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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Greenhouse (London): an enticing trial lunch

On arrival, despite visiting on a budget offer, we are given all the customary extras - very elegant, very pleasant, very welcoming.

When we ask whether they mind if we take photos of the food, the maitre d' almost laughs: why should I mind? We'd like to send the tape of this scene, occurred in what is otherwise a pretty formal setting, to the many stuck-up venues that consider themselves and their food so sacred that its images cannot be handled by mere mortals.

So let's take a photo of the bread

It has a 'professional boulangerie feel', very standard but perfect looking, and it's undoubtedly very well-made (we didn't ask whether it was bought in).

We decided to have a "trial lunch" at this illustrious and historical Mayfair venue that has seen several chefs at the helm - they must have a Michelin star or two, they really must, but we can't be arsed to check - show us the food first :) - based on an amazing offer with this site, that afforded a three course meal and a coffee for less than what a single main costs in most fine dining places in London (the regular lunch menu, anyway, is also good value at £29 for three courses). Of course at this price we expect the selection to be limited and the dishes to be simpler, and that's why we prefer to consider this visit as a mere trial, to get an indication of the style of Chef Antonin Bonnet's cuisine. 

There is, anyway, an art in designing a budget fine-dining menu.

A tiny matter. A wine waiter or junior sommelier attempts to persuade us to buy a bottle of Barbera that is almost 50% more expensive than the more moderately priced (£36) Loire we had selected. Now, apart from the fact that a sommelier should be able to spot two cheap bastards like us, who would never upgrade so much on their stated request unless already fully drunk, we also consider it slightly bad form to attempt this upselling feat and jarring with the previous impression of hospitality.

After this, however, everything was smooth, including the impeccable topping up of the wine by the aforementioned waiter.

Very soft, enveloping textures in the first dish, Spaghetti squash and hen egg, hazelnuts, bristly ox tongue, apple balsamic vinegar (nothing else) with pleasant contrasts and balance between acidity and sweetness.

The strongly flavored sardines, glazed with birch syrup, do give pleasure, matched by an equally decisive jus (chicken?), accompanied by an aubergine caviar and girolles mushrooms;  a good ensemble although the aubergine caviar was overdelivering on labour and underdelivering on flavour.

More delicate but with neat flavours, and simply beautiful, was a dish of grey mullet with artichoke puree and dolce-forte sauce which once again created that acidic counterpoint:

A rich, sumptuous featherblade was enhanced by a shiny and powerful Guinness sauce and accompanied by smoked new potatoes, buttery and soft. This would have been a fantastic dish had it been completed by some other vegetable element; as it was, it was pleasant and powerful but slightly one-dimensional both texturally and taste-wise, and tending to become monotonous - more a dish to gobble up rather than one to slowly enjoy

A Guanaja chocolate dessert came as a ganache, it was light and delicious, with crunchy chocolate "medals" and a very very intense blackcurrant coulis that really shone through.

The cheeses featured a Morbier and three others that we have in the meanwhile forgotten in the orgy of intervening restaurant outings... Perhaps you can recognise them from the photo. They were excellent if, according to us, served at a very slightly sub-optimal temperature. A suggestion that seemd to greatly demoralise the maitre d' who clearly cared, and made Man feel guilty for having made it. Let's say that our mouths were too warm.

All in all an impressive display of precise cooking and creative, sometimes subtle combinations within a tight budget. While, for all the politeness and attentiveness, the whole atmosphere felt somehow a little cold for our liking (they certainly tend to cater for a clientele that is very different from low class us, as the mind-boggling wine list attests, and these are impalpable feelings anyway), we are very enticed to go back for the whole hog. That, however, will imply a serious dent in the wallet, even compared with restaurants of similar level of cuisine.

The petit fours, pure class, certainly do invite you to return,  

and ever more so does an excellent espresso, served with a spark of originality - had it been slightly 'shorter' (less diluted) it would have competed for one of the best espressos of the year, and we don't take such issues lightly...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Peat Inn (Fife)

We've been more than a few times at the Peat Inn, first reviewed here.

To understand why this is one the most appealing restaurants we know, look, for example, from our last Summer visit, at the  neatness of presentation of this Lobster Thermidore (a starter): the plate is clean, the precious juices and moisture all contained within the shell. The cooking is the most precise we've encountered in our Thermidore eating career: the sauce not overpowering but merely supporting the soft, delicate, succulent meat. The dark chips layered on the right provide a touch of textural variety. This is what we would call restrained class (it isn't nice to make comparisons, but we have to say that this offering is on a different level of cuisine even compared to our very good recent Scottish experiences at Ondine and The Honours), which in the end defines this restaurant.

The other starter was a stunner, too, but very different, going for a wider palette of flavours and colours. Here we have a pea and ham pannacotta with a ham hock bon bon and a quail egg.

There are so many layers of flavour and textures and details and ingredients in this simple looking dish that it's hard to tell. So we won't tell but merely assure you the result is amazing - to save time just be amazed, enjoy the colours, and try to imagine!

We also had our first Grouse of the season, here in the rich and powerful sauce that this meat wants. On a 'gameiness scale' we would say this was in the middle, quite gentle and hence, we think, acceptable also to more delicate palates - it's a matter of personal preferences but we could cope with more extreme versions and uses of the innards...(so far in the season the gold medal belongs to this guy). In terms of cooking, look at the brown outside, memory of flavour-giving high heat, and at the pink inside, and you get an idea of the satisfaction for the game-lover.

A dish of veal cooked in two ways (roasted rump and braised shin) is not only very accomplished,


but it also hides a lovely, lovely tomato sauce in the middle, redolent of Italian flavours, that we of course very much appreciated...Look also at all the small details in the dish - as ever, the more you look the more you discover - rarely here a dish of X is a mere dish of X, it's more like a minute construction around a core.

We would have wanted to choose the entire dessert list, so enticing it read, but we limited ourselves to these two:

A beautiful Eton Mess, with its crunchy, bright white meringue in which once again neatness of presentation (Chef Smeddle, who definitely has a bent for neatness, clearly cannot tolerate a mess even in an Eaton Mess...) and balance reigned supreme,


and a creamed vanilla rice pudding with peach compote, frosted hazelnuts and a peach sorbet (which can be served either cold or warm - the rice pudding, that is :) ). Imagine comfort food at its most refined, richly velvety yet elegant and light; this is it!

While Scotland is graced with several truly excellent restaurants, where highly talented chefs ably handle the marvellous Scottish produce, for us none of them quite matches the unique combination of charm, comfort, great cuisine and class-without-stiffness in service that one can enjoy at the Peat Inn. It is just our kind of high-end restaurant with a human face, not to mention the best value for money (no doubt a base but not unimportant dimension...) all round. That's why we'll be back here again, and again, and again, and we hope that even higher recognitions will be added to an already impressive record.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Wallace Restaurant at the Wallace Collection

Woman spent an hour of the Sunday morning in the basement rooms showing some intricate works by the goldsmith Kevin Coates. Man, suffering from back-ache, unable to stoop to look at the details of the miniatures, irritated and very worried at the thought of Woman exposed to all that gold, took a stroll in the upper galleries looking at the portraits of rather ugly gentlemen and ladies and at terrifying armoury, and couldn't wait to sit down in the comfortably pillowed, deep metal chairs of the fantastically bright (courtesy of a glass window) and spacious dining room at the Wallace collection.

There is something about satisfying first your eyes and then your palate, about eating surrounded by beauty...

We had a very decent duck terrine, accompanied by a lovely sweet sauce, clearly the work of a competent chef.

The combination of remoulade, Bayonne ham and cucumber pickles, while simple, worked and showed attention to flavour balance, and in all honesty the combination of sweetness, sourness, saltiness and umami was a pleasure on the palate.

The papillote butternut squash kept all its flavour, although we were suffering form carbohydrate withdrawal symptoms.

Luckily there was some creamy pearl barley accompanying plump courgettes, lavishly stuffed with black olives.

To finish, three cheeses, in more than acceptable conditions and generously accompanied by apples, grapes and walnuts - from a list of seven or eight we chose an Epoisse, a Livarot and a Comte D’Estive.

And a rather floury but overall good cherry clafoutis (no stones in the cherries!)

All this, plus two glasses of wine at £7.50 each and coffees, for £93. Some good pricing here. The cheeses are £10 for three piece, or £15 for five , or £7 for one. There is a set lunch of two or three courses at £22 and £25. We will not say that you can have the best fine dining lunch of your life at the Wallace, and with L'Autre Pied and Roganics so close for a Sunday lunch that's where you should head to if you are only interested only in the food. But you can be a happy eater, you can be thoroughly content and relaxed, at the Wallace. There is competence and professionalism behind those dishes, and the environment is truly uplifting.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Honours (Edinburgh)

It looks like Martin Wishart didn't spare any expenses in his new 'bistro' in central Edinburgh, the atmosphere one of very spacious luxury rather than intimately rustic

They clearly need to make it back with the bread, good but only served in three thin slices each, and not replaced if you finish it...

Scottish Nationalists will have an apoplectic attack at the only type of oyster being served in this Scottish restaurant being 'Cornish assured'

We heard that there was no competition in the blind tasting. Very good they certainly were: the plumpest, sea-infused oysters of our (admittedly limited, but not non-existent) experience. But we are told by reliable sources that you can find equally good ones in Scotland, so....

Woman: Let's have the lobster Thermidore. Man: Nah, we are having it every week here in Scotland! Woman: Come on! Man: Ok....

It was a good choice: served without the shell, notable for the excellent cooking, the herbs recruited in quantity to add freshness, and the balance and kick of the sauce. In one word: delicious (though we've recently had an even better one...stay tuned).

Man: let's have the tuna tartare. Woman: Nah, this is the tame yellowfin, you know I'm used to the wonderful bluefin Sicilian tuna. Man: you mean, like feckless environmental yobs that don't give a toss about sustainability? Woman, contrite: Ok, let's see what chef Paul Tamburrini manages to do with the yellowfin.

It was a good choice: a simple 'assembly' dish with very well-defined, fresh, harmonious flavours (avocado cream, ginger and soya butter sauce).

Woman: let's have the veal sweetbreads. Man: Nah, we can have them in Italy or the lovely ones with Pecorino cheese they do at Latium. Woman: Come on, don't be chauvinistic! Man: Ok.

It was a good choice. In fact, it was a great choice. Simply resting on a bed of moist spinach and accompanied by a portentous reduction, it was the cooking that made this the dish of the day, having achieved that perfectly light crispiness on the outside and that supreme softness inside.

Man: Let's have the Presa steak of acorn fed Iberico pork. Woman: Nah, we can have this sort of thing in Spain. Man: Yes we could, however we never do, come on! Woman: Ok.

It was a good choice. They can really cook well here at the Honours, clearly a taut and well-run kitchen. This one felt like it was grilled, let's see, at about 650 degrees, you know, it had that unmistakable texture...(OK,we read it on the menu, where they feel compelled to give you this information as if many people might change their mind about the order if it was cooked at 600 or 670 instead). We asked for medium rare and we were rewarded with the succulence that comes with it. Iberico pork is in general wonderful, but Man found this one good but not the best Iberico pork, and in terms of flavour he preferred the one at Hedone the previous week. Just for the sake of giving you a full spectrum of opinions, Woman disagreed. They agreed however that the the thick wine sauce was 'deluscious', and the tomatoes welcome (though to our taste they could have been cooked quite a little more and acquire that melting deliciousness).

Just one dessert, to increase our Summer exploration of the classics, another peach Melba, like at Koffmann's the previous week (yes, we eat out a lot).

The ice-cream (made with a Carpigiani machine, as the very detailed menu says) was as good as one finds even in Italy, and the peach (Italian, so says the once again very detailed menu...) intense - this was yellow, while the Koffmann's one was white. It is definitely not your classic Peach Melba, but still a very good ending to a very good meal. The presentation is perhaps more bistro that fine dining (compare it with the one at Koffmann's bistro, but that's OK.

The service has some key members from the Michelin starred Leith operation, so you get the benefit of a level of service far superior to what you'd expect in a bistro (the other waiters, very nice but displaying inexperience to various extent, looked in fact like they do greatly benefit from their more experienced colleagues - one lovely young lady was literally trembling when taking the dishes away: sweet but painful to watch). A special mention for the manager Steven Spear, a Wishart faithful, whose bright and easy charm (and voice!) cannot fail to strike the customer.

As you can see, we had six good choices out of six, and indeed we have the feeling that we could have chosen anything from the menu and been equally satisfied. This is a very polished operation. Remember, it's a bistro, so don't go expecting the intricate dishes of Martin Wishart that probably take six days to prepare, and you won't be disappointed. The one negative aspect is a certain sense of lack of generosity (no amuse bouche, very little bread, no petit fours, expensive coffee - which we did not have, very little vegetables in most dishes so you need to order side ones), a rather enthusiastic pricing (we spent £111, of which £38 drinks, before a tip - for £120 or so you can fine-dine elsewhere not too far), right on the borderline of what we would consider excessive, bearing in mind what is in the plate, the lack of extras and the basic mise en place. On the other hand they have set lunches on weekdays that look a steal. If you can, you should perhaps focus on those.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hedone (London): top produce does the job, sometimes

 (Note added December 2011: A second visit was distinctly less impressive than reflected in the review below. Between excellent dishes, the already noted amateurish mistakes were magnified to the point that a dish was tasting positively vile and verging on inedible (a salty cockle broth garnishing a turbot). When asked by the manager how it was, we told her how it was. The chef stormed out of the kitchen to confront us and assert that we were wrong. Unfortunately we were obviously right, saltiness is just that thing that anybody can was probably just hurt pride on his part that prevented him from admitting the mistake - a rather unpromising attitude for future developments. At those prices and with that attitude, we will not risk Hedone again for a long while).

Long cut through London from E1 to W4, for what? Well, for a good cause we hope. We look at the lunch menu, which offers 3, 4 or 5 courses (with two choices only for mains and desserts). Everything is enticing, so we ask for everything.

We are a little disappointed though that a lamb, which has been judged by this guy the best he's ever eaten, isn't on the menu. As it happens, this illustrious gourmet happens to be sitting right at the next table (we know it but he doesn't, ah the joys of anonymity) and we become green with envy when we see chef Mikael Jonsson himself step out from the full open view kitchen area to personally bring the sought-after lamb to the next table! But this and other special treats are well deserved: our gourmet neighbour has been at Hedone six times in two weeks, a feat that we could never match, has written a glowing review, and has scored the cuisine at 2* level. Do we agree? 

Let's be frank: with such a high bar set, no.

With us, excellent bread such as the one on show today is always a winner: nice crust, texture and flavour, even  if of only one type, which is a slight disappointment. Some at least minimal variety is important with bread.

An umami flan, topped by seaweed coulis (we think), suavely unctuous, offers unusual and crystal clear flavours, a striking opening to the meal, a work of simple genius. It was preceded by an also striking nibble of a sable' buckwheat biscuit in which Berkswell cheese flavour comes through intensely, subtly accompanied by a blackcurrant powder.

A gazpacho is bursting with vegetable flavour and vibrant colour (good produce and good judgement in proportions and seasoning do the job), served spectacularly in a transparent bowl, and the dill seed sorbet worked very well indeed at all levels, flavour, temperature and consistency.

A simply grilled mackerel with Japanese flavours was incredibly soft and succulent, perfectly seasoned and accompanied by the tenderest of green leaves. A dish of great simplicity and effectiveness.

So far so good. But the the cooking was not perfect across the board. A wild salmon was reduced to a squashy texture by slow cooking. You can see from the photo some signs of the massacre. A nicely crispy skin or at least some firmness of flesh would better serve the splendid beast which died for us. Yet the peas were very good.

Conversely, we found too much firmness in a thickly cut pork of superb quality and exploding flavour, due to being a little overdone (great potato mash with just a hint of mustard (we think) and Grelot onions though, and the simple jus was perfect! And the crispiness of the skin!).

And, no matter how good and fresh the scallops were in another dish (and they were again fantastic), just steaming them (admittedly very precisely) with no contrast or complement for their natural potent umami and sweetness seems a bit like raising the white flag as an ambitious cook. Cuisine has been developed to enhance the natural flavour of the raw materials, after all. Isn't this is what cooks do?

For desserts, a texturally very pleasant, smooth almond blanc manger provided a nice contrast to the acidity of an apricot, but perhaps the acidity itself was too much for balance.

On the other hand the Hedone chocolate bar (72%) was minimalistically but chewily gratifying. 

We always order espresso coffee with some hesitation. Especially when, like here, most of the personnel is French... But it was of excellent quality and reasonably well executed.

We paid £183 with a £44 wine and water, which may seem steep but isn't, really. Not only will you find here some of the best quality produce around, but the dishes are generously portioned and allow you to enjoy them in several morsels (accumulating flavours and impressions) instead of disappearing in just one or two

Chef Jonsson seems a remarkable kind of chef, with his unusual pedigree of former gourmet and his 'obsession' with raw materials. He is very clever in keeping it simple, staying within his comfort zone of cooking, and focussing on sourcing. For what we've seen he would not excel at complex preparations, not having an assured hand in cooking, nor always stunning ideas on layering flavours. Hedone is already one of the best addresses in London - provided you are not in search of intricate dishes or complex culinary ideas or ambitious presentation, but of a potently good meal of dishes that are not pretentious yet do have some subtlety. Their only pretention, really, is great ingredients that are encouraged to speak mostly for themselves.

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