Tag Archives: Eating out

Restaurant review: Le Familia, Vic en Bigorre, Hautes-Pyrénées, France

I’m currently on my annual holiday in France, but I’m having a grim old vinous time of it. This year we’ve found a villa in the Hautes-Pyranees, an area known less for its wine than for growing a lot of corn and then stuffing it down the necks of geese. Interesting wine shops do exist, but today (day seven) was the first time I saw one that was open, and a hungry child stopped me going into it (my own hungry child, I should add – France isn’t yet overrun with famished shop-obstructing street urchins).

This was in a town called Vic en Bigorre, where a market-stall-manning local I asked for a restaurant tip pointed me in the direction of a place called Le Familia, just next to the main covered market. The menu was exceedingly promising, reading, in its entirety: potage, entrée, viande, legumes, desert – €12, vin et café compris. For the non-French-speakers among you, that’s: soup, starter, meat, vegetables, pudding, with wine and coffee thrown in, for €12. The choice, such as it was, was thus: red wine, or rose? They didn’t even have white, that’s how little choice they offered – though they did agree to knock something special up foodwise for the kids (namely a thick slice of ham and loads of extra salty chips). One of the people I was with was vegetarian; she was given an avocado to start (and a lettuce leaf, to be fair. Plus they had graciously sliced the avocado in half and removed the stone), and for her main course got exactly the same vegetables as everyone else (chips and brocolli), only without the viande.

I basked in the authenticity of it all, as the room filled up with pensioners sitting alone and the occasional relaxed couple, while the families who had the foresight to book basked in the small pavement terrace. Everyone was welcomed by name, clearly enticed to return by the crazy prices (not the food, so much, though it was fine). The toilets were dirty, the service brusque. I loved it. Go.

(But don’t ask for ice cream for desert, because you get the grottiest Wall’s gunk imaginable, and they make pretty good rice pudding and crème caramel themselves)

In Britain, of course, where duty on a bottle of wine, plus VAT on that duty, is £2.17 (with VAT still to pay on the cost of the actual wine), and where restaurants think nothing of charging three times retail prices (or more) for wine, it is pretty much impossible to get a single bottle of plonk, however hideous, for the price that Le Familia charge for a well-lubricated four-course meal. Infuriating, and I might be more inclined to protest about it as well if I weren’t still so ruddy full.

This is probably the best-timed holiday I’ve ever had, coming as it does at the end of a period of loopy work pressure (serves me right for taking a big freelance commission I probably should have avoided) that coincided with a fairly stressful house-buying process – we exchanged the day before we flew to France. Sadly, the moment it ends I’ll be cast headlong back into an even more intense period of already-accepted freelance work coupled with preparations for actually moving, which happens a fortnight after our return. Which is why I haven’t been doing much blogging of late. Sorry. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Dinner by Heston – some quick thoughts

Two days after it opened, and on the day Giles Coren in the Times labelled it the best new launch in London for at least a decade, and possibly the best restaurant in the city bar none, and therefore the finest in the entire country, and thus the entire world, I had lunch today at Dinner by Heston, Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. The food was very good indeed, but I think Giles has got a little overexcited about this one.

I think it’s a muddled launch, with loads of – and I’ll be frank – claptrap about the food’s historical origins cluttering the menu and confusing the issue. The food is modern in execution and design, its debt to history often small to the point of irrelevance. When a member of staff asked for our feedback, I asked him precisely what from the original dish remained in my main course – a 72-hour slow-cooked short rib of Angus known as Beef Royal (c.1720), which had apparently been borrowed from something in a book called Royal Cookery, written by Patrick Lamb in 1716. I was told that this was when the method of braising meat became popular. That’s it. Frankly, I think you’d have had a job chasing Heston away from his water bath even before he discovered Lamb’s oevre. The truth is that the food’s historical background, around which so much of the restaurant’s advance publicity has been based, and which sees every single dish on the menu accompanied by a date of origin in brackets, is usually so minor as to be almost irrelevant.

If Heston and his head chef at this new venture, Ashley Palmer-Watts, want to seek inspiration for new dishes in historical cook books, all power to their elbows. But unless you can tell me something genuinely interesting – and a 350-year-old book title is not enough – don’t bother me with it. I would strongly suggest that they either add historical detail to their menu (and I’d make Hawksmoor’s cocktail menu recommended reading in this regard), or they remove all mention of it. This is a pretty trivial complaint that could be easily remedied – a restaurant must in the end by judged by the quality of the food and service, both of which were impeccable – but I can’t be expected to fully embrace a new restaurant which is conceptually pretty seriously flawed.

The other thing stopping Dinner by Heston from streaking to the top of my chart kind of goes with the territory. It is tucked inside the Mandarin Oriental, a hotel in plush Knightsbridge, the kind of place that has people to open the outer doors for you, someone else to open the inner door for you and a whole posse of greeters, meeters and point-the-wayers littering the corridors. In between rising from our table and emerging onto the street well over a dozen people said goodbye to us.

Of course, this level of staffing does not come cheap – and neither will your stay. At £28 the set lunch (which we rather foolishly ignored) is a good deal, but don’t even dream of drinking. My wife and I each had a glass of wine. The cheapest red wine by the glass was a wallet-busting £9.50 for 125ml. My glass of riesling, only 100ml of it and very pleasant but far from lifechanging, cost £14.50 (plus 12.5% service) and was absolutely nowhere near the most expensive glasses on what is a pretty short list. London’s fine diners might be accustomed to this kind of mark-up but I continue to consider it something of a scandal, and don’t believe that it should pass without mention. And if Heston wants to play the fine dining game, where were the bonus mouthfuls of unexpected loveliness with which we are usually treated? Amuse my ruddy bouche, Heston!

Go. Eat. Enjoy. Drink your wine at home, and don’t swallow the history-book fairy tale.

Other alcoholic beverages are available

One of the great things about wine is its ability to work with food, to create a harmonious symphony, or indeed a discordant thrum, of flavour and aroma that neither of them on their own could match. Having said that, matching food and wine has never been a particular obsession of mine – with overwhelming frequency, what I fancy eating tends to pair pretty successfully with what I fancy drinking, and if it doesn’t I’m pretty happy just to stop drinking until I’ve finished my dinner. My basic equation is good food + good wine + good company = a good evening, but that’s forgetting the fact that other alcoholic beverages are available.

There’s beer, of course. Matching beer and food is nothing new, and if done well is no less successful than wine (and quite a bit cheaper). I was memorably introduced to the concept a few years ago at the Norrebro Bryghus, a microbrewery and restaurant in Copenhagen (a coffee stout of theirs still lingers in the memory). Cider’s an option, at a push. Some cocktails could work. But I’ve always drawn the line at neat spirits. They’ve got their place – with a mixer or after a meal, basically – but on their own, straight, they’re so alcoholic they don’t so just exercise the palate, they annihilate it.

But as ever I’m willing to put my body (mouth and liver, mainly) on the line in the name of research. And so it was that I went to the Indian restaurant Quilon recently, for a whisky-based dinner. As well as a Michelin star, they’ve already got a beer-matching menu and in the new year will add a whisky-matching menu to the list, and just to prove how seriously they take the subject they’ll also host a one-off dinner in February with Dominic Roskrow, somewhat obsessive author of The World’s Best Whiskies and editor of Whiskeria, in house magazine of The Whisky Shop. He’s done so much for bourbon he was recently appointed a Kentucky Colonel, and is so hot on Scotch he’s been made a Keeper of the Quaich.

By way of warm-up, Roscrow also hosted my dinner, presenting four whiskies which were all dealt with before the meal arrived, so the focus of the evening wasn’t exactly on matching them with the food. He played his role well –  clearly he takes whisky seriously, but he doesn’t think that everyone has to. His choices were good: varied, interesting and, in some cases, delicious (if anyone has a spare bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon to hand, just send it right over), but a couple of them nudged towards a heady 60% abv, not really suitable for drinking with anything other than water, quite a bit of it, both in the same glass and in others.

We were invited to keep drinking the whiskies once the food came, but frankly my glasses were empty by then, and some wine had arrived. Dinner, incidentally, was excellent. Almost no cream or butter is used, the chef Sriram Aylur suggesting that most diners should be healthier when they leave than they were when they arrived. That doesn’t mean that he’s in charge of a glorified WeightWatchers bootcamp, mind, just that you’re guaranteed to avoid the oil-slick-surfaced curries familiar from the British high-street. It’s excellent stuff, but I’m still a bit bewildered by its Michelin star – Aylur doesn’t just skip on the dairy, but also on the cheffy flim-flam that the Michelin inspectors tend to be so keen on. Our pudding was fruit salad. Sure, it came with a wonderful black pepper ice cream, but I never realised you could get a Michelin star for taking a grape off its stalk and chopping up a pineapple.

The evening was a qualified success. I have resolved to give whisky more of my time (but not necessarily more of my mealtime), and to return to Quilon at some point without downing four glasses of 60% proof alcohol and a cocktail before dinner. I am a bit sad, though, that I never found out precisely where Roskrow keeps his Quaich.

CF went to the whisky dinner as a guest of Quilon. Their next whisky dinner with Dominic Roskrow will be held on Monday 1 February 2011. Just 16 tickets are available, priced at £59.50 per person, and include a whisky cocktail, a tutored tasting of four super-premium whiskies, three-course dinner and service. For reservations call Quilon 020 7821 1899.

Hawskmoor Seven Dials: They’ve got the spirit

Everyone in London knows about the new Covent Garden outpost of Hawskmoor. Most of the world’s food bloggers seem to have made it during their soft opening, when the food was at half price – some of them several times. Everyone agrees: it’s amazing. It looks great, the food’s impeccable and the service (relatively easy to get right during the soft opening, to be fair) above reproach. The only downside of going when the food’s half-price is that you end up ordering something twice as expensive as anything you’d ordinarily go for. So it was with me, and the half-kilo chateaubriand that came my way. Unbelievably good – quite possibly the finest protein-consuming experience of my lifetime – but at £60 before the discount also crazily expensive.

Steak, composed as it is entirely of expensive meat and not at all of cheap vegetables, represents the worst value in restaurantland. When you can get a three-course set lunch at either of the capital’s three-Michelin-starred restaurants for £45, with amuse-bouches, pre-desserts and wine if you’re lucky, spending that-and-a-half on a main course (and that’s without chips) is the behaviour of a total loon. But standard steaks cost a shade under £30 and are probably amazing enough to be worth a very occasional splurge if you’re in the area, and the kimchi burger on the bar menu is already famous (seems strange to me: I’ve been to Korea, the home of kimchi, and the stuff is utterly revolting).

In the corner of the dining room, behind glass but very much on view, are the wines. They’ve got a good list, though you’ll need to spend upwards of £40 if you want a particularly wide selection (there were two choices under £20, eight between £20 and £30, seven between £30 and £40, and then the action starts to hot up). But my problem with the wine list is that it isn’t the spirits list, and the spirits list is amazing.

Both lists highlight a few items for special attention. On the wine front, they pick out “our current favourite reds”, and then tell us at length how good everyone thinks they are. There’s an Alban Vineyards syrah which Robert Parker once rated at 100 points, “alongside some of the finest tipples on the planet”. There’s a Sine Qua Non grenache, which is “an extremely rare chance to taste” a wine which “scored as high as 100 points in the Wine Advocate”. There’s offerings from Vega Sicilia – “their wines are some of the finest in the world”; Henri Jayer – “amongst the most sought-after, rarest and most expensive wines in the world” – and Michele Satta – “his wines consistently feature amongst the top wines in the world”.

You see the theme. The point of these descriptions seem to be to assure the fat-walleted folk considering trying one of these featured wines that they’re making a great decision, one that Robert Parker would agree with. But it’s hard to warm to their style. It’s selling me the wine, not telling me about it.

Then, along with the desert menu, comes the spirits list. In each subsection, one offering is singled out – not necessarily the most expensive, just one they particularly like, or that they’ve got a good story about. A grappa made in a cave in some bloke’s garden, with every label individually painted by said bloke’s fair hand; a tequila which (not totally uniquely, but remarkably all the same) on its third distillation passes vaporously through the carcass of a dead, uncooked chicken, which at the end of the process is removed, shrivelled and probably fairly alcoholic, and buried in the family shrine, and more of the same. Evocative descriptions that double as conversation starters – handily, as tables might be running out of things to say to each other by that stage in proceedings. It is quite possibly the best menu I’ve ever read.

And thus I left full and happy, but for the slight disappointment that whoever put together the wine list seems to lack the gift for storytelling that makes his spirit-compiling colleague such an absolute hero.

Camino: Puerto del Canario – Getting merry with sherry

Last year, the sherry producer González Byass lamented the inexorable decline of sherry consumption in the UK. “We can’t turn the market,” their UK marketing director sniffed, adding forlornly: “we’re not giving up.” A spokesman for Fedejerez, the sherry trade association, said: “We need to make sherry trendy like running cocktail competitions. That is the way forward.”

A year earlier, Harvey’s – whose Bristol Cream is the very quintessence of untrendy sherry drinking but nevertheless snarfs 29% of the market by volume – announced a redesign and a first step down the long road to fashionability. “As the UK’s No1 sherry, it is our responsibility to drive the category into the 21st century,” said their brand manager, suggesting that people should mix their Harveys and lemonade. “Sherry is a versatile drink which can be enjoyed on many occasions.”

They have since targeted “independent 25- to 34-year-old women who are confident in their choices and are happy to stand out from the crowd”. They sponsored this year’s London Fashion Week, where they “specifically demonstrated to younger consumers how the brand can fit into modern lifestyles” and pledged to “reinvigorate and contemporise sherry and bring in younger consumers, something which is crucial to the category’s future success”.

Lots of people are trying to make sherry cool, yet still it sits, neglected, on the supermarket shelves, from whence it rarely moves despite near-insulting prices – Manzanilla La Gitana, a genuinely delicious companion to a summer sunset and a few olives and regularly lauded by critics, costs less than £8.

Then there’s Richard Bigg, the man behind Kings Cross Spanish-themed hang-out Camino: Cruz del Rey and its entirely sherry-focused little brother Pepito, and now the all-new Camino: Puerto del Canario in Canary’s Wharf. “Sherry is druggingly delicious and I think the public are ready for it,” he told Decanter earlier this year, and certainly the critics are – the original Camino was named bar of the year in the Observer and Pepito is Time Out’s best new bar of 2010. Now the experience is being rolled out to high-flying City types, Jubilee Line extremists and Thames Clipper boat-trippers (it’s a mere olive pit-spit from Canary Wharf Pier).

I was not immediately bowled over. It’s the second outlet, but it looks like the 50th. From the branded t-shirt-clad staff to the Belgo-style industrial-chic aesthetic, it reeks of chain. There’s not much they could have done to add character to what is a very shiny new development, but I certainly prefer the exposed brickwork of the Kings Cross original to the meshed metal and bare pipes in Canary Wharf. The place must be transformed in summer with the front opened up and the Thames flowing past – to see the best of it, from the food to the river view, you’ve got to look past the interior design.

There’s nothing offputting about what they give you to eat, though. A lot what I tried was simple but excellent – greaseless calamari, slice-with-a-fork-soft octopus, delicious thin-sliced pork shoulder, excellent rib-eye steak “served basque style” (cooked, on a plate – those Basques have a fairly simple style), and simple-but-dreamy vanilla ice cream bobbing in syrupy pedro ximénez. The menu is identical to that in Kings Cross, with the kitchen again overseen by Nacho del Campo, the most unassuming of head chefs who came to Camino from Spain via a dreadful-sounding place in Exeter. Most things cost around £5, with only the bigger steaks and sharing platters exceeding £10. If you’re hungry you’ll probably spend about £25 a head on food, and you’ll taste lots of nice stuff and feel full and happy.

The all-Spanish wine list has plenty of interest at all price levels – seven reds and six whites at or below £20, up to a Vega Sicilia Unico 1999 for £290 (from a “Big Guns” menu that you won’t find in Kings Cross). It’s also particularly easy to decipher, with all the grapes listed to help you on your way. My wine of the night was the Torre Silo, Cillar de Silos, a seriously food- and mouth-friendly tempranillo that at £54 is sadly a little less friendly to your wallet.

And the sherry? Well, there are seven on the menu (not bad, though there are 15 at Pepito), no sherry cocktails and not even the suggestion that you give it a go with lemonade. A fino would be near enough unbeatable on a warm afternoon, stretched out on the terrace with the river rolling past, some tapas on the table and the sun in the sky, but as the nights draw in perhaps it’s just as well to concentrate on the food.

CF goes out: an incredible London day-trip that everyone must do

I’ve lived in London a very long time, long enough to have assembled quite a long list of outings that I can pleasurably repeat, but it’s still difficult to recommend them to other people, particularly people I don’t know very well. I’m a man with my own tastes, and I wouldn’t presume that anyone who isn’t me would necessarily share them. This one, though, is different. Some things are just impossible not to love. It is unimaginable to me that any decent, right-minded person would not like, say, a perfectly ripe fig, a beautiful sunset, Dusty in Memphis, a moment of genuine slapstick comedy. This is pretty much up there with them. If you enjoy life and food, this is for you. If you do it and have a bad time, then either you have been catastrophically unlucky with the weather or you and I will never be friends. Have I made myself quite clear?

Highlights of the day included sunshine, lying in long grass with a newspaper, gorging on plump, sweet blackberries straight from the bush, a delicious lunch in a top restaurant, quirky historical factoids, rivers, lakes, streams and herds of magnificently antlered deer. There’s a lot here to like.

I take absolutely no credit for discovering the walk. It’s part of the Capital Ring, one of the good things about London that most people who live there don’t know about (not a short list) – a 78-mile circuit of London, split into 15 bite-sized chunks, which runs very roughly around the outer edge of London Transport’s Zone 2, connecting lots of parks with short sections of road walking. This bit starts at Wimbledon Park station, takes you through Wimbledon Park, Wimbledon Common and Richmond  Park before ending with a trundle down the Thames to Richmond itself. This is section six. You can find idiot-proof directions here.

I live in north London, a long way from here. If I get this far down the district line it’s either to go to the football or the tennis, so rather shamefully it was all new to me. Wimbledon Park isn’t fantastic, though their infants get an enviable paddling pool and there’s an excellent boating lake, but the walks improves rapidly from there. The common and Richmond Park are magnificent; in addition to the deer, the latter has a glorious home that once belonged to the official molecatcher – the official molecatcher, mind you – and a small hill with a fancy name (King Henry’s Mound, since you ask) with a view down a corridor of trees to St Paul’s Cathedral which can never be obstructed, not ever, by law.

Soon after you leave Richmond Park, and only about 100 yards off-route, is Petersham Nurseries, a garden centre that houses Skye Gyngell’s excellent restaurant and its accompanying tea rooms. The restaurant is expensive – they recently scrapped their cut-price weekday lunch, leaving you with little option but to fork out near enough £30 for a main course. That little option is to grab a soup or sandwich at the really quite good-looking tea-room next door, decorated – as all tea-rooms should be – with a pile of extremely sexy brownies. I splashed out on guinea foul, juicy inside but with amazingly crispy skin, which came with a very generous helping of girolles and spinach, followed by a pannacotta with a blackberry compote. There’s nothing fussy about the cooking, or the room it’s served in. It’s probably the best restaurant in London which would let you in with muddy boots. And from there it’s a 20-minute stroll down the river to Richmond, and thence back home, sated in more ways than one. One of the best days I’ve ever had in London. I urge you to have a go.

Viajante

Nuno Mendes’s new restaurant has got the blogosphere humming. I’m not sure what gives the Portuguese chef this star quality, because he certainly doesn’t have it in person, where he come across as unassuming to the point of shyness. He once worked at El Bulli, but then as I understand it so have, literally, hundreds of others. Perhaps his reputation in the capital was created by The Loft, his supperclub project which invited Londoners to hand over £100, really quite a lot for one of these things, to eat at his home. But how many people really ate there, or even heard of it?

Anyway, he now has a proper restaurant all of his own. And it’s in Bethnal Green. It’s no surprise in this city to see a small army of chefs constructing cutting-edge dishes with tweezers and chemistry sets, but you probably wouldn’t expect to find them within spitting distance of  York Hall. But, lured by the thrill of the new, by eating somewhere even before I’d seen it reviewed, I trotted off for lunch at the end of last week.

At 12.30 it was not busy. So not busy, in fact, that we were the only people there. By the time we left a couple of other tables were full. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, the website not giving much of a clue about the menu. As it turned out, the menu didn’t give much of a clue about the menu. It was tiny. It said: six courses; nine courses; 12 courses. It didn’t tell you what the courses were. There was also, we were told, a three-course lunch menu, which the menu itself was too minimalist to mention. If it was all right with us, we should just choose the number of courses we wanted and the chef would make us whatever he wanted.

I was, to be honest, happy to play his game. At l’Enclume, for example, you get menus that are almost totally useless. “Grown-up Yolk from the Golden Egg,” they’ll trumpet, as if that would give you the slightest clue as to what you might get. Best just do away with them altogether. Anyway, three courses, £25; matching drinks, £15.

With a small glass of champagne, the food started to come. A crunchy toasty stick with olivey stuff and peppery stuff. Nice enough. A “thai explosion” – crunchy biscuity stuff, this time, with spiced chicken and – we were told to just chuck it in our mouths rather than take any dainty bites, so I can’t be sure – what felt rather a lot like half a poached quail’s egg, something I’m pretty sure can’t exist. Nice. Then an aubergine and soya milk layered jelly thing, almost certainly the most offensive jelly thing that’s ever wobbled in my direction, an over-chilled festival of unpleasant flavours and texture, served with a fine aubergine baclawa. Bread, served with whipped beurre noisette sprinkled with tiny flecks of crisped chicken skin and pancetta and a black potato powder, was the first big hit. Moist, flavoursome bread presented with something that’s got to be a thousand times better than bog-standard butter, which is just so much churned milk.

We hadn’t yet had our first course: beetroot textures, apple puree, sour cream and crab. I like beetroot a lot, but there wasn’t much to excite here. A tiny sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts added some welcome crunch, but this was a lot of effort for minimal impact. It was served with a dark, sensual beer (name unknown, I’m afraid), which was significantly more popular than the food. Then two cuts of slow-cooked pork with savoy cabbage, grated egg and fried capers. Lovely, soft meat with the capers providing salty explosions of saltiness. Very good. Then as a pre-desert, a lemon and thai basil sorbet with lemon sherbet, which was absolutely sensational, an overdose of zing. Finally, a mini chocolate fondant with blackcurrant sauce, chocolate praline, hazelnut ice cream and praline snow. A lot of fuss, to be sure, but delicious, intelligent, top-notch cooking. Filter coffee (all they had, as they were still waiting for the coffee machine) was exceptional and came with a petit four of dark chocolate filled with cep-infused white chocolate ganache. As weird as it sounds, but when your mouth got used to the bizarreness of it all, it told you it was very happy.

Service was extremely friendly, with Mendes himself bringing us several dishes and seemingly interested in our opinions. The food was, if truth be told, hit and miss, but its hits were emphatic and the misses relatively minor. But a 70% success rate is fine in a £25 lunch deal; if I’m handing over £100 for 12 courses I might feel less charitable.