Monday 28 April 2008

Anna's Mousakka

As a mini celebration of me moving house Anna and Edwin created a fantastic mousakka. It's a cross between Edwin's skiworld recipe and Anna's mother's recipe. The result was fantastic. I'm looking forward to plenty more of this!

Annas Mousakka

Here's Anna's recipe courtesy of Mother Railton.


Ragu Sauce

Lamb Mince (1 kg)
4 Aubergines
Heaped tbl spoon Oregano
1 can Chopped tomatoes
1 heaped tbl spoon tomato puree
Red Wine



Plain flour
2 large eggs

Start off by frying the lamb mince in olive oil – when all the meat is browned put to one side to let the fat rise – which will later be drained off.

Slice the aubergines into 1cm wide slices- lay on a dish and salt. Leave for 15-20 mins. Wash off the salt and lay to one side to dry. They do shrink so I would suggest doing more than you might expect to need.

Next fry onions/garlic/peppers/courgettes etc add the chopped tomatoes/tomato puree/red wine and then add the lamb back in.

At the same time fry the Aubergines quite gently – this will need to be done by a batch process – when you have fried one batch I suggest you put them in the oven on grill to keep them warm and to allow them to crisp up slightly.

Once all the aubergines have been done- build up the dish like you would a lasagne – I ten dto start with aubergines on the bottom layer and finishing with aubergines on top.

Pop this in the oven on medium-high heat and start on the béchamel sauce.


Melt Lots of proper butter in a pan (a slab 1 ½ inces wide) gently sieve flour in and continue to stir until it has formed an almost cookie dough texture. Slowly add the milk whilst stirring until it is a suitable thickness - grate in about half a block of cheese and half a whole nutmeg.

Beat 2 large eggs in a mug and add to the sauce. This will help it rise so the more air you can add into the sauce the better – I would recommend a quick whisk at this stage,

After 20 mins remove the base dish from the oven pour over the sauce - grate some more nutmeg over the top and then pop under the grill for 10-15 mins.

DO make sure you watch it though- as my sauce burnt under the grill and it will catch very quickly. If it does burn- just brush some olive oil over the top!"

Sunday 27 April 2008

Realfood Festival

Realfood Festival

Cowie and I went to the Realfood Festival today and had a whale of a time. We've been to a range of food festivals over the last year or so. The Taste of London was excellent and we are looking forward to going again. But the Good Food Show and London Food Festival were both disappointing. So we had our fingers crossed that the Realfood Festival was going to be a success.

Our hopes were bolstered by the amount of pre show publicity and marketing we saw. This was added to by the fact that the tickets were excited and that the event was being staged at Earls Court. Previous events had failed because they were undersupported in terms of marketing, exhibitors and therefore the consumer experience was poor. The concoction of top location, top exhibitors, high prices and good timing meant that the Realfood Festival was a brilliant experience.

We were almost overwhelmed by the number of exhibitors. But because of the logical way in which the show was laid it it was very easy to get to grips with the flow. We were a bit baffled about the decision to cover the floor with a thin layer of saw dust. When was the last time you went to a genuine farmers' market that did this? It meant that we all left with dusty shoes. And anyone wearing flip flops had a bit of a dusty day. But this was the only negative part of the whole day!

The brands that stood out had something in common. All the exhibitors are passionate about their products. But for the most part they don't move beyond just being a product. Walking down sausage alley we must have tried 5 or 6 samples of swine from seemingly identical producers. All very good sausages. But ultimately they were all the same. This was true of all sectors - cheese, coffee, tea, chocolate etc. The ones that stood out and got us excited were the ones that had taken their product a step further. They had turned their otherwise generic product (albeit passionately created) and turned it into a brand with a personality wrapped up in beautiful clothing.

Our first experience of this charming branding was our encounter with Sharyn Wortman founder of Tea & Philosophy - two things that are very close to my heart!

Sharyn Wortman

Inspiration Tea Pi

From the moment we saw the "Tea-Pi" we were smitten. Things got better when we started speaking to the charming "Tea Team" who gave us samples and let us have a free badge. Their teas are blended to meet your different need states. Happiness, in a red packet was my favourite.

Happiness Tea

Cowie loved the yellow one called Inspiration.

Inspiration Tea

The charm of the team transalted into the beautiful design of the packaging.

Range of tea

Tea Combo

The copy on the packets is inspiring and human in much the same was as Innocent smoothies. If I hadn't had a chat with Sharyn I would have guessed that Innocent were behind this venture too. It was no surprise at all to find out that Sharyn used to work in advertising. The creativity and coherent brand experience aren't the work of an amateur. We bought a packet of the red and yellow tea and found ourselves chatting at the end of the show about the fact that our favourite discoveries at the show had been producers who had created brands with distint, stylish packaging. Sharyn pointed out that the extra effort, energy and enthusiasm that goes into these fine details is a sure sign that the product itself is well crafted. The penny dropped. Sharyn was of course right. The best exhibitors had created engaging, memorable brand experiences.

We also loved Nudo olive oil. I wrote about Nudo's adopt an olive tree programme a while ago so it was great to meet the mastermind behind it. He got the adopt an olive tree idea from a pork farm who do something similar with their pigs.

Nudo Adopt an Olive Tree

It's a fabulous idea and takes off where Tea and Philosophy left off by creating a rich brand experience. It could very easily be just another olive oil company. But through great packaging, engaging ideas, impeccable products and the founder of the company being on the stand himself Nudo came across as a confident, premium, niche brand.

Mr Nudo Olive Oil

Nudo Olive Oil Range

As a result I bought some delicious mandarine infused olive oil that tasted a bit like the yuzu we had at Roka.

Luscombe Organic Drinks first reared their head at Riverford Farm. We loved their hot ginger beer then and we loved their entire range today! The elderflower is sensational too. Their packaging, team, range and design work all exude quality. It's a well thought out, beautifully crafted drinks brand that would grace the menu of any aspirational gastro pub.

Luscombe Juices

Luscombe Logo

Other highlights included the Sharpham Farm spelt stand that benefits from all the millions earned by the guy in charge of Mulberry. It was a great stand with a charming girl doing the honours. We walked away with some extra fine spelt grain to make pasta with, some spelt porridge for Cowie and a brochure for the very exclusive Charlton House. Another great piece of marketing. Cowie's got her eye on a 4 poster extravaganza with a 30 minute spelt treatment that weighs in at around £600!

Sharpham Farm

One of my favourite moments of the day was having a chat with Oliver Rowe - the guy behind uber local Konstam. He was incredibly charming and full of beans. I mentioned that I had eaten his food a couple of times.

Oliver Rowe from Konstam

Once at Konstam at the Prince Albert and also at The Future Laboratory trends day where I had been surprised to see him actually cooking. He tried my newly bought vanilla and celery salt and seemed genuinely interested in just having a chat. What a legend. Good man.

This salt was incredile. It's harvested (if that is the right word) on the Isle of Angelsea and is beautifully packaged and lovingly sold at a small stand. It all started by me trying their standard salt which was... er... salty. Then I moved on to their vanilla variety and I was hooked! Great on scallops or sea bass! Then I got some celery salt for Cowie to sprinkle on her quails eggs! Truly delicious and a great way of adding a classy flourish to a dinner party meal. Their Halen Mon product hasn't been through the branding exploration that the products above have. But then again does salt really need it? Their product was so good it spoke for itself. That said I'm sure Maldon sells a few more bags than they do.

Anglesea Salt

Let's finish on a high with the organic mushroom stand - Fundamentally Fungus. Regular readers will know that I am bonkers about mushrooms! So finding a mail order unusal mushroom company was a real find!


It gave me the chance to try the macro function on Cowie's camera out. I'm quite pleased with the result! But it has to be said that my interst in their stand was mainly due to my mushroom mania rather than the fact that their brand was particualry engaging. But then again they are probably aiming at a fairly niche market. There can't be that many fungus nuts about! I really hope their excellent website does well. They girls on the stand were utterly charming.

Enoki Mushrooms

In generaly we had a marvelous time. At previous events we have left feeling tired, uninspired and with empty bags. This time we waltzed out of the front door with a memory card full of pictures, a head full of copy, a recycled Whole Foods bag full of goodies and heads buzzing with ideas. Great event. Can't wait for the next one.

For a collection of the rest of our photos have a play with the fun widget below or link through to our Flickr set. We agree with the sentiment of the person who drew this on the comments blackboard...

We're flapping mad over Real Food

Saturday 26 April 2008

Jay Rayner, The Man Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Meal

I should probably start off with confirmation that Cowie can't say Jay Rayner's name. This comes hot on the heels of Cowie blurting out that she liked nothing better than a good bibliography, when she meant biography. So from now on Jay Rayner will be referred to by his new name, "Ray". An amusing addition to the special Cowie dictionary.

My copy travelled with me to Chicago, Brugge and Paris and was devoured with a degree of greed that Ray himself would be proud of! It kept me company in the Blackhawk as I was bored by the pilgrim waitress!

Ray's analysis of the restaurant scene in Moscow was spot on. It's a seriously murky place. A city where you are always only seconds from disaster. Ever since I was kidnapped there I've always been fascinated by and wary of all things Russian. We ate at Cafe Puskin and devoured some seriously good and expensive caviar with some icy vodka followed by 2 grilled quail with a bitter fruit sauce. The food was delicious but the setting is false and somewhat alarming. There's nothing like being watched by a whore like a hawk to put you off your food! She was perched at the bar rather like a bottle of chilled wine sits in an ice bucket. Apparently this is normal in Moscow!

Ray discusses the way that the world's uber restaurants have evolved and homogenised. The nouveau riche cities such as Dubai, Las Vegas and Moscow come off badly. They have embraced the fact that chefs from America, London and Paris are happy to franchise themselves for serious bucks. As a result you get glitzy venues and flashy food. But not the true experience. No connection to locality. No concept of terroir.

On the other hand the old school classics such as London, Paris, New York and Tokyo are rooted in their locality. This gives them their identity and as a corollary, their integrity and ability to franchise their names out to the rest of the world.

Highlights include:

Ray eating at seven, 3 and 2 Michelin star restaurants in 7 days

A galloping gourmet extravaganza around 5 restaurants in New York

Ray's love of food blogging and social media (hello Ray!)

Ray's bowel failure in Tokyo which had me wetting myself on the train in Chicago

It's a shame that Ray didn't review El Bulli or The Fat Duck... if you are in search of the perfect meal then surely you've got to visit the best two restaurants in the world. Especially because the molecular gastronomy movement is one of the most exciting phenomena in the food world. Restaurants like Alinea and Bacchus have strung up mimicking Feran Adria and Heston's style. But none of these new school restaurants get a look in. Maybe this could be a good theme for a follow up book.

Maybe a trip to Spain would have been good - on top of El Bulli, San Sebastian would probably have a few restaurants that could be contenders.

I was interested to read about Ray's family background and his Jewish food roots. I've been reading his reviews in the Guardian for ages and one of them came crashing back to me... He reviewed Blooms with Silverbrow and opened up with this comment:

"I once said that bad restaurants were like car crashes and chest infections, in that they were never sought but were, instead, something that just happened to me. After my dinner at the Jewish restaurant Bloom's, in Golders Green, northwest London, I realised the analogy goes further. You also feel the effects for days afterwards, too. Every time I let slip an involuntary belch, which was often, I was right back there at the table - and that was not a good place to be. Never has the late John Diamond's great joke about Jewish keep-fit lessons - eat three bowls of lockshen pudding, press your hand to your chest and say, 'Feel the burn' - been so true."

I had read an interview with Silverbrow on the Trusted Places blog that referred to that trip to Blooms. The foodie world is a very small one. And the online foodie world is even smaller.

Towards the tail end of the book Ray gets very excited about food blogging. It's clearly a passion of his. And this is where I got really interested. I've yet to get stuck into Opinionated About or Mouthfuls, but I now can't wait. I've just found Steve Plotnicki's Opinionated About Dining Guide. Looks like a really interesting read. And right up any food bloggers ally.

It's a good book that's had a lot of publicity and has given me a much more in depth view of what Ray is like as a person... But it's not a classic and I wish it had included Spain and had given a better account of London's restaurants. I was also disappointed that Ray seemed to lose his enthusiasm for food and restaurants by the end of the book, to the extent that he even considered giving up restaurant reviewing. Don't give up Ray. Your reviews make my Sundays! I just hope you get your Mojo back.

The Chapel, Edgeware Road

Just a quick review of The Chapel pub near Edgeware Road Tube Station...

It's a well run pub with an exciting food menu featuring some modern pub classics like rib eye steak, fish cakes and grilled chicken. This is bolstered by some more unusual offerings such as grilled ostrich with a mango, ginger and chili dressing. The most startling side of the menu however, is the lack of both burgers and chips... a very good thing indeed! Even though I did have an insatiable desire to wolf down a cheese burger and chips on a slow Friday afternoon!

Oi and I had the grilled ostrich which was beautifully rare. Unfortunately, the meat was tough and fibrous. Not the tender piece of meat we were expecting. It was chewy and disappointing as a piece of meat. A real shame because the rest of the dish was fabulous. We probably should have played safe with the rib eye!

I watched the two, young and energetic chefs at work. The quality of their presentation and flavour combinations were very impressive. I suspect that they were just let down by the quality of their meat. We'll give them a second chance at some point soon to try the rest of their menu out. But another blunder and we won't return.

Caviar House and Prunier, Heathrow Terminal 4

On my way to Chicago I suffered at the hands of Heathrow. The place is completely cursed and a complete embarrassment to everyone associate with London. But on the plus side, our pilot's decision not to turn up for work resulted in me being given some vouchers to spend on "refreshments" anywhere I wanted within the terminal. Having guzzled more than my fair share of business class mini-bacon sandwiches and endless cups of tea I decided to make the most of my voucher. Wimpy? No thanks! Pret? Nope. Caviar House and Prunier? Yes please!

Seafood Bar and Prunier counter LHR

Seafood Bar and Prunier Heathrow

I had King Crab and a glass of very cold, dry white wine. Bliss. After all the hassle and stress of being in a crowded, hot and disorganised airport this cool, refreshing plate of tender crab was perfect, if a little pricey! But I wasn't paying. BA were! The contrast between the civilised setting of a luxury food outlet in an airport and the apocalyptically danger of the Deadliest Catch weren't lost on me. Just have a look at the sheer savagery of the waves in the video below. The Deadliest Catch is the Discovery Channel's hugely popular documentary about the reality of King Crab fishing in the Bering Sea. It's scary stuff and documents the death of an entire crew. So I sat with my glass of chilled white wine and sweet, salty crab meat and felt very fortunate that I don't make my living as a fisherman!

The Caviar House and Prunier is the only decent place to eat in the entire terminal. Which is a complete disgrace.

Chocolate Shoes are taking Europe's Capital Cities by Storm

Maybe that's a slight exaggeration! But having seen these gorgeous looking chocolate stilettos in a Parisian shop window on Tuesday... I then saw the less sexy versions below in Selfridges.

Chocolate Stiletto Paris 2

Chocolate Pump from Selfridges

Typical! The French ones are sexy and expensive and the English versions are dumpy and cheaper!


I have just spotted them again - this time at the Realfood Festival... They are taking over the world.

Chocolate Artisan Shoes

Chocolate Shoe

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Happy Birthday to the Paunch!

It's a very proud day for us as we celebrate Around Britain with a Paunch's 1 year anniversary.

365 days ago Browny decided the time had come for him to start writing about his passion. And what fun we have had. The Paunch has fuelled our love for cooking, good honest grub, exquisite restaurants, travel, travel writing, local produce, seasonal offerings, rural life, exciting adventures and all things foodie.

Since we published our 1st post 12 months ago, we have now received over 24,000 hits! This is fantastic, but we have great aspiration and expectations. We would love to see the Paunch grow into something extra special, that is enjoyed and recognised by avid foodies on global scale.

Happy Birthday.

Monday 21 April 2008

The Exhibit

I was very fortunate to win a cinema for the night in Balham. I clicked on the button on The Exhibit's website and some how managed to bag myself a night at a very swanky cinema on Cowie's doorstep.

We walk past The Exhibit most weekends when we inevitably pop into Sainsbury's 5 times because we keep forgetting things, or Cowie runs out of grapes! It's a very smart, imposing building with a magnetic quality that makes you want to investigate. That's what got us hooked. I've never really wanted to watch the films they screen. But the beauty about having a cinema all to yourself is that you get to choose the film.

At first this really exciting. Then it becomes scary. Finding a film that 24 people are all going to like and not have seen is almost impossible. So do you opt for an old classic that everyone has seen and can recite all the lines like Top Gun, Gladiator etc. Or do you go for a newish release that most won't have seen and will look great on the big screen?

We went for the latter and watch American Gangster. It was one of the toughest choices I've ever made. Made tougher by the sheer idiocy of Blockbuster. Despite having a live membership in Nottingham they wouldn't let me hire a video in Balham. They could try but I'd have had to have known the post code for the Blockbuster on Lenton Boulevard... unlikely. So sir. Do you have proof of your address such as a utility bill? Of course not! Do you? Madness. Somehow I managed to emerge 15 minutes later clutching a copy of the DVD but my temper was rubbed raw. No wonder Love Film is doing so well.

The Exhibit has got a great bar with very friendly bar staff. The crowd is very cool without being pretentious. And it is supposed to be great in summer when they open out their terrace.

Unfortunately we were too late on a Sunday night for food so we just had olives and nuts whilst watching our film and sipping our beers. Bliss on a Sunday evening. It would make a great place for a party as there are quite a few bars in the building. As we left we stumbled into a stand up comedy night and somehow managed to emerge un-teased which was the only disappointment to the evening!

We're all delighted to have discovered such a cool haunt and are super keen to return.

Raviolo. GONE.

A sad day for Balham. Raviolo has closed down. This is to add to the dramatic closure recently of Tabaq.

We'd been to Raviolo once and aimed to return. But looking back at it we weren't blown away by it and the concept was perhaps too niche for Balham.

Whilst Tabaq and Raviolo have closed, Gazette, a Cuban place, Clover Brown and the Fat Delicatessen have opened. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away as someone once may or may not have once said.

Balham is in an exciting state of flux. Ever since Waitrose opened it's been excitement ever since.

Gazette comes to Balham

Back in October, we reviewed the Gazette restaurant in Battersea. A lovely, comforting French brasserie serving delicious French classics. So I was delighted when I discovered they had opened an identical eatery, right on our door step in Balham.

It has been open since March and it hasn't taken the locals long to recognise this is abit of winner. It might be half the size of its sister in Battersea, but it certainly makes up for it in personality.

On Saturday night, Browny and I rolled up at 9pm to see if they had a spare table. We fancied some no nonsense French grub and cosy romantic environment, and we certainly got it. It had a lovely relaxed atmosphere, music burbling along in the back ground and the modest space has been fitted out in sympathetic and romantic style.

Having guzzled a bowl of young green olives we tucked into our starters. I always find very hard to resist Moules whenever I see them on a menu, and these were fantastic. Huge plump juicy mussels and a liquor busting with ummph and flavour. Browny decided he was in need of a protein fix and opted for the beef tar tar. It arrived on a slab of wood with all its trimmings including the compulsory cracked egg on top. It was fabulous. The meat (false fillet) was tender, fresh, tasty and very meaty.. the portion was also absolutely vast!

Then came along our belated bread basket. And unfortunately for me it was fresh out of the oven and smelt heavenly. I simply couldn't keep my paws out and for someone who isn't supposed to eat wheat, I should have known better!

My flaky, roasted fillet of cod was a delight. Cooked to perfection and complimented by a root veggie combo, it ticked every box for me. Browny went for piglet. Well, I say piglet, it was actually a mere rib of a piglet which as you can imagine, isn't very substantial! But none the less it was beautifully moist and tender.

A few cheeky bowls of sumptuous ice cream with a Madeline each polished off a cracking supper. Feeling thoroughly satisfied and verging on the stuffed boundary, we woddled home and flopped into bed.

The only criticism was from my big sister, who must be one of the toughest food critics I know. If she gives something praise... my God it must be sublime! On her recent visit to Gazette she wasn't very enthusiastic about her squid risotto... But Browny and I couldn't help think this was a somewhat odd choice in a French restaurant! But having since gone back for Sunday brunch, she has not got a bad word to say about the place.

Balham should count its lucky stars that such a super little restaurant has found its way over to SW12.

Browny here: But better still they've got Wifi and if you write a review and send it to their email address they give you a free drink! Now if that isn't good blogger relations I don't know what is!

Further good news is that they are mid revamp of their basement which will feature a private dining area for 10/12 and an amazing wine cave. Bravo.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Alinea, Chicago

Alinea kitchen at work

Most reviews of Alinea point out very early on that it was acknowledged as being the best restaurant in America in 2006. Most diners at Alinea have never seen anything quite like this before. Most diners don't come here on their own!

So I rocked up to 1723 N. Halstead Street on my own and tried not to look too much of an idiot as I walked up to an unidentified door and pushed on it. Luckily I had got the number right and I walked in to a kaleidoscopic hallway with a medley of fibre optic, futuristic lights. Whislt being drawn in by the tractor beam some doors automatically slid open and I found myself inside the nerve centre of America's most cutting edge restaurant.

Alinea entrance

Having arrived 15 minutes early because the traffic wasn't as bad as I was expecting I was offereed the option of going away to the bar next door and coming back quarter of an hour later or sitting in a chair in the hallway and watching the action in the open kitchen. Being on my own I made the slightly awkward choice of sitting in the hallway gawping at the intense activity in the kitchen.

15 long minutes past before I was lead to my table, tucked away in the corner of a spacious dining room, next to the servers's cutlery and wine station. The benefit of this was that I always had something to look at whilst twiddling my thumbs between courses. I had decided not to bring a book or camera with me so I had a lot of time to people watch and contemplate.

Having decided to go for the 12 course tasting menu I turned down the attempt to upsell me on the wine matching option and allowed the sommelier to choose a lightly oaked American chardonay for me. He was a fantastic sommelier who kept me company when it seemed like I wanted to talk to somebody!

Rather than give you a blow by blow account of the food, I'm just going to describe the highlights and add some of my thoughts. The menu is just as shown below:

Steelhead Roe:

A lump of coconut and lime cream with a string of steelhead rowe arrived on the end of a vanilla looking like an old fashioned in pot and quil. A refreshing, intriguing start. And a sign of the brilliance that was to follow.

Spring Garlic:

A forkful with 3 jellies: parsley, lemon and chicken and a bowl of garlic soup. First eat the jellies and then let the warm garlic soup glide over you like an unexpected treat. Delicious. Has the flavour and depth of the best roast chicken. Incredibly smooth. And very clever.

Ice Fish:

One of my favourite things on the menu. It is fish and chips but deconstructed. Tiny slithers of fish are served with the component parts of tartare sauce scattered over the long thin plate. When they combine together in your mouth you are unexpectedly transported to the Godlen Hind on Marylebone Lane! Highly unusual. Great success.


Wow. So clever. With a fair amount of American fanfare a large bowl was placed front of me with a slightly smaller bowl inside. The outside bowl had a sprig of mint and spearmint jutting out of it. The inside bowl contained an instensely flavoured lobster and pea broth with a lobster foam. The server elaborately poured some boiling water into the outside bowl which caught hold of the mint sprigs and forced all of their refreshing vapours straight up my nostrils like a big, pleasant, hit of Morocco! Memories came flooding back of long afternoons walking around the Medina and causal breakfasts in our Riad. Then when I tasted the lobster broth I was in Rick Stein heaven! The chunks of lobster were soft and sweet. The liquid itself was deep and smooth. Much finer than a typical lobster broth and depth charged with something called ramps - apparently they are a type of leek that is native to the Chicago area. It was a work of genius. My only criticism was that the peas were hard and chewy. For some reason I felt compelled to tell the sommelier. But only because he asked. I was astonished when appeared back minutes later with the chef's appologies! Only in America. If Ramsay was down there he would have thrown me out there and then!

Wagyu Beef:

I have had wagyu beef before and was deeply disappointed. Not this time. Disappointment simply wasn't an option. Whilst I was waiting for my chicken and garlic soup, a gentleman all in black very earnestly put a bizarre looking frozen thing on my table and explained in great detail that it was a slice of wagyu beef frozen in liquid nitrogen and should be left to defrost at my table. Then when the time was right a scorching hot oblong plate arrived with a cube of potato on that looked as lonely as I must have done! It was wrapped in a very thing slice of black truffle. 2 waiters performed the ritual of folding the now defrosted wagyu beef over the top of the warm truffled potato and hot plate. The marbled meat gently let go of some of its fat and yielded to the warmth to take the chill off. A third waiter, the most senior of the now triumvirate ceremoniosly spooned some vinagerette over the beef and then crowned it with 2 thyme leaves. Wow. What a theatrical experience. A minute later it was all gone and I was sighing with approval. Delicious. The temperature of the raw wagyu beef meant that it simply melted in mouth and the truffle left my mouth feeling like it had just french kissed a whore house - in a good way! The thyme and vinagrette then cleaned away the delicious filth and left me wanting seconds!


Erm. Bit of a weird one. Out came a device looking like it had been used by the CIA as some sort of rendition initiation or as a brace for someone who had broken their neck. From the high wire dangled a slice of crispy bacon topped with an apple and butterscotch glaze designed to bring back memories of the bacon and wafles you had for breakfast - or so the waiter told me when I asked what the idea was. Very cool. Very photogenic. Very tasty. Nice story too.


Having no idea what persimmon was I soon discovered when I put the myriad component parts in my mouth that this was Hansel and Grettel on a plate. It was a deconstruced ginger bread cake. Very clever. Big round flavours.


Very hard to describe - but I'll have a go. Raw egg yoke in a sphere that oozes everywhere as soon as your curious spoon gets close. A chocolate shell surrounding a loose creamy centre that was delicious. And then a bunch of smokey salt spots drizzled around the plate. In addition a bit of dried orange peel added an architectural flourish. Fantastically rich feel in the mouth and stunning presentation.

Having bored you to death with my gushings about what I liked I'd better explain why I haven't reviewed each course. Essentially, whilst everything was really interesting to eat and experience, I didn't feel it was all perfect either in its execution or its conception.

Fava Beans was something you had to see to believe. But was bland to taste and I didn't understand the idea.

Hot Potato was a medley of hot and cold potato with what tasted like a mushroom soup. I got the feeling it was being clever for the sake of it and wasn't really going anywhere. Essentially like eating a punctuation mark.

Short ribs were oh so tender and tasty. But the combination of peanut butter and Guinness seems wrong. Maybe my palette is too basic. I took some time trying to work it out and decided it was like in MasterChef when Gregg and John tell the participant that what they've done would be great as two different dishes - but not on the same plate. Beef and peanut = satay beef. Great. Beef and Guinness = a classic. But all together tastes like a badly edited Wikipedia entry. Full of clever stuff. But unreliable and confusing.

Lamb was similarly complex. Again it may have been my stupidity but it was a collection of 4 or 5 dishes in one that baffled rather than delighted. Lamb with mint. Fine. Lamb with mushroom. Fine. Lamb with red wine. Fine. Lamb with red pepper reduction. Fine. Lamb with smoked walnut. Really interesting. All together on one plate? Weird. No wonder the menu listed this as "diverse embellishments"!

Rhubarb appeared in the form of a spherical shot with ginger and basil. It was stunningly refreshing and I am told is a parody of an American ice cream. But the waitress cleared away my glass whilst I was still eating it. Why? Just to be efficient? It's probably an American thing. But I found it incredibly rude.

Don't get me wrong. I loved the experience. It was fascinating and delicious. Having eaten at the Fat Duck and El Bulli I am lucky to be able to place this meal in context. El Bulli is insurparsable. And the Fat Duck probably is too. But this was good. It lacked consistency. Whereas there were themes and riffs running through the experience at the Fat Duck and El Bulli the menu at Alinea doesn't seem to have the same fluidity. Whereas El Bulli constantly surprises and plays the menu at Alinea is more expected in the flavour deparment and relies more on visual techniques. El Bulli pushed my culinary boundaries into places I had never been before. Alinea didn't. It was far safer. At times Alinea over-complicated to the extent that you don't get the idea.

I have been wanting to go to Alinea for around a year now and am delighted to have had the opportunity. It was a very special evening. Being alone gave me the chance to really think about each mouthful which is not really what eating is all about. And as a result, maybe I have been overly critical. The highlights such as the lobster and wagyu beef will stay with me for life and the bits that confused are just me being a snooty food snob.

Don Roth's Blackhawk Prime Rib in Deerfield, Illinois

I've just come back from my first business trip to Chicago and have a wealth of foodie experiences to share! Having arrived in Chicago on Monday night I was feeling a bit disorientated and thought I would ground myself with some steak!

I asked the friendly staff at the Embassy Suites where I should go and they recommended the Black Hawk. Great atmosphere. Awesome meat. A free shuttle ride later and I was sat at my table in an empty restaurant! It was a Monday night so it wasn't really a surprise. With Jay Rayner's aptly keeping me company I had plenty of time to take in my surroundings and take stock of all the Blackhawk's back story.

Luckily most of this is on their website so here's an extract:

"Don Roth's Blackhawk in Wheeling has over 37 years experience serving great steaks, prime rib and absolutely fresh seafood in the historic home of the famous "Spinning Salad Bowl". Enjoy the history of Don Roth's original Blackhawk restaurant, which played a significant role in the big band era, and continues to exceed expectations daily.

At Don Roth's Blackhawk Restaurant, the atmosphere is paramount to good eating. In our restaurant, you will be surrounded by memorabilia from our original Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. The items that are seen in our establishment played a significant role in the dining and dancing era of the 20's, 30's and 40's.

Moreover, your ears will be filled with music that will delight your senses and appeal to your sense of nostalgia. Our staff is poised to serve you an excellent meal at your own pace. After all, the overall dining experience is our specialty."

There was plenty of memorabilia, in the way that TGI Friday's has mock memorabilia. And as for atmosphere. You could have cut it with a thing that doesn't cut very well. Apart from me there was a group of 5 fat middle aged salesmen and an elderly couple trying to pay with out of date vouchers!

My "server" Mary Beth was a gem. We bizarrely got into a chat about her forthcoming pilgrimage to Europe to do a tour of The Virgin Mary's holy sites. This is not an area that I feel very comfortable with so in some ways it was lucky she took the lead and just talked! She obviously thought that being on my own I need to have my ears filled with something!

When it came to ordering I asked for a black and blue Prime Rib and was greeted with a short, contrained laugh. Prime Rib is not steak. Whoops! It is a hunk of beef slow roasted for 10 hours and then served quiveringly soft with some chips and a light "au jus", or meat juice. My girls' size steak came with some horseradish cream and tasted delicious. They have a speciality and they do it superbly well. I have never had beef as tender as this. Why don't we have Prime Rib joints in London? Maybe because our meat would make it too expensive...

The Prime Rib was preceded by "Don Roth's Famous Spinning Salad" which simply invoves a blue cheese dressing salad being made at your table by the server who spins the aluminum (sic) bowl on a bed of ice for some showmanship.

To be fair to Don Roth, their specialities were fantastic. It's just a shame that the atmosphere they boast about on the website is so lacking in reality. Maybe it was my fault for arriving jet lagged, late on a Monday night!

Is the Local movement simply a new version of Protectionism?

Image from The Food Project:

I have been thinking about local food a fair bit recently. And it is very hard to argue with the fact that local food is better. Oliver Rowe's food and restaurant demonstrate this brilliantly.

Riverford Farm also does a great job of showcasing the idea of local food being superior to food from far away. Not long ago it was fashionable to serve air freighted peas from Kenya out of season. Now this would result in people making their excuses and leaving. Or worse still calling Greenpeace to dob you in for crimes against the environment.

Now I love local food. The idea of terrior is fascinating. And has been around since the first Frenchman ate a decent mouthful of food. It gives food a story. It gives you a physical connection to where your grub has come from. Quite often it means you personally know the producer or the trader involved. It also means you support the local economy/community.

But when you look at it this way, isn't the local food movement simply a locally sourced, sugar coated version of protectionism?

Image from

Championing local food is a clever way of getting around the thorny and politically charged issue of protectionism. In a climate where we have a free trade agreement in the EU it helps to look after our own by raising demand for local food rather than limiting supply from abroad. Clever, touchy feely stuff. It also stops the domino effect and protectionsit arms race that would kick off where we able to slap tarifs and duty charges on foreign food.

We've all grown acustomed to being able to buy fancy foreign food at Tesco and would find it very strange if we were only allowed to buy local food. It would limit our choice and we would all complain bitterly. So the emotional route in via touchy feely protectionism is far more powerful.

It's an interesting subject that I am just beginning to get my head around. If I was doing a PHD I'd love to explore this area in more depth. I like the idea of flipping the idea over and getting into it from the other direction - if that doesn't sound too dodgy.

The Future Laboratory meets Oliver Rowe

I went to The Future Laboratory's Spring trends day earlier this month to find out about what the future has in store for consumer attitudes, design and a whole wealth of other interesting things. But most importantly they always do a good lunch. In the past Melrose and Morgan have done the catering and also the Wapping Project. Both of which were brilliant.

But this year things moved up a notch. I noticed that the afternoon talks featured a half hour session on "Food Futures" which covered the idea of "Localvores". Having been to Konstam at the Prince Albert about 5 months ago I was delighted to see Oliver Rowe's food on the menu.

To emphasise the impact of this trend towards local food, it made perfect sense for Konstam to do the catering. All the food had been sourced from within the M25. Our slow roasted shoulder of lamb from Amersham was delicious. It fell apart at the touch of our bamboo recyclable cutlery and melted in the mouth. Seriously high class "mass catering". I recognised some of the staff from Konstam who did a great job of serving up high class food in a cramped, tumble down building - London's oldest and most derelict music hall called Witlons.

I popped outside with a cup of coffee to check some emails and get some sunshine and found myself peeking through a crack in the wall that looked into the kitchen and was amazed to see Oliver Rowe himself doing the cooking! When we had been to Konstam he hadn't done any of the cooking in the open kitchen - but he did come in to check how things were going. So it was brilliant to see the man himself slaving away for us. It made the whole experience 100% more authentic.

So I can recommend both The Future Laboratory and Konstam / Oliver Rowe!

Saturday 19 April 2008

Cafedraal, Bruges


For my 26th birthday Cowie and I went to Cafedraal - one of Bruges' best known restaurants. It's a bit of an institution and rightly so. They've even had an Absolut bottle ad made just for them.

We were seated next to the entrance which was unfortunate so we asked if we could move. In the past we would both have been very embarrassed about this but these days we're much better at standing up for our restaurant rights! They repositioned us to the bar where we tucked into a couple of glasses of champagne, greatly relieved to no longer be next to the restaurant equivalent to the M1.

There really out to be a warning on the menu - portion sizes can kill - from the Surgeon General. My North Sea fish soup was gigantic, both in terms of the robust flavours and its sheer size. Deep, shellfishy savouriness and soft, tender chunks of fish. The croutons, rouille and gruyere transformed my vast bowl into something really special. But given the fact that it had a lobster and crab claw in it I didn't really need a hole lobster afterwards!

But then again, when do you ever NEED a whole lobster... not often! My lobster was a dish of two halves. I was disappointed whilst wolfing down the first half because they hadn't told me that they were keeping the other half warm in the kitchen. So when I finished the first one I felt a bit let down. But then elation took over as the second installment arrived, steaming from the kitchen. Great lobster. It's just a shame that it came from Canada! I only asked them at the end expecting to be told that he had come from Brittany or Zebrugge... but to my shock he had been flown over from the other side of the Atlantic! Again this kind of thing needs a warning sign. I felt a little bit let down by this revelation.

Cowie had a piece of halibut that arrived on a bed of rice and cauliflower. Unfortunately the base was cold so Cowie sent it back - and it came back spot on. But it was unfortunate that they had let themselves down.

The atmosphere was fantastic for people watching. The couple next to us were almost impossible to read. She was much younger than him. They switched between speaking in English and French. They seemed to work together. He made lots of sexually iinappropriate remarks. Baffling.

We left the restaurant in top spirits amazed by the atmosphere and weighed down by the food. Cafedraal is an institution.


We've just been to see "In Bruges" at the cinema and spent the whole film pointing and giggling because we've just been to the places where the film takes place. But the best bit was when Colin Farrel and his date eat at Cafedraal. They sat at the same table that we did! But our meal was less spectacular - I didn't punch a Canadian couple in the face! Go to see the film if you've been to Bruges. It's weird but you'll love it. It's set to be the next Withnail and I.

Bar Salon, Bruges


Rock-Fort and Bar Salon are congenitally conjoined at the kitchen and came with a hefty recommendation from our hosts, Freida and Benno at Absolut Verhlust - our BnB around the corner. Rockf-Fort is a contemporary, trendy restaurant with modern styling and a very hip menu. Unfortunately they couldn't squeeze us in so we went to Bar Salon, their high chaired bar next door. The menu is more tapas focused but you can also order from Rock-Fort's more substantial menu.

We arrived at 9 which is monumentally late by Bruges standards. In fact it compares with the Lake District in this respect. Everything shuts up shop at around 8pm. Bar Salon was buzzing and with a lively crowd sucking on cigarettes, sloshing back tall glasses of wine and wolfing back tapas tasting menus. Or more accurately the food on them.

We ordered a sharp bottle of white to cut across our beautifully marbled jamon iberico and complement our tuna tartare. My jamon was stunningly presented on a long white plate with the meat pillowing up like little waves. The fat to meat ratio was outrageously high - and good for it! The white lard was delicious and the star of the who.

Cowie's tuna tartare was delicious too- if a little healthier! It set us up perfectly for what turned out to be one of the best main courses we have had in a long time.

Cowie had an impeccably cooked fillet of sea bass which came with an assortment of foams and a vanilla cream. I had a whole pigeon cut into chunks and served with a sticky, meaty reduction. The flesh was barely cooked with wonderfully crispy skin. Perfect. It reminded us both of the Anjou Pigeon we once ate at Chez Bruce. It was so good I wanted it to carry on for ever.

We loved it and would recommend the Rock-Fort / Bar Salon combination to anyone looking for something between mussels and chips and the high end gastronomy of p(a)laces like De Karmeliet next door with its 300 Euro tasting menu!

De Karmeliet Wide

Friday 18 April 2008

Self Stirring Tea Cup

From the Telegraph - that bastion of tea drinking:

"The teaspoon could become a thing of the past after the invention of a mug that can stir liquid by itself.

All a drinker has to do to work the clever cup is gently swirl it. This sets in motion a ceramic ball positioned at the bottom of the mug that stirs the contents.

The device was invented by two French designers, who recently displayed it at the London Design Festival. Florian Dussopt, 23, said: "The cup aims at introducing a new way of drinking tea or another warm drink without using a spoon.

"The ball is put into a slightly protruding base to keep it in place when stirring and drinking.

"Users gently move the cup, like you would when swirling a glass of cognac, and the action pushes the ball around.

"The ceramic ball mixes all various sugars and milk at the same time, thus eliminating the need for a spoon. When you drink it the ball is blocked by the gravity in the recess of the glass. This eliminates the need for a spoon. Ceramic is a material that is hygienic and beautiful at the same time. The combination of glass and ceramic is aesthetically appealing in its formal interpretation of the traditional cup and saucer."

Bad news for teaspoon manufacturers everywhere. Personally, I don't see what's wrong with mugs? They've got these clever inventions called handles that stop you from burning your hands. They come in lots of different styles and it could be argued that they are a British icon. So why do we need some sort of Jamie Oliver Flavour Shaker device for our tea?

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Absolutely Awesome BnB in Bruge

For my birthday Cowie and I went to Bruge on the Eurostar. Apart from Cowie almost being sick in a granny's hat on the train our journey was smoothness encapsulated. Within 4 hours of leaving London we were unpacking our kit in the most idylic BnB.

Absoluut Verhulst is beautifully looked after and run by a delightful couple with an eye for detail. The house exudes comfort and taste. We had a suite on the top two floors which you can see below.

Spiral staircase crop bw

Downstairs in BnB bw

Downstairs lounge in BnB bw

View of De Karmelie crop bw

Benno & Frieda are great hosts and make a tremendous breakfast. Benno's omelet is particularly good and has no end of praise lauded over them in the visitors's book.

It's only a short walk from the centre of town... although that's probably true of most places in Bruge!

Freida very kindly booked us into Cafedraal for my birthday and suggested Rock-Fort/Bar Salon as well. Both were excellent and will be reviewed soon.

If you're heading to Bruge... stay at Absoluut Verhulst.

Monday 14 April 2008

Photo featured on Londonist

One of the more innocuous photos that Jack, Dan and I took on our recent London photography trip has found its way onto Londonist:

Avoid hangovers stay drunk

It's a proud day for the Paunch!


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