Tuesday, 27 May 2008

an a-MAZE-ing Bank Holiday...

OK, so yesterday was another Bank Holiday here. And you know what I do on Bank Holidays.

And, given my outrageously naff post title, you've probably already guessed where we went. Yip, Maze. Ever so well done of you.

Maze, then. Home of Jason Atherton - he of Gordon Ramsay Holdings, now that company's most brightly burning star since the recent departure of Marcus Wareing. Having lost Wareing (and therefore also Wareing's 2 Michelin stars), The Connaught, and La Noisette from his stable in the past few months, Gordon must be hoping for ever-greater things from his young protege.

Things have certainly been looking good. Maze has hardly been in out of the spotlights ever since it opened in 2005. Atherton has already won his first Michelin star, and is widely expected to win his second soon. In the meantime, he has a new recipe book out, and was a prominent finalist in this year's Great British Menu, winning the right to serve 2 out of 4 courses at a dinner at the Gherkin hosted by Heston Blumenthal for some of the world's most celebrated chefs. No pressure there, then.

But could he handle a real test? (That's me and The Other Diner, by the way. Do keep up.)

Only one way to find out. So - we booked a table for lunch on 27th May. No problem. And when the due date came around, we were very glad we'd been so darned organised for once. Since it absolutely p*ssed it down with rain ALL day, spending the best part of the afternoon munching on incredibly wonderful food from the Maze kitchens seemed like a very sensible idea indeed.

Anyway, enough of the natter. Onto the meat, so to speak.

The menu? Well, to start with, you have to choose which menu. Set lunch? A la carte? Or the tasting menu, as follows?

Crab salad, pickled mooli, apple jelly, Bloody Mary sorbet 8.50
Pressed marinated foie gras, Lincolnshire smoked eel, baked potato foam and dill 9.00 Jerusalem artichoke velouté, braised Gressingham duck leg and cep brioche 7.00
Cornish crab mayonnaise with avocado, sweet corn sorbet and Oscietra caviar 8.50
Roasted sea scallops, cauliflower purée, Muscatel vinegar dressing 9.00
Arbroath smokie with soft boiled quail’s eggs, chive and potato salad, native oyster cream 8.50
Slow roasted prawns with pumpkin purée, rye croutons, crab bisque and vanilla oil 9.50
Artichoke and potato salad, truffle mayonnaise and potato mustard 7.50
Marinated beetroot, Sairass cheese, pine nuts and Cabernet Sauvignon dressing 7.50
Assiette of sandwiches ‘BLT ’and Croque monsieur 8.00

Main courses
Honey and soy roasted quail, Landes foie gras and spiced pear chutney 8.50
Braised shin of veal, pumpkin risotto and aged parmesan 9.00
Roasted red mullet, bouillabaisse consommé, saffron and olive tapenade 10.00
Halibut with saffron pasta, braised carrots, gremolata, and veal vinaigrette 10.00
Steamed daurade Royale with candied aubergine, spicy ketchup and bok choi 10.00
Monkfish, roasted scallop, dehydrated black olives, and mussel reduction 10.00
Roasted rack of lamb, confit breast, lamb bolognese and provençale vegetables 10.50
Roast squab, Peking leg, marinated turnip and date sauce 10.50
Beef ‘tongue ‘n’ cheek’ caper raisin and ginger carrots 10.50
Rare breed Sussex pork ‘Head to toe’, parsnip and spiced lentils 10.50

OK, so the tasting menu it was. Greed prevailed. I feel no shame.

Actually, it's not so sinful as you might think. Partly why Atherton has been such a hit is that the food is served in tapas-sized portions, so that you can sample more than you might ordinarily and not suffer horribly ever after for it. Our waiter recommended that we have 2 dishes each from the starter section, and then 2 dishes each from the mains. Well, since he insisted...

It was a tough decision, but I went for the crab salad and the BLT, followed by the steamed daurade and then the beef. Oh, and a flight of revelatory wines (3 glasses chosen by the sommelier - in this case, a Gewurztramminer, a contrastingly dry Italian white, and a luscious Resalte Crianza).

First up, the crab:

Maze - crab salad

Yes, I know. I realise it's not the best picture, and I'm sorry. We had limited natural light, given the appalling weather and grimly dark clouds, and my point-and-shoot really struggled. But hopefully you get the idea. What you see is a carpaccio of cucumber, then a bed of crab, on top of which (from left to right) is the bloody mary sorbet, mooli, and apple jelly.

Was it any good? Er, yes. Yes, it was. Very good. Each element - the cucumber, crab, sorbet, mooli, and jelly was about as perfect as you could imagine it to be. Together, they made for a simply delicious starter - light, fragrant, fresh, delicate, but full of zing and taste at the same time. Crab starters can often be a tad on the insipid side - but not here.

On, then, to the BLT. In case there's anyone out there who's not familiar with a BLT - it's a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich (usually with mayo, sometimes with onion) - a veritable bastion of British workday lunchtimes. In Atherton's hands, though, the humble sarnie became something altogether different...

Maze - BLT

Again, not the best photo - not just for reasons of the light (or lack thereof), but also because I've completely failed to show the tomato consomme jelly lurking at the bottom of the glass, and the 'mayo' layer underneath the lettuce veloute. But you can at least clearly see the veloute, the lardons, and the most-delicate-ever tempura onion rings. Oh, and in the background to the left of the plate is a mini croque monsieur.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit, well, unpleasant, frankly. But it wasn't. And I knew it wasn't going to be, either, given that the judges on the Great British Menu had already hailed it as a triumph. I have to say, not that I have their years of expertise, I entirely agree with them. Again, every element was delicious. The soft, just-set jelly had the right tad of tomatoe-y acidity about it, the cream 'mayo' wasn't cloying or sticky, the lardons were porcinely perfect, and the lettuce veloute gave finished the whole thing with an alluring grassiness. And the onion rings were amazing - for all their minuteness, they were indubitably still onion rings, their taste and pungency wholly in proportion with the rest of the dish.

And the croque monsieur? My God. Cheesey wonderfulness - the crispest, softest, fluffiest, most flavoursome toast I ever expect to eat. When I gave The Other Diner a bite to try, it looked for a moment that I might lose the whole thing.

Mmm. Wow. I was beginning to understand why Jason Atherton is mentioned in awestruck tones.

But, you know, we had another 3 courses to think about. I mean, to eat. So breaking off from my BLT reverie, I continued on...

Maze - steamed daurade

... the steamed daurade. Not an obvious choice, this, for me. I usually prefer my fish to be crispy-grilled, or roasted. But I know there are many advocates of steaming, so I thought I should give it a whirl.

The photo simply doesn't do it justice. It looked so pretty - all silvery and quite without a single flaw. Really, it looked as though it had been just that moment plucked from the sea by someone wearing kid gloves. Which, given how fresh it tasted, it might well have been. I'm not particularly familiar with daurade (or gilt-head bream, as it's also known), but this was succulent, delicate, and very more-ish. The ever-so-slightly sweet and tangy candied aubergine and tomato sauce not only went well together, but served as perfect foils for the milder-tasting fish. I thought they - particularly the tomato - might overwhelm it, but no.

OK, so I'm going to have to give steaming a try when I get my kitchen back. I suspect supremely fresh fish is the ultimate key, but I can always give it a go.

Mmm. What next? Oh yes, the beef 'tongue 'n' cheek'. I'd seen one element of this - the ox cheek - in Atherton's main course offering on The Great British Menu. Prue Leith had declared she'd be happy to eat it 365 days of the year. Quite some recommendation, then. But could it really be that good?

Maze - beef 'tongue 'n' cheek'

Ahem. Yes. It could, and it was. I'm sorry, but you really need a close-up of that cheek...

Maze - beef 'tongue 'n' cheek' 2

Can you taste that? That deeply meaty, unctuous, melty cheek? Richly marinated, then caramelised and cooked till falling-apart point? You can? OK, good. Job done.

Just for good measure, I should add that the tongue and the carrots were the best I've ever tasted, too.

So that leaves, uh, dessert. What shall we have?

Selection of British cheeses 5.50/9.50
‘Pain Au Chocolat’ chocolate ganache with café latte sorbet and milk mousse 6.00
Pineapple carpaccio, coconut sorbet, seaweed croquette and Malibu lime jelly 6.50
Texture of pear with chocolate mille feuille 6.50
Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, raspberry and lemon thyme jam, mascarpone and pecan ice cream 6.00
Chocolate Moelleux, pistachio sabayon with milk and honey ice cream 6.50
Peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich with salted nuts and cherry sorbet 6.50
Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granité 6.00
Selection of ice cream and sorbets 4.00/6.00

Oh, and I have to pick one? Jeez.

Actually, you don't, of course. This being a tasting menu, you can have whatever you like. And since just about every one of those desserts beckoned me, I was sorely tempted. But, unlikely though it may seem, modesty finally won out. The coconut panna cotta got the nod.

Maze - coconut pannacotta 2

This was such a lovely way to end the meal - all cool, silken, creamy coconut panna cotta with even cooler granite, all topped with a dash of salty olive caramel. And a bit of mango coulis thrown in. Joyous stuff.

No, it wasn't the cheapest meal ever, but I thought we deserved it after enduring so many weeks of being kitchen-less. And it was worth absolutely every penny and more - the kind of meal that lingers on the memory and the tastebuds for a long, long time.

Jason Atherton - we salute you, and long may your (Michelin) star shine. If you haven't got two by this time next year, I'll be writing to the Michelin gods myself to complain.

Maze on Urbanspoon

Monday, 19 May 2008

another secret...

Now that the season of salads is (just about) upon us, a word to the wise....

This stuff...

Nunez de prado 1

... (olive oil, in case you were wondering) will transform your salads into something truly wonderful. I wouldn't recommend it for cooking purposes, but for adding a finishing touch to a dish, it's absolutely the dog's dangly bits. It hails from a family-run estate in Andalucia, is organic, stone-milled, and has an unusually low acidity, giving it a fabulously smooth taste. What's not to like? You can read more about it here.

OK? Got it? Take a snap, and take it with you so that you can identify it easily next time you're out and about...

Nunez de prado 2

And no, they're not paying me. I'm just trying to find something to blog about while the kitchen work is STILL going on, and so now seemed as good a time as any. I use it all the time, and discovered it at my local fave deli/cafe, The Fat Delicatessen (who also use it all the time and were good enough to let me into their secret).

So there you go. Another secret. Just how nice am I??

The stress must be getting to me.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Ssshhh! A secret.... Foliage

So, anyway, what does a person do in London on a Bank Holiday? (Yes, I know Bank Holiday Monday was a few days ago now, but please. Indulge me. I've been busy.) Skip on out to the countryside? Go to an exhibition? Frolic in one of the magnificent parks? Take a boat ride on the Thames? Go shopping?

No, my friend. What one does is go to a very fine restaurant, take advantage of its very keenly-priced lunch menu (£29 a head), and enjoy a very pleasant couple of hours or three away from the hordes.

Well, it's what this one does, anyway.

I've been eyeing up Foliage for some time now. Not only does it have a Michelin star, which is usually - though not infallibly so - a good sign, but it's often spoken of in hushed terms as one of London's (whisper it) hidden gems. What that really means is that it isn't headed up by a chef who spends more time on TV than he does in the kitchen.

Actually, it's a bit of a wonder that Foliage can be called 'hidden' at all, located as it is within one of the most well-known hotels in the capital, the Mandarin Oriental, in Knightsbridge. Try finding it once you're inside, though. I needed a personal escort to the restaurant and then to my table. (No, not that kind of escort.)

Anyway, we made it, me and the Other Undercover Diner. True, we didn't have the loveliest of views - the restaurant usually looks out over Hyde Park, but thanks to current building works on a horrendously gargantuan scale all around it, the view now is mostly over rather unlovely hoardings, portakabins, and other buildery stuff.

Still, we were rather more concerned about what was going to be in front of us and in our mouths than the outside scenery, so it was time to take a squiz at the menu.

And it's not just any old menu. Foliage offers five courses, from which you can pick any 3 or 4 items (if you want more than 4 courses, an extra is £7.50), in any order. You can have 2 things from the same section, or, for example - and I pondered this reasonably seriously for a moment - have 4 desserts. For a sweety lover like me, this is possibly quite dangerous.

Still, there were so many other tempting options from the other sections that I came over all conventional. (I haven't entirely ruled out going back and having a dessert orgy one afternoon. Hell, if I'm paying, what does it matter? I'm not hurting anyone.)

Here's the first three sections:

menu 1, Foliage

and here are the latter 2:

menu 2, Foliage

I mean, what would you do? (Actually, don't answer that. This is my blog, so it's all about me, ok?)

The other incredibly wonderful thing about this place, and the lunch menu, is that for an additional eight quid you can have the sommelier choose you a couple of wines to go with your meal. (That's a couple of glasses, not bottles.) As much as I love wine lists, this was actually quite fun to do, because (a) you don't have to sit there for hours pondering what to have, and (b) given that the sommelier's choosing for you, the wine should be pretty decent. Of course, if you're dining with someone you don't like, and you actively want the wine list so that you can hide behind it for a while, then this won't suit you so much.

Anyway... for me, there were some tough choices to be made, viz. I loved the sound of everything on the menu. But I had to decide on something. It being a pretty warm day, I chose the crab to start. And then, because I just wanted damn good stuff to eat regardless of the weather, I went for the sweetbreads followed by the lamb.

First up, though, an amuse of vichysoisse with a goat's cheese mousse, like so:

vichysoisse and goat's cheese amuse, Foliage

The photo makes the bowl look enormous - it wasn't. It wasn't tiny, but it was definitely amuse-size rather than full soup bowl size. The soup was delish. Very leeky, rather than potatoey, and all the more surprising for that. But it contrasted and worked very well with the goat's cheese mousse, which was faintly sweet. Probably doesn't sound that great, but it was. Powerful but delicate at the same time. A wakey-wakey amuse, like all amuses should be. A good start, then.

It got better when, at about the same time, my wine arrived, a lovely Viognier, drier than most, but definitely with that Viognier sweetness about it. Yep, that would be a fine match with the crab. So bring it on...

crab and cucumber, Foliage

Oo-er. If ever a dish was designed to herald the start of summer, surely this is it? Fabulous colours, lots of swirly bits (foliage??), and cucumber. I did wonder for a second whether I should stick a glass frame over it, take it home and put it on the wall, but greed got the better of me. It was very nice, very fragrant, very light. Perhaps the crab was a shade more delicate than I'd expected, but that's not meant as a criticism. And it went extremely well with the wine. Thank you, Mr Sommelier.

OK, so now for the intriguing dish. Sweetbreads with.... salted peanuts. Come again? Er, right. Okaaaaaay... I have to admit that I chose this specifically because it seemed so weird. Weirdness attracts me. I'm like that. But more of that some other time. The question was - was it any good?

sweetbreads and morels, Foliage

Huh. Had I any idea it was going to be as good as it was, I would have ordered it four times over. It was superb. Those brown splodgy bits? They're like a peanut coulis. The morels? Fabulously meaty things. The sweetbread? Oh. My. Word. Something like a cross between the best liver and the best foie gras you've ever had, and then some. Creamy, melting, delicate, and tasty all at the same time. Quite a feat. And just AMAZING with the peanut stuff. Oh, and perfectly cooked, obviously. Not that I'm any expert, but really, I couldn't fault it. I foolishly offered the OUD a mouthful, too, and got pretty much the same response. Crikey. Must be good, then.

Shall we zoom in and linger a little longer? Mmm, I think so, too...

sweetbreads and morels 2, Foliage

Oh baby, baby....

By now my second glass of wine had appeared - this one, a Tempranillo. Yep, well, I'm having lamb, so that makes sense. Great on the nose, but even better in the mouth.

My lamb, please, waiter...

lamb, pea puree, smoked tomato, Foliage

The chef's done it again. Another extraordinarily worthy dish. That pea puree was something else - a bold blend of pea and mint. Nothing subtle about it, but oh, so fresh and lovely. The lamb was superb, all pink and melty. The pressed shoulder? Terrifically no-holds-barred meaty and rich. The smoked tomato? (You see, more weirdness...) Imagine a roasted tomato, except with an unfamiliar edge taken off (or was it added on to?) the tomato-eyness. Something like that. Really, I don't have the words. But it was all perfect.

Ahem. To have dessert may seem a little greedy at this point, but the whole intention of a menu like this is to not leave you over-burdened and struggling for breath by the end of it. So the portions are sized accordingly. Which is great, because it means that if you're someone like me, whose belly would normally be doing full-blooded battle with my eyes at this point, you don't have to suffer. You can have dessert.

I've heard a lot about olive oil ice cream lately without having had the chance to try it, so I thought I'd better put that right. The fact that it came with something in the milk chocolate line didn't influence me at all. Really. The thyme anglaise also sounded intriguing - there seems to be a real cheffy trend at the moment to use herbs in new ways like this. So again, I was up for it. The things I have to do.

milk chocolate, thyme anglaise, olive oil ice cream, Foliage

That anglaise was just the most lovely anglaise. Ever. A bit like a very superior thyme milkshake, I suppose. Beautifully cooling. The olive oil ice cream completely won me over. I know some of you have been banging on about it for ages. And you're right. You're absolutely right. The milk chocolate thang? That was strips of milk chocolate wrapped around a milk chocolate pot. A rather sexy thing, if truth be told - creamy and full-fatty and sweet (but not too sweet) in the mouth, without being the remotest bit sickly or cloying. To someone with a preference for dark chocolate - me - this was a complete revelation. Again, OUD readily agreed. Steady on.

So there you have it. Another rather good meal. Oh, except that we hadn't quite finished. Coffee, of course, and these:

walnut chocolates with balsamic, Foliage

... walnut chocolates with balsamic. Yes, balsamic. But as you've probably gathered by now, weirdness at Foliage tends to work, and these chocolates were no exception. The dot of balsamic was perfectly judged - any more and it might have been a bit too much. As it was, it was spot on, making an unlikely, but highly successful marriage with the dark chocolate and walnut praline.

So now you know what to do on a Bank Holiday in London. Trust me on this. For some reason, people just don't think to go out for lunch, so many of the top restaurants have tables available. Foliage is one of them.

There you are. See how generous I am. Not one secret, but two.

Foliage on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Sorry, folks.... and Simon Callow

Yep, I know I've been AWOL. I'm sorry, but it's all been a bit...

cat 2 paws

....around here lately. I'm not going to mention the 'K' word, so let's just say we're still about 3 weeks away from it all being finished, and even the cats are fed up with it now.

From a gastronomic point of view, the cats, of course, are fine, inasmuch as they still get their regular diet.

But us poor hoomans are continuing to alternate between eating salads (have you ever stopped to think about how many of your fave salads require cooked ingredients?? No, neither had I...), and eating out.

And no, I haven't been taking my camera out with me. Wot ya gonna do about it? I'm sorry (again? I should really get a grip), but I've just not felt inspired.

I should, perhaps, have taken it out when we met up with friends at Noura in the West End. Because not only is the interior of Noura worth a picture in itself, but the place also serves up the most attractive (not to mention delicious) Lebanese food this side of, well, Lebanon. The encyclopaedic array of hot and cold mezzes is a real mecca for gluttons, and if you make it through to dessert, their ice creams - rosewater and lemon, milk and orange blossom, clotted cream, etc - are truly worth the wait. Let's just say that, between 4 of us, we did the whole lot considerable justice.

Where else have we been? Well, to our regular curry house of choice - Chilli Chutney - which specialises in fabulous Lahori food, and naans like you've never seen or tasted before; Mini Mundus, a true slice of bistro France dumped in the middle of Wandsworth - French waiters an' all - and about which I'll have to write more at some point; Oishii, a half-decent Japanese/Thai combo about half a mile away, from where I get my fix of chilli squid; oh, and we've been a handful of times to the Fat Deli, a rather outstanding Brit/Spanish/Italian tapas cafe, and our pet favourite.

I also had the dubious pleasure of eating a pretty vile lemon drizzle cake at Costa Coffee in Victoria rail station during an afternoon meeting. (Yes, a lot of my meetings involve food, strangely enough.) Oi, Costa, enough of that cack icing already, m'kay?

I didn't see Petula Clark there, but Simon Callow was sitting not 3 yards away from me (yes, he of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral', among others). Will that do?

Maybe I should give up this foodie lark and offer my services to 'Hallo!' instead. Yes? No?