Thursday, 12 January 2012

3 years of Essex Eating!

Today is a momentous occasion, a special day indeed. Cup your hand to your ear and listen carefully. Hear that noise? That low murmur from right outside in the street rising in pitch louder and louder until it’s an almost deafening roar of celebration? It’s the sound of a hundred thousand trillion (at least) satisfied readers celebrating the fact that this, the blog I started in January 2009 as a new year resolution is 3 years old! That’s right people, the terrible two’s were so 2011 – it’s trois, trois and frigging trois Happy Birthday to moi!

As is now traditional, I like to celebrate this most sacred of occasions by re-capping on the previous year, the good, the bad and downright Antony Worrall Thompson gorging on stolen Tesco cheese and washing it down with cheap wine from the bottle. So, this was 2011….

Best meal I ate in 2011

Looking back, seems like it was a vintage year for eating in restaurants, I ate out loads and loved (mostly) every minute of it. The absolute highlight had to be finally making it to The Sportsman in March. Proving to be everything I’d heard it was cracked up to be, the lunchtime tasting menu blew me away, in fact it was probably the best meal I’ve ever had.

Saying that, in July I had an absolute belting lunch with Niamh of ‘Eat like a girl’ at Simon Rogan’s London outpost, Roganic. I can’t recommend it enough, such beautiful and interesting food.

November saw a visit to Mark Hix’s Oyster & Fish House in Lyme Regis as part of a Talisker Whisky tasting event. Bloody hell, it was a treat – very British, very seasonal and incredibly elegant, after years of enviously watching other, more financially flush diners tucking into huge tiered platters of seafood, I finally got to experience it myself, unforgettable.

A tasting menu at The Pony & Trap in Chew Magna has to be another contender; entirely confounding any expectations I may have had, this was easily the best meal I’ve eaten in Bristol and one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year.

My recent birthday dinner at Jose Pizarro’s eponymous new Bermondsey restaurant Pizarro was also another incredibly memorable meal, sitting up at the bar and watching the chefs cook right in front of us, whilst Jose himself picked dishes from the menu for us to try was an incredible experience, it goes without saying that the food itself was superb.

Best Dish I cooked at home 2011

I still cook loads, but because of the Montpelier Basement supper club I run with ‘E’, most of the really memorable cooking seems to revolve around that. When I think about it, the daily lunch and dinner cooking seems to have been simplified a bit of late, more quickly thrown together meals using up leftover ingredients.

That said, a fresh Homewood ewe’s curd & blood orange salad with croutons tossed in marmalade was a winner back in February, we served this up to the pupils at a Cheese School event and I was really pleased with how it turned out.

Another Ewe’s curd based dish, but this time a dessert (It’s such an amazing ingredient, equally at home as a savoury or a sweet depending on what you pair it with). Pinched and adapted from a Tom Kitchin recipe, we used the Ewe’s curd in a baked cheesecake mousse; we partnered this with spiced shortbread, butterscotch apple sauce and fresh apple slices. This was the dessert we served when we brought Montpelier Basement to the Coach & Horses pub London back in September.

Apart from that, I particularly liked pigeon breast with pontack (a 17th century, old English elderberry sauce recipe); we fiddled with the available recipes heavily to come up with something we could use right away, without maturing for 7 years! And it turned out really well.

How could I forget Celery ice cream! An absolute winner, subtle, peppery and unusual – I made it as an experiment and it didn’t turn out half bad at all. ‘E’ turned her nose up at it, but we gave samples to some of the guests at ‘The Basement’ and pretty much everyone loved in your face ‘E’! Although, I have to say, the whole concept wasn’t an unequivocal success. For what I originally wanted to partner with it, see below.

Worst Dish I cooked at home 2011

So, there were a few kitchen disasters last year. Returning to the surprisingly excellent celery ice cream, I thought it’d be great served with some kind of hot Stilton dish. I eventually found a recipe for Stilton fritters and I thought this would be just the thing. No. On it’s own, the celery ice cream was lovely, partnered with the hot fritters it tasted like the freakiest, weirdest dessert ever (I envisaged some kind of savoury dish). It just didn’t work at all.

Other memorable kitchen disasters were, with a room full of 18 expectant diners, our first course of Keen’s Cheddar Biscuits (A tried, tested and reliable recipe) inexplicably failing and strangely melting all over the oven into one steaming massive biscuit and leaving us panicked and scrambling to come up with a last second alternative.

Parsnip crisps – how I hate thee. We had all sorts of problems with these, burning them and when finally getting them right, our perfectly crisp and erect examples suddenly going soft (oooer) they were an absolute pain in the arse.

Oh, and finally apologies to everyone at our New Year’s Eve Basement when we filled the room with an acrid burning smell and for the complete absence of pork crackling. In an attempt to crisp it up under the grill, we got sidetracked and forgot about it – setting the whole tray alight.

Best Booze I drank in 2011

I’m all about the food, and often forget to record what I drank with my meal, but every now and again something grabs me by the lapels, gives me a good slapping and makes me sit up and take notice. A bottle of Grüner Veltliner, Soellner Fumburg 2008 at the Pony & Trap in Chew Magna did just that. Amazing stuff.

In general, 2011 seemed to me to be the year I became really aware of natural wine. Friends of ours, F&T are incredibly well informed on the subject, and sampling various bottles with them over the year, and attending an incredibly interesting natural wine dinner at Bell’s Diner has left me convinced as to it’s virtues. Don’t ask me for specific recommendations though, as always I’m guilty of drinking, thinking ‘this is nice’ and then forgetting exactly what it is I drank. Although I very much enjoyed a Spanish Red Natural wine ‘Flos de Pinoso’ whilst eating at Soho’s DuckSoup.

December saw me invited to Ghent as the guest of ‘St Stefanus’ beer (or Augustine as it’s know in Belgium). The trip left me in no doubt that the Belgians know all there is to know about making amazing beer, the ‘blonde’ St Stefanus in particular was a bit spesh, but based on what we ate, they could do with a few pointers on food (mashy prawny fishy croquettes…errrr no!)

Worst Dish I ate out 2011

I’m really struggling here, unlike the previous two years no outright disasters spring to mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve eaten some incredibly mediocre food and been disappointed on numerous occasions, but for the life of me I can’t think of anything that was so truly abysmal and utterly, utterly shit that it deserves the ignominy of being recorded here. Either I’m becoming more discerning in my restaurant/dish choice or food in Britain is improving at a phenomenal rate.

Best Dish I ate out in 2011

Loads and loads of contenders here and probably far too many to list, but here goes…

From The Sportsman, a piece of Roast Lamb from Monkshill farm, which was just over the road from the pub, I’d actually seen the cute ickle lambs scampering around in the fields as I arrived. I mused on this whilst eating the cutlet resting against a piece of braised shoulder accompanied by probably the most amazing mint sauce I’ve ever tasted (and which I’ve spent some time trying to replicate – see here).

Next, a dish based around the humble potato, the genius that is Roganic’s Heritage potatoes in onion ashes, lovage and wood sorrel. Easily one of the standout courses in what was a lunch packed with amazing food. I was particularly impressed with the incredible sharp savoury taste of the onion ashes. (Onions, dehydrated and reduced to dust using some kind of cheffy wizardry). Amazing.

‘That’ seafood tower from Hix Oyster and Fish House, a beautifully tiered heap of Dorset seafood Gorgeous lobster, razor clams, oysters, big prawns (quality of life) and mussels. Holy shit, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when this bad boy was plonked in front of me.

The Edwardian gentleman in me (oooer times deux) thought that breakfasting on Devilled Veal Kidneys at Hawksmoor Guildhall was quite possibly one of the most tip-top starts to the day I’ve had all year. Yes indeed Sir.

Pizarro provided Beetroot Cured Salmon, Capers and an Egg Yolk – essentially a kind of Salmon tartar. Breaking the yolk and mixing it through and then taking a bite was a revelation. Very simple and rustic, yet so effective. I absolutely loved it.

Closer to home for the last couple of dishes – Bristol’s Bell’s Diner served up an incredibly elegant Chocolate Millefeuille, Praline, Salted Caramel, Pain au Chocolat which was so beautiful to look at and so meticulously constructed it seemed like a shame to eat it. It tasted every bit as good as it looked and impressed me no end.

Finally, at The Pony & Trap in Chew Magna, Grilled Bone Marrow, Brown Shrimp Butter with Capers, Garlic & Lime and Celeriac Puree (with toast to smear it all on) had me tonguing the bone in the most obscene manner imaginable. It was rustic, imaginative and full of flavour. Amazing.

Weirdest Google searches that have led to my Blog 2011

After whisky eating fish
Food poisoning from Halloumi cheese
Full faggot factory (?)
How to get a table at The Ladbury (I think I may see your problem there).
What food do they eat in Essex?
Spied on a parisian store shelf, a châteauneuf-du-pape that cost a tad too little (very specific)
Recepis for porh cheeks (sic)
Pho soup gas bloating
man eat cheese

Best Recipe book 2011

My favourite cookbook of the year has to be the Hawksmoor cookbook. Like the restaurant it’s superb, very British and slightly eccentric. The recipes, cooking tips and historical background information are fascinating, oh and I also made a little contribution with a tiny bit of recipe testing for it (check out the acknowledgements, I’m in there and so is ‘E’).

Hopping across the channel with regards to cooking style, but not origins (they’re firmly Essex) The Galvin cookbook is also a bit special. I haven’t had my hands on it that long, but have already pinched a couple of ideas and techniques out of it for ‘The Basement’ and they’ve worked really well. I especially like the fact there are explanations for how the dishes work in a restaurant setting and where the cooking can be held and finished off, all really useful.

Strangest thing I ate in 2011

Calves Brain at Racine. Nothing else came close. A French classic, it was actually quite pleasant, until I got to the last forkful and started thinking about what I was eating. My stomach suddenly turned and I came over in a cold sweat.

Must visit restaurants 2011

Ok, first – here’s last years list. Not a bad showing, I managed to make it to the excellent Racine, The Sportsman, Oxford’s Magdalen Arms and Casamia. Once again a whole load of restaurants I wanted to eat at somehow got overlooked for one reason or another.

Anchor and Hope - London
Racine - London
The Sportsman - Whitstable
The Kitchin - Edinburgh
Magdalen Arms – Oxford
Brawn – London
Casamia – Bristol
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – London
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road – London
St Johns

So that was then, this is NOW – here’s my personal list of 2012 must visit’s…be interesting to see how many of these I made it to when I look back in January 2013!

The Kitchin – Edinburgh (I will make it there this year)
St Johns – London (How the hell have I never eaten here?)
Brawn – London
Hedone – London
The British Larder – Suffolk
Le Champignon Sauvage – Cheltenham
Restaurant Sat Bains – Nottingham
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – London
Zucca – London
Wild Honey – London
The Felin Fach Griffin – Brecon

So there you have it, my third year at Essex Eating.

Stay tuned throughout 2012 for another incredibly exciting year of me stuffing myself silly in restaurants, burning and scorching myself in the kitchen, getting drunk throughout, then recording the whole experience right here in my childish drivel style for your enjoyment. I love it.

Mwah Mwah


Fiona Beckett said...

Love it too. One of the best food blogs around. We're up for the Champignon Sauvage!

fran39 said...

Fantastic post, Dan, and so glad you loved my favourite place - The Sportsman.
Here's to the next year! xx

Kavey said...

Happy Birthday, Dan!
Nice recap! :)

Food Urchin said...

And it only seems like yesterday that I was changing your nappy, spoon feeding you and teaching you how to blow bubbles. And now you're 3.

Damn they grow up so fast these days *sob*

Happy Birthday mate.

Anonymous said...

I love your yearly round-up, but it only seems like yesterday that I was chuckling at the 2010 review. Good lord, how time does fly.

Congrats and keep it coming.

Nick Baines said...

Fucking epic! Indeed, how the HELL have you not been to St. John? You are master historian of London town, in my book you are anyway. We need to correct this SJ issue in 2012. I'm always a willing participant in a St. John outing.

You've had an incredible year Dan my man. In incredible three to be honest. Loved every minute. Here's to another three.

Dan said...

Fiona - Thanks very much, I'm incredibly flattered you think so! Champignon Sauvage, lets all definitely go soon.

Fran39 - Hey thanks Fran - Oh yeah! The Sportsman is amazing x

Kavey - Thank you madam.

Food Urchin - Mate, I know - how quick I've seriously, with all this fine dining I've put on about 3 stone. Thanks very much dude.

Feedetgastro - It's gone fast hasn't it? Thanks very much...more drivel from me to come this year for sure!

Nick - Hahahaha I have no idea how I never made it to St John, I used to work literally down the road for years. Lets do it, It'd be great if you fancy an outing. I shall be in touch. Thanks very much for saying so dude, indeed - here's to another 3, at least!

Gourmet Chick said...

Happy blog birthday Dan! So was your blog a New Years resolution all those years ago? Love this list particularly the google search terms and the line: "How to get a table at The Ladbury (I think I may see your problem there)". Here's to more eating in, eating out and boozing.

Dan said...

Gourmet Chick - Thanks! That's right, it was a new years resolution to write this blog 3 years ago today. Definitely, 3 cheers to eating out, in and boozing!

Matt Inwood said...

Belting post, Dan! Great to see that Racine calve's brain anecdote in text on the screen! Some really great meals in there and an enviable list of must-visits for next year -- hope you make them all!

And happy birthday mate! For a long time now you've been one of the most fun and refreshing writers writing about food, and I really hope you get the traffic through the virtual gateways here at EssexEating to prove that: you certainly deserve it. *pounds fist into left breast*

Bring on the next 365 days! And hope to see you through some of that.

The Little Dinner Lady said...

Brilliant round up, am a relative new-comer to your blog, and am now devoted, I can feel myself getting fatter with every word! Now vowing on some kind of road trip to visit The Sportsman and generally all the other places you rave about. Love your work.

Katy Salter @ Pinch of Salt said...

Happy bloggiversary! Your blog always makes me chuckle - looking fwd to reading more of yours and E's adventures in 2012.
Ps wierdest searches that lead to my blog:
'Turkish porno fat'
'How can I pinch my friends breast'

Dan said...

Matt - How incredibly flattering, thank you, it means a lot! Look forward to seeing you out and about soon.

The Little Dinner Lady - Thank you, I'm really pleased that you enjoy it and I have to say, if you just eat at one place this year, make it the tasting menu at The is amazing!

Katy - Thank you very much, and again I'm extremely flattered that my blog makes you chuckle! Your wierdest searches are even stranger than mine! hahahaha

Restaurants in Brighton said...

Firstly. a very Happy birthday to your blog & congratulations to you for your 3 yrs old blog. Your post is amazing - lovely pictures, lovely food & booze also. This is the first time I hv come to your blog & will like to visit again to catch up your more more best stories.Wish you a very Happy New Year.Hv a great 2012.Cheers !

German said...

I just discovered you blog, look great and congratulations. I hope you have a great 2012 as well.

Dan said...

Restaurants in Brighton - Thank you! Happy New Year Back!

German - Thanks very much, have a superb 2012 yourself.