Saturday, 30 March 2013

Kit Kat Japanese Style

Kit Kats are Kit Kats right? Like Coca Cola and McDonald's fries, they are the same the whole world over. Except in Japan. Different flavours are launched on a regional basis. Sure, we have the current spate of flavours in the UK but by including mint, orange and hazelnut they are hardly pushing gastronomic boundaries flavour wise. I had heard tell of the unusual flavour phenomenon found only in the land of the rising sun and wanted to explore it however on my first visit, despite hunting high and low, I was only able to find two "weird" version of Kit Kats in the form of green tea and secondly cinnamon. 

Much more success on visit two. I arrived home with a suitcase full of varieties including strawberry, blueberry cheesecake, wasabi, brown sugar syrup, green tea and cherry blossom, strawberry cheesecake and rum & raisin. 

Apparently the reason behind the success of the humble Kit Kat relates to its meaning in Japanese. Phonetically it sounds like 'kitto katsu' which roughly means 'good luck to you!' Kit Kats are therefore offered as good luck tokens. The Japanese also have a tradition of taking cakes or sweets to people that they are visiting when embarking on a journey. Therefore, by making different Kit Kats limited edition to certain regions they attract a certain collectability.

After putting together a small panel of expert chocolate eaters (aka work colleagues) each flavour was scientifically contemplated and compared (aka wolfed down at coffee break time) especially for this post.

Wasabi was a little disappointing. It had a gentle horseradish type smell on the nose but was less exciting on the palate. Having tried Lindt wasabi chocolate which has a decent kick to it, I had expected a local Japanese version to, if anything, pack even more punch. On the contrary it was predominantly white chocolate with a slight hint of wasabi. Kit Kat flavour fail....

Second up was strawberry cheesecake. This one wasn't so great either in all honesty. Covered in white chocolate with only a slight strawberry flavour, it seemed as though the cloying white chocolate just masked the flavour.

Rum and raisin. This is possibly the one that I had been looking forward to the most and it didn't disappoint, a really distinct rum flavour pervaded throughout and was actually properly yummy, I'd be up for trying to persuade Nestle to do this one in the UK. Would have been better covered in milk chocolate than dark chocolate though. That said one of the samplers disliked this one the most.

Brown Sugar Syrup I'm not sure that I even know what brown sugar syrup is? I'm guessing that its something approximating treacle as that's what I got an olfactory blast of when I opened the packaging. Tasted something like treacle in porridge all in all though probably due to having been coated in that damned white chocolate again. Rather overly sweet, If it had been dipped in dark chocolate it would have been really rather lovely, shame. 

Matcha Green Tea  This remains one of my favourite flavours and tastes exactly like proper powdered matcha tea. The lurid green chocolate is quite alarming at first but all part of the fun...

Green tea and sakura blossom flower. YUM. I was being pretty cynical when I opened this one. After all, the Japanese are bonkers about blossom. Literally everything has a limited edition blossom themed version in the spring, even beer. Cherry blossom is also used widely in Japanese cuisine and has a really delicate pretty flavour that is also quite distinctive so I wasn't hopeful that it would be too faithfully reproduced in chocolate biscuit form but sure enough it was. 

Blueberry Cheesecake-This one came packaged in a very cool Mount Fuji shaped box. Good job it had something going for it as this was my least favourite of all the bars. Didnt taste much of actual blueberries just more of that sticky sweet white chocolate with an indeterminate fruit flavour. I'm soooo over the white chocolate thing now and getting grumpy despite the sugar rush.....
Strawberry. Unlike the cheesecake version, this one was covered in pale pink chocolate and had a more distinctive strawberry flavour although it was that synthetic strawberry taste that you get in bootlaces and medicine.

If we could routinely get them over here I would buy the green tea, the green tea and blossom and the rum & raisin but I wouldn't bother with the rest.  The rest of the tasting panel agreed that they are too sweet even for chocolate lovers. More gimmick then flavour and substance. I love the idea though. If you wanted to give them a whirl and don't know anyone headed to Japan any time soon you can get them on Amazon albeit it at a price!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Little Social

Little Social is the latest venture from Jason Atherton of Pollen Street Social fame and is conveniently located right over the road at 5 Pollen Street. 

Other than the inevitable "foodie" Twitter buzz, the launch of Little Social has been comparatively quiet. When I booked it had no website and the phone line was shared with Pollen St Social (I see a basic website  and menu has now gone up). None of the crazy overhyping seen from some other recent new openings. From my experience I found it rather unfair of Gillian Orr in the Independent to make negative comparisons regarding inaccessibility and overhype with places like Bubbledogs and Balthazar. I called Little Social on a Tuesday and got a Saturday table in the first week of opening without any problem. That's two bonus points above Flat Iron for starters 1) they take reservations and 2) they deign to speak to their customers on the telephone.

It seems that the intention is that Little Social will be a more laid back affair than its Pollen Street sibling and will aim to offer a traditional French bistro style experience. Dangerous perhaps from more than one perspective. We've already had the likes of Giles Coren in the last couple of weeks lambasting Balthazar for transplanting an American interpretation of French casual dining over to London. Dangerous also because simple food is often the easiest to go wrong with. Traditional French bistro fare sounds so easy in theory, steak and chips, ham hock terrine, these are all classic, French basics, but its amazing how one little blip leaves them utterly wrong. Perhaps the reason they are so tricky to get spot on is due to their very simplicity- there is nowhere to hide. One slip up, a soggy chip or a slightly overdone pastry and the whole thing is effectively ruined. 

Cocktails are excellent, original and beautifully served. At around £12-14 each they aren't the cheapest but I guess that's becoming the standard West End price bracket. We tried and liked an "Au Pear" -
(Domaine De Canton ginger liqueur, spiced pear puree & fresh lemon juice topped with champagne served in a champagne glass) and
an "Ever the Diplomat"- (Diplomatico rum, coffee liqueur, house vanilla syrup
and espresso
) Essentially a posh ginger pear bellini and a posh rum espresso martini.                    
The wine list is really very disappointing. We had called ahead and asked about corkage rates as a friend had a bottle of Ch. Palmer that "needed drinking" but were told resolutely that outside bottles are not permitted even to those willing to pay to bring wines that have no comparable offering on the house wine list. Fair enough but if that's your policy then you had better have a damned good wine list and they just don't.  If I'm buying off a restaurant list then I'm not looking for anything fancy but at £29 a bottle the Costiere de Nimes was a little too young and lacking in punch or depth. It didn't even have enough tannin or acidity to promise more in the future. Would be a tenner retail and wouldn't be worth that.

Taking a look at their sparkling offerings and other than a cider the cheapest sparkling is a "Vincent Gaudron 'Vouvray Extra Dry' non vintage" at £9 a glass or a whopping £52 a bottle. I wanted to find out a bit more about this sparkling "NV" Vouvray that is worth charging more than most house champagnes on London wine lists and this is where I came a cropper. There is a Domaine Sylvain Gaudron and there is a Monsieur Vincent Raimbaut who both produce named vintage year sparkling Vouvrays that retail at around £10 - 13 a bottle. There is also one Mr Vincent Gaudron who is manager/trainer of Limoges Football Club who is nothing, to the best of Google's knowledge to do with winemaking. It's also the case that the vast majority of sparkling Vouvray wines do give a vintage year, it is for the most part only those at the very cheapest end of the spectrum (Under £10 retail) that are listed as NV. So I remain completely unsure what you would be getting for your £52 at Little Social and think I would want to before splashing that kind of cash.

We started by sharing a pig's head and foie gras terrine served with toasted sourdough bread and a prune and green tea relish. This was really delicious, a generous sized portion and worth its circa £11. The pig's head element was really meaty and flavoursome with a generous, thick vein of mi-cuit foie gras running through the centre as well as sweet prune.  The relish was tasty also although any green tea flavour struggled to make itself heard over the fruity prune. A good start.

Bavette- frites is £15 whilst sirloin is £26 and having tried both there is no contest. I actually found the bavette tastier and would have saved nine quid to boot. Good quality meat cooked beautifully. Don't get me wrong the sirloin is also excellent but the bavette is so good its hard to justify the extra to myself for the sirloin.

It was this at this point that we hit our only major stumbling block of the meal. The fries. Sure they look pretty enough, nice and crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside but take a closer look at that picture and you'll see just how much salt was on them. We tossed them to see if it was just on the top but no, throughout these were some very salty chips indeed. The maitre d' did oblige by exchanging them but to be honest the new ones were pretty high on the salt scale too. In addition the house salad was incredibly salty, weird as there was no discernable dressing other than oil on there.

What does deserve a very honourable mention however is the bearnaise sauce. All steaks are offered with the choice of bearnaise or peppercorn sauce and I'm so glad we chose the former (although the latter may be excellent who knows?!)  A wonderfully rich, creamy bearnaise: gelatinous and gloopy enough for a big old blob to grab each chip and coat it in tarragon wonderfulness without dripping off. Superb stuff.

On the non meat side the a la carte offered a roast cod fillet served with cabbage pesto and clams popped on top of some borlotti beans and squid. Definitely the lighter option on the menu but cooked tremendously well (and not too much salt!)

The decor of Little Social is fabulous, very different from its light and airy, modern art smattered older sibling over the road. Here it is all about cosy and warm (which was utterly welcome on a snowy Saturday) Squished elbow to elbow with your neighbour on a leather banquette, warmed by a early 20th c style lamp, you felt as though you could have been in the dining carriage of a Belle Epoque steam train flying through the French countryside.  This sentiment was emphasised by the vintage Michelin roadmaps papering the wall down to the kitchens as well as the Art nouveau style French tourism posters. Clichéd? Maybe slightly, but lovely nonetheless.

21st century take on the old Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité?!

And so to dessert. I love tarte tatin. Apples so slowly roasted in rich, sticky, dark brown caramel that they are teetering on the verge of collapsing into a glorious compote. Topped off with buttery soft pastry just waiting to fall apart in your mouth. This tarte tatin was without any exaggeration THE most perfect specimen I have ever tasted outside of France and definitely the best one in the last decade. The day I visited it was listed on the specials to share for two but I hope beyond all hope that it makes it onto the permanent menu as this tarte would be reason alone enough to return. Served alongside it is a double cream ice cream that is more impactful in the idea of extreme extravagance it represents rather than in flavour. If you are someone that pours liberal amounts of cream on desserts then you would love it.

Presently seemingly ubiquitous on all London menus, rhubarb shows its face at Little Social also. This time in the form of a poached rhubarb Eton mess with rhubarb sorbet. The mouthful that I tried of this dessert was fab. Tangy sorbet just sweet enough not to make your face shiver squished in with crumbs of super sweet meringue. The rhubarb itself lurid pink and poached to perfection. I would normally avoid Eton mess due to it being very creamy but the cream was present only in the form of a scoop of very heavy clotted cream. A bright green mint oil drizzled over the dish made for both a welcome colour and flavour contrast.  
To make up for the salty main course the sommelier very kindly brought us a glass of Riesling Spatlese. Just sweet enough to make it onto the dessert wine list whilst light with a gentle sparkle. Definitely the wine highlight of the meal and usually a reasonable £6.50 a glass.
Although it couldn't be more different in style from Pollen Street Social, service is great in both and both have a clear place in London's myriad of dining styles and options.

In short; sharpen up the drinks list on the price, accuracy and variety fronts, sort the salt levels and Little Social would make a welcome bolthole hidden away just off the shopping madness of weekend Regent Street. Somewhere, in these austere times, that would appear nice enough to clients whilst being sensible and not overly grandiose. That said its not cheap. Two and a bit course lunch came in at £210 for 3- mainly due to the cocktails but nonetheless, eek! yes, by taking a 2 course prix fixe lunch with one glass of house wine you could have come out with a bill of just over £30 with service but you really would have been stinting. Desserts are fanastic and perfect just the way they are. Got the makings of something very good indeed.

5 Pollen Street
Tel: 0207 870 3730

Little Social on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Friday, 22 March 2013

Haché, Clapham

Short and sweet this one. Well sort of sweet.  Haché is a small, family owned chain of burger restaurants founded in 2004. Their aim was to offer good quality, innovative burgers so in that respect you might say that they were the forerunners of London's ongoing burger craze.

Haché, Clapham opened in 2012 and joins the current stable of four restaurants, the other three located in Fulham, Camden and Shoreditch.  These really are 'posh' burgers, there is a strong emphasis on steak mince provenance, in fact every burger's name begins with "Steak". Quite different in style to last year's "dirty burger" trend; there is no industrial style, stripped wood and bare light bulb decor, no dark, cavernous atmosphere with thumping music just white tables and walls bearing glowing pink fairy light blossoms. Yes you did read that right; pink, flower fairy lights. Wouldn't get those at MeatMission would you? The same pink blossoms are also found on the website along with some rather fetching little flickering stars. We're definitely not talking testosterone central here; they even offer vegetarian burgers. That says a lot.

Haché offer a very wide variety of burger options to the extent that it rather feels like they are trying to be something to everyone; beefsteak burgers are accompanied on the menu by lamb, fish, duck and chicken burgers. Some are of the less usual variety (and quite possibly include ingredients that should never meet between bread bun halves on top of a beef patty) for example the 'Steak Louisiana' consisting of crunchy peanut butter and melted cheese. Others are of the more standard burger offering such as "Steak Canadian" (sweetcure bacon and cheddar cheese),

There are four options on the potato front, fries, skin on chips, wedges or sweet potato chips as well as a plethora of other sides. One thing that is for sure, there is certainly no shortage of menu options. Having had and enjoyed a blue cheese steak burger on a previous visit I wanted to try something different and went for a "Steak Bavaria" consisting of beef patty with smoked cheese. All burgers can be served on either ciabatta or brioche but for me brioche wins every time. Purists will hate the fact that lettuce is replaced by rocket in the burgers- personally I prefer it- but the tomato and onion remain.

Now, just to clarify because I know its misleading at first glance, the inch thick beige rondel at the top of the photo is not the top half of the toasted brioche bread bun, it is, in fact, the biggest slab of Austrian smoked cheese that I think has ever been found in one place at one time before. To put it into context by volume there is more cheese than burger. It was a nicely cooked burger, pink and juicy in the middle and excellent quality steak mince with a decent char crisp on the outside but just too much cheese. Don't get me wrong, I adore cheese and never thought that "too much cheese" were words that I would ever utter together so this is really saying something.

The wine list is nothing to write home about, six whites and six reds. You get the feeling that it was not put together by someone who is passionate about wine. One of the whites is simply described as "Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch: This famous Loire grape is soft.....". Where to start? Well which vineyard is the chenin blanc from? Granted yes chenin blanc is widely grown in the Loire in France but if its South African wine then it seems a little odd to describe it as Loire, you wouldnt call Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon 'Bordeaux' would you?
I ordered a bottle of the "Kleine Cabernet Sauvignon" on the basis that I guessed it might be Kleine Zalze (it was, not sure why the 'Zalze' was missed off the menu). At £22 a bottle its a significant mark up on the £8ish retail price but not a complete shocker.  Decent blast of red fruits with a little bit of peppery heat, it works well with a burger and stands up to the chargrill and cheese.

At around a tenner a burger and £3 for chips we're not into breaking the bank territory and I would go back again if I was looking for something reasonably priced and quick before the cinema but I'm not sure I'd agree with whichever reviewer is quoted on their website as having suggested it as a romantic date location. In the Clapham area they are clearly still doing something right however as at 7pm on a Saturday evening they were packed with people queuing up for a table. The atmosphere was very buzzy and - perhaps due to how close together tables are- very, very hot.

Haché proudly display French newspaper, Le Figaro's review of the restaurant naming it as the king of burgers in London. Given that Paris isn't too well known for its burgers I'll take this with a pinch of salt. In 2005 Time Out apparently described Haché as "the best burger restaurant in London". They are undoubtedly tasty and well cooked good and provide more of a traditional dining experience than lots of other currently acclaimed London burger offerings. Times have changed though and really good burger offerings have become ubiquitous. In summary, in 2004 this place would have been a great find. In 2010 even, but I think that were Time Out to be awarding a 2013 title of Best Burger in London, it more than likely would not go to Haché.

Haché Burger Connoisseurs
153 Clapham High Street
London SW4 7SS
020 7720 7766

Haché Clapham on UrbanspoonSquare Meal

Saturday, 16 March 2013

L'Epicure at Hotel Bristol, Paris

There is nowhere in the world that you will find 'cheap' three Michelin star dining. Value potentially but not cheap. From London to Tokyo to New York to Paris you know up front that you are letting yourself in for a hefty bill. Nowhere more so, in my experience, than France. There seems to be an acceptance with a Gallic shrug that when a Michelin star is awarded you can add another 25% to the bill each time. So once you reach three stars we're talking stratospheric pricing. That's why my posh Parisian outings are limited to once in a blue moon. Having been to Ledoyen a few years ago and adored it I wanted to try somewhere different but equally glamorous so opted for L'Epicure. Unlike top restaurants in London or New York you don't generally need to be on the phone months in advance at the very moment a booking line opens, in all cases I have managed to book tables at usually only a couple of days notice.

The usual home of L'Epicure within the Hotel Bristol is currently under renovation so the restaurant has temporarily moved from its habitual light and airy room to an altogether more glamorous, gilded oval salle on the ground floor of l'Hotel Bristol on the Rue St Honore.
As you come to expect with this type of haute cuisine, staff of one sort or another outweigh diners by around two to one.  During the meal we averaged four sommeliers between around 8 tables, 2 maitre d's and at least 10 waiters and waitresses.

Although you can get a seasonal daily three course menu for a "more reasonable" 130 Euros, I was acting on the basis that it was highly likely that I was only going to do this once so took the plunge and went for the very elaborate and detailed tasting menu.

Some confusion reigned however and elements were lost in translation. The french for sea urchin is 'oursin'. French for bear is 'ourson'. You know what's coming don't you? Yes, I asked the maitre d' if it was really the case that they were serving roast bear. Well anything's possible after horsegate isn't it? Apparently this is quite an unusual linguistic error that caused significant mirth amongst the waiting staff but then again sea urchin is not exactly normal every day fare is it?!

Before the 8 courses of tasting menu began however, came canapes. The thing that look like a green nipple on a spoon is a spherified blob of cucumber and yuzu juice (sweet but still acidic although the acid was tempered by the cooling cucumber), the white pot is a scallop cream with sweet citrus flavourings and the lollipop stick was a lobster piece rolled in curried breadcrumbs and saffron. 

The lollipop was definitely the highlight and had a little kick to it that contrasted well with the cucumber.  Served at the same time was a bacon, tomato and olive muffin which was well flavoured and executed but perhaps superfluous given the canapés and breadbasket but very, I'm not complaining if they want to give me more food!

It became clear throughout the meal that chef Eric Frechon has very much dipped his toe into the molecular gastronomy waters.  There were occasional doses of spherification, hell there was even a nitro frozen sorbet! For me it was the perfect balance between classic cuisine and forward thinking food. This contrast is also reflected in the decor, presentation and dress code. Whilst the room and the dress code (men must wear jackets at lunch as well as dinner) are both very traditional, the presentation of the food is for the most part extremely innovative and modern.

Bread. I've said it before and will say it again, I think you can tell a lot about a place from the quality of their bread and also whether it is made in house. As you would expect, at L'Epicure it is. Around 8 different breads were on offer in the main basket although other speciality breads accompanied particular courses. I opted for small thin baguette loaves with a really intense dark, smoky bacon flavour and chunks of lardon served with a choice of butters. My choice was the home made salted butter. Served alongside the bread tray were little bacon, tomato and olive muffins, unapologetic in their greasiness but bursting with flavour.

An amuse bouche was served of smoked salmon encapsulated in a herb jelly topped by sorrel mousse and salmon roe. The sorrel mousse had a much more powerful flavour than I had been expecting but as an amuse bouche was a balanced and tasty morsel although I think it would have been too much as a full sized starter portion.

langues et écume d’oursins, fine brouillade d’œuf de poule 
The sea urchin came next. Despite having spent a few weeks in Japan I've never tried one before and was a little unsure in all honesty. Even now I'm not 100% decided either way as to whether I liked it or not, its a bit marmite in that I think it seems like something that you probably ought to love or hate. 

I've started to notice that a lot of high end restaurants around Europe are introducing more traditionally Japanese ingredients into their menus. At L'Epicure they were quite up front about it and confirmed it was due to the number of Japanese customers that they attract (during my visit two of the eight tables were Japanese and one of the waitresses also Japanese). Gauthier in London is the same, in fact they even now offer their website in Japanese.

The sea urchin itself was served two ways within a porcelain urchin shell. The shell was lined with a very creamy scrambled egg onto which pieces of sea urchin were placed. The individual pieces had a very soft, bubbly texture and a sweet meaty flavour not dissimilar to the sweetness found in scallops and lobster. This mixture was then topped off with what was described on the menu as a foam but was much denser and oleaginous than something you would think of as a foam. It had a very different flavour to the pieces of urchin in the eggs and was slightly more towards bitter. Not distasteful but definitely an acquired taste. The dish, although small, was very rich. 

On a separate plate was served a thin toast and a pat of butter wrapped like a toffee. The butter itself was probably one of the most curious elements of the entire dish made up of three different seaweeds and algae.

The following course was a duck foie poached in a smoked tea broth accompanied by crisp baby lettuce and warmed oysters. It arrived at the table gift wrapped in a giant cellophane parcel. Many of the dishes at L'Epicure involve a great deal of theatre. I had wished that someone would order the a la carte blue lobster or the crepe suzette for some true table-side cooking however what I did see was certainly enough to pique the interest of all the diners. If you order the Bresse chicken for two it came served in a giant white balloon with a knot of the top which frankly looked like an oversize haggis. This balloon was carried proudly through the dining room displayed on a giant silver salver with feet in the shape of chicken's feet before being cut open and sliced at the table.

cuit en papillote, huîtres et choux de Bruxelles, 
bouillon infusé au thé fumé
So back to the foie gras. The consomme style broth was so clear that it disguised a really incredible depth of flavour and smokiness. The foie was beautifully poached with only a slight wobble remaining in the centre. The biggest surprise of the dish was the brussel sprout leave from two perspectives. Firstly they didn't taste anything like the Christmas Day sprouts that I know and hate and secondly and how very well they retained the flavour of the smoke. The only let down in the dish was the warm oysters but then again that is solely because I hate oysters...

en croûte de pain de mie, imprimé aux amandes, 
tétragone mi-cuite relevée au curry 

Next up on the agenda was a fish course of  whiting "en croute". The fish was billed as having been caught in St Gilles Croix de Vie. This throwaway fact brought back happy childhood memories for me of summer holidays in the Vendée. Many of the first French meals that I ever ate were in St Gilles and I have one particularly vivid memory of spending what felt like hooooouuuuurs waiting for my Dad to finish a plateau de fruit de mer well after I'd finished my steak haché and chips. But I'll give St Gilles one thing, they do do good fish. This particular one was moist and firm with a sweet flavour acting as an excellent base to the more pronounced flavours accompanying it. Although it had claimed to be en croute this manifested itself in the form of a topping of what may have been the thinnest slice of pain de mie that I had ever seen. Goodness only knows how they cut it so thin, it really must involve lasers or something. Anyway, this slice was so thin that you could actually read through it (believe me I tried and you could read the menu) and embedded with toasted almonds. The spring greens were quite salty and had a little peppery chilli kick to them but the best part of the dish was the curried oil.

COCHON FERMIER- cuisiné de la tête aux pieds,
écrasée de pomme ratte au beurre salé et truffe noire 
The main event was supposed to be a tete de veau according to the menu however, bearing in mind my porcine proclivities, I swapped this out for one of the chef's other signature dishes, the "Head to Toe" (or trotter) pig dish. Consisting of a roast chunk of pork belly, a sausage, skin, and trotter meat all served with a super sticky truffled butter sauce and a stick of crackling. I'm such a lover of truffles that ordinarily I can hunt the slightest trace of them out like a Piedmontese pig however despite clear evidence of brown chunks in the sauce, I have to admit to the sauce being devoid of truffle flavour for my palate. The sausage was tasty and mixed with nuts which added bite and variety to another wise meat heavy dish. The meat had a beautiful flavour however I would have liked the top of the pork belly cube and the piece of skin to have been crunchier .

The cheese trolley was as comprehensive as you would expect it to be although a bit goat heavy for my liking. 

Keeping my more gluttonous cheese instincts in check, I opted for the Fourme d'Ambert, some Livarot and a gooey blob of  St Felicien. I've always noticed that the Livarot has a distinctive band of  five rushes wound around the outside of the cheese to hold it together during maturation but hadn't realised that this unusual feature also provides the reason for its name. The "Livarot" means General and is so named as the band of rushes is though to resemble the five stripes on a General's epaulettes. There is little that I can say about the Fourme d'Ambert other than that it was an excellent example of what will always be one of my favourite cheeses. The St Felicien was incredibly runny to the point of having liquified in some places, its delicate paleness concealing the comparatively powerful flavour that it packs.

A very pretty, three element amuse bouche heralded the conclusion of the savoury sector of the meal. A ball of zesty orange sorbet sat perched atop a  rich, sticky blackcurrant compote; its depth of flavour and viscosity contrasting the light orange zing. A stick of a delicate violet meringue dipped in violet sugar crystals topped the sorbet. A perfectly balanced palate cleanser before the small matter of dessert to address.

Throughout lunch one of the tables near me had been occupied by a group of six French people who clearly had no idea what wine they were being served. Much swilling and sniffing, swishing and inspecting was taking place without a single bottle in sight. Wine was being served from what looked like a giant glass flask. Things took an even stranger turn when their next wine was served in pitch black Riedel glasses (I covet these things very much and they are resolutely on my 'one day' list) and I wanted to find out was going on. The head sommelier explained that the group were vignerons from Champagne who had set a budget and requested that the sommelier surprise them. This he did by starting with a 1995 Domaine Leflaive in the glass flask. The wine in the Riedel glasses was actually a light red chilled down to try and confuse the vignerons into believing it might be white. This cunning deception would have been all very well if one of them hadn't got a little over enthusiastic in his glass swishing and sloshed some very definitely red liquid onto the tablecloth. The final wine served to the group was a Jura vin de paille or 'straw wine'. The production method for this wine is not dissimilar to that used for vin santo in Italy in that the aim is to reduce the liquid in the grape as much as possible in order to ensure maximum sweetness remaining. Rather than being left on the vine the grapes are picked and left in the sun or in a warm hangar on a pile of straw (hence the 'vin paille'). At this point the sommelier decided I should join in the tasting game and have a go too. This particular example was a deep amber gold in colour with significant legs. A nose with intense bitter marmalade notes. A decent level of acidity helps to balance out the sweetness but acidity is not overharsh being tempered in your mouth by the warm alcohol glow. 

givré au limoncello, aux saveurs de poire et citron confit 
The first dessert was a lemon thingy (yes that's a technical term). Lemon is one of those dessert ingredients that never grabs me and when there are a wide selection of other options on a dessert menu I would probably never choose. That said when its served to me I do seem to enjoy it.    If Heston has his meatfruit then Eric has his lemon- albeit that this one does actually taste of lemon.  An incredibly fine pale green lime flavoured sugar leaf topped the lemon. The 'lemon' itself is very light indeed and made up of nitro iced lemon sorbet that is almost powdery and explodes in your mouth coated in a sticky yellow lemon curd syrup. The centre of the lemon was a roast pear puree. Chunks of meringue around the plate add texture and crunch and a sweet contrast to the tart lemon.  Really utterly delicious and light as a feather.

CHOCOLAT PUR CARAÏBES- crémeux émulsion 
au caramel épicé, glace aux grains de café torréfiés. 
The second dessert came in the form of an iced coffee chocolate sorbet encased in a chocolate outer layered with ultra sticky caramel onto a gently spiced biscuit. A chocolate disc balanced on top of lengthy sputnik like spikes added to the avant garde appearance. The whole confection was then placed on a painted swirl of chocolate with a jug of hot chocolate poured onto it. In essence an ultra chocolatey, coffee, caramel plate of sticky goodness.

The petit fours were out of this world. It was like someone had wheeled over an explosion of the inside of Willy Wonka's imagination on a trolley. Orangettes, milk chocolates, dark truffles and other sweet bites sat in giant glass canisters whilst  huge, long, caramelised, buttery biscuit sticks towered over the trolley. A perspex case contained six flavours of macaron from raspberry to caramel and vanilla to chocolate. The highlight, however, was a long length of mint marshmallow coiled into a jar and lengths cut off with long handled silver scissors. Tempting as it was to ask for a take away to eat on the plane home, I resisted and opted the macaron, orangette and marshmallow.

At the end of the meal two silver spoons wobbled their way to the table containing glistening amber orbs sprinkled with gold leaf. Little flavour on the outside but bursting the jelly casing resulted in a mouthful of sweet, honeyed, earl grey flavoured liquid. I am dying to try some spherification at home and definitely have aspirations towards replicating these after dinner tea globes.

I have one gripe about the meal which prevents it from reaching perfection. I did um and ah for some time over which wine to choose and took advice from one of the sommeliers. I finally settled on a half bottle of Chassagne Montrachet.  It wasn't too old but was robust enough to stand up to the various different courses of the meal. The wine came wrapped in a napkin, I tried it, yummy white burgundy. No fruit here, it was all about the almonds and cream with distinct gentle oak notes. 

I was having a chat with the head sommelier towards the latter end of my meal and asked him if he though I'd made the right choice with my Chassagne. The response came: 'but you ordered the Meursault'. I didn't, this I am sure of.  I had considered a Meursault but at 50 euros more for a half bottle had disregarded it as overly extravagant. The problem was that I had debated it aloud albeit briefly so I had no way of proving what I had finally settled on and it didn't seem worth trying to argue it out in a mixture of French and English and spoil the meal.  I therefore cannot tell you anything whatsoever about where my half bottle of white came from other than the fact that it was white Meursault and cost rather a lot of money, more than I had intended paying in fact. I will never know whether it was an honest mistake caused by my prevaricating or a nifty switch to the more expensive option and I guess it doesn't matter as I did love the wine that I drank however it did add a slightly sour note to an otherwise beautiful experience.
In essence a fantastic meal that challenged my palate a little beyond its usual safety blankets but one or two niggles that kept it a step away from being perfection. A lot of emphasis is placed on visual perfection but the flavours behind the pretty plates more than match up. I also appreciated the twist on classical French haute cuisine brought in by use of the more scientific processes.

112 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré
75008 Paris
+33 (0)1 53 43 43 40

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Waterside Inn, Bray

I don't know why it has taken me quite so long to venture out to Bray. What is effectively a village known predominantly for the quality of its food and drink should have been something of a mecca.  Perhaps it was a fear of leaving the boundaries of the M25. I'm not proud of this but if I'm going to leave London I tend to do so properly by either embarking on several hours of long train journey that necessitates sandwiches and a mini bottle of M&S wine or it involves planes and Terminal 5. There is a whole swathe of the country lying within 50 miles of London that I have no idea about. Someone asked me where Winchester was the other day; no idea?! I also thought Kent was to the south of London; it appears not. This needs remedying. So enough of my geographic ineptitude and on to the Waterside Inn.

An hour on the train and a short cab hop from the station and we were deposited by the river on what has been the only sunny Saturday so far this year. We were led straight through to our table and deposited with a nice view of the river but in the corner next to the fire escape (have they heard something about me?). Its not going to come as a surprise to anyone to say that this place is very, very French. Its almost as though someone has cloned a small army of clean cut, long-white-apron wearing, terribly polite Frenchmen and deposited them in the middle of rural Berkshire. You get dizzy at the number of times you respond hello on the short journey to your table.

Gripe alert. I'm going to start off the meal on a moan but promise it gets better from hereon in. Within only  a couple of minues of arriving at Waterside we are sat down with canapes and a wine list and a glass of Michel Roux's eponymous champagne (Very dry. Yeasty, biscuity flavour; not mind blowing but nice). Great, no problems there. Within the next five minutes someone attempts to take our wine order three times and remove the canapes (as yet untouched as due to the size of the wine bible I can't choose wine and reach the canapes at the same time). It is then suggested that I move my canapes to a side plate and hey presto! before I've ordered the wine or finished the canapes the first course is in front of me. To be honest I felt jammed in a corner surrounded by numerous waiters and distinctly pressured. This is meant to be a relaxing experience!

Once I finally got round to them, the canapes were pretty fab though, the best one being a steak tartare on a crisp topped with a soft boiled quail's egg. Other tasty little morsels included a welsh rarebit with pear chutney (good flavour and lovely idea but was served cold and in my book molten cheese is at its best when hot) and a smoked eel tempura. The anchovy cheese straws were well executed but really powerfully fishy. If you like anchovies you will love them. 

So from whine to wine..........

All gone!
I could have very, very easily spent the GDP of a mid sized country on wine at Waterside. It's one of those places where not only do they have an Yquem, they have multiple years spanning almost half a century. Lafites, Haut Brions, Pétrus' and Vintage Krug all nestle side by side. The wine list was the victim of someone having danced around the page with a pencil crossing through many of the better value or more interesting wines. The sommelier mentioned part way through the meal that Michel Roux senior was downstairs tasting new wines so I suspect that we arrived at the tail end of the old list.

I had opened a bottle of 1996 Sociando Mallet on Christmas Day to accompany my beef wellington so already knew that it worked well with a strong beef or game dish. 2000 being a pretty good year generally in Bordeaux, it seemed like a shout.  At around £120 a bottle it was, of course, significantly marked up as you would expect in a three star restaurant but still comparatively good value compared to many of the other wines on the list.

 A 2000 Ch Climens 1er cru Barsac acted as an effective straddle, working both with the foie gras and also with dessert. I've had the Climens a couple of times recently and its rapidly becoming a reliable go to on restaurant wine lists.
 The first course was a "Crémeux de parmesan à la truffe et cornes de gatte, accompagné d’une allumette feuilletée aux amandes" - in essence parmesan cream with truffle shavings. I'm not sure how it is possible to make a heavy whipped cream taste more parmesaney that parmesan itself but they have somehow achieved it. Rich, salty, savoury and delicate all in the same mouthful. Dare I use the word "umami" without sounding like an idiot? If I did, it would be here.

Next came an escalopes de foie gras chaudes à la cardamome, racines glacées, sauce au verjus et raisins de Smyrne. The foie was pan fried to the point of having a crispy caramelised crust without being overcooked in the centre. The verjus was very intense in flavour with a sticky, rich oily texture. This was definitely my favourite course of the meal and the verjus nothing short of divine although we both struggled to catch any hint of the promised cardamom which was a shame as it would have made the dish more unusual.

Tronçonnettes de homard poêlées minute au porto blanc was the fish course. I'm not going to rave about how perfectly cooked the lobster was as so it should be in a 3 star restaurant. And yes all the usual adjectives apply, sweet, tender etc etc, all present and correct. What made this an outstanding lobster dish however was the presentation and the sauce. Very fine slivers of ginger were panfried with the carrot julienne and the port reduction giving a very delicate Asian style flavour. I love how this dish is all about the lobster and not just in terms of what was a very decent quantity. Virtually no unneccessary garnish - how tempting would it be to most chefs to fill that empty third of a plate with a handful of watercress or similar?

A glass of white Pessac-Léognan Chévalier 1996 was rather a disappointment unfortunately (although H loved it). Nothing wrong with it as such, just not to my taste. Very mineral and chalky in taste with a splash of petrol on the nose and lacking in fruit to balance it out, perhaps due to the age.  I think if white wines are over 5 years I should probably stick to a nice buttery Burgundy chardonnay for my personal taste. Seeing that I wasn't a bit fan the sommelier brought me a mystery wine to try. I managed to not entirely embarass myself by identifying it as chardonnay but guessed Chablis instead of St Véran. Apparently the St Véran is one that was open for Michel Snr to try as they are hoping to add it to the new season list. They definitely should, it would be a great summer drinker.

What became very clear is that Waterside is very much a labour of love for the Roux family. Michel Snr was in the restaurant to try and approve the new season wines, the sommelier told me that Michel's taste buds are so sharp that he will literally work along a line of glasses saying "oui", "non" or sometimes just a raised eyebrow.....

Caneton challandais rôti, feuilles de chou farcies en surprise et jus aux prunes de Damas légèrement épicé. As you can see from the picture you got a lot of meat. The cabbage was stuffed with minced duck meat and whilst tasty was not my favourite. The roast onions however were a burst of sweetness that balanced the dish perfectly.

H ordered the Duo de gibier de saison, subric de potiron et champignons sauvages enrobés d’épinards, sauce poivrade. The gibiers in question were partridge and venison. On the basis that H is not a fan of pepper I'm guessing that the peppered sauce was not very strong as he didn't comment.

Being greedy, we added a cheese course having been seduced by the huge trolley that we passed on the way in.  So greedy in fact that the maitre d' stopped by to check that we were really sure we could manage an extra course. Stupid question....

Our cheese plate choices included a bleu d'auvergne, Comté another blue and the more unusual side was a paprika coated ewe's milk cheese (nice but would have been bland without the paprika).  I loved the way that the stilton was hidden on the lower level of the tray as the token British cheese in a kind of "it is not French so we will hide it away" move. I have to admit that I was surprised to have the trolley wheeled away immediately after selecting my 5 slivers of cheese before H got to choose any. Apparently 5 little slivers does constitute 2 separate portions however as we were charged the full whack of nearly £20 per portion on the bill. This does annoy me slightly since the quality of cheese is the same between a 3* or a 1* restaurant, they generally come from the same suppliers and the restaurant has to do nothing to the cheese in order to serve it other than not let it go dry or mouldy. Even with a huge mark up we were nowhere near beyond a total of a fivers worth of cheese retail. 

Around 3pm Alain Roux came and did a circuit of the restaurant leaving the last of the desserts to the well trained hands of his kitchen chefs. He showed more than a passing interest in what diners had especially liked or disliked and a definite focus on what wines we were drinking. Apparently I achieved something comparatively rare these days by managing to get both Michel Snr and Alain to sign my menu.

The tasting menu listed dessert was a Larme de chocolat lacté au caramel, cœur de mangue et fruits de la passion, sorbet mangue, unfortunately my stupid food allergies to fruit struck again (no lovely mango or passion fruit for me) so the waiter kindly offered an alternate option of a pistachio creme brulee. In my experience many things that claim to be pistachio tend to taste pretty much like the unflavoured version but are just a slightly scary, lurid green. No photo at this point as I got the settings wrong on my phone in my booze fuelled mission and managed to take a picture in black and white. Believe me, not even the tastiest creme brûlée in the world looks good in black and white. The larme (so named due to a tear shaped chocolate craquant casing holding a milk chocolate caramel mousse) did look lovely and much prettier than my brûlée but hey ho.

The second dessert on the menu was a soufflé chaud à l’orange et airelles. Light as air just as you would expect and with a much more pronounced flavour than you might think for a soufflé. Cranberries were also in the base of the ramekin as well as purely decoratively on the top. Really just perfect. 

The petit fours included a giant palmier (why not make two smaller ones?!),  by this point in all honesty I was so chock full of wine that you could have given me a honey roast spider and I'd
probably have raved about it so I would ignore pretty much anything that I say from hereon in. There may well have been some sort of macaron, a passion fruit tartlet, a nice dark chocolate truffle thing  and probably a perfectly executed nugget of nougat but I was beyond noting or describing it.

We (probably sensibly) retired to one of the outside smoking huts with armagnac (less sensible). Strange contraptions, they look like hexagonal wooden huts from the outside but inside are like some kind of Marie-Antoinette style fantasy tardis. The inside ceiling is lined in pleated pink silk and the walls are hung with elaborate light sconces as well as chintzy watercolour paintings. Heavily cushioned banquettes line the inside walls of the hut with fringed cushions for added squish. Curtains cover the windows resulting in your own private mini Versailles. I dread to think what kind of shenanigans those wall sconces have seen behind closed doors.....

Yes it really was that late by the time we finished lunch...
In a Roux vs Roux  family cook off for me Waterside Inn beats Le Gavroche hands down despite the schlep to get there.

I am now very poor indeed but was it worth it? Definitely! Would I go back? Yes, but I think it would have to be a special occasion. I'd love to  revisit on a sunny summer's day when you can hire a boat and cruise the river with your aperitif, just bliss.

Ferry Road  Bray, West Berkshire SL6 2AT
01628 620691

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