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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
At the Phoenicia Hotel they take luxury and food very seriously. Nick Harman goes into their garden to meet the head chef and to taste the Maltese difference.
Saul bounds away up the vegetable patch like a puppy in an apron, still talking to me over his shoulder. Then, after grabbing a few tomatoes off the vine, he comes hurrying back. ‘The freshness is fantastic,’ he said biting into one ‘and with the kitchen just over there it gets straight to the plate.’ Saul could be any keen cook enthusing over his vegetable plot, but this particular patch is a massive seven and a half acres in size. It’s the back garden of the Phoenicia Hotel, Malta and Saul’s the Head Chef. Read more…
San Sebastian may be the unofficial food capital of the world, but for three days this year it went more than a little London. Nick Harman gets a taste of Gastronomika 2013
Jose Pizarro is three rows in front, Fergus Henderson appears to have nodded off in his seat in the middle, Nuno Mendes is peering pensively past his fringe and out the window, Junya Yamasaki of Koya is with the bad boys at the back, Bubbledogs/Kitchen Table lads are all chatting excitedly and the Clove Club are members of the happy band. On board are plenty of other brit chefs who are bywords in the blogs, plus a couple of food writers and at least one of those is desperately trying to remember if he’s been rude about any of these chefs recently.
We’re barreling through the darkness en route to a mass dinner at Elkano, a restaurant in the seaside fishing village of Getaria about 24km from San Sebastian (Donostia). We’re going to eat turbot-rodaballo. It’s a simple dish, a whole turbot, or in this case about twenty turbots, cooked on enormous oakwood fired grills outside the entrance.
Nothing more than salt, cider vinegar and oil is added and the fish is served in three defined parts – the bottom side that never sees the sun, the top half with its dark skin and, on the side, a rack of gelatinous bones. The texture and taste contrasts are clear and defined and you drag the local bread through the glorious mess your plate soon becomes and you greedily suck the skin off those bones. Outside, roasting in the heat from the grills ourselves, we gather for cigarette breaks and agree that it is possibly the best fish we’ve eaten anywhere
It’s certainly a long way in style from tweezers and Thermomix cooking; it’s basic Basque and the assembled chefs lap up the simplicity, so refreshing after a day of food art. We’re all in town for Gastronomika 2013, three days of learning and lecturing and this year there’s a strong Brit presence because the festival is flying the London flag, literally, because London has come to Spain, innit.
You’d think San Sebastian, a city that has become a byword for great food would be too cool to like London grub, but far from it. Outside the conference center, a modern structure next to the old town and perched like a giant bathing hut just a few yards from the beach, James Knappett has set up a food truck selling his eponymous Bubbledogs. Within a few hours it proves so popular they have to create a zig zag queuing system and locals and attendees of all ages happily stuff hot dogs into their mouths while dribbling sauce on their shirts just like any London food blogger.
Inside they’ve seen Heston open the show and heard from Jonny Lake of the Fat Duck and Ashley Palmer-Watts of Dinner, they will go on to see Anna Hansen(The Modern Pantry) cook fusion, smell the spices of Atul Kochar (Benares), marvel at the erratic Lundun accent of that man Knappett and watch Jose Pizarro (Pizarro’s) and Cesar Garcia (Iberica) demo. Over the next few days Nuno Mendes (Viajante) will also demonstrate, as well as Fergus Henderson (St John) and Tom Kerridge (Hand & Flowers), the latter to be found wandering about backstage hugely happy with the success of his book, TV show and now UK’s Best Restaurant Award.
Attending these events is both fascinating and frustrating. You get to see, and smell, some remarkable dishes being created but you never get to taste any. The hall is hot and a bit stuffy and during the Spanish chefs’ performances you wear translation headsets which make your ears hurt and sometmes deliver Spanglish. For the chefs it’s about seeing what could be on the menu stylewise next, to see heros in action and go out on the lash in the evening. For me it’s work and pleasure combined but you can only watch so many demos.
Luckily there is the food Disneyworld of San Sebastian to explore. So many tabernas, so little time, and picking the right ones isn’t easy. You peer in and try to judge by spotting who are locals and who are tourists. The latter are easily identifiable, they are taking endless pictures and are filling large plates with pinchos as if at a wedding buffet. With a shudder you withdraw.
Some bars in the beautiful old town have got lazy and serve bad food but get a good guide, and I recommend John Warren of San Sebastian Food, and you will be steered right. In San Sebastian the good and the bad and the ugly are not fixed, so you need the most up to date info if you’re not to blow your euros on the wrong pinchos.
John is scathing about some tabernas and waxes eloquent about others, particularly in the Gros area of town an area little visited by tourists. Here he deftly steers me from place to place, drinking the sparkling txakoli wine, very dry and pleasantly low in alcohol, as we go, while I wonder how much more food I can take before exploding like Mr Creosote.
I also wonder if I am going to get scurvy. John assures me that in their homes the locals eat as many green vegetables as anyone else, but in the tabernas the closest you come to green veg is an olive. If it’s not fatty or fried or both, the Spanish don’t want it. Here in Spain it’s best to forget about your five a day and just concentrate on trying to get just one a day.
Back at the conference centre it’s good to see London being hailed as the most exciting food city in the world. The talk is all of our multi-cultural melting pot and how, having never really had much of a cuisine to defend, we have been omnivorous in our welcome to everyone else’s. Yes we fall for crazes rather too easily, and fall prey to silly hype occasionally, but we keep our eyes open as well as our mouths.
Maybe next year we’ll be the ones holding our own Gastronomika, that’s if all the chefs made it back safely home of course.
Photos taken with the HTC One Mini
Tenerife Market 2013, a set on Flickr.
135 Petersham Rd Richmond, Surrey TW10 7AA www.thedysartarms.co.uk
I’ve walked past the Dysart Arms lots of times over the years on my way to Petersham Nursery, not that I’d go to that place now, not since Skye Gyngell left. Her long face looking out of the kitchen window like a disconsolate horse was never very cheering but the food was always interesting, if hellishly overpriced. Now it’s just hellishly overpriced..
The Dysart Arms is an old arts and crafts style pub that’s a pub no longer. Like so many it found it couldn’t survive on beer alone and so has changed hands and gone gourmet. A resulting internal refurb suffers a bit from the curse of Farrow & Ball, but they’ve resisted the temptation to paint absolutely everything cream. This means that it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in branch of Daylesford Organic, a place that sends me into a frenzy of hatred even just thinking about it.
Large flagstones, naked wood tables, grand fireplaces and original leaded windows all create a feeling of cosiness. To add to the happiness the sun is streaming in ‘like butterscotch’ (thank you Joni) while the staff are breezing efficiently about and helping me chase wasps back out the window as I have a pathetic fear of wasps. The set menu is a very reasonable £19.95 for three courses, but we’ve heard head chef Kenneth Culhane is a bit good, a Roux scholar no less, so we hit the a la carte to see if the kitchen can cut it.
Little pre-nibbles that are, in young people’s eyes as naff as napkins and cutlery, are quite excellent, as is the soda bread. We wolf these down and wait for starters proper which immediately set our happy bells ringing when they arrive.
My veal sweetbread is exquisitely cooked, a little crusty on the outside and billowing on the inside. A black truffle vinaigrette blows heavenly wafts across the palate, while fresh almonds deliver a contrapuntal punch. The juices are dribbled and smeared, which again some people dislike seeing but remains the best way of making plates look good while spreading flavours around.
P has scallops, perhaps not on the surface an exciting choice but the squid ink dumplings, are clever and texturally interesting and deliver a colour contrast while the scallops themselves are well seared, plump and fresh. An insolia veloute comes as foam, again a bit old hat for some but it does deliver the flavours very efficiently to the taste buds even if it isn’t fashionable.
Service is relaxed but they know which dishes we are having, this may seem oxymoronic but it’s surprising how many good restaurants still do the embarrassing plate shuffle at table when all it takes is a decent memory, or even a piece of paper, to get it right first time.
The iridescent green of the herbal kaffir lime and green chilli sauce is hallucinogenic and sets off the beautifully crisped stone bass on its bed of sweet and nutty celeriac very well. P reports that the whole dish tastes sublime; so it’s not all presentation there is real method at work here as well, but then of course you’d expect no less from anyone who’s been in spatula range of a Roux.
My Wiltshire Heritage beef had been treated with loving respect so as to be properly pink and well rested. With this kind of quality ingredient you really just have to exercise old fashioned skill and resist the temptation to rush.
With my expert eye I quickly identified beetroot on the plate, then checking the menu discovered it was in fact heritage carrot, carrots once always being purple until the comparatively recent orange variety took over. Cut into disks and batons the carrot had the sweetness of old that got rather bred out along with the colour and so was captivating. The flavour of the meat set against the miso mustard sauce, rather an inspired sauce I felt, and the dusty sourness of sumac, one of my favourite spices was excellent.
As with my starter I was drinking the recommended bottled beer not wine, in this case a Goose Island IPA, and it was a revelation just how enjoyable a craft beer can be with well-crafted food. The joy of being able to take a good swallow, and not just sip, can’t be overstated.
We shared a Valrhona Jivra chocolate and praline bar partnered with fashionable salted caramel ice cream and grue de caco for dessert. I am not much for sweet things and I don’t really ‘get’ salted caramel, but this was again an elegant and enjoyable dish. Even better was the selection of cheeses, small but perfectly chosen and perfectly ripe.
Days before going to the Dysart Arms I was referring to it as the Dyson Arms. God knows why, because, as we found, it certainly doesn’t suck. See what I did there? Ah comedy. Seriously though, best lunch of the year, hands down.
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