Monday 27 October 2008

Yorkshiremen, crab claws and small portions

Rarely have I seen my boyfriend happier than on Friday night when I presented him with a big hunk of steak, some oven chips and a crème fraiche and Portobello mushroom sauce.

“This is one of your best,” he smiled, chomping as the grey sauce dribbled down his chin. My heart sank as I remembered all those complex, slaved-over compositions: the spatchcock chicken and fennel and cannelli bean stew, the pancetta and blue cheese risotto and the perfectly spiced curries.

“If all I have to do to please you is whack the best part of a cow on a griddle pan for a few minutes and shove some chips in the oven, then why do I bother?” I thought.

And then it hit me. I bother to woo him with such fripperies, such lovingly crafted dishes partly because I’m a feeder, and like an appreciative dining partner (which he inevitably is) but also because I have a fixated, almost Machiavellian relationship with food.

A bit like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who insist on feeding capers, river trout and celeriac to families on low incomes, I insist on feeding soufflés, shellfish and star anise to a man who would be quite happy with a Fray Bentos.

And so it came to be that when we went out for a meal on Saturday night we ended up not in his curry house of choice, but in an Indian seafood restaurant, Rasa Samudra on Charlotte Street. There wasn’t any meat on the menu, and we ordered a crab and fish dish to share.

This meal was to be his treat, and, being a Yorkshireman through and through, he’s not exactly profligate with the cash. That’s not me making a hideous generalisation by the way – that's his words precisely. “I can’t help being tight – I’m a Yorkshireman.”

After a shared (ahem) starter of lightly spiced, deep fried aubergine with a tomato and coriander chutney, our mains came. And the portions were a little on the light side. Make that a lot on the light side. Tucking into the crab dish, we found ourselves with precisely two claws each, and, lovely as they were in their onion, mustard seed and green chilli accompaniment, it wouldn’t have been enough to satiate someone with half the gaping stomach capacity of me, and certainly didn’t justify the £12.75 price tag.

Stubborn as I am, I decided to avoid having that 'I-told-you-this-poncey-seafood-place-would-be-a-rip-off' conversation and ignore said small portion. Instead I chowed down on some serious chapatti. Jim, it seems, decided to fill up on Cobra.

What happened next is as predictable as it is absurd. We had a row.

Poor, brow-beaten Jim suddenly started looking a little bit glazed-over. He was drunk.

“It’s too bloody hot in here,” he snarled.

“Well take off your jumper then, you fool,” I hissed back.

“I don’t want to do that. It’s just too hot in here, it’s unacceptable,” he crooned.

“Don’t sit here and complain that you’re hot, when you’re sweltering in that woolly jumper,” I winced.

And so it went on. But what I didn’t realise at the time, when I was deriding Jim for his seemingly idiotic refusal to derobe, was that it wasn’t the jumper making him hot, it was anger. Anger at me, for my censorious way with food, anger at the restaurant for their small portions, and anger at himself, because the thought of a £50+ end-bill was making him sweat.

Tuesday 30 September 2008

The Perfect Paella

"Never was a dish so misunderstood, so misrepresented, so abused as paella," writes Paul Richardson in his paean to Spanish food, A Late Dinner. "The crimes committed in the name of the Spanish national dish are horrible to relate," he says. And if you've ever fallen prey, as I have, to a bad paella - you'll understand. All too often the dish is an unfortunate affair, boasting atrocities such as reheated, frozen seafood mix, turmeric where there should be saffron, and tough lumps of battery chicken.

Though paella originated in Valencia, and the authentic dish of paella valenciana contained rabbit, snails, chicken and beans rather than any seafood, the dish that populates the common conscience is one of fat, juicy prawns, mussels and squid rings. Delicious when done right, horrendous when bastardised.

A recent voyage into the sunny climes of the Costa del Sol, (Puerto Banus to be exact) was a holiday more appreciated for its sun and free accommodation than for its culinary feats, but, one night gave way to a supper of paella so perfect and unexpected it left me preoccupied for days on end.

We found The Waterfront sandwiched between the Italians, Gucci stores and Burberry adverts on the jetty overlooking the boats and were attracted to it because it seemed to be the only restaurant for a twenty mile radius to be serving anything near Spanish fare. It also had a very reasonable 15 euro, 3 course set menu which was the best value in town. After a sizzling starter of gambas pil pil, the paella for two arrived, to be served table-side with precision which ensured that each plate received an equal helping of mussels, squid, clams and prawns.

It had been one of those orders made tentatively, the grim visions of Richardson's only too accurate musings flitting around my head. This restaurant was a honeypot used to serving the not particularly discerning expats who are happy to order chicken casserole or roast beef on a meal out. Would our paella turn out to be a mush of fishy smelling, rubbery squid rings and rancid chicken? I needn't have worried.

The steaming mounds of rice were a luscious orange, fragrant with saffron, the prawns were plump and fresh, as were the mussels, clams and cockles that came away from their shells with ease and melted on the tongue. The chicken was tender and delicate and the squid was utterly delicious.

This was unexpectedly the closest I've come to a perfect paella experience in a long time. What was yours?

Sunday 29 June 2008

Le Petit Nice, Marseille

Perched on a rock, rising out of the transparent, turquoise sea on the coast of Marseille is Gerald Passedat’s gleaming white, neo greek villa and three Michelin starred restaurant Le Petit Nice.

The site itself resembles something from a Bond film – its sprawling terrace with pretty white lamp-posts, neat green hedges and sparkling swimming pool overlooking the lapping waves - a place for the ultimate pleasure seeker. On my visit it is, as is surely characteristic of this restaurant with rooms, awash with Marseille’s beautiful people – women with expensive bags, curling cigarette smoke and men in spruce linen suits.

I’m here with Chris Galvin, and his Windows restaurant team - manager Fred and head chef Andre, who are hoping to glean some inspiration from Passedat’s infamous 14 course seafood tasting menu. Earlier in the day we had managed a brief and somewhat frosty meeting with the man himself, who talked of the restaurant’s 90 year heritage. It was opened by his grandfather, and then run by his father before him who won the restaurant its first prize star in 1979 and a second in 1981. Passedat, who was born in the villa, but only took over the kitchen in 1990, this year became the only new three-star chef in the 2008 Michelin Red Guide.

An imposing figure in his crisp, immaculate whites, Passedat spoke of his belief in respecting his staff, his produce and nature – and revealed himself as a reformed traditionalist after years spent over-complicating food, whose strong relationships with local suppliers inspires and informs his cooking. As you’d expect from a restaurant with such a history, he knows everyone on the local food scene, and is happy to trust the local fisherman to bring back produce for him to use.

His menus focus predominantly on fish and seafood from the local vicinity, and he uses what he calls “Forgotten fish,” like denti (a local, fleshy, bass-like fish), tub gurnard and red scorpion fish. His cooking evokes the classicism perfected and passed down through the generations in Le Petit Nice’s 90 year history, but also relies on technical brilliance and progressive flavour combinations pioneered by him.

He tells us that his cooking is "simple, instinctive and classic" and that he does not believe in molecular gastronomy as it interferes too much with the ingredients – pointing out that lots of the protein glues used in this kind of cooking stick to the stomach. He says that his food is "not typical of Provencal Marseille cooking" but that he pays homage to some traditions - something you can see on his menu in his interpretation of the legendary local Bouillabaisse. Passedat's version uses seven fish and shellfish that vary depending on the day's catch, served with a "nectar of rockfish" and a spoonful of rice.

“They’re like film stars, these three star boys,” says Galvin with a slightly deflated sounding awe, after we finish our chat with the chef, whose brilliance and intense focus is, we hope, cause for his seemingly stand-offish demeanour.

A Dive Into The Sea

In the evening we head back to the restaurant for a 14 course marathon meal. We were instructed earlier to be here no later than 8.30pm, due to the number of courses ahead. We will be eating the ‘Decouverte de la mer’ – ‘A dive into the sea’ menu, which is 200 Euros a head.

We start on the terrace with a glass of champagne and a tray of fishy canapes each – and then head in to the impressive, light dining room. Pearlescent sea shells adorn the walls, and the vast room is, like Passedat’s cooking, very much a tribute to the Mediterranean Sea, the sounds and smells of which flood in through the open windows next to us.

And so we begin our ‘dive into the sea’, with small, immaculate dishes brought out and polished off in quick, but appreciative succession. It starts, as all great seafood meals should, with fresh oysters, served out of their shells with artichoke and pea puree. They are nothing short of perfect, and though my personal preference is to slurp them from their salty shells – Passedat is flaunting his great ability to keep them moist and impossibly fresh without their conventional appendages.

The dishes that follow do just what Passedat spoke of – present the freshest seafood ingredients served with inexplicable precision and delicacy. There is lots of foam, puree and the odd gel, which, though are not things I usually advocate with great fervour, work without question next to the soft, sumptuous fish.

The meal is very much just about the seafood, and these foams – like the miraculous sea spray froth, are simply embellishments – not accompaniments. Some of the dishes are purely made with fish cooked in stock made from an emulsion of different fish carcasses.

I had feared, at first glance of the 14-course menu, that my stomach might be stretched to uncomfortable capacity – but I needn’t have worried, as each dish is remarkably light, and leaves you yearning for the next taste.

The way the meal is served just works to intensify this sense of excitement, as we are all furnished with our covered dishes, the waiters like ballerinas fawning over us to reveal the hidden treasures in one unified swooping movement. Then, as we stare down at our food, we are told what each dish entails.

The highlight for me is the "Sea anemones in a creamy sea essence, oscietra caviar froth, and in light fritters with shellfish bouillon". The dish captures not just the taste of the sea itself, but a kind of sweet, salty astringent flavour of the anemones, mellowed by the custard-like caviar froth and complimented by the crunchy, moreish tempura sea flowers.

The cheese board is a great wooden trolley covered on two levels by a magnificent array of cheeses. I choose a tomme, a camembert and a roquefort, forgetting as I savour the creamy, salty cheese that I have already eaten 12 courses and it is past midnight.

After two different desserts, which are little more than a mouthful (Passedat has a fine understanding of the limits of a weary palate) and petit fours, we retire to the lounge room for a herbal tisane, made using herbs from Marseille’s oldest herbalist - Du Pere Blaize. Surely there can be no better way to finish a fourteen course meal than with a fragrant infusion of mint, lavender and rose petals?

And so we finally come up for air, stepping out into the balmy Marseille night at 2am and standing for just a moment looking out to the sea which has provided (with just a helping hand from Passedat) a meal that will never be forgotten.

Sunday 22 June 2008

Song Que

On a recent visit to the Kingsland Road, (the main contender in the Vietnamese stakes with its strip of ramshackle cafes) Song Que chose us. As we jostled to look at the menu in the window, someone opened the door to leave and we were hit by a smell so delicious it evoked the same kind of violent hunger usually only associated with the memory of home-cooked Sunday lunches.

Inside, Song Que looks more like a community centre than a restaurant, with its plastic furniture, halogen strip lights and paper tablecloths. It’s what the phrase ‘cheap and cheerful’ was made for, and is obviously a favourite among Shoreditch fashionistas and foodies alike, judging by the lively, chatty and heterogeneous crowd we encountered.

The menu is a taxing affair with over 150 dishes on offer. 28 of these are different kinds of pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup), and it took us some time to agree on a worthy exploration of Song Que’s offerings. We chose to drank Halida – an imported Vietnamese lager as we perused.

Service is swift and thorough, and before long the soft shell crab with chilli and garlic was crossing my lips in an explosion of flavour. The crunchy tempura and outside shell gave way to the gooey, sweet insides of a crab so fresh I simply had to dive in for another one. We should have ordered two portions.

Next came the grilled beef wrapped in betel leaf. This came (like many Vietnamese dishes) served with the mint-like, purple herb shiso, coriander, shredded iceberg lettuce, chilli dipping sauce and pickled mooli. The idea is to eat the dish wrapped in this assortment of Vietnamese condiments.

The beef was astounding. Meltingly rare and tender, it was perfectly paired with the fragrant shiso and herb collection. The little packages resembled stuffed vine-leaves, and had obviously been prepared lovingly with some very good cuts of beef, as gristle and fat were nowhere to be seen.

While flamboyant, steaming pots of pho were carried to their tables, we barely had time for the final mouthfuls of our starters before our chicken in tamarind arrived. Sticky and yellow, it was tasty but lacked the delicacy and fragrance of the earlier dishes. Sadly the chicken had been battered and was cloying as a result, but our side order of ong-choy in garlic sauce cut through the heaviness of this dish with its freshness. The king prawns with chilli and lemongrass marked a return to form too – the prawns juicy and sweet with a tingling kick of chilli.

Because of its herbal qualities, Vietnamese food, when done right, has the tendency to leave you feeling satisfied but vivacious, and, on a sprightly walk downstairs to freshen up for the night out we had plotted over dinner, I just may have discovered the secret of Song Que’s success.

Behind a makeshift wall of boxes of food, bathed in the flickering light from a muted television, I glimpsed a very small, middle-aged Vietnamese man in his night-attire sitting upright in his bed. It seems the space below the restaurant is a stockroom-cum-bedroom for a man, that, I like to think, masterminds the restaurant’s enticing menu from his bed.

Song Que’s immaculate food is testament to a well run family business, but if you need more evidence of a place where the staff literally live and breathe their restaurant, then you just need to nip downstairs and peek at Mr Que.

Bill (for two)
Grilled betal leaf wrapped beef (£3.50)
Soft shell crab with chilli and garlic (£4.75)
Chicken in Tamarind (£5.95)
King Prawns with chilli & lemongrass (£5.95)
Ong-Choy with garlic sauce (£2.95)
Steamed Rice (£1.75)
Halida (£3.00) x 4
Total £36.85

Friday 20 June 2008

The Boiled Egg and Soldiers

There may be no better time to indulge in a Full English than on the first morning of a festival, which is why my festival-bound friend and I donned our baggy-waisted eating apparel and chowed down on some serious sausage. It’s amazing what the thought of living on nothing but rich tea biscuits, beer and cigarettes for three days can do to the appetite.

Our spot of choice was The Boiled Egg and Soldiers, which, cursed though it is with seeming like the backdrop to an irrepressibly smug Richard Curtis film, is still a top breakfast destination for anyone in the SW area. The place exudes the kind of laid-back promise of a good brunch that you might expect from Uncle Monty’s larder. Stripped wooden floorboards, intimate seating and the smell of smoked bacon are a cosy lure, while a blackboard announces that the place is fully licensed, so you can indulge in a little hair-of-the-dog.

If you tire of the joy of watching the yummy mummies wheel past with their Alfies and Jezebels, then the menu makes for excellent reading with its sheer unabashed promises of indulgence. Feasts such as ‘The Works’ beckon with sirloin steak and black pudding, while ‘Old School’ boasts smoked haddock and poached eggs with lemon mayo on toast.

I opted for a good old ‘Traditional’ (£6.95) with eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and a sausage. The prices are fairly steep, but you are paying that couple of extra quid for noticeable quality, which is what you want when you’re about to spend the best part of a week in a drunken stupor, deciding between the nutritional benefits of cheesy chips and pizza.

My breakfast really was everything I hoped it would be – the sausage herby and delicious and the mushrooms oozing with butter – every little thing cooked perfectly, right down to the crispy rinds of the thick, salty bacon. The service was a little on the nonchalant side, but our food came promptly and we left full of beans, just about ready to face the indignity of service station toilets, navigational mishaps and hairy men in small T-shirts.

63 Northcote Rd
SW11 1NP
020 7223 4894

Sunday 27 April 2008

Pickles and Potter Deli

It could be said that at one point, Pickles and Potter had become something of a victim of its own success. Queues could be seen curling well out of the door of the deli and trailing down the insides of the Queens Arcade, with hungry punters salivating in anticipation of some of the best homemade sandwiches in town. Times have changed however, with the shop expanding to cater for the Leeds lunchers with extra time on their hands. Now we can all sit down and enjoy the full range of sandwiches and hot and cold foodstuffs, along with a nice cup of tea or bottle of juice in the homely dining room.

I always find that I get hungrier when I know that the place I’m about to eat at is really quite good, and that is exactly what I found happening to me as I waited in line to place my order on a recent visit to the newly-expanded premises. As I stood, surrounded by other twitchy eaters, I felt my hands getting sweaty and my eyes darting about in my head — taking in the different sorts of homemade tiffin resting on the counter, the piles of cheeses teasing me from beneath the glass and the bowls of salads glistening in the light — not to mention the abundance of meats and chutneys jostling for my attention.

The place is a veritable orgy of good, wholesome, fresh ingredients and you only need to glance around you to realise this. There really is something verging on debauched about the sheer variety of treats on offer — as the painting in the back room of the extroverted owner Lorna wearing nothing but fruit and veg aptly proves.

I was awoken from my gluttonous daze by the charming counter girl who seemed more than happy to whip up a sandwich feast for me and my eating chum. We opted for two sandwiches from the blackboard — me going for the award winning beef (£3.90), and my friend for the roast ham (£3.80), along with a cloudy lemonade (£1.75) and a filter coffee (£1.85). Soon we were sitting at a big wooden table, among other happy diners, my friend making polite conversation as I drummed, wide-eyed on the table, maddeningly jealous of the smug people who were already enjoying the delights on their plates.

We weren’t waiting long though before the objects of my hunger-lust were placed before us, spilling off the plates with fresh salad and I was digging my teeth into some of the best beef in Leeds. If there is a better sandwich in existence than rare roast beef with thick slices of mature cheddar, rocket leaves, mustard, horseradish and red onion marmalade on herby, oily, toasted foccacia, then I’ll happily eat it, and my hat too. My pal made similar squealings about her ham — but I wasn’t really listening — I was too busy enjoying my beef. So if you’re serious about food, and you want your tastebuds to be mesmerised on a lunchtime, then I highly recommend you make your way down to Pickles and Potter for some food porn.
18-20 Queens Arcade, 0113 242 7702