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A bite on the ocean wave

Cruise ships can have a bit of a dodgy rep when it comes to food, but P&O’s Azura has plenty to make even fastidious foodies fall in love. Nick Harman waddles up the gangplank

It’s not the first time I’ve eaten Indian food with the sensation that the room’s moving up and down, but it’s the first time that it really is. I’m in Sindhu,  Michelin-starred Atul Kochhar’s restaurant at sea, a fine dining palace on top of Azura, one of the world’s largest cruise ships.

The mysterious Isle of Wight

Azura had sailed earlier from Southampton and, even before the sun had set over the Isle of Wight, I was nosing about Sindhu to see how it was possible to create true Michelin star Indian dining on the ocean wave.

The decor certainly looks the part; dark woods, sumptuous booths and the aromas from the kitchen, or as we salty sea dogs say, the galley redolent of fine dining. With grills going and even a tandoori oven, the kitchen looks like any other professional Indian kitchen, except for the extra lips and edges needed to stop pans sliding around in any rough seas.

Guess who?

Normally Atul leaves Sindhu in the very capable hands of its head chef, but he’d left his Mayfair restaurant Benares and Saturday Kitchen and all the other commitments of a Michelin starred chef, to personally come aboard as part of P&O’s food and wine themed cruise from Southampton to the Mediterranean and back. When he flew home in four days’ time, having conducted a master class, a visit to a Spanish fish market and a Q&A session with passengers televised for the whole ship, Eric Lanlard of Channel 4 Baking Mad fame would come on board to demonstrate fine patisserie and after him wine expert and bow tie aficionado Olly Smith.

Full steam astern

Food features heavily on cruise ships of course; in fact one old cruising hand told me that the smarter ladies bring along extra dress sizes to allow for the inevitable expansion as they sail along. Few cruise companies take it quite as seriously as P&O though. On Azura, along with Sindhu, there are two more fine dining restaurants as well as the more standard buffets, grills and pizza places. Everyday good food is included in the cost of the ticket, but if you want to dine in places like Sindhu a small extra charge is made on each visit. For Sindhu it’s £15 and gets you appetiser, pre pudding and petits fours into the undoubted bargain.

The first night we left our cabin with, amazingly, an actual balcony, to try out The Glass House. Here Olly Smith selected wines are by the bottle or by the glass, courtesy of the clever Inotec inert gas system that keeps the wine fresh. The decor was modern and stylish and the ship stabilised so well that the only clue we were off the coast of France was the almost imperceptible movement under our feet. The ship sails slowly, not to save fuel but to keep things smooth, and Azura moves through the sea like a block of flats on castors. Bad sailors have no worries here and we tucked into a cool Modern European menu with gusto before wobbling off to sample the wide choice of entertainment on offer shipwide.

Chef in action

Next day was a cooking Masterclass with Atul himself. Softly spoken, self-deprecating and witty, Atul enthralled his audience as, with us looking on closely, he cooked some signature dishes, answered questions about himself and his career and gave lots of cooking tips before serving a memorable lunch of spider crab, tandoori chicken and sea bass that was as good as anything I’ve ever eaten in his main restaurant in Berkeley Square.

It wasn’t the last we’d see of Atul though, a day later docked in the Galician port of La Coruna, a group of us joined him on a visit to a Spanish fish and vegetable market, followed by a delicious lunch in a stylish restaurant overlooking the harbour, a meal so good we only just made it back to the ship before it sailed, earning us all a good natured rebuke from the captain over the ship’s tannoy.

Seventeen is another of Azura’s special restaurants, one where old style fine dining rules. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone do crepes suzette at table and the leaping flames made me fear for my black tie outfit – Azura likes to have the occasional formal evening and dressing up like Bond is all part of the fun. Seventeen’s menu and style is knowingly old-school but none the worse for that.

Days in harbours are followed by days at sea and as we crept closer to the Mediterranean, the skies lightened and before long the swimming pools were filling up and the suntan lotion was being sloshed about. There’s plenty to do on board, but a highlight each afternoon is the inclusive afternoon tea as good as any London hotel’s and served in high formal style in the main restaurant.

Bird watching

The good natured staff, mostly from the Far East, probably wondered what it was all about but served us dainty sandwiches and guilty pleasure cakes, with the genuine friendliness and good nature that characterised all the staff on board. After tea there’s only one clever thing to do and that’s either slump out around the adults’ only pool at the stern or doze in front of the giant Seascreen cinema that dominates the larger family deck area.

We were getting pretty used to the sea going lifestyle by now, one that requires you to do nothing more strenuous than walk the long corridors to your cabin, or if you’re feeling guilty about all that eating, to take the stairs – Azura’s lifts serve a mind-boggling 16 decks in all.

We tried the inclusive buffet one lunchtime, fearing the worst, but it was really rather good offering something for all tastes and plenty of it, and as soon as one section threatened to get low, more freshly prepared food was on its way.  Breakfasts too were epic, you could eat a dainty breakfast of fruit juice, croissants and compote, or you could load your plate with a Full English that was dangerously good with proper bacon and sausages, and not those strange frankfurtery things that foreigners seem feel are what Brits want to eat.

Market day

We could only spare three days of this 15 day voyage and so debarked at Gibraltar for a flight home. The plane takes off from a runway that crosses a main road and so the traffic has to stop, and as we recovered from the surreal sight of accelerating past waiting cars, the plane banked over and we could see the Azura, finally docked next to something even larger; the Rock of Gibraltar.

We envied the passengers going the whole way to Monaco, Italy and around the Med; with Eric Lanlard next and then Olly Smith, because the sun was only going to get hotter and the food was only going to get even more deliciously and waistline threateningly tempting.

See Eric Lanlard’s video

P& Cruises will be running a 28 day food and wine themed cruise in November 2013 on the Azura’s sister ship Adonia. Chefs on board will include Eric Lanlard with more to be announced. Prices start from £2,399 per person from Southampton. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com

P&O ship Ventura sails on August 18th for the Meditteranean. The price of £999 per person includes inside cabin, meals and entertainment. To find out more visit www.pocruises.com

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Dive right in. Bentley’s Seafood Grill at Harrods

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

A struggle to get onto at my age

Richard Corrigan is holding a champagne glass, it’s just an ordinary champagne glass but in his giant paw it looks like something from a dolls’ house. Larger than life he stands out even in a Harrods Food hall thronged with press people going Darryl Hannah ‘Mermaid’ on his seafood.

It’s the press launch of Bentley’s Sea Grill at Harrods, and with the iconic store now closed for the evening we’re free to sit and eat anywhere in the hall. Plates and plates of beautiful native oysters appear. Naked but for a shot of lemon juice, they’re some of the finest oysters I’ve eaten anywhere.

Rock oysters come out with a Vietnamese dressing of shallots and fish sauce, while other oysters come with plenty of butter and garlic and baked in the oven, making the flesh velvety textured and a bite to savour slowly.The seafood swimming by has my eyes on stalks, rather like the enormous langoustines that come just boiled and ready to be dredged in a classic Marie Rose Sauce.

Salt and pepper squid with mayonnaise is perfectly fried, the squid tender and the batter crunchy. Grilled head-on large prawns have been split, but not separated. Spiked with chilli they come roaringly hot off the grill and I burn my fingers tearing into them for the meat, but it’s worth the pain.

Your man himself

Salt cod ‘Scotch Eggs’ are served in egg cartons, fish and chips with mushy peas and plaice goujons both come in paper cones. Smoked salmon from Bentley’s own smoker is served in chunks, so you get something serious to chew on. Oh and there’s lobster and dressed crab and champagne too, so no one goes hungry or thirsty.

Of course this new place isn’t going to be cheap, no one goes into Harrods looking for a bargain do they. On the other hand the quality of the seafood is clearly second to none and it’s a fun place to eat.

Richard weaves his way magnificently through the throng beaming his head off. I tell him I am finally stuffed, I can eat no more. ‘You can never eat too much seafood!’ he roars cheerfully.

Bentley’s Seafood Grill is the third London opening in Richard Corrigan’s London restaurant portfolio, which also includes the first Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill and Corrigan’s Mayfair.

The menu also features the Bentley’s classic Royal fish pie, a dish first served at the Queen’s 80th birthday as part of the BBC series Great British Menu. A choice of desserts includes dark chocolate mousse and crème brulée and the wine list will focus on the Old World.

Copita restaurant, Soho

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

26 D’Arblay St, W1F 8EP copita.co.uk

An establishing shot

A veritable armada of new Spanish restaurants has been sailing into London in 2011, their weapons the twin battleships of modern and classic tapas and all aimed straight at our guts. Iberica has opened a new place in the beating heart of Canary Wharf, Jose Pizzaro has occupied Bermondsey without resistance, The Opera Tavern has given Covent Garden a whiff of garlic and Omar Allibhoy has struck camp in Bluewater. I’m assuming the latter must know what he’s doing, and didn’t just sail up the wrong bit of river.

Copita, its name derives from the Spanish for a type of sherry glass, is from the mothership of Barrica in Goodge Street and has berthed further south in D’Arblay Street, Soho. Its sober frontage doesn’t exactly holler for attention but thankfully neither does it go for the faux craphole look which is now getting rather boring.

Inside it’s all about tall stools and high tables with tiles up the walls and along the floor and it’s a nicely judged balance of rough and smooth. Balanced precariously on a stool myself – I can never be truly comfortable on those things, they’re not quite sitting and they’re not quite standing – I’m finding it rather cosy and so is my wingman J. Packed in the evenings, Copita is currently nicely calm at lunch. Read more…

Breakfast at The Arts Club, London

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The Arts Club 40 Dover Street London W1S 4NP

Pretty as a picture

I am not an artist, never been one, although the lifestyle certainly appeals; the birds, the booze, the brawls, the South Bank shows and the lovely cottage in the Dordogne, what’s not to like? And if I was an artist I could then become a member of the Arts Club in Mayfair and enjoy a breakfast like this every day.

Founded in 1863 by, amongst others Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, the Georgian townhouse is unremarkable from the outside, as is right and proper. In fact all you really see is your reflection in the gloss black of the door. Inside is a subtle reception, stylish people man (men?) the desk and the latest iMac, surely not actually needed not just for reception, has its imperious designer back to you. It looks good of course, this is not a place to have a Dell on display after all. What artist ever used a PC? Read more…

Burn baby burn.Hot Headz chilli sauces on test

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Ow, that stings!

‘Bloody hell!’, ‘Jesus Christ!; ‘Aaagh!’ are about the only printable comments we can make after trying the hot sauces we were sent by Hot-Headz the chili specialists.

The ladydeez sensibly wanted nothing to do with our taste test and retreated instead to a safe distance while we chaps bragged about our capacity to withstand any amount of scoville scorching and made vulgar jokes about lavatory paper. This was going to be a pushover.

We didn’t have any food to add to the sauces, and anyway it would have taken away from the pure scientific nature of the product, so instead we laid on some slices of cheap white bread (starch can be an antidote to chili, while water just makes it worse) and decided to dip cocktail sticks in the bottles to ensure minimum on the tongue, after all we had five to choose from.

Scoville (SHA) units are of course the scientific measure of a chili’s heat or capsaicin content, although it is measured by humans not by electronics. What a job that must be eh? The scale runs from 0 to over 200,000 units and presumably above that the tester is either carried out dead or insensible so no reading is ever noted. Read more…

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The Passion of Plaimont. Wonderful wines in South West France

November 21, 2011 Leave a comment

A barrel of laughs

The bids are coming in thick and fast and the French auctioneer is sweeping his fringe out of his eyes with one hand and waving his gavel about with the other as he struggles to keep up. A thousand euros bid soon becomes two thousand and then ‘best of order’ has to be asked for as it hits €3000 and the crowd gasps Gallicly in astonishment.

At €3200 the hammer finally comes down and Didier Vinazza, a man who rather resembles Father Dougal in a Gascon beret is surrounded by congratulations. He’s just sold a quarter barrel of his best Pacherenc for the equivalent of over €50 a bottle. More in fact, when you consider the American buyer now has to pay the commission, the bottling, labelling and the shipping costs on top. An expensive sixty bottles of wine but definitely worth it for such nectar and the money that’s been raised will be going to good works around the area. ‘I took a risk harvesting in late November but I knew my pebbly clay terroir would be good for the Petit Manseng grapes and they were exceptional,’ he says above the din.

50cl of sex in a bottle

The Pacherenc auction at the Château de Crouseilles is one of the high points of the year for the Plaimont wine growers co-operative in Gers, France. Each previous year around 30 winemakers set aside small parcels of their vineyards to raise a special grape crop and about 16 of them have been judged to have produced an individual expression of Pacherenc good enough to be included in the 2011auction. Since daybreak prospective buyers, have slurped and spat, met each winemaker and then had a welcome break eating the local Black Pig cured ham and drinking Jeroboams of Plaimont Madiron red. And it’s not even 11 am yet. Read more…

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Lunch at Roux at the Langham

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment

A bit posh

Lunch in London is how knowledgeable foodies get their fix of the best around. A meal that might cost upwards of £70 a head in the evening can be less than even half that if you cannily go for the set lunch option.

And it’s not a question of having to compromise either. The good chefs put a lot of thought into lunch ‘prix fixe because it’s  seen as a chance to break away and to make best use of what’s available in the markets on the day.

Head chef at Roux at the Landau at the Langham Hotel is Chris King, an impossibly boyish looking chap whose appearance belies his experience.  He worked at Le Gavroche over the past five years, has cooked at Per Se in New York, and was Sous Chef at Roux Parliament Square. Clearly the Roux Bros think highly of him and he joined me for a chat after a Landau lunch that was a perfect mix of French style, mixed  with a touch of the exotic and a seasonal selection of market must-haves.

The Landau set lunch is three courses for £37.50, or £47.50 with a half bottle of wine from a short but punchy list.  To eat at this level, in that room and for those prices is good value, and the number of people I could see in the room taking advantage rather proved it. Read more…

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