Thursday, 23 December 2010

Hallo again, and Christmas thoughts...

Yes, I know I've been very naughty again by neglecting this blog. But I have a good excuse (don't I always?) - I've moved house! I've shipped out of London, after several years there, and have moved to the supposed peace and quiet of the countryside.

It's all gone pretty well, but it has of course been made infinitely more interesting by the recent weather. Now that we live out in the sticks, the sudden realisation that an 'extreme weather event' (who on earth came up with that phrase, anyway?) can be a very real obstacle to putting food on the table is a bit of a wake-up call. I've quickly learnt the art of stocking up at any and every opportunity, and of using the freezer for keeping stuff other than ice cream, ice cubes, and voddie. ;-) London habits are dying hard, and quickly. It's all about survival of the fittest around here, me hearties.

On that note, here are a few Christmas thoughts and tips (in no order of significance) to help you get through the festive season of ho! ho! ho! and goodwill to all men, women, and random waifs and animals.

1. No amount of kisses in your letter to Father Christmas will guarantee you a Thermomix, iPad, or Lumix camera. There's a recession on, and Father Christmas's priority is to keep Rudolph out of Battersea.

2. Never, ever leave your Christmas tree and pets together unattended. Ever. This applies particularly if you have terriers and/or cats with a known love of shiny things on string.

3. It is too late now to make a Christmas pud or cake, so there's no point panicking about it. If all else fails, buy the richest fruit cake you can find, and pour a litre of whisky over it. Or just drink the whisky.

4. When wrapping the kids' stocking presents, remember that the wrapping paper you're recycling from last year may have wording written on it like 'To Jan, with love from Aunty June'.

5. There will be key points on Christmas Day when you need to remember to turn the oven on, and to turn it off. Try not to confuse the two.

6. Going to church IS important on Christmas morning. It's all about the baby Jesus, after all, and the fact that you want Jemima to get into the local church-run school is entirely unrelated.

7. Make sure that Grandad/Granny has his/her hearing aids switched on, and enough batteries to last through the holidays.

8. You haven't gone grey overnight. It's icing sugar.

9. Granny will insist she doesn't touch a drop. Keep her glass topped up anyway. She'll provide hours of free after-dinner entertainment.

10. No matter how well you've cooked the Christmas dinner, the senior females in your family will all claim they can cook the bird/roast potatoes/gravy/bread sauce/Christmas pud (delete as appropriate) better than you, and your children will agree with them vigorously. Smile sweetly throughout.

11. The tradition is to set fire to the Christmas pudding, not to the house. And holly stinks when it burns.

12. Squirty cream isn't funny and it isn't clever. Still, if you can't get hold of anything else, tell everyone that retro Christmases are 'in' this year and that you're channelling Fanny Cradock.

13. For one sodding day of the year, do NOT take photographs of the food, and do NOT blog your Christmas dinner.

14. Your mother-in-law and your daughter's new Goth metal boyfriend will hit it off and form a worrying alliance. Be very afraid.

15. Even if you don't watch the Queen's Speech, she has her uses. Invoke the old dear as an excuse to pour another drink, and raise a toast to Her Maj.

16. Yes, you did tell your brother that it was fine to get your two-year old a mini drum set.

17. Dogs don't like Quality Street. Actually, they do. But Quality Street doesn't like them. Violently. Unattended Yule Logs achieve much the same effect.

18. If it all gets too much, throw yourself to the floor and wail hysterically. The shock of the sight of you will be sufficient to bring everyone to their senses, and you won't have to do anything else for the rest of the day.

19. Even if you remember the key points in (5), you WILL have left the oven on when you go to bed. You will remember that approximately ten minutes after you've got into bed and have got all warm and cosy.

20. Put Nurofen on your bedside table before turning out the light.

Above all, enjoy! Have a great Christmas and a fantastic 2011!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Les Deux Salons: one to recommend

When one food-loving acquaintance whose judgement I trust recommends a restaurant, I’m all ears. When two of them do, it goes to the top of my list. When three or more are all championing the same place, it’s clearly time to drop everything and go.

Which is pretty much how it was with Les Deux Salons. Except that before going myself, I recommended it to another friend who was after ideas for a new weekend nosh place. ‘Go to Les Deux Salons,’ I said, confidently. ‘Everybody’s talking about it, and it’s all good.’

And so I sat back, happy that I’d done my good deed for the day. And then. And then I started to worry. I scolded myself for being lazy. I should have gone to LDS first before mentioning it to others. Or should I? Didn’t other positive feedback count? Could I really trust those who had gone before me? What if it wasn’t up to much after all? What if, what if?

Aaargh. Cue much anguished hand-wringing and soul searching.

But lo. The appointed day came around. And I received a message: “It was fab. So grateful for recc. You must go”. Shortly followed by: “Superb lunch at Les Deux Salons. Quince, wet walnut, dolcelatte salad, saddle of rabbit + pumpkin gnocchi, Paris Brest.”

THANK. MY. STARS. And – where’s my phone?

Skip forward a few days, and I finally arrived at LDS to see/hear/smell/taste for myself.

Les Deux Salons exterior

I must admit, I was already favourably disposed – not just because of the impressive reviews I’d been hearing, but also because of the menu, handily displayed on LDS’s website. There is NOTHING on there that I didn’t want to eat, or dip my head into, as Gregg Wallace would say.

First impressions? Niiiiice. Smart, in a chilled kind of way. Slick, but not creepy with it. Definitely salon-like. Resembles a centre ville bistro/restaurant in a respectable French town. Buzzy and busy. Lots of people already there, munching away, looking and sounding happy. Plenty of staff, whizzing around quietly and efficiently. Shiny new well-stocked bar, already doing plenty of trade.

Les Deux Salons bar

Not two moments after entering and disrobing, The Other Diner and I were – in true brisk French fashion – swiftly seated at our linen-covered table and brought menus, a generous basket of fresh bread, butter, and water.

Les Deux Salons table

Unremarkable, you might think, except that a little mention at this point should go to the set menu...

Les Deux salons set menu

... which, at 3 lip-smacking courses for a shade under £16 has – surely – to be most outrageously bargainous lunch in London right now. Prove me wrong.

But my tastebuds had already been well and truly tickled by the à la carte menu, so, as tempting as the set menu seemed, it was cast aside for another visit. THIS time, I was after the full whackeroo.

Between us, The Other Diner and I ordered the ravioli of rosé veal, fresh goat’s curd, cavolo nero and the lamb sweetbreads ‘Bouchée à la reine’ to start, and then, to follow, the saddle of rabbit, pumpkin gnocchi and hazelnuts, and the slow-cooked ox cheeks and parsnip purée.

While all that lot was being cooked, we dribbled expectantly and occasionally slurped a jolly good, crisp, Grüner Veltliner. It was all rather, well, cosseting.

Soon enough, the feast appeared before us, carried on huge trays by two serving staff – neatly attired in shirts, ties, and long aprons, French-stylee – who then waited momentarily for a senior waiter to arrive (differentiated by their shirts of random colour, no ties, and no aprons, since you ask*) and to actually present us with our food. Yes, it’s the little details, and I have no shame in admitting that I like ‘em.

So, anyway – the food. First up, the ravioli:

Les Deux Salons ravioli

I didn’t get much of a look-in, but I was assured that the ravioli were parcels of savoury loveliness (my one bite did at least confirm as much). You’d think that combining rosé veal, fresh goat’s curd, and cavolo nero so as to achieve a finished mixture that reveals each flavour and yet also comes together to produce something tastier even than the sum of its parts would be a tad tricky. Under Anthony Demetre’s stewardship (he of Arbutus and Wild Honey), apparently not.

My jumped-up vol au vent, meanwhile, was no less arresting. In a cardiac kind of way.

Les Deux Salons lamb sweetbreads

Boy, it was good. Mushroomy, buttery, creamy deliciousness with treaty little sweetbreads to match. The pastry? Fab, faultess, and only succumbing to sogginess once it had done at least three circuits of my plate to soak up stray sauce.

Blimey. So good so far and still 2 more courses to go? I let out a notch on my belt, and sat back comfortably into my obligingly squidgy seat.

Up next, our mains – the ox cheeks and the rabbit. Well, I guess if you’re the critical type, you might seize upon the fact that slow-cooked ox/cow/pig cheeks are the lamb shanks of a few years ago. A bit of a restaurant cliché. Still, there’s a reason for that. They’re bloody tasty and a joy to eat. I’m sure I will get tired of eating them one day, but that day isn’t coming around any time soon. I can vouch for this particular bulgesome beauty, which was every bit as good as it looks:

Les Deus Salons ox cheek

My saddle of rabbit wasn’t far behind, if at all, in the pleasure-giving stakes. Lovely tender, positively succulent rabbit, kept perfectly moist, with sweet pumpkin gnocchi and hazelnuts. Need I really say more? I couldn’t, in any case, because my mouth was stuffed full with it.

Les Deux Salons saddle of rabbit

A minor niggle was that my plate featured the same mushrooms and carrots that I’d had with my bouchée, but then that’s hardly the restaurant’s fault unless they were serving them up with every main dish, which they weren’t. Still, it was perhaps fortunate that we’d ordered sides of braised endive and winter greens. I can’t describe the endive any better than how it was described to me by the friend I’d ‘sent’ there a few days previously: “the braised endive with orange. Deelish! Almost like a pudding. You can really taste the Very Best French butter. Yum.” So there you are.

By this stage, my only concern was whether LDS had a dormitory upstairs in which happily sated customers could spend a half hour or so for a post-lunch nap.

Fond daydreams of fresh bedlinen and plumped pillows were, however, chirpily interrupted by the effervescent co-owner, Will Smith. “Are we desserting?” he trilled at us, with an encouraging grin. Hah! The answer is yes, and thrice, YES, I do believe we are. So – again acting on hot tip-offs – we opted for the Paris Brest and the floating island.

And here, dear reader, I confess that pure greed overcame me. I managed a photo of the Paris Brest, but in my haste to get my gnashers around the floating island, the intricate technicalities of getting a point-and-shoot to focus were beyond me. It’s not as though the rest of my pics are particularly brilliant, I know, but this one was so shamefully bad that I just can’t bring myself to reproduce it here. Instead, I will return to LDS, order it again, and try once more. The things I do.

In the meantime, here’s the Paris Brest:

Les Deux Salons Paris Brest

Yes, it was as big as it looked. Audley Harrison fist-sized. Halfway through, The Other Diner declared an inability to manage it all. Barely two minutes later, it had disappeared entirely. Uh-huh. Draw your own conclusion.

My floating island, a rather more refined affair, arrived in a charming silver bowl, a fat cylinder of Persil-white meringue puff decorated with Barbie-pink pralines sitting atop thickly vanilla-spotted custard. It looked pretty. It ate pretty. Actually, it was rather better than that.

I suppose I’d anticipated a confection somewhat on the sweet and sickly side. No bad thing in my book, and that’s why I ordered it. But it wasn’t. There was indeed a good sugary hit on first bite, but nothing overpowering. It was moreish, not cloying, in its sweetness. The pink pralines added crunchy interest and welcome nuttiness. And the custard was a marvel. I simply don’t understand how you can make custard so that it’s comforting and refreshing – yes, refreshing – at the same time. But then that’s why Anthony Demetre holds Michelin stars and I’m a paying punter. Sir, I salute you.

Good coffee? Check. Oh, and chocolate truffles? Don’t mind if I do.

On this form, Les Deux Salons is onto a winner. I really, really hope they keep up the standard, because I really, really want to be able to keep going back there. It’s a fun place to be but, more importantly, the food was flippin’ fabulous. I personally can’t wait to go back.**

* There may also have been other, more subtle distinctions of seniority based on choice of belt and/or shininess of pointy-toed shoes. If so, they eluded me.
**(Or to be able to recommend it to others with an entirely clear conscience...)

Les Deux Salons on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 October 2010

A dark affair: chocolate, stout, and raisin cake

half choc stout cake

I have always loved chocolate cakes - more so even than chocolate itself, or at least until recent years, in which time I've had the pleasure of discovering real chocolate. (The sickly stuff of my childhood never did it for me. And yes, I probably was a strange kid.)

But you'll never, ever wean me off chocolate cakes, and for that reason, I hereby confess to spending a shocking proportion of my time seeking out the best chocolate cake recipes.

For the most part, I'm a purist. I don't my my chocolate and/or cocoa messed around with too much. But when I spied a Dan Lepard recipe for a chocolate cake which also incorporates stout and raisins, I couldn't help but be tempted. It was the stout that got me, doctor.

Purist, be damned.

And so, I baked. It's an incredibly easy recipe, and pretty foolproof, so long as you don't heat the chocolate over a fierce flame. Chocolate is a fickle mistress, and likes to be treated gently. Overdo things, come on too strong, and - like most affairs of the heart - it'll all go horribly wrong.

Regard patience as a virtue, and you'll soon enough end up with a generous slab (the recipe doesn't say as much, but you'll need an 8" square tin) of a moist and seductively dark cake, with just a hint of bitterness to offset the richness.

whole choc stout cake

I used London Porter instead of Guinness, but I think - to give Dan his due - Guinness would indeed be better. If you're wary of stouts, or think you don't like them, there's no need to be afraid of the bitter tones in this cake, because (a) they are gentle, and (b) there is, in any case, plenty of sweet chocolate frosting to counter them.

In fact, I thought the recipe made rather too much frosting - I left about a quarter in the bowl. And even doing that, there was plenty on the cake. Mr Lepard clearly has a sweet tooth.

Overall verdict? A real heart stealer, and one that you can enjoy on the side without anyone else knowing... Oh, and it goes well with cream and/or crème fraîche, too, just in case you feel like upping the pleasure levels. Just saying.

slice choc stout cake

Monday, 18 October 2010

impressions of Norway: some sights

I've been away from this blog for so long that I'm going to have to ease myself back in gently. Excuse me while I get the harness dusted down and sorted out.

In the meantime, some of you (particularly those of you on Twitter) may recall that I spent a couple of weeks in Norway - well, Oslo and Bergen, at any rate - in the summer. To be brief, I loved everything about it. And, needless to say, the food was one of the many highlights. I'll come on to that in my next post - which, I promise, will follow shortly.

But for now, I'll try to give you an idea of some of the sights, including the good, the bad, and the frankly bizarre...

let's start with the blindingly obvious...

Bergen Norway flag

spectacular fountain in central Oslo...

Oslo fountain

Oslo old town...

Oslo old town

cute scooter...

Oslo scooter

view from Oslo harbour...

Oslo boats

another of Oslo harbour's assets...

Oslo pissoar

Oslo concert hall/opera house...

Oslo concert hall

chef resting after service...

Oslo resting chef

Oslo flower market...

Oslo flower market

view from Oslo castle...

Oslo view from castle

the Ice Bar...

Oslo ice bar

out for a paddle...

Oslo swans


Oslo friends

Oslo Nobel peace museum...

Oslo peace museum

Oslo flower market: the reprise. With added pigeons...

Oslo pigeons

Whiter than white: walking on Oslo opera house...

Oslo concert hall 2

view from Bergen hotel window...

Bergen hotel view

Bergen public sculpture. Lots of it there....

Bergen public art

view from atop the funicular...

Bergen view atop the funicular

erm, a rose...

Bergen rose

typical Bergen weather...

Bergen menacing clouds

the handsomest fish, Bergen fish market...

Bergen fish market ugly fish

more of that public art I warned you about...

Bergen public art 2

the funicular cafe. Great location, shame about the cafe...

Bergen funicular cafe


Oslo graffiti

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

cheese, please, but pass on the service: La Fromagerie

Cheese. A world without it would be very dull indeed, IMHO. As I've noted before on this blog, I bloomin' love the stuff, and would happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And sometimes I do.

It's not going to take you more than a shake of a lamb's tail, then, to anticipate that I'm likely to be a supporter of London's finest cheese emporia. Neal's Yard, Paxton & Whitfield, Hamish Johnston, La Cave à Fromage... they're all close to my heart, not to mention my stomach. But La Fromagerie, tucked away in a quiet corner of Marylebone, should be on that list, right?

La Fromagerie exterior

And it is, kind of. The cheeses there are worth the trip. A huge selection, all in pristine condition, ready and ripe to go. But the rest? The shop? The café? Not so much.

I visited a few weeks ago, and although satisfied by my intake of the whiffy stuff, was distinctly less so by the service throughout. Put simply, the latter put the dampers on my lunch, and might have blighted my entire afternoon, were it not for a post-La Fromagerie visit to Ginger Pig's droolworthy shop right next door, where service is cheery, friendly, helpful, and expert. The contrast could hardly have been greater.

Ginger Pig shop

La Fromagerie, pleeeeeeeeease take note: if you're going to sell premium products, then please at least TRY to make sure the service is up to scratch, too. So, having sight of a menu when I'm seated would be good. Not 15 minutes later. If I ask for a wine recommendation to go with my cheese, I do NOT expect, 'Well, if you like white, go for the house white, but there's the red, if you prefer red.' I mean, WHAT??? Oh, and - in the event that I do in fact opt for a glass of vino after such brilliant guidance - I'd prefer to drink it from a clean glass, please. Not one that seems to have been handled by the entire staff first, going by the number of fingerprints all over it. And the slices of pear that come with the cheese plate - any chance they could be replaced with slices that aren't bruised?

Grrrrrrrrrr. I expected better. A lot better.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the pics:

La Fromagerie waiting area
Waiting to be seated. I'm expecting a disco in the interim, 'cos of the glitterball, natch.

La Fromagerie seating
Seated. It's a little on the cosy side. But you've gotta love that clock.

La Fromagerie goodies
The view behind me. Cheese room in the background - where the service is as chilly as the room temperature, but more of that later...

La Fromagerie cheese plate
The cheese plate. Can you see the bruise on that pear slice? Thought so.

OK, well, the cheese was good. Clockwise, starting from 3 o'clock as you look at the plate - Sariette de Banon (goat), Camembert Fermier Durand (cow), Haut Barry (ewe), Lou Bren (ewe), Devon Blue (cow). For me the standouts were the Sariette de Banon - creamy, flaky, and slightly fruity - and the Haut Barry - earthy, slightly sweet, and nutty.

And what I also liked about the Haut Barry was its ridiculously colourful (and wholly natural, I hasten to add) crust...

La Fromagerie Haut Barry

Pretty, innit?

Portion sizes, although the picture may not suggest as much, were pretty much spot on, I thought. Not too little, not too much, and just about acceptable for the moolah involved (£13.50).
And then, my friends, is the small matter of cake. Or rather, the large matter of cake:

La Fromagerie meringue cake

Soft hazelnut meringue filled with Valrhona ganache? Really? Do I have to? Oh, go on, then.

La Fromagerie meringue cake 2

Again, you probably don't get quite the sense of scale from the photo, but these slices were IMMENSE. A couple seated next to us gasped when they saw what was being put in front of us. I smiled back, reassuringly. Of course I can, and will, eat it all.

I didn't. But one of these days, I might try again. Because I don't like being defeated by cake. It pains me. Still, on this particular occasion, the pain was relatively short-lived, because we had a pressing engagement with the cheese room before we left.

For a cheese lover, a cheese room is surely ultimate fantasy, the room we'd all have built into our homes were it not for the fact that space and money don't permit. At La Fromagerie, you can indulge that fantasy a little without paying an architect for the privilege.

La Fromagerie cheeses 2

But only a little. Because, frankly, the whole experience is (or was, for us) spoiled by the affineurs, whose brusqueness and coldness made for a tongue-biting and teeth-gritting time. I know a fair amount about cheese (four decades of eating the stuff helps), and I don't appreciate being treated like a numbskull, least of all by an arrogant and patronising schmuck (sorry, affineur) seemingly barely out of nappies. And in any case, what I may or may not know about cheese is wholly irrelevant. If I'm asking questions about the cheese, wouldn't you want to help me, to get my interest, convince me, maybe let me try some, and, y'know, SELL IT TO ME? You are failing your customers, La Fromagerie, and doing your business a disservice.

Oh, and I was told that I wasn't allowed to hold my point-and-shoot closer than about a metre away from the cheeses (no reason given, and no, I'm not exaggerating).

OH, YEAH? So sue me, then.

La Fromagerie cheeses

La Fromagerie cheeses 3

With the teeth-gritting rendering me in danger of an imminent dentist's visit, we chose just 2 cheeses from the many to take home. By this time, I really didn't feel like lining La Fromagerie's pockets and propping up some overblown egos any more than we had already done.

Our choices:

La Fromagerie Vache Porte d'Aspe

This is a favourite of mine, but I have to be in the mood. It's strong, verging on brutal (any idea why I chose it on this particular afternoon? No, me neither). Its taste is pungent 'fading' to something resembling a chilli burn. It's an acquired taste, I guess, but fun.


La Fromagerie La Laurentine

This is a lovely, rich, creamy goat's cheese. If you like goat's cheeses - and I know they're not everyone's favourite - do put this on your must-try list.

And so, some GBP sterling lighter, but pounds of cheese and waistline heavier, we took our leave and dived into the Ginger Pig shop next door. Our experience in there threw that of La Fromagerie into even greater relief. And not in a way that was favourable to the latter.

Drinking wine, eating top-notch cheese and cake, and choosing more cheese to take home, should surely be a pleasure, a joy. I regret to say that on my visit, La Fromagerie didn't make it so. I'd heard great things, but I left disappointed and disgruntled. I may end up returning at some point, if only because I love the cheese, but what it comes down to is this: there are other cheese shops/cafés I'd rather go to first, where the service is everything it should be and the customers leave with happy hearts and bellies. So it's probably safe to say you won't see me back at La Fromagerie anytime soon.

La Fromagerie on Urbanspoon