Tuesday 23 October 2012

The Old Spot - Wells

Former Bibendum chef, Simon Hopkinson holds something of a revered status among those who cook or like good food. His cookbooks, including Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Week in-Week Out are considered to be modern classics, that many (including me) regularly turn to again and again, because his recipes are delicious, so well written, so well judged, they almost never fail. That he retired from the professional kitchen in 1995 and I never got to eat his food will always be something of a regret.

But, as with many talented head chefs, Hopkinson’s legacy continues to deliver. The rather impressive list of protégés who passed through the Bibendum kitchen and who have gone on to have fantastic careers in their own right include Henry Harris of Racine, Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce, Phil Howard of The Square and Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis. Closer to home in the South West, another former member of ‘Hoppy’s’ kitchen brigade is doing the business, Ian Bates at The Old Spot in Wells.

I’d heard a lot of good things about The Old Spot, from people whose judgement I trust, I was just biding my time and waiting for the opportunity to get my ass to the rather attractive cathedral town of Wells for a visit. That chance came about last week and I was tearing the phone off the hook and booking a table for lunch with a sense of haste verging on the obscene.
Walking into a somewhat disconcertingly empty restaurant, we were the first punters to arrive for lunch at 12:30. On the upside, this meant we got to choose any table we fancied. We instantly grabbed one on a raised area at the back, with incredible views across the green to the Cathedral and a grandstand perch over the entire room.

Bread and butter arrived, Bertinet sourdough, no argument with the quality there. ‘E’ and I munched away and studied the concise lunch menu, four starters, four mains, three desserts and cheese. Meanwhile the restaurant had started to fill up.
I’d chosen a starter of Cider-Cured Sardines with Pickled Vegetables and Crème Fraiche, purely because I’d never seen cider cured fish on a menu before and I was intrigued. In fact, it worked well giving the fresh sardines a sweetish tang offset nicely by the sourness of the crème fraiche and the sharpness of the crisp pickled veg. It was a beautifully balanced plate of food and I enjoyed stuffing every last bit in my gob.
‘E’ meanwhile was shovelling up forkfuls of Root Vegetable Salad with Hazelnuts and Creamed Goats Cheese in an obviously lady-like manner and admiring the food and the classic plating style. She had a point, from what I’d seen in books, the same dish could have happily been transplanted to the Hopkinson era Bibendum
Ham Hock and Morteau Sausage with Mustard Sauce arrived, reinforcing a growing feeling that this was the closest thing to experiencing ‘Hoppy’s’ style of cooking and food possible, not entirely unsurprising, considering Chef, Ian Bates’ background. The whole dish was so beautifully and precisely cooked, so unfussy in style, I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed eating something quite as much.
‘E’s Grilled Mackerel with Beetroot, Horseradish and Parsley Puree appeared an incredibly attractive proposition. The beautifully cooked fish framed against the vivid green puree and the scarlet beetroot. ‘E’ loved it, the fish was crisp, the classic flavour pairings working just as you’d expect. It was another cracking plate of food.
I solicited the opinion of the restaurant manager for my choice of dessert, a simple Rice Pudding with Plum Compote. It was a bloody fantastic choice, rich, creamy and flecked throughout with vanilla seeds. I huddled in the corner and made embarrassing sensuous cooing noises whilst scarfing the lot.
Almond Tart with Mascarpone, proved to be a little pedestrian for ‘E’. Not that it wasn’t delicious, oh no, just not as damn sexy as my choice!

So, a 3 course lunch produced by a protégé of Simon Hopkinson, all so beautifully judged, subtle, unpretentious and perfectly cooked if they’d told me ‘Hoppy’ himself was doing the cooking, I wouldn’t have questioned it. £18.50. Incredible.

I would crawl over broken glass and flaming coals for The Old Spot and Chef Ian Bates to be located in Bristol and not Wells. I frigging loved everything. All of it, so much so I was scanning the menu to check if there was anything else I could order, a side dish or suchlike just to see if it was as beautifully prepared as the other grub I’d experienced.

Go to Wells and eat at The Old Spot. Don’t have a car? Get the bus like we did, they run regularly from Bristol Bus station, it takes an hour and costs £7 for a return. You will not regret it.

Me? I’m already planning on going back in the evening to try the a la carte.

The Old Spot
12 Sadler Street

Telephone: 01749 689 099

Monday 15 October 2012

The Square - London

London restaurant, The Square is somewhere I’ve wanted to eat at for ages. Over the past few years, I’ve heard it come up again and again in conversation, often mentioned with some degree of reverence by people whose opinion I respect.

The Square is not achingly hip or in any way the latest thing, having opened in 1991; 21 years ago, it’s almost approaching institution status. With two Michelin stars and Head chef Phil Howard having been integral in both the career of star protégé, Brett Graham and the founding of his restaurant, which many consider to be London’s best, The Ledbury (Howard is a partner) . To say there’s an aura of excellence surrounding the place would be something of a frigging understatement.

I was due to be back in London for a day last week and I was fishing around for lunch recommendations, I always try and squeeze in a meal somewhere nice, wherever I can and The Square was mentioned once again. A chef friend of mine described it as the best meal he’d had recently and that was that. I didn’t need telling again. Booked!

Seeing as it was also my Dad’s birthday, and the old man is notoriously difficult to buy for, I thought I’d take him along, by way of a present. Strictly set lunch only, mind. What do you think I am, made of money?

So, striding down Bruton Street on a brisk, yet bright October lunchtime, the old man and I arrived at The Square, for a bit of posh grub. I don’t think we’ve ever been to a good restaurant together, at least not just the two of us, and I was looking forward to this immensely.

Greeted warmly and shown to the luxurious linen expanse of our table, we both settled in and took in a chattering room full of exclusively sharp-suited businessmen and women (this being mid-week lunchtime in Mayfair after all). As one half of this sartorially un-elegant, Essex duo of decidedly ugly ‘ladies who lunch’ I can say with some confidence, we stuck out like balls on a bulldog.
Not that this actually bothered me one bit, I’m well used to dining situations like this by now.

The old man, also seemingly unfazed by his surroundings surprised me by steering the conversation off-piste straightaway, stabbing his gnarled stump like thumb at a strangely luminescent feature wall,

“What do you reckon that finish costs?”

My Dad, just retired from a lifetime of working in London, constructing every kind of building imaginable, but mainly exclusive high-end, luxury type pads is a fount of arcane building industry knowledge. I realised he was out to shock me.

“Errrr a couple of thousand, maybe? What is it, polished concrete, marble?”

“No, a wall that size wouldn’t take the weight. It’s something called armourcoat, and a finish like that…”

…Taking a moment to appraise the exact dimensions of the wall with a professional eye…a dramatic pause, a casual intake of breath before delivering the good news…

“That’d cost you at least eight grand”.

The conversation then proceeded with a surprisingly amusing armourcoat based anecdote from a building job he’d worked on years ago. I looked around the elegant dining room again and thought it unlikely that anyone else had ever had the same discussion here. Ever.
Butter, unsalted and salted, riding atop flat backed glass swans made it’s way to the table. Posh. Digging into the offered basket full of absolutely superb bread, we paused to consider the set lunch menu.
But first, a baked beetroot and pickled herring amuse topped with cream and specked through with seeds was delicious and a nice way to kick proceedings off.
Ravioli of Langoustine with Crushed Cauliflower, Cepes, Pumpkin and Beurre Noisette was something else, bloody amazing basically. Ridiculously rich, of course, but as I munched away, the very distinct flavours came to the fore and were each in turn briefly discernible, the langoustine, cepes, lemon perhaps…If I could just once, make something so intriguingly multi-layered in taste and utterly frigging delicious I’d be a very happy man.
The old man’s plate of Tartare of Smoked Venison with Baked Celeriac, Crapaudine Beetroot and Chestnut Cream looked gorgeous, absolutely beautiful presentation and from my Dad’s feedback and the forkful I got of it, tasted the business. To be honest, the greedy bastardo in me wishes I could have eaten both starters. I have to admit, at the time I had no idea what crapaudine beetroot was, thinking it perhaps some particularly poncey French culinary term requiring a copy of Larousse to decipher. Turns out it’s a type of heritage beetroot. *groans and slaps forehead*
I’m from Essex; therefore I gravitate towards pie with mash, even in a two star restaurant. It’s the natural order of things. Yes, in this case a very swanky example, Game Pie, Savoy Cabbage and Creamed Potato, with a rich game Jus, poured over ceremoniously at the table. Cracking pastry, beautiful rich meaty filling. A dollop of superbly luxurious, whipped, creamy mash. Quite obviously crammed full of butter and cream, and all the better for it.
My Dad’s Fillet of Organic Salmon with Whole Grain Couscous, a Light Curry Dressing and Pomegranate wasn’t going down quite so well across the table. He was eating it, but as I had my head down like a pig in a trough, gorging on game pie, it wasn’t till the end of the meal that I noticed he’d left some. I did a startled double take, considering as I was, at that very moment, whether it would be truly bad form to lick my plate. The Old Man, ever the diplomat said it was really nice, but not as good as his starter. I tried a little and thought it was cracking. Maybe salmon just isn't my Dad's thing.  
A pre-dessert, turned out to be a dainty portion of the second option on the set menu, which is a nice way of doing business. You’re not left wondering what the other unordered dish was like. Warm Amalfi Lemon Cake with Black Figs and Honey Ice Cream unsurprisingly was ridiculously sweet and sticky, so much so that I doubt I could have finished a full portion, but truly gorgeous.
We’d both ordered the same dessert proper, Roasted Pear with Quince Puree, Almond Croustillant and Sherry Vinegar Ice Cream. First of all, I have to admit I had no idea what croustillant means until I looked it up, but now I’m sagely nodding my head and stroking my beard muttering ‘crisp, of course’.

Although the finer points of French culinary terms count for nothing when you’re stuffing the lot into your gob as fast as you can. This was probably the best dish I ate at The Square. A bona fide frigging masterpiece. The rich caramelised sweetness of the pear combined with the sourness of the sherry vinegar ice cream. Holy Moly, that’s what I’m talking about.
Finally, no parsimony with the delicious Nougat petit fours, they kept coming till we were both groaning and waving them away, stuffed silly.

A three course set lunch at The Square will set you back £35, a non-extravagant glass of wine, coffee and tip; you’re looking at just over £50. Not cheap, but consider that you could walk into any rubbish high street chain and easily spank £20 on lunch or dinner, and it would be truly abysmal, then why not forego that horrendous experience two or three times and treat yourself to a posh lunch where the food will be incredible and the service faultless? Makes sense to me.

As you may have gathered from the write up, the food at The Square was pretty much faultless. The front of house and waiting staff complete professionals, striking just the right balance between being friendly; putting you at ease but with a nice level of formality too, just to remind you that this is an upmarket joint.

If I had to question any aspect of the experience at all, it would be the dining room itself. It’s very businesslike, very corporate and somehow quite characterless. Compared to say The Ledbury, which also has two stars but feels, to me at least, very different, more interesting and pleasing to the eye.

But, it’s all splitting hairs when you can eat dishes like the Langoustine Ravioli and the Roasted Pear with Sherry Vinegar, quite possibly two of the nicest things I’ve eaten, ever, anywhere.

The Square
6-10 Bruton Street

Telephone: 020 7495 7100

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Coffee and cream granita

At ‘The Basement’ supper club I run with ‘E’, we often serve simple granitas or ices as a pre-dessert course. They’re refreshing, act as a bit of palate cleanser and are a nice way of moving from savoury to sweeter flavours. They are also, as you’d expect from me, incredibly sophisticated and posh.

At our most recent supper we served a coffee and cream granita. The coffee part we pinched from Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Just Desserts’ (which is a frigging awesome book by the way), I thought it’d be nice to pour a splash of cream over it, just before serving. It’s bloody nice.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it actually tastes a little bit like one of those iced coffees available from shitty high street chain coffee shops, but please don’t let that put you off. This is much more intense and über.

Here’s the recipe…

Coffee and Cream Granita
Serves 6-8

You’ll Need:-

100g Sugar
150ml Water
2 Cardamom pods
1 Strip orange zest
500ml Fresh espresso coffee, cooled
Double Cream to serve

Put the sugar and water in a saucepan over a low heat. Stir until dissolved. Add the cardamom and orange zest and boil for 3 mins.

Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 1 hour before discarding the cardamom pods and the orange zest.

Mix the coffee with the infused syrup and chill.

Once cold, pour into a shallow container and refrigerate for 2-3 hours until partially frozen. Every hour or so, give it a stir with a fork, scraping the frozen crystals into the liquid. After a few hours of this, it will have a nice icy granular texture and be ready to serve.

Spoon some into a glass, splash a bit of cream over.
Try not to suffer brain-freeze.