Hare a la Royale, Koffmann’s style

Hare

Hare

You really feel like a king.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Weekend in London

There are many reasons why London is the greatest city on earth.

One them is that in the space of a walk you can eat Italian like in Italy, French like in France, Japanese like in Japan (granted, with a few local inflections…).

In an otherwise undistinguished Autumn weekend, this is just what we did, visiting in succession three of our long time favourites.

Latium continues to deliver immaculate ingredients prepared with simplicity and  flair, the secret of Maurizio Morelli’s dishes being an uncannily exact judgement in seasoning and flavour balance. Sometimes, in Tripadvisor sort of critiques, one reads complaints about the lack of a ‘wow!’ factor. But there is a sense in which the triumph of this cuisine lies precisely in the lack of any recourse to wow, as well as in the repudiation of gimmicks and fashions: this is a cuisine of classical equilibrium, of precise proportions, a classy cuisine. Think small Renaissance building as opposed to tallest skyscraper in the world. No celebrities here (go to Zafferano or Locatelli, for that, but better not), just lovely food and lovely service.

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Smoked Swordfish with Puntarelle

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Veal Ossobuco with saffron risotto

Kikuchi, this little joint tucked away in the unglamorous side street that it shares with a glamorous Hakkasan branch. We’ll admit, it may not be the greatest Japanese in the world, and yet it is bloody good, bloody authentic. How not be entranced by taciturn, courteous Mr. Kikuchi meticulously toiling away at his pretty, tasty sushis in front of his small clientele, hour after hour, evening after evening? There’s a sense of timelessness here. And how not to be charmed by those junior waitresses, probably students, with their faltering English, so polite and so barely comprehensible, bringing an apt sense of remoteness, and even by the veteran, grumpier waitress who hardly smiles at you after all these years? Try Kikuchi and you’ll see: you’ll get the addiction too, you’ll need his dishes again and again.

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Seared very fatty tuna sushi

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California rolls Kikuchi style

Koffman’s:  the old master, the most recent addition to our list of  favourites but it feels like it has always been there, an immense technique and capacity for powerful, full, knock-out flavours (starting from his bread basket, perhaps the best in London) put at the service of your sheer enjoyment, not giving a fig either about Michelin star strictures (he’s had enough three-starred glory) or your diet: if he judges that in a dish that amount of  butter and salt are needed to yield full flavour, that is what you get. No prissy calorie counting here. But relax: once in a while, you deserve it, and if you look well there are even lighter options on the menu. All served by one of the smoothest from of house teams in London.

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Duck Pithivier

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Tasting of braised beef cheeks

The great man was surveying the service while we devoured our excellent turbot:

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(yes, we like our turbot cheeks 🙂 )

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First grouse 2012…


…being in London, at Koffmann’s: where else?

In this year of the glorious thirteenth we were quick off the mark. We enquired whether Koffmann’s was stocked with grouses. They were due on the 15th morning from Scotland, and so there we were, ready for lunch service.

We were served their first two grouses of this season (pity they don’t have a ‘first item sold is free’ policy, like in some old shops in Rome).


It was just spectacular. No, really, spectacular. We don’t know what they do to it to obtain that wonderful texture in the pink roasted breast and legs. By the way, never forget the kitchen brigade beside the great man (who was still in Scotland that day): an applause for execution.

As you can see, the animal is resting on a slice of bread that is soaking the sticky, flavour-packed innards and the trademark dark lovely jus, that perfect match for the other potent flavours.

Definitely not baby food. This is food that strikes with force at the heart of your gustatory senses, so be prepared if you haven’t had it before.

A glimpse at the final treats…the dough of this baba’ was remarkable (Man, obviously not content with his La Peche Abusee 2004, would have liked more booze in it though):

 and the same for these superb madeleines, and butter free!!!


Oh come on, you didn’t believe that, did you? Of course they are not butter free. Actually they might define the opposite of butter free. Butter freeness is the one thing you definitely cannot ask at Koffman’s. But culinary bliss is worth a little sacrifice, every now and then.

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La Pech Abusé 2004

There is more than one reason to like this wine. First, its name is a witty pun, abusé/Buzet: they were refused the Buzet denomination. We like humour. 

Second, the reason why they were refused is that they did not comply with all the detailed requirements of the appellation (e.g. aging length). We always support creative individuals against rigid bureaucracy. 

Third, their label is pretty (done by the daughters of the producer). We like prettiness. 

Fourth, the wine is biodynamic. Ok, we don’t like all the mystical babble, but it is nice to know that it contains no sulphur and the farming is organic.

Last and fundamental, it tastes good! Merlot and Cabernets (Franc and Sauv) in full Bordeaux style, so beautifully ruby that one would even feel justified in spouting nonsense on the virtues of biodynamics: we taste black fruits and earthiness and smokiness.

Discovered thanks to Massimiliano Baló, a clever young sommelier at Koffmann’s. It costs £44 there, retail about a third of that (which, by the way, isn’t bad by London restaurant standards).


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Game at Koffman’s

Knowing our passion for game, the powers that be at Koffmann’s (read: Sandro who is normally in charge of the FOH when we visit on Sundays), although absent on the day, had made sure that a partridge and and a hare would be available for us even if not on the menu…


The hare was cooked perfectly, the soft succulent saddle offering the most obvious delight, and the almost oversize looking ‘cake’ with all the less noble but supertasty bits (the lovely liver scrumptiously stuck in the middle), despite its size and thus the risk of being dry still held a surprising moistness. At any rate, as in all game dishes at Koffmann’s, there’s never a moistness problem thanks to the generous sauces; in this case a shiny masterpiece of dark, smooth, muscular flavour. This was memorable stuff: hard to believe that such intensity and fullness can be conjured up in such a simple looking dish.


The truth is, of course, that it ‘s not simple…





To be fair, the partridge descended a few circles towards Earth, with the breast ever so slightly “overmuscular” and dry (taking perfection as a benchmark). It may have had to do with the cooking or with the hanging – we are reliably told that these little beasts, even when coming from the same batch, have different optimal hanging periods. BUT, apart from the excellent flavour of the meat, what made this dish stunning nonetheless was once again, you’ve guessed it, the sauce. There was a beguiling smokey flavour which after asking we believe came from an aged Armagnac. It was the key for the door to new dimensions, and you want the dish to last, and last, and last.







Accompanied by the usual well made chips, this was part of one of our many loooong enjoyable Sunday lunches in this unique venue that doesn’t stop fascinating us. Even in the absence of our expert guides from the Italian Connection, the aforementioned Sandro and the sommelier Massimiliano, service was sweet and working as clockwork as always, in a nicely busy room.


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A triumph of Grouse

Fewer and fewer of the beautiful birds on restaurants’ plates, the glorious period that begun on the 12th of August, the opening of the grouse shooting season, is nearing the end.


We have tried many fantastic interpretations of grouse this year: these are the best ones.


Alas, we failed to take the photo of the truly superlative one by the great old man in London, as the last time we went armed with our camera they had run out. But more vivid than a picture, the deep, deep flavour of Koffmann’s grouse will stay in our memory till next year. His grouse is something that transcends any intellectual evaluation, it strikes at your taste emotion and you just stop caring any longer about the hours of high techniques and patient preparations that have gone into it: all you want to do is to abandon yourself completely to the sheer pleasure of eating it, to drown in it and forget all the rest!


Martin Wishart’s interpretation contrasts markedly with Koffmann’s, the latter sheer power, no holds barred, the former with the hair less let down, more of an elegant and sensual beautiful lady or gentleman than an exhuberant youth, delicious in a different way. He had two versions, one accompanied by a foie gras


 


and the other by a boudin





The waiter was astonished that we preferred to forgo one portion of the nobler foie gras (to which we were entitled by our choice of menu) in order to try also the more rustic boudin, but we don’t care for the aristocracy of produce and just look for true flavours. We were not disappointed, both were packed with them and technically flawless.


While the chef’s touch is exhibited unashamedly in Wishart’s dishes, the class of Geoff Smeddle at the Peat Inn is more restrained, developing only slowly while you enjoy and understand the dish and all its hidden subtleties and details,





the meat presented simply and openly, the beautiful colours – visual testimony to a perfect cooking – in evidence, supported by a muscular jus, and notable because of the so welcome abundance of a vegetable element (in this case Puy lentils as the core) so typical of his style. Geoff has a unique knack of making you feel as if you are eating at the same time a rustic and a superfine dining dish (this one also comes accompanied on the side by neatly presented innards on a crusty bread).


Look how very different this presentation at Galvin La Chapelle,





 which while accomplished was a little more austere, a little more rigid, maybe a little less joyous, what do you think? The piece on the left packed a punch of flavour as good as any other sample, while the one on the right divided us, Man finding it slightly more stringy, somehow less convincing than the best ones, while Woman was happy. We agreed that the jus was shiny class, and just so there is no doubt, let us make it clear that even with our modest criticism this is stratospheric level of cooking.

Let’s conclude with an Italian version…if you have followed us for a while you know we are great admirers of Maurizio Morelli’s skills at Latium. Grouse is not something one finds in Italy, so there’s not a traditional Italian way of preparing it, and Maurizio here was unconstrained by the weight of tradition that sometimes tends to shackle Italian chefs in the UK.




Here you will notice, unique among those presented, the symmetric and ‘full dish’ type of composition that Maurizio likes, and, like at the Peat Inn, a love of vegetables (and blueberries!) that we share (here there was a lovely baked pumpkin, as well a Savoy cabbage, in a red wine and bluberry jus). The cooking was perfect, and the gentleness and the balance of flavours shone as usual even with an assertive grouse.

By the way, did we mention we love grouse?




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Galvin La Chapelle (London)



This is the type of place where they begin with ‘A little champagne to start?’ Normally we find this pushy upselling deeply irritating, but here the service staff have sufficient natural charm and are sufficiently un-stuck-up that we didn’t feel all that pushed after all.


Moreover, the Maitre d’ on the day was from Aberdeen and we ended up discussing the cheapest way to get to Scotland – which identified us as cheap bastards and put paid to any hopes of selling us expensive drinks.


We went for an a la carte and a prix-fix menu. While waiting we were entertained by the kitchen theater, in full view from our table, and had the chance to slowly take in the enormous, complex, almost overwhelming space of the room.


Two starters of terrines were both pleasantly moist and rich and dense in flavour. One (of game), from the fixed price menu, was more basic and offered a more obvious, saltier, punch (the side raisin puree was remarkable, however). The other, of guinea fowl, ham hock and foie gras, played on softer, more subtle and complex notes, the red onion marmalade oozing luscious sweetness. Both  were impressive in their own way.










A well executed grouse was suitably potent and flew quite high, though perhaps not as high as others (for flavour and texture) we’ve tried this year, here, here and here.





A simple dish of lamb, green beans, carrots and a rich fondant potato from the prix fix had deep flavour enclosed in a meat that didn’t yield so easily, and supported by a classy jus; all in all a stunning dish when considered as part of a £25 menu.





The famous rhum baba’ with chantilly cream (vanilla) certainly did not disappoint with its big alcohol cut and ethereal dough.





The prix fix dessert presented a tough choice between Tarte Tatin and a well presented and well kept cheese (Chaource). No prizes to guess what we chose:





Service was extremely well organised, relaxed and, as we said, charming: a very smooth machine. Compared to their cousins at Windows, while also formally attired they tend to create a less formal atmosphere.


This place reminds us a little bit, for the style of cuisine, of Koffmann’s, although, to our taste, not quite at the same stupendous level. We wouldn’t say it is an ultimate destination or worth regular long trips, but it is worth trying once if you are far, and worth returning if you are close. Here kitchen, Front of House and ambiance combine seamlessly to yield a pleasant, relaxing experience. We spent around £150 including very well made coffees, water, an a la carte and a prix fix menu, and a wine in the forties. Having ended on the high note of excellent espressos and petit four, we are indeed tempted to return for the tasting menu.





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The Peat Inn (Fife)

We’ve been more than a few times at the Peat Inn, first reviewed here.


To understand why this is one the most appealing restaurants we know, look, for example, from our last Summer visit, at the  neatness of presentation of this Lobster Thermidore (a starter): the plate is clean, the precious juices and moisture all contained within the shell. The cooking is the most precise we’ve encountered in our Thermidore eating career: the sauce not overpowering but merely supporting the soft, delicate, succulent meat. The dark chips layered on the right provide a touch of textural variety. This is what we would call restrained class (it isn’t nice to make comparisons, but we have to say that this offering is on a different level of cuisine even compared to our very good recent Scottish experiences at Ondine and The Honours), which in the end defines this restaurant.

The other starter was a stunner, too, but very different, going for a wider palette of flavours and colours. Here we have a pea and ham pannacotta with a ham hock bon bon and a quail egg.

There are so many layers of flavour and textures and details and ingredients in this simple looking dish that it’s hard to tell. So we won’t tell but merely assure you the result is amazing – to save time just be amazed, enjoy the colours, and try to imagine!

We also had our first Grouse of the season, here in the rich and powerful sauce that this meat wants. On a ‘gameiness scale’ we would say this was in the middle, quite gentle and hence, we think, acceptable also to more delicate palates – it’s a matter of personal preferences but we could cope with more extreme versions and uses of the innards…(so far in the season the gold medal belongs to this guy). In terms of cooking, look at the brown outside, memory of flavour-giving high heat, and at the pink inside, and you get an idea of the satisfaction for the game-lover.



A dish of veal cooked in two ways (roasted rump and braised shin) is not only very accomplished,

 

but it also hides a lovely, lovely tomato sauce in the middle, redolent of Italian flavours, that we of course very much appreciated…Look also at all the small details in the dish – as ever, the more you look the more you discover – rarely here a dish of X is a mere dish of X, it’s more like a minute construction around a core.


We would have wanted to choose the entire dessert list, so enticing it read, but we limited ourselves to these two:


A beautiful Eton Mess, with its crunchy, bright white meringue in which once again neatness of presentation (Chef Smeddle, who definitely has a bent for neatness, clearly cannot tolerate a mess even in an Eaton Mess…) and balance reigned supreme,

 

and a creamed vanilla rice pudding with peach compote, frosted hazelnuts and a peach sorbet (which can be served either cold or warm – the rice pudding, that is 🙂 ). Imagine comfort food at its most refined, richly velvety yet elegant and light; this is it!


While Scotland is graced with several truly excellent restaurants, where highly talented chefs ably handle the marvellous Scottish produce, for us none of them quite matches the unique combination of charm, comfort, great cuisine and class-without-stiffness in service that one can enjoy at the Peat Inn. It is just our kind of high-end restaurant with a human face, not to mention the best value for money (no doubt a base but not unimportant dimension…) all round. That’s why we’ll be back here again, and again, and again, and we hope that even higher recognitions will be added to an already impressive record.


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