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London calling!

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

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

If this coach goes over the edge and into the sea, a lot of London restaurants are going to have problems next week.

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.

www.spain.info

www.tourspain.es

www.sansebastianturismo.com

Photos taken with the HTC One Mini

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The Dysart Arms

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.

P’s main is a visual stunner, so much so that  I feel compelled to get the camera out again, but we are in a spot that’s clear of other customers and I am quick as a flash (without a flash).

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.

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

15 Westland Place, Shoreditch, London, N1 7LP www.fifteen.net

We do a lot of terrible things for charity us liberals; we buy dusters at ten times the going rate from shell suited, fast talking, wide boys at our door, we pretend to find the Big Issue a Good Read and we eat at Jamie’s 15.

Jamie’s 15 was perhaps the worst restaurant I ate in during 2007; the food was rubbish and overpriced, the tables smeared from wipes with filthy rags and the staff indolent and insolent. Jamieland souvenirs were being sold to gullible Americans and out of towners and the champagne socialists of North London were grimly eating as if it was their last ‘supper’. I didn’t go back and swore I never would, despite the obvious good intentions of the place.

But then a press release arrived saying that all had changed, there had been a design revamp and a bright new chef put in place. Gone was the dodgy Italian menu and in its place a British seasonal one had landed. That, and the fact that the area had changed its demographic since 2007, was enough to lure me back for lunch and a look see.

The City Road hasn’t changed much though, it’s still one of the noisiest, most brain-damaging traffic heavy streets in London, but Old Street tube station has moved on. Purged are the tramps and winos, now young people working in New Media throng through, all dressed the same and sporting self-satisfied expressions that say ‘I am here, I am in the centre of everything hip. I don’t work at a desk, I work in a space.’

Not many of them in Jamie’s 15 though, but then he’s probably old enough to be their dad, instead the 30 something bosses of those New Media companies fill the tables looking sharp in Gap. There’s an open kitchen at one end with a hunky looking pizza oven, although there appear to be no pizzas on the menu, and the feel is far more attractive than before. The tables and glasses are clean for one thing and the bar looks inviting.

The menu from chef, and mate of Jamie, Jon Rotheram is full of stuff I want to eat, but concise enough not to induce a headache of indecision. Jon’s time at St John is evident but this is not a clone, his own ideas are strong and only the focus on seasonal, simplicity and quality is carried through.

The dishes are for sharing, which is a concept I’m never very happy about being an only child, and it’s not always practical. How do you share a broth? With two straws? Not wanting to re-enact The Lady and the Tramp, we passed on that one.

Asparagus and courgette fiercely roasted in that pizza oven and topped with a gloriously glowing egg, was easier to share once the egg had been burst and stirred through. The ‘grass was crisp, the egg exemplary but where was the advertised truffle? No sign nor scent of it.

Pink Fir, Lincolnshire Poacher and wild garlic was fill your face gorgeous; Pink Fir, along with Ratte, are the best potatoes in the world for serving simply boiled or steamed  and the gummy, tangy  puddle of cheese clung to each piece tenaciously with the slight whiff of the wild garlic shooting through. We called for bread to mop up every last sticky bit of it.

And then there was Swiss Chard, the hardy beast of the green party, nothing can take it down not even a British winter and this was the first of the new year crop. At this pak-choi sized stage the leaves and stalks can remain wedded in the pan, as they cook at almost the same speed, and the leaves have not yet developed the super-metallic tang they pick up as the season progresses. A small lake of butter meant we deployed more bread and forgot about the cholesterol count.

The Portugese love pork and clams and so do I, there is a love there that is greater than the love between men. 15 makes it British-ish by adding slow braised pig cheek. The fat was gluey in a very good way; it stuck to the teeth like candy floss and was sweet like honey. This suited the clams very well, served in their shells and smugly plumply briny. White beans added extra protein and sucked up some of the surrounding juices and the laver bread, that peculiar Welsh staple, was an interesting cast member, but here it looked good but only really mumbled its part.

And then there were sweetbreads, an excellent foodstuff to freak out Americans I always find. They need a careful hand in the cooking; the sweetbreads, not Americans, and these were done very well. The texture resistant at first then morphing into the requisite creaminess and served with crisp purple sprouting broccoli and new season garlic. Our French waiter looked on approvingly, his smart service a model of only being at table when needed and not to keep pointlessly topping up the water every few minutes.

We were told there was a standard delay of 15 minutes for the Hazelnut madeleines, which would have seriously inconvenienced Proust, but didn’t bother J who elected to wait despite my increasingly itchy feet. When it arrived it didn’t prompt any buried childhood memories in him and when I asked him later what it had tasted like he couldn’t remember that either.  Ah well, so desserts didn’t quite do it.

The main thing is that this visit to Jamie’s 15 erased the bad memory of my first one. The food felt good and was properly priced, and the staff were as professional as can be. As a place for a democratic meal, something for everyone and as a post workstation drink and a nibble it seems to hit all the right notes.

The only shame is that 15 was allowed to be subpar for so long before Jamie realised that even liberals won’t put up with bad food for a good cause for ever.  The good news is that Jamie’s 15 no longer needs a charitable review.

Carrara at St James

March 18, 2013 1 comment

Bling-tastic

Dinner, a show and the last train home. It’s the perfect evening for many people but one all too often spoilt by panicky clock watching. Theatres don’t hold curtain up just because your dessert’s been delayed or because the waiter, all over you like a cheap suit when you arrived, is now MIA just as you need the bill – and pronto.

Covent Garden and Shaftesbury Avenue around 7pm are packed with pre-theatre diners wandering about in increasing desperation trying to decide where to eat. Many, if not most, are concerned about delays and will opt for a chain serving steaks or burgers. The food may be boring but it’s worth it for the reassurance of speed.

St James, the first purpose-built theatre complex to open in London for 30 years, has a solution; a brasserie downstairs, a restaurant upstairs and shows for all sorts in the theatre space, or the less formal studio, which was where we were headed for some comedy stylings. But first, let’s look at the food.

The restaurant Carrara at St. James is reached by a marble staircase that’s straight out of a rapper or Russian Mafioso’s wet dreams. It’s marble and it is rather magnificent and opens out into a restaurant that’s bright and modern. Open all day it has proper tables with linen napkins and other fancy things that drive young people mad, but that oldies like me rather appreciate. The menu is ‘Modern European’ which is a catch-all and rather meaningless term; what would Old-Fashioned European be? Spit roasted wild boar?

The point is that like a hotel restaurant, Carrara is obliged to offer something for everyone because their customers could be from anywhere. There’s a Pre and Post Theatre Menu – 2 courses for £15.50, 3 courses for £19.50 – which reads pretty, and a full menu with stalwarts such as steak, pasta, spatchcock poussin, calves liver and fish and chips, as well as slightly more exciting stuff like confit duck leg. Well exciting for many out of town arts lovers anyway.

Of the starters we liked the rabbit terrine, a good and chunky slice that went well with the pickled blackberries, a foraged kind of food and something the rabbit himself may well have eaten ( do rabbits eat fruit? Is it part of their 5 a day?). Also noteworthy was the grilled squid which would have been a bit better with clearer seasoning, salt in particular, but the seared scallop with black pudding is a no fail concept and it didn’t here.

For mains P wimped out on by having a steak, the choice of timid diners everywhere, but it was a good steak cooked properly medium rare as asked for and with chips which weren’t ‘triple cooked’ just properly cooked and served in a cutesy mini frying basket. A bit pricey at £22.50 but worth it.

For me there was a confit duck with cannellini bean cassoulet and an orange reduction. The duck had been decently finished so that the skin was crispy and the meat soft. The beans seemed to be dried ones, soaked and cooked, with a good firmness to the bite that you just don’t get with tinned ones – time saving shortcut though they may be.

Rather too many beans on the plate, but you aren’t obliged to eat them all and too much is better than too little I suppose. The orange reduction worked, a duck a l’orange for the modern world. Nothing noteworthy, nothing to get foodies in a froth, but two dishes professionally done and decent value for money. Desserts maintained the middle of the culinary road; a much better than average sticky toffee pudding managed to deliver the expected sugar rush, but didn’t settle on the stomach a like sack of treacle, and the lemon panna cotta was sharp and cleansing.

The ‘studio space’

And so to the show. I know it’s not my remit to be a comedy critic but I liked the studio space and the stage’s intimacy with the audience.  The compere Carl Hutchinson was truly excellent; the stand up, Tommy Rowson  had good material which he tended to fluff by mistiming.  Main act, Jigsaw, was made up of three people flinging out Radio4/Footlights -ish sketches at high speed, some of which worked and many didn’t, but the two men and one woman didn’t seem to care either way. Ned Sherrin would have lapped it up, but I suspect one of the trio will find himself ejected from the act when the other two get down to some pillow talk.

A short walk from Victoria station, well-priced and well-done food pitched at the right level, plus an eclectic range of shows in an ‘off-Broadway’ style, St James should get audiences in abundance.

My name’s Nick Harman, goodnight.

See more of St James upcoming shows

12 Palace Street, London SW1E 5JA www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Chez Gerard -Bishopsgate

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

64 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AW www.chezgerard.co.uk

Tres Braz

Many years ago I’d ride the creaky lift at Covent Garden station and my eyes would fall on an advert that never seemed to change. ‘Chez Gerard,’ it said, ‘ best steak-frites this side of Paris.’

I’d never actually eaten steak frites in Paris, so had no idea of the size of the gauntlet being thrown down, but the claim was intriguing.  I meant to go and find out, it sounded tempting enough, but other meals got in the way and so Gerry had to make do without my custom.

And then of course I was too late; the Chez Gerard group was bought in 2011 by a division of Raymond ‘Voila!’  Blanc’s empire, to be rebranded as Brasserie Blancs. However some kind of change of heart has taken place and after a big revamp the restaurant in Bishopsgate is determinedly and proudly a Chez Gerard. Time to check out that steak boast.

It’s very City inside – J and I being the only people in the restaurant not wearing ties. Downstairs is a busy bar while upstairs there’s a la carte on offer. It’s a bit of a climb up there as the lift only takes one person – presumably it was designed by the same people who make the escape pods for Bond villains. Read more…

STK London steakhouse reviewed

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

How do you like your steak? I don’t mean rare, medium or ruined, I mean what kind of ambience do you want?  The red brick university educated, job in the media, parents in the shires, style of Hawksmoor, or the school of hard knocks, what bloody parents, making a fortune at the bank, style of STK?

Suits you sir?

STK is certainly not going to delight fans of the former that’s for sure. It’s loud, it’s a bit brash, it says ‘shut your mouth and look at my Breitling’. Its location in the new ME by Melia Hotel at the Aldwych end of the Strand puts it just outside touristy Covent Garden but within reach of lawyers and City types from further east.

Perversely I like it almost as soon as we walk in. It’s not the kind of place the wife and I normally frequent, it’s black and cream and chrome and glossy and it’s all rather exciting and we feel that we’re in a different world, one where people don’t fret over gas bills or the cost of car repairs. The DJ, yes there is one, is playing 80s music and while punk was actually the soundtrack to our late teens, 80s music was the soundtrack to our early twenties, a time when we had our first jobs, every night was party night and nothing seemed impossible. Not even wearing white towelling socks. Read more…