Wednesday 30 October 2013

Allium Brasserie - Bath

When I first moved to Bristol, its proximity to the rather beautiful city of Bath astounded me. I had no idea it was so close. I mean, I can almost throw a stone out of my living room window and hit it. OK, slight exaggeration but it’s just a 20-minute train journey away. As a result, I've spent a fair bit of my spare time wandering the splendid Georgian streets, gawping at the architecture and generally being a general nuisance to the residents as they walk into the back of me. Those tourists, entirely oblivious to their surroundings, fouling up the pavement flow and blocking doorways, the ones I used to glare hatefully at when I worked in London all those years? Yeah, in Bath I become one of them. That’s why I won’t be begrudging any gentle, educational pummellings that may come my way from the frustrated locals. I almost certainly deserve it.

Anyway, apart from beautiful buildings and dumbass tourists, Bath also has some rather cracking restaurants. There’s one in particular I like, right in the centre, Allium.

The head chef, Chris Staines, formerly held a Michelin star at Foliage in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London (where Heston’s Dinner is now). He has fairly recently made a move to Bath, achieving some rather impressive reviews from national newspaper reviewers, including Jay Rayner of The Observer and John Walsh in the Independent. As such, it’s hard to believe the restaurant is located in a Best Western hotel, but it is and it’s cracking.

OK, to be fair the dining room is maybe lacking a certain something; hotel dining rooms nearly always seem to have a corporate feel about them, but the views of Bath and the surrounding hills are cracking and it’s pleasant enough despite being a bit ‘hotel’ but then, I guess that’s exactly what it is.

The food however, is what it’s all about, much as I would love to spout alles uber da platz on interior design.

Eating from the set lunch menu, the descriptions have been quite obviously underplayed, each dish that emerged, surpassing any expectation I had and actually surprising me with how the listed elements had been put together on a plate. Also, I have to mention the seriously beautiful plating and presentation.

So, refined gentleman that I am, to begin, I stuffed a whole load of excellent rye sourdough bread, baked on site and heavily smeared with butter while delicately quaffing some plonk.
Lunch partner, Elly had chosen lightly smoked mackerel rillettes, potato blinis, pickled cucumber, apple and watercress salad as a starter. She reckons it as being one of the nicest things she’s eaten in ages. The contrast in textures and flavours of the creamy mackerel rillettes, crisp potato blinis (which turned out to be crisp-like very thin slices of potato), sharp pickled cucumber and cold apple was absolutely gorgeous.
My pressed terrine of chicken ‘Coronation’, lightly curried mayonnaise, pickled carrots and mango was equally bloody delicious. I have a real soft spot for coronation chicken and this play on a classic was lovely.
It’s hard to believe that a dish like poached fillet of haddock, roast parsnip puree, lightly curried mussel and autumn vegetable ragu features on the set menu. It was so astoundingly good and the portion was whopping. Often you can see where the kitchen has trimmed costs, either in ingredients or size, but I’d have been happy with this off the a la carte. A beautifully cooked piece of fish, crowned with a pile of parsnip crisps with the rich vegetable ragu. Banging.
Meanwhile, Elly had also gone for fish, pan fried pollock, crushed new potatoes, red pepper coulis and black olive tapenade. As with my main, the fish was superbly cooked. Pollock itself isn't the strongest flavoured of fish so worked really well combined with the punchiness of the red pepper coulis and black olive tapenade.

As you are no doubt well aware, I’m an unapologetically greedy bastard and ordered dessert without question. Elly who had an afternoon tea and cake appointment elsewhere, declined, foolishly as it turns out.  
Lightly poached plums with vanilla creamed rice, sugared almonds, mint syrup and plum sorbet was frigging sublime. The rice, served cold, had a hefty vanilla kick and worked incredibly well with the fruit, plum sorbet and the mint. The sugared almonds throwing a bit of crunch into the mix. Honestly, I thought this was a phenomenal dessert.

So, how much for three courses of faultless cooking, which is so beautiful to look at it almost feels like a crime to eat it? 
Yeah, that’s right, the set menu is an absolute steal. 

The a la carte, however is obviously much pricier, and I'm now seriously intrigued, so I may give that a go next time. 

I had a stonking lunch at Allium, in fact it was one of the nicest lunches I've had in ages, this despite due to a wedding reception being held in the restaurant, it meant having one of the worst tables in the place. It just didn't put a dent in it at all, the food and the service were top drawer and I couldn't have been happier.

If you’re in Bath, eat here.

Best Western Abbey Hotel
North Parade
Telephone: 01225 805245

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Smoked Duck Breast Salad

On the rare occasion I've made no dinner plans of any sort, there’s a pretty good chance I can take a cheeky throw of the culinary dice and gamble I can knock something half decent together from what’s lurking in the fridge. 
It’s full of all sorts of disparate ingredients including a whole shelf full of various, often esoteric, half used condiments and odd bits of veg and herbs in various states of usefulness.

Often the resulting dish may be functional at best, but every now and again I surprise myself and manage to throw something together that’s a bit more impressive. This smoked duck breast salad I cooked the other night was one such occasion.

If you don’t have one, I urge you to get your hands on a good, heavy grill pan. I've got a Le Creuset one and I frigging love it. Yep, it was expensive but I've had it for years and consider it an investment. Almost everything tastes better chargrilled with smoky, black lines etched across it, I use it all the time. True, its use is guaranteed to set the smoke alarm off, but what the hell. In the case of this recipe, I used it to char little gem lettuce and spring onions.

I used smoked duck breast from Trealy Farm and I've got to say it’s an absolutely superb product, but if you can’t lay your hands on any, you can get something similar in most large supermarkets. 

Remember when I mentioned esoteric condiments? I present to you hawthorn jelly. If you haven’t got any, it makes no difference, use redcurrant, cranberry, blackcurrant or even blackberry jam, whatever comes to hand really. Any of these would go with duck.  

Smoked Duck Breast Salad
Serves 2

1 x smoked duck breast, sliced 
2 x little gem, halved lengthways
6 x spring onions, washed and top ends trimmed, leave the root end on.
Handful of new potatoes
Tbs Capers
2 tsp Hawthorn jelly
Olive Oil
Maldon Sea Salt & ground black pepper
2 Eggs, soft boiled and shelled.
There’s not a hell of a lot of cooking involved here to be honest, the duck breast comes already cooked, so just needs slicing. It’s more a case of assemblage.

Add the new potatoes to a pan of cold, salted water. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 12 minutes or until cooked. Drain and put to one side.

Get your grill pan nice and hot then brush the halved little gem and the spring onions with some olive oil and char for around 3 minutes a side till you’ve got some impressive looking lines scorched on.

Put your hawthorn jelly or whatever condiment you’ve found lurking at the back of the fridge, into a small frying pan with the capers and a good splash of the caper juice. Heat it over a moderate heat, stirring for a few minutes until it’s melted down into liquid.

Soft boil two eggs, shell and halve.

Assemble however you think appropriate. I reckon the potatoes at the bottom, with slices of duck breast artfully draped over, with the charred little gem and spring onions protruding here and there, plonk the halved soft boiled egg in the middle and drizzle the hawthorn-caper dressing alles uber da platz. Don’t forget to season with the Essex salt and black pepper.
And that’s that. Easy.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Upstairs at The Ten Bells - London

I’ve wanted to eat at Upstairs at The Ten Bells for bloody ages but to be honest; I’d begun to think I’d missed the boat on it. ‘Young Turk’, Issac Mchale has since gone on to open much lauded sister restaurant, The Clove Club just down the road in Shoreditch and much of the current food mob focus appears to be fixed firmly there. But recently, whilst perusing a friend’s rather excellent blog, he had written a post about how he’d just revisited The Ten Bells for lunch and how stonking it still was. I didn't need any further encouragement.

In a former life, before my move to Bristol, I worked in London for the best part of twenty years and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the city. The Ten Bells pub itself is a bit of a fave due to the Jack the Ripper connection (At least two of his unfortunate victims are supposed to have been regulars at the pub, the immediate area at that time being notorious for prostitution). The downstairs bar area is relatively untouched from this period with original Victorian tiling and a mural decorating the walls (Yes. I can be that boring). Nowadays, despite being a popular pub with both the after work suited crowd and the hipsters; it’s still surprisingly atmospheric. 

I’ve drunk in there a fair bit over the years, and often wondered what’s up the gloomy, looking wooden stairs at the back corner of the bar. Now I know.
Taking the last step with my regular panache and turning smartly on my heel, through the doorway into the restaurant I was immediately struck by just how beautiful the dining room is. The space, flooded with afternoon sunlight playing over the worn, gnarled and knackered floorboards, stripped back walls and woodwork, has real character. Here and there, just to bring everything bang up to date, all this cool shabbyness is punctuated with glaringly modern neon, a piece on the opposite wall to me spelling out ‘Keep me safe’. Definitely a sentiment I can appreciate.

I was meeting a mate and finding her already seated, we started as we meant to go on and cracked straight into a couple of G&Ts, to get the old digestion process kick-started. Purely medicinal, you understand. Sipping commenced; I considered the menu, which at lunchtime is of the short, set variety.

The ‘Snacks’ section stands apart from the set menu with regards to moolah and contains some very interesting items, the buttermilk chicken & pine salt being a bit of a signature dish. We’re both unashamedly greedy bastards, so we immediately agreed to order one of everything.
Razor clam and grapefruit sauce vierge, chopped, mixed and arranged in the shell was a perfect way to get started. Delicious, fresh and sharp. As these were only three quid, we had one each.
Digging into the shared bowl of grilled leeks, Westcombe fonduta & flax seeds, I mused silently to myself on the pretentiousness of the term fonduta. I’ve never heard of this apparently slick, Flash-Harry relative of plain old fondue, but here it was, dripping sexily off the end of my charred baby leek and I was eating it all and not only that, I was mopping up the remnants with bits of bread. Ridiculous. By the way, I ate the rooty sprouty bits of the leeks as well, not entirely sure if you should or not, but I’ll stick anything in my gob given half a chance.
Finally, the famous buttermilk chicken and pine salt. A dish I’ve ooohed and aaaahed over a hundred times on Instagram. Yeah. It is as good as I hoped. Beautifully moist and subtly pine tinged. Well worth £6.50 of anyone’s cash.  I’m an older, wiser diner nowadays, so I resisted the urge to try and tuck into the bed of pine branches the chicken was artfully arranged on. You may laugh, but about five years ago, I spent some time in a restaurant gamely chewing tough seed like items from a glass bowl of before realising it was the inedible base decoration underneath the actual dish. I’m ashamed to say I’d eaten a handful of them. So, if I’m in your restaurant, never give me a plate with decorative props on it, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll eat ‘em.
A starter of wild mushroom veloute, Jerusalem artichoke and quail’s egg was a bit less impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice and a decent enough transition to the main event but it lacked the ‘sit up and take notice’ quality that the snacks had. The quails egg was perhaps just a bit overcooked so rather than starbursting it’s yolk into the surrounding soup as I viciously hacked into it, it just kind of sunk without trace, taking it’s egg yolk cargo to the bottom in two halves. 
Cornish Hake, Broccoli, Bagna Cauda and Barley Porridge however, was superb. Take a look at that photo. What a beautiful plate of food. The fish was spot on, and the subtle flavours on the plate all pulled together. Lovely.

My lunch partner meanwhile was demolishing roast venison haunch, parsley root puree and red kale and wasted no time in telling me how incredible it was and subsequently how much better it was than my choice. I tried a bit, and she may just have had a point. Yeah, thanks for that, Audrey
A plate of figs, honey & thyme ice cream, crème fraiche and pastry flakes was also delicious. The only minor niggle being that the ice cream was already melting as the plates hit the table, but still, I was well happy anyway and scraped the plate.

I liked Upstairs at The Ten Bells a hell of a lot. I’m really glad I finally made it.  It’s a beautiful room and the cooking itself is spot on but also really interesting, and I mean that in the nicest way. If you eat out often, you see the same dishes again and again, but they are really pushing it in this kitchen and doing something different (Hello fonduta! Just kidding). 

I should add the service was particularly excellent, the waiters being really knowledgeable, both about the menu and its preparation and also the wine list.
The set lunch menu is a steal at £21 for three courses, but my bill, which included half of all the snacks, a gin & tonic, two glasses of wine and a tip came to a rather weightier £50.
Worth every penny.

Upstairs at The Ten Bells
84 Commercial Street
E1 6LY

Telephone: 020 7366 1721