Friday, 10 December 2010

Post number fifteen, 'Team Ramsden's Secret Larder'

I wasn't ever really very sure what to make of the rather modern development of supper clubs. In fact I probably would not have been to one right now if I hadn't met a certain young man called James Ramsden one night at the splendid Drapers Arms in Islington.

Post that and from following James's twitter feed I was intrigued with the development of his own supper club, the cutely monickered 'Secret Larder' and I went along to a very early performance. It was a nice evening, I met some interesting people but wasn't overly excited with the food I ate. There was nothing wrong with it, maybe I was expecting too much, but I vowed I would return in any case to give it another go.

That other go came the other week and I was delighted to see, that in taste and feel that the 'larder' had settled down, bedded in and has grown to be absolutely charming.

I also think the attitude I went into the evening with was a better one, my expectation was more aligned to going to a friends house for dinner, not going to a restaurant. 

James had drafted in support in the form of the delightful Oliver Thring for this special 'game evening', quality abounded around the nicely 'lofty' space that is their appartment, James, Mary, Oliver, the staff all calm, relaxed and great 'mine hosts'.

Celeriac soup, drizzled with truffle oil to start was good....above all, in serving twenty people it was piping hot, and perfectly tasty.

Next a pigeon breast salad with an asian sounding mushroom, it was fine. Most importantly not overcooked, perfect breast (stop it).

Main event....partridge, served up in good time, well seasoned, some better cooked than others(but there were twenty and it's damn hard to get Partridge 'a point'), good bread sauce, super braised red cabbage, it was really quite tasty.

Desert of poached pears with creme fraiche was excellent actually.

Last but not least some petits fours including some delicious marshmallows filled with strawberry's, Oliver's handy work I believe.

I took along a fine New Zealand pinot noir to drink, on our table a charming lady called Lucy had bought an amazing french white to start followed by my dream red burgundy chambolle musigny, she was kind enough to share a bit with us. That is why supper clubs are great, like minded individuals sharing and talking, an enjoyable different type of platform on which to enjoy food and drink.

I refer you to the notes on my blackberry which were the basis of this post. As usual I am really quite late in writing it up;

Veeery nice(yes was pissed)

Quite personal

Some one's home which you have an insight in to (nosey got shot?)

Wonderful wine, great company, good food.

Integrity...the Ramsden's have loads of that.

So if you have never been, to a supper club that is (or even if you have) it is well worth a visit to this one. You will have a throughly enjoyable evening and will be handsomely looked after by charming, young, talented people who set a fantastic tone.

'The secret larder"

holloway road ish 

cost for three or four courses approx thirty five pounds.

follow @jteramsden on twitter for details of forthcoming events

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Post number fourteen, 'Petersham Nurseries'

Richmond riverside is quite beautiful. That stunning view from the road the runs out of Richmond gate towards the town centre, past Mick jagger's house, you know the one.  The river bending away towards Ham, Twickenham in the distance, the Petersham hotel proudly sharing the view with you. Somewhere down there on the left before the river winds right is one of the most eclectic and coolest nurseries in London, Petersham nurseries. Home to a fantastic restaurant run by a hugely talented lady, Skye Gyngell.

How it came to pass that a Chef with the talent of Skye opened a restaurant in a greenhouse in a nurseries in Petersham I am not too sure but delighted diners have been enjoying it since 2004.

That said the nurseries and Skye are actually somewhat of a dream team. Her focus revolves around cooking seasonal, superbly sourced ingredients, I suspect a good deal of which are grown within a stones throw of the shed like kitchen. Her style is to me a food heaven, kind of St John meets River Cafe with a slice of Alice Waters thrown in. I believe she worked with Fergus Henderson way back in his French house days.

I managed to procure a relatively last minute booking on the last bank holiday of august(it has been extremely hard in past to get a reservation) and I was pretty much blown away with the place and the food I ate.

The dining room is really a stylishly adorned greenhouse, the amazing colour of the natural dirt floor was the first thing that hit me, cadbury's crunchie honeycomb gold, stunning albeit uneven and no doubt messy on more inclement days. We were very fortunate with our bank holiday weather this particular day, sun glorious sun.

The ever changing menu is a delight, full of saliva inducing interesting combination's. Sea bass, chicory salad and aioli, squid and romesco sauce, Guinea fowl and special, Peteresham tomatoes. All so good.

As bubbly goodness to start we all were suckered in by the rose petal, rose watered proseco, a delicious aperitife.

I chose the squid with romesco sauce to start followed by the fillet of beef with farro and salsa verde...served at room temperature (was knowingly informed of that ).

The squid plate was so pretty, there is real thought in presentation here, a rustic style but hugely appealing. The beef was fantastic, perfectly rare but heat had been allowed to seep through, it melted in my mouth. The farro and salsa verde was superb with it, a touch of preserved lemon in there too which added a lovely citrus fragrance to the accompaniment.

For dessert I had a hazelnut tart with creme fraiche and some perfect raspberries.

Two Italian wines with our meal, a light herby white and a fruity cool red, both excellent.

The fact is just this; The food was sensational, the service was just ok really. The surrounds were as special as the food. A moment in time.

The cooking at Petersham nurseries is better than that I experienced at my visit to Chez Panisse last December, indeed the heart of these two restaurants is very similar.

Chez Panisse has one michelin star, Skye Gyngell deserves that accolade too for the wonderful entity she has created, on the Thames, near Richmond. 

It's a special occasion venue, it's River Cafe prices and on this experience for me, slightly better. It's undoubtedly more pleasing in the summer than winter, but you have to go, if you love to experience a kitchen that thrives on the passion of seasonal, innovative quality food.

for our sunny bank holiday magical experience, five out of five stars. 

Petersham Nurseries
Church Lane
Off Petersham Road
TW10 7AG

tel 0208 940 5230

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Post number thirteen, 'Bob Bob Ricard'

I have read so many good reviews of BBR, mostly from food bloggers. I must say in the beginning I was somewhat confused by all this enthusiasm as it totally contradicted the first review I ever read written by Adrian Gill where he simply destroyed the place.

The other week I had a perfect opportunity to try it for myself and see what the fuss was all about; I had to entertain a couple and the only remit was that 'fun' was required. Fun is exactly what we had.....and some!

All the outlandish adjectives and whimsical descriptions you may have read about the interior of BBR do still not condition you for the shock and awe as you enter the magnificent space. We were greeted by a sweet young lady dressed in a suitably 'snazzy' ensemble.

We were shown to our booth which reminded me of an Edwardian railway carriage, as we sat down I immediately felt a sense of occasion and knew I was going to enjoy the BBR experience (the millions lavished on the place are worth it you see).

Everywhere you look you cannot escape the BBR opulence. The light pink that has been used (see above) throughout the menu's and other little bits of printed matter is genius and sets the tone brilliantly. It reminds me of the colour the Mount Nelson hotel is Cape Town is painted, retro, colonial, powerful, seductive pink.

One of the great things about BBR is that you just feel you HAVE to indulge in a cocktail or two, it's that kind of place; I ordered the house drink of rhubarb gin for the table, it was simply superb resplendent in the beautiful, ornate glassware that is a strong feature of BBR. We had a second round quickly. I have subsequently thought that going to BBR and not ordering a rhubarb gin would be like going to Harry's bar in Venice and not ordering a bellini. Wrong.

The menu is the collection of diner retro classics that you expect and hope for. It is fun, it does not create big, difficult decisions in your head but tickles the part of your brain reserved for smiley comfort food decisions. Potted shrimp, Lobster cocktail, smoked salmon, steak tartare, beef wellington, crispy chicken, onglet steak, hamburger and chips, lobster and chips, knickerbocker glory, strawberry your smiling. 

Our table had a mixture of smoked salmon(hedermans, quite the best I have ever tasted), egg benedict and potted shrimp to start...a couple of rhubarb gins down and things were flying along. Um's and rrr's of satisfaction sounded out from our decadent booth, we were comfortable, satisfied and happy, already!

The wine list is competently put together and complete in it's offer, I plumped for a relatively basic New Zealand pinot noir that was fine.

I could not ignore the O'sheas onglet for my main course; the meat was as good as ever but I found there was too much of the sweet shallot confection on the plate, the chips were good. My dining companions had a burger and fishcake, they were extremely happy. Presentation and detail are never left wanting in BBR. The quality of the ingredients and cooking is high.

I had a fine strawberry souffle to finish......and then the waiting was over. That button for champagne had to be pressed. Pol roger house champagne served in once again beautiful glassware. I forget what a brilliant way to end a meal champagne is, in many ways it offers more at the end rather than the beginning of a meal.

Champagne finished it was time for Vodka, a cute little goblet full of Russia's finest arrived, ice cold, it was punchy. Oooof.

By this time our booth was in seventh heaven, it felt like we were riding gloriously in a carriage on the beginning of term 'Hogwarts' express, no tricks just gaiety. 

What a journey.

In all seriousness our city needs restaurants like this, London's restaurant offer can be too stern. The New York restaurant scene has fun in abundance, we have the quality but sometimes lack that fun, BBR combines both. It is an extremely worthy option to the Wolseley(maybe that's what grated on Adrian so), possibly a bit 'nouveau' in comparison and maybe lacking that sublime Corbin and King service, but so what.

If you feel like a wonderful, fun, easy, quality, opulent and boozy evening out in London town then get you best mates together, get dressed up and get down to upper James street and treat yourselves.

Three cheers for Bob is what I say.

Food- nearly four out of five stars
Atmosphere- five out of five stars

Bob Bob Ricard
1 Upper James Street

020 3145 1000

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Post number twelve, 'The Drapers Arms'

I watched with great interest the opening of the Drapers Arms in Islington. I knew that the chef was ex St John, I knew it would in all probability be my kind of pub. 

The only snag was it was in north London, a 'foreign' land to a devoted south west chap like myself, still I was determined to get up there and see what was on offer. I was delighted to see the arrival of the Drapers Arms on twitter and from that point early on was able to follow their menu's etc.

The first occasion for a visit arose with a charity quiz night that Nick(joint owner along with Ben Maschler) put together. The location of the pub was exactly what I expected, an impressive Georgian building overlooking an imposing Georgian square. Inside the decor is simple, elegant and stylish, with quite a few 'nods' to the term 'Drapers'; a lovely collection of cotton reels (inspiring the picture above), some impressive 'scissor art'. The quiz night was more of introduction to the place for me, I met some esteemed food blogger's for the first time, Lizzy, Chris, Helen, James, Regina, Krista, Dan.....a lovely, friendly bunch. It was a fun, boozy evening and I felt endeared to the pub quite quickly.  I ate rather hurriedly and did not pay too much attention to the food. I knew I would be back.

My second visit was for a 'pig fest', again an event that Nick had thought up, a celebration of all things porky. There were highlights on the food front, home cured ham with pickles, a great bean and belly stew, there were also a couple of bits that were a touch off key, notably a slightly dried out pork loin. That was however a group event, feeding forty or so diners all at once is a challenge to any kitchen so I promised myself I would return soon after that and eat from the menu proper and get a firm handle on the place.

That moment came the other week and I was mightily impressed with the food I ate; jellied shin of beef to start with pickled red cabbage and toast was delicious, giving unctuous hunks of shin with the odd caper and balanced brilliantly by the pickled red cabbage. Visually pleasing too, the dark earthy color of meat against the bright red cabbage.

The main course I chose was quail with pearl barley, chickpeas and red onion. The quail was cooked to perfection, the legs easily pulling off so I could get to grips with the flavorsome  meat of the little bones. Quail really is a fantastic bird to have on menus, it is versatile, relatively easy to cook, available all year and delicious. The pearl barley and chickpeas with red onion, mint and parsley complimented it really well, if it had been me making this I would have been tempted to dress it more heavily, but as I eased my way through the dish, I soon realized that was not necessary. In fact it speaks volumes about the cooking at the place that they have the confidence to send out such pared down plates of food, relying on the ingredients and quality of cooking.

I had the pleasure of eating with Nick that night in the pubs charming and well stocked garden; his main course of perfectly pink lamb sitting proudly on a heap of bright green pea puree looked splendid and according to the man himself it was delicious to eat.

To finish I ordered the 'Keens' cheddar, a hearty lump of top drawer cheese, it was in perfect condition, crumbly and strong in flavor. Simple water biscuits and a slice of quince were all that were served with it, it was all that was needed.

To drink I had well kept Sam Brooks wandle ale to kick off with followed by chilled Beaujolais. Prices are keen and offer real value, starters five to seven pounds, main courses ten to fourteen.

As I plodded down Liverpool road back south after I reflected on a delicious and highly enjoyable dining experience. The menu has it's own interesting and innovative twist on the bible that is nose to tail eating, the service is friendly and efficient, the pub is reassuringly pleasant and calm.

I look forward to my next meal at the Drapers knowing that if I was local I would almost definitely be there weekly.

four out of five stars

The Drapers Arms
44 Barnsbury Street
N1 1ER

0207 619 0348

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Post number eleven, a round of applause for 'The Ship Wandsworth'

The ship in wandsworth is an iconic local for us south west Londoners. Over the years I have spent many a long summers afternoon there enjoying multiple pints and general gaiety.

I have never particularly taken much notice of the food that is on offer apart from the infamous barbecues. This changed somewhat for me quite recently when I bowled along for an impromptu shepherds pie, it was really excellent, well seasoned unctuous minced lamb with a buttery potato topping served with al dente green beans. I then started to investigate a bit further to ascertain what was going down in the kitchens on jews row.

It became apparent that since the last time I ate there, probably over four years ago, new management was in place along with a new chef.

I have wondered along on various lunch times and evenings since that 'shepherds pie visit' and have been really impressed with the vibrant feeling about the place. Yes it has always been busy but it seems like the pub is 'flying' nowadays. Team ship; Osh, Emma, Phil and David in the kitchen are great hosts and deserve much credit for making the ship such a fun place to visit.

Thankfully youngs/charles wells the owning brewer has allowed the ship to stock the delicious and local wandle brew from sam brooks brewery so great bitter is on offer amongst the lagers and wines. The youngs best bitter has never been the same since production shifted to bedfordshire from wandsworth

As for the food, David has done a great job with the menu, he is a very enthusiastic, driven chef who clearly has high demands for the quality and innovation of cooking that comes out of the kitchen.

I was invited along recently to try the new spring summer menu and was impressed; starters of crayfish cocktail, asparagus with perfectly poached egg and a very good hollandaise, nicely caramelized scallops with fresh pea tortellini shone. A memorable main course of new seasons lamb with kidney, black pudding, mash potato and broad beans worked well, the lamb rump and kidneys cooked pleasingly blushing pink. Dessert lovers will not be disappointed either with winning dishes such as orange panacotta with poached rhubarb and sticky toffee pudding on offer.

I have been told by friends that the sunday roast the ship offers is superb, and they bat on serving it all day. It really is a well run, punter friendly pub.

There is also quality live music on all the time and I am told it IS the place to be if you fancy a large sunday evening. They are consistently drawing big, fun crowds. The riverside garden is one of the best I have seen thameside.

I am lucky enough to be local but really the ship is worthy of a special visit. Great beer, good quality, well prepared restaurant food or an accessible, efficient and tasty barbecue plus a great garden, live music and an undoubted warm welcome awaits. 

Something for everyone.

The Ship 
41 Jews Row 
London SW18 1TB  

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Post number ten, 'Wright Brothers', Borough market

I am by no means an authority on oysters, I just know I enjoy eating them. I was introduced to native oysters by a friend of my fathers some time ago, he was Irish and passionate about them, he ran the local pub near where I was bought up. The taste, feeling and texture of eating oysters seemed quite odd back then but now it is something I crave on occasions. 

Like Cornelius showed me back then, I still like to dress them with a squeeze of lemon, black pepper and a spot of Tabasco.

I had read about Wright Brothers in Borough market and had wanted to go for sometime, last St Georges day, April 23rd(yes a very delayed post this one, there are reasons for that but...) I booked a table for lunch and had, I must say, a fantastic experience.

The Wright Brothers were originally just a wholesaler of oysters selling to all of London's top establishments, it is only in relatively recent years they have become restaurateurs.

Situated on Stoney street right next to the bustling heart of the market, it is an atmospheric room with suitably nautical/fishy decorations that work really well. It is an oyster and porter house so the menu is dominated by shellfish and fish with the welcome addition of dishes like steak and oyster pie. There is a bar running most of the way around the place, and even the tables in the center of the restaurant are high with stool seating. It works. We were greeted by an excellent front of house (Jeremy if my memory serves me well) and after some 'jiggery pokery' we managed to talk ourselves onto the bars stools right in front of the kitchen, the 'chefs table' said Jeremy tongue in cheekily.

Happily seated we began with West Mersea Native oysters, I had requested Helford Natives but due to an algae bloom in the Helford river stocks are dead and four years growing time is now required to replenish the beauties. No matter, the West Mersea natives were superb, a delightful taste of the sea. We were nearing the end of the native season so it was particularly pleasing to be sneaking some in. I am sure you all know natives are the wild, naturally, organically grown oysters, unlike the predominantly farmed rocks, they have the classic oyster shape, being rounder in appearance rather than the slightly elongated rock oyster.  I have been led to believe they taste better than rocks, some would disagree with that but I tend to stick to eating natives, I like the seasonal and local tip that surrounds them.

Next up I noticed that Wright Brothers has Frank Hedermans smoked salmon on the menu, it would have been rude not to have had ordered that so we did, it was magical. I think it is the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted, subtly smoked, thickly cut and served at perfect temperature, it was devoured in minutes. 

Things were going swimmingly, a brilliant inexpensive Argentinean sauvignon(La flor Mendoza, nineteen pounds) was slipping down a treat and I was really enjoying watching the serene and clearly very capable chefs at work in the kitchen. 

For my main course I had dressed Cornish crab with mayonnaise, it was very good indeed. A fine amount of the essential brown meat to compliment the white, topped with very finely chopped egg. The mayonnaise was also a top, home made emulsion, I liked the piquancy given to it by the cayenne pepper that had been added.

My colleagues had steak and oyster pie, they both said it was the best pie they had eaten for years.

The bill came to about forty five pounds a head which was great value considering what we had eaten, oysters, crab, salmon and drunk, four of five bottles of wine. It was St Georges day!

If you like oysters, or in fact fish of any kind this place is a must in my opinion. The service, standard of cooking and atmosphere is fantastic.

Oh and if you are on the Lizard peninsula or anywhere in the south of Cornwall at anytime you can visit their Cornish outpost, the Ferryboat Inn in Helford passage. I have been there on a couple of occasions and it's position on the banks of the beautiful Helford river is stunning. It is more of a pub than the Borough market site but equally as good.

four out of five stars

Wright Brothers
11 Stoney Street
Borough Market

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Post number nine, 'Eggs, glorious eggs'.

What beautiful things eggs are, I have always been fascinated with them. They look so perfect don't they? resplendent in their own elegant shape and vibrant in their plethora of natural colours. One of my favorite colours is duck egg blue.

I have always appreciated their value in the world of gastronomy, but as I have read more over the years, and understood better how they should be cooked, I have increasingly enjoyed eating them.

Whether it be an omelette, soft or hard boiled, fried, scrambled, poached or coddled they can create pretty instant genius in the kitchen. It clear that freshness is critical when preparing such dishes as omelette's and scrambled eggs. In Elizabeth David's fantastic collection of prose, 'An Omelette and a glass of wine' there is a piece about this particular little restaurant in France that was famous for omelette's. She describes how a rather keen diner wrote to the madame who owned the establishment wanting to know her secret, the proprietor replied ' Dear Madame, thank you for your letter. To make my omelette's I break the freshest eggs into a bowl, I mix carefully, season then pour into a warm pan, with some butter, I move the mixture gently around the pan and after a few minutes it is ready and I serve, thank you for your interest.', the secret was only the freshness.

The use of heat and seasoning when preparing all types of egg dishes is key; when frying, scrambling and making omelette's the importance of a thick, oiled pan and the correct level of flame, when boiling getting your timings right so as to produce the result you want. I find seven minutes gives you a pretty perfect hard boiled egg, still with a slightly giving yolk. Oh and the immediate requirement to submerge hard or soft boiled eggs into cold water once time is up to keep the golden yellow yolk just that. A poorly seasoned egg is not a happy one, salt and pepper make eggs smile.

Superb egg dishes that I have eaten at restaurants come to mind effortlessly; omelette Arnold Bennett at the Savoy, there is something magical about the combination of smoked haddock, eggs and cheese. Last year at Chez George in Paris I started my lunch with oeuf en gelee, it was totally memorable, molded in meaty aspic with a piece of ham and a sprig of tarragon on top, served with the freshest frisee. Eggs in aspic like this should be used more widely, it's a bit seventies maybe but superb none the less. Last but least souffle Suissesse at Gavroche is one of the best dishes I have ever eaten, each time I go there(I try at least once a year) I begin with this masterpiece of French cuisine. Made with many eggs, resulting in a creamy, cheesy, rich culinary delight, it's just sensational.

The role of the egg has no bounds actually. The amazing emulsion that is created when yolks are mixed with oil to form mayonnaise and the previously alluded to here on this blog aioli. Hard boiled and chopped and used to add texture and flavour to a sauce such as tartare, or sauce gribiche, or simply hard boiled and sliced as a garnish on a salad. Simon Hopkinson once paid Richard Olney(a fantastic American food writer who took up residence in Provence) a visit at his home, he recounted a salad that Richard served as a starter for him, with fresh green salad leaves and bright purple edible flowers both harvested from his garden that morning, served with hard boiled eggs sliced on top. Can you imagine the green, purple and bright yellow of the egg on the plate? eating on a terrace in Provencal sunshine, no doubt dressed with Richard's home made olive oil and vinegar. Drinking rose wine. So deliciously romantic.

An interesting question to pose oneself would be what is the eggs greatest companion? bacon or ham must be pretty high up there. A breakfast of fried eggs and bacon actually needs no support, similarly fine cooked ham with fried eggs needs little adornment. At this time of the year what could be better than dipping freshly steamed asparagus into a soft boiled egg?

For years on the great St John restaurant menu a starter of bacon, egg and beans appeared. I kept missing it on my visits to the restaurant, eventually I collided with it and what a brilliant plate of food it was. It always amuses me the way Fergus(Henderson)likes to play on names of dishes and one could have been forgiven thinking this was some kind of ode to breakfast. It was of course none of the sort. It is a delicious, easy and intelligent use of bacon and egg together with the added freshness of green beans and parsley, it works like a dream;

St John egg, bacon and beans (enough for two)

three eggs(boiled for seven minutes, put into cold water, peeled and halved)

unsmoked bacon lardons fried off and drained of fat or left over pot roast of bacon cut into pieces, couple of handfuls worth

two handfuls of green beans topped and tailed then boiled in salted water until bendy, no more. 

good handful of flat leaf or curly parsley finely chopped

vinaigrette(oil, vinegar, lemon juice, crushed garlic clove, seasoning, dollop of Dijon mustard)

Throw the cooked beans and bacon into a mixing bowl, add parsley, mix and dress with vinaigrette. Season a bit more. Place a mound of the beans onto a plate, slice an egg, it should still have a gooey yolk, and lay three halves on the beans. Add a bit more parsley and drizzle of dressing and serve.


It is appropriate to finish with something from dear Elizabeth David. For it was her more than anyone that inspired me with her writing about eggs and in particular omelette's. Below is her recipe for omelette moliere, she used to eat it in a little restaurant in Avignon she frequented, it was one of her favorites and after many years of cooking and eating it myself I can see why.

         Elizabeth David

omelette moliere (a hearty supper for one)

three very fresh eggs

tablespoon of freshly grated Parmesan

tablespoon of fresh unsalted butter

tablespoon of very finely diced Gruyere

tablespoon of fresh thick cream

Beat the eggs gently and fold in the Parmesan, season with salt and pepper. Heat your favorite omelette pan for a minute or so on the stove and throw in the butter. Just as the butter starts to bubble and before it changes colour pour in the egg mixture, throw in the little dices of Gruyere and cream. Tilt the pan toward you, then away from you, maybe twice each way. The Gruyere will be slightly melting now, the omelette is ready. Fold the omelette or tip out in concertina fashion, up to you. You should have a golden, puffy roll of joy, spilling out a little at the edges. Serve immediately with a sharply dressed green salad.

Sub note; I realise that in this post I have only touched on the savory side of eggs. It is my intention to one day be able to understand well, then write about, the wonder of cake and all things sweet involving eggs too. 

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Post number eight, 'La Merenda', Nice

I have been lucky enough to be going to Nice regularly over the last fifteen years. I love the place, it's a 'real' city unlike some of it's more illustrious neighbors.  

I have enjoyed many great lunches and dinners over that time particularly at La Petite Maison, despite the rather prickly madame who owns the place. Peppered steak with greens beans and potato puree at Petite maison is quite spectacular(of Racine like proportions), as is their roast chicken stuffed with foie Gras, oh and their white chocolate mouse, heavy duty full on rather delicious rich french cuisine.

A couple of years back I began the search in Nice for a less 'flouncy', more down to earth restuarant where I could eat a more basic style of provencal/nicoise cooking. I remembered this little place I had stumbled past one drunken evening quite some time ago and decided to go back and investigate. All I could recall was it seemed french, it looked tiny and the menu was concise.

So off to the flower market I trotted, quite pleased I was able to recall the general vicinity of the restaurant. It was very early evening I remember, not long after seven. I pushed open the door and there it was, the tiniest restaurant I had ever stepped into. About thirty seats all crammed together,  and even at this very young and tender evening service hour it was nigh on packed and buzzing. Luckily there was just enough space for my companion and myself.

The young man who greeted us and assisted the tricky manouvre into our seats was polite and cool. He re-appeared at the table quite sharpishly with a little black board and ran us through the menu. It was exactly what I was looking for(due to the fact Nice was once part of Italy there are heavy Italian influences in the local cuisine); to start there was stuffed sardines, ham, a little home made pizza, onion tart. For main courses a beef stew, tripe, sausages and lentils, homemade pasta with pistou, a gutsy french sausage made with offal, a pungent air dried fish preparation called stockfish. There were two wine choices. 

I ordered pizza and the tripe to follow. 

The wine arrived quickly, as if by magic, it was excellent and very local. 

I then started to observe the set up and it became clear I was in somewhere quite special. At the back of the restaurant was the chef, calmness personified, cooking, tasting, watching his audience. He was, like his trusty front of house dressed in a cool, earthy denim overall........little things. The kitchen hardware was high quality, copper pans, a fantastic looking stove dominating his 'workshop'. The interior of the place oozed quality, really interesting pieces of art adorned the little walls, hessian draping from the ceiling. Bold provencal vase's on a couple of tables packed with beautiful flowers. The crockery was cute as too the bizarrely, kind of vintage 'disney-esq' water glasses, it was quirkly in a quality way. I was fascinated.

The little pizza arrived, a 'bready' pizza I must say but that kind of fitted the bill. It tasted excellent, what I noticed most of all was the intesity of the tomato and and brightness of the herbs on it. Next tripe, Nice style. This was so delicious, melting, giving and unctuous after very slow cooking. It had a slight piquancy. It was served with a 'panisse' as was my dining partners beef stew. I have since grown to adore 'panisse', it is a kind of fritter made from chickpea flour. At La Merenda it is used all the time. This particular dinner finished with a perfect disc of goats cheese smothered in beautiful olive oil, simplicity. Good nicoise olive oil is awe inspiring stuff.

Once the evening was over, engulfed with the charm of the place, I returned to my hotel room and started searching the internet for information about La Merenda and the story is a beautiful one. It revolves around Dominic Le Stanc, a two michelin starred chef who left behind the pomp and ceremony of the Chantecler at the Negresco and bought the little jewell about ten years ago. He had clearly had enough of souffles and reductions and wanted to cook paired down, real nicoise food.

I go back each and every time I visit Nice now and I have to say it offers the most charming eating experience each time. Dominic and his fantastic front of house assistance from his wife at lunch time, and the 'cool' chap in the evenings are always friendly and warm. I have been through the preverbial 'card' menu wise; sometimes something new pops in, I was there last week and they excitedly explained to me about these special raw small fish they had in, of course I had to order them, as a pre starter on toast, and it was magnificent. The beef stew is fantastic as is the andouilette but my favorite combination seems to have settled on either stuffed sardines or pizza to start followed by the tripe, sprinkled heavily with cheese. There is always a beautiful sweet tart to finish with if required.

I believe it is a truly unique restaurant due to its size and purity of the menu and food it offers. Don't get me wrong its not food that is going to blow you away, it is simple, home cooked, locally sourced regional fare produced with meticulous care and love. It is the sort of restaurant that should exist everywhere but doesn't. It is my (pipe)dream to be the chef/patron of such an establishment. London's closest comparable restaurant would be the magical Giaconda dining room.

I wanted to show you a copy of the card from La Merenda to finish with but alas I have lost it; it has a fun little painting reproduced on it then in french it says; 

'La Merenda, lunch 12-3, dinner 7-10, no telephone, no reservations, closed on Saturday and Sunday.'  It is closed for most of August.

You see La Merenda is run by Dominic and to suit Dominic, that's why it works. That's why it is always fresh, consistant and alive. 

All I can say is long may it live, it's bloody marvellous.

La Merenda
4 Rue Raoul Bosio

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Post number seven, 'Steak Frites at Racine'

I had been to Racine on two previous occasions to this and had been mightily impressed. It is a 'proper' restaurant, solid, neat and excellent. Fortunately these visits did not coincide with chef/patron Henry Harris's transfer to the soho house group, he was back at Racine by the time I walked of Brompton Road into what I would describe now as a little piece of food heaven.

It was with delight then that I attended the inaugural Steak Frites event superbly put together by Henry(@racine_kitchen), Daniel(@youngandfoodish) and Dino(@Gastro1). Not forgetting family O'shea (@osheasbutchers) who supplied the magnificent beef. 

The evening started with an introduction by Daniel and a fascinating explanation from Henry as to why he chooses to source his beef from O'sheas and why it is SO GOOD! Henry is one of those speakers who mesmerises you, his passion and knowledge for food seeping out of him like the melting fat in one of his Cote de Boeuf's as he teases it around a hot butter laden skillet. Marvellous stuff.

With the introductions over the eating began; first up onglet, shallots, spring garlic and bone marrow on toast. All I can say about this dish is sensational. I love onglet but this was the best piece of onglet I have ever eaten, period. That deep liverish flavour flying at your taste buds, it can be tough, this was tender and beautiful. The wine reduction, shallots, garlic and bone marrow made it a death row dish. Around the room, there were moans and groans of delight in between the gulping of a very fine and delightfully matched Morgon beaujolais. What a start, what a hard act to follow.....

I think that the group that night was slightly fortunate in that this was a second time around for 'team steak frites', a dry run with the powers that be had already taken place. As Henry explained for our second dish, fillet with a potato and blue cheese puree, he altered the cooking process and instead of individually dealing with a piece of filet for each diner, he took the middle section of a chateaubriand, coated in a thick layer of peppercorns, then cooked as a piece and sliced. (One great tip Henry gave us was sieving the black peppercorns when crushed. It is the dust from the crushing that burns, when removed it allows proper caramalisation and creates a perfect crust) The resulting dish was again spectacular. It was perhaps the weak link on paper that evening, however I think Henry holds a shining light for peppered fillet, possibly why it was so brilliant; the perfectly rare melting fillet, a wonderful cheesey potato puree and rich reduction, my god it was good. A Santa Cristina Antiniori again a prefect, fruity wine match. The second dish in my opinion had lived up to the first.

So onto the third, the famous O'sheas Cote de boeuf. One has to say it was in a terribly disadvantaged position coming up after two such wonderful plates of food. It was served with a green leaf and shallot salad, chips and bearnaise. It was actually my third favorite of the evening. The beef was good, not the best Cote de boeuf I have had. As Henry explained cuts off different beasts will vary, it's no science. The chips were fine and the bearnaise very good indeed. I ate everything that had been put in front of me. Again the wine matching worked, a happy and gutsy Cote du Rhone partnered the Cote du boeuf.

To finish, vanilla ice cream with a pot of melting Valrhona chocolate sauce and some very fine biscuits. Once again Henry stepped in with an explanation as to why Valrhona, 72% cocoa apparantly. Not only were we eating magical food but we were being educated. Lucky us.

So for me, in terms of the beef, my order of favorites were; one(onglet), two(fillet), three(Cote de boeuf)......or was it a two, one, three....uurrrggg.

It was a most fantastic evening. The cooking, the beef, the organisation and the company were an absolute joy.

I will go back to Racine very soon, probably for a weekday lunch, knowing that I can dive accross the road afterwards to O'sheas and purchase some onglet for dinner. A win double of the highest order.

five out of five stars

239 Brompton Road

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Post number six, 'Aioli' and a great barbecue lunch

'Eating aioli should be an emotional experience, it is strong but that is it's role in life', Fergus Henderson Nose To Tail Eating.

There are many different takes on how aioli should be, what strength, made with egg yolks or not, for me, like Fergus it must be strong and an egg yolk really helps to hold the sauce together. Purists would disagree about the use of an egg yolk. That said aioli is not a garlic mayonnaise, it is aioli and that is why it must be strong, to distinguish itself.

Aioli is a wonderful compliment to virtually everything, fish, fowl, meat, vegetables, the list is endless. A condiment that adds quality and substance and indeed verve to meals, it has amazingly uplifting qualities, it has punch and fight. It's not for the feint hearted. 

I like to use a good quality extra virgin olive oil in the preparation, I enjoy the bitterness it offers the final taste. After many years of making it, below is what I feel, through trial and error, a winning recipe.

A good tub of strong aioli, enough for a barbecue party with friends.

A bottle of extra virgin olive oil, you will make up your own mind when to stop pouring. 

10-12 cloves of garlic peeled

Maldon Salt

Egg yolk at room temperature

Touch of Dijon Mustard(also room temperature)

Good squeeze of a lemon

Pepper, white better for appearance.

Start by laying your garlic gloves on a board, or in a pestle and mortar, sprinkle with Maldon salt and crush. Have a good go at this, work the pungent little magnolia crescent moons into submission! I like to then pass this pounded garlic through an appropriate sieve with a wooden spoon, this will take a fair bit of effort but is emphatically worth it, the result will be an excellent puree. Place this puree in a mixing bowl and add the egg yolk, touch of mustard and mix with a whisk. Now for the slightly tricky bit. Add at first a small stream of oil and thoroughly whisk making sure it is emulsified, and then repeat with another smallish stream. Once you are sure these first pours of oil are well emulsified you can up the ante. Steadily pouring the oil in and whisking. In the case of seperation of the mixture you can add another egg yolk, this should help emulsify again. When you are happy with the consistency and quantity of your aioli it is done. Add some lemon juice(very important adds great balance to the strong garlic) and pepper and check taste. It should have enough salt from the innitial stage. I like it quite thick but still with some fluidity. You can always add some water to loosen a bit if required.

So now my favorite summer barbecue lunch that requires aioli, sunshine and chilled beaujolais for a perfect afternoon;

Quail, pork, chorizo, quinoa and aioli

Quail, enough for a half a bird each at least(marinaded in oil, lemon, garlic, salt and pepper)I like to run a knife down their back bone and remove the breast with leg, less fiddly to eat. 

Chorizo's, the cooking type from Brindisa, enough for a couple of sections each.

Pork Loin (rolled and boned) sliced into little steaks, marinaded with the quail.

Quinoa, about half a box, washed thoroughly, then a good covering of salted water added, bought to boil and simmered for about 15 mins. The water should cook out, allow to cool.(Make sure it's dried out, you don't want soggy quinoa).

Parsley, anchovy, capers, mint all chopped together.

A polite but small gesture of very thinly sliced shallot.

Then all you need is a hot barbecue. None of the elements need a lot of cooking, the chorizo the longest so start there. Be careful not to overcook the pork particularly. The quail have decent fat content so do not dry our easily, three or four minutes a side will do it with a nice rest off the direct heat.

Mix the chopped herbs, anchovy, capers and shallot through the cooked, dried out quinoa, season with some pepper, it's probably salty enough but adjust if necessary. Maybe dress with some oil and a tad of lemon juice.

Give everyone half a quail, some hearty sections of the cooked chorizo and a slice of the pork loin, accompanied by the herby quinoa. A rocket salad would not go amiss. Put the tub of aioli on the table and let your guests delve in.

Almost an ode to Summer.