Cambio de Tercio (London): Tapas!

(Visited July 2012)



  (Added 23/09/12: see our much more negative more recent experience)

Trying to liven up a grey London Summer day with some Spanish fire…

Here we are at Cambio de Tercio, for an all-tapas lunch that was pleasant, in a relaxed and straightforward way, a series of  colorful and balanced dishes, dishes with a clear personality that also showed culinary skill and interest in presentation. Like these beetroots:


And there were some particularly striking dishes that went beyond pleasant: the Gazpacho Andaluz, vividly coloured, fresh and intense, refined by the presence of a lovely bogavante (lobster),



the pulpo a la Gallega, very soft, plump, in a luscious potato cream (we’ve had far rougher versions in Galicia: this was classy cooking),



and the tomatoes 8-hour cooked in Pedro Ximenes with a basil ‘tartare’, the tomatoes a delicious concentration of sweet flavour, the tartare (spherified basil) once again providing the touch that elevates this dish far above rustic or home-made



We accompanied the meal with an excellent fino,



at the same time rounder and more structured than the most popular supermarket brands (which we also find perfectly pleasant, by the way).



The prices are very reasonable, with pretty large tapas from £6-7 to £12 for the most luxurious ingredients, and mains (which we didn’t  have) in the £15-£20 range. You can easily have a satisfactory lunch for £30 or so if you choose well. We are told that it can get very busy here at dinner or in certain periods, but on this occasion there were just a few tables, well attended to by an efficient and attentive waitress.

Spanish cuisine is one of the most appealing in the world and London is lucky to have such a good representation of it at Cambio de Tercio, a place where there is evident care for ingredient quality and expert treatment of them. If we lived at reasonable distance, we’d be there often.


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L20 (Chicago)

(Visited: July 2012)

After a week of OK to mediocre to frankly quite vile eating in Evanston, IL, for work, we decided that on our last night we deserved something with that je ne sais quoi… so off we go to Chicago.


As soon as you enter L20 (of illustrious multi-starred fame, currently holding 1* Michelin under chef  Matthew Kirkley) you realise you are not in an ordinary place. The low lighted room is modern, cool and grand, yielding a sense of oriental calm, open yet affording a multitude of environments at the large, well spaced tables (there also an inviting separate tatami room).

There’s a four course a la carte selection ($120) and two tasting menus, one ‘basic’ (a manner of speaking as we shall see) at $150 and one luxury (called ‘Singular’) at $180. Not in the mood for choosing tonight, we go for both.


This time we won’t comment on each individual dish and let some photos do most of the talking, but here are the menus we had: they deserve reading because they make clear the interest for seafood ingredients that characterises L20:

turbot • ceps, champagne, brown butter, parsley

‘Basic’ tasting menu

  • ahi tuna tartare • avocado, caviar
  • mussels • clams, corn, zucchini, lardo
  • agnolotti • artichoke, ricotta, clarified barigoule
  • bouillabaisse • scorpion fish, daurade, mussels, fennel, tomato confit
  • lamb loin • zucchini lattice, sweetbreads, squash blossom
  • lemon tart • rhubarb, basil
  • grand marnier soufflé • orange
lamb loin • zucchini lattice, sweetbreads, squash blossom

  

Singular Tasting menu
  • Maryland blue crab en gelée • fennel cream, basil
  • grilled abalone • royale of sweet corn, black truffle, chorizo
  • turbot • cepes, champagne, brown butter, parsley
  • st. pierre • foie gras, cabbage, matelote
  • 28-day dry aged ribeye • lobster, spring onion, brioche, civet
  • fromage blanc • apple, calvados caramel
  • praline soufflé • hazelnut anglaise
grilled abalone • royale of sweet corn, black truffle, chorizo

 Every dish was a pretty composition, executed with great precision, on a foundation of classical techniques and little space for all-too-obvious modern pyrotechnics, the flavours complex but clean, tending to the subtle and restrained rather than ‘in your face’: real class.

Maryland blue crab en gelée • fennel cream, basil

Hard to choose in that feast, but two dishes especially will stand out in our memory. The ahi tuna tartare, 

ahi tuna tartare • avocado, caviar

the first item from the basic menu, made us understand early on how modestly described the dishes are, concealing the amount of work they embody: the tartare was encased in a beautiful and minutely constructed avocado sphere, the feel on the palate luscious, the caviar not merely a thrown in standard addition but a fundamental element to elevate the dish. 


And the ribeye with lobster from the luxury menu, with the ribeye glazed with soy and the stunning combination of flavours from the excellent produce, took our breath away.

28-day dry aged ribeye • lobster, spring onion, brioche, civet

But tonight, really, everything was masterful. And judging from the quality of the beef and lamb, the impression is that if this seafood specializing venue transformed itself into a meat restaurant it would be no less impressive.

lemon tart • rhubarb, basil

The only minor negative was that, for our taste, the meal lasted too long. This is a bit of a place for special occasions (and they see themselves in that way), given the complexity of the experience and the investment in time and money needed – the wine list is expensive too (how lucky we could have no alcohol that night….). It would be nice if they also gave food lovers the chance of returning for multiple visits of a less demanding nature.

Service was, from booking to final greetings, one of the most professional we’ve seen (only margin for improvement is in the description of the dishes, which should be slightly less rushed).


What struck us in the cooking style tonight was how thoroughly logical it was, every element in the dish having a clear function, and the lack of pointless, childish gimmicks despite the high techniques used. A sober style that we very much appreciated. After dinner we had the chance of seeing the lengths they go to to source top quality seafood: in the enormous kitchen they have huge tanks with live Abalone clams and Brittany lobsters, and the fridge was full of fantastic FedExed fish from Europe. This was very impressive, mature top level cooking, that makes L20 an obligatory stop for gourmets in Chicago and beyond.


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Kai of Mayfair (London)

(Visited: April 2012)

(Note: a more recent visit is described here)

Venturing in money-oozing Mayfair, here are some quick comments from memory about a recent lunch at one of the local institutions, the upscale Chinese Kai. 



This an expensive restaurant for dinner, and we are not sure whether the experience justifies the prices, but the lunch option is very approachable and very good value at £27 for three courses (£39 with matching wines).

For some reason (perhaps some negative review read and forgotten but lingering in the subconscious) we didn’t have high  expectations, but we were positively surprised by the quality of the produce and of the cuisine.

Slow cooked pork belly in particular was impressive for the elegant presentation, apt cooking and deep flavour lightened and lifted up by the condiment (ginger, cinnamon, soy…) by someone who clearly knows how to treat pork, oh yes he/she does, look at that sticky glistening dark colour:

Perhaps even more impressive was a ‘spice route’ lobster (£12 supplement, deserved), the spices a a complex affair that yet respected, and indeed formed an elegant flavour robe for, the good produce:

Whoever the chef is, he/she can strike several chords, not only powerful grand flavours: a starter of Loh Bak Goh Turnip cake was ever so airily crispy and fresh and cleanly presented, a delight to eat.

So was the other starter, a crispy duck that is definitely not your local Chinese version (well, unless you live in Mayfair, that is):

Desserts were quite good too, with an intriguing 6 textures of chocolate and peanuts

 

and a not earth-shattering, but pleasant and waistline-friendly almond curd with fresh fruit:

Service varied from charming to uninterested to poor. Houston, you’ve got a serious problem in this department. The wine waitress (an Italian) was particularly incompetent. She didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell us, the optional matching wines. She only assured us that she would tell us at some point before serving. This was already quite incredible and bad enough, but after a few minutes she was trying to fill Man’s glass, without showing the wine bottle, and with no word of explanation. We’ll spare you the tense exchange that ensued… the conclusion is that no blood was spilled but we had tea, which  was excellent. 

And aside from the matching wines, the prices of wine on the list really go too far in their aiming at the superwealthy Mayfairites:  tea looks like a better option.

Well, no single dud dish today, and a couple of impressive ones. And at £27 in Mayfair! We were satisfied with the food at Kai. Compared with Yauatcha, for example, this is a more stayed, less hip but also more elegant experience. Mayfair vs Soho, you understand. So satisfied were we in fact that we left with the intention of trying, at some point, the more wallet-busting, but also even more ambitious, dinner menu.

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Alkimia

The day: 10 November 2009, Dinner.
The place: Industria 79, Barcelona
The venue: Alkimia

Closest Airport: Barcelona (BA, Easyjet), Girona (Ryanair)
The food: Modern Spanish

The drinks: Strong on Spanish with some very strong international

This is the first of two starred experiences in a chilly and beautiful November Barcelona. Semiformal, young and English speaking service greets you at the entrance of the stark, modern, elegant room. Behind the stoves, chef Jordi Vilà.

We order a €35 Priorat and the wine waitress asks us whether we have noticed the section at the end of the wine list, which contains the ‘top wines’. Let’s have a look. Mmhh, prices ranging from a handful of hundred euro bills to teens of hundreds. Does she really think we can suddenly change our mind? Yes, she does. Man jokingly orders a €1,700 Pommerol and then has to frantically stop the obliging sommelier who in all seriousness was going for the bottle.

Of the two available menus, both tasting, we are forced to choose the shorter because of the lack of capacity in our stomachs. Unfortunately this is also the one designated ‘traditional’, but with chef Jordi Vilà it is always going to be a very modern traditional.

We begin with the famous and many-times pictured amuse bouche of Alkimia: tomato water with breadcrumbs, the glass covered by a thin slice of fuet (a Catalan sausage).

We want to compete in the category ‘worst picture’ (there weren’t the conditions to use a flash), but please do not be put off: it is a high note of pure concentrated flavours and fun cooking, setting high expectations indeed.

Yet, our dinner will be ups and downs (even if ups and downs always remaining at a very, very accomplished level of cooking).

There is a vein of true genius in this cuisine, with a sense of adventure that we really appreciate and admire. A veloute’ of Jerusalem artichokes with root vegetables was amusingly presented (the tips of the roots which one would normally throw away emerging from the liquid) and wonderful, as were the cauliflowers in two ways (pickled and pureed) accompanying our monkfish fish.


It is a cuisine that can split opinions: Man thought a sorbet of lychees wonderfully complex, with a resinous jelly adding a further dimension; whereas Woman found the jelly ‘medicinal’.

But we agreed that, to our subjective taste, there were sometimes hiccups and also, we have to say, some occasional heavy-handedness and seasoning excess, a certain lack of balance, of precision, and of attention to details. We found several chicken bones, large and small, in the gorgeous chicken cannelloni (more on them below). The sauce of a wonderful and nicely cooked suckling veal was really too concentrated.


There were different cookings of our two pieces of monkfish (one almost raw, the other better done), and similarly for the otherwise beautiful crayfish on our rice.

A nice selection of Petit four concludes our dinner

The service
The service is correct but a bit cold, robotic and brusque from one member staff. The dishes are not described nicely but instead quickly and as if in a hurry, the cutlery almost thrown on the table (are we sooo unpleasant? Sigh). No apologies for the bones in the chicken, the menus are not explained – indeed, only later we overhear a conversation with another table from which we understand we could have gone for a shorter version of the innovative menu: surely something you should be told to begin with! The manager however, as well as the wine waitress, are helpful and courteous.

The low: the dessert
To our taste this was a mess of clashing flavours. Essentially a millefuille filled with coffee, sealed with caramel, and sitting on a lemon cream, plus a vanilla ice-cream. Picture this: you try and cut through the generally aethereal puff pastry, only now you cannot, as the caramel encasing makes it gummy. But you brave on, and the millefeuille still smirking at you, bend but does not break, till the pressure squeezes out the coffee cream, that shoots straight into the lemon sauce… well, we later discovered elsewhere (more on this story later…) that lemon and coffee can work together: but this definitely is not it, the lemon and coffee flavours were fighting, the ice-cream wasn’t sweet enough, and the caramel reduced the millefeuille to a gluey texture.


The high: Chicken cannelloni
It takes guts to serve chicken cannelloni in a fine dining restaurant, but the gamble pays off. So, despite the aforementioned bones, we nominate this the dish of the evening. With such intense and yet delicate flavours in both the hand-cut mince and in the side, soberly presented, chicken reduction with vinegar (we think), this dish also exudes a minimalist elegance that makes it an example of how a rustic combination can achieve fine dining heights. The perfect balance of that reduction also shows that this innovative chef could equally well cook classical dishes. Pity that our picture does not make justice to this beautiful dish!


The price
Now, where is that bill? Anyhow, the traditional menu we went for was priced at €58 (while the more adventurous Alkimia menu has a €74 price tag) and the wine, and considering how the pound has dived, we were confortably over our (upgraded) £110 rule, but not by far.

Conclusion
This is a restaurant to try if you are in Barcelona. The cuisine will surprise, amuse and please. But don’t expect consistency and be prepared for some disappointments.


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Da Pino

The day: 8th April 2009, Dinner.

The place: Via Postal 39, Grumo, San Michele all’ Adige, Trento (IT) (0461 650 435)

The venue: Ristorante Da Pino

The food: Regional and fish

Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)

The drinks: Mostly from Trentino-Alto Adige, very wide selection (in the high hundrdes of labels)

We thought by now we knew all the interesting choices within 10 miles of Trento. Well, life is full of surprises: how presumptuous of us! Driving along the Adige valley, in Teroldego wine country, this spacious restaurant appears in the tiny village of Grumo, with claims to honest, wholesome cuisine and boasting appealing prices.

The interior is spacious, welcoming, light, neat if a bit eccentric, with a gentle touch of formality that one might not expect. We learn later that the restaurant caters for large parties and functions. Anyway, on the night, luckily for us there are only a dozen customer beside us.


On the menu, many local, trattoria style dishes, but what catches our attention is a copious presence of seafood offerings. We call the waiter and try to glean some information (we are in the middle of mountains and to eat good seafood one really must go to the right places: Man’s disgusted grimace at Woman’s proposal to go for fish says it all…). The waiter is convincing. Woman eggs on. And we are encouraged by the information that all seafood here is supplied by a well-known fishmonger nearby, a fishmonger that serves some of the best restaurants in Trento. We go for it. (Next time we might try the Trentino tasting menu at €32, with enticing items such as Local apple risotto with cinnamon or Seared venison loin with pan-fried apples, juniper and Polenta di Storo).

The bread arrives:

Not a bad offering, indeed the variety is very surprising: walnut bread ‘taralli’, standard white, grissini, rye. The usual thought strikes us: a restaurant that shows such care for the bread basket must show a similar care for food.

Both our primi are seafood:

Thyme tonnarelli with Scampi (aka Dublin bay prawns) tails and asparagus (€10)

‘Fazzoletto’ al nero (squid-ink) with seabass filling and langoustine sauce (€10)


The fazzoletto (a large pasta slice, lasagna style, but folded) looks impressive, its elegant black dress provocatively offering a glimpse of the filling. It’s a balanced explosion of Mediterranean flavours, the fish fresh, tasty, light, and generous. The pasta is very good: the restaurant buys it in from a trusted supplier, who formerly worked on the premises. Always suspicious of bought in materials, for this reason alone we had not wanted to try this dish (Woman’s disgusted grimace at Man’s proposal to go for it says it all…), but when we expressed our perplexity to the waiter he vouched so energetically for the quality of the pasta, egged on by Man, that we capitulated. And once again he was convincing…

The tonnarelli are sligthly salty. But the fish once again cannot be faulted for freshness and flavour, nor its quantity for lack of generosity. The asparagus comes in both white and green variety, a nice touch, and the always present tomatoes add moisture. All is bound by very good quality olive oil, leaving an impression of richness and lightness at the same time.

For mains, we both go for the same choice:

Roasted seabass (€15)

For the joy of the waiter we insisted on boning the large portions of fish ourselves (which –we noticed- wasn’t the case at the other tables: what is the world coming to?).

It does not take that long to produce this:

When eating fresh fish, the process, slowing you down, actually increases your pleasure and satisfaction, don’t you agree? And this was truly fresh, full of flavour. What more to say? Well, maybe that it was a little overcooked, though mercifully just so and definitely not to the point of spoiling the experience. The roast tomatoes with capers, herbs and olives, in true ‘southern’ style (at the foot of the Alps!), were a delicious accompaniment (but very rich!).

We are in the mood for dessert.

Raspberry cake (‘tortino’) (€5)

Sweet fantasia (€6.50)


The tortino is correctly made and carries an intense, authentic raspberry whiff, but is slightly dry, so the accompanying custard, quite OK, is very welcome.

The fantasia presents us with a strawberry parfait (a little ‘brittle’), a ‘crostata’ (slightly dry), panettone-like (OK), blueberry buckwheat cake (excellent, intense, and strudel (OK, but made with puff pastry and therefore neither truly traditional nor fully successful).

With a bottle of Chardonnay LongarivaPraistel 2000 at €28 and 1 litre of H2O at €2.50 the total damage comes to €95,30. This is extremely reasonable for a seafood dinner of such quality and quantity.

What a nice little place (well, actually not so little) this one. The service is friendly with varying levels of professionalism (one knowledgeable and very passionate waiter, another less interested in the dishes he was selling us), but always attentive. As for the cuisine, it expresses a rewarding feeling of generosity, of care, both in the choice of materials and in the process of cooking itself. Despite the formality this is essentially a (superior) trattoria: you will not find highly sophisticated creations here, but plainly good food, with some touches of originality with respect to the classics, some attention to presentation, and some assuredness of touch. So, congratulations to the head chef Beppe Principe and to the family who runs this operation with such honesty and integrity (it reminds us a bit of Da Barbara in Sardinia). We will probably be back, and we invite you to try it, too!

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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!

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Au Moulin de la Wantzenau

The day: 22nd December 2008, Dinner.
The place: La Wantzenau (Strasbourg)

The venue: Au Moulin de La Wantzenau

Closest airports: Strasbourg

The food: French

The drinks: Not too long, mostly Alsace and Burgundy, on the pricey side


Yet another stop in Alsace. After our other experiences (here, here, here, and here) we are beginning to think that Alsatians restaurateurs can do no wrong, that this is a blessed culinary land where no disappointment is possible or even conceivable. Let’s try this new (for us) venue, charmingly located (together with a hotel) on the premises of an old mill (the original dating back to the 17th century).

The room is attractive, in its dominant wooden and red tones, very warm,


the mise en place showing the little touches of somebody who cares, like the dried fruit decorations on the table:

You wouldn’t expect it from the tepid welcome of the manager, who looks like a real @!&#! (Man wanted to write ‘asshole’, but fortunately Woman prevented him). What is a host doing there if he can’t even bring himself to greet the (smiling) guest? Go to sleep then! Providentially, there is also the sweet and smiling maman to put us at ease.

The a la carte menu is rather heftily priced, with entrees and mains in the twenties and thirties. Luckily, there’s plenty of set menus, ranging from €25 for the menu marché to the €65 for the full tasting menu.


We opt for:


Menu gourmet (four courses at €48)

Menu saveur et santé (flavours and health, sound interesting!), three courses at €34.


Our bread appears:


It looks wonderful, but the taste, while not poor, does not quite match the expectations. The crust is not as crispy as it could be.


Oh, a nice looking amuse bouche is placed on our table – pity that the @!&#! waiter only describes one item and then, maybe bored, leaves.


It comes in the guise of a mussel mousse with some caviar, a warm carrot cream/soup, bread with a sort of sausage inside, and a mushroom flavoured cheese cream. Very good, if a little elaborate, Man thinks: both agree on the great variety, really ‘amusing’ in the sweet-salty contrasts, in the temperatures, in the textures (liquid-mousse-cream-chunk).


The entrees for both menus arrive:


Foie gras (from the gourmet menu)

Vegetables sautéed (from the healthy menu)


The foie gras is excellent, resting on a bed of delicate stock jelly and accompanied by a warm brioche. But those little tomato cubes, tasting like potatoes: what an absurdity in December.

The simply boiled root vegetables appear a little extreme in their blandness even for a health menu. On the other hand, the pied de mouton mushrooms yield some pleasure and are well presented in a crispy crepe, with a whiff of pepper and rosemary all round (the rosemary branch is pretty but uncomfortable, thinks Woman, who has done the donkey work of clearing the spikes away by the time uncomplaining Man gets to it…). But, once again, that terrible mushy tomato!


And now the second entrée of the gourmet menu:


Dublin Bay Prawns, seabass and chanterelles.



The prawns are fine on the palate but their extreme, excessive softness makes one suspect that something untoward has happened in Dublin Bay… Again, the seabass rewards the palate, being fresh and well-seasoned, but for us it is overcooked and the skin is far from crispy (mercifully also far from completely soggy). To complete the triptych, the mushrooms, first rate but not cooked precisely and left a little watery. The boiled rice is…well, it’s boiled. Mmmh.


For mains we are treated to:


Veal (from the health menu)

Hare stuffed with fois gras (definitely from the unhealthy menu)


Is this veal really a ‘saveur et santé’ specimen? How supremely tender, succulent it is, and lifted by a great combination, the pungent reduction with the sweet vanilla pods. The topinambur (Jerusalem artichoke) puree tasted to us like celeriac, but was pleasantly fresh, as was the accompanying cabbage. And there is a strange but welcome touch of little cubes of candied orange peel. Overall, an impressive dish.

The hare and foie is not for the faint hearted. The flavours are most potent, animal, coming at you in an undisguised fierceness and richness in which you have no choice but to immerse yourself and give in: it’s not subtle, but it is very good. There no relief in the concentrated reduction, dense, salty (maybe with blood in it), but we find in an accompanying apple compote with sultanas an almost perfect match.

Nice side additions of red cabbage

and (very) buttery spatzles, too.






Finally, our desserts:

Winter fruits (from the health menu)

Pineapple with coconut sorbet (from the unhealthy menu, really!)


Here, a role reversal: the health menu looks somewhat more unhealthy than the other one, but they were both pretty good.

Cubes of what tasted like gingery pineapple with some spirit (Cointreau?) were huddled in a hulled pineapple, with a fresh coconut sorbet nesting in a hollowed passion fruit struck Man for their nice presentation. Woman, less easily swayed by a pretty face, still had to agree this was a successful dish, the coconut sorbet being particularly good. The ‘but’ comes from the fact that these same two specimens also figured in the healthy dish of winter fruits, accompanied by an endearing mango mousse (of the consistency of Italian meringue) and a very convincing plum tatin, plus assorted sliced exotic fruit (which are not really that available in Winter, except from the Equator down, but there you go). In spite of repetitions and deviations, no hesitation (note: this is for readers who follow the BBC comic radio program ‘Just a minute’): quite a satisfying way to end our meal, in fact.

Well, here is where it really ends, although the petit fours were brought before the desserts:



Meringues, aniseed biscuits, chocolate brownie, sort of gingerbread biscuit, and a ‘croccante’ with hazelnuts. Very good.

With a jug of free tap water brought with no sulks and a bottle of Pinot Noir Trimbach Reserve 2005 ‘Cuve 7’ at €32 (a little square but with personality), the total comes to a most reasonable €114.

The service was disappointing. Some of it was not the fault of the front of house: the dinner took more than three hours with very poor pacing: very annoying. But some members of the FOH contributed with some of their own. Dishes only partially described, impatience, lack of any warmth, brusque manners in laying the plates.

Well, so we have discovered that even in Alsace one can have somewhat mixed and frustrating experiences. Even putting to one side the wait and the service, which may have been the result of an off night (the place was heaving on a Monday night), the cuisine left us overall satisfied but not fully convinced. On the positive side, there was great generosity, in the portions, in the labour going into the dishes, and in the pampering extras. But there also was also unevenness, occasional cooking imprecision and heavy handedness and lapse of taste. Mind you: this was still a well above average performance, with good flavours and techniques on display, so take our criticisms as relative to the best fine dining we’ve experienced (and we will experience: more on this story later) so far in Alsace. Overall we probably would not go back given the terrific other choices in the vicinities, but we are happy to have stopped by at Le Moulin and we would definitely patronise it in less blessed culinary districts.

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L’ Autre Pied

The day: December 12th 2008, Lunch.
The place: 5-7 Blandford Street, Marylebone Village, London W1U 3DB
.
The venue: L’ Autre Pied
The food: French
The drinks: Nice, well priced and ranged selection, also in smaller sizes (glasses, 460ml pot).
(Note: Chef Marcus Eaves has moved to Pied a Terre since this review)
Let’s check this sister operation of bi-starred Pied a Terre, with Chef Marcus Eaves in command of the kitchen, before the crazed praises of the critics, the powerful patrons and public relation machine behind it, and the inevitable Michelin star bring it into the price stratosphere.
As you can see, we come in pretty cynical and disenchanted – we have learned enough by now of how things work in the restaurant business. Will we come out equally disenchated? Let’s see.
The interior is Arbutus style, minimalistic, stark, with unclothed tables (there are however pseudomats (rubber?) encased in the tables), and floral, modernist (apparently handmade) decorations on a glass partition and on the wall adding some curvy lines to the linear interior.
The menu offers several possibilities. There’s Sunday menu affording a four course lunch at £34.50. A la carte choices for the starters are in the £9-14 range and for mains in the £16-20 range. The seven course tasting menu is at £52. But there is a temptingly well priced menu du jour (lunch) and pre-theater at £21 for three course. We take advantage of another very reasonable looking three course Sunday Lunch menu for £26.50 (it also includes a complimentary Bellini
on arrival).
When we order our courses we ask the Italian waiter to take our wine order too, and we’ll be punished by the sommelier/waiter who will just place the bottle on the table without making us try it – this is a first.
The bread arrives:
Served warm and with nice butter, but really they won’t win a star for this.
For starters we had chosen:
– Caramelised onion veloute’, cannellini beans, smoked olive oil
– Lasagna of game, chanterelle mushrooms, chestnut foam

Man takes the first sip the veloute’ and Woman the first dig into the lasagna. They look at each other, and they instantly realize, without exchanging a word but just a delighted expression, that they agree: this is not an ordinary place. This instant recognition is a rare experience (so different, for example from the highly acclaimed and already starred One Lombard Street).
The layered flavours emanating so clearly from both dishes are striking. The veloute’ has a sweet acidic background, perfect thickness, balance, charm, with the cannelloni slightly ‘al dente’ (let’s say), and the olive oil, as always, making the dish soar.
The lasagna is ever so fine, packing concentrated, moist, soft, beautiful game. The dish is nicely presented on a slate tile (quite fashionable of late, but not very comfortable, though), the various components integrating very well in terms of texture and flavour.
We are looking forward to our mains:
– Aged (how much?) sirloin of Angus beef, caramelized cauliflower puree’, shallot fondant, roasting juices (£3 supplement)
– Roasted breast of pheasant, Savoy cabbage, Puy lentils, and red wine sauce

The beef has a reasonably deep flavour and a great texture. In our book this is cooked longer, and so is drier, than the ‘rare’ we had asked for. The roasting juices are nice and sharp, and can be soaked up by an admirable, floury side puree,

but the shallot fondant… the shallot fondant is an explosion of goodness from another world (the caramelised cauliflower puree was there, fine and beautiful and surely adding moisture and richness of flavour –Eaves likes caramelized stuff, obviously- but in a dish already so rewarding it did not register a deep impression on us).
The pheasant, too, while its meat was very pleasant on the palate, could have been cooked more sympathetically – it was slightly drier than the best samples we’ve had (recently here for example), and with some bitterness on the outside. We think there’s some scope for improvement in the cooking here. The sweet wine sauce was extremely apt, and so was the Savoy cabbage, with a tangy push coming from somewhere (citrus fruit?). The lentils, the baby onion and the beetroot created a full vegetable taste spectrum which we appreciated.
We are already happy, but here are are the desserts:
– Apple and blackberry crumble, bayleaf custard, blackberry sorbet
– Warm custard of Valrhona chocolate, Passion fruit icecream

The apple crumble is superb, the volatile bayleaf delicately permeating the whole dish and our nostrils and providing an unmistakable background character, integrating absolutely smoothly with the rest, the delightful pistachios, the sorbet, the crumble in a feast of assorted zingness and sweetness.
We were initially skeptical about the chocolate and passion fruit combination, but we were completely won over by the idea and the execution. The ‘custard’ is a sort of divinely airy liquid mousse (if this renders the idea) with apple bits. The ice cream is just as creamy as we like it (you know we are fussy about icecream), perfect and tangy, enriched by a crunchy help from the hazelnuts. With such delicate yet intense flavours, this dessert was frighteningly good.
A bottle of Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Jean Luc Jamet 2006 at £29.60, the water at £3.50 (you won’t be frowned upon if you ask tap water), the £3.00 supplement for the beef, and the usual 12.5% service charge, brought the total to £96.30, truly great value for this level of cuisine.
The service was cheerful and friendly and chatty, though not yet at a level matching the food. The waiter described the dishes wrongly, somehow defeating the purpose of this usual litany you are subjected to in ‘high-end’ restaurants while the dish cools off. The sommelier or wine waiter was forever offended and distant. It being Sunday, however, the big manager wasn’t there to keep a look on things.
We had a most impressive lunch. Marcus Eaves is clearly a young chef of superior talent who prepares interesting, expressive and controlled dishes. It’s not bistro cusine, by a long strech, but rather a form of haute cusine firmly and pleasantly anchored on the ground: no foamy bullshit here. Not that everything was perfect: the cooking precision in both our mains left something to be desired, for example (to be fair, being Sunday the kitchen boss wasn’t there either – so things may be different on weekdays). But this is definitely cuisine that comfortably passes the one star level (and one day maybe even more) . So, we came in cycnical and we came out mollified. We are glad we went in the first year of its opening, and we suggest you hurry up, too!
(Added on 18 January 2009: of course we were right: L’AP has just got its Michelin star).

 

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Rusacks


The day: 8th December 2008, Dinner.
The place: Pilmour Links Saint Andrews, KY16 (tel: 0870 400 8128)
The venue: Rusacks Hotel and restaurant
The food: Modern British/French
The drinks: Quite well stocked on French wines, good range of prices
THE HOTEL IS STILL THERE, BUT WITH A DIFFERENT RESTAURANT

We did not come to St. Andrews, Fife, to play golf, a sport (a sport?) about which we know nothing. But we must admit that, overlooking the green with one of the most famous golf ‘holes’ in the world, and then the ravishingly beautiful beaches and sea beyond, the Rusacks Hotel dining room, with its slightly retro elegance


makes us feel comfortable and relaxed,
notwithstanding the golf types surrounding us 🙂

The short, well-designed menu offers a few choices in each category. We note a Crotin of goat cheese, Caramelised red onion, Pithiver (£6.25) among the starters, and the Slow cooked pork belly, Granny Smith apple puree, Boulangere potato, Winter vegetables, Cider sauce (£15.95) among the mains.

While we examine the menu, some bread arrives.

A choice of four varieties from a tray (granary brown, ciabatta, tomato, olive). Here’s our selection:
More than passable, it’s accompanied not only by butter, but also –a pleasant surprise for us- by olive oil. We confine ourselves to a mere tasting (for dietary reasons), and we are even more pleasantly surprised to discover it’s of good quality. We’d like to tell them that it would be better to serve the balsamic vinegar separately, and not already mixed (forming an emulsion) with the oil, but never mind…we’re in Scotland, not in the Mediterranean, so do as the Scots do.

No amuse bouche arrives.

Here are our starters:

– Pickled red mullet, fennel salad, sauce grabiche (£6.50)

– Classic moules mariniere (£6.95)
The mullet portion is ridiculous, basically an amuse bouche. But we appreciate the prettiness, and especialy the pickling which provides sweet and sour notes at the same time decisive and balanced, as well as the freshness of the sauce. Pleasant.

The moules are not as tender and meaty and sea-infused as they can be and as we expected in a place like St. Andrews, but are not too bad either, immersed as they are in a competently made sauce.

And next here are our mains:

– Panfried cod fillet, smoked bacon and Puy lentils, sage veloute (£16.95)

– Grilled Scottish Ribeye steak (8oz) (£19.00)
The beef offers some depth of flavour and an agreeable texture, coming from it being of good quality and having been hung properly (21 days). The chips are real, thick cut chips, another level compared to what we endured recently here, and assembled in the plate with solid Northern grace. What are the cherry tomatoes doing in here? It’s December, for godsake. Anyway, how persuasive, luscious, tasty is the sauce, providing a good peppery background for the beef (this is Man speaking: it’s a bit TOO peppery for Woman). And even the mushroom offers full flavour. Another enjoyable dish, though we made the mistake of accepting the waiter’s insistent recommendation that we have it medium rare (instead of rare as we like it: but we are always wary of contradicting the waiter, he may know things we don’t…), with the result that in the end it was drier than we savage carnivores like.

The cod is a bit muted, but it’s cooked sympathetically. The puy lentils, also cooked well and with the velvety sauce which carries the flavours delicately and far, complete this simple looking but perfectly satisfying dish.

To conclude, here are our desserts:

– Chocolate three ways (£5.95)

– Apple Bavaroise, Cinnamom ice cream (£5.50)
The three ways of the chocolate are an ice-cream (intense), a white chocolate ‘cheese cake’ (very good), and a tarte au chocolate (buttery, pleasant, brownie-like). The combination of flavours and textures is well judged, the whole rather satisfying (expecially if you consider that by this time we were worried about death by starvation…).

In the bavaroise, the cinnamon ice cream was delightful, playing nicely texture-wise with the bavaroise (note also the dried apple splice), which in fact was verging on a mousse. This and the previous desserts bordered on the seriously good territory.

With a bottle of 0.75 litres of water at a ludicrous £5 (ok, we insisted on bottled water because we know restaurants need the markup, but there is a limit to everything: next time we’re getting tap water), and an unremarkable Pinot Noir Robert Skalli 2006 at £24.50, the total came to a reasonable £89.00, good value also in comparison with the local prices for this level of cuisine. No service charge is added.

The service was polite and formal, even with some smiles and human touches, very nice but lacking a bit of agility when multitasking (there was a looong wait when they had to serve a large table).

While this is by no means a destination restaurant which you should travel many miles to go to, it is a good hotel restaurant to exploit once you are there; a venue with a very competent if unspectacular cuisine, produced by a chef who knows his way very well around French technique, decent materials, and an extremely pleasant physical environment. (We also tried their breakfast and came out happy).

L’oasis


The day: November 29th 2009, Dinner.
The place: Mile End Road,
237 Mile End Road Stepney LONDON E1 4AA (Tel : 020 7702 7051).
The venue: L’ Oasis
The food: Gastropub
The drinks: good selection of well-priced wines and beers.

Gastropub, what a passion! Ever in search of the UK analogue of the good Italian trattoria, this time we focus on another East End place (after this and this and, in a sense, this), which has the dubious distinction of a raving review by the distinguished gastrocritic Fay Maschler.

As expected, the interior of the (long, spacious) room with the pub area at the end is casual, rustic, lively

And some interesting entertainers on the mezzanine:

There is also an upstairs room.

On the menu, starters go for £4.50-6.50 (e.g. whitebait at 4.50), with a mediterranean ‘meze’ tray to share at £12.50. Mains offer, for example, hearty choices such as Smoked haddock, spinach mash, poached egg, wholegrain mustard sauce at £11.50, or more delicate ones such as Pan Fried Seabass, new potatoes and sorrel sauce at £13.50. The most precious item is the New York strip at £16.50, the cheapest the pan-fried goat cheese with Portobello mushrooms and pine-nut salad at £8.50.

The bread does not arrive. You have to earn it.

Our selection of starters is

– Guinea fowl ballotine, salad, hazelnut dressing, bread (thank God, there is the bread!) (£5.50)

Ham hock terrine, red onion marmalade, salad and bread (OK, we won’t starve) (£5.50)

These are both appealing dishes. The guinea fowl is palatable, well-made, with a buttery, sweet impression which is well-matched by the garnish, especially the pine-nuts. The bread, though essential for our survival, is forgettable, of the ‘spineless’ variety.

The terrine has a more decisive flavour, it is drier and more acidic, all in a pleasant way, and is very nicely contrasted by the excellent, sweet onion marmalade. A perfect dish for this type of venue. Mmh, this is looking good, might become a regular spot…

While we sip our beers (more on this story later), our mains arrive:

– Home-made fish cake, salad and fries (£9.50).

– Confit guinea fowl leg, braised red cabbage, fondant potato, thyme jus (£12.50)

The guinea fowl has been cooked too much and is much too salty, and is therefore also dry. Not TOO bad but disappointing after the good starters. The cabbage, in a heavy-handed sort of way, provides rustic pleasure on the palate, but the potato is rather dull.

In the fish cake once again we encounter a very unwelcome excess of salt. The chips are really pathetic: defrosted and tasteless, if you discount the abundant salt, that is. The salad has a condiment in it which is unsuitable for Italians, but we think also for French people (and yet we are told the chef is French), and surely for you Brits too! And the fish cake itself? It comes spreading a very pleasant smell, but the flavour doesn’t match the expectation thus created, and it is not moist, it is not hanging together as it should: the crust is rock solid, the interior limp and mushy. A poor dish, memories of the one we had at Creeler’ longingly emerge.

Dear readers, we love you all but there is only so much we are willing to do for the blog…so prudence suggests we share a dessert.

– Banoffee pie with dark chocolate sauce (£4)

This was the last banoffee pie left, and we regret it hadn’t been eaten by somebody else. The portion is slightly ridiculous, the banana mousse (which in practice feels like a whipped cream with some banana flavour) is substandard, and the dough is seriously substandard, heavy and cardboard style (maybe bought in from a low quality outlet).

We drank some very interesting beers: a pint of Kolner (£4.00), a 330mls bottle of Meantime chocolate beer (£3.50) and a half pint of London stout (£?). For people like us who don’t know much about beer, this in itself made the visit worthwhile. All in all, the experience for two cost just £44.85.

The service was cheerful and helpful, really an asset of L’Oasis. The culinary experience started really really well for a gastropub. A real pity, then, that it went progressively down the drain. Given that there was some skill and sensitivity on display in the starters, we are inclined to hope that the rest was due to an off night. For £44 one cannot ask for fine dining, but for some passion, care, and honest flavours, yes. They were not available on this occasion, but we feel we should be willing to give l’Oasis another try. Or maybe just for starters and a drink…


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