Archive for August, 2009

Tom Kha Gai

Let’s just say there’s a lot of basil being used in the “Toasted Special” kitchen these days. I’m trying to cope with my first ever glut, and I’m not having a great deal of success. Like I said in a previous post, I sowed a generic variety of basil because it was too late in the year to sow the Genovese variety, at least according to the instructions on the packet. The basil I have is very different, probably closer in flavour to Thai basil, than Italian. It’s got a distinct citrus flavour, so I figured it would work nicely in some Thai influenced dishes. I’ve been making this soup for a few years now, it’s the classic example of how “hot, salty, sour and sweet” work together in South-East Asian cooking. It’s purely a matter of taste, so adjust the lime juice, sugar and fish sauce as you see fit.

I make no apology for using a bought Thai curry paste. I use an authentic brand from Thailand called “Mae Ploy”. If you’re in Dublin, you can get it the Asia Market or Fallon & Byrne. (No prizes for guessing where it’s cheaper!) They contain only natural ingredients and if it’s good enough for Thai people, it’s good enough for me!

Tom Kha Gai

Ingredients

  • 2 free-range chicken breasts
  • 750ml chicken stock (cube is fine)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 small courgette, chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp Thai green curry paste
  • 400ml can coconut milk
  • 1 red chilli pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1-2 limes, juiced
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • fresh coriander
  • fresh basil

Method

  1. Bring the chicken stock to the boil, then add the chicken breasts. Cover the saucepan, reduce the heat and leave to simmer very gently for about 10 minutes while you get on with making the rest of the soup.
  2. Heat some oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the onion until it’s just starting to colour. Add the rest of the chopped vegetables and stir-fry for another 3 minutes.
  3. Add the green curry paste and stir-fry for a minute or two to coat the vegetables in the paste.
  4. Remove the chicken breasts from the hot stock and add the stock to the spicy vegetables. Slice the chicken breasts thinly and add to the soup along with the coconut milk.
  5. Add the red chilli, lime juice sugar and fish sauce then simmer for 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. You probably won’t need any salt because the curry paste will be salty enough.
  6. Chop a handful of fresh coriander and basil and mix into the soup, then serve.

Serves 2.

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The Ledbury, London

By all accounts, The Ledbury is on the up. After reading several reviews about the Notting Hill restaurant, I figured I’d bag a table for lunch before head chef Brett Graham is awarded his second Michelin star and the prices inevitably shoot up. Such is the way of things in the world of fine dining.

The Ledbury is a ‘sister’ restaurant of “The Square” in Mayfair. Brett Graham worked at the two star restaurant for three years before spreading his wings and establishing The Ledbury with, I believe, the backing of his former boss. It was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2008.

The Ledbury

I thought the set lunch menu was very limited and was tempted by almost nothing on it. In contrast, the “à la carte” menu looked absolutely stunning and I would have happily ordered a tasting portion of every dish! However, one dish off the set lunch did take my fancy: “Celeriac baked in ash”. I’d seen this dish before on various food blogs and I was so intrigued that I had to try it. So, we did a “mix and match” from the “à la carte” and the set menu.

Foie Gras Parfait

I had to chuckle at the amuse bouche. Not “foie gras parfait” again? What is happening in London? Every kitchen is serving the same amuse bouche! Are restaurants buying this stuff in from Waitrose, or something? The Ledbury serves it’s parfait on “Feuilles de brick”, a thin and crispy pastry which has it’s origins in Northern Africa. Finished with some poppy seeds and watercress, it was excellent; rich, savoury but extremely light.

Cheese & Bacon Brioche

I always pay particular attention to restaurant bread and love to see what good kitchens are capable of producing. This is often to my detriment; in my effort to sample each of the breads on offer, I frequently stuff myself and leave no room for the meal I’ve just ordered. I declined the sourdough on offer and opted for the “Bacon & Onion Brioche” which was served still steaming hot. I can’t remember eating a better piece of granary in a restaurant. The photo doesn’t really do it justice – soft, hot, sweet, buttery, smoky. If the bread was this good, what delights were in store?

Cerleric in Salt Crust

Celeriac Baked in Ash with Hazelnuts, Wood Sorrel and a Kromeski of Wild Boar

Celeriac Baked in Ash with Hazelnuts, Wood Sorrel and a Kromeski of Wild Boar – this starter (from the set menu) involves a little bit of dining room theatre. The celeriac is coated in ash, baked in a salt crust, then delivered to the table. The waiter introduces the dish and cracks open the crust, revealing the blackened celeriac within. A dinky little touch which delivers some fantastic aromas at the table. The waiter then took the celeriac back to the kitchen for plating. Take a look at the photo, have you ever seen a more attractive dish? Well, this baby tasted even better than it looked. It was absolutely marvellous. The dish was full of  distinct flavours. Every item on the place offered a different texture: soft celeriac, crunchy hazelnuts, chewy pork. It was, as the expression goes, a party in your mouth. I’d have happily eaten another one of these for my main course. No, really…

Raviolo of Wood Pigeon and Wild Mushrooms with a Velouté of Toasted Bread

Raviolo of Wood Pigeon and Wild Mushrooms with a Velouté of Toasted Bread – In this instance, I don’t think the photo does the dish justice. I’m just not a fan of “velouté” or “foams”. Personally, I think it looks rather unpleasant and ruins the appearance of dishes. But they’re a popular cheffy affectation and I guess they’re here to stay. The Wife was delighted with this dish, having never eaten pigeon before. The raviolo was soft with deep, earthy flavours from the wild mushrooms and the sprinkling of dried mushroom powder.

Assiette of Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Purée and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso and Garlic

Assiette of Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Purée and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso and Garlic – if memory serves me right, the assiette consisted of pieces of loin, shoulder and liver. It was an explosion of colours on the plate, so many components to taste separately and then together. The green tomato juice was a particularly good addition, it’s zinginess cutting through the rich meat. The miso-coated aubergine delivered a satisfying hit of umami. Small criticism here, the dish needs some kind of starch, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

Roast Baby Monkfish with Pea Purée and Hand Rolled Macaroni Stuffed with Bacon and Marjoram

Roast Baby Monkfish with Pea Purée and Hand Rolled Macaroni Stuffed with Bacon and Marjoram – another picture on a plate. I’ve never seen monkfish served like this before. Herself, being a big monkfish fan was in heaven. The dish was accompanies by a kilner jar of peas, bacon and braised lettuce. Buttery and perfectly seasoned, this was the king of side dishes. I would have been extremely jealous, if not for my wonderful lamb.

Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus and Warm Vanilla Churros

Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus and Warm Vanilla Churros – I felt so satisfied and impressed by what I had seen coming out of the kitchen that for a moment, I contemplated not ordering any dessert. How can they improve on this? But, at the same time I didn’t want this meal to end. I was very tempted by the “Passionfruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream” that some other diners had ordered, but went instead for a lighter option. The strawberries arrived in the form of a jellied-terrine and served with a delicious hibiscus flavoured sauce. The accompanying warm churros were something else, I’d have happily eaten them on their own. We finished up with some great petit fours, served on a plate of cocoa nibs. We asked our friendly waitress if the nibs were edible. She said they were, but don’t taste nice. She also recounted a story where she discovered that a not-so-nice customer had stirred the cocoa nibs into her coffee, believing them to be sugar. Tee-hee.

Churros

Petit Fours

I’ll finish up by saying that this meal was one of the best I’ve ever had. Every dish positively sparkled with ideas and flavours. It is all too rare to sit down to a meal which tastes as good as it looks on the plate. Like all of the best dishes I’ve eaten, every element on the plate was there for a reason – flavour, texture, colour. Every dish just worked. I must also mention the excellent service which was friendly and relaxed throughout the meal. Give The Ledbury a visit next time you’re in London.

Next up, grave disappointment at 2-star restaurant, The Square

Verdict: 10/10

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Barrafina, London

Wow, a real tapas “bar”. I always think that tapas “restaurants” have an odd feel about them. I always feel under pressure to order a stack of dishes at once and conform to the “starter/main course” way of doing things. So Barrafina is a breath of fresh air. Informal, an authentic Spanish feel, with a little bit of London style.

Cold Meat Platter

I first learned about Barrafina from reading London Eater, one of my favourite food blogs. The bar/restaurant is owned by Sam and Eddie Hart, two brothers who also own the Spanish fine-dining restaurant, Fino. I was warned by various food bloggers to be prepared for a long queue so 10 o’clock on a Saturday night was probably not the best time to visit. We admitted defeat and contented ourselves with a great burger instead. Happily, we were in the area the next day and made it our business to be first in the queue when the doors opened for lunch. Barrafina is pretty small, offering counter space to about 20 lucky diners. However, people are welcome to stand and wait with a glass of rioja at the counter along the wall.

Ham Croquetas

We ordered a couple of glasses of excellent Rioja (“Urbina”) and asked for some “Croquetas” and the “Cold meat platter“. The croquetas were the best I’ve tasted, due to the excellent quality of the smoky ham within. Our cold meat platter contained a small selection of jamon, lomo, salchichon and chorizo. At £11.50, it was not cheap, but you could taste the quality in every slice. The jamon was of the “Iberico” variety and Barrafina proudly displays it’s Jabugo provenance. Even better than the delicious (and wildly expensive) jamon I ate in Madrid last year. We also ordered “Toast with Al-i-oli“, which turned out to be just that: a thick slice of toasted bread served with a generous portion of pungent alioli.

Toast with Alioli

By now, The Wife and I realised how little conversation had passed between us since we sat down to eat. Sitting at the bar counter, we were captivated by all the activity in the open plan kitchen. The lightening-fast chefs cooked and dressed plates right in front us which provided great entertainment for two people so interested in food. I’ve stayed away from chef’s counters in the past (including the excellent Bocca di Lupo) but I now think I’m hooked. It’s a full-on foodie experience.

Grey Mullet

Another advantage to having the food prepared right in front of you is that you can make better selections from the menu. We couldn’t resist one of the daily fish specials, ordered by a chap seated next to us. “Fried grey mullet with spinach, raisins and pine nuts” was sprinkled with rock salt and dressed with good olive oil. So simple and utterly delicious. We were also hugely impressed with the “Chorizo, Potato with Watercress” dish. A chorizo sausage is split in half and baked in a hot oven then served simply with some watercress and a few waxy potatoes.

Chorizo with Potatoes and Watercress

Octopus with Capers

The Wife admitted defeat at this point, but I couldn’t resist ordering the “Octopus with Capers” dish I had seen so many of my fellow diners order. I couldn’t finish it, but it was very tasty and obviously very fresh. But then, anything served with capers gets my vote. There’s always room for dessert, so we shared an excellent “Crema Catalana” and waddled quietly out onto Frith Street.

Crema Catalana

Barrafina

My only criticism of Barrafina is the unexpected 12.5% service charge they slap on the bill. I don’t think there’s a need for it, you are eating at a bar after all…

I used to think of Soho as a bit lacking when it comes to good restaurants. Plenty of choice, but nothing you’d write home about. This theory of mine is now well and truly smashed. First, Bocca di Lupo and now Barrafina. Great stuff, I’ll definitely return.

Next review is Notting Hill’s “The Ledbury“. Stay tuned…

Verdict: 9/10

Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London

I suppose this is the big one. The blow-out. Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous flagship restaurant (commonly known as “Royal Hospital Road”) is a “3 Michelin Star” restaurant – one of only three in the whole of Britain. Famously difficult to get a booking, prospective diners are required to request a table exactly two calendar months in advance. Credit card numbers are required and no-shows are subject to a charge of £200. Each. Clearly this place is at the top of London’s fine-dining tree.

I’ve been longing to visit “RHR” for a while now, not only because the menu contains many signature dishes of the great man himself, but because I was keen to discover why a restaurant is deemed “3 Star” when so many other chefs will only dream of obtaining the top accolade.

I’ve dined at Pétrus and Maze in the past. Both establishments, while belonging to the Ramsay empire, mostly owe their fantastic menus to their executive chefs – namely Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton respectively. (Note, Wareing has since split from the Ramsay camp following an acrimonious public spat. But he hasn’t gone away, you know. The Berkeley hotel apparently decided that they would rather work with Marcus Wareing directly and gave Ramsay his cards. The restaurant is now called “Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley” which I’d highly recommend you visit.)

The restaurant is situated on a quiet residential street in Chelsea. Due to the fact that I had left it quite late in the day to ring for a reservation, the earliest I could get a table was 10pm. We cheekily walked through the door 15 minutes early but were greeted warmly and ushered immediately to our table. The first thing that struck me was the size of the room – it’s absolutely tiny. We counted 13 tables, not the smallest restaurant in the world, but I was still taken aback at how small the tables were and how close they were together. You could call it “cosy” if you were being charitable. I wasn’t blown away by the décor either. The whole design is a little cold and slightly austere.

Potato, Basil and Mozarella Wafer

Moments after we sat down, we had two glasses of champagne and some amuse bouche in front of us. The first amuse arrived in a retro toast rack –  a dinky potato ‘wafer’ filled with basil pesto and mozzarella. Tasty and very light. The second  amuse was a ‘cornet’ of tomato and avocado.

After perusing the three menus on offer, we opted for the tasting menu, known here as the “Menu Prestige”. It’s not for the faint-hearted – 7 courses, not counting the inevitable procession of show-off amuses, pre-starters and pre-desserts. We also asked the sommelier to bring us a selection of wines (by the glass) to accompany the dishes.

Some elements of the menu  were off limits for me because of my designer shellfish allergy. However, The Wife bravely stepped in and provided opinions on the parts of the menu I didn’t sample. Naturally, the Maître-D was quite charming and assured me that every care would be taken to keep the shelled critters away from my meal. He also assured me he would bring me something “very special” to replace the “Langoustine” starter. A nice touch, which I very much appreciated.

But enough yakking already, let’s get to the dishes…

Tomato Consommé

Tomato consommé – this dish was our “pre-starter”. The chilled soup was light and very intensely flavoured. Unfortunately, I had the vegetarian version without the langoustine and caviar, but I didn’t feel too cheated.

Foie Gras

Pressed foie gras with Madeira jelly, smoked duck, peach and almond crumble – it’s often said that foie gras is an “acquired taste”. Worryingly, I think I’ve acquired it. Animal welfare concerns aside, it’s true that foie gras can be a little daunting for the uninitiated. It’s just so incredibly, heart-stoppingly rich. This was a masterful dish, so many different flavours and textures – the rich foie was accompanied by micro-leaves, a crunchy crumble, soft fruit and the most wonderful brioche, all of which served to lighten the rich liver. So this is 3-star cooking – masterful. We accompanied the dish with a sweet and spicy Gewürztraminer “Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre“.

Ravioli of Lobster

Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon with tomato chutney, vinaigrette – I’ve seen this dish described as Gordon Ramsay’s signature dish, but sadly I was unable to partake. Matters were not helped by The Wife gushing praise upon the dish with every mouthful. I think she may have even described the ravioli (a raviolo, surely?) as the best dish she’s ever eaten. Praise indeed.

Vitello Tonnato

Vitello tonnato with shaved fennel salad, pickled anchovies and caper berries – While The Wife enjoyed the lobster and langoustine I tucked into this Ramsay interpretation of an Italian classic, straight off the lunch menu. It was very good, typically Italian, full of clean and distinct flavours.

Fillet of Turbot

Fillet of turbot with braised baby gem lettuce, leeks and cep sauce – soft, translucent turbot which flaked beautifully. How do they do this? Sous-vide possibly? Loved the earthy sauce and vegetable accompaniments. Our fish starters were accompanied by a minerally Australian Riesling, “Egon Müller“.

Bresse Pigeon

Roasted pigeon from Bresse with grilled polenta, smoked pork belly and date sauce – happily, the tasting menu includes a choice of lamb or pigeon for the meat course. Being the blogging anorak that I am, I went for whatever option The Wife rejected. In this case, I scored the pigeon. No harm there, I adore pigeon, absolutely love it. (The pigeon dish I ate at Maze ranks as one of my all-time best restaurant dishes.) This bird was expertly cooked and matched perfectly by the sweet date sauce. I’d have happily eaten an entire dish of the smoked pork belly, the flavour was amazing and the texture as soft as butter. The sommelier paired my pigeon dish with a Sicilian “Rosso del Soprano” – to my palate, a fantastic combination.

Cornish Lamb

Canon of Cornish lamb with confit shoulder, ratatouille and thyme jus – lamb was always going to be a winner with these two diners, but this was superb. The meat was beautifully rare, with a quirky little surprise – the intensely flavoured ratatouille was served inside the roasted pepper.

Créme Brulée with Granny Smith Apple Shot

Crème brulée with Granny Smith Apple Shot – This dish arrived as a pre-dessert. I figured I should drink the zingy apple shot first, as a palate cleanser, then have the rich crème brulée.  Visually appealing and very satisfying.

Strawberry Soup

Strawberry, Champagne and elderflower soup with vanilla cream – this soup (a milkshake really) was served in a tall glass, to be consumed with a straw. I didn’t pick up much elderflower from the soup (maybe it was in the foam?) but it did deliver a delightful surprise – the addition of “space dust”. You remember that fizzy popping candy we used to enjoy as kids? I imagine every Michelin star kitchen in the world has a huge vat of this stuff in the larder!

Caramelised Tarte Tatin Service

Caramelised Tarte Tatin

Caramelised tarte Tatin of apples with vanilla ice cream – I was surprised to have been offered this dish as it is not officially on the “Menu Prestige”. It is however, on the “à la carte” menu. The Wife could not resist the urge to have such a classic dessert prepared in such a fine restaurant and ordered it before I knew what was happening. We were now truly starting to feel the effects of this feast, especially given the lateness of the hour. The presentation, as we had come to expect, was fantastic. The waiter presents the tart, decorated with sugar-dusted vanilla pods. He then swirled the most wonderful toffee sauce on each plate before carving the tart. It was incredibly, almost overwhelmingly rich. As delicious as it was, both the Wife and I failed to finish the dish. Time to admit defeat.

Bon bons #1

Bon bons – So full and tired were we that we declined coffee and asked for the bill. Undeterred, the waiter brought us out a selection on bon bons. The show-stopper was the white chocolates filled with strawberry ice-cream, presented in a steaming “cauldron” containing dry ice. Great theatre. We also nibbled on some tasty chocolate truffles and some Turkish delight, but our hearts were not in it at this stage. I can honestly stay, I’ve never been so well and truly stuffed in all my life.

Bon bons #2

A little aside…

I noted that some diners were quite obviously regulars. Strange to think that a restaurant like “Gordon Ramsay” is a local, neighbourhood restaurant to some people. But Chelsea is that kind of neighbourhood. My wife and I pondered that we had been looking forward to this meal for so long, and the fact that it was such a big (read expensive) treat. When you have the kind of money that GR is your local noshery, where do you go from there? Interesting…

Let’s not bother with figures, let’s just say the bill was pretty hefty. It’s certainly the most I’ve ever paid for a meal.  The food we were served was quite literally flawless in terms of taste and technical execution. The service was friendly, charming and effortlessly slick. But I do feel that for a lot of restaurant lovers, the whole experience will never live up to the price tag. There is a certain premium to be paid because of the sacred “third star”. Despite this, we had a wonderful meal and would recommend it to any fans of fine-dining, as long as money is no object.

Next up, tapas at Soho’s “Barrafina“. Olé!

Verdict: 9/10

Gordon Ramsay on Urbanspoon

A Bumper Crop of Basil

Basil - A Bumper Crop

I’m more often described as “ham-fisted” than “green-fingered“. Despite my obvious lack of talent in the garden, I’ve managed to grow a staggering amount of basil in pots on my window sill. A few weeks ago, I got a rush of blood to the head in B&Q and invested in a propagator tray and a packet of basil seeds. Moderation has never been my strong point, so I sowed all of the seeds at once and now I’m left with an obscene amount of  the said herb. I don’t know what variety of basil I’ve got; it’s certainly not the Genovese variety, but I’m hoping it will still taste as good.

I’m determined to use every last leaf, but there’s only so much pesto a man can eat. So what do I do with it all? Here is my short-list of culinary possibilities so far:

Katz’s Deli, New York

Katz's Deli

“Send a salami to your boy in the army…”

A buddy of mine is off to New York for some sightseeing and I’ve given him a few restaurant recommendations. Among them is “Katz’s Deli”, an iconic sandwich shop situated in the Lower East Side. It’s probably more famous for it’s appearance in the 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally” (remember the orgasm scene?) than the amazing sandwiches and hot dogs it sells. Forget the Meg Ryan connection and the celebrity photos which adorn the walls, get down to Katz’s Deli for the food.

Pastrami Sandwich

This place buzzes all day long. The queues are long, the atmosphere is a little chaotic, but trust me, it’s worth it. Huge, spicy pastrami sandwiches are the house speciality, slathered with mustard and accompanied by a large dill pickle. Makes you feel like you’ve truly arrived.

Katz’s Deli [website]
205 E. Houston Street, New York

Spaghetti Bolognese Recipe

Spag Bol

We love “Spag Bol” in our house. If I was a real food blogger, I would have called this post “ragu”. But I don’t have a problem with accompanying this great sauce with spaghetti, so spaghetti bolognese it is. What I am precious about, and have been for many years, is not using that crappy red gloop you buy in jars.

This recipe is the real deal. Good quality minced beef and pork, a good vegetable base, some wine, tomato passata and a few herbs transform this innocent sounding dish into something truly special. If you try this recipe I promise you’ll never cook a “bol” in any other way.

Ingredients

  • 450g minced beef
  • 450 minced pork (or use 800g of beef with 100g smoked bacon pieces)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 sticks celery, chopped
  • 1 small courgette, finely chopped
  • 500g tomato passata
  • 250ml beef stock
  • 1 glass wine (optional)
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • pinch of sugar
  • handful of fresh basil (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese

Method

  1. Heat a little olive oil in a large saucepan or casserole. Add the onion and fry until golden.
  2. Add the minced beef and pork and fry hard until brown, then add the garlic and fry for a minute more.
  3. Add the chopped vegetables and fry for a few minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients, apart from the basil. Season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  4. Bring to the boil, cover the saucepan, then reduce the heat and leave on a very gentle simmer for 45 minutes. Don’t be tempted to shorten the cooking time – this is important to let the flavours deepen.
  5. Cook a batch of your favourite spaghetti (I like to use De Cecco) and add to the sauce. Add the torn basil leaves at this point, if using. Taste for seasoning and add some extra salt and pepper if necessary.
  6. Serve in deep bowls with a generous handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4-6.