Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lahore Karahi, Tooting

My last meal before the famous Primark funny turn and two weeks in isolation.

Lahore Tooting is a shabby looking cafe style Pakistani restaurant. If you thought that Tayyabs was a bit scruffy looking, you probably don't want to eat here. I have to be dragged past if we're not planning to eat here, salivating and begging to be allowed a green chilli paratha.

We started with some shammi kebabs, having forgotten that I prefer their sheekh ones. These patties are just a bit too perfumed for me, and I found them a little dry. Still, my mango lassi cheered me up and Emu was happy enough to eat all of the kebabs herself.

We had my favourite curry, bitter gourd with mutton in a sizzling karahi, along with some sag aloo, haleem and lots of chilli paratha. I love the flavour of bitter gourd, and you don't see it a huge amount so it's always ordered when it's there. I don't understand why bitter flavours aren't more popular in food. The bitterness is a delicious counterpoint to the rich, spicy sauce and the melting mutton. Amazing.

As good were the chilli paratha but I was slightly let down by the haleem. This dish is very popular during Ramadan as the mixture of wheat berries, spices, ghee and meat is very calorific and hence a good way to break the daily fast. It was just a bit sludgey for my taste.

The bill was about £15. Utterly unreal prices for really tasty food.

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Risotto! Risotto!

So today's supper choice was a bit like Ready Steady Cook. I'd immed one of my colleagues (I'm now so bored I bother my colleagues at work for stimulation) for inspiration. A quick trawl through my fridge revealed that I had a butternut squash that I wanted to use up, and I had a vague recollection of a squash risotto on Celebrity Masterchef.

So, I made a basic white risotto with an onion, some thyme and vegetable stock. Chicken would have been preferable, but there was none around. While the risotto was cooking I roasted some little dice of butternut squash in olive oil, again with some thyme. They took about 15 minutes.

Once the risotto was ready I stirred in some roquefort, the squash dice and let it all sit for a couple of minutes. I finished everything off with a bit more cheese (that in truth it didn't need) and some toasted pine nuts.

It was pretty bloody delicious, although I'm keen to do a vertical risotto rice tasting soon. I'm not convinced by the carnaroli from Tescos that I have been using. It's not as creamy as I would like.

There was also quite a lot of squash that didn't want to be cut into dice, so I roasted that too, cooked up some onion in the left over risotto stock, added a bag of spinach, some cumin and, voila, I have a roasted squash and spinach soup for tomorrow.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Shana Tova (belatedly)

I made hallah for Rosh Hashana on Saturday. I followed the recipe from Claudia Roden's "The Book of Jewish Food", adding some raisins and shaping into new year rounds. It was amazingly delicious and I am keen to have a go at brioche. I made four loaves in all, but the last one wasn't quite as risen as the others. Still tasted good though.

Bri now thinks I have magical powers.

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006


So after several weeks of not feeling very well, it would appear I have shingles. Am currently taking root on my sofa, convalescing. I'd completely forgotten that word, but was reminded of it by the masseuse who came by this morning to try and get some movement back into my limbs.

I have been consoling myself with lots of chicken soup, daytime TV and sleep. Hopefully I'll get round to writing about the dim sum I had on Friday and the great Pakistani meal I had over the weekend while I am off.

Otherwise it's just going to be pictures of poaching chicken and my lovely new bear slippers for the time being.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, London

The opening of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon has had the UK food scene's knickers in a twist. Mentioned on the BBC news, every food forum gasping for photos, reservations hard to come by. Is it worth it?

Having chosen to eat at Robuchon at the Mansion in Vegas earlier this year over their branch of L'Atelier, I was excited to try the less formal experience. So, having had a great day at work I deserved a glass of pink champagne and anticipating a tough day the next, I needed mash potato. Specifically, I needed Robuchon's mash potato, a dish close to my heart, being 50% butter and 50% potato. Listen carefully and you'll hear the sound of my arteries hardening for the rest of this report.

So what does L'Atelier bring to the London dining scene? Well, it's good to see a high-end restaurant that isn't owned by Gordon Ramsey, great to see a place where you don't need a reservation and excellent to see a room that's buzzing, rather than a cathedral to gastronomy.

The menu is extensive and roughly split into portions of three different sizes; tapas, starter and main. Sadly the bucket of mash didn't seem to be on that night, so I satisfied myself with "Tomate", "Palourdes", "Noix de Saint Jaques" and "La Caille" (served with mash). Things didn't get off to a good start. "Tomate" is gazpacho, but imagine peppery, watered-down supermarket ketchup and you get the idea. It was left after two mouthfuls. The clams were sent back, seeing as they had been cooked for about 45 minutes too long. I was starting to wonder what the Chef of the Century was up to. But then things got interesting...There was a huge apology and then "Langoustine" arrived. One lone, perfect langoustine, wrapped in the lightest pastry and fried. Things were looking up. Next, while they were sorting out the clams, the most beautiful mackerel tarte. Imagine the lightest filo pastry, topped with a tomato concasse and layered with sashimi thin mackerel, just warmed by the pastry. Add some parmesan and olives and you have a dish that's the perfect expression of umami.

"Noix de Saint Jacques" is a single scallop with citrus butter and seaweed flecks. But at £9 you could start to wonder about the quantity to quality ratio. I only ever worry about the cost of food when it's cheap and this was a very good scallop, cooked perfectly and just quivering in the centre. So I shan't complain. The clams re-appeared, much plumper, but no more than the sum of their parts.

And then the mash came. I'll gloss over the quail (although it's very good, especially the breast piece, stuffed with foie gras) and get to the point. This is the best mash potato you will ever eat. I think that a look of rapture must have spread across my face because the chap who was milling around behind the counter (who I was told was Robouchon, but I'm not sure) came over to chat. He took my critisism that the truffles were really sub-par and added nothing to the dish well. And then brought me over a small le creuset dish of the stuff. It might have been to shut me up (my French is schoolgirl level these days and my accent horrid) but I like to think that he just knows another mash potato fiend when he sees one. So I just sat there, spooning this glossy, creamy, unctuous puree into my mouth and thinking of a variety of uses for it. None of them publishable here.

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What would Patti do?

Since I saw Patti Smith's "The Coral Sea" at Meltdown last year, I'd re-evaluated my rules governing cool. I find myself wondering "what would Patti do?" especially when faced with the opportunity to join in, especially when asked to sing along at gigs. I generally keep my mouth shut. So imagine my surprise when my hero asks us to sing along with the chorus to her new song about Guantanamo Bay.

A crisis. "What would Patti do?" I kept my mouth shut, and my chance to claim backing vocals on a Patti Smith track passes me by.

Being the kind of girl who hyperventilates at the mention of My Bloody Valentine, I wasn't going to miss the reprise of Smith's collaboration with the reclusive Kevin Shields. "The Coral Sea" is an elegy to Smith's lover/collaborator Robert Maplethorpe, who would have been 60 this year. Last year's performance moved me to tears and got a standing ovation.

But first a chance to hear some of Smith's less well known songs and a couple of new ones. Most impressive was "Qana", a mother's response to the children killed in the Lebanon, made all the more personal by her introduction and stories about her own children. Supported by the incredible Giovanni Solima on cello, Tony Shanaban on piano and bass and (yes!) Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, Smith showed off her incredible voice and proved that, despite being unfashionable, the protest song is alive and well.

But onto the main course and what we all came for. Shield's shuffled on stage, turned his guitar to 11 and, recalling his MBV days, wrapped the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a wall of feedback. Smith stood, arms spread, screaming "It's meant to be loud, it's meant to be uncomfortable" as Shields added layer up layer of noise and effects to the squirling sound. One minute it was like cats skittering down glass, next like the brewing of a terrible storm. Then there's "that sound", that almost bankrupted Creation records, that shimmers and simmers and screws with your solar plexus.

I was left feeling like a wet rag, wrung out and left to dry as Smith lay down and Shields turned off his guitar. This was an amazing night.

Monday, September 11, 2006

L'Enclume (December 2004)

We got to chatting about L'Enclume over lunch at Arpege. Which reminded me I ought to go back there...

The view over the bay as you travel towards Grange Over Sands, the closest station to L’Enclume, is breathtaking as only nature can be. I’d forgotten we had scenery in England. From my seat the train track seemed to rise from the water, curving away from land on both sides with an almost supernatural aspect. Even if you have a car, leave it at home, because the journey, for me, was a huge part of my L’Enclume experience. Chef Simon Rogan later talked to me about how he’s glad that he didn’t originally open in Brighton as “this is food from nature” and that he would be “uncomfortable” cooking his food in an “urban environment”. The scenery around the restaurant, the green, the bay and the misty hills all adds to create a feeling that you’re leaving the man made world behind and stepping into a completely different realm.

The feeling of otherworldliness was a broken on my cab journey to Cartmel. All isn’t well as it could be in the village. Relations between L’Enclume and Rogan are tense with the villagers feeling that the restaurant isn’t good value for money and Rogan feeling that he’s not supported locally. It makes a strange dynamic for visitors; I received nothing but the warmest welcome from everyone I met, but I did get the feeling that most people thought I was completely insane to travel from London just to eat in a restaurant. What’s strange, to me at least, is that L’Enclume is exceptionally good value and the food, although innovative and sometimes sublime, is very accessible and cooked & served with such passion that even someone who’s happiest with steak and chips could be delighted.

Much has been made of who influences Rogan. But he was keen to set the record straight that when it comes to Chefs; Veyrat has his heart. I have a sense of a Saul of the road to Damascus type conversion for Rogan after eating here and certainly this evangelical zeal came through when we spoke. He’s a driven man, irked by the UK’s need to compartmentalise what he cooks, the lack of support from locals and being ignored by Michelin in 2004. But I didn’t eat a meal created in anger. I ate a meal that’s all about harmony and balance, a meal that is probably the most finely balanced degustation menu I’ve ever eaten. Rogan conjures with his ingredients and was able, over the 20 courses I ate, to take a multitude of preparations and flavours and tie them together into a cohesive whole. He pulls flavours that you would expect in desert forward into the meal by serving a perfect piece of John Dory alongside bergamot aromas and swirls of sticky caramel that had been taken to the very edge of caramelisation. Coming after a less successful dish of brill cooked in clay that smelled like my school’s artlab and before two perfect slices of loin of lamb with cumin bouillion and grains of paradise that offered up flavours of citrus, cardamom and pepper and wafted Moorish scents into the dining room, the John Dory was a sensory reminder of what was to come, as well as an outstanding dish in its own right.

There’s something primal about L’Enclume. This isn’t intellectual, show-off food that appeals to the head. It’s about nourishment and awakening; my meal sated my hunger, but also stimulated my eyes, nose and tongue. I tried flavours I had never or rarely eaten before; coltsfoot, myrhh, eucalyptus, perilla, but that shared a strange aspect to their flavour profile, all of them are haunting, resonant flavours. My favourite dish of the night was cubes from land and sea with eucalyptus hollandaise, a trinity of lobster, sweetbreads and girolles, napped with a verdantly green sauce. The three major ingredients all had a meaty textural similarity that heightened the incredible sweet/herbal flavour of the dish that remained long on the palate. It was unlike anything I’d eaten before, a texture dish that relied on all textures being similar to express flavour.

The innovation at L’Enclume comes from techniques and presentation. The unusual ingredients are generally from nature so it’s technically incorrect to describe them as innovations. They’re revivals. There were a few foams, most successful of which was a strawberry mousse foam that sat rigid in a perfect cube of the plate. A proper foam, if you like, not one of these wannabee foams that squirls all over the plate. This was an upright, stiff upper lip English military foam that literally stood to attention. “Virtual tomato” was a scoop of snow-like tomato, the texture of which just vanished when I closed my lips leaving behind the ghost of a tomato flavour. It didn’t absorb, it didn’t melt, there was no osmosis. It’s the Harry Houdini of the tomato world. Imagine the nitro and green tea mousse from the Fat Duck, but take away the texture. Dishes felt more three dimensional than at any other restaurant I’ve eaten at. A beautiful pyramid of foie gras, a cube of foie gras with black truffles, coated and deep fried, a perfect quenelle of foie gras ice cream go together to make up “Cubism in Foie Gras, two cold, one hot, cantaloupe, fragrant myrhh, almond cake” a dish that literally rises up out of plate, almost too beautifully composed to eat. Rogan can’t just cook food, he’s amazingly artistic, using contrasting colour and flavour to animate his food.

So what’s wrong with L’Enclume? The service needs work and the wine pairings were pretty poor. I know almost nothing about wine so I like to leave the choices in the hands of the sommelier. There were no pairings available the night I ate there, but a new restaurant manager is joining soon so I would guess this would change. It will be hard for Rogan to get all the stars he wants if the wine service isn’t as inspiring as the food. As it was I drank a fairly mediocre glass of champagne (there was no choice on offer) a half bottle of Sancerre that killed the “Half soft and scrambled eggs, soy, wasabi, smoked cod froth” and was killed by at least two other dishes. A glass of Chilean Pinot Noir worked well with my lamb and carried me through nicely to the cheeseboard that’s nurtured and loved by Mary, one of the most experienced servers there and someone with such an obvious passion for L’Enclume and cheese it almost brought a tear to my eye. The rest of the service was technically adequate, no more so, but always sweet and charming. I’ll forgive a lot of things if they’re done with passion and care.

L’Enclume has been a sleeping giant of the English restaurant scene for too long and he’ll be recognised by Michelin this year. This is, at the very least, two star food. Most appealing to me though was that this is a really English restaurant, despite the fact they have an all French cheeseboard, with a spirit unlike anywhere else I’ve eaten in the UK. L’Enclume isn’t part of a movement. And I loved it all the more for that.

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Moby is the evil antic who sits on my shoulder encouraging me to eat outrageous meals. I would never have gone to Arpege if he hadn't egged me on. I just wish that it were his jeans that were that little bit tighter today, not mine.

He had a point though. I could have been sat at my desk eating the compost that passes for salad from Neal's Yard. Instead I was eating in one of the greatest restaurants in the world. My expectations were sky high (as always) but I never let that get in the way of a good meal. OK, so the turbot in mustard sauce wasn't to my taste, but that's more because I'm bored of the inevitable white fish course (and Chef Cantu at Moto spoiled them all for me with his seabass cooked tableside) than anything wrong per se with the dish. Arpege thrilled me most when Passard was just letting the ingredients speak for themselves, each plate just a perfect expression of the ingredient.

Minimalism is very hard to do. Most chefs want to show their technique and while Passard's rejection of this inevitably leads to questions about whether or not Arpege deserves three stars, I've come to the conclusion that I'd rather eat a perfect tomato, than a foam or air made from substandard ones. Each mouthful of the salad sparkled on my tongue, each slice so different from the other. Makes you wonder if every other tomato you've eaten is just a facsimile of the real thing. I was tempted to trough the whole plate, but the beseeching looks from M won out and he got his half.

Arpege isn't all plates of perfect vegetables though. I'd had the highest hopes for the Lobster with Vin Jaune sauce, and it was as good as I'd expected it to be. A classic dish, my first taste is one of those things that will bring a smile to my face for a good while to come. The meat was sweet, perfectly balanced with the foamy, acidic sauce. Didn't really see the point of the smoked potatoes that everyone raves about though. They had the texture of tinned potatoes, but I suppose it was nice to have a reminder of food from my youth during this gastronomic treat.

Other highlights for me were the sweetbreads, which came encrusted in a sweet hazelnut sauce. Passard's background as a rotisseur was evident in this dish. The sweetbreads were perfectly cooked to my taste, combining perfectly with the hazelnuts and onion emulsion.

Deserts were the only let down for me. I won with a coffee flavoured floating island, served with a drizzle of lemongrass syrup on the perfect creme anglais. I just didn't get the confit tomato, but I am always nervous around slightly more savoury puds. The avocado souffle did nothing other than teach me that avocado and chocolate don't mix.

A final mention has to go to the dairy produce that Arpege serves. The butter, bright yellow, had been salted to within an inch of its life (just the way I like it) and the Bernard Antony Comte had the whole table silent, lifting shards of creamy, crystalline goodness to our lips. Just perfect really, and much more pleasant than a Neal's Yard salad.

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