Au Valet de Coeur

The day: 30th December 2008, Dinner.
The place: 40 route de Ste-Marie-aux-Mines F-68150 RIBEAUVILLE (tel: +33 (0)3 89736414)
The venue: Restaurant Au Valet de Coeur, Hostel ‘La Pepiniere’.
The food: French
The drinks: Adequate for a starred French venue, interesting wine-menu pairings at €25, 32, 40.

For the second year in a row family events prevent us from taking a proper break over the Winter holidays. But on the road back to London we allow ourselves one treat: driving along the axis Basel-Strasbourg, just past Colmar (where we stayed last year), we turn straight towards the freezing Vosges forests and, upwards on the icy road next to the charming village of Ribeauville’, we find this hotel restaurant. As we notice not infrequently in our pilgrimages to Alsace, the restaurant seems to be one step ahead of the attached hotel in terms of comfort and overall quality. With its Michelin star, and given the excellent levels of Alsatian cuisine, we are expecting a bloody good dinner! There is a religious pilgrimage route nearby in case we want to expiate our sins later (but there is also a ‘cremant’ wine maker almost in front of the route, making for a hard choice, or an intriguing combination).

The décor is warm, in light brown and white tones, pleasant, unpretentious and varied, with several areas in the large room and the (slightly corny to be fair) ‘heart’ motif all around, even in the butter on the table. The tables are very comfortable and well-spaced. The jovial Maitre d’ adds to the sense of comfort.

Several menus are on offer, from the largest 6 course tasting menu at €85, to the 4 course ‘Menu decouverte’ at €65, to the 3 course ‘Menu saveur’ at €45. And a ‘Menu du marche’ at €33.50 features on weekday evenings and Saturday lunches. A la carte choices afford less good value, with starters at €25-35 and mains at €29-38, and with some items only available in the set menus. Had we gone a la carte, we would have tried the ‘Cour de saumon mi-cuit/mi-fume, Remoulade de Celery et Caviar d’ Aquitaine, Blinis’ (€35) as a starter. For mains, we’d been happy with our set menu which you’ll see in a minute.

We go for the Menu Decouverte (€65), and we begin with a little snack of puff pastry with poppy and sesame seeds, or topped with some kind of bechamelle sauce and lardons:

Well, not your average Gregg’s offering, these are high levels of bakery.
And the bread rolls are already expecting us:

Beautiful to look at (again the corny heart motif), excellent taste, made with strong flour as we like it, and really well made. Good start, if they can make Man and Woman happy about the bread!

And an amouse bouche:

A salmon mousse, St. Jacques on a mousse of green veggies, and a chestnut mousse. The cold salmon mousse regales a surprising sweetness, and is bodily, buttery, rich and compact, satisfying. Equally pleasing is the scallop, also cold, with a peppery punch that Man appreciates more than Woman, who finds it close to overpowering. As for the chestnuts, we detect potatoes in the warm, delicate and airy combination. We must say that this beginning already reveals an assured hand, with clear flavours, variety and seasoning judgement.

Our starters:

– Raviole de Foie Gras de Canard a la Farine de Chataigne dans un Bouillon Corse’.
– Delicate gelee de Crabe Royale, Creme de Crustaces et Harenga.

The foie gras is intense, carried by the delicate bouillon with sweet fine carrots in abundance. We appreciate the good texture of the chestnut ravioli, while the truffle is more of a decoration. This is a good dish but not altogether convincing: most of the work is really done by the great foie gras, with the rest adding little and not integrating appropriately, in our judgement.
But the Gelee…the gelee is on a different level of cuisine, the technique presenting us with a sumptuous multitude of flavours (the crab is dominant –it’s a king after all- but the lobster mousse/cream and the non-salty jelly are a very valid support) and a ravishing soft-solid consistency: this is an occasion where richness (mayonnaise is present) comes with absolute balance and lightness, leaving on the palate a satisfied sense of freshness. This is haute cuisine.

Next we have:

– Maree du jour accomodee selon l’Inspiration du Chef
– Le Baeckeoffe de Homard Gratine’ aux Poireaux

The ‘fish according to the chef inspiration’ is an Atlantic seabass on risotto and a creamy lobster reduction. Fresh and cooked perfectly (‘crispissimo’ on the skin and moist inside) and sitting on a pleasant risotto ‘cake’ which also has a crispy outer layer, still the fish is slightly inexpressive on the palate. The rice is a tad over (Woman here unusually sterner than Man on risotto), but as Italians we’ll always say that in France… The lobster reduction is, conversely, fantastic, providing a backbone of pungent burnt flavour. A very sound dish where once again several cooking skills converge.
The beackaoffe is, as you know, a traditional Alsatian casserole, typically a rustic dish which here the chef offers instead in an ennobled and sophisticated version, with lobster instead of, for example, game. The result is totally convincing: the lobster is simply wonderful and cooked just so, held together by a texturally interesting eggy quiche-like filling with leeks adding vegetable depth. Another definite hit.

What delights. We arrive to the main mains:

– Dos de Cochon de lait Laque’, Boudin maison et Pomme de Terre Ecrasee a la Fourchette
– Pigeonneau en croute Feuilletee aux Choux Vert et Foie Gras

Oooh: In the eye-pleasing pork dish we encounter the first (and only) serious cooking flaw of the evening: it’s rather dry (remember: this is moist suckling pig, so it takes a real error to dry it up). A pity, because the rest is perfect, its flavour, its elegant ‘laque’ exterior, the exemplary reduction. And the potato and boudin ‘cake’ is to scream for, rich and velvety and decadent, a punch of strong traditional cuisine flavours classily reinterpreted.
And talking about potent flavours… the foie gras stuffing in the pigeon, which you reach after going through a pretty and texture-wise very apt ‘puff pastry’ enveloping the juicy, tender bird, is an explosion (notice the similarity of this dish with what we had here) that calls for even more screams of contentment. All accompanied by an excellent Savoy cabbage. What a movingly good dish!

And we have come to the desserts:

– Baba au vieux Rhum, Crème legere et Minestrone de Fruits Exotiques
– Carre’ Chocolat Grand Cru, Glace vanille’

For the baba’ we have a conceptual disagreement with the Chef…We appreciate the humour of the deconstruction, serving the (excellent) rhum and (equally excellent) vanilla mousse separated: but for us the pleasure of baba’ has always been and always will remain that of the rhum enveloping your palate at the first, soft bite. So we’d say this is a deconstruction too far. This aside, there’s also a problem with the baba’ itself which, while good in flavour, is inelastic and (of course) dry and heavy. The ‘minestrone’ is, however most tasty and welcome.
No such problems with the other dessert: accompanied by a fine vanilla icecream, stunning chocolate and masterful technique combine to create a ravishing, marvellously beautiful cake: you go through the several layers (the chocolate ‘ganache’ covering, the chocolate mousse, some thin praline layer, the jelly/chocolate cream, the white chocolate) and…you dream.

To conclude, the petit four:

They are all very pleasant, the almond madeleine, the hazelnut praline – especially fine is the jammy density of the apricot jelly, and we also like very much the sort of chocolate brownie, which is lighter than a brownie.

(We prefer to forget this…

…just look at it! And that heart shape again, this is begining to be a little obsessive)

We said we went for the Menu Decouverte. In fact, to be precise, we went for a ‘Formule carte blanche’ (€250) which included a night in a large room for two, the Discovery menu for two, and the €25 wine paring plus water – so let’s say our dinner for two all inclusive cost €180, well deserved for the quality and quantity we experienced (the wines we tried were a Muscat d’Alsace, a Riesling 2006, a Vouvray 2006 and a Haut Medoc 1998, all nice, especially the Medoc – Chateaux Hantellan).

The service was smooth, correct, less rigid and more human than can be the case in French venues.
As you have seen we enjoyed a great dinner. Chef Christophe Cavelier is not God and does make the occasional mistake (and we even had our ‘conceptual’ problems!) but the variety of perfectly executed and conceived dishes he put in front of us, with very strong, powerful but at the same time balanced and clear flavours, always classically and elegantly presented, must make this one of the best examples of cuisine in Alsace. Not an innovative cuisine, one deeply rooted in tradition but also in a profound technique and cooking mastery, thanks to which heartiness is married to modern criteria of lightness. The menu itself was also nicely designed. And after you are satiated, the choice is yours: a religious pilgrimage, a peaceful walk in the steep woods, or a visit to the sparkling wine maker. Whatever you prefer, we recommend that you go to the Valet du Coeur!


Wandering in Mayfair…

…maybe after an exhausting shopping day, or maybe just because you’re lucky enough to live there, you may stumble in one of our favourite Italian restaurants in London. We’ve had several delightful dinner at Semplice (fully reviewed here). On the last occasion in December, just before our non-holiday, we tried, for example, these memorable pheasant ravioli with potato sauce

To non-Italians such a type of dish may look overly rich in carbs, and while this might well be the case in pure dietary terms (not that it has harmed us so far)…on the palate there is really no sense of imbalance, the dense, starchy texture and sweet aroma of the potato sauce forming a really apt ligature for the freshly made pasta and the fragrant game filling.

And just to keep our carb intake at our needed levels for the night…we were also blown away by this perfect execution

of egg Sedanini with venison ragout in a black cabbage sauce. The picture and the colour perhaps convey something of the depth of flavour of a properly made pasta and ragout. This is a dish of both heartiness and composure.

They say at Semplice that the pasta is made every day. Opinions split as to whether one can really detect the difference between pasta made on the day and pasta that has been frozen (as most Italian restaurants, even the best, normally do, for obvious logistics reasons). At home we regularly freeze the excess pasta we make. Be that as it may, we merely underscore the integrity and conviction of a restaurant where such laborious practices are followed.

At the end of the meal (which also included a lot of proteins, e.g. in the form of this mouthwatering beast (do take a guess at what it is):

we are treated to a sample of a semi-hard cheese from the Val Brembana, with a nice brioche

whose one thousand aromas blew us away. This is ‘alpeggio’ cheese: made from milk of cows grazing on pastures at altitude in the Alps: and it does make a difference! The Italian cheese list at Semplice is probably the most interesting in London (together with the one here), worth a trip on its own if you want to learn about Italian cheeses.

Semplice have now expanded to a nearby ‘Trattoria’, where simpler food is served in a more informal setting: more on this story later!

By the way, they have just received a Michelin star: congratulations to Marco Torri and all his staff.

Ristorante Semplice on Urbanspoon

Chapter One

The day: 26th July 2008, Dinner.
The place: Farnborough Common, Locksbottom Kent BR6 8NF (tel. 01689 854 848)
The venue: Chapter One
The food: modern Anglo-French
The drinks: Good list, good range of prices, mainly French, also by the glass and half bottle.

When you read the address, you think it must be impossibly far. But we trust technology, and indeed it takes us about only 45 minutes to drive there from East London, with the Blackwall tunnel and all. We blindly follow the machine’s instructions, twisting and turning in unknown areas of the great capital, and we finally get to an obviously wealthy and leafy suburb. There is the elegant and very spacious room of Chapter 1. The place is heaving with customers.

We don’t like seating in small square tables a micron away from our neighbours’.

The waiter leads us to a small square table a micron away from our neighbours’.

But…thanks to the wintry wind blowing from a blasting air conditioner – what can we do, we like to be hot in summer-, we are upgraded or downgraded, depending how you see it, to a larger round table in a corner. There is a noisy party in the vicinities, true, but it’s nearing the end, as we guess from the demeanour of some customers…This is the aftermath:

Tables are well appointed, with proper tablecloth in the stark and elegant interior, with white walls. Mind you, ‘ambience’ here is taken perhaps a step too far, and it is dark, so it is not entirely our fault if you cannot see much from the picture.

The menu offers are eight starters to choose from, and as many mains. And for the Italians among you, as is quite common outside Italy you will find “primi” both in the starters (Risotto of girolles and green peas with crème fraiche and parmesan) and the mains (Roast gnocchi with asparagus, pickled girolles, artichokes, rocket and parmesan foam) sections, the difference in position presumably depending on the portion size. The pricing structure is easy, 3 courses for £29.50, however some dishes come with a supplement, e.g. add £3.50 if you want seared diver caught scallops with cod brandade, cauliflower purèe and a light curried veloute’ as starter, or £5.95 for the Poached rump of Welsh black beef, white onion purèe, ragout of salsify, Jersey Royals and foie gras with Bordelaise sauce as a main.

Bread comes in two types, brown or white: there is a ‘bottomless plate’ policy, but to be fair this is nothing to write home about (just to remind you how intolerably picky we are with bread):

We decide to begin with:

– ravioli of lobster and king prawn with spiced white cabbage and a veloute of lobster and cognac (£3.95 supplement);

– Mussel saffron soup with a paysanne of root vegetables

The Mussel and saffron soup was generous, with twelve buttery, juicy mussels floating in a delicate soup. Unfortunately, though, they were not as flavoursome as their appearance and texture suggested: some of the flavour had infused the soup, but the rest might have been evaporated somewhere up in ether; anyhow wherever it was, it was not in our plate. The (parsley) too had suffered a similar fate, and where was the full saffron fragrance? Overall, a pleasant and correct soup, but not wowing.

The lobster and king prawn ravioli was on an altogether different level: quite stupendous, with the sweet, smoky scent and flavour of the cognac issuing a nice punch to this thick, rich, velvety and balanced ravioli bursting with seafood and flavour. Here, too, a little problem though: the “raviolO” ending is not a grammatical mistake, you do indeed get just a single specimen all alone in that whole wide plate…

But hey, no time to linger, the mains are already upon us:

– Poach and roasted quail with foie gras, smoked bacon, braised red cabbage and raisin juice;

– Braised breast of lamb with roast new season Welsh canon, confit garlic, tomato, artichoke and lamb juice

The quail is fantastic, the saltiness and fat of the bacon wrapping exalting the quail and matching perfectly the sweetness from the red cabbage and the raisin reduction. And did we tell you how sumptuous the foie gras was? Of course, with good foie gras it is very hard to go wrong, but this was a classic, a truly excellent dish expressing very robust and clear flavours.

As for the lamb, the breast had been stuffed and was covered in crusty herbs and was unbelievably tasty, while the canon (very tender loin) looked simply roasted and was so tender and moist and succulent. There is a sense in which this is similar in conception to the quail dish: the richness of the meat fat and the sweetness of the accompanying vegetables. A marvellous ‘simple’ dish, harmonious, with deep and memorable flavours, and very beautiful… if you could see it, that is 😉.

Finally, the third course of our menu:

– Pave of Valrhona chocolate, sugared pistachio, honey comb and caramelised pear purèe;

– Banoffi pie

Man is a bit resentful of the sugar on the pistachio, muttering that it would be oh so much better to get some good pistachios from Bronte, say, and let them speak unhindered by the sugar. The mousse is just fine. Oh but wait, the pear puree is beautifully intense, surely the best component in the dish. And the dark chocolate “cannolo” with white chocolate stuffing is a serious contender for attention, too.

The Banoffee: the banana-and-toffee bit is nice and served in a parfait kind of form. But the absolute showstopper must be the chocolate ice-cream. Easily one of the best we have ever had. Ever. We cannot swear it was the best, but if perfection exists, this came close to it: it was almost moving. And what more does Man make of this? Who knows, the petit four arrive even before the dessert dishes are taken away. But they are beautiful, have a look:

We skip coffee as usual, so with water at £3.00, a half bottle of white Tamaya Sauvignon blanc 2006 at £9 and half a bottle of Domaine de Coyeaux Cote du Rone, Beaumes de Venise 2003 at £15.50, our overall total came to 101.76 (which includes the optional 12.5% gratuity and the £3.95 supplement for the raviolO), just around our £100 rule.

Service was courteous, correct, but too fast (though we seem to have been unlucky, as the front room line is to offer a relaxed service, as we discover later chatting away with the charming and impressive manager Laurent Gillis). Save for our usual mean nitpicking, we had a great dinner, with top ingredients, skilfully prepared to bring the best out of them. Andrew McLeish is clearly a very accomplished chef who is able to express great personality and deliver direct, potent flavours in his relatively simple (but how much skill in them!) dishes. And he must run his kitchen (a brigade of eleven) like clockwork to serve food of this quality, at this pace, for a large number of covers. To go back to nitpicking for a second…we cannot fail to note that portions, let’s face it, are rather mean. The philosophy reminds us (very vaguely) of places like Arbutus: offer very well executed fine cuisine, and keep the costs down to the minimum by limiting the freebies as much as your customers can tolerate (but unlike Arbutus, here you have proper tablecloths, proper service, petit fours and an elegant ambience), skipping amuse bouche, and above all driving portions down to the minimum. Some items are used repeatedly in the dishes (the roasted gnocchi, the ratte potatoes, the artichokes), and supplements are attached to several dishes. Nevertheless, we did have a splendid time, and, sadly for our waistlines, we have added Chapter One to the short list of those fine establishments that we hope we will be returning to. We suspect the star McLeish lost a couple of years ago will return, too.

(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us – they have just awarded a star to Chapter One)



The day: 2nd August 2007, Dinner.
The place: 9-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ (020-7495 1509)

The venue: Ristorante Semplice
The food: Fine Italian Dining

The drinks: Carefully chosen list, Italian based, wide range of prices starting from the teens, also by the glass.

Ristorante Semplice opened just last March in Mayfair: Chef Marco Torri is in the kitchen, while Giovanni Baldino and his team man the front room. We had never been here before, but we knew we would feel comfortable, almost at home: manager Giovanni Baldino and his team were those who took care of us during their time at our fave Latium.

We confess that we’ve always found Baldino’s charm irresistible. But before entering the restaurant Man and Woman looked into each other’s eyes and made a solemn pact that, despite the regrettable lack of the usual anonymity, they had to be brutally honest in this review as in all others – no matter how well they would treat us, we would just relay the facts as they were, and most of all scrutinise the flavours in our dishes through a fine comb, as always.

So let’s begin…
The interior, a single room divided in two by a wood panelled wall, is an elegant affair of cream, gold and dark ebony brown. Its far from neutral tones however are sure to hurt the visual sensitivity of others. Some tables are rather close to one another, other less so. We were given the choice between a table tightly crammed in a row of other tables, and one with acres of space around, next to the central wall. Surprisingly we went for the latter (with the added bonus that, the level of noise in most UK restaurants being a problem for us, the wall provided excellent protection). Above is a view from the table.

We were welcomed by an excellent glass of Franciacorta spumante: can you believe it, an Italian restaurant that favours Italian spumante over French Champagne, how very peculiar…but apparently somebody disagrees (we prefer not to take up the xenophobic slant of your review of Semplice, as we just cannot take seriously somebody that hails Sardo as a beacon of Italian cuisine in London… ).

Tsk tsk, no bread basket: as you know, not a way to win our hearts…but assistant manager Vito Nardelli assured us we had a ‘bottomless plate’, so no need to hoard our focaccia crumbs here. The bread comes with a little plate of deeply aromatic olive oil from Campania.

The menu is reasonably long and rather enticing, with starters from the £7.50 of chickpea soup with quails and lardo di Colonnata to the £10.50 of e.g. Fassona beef carpaccio, primi in the £7.50-£9.50 range (unless you want to go for Lobster trofie, in which case you are looking at £15) and main courses in the £14.50-£19 range. Just for the fun of it, we note that the most expensive item of the menu is still well below the £28 that Theo Randall charges for his chargrilled Limousin veal chops with chantarelle mushrooms and salsa verde.

While waiting, a welcome from the kitchen: a caprese with Buffalo mozzarella:

The mozzarella was luxuriantly milky as fresh mozzarella should be, the cherry tomatoes at the same time sweet and tangy: delicious.

Next, our primi arrive:

– Buffalo ricotta ravioli with spinach and toasted hazelnuts from Piedmont (special of the day, £10.50)

– Pesto filled potato gnocchi with pine nuts and green beans (£7.50).

The ricotta ravioli: this is a very simple dish, and a bit of a provocation, in the same spirit of Theo Randall’s tomato sauce pasta. The kind of simple dish you can easily assemble at home, so here too we were curious to see how the chef would pull it off. Well, with great success: the butter sauce was light, with the toasted hazelnuts a perfect valet for her Majesty ricotta (really good), at the same time delicate and flavoursome, enriching the consistency and flavour spectrum without obtruding. We thought back of Randall’s muted performance the previous week, and the comparison was a little shameful for the celebrity…

The gnocchi: Man, of Ligurian birth, is always ready to be moved by pesto preparations (and by potato gnocchi al pesto in particular, having spent countless hours in his childhood rolling Granny’s gnocchi on a fork to give them the typical indentations); but also unremittingly severe in his judgements…Well, no indentations here, the gnocchi were giant specimens, ‘gnocconi’ more than gnocchi. Anyway they were delightful, the flavours true and clear, and the dense condiment a nice match. They were filled with an intensely perfumed pesto, and accompanied by toasted pine nuts (conferring an unusual taste variation to the pesto, as uncooked pine nuts are one of its basic ingredients) and very fine green beans, another ingredient appearing in classical ‘pasta al pesto’.

Next, the secondi. We asked for:

– Roast and pan-fried rabbit with carrots and broad beans (£17.50)

– Grilled breast of duck with aubergines, aged balsamic vinegar and soy sauce (£16).

The duck breast came colourfully presented (though the presentation can be improved), cut ‘book leaf’ style with the meat interspersed with unadvertised avocado slices, and sitting on the roasted aubergine. Mr Baldino himself poured the 25 year old balsamic vinegar on the meat at the table. We were impressed (Man particularly) by this interesting and original dish. Soy, though we personally use it extensively at home, is certainly not a common ingredient in Italian cuisine. We have also not seen avocado too often in Italian restaurants. And the combination of soy and balsamic was rather audacious – damn, at home we have used both soy and balsamic vinegar on avocado, but never together: why didn’t we ever think of it ourselves? The combination worked well, the meat was good and cooked nicely, perhaps only the aubergine seeming not to add very much to the combination.

The real show-stopper, however, was the rabbit. All of it was in the plate (well, its representative parts), including innards, elegantly presented in various preparations: the shoulder first slow-cooked separately, then wrapped in the lightest of fillo pastries; the leg breaded and pan fried together with a bit of liver; the saddle smothered in an excellent reduction, with bits of liver and of lungs. The rabbit itself was excellent, the technique behind it impeccable and the end result stirring.

If you want, you can finish your meal with an interesting selection of cheeses from Piedmont, mainly coming from small producers using ‘alpeggio’ milk (produced by animals grazing on high valleys in the Alps and of unparalleled aromatic richness – we had quite a bit of it in Trentino). It must be the most impressive in London (though the one at Quirinale was remarkable too). But we, cholesterol conscious saddos that we are, decide to pass on this treasure for this time.

A little detour arrives:

Basil sorbet: very refreshing, very aromatic.
Finally, our ‘real’ dessert: apple fritters with cinnamon custard (in the cup) and apple jelly (£6.50 – desserts go from £6 to £8)

The Custard was extremely airy, contrasting the much more ‘bodily’ apple fritters, all underlined by the apple jelly: a superb and cutely presented little dish. And as if this was not enough, petit four: ‘baci di dama’ and intriguing chocolate.

We had let the team do the wines, by the glass (a Vermentino, a Chardonnay and the only one we remember properly…two glasses of 2004 red Maclan from Veneto – Cabernet and Merlot), and we also had two glasses of excellent Passito di Pantelleria (£8 on the list). The rather rare 1 litre bottle of water goes for £3.50. Even without the ‘caress’ (Italian expression) which shaved our bill considerably, our three course meal bill still would have just met the £100 rule mark including (12.5%) service and wine.

The service bears all the hallmarks of Giovanni Baldino’s style: impeccable, friendly, supple and attentive without being intrusive. Sure, that night we were spoiled rotten: but even without such treatment this is the type of establishment that makes anybody want to come back. A strong emphasis is put on the sourcing of ingredients, all of superb quality. Chef Torri’s style, with his clean execution, relatively straightforward and restrained but peppered up by the occasional bold move, is a very good support for raw material that also wants speak for itself. Of course, sitting just off New Bond street, in this part of the world you would think it must be more expensive than establishments of comparable quality (at least in THEOry): but compare and contrast with e.g. Arbutus and Theo Randall: there we had to take at least a mixture of lunchtime specials to meet our £100 rule, here you can do so by going a la carte (and the lunch menu here is £15 for two course and £18 for three). Overall, this is one the very best and authentic expressions of Italian cuisine in London, where real passion for the food conjures up a true dining experience for the gourmet. Well done, Semplice.

(Added on 18 January 2009: Michelin agreed with us – Semplice have just been awarded their star).