Monday 25 November 2013

Arbutus - London

Since I started writing this blog, every January, I've written a list of restaurants I want to eat at in the coming year. To be honest, it’s more of a wish list than a serious declaration of intent; at the end of each year I rarely cross off as many as I’d like. Last week, in a shocking break from form, I managed to squeeze in lunch at Arbutus, a listed restaurant, and in one bold stroke return some order to my chaotic universe.

Arbutus is somewhere I've wanted to eat at for quite some time, mainly because I'm a massive fan of Chef, Anthony Demetre’s recipe book, ‘Today’s Special’ which is absolutely cracking, full of beautiful yet refreshingly rustic food. Definitely buy it if you don’t already own it.

As you’d expect in a Michelin starred Soho restaurant on Thursday lunchtime, Arbutus was packed to the rafters with well-heeled looking media types when I arrived. 

Taking a seat in the plain, but pleasant feeling dining room, I’d more or less decided what I was going to eat before looking at the menu, feeling decidedly less flush than my fellow diners, I’d opted for ‘The working lunch’ set menu. Not that the a la carte is particularly expensive, it’s not, but what with Christmas approaching and an ever growing horde of nieces and nephews to buy presents for, I’m all about affordable treats right now.
My starter of hand chopped Scottish beef tartare was beautiful to look at and astoundingly good to eat. The steak had a fantastic texture, spiked throughout with the sharpness of the chopped capers, gherkins and the heat of mustard and Tabasco. Forked through with a rich raw egg yolk and spread on a slice of charred sourdough. Absolute heaven. One of the best things I’ve eaten all year. Some people are a bit squeamish about eating raw steak and egg . If that’s you and you’re in a very good restaurant (definitely not a dish to get stuck into in your local Harvester) and steak tartare is on the menu, I urge you to order it. If you can get past the fact it’s raw, you will not be disappointed. Seriously. Don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure!
I have a bit of a restaurant prejudice about chicken. I never order it. It always seems so safe, so boring and so easily overcooked and subsequently dry (God forbid its undercooked). Despite this; my hand forced somewhat by not fancying the alternative option on the set menu, I’d gone for the fowl. This arrived at the table in the shape of Black leg chicken, roast carrots, chestnut mushrooms and a side dish of potato dauphinoise. As is so often the case with prejudices, at some point you’re going to get them challenged and probably end up feeling like a complete chump. Yeah that’s me. The chicken was unbelievably good. The crispiest salted skin, rich moist flesh and the majority of the bones removed in a cheffy piece of butchery. Combine this with a creamy dauphinoise, crisp vegetables, a sweet carrot and cumin puree and deeply savoury gravy, it all adds up to me eating my words. Ordering chicken in a restaurant can certainly pay off.
I decided to sidestep the set lunch menu dessert option, a warm English treacle tart with crème fraiche on the a la carte catching my eye. Can I just point out, I frigging love treacle tart. I’ve eaten it everywhere. I’ve made my own for the supper club a number of times to some acclaim. Believe me, I know what’s what when it comes to this particular dessert. The treacle tart I ate at Arbutus was by far the best I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. Warm, just set, softly oozing sweetness on a beautifully crisp pastry base. As that first spoonful entered my willing gob and spread itself luxuriously across my tongue I was pinned to the seat, transfixed, radiating love for this dessert. It’s something of an understatement to say I thought it was pretty f*cking good.

The bill, two set courses and an a la carte dessert and a couple of glasses of red, including tip £38. Which believe me when I tell you, is an absolute frigging bargain. The food, all of it, was just faultless, that steak tartare and the phenomenal treacle tart both vying for the best things I’ve stuck in my mouth this year. Add to this service which was at once friendly, pleasant, cheerful and entirely lacking any pretension and you have a near perfect lunch experience.
I absolutely loved it.

63 — 64 Frith Street

Telephone: 020 7734 4545

Saturday 9 November 2013

Beef Rib Trim Stew with Stout, Treacle and Star Anise

The damp, cold, dark evenings of autumn bring about an almost overnight change in my food cravings. I suddenly demand the comfort of mashed potato (I am an unrepentant mash fiend) and I want it accompanied by any kind of dark, sticky, rich meat stew I can lay my greedy little paws on.

I made this stew the other night for dinner. To be honest, I’d forgotten how incredibly easy it is to chuck something like this together. Yeah there’s a bit of chopping, a bit of prep, but I actually quite enjoy the methodical nature of getting your ingredients ready. I find it almost calming. I also reckon part of the enjoyment is definitely having the right tools for the job, a decent peeler and a nice sharp knife. If instead of a smooth slicing action, you’re frustratingly hacking away at something with a blunt as assholes blade, then where’s the frigging Zen in that? Once your chopping is done, the actual hands-on cooking part takes no time at all. It’s just a case of slinging it in the oven and forgetting about it for a couple of hours.

You may not be able to easily lay your hands on beef rib trim. The butchers, Donald Russell sent me some ages ago and it’s been lurking at the back of my freezer. If not don’t worry, substitute for beef shin or stewing steak. You can use any braising or casserole type cut of beef, cubed really. They all work the same, more or less. You may just have to cook it a bit longer, which in the case of a stew is no real effort at all.

The addition of star anise to beef is something I once saw Heston Blumenthal banging on about on TV.  It may seem ridiculously cheffy and frivolous, but it definitely works. It’s bloody lovely. Don’t be a chump and go leaving it out 

For full rib sticking effect, I suggest serving this with mash (my recipe is here and it’s banging, even if I do say so myself) and some kind of sautéed greens. Oh, and if you’re a real greedy bastard, some crusty bread slathered with butter to mop up with.  
Beef Rib Trim Stew

Serves 2 (Generously)

You’ll Need: -
500g beef rib trim (Or beef shin) cut into 3cm cubes
Maldon Sea Salt
Olive Oil
Tomato purée
2 large carrots, peeled, halved lengthways, sliced into 6cm pieces
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 Large onion, chopped
Half a leek, chopped
2 Bay Leaves
1 Tbsp Treacle
Bottle of dark beer or stout (I used Wild Beer Co, Wildebeest)
500ml – 1 litre Beef Stock
1 Star Anise
Handful Chestnut Mushrooms, halved
Handful of Parsley, finely chopped
White Pepper to serve (optional - well, not frigging really, but...)

Preheat your oven to 160C

Get a large saucepan or casserole with a lid, put it on the hob over a fairly high heat and add a tablespoon or two of olive oil.

Season your cubed beef generously and get it nice and browned in the pan. You may have to do it in a couple of batches, if you crowd it, instead of getting a nice golden sear, the meat kind of steams and you don’t want that, no.

Remove the meat from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Add the carrots, onion, leek a grind of pepper and a good pinch of salt. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring regularly until it’s starting to cook down and brown. You may need to add a little more oil.

Sling in the mushrooms and bay leaves. Cook for another couple of minutes. 

Add the tomato purée, stir it in so everything’s coated and cook for a couple more minutes. 

Add the beef back in, along with the star anise and the treacle, stir and then pour in your bottle of stout. 

Then add beef stock to cover. If you have it, use proper beef stock, if you don’t, make some up with an Oxo cube. Lets not be snobby about it. Use what you can lay your hands on; it’ll still taste great.

Bring to the boil; whack the lid on and place in the preheated oven for 1 ½ - 2 hours until the meat is tender and breaks apart when poked with a fork and the whole thing is looking pretty damn dark, sticky and gelatinous.
Heap into bowls, scatter with finely chopped parsley, mashed potato, sautéed greens and a good dusting of white pepper.