Tuesday 27 October 2009

Sheen Suppers - An Underground Supper Club

No doubt, in part fuelled by the recession, the past year has seen the emergence of something very new in Britain's dining scene... the rise of the underground supper club. These dining operations run by enthusiastic foodies (And in some cases, professional Chefs) in their own homes offer a relaxed atmosphere, illicit experience and sheer value for money that full time restaurants find impossible to match. They are starting to pop up all over the country. Held in locations which remain a closely guarded secret until you actually book, this is 'the' dining experience for the now grown up, two kids and a mortgage rave generation.

A recent gloomy Friday evening found myself, the GF, fellow food blogger FoodUrchin and his wife making our way South on a train from Waterloo to an unfamiliar, to me at least, East Sheen....Food Urchin had booked a table at an underground restaurant called 'Sheen Suppers' run by Lara, and had invited myself and the GF to join him.

After a brisk 10 walk from the train station, stopping on the way in a handily located pub for a quick pre-dinner sharpener, we arrived in a darkened but obviously attractive street lined with Victorian houses located just off the High Street. Our anticipation was heightened somewhat by FoodUrchin forgetting the address and knocking at a bemused neighbours door.

Finally, after profuse apologies we were stepping through the threshold into 'Sheen Suppers' being greeted warmly by Lara and gazing curiously around her beautiful home as coats were taken and we were ushered politely into the dining room proper. This is a large part of the attraction of the whole underground restaurant vibe, especially for my GF who could politely be described as just 'slightly nosey'....the chance to look around a strangers home.....we've all done it almost unconsciously, walking or driving down a street at night, and glancing up briefly into a brightly lit picture of someone else's domestic life through an un-curtained window, a brief instant - a momentary snapshot, but this is the motherload....a snoopers charter amped up on crack.....your in a complete strangers home, and they're cooking dinner for you!

At this point we were introduced to Lara's partner Iain, playing the part of the friendly and obviously very knowledgeable wine waiter for the evening...he had matched all four courses served with different wines (included in the price) - and very successfully too I should add.
Of course, we had brought our own wine along too to supplement the supply.
The table was beautifully laid, with a bowl of olives and jug of water and a printed menu for the evening.

Whilst we were settling in, other friendly diners were arriving in a steady stream, sixteen in total and were being shown to their tables and offered a pre-dinner drink. The lighting was subdued, the room extremely attractive and interesting from an interior design point of view, Lara obviously having something of an eye for it. A subtle jazz soundtrack provided the backdrop for the constant murmured chatter, punctuated every now and again by laughter from our fellow diners. It all felt extremely relaxed, and incredibly professional - like a de-facto restaurant in fact.

Iain arrived to pour us a glass of Pulenta Estate Chardonnay, Mendoza 2007 which he had matched with the first course which arrived shortly after, a steaming bowl of Celeriac and Potato Soup, draped with a slice of smoked Salmon and topped with a fried Quails egg, a couple of slices of soda bread for dipping offered at the side of the bowl. rich, creamy, slightly sweet - it was a beautiful starter, I really enjoyed it. The wine worked very well with it, complimenting the flavour. Having had my own recent traumatic experience matching, in my case, proesecco with food, I can appreciate how hard it is to get right. Kudos to Iain.

Bowls cleared, and settling back easily into our chairs, with that contented glow that good food and wine provides we didn't have to wait too long for Iain to appear again proffering a bottle of Te Mania, Nelson Pinot Noir 2008 with which to accompany our main course, Braised Belly of Pork with Crackling, served with a BlackPudding Faggot (notable by it's absence - more about this later), Roast Potato, and autumn vegetable puree. Gorgeous, once again beautifully cooked and tender Pork Belly, the perfectly crisp crackling, the vegetable puree and roast potato combined to make a cracking plate of food. The matched wine, again, full marks for a great choice. A quick note here about how much I admired the restraint shown with the portion control, this being something I struggle with myself. I always cook way too much, and heap food on my guests plates - Lara's food was perfectly portioned in just the right size servings for four courses, I couldn't have eaten more if I'd tried. It's something that's quiet hard to get right.

Relaxed and chatting, nicely composed individual cheese plates arrived with Iain in tow this time bearing a more than welcome bottle of Taylors LBV Port.

After polishing off the cheese, our plates cleared - the final course, dessert arrived, Banana Caramel Pudding, with chocolate & rum sauce, cream and a banana wafer. I'm not the biggest fan of banana in desserts but I really enjoyed this, leaving barely a crumb to signpost it's brief appearance on my plate just minutes earlier. Coffee followed quickly after.

A note here about the toilet located under the stairs in the hall - it's a fantastic, crazily decorated space with hundreds of photos, adverts, pictures......really unusual and fun.

Exiting from a brief visit to admire said toilet, I spied through the open kitchen door, co-diner FoodUrchin speaking to Lara, her assistant Kim and Iain in the Kitchen and invited myself in to have a drunken chat. The wreckage of every dinner party you've ever had magnified tenfold littered the worktops and sink. Successfully cooking three courses for sixteen in a domestic kitchen must be a study in the art of kitchen management. Despite this Lara and Co. looked relaxed and fairly happy about the way the evening had gone, although understandably self critical - (aren't we all when cooking for others?) The mystery of the missing black pudding faggot was solved, Lara, frank with her statement that they weren't upto scratch - so didn't get served. We chatted for ten minutes or so about all things foodie related, and then made our way back to our table to finish up, collect our partners -and leave our payment for the meal on the table.

Emerging into the suburban night from Sheen Suppers, to make our way drunkenly, back to the station and home, we were all extremely happy with the whole experience. I really enjoyed myself, the food and drink were great, the atmosphere first class, the people - both our fellow diners, and Lara, Iain and Kim, our hosts incredibly friendly... I couldn't recommend a visit to Sheen Suppers and in fact the whole underground supper club experience enough.

Our meal, four courses with matched wine, was £25 per head.

To book Sheen Suppers email:- sheensuppers@googlemail.com

Or alternatively you can make contact through the website:-
Where, you'll also find the details of many other underground supper clubs located throughout the UK.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Matching Prosecco with food makes my head hurt.

Niamh author of Eatlikeagirl is running a competition on her blog, in conjunction with Bisol, to match Prosecco with food. The prize is cracking, and having pilfered more than my fair share of free Prosecco from Niamh's Covent Garden stall in the last week or so....all in the interests of research of course, I'm pretty much duty bound to enter.

The problem is this - I have no experience of matching booze to anything, it's something I've never really thought about before. I've really struggled with it - the only thing that popped into my head whilst actually tasting the stuff at Niamh's stall was 'Goats Cheese'... Could be right, could be wrong - who knows....without having some to experiment with, it could have the taste matching merit of drinking coffee directly after brushing your teeth.

Just to ramp up the pressure, the GF's brother and partner were coming round for dinner on Saturday evening, so I thought I'd work something out and test it on them, all built around the solitary goats cheese thought.

The thought process went something like this....Niamh had already mentioned that Pork seemed to work well, and it's not a strong tasting meat - so it was either Pork or Chicken......I finally went with Pork chops, as I'd cooked them recently with lemon and they were lovely.....the Prosecco is light, so the flavours had to be light and subtle....I then thought tarragon white wine sauce, but made with prosecco, goes with pork...it's light(ish) but will it work with Prosecco? bit of a wild card that one.

In the end, I mulled it over.....wrote furious notes.....went out into the garden and nibbled some herbs....came back, crossed stuff out, wrote more notes...and so it went until I finally came up with the recipe below served as a Main at my small dinner party. To be honest, it's all a bit academic unless you can drink the prosecco in the planning stage and see how different things taste with it. But having no time for that, I bought some Prosecco to drink with the main course and asked my guests to tell me what they thought - bit of a last throw of the dice this, because if it really didn't work......I was buggered.

I'm pleased to report, it did appear to work, very well in fact - the prosecco didn't grate alarmingly against the dishes ingredients, in fact they seemed to compliment each other nicely....I like to put it down to my bulging analytical brain and amazing palette, stressing categorically that it's absolutely not more luck, than judgement.

Pork Chop with prosecco and tarragon cream sauce, goats cheese and olive crushed potatoes, parsnip puree.
Serves 4
You'll need:-

For the Pork Chops:-
4 Free Range Pork chops with bone.
2 Tbs Olive Oil
Few knobs of butter
Juice of a lemon.

For the Tarragon Cream Sauce:-
knob of butter
2 Shallots finely chopped
1 Bay Leaf
50g Button mushrooms, finely sliced
225ml Prosecco
225ml Chicken Stock
150ml Double Cream
2 TBS Chopped Tarragon
sea salt + pepper
Juice of half a Lemon

For the Goats Cheese and Olive Crushed Potatoes:-
500g Maris Piper Potatoes
150ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 TBS Chopped Chives
50g Chopped kalamata olives, stoned and chopped.
60g Goats Cheese
sea salt+pepper

For the Parsnip Puree:-
500g Parsnips
sea salt+pepper
2 Thyme Sprigs
1/2 Tsp Dijon Mustard
25g unsalted butter
2 Tsp Double Cream
pinch of grated nutmeg.

To make the crushed potatoes, pre-heat the oven to 220C and bake the potatoes for 1 hour, until soft. When the are cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out into a bowl and crush with back of a fork. Mix in the olive oil, the chives, the black olives and the goats cheese. Season and put to one side to keep warm.

To make the Tarragon Cream sauce, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan add the shallots and bay leaf and cook over a medium heat for 1-2 minutes, add the mushrooms and cook for a further 2-3 mins.
Add the Prosecco and over a medium heat bring to a rapid simmer, reduce by 2/3rds, pour in the chicken stock and again reduce by 2/3rds.
Add the double cream, and return to a soft simmer, thickening for 6-8 mins.
Strain the sauce, and add the chopped Tarragon and a squeeze of lemon juice, stirring through, season with salt+peppr and put aside somewhere warm.

To make the parsnip puree, peel and roughly chop the parsnips, place in a saucepan with the thyme, and a pinch of salt cover with cold water and bring to the boil - then turn down the heat and simmer for 15 mins. Drain and remove the thyme. In a blender blitz the hot parsnips with the mustard, butter, cream and nutmeg until its a smooth puree. Season and put to one side.

For the pork chops, trim them of most of the fat, heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan and fry the chops each side for 3 mins until golden. Add the knobs of butter to the pan along with the Lemon juice, swirl around the pan and spoon over the chops cooking for a few more mins until the pork is just firm when pressed.

Serve the Pork chop with some of the juices, the parsnip puree, the crushed potatoes and the cream sauce.....and hopefully make a better job of the presentation than me! I hadn't really thought about it beforehand, as it was a dinner party situation the food was rapidly getting cold so I sort of slung it on the plates as best I could, subsequently, it looks crap.....will have to think about the presentation a bit more I think.

BTW, Thanks to Gordon, Skye, Gary and Anton and their respective cook books for the inspiration.....standing on the shoulders of giants eh?

Sunday 18 October 2009

Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the roof.

This past week or so, there seems to have been just one subject on the lips of London foodies....Pierre Koffmann.

Koffmann is something of a legend in British restaurant history, working alongside the Roux brothers at the Waterside Inn in Bray, he went on to open his own restaurant 'La Tante Claire' in Chelsea (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay now occupies the site). One of a select few chef's to hold three Michelin stars, Koffmann's restaurant was 'the' place to dine in London. Along the way a whole crop of current Michelin starred chefs served their time in his kitchen, Tom Aikens, Eric Chavot and Tom Kitchin, to name just a few. Five years ago Koffmann closed La Tante Claire and appeared to have all but retired...

....Until, the silence was broken with the recent announcement that Koffmann would be opening a temporary restaurant on the roof of Selfridges, but only for ten days. He would, once again be cooking his same famous signature dishes as served in La Tante Claire, and a whole brigade of his Michelin starred former apprentices would be popping up as Guest Chef's.

Queue a maelstrom of hype erupting around the subject of the temporary restaurant erected on the roof of Selfridges and the legendary chef cooking there.

Personally, I put my chances of bagging a table up with the same odds of winning the lottery, but kept a weather eye out for developments. But what's this? The booking number being 'leaked' two days early? I was all over it, along with, so it seems every other food blogger in London. Amazingly I scored a table for two.....although, worryingly, I had no idea how much it was actually going to cost me.
I've been carried along on a growing tide of expectation and excitement ever since....Twitter has been a relentless hive of activity...... initial reviews have been dissected, the menu discussed, photos of the dishes studied, the service (or apparent lack of it) picked apart, the petit fours controversy has raged (Some people getting them, some inexplicably not).....it's been a full time job keeping up with it.

Until finally, at last it was time to experience it myself.

Thursday evening finds me walking briskly down Oxford Street towards Selfridges. I am smartly suited, the GF in tow is looking suitably glamorous. We've had a couple of pre-meal Cocktails at the excellent Rules and Hix's new restaurant in Soho, we're feeling pretty good and very excited. Entering through the main entrance, we turn left and are confronted with a private lift to the roof. A clipboard toting greeter checks our names off the list, and up we go.
The lift doors open into a mainly white walled corridor lined with intricate swirling patterns and floor to ceiling drapes. There's a real buzz about the place, I have no idea what to expect. A subtly lit corridor leads to a reception area where we are greeted by an extremely friendly woman who introduces herself as Pierre Koffmann's wife, Claire.

We are led up a small flight of stairs to another moodily lit reception area, a couple of sofa's, tables and chairs are already inhabited by fellow diners lounging and chatting, waiting for their table. A Cocktail bar stands against one wall - and to my right, up another small flight of stairs and through some elaborate wrought iron gates is the restaurant proper. I can hear that low hum of diners chatting, punctuated with laughter, the sound of people having a great time. Everyone looks relaxed happy and smiling, it's a very good sign. We order a bottle of wine, and sit there sipping, looking around, taking it all in.

A cheerful waitress approaches, our table is ready...we follow her up the stairs and catch sight of the restaurant for the first time. It's quite big. It's packed with diners, but the tables are spaced well apart. There are floor to ceiling windows overlooking Oxford Street to our left, the walls to our right are painted a duck egg blue, which incidentally I am told was the same colour of the walls in the long since closed 'La Tante Claire'. I notice unusual antler clad chandeliers, and other lighting, the shades made from top hats. At the very far end is a doorway, beyond which is the kitchen. It's hard to believe this is basically a large tent, a temporary space. It's incredible.

The service is fast and extremely friendly, chatty even, there's a real atmosphere of experiencing something out of the ordinary and it's obvious the vibe has rubbed off on the staff as well. We're informed that the guest chef's tonight will be Eric Chavot and Bruno Loubet and that "Between them and Pierre, there's at least 7 Michelin stars worth of chefs in the kitchen".

Looking at the menu, I read down the dishes and want to order everything.....it's so hard to choose, at least with my starter. My main?, that was decided long ago.

Let's hold it there and talk about Pig's feet....

Koffmann's signature dish is famously a Pigs trotter stuffed with veal sweetbreads and morels. People rave about it, how could I order anything else? 'to trotter or not to trotter' being one of the recurring themes where Koffmann has been discussed on Twitter. By the way, Sweetbread, just in case you didn't know is the thymus gland (located in the throat). Mmmmmm. Don't know about you, but to me it sounds disgusting. I've never really been exposed to offal growing up, so a lot of it is quite alien to me. But, what the hell -I'll try anything once. So Pig's trotter it was to be.
For my 'pre-trotter' starter I went for the 'pan fried Foie Gras with a potato galette and sauternes jus'

But first, an amuse bouche of 'langoustine consomme with langoustine and scallop ravioli' this came in a tea-cup, and was very subtle....perhaps too much so, to be honest I wasn't bowled over with it finding the flavours murky and hard to clearly define. Don't get me wrong, it was tasty, I ate it all. But, it wasn't as good as I'd expect from a chef who held three Michelin stars - which, is quite possibly part of the problem, heightened expectation.

But, then my starter arrived and all was forgiven - silky, rich, beautifully cooked, the potato galette adding crisp texture to the beautiful buttery softness of the foie gras, the sauternes jus and a small dab of apple puree cutting through the richness. Beautiful, I was enraptured, eating stunned and making involuntary pathetic soft mewling noises. (For previous outbreaks of mewling - see here).

Opposite me, the GF was making similar noises as she ate her starter of 'hand dived scallops with squid ink'. An artistically presented dish, the perfectly cooked scallops sitting like fat luminous pearls in a rich, shiny slick of squid ink. I tried a proffered forkful and the scallops were every bit as good as they looked.

The famous pig trotter arrived next, glistening, obviously an all too identifiable piece of the pig it was quite daunting to look at. Partnered with an unusual pink mash (which we were told was due to the variety of potatoes used, 'highland burgundy'), I was undaunted and I was enjoying myself, so tucked in without hesitation....surprisingly soft and unctuous, meaty,....it was delicious, partnered with the mash a very filling plate.....I ploughed in loving every bite, I ate the lot, a small cairn of 'toe-bones' at the side of the plate commemorating the final resting place of the now departed trotter.

Meanwhile, across the table, the GF was eating her dish of 'Roast Cod with cepes' I had a quick taste, and it was very good, but to be honest - apart from briefly admiring the presentation I only had eye's for the trotter.

Whilst taking a breather before ordering dessert, Pierre Koffmann's delightful wife Claire stopped at our table to chat, asking how our meal was to generally play the part of an excellent host....I can think of many front of house staff who could learn a lot about how to treat their paying customers here, she knows how to work a restaurant that's for sure. Whilst chatting she asked what we were going to order for dessert, I replied that I was thinking about the pistachio souffle. She said that her husband always used to say at La Tante Claire, if the first table ordered the souffle - then everyone would order the souffle. Which made up my mind for me. The GF went for the 'Gascon apple tart'.

The souffle was as impressive as promised, perfectly towering and served with a scoop of pistachio ice cream that was deposited by the waitress at the table into the top. What can I say? once again, incredible stuff - perfectly light and sweet, surprisingly filling with an almost fleeting chocolate like, toasted quality. To say I was happy with it would be an understatement.

Unfortunately, the GF was not quite as enthralled with her apple tart, it looked amazing but she complained that the ratio of filling to 'dry' pastry wasn't quite what she expected.

Later, after coffee, and eating a beautiful selection of petit fours, we settled the bill, and made our way unsteadily back down the corridor to the lift, emerging in the now closed, dimly lit and silent Department store, met by the same clip boarded greeter from earlier, accompanied this time by a security guard. With a polite good evening, we walked out into late night Oxford Street the whole experience had an almost modern fairytale, movie like quality.

The food was excellent, the atmosphere fun and convivial, the service absolutely spot on - no complaints at all. Whatever issues there may have been with long waits between courses and missing petit fours etc at the beginning of the week were not apparent. I had a fantastic evening, departing full and extremely happy that I had perhaps one of the only chances I'll ever get to sample a legendary chef's food.

The price, £75 per head for two courses, with wine, coffees and service charge the meal came in at just over £200 for two. Expensive, yes. But worth every penny.

Sunday 11 October 2009

A week (and a bit) in the life...

This past week or so has been manic.
In fact, I've crammed so much in food-wise (literally as well as metaphorically), I just didn't know how I was going to find the time to get it all into my blog, and do everything I've experienced justice. Much hand wringing and tortured musing ensued, but then, suddenly sitting bolt upright, a sly grin spreading across my impossibly handsome features.(humour me)....inspiration!....a rather cunning idea began forming in my hungover little mind. (hangovers featuring a lot of late).

I'd wind back the clock, and write a post detailing everything I've experienced food wise this past week (and a bit....the 'bit' being 'Ham School' at Brindisa last Thursday)....this way, everything gets written about - no man is left behind, I clear the decks of the growing back-log and it's much back slapping and cheesy grins all round. And you, yes- you! my much appreciated blog readers (all two of you!) get to experience my foodie week first hand in full technicolour!!! Wow!! excited? Well sit back, strap in and lets rewind....

It's now last Thursday. Along with a hand full of fellow food blogger's I've been invited by Brindisa to their inaugural 'Ham School'. But first, a quick 'pre-Ham' drink with some blogger's in 'The Rake', a lovely little pub in Borough which I haven't visited before and which seemingly seems to stock just about every bottled beer in existence in four floor to ceiling size fridges, in fact - I was struck dumb when approaching the bar, frantically scanning the rows upon rows of unfamiliar beers for something,...anything that I actually recognised. I've never seen so much choice. They also have some quality beer on tap, this place is definitely worth remembering if your drinking in the area.

A couple of pints later, I'm entering Brindisa's Borough shop and taking my seat at a table loaded with fantastic looking plates of ham, olives, bread and olive oil....I eye the sherry on the table optimistically and it's not long before I'm offered some. It's excellent. After brief introductions to our principal hosts Alberto -the manager, and the interestingly named Zac Fingal-Rock Innes - Brindisa's master carver, Ham School commences! With the aid of a map, we are talked through the various Spanish hams, the regions they come from, what the pigs eat, why they taste like they do....all the while I'm eating the fantastic Manzanilla Olives, dipping my bread into the excellent Nunes Del Prado Olive Oil and sipping at my glass of Bodegas Hidalgo Manhandle Sherry, in between all this at various key points, we are encouraged to sample the slices of Ham on our plate, a Jamon de Monroyo Reserva - described as an 'Entry Level Ham', its from a White Pig and is young and fresh tasting - it's nice and is also the cheapest Ham we'll be sampling that evening at £6.75 for 100g.

Next, a Jabu Recebo, this is an Iberico pig, acorn fed and is also extremely nice with a subtle bacon flavour.

We move onto the third ham, I pick it up taste it and almost instantly experience a ham induced epiphany, I am struck dumb, I've never tasted any Ham this good ever....I have a strong urge to close my eyes and sit there making contented mewling noises. Umami rich, complex - I've never tasted anything quite like it. The Ham? Jamon de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P. Again from an acorn fed Iberico pig, The price? £16.50 for 100g.....I suddenly realise that I am now ruined, there's no going back to inferior Ham's, now I've tasted the good stuff I could never eat anything else. Seriously, this is simply amazing if you get the chance - try it!

Onto the fourth and final Ham, this is described as the pinnacle of Spanish Iberico Ham - Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota, it's subtle and incorporates a lot of the tastes we've experienced in the previous Ham's, it's slightly sweet.....It's very nice indeed. But it's subtlety is lost on me, I only have eyes for the previous Ham, Jamon de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota, for me this was the best thing I tasted that evening.

Enough with the theory, onto the practical element - we get shown how to carve a ham by Zac, the expert and then are encouraged to have a go ourselves - carefully supervised of course. By this time, I've knocked back a fair old bit of the excellent sherry and I'm feeling confident, swaggering, how hard can it be? I take up the wickedly sharp knife and am positioned in front of an extremely expensive Ham - the carving method is carefully explained to me, the need for wafer thin, almost translucent melt in the mouth strips, I nod sagely taking it all in and instantly proceed to carve off a centimeter thick 'slab' (for there is no other word to describe the weighty lump of ham staring back at me) this leaden chunk would challenge even the most enthusiastic ham eater. Alberto looks slightly horrified by my effort, offering the consolation "Think that one would be more suited for stew perhaps" I'm briefly mortified, but with the excellent sherry pulsing through my veins, quickly recover and manage to carve some more suitably thin pieces.

The end of the session saw us being presented with goodie bags containing our hand carved efforts (mine thankfully minus the slab), some ham fat which is apparently perfect for roasting potatoes in, and some 'tacos' (meaty cubes of ham leg pieces, like pancetta).
What an excellent evening, really enjoyable. If you fancy attending the same session - it costs £65 and begins on the 5th November. Contact Brindisa (details at the bottom).

Tuesday evening saw me attending the 'Grape Expectations' Wine Tasting evening at Bibendum Wine, located in Primrose Hill, and what fantastic evening that was. Around 30 food and wine blogger's converged to taste and learn more about wine, after a brief and rather entertaining introduction to the subject by a real character and wine expert named 'Willy', we separated into groups and moved around between 3 tables, each containing two types of wine to taste, with another wine expert standing by to present a brief presentation on each wine, and to answer any questions. Wine types covered included Chardonnay, Rhone White varientals, Rose, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Savignon and Shiraz/Syrah.

It was a fantastic evening, not only due to the fact you learn so much about the wines, the Bibendum staff really knowing their subject inside out - but the social aspect of meeting so many like minded people...and getting stinking drunk with them. If your a food or wine Blogger, I seriously recommend signing up for the next event when it's posted on the 'London Food and Drink Bloggers' website.

Thursday lunchtime found me meeting fellow food blogger Food Urchin for Pie and Mash at Clarke's in Exmouth Market - with a brief visit to pick up some Olive Oil from an Electrical Shop. Yes, you read that right....Olive Oil from an electrical shop.
Turkish Embassy Electrical Supplies in Compton Street, Clerkenwell apart from dispensing all manner of electrical bits and pieces, also sells Extra Virgin Olive Oil made from the owners own Olive Groves in Cyprus and Turkey. Famously described as 'England's best olive oil' by the New York magazine, I heard about it recently in a Guardian article titled 'The 50 best things to eat in the world, and where to eat them', being located just around the corner from my old office in Clerkenwell, I just had to pick some up. It was indeed a bizarre experience walking into a dingy shop selling fuses, bulbs and cable and asking for Olive Oil, but no one batted an eyelid, and I was presented with a plastic cup to sample it. The verdict? light, slightly peppery - very nice indeed. The best in England? I highly doubt it. But, all the same - very nice. £5 and walked away with 1/2 a litre, so a bit of a bargain too.

Thursday evening and I'm meeting fellow food blogger's, Eatlikeagirl, Scandilicious and Mathilde's Cuisine for cocktails in the bar of the famous Covent Garden restaurant 'Rules', the oldest restaurant in London - being in business for over 200 years. This is somewhere I've wanted to visit for quite some time. We were introduced to the charming Brian Silva, the 'mixologist' and I sampled the best Vespa Martini I'd ever tasted, full stop. It's normally quite an acquired taste - rocket fuel, but Brian's version was smooth, subtle, with a slight hint of fruit - I was gobsmacked, obviously Cocktails of this quality come at a premium price, but believe me - they're worth it. It also helps that the Cocktail Bar at Rules is such a convivial setting, luxurious, laid back, I felt like I had one foot in the 1920's and the other in the present. I will be back! Highly recommended.

From Rules, we proceeded to visit a couple of restaurant's in the Covent Garden area to celebrate the opening of the London Restaurant Festival, which runs from the 1st-13th October with Covent Garden playing host as the official hub. (Visit the bright silver caravan for details!) The highlight of the evening, apart from the incredible cocktails at Rules was the Grilled Congar eel fillet with chorizo mash and basil pesto served at The Palm Court Brasserie. I've never eaten eel before to be honest, and it was lovely - rich and meaty with quite a subtle taste, very nice. I should add, my fellow food bloggers were excellent company, great fun and interesting. I had a very good evening indeed, helped along no doubt by strong cocktails and a fair old bit of red wine.

So, that was my week, granted, a particularly busy one, it's not always like that. In between I also managed to use the 'Tacos' from Brindisa in a version of their excellent 'Chickpea, Chorizo and Red Pepper Stew - Recipe Here, and cooked a fantastic Cheese and Onion tart, the recipe being from Richard Corrigans excellent 'The Clatter of Forks and Spoons'.

Massive thanks to Alberto, Zac and the other staff at Brindisa, Dan and the staff at Bibendum,
Celia Brooks Brown for inviting me along, Porters, The Palm Court Brasserie, Nik Thakkar and the ever cheerful and hardworking Niamh (eatlikeagirl) for the various parts they played in the past week or so - I salute you all!

This coming week will see me visiting Pierre Koffman's pop-up restaurant on the roof at Selfridges, and also a underground restaurant in East Sheen, so make sure to pop back for write up's of those.

Brindisa Ham Workshop
Tel: 020 7407 1036
Email: retail@brindisa.com

Bibendum Wine
113 Regents Park Rd
Tel: 020 7722 5577

Embassy Electrical Supplies
76 Compton Street
Tel: 020 7251 4721

35 Maiden Lane
Covent Garden
Tel: 020 7836 5314

Monday 5 October 2009

The Goods Shed - Canterbury

So, Autumn is upon us proper. The last vestiges of Summers shimmering waves of heat have retreated for yet another year, replaced by the cold, damp, rotting leaf and bonfire smell of this, my favourite time of year.

There's nothing like awaking early on an October weekend to glimpse the leaden grey skies replaced overnight with a cobalt blue, the sun spearing a gap in the curtains with a tantalising shaft of light, dust lazily dancing within....it triggers a voice inside my head that barks like a drillmaster "Wake up!" Coffee, shower and get out into the British dawn nice and early, somewhere in the countryside, perhaps to the coast or maybe to one of the beautiful, historic cities and towns that dot the landscape. Places like York, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Winchester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath. Wandering around historic cobbled streets, surrounded by medieval half-timbered warped buildings or roads lined with regal Georgian architecture, well I can think of nothing I'd rather be doing on a sunny autumnal day off.

But of course, being me, before I've left the house to tread the cobbles, or wander the countryside I need to work out where I'll be eating lunch, nothing left to chance. The ideal will be an ancient pub with a roaring log fire serving traditional, seasonal British food, well prepared.
Sadly, easier said than done. Don't get me wrong, these places are out there, but more often than not, located nowhere near where you want them to be.

Sunday saw me in Canterbury, Kent wandering the historic cobbled streets and lanes, gawping at the incredible Cathedral and as the morning turned to afternoon, thinking about lunch.
I couldn't find the ideal in Canterbury, despite the profusion of historic half-timbered buildings and ancient inns - it's apparently too much to ask to find a reputable one that proffered decent grub, but my research had turned up something else.... A former Railway Goods Shed, now a farmers market/restaurant located just outside the old city walls. With cracking reviews from critics such as Jay Rayner, no less (albeit back in 2005), it seemed like an ideal choice.

As your eyes adjust to the light, entering the comparative darkness of the former Goods Shed, you immediately notice tables loaded with fresh local Kent produce...the same produce in fact that the restaurant creates it's menu from daily. Apparently 95% of the restaurants ingredients are sourced from the daily farmers market which is located barely meters away from the kitchens. There's a small fishmongers, a decent sized butchers, a stall selling bread, even a small stall selling cheese. It's about as local and fresh as ingredients are going to get, and is a fantastic idea. It would be great to see the concept replicated elsewhere.

The Restaurant is located in a open gallery which runs down one side of the shed, overlooking the market. It's simple but pleasant looking, bare wood tables, a small bar located in the middle and large original arched windows offering views of the dubious pleasures supplied by Canterbury West train station.

Studying the chalked menu board behind the bar, my initial thought was "Great simple, British dishes and local produce" my second thought was "Quite expensive - hope it's worth it!"

Well, you'll be pleased to learn that it was worth it, just. There were elements of the meal that let it down slightly, considering the prices being asked, but overall I enjoyed what I ate.

We were brought thick slices of excellent rustic bread served on a wooden board with butter. It was good stuff, as far as bread goes.

My starter of Ham Hock Terrine with 'Paul's Piccalilli' was quite possibly one of the prettiest starters I've seen this year, a thick jellied slice of terrine layered throughout , with fresh green herbs, separating the soft flakes of ham hock and studded with peppercorns, perched on warm toasted bread with a subtly flavoured, obviously homemade piccalilli. Beautiful stuff, it all worked so well together, and served on old mismatched china, was really nice to look at, being almost a shame to dig in.

My main of Confit duck with muscat wine and chorizo arrived, and was almost equal in the looks department to my starter, again served on old mismatched china. Two confit duck legs, spiked with chorizo balanced on a mound of buttery mash which itself sat on a bed of spinach and a chunk of some kind of squash. The Duck was perfectly cooked, falling from the bone at the merest touch of the fork, great stuff. Incredibly tasty but filling, this was a huge portion of food, I barely finished it.

The GF's main (no starter for her - that's why she's svelte, and I'm running headlong towards being fat.) was Filleted skate, with brown shrimps, and brown butter. I tried some and it was lovely, subtle yet meaty. For some reason she wasn't so keen, stating that the skate wasn't hot enough. I'm not so sure to be honest, a flat piece of fish like skate will lose heat rapidly - the piece I sampled was fine. So, a divergence of opinions on that dish.

Desserts, I toyed with the highly unusual step for me of not ordering any, I was so full. The GF suggested we share one...(not likely!) But, steeling my resolve I pushed on determined to see this to the end, and immediately went for Treacle tart with brown bread ice cream.
This arrived with candied orange zest on the side, (nice simple idea which I'm going to steal for use at home). and a slightly broken looking appearance at the front. Presentation issue aside, it was lovely and light, partnered with a slick of cointreau, cinnamon and star anise syrup and the ice-cream (which If I'm honest didn't taste much of brown bread to me) it was a nice way to end the meal.

The GF's Apple flan with custard seems to have suffered from the same serving problem, also arriving with the front broken. Her considered opinion, it was "OK, a bit dry" She didn't seem too keen.

So, a few hits, a few misses. My starter and main were truly excellent, the GF wasn't so enthusiastic about hers. The dessert's, although in my case, nice, were marred by a bit of cack handed presentation. The service, friendly, efficient and prompt was let down a bit by the waitress not knowing what the vegetable platter consisted of and seriously underselling it. But for all that, the concept of eating dishes made with locally sourced food, with the ingredients to purchase yourself a mere step away is an intriguing one. I think that overall, I'd happily eat here again but at around £7-50 for a starter, £16-£20 for a main, and £6-50 for a dessert, I'd expect a bit more attention to the small details.

The Goods Shed

Station Road West

Telephone: 01227 459 153