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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Viajante (London): inspiring

Great bread. And not only that. We normally hate no-choice menus, such as you get at Viajante. They seem to epitomise a chef's arrogance; they say to the customer: it's not about you - it's about me, me, me, the chef. See our experience at Roganic.

So we only came here on the recommendation of a (very) expert friend  whom we trust.

But it is indeed worth the trek even for those of you from more luxurious parts of London (not us) to this, let's say, more colourful one.

Nuno Mendes' cuisine is often referred to as avante-garde. It is in fact more complex than that, weaving an undoubtedly modern narrative that is deeply rooted in tradition.

Our lunch had it all (apart from choice): technique, balance, power, amusement, tradition, innovation, generosity. Not a single dish disappointed or wasn't interesting.

An unpretentiously presented butternut squash, milk skin and lardo was deceptively simple and the most intriguing dish of the day (as it s so hard to impress with a mainly vegetarian dish).

And a bread porridge with egg, sweetcorn and girolles, redolent of tradition, was a moving as well as well executed dish.

We went for the six course menu, which is a great bargain at £50 (EDIT FEB 2012: prices have now increased by 30% at lunch, so now this menu is £65, like at dinner - not so great value any longer), but the dishes are in fact many more, so much so that we won't go into details. Look at them, they  tasted as good as they looked, from the initial amouse bouches (crab croquette, 'Thai explosiion', Amaranth with sorrel), in which the incredibly clear and hyperdimensional flavours attest that this chef means business,

to the cod loin with a stew of tripe, parsley and potatoes, to the intense, ravishing Maldonado pork cheek with cereals and garlic

to a suavely refreshing and light pickled and raw cucumber with reduced milk sorbet

to a concluding Mandarin Dondurma. We neither, it's a Turkish ice-cream.

And it's impossible to forget the petit fours, notably the truly mushroom tasting 'chococolate porcini', a final piece of fun and taste.

Service staff and the hostess were young and sweet and took their jobs very seriously but with a smile.

We went to Viajante fearing gimmicks, and we found instead very solid cuisine with some flavours from the past, some flavours from around the world, some flavours from the sheer imaginative power of the chef, all of them impeccably layered and assembled. It's modern, it's complex, it's good, it's different: go!


Thursday, November 17, 2011

A triumph of Grouse

Fewer and fewer of the beautiful birds on restaurants' plates, the glorious period that begun on the 12th of August, the opening of the grouse shooting season, is nearing the end.

We have tried many fantastic interpretations of grouse this year: these are the best ones.

Alas, we failed to take the photo of the truly superlative one by the great old man in London, as the last time we went armed with our camera they had run out. But more vivid than a picture, the deep, deep flavour of Koffmann's grouse will stay in our memory till next year. His grouse is something that transcends any intellectual evaluation, it strikes at your taste emotion and you just stop caring any longer about the hours of high techniques and patient preparations that have gone into it: all you want to do is to abandon yourself completely to the sheer pleasure of eating it, to drown in it and forget all the rest!
Martin Wishart's interpretation contrasts markedly with Koffmann's, the latter sheer power, no holds barred, the former with the hair less let down, more of an elegant and sensual beautiful lady or gentleman than an exhuberant youth, delicious in a different way. He had two versions, one accompanied by a foie gras


and the other by a boudin

The waiter was astonished that we preferred to forgo one portion of the nobler foie gras (to which we were entitled by our choice of menu) in order to try also the more rustic boudin, but we don't care for the aristocracy of produce and just look for true flavours. We were not disappointed, both were packed with them and technically flawless.
While the chef's touch is exhibited unashamedly in Wishart's dishes, the class of Geoff Smeddle at the Peat Inn is more restrained, developing only slowly while you enjoy and understand the dish and all its hidden subtleties and details,

the meat presented simply and openly, the beautiful colours - visual testimony to a perfect cooking - in evidence, supported by a muscular jus, and notable because of the so welcome abundance of a vegetable element (in this case Puy lentils as the core) so typical of his style. Geoff has a unique knack of making you feel as if you are eating at the same time a rustic and a superfine dining dish (this one also comes accompanied on the side by neatly presented innards on a crusty bread).

Look how very different this presentation at Galvin La Chapelle,

 which while accomplished was a little more austere, a little more rigid, maybe a little less joyous, what do you think? The piece on the left packed a punch of flavour as good as any other sample, while the one on the right divided us, Man finding it slightly more stringy, somehow less convincing than the best ones, while Woman was happy. We agreed that the jus was shiny class, and just so there is no doubt, let us make it clear that even with our modest criticism this is stratospheric level of cooking.

Let's conclude with an Italian version...if you have followed us for a while you know we are great admirers of Maurizio Morelli's skills at Latium. Grouse is not something one finds in Italy, so there's not a traditional Italian way of preparing it, and Maurizio here was unconstrained by the weight of tradition that sometimes tends to shackle Italian chefs in the UK.

Here you will notice, unique among those presented, the symmetric and 'full dish' type of composition that Maurizio likes, and, like at the Peat Inn, a love of vegetables (and blueberries!) that we share (here there was a lovely baked pumpkin, as well a Savoy cabbage, in a red wine and bluberry jus). The cooking was perfect, and the gentleness and the balance of flavours shone as usual even with an assertive grouse.

By the way, did we mention we love grouse?


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Fraser (Dundee)

menu: 19:13
salad: 19:21
soup: 19:29
scallops and duck: 20:01
fish e featherblade: 21:13
puddings: 21:59

It's not that we spent the entire  evening obsessively looking at our watches. But if you use a camera in a restaurant the pictures will unfailingly punctuate how long you've been bloody waiting for each dish, looking around with increasing perplexity at the apparent lack of concern of the staff.

If you look at the progression above, you will notice that the first items were almost shoved down our throats, then pacing assumed a semblance of normality, and then the kitchen obviously ground to a halt, with one and a half hours between the starter and the main. It took us over three hours to complete a regular dinner.

Fraser is a semi-professional operation in the well-to-do Dundee neighborhood of Broughty Ferry, which opens only two days a week, to allow Father to pursue his passion (it looks like, but we didn't ask, various family members are in the front of house).

All ingredients taste impeccably sourced. These scallops in particular felt fresh and also cooked well:

And  the searing of another simple starter of Barbary duck

sealed in all the juicy flavours.

These starters came after a gastronomically pointless (but nevertheless welcome by us vegetable lovers) salad, and also after a soup that was a concentrate of tomato and basil flavour.

A main of feather-blade and fillet came in monumental quantity but here the cooking skill faltered badly, the wine jus watery, the carrots sad, the meat dry, which made finishing this beautiful piece of beef a bit of a slog.

But by God the wild seabass was a beautiful piece of fish that would have been a portion for the whole table in London, its presentation was colorful  with a ginger beurre blanc lifting the dish just rightly.

The desserts, a Port poached per with cinnamon ice-cream and a ginger ice-cream with rhubarb poached in vanilla syrup were pleasantly asserive.

We'd describe the cooking here a that of a very talented amateur - which means better and more personal than that of many mediocre or soulless professional kitchens we've encountered. And as we said the ingredients are impeccable. The downfall  is one of lack of professional organisation and service.

But let's end on a high note: there are some very, very well priced wines here. We had a Gevrey Chambertin with a mark-up one million miles from those of London and Edinburgh.

Fraser could be a very good neighbourhood restaurant if it allowed you to go for a shorter meal, and if didn't force you to such epic waits and strange pacing if you go for a full one. For us personally, once we've driven an hour to arrive there, it would be hard to resist the temptation to drive another twenty minutes for the superior cuisine at Gordon's.

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