Spuntino – with a side order of hype

When restaurants are this achingly trendy it’s difficult not to turn up expecting too much, or too little.  People rave about Spuntino, but then again people rave about the film Crash, or the burgers at GBK. 

I’ll admit I have baggage, from a night at Polpo, Spuntino’s sister restaurant, where the staff were arsey and the food distinctly average.

I came expecting to be irritated by the self-consciousness of Spuntino’s hipster styling.

I’d been to Torrisi in New York, the most painfully fashionable small-plates Italian restaurant in the universe only last month.  I’d queued like a desperate BAPE fan on the first day of the sale.  While the food at Torrisi was generally excellent, the whole ‘fun / drama’ of waiting in the street for an hour to see if you can get a table is a bit, well, boring.  So I guess maybe I have two sets of baggage.

While I do think Spuntino wears its fashionability a tad awkwardly, like a lime green jump-suit, overall I was pleasantly surprised.  Not amazed or bowled over; but we had mostly really good food, and a very good time.

It’s cute.  It’s shticky.  They give you free spicy popcorn, they have rough brown packing paper menus, featuring a a variety of Italian, American, French and British dishes.  I can’t think of another menu in town that has pizzetta, grits, Croque Monsieur and egg & soldiers all on the same menu.  It’s a little confused about its identity, but then again aren’t we all.  The barmen look like they’ve been dragged away from a Fleet Foxes gig for the night.  One of them wears a vest so low that if he were your daughter you’d send him back to his bedroom and tell him to put some clothes on.

Like Polpo, it’s all about small plates.  When did small plates get so big?  I don’t mean big as in filling, I mean big as in ubiquitous.   And why is no-one pointing out the Emperor’s New Clothes element of the London restaurant scene?  Small plates = big business because you have to order lots.  You spend more for less.  I’m sure Stringer Bell would be running a Cicchetti bar if he was here with us now.

Anyway, on to the food.  You’re greeted with the aforementioned small mug of popcorn.  Compare and contrast to Gilbert Scott who charge a cover just for average bread.  Then we had farmhouse cheddar grits – probably the only duff call of the order.  It was neither cheesy nor gritty, but more like a bland and pointless encounter with an unidentified carb (and yes, I do know it’s actually corn.)

Then eggplant* chips, fennel yoghurt.  Eggplant is what they call aubergines in Billyburg, grandma.  Do keep up.

Then my favourite, a fennel, fig and olive pizzetta.  This was delicious – light, salty, fresh tasting, good dough.  I tucked in before I remembered to take a photo (I am so entirely over taking photos in restaurants.)

And then a fresh slaw, made up of julienned asparagus, red onion, red cabbage, fennel and pickled celeriac in a light lemon dressing.  Fresh, delicious, crunchy – very good.

And a ricotta, pea and radish crostini, which was pleasant enough, although I’d had a killer broad bean puree bruschetta earlier at lunch here one of my favourite gastropubs which was tastier.

The puddings were really good.   One brown sugar cheesecake with grappa prunes, one chocolate, pecan and whisky cake, two happy eaters.

We came on the hottest Sunday night of the year.  Glasto Sunday.  The cool kids have left town, so we didn’t have to queue, like you apparently do every other night.  Would I come back and queue for this restaurant?  No.  Would I come back?  Sure, why not.  It’s good.  Would I think about anything I ate here after the event, would I crave it the way I crave the spicy sausage pasta round the corner at Bocca di Lupo.  No.  But if you come out of the clip joint next door after a depressing paid-for sex act  and you have a desperate craving for truffled egg on toast, then this is definitely your best bet.

Verdict?  Generally a force for good, excellent desserts and pizzetta, but must try-hard a little less hard.

Gilbert Scott and Fashionable Cornflakes

I’ve decided I hate taking photos of plates of food in restaurants for the following reasons:

It gets in the way of eating the food.

It makes you look like a nob-head.

It makes you feel like a nob-head.

I think, going forward, I shall formulate an absolute back-to-basics, topline review system that doesn’t make me feel like a douche.  But I think photos are sort of necessary nonetheless.  You’ll be able to tell I took these in a bit of an anguished hurry, hence the distracting shadows at the bottom of pic.

So, Gilbert Scott – what do you need to know? 
1. The room is beautiful.  Look up at the ceiling, utterly magnificent. 
2. They charge a silly £2 cover charge for bread that’s a 7 out of 10.  Not cool.  The restaurant is expensive as it is, there’s really no need for this.
3. The food is very very good.  8 out of 10.  Service – a 7.  A bit slow, a tiny bit snotty but nothing you could really pin down.

We had a spatchcock chicken with lemon and herbs – tasty but not much to get your teeth into, and I always feel sorry for the chicken’s undignified pose.

Also the globe artichoke and tarragon tart.  I think I love tarragon more than any other herb (apart from dill, basil, coriander and lemon verbena.)

Pretty, but pretty small.

The sides were exemplary.  Perfectly crispy crunchy roast potatoes with fluffy insides.  No photo, but I guess you’re familiar with the visual appearance of a roast potato.

Perfect Yorkshire puds – super light inside, crisp outside, really excellent.

Then for pudding Mrs Beeton’s snow eggs – a victim of their own success I fear.  My expectation was probably too high – I thought they were only so-so / snow-snow… (sorry.)

 And finally ‘Warm Chocolate in a Pot, Chocolate Cornflakes.’  I must congratulate the Tarzan / Jane-like description on the menu.   It was some molten chocolate, covered in a chocolate soil / crumb, with some cornflakes on top. 

Cornflakes are so hot right now I’m surprised Kim Kardashian isn’t getting a vajazzle of the Kellogg’s cock applied as we speak.  Maybe she is, I guess I wouldn’t know.  Either way, I’m a firm believer in everything in its right place, and this wasn’t it.  Pleasing enough, in that you can’t go too far wrong with warm dark chocolate, but just not really complementing the dish.

Verdict – definitely worth a visit, good for a special occasion, stunning room, delicious but expensive.

El Bulli – bye for now :-(

I was unbelievably lucky enough to go to El Bulli two years ago, and wrote about it at the time.  As it’s about to shut I thought I’d post it here because it was such an extraordinary experience.

When my Dad managed to score a table at El Bulli, The Best Restaurant in the World, I was in two minds about going. Yes, food is my life, my three-hourly obsession, one of the greatest sources of joy in the universe. But I’m as happy eating a Corner Bistro cheeseburger as a girl can ever be, and I don’t hold much truck with jus and foam and truffles. I like simple stuff done well. But then again, 50 covers, a million applications for tables – yeah, I’d be an idiot not to say yes. Plus, I’d just finished writing my first novel and was heading back to a desk job and a summer of serious, sensible behaviour. I’d do my first day back at work, then fly to Spain for supper to console myself.

I apologise for the non-technical nature of this review. I don’t speak in the vocabulary of reductions and sous-vides. I’m just telling it like I tasted it – increasingly weirded out, a little bit drunk on amazing Cava and Albarino, and with the added oddness of thinking my Dad was going to have a medical incident from course 17 through to course 36 (more of that later.)

First things first – the setting: ridiculously picturesque, beautiful, dream-like. It smells of cedar and pine, it’s overlooking the deep blue sea, the sun is setting; it’s awesome.

We had a look at the kitchen – more like a lab, with 45, yep, 45 chefs clustered round the counter, silently labouring. We met the boss, Ferran Adria – intense, polite, a genius. And then we’re off:

You start with nibbles and cocktails on the terrace. In my house this is the hour of the Pringle, and if you’re lucky a gin and tonic. In Casa Ferran, it’s the start of the fireworks.

First, a mojito, and a caipirinha – in canape form. You take a 2 inch piece of sugar cane out of a glass of ice and suck it. The former has fresh mint, the latter, fresh lime zest. It’s cool, fun, wouldn’t get you drunk but hey. Then, on a wiggly, metallic silver freeform dish, is served a wiggly, translucent ‘crystal of parmegiano’ – looks like molten plastic, tastes totally delicious.

Then it’s five things at once:

Mimetic peanuts – supermagic. Looks like a monkey nut, you delicately put it in your mouth and it explodes in a pure, thick, almost treacly peanut taste sensation.

Olives made of olive oil – spooned out of a jar, they’re olive shaped, olive sized, and made of olive oil. They keep their shape, it’s a great trick, not necessarily one worth repeating.

Cherries umeboshi – a perfect balance of sweet and sour – great.

Black and white sesame disc – Karl Lagerfield-y, tastes like a cloud.

Vanilla ‘cellophane’ – again with the translucence – see through sheets of vanilla, save for the black dots of the pods. Interesting, technically brilliant – slightly odd to have vanilla at this stage in the proceedings, but good.

Darn – and I forgot ‘Coniferous’ – they bring you a little pot plant, and a glass of what looks like milk. You take a sprig of the plant – I’m sure I’m wrong but I’m guessing it was pine from the title…. Anyway, you eat the sprig, then drink your milkshake – gin, yoghurt and honey, and the pine zings. It’s a bit like drinking Glade, but better, but not great.

Then we moved to the table, and it was just relentless. Mostly in a brilliant, beautiful, breathtaking, insane, magic, fun, clever and entirely creative way. A couple of things weren’t to my taste – inevitably – but for the next 3 hours you’re just dazzled and entertained by the ideas and the execution and the love that has gone into this experience.

I’ll keep it brief, there’s a lot of it.

Cornet of nori with raspberry and soya – mini seaweed cone filled with intense raspberry flavour. Beautiful, tasty, not as good as Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked.

Black sesame sponge cake with miso – looks like a piece of fozzy bear’s head, with a yellow daub of miso. We’re instructed to eat it in two bites, but I think I crammed it in in one – looks more interesting than it tastes.

Oyster leaf with dew of vinegar – awesome Jedi mind trick. A sage coloured leaf with 4 or 5 perfect droplets of vinegar resting on it. It looks like a leaf, it tastes like an oyster. You think ‘hmm, is this an oyster coated leaf? Is this an oyster that looks like a leaf? Is this a leaf that’s been cross-fertilised with an oyster? WTF is going on?’ Whatever it was, it was cooool.

Then Gorgonzola Moshi – a perfect, plump, small ball of cheese and cream that bursts in your mouth. Awesome mouth-feel, and a perfect size – any bigger would have been overkill.

Grilled strawberry – a hot strawberry injected with gin, and topped with juniper. I once dated a man who was injected with gin. I digress. It was ok – at this stage in the meal you get blasé about the fact that the juniper enhances the sweetness – almost actually enhances the pinkness – of the fruit.

Truffle surprise – two leaves, filled with crazy, curly shaved truffles, and smooth shaved truffles. I don’t like truffles (yeah, I know you can’t take me seriously as a foodie now but I just don’t) – but these were good.

Haricot bean with Joselito’s Iberian pork fat – Joselito, your pork fat is awesome! Can I sample your other fats? The dish looked like two fat slugs in a drizzle of dishwater.

It put my sister off, but I’ve eaten worse. Anyway, these giant beans and ham combo were great – like a mini cassoulet, deeply satisfying and savoury.

Prawn two firings, named after that scene in Goodfellas, perhaps. You couldn’t find a prawnier prawn on this earth – perfectly, briefly cooked, yet with fabulously crispy, crunchy legs, and served alongside a tiny spoon of garlic sauce, with a lilac garlic flower. Fabulous, deconstructed and delicious.

Mimetic almonds – this and The Egg are my favourites. They were the best combination of pyrotechnics and wit and deliciousness. They just made me think: Ferran Adria is audacious and funny and clever and brilliant and fearless and driven, and I am so lucky to be alive, and here, and eating this.

The almonds: a dish of various pale brown, cream, invisible (yes, transparent), and toffee coloured almonds. It’s like the Saddam-Hussein-lookalikes of almond dishes. A few of the almonds are real almonds, and you’d better believe they’re the best almonds you ever tasted. And then some of the almonds are actually dead-ringers for almonds, but are made from sesame. And then the see-through almonds taste of almonds but are made of magic. And the white almonds taste intensely of cherry. I think this is the stage in the proceedings where I felt most delighted / on drugs. It was just utterly brilliant.

After this course, my father – a giant of a man (6 foot 6), who carries the various strains of ageing – asks the waitress for a breather, and takes himself off for a walk. In my mother’s head, this translates to ‘my husband is about to have a coronary.’ She starts having kniptions. Her anxiety immediately infects me, to the point where I start believing that at any bite he might now cark it. I’m happy to report he is still alive and well, but it did make the second half of the meal a slightly weird experience.

Back to the food: mushroom CRU with hazlenut. I don’t know what the CRU means, but the dish was intensely woody, but lightened with a froth of hazlenut. Tasty and odd – the mushroom texture was entirely solid and smooth – like eating room-temperature marble.

Pumpkin and almond sandwich – cute and gimmicky – a three inch simulacrum of a baguette. The ‘bread’ part had the texture of Styrofoam. It was very futuristic and visually cool, but at this stage of the meal, you’re so spoilt, you become toxically blase about anything that doesn’t taste as exceptional as it looks.

Then Sea Anemone with Te – delicious – lemon caviar, kombu – very Sea-like and beautiful to look at.

Pinenut shabu-shabu – another brilliant visual trick – three tiny see through pouches, with variations on a pinenut theme – you dip each bag into a cup of what tasted like Riesling, and you get an intense nutty payoff.

Razor clam with seaweed – perfect, amazing textured, super fresh razor clams.

Trout roe risotto – beautiful little peachy-pink eggs, with a sliver of gold on top. It’s that David Cross thing of eating gold being the ultimate ‘Fuck you’ to poor people that was front of mind when I looked at this dish, not in a good way.

Sea cucumber with mentaiko and rhubarb – delicious, soft, beautiful flesh, sour, pungent rhubarb to compliment. I’m glad I googled sea cucumber after I ate it, cos man, that is one ugly holothuroidea.

Abalone – always reminds me of Roxy Music that word – with Iberian ham and enoki mushrooms – great textural combo of soft, solid, fat and salty.

Squid with foie fat and corn risotto – There is nothing I don’t love in this dish. Having said that, the finest foie gras / sweetcorn combo I ever had was at Mr Underhills – the awesome Ludlow restaurant that is one of the best experiences of food I’ve ever had.

Parmesan Ravioli – at this stage, you’re really going to have to work hard to impress the crowd – everything has tasted good, looked beautiful or cool, and you’re starting to feel like you need a new tummy. But Adria pulls it off, with another see-through dish, this time parmesan ravioli. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it’s near invisible pockets of intense parmesan flavour. The best thing about the dish, apart from its party trick appearance, is the caper and coffee, that work brilliantly to intensify the flavour of the cheese. Who’d have thunk it.

Then on to suckling pig tail, three tiny little crispy crunchy pork treats, which come with a mini soup of ham and melon.

And then we’re in the final stretch, my dad is still breathing, and it’s pudding time.

We start with Pond. A mini ice-skating lake, covered in sugar crystals, and what lies beneath is a super-pepperminty pond, that you break the ice and dive in to.

Then mango ravioli – a perfect replica of an egg yolk – plump, juicy, and immediately dissolves in your mouth in a super-fruity celebratory burst.

Then Coco / aka The Egg, my other favourite, after the Saddam-Almonds. A giant, super-white egg arrives at the table. The waitress (staff were amazing, by the way) cracks the egg for you, and gives you a little shaker of curry powder, and you tuck into a frozen coconut milk egg, a bit like an Easter egg, but so much greater.

And then Puff Pastry of Pineapple – an ultra industrial looking wafer, like eating a computer ribbon that tastes of pineapple. Interesting, tasty, but more intellectual than enjoyable at this stage.

And then there’s a honey bon bon like a giant amber pearl, and a pudding with snowflakes that I can’t even work out what’s in because I’m exhausted and overloaded.

And finally on to The Box. By this stage I’m totally over-full, and have no appetite left. However.

If you bring me a giant chest full of crazy chocolates, I’m going to eat a giant chest full of crazy chocolates. I think most diners maybe pick 2 or 3 of the 10+ options presented in the box, but hey, you’re paying 230 euros for the meal, you might as well try everything, right? Twice they tried to take the box away, twice we held on to it. Chocolate that tastes like raspberries, chocolate that looks like blood red twigs, freeze dried fruits, weird discs with I don’t even know anymore in the middle, beautiful tablets like a mini dime bar but better…I’m actually getting dizzy just recalling them. Anyway, next time I go, I’ll try to exercise more restraint, as eating 10 chocolates after 36 courses is probably ‘de trop’ as they say, but what can you do.

I don’t do acid. I suffer from an over-active, over-anxious imagination at the best of times. But leaving El Bulli, I felt high and weirded out and amazed, as if I’d just been on a really great acid / cocaine / skunk trip. When I told my ex that the experience was almost spiritual, he mocked me – I’d mock me too. It’s a much-abused word – Trudie Styler – but truly, El Bulli is such a special, unique place, and the experience is so extraordinary – that I think the word is justified. It makes you feel extremely joyful and alive and exhilarated.

24 hours later I was eating a quarter pounder with cheese and fries at Girona airport. Truth of the matter was that tasted pretty darn good too….

(If you read the book when it comes out, you will spot that I have recycled the experience, and translated it into a date with the love interest in the book.  I am at pains to point out that my dad is not my love interest in real life, and that my work is entirely fictional.  But as my beloved Nora Ephron says, ‘everything is material’… )

The other Otto Man

I think it’s true to say that the world has been made a better place by Matt Groening.

He’s been responsible for producing more hours of quality entertainment than anyone else on the planet.

What with it being 5.45 on a Sunday morning, and Alec Baldwin not being here right now, I thought I’d take one minute to champion Otto the bus driver from The Simpsons.

He’s probably about my 14th favourite character on The Simpsons, quite a long way down after Comic Store Owner, Selma & Patty, Moe, Principal Skinner’s mum, Ralph, Apu…. gosh, maybe further than 14 but still, I do love the Ottoman.

Turns out we have more in common than you’d think:  40 of the Otto man’s favourite things.

We seem to share a love of dogs in bandanas, onion rings, and so much more…

Ottolenghi Upper Street – The Rules

My second favourite place to eat in London.  Every thing I’ve ever eaten here has been perfectly executed and I’ve eaten almost everything, at least twice.  Come for breakfast, lunch or a cake – or dinner if it’s payday.  Ottolenghi uses herbs and spices so brilliantly, he elevates an ingredient as prosaic as broccoli into something stellar.  The food looks magnificent and bounteous and tastes better than it looks.
My Ottolenghi rules of engagement:
If you go to the Upper Street branch on the weekend, go EARLY or expect to queue forever.
Do not take a boyfriend whom there is any danger of you splitting up with at a subsequent date.  You do not want to scar Ottolenghi with the sadness of happy memories. 
But do go there with at least one other person, so you can try all their salads, and their cake (and, I suppose, vice versa…)
If you order bread, make sure you get cornbread in the selection – spicy, crumbly and slightly sweet – utterly delicious.
The broccoli is better than any broccoli you’ve ever had anywhere.  

Ditto the butternut squash, ditto anything with green beans, ditto the granola, home-made nutella and jams.  

Their banana jam made me un-hate bananas, temporarily.

At lunch, don’t just order the salads. 

 True, the salads are extraordinary, and any meat-eater would not feel deprived if they just ordered the salads.  But the meat and fish options are unmissable – particularly dishes such as rare beef fillet with horseradish, or lemony sumac chicken.

Take a cake home for someone you love – including yourself.  I can think of no greater expression of appreciation and affection than something sweet from Ottolenghi in a white paper bag.

My favourite cheap eats in London – part 1

At heart I am all about the cheap eat.  While I’d never say no to a meal at the Gavroche (set lunch = excellent value considering the quality of the food, plus it includes half a bottle of beautiful wine) – I am never happier than when I’m eating something delicious that costs a tenner or less.  Simple things done well – that is a t-shirt I’d wear, along with Team Aniston, and one with a picture of Alec Baldwin’s face on it.  I love Alec Baldwin so bad it hurts, but more of that in my second novel.
So, in no particular order here are three of my favourite bargain places / things to eat:
Fitou, 1-3 Dalgarno Gardens, W10 (near Wormwood Scrubs prison.  The glamour…)
This is probably my favourite restaurant in London.  It is totally cheap and cheerful, hard to spend more than about £15 a head even if you’re being a total pig (it’s BYO) – but most importantly the food is outstanding.  I once saw the Prime Minister here, but don’t hold that against the place if you’re not a fan.
Starters: – Fish Cakes, Papaya Salad – super super spicy, not for the faint hearted. 
Mains: – Gaeng Penang chicken – a really thick, hot red coconutty curry with lime leaves and fresh chillies, again super spicy and addictive. 
Pad See Ew – stir fried broad rice noodles with eggs and green vegetables in a thick soy sauce.  A perfect combination of soft, crunch, salt, almost sweet and above all tasty.
Coconut rice – sets off the spicy chicken curry perfectly.
St John* – Smithfields, Spitalfields, and other
Most people love St John because of the whole nose to tail eating thing.  They rave about the trotters, or whisper sweet nothings about chewing on a pig’s ear.  Well I’ll admit it.  I’m scared of offal.  I do like liver, but anything more adventurous and I fold. 
There are two reasons why I like St John so much, and neither of them have anything to do with soft tissue:
1.     The custard donut of the Gods.  They used to serve these at the Spitalfields branch during a brief window, only on a Sunday morning.  Now they serve them at their Bermondsey bakery, only on a Saturday morning.  When I first ate one of these donuts I became obsessed.  Thick, dense, Madagascan vanilla custard, injected into the crispest, lightest donut casing.  If I ever become really rich and move to the South of France, I will, like Elvis with his peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwiches at the Colorado Mine Company, fly myself back on my private jet to London just for a taste of one of these.

2.     Welsh Rarebit.  The opposite of adventurous I know.  But really really great Welsh Rarebit.  Goes back to A Simple Thing Done Well.  It helps that St John make some of the finest bread in London.  On top of their white sandwich loaf they put a combination of Neal’s Yard Montgomery cheddar, Guinness, Lea & Perrins, Coleman’s mustard and a touch of cayenne.  Savoury, salty, tangy, melting perfection.   
*St John’s main menu is not cheap at all, but either of the above two options, fortunately, are.

C&R café, Rupert Court, W1
This is the sort of place I’d walk straight past if I didn’t know not to.  It’s garishly lit, in a crappy alley in Soho, and shows no indication of its greatness – other than an occasional queue.  A word of warning  – do not let them seat you in the basement if you have a sensitive nose and don’t like the smell of toilets.
C&R’s strengths are soups and noodle dishes – every time I’ve strayed from these I’ve regretted it.  (Except for the roti canai side dish – a light, buttery Malaysian bread served with a searingly hot spicy dipping sauce – an essential starter, whatever you’re ordering for your main.)
The greatest dish on the menu is the Singapore Laksa – by far the best of its kind I’ve had in London.  A spicy coconut milk broth, with chunks of chicken, prawn, tofu, noodles and other floating wonders – it is a truly satisfying one-bowl soup meal.  Some folk struggle to finish the generous portion but not for want of trying. 

Hawksmoor – how do I love thee, let me count the ways….

I love a great burger, I truly do.  My favourite is from Corner Bistro, New York – not very practical when you live in London, have had a few glasses of wine and NEED that perfect combo of quality meat, melted cheese, ketchup and a pillowy light but dense bun, preferably made of brioche without the sugar, with a few sesame seeds on top.

Till recently my top London burger was from Jo Allens.  It’s a classic – perfectly sized, meat that tastes like meat, great bun and they keep it simple – some onion, lettuce, tomato.  A beautiful pickle on the side.  The proportions of the Jo Allens cheeseburger are damn near perfect.

I also like the burger at Bar Boulud but I’m not a fan of ostentatious douchebags or eastern European hookers so I avoid Knightsbridge most of the time – shame, as it’s an excellent burger.

But my new favourite burger (isn’t that a Seattle band name?) is from Hawksmoor.  I love Hawksmoor.  I always have a good time there because they do two of my favourite things – Pina Coladas and red meat – better than almost anywhere in London.

Pina Colada – apparently made with coconut sorbet to keep it lighter and smoother.

Let’s just take a moment to celebrate the staff at Hawksmoor Covent Garden.  Shaky Pete is one of the best barmen in London.  But more importantly he has the patience of a saint.  Hawksmoor do two types of chips on the menu – triple cooked and beef dripping.  My friend was scared of the beef dripping variety so I asked Pete if he could bring us one of each chip so I could try to persuade my friend to order the beef ones.  If I was a waiter I’d have pulled a face and laughed off the request (it’s Saturday night, it’s bloody busy, make up your own mind you annoying indecisive bint.)  But Pete actually went to the kitchen and brought us back an entire portion of the two chips.

Half demolished sampler de frites – the triple cooked were actually better in the end, thinner but still with great flavour.

Such great service – generous, accommodating and done with a face that suggested there was nothing in the world he would rather be doing.

The blogosphere has been banging on about the Hawksmoor Kimchee burger since day one.  I love kimchee but I love a cheeseburger more than almost anything, and I asked the other waiter (nickname unknown) if I should abandon something I love for the sake of an internet promise, a dream.   Again with the great service – he brought the kimchee on the side, no charge. 

And while the kimchee is undeniably phenomenal – fiery and tangy and sour and hot – my burger with Cheddar was the best possible cheeseburger experience a girl could have in London and had I succumbed to the flashy charms of the new and fashionable, I would have missed out.

My friend was a lightweight and didn’t finish the whole burger – it is wonderfully large – so Shaky Pete brown-bagged (or enveloped) the leftovers, along with the kimchee.  How happy would I be if the postman brought this to me tomorrow morning? 

Happy days.

Bath time

Trinity is a brilliant restaurant in Clapham run by chef Adam Byatt that offers a variety of reasonably priced and inspiring Masterclasses:  http://www.trinityrestaurant.co.uk/masterclass.html

I signed up for their 3 hour course (with lunch) on Slow Cooking, and half way through the meal I turned to the man next to me and said ‘I want to live in South London.’  Not true (I blame the wine).  What I meant was ‘I want Trinity to be in North London.’  The food is delicious, the room relaxed and informal, the staff faultless, and the bread so stunning I can envisage trekking here regularly just to be near it.

Perfect, beautiful, buttery heart-shaped home-made bread (served with home-made Jersey-cream butter.)

Sous-vide literally means cooking things under pressure, in a bag under water.  When I was a kid, ‘boil in the bag’ was synonymous with slimy white fish drowning in claggy white sauce.  However sous-vide is a long-established technique used in many of the world’s best kitchens.  ‘Boil in the bag’ is a slight misnomer – the water tends to stay at a lower heat than boiling – but the bag part is key.  Meat, fish, veg, even fruit can benefit from enhanced texture and flavour.  Certain cuts of meat benefit particularly from the process – for example neck, shoulder or bavette.  The collagen relaxes in the water bath and the membranes break down, transforming tough cuts into tender.  With sous-vide cooking you can very precisely control your end result, ensuring consistency across the board – key in a restaurant context.

That’s the thing – sous-vide is not super-practical for the domestic cook.  While you can fashion your own water bath, maintaining and monitoring temperature can be a pain – and of course your food needs to be properly vacuum-sealed.  If you want the restaurant style kit, it’ll cost you – around four grand for the vac pac, another grand for the water bath.  So, prohibitively expensive for non-oligarchs.  Plus the two machines take up a lot of space.  Of course if you have dug out the basement of your oligarchy Knightsbridge home, alongside your home cinema, pool and panic room you could own a lovely little sous-vide set up – but then you probably own a lovely little in-house chef who you keep in the basement too.

Water bath with bavettes enjoying a relaxing Radox moment
Vacuum pack machine

The class was run by Trinity’s sous chef, the charming and talented Graham Squire, who talked us through general techniques and the science behind them – and then through a specific menu that we were fortunate enough to eat.

The class is not hands on (we didn’t cook) but even better it was mouth on.   Along our way Graham fed us various delights, including melt-in-the-mouth foie gras, and the crackliest crackling outside of a Krakow crack den.

Above you can see some of the ingredients that went into our lunch.  The Granny Smith was vacuum packed but not sous-vided which enhances the intensity of flavour and texture merely through the vac-packing process.

Salmon is a good fish for sous-vide-ing; because of its high fat content the fish doesn’t dry out in the way a skinnier fish might.   These are Scottish Loch Duart salmon fillets – vacuum sealed with star anise, thyme and garlic.   The garlic is kept whole – water bathing brings out the intensity of flavours, due to the long, slow hanging out time.   Graham confitted the salmon in the bag with clarified butter, at 55 degrees for 20 minutes. 

After sticking the fish in the bath he made a delicious chive oil in a Thermomix which he rapidly transformed into a chive mayo. 

Chive oil made with veg oil & chives

Becomes chive mayo

He also water-bathed some eggs for 48 minutes at 68 degrees, giving him the yolks you see above, which he then chucked in the Thermomix and made Hollandaise with.   Graham explained that because Hollandaise can be notoriously tricky to make (dangers of the curdle) – using eggs that you can fully control ensures the process is fool-proof.

Then it was time for the main event – an amazing 6 course lunch featuring many of the ingredients he’d water-bathed for us earlier, Blue Peter style.

First was coddled pheasant egg (he’d been in the bath) with asparagus vichyssoise.  Alongside the egg under the surface of the soup is a spoonful of home made curd, and on top some home-grown pea shoots, along with a little bit of the chive oil from earlier that had been hung to remove sediment.  

Then the salmon, served with samphire (aka sea asparagus – I do like a sea vegetable with a nickname), monk’s beard and lemon beurre blanc. 

One day Steve Jobs will invent technology that will allow us to truly experience texture on a computer screen.  Till then you’ll have to get by on the amateur pic above.

Then they chucked in a lovely little freebie – a taste of salt-baked goat’s cheese (Crottin – which features as a cameo in Pear-Shaped, bizarrely.)

Then on to foie-gras ‘en croute’ (sour dough lid) with golden-raisin puree and compressed apple (remember from earlier – vac packed but not bathed.   Guess Granny Smith’s a shower kind of girl.)

And then there was more…  the slow-cooked bavette, who we’d discovered in the bath when we arrived.  He’d had a four hour bath at around 55 degrees, followed by a flash pan fry to give him a beautiful crisp exterior to show up his lovely pink insides.

And then a little pre-pudding pudding of foamed yoghurt with apricot compote, honey comb and nut crust.

And finally warm rhubarb (also bathed – so liberated, so Swedish, all these fruit, veg and meat bathing together…) and custard, served with milk ice cream and strawberry dust.  I wish the dust in my home was strawberry dust – would be much more fun doing the housework….

All in all it was one of the best 4 hours I’ve had this year – certainly the best 4 hours I’ve ever had in Clapham.  There were six of us on the course – perfect as it felt very personal and special.  You could ask whatever silly questions you wanted.  And the whole thing, including a faultless 6 course lunch, wine, and a brilliant introduction to the world of sous-vide cost £50, which I would have paid for the food alone, let alone the booze and the education.

I’m also going to check out Adam Byatt’s book, which has very accessible recipes you can cook at home:  How To Eat on Amazon

Graham also recommended Sous-Vide by the legendary Thomas Keller, for further inspiration:
Sous Vide on Amazon