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Fore! Fine dining with a side order of golf at Vinothec Compass

A casual fine dining restaurant on a golf driving range? Let’s get wood at Vinothec Compass.

The grass next to the restaurant appears to be sprouting mushrooms at a remarkable rate, but you really don’t want to pick these. They
are in fact golf balls, and as Michael Caine noted in the film Zulu, there are ‘fahsands of ‘em’.

golf

From the two tiered stand at N1 Golf London, scores of golfers are relentlessly whacking balls out into the sky and the only thing stopping them from sailing on to land in Canary Wharf, glistening like a mini Dubai in the fast setting sun, are giant nets.

chef

I have a go, my only golf experience up to this point being Crazy Golf (if you want to know how to get around the miniature windmill in two shots, just ask me). This is not enough it seems to handle a real golf club as I swipe wildly into the air twice and then hit the ground on the third go with enough force to almost pop my shoulder out of its socket.

One of the many golf pros on standby steps in, adjusting my stance and showing me how to bend my legs, my arms and how to follow through. Amazingly on my next attempt there is a solid connection and the ball arcs outward like a bullet in a most satisfying way. I can see how golfers can get hooked on the feeling.

pass

Anyone can have a go, N1 charges £ 12 for 120 balls (£10 off-peak) or 60 for £6 and there are worse ways to spend a lunch hour or early evening, but it sure makes you hungry. Fortunately there is the 19th hole, Vinothec Compass a new restaurant that’s a long way from the traditional clubhouse with its coronation chicken sandwiches and Jaguar Mk II driving men ordering a G&T for the little lady.

chef2

The restaurant is airy, canteen-like which goes with the ‘casual fine dining’ label it has given itself. People today, we are told, don’t like fine dining, have a phobia about napkins, a fear of tablecloths and a visceral hatred for waiters who glide instead of walking.

On the other hand we don’t all want to eat American Casual Dining, or expensive junk food as it’s better known, all the time. So what lies between? Well step forward Vinothec Compass.

Arnaud Compass, a geographer and geologist by training, and Keith Lyon are the founding partners here and they have invited me to sample a selection of miniature tasting versions of chef Jordi Rovira Segovia’s menu along with wines Keith has chosen himself. One wall of the restaurant is lined with bottles bearing simple price tags that belie their far from simple prices.

squid

We eat tapas of baby squid, tomato and coriander along with Chardonnay from Bulgaria, a Château Burgozone 2012. The squid is excellently cooked, smoky and soft and the Chardonnay likes it.

salmon

Next up a dish that almost required a magnifying glass to view, this was of course just a taster though, of labneh, dried black olives, asparagus, citrus vinaigrette and fresh oregano with salmon roe.  A Volubilia 2013 Moroccan Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Vin Gris rosé was excellent and the food sharp and clear and the dried olives little nuts of concentrated flavour.

piq

Suckling piglet belly with piquillo was fatty in a good way, melting into the mouth and served with a red that was slightly below room temperature with a slight chill to the bottle. Arnaud explaining that room temperature was often too warm, nowadays. Couvent des Jacobins 2005, a St Emilion Grand cru is a concentrated, darkly attractive wine already softening in its tannins but with still perhaps a few years left yet to achieve its full potential.

cod

A piece of cod that passeth all understanding was next, fresh from Billingsgate and delightfully firm and well textured with slippery Romesco sauce, the wine Arnaud chose came from where he grew up, Dido 2013 from Montsant vineyards. It had nothing to do with the MOR made in Chelsea chanteuse fortunately and was intriguing in its ‘thick’ texture.

onglet

Arnaud rather bravely stuck with this white for the, much anticipated by me, Longhorn Onglet, served rare as it simply has to be, from a fifth generation butcher in Chipping Barnet. A superb piece of meat, one that I regard as the best steak of all. Dido accompanied it (sic) very well indeed and I could have eaten a great deal more of it given half a chance.

dessert

Finally, a deconstructed Vinothec Cheesecake made with cheese named after Jean Anselme Brillat-Savarin. A feast of fats it was as lush as could be and for once I was happy at the reduced portion size. Arnaud served his last bottle of 1971 Rivesaltes, a part of France I remember only vaguely because while I was there I drank Rivesaltes out of litre containers filled from converted petrol pumps  – happy days, if now very blurred ones, of being almost constantly drunk and making expeditions in the dead of night across the border to Spain to smuggle back soft drugs. It was thirty years ago, I hasten to add, so don’t go try writing me up for that bizness, seen?

wine

Anyway we downed some espressos from one man band artisan roaster, Francis Bradshaw and I rolled out into the night in search of a kebab, well as I keep saying, they were very small portions.

golf2

You may not feel that trundling out to what still feels rather like the ends of the earth to eat is worth the trip, but I feel you should reconsider. The food was excellent, the wines clearly well chosen and with plenty more to choose from as well. And you get a chance to thwack golf balls into space, what more do you want?

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Emirate Eating. The Dubai Food Festival

March 22, 2014 1 comment

‘Oh Dubai it’s all bling and excess isn’t it, nothing to do, see or eat there’‘ Nick Harman finds the naysayers couldn’t be more wrong.

Red, red, wine, it goes to my he- eh -eh ed’, except that it doesn’t here because neither red nor white wine are an option at The Big Grill in Muslim Dubai.

However I do have a compensatory stacked plateful of grilled lamb, Lebanese mashawis and other food treats to gnaw on as I tap my toes to the bland white reggae beat from the UB40 boys up on stage.

The Big Grill at Dubai Emirates Golf course is a 2-day celebration of everything BBQ; packed with BBQ cook-offs, burger eating competitions and BBQ picnics amidst live performances from world-class artists and local DJs. It’s not perhaps what people usually expect from Dubai, but that’s the point,

It’s all part of the Dubai Food Festival, a new idea for a city more famous for soaring tower blocks, supercars on the street and money, money money than it is for food.

Dubai is a massively multicultural city of course and the food available reflects that. Over 200 cuisines are being represented at the Festival, which takes in everything from shipping containers at ‘Beach  Canteen’ – where I ate locally caught fish while the setting sun pinkly illuminated the amazing Burj al Arab hotel – to the highest of high end restaurants. Whatever your pocket, you can afford to eat widely and well. Read more…

Tasting a bit of a different Tenerife

September 17, 2013 1 comment

Tenerife has always been overshadowed by a reputation for out of control young Brits heading for A&E as fast as cheap beer can take them. But stay away from those spots and there’s an island with history, culture, wine and of course food. Nick Harman splashes down

Who needs a gym? I’m working up quite a sweat in Bodegas Monje restaurant, furiously pounding green peppers, garlic, chili, coriander and almonds and I’m sure my right bicep has perceptibly grown in the last five minutes.

I’m making Mojo, a classic Tenerife sauce, under the watchful eye of the chef and also, I’m guessing, his mother. Her clucking and tutting is interspersed with bursts of terse Spanish and I mutter ‘si’ and ‘bueno’ through teeth clenched with effort. I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying but whatever it is I think the safest thing to do is agree.

I’m told Tenerifians are tough but friendly people, but then living on a volcano probably does that to a person. At 3.718m high the witch’s hat of dormant Mount Teide looms over the island and can be seen from almost everywhere, it’s tonsure of cloud contrasting against the black rock and the blue sky. Travel by cable car to its highest reachable point and it’s cold and getting colder. In winter the slopes will have snow and it’s possible to sunbathe and ski in the same day.

The volcano slopes aside, there are just two seasons in Tenerife: hot and not so hot, which is why Bodegas Monje can grow excellent wine like their unique Monje Tacoronte-Acentejo Tinto Tradicional  from grapes grown on vines that were never affected by Phylloxera. It’s also why the island’s tourist trade benefits all year round from hordes of Germans, Dutch, and of course Brits, looking for virtually guaranteed warmth and sunshine.

And booze. You can’t deny that some parts of the island have become synonymous with tattooed lads auditioning for Channel 4 documentaries. But why go there? Literally why? There’s plenty more of the island to explore and you don’t have to see a single St George’s flag fluttering over someone’s belly.

I’m staying in the capital Santa Cruz. The Iberostar Hotel Grand Mencey is what a hotel should always be; it’s not a bland block of concrete but a kind of castle. It’s cool marble interior bathes you in fresh air as soon you walk in, the central courtyard acting as a kind of chimney funnelling hot air up and out just as the architects no doubt intended when they designed this hotel in 1950 and before the advent of ubiquitous air conditioning.

Not that the hotel hasn’t moved with the times. A recent full refit has kept the old school charm, but modernised where it matters. There’s a state of the art gym for guests and a plush spa too. The rooms are large but restrained and contemporary, the WiFi is powerful and you can plug your MP3 player into the room system for tunes while you shower. Balconies vary from standard size to ones you could hold an after-party on and most look out over the pretty gardens and pool. I couldn’t find a kettle and tea making kit in my room, though. Perhaps it was just an oversight or perhaps the Lipton’s bag on a string has gone forever.

Tea and mojo apart, and I think I may have lost the latter up in that restaurant, I’m here to also try Iberostar’s latest culinary wheeze. They’ve built a smart cooking classroom and are inviting top chefs to show and tell food fans how it’s done. Then in the evening, as part of the deal, the chef cooks a full tasting menu with paired wines for the private room.

The demo is fascinating stuff; headphones deliver non Spanish speakers a fluent simultaneous translation. A good selection of Michelin starred women chefs are lined up to appear here into 2014 and today’s chef, the ebullient holder of two Michelin stars at her Galician restaurant El Stacion, Beatriz Sotelo, is a natural teacher. She talks about her beloved Galicia and its superb seafood and sends out tasters as she works and we fall upon them greedily and get even hungrier for the evening meal.

Which turns out to be very good. Highlights for me were the razor clams, fiercely grilled until open and dressed with citrus and olive oil, and a clever dish of wataki beef and wasabi cream. Add to that a plate featuring Galicia’s shellfish crown jewel, the strange looking percebe, and it was a meal to really remember.

The next day, from Iberostar’s central location, I set off to wander the town of Santa Cruz. It’s a port and has no beaches as such, but it does have the shady Garcia Sanabria parknext door to the hotel with its impressive fountains and sculptures, as well as a preserved  old town with colonial buildings and tempting restaurants that reassuringly have no English menus on display.

Food here is much as you would find in any part of Spain, but some dishes are special such as Canary Island potatoes.  These grow all year round and are cooked, barely covered in water and piled with salt, until the pot is almost dry. With the salt only slightly penetrating their skins, and topped with red or green mojo sauce, they are simple and delicious.

Another treat and which can be found in Mercado de Nuestra Señora de África, Santa Cruz’s busy food market  a place well worth an hour or two’s browsing, are the fish that the locals are nicknamed after, the Chicharrero, as well the local salty, strong cheeses which partner with the local wines very well.

A short ride from Santa Cruz is Puerto Santa Cruz with its beaches of  black sand. It’s a more touristy area but pay to enter the Lago Martianez and you’ll find interlocking pretty pools perfect for swimming and sunbathing and all child friendly.

Large men lie around like walruses in those tiny trunks that only Spanish men have the guts to get away with, mostly because that’s what provides a semi-concealing overhang.

But that really is the only sight you might want to avoid in Tenerife; from wide views to small delights, from whale and dolphin watching to mojo making, from wine tasting to walking in the Teide National Park, the island has plenty to interest and excite those not on an In Betweeners kind of holiday.

And with winter coming up in the UK, just four hours travel in a plane will have you annoying everyone back home with pictures of blue skies, black beaches and your muscular mojo.

Foodepedia were guests of Iberostar. Rooms start from €40 pp per night for a double basic, to €113pp per night for a garden view suite.

www.thegrandcollection.com

Easyjet, Monarch and British Airways all fly to Tenerife.

For further information on Tenerife go to www.webtenerife.co.uk

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Mango Tree and Pan Chai at Harrods

87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7XL  www.harrods.com

‘That fish is extremely rare, those three are on the endangered list and this one here is extinct as of ten minutes ago.’ The man itemising the fish on our sushi/sashimi platter didn’t really say that, but with the cost of the board coming in at £120 for two it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if he had.

You don’t eat cheap in Harrods Food Halls; from steaks to sashimi the prices make your eyes water and the water isn’t cheap either. It’s the kind of spending excess that makes dreadlocked white kids put wheelie bins through the windows of banks before heading off to pay £11 for a gourmet burger.

Looking at the menus at both Mango Tree, and its partner opposite Pan Chai, there is nothing that could be called averagely priced and yet at both places not only is every stool occupied there are people patiently queuing for their chance to whip out their wads. They are mostly tourists, many are Chinese and all are obviously not short of a bob or two.

It’s an unusual spot to have lunch, the Harrods Food Hall. It’s always a frantically busy place and there are no tables at almost all the food outlets, instead you eat at a bar. Why don’t people wander off to find somewhere cheaper, less crowded in the area? The answer is probably to do with comfort zones. Well-heeled tourists feel safe in Harrods, whereas walking the mean streets of Knightsbridge might feel a bit edgy.

There is no point moaning about the prices though; after all if you can’t afford to pay you shouldn’t have sat down. So J and I barely turn a hair when at Mango Tree we find six dim sum priced at £30 (including a bowl of Tom Yum soup), instead we just adopt an insouciant pose and raise our glasses of £15 champagne to two girls who are eyeing us up as possible sugar daddies. Luckily they cannot see my TK Max trainers.

Is the food any good? Well chef in charge for MT Harrods and Pan Chai is Ian Pengelley, who is also chef at the gigantic Gilgamesh in Camden, and he’s a seasoned Western Thai pro. I’ve always liked his food and style and here he has a top team and a budget for the best ingredients.

The Tom Yum soup is rich and fiery just as it should be, four plump prawns are playing submarines at the bottom and shimeji mushrooms are patrolling the surface. I’ve had lots of Tom Yums and this is as good as the best I’ve had, at least in the UK. Coughing on the chilli does not help with our insouciant poses, though.

The dim sum, a plate of fried and plate of steamed are very good, although I am no expert on dim sum.  I know what I like and let somebody else count the pleats. From the steamed selection the foie gras and scallop is quite divine and the prawn and chive also excellent.

We eat everything in two bites each, dunking in the soy sauce in between to eke out the pleasure. From the fried selection I especially like the juicy prawn entwined in a bird’s nest of fried noodle, the mix of crunch and yielding flesh is perfect. Duck spring roll is rich and filling and the taro and chicken croquette also stood out.

Over at Pan Chai dry ice is steaming away on our fish platter and you half expect a bloke playing a twin-necked guitar to appear out of it. The sushi and sashimi are all beautifully ‘plated’ and while I soon lose track of what is actually on the platter the menu reminds me: Foie gras, sea urchin, salmon, tuna belly, sea bass, tuna, salmon roe, grilled eel, jumbo sweet shrimp, scallop, yellow tail, tamago and  spicy salmon roll. The fresh wasabi is just hot enough to spike without making my nose explode.

Each chopstick tweezered piece demands slow contemplation, as you are metaphorically sucking on a £5 note. Service is discreet yet cheerful which is can’t be easy as some of the rich diners act very brusquely indeed.

You can if you want eat a bit cheaper at both places with some menu savvy, although don’t go for the Wagyu beef curry unless you have £60 to spare.

And while some will say you can get cheaper, and arguably better, versions of all this in Soho, well the answer is of course you probably can but that’s really not the point. Just about everything in Harrods costs more than it would anywhere else; it’s not Bluewater after all.

If you have a burning desire to spend some serious cash in what must be the most iconic store in the world, and you want to get something very decent and decadent for your money, then pull up a stool at either Mango Tree or Pan Chai and adopt a happy smile

Lounge Lover, Shoreditch

Art love

Lounge Lover is not a restaurant, the restaurant, Les Trois Garcons, is next door. This means that you’d best not turn up hungry because, frankly, you’re going to leave hungry too and quite possibly succumb to the lure of the chippy on the way home.

But of course you can tell this by looking at the menu; the food occupies two pages and the cocktail list about fourteen so you don’t have to be a genius to see where the focus lies. This place is a lounge, that non-U word for a sitting room, and here the idea is to relax on the gloriously mismatched but oh so desirable furniture and take on board a few drinks.

While doing this you can marvel at the decoration, everything from old French grandfather clocks to a rhino’s head stuffed and mounted and shot in mid roar – what do Rhinos need those enormous teeth for? Aren’t they vegetarians?

In general Lounge Lover looks like the interior of Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann’s mind, a riot of camp, colour and devil may care eccentricity with small private rooms tucked exotically away off the main drag. As my pal A says, and he’s been around, ‘notice how everything is portable? If this place ever went under about the only thing they’d have to leave for the receivers is the paint on the walls.

That’s unlikely to happen, the three chaps who own this, the restaurant, the coffee shop nearby and a chateau hotel in France, know what they’re doing. They set up Les Trois Garcons and Lounge Lover back when this area was a bit dodgy; now the locals are generally richer than the customers. But there is much more competition too, in what was a bit of a food and drink wasteland you can find any number of cool hangouts for the new media types.

Lounge Lover still impresses though, a place to slide into at night for some drinks and nibbles and the nibbles are what we are here for. Even so we order cocktails – after ten minutes hopeless gazing I end up just picking at random, perhaps subliminally influenced by its name ‘A bit on the side’. Why can’t they just number cocktails? I remember the shame of ordering a ‘Slow comfortable screw up against the wall’ back in the 80s and it doesn’t get any better as you get older.

So to the food, the nibble menu’s divided up into raw, cured, fried and sweet and so we take a punt on Codfish ceviche with Swedish marinade, seeing as how ceviche is still fashionable and I like it anyway. It comes on crispy endive leaves and is as good as ceviche gets. The Swedish marinade is a bit of a mystery, what would Swedes use? Crispbreads? But overall we find they slip down fast and easy.

A trio of burgers appear next. Now I’m no fan of burgers, not when so many are bigger than your head and a sloppy mess, but mini ones I can get along with. Duck and cucumber archad, Venison & lingonberry

Madonna sat here, apparently

Aged rump and foie gras are the act here served in mini brioche buns. Again brioche buns are usually very horrid things to serve a full sized burger in, but here their sweetness balances the meats well. It’s not safe to say too much about foie gras, there are a lot of people out there who are simply gagging to stuff up anyone who dares say they like it, but it was good. Best burger is the venison, the berry being classic accompaniment. I have no idea what archad is, sorry.

Sweet potato fries come with a bi curious dip of crème fraiche and chilli sauce, these fries are really rather good and a welcome change from potato chips whether thrice fried or not, while a bowl of battered squid with cumin, red chilli and fresh lime zap is a bit odd as the squid isn’t battered at all. However it is well cooked otherwise, as soft as a politician’s handshake as pliant as one of their policies. The zap lives up to its name and makes me cough. We order more cocktails, try to look sophisticated and order Shoashin braised pork belly with

Nordic apple plunge. The plunge is a kind of applesauce, but full marks for its name, which sounds far more exciting. The belly is taut as a six-pack, the collagens well broken down. It has enough chewiness to make it interesting to chew and applesauce and pork is a no brainer success.

It’s getting a bit dark and LL’ s real clientele are showing up, party people; you can tell the place comes into its own as the night gets old. But we are actually old so we order fresh hot donuts with three dipping sugars dill, cardamom and cinnamon and prepare to leave. The donuts are squidgy and small, which suits us fine, and the cardamom makes an unusual contrast to the sugary sweetness, almost rendering the doughnuts savoury.

We are still a bit peckish but make it home without kebabbing it. Lounge Lover is not a restaurant but the food isn’t bar food either, it’s a place for classy supper post fun and it’s certainly somewhere different and pleasant to put your feet up for a while.

Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack.

Always nicely dark inside, you fall over the furniture a lot until your eyes adjust, it also benefits from an excellent Argentinian wine list. At a time when one rather suspected South America was dumping their inferior wines on the UK, the wine list at Gaucho was and remains a taste of what’s really available if you know where to look.

Of course the snobbier foodies never ‘got’ Gaucho, they dismissed it as too downmarket, it wasn’t properly connected to the right people in the right places, and it it was suspected that it might even harbour right wing tendencies, what with it being Argentinean and all. But Gaucho has got on with the task, serving up steaks to the masses and doing a good job of it, Gauchos now litter the pampas of London and remain popular with ordinary everyday folk looking for a reliably decent bit of steak any day of the week. Hearing of a new menu, we herded ourselves into the Swallow Street branch for a look see. Read more…

Trying the tapa de ancho at Gaucho

Raw and ready

Before the Hawksmoors, the Goodmans and all the rest there was Gaucho, actually first appearing in the Netherlands in 1976 in Amsterdam. A cut above a steakhouse, aimed at people who felt a little declasse in Harvester, this Argentinian temple of meat is rather different.  Animal hides make up much of the upholstery and the meat in all its various cuts, is paraded around the room raw so you can see what you’re getting. So it isn’t’ the kind of place to take Morrissey for a snack. Read more…