Tag Archives: Food

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.

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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.

The Ledbury

Yesterday I went for the first time to the Ledbury, a restaurant in the Notting Hill area and thus miles away from anywhere I ever am or might be. It does, however, have two Michelin stars, an extremely stellar reputation and a quite astonishing arrangement for hosting lunches organised by members of the wine-pages forum, of which this was one.

The theme was South America. I took the most valuable bottle in my little collection, a 2006 Viu Manent Viu 1, from Chile – bought from the Les Caves de Pyrene sale for £17 but worth somewhere around £45. I arrived to see two tables heaving with wine glasses, 10 per man, 90 per table. I handed over the bottle, and sat myself down.

For £50, all in, plus the cost of my wine, I got four courses plus bits and bobs at beginning and end, and a taste of everybody’s wines. The food had to strain against the weight of expectation, but did not fail. An amuse bouche of feather-light beetroot meringues stuck together with a foie gras cream was astonishingly wonderful. There followed roasted scallops with romanesque, garlic and brown shrimps, served with three chardonnays; poached pigeon with black pudding, smoked chocolate and pear – probably the finest pigeon dish I’ve ever had – with a couple of malbecs and my wine, a malbec/cabernet sauvignon blend; sika deer, lightly smoked, with beetroot, bone barrow, malt and oxtail – brilliant – served with three more malbecs, one blended with merlot, cab sauv and cab franc; and a creme brulee with dried apricots and cardamom, served with a noble semillon, also from Viu Manent.

The wines were all quite impressive, though I don’t think the malbecs went terribly well with the food, the wines being streetfighters and the food being artisans. I think my Viu 1 was the best red on our table, in fact, the cabernet sauvignon rounding out the harsh edges. The food, though, was brilliant. The company varied and, like the internet forum that spawned it, extremely generous and welcoming.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, a bargain, and I’ll certainly be back for more. And I probably stank worryingly of booze when I picked the kids up from nursery on my way home.

Tosa, East Finchley

East Finchley is not the kind of place one expects to find a decent restaurant, yet word on the street was that, as of about six months ago, they had a damn fine Japanese joint. Time Out reviewed it, and said it was good. Poking around on the internet, a couple of bloggers (here and here) had been, and were enthusiastic. So when we needed somewhere to go for dinner with friends who also live on the 263 bus route (and another couple who live in Palmers Green, so have to drive everywhere anyway), it seemed an obvious choice. In the end we all drove, so we could just as easily have gone somewhere else. But hell, I’d wanted to go, and here I was.

We’ll make this brief. The room is unwelcoming, the chairs not very comfortable, the service sullen and unreliable (well, our waitress was; another couldn’t stop giggling, and didn’t spend enough time with us for me to work out whether she was reliable or not), and the food – the best part of the experience, then – average. The grill is the thing, here, and the menu features probably 30-odd skewer-based options. There’s sushi, too, and soups and stuff. Bits of our order were forgotten and then arrived, after two reminders, without so much as an apology. Several items were unavailable. Nothing was particularly tasty, and my salmon (£8 for a single fillet) overcooked. If you want grilled meat, you can do a lot better. If you want sushi, you can do a lot better. If one of you wants grilled meat, and the other wants sushi, it’s probably a decent compromise, so long as your standards aren’t very high. At £30 a head, including probably a beer and a half each, on average, it’s not even very good value.

I won’t be back in a hurry. And East Finchley could still do with a decent restaurant.

Good times

Scotch egg, Bull & Last styleSaturday’s sunshine tempted us to Hampstead Heath, of which our nearest corner is Parliament Hill. It was a fun day – T enjoyed the playground and paddling pool; I enjoyed the random Swedish festival and, come lunchtime when both kids were blissfully asleep, Rachel and I enjoyed the Bull & Last. I really, really like this place, even though the chips have got fatter and fatter and now they’re just triple-fried skinless wedges.

We both had salads (mine had these totally amazing balsamic baby onions, but that’s another story), and we shared a Scotch egg. I say shared, Rachel had a mouthful, I dealt with the rest.

I’ve always considered the search for the perfect Scotch egg a bit like seeking out the sweetest-smelling turd: even the best one you find still won’t be very nice. But if you do want the perfect Scotch egg, I’m not sure these can be beaten. Still warm, peppery meat with a bit of texture to it and the egg yolk – and this really is vital – golden and runny, plus an excellent crispy crumb. Unbeatable. But still a Scotch egg.

I apologise for the lack of wine-related content in this post.