Friday, 23 November 2012

The Norman Hole

A couple of weeks ago we had my mum to over stay for the weekend. Knowing that it was one of her favourites, I decided to ingratiate myself by cooking a rather lengthy, and very rich, recipe for lamb and sausage cassoulet. Now I just had to decide what to have for pud.

The Ewing is normally in charge of the sweet stuff in our house, but in a week where she had being working late everyday, and was feeling under the weather, too, I stepped in to take on desert duty. As I had already spent a large part of the week soaking my cannelini, braising lamb, chopping veg and browning sausages, and I wanted a pud that would be simple enough to throw together one evening after work, and light enough to cut through all the pork and beans. 

Keeping with the Gallic theme, I plumped for le trou Normand, or rather less glamorously in English, The Norman Hole. Originally this would have been a shot of Calvados, famously produced in the Normandy region of France, served between the courses of a large meal to re-awaken the senses and stimulate appetite (or knock you into an alcoholic slumber). More recently you may see it served alongside a scoop of apple sorbet as a little palate cleanser before cheese and pud.

As we already had a large box of rather nice locally made truffles to enjoy with coffee (so the Ewing wouldn't miss her chocolate fix), I decided the sorbet could take the place of desert.
Although apples are the most common pairing (Calvados is an apple brandy, after all), I decided to use some seasonal conference pears. I haven't always been the biggest pear fan, but as I've got older I've started to appreciate their sweet, buttery graininess, and they work wonderfully well with rich vanilla and spicy cinnamon. If you don't have Calvados then this would work just as well with brandy, golden rum or even vodka, and if you happen to have some Poire William pear liqueur then that would be perfect, too.
Pear Sorbet with Calvados

1 kg pears, peeled cored and roughly chopped
100g caster sugar
Juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp Calvados

Calvados to serve

Place the sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and 100 ml water into a saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar over a medium heat, add the pears to the saucepan, then simmer until the fruit is soft.
Allow the pears to cool, then add the lemon juice and blend into a puree.
Sieve the puree to remove any lumps and chill mixture thoroughly.
Freeze mixture in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions, then place in a freezer proof container and place back in the freezer to harden further.

Before serving take the sorbet out of the freezer and allow to soften slightly. Serve scoops of the sorbetin glasses with a separate shot of Calvados alongside. (While you can sup the shot of alcohol alongside your sorbet, I like it best poured over the top and mixed in to create a super slushy with a proper kick.)

Monday, 19 November 2012

MASH, Soho

It's been a protein based week in our house. First we had the delights of Hawksmoor Air Street, and now MASH, a new Danish steak-focused import situated on Brewer street. (Between us the myself and the Ewing have dispatched well over two kilograms of the finest cow, and while potentially that could be seen as a 'healthy' thing - think Dukan, Atkins et al - there also seems to have been a fair amount of carbs slipping on to our plates, too....) So, could our Scandinavian steak live up to expectations.

The dining area is all big leather booths and low lights, with a 'clubby' sort of feel where you half expect to look over and see Patrick Bateman handing out bone coloured business cards to suits with slicked-back hair. Standing for Modern American Steakhouse, MASH is reminiscent of several steakhouses I have visited across the pond, so in that sense they seem to be doing exactly what it says on the tin. With the sharply dressed waiters, in their starched white shirts and bow ties, it all feels rather elegant. But luckily not too imposing for a committed scruff like me.

The first thing that hits you, after checking in your coats and descending the stairs, is just how vast this subterranean space is. In its previous incarnation it hosted Marco Pierre White's sinking ship, Titanic, and they have chosen to retain many of the original art deco features. Looking beyond the cocktail bar that dominates the entrance, I was captivated by the two glass cabinets full of meat that create a bovine barrier between the bar area and the restaurant. I only got to briefly glimpse into them as we were lead to our table, so I was pretty excited to get a closer look when our waiter offered to take us over and run through the different cuts with us.

Steaks here span the globe, with British beef notably absent from the roll call. They offer four different types; Uruguayan Hereford beef; American beef, hormone free and corn-fed from Omaha, Nebraska; Australian Kobe-style beef (£50 for 200g); and the the feather in their cap; Danish beef, dry aged on the bone for up to 70 days. The menu doesn't specify what the Danish cattle have been fed on, our waiter said corn, but without much conviction. The beef is far darker and less marbled than the US beef, but I'm not sure whether that's to do more with diet or ageing.
Returning to our table we decided to skip starters (asparagus soup, fois gras, tartare, smoked salmon, etc, all a tenner each) to concentrate on a duo of bone in rib eyes, one from both the US and Danish cattle. The Danish waiters we spoke to - many of the staff have bought over for the launch - were very effusive in their praise for the beef from their homeland. But, sensing that we might think them biased, suggested we tmight try both to make a fair comparison.

Keeping with the quiet drama of the place they wheeled a mobile cutting station to the table, ready to carve our hunks of beef. Normally I find such spectacles pretty naff, leaving me feeling a bit awkward  when I really want to  be left alone to tuck in. Luckily the whole process was mercifully brief, and I actually enjoyed watching them being expertly carved up in front of our eyes.
I also enjoyed our bottle of Argentinian Malbec Reserva. I generally avoid talking too much about wine (probably because I don't actually know much to start with...), but this was a cracker, with a scent of red berries and warm leather. Although it was fairly hefty, at 14.5%, it made a great pairing with the meat.

Greater Omaha bone in ribeye (approx 600g) Our waiter suggested we started with this, being the milder and softer of the two steaks. The steak cut like butter, but was underseasoned (the smoked sea salt on the table perked things up no end) and a little 'greasy', as corn fed beef often is. (Giles Coren memorably called it 'mouth mulch for toothless octogenarian Floridians', and that was one of his kinder comments.) 
If you like you steak juicy and mild mannered, with the only real depth coming from the caramelised crust, then this may well be the one for you. As it was, I found it fine, but lacking in the wow factor.
Danish dry aged long bone ribeye (approx 500g). This was far more like it. The meat was a deep crimson colour and drier looking than the Omaha beef. Although still perfectly tender and juicy, the Danish beef possessed a gentle chewiness and depth of flavour that put it miles ahead of the US offering for me.

After hearing the fries at MASH were pretty poor,  I plumped for some of their eponymous potatoes to accompany my steak. Served strewn with onions and crispy bacon, these were Very Good. The Ewing wanted some macaroni cheese, and this, too, turned out to be a fine example. There were no bells and whistles, just well cooked pasta in a rich, cheesy sauce. This was the sort of version I remember eating as a kid, and the perfect carb comfort blanket.

To counteract the soporific potatoes and pasta we also ordered the fried jalapenos. A fiery mix of  simply sauteed, grassy red and green peppers and pieces of white onion. The menu did warn they were spicy, and, as I sat there choking back the tears, I realised they weren't joking.

The two steaks; Omaha at the top and Danish below. Although decent steak shouldn't need anything to make it sing, I can never resist the lure of a Bearnaise sauce (once sauce is offered with every steak ordered, with extras at £3.50 each). While MASH's version wasn't quite reaching the perfection of Hawksmoor, it was still rather fine, and the pepper gravy packed a spicy punch.

The lure of an after dinner cocktail proved too much, and we fell for the charms of a 'Lakri-licious', a poky mix of of Lakrids-infused white rum, Heering Coffee, Galliano L'Autentico, Elderflower & Chilli.

Liquorice, beloved by the Danes, remains a very polarising flavour and for many years has been something of a bête noire for me. Recently I find my palate seems to be changing, and although it still makes me wince and grimace a little, I ahave actually started to strangely enjoy it. The same can be said of this cocktail; a slightly creamy, strongly anise-scented drink, with the  fresh zest of lemon and the gentle warmth of chilli coming through at the end.

Rossini Organics provide the ice creams, and we shared the chocolate, peanut and liquorice flavours, along side a scoop of crimson raspberry sorbet. Again, I worried about the liquorice flavour dominating, but these made a surprisingly harmonious combination; the ice cream perfectly rich and smooth, the sorbet with a cutting sharpness. I can thoroughly recommend a mix of chocolate and peanut, with a raspberry chaser.
As well as the ice cream and sorbet menu they also offer a selection of sweet standards - cheesecake, pancakes, chocolate cake etc - priced the same as the starters at a, rather steep, ten pounds a pop.

The damage; as you may expect, it ain't pocket change. We visited during their two week soft launch, bagging a big 50% discount on food that bought the bill in at just over a ton. I found the steak itself, even at full price, pretty fair value. The meat is good, and there's plenty of choice to satiate all palates. It's when you start adding in the other items the bill can quickly rack up; with sides at £4.50 each and a tenner for a simple bowl of soup, or cake and ice cream, MASH remains firmly in expense account and special treat territory.
Reviews of MASH so far seem a little bit divisive, rather like their liquorice ice cream. But, despite feeling sure nowhere could steal the mantle from my beloved Hawksmoor, I really rather enjoyed my dinner here. All the things that normally leave me feeling a little cold; the attentive, smart service; highly polished surroundings; and the element of theatre that come with dining here, really made our meal.
While it may not quite yet have the wow factor to propel it to the top of London's hard fought steak steaks, MASH makes a worthy competitor to keep the best on their toes. And if you fancy a little meat treat in Soho, then you can do  far worse than their Danish rib eye with macaroni  cheese, accompanied by a glass of Malbec and all topped off with a scoop of that liquorice ice cream.

Mash on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Hawksmoor, Redux (Air Street)

A few weeks ago I wrote here about the Royal Standard of England, pretty much my idea of a perfect pub. Well, I think that Hawksmoor may well be pretty much my perfect restaurant. It's not just the food and drink that makes it so brilliant (fabulous rare breed beef British seafood, rib-sticking puddings, great cocktails), but the whole experience of dining there that makes a visit seem like a real treat. A mixture of  'Britishness', and a sense of humour that makes it feel like more than just somewhere to refuel.  I don't normally write about restaurants twice on the blog, but, with the exceptional Hawksmoor I feel it's worth making an exception.

Hawksmoor Air Street is the fourth opening in their 'mini-chain'. The idea of expansion, even of a successful formula like Hawksmoor,  may, understandably,  worry some. How can you maintain such high standards without diluting the essence of what made you so great in the first place? It's a difficult line to tread, but judging from our latest visit one they're still managing admirably.

One thing that helps keep a unique identity is making each restaurant subtly different. Guildhall has breakfast featuring trotter baked  beans and HK sausage and egg muffins, and a beef tasting menu that the Ewing seriously considered for our Wedding feast (while I always believed that I nobody could love a rare steak quite as much as me, seeing the Ewing devour the rib eye at Hawksmoor Guildhall last year proved me wrong); Seven Dials and Spitalfields offer celebrated roast dinners, while the latter  also has a refurbished bar menu boasting delights such as oxtail poutine and short rib nuggets (delights I still haven't sampled yet, but are very high on the rapidly growing 'things to do' list).

Their new Air street incarnation - a large and airy room with great art deco stained glass windows overlooking Regent Street - has added a fishy twist to the mix, with advice on matters piscine coming from Mitch Tonks, owner and chef at the seahorse, Dartmouth. The Ewing and I were lucky enough to bag a couple of seats to their wildly popular soft launch. and we were looking forward to our lunch with high hopes and empty bellies.

Sitting in a prime spot facing the bar, it would have been rude not to start with a cocktail. I chose the Dandy, a dangerous sounding blend of cognac, maraschino, sugar, Bénédictine and champagne. My love of champagne, and champagne-based cocktails has been well documented, and I very much enjoyed this, although I may have preferred it slightly drier. The Ewing went straight in at the deep end with a full fat Old Fashioned on the rocks; made with a sinfully smooth butter infused bourbon.

I started with the shrimps on toast, the generous heap of seafood shot through with the spicy tingle of mace. Tiny pink shrimp are one of my very favourite things but I was a little worried the bread might dominate the sweet crustacea. In the end I craved even more carbs, to ensure I had scooped every last scrap of the buttery juices up.

The Ewing, predictably, sized up the most expensive started on the menu; scallops with white port and garlic. And what fine molluscs they were; bathed in garlicky butter, dusty with crunchy breadcrumbs and cooked just so. I was very pleased to see them arrive with the, much maligned but utterly delicious, corals still intact, too.

The chargrilled turbot, a 200g Hawksmoor cut. Quite the beauty, seasoned with little more than salt and pepper and garnished with a sprinkle of parsley, olive oil and a wedge of lemon. I have a great affection for turbot - my mum would very occasionally cook for me when I went round to visit - but both availability and cost make it a rare treat. This had been perfectly cooked, with the robust, yet tender, flesh holding up nicely to the smokiness of the chargrill.
And on to the main event; 900g of T-bone steak, cooked rare. I don't think there's any thing more disappointing, from a food perspective, than a badly cooked steak. I'm not fussed if other people want to incinerate their meat to a crisp, or like it still running around the plate, but, if I'm going to eat a steak, I want it to be the finest quality and cooked perfectly.

I appreciate it's a very difficult thing, and many have failed (including Hawksmoor on one occasion). Sometimes it's just a case of being on the grill a few seconds to long (or too short), other times your heart sinks as what is supposed to be a treat turns into a trauma. While this may sound overly dramatic, any steak lover will know the disappointment of cutting into a, much anticipated, slab of protein to find it's not how exactly you want it to be.

Luckily for me this beauty didn't let me down. I already knew the meat at Hawksmoor was mighty fine, but this steak was damn near perfect. Charred on the outside, edged with a generous frill of yellow, wobbly fat, and properly seasoned. It had also been well rested, so, although nicely rare, the bloody juices stayed in the meat instead of flooding the whole plate as you cut into a slice. Extra important if you want to avoid soggy chips.

Another reason to love this place is that, should you so desire, gnawing on a great shaft of bone after you've finished your steak - complete with sticky fingers and grease dribbling down your chin - brings smiles rather than raised eyebrows. (Not that I would ever be so uncouth....) And a special mention for the perfect Bearnaise sauce, as equally wonderful as their Stilton hollandaise.

I had to have some of their triple cooked chips, which were wow, as always. These are 'proper' chips, crisp outside, fluffy within, perfect for dipping in Bearnaise or bone marrow gravy, and they even make a pretty decent ketchup to accompany them, too.

We also had the braised fennel and trotter, and spinach with garlic and lemon from the 'fish sides' menu. The spinach was perfect; probably my favourite veg to pair with a steak. Usually you find it buttered or creamed, which is lovely, but often too much if you also have a rich sauce to go with your meat. This was perfect; zingy, fresh and iron rich. The fennel was, in a word, unctuous. The strands of trotter meat and porky juices complementing the delicate sweet aniseed of the fennel. I've been dreaming of a pie filled with this awesome mixture.
And on to pudding. Even after consuming such vast amouts of protein as we had you would have to be pretty joyless not to be tempted by delights such as sticky toffee sundae, appple and plum pie and  peanut butter shortbread with salted caramel ice cream. We plumped for the Jaffa Cake, a pimped up riff riff on the biscuity classic.

The cut through. I have to confess that, at this point, it was all a little too much for me (the Ewing, of course, had no such problems). The thick dark chocolate shell and dense, bitter ganache overwhelming the delicate nutty sponge base a little. The mouthfuls with the marmalade centre, however, were devine; the zesty orange cutting through the richness of the chocolate perfectly.

The Ewing also wanted to try some Granny Smith sorbet. Very smooth and refreshing, but a little too sweet for my tastes (I love the wincing sourness and puckered expression that comes when biting into a really good, sharp apple). The Ewing found it 'very apply' and pretty near perfect.

We also decided to sample a libations from there after dinner cocktail menu, this time an Icarus to share. This was served warm and with a flourish from this beautiful silver flask, and contained a heady mixture of Appletons Extra, Pedro Ximénez, Cocchi Americano, grapefruit & coffee beans. A couple of these and I'm sure you would end up flying to close to the sun.

Although the Jaffa Cake had almost finished me off we couldn't visit without sampling some of their famed salted caramel Rolos. The  Ewing was very concerned when three chocolates arrived at our table; how to share between two? As our waiter pointed out it was the perfect chance to ask the question 'do you love anyone enough to share your last Rolo?' In the Ewing's case, the answer was a resounding no.

While this was certainly a meal for a special occasion (even with the very generous soft opening discount), I feel it remains worth every penny. If you're craving a beef fix then they also offer a great value express menu, reasonably priced bar food (unless you get a taste for the lobster rolls) and £5 a bottle corkage on Mondays if you want to bring your own wine.

So, Hawksmoor Air Street, another feather in the cap for the Meaty Empire. All the things I love about their other branches were here on our latest visit; a simple menu full of things I actually want to eat and drink; charming service which manages to be casual, yet attentive; a great atmosphere; and all served up in a beautiful and welcoming space. Eating at their restaurants just always seems to give me that little glow of satisfaction, and that's not just the heartburn talking....

Hawksmoor  on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Stable, Weymouth

Pizzas, pies, cider; with a  strapline like that  it stands to reason that The Stable would be pretty high up on my list of places to eat in Weymouth. And, not only was it down the road from where we staying, but it had also been highly recommended by friends who raved about the roast lamb pizza - perfect for a really lazy Sunday lunch - and selection of potent brews.  If that wasn't nearly enough, where possible, all their food and drink is locally sourced from the West Country.

Needless to say there had to be at least one spanner in the works; this time it was the Ewing who, at a Halloween party the night before, had decided to drink rather too many turbo snakebites  (comprised of a lethal mixture of cassis and Strongbow), before passing out in a pile of chips. 

Needless to say she was feeling rather less than dandy the next morning, But, after the clocks going back gave her an extra hour in bed and a slap up breakfast got her back on her feet, she bravely agreed to accompany me to the Stable for lunch. Even if it meant sticking firmly to the lime and soda.

The Stable is located down on Weymouth's, very pretty, Custom House Quay; neatly tucked away next to the Harbourmaster's house. After finding their concealed doorway, we made our way up what felt like infinite flights of stairs to find a large open plan room, complete  with whitewashed brick walls, rows of bench style communal seating and lovely views out over the water.

A flight of The West Country's finest libations. These are, rather helpfully, named to give you some chance of recalling what you've been drinking by the time you reach the end - tasting notes are also available on the chalk boards around the the room. Cider is great (although the Thatcher's Pear still failed to convince me of the merits of perry), I especially enjoyed the refreshing  Lyme Bay Sparkling and the oaky Cheddar Valley.

As well as the cider there's even apples in their puds, in the form of crumble with clotted cream. If you're brave you can even sample a sweet pizza, topped with hazelnuts, mascarpone and Nutella.

But before we could think about dessert, we had our mains to consider - I forwent the lamb for the  special 'Monster Munch' pizza; a combo comprising of huge chunks of Bath Pig chorizo, roasted pumpkin, peppers and Dorset Blue Vinney. Although the flavours were big and bold they worked together nicely, the sweet veg complementing the salty, spicy meat and cheese. The base was very fine; thin, lightly charred and crispy, and the toppings were generous.

The bacon sarnie I had recently eaten for breakfast compromised even my ability to eat everything that is put in front of me. But, after seeing my half finished pie, the waitress very sweetly checked if was everything  was ok, before offering to box up the leftovers for later.

The Ewing plumped for The Joe Gundry: J'ackson’s of Newton Abbot smoked mackerel, smoked salmon, marinated spinach, & mozzarella, topped with fresh parsley & lemon'. Fish on a pizza is a pretty divisive subject, especially when it also comes with a tomato sauce and cheese. And while it may not to everyone's taste, the Ewing adores smoked fish and, even with a first rate hangover, she was looking forward to this. I wish I could give you an insight into how it tasted, but if you snooze, you lose and the Ewing made quite sure I didn't get a look in. 

The beauty of a place that specialises in one or two things is that they can invest all their time and energy into getting those things absolutely right. The downside is that it always seems far more disappointing when they're don't. Luckily, in the case of the Stable, it seems all that practice has made perfect. Good, simple food and a great selection of drinks -including a range of cider aperitifs and cider brandy, if you're up to it - make this a lovely lunch spot.

And, I can also attest to the healing properties of a cold slice of pizza, the perfect cure for a scrumpy-induced hangover the morning after.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Urban Reef, Boscombe

The higher your hopes the greater the disappointment. Part of the reason that Russell Norman et al introduced their no booking policies (two months wait for a negroni and a bowl of mac'n'cheese, no matter how great they are, can only really lead to shrugged shoulders) and, inversely, is why I enjoyed my meal at Urban Reef so much.

The venue for our lunch had been chosen by my friend Leona. Now I love her very much, but, as I've mentioned before, her true passions in life are crumpets, Jagermeister and a side order of X Factor. Going against all my own advice and judging a book by its cover, I remained somewhat fearful Urban Reef would be cast in the mould of all style and no substance. 

Suppressing my inner foodie snobbery, I was nonetheless very much looking forward to our trip. Things had all started out so promisingly; a gorgeously sunny autumn Saturday with plans to catch up with two good friends, what could possibly go wrong?  How quickly things had unravelled, and two hours later we were still waiting on a M4 slip road somewhere just outside Maidenhead. If I had stood on the car roof I could probably have seen my house.

Lunch was delayed once, and then again, before finally being cancelled as an evening shift at work and some last minute Halloween baking encroached on the afternoon. Meanwhile the Ewing and I were oscillating wildly between vociferously blaming each other for the standstill and deathly silence. Although the girls now couldn't make it, we decided to cut our losses and head down to the beach anyway. Even if I wasn't madly excited by the venue, I knew the Ewing would enjoy a bracing walking on Boscombe's sands.

When we finally arrived at the restaurant my heart began to soften. The downstairs cafe area was buzzing, the terrace full of guests warming up over cakes and coffee or enjoying a well earned beer after an afternoon in the surf. Upstairs we were greeted warmly and lead into the split level restaurant, which boasted even better views over the water. Ceiling to floor glass folding doors lead out to a balcony seating area but, opting to stay toasty, we picked one of the comfy leather booths at the back of the restaurant.

The drinks list is mostly about the lager, wine and cocktails, but they also have bottles of local Palmers Ale, a tipple created for their double century. I always find it fascinating that breweries that old (and far older) still exist, and still make fine beers, and a glass of 200 Ale is a worthy way to celebrate that fact.

Skipping over the starters - the veal shoulder with onion risotto and blue cheese souffle with smoked paprika oil looked very good - I chose the slow cooked pork belly with hay smoked mash, confit turnips, carrot and horseradish puree and Zubrowska jus.

Done well the ubiquitous pork belly is food from the gods, but too often it can be flaccid, chewy and fatty. This was a cracker though; roasted overnight, the fat had rendered from the meat leaving juicy strands of porky goodness with just the right amount of wobble. Crucially the rind had also been crisped separately, and sat puffed up like a majestic pillow atop the meat. The Ewing was suitably jealous.

The trio of roots were good, if not quite as exciting as the menu suggested; the mash was smooth and fluffy, but lacking any of the promised smokiness while the carrot was delicious but, again, missed the advertised bite from the horseradish. Overall the dish needed the sharpness of apple sauce, or the bitterness of green veg to cut through the rich, sweet flavours. Perfectly glossy gravy, though.

The Ewing's generous fish and seafood lasagne, served with warm bread and a green salad. This featured huge chunks of white fish and mussels in a creamy sauce, followed by a, slightly odd, layer of paprika-spiked Spanish sausage and hard boiled egg, all sandwiched between the thin sheets of pasta. An ambitious pairing of flavours that melded together surprisingly successfully under a molten blanket of cheddar.

Pud was a shared affair; Plum Bakewell with clotted cream and plum sauce. A fabulously dense and damp almond frangipane was encased in buttery pastry and topped with sharp fruit. Extra caramelised almonds with the cream topped off a cracking desert that the Ewing and I clashed spoons over until the last splodges of sauce had been scooped up.

Despite the service getting patchier through our meal (we had arrived at the difficult 'dead' time between lunch and dinner service, and the staff were busy setting up for the night) Urban Reef provided some good grub and turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Things may not have been perfect, but I admire the local sourcing, the ambition and an effort to serve simple food with a little twist.

As we left the sun was beginning to set over Bournemouth, while the moon was beginning to rise over Boscombe Pier. Boscombe has many great memories for me, my sister lived in Bournemouth for several years and I would excitedly plan my trips down to visit her. After coming into town and browsing around the all the cheap shops in the arcade, we'd finish off the day with a fish and chip dinner while sitting in the car and looking out to sea. Food, friends, family; the simple pleasures in life, and like our visit to Urban Reef, the one's worth waiting for.

Square Meal