Wednesday 26 December 2007

I want to build an outdoor pizza oven

I need some help.

I'm determined to have a pizza party next summer in our garden and need to construct a fully functioning pizza oven in the spring. I've had a good look around the internet and can see there are a whole bunch of people building outdoor ovens for pizzas and general cooking purposes.

Can anyone offer me any advice about the pitfalls and things to watch out for. What design should I use? And are they easy to build?

I've found this video that seems to sum up what I want to do. I want to be able to stand there in my apron, put on my best Italian accent and wave around my massive baker's spatula.

I found these photos on HeatKit which seems to be a Mecca for all things to do with building pizza ovens.

If there's anyone out there who wants to help me build a pizza oven at my parent's house near Bedford please get in touch. I really need some help!

Christmas Day

Back in Novemeber I very foolishly volunteered to be in charge of our Christmas roast this year. Gung ho bravado got the better of me and come Christmas morning I was regreting it! Mum seemed to have an extra few inches of bounce inher step. Partly because we'd given her such a good stocking but also because she had been spared a day of slogging it out in the kitchen.

Our goose came with a free book from Throncotte the other side of Bedford in a village called Northill. A very quiant little place that was inundated with cars collecting their prize birds for Christmas. Having a cup of coffee after breakfast I had a flick through the book and became engrossed in the rich history of eating goose and the countless ways people have found across Europe to eat them!

They are a great favourite in Jewish cooking occupying the space that pigs hold in Christianity. In northern Italy they are experts at making goose ham and goose salami which sound utterly delicious. I guess the amount of fat you get on a pig and a goose can't be that different.

Having failed to find a suitable recipe in the Goose book for a roast goose... we opted for Delia instead. The goose book suggested that we roast our bird for around 3 hours whereas Delia was keen to cook it for closer to 5. Big difference. As it turns out the goose book would have been slightly more accurate.

Having watched Heston blow air into a duck to get the skin crispy and having watched James Martin prick the skin of a duck and pur boiling water over it to get some of the fat out I decided to give it a go on a goose! Having carved the Christmas goose for the last couple of years I have always been staggered by the litres of fat that render out or don't!

I pricked the skin all over and poured boiling water all over it with the roasting pan underneath. After two pours you could see that a substantial amount of fat had oozed our of the skin and had formed a greasy skin on the water. We left the goose to dry in the lader and got to work on a sage, apple, potato, liver and onion stuffing a la Delia.

Simply sweat loads of onions and add some sliced apple. In the meantime par boil some potatoes. Once tender lob these into the onion mixture and cook through for a bit. Add the goose liver in slithers and then chuck in some sage. Then ram it all inside the goose! Easy. Don't forget to season it.

Then rub salt and pepper vigorously into the skin of the goose find a roasting tin big enough and rest the goose either on a rack or on an asortment of root vegetables and onions. This means that the bird is raised out of the fat. Using veggies means you'll also get some good stuff to go in the gravy.

Pop in the oven for how ever long you see fit and wait for the little white popper to get an erection. Then it's done! 3-4 hours should do the trick!

Gorgeous stuffing. Realy sagey and with some good depth from the liver. Suz loved it until someone let on that it had ofal in it!

We had some great wine with it, which I bought especially from Philglas and Swiggot for Dad's Christmas present. He's a big white Burgundy fan so this Chassagne Montrachet went down a treat. Oily, rich, lemony, super smooth, buttery and full of great adjectives!

Tired by a full day of cooking and a mamouth amount of carving I rocked back into my seat and realised that I had to change out of shirt and tie and into jeans and polo shirt before Mum wheeled out her famous figgy pudding. She'd steamed it for 24 hours making it really moist and nowhere near as heavy as a Christmas pudding! We all gave in and gobbled down our pudding before rejecting cheese and retiring into the drawing room for coffee and the Christmas special of Strictly Come Dancing!

So another Christas has passed now and we're all so full we can barely move. My resolution is to lose weight so I can fit into all of my old clothes. Shouldn't be too hard. More squash. Less carbs. Smaller portions.

Christmas Eve with Hannah and Family

Mum invited Hannah and her entire family over for dinner on Christmas Eve. We had a brilliant evening eating good food and playing silly games. After a day of fetching the goose and finishing off neglected Christmas shopping it really got us in festive spirit... to the extent that Dad did a recital of the Bird in the Guilded Cage in a throw back to his days as a choir boy.

As a present Hannah brought over some fondant fancies covered in edible glitter and psychodelic icing. They look utterly stunning and fit in well with our wallpaper! They are a huge speciality of Hannah's and I can't wait for her to bring another batch over.

When we collected the goose earlier in the day we asked whether they had any venison fillet and were delighted when a gigantic piece of dark, tender meat appeared. I decided to make a venison carpaccio starter with a roquette salad dressed with juniper oli, black chocolate and parmesan. Later on in proceedings after a glass or two of champagne I decided it might be a good idea to add a dollop of Mum's 2004 vintage damson jam to the mix!

Whilst the venison was chilling in the freezer to firm up, I whizzed up loads of juniper berries with black pepper, salt, olive oil and a sprinkling of dried chilli. Mum always holds us back with chilli because it makes Dad sneeze! Having made a very fragrant oil I tried it out on Suz and Mum. Mum said it was too gritty and Suz added some lemon. So I sieved the liquid and held it back for later.

Slicing the venison was a very therepeutic experience. There's something very soothing about taking a really sharp knife and slicing through super tender flesh. I tried my hardest to slice it as thin as possible and then layered the meat on top of the salad leaves before dressing them with the fragrant oil, parmesan scrapings, dark chocolate shavings and damson jam.

We served the venison with the delicious curry paste bread that Hannah brought with her and popped a few bowls of extra chocolate and parmesan on the table in case people wanted more. I was delighted to see 11 clean plates as well as people helping themselves to extra toppings! It made a great alternative to smoked salmon and was actually quite economical.

A delicious salad Nicoise followed the venison which made for a great alternative to turkey or ham. We were so relieved that it allowed all to breathe a sigh anticipation for the goose and turkey later in the week.

Suz slaved for hours over some delicious cinamon and white chocolate pannacottas. They turned out perfectly and looked fab. Well done little Sis.

What a brilliant Christmas Eve. Great to catch up with Hannaa and the Miles gang.

Check out Hannah's brilliant blog here.

Friday 21 December 2007

Konstam at the Prince Albert

Lulu joined us on a 6 month rotation to work on our account and has done such a good job we thought she deserved a good lunch. And I have been wanting to go to Konstam for ages so it was a great opportunity to kill two birds with one aimed throw of a stone.

6 of us trekked down to Acton Street, just down the road from King's Cross. This neck of the woods is developing a bit of an eco-conscious theme with Acorn House just up the road on Swinton Street.

The decor in Konstam is different to say the least. The girls arrived in the first taxi and drove straight past becuase it looked like a disused pub! The distinctive ball bearing curtains are very imaginative but make the room a bit dark during lunch. They also give the place a bit of a bondage feel, which is no bad thing. In fact we really liked the design and thought they were very brave to have a completely open kitchen. No food dropping here!

It's one of the most original dining environments I've been to and is a great point of difference. As a bunch of advertising people we thought they had done a great job in differentiating themselves in terms of their USP (gimmick) of all the food coming from within the M25 and the design being eye catching and unique. We did think however that the whole thing wasn't as joined up as it might be. The look and feel of the place doesn't really fit with their key selling point. But who cares! We were here for a good lunch.

Oliver Rowe has done a great job of promoting Konstam with his BBC TV show, "The Urban Chef". It goes to show if you have an interesting concept that is surprising and fits into the cultural flow you are onto a winner.... so long as the product is good too!

Here's the Urban Chef in full flow

We started with a glass of sparkling English wine which was fantastic. Their Chapel Down NV sparkling wine from Kent was brilliant. We liked it's freshness and the fact that it wasn't tainted by any mustiness that always seems to come with Champagne. Maybe that was just us being phillistines!

My mackerel with pearl barley and bacon bits was delicious. Very unusual and really tasty. The mackerel had a great meaty saltiness that went really well with the sparkling wine. Lulu's duck and goose liver pate was smooth, ducky and really excellent. You could taste all the component parts and was even better when smeared on some crunchy toast.

My duck for main course was disappointing. It's unfortunate because I was really looking forward to it. It was overcooked which gave it a very dead grey colour rather than the vibrant pink I was hoping for. I suspect the person who cooked it wasn't a big fan of duck. Anyone who likes duck knows that it's got to be pink, juicy and with salty, well crisped skin. But to be charitable the purple cabbage and sweet mashed potato was great. As was the plum jam. Get the duck right and this would have been great!

The others had pan roasted chicken which was so good that it was all gone before I got a chance to sample it. The skin was crispy and the meat was tender. Just as it should be. And the others had slow cooked bacon which arrived looking like a plate of sick but tasted great! There's an art to presenting slow cooked food; it normally involves covering it in pastry or mashed potato!

A couple of us had bread and butter pudding with quince jam which was brilliant. John said it was the best he had eaten in 2007. Impressive stuff.

Toward the end of our meal Oliver "The Urban Chef" Rowe strolled into the kitchen the check how things were going. I suspect if he had cooked the duck we'd have been raving about the cooking. It was great to see him actually in his own restaurant. He looked very happy with things and at ease with Konstam.

Our minor gripes were that the service was casual and a bit too slow. And more imporantly the food was good but not as good as it could have been.

But overall we had a super time. I'm planning to return for dinner with Cowie when I hope the food will be stepped up a gear.

Avoid the Essex Serpent at All Costs

Anna organised for a group of 6 of us to go ice skating at the idyllic Somerset House last night. I was a bit nervous about ice skating having only done it once when I was 5 on some crappy plastic ice rink at Ally Pally. We thought it would be a good idea to go for dinner before hand and use our TasteLondon card to get some money off.

Cowie chose the Essex Serpent in Covent Garden having put Wahaca and Waggamma to one side. A decision we'd all regret later! We had wanted to go to an authentic pub to have some good olde worlde winter grub.

I arrived far too early having pitched up after Lulu's leaving lunch/drinks. I killed half an hour or so by walking around the fantastic winter night market that's been set up around Covent Garden. It's basically all the stalls from Exmouth and Borough Market but with a few extras such as a mushroom man, a Ghanaian stall and a bloke who just makes crepes.

When everyone arrived we all made our way upstair and inspected the "locally sourced, British, seasonal menu". A few things stood out that we should have taken more heed of.

Summer salads

Red snapper from somewhere a long way away

Mussels with churico (sic)

Ah... in hindsight we should have cut and run right there and then. There is nothing seasonal about a summer salad unless you're there in July. There's nothing local about red snapper unless you are lucky enought to love in the Tropics. And there is something very disconcerting about things spelt wrong on a menu. Unless of course it was the Potrugese version of chorizo in which case that's fine. But the waiter told us it was Spanish.

I was an idiot and chose the mussels. Quite why I decdied to go for the most deadly thing on a worrying menu is beyond me. Luckily I've got away with it from a medical point of view. They were supposed to come with a garlic and white wine sauce but it tasted more like the dirty gutter water that my cat drinks when he's feeling ill. Horrid!

The girls had langoustine which looked like they had been frozen as they oozed their shell water over the plate. The only half respectable starter was an assortment of meats with warm baguette. But then again the baguettes were decidedly dicey warmed cattering pack type things. It wasn't getting any better!

Things went for bad to worse as we waited an age for our main courses. Cowie went to ask how they were getting on a couple of times and pointed out that we didn't have long before we had to leave for ice skating.

Then the horror course arrived.

My steak was not medium rare. It wasn't even medium. Or even medium well. Somehow it was well done and cold! How did they manage it? And they had smothered the incinerated piece of meat with a gloopy mushroom sauce. All this rested on a bed of chips so chilly they needed a good dose of lemsip and a hot water bottle. Shocking.

Harreit's tuna summer salad featured a slab of grey tuna that was so hard that it could have been used in Roman times as a writing tablet.

Nick had earlier said, "you can't go wrong in a pub with a burger". Sadly he was wrong. The waiter had to inspect the locally sourced focaccia bun to see if they had actually put the burger inside it. The sight of the charred blob of beef was a welcome sight!

Anna's sausage and mash was OK. Not sure you screw that one up really!

Cowie stormed off to pay the bill and get our 2 for 1 discount on the meals which were reluctant to pay for in the first place. I looked over to see Cowie glaring at our cheerful, but inept waiter arguing about the fact that our card show allow the whole meal to be priced at 2 for 1. That's what the TasteLondon website says anyway. We landed up paying almost full price for everything and being British were far too reserved to kick up too much of a fuss!

So we agreed we'd slope off and write it up in full on the blog and as many suitable websites as possible. The Essex Serpent serves very bad food and is less than honest when it comes to their partnership with TasteLondon. They turned what should have been a great pre Christmas meal into an embarrassment. Cowie felt awful for having organised the meal. Exactly the opposite of how it should be. It also reflects very badly on TasteLondon. Cowie rang them up to complain and they said they would speak to the director of Essex Serpent.

Essex Serpent. Good riddance. It makes you appreciate how good all the other restaurants we've been to this year.

Here's a picture of it so if you see it you know not to go in there.

Saturday 15 December 2007

El Bulli

"If it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy;" (Othello)

I overheard a fellow foodie at work called James talking about his trip last year to El Bulli. He'd scoured the Egullet forums until he picked up enought clues to have a pop at booking a table. He deduced, having translated lots of "chatter" in Spanish that the best time to contact them was in the middle of October. Apparently this is when they take all of their bookings for the year. For every table 400 people desperately try to get in. The chances are very slim.

Thanks to James' success last year I took his advice and sent El Bulli a very nice email asking for a table for 2 on my birthday. Weeks passed. Maybe even a month. And then I got the best email of my entire life asking if a table at 8pm on April 6th would suit us! Sweet Jesus! A table at 10am for dinner would suit us!

When the sheer excitement and level of luck had sunk in we went about working out what to do either side of dinner! From what we had heard El Bulli was near Barcelona. Well it turns out that this was about as accurate as saying Birmingham is near London. So we booked an appartment in Roses with a legend called Wolf for 3 nights and decided to spend a further 2 nights in Barca itself.

Wolf turned out to be a very eccentric Germnan gentleman with one of the best located apartment building ever. If he had a few quid to spend on it he could turn it into an incredible Hip Hotels calibre boutique hotel. Given that he probably spends all of his pennies on sun cream, speedos and white paint I don't think this will happen any time soon.

To get an idea of the stunning view from our mamouth terrace have a look at this.

And here's the view once the sun has set.

The downside to the low cost of our appartment was a camp bed propped up against the French windows and a less than luxurious bathroom.

But what the hell, we had the best view you could possibly imagine from our bed! And we needed to save all of our pennies for the most expensive dinner you can imagine!

We drove from Roses to El Bulli the day before hand to do a reccie. We were so lucky with the weather which treated us like Gods for our entire stay. El Bulli is tucked away in the nook of a bay at the bottom of some beautiful hills so that it catches the evening sunlight.

The entrance is guarded with stylish rusted steel signs and an army of agarve plants, all shaded underneath towering euchalyptus trees. Very tropical. A bit like a baddy's layre in a Bond film. The headquarters to Spectre perhaps?

When we arrived for real we could barely contain our excitement as we parked up against the sea front and made our way nervously towards cooking's Mecca. A charming group of fellow diners took our photos in front of Feran Adria's kitchen which felt a bit naughty but had to be done. We could see all the chefs getting our food ready inside. A hive of serene activity with the maestro at the helm.

We were taken to see Feran Adria and his immaculate open plan kitchen and were honoured with a very warm handshake. We really weren't expecting such personal treatment. We were then led to our table through a very distinguished but not over the top dining room and were seated in the corner looking out at everybody else. It made for incredible people watching as we waited for the menu and some champagne to arrive.

The menu is 30 "courses" long and is completely choice free. We had been asked previously if there was anything we didn't eat and we had said we ate everything! Did this include sheep's brains and marrow? Of course! How could we not in El Bulli!

The sommelier did an incredible job of offering me a reasonably priced bottle of Spanish wine with the option of a more expensive bottle that he said was probably not as good. The very epitome of great service. He knew a 25 year old was already mortgaging his life to come here so why ruin the evening by making me buy a bottle of wine for hundreds of pounds. In fact we were so focused on our wine that it lasted for the entire 4 hour meal!

Our snacks arrived along with a molecular gin fiz which is icy gin with an orangey, warm yoghurt topping that did a great job of balancing acid and creamyness, warmth and cold. It cleansed our palette for the onslaught that was to come.

The snacks included some pineapple french fries, yoghurt, peanut butter and chocolate wafers, beetroot puffs, petal candyfloss, curried rice balls wrapped in gold and spherical olives. All a complete shock to the system and served in such style it knocks whatever you see in Sunday supplements into oblivion. We took a few photos but they don't really do it justice. We just wanted to enjoy the experience.

If you want to see the whole menu have a look at the English and Spanish version below signed by the great man himself.

The general theme was of deep, earthy, challening tastes and textures. This was experienced most intensely during the succession of courses which moved as follows:

Razor Clams
Lamb Brain
Mackerel sweatbreads
Roast bone marrow
Truffle with truffle oil and walnut
Snails eggs
And anchovy

Intense. Heavy on unami and more than anything else very slippery. It really challenged us and has left an indelible impression on my mouth. Everything was deliciious but you wouldn't necessarily order it normally! But then again this is no ordinary experience.

Hightlights included a sensational cheese ice cream meringue with a little corn kernel infused with passionfruit. You eat it with your fingers, using the meringue spikes for grip and then feel like a taster in Willie Wonker's factory as the taste explodes in your mouth.

Then you realise why the people on the next door table had been tonguing the back of their molars and talking about something happending in the back of their mouths. That little kernel of passion fruit infused corn got wedged in the back of our teeth. Just like a rogue bit of pop corn does. Then the more you tongue it the more of the passion fruit flavour annexes your mouth ripping the cheesy ice cream taste away and leaving your palette cleansed for the next course. Sheer genius.

This got us talking to the table next door to us. These were the guys who took our picture earlier. The guy in charge was a chap from Hong Kong who had been trying to get a table for 5 years and was shocked to hear what a fluke we'd managed! He had given up trying to book for himself and instead did a deal with his mate with the black book from heaven to sort something out. In return he paid for his business class flights over from HK and 5 star hotel for 2 and for some other friends to come over too. On top of this they had wines that you could buy a small flat in London for. To him this was a once in a life time experience. He was going for it. One of their 10 bottles of wine was a Chateau Pingus which I saw in duty free on the way home for over a grand... Lord knows what it and the other 10 bottles set them back! But this wasn't done in an ostentatious way. It was a sheer epicurean extravaganza. Why do things by halves?

Another highlight was a dish of utter brilliance. Billed as a "Quebean" egg, it was a yoke cooked at 65'c for ages so that it was runny but cooked surrounded by a dash of stiff cream and a smear of taragon vinagarette. At first it made no sense. Then as you started to mix things together it turned into first hollandaise and then bernaise sauce. All we needed were some muffins and some grilled ham! It brought a smile to our faces and made us realise that we were being cooked for by the best, most innovative, playful and imaginative chefs in the world. People tell you off for playing with food. Bollocks!

We finished with some warm sheep's cheese wrapped up in candy floss with a nugget of quince paste. It was a quirky take on the what it's like to be a sheep which was a good laugh after some seriously brilliant food.

It all ended with a whisper of wind. The last course was a stack of brittle sugar panels which shimmered in the gentle breeze of the restaurant. So delicate. So different. So light. And yet again so clever.

My birthday cake was a special cardboard variety that I don't think you'll find in any card shop!

After our 4 hour marathon we left in awe. Blown away by the best meal we will ever have.

Friday 14 December 2007

Umami - the quintessential taste

"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so."

Hamlet puts his finger on the fifth essence as the answer to the ultimate questions. So maybe unami, which is being touted as the fifth taste is the answer to the mysteries of flavour and in the mouth sensations.

This is making its way into mainstream food, with Nescafe and Doritos jumping in with both feet.

Here's an interesting section from Organic the brilliant digital marketing blog:

"It is coming to be accepted in the Western world that in addition to our four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, that there is a fifth taste that constitutes “savory” or a feeling of full flavor. Umami, a concept originated in Japan, is used to describe the taste sensation we get when eating something like cheese, meat, broth, mushrooms, nuts, etc. This may already be familiar to some of you, but for those of you who haven’t heard this before, it looks like you might be hearing a lot more of it in the near future.

From your high end restaurants to your packaged foods companies (Doritos, Nestle), everyone is interested in increasing the umami in their products, creating an umami taste bomb. After all while consumers are scared of chemical sounding ingredients like MSG (an umami catalyst), who doesn’t love some sautéed mushrooms on their steak or a little parmesan cheese in their tomato soup. Yum!"

And here is a section from the WSJ article it was derived from:

"To understand the taste of umami, imagine a perfectly dressed Caesar salad, redolent of Parmesan cheese, minced anchovies and Worcestershire sauce; or slurping chicken soup; or biting into a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza. The savory taste of these foods, and the full, tongue-coating sensation they provide, is umami.

For years, Western chefs and food scientists debated whether umami was a true taste, as fundamental to the sensory system as sweet or sour. That changed in 2000 when scientists at the University of Miami published a study -- partly funded by Ajinomoto -- identifying receptors on the tongue with no purpose other than to recognize the presence of glutamate. Subsequent studies, some funded by the ingredient industry and others without industry funding, identified other umami receptors.

Umami's acceptance as the fifth taste has spurred everyone from high-end chefs to packaged-food makers to find ways of delivering the taste to foods. Because MSG's negative connotation has persisted in the West, that often means finding MSG substitutes. Mr. Vongerichten creates intense umami-tasting dishes, which he dubs umami "bombs," at his various restaurants. "The ultimate umami dish is expensive," he says, citing a $185 Parmesan custard with white truffles at his New York restaurant Jean Georges. His less pricey umami bombs include a $12 lunch dish of black bread with sea urchin.

Hiro Sone, chef and co-owner of Ame, a new-American restaurant in San Francisco, touts his "umami soy sauce," enhanced with kombu, a type of seaweed, and bonito flakes, which are pieces of dried fish. When added to cuttlefish and sea urchin, the umami sauce is "like an MSG bomb," Mr. Sone says, but without any MSG

The Mushroom Council, a trade group for the mushroom industry, has distributed a report to restaurants about how mushrooms contribute to umami. Titled "Umami: If You've Got It, Flaunt It," it offers instructions in "building the U-bomb," by sautéing mushrooms and adding them to grilled steak."

Fortnum & Mason Fountain Resturant

When a client emailed me back in November saying he wanted to take us out to lunch I was pretty excited, especially as he suggested we went to Fortnums. When I think of the iconic food hall I think of tradition, style, immaculate service, 'Britishness' and endless crowds. I assumed all these factors would feed through to the restaurants too.

Well, as we arrived our first obstacle was to find a member of staff to stop and talk to us. Then when we did track one down they insisted our clients hadn't booked a table... all abit of a commotion really!

Once things were sorted it wasn't long before we were offered a delicious selection of fresh bread and we placed our order. Whenever I see the words souffle on a menu my eyes light up with glee, and I'm a particular fan of savory ones for a starter. The double baked goats cheese souffle was an absolute blinder; a light fluffy texture, crisp exterior and goatie as it gets! The only down side is that is it was MASSIVE.. I could only manage just over half.

The others opted for garlic wild mushrooms... simple and well executed.

I did feel somewhat cheeky when I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu for my main; even more expensive than the lobster! It was roasted Halibut on the bone and it was truly delicious.

I was abit surprised when my colleague Holly who also had the cheese souffle then chose yet another eggy classic for her main course... Eggs Benedict, and my word it looked sensational... plump poached eggs with fluorecent yellow yokes piled high on top of plenty of honey glazed ham, think and crunchy toasted muffins, and finally the wicked hollandise sauce. Browny and I have seen a fair few epic Benedict's over last couple of months and this one would certainly make the top 3!

Whenever I go out to lunch with work I always have to be careful not to over drink but also not to overeat... Or I am in danger or genuinely falling asleep at my desk! Therefore I was very good a resisted the yummy selection of puds. Holly had 3 fab mini hot mince pies and custard. They were so good she popped into the food hall afterwards to take some home with her. However she soon had other ideas when she realised that a pack on 10 mini mince pies cost £10!!

It was a fun and tasty afternoon. The restaurant itself is pretty dated, with the average customer pushing 65 yrs old. But for convenience and a work lunch it certainly fits the bill. The service was somewhat disappointing but could be forgiven with such a busy lunch time. Will I be taking Browny back? Umm maybe.... but there are plenty of others places I chose before coming back here.

Thursday 13 December 2007

The Warsaw Diner, Nottingham

My first ever review back in September 2005 for Russell Davies', Eggs Bacon Chips and Beans. I just stumbled across it and thought it deserved a place here too.

"ebcb has gone OpenSource! Here's a contribution from Jonathan Brown. Anyone else want to do one? (Not sure I should have let him get away with the hash browns though.)

Just off the Derby Road in Nottingham, this is the unforgettable Warsaw Diner. Offering bizarre Polish food, incredible fry ups and fiery vodka this place is a little bit special.

The Warsaw Diner likes to be a bit different. Magnificent hash browns are served instead of chips.

Always good to see wallpaper scrapers being used where they belong… in the kitchen.

Text book condiments. Aunt Jemima looks absolutely radiant."

It was great fun doing this and an honour that Russell allowed me to write for his blog. You can buy his book here. Unfortunately my review arrived too late to get in the book!

I hope my reviews have improved since then!

The Albion, Clifton, Bristol

The Albion's tucked away down a little alleyway and used to look like this in 1982.

It got its name a couple of hundred years ago from a ship as documented in this guide to Bristol's pubs.

"The name, Albion, was probably given to the inn in honour of a local ship. There was a ship of two hundred tons owned by Davis and Protheroe built at the Bristol dockyards in 1778 called the Albion ~ and this could have been the origin of the inn’s name, which it has retained for over two hundred years."

The first time I visited the Albion was about 3 years ago when it was just a basic pub serving beer under very welcome outdoor heaters. It's a good stop off between the legendary Corrie Tap, Racks and Lizard Lounge.

It seems to have been tarted up since my last visit and is now an extremely smart pub with dining rooms. The menu is very Anchor and Hope with plenty of stuff that oinks and you'll struggle to find at the butcher.

We chose bath chaps and scallops to start with. My bath chaps were far fattier than I had imagined and came with a dandelion salad which cut through the greasy meat well. I'm not sure I would opt for bath chaps again because the ratio of fat to meat. However the little meat that I could find on them was so porky I thought it was going to jump off the plate and start rooting around for worms and scratch its arse on the dining room chairs.

The other diners were raucously getting stuck into their Christmas parties, tucking into immaculate looking rib of beef to share and charcouterie plates. Suz and I wondered whether we should have pigged out on half a cow, but were very pleased with our choice once my pot roasted pheasant arrived and Suz was presented with her mutton.

My pheasant was really tasty but disappointingly dry. Normally, as Cowie will tell you, I'm not a big fan of red cabbage but I loved it with my pheasant. Suz's mutton was far better. 2 large slices of leg meat were dark coloured and deep tasting. But the star was a croquette type thing stuffed with greasy mutton. The very essence of what sheep meat should taste of. Brilliant. And the fact that you don't normally see mutton on the menu made it even better.

We couldn't quite manage dessert, instead choosing to enjoy the relaxed surroundings, red wine and perfect espressos. The service was excellent. Suz was very impressed by our waitresses' fashion sense. It seems to be the kind of place well of Bristol students take their parents and loved ones when they want to impress them and they don't have to pay! I got hit with the bill which wasn't too bad by London standards but was a fair whack for Bristol. But then again this wasn't really Bristol. This was Clifton which may as well be Fulham!

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The Spread Eagle, Stourton, Wiltshire

It was a blustery, cold Sunday afternoon but I was determined not to stay indoors curled up under the duvet all day. So Browny and I wrapped up in our winter woollies, put on our wellies and set off up to Alfred's Tower with my beloved whippets; Hector and Bella.

It was freezing, but fortunately the rain held off. We had a fabulous walk clambering through the woods for an hour or so. Hector and Bella whizzed about chasing squirrels while Browny foraged around in the undergrowth for mushrooms. It was great but we soon worked up an appetite and decided to reward ourselves with a trip to a trusty local.

The Spread Eagle is set in the magnificent surrounding of Stourhead House and Gardens. It is National Trust favourite and rightly so. As we walked in the landlord couldn't care less about our muddy boats and waterproof trousers. A proper country pub that caters for all walks of life. The bar area was filled with walkers, families, grannies, couples.. the works. The open fire was incredibly welcoming and as soon as I had ordered a local bitter and a bloody mary we settled in next to the open blaze.

To start we shared a delicious chicken liver and mushroom pate. Smooth, rich and extremely tasty with plenty of garlic for good measure. The gooseberry chutney was the perfect accompliment.

To follow I opted for a simple leek and potato soup to warm me up and keep my nasty cold at bay. It was fabulous; very comforting, tasty, well seasoned and not bland like so many classic soups. Bronwy was somewhat more adventurous and had a free range chicken leg with tities and veggies. It did what is said on the tin, filled a hole, but nothing to write home about.

Following lunch we simply sat nestled in our arm chairs letting the world go by with not a care in the world... it was great and what Sundays are all about.

If your going for the first time, you simply must take a walk around the gardens.. they are truly fabulous. The farm shop is also a winner!

Friday 7 December 2007

Ping Pong, Gt Marlborough Street

Photo from Tzutzu from Flickr.

Cowie is as fanatical about Ping Pong's dim sum as she is about dressage and country houses... The love affair started in Hong Kong when we first started going out. So whenever we pop to Ping Pong for a quick bite to eat we get transported back to the summer of 2005.

The wettest June on record in Hong Kong.
Cowie getting offered a job at Knight Frank.
The Lions being humiliated by New Zealand.
Dragon boat racing.
Me working for Ogilvy.
Incredible seafood on Lamma Island.
Sensational views from our appartment.
Even better views from the Peninsula Hotel on Kowloon side.
Steep hills.
No space.
Shark fin soup.
Silver chopsticks.
Dim Sum.

Dim Sum literally means "touch the heart" or "order to your heart's content". And this is exactly the ethos of Ping Pong. You queue up politely for a table, have a killer cocktail and then get buzzed to your table where should order some of the tea where the ball opens out into a flower!

Tick what you want on the list and then wait for the bamboo steamers to arrive full of goodies. Everything we've had has been great. Our only criticisms are that everything arrives in 3s which always means someone either scoffs too much or has too little. And secondly that the First Emperor's Treasure sounded amazing but turned out to be a bit mundane. Not bad. Just not as awesome as it sounded!

To get a view of how the whole place runs check out the video below that explains everything!

We'll be back time and time again. If only they'd open one in Balham or on the Northcote Road!

Iffy Breakfast in Spittalfied

Cowie had been looking forward to tucking into a post squash, day off breakfast at Leon. She's been eyeing up their porridge all week and was more disappointed than the French when they lost out to London to win the Olympic games. I thought we were about to face melt down like in Falling Down where Michael Douglas goes postal when he isn't allowed breakfast because he is a minute too late... then he holds the whole place up with an uzi! You probably know the scene... if not check it out below...

I managed to prise Cowie away from her Uzi and we popped into Canteen instead to give their breakfast menu a test drive. Last time we came here I saw the chef ladelling out hollandaise sauce by the bucket load onto amazing looking Eggs Benedict... so it was an easy choice for me. They were stunning. Just like the photo from Su Lin from Flickr below:

Cowie chose badly. And it ruined her morning. When her yoghurt and muesli arrived it was as if someone had just revealed that Santa Claus doesn't exist. There was the smallest excuse for a bowl of muesli resting on the side of the plate next to a vast bowl of thick dense yoghurt. All she wanted was what she asked for. Muesli with yoghurt. This was all back to front.

So we've been here twice now and our feelings about Canteen have got every so slightly less warm. I'm still keen to come back. There must be about 25 things I haven't yet tried on the menu!

For all the tea in Spittalfield

Cowie and I did a solid morning's Christmas shopping in and around Spittalfield market buying all sort of goodies and trying to forget about Cowie's disappointing breakfast experience at Leon and Canteen!

I'm fed up of coffee bars and have been looking for an authenic tea shop for ages. Something that lives up to some of the places I went to in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Tea Smith is next door to Spittalfield market but is nearer culturally to Peking. We sat at a stylish, long bar and were given a tour de force in the world of tea by the charming girl behind the bar. She guided us with great confidence through their extensive tea menu. Talking us through the different ways that Camelia Synensis is treated. She turned up her nose at my question about lapsang suchong because it is an inferior tea composed of off cuts and is generally low grade stuff. Fascinating.

She went through an elaborate ritual for each tea we tried. Repeatedly rinsing and heating our cups. We got 3 infusions for our money and a wealth of interesting knowledge.

My tea was smooth and oaky. Slightly charred and very refreshing. Apparently it would do wonders for my cholesterol and metabolism. Cowie's was slighly less impressed with hers. A bit odd tasting but not as strange as the one that smelled like smoked trout that we were treated to as an added extra later.

They have been open for about a year now but it was a shame to see the place empty. I'm keen to do one of their Tea Masterclasses. I quite fancy myself as a "Tea Master"!


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