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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lunch(es) at The Ledbury: from excellent to better

(Visited July and August 2012)

The world hardly needs, let alone from us, an additional review of The Ledbury and Brett Graham, a restaurant and a chef that have (justly) received so much attention and accolades already. So here's just a memory, a celebration, of two great meals, ten days apart, that we had there in the Summer.

The first meal was chosen by us a la carte and was entirely fish (well, not the desserts), while the second was put together by the chef and focussed on meat. The dishes here look like the room and feel like the atmosphere, both elegant and unstuffy.

Here they like (for several dishes) the theatre of bringing the just cooked produce at your table before plating, like these roast scallops:

Already these whole chunky beasts on their seaweed bed would have been just fine as they were...But we are not in a barn, what do you think, so you get elegant plating and lovely brassicas as a bonus

Lobster with fennel and elderflower really tickles and surprises as a combination and is poetic to look at:

 The cooking of this salmon was just exemplary, dare we say maybe not supported by the flavour of the salmon, perhaps its quality high but not as stellar as that of the scallops

 By the way, the famous flame grilled mackerel (no picture due to the excess of them on the web) is really as simple as it looks, as good as they say, and a piece of genius as you hope. You cannot not try it.

This fish meal pleased us, made us feel good and happy with the world as an excellent meal should, it made us admire the chef's marvellous skills, but for some reason -probably more to do with us than with the dishes- it did not take our breath away, which is rationally inexplicable by looking back at these dishes.

But the meat meal did it. It almost made us switch to Tripadvisor mode and scream ohmygod this was the best meal of my life...

Seriously, the best or not, and what does the best mean anyway, it had that rare kind of consistently stunning quality and inexorable culinary logic.

Of all the delicacies above, genius is perhaps most apparent in one of the simplest, the fine green beans with powder of foie gras (i.e. frozen and grated), white peach and raw almonds. This is essentially a vegetarian dish with a non-vegetarian garnish. In this 'inversion' lies the greatness of this most suave offering.

Meat lovers will be happy too (excellent the pigeon with cherries) and so those with a sweet tooth: both the chocolate pave' with milk puree' and lovage ice cream, and the brown sugar tart with poached grapes and ginger ice cream looked and were memorable, a triumph of flavour balance.

Service here adds another gear to the already impressive machine that the Ledbury is. Really great and hard working professionals in the front room, with an evident degree of autonomy and capacity for initiative, a well drilled, well oiled, and pleasant team (Sam was in charge on both days, what a nice chap).

Not only were we happy because Graham attains extraordinary combinations of flavours while avoiding any infantile ostentation of techniques and 'molecularity'- the technique is all there, but it is at the service of the dish, it's behind it, it's not the dish: this is what we call mature cooking (in this, we were reminded of L20 in Chicago). We were happy also because this is 2* Michelin eating for the modern era: what a satisfaction to eat in a place whose every aspect, from service to cuisine, is at the pinnacle and yet does not subject you to tedious formalisms, conventions, obligations: hurray!

(Note: the photos are unedited, 'straight from the table', and AS ALWAYS, unlike some fellow bloggers, we paid for these meal)


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cambio de Tercio: Disappointing return

Just a short update (and photo-less: this meal wasn't meant to lead to a post...) to temper the glowing report on our first visit at Cambio de Tercio

It was obviously too good to be true.

The jamon, while having good flavour, was depressingly far from the delicacy the real thing can be (our memories of the real thing, during a recent trip to Spain, still painfully vivid). This was so hard and stringy (and also poorly cut) that we enquired whether maybe it was from a paleta (front leg), which can be a little harder. No, it's jamon, they assured us. So we guess they had just picked the worst bits: thank you.

A John Dory was presented with its flaccid skin and the accompanying squid wasn't properly cleaned.

The waiter made a lot of difficulty with our choice of wine (for information, a Quercus 2005 at £63 selling about £20 retail). 'I'm sorry, we have run out, why don't you get this one which is very similar?'. 'How can it be very similar, it's a 2010 vintage?'. 'Ah OK, how about this one?'. 'It's also 2010...'. 'OK, maybe I have the Quercus, let me see'. And indeed, probably after a search that he hadn't relished, he came back with the bottle...whose content arrived only much much later to our uncomfortable table, after the jamon had already been served.

And so on...

After this experience, when in a 'Spanish mood' we'll try some of the other choices in London. 

Or maybe, we'll use the savings made on wine markups and we'll fly direct to Spain...We noticed a disturbingly excessive £80 price tag on a Crianza Pago de Carraoviejas (a Ribera del Duero), when in Malaga we had the Reserva version of the same for fifty euros (40 pounds)!


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Istanbul: a few restaurant tips

(Visited July 2012)

A work trip to Istanbul, the chance to try a few places in the Taksim square area, and one (which was the best) in the old city. Read on.

First of all, in all cities there's that little joint you go to for basic grub that tastes true and simple and costs little. For us, this was it: 

at the crossing between Cumhryet Cd. and Asker Ocagi Cd., across from the Intercontinental Ceylan and one minute from the Grand Hyatt, though you are more likely to meet the local police force at the end of their shift than the residents of these hotels.

At Meze by Lemon Tree (Mesrutiyet cad No:83) the meze (which you could choose 'by sight') were undoubtedly of superior quality and featured interesting variations on the classics, as well as a nice balance of flavours. But the a la carte starters and the mains we had (aubergine, calamari and meatballs) tasted ordinary and devoid of good ideas.  Given the almost fine dining prices (for Istanbul), it's not more than average for what money can buy in the area. Should we repeat the experience, we would stick to the meze and we would be happy. 

Thoroughly disappointing, in spite of appearing on some newspaper article, was 9 Ece Aksoy (Asmalimescit Oteller Sok. No.9). On this we just want to say that it looks nice but the food is mediocre or worse given the prices. And service far too pushy as well. Avoid. 

Better was Pano Saraphanesi (Hamalbasi Cad. No:12/B Taksim). We went to this simple restaurant on the recommendation of a local friend. As we arrived, we were pointed to a table in the bustling street, but as soon as we (well, ok, our local friend really!) pronounced some secret magic words, we were ushered upstairs with the elevator leading to one of those sweet Istanbul roof terraces, where a few other tables were occupied.

We were told (or our friend was told) that they could buy some fresh fish from the market, and we agreed. They even came back to report on the high day price of the red mullet we had asked for, and offering to buy for us a smaller and cheaper, but still tasty, variety.

And so on...

In sum, we had a great evening of simple fresh food in a very relaxing and pleasant environment, but we cannot vouch for what it is like for unaccompanied tourists (the prices, however, were very reasonable also on the list). 

But the best of them all (and thus the only one deserving photos) was away from Taksim Nar Lokantasi (Nuruosmaniye Caddesi No. 65)

 (Believe it or not, the above is a wall with plants.) Don't be put off by the fact that it occupies the fifth floor of a shopping centre for the wealthy. The restaurant itself, while elegant (both inside room and terrace) has character. Even more so the food, which featured much attention to details and some classy cooking, yet kept that down to earth quality.

The style of cooking is quite original and different from what one finds in the average lokanta, but without excesses of fancy: to the contrary, the cuisine firmly emphasises traditional methods.

Only one dish we found mediocre, and that was the soup. All the rest made us dream. As Italians, we very much appreciated the quality of the olive oils used.

The sweet department (you can choose for yourself at the display) is...well, sweet: delightful little treats that stick in the memory. 

There is also a pida oven that made us salivate but it appeared not to function on the (ramadan) night we were there. 

Most of the customers were local and were having a standard iftar series of courses.

Service is kind if clumsy, and be prepared to point and mime if you don't speak Turkish, as they don't speak English - but waiters were patient and somehow it worked. Prices will positively surprise you for such an elegant environment and for the level of the produce and the cuisine. 


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Esperante (St Andrews): forgettable

(Visited July 2012)

When bread arrives and it is in full supermarket style, that unmistakable feeling of a looming wasted dinner out pervades you. We are in this upscale golf hotel restaurant and all the cliches about hotel restaurants that we always refuse to be put off by seem about to be unleashed upon us.

 Then you feel a little guilty because  not one but two amuse bouches arrive.

Amouse bouche
And another one 

Mousses, granita, tartare...not bad, not good, you see they are trying, no matter how clumsy the service is, to please you. Pity for the bone in the fish mousse, and for the fact that both amuses feel a little pointless.

Ah, here's the bread offering, by the way:
Rather horrible bread

this, we have to say, was probably one of the worst breads we have had in quite a long while.

Looking around us, the room is pleasant in spite of that hotel restaurant feel, and the table is comfortable. If only that half drunk idiot celebrating something stopped flashing his camera around, especially in our eyes. Cameras are meant to be pointed just at food, doesn't he know? And please no flash!

A dish of Crab, cucumber, watermelon, basil and vodka 
contained many ingredients and some technique, but it would have been nice instead to have focussed on the main ingredient, which was bland, and overwhelmed by the imperious watermelon.

Another starter of Langoustine, cous cous, pimentos and rose pepper gave us the impression that the chef had completely run out of ideas. This is a dish that can work, perhaps, in a rustic version and with larger quantities, not in the disjointed tiny amounts served here where no ingredient could shine and the cous cous seemed like an afterthought.

The mains were decidedly better, both a Lamb loin, ratatouille, herb crust, sweetbreads, potato, Madeira

and the even longer named Rabbit loin, chicken mousse, Serrano ham, liver and rack, potato fondant, cauliflower, baby mushrooms

Come on, do those microbits of cauliflower really need to feature in the long laundry list of ingredients? This was competent, if unexciting, cooking, with very little sparkle of imagination or flavours (compare e.g. with the far more interesting Rocca Grill nearby).

The desserts, a Carrot cake, walnut caramel, toffee icecream and cream cheese icing and a Blue cheese pannacotta, pear and sweet chilli chutney, honey and cashew icecream, and the petit fours

were probably the best part of the meal. Although, this is not to say much, as the ice creams were all rather bland, the carrot cake being really the only element which made itself noticed.

Service is smiling, but really basic mistakes (cutlery all over the place, distraction) make it look unprofessional. The only professional on the night was the Spanish sommelier. 

Three courses will set you back in the forties. We also note that, strangely, the three course market menu costs more than the same dishes a la carte. Are they testing our arithmetic?

When it pulls it off, and it not always does, the cuisine at Esperante is very straight, school-like Modern British. This is a ceiling they do not seem able to surpass. This means that, unless you use exceptional ingredients or have exceptional culinary flair (like e.g. here), your dishes always run the risk of being a little dull. While we didn't eat badly, that's the feeling we come out with, and given the alternatives around, it's hard to see reasons to drive out to the Fairmont.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

El Molin (Trento): enter a magic world

 (Visited July 2012)

When you enter El Molin, a restructured old mill with a weird architecture and unusual spaces for a restaurant, you already feel you are abandoning reality to enter a different, fairy-like world.

And indeed you're in for a unique experience, sometimes a great one, not always a perfect one, this place is not about perfection: but a unique one. Gilmozzi is an excellent chef who has has a style - a 'philosophy' as many a pompous restaurant website (but not he) would say. He creates  menus that it would be impossible to have anywhere else. And that, it has to be said, sometimes even seem to be out of commercial logic and really meant to fulfill his creative needs more than anything else.

Not that there is anything 'molecular' or overly strange going on here. The menu looks in part very straightforward and traditional, but even the traditional dishes will surprise you, sometimes in subtle ways. And tonight we mostly skipped the most adventurous items.

Be assured, for example, that when you see that Char coaled Grigia Alpina (Alpine Gray, a local cow breed) with rhubarb and horseradish is on the menu, it's not going to be just an anonymous slab of grilled beef. 

Unless you've been in the mountainous North East of Italy you've never tried this beef (this robust cow is deeply adapted to the local terrain), and even so you are far more likely to have had it at the table of a farmer than in a restaurant (we've never seen it in several years of restaurant/trattoria going in Trentino). The beef is intensely flavoured (in itself and thanks to the expert charcoaling, perhaps the real secret of this dish), with a marvelous texture, the crispy horseradish and the rhubarb, ingredients, especially the first, that definitely look to Central and Northern Europe more than to the Mediteranean, providing a gentle, apt accompaniment. This is a dish that not only is good, but that also tells a story, the story of a territory and of culinary influences.

This came after a pasta with local Fontal cheese and truffles from the Lessini mountains, which was OK but surprised us in being more forgettable than the rest of the meal. And a long sequence of breads, butters, nibbles and amuses made with skill and love (notable a potato bread). The pasta just below is an amuse, not the primo:

The breads came first in a nice basket:

... and then just kept coming, in a variety of flavours and cooking styles:

A Krapfen with seaweed mayonnaise, sea lettuce and braised eel

speaks, in flavour and presentation, of the more modernist side of the cuisine. It is elegant and playful, it is rich and light and delicious. 

A very clean dish of

Roe deer loin in extra virgin olive oil with vegetable chips and Moscato sauce

brings back again the primordial pleasure of a great piece of meat simply cooked (pink) with utmost care, yielding the flavours of the wood.

But a dessert called 'Borderline', stark-looking and dense with incredibly tight aromatic and bitter notes REALLY pushed the boat out, too much for more dessert-conservative Woman, but sending Man, who always found very sweet desserts ultimately immature, into Paradise. He would eat this again, and again, and again (oh we can't quite remember what it was: roots, herbs... gotta go back and find out!).

Woman is more content, very content in fact, with this milk torte, hay and violet. Remarkable: the milk transformed into a sponge soaking up the sauce below, and the ethereally crunchy wafer - delicious!

 And we both still remember with delight the Variation's of creme brulee, a kind of signature dessert which we've had on previous visits and is a lecture in flavour extraction.

Price wise, as we mentioned before, so great is the disparity between the quality and elaboration (and also quantity) of what you eat and what you pay (consider also that we are in Michelin starred venue), that we worry about the economics of this restaurant! Service was very friendly and correct, and the chef often comes out himself to introduce his dishes (to each table).

Chef Gilmozzi may not pull off only perfect dishes, and not all dishes are for all tastes, but he dares and thinks and researches, he creates a magic world in his unique restaurant, an experience that is strange and fascinating precisely because it is so firmly based on the local produce and tradition, where the flavours of the surrounding woods and mountains are assembled and disassembled according to his unlimited fancy. A must go place in Trentino, and the perfect complement to the not distant, more traditional Malga Panna.

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