Fine Dining

Sketch, afternoon tea in the Gallery, London

I first tried to eat at Sketch three and a half years ago when I impeccably timed my reservation at their two star restaurant with being mowed down by a car outside my home. I recall the doctor visiting in my pen, me in a temporary cast up past my knee, to inform me I had broken nine bones and would be spending more time than I would have liked at hospital. I asked if in his opinion I would be fine to travel to London in less than two weeks to eat at a restaurant. He laughed in my face. Still undeterred, I contact Sketch and ask their opinion.  “Sir”, a heavily French accented lady would answer, “we have no lifts but our staff can assist you up the staircase to the restaurant”. I decide against it and instead book another restaurant in Birmingham where pain would cause me to pass out at the table mid-starter. In hindsight cancelling Sketch was probably the correct thing to do.


Since then I’ve visited on numerous occasions for very expensive cocktails, but never to eat. Until this time, when finally, after three years of waiting, I bypass the coloured stairs that take you up to the two stair restaurant and turn right into the gallery for afternoon tea. That’s me, a thirty-five year heterosexual male, having afternoon tea in a room that is decorated entirely in baby pink. Where has my life gone wrong, please, someone tell me. I wasn’t going to write about it, but when said afternoon tea comes in at £85 per head once service has been applied, I’m going to tell you all about it.


First the ambience, which Micky Flannigan was entirely correct in saying is a French word for a room too stuffy for poor people to afford. The room rammed with ladies of the world whose figures would dictate that they prioritise being seen over being fed, each with foreign accents and expensive handbags. I love it here. Champagne is poured from a great height and we are told that tea will be served in four courses. Little porcelain egg shells hold a comte mousse and confit quail egg yolk. It’s rich with plenty of cheese flavour. On the side is a little mother of pearl spoon filled with salty caviar because we are in Mayfair, Darhlin’. It’s as decadent a start as one could wish for.


We get tea – of course we do, silly – the pots fighting for room on an already bulging table. Then the main event arrives; a stack of plates; sandwiches at the bottom, sweet stuff above. From the sandwiches I swerve the smoked salmon because the stuff makes me gag, instead throwing myself into a rich duck egg mayonnaise and watercress, topped with a fried quails egg. There is pumpernickel bread with tomato and lettuce and the best coronation chicken I have ever eaten. I joke that I could eat another plate of these. Another plate appears. They get eaten. The sweets are all works of precision, from which we like the blueberry cheesecake least and a bubble-gum marshmallow that disappears all too quickly. A delicate plum tart has the kind of short pastry that Mary Berry would approve of, whilst a square of chocolate and caramel is ethereally light and addictive. Top billing is saved for a glorious choux bun with a generous measure of redcurrant cream, as good as pastry I have tried.


This being afternoon tea we got scones and jam and not enough clotted cream, all of which I neglect for more coronation chicken. I sit, shirt bulging, with the top button of my trousers loosened, stating that I couldn’t possibly eat a thing more when we are offered a fat slice of Victoria sponge. It’s delicious but too much.


So what is apparent is that £85 buys you a lot of afternoon tea. So much so that we struggle to move those arses of ours down the road to The Blind Pig for more cocktails. Looking back now it’s clear that I enjoyed it, partly because the company I kept was great and partly because it’s a polished affair with nice food. But would I do it again? Probably not. I just don’t think I’m an afternoon tea kinda guy and I’d much rather take that sum of cash elsewhere for a more serious bit of cooking. Like upstairs. Yes, next time I visit Sketch I’ll finally get up those stairs and into that two star restaurant. Unbroken and unassisted.

7/10

Advertisements

Ynyshir, Elgwys Fachs, Wales

My girlfriend is a fellow food blogger, a statement which, if you know my general disdain for the term, is something that will require therapy on my behalf to overcome. It’s not her fault; she’s one of the good guys whose interest extends further than the pique-assiette culture of never paying for a dinner. Plus, it has it’s upsides. She acts as a sub editor for my piss-poor grammar and provides the funnier observations over dinner that I steal for my writing.  And, loving food in the same way that I do, she takes me to Ynyshir for my birthday. Whadda woman.  I still can’t believe that my greatest love sprang from my greatest enemy. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, only far shitter to watch.


And so, let’s move onto Ynyshir, a beautiful white walled residence in the middle of bloody nowhere, or, as the locals would prefer me to say, in Elgwys Fach, at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, near Machynlleth.  I have this theory in remote restaurants in that the journey makes a part of the experience.  Anyone can hop on a train to London, but to commit to here, or The Three Chimney’s, or L’Enclume takes a certain amount of commitment.  And boy, are we committed to food, as the next nine thousand (I’m guessing) words will show.  Those with a short attention span may want to look away now.  Those with a culinary porn problem may want to cover their modesty:  This is going to get Filthy.



The dining room pans out towards the rolling green hills of the Dyfi valley at one end and straight into the open kitchen at the other.  It is as much as a blank canvas as interior designers will allow it to be, with warm purples occasionally interspersing wooden floors and thick white linen table clothes. It is all about the food here with the first course making us sit bolt upright – a position that we would remain in for the two hour lunch and then some afterwards.  ‘Not French Onion Soup’ would transpire to be a bowl in which kombu stock was poured onto onion puree, tofu, onion oil, and pickled shallots.  It’s a whack to the face of umami, followed by a kick to the balls of acidity.  It’s big and brave, with the first sign of Japanese influences such as the dried kelp stock and miso in the onion puree.  It is perfect.  And this was just the first course.


What follows is a further ten courses that would set the marker for what I consider to be the UK’s most exciting restaurant.  A sourdough bread features a crust blacker than my soul, served with a Wagyu fat spread that overshadows an excellent miso butter.  Mackerel follows, barely cooked and draped in a pineapple jelly. Charcoal oil adds a depth, beansprouts and puffed rice texture.  As with so much of the food that follows, every flavour is amplified to eleven.



A cube of Wagyu short rib, cooked until it is only just holding it’s shape, is served with shitake mushroom, puffed rice and seaweed. The umami rich accompaniments are present to bolster the flavour of the beef, the seasoning as bold as it possibly can be. Following on from this was Mayan gold potato lightly dressed in pheasants egg, with shallots and truffle butter sauce.  We are back on the now familiar territory of umami and acidity, with the potato dice coated in a little yeast paste and the slight tang of vinegar in the sauce.  It’s a brilliant blend of two of the five basic tastes which give the dishes light and shade.  Claire says it is one of the best dishes she has ever eaten.  She’s right, but better is to come.



Lunches main protein came in the way of two courses of lamb.  The first is a rib glazed with soy and shizo that disappears as quickly as it arrives, the meat undressing from the bone at the slightest of suggestion.  The barbeque neck which follows is the first time that we would notice a familiar theme which would run through *spoiler alert* dinner the same night, in that dishes have a familiarity on the palate far removed from the world of fine dining.  The neck fillet is topped with a kombucha (a fermented Japanese herb tea) gel which echoes the best lamb with mint sauce you will ever eat.  It’s astonishing in delivery and concept, moreish to the point that it will eventually end up with it’s own addicts group.  In a day where the high points kept on rising, this was for the me the real eureka moment.



Not foreseeing the later bout of gluttony, we take the optional cheese course.  It’s cauliflower cheese, just like grandma used to make it.  Of course it’s not, I’m shitting you.  Cauliflower is compressed with -8 vinegar and topped with Beauvale that oozes and fills with a richness.  It is cauliflower cheese, right down to the breadcrumb topping, just not as you know it.  ‘Lager and lime’ really is just that, a cleansing course of yogurt panacota prepared tableside with continental lager and lime.  It takes me back to my teenage years when I used to drink my pints with a splash of cordial.




Our first dessert arrives, a blueberry dish that for me drops down to one Michelin standard – an achievement given that the restaurant presently has one star.  It’s good – the fermented berries bright in flavour, the buttermilk adding a subtle layer of fat.  We finish with a take on tiramisu.  It is glorious.  Various dots of coffee and vanilla, a shard of something crisp and see-through, with mascarpone granita and grated bitter chocolate.  It’s balanced and refined, a real statement that the sweeter courses can be to the same impossibly high standard of everything else.  We walk through the open kitchen for liquid nitrogen poached meringue filled with fennel purée, seemingly inspired by the aniseed sweets you get at the end of a curry.   I like that idea.  Anything inspired by curry houses is fine with me.  




Now that should be it.  I should surmise about a perfect meal worthy of a special journey and we should all move on with our lives.  Except I can’t, because as I alluded to earlier, that girlfriend of mine couldn’t turn down the chance to extend my birthday lunch into twenty or so more courses at dinner.  I argue that I’m not worthy of that expenditure for all of about twenty seconds before concluding that I probably am. I’m sorry but you’ve come this far to no avail, but stick with me, I promise it’s worth it.

Dinner starts with the dish that is most definitely not a French onion soup, moving on to what is most definitely a glazed slice of duck leg topped with sesame.  Another mackerel dish follows, this time with a sweet and sour ketchup made from bramble, with wood sorrel and grated lardo.  The cured pork backfat is the inspired part, coating the mouth and improving the flavour.  And we’re back on that word again.  This place is all about flavour.  Everything else is secondary to the question “does it taste the best that it absolutely can?'”.  And I like that idea.  I like it a lot.  



The following two courses are two of my favourites.  Crab and sweet corn is remiscent of chowder, light and clean in profile until you hit the dark funk of a crab soy.  Duck liver is whipped with a little tofu, glazed with birch sap syrup, and topped with spelt and a grating of smoked eel.  It’s smoked bacon.  Honestly.  The fat content, the back note of sweetness, the meatiness and the smoke.  I want this with a thick slice of bread and a cup of coffee.  But I can’t, so bottle number three of wine will make do. 



Duck with pickled black beans and black garlic is, of course, duck with black bean sauce.  Likewise tomato, lardo and basil is a BLT.  You get the picture; inspiration from the everyday took to a level up there with the very best.  You have to taste it to believe it.  



I can’t pinpoint the inspiration behind the barbecued langoustine but I can tell you it was damm right delicious.  It’s grilled to a meaty texture with wild garlic and a glorious dressing of roasted shells and soy sauce.  The pollock that came afterwards is, in my opinion, the weakest of the evening.  I  see what they are aiming at with the miso glaze on the fish and the dashi stock to slurp afterwards, it’s just disjointed and lacking the brutal hit of flavour of everything else we ate.  A deconstructed Caesar salad pulls it back.  The lettuce emulsion is vibrant, the Parmesan whey and anchovy crumb full of umami.  It needs the grated cured egg yolk to pull it all together, which it does brilliantly. 





Wagyu returns for three courses.  The first makes me shout “it’s a burger!” a little too loud with the addition of pickled gerkins and a genius addition of bread mayo.  This happens before a piece of sirloin that has been aged for 192 days – I’ve had engagements that have lasted less time.  The meat is unlike any I’ve ever tasted, a bastardisation of beef and blue cheese.  Served only with a grating of fresh wasabi, this is as close as I am likely to get to the prime steak houses of Tokyo.  Wagyu fudge concludes the trio.  You read that right, it’s fudge made with wagyu fat.  A genuine game changer.  Thorntons should nick the idea.



And this, Dear Reader, is where the post concludes, despite there being many courses left.  It was at this point that the days beers, the champagne, the cocktails, and the four bottles of red wine took hold.  It all became a little fuzzy and if I can’t remember it properly, I simply can’t write about it. I remember the lager and lime again, a brilliant strawberry dish that tasted like Summer Cup, and raspberries on toast.  Indeed, looking through my notes now, the dishes maintain the same form; most at the two star standard, with more at three star than one.  It seems a given to me that this restauarant is gaining a star this year and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it joins the top four in the coming years.  It is exhilarating; a riot of taste and precision, all hand delivered by a team of chefs who clearly love working here.  It is the best meal I’ve eaten, trumping all of the two and three star places I’ve been fortunate to dine at. And for once I wasn’t the one picking up the bill.  Gareth Ward and his team at Ynyshir have created a restaurant which rivals the very best in the country.

10/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The promenade of The Dorchester hotel is full of those having afternoon tea.  It is a curious mix of ladies who lunch, those celebrating, and hotel guests.  The class and the crass, if you like.  There are pearls and gowns beside velour tracksuits.  Cut glass English accents are interspersed by shouty American ones.  It is a lovely space where new money meets old money with a shared interest in the most luxurious of hotels.

We walk through that promenade and turn left into the dining room of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.  It is bigger than I expected, with washed grey walls, immaculate white linen, deep chairs, and an army of staff.  The latter are everywhere, an orchestra of tailored suits and foreign accents who are trained into pouring wine simultaneously and expertly covering up stains with smaller sheets of linen.  Each are aware of their individual roles in us leaving replete and suitably poorer than when we left.

After turning down the attention of a champagne trolley we are presented with a generous pyramid of gougeres – those lovely savoury choux buns flavoured with cheese.  These are nice, a little light on the emmental cheese flavour, and not as good as those at Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (an obvious comparison given it is London’s only other 3*).  The less said about the amouse bouche the better – a curious blend of cured John Dory, lime and peanut that was never going to work.  If 2017 serves up a more ill-conceived dish I shall be very unfortunate.

IMG_9954

IMG_9961

We tried much of the bread to mostly great success.  A farmhouse bun was as light as a pillow and delicate with the back note of pork lard, whereas a black olive was a little muted on flavour.  Best was a bacon fogasse that had us going back for seconds, thirds, and, in my case, fourths.  Who said not to overfill on the bread course has never eaten this.  It’s the ultimate breakfast of knotted bread and cubes of fatty bacon.  We smear it inch thick with a lovely salted butter that has been shaped into an onion, whilst sneering at the aerated cream cheese option that looks and tastes like hair mousse.

IMG_9959

Our first course hit the mark.  A crumbed egg gave way to the brightest of yolks that served as a sauce for the smoked corn, chicken oysters and onion stuffed with chicken mousseline.  A corn tuile was a superfluous addition that the dish did not need, but the rest was indulgent and cohesive.

IMG_9963

IMG_9964

And then, well, it all slumped for a while during mains.  A lamb rump was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and rested, with chickpeas, a hummus like puree and pickled onions.  It was nice.  In the same way that Songs of Praise is nice, or making daisy chains.  Impossible to fault, but equally hard to get excited over.  The thrill of dining here is lost amongst the fear of being anything other than perfect, as if the weight of Michelin hangs more heavily here than anywhere else I have dined at it in the country.  There are no risks being taken.  A word on the sauce though, it was an incredible thing that only a classic French approach can result in.

IMG_9966

The other main was a technically astute squid stuffed pasta, with various preparations of octopus hidden under a canopy of leaves.  The overriding flavour is one of citrus that lifts and occasional dominates all it coats.  The octopus was tender, the pasta silky, but three stars?  Really?  It’s all far too safe.

IMG_9967

You get the mignardises here before dessert, why I simply could not tell you.  What I can tell you is that they are all delicious, with some of the best macaroons I have eaten, cocoa coated almonds, nougat, and chocolates.  A lot of work goes into these and it pays off, with a salted caramel toffee disappearing to a nothing on the tongue.  Really lovely stuff.

IMG_9974

Desserts were true three star calibre.  An almond sponge has the lightest of textures, with poached apricot’s and almond granita.  Like the savoury courses there is nothing to fault but this has character; it stands up and demands attention.  Before I move onto my dessert, we were given an additional course because we were celebrating.  Its strawberries and cream for the child at heart, one perfect quenelle of milk ice cream, another of strawberry.  Little meringues of raspberry provide texture, with a singular fruit crowning it all.  The depth of the ice creams are truly staggering.  There is obvious skill in this part of the kitchen.

IMG_9979

IMG_9977

The best course of the lunch deserves a post of it’s own, but I have a liver to kill and only  limited time to do so, so you’ll have to make do with this paragraph.  Chocolate and passion fruit.  It sounds simple enough.  Wrong.  Two tempered chocolate domes, one filled with a white chocolate mousse, the other a passion fruit mousse and topped with passion fruit seeds so that it resembles a halved fruit.  Have a look for yourself.  I couldn’t believe it as I cracked into it and I was 30cm away.  More chocolate as a creme, tuile, and crispy covered puffed rice.  Central to this was a vivid passion fruit ice cream that perfectly balanced it all out.  I’m not a dessert man because they are too often an afterthought, but this is up there with the very best sweet courses I have ever had.

IMG_9976

IMG_9981

We finish with coffee and a tea trolley where you choose your own plant for an infusion.  It’s a lovely concept, typical of a place where every thought has been considered for the consumer.  Apart from the food that is. See, my biggest problem with Ducasse is a simple one:  Exactly one week one after dining here I have to refer to notes to remember much of what we ate.  I remember the splendid company and wonderful service.  I remember how charming the restaurant manager was.  I remember that the desserts were unquestionably three star level.  But the savoury stuff was mostly forgettable safe cooking, hovering around the two star level if they were lucky.  It’s nice.  But then nice just doesn’t cut it when this sort of money and reputation is involved.

7/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Harborne Kitchen, Harborne

It was on a whim that my new girlfriend and I decided to have lunch at Harborne Kitchen. We’ve both had it rough of recent, both slightly hungover and tired, in need of a stomach lining fill and a top-up of alcohol levels. We initially looked to the greasier end of the spectrum in the city centre, before deciding that The Plough in Harborne would be a good option to while away the day after lunch. So, Harborne Kitchen it was. It would turn out to be one of the better decisions that the indecisive shit has made this year. The girl done good.  It’s stuff like this that got her the gig.

IMG_9221

We arrive on very wet Saturday afternoon, when the restaurant space is peppered by the dark grey sky looming through the skylight. It is a lovely dining room, arguably one of the cities more charismatic, all royal blue and white, the centre dominated by the open kitchen and stooled seating around the beech wood counter. A flurry of nibbles start us off. Cod skin arrives looking like a gilded pork puff, the salty whack of the sea ramped up by a spritz of rosemary vinegar.  These are excellent, as are the cauliflower cheese pastries they share a space with.  Lightly pickled carrots with a little of the liquor and buttermilk feel like work in progress, a little too refined and clever for its own good.  We end the procession with a gorgonzola donut that erupts through the brioche casing in the mouth.  It’s bites like this that make me go out for dinner.  It was as corrupt as a Tory MP, only far more appealing.

The first course might just have been my favourite.  Just cooked jersey royals, soured, no, sorry, cultured cream, with a wild garlic veloute poured tableside.  The veloute is bold and intense, as good as any I can recall eating.  Also lurking in the bowl is caviar that gives pops of salinity and toasted rice for bite.  We race for the last piece of sourdough to wipe the bowl clean.  It’s good enough to make me want to punctuate this sentence with swear words.  Absolutely nailed on one star cooking.

The duck liver dish that follows is all about the texture.  The combination of duck and cherry is one that harks back to Escoffier, the fruit having enough tartness to cut through the rich liver.  Sandwiching the parfait are two shards; one like a ginger melba toast, the other some wafer thin chicken skin.  It’s complex and intriguing.  Every mouthful is unique.

IMG_9212

I ask for a replacement to a salmon dish and get a salad of heritage tomatoes, a baked bean fondue, basil, and a tomato essence poured tableside.  It’s light and fresh, a beguiling mix of temperatures.

IMG_9213

Our main was a mammoth of a dish.  Lamb, as rolled shoulder, neck fillet, and tongue, with (wait for it), lovage, potato puree, radish, black olive puree, curd, spiced aubergine, and lamb jus.  There was a lot going on, with some parts better than others.  The rolled shoulder was glorious, as was the livery profile of the tongue.  Both were more than enough to stand up to the big flavours of the tapenade-like olive puree and aubergine.  The neck fillet was a little lost, as was the lovage.  We finished it because it was delicious, but both agreed it would have had more clarity with a couple of items stripped away.

IMG_9216

Desserts were frankly brilliant – there is obvious talent in the pastry department.  A yogurt ice cream is the perfect foil for orange segments frozen with liquid nitrogen in front of us.  There is a sharp curd that sits underneath that ties it all together.  It is exceptional.  Even better is the final dessert of honey parfait with milk ice cream, honeycomb, dehydrated milk shards, and honey.  It is good enough to induce tears of joy – balanced with ballerina-like poise.  It has character, texture, and flavour.  Another nailed on one star course.

IMG_9218

IMG_9219

The price for the above lunch?  Thirty five English pounds.  Yes, you have read that correct.  I was on the beer (don’t judge), the other half on the G&T and we fail to hit £90 between us.  And they don’t charge a service charge, despite a slick operation that will have a certain guide going weak at the knees.  Evening visits and wine will ramp up the bill, but even so, this place is worth it.  It’s clever cooking, with a focus on big flavours and complexity.  Book up and go before word reaches the rest of the city in the same way it did with Carters.  It stops raining as we finish eating and light pours through the skylight and on to our table.  It feels like a sign.  Harborne Kitchen is a very special place that can bring sunshine to the darkest of days.

9/10

And now the plug; I am up for Best Food Blog at the forthcoming MFDH Awards, where Harborne Kitchen is also nominated in the Best Fine Dining.  Please give us both a vote here http://www.mfdhawards.co.uk/vote-now/

 

Cheal’s, Henley In Arden

IMG_8878

I once referred to Matt Cheal on Twitter as ‘Birmingham’s Phil Howard’, a massive compliment I’m willing to stick to based on a recent lunch. I’ve eaten his food several times before, back when he was Head Chef at Simpsons, and it has always struck me as a style similar to how The Square used to be; bold flavours, classic French sauces that shimmer, and conventional ingredient combinations tweaked with modern flourishes.  In my humble opinion, he is a chef that is defined by a desire to feed, something that reflects on his menu’s, which read like a Shakespearian sonnet.

Cheal’s has been open just over a year now, housed in the black beam and white plaster building where Le Filbert Cottage won one of the countries first Michelin stars.  The downstairs is a maze of rooms and open doorways, with crisp whiten linen adorning the well spread tables.  It wears it’s ambition proudly.  The menu, the service, the interior.  This is a place that wants a star, and, I firmly believe, will get one this autumn.

We get a teeny nibble of cod croquette that accompanies the crisp champagne, followed by an amouse bouche of soup of cauliflower cheese sent spiralling with an umami rich parmesan foam and drizzle of curry oil.  There is sourdough bread that is better than a wholegrain option, both with salted butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy bacon bits.  I told you the ambition was obvious.

We start with a rectangle of pork belly, softly cooked and compressed so that the fat is nothing but a glue holding the layers of meat together. It sits on an Asian inspired dice of smoked pineapple and leek, some crushed hazelnuts, and bitter chicory to cut through the richness. I’m not crazy about the jus being poured directly on to what started as a crispy piece of skin, but the rest is an assured bit of cookery that manages to balance out some big flavours.

IMG_8887

A crispy duck egg yolk is the centrepiece for another starter, bread crumbed and deep fried so that the oozy centre is released by the teeniest of pricks (pun intended – I was holding the knife).  There is a jumble of asparagus, peas, broad beans and shallots on to which the silkiest of asparagus veloute’s was poured.  A grating of Old Wincester provides enough tang to counteract the fresh spring flavours.  Fish comes in the way of skate, seemingly pan cooked in browned butter, with the plumpest of mussels and a collection of things found on coastal ground.  It whacked of the sea, with the salt flavour bolstered by strips of crisp salsify that offered more than merely texture.  The metallic notes of a saffron infused cream an inspired choice.

IMG_8886

IMG_8888

Back in my favoured land of protein we get a roast chicken and chips.  Well, kind of.  The supreme is perfectly cooked with a bruleed skin that melts to a nothing on the palate, with a confit leg that can be deconstructed with the lightest of tugs.  I have no idea what they have done to the tomatoes to make them sweet and sour at the same time but it works.  Triple cooked chips on the side snap and fluff as they should.

IMG_8891

Spring lamb is perhaps the lightest course in terms of flavour we try all day.  The rack is a consistent medium, the fat correctly rendered down.  It needs the little croquettes of shoulder to smash that ovine flavour in fully.  The accompaniments of peas, potato terrine, sheep’s curd and artichoke puree all make perfect sense on the plate.  It’s food that you want to eat every week if the budget allowed.

IMG_8890

For the second time in seven days we have a seriously good beef dish.  Fillet comes as rare as we’d requested, crowned with a flurry of trompette mushrooms.  There is a square of brisket, and carrots, both roasted and as a rich orange puree.  The best thing on the plate was the beef fat mash, an indulgent thing that works in harmony with the red wine sauce at holding everything together.

IMG_8889

Of the three desserts ordered, I find it hardest to get excited over a wave of vanilla parfait with various elements of strawberry. It’s technically accomplished, in particular the buttery shards of shortcrust biscuit, but it’s all a bit too obvious and all a bit too sweet. Far more balanced was a moist honey and chrysanthemum cake with lemon sorbet. The floral note from the chrysanthemum cake in unison with the honey, the sorbet providing the acidity to cut through it.

IMG_8892

IMG_8893

The star dessert was the milk chocolate and banana delice, draped in a ganache that reflects light like a disco ball, and topped with popcorn. It’s beautiful to look at, and made with obvious skill. A passionfruit sorbet is the ideal sharpness, and yes, the four components are hardly ground-breaking in their use together, but I’ll say it again, this food that you want to eat.

IMG_8894

They do carafe’s of wine around the mid teens, and we take food off both menu options (at lunch either £30 or £50 for three courses), leaving a total bill that almost touches £70 a head.  The value of that is there to be seen with your very eyes.  I am going to state the obvious here, but the food was of a similar ilk and quality to the time when Cheal was fronting the kitchen at Simpsons.  If the cooking then was worthy of a star, the food here surely must be.  Mark my words, come October the B postcode is gaining its seventh Michelin star.  And that star is going to Cheal’s of Henley.

9/10

Simpsons, Birmingham

IMG_8797

I’ll get the truth out from the start; Simpson’s is a special place for me. It was the first Michelin starred restaurant I took my girlfriend to, the place where we had our first year anniversary, where I celebrated my 30th birthday, and where I’ll be eating on my birthday this year. It’s a distinct kind of place, opulent without ever being flashy, polished without the stuffiness. It used to be much more rigid before the refit, whereas  now it has a Scandinavian vibe, with plenty of natural light bathing the bare wooden elements of tree, tables, and floor. It’s clean and casual, yet still romantic enough for a date night to ask your long suffering girlfriend of seven years for her hand in marriage. The last part is merely a suggestion.

IMG_8798

With the refit came a new Head Chef and a fresh approach. Nathan Eades joins Executive Chef, Luke Tipping, in the kitchen creating food that is identifiable with the old Simpsons, yet lighter and more modern in style. I have eaten here more frequently than any other starred restaurant and can gladly report that the food is better than ever. Not only have they moved straight to the top of Birmingham, they are now competing with the big boys across the country.

The opening act sets the scene for the evening. A tapioca cracker given the Just For Men treatment with squid ink is the ideal foil for the creamiest of taramasalata dip, whilst a delicate cracker made from chickpea flour is topped with truffled mayo and flowers almost too pretty to eat.  Almost.  We save the pigs head until last for good reason. The unctuous meat is encased in tiny shards of pork crackling – try telling me you don’t want that now.   It is as fulfilling as two mouthfuls of food can get. Bread comes as a flaky tapenade roll and a sourdough that is almost as good as that from the Hedone bakery. For those familiar with the latter they know this to be the highest of compliments. The crust has bite, the crumb slightly elastic with large pockets of air. It is dreamy when smeared an inch thick with the salty whipped butter.

We are yet to reach the dishes ordered from the A La Carte menu and had already eaten some seriously good food. A starter of veal tartare exceeds this by being one of the best raw meat dishes I have ever eaten, the entire plate basked in light acidity from balls of apple and slices of kohlrabi.

IMG_8809

A carrot broth jewelled with herb oil is poured tableside onto a slow cooked duck egg with meaty hen of the wood mushrooms, and tangles of crispy pork for bite and saltiness.  Nasturtium add a gentle pepperiness not unlike watercress.  It’s a joy, and a visual joy at that.  Salmon is cured so that the texture firmed up, with sweet raw obsiblue prawns seasoned with a little lemon juice, caviar, cucumber, and a buttermilk dressing.  The dish requires little in the way of cooking and an expert hand in balancing the sweet and the acidity.  It nails it, producing a bowl full of complexity that celebrates the best in produce.

IMG_8810

IMG_8811

Beef comes as a rare cannon of rump and a wedge of brisket so softly cooked it concedes at the merest suggestion of pressure.  Add to this a fat spear of white asparagus, petals of charred shallot, mushrooms, potato puree seasoned with crisp bone marrow, and what you have is a plate that produces new combinations with every forkful.  It is rooted in classicism, which is fine by me when it is done as well as this.

IMG_8813

I’ll cut to the chase with the other main course; it is the best lamb dish I have ever eaten.  The meat is a perfect medium, so tender it could have been cut with a palette knife.  Garlic is represented both as subtle wild leaves and a pungent fermented emulsion, with a sheeps curd that seasons and elevates.  The sauce is a thing of beauty which we used the last of the bread to mop up, then our fingers to chase the last dots when that runs out.

IMG_8812

Pre dessert is a clever little ice cream made from buttermilk with lemon gel that evokes a healthy breakfast with its crunchy oats topping, whilst successfully transitioning from savoury through to sweet.  One of the sweet courses is batons of poached rhubarb with a sorbet of the same fruit, shards of muscovado sugar, and a burnt cream that works in a similar style to a crème brulee, albeit in a much more cheffy, modern fashion.

IMG_8814 The other dessert.  My God, the other dessert.  A caramelised rectangle of filo pastry is the canopy for a serious amount of work that riffs on the flavour profile of coffee.  There is white chocolate, aerated, and again as a mousse, chocolate sponge, Nesspresso granite, and an ice cream made from spiced speculoo biscuit.  It is dark and funky.  Creamy and indulgent.  It delivers on every level.   It is one of the very best desserts I have eaten.

IMG_8816

Perfect.  It’s not a word I use too often, but Simpsons delivered a perfect evening.  The bill, creeping in at just over a hundred quid a head including a lovely Hungarian red and a couple of ports, felt very fair for food that was clearly to me at two star level.  It was intriguing, elegant cooking with real personality.  It’s surely just a matter of time before Michelin acknowledges this and elevates it to the level it belongs.  Simpsons is up there with the very best in the country, and we, the good folk of Birmingham, should embrace our finest restaurant at every opportunity.

10/10

Simpsons Restaurants Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Wilderness, Birmingham

I don’t believe in fate, but if I did, I’d use The Wilderness as evidence as to why. The restaurant is a forced move; previously Nomad, a concise space where nature and provenance were key, short-lived when the lawyers from New York’s NoMad started stamping their feet. Nomad is now long gone, existing only as a tattoo on Chef Patron Alex Claridge’s arm. I won’t dwell on bygone times, but I enjoyed its clear linear and identity. Fortunately the new offering takes it to a higher level. It’s evocative. It’s bat-shit crazy. It’s pretty much perfect.

img_8461

The association with nature is still there. Living moss pads the walls of the tiny 22 cover restaurant, whilst a tree seemingly rises from the floor to the ceiling on one side of the room. In direct juxtaposition, the floors are concrete, tables a glossy black. It is comfortable in it’s own skin.  We take the Saturday lunch food and drinks flight and are asked if we would prefer to swap the duck for venison – of course we do.  Snacks (2017’s amouse bouche) are a celeriac remoulade on a linseed cracker and a delicate tuile with crab meat and scorched corn.  The former cleansed the palate, the latter punching it straight in the gob with a whack of the sea held in to check by the corn which had the sugars heightened by flaming the edges.  There is dense sourdough with a butter seemingly lightened with crème fraiche.  The two make for a good pair.

img_8464

I think what set this lunch out so far apart from anything I’ve eaten in the last year is the complexity of Claridge’s  cooking.  We are going through a period of minimalism in cooking; two or three elements on a plate as way of showcasing an ingredient is in vogue .  The cooking here could not be further from that.  With every mouthful something new evolves, another flavour announces itself.  A slab of trout is first, which I forget to take a picture of before dismantling it.  The skin is crisp, the fish correctly medium.  It is elsewhere that the fun is at – little pops of dyed herring roe for the whiff of the salty sea, a tassel of fried moss to pull it back on to land; the two flavours that echo the dashi stock which is poured tableside before we tuck in.  A loin of Iberico pork is blushing pink, advertised with artichokes as discs, puree, and crisps, pickled mushrooms, and buds of wild garlic.  The stuff not on the menu are the clever additions; hazelnut’s, which reinforce the nutty characteristics of the animals diet, a luxurious port sauce, and a fish sauce dressing that sends the dish spiralling out East.  I told you the cooking was complex.  It’s a conversation killer.  A sit down, shut up, collection of things on a plate that stop you dead in your tracks.

img_8466

We move on to the best venison dish I have ever eaten.  The same precision cooking of protein as before, with a squash puree, broccoli and a venison jus took to the deepest of places with the addition of stout.  A word on the drinks pairing for this – the old fashioned heightened with sake was the perfect counterbalance for the venison.

img_8468

The first of the desserts was rhubarb sorbet, with poached strips, gels and puree’s.  The only sweetness on the plate coming from Italian meringues flavoured with a little vanilla.  It’s a bold plate of food that shows considerable skill in showcasing an ingredient at the height of its power.  We finish on a course as detailed as any served prior.  Chocolate and cherries.  Oh, and that familiar dessert addition of cep mushrooms – how can I forget that?  Silly me.  It’s a dish I can comfortably say I wasn’t looking forward to on account of not really being a fan of chocolate desserts, and less of a fan of mushrooms in my sweets.  But what do I know?  Absolutely nothing, apparently.  The cep powder never bothers with the front row, choosing to sit at the back and call the shots.  It gives the chocolate more length, it stops the cherries from being too sweet.  Throw in a chestnut puree that occasionally makes everything go a bit Mont Blanc, a splash of salted caramel which works a little too well with mushrooms, and what you have is a dessert that could have come from the mighty David Everitt-Matthias.  And I mean that with the upmost of respect:  When it comes to chefs I can think of none finer than the man who works the stoves at Le Champignon Sauvage.  We finish with chocolate skulls, sprayed gold and filled with salted caramel, which I assume is a nod to the present menu entitled ‘Things Fall Apart’.

img_8470

img_8472

img_8473

I liked it.  You may have gathered that by now.  The Wilderness put on a show over two hours of some of the best food I have eaten in a very long time.  This is top-end cooking, delivered with theatre and exacting execution, undoubtedly worthy of a Michelin star come October.  I haven’t given a ten since September 2015, but The Wilderness leaves me with no choice. A restaurant this exciting deserves nothing less than top marks.

10/10

The lunch tasting menu with drinks pairing should have been £70 per person, though I used the Independent Birmingham card offer to reduce this to £50.  For more details on them please see http://www.independent-birmingham.co.uk

Cuisine Wat Damnak, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cuisine Wat Damnak is Cambodia’s sole entry in Asia’s Top 50 Restaurant list, itself a sub-list for the World Top Fifty List. It is to be found in the tourist melting pot of Siem Reap, gateway to Ankor Wat, a short tuk-tuk ride from the bright lights, bad food and dance beats of Pub Street. Housed in this serene colonial building, tasteful and understated, with heavy wood panelling offset with licks of baby blue, is head chef Joannes Rivierre, a Frenchman bringing his classical technique to traditional Khmer cuisine. The ultra-seasonal menu changes fortnightly, with all ingredients sourced from within Cambodia. Six courses come in at an absurdly cheap 28 USD, for which there are two options, plus a vegetarian option.

img_7832

Many of the ingredients here were new to me, though the chefs skill at balancing flavour was obvious from the start. An amouse bouche had minced pork at the base of the bowl, the meat spiced heavily with garlic and chilli heat.  Shavings of coconut and palm sugar are beguiling, scattered, as nearly all dishes were, with fragrant fresh herbs.  It was as opening courses should be; a shock to the taste buds, a clear signal in the direction of the meal.  From here we take a fillet of chhlang, a river fish not too dissimilar tasting from trout, with marinated jack fruit and tree cucumber.  The former has a rich piquancy, the latter the acidity to cut through it.

img_7833

img_7836

Scallops come lightly seared with the roe still attached.  They are a little fleshy and a million miles away in quality from those caught around the coasts of the UK.  Far better is a fried cake that tastes purely of cauliflower sitting central to the plate, and the rich garlic sauce that ties everything together.  Another pressed cake may have been my favourite course.  Confit duck oozed experience and technique, the soft meat bound with a little rice for texture.  On top was more of that acidic tree cucumber, with a puddle of homemade oyster sauce completing it.  The oyster sauce in particular was fantastic; rich, deep, and fruity.

img_7840

img_7837

There a couple of soups that I forgot to take pictures of.  I know we had them because they are on the menu, but that’s about it.  Blame the wine.  Far more memorable was the pork shank in the rich sauce flavoured heavily with anise.  Strips of pork breast were all crisp fat and tender meat, with a softly boiled quails egg for luxury.  Only the bamboo shoots spoiled the party.  It turns out I don’t like bamboo shoots, which is hardly a surprise given I am not a panda.  Still, this was one of those dishes you can’t leave alone, moreish to the point that the government may want to classify it as illegal.  We remove the anise from the last of the bowl and pour the rice in, ensuring that no waste is left.

img_7841

Put bluntly, desserts were not up to same high standards.  A stodgy pancake is bad, the caramelised banana and chocolate crème with it less so.  It ate alright, but, honestly, it was nothing that couldn’t be done at home for a dinner party.  A coconut panna cotta was of a similar ilk – a little overset, served with pineapple salsa and sorbet which failed to set my world alight.

The wine list is great and very fairly priced for a part of the world not known for cheap wine.  With this we drink imaginative cocktails, lots of them, given they worked out around £4.00 each.  It all makes for a pretty fantastic experience; Khmer food cooked with a precision that you just don’t see in this emerging country.  Should you ever find yourself trekking through this part of the world, Cuisine Wat Damnak is a must do.

It should end there, but there is one more place I wanted to mention in Cambodia before I leave this fine country alone.  We spent a week on Lazy Beach, a little bit of paradise on Koh Rong Samloem, an island roughly two hours boat ride away from Sihanoukville.  It is understated luxury; twenty bungalows over a kilometre of private beach and a main hut serving some of the best Asian food I’ve eaten.  It is lazy for a reason – no TV’s, no Wi-Fi, just those views above and a good book to get through the day, whilst nights are spent snorkelling in a sea that shimmers with phosphorescence.  I could have easily wrote an entire piece on just how perfect Lazy Beach is, though I am not sure that Chris and the team would want that; they seem to have a lovely existence based almost entirely on word of mouth.  Once I got through the gecko’s sleeping in room it quickly became the best place I have ever stayed.  If they want word of mouth recommendations, here is mine:  The world is a big place and I’m not going to be around long enough to return to anywhere twice if I want to see a lot of it.  I draw an exception at Lazy Beach.  Whenever I find myself out travelling in the East I will do all I can to include a stay here.  It’s simply too perfect not to.

8/10 (For Cuisine Wat Damnak)

For information on Lazy Beach see www.lazybeachcambodia.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tin Lung Heen, Hong King

Hong Kong is a city punctuated with sky scrapers. From the ground they pierce the horizon like needle points, each a place of work or home for people who don’t mind not having a garden. The highest of these concrete high points is the ICC tower, ninth tallest building in the world, to be found via a maze of ground level building sites that will one day be the new financial district. The top floors of the building belong to the very swish Ritz-Charlton hotel, itself home to this afternoons lunch at the two Michelin star Tin Lung Heen, which must be the highest starred restaurant on the planet. It’s trivial, of course, and the height should hardly matter, but there can be few places on the planet where the view is quite as spectacular.

img_8035

The restaurant is a pretty one; ornate and comfortable, elegant and demure. Tables are dressed in thick white linen, spaced well apart over the thick cream carpet. There are flourishes of red that cut through the glossy black walls, whilst the back wall is reserved for Chinese wines and sakes for those whose budget is non-existent. Indeed, this is a place to splurge; we had to search the wine list for a bottle under £75.00 and held our breath when the bill showed mineral water to be £11.50 per bottle. Those dining here come for Catonese food with the most precious of ingredients – they do not come expecting a bargain.

img_8029

We start with two dim sum: Excellent cuts of Iberico pork shoulder, barbequed to a dusty pink and glazed  with honey, are stunning – the meat dissolving on the tongue without any effort.  The other was a steamed dumpling with dried scallop, fish maw (dried bladder, if you really want to know), and shrimp.  It was the taste of the sea if the sea had curled up and died, all wrapped up in a soggy polythene casing.  This won’t be the first time that I say this, and I am sure this was exactly how it was supposed to be prepared, but it wasn’t for me.  The flavour was too stagnant, the texture too alien.  It was lost on me, and I’m quite happy for everyone to know that.

img_8023

My face said it all on the next course.  A murky soup with lumps of boiled pork shin so grey they could have passed for British summertime, with winter melon of no distinct taste and more of the dried scallop.  There was dried longon, a bit like lycee, which added the faintest of acidity.  It was not nice and none of us got close to finishing it.  Our waiter, the brilliant and affable Leo, tried his best by offering an alternative soup, but by now we just wanted to move on it from it all.

img_8024

We moved on to accurately cooked scallops, with souffled pastry pieces and a finely chopped salsa of green onion and ginger.  On the other side of the plate was Chinese kale, which tasted a lot like tenderstem broccoli, and pine nuts.  The precision of all the elements was two star cooking; the veg precisely prepared and cooked, the scallops with a gently caramelised crust.  It was just dull.  Nothing slapped you around the chops or gave you a hug. The morsels of duck that followed were so tender that canines nor molars were required to work, sat in a deeply flavoured black bean sauce to which we piled in rice full of interest with bits of goose, abalone and shrimps.  Lovely, yes, though hardly two star worthy.

img_8025

img_8030

We finish on a dessert that would divide the table.  A set milk cream (panna cotta, if you so like), with a gelatinous peach compote and a fat slice of black truffle.  Whilst my dining companions hated the way that the truffle bullied its way through the dessert, perfuming the milk and overpowering the peach, I actually quite liked it and ended up with three lots to eat.  The honeyed bit of pastry on the side was a nice sweet note to end on, the over set grapefruit jelly less so.

img_8031

I’d read a bit about the dubious nature of Michelin in Hong Kong prior to my trip and this meal confirmed pretty much all I read as true.  Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing struck me as truly two star cooking.  Yes, its precise and yes they use luxury ingriedients, but many of those ingredients added nothing to the meal other than an increased cost.  Maybe it’s me and my uncultured western palate.  We indulged a little in the wine list and left with a hefty bill that quickly soared into the hundreds.  For that we had the loftiest of views in a lofty city and a distinctly average meal that left me feeling a little cold all over.

5/10

Purnell’s, Birmingham

Blame it all on Purnell. My food obsession. This blog.  It all stems from him. Some thirteen years back I was a slender twenty-year-old with a food knowledge that amounted to knowing what should be ordered at Nando’s (I now know the real answer; nothing).  Good food was yet to find a way into my life, along with humility and fitted jeans.  It took a girl and a Jay Rayner write-up for me to book a table at Jessica’s in Edgbaston that would alter my view forever.  Behind the stove was a young Glynn Purnell, a talented chef with what I now understand to be considerable experience in some very serious kitchens.  A main of chicken with gamborini prawn would instantly convert me and slowly lead me on a path that had accumulated in four extra inches on my waistband, forty or so Michelin starred restaurants and, more recently, this restaurant blog.

Mr Purnell soon left Jessica’s to open his eponymous restaurant, a place I visited before it won it’s star, though had not been to in some time.  The room is agreeable and modern, carpeted with comfortable chairs and heavy black wooden tables.  It feels effortlessly cool, which is reinforced by unstuffy service and a soundtrack which included The XX.  Dinner options are a shorter menu at £68 or a longer one at £88 with flexibility over certain courses.  We choose the shorter one with the supplement of an additional dish.

The opening gambit was sensational; a witty play (indeed, if ever there were one word to describe Purnell’s cooking it would be witty) of cheese and pineapple on sticks.  A fondue covers a fine dice of pineapple with sticks of dried pasta and a crumbly parmesan tuile for texture.  On to this a pineapple granita is shovelled tableside, the temperature differential seemingly intensifying the familiar flavours.

img_7579

A duck egg shell hides a yolk in amongst a cauliflower veloute with teeny bits of bacon and black pudding for texture.  Its pretty, refined and elegant, though its hard to get excited about when compared to its alternative, a slow cooked yolk sat proudly on a milk foam flavoured by smoked haddock and drizzled with curry oil.  It looks like a fried egg but close your eyes and its kedgeree.  A croquette of haddock on the side is there to add fish to the fishless fish course.

img_7580

img_7581

Chicken liver parfait is shrouded by a red wine jelly, the deep flavour of the offal checked by its acidity.  Its a brilliant bit of cooking that tastes every bit as good as it looks.  Red currants and turnip braised in port for natural sweetness, toasted grains for substance and bite.  The very best chefs know when to add or detract from a dish, here every element was required.  A doughnut filled with beetroot so heavily reduced it could have been mistaken for raspberry sat on the side.  I asked for more to come with my coffee at the end.  They incorrectly assumed I was joking.

img_7582

img_7583

Monkfish masala was one of two dishes that made it to the banquet at Great British Menu’s 2008-2009.  The fish is good but could have handled more spice in my opinion, and is overshadowed by the best yellow dhal I have ever tried, all length and character and spice.  Lamb neck is braised so slowly a spoon could have easily replaced the meat knife, the lacquer it sits in used to coat the meat to a mirrored sheen.  With it comes pumpkin thrice; a silky puree, a caramelised rectangle topped with candied pumpkin and fennel seeds, and a carpaccio marinated in orange.  It sings.  The combination of slow cooked ovine, anise, and citrus could have been North African, yet here it is modern French in style, perfectly delivered.

img_7585

img_7589

The first of desserts is almost unrecognisable from its GBM victory.  Burnt custard sits in an egg shell high above a plate containing toasted seeds, a blackberry ice cream and thin shards of honeycomb.  The blowtorched topping cracks to give way to a vanilla rich custard that hides a little gooseberry puree at the bottom.  As lovely as they are, these ‘signatures’ sat down my pecking order of my favourites when compared to some of the newer dishes, which were cleaner in their approach and bigger in flavour.  This comparison highlighted by a lemon meringue pie, golden in colour, with a high meringue dome that released a blackberry sauce when chopped into.  The theatrics would mean nothing if the taste wasn’t there and boy it was, all short pastry and balanced acidity from the lemon curd and blackberry sauce.  This is a future classic.

img_7590

img_7593

img_7604

We finish up with tart jellies, a chocolate orange bar with popping candy and chocolate domes filled with peanut butter, ending the meal on a suitably sweet note.  The bill, with two good bottles of wine between three, working out well in excess of a hundred pound each, which is value for money given the quality of food served over the two and a bit hours we enjoyed.  Purnell’s are one of five starred restaurants in Birmingham and much has been made of which one will make the jump to their second.   For me, three of them are contenders, though judging on this performance Purnell’s may have just stolen the lead.  A superb meal of fun and flawless execution.

9/10

Purnell's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato