poached and roasted apricots with apricot cream and pineapple sorbet were sweetly refreshing:

Just like sometimes restaurants can have a night off, sometimes they pull off the perfect meal, when everything feels smooth  and there is not one single fault, and a review reduces to a mere sequence of accolades. And even the weather helps.

oh, and this view is the reason why, according to Wikipedia, Her Majesty the Queen objected to the construction of the Hilton Hotel - nobody likes to have her garden overlooked:

Of course, this type of experience does not occur by chance - behind certain results there is immense preparation and fantastic teams both in the front room and in the kitchen. When a restaurant is well organised and there is true leadership, it can work well whether the boss is present or not. On this occasion, the bosses were neither in the front room nor in the kitchen, yet the two great teams obviously included people that one day will be bosses, because they managed to serve a large, quite full room entirely smoothly. Well done, guys.

After the meal, we strolled to our favourite destination after a lunch in Mayfair

We were coming with eyes trained to demand perfection in the dishes, and unforgiving of even the minutest sloppiness. We would like to pay a final tribute to Andre Garret and his team: their dishes met more stringent standards of precise execution  than some of the works at the Royal Academy!


Saturday, August 6, 2011

Number One (Edinburgh): classic class

One of those unending Scottish Summer nights...this one above is the Balmoral in Edinburgh, whose basement restaurant tempts us tonight.

We are soon offered some delicious nibbles, including  the often present haggis bon bon (we had the same at Martin Wishart for example) but...what is this? In an otherwise tender and tasty loin of rabbit cylinder Man finds a bone, and a piece of shell will appear in an otherwise perfect amuse bouche of crab with gazpacho and iced melon.

These prep mistakes indicate that something  is not settled in the kitchen, and a confirmation of this will come later, with an unusual delay between first and second course. A young Italian waiter comes to us and apologises, and when, curious, we ask him what the problem is he explains 'You know, in Michelin starred restaurants like this one it is normal to apologise if a dish arrives late'. You don't say.

Let us get done with a last complaint: a dish of scallops, while perfectly cooked felt a little ungenerous and somewhat uninspiring, compared to other fantastic scallop dishes we've had in Scotland.

Ok, with these minor faults out of the way, we can state the main character of the evening: it was a real feast of super-produce in classical, balanced, striking dishes.

A Nicoise of rabbit

graciously deconstructed many elements, including a very apt pungent anchovy.

The two mains, a lamb and a beef fillet, could only be commented with screams of pleasure.

The juses do not appear very smooth but they are really elegant and full of flavour, and the depth of the beef and the lamb is memorable. All other components in the dish (sweetbread,...)  exhalt its core. Very classical, focussed, rather straightforwardly presented yet stylish cooking.

The dessert section deserves a special mention. There is a chef patissiere of talent here, because both a Baileys cream, coffee granite, caramelised nuts and chocolate croquant and Slow cooked cherries with goat cheese sorbet and fennel and honey mousse were very articulated, well thought out exemplars of the art and science of pastry making. 

At the end of the meal the Sommelier (a really charming and professional fellow) comes pushing, with some effort, a giant trolley of dessert wines: 'can I tempt you...'. 'You can certainly tempt us, but we'll not yield to the temptation'. And we retire in the bar area to sip our filter coffees (good) with very good petit fours to conclude a relaxed and very pleasant evening. And not even too heavy on your wallet considering the luxury surroundings: three courses at £62 is one the best values in the Michelin starred firmament in Edinburgh. If you enjoy classical French cuisine with a Scottish slant, definitely recommended.

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