Monday, September 25, 2006

The Conservatory at the Lanesborough, London

The Lanesborough,
Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA

While on holiday in Australia earlier this year, I came across a cookbook called Pure Vegetarian by Paul Gaylor. The recipes are amazing and I'm using one of them in my Cordon Vert Diploma finals. Upon further investigation, I discovered that Paul Gaylor is the executive chef at the Lanesborough Hotel in London, and so a visit there sometime was arranged.

The Lanesborough hotel is easy to find, towering, as it does over exit four of Hyde Park Corner tube station. We had arrived early, so after checking our reservation time, we went to the Library Bar where my wife had a G&T and I had a rather splendid port-finished Glenmorangie. We tucked into the nuts, crisps and little snacks that were served to us while we drank - including a splendid little snack of two pieces of penne stuck together with cheese with a tomato paste on the top. This was served in one of those Chinese soup spoons thingies. Sounds simple, it is, and tasted really nice.

Once we'd finished the drinks, we made our way to the Conservatory restaurant. The setting is lovely. A lovely high vaulted glass ceiling, wall fountains and greenery everywhere. Upon a small stage was set a piano, double bass and jazz drum set. We were led to the centre table, just off the dance floor (oh yeah, the Lanesborough does tea and dinner dances) while soft music played in the background.

The menus had a fine choice for all tastes. What was nice was that the menu was mixed so the dishes that were suitable for veggies were only highlighted by a small "v" not tucked away in a section at the back or on a separate menu. There were about three "v's" in both the starters and main sections.

For starters I chose something marked "Artichoke" This was, apparently a combination of soft, crispy and creamy artichokes. Sounds interesting, I thought, and I like artichokes.

Then we were presented with a choice of breads (and a choice of salted or unsalted butter) and an accompanying tomato tapanade.

Then the waiter turned up with two tiny mugs. An amuse bouche, we were told, from the chef, of Cauliflower Veloutte and Pecorino sticks. T'was lovely. To describe it as a cauliflower soup would be doing it an injustice, it was really nice.

So, then the starters arrived. Both were beautifully presented and the scallops and squid, which my wife had chosen, were excellent, I was told. "Artichoke" was a small, artichoke-sized mound in the centre of the plate topped with some salad leaves. Upon futher investigation, the mound was constructed thus. The base was the base of an artichoke, probably boiled (soft). It was the sliced into quarters and re-assembled. Into this base was placed grated, or very finely sliced, artichoke mixed with mayonnaise (creamy) On top of this was balance two pieces of a tempura of the softer artichoke "petals" (crispy). On top of this structure were the aforementioned salad leaved. Tastewise and texturewise it was excellent. And what a brilliant idea for doing something interesting with a single ingredient!

Sometime around now, three elderly gentlemen made their way onto the stage and took their places at the instruments. After a brief intro they began playing songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and the like. A few of the older diners got up and danced. We considered it, but weren't quite brave enough and were quite content to listen. Now, I realise that this kind of thing wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but it seemed to fit the place perfectly and it wasn't intrusive or over load at all.

So, onto the main course. The choice for me was between a portobello mushroom dish, an aubergine dish or Thai green vegetable curry, all of which sounded great. Now, I'm a sucker for mushies, and I always have them on the menu, so I decided for once, no to. I wasn't really in a curry mood so I opted for the dish labeled simply "Aubergine".

"Aubergine" was aubergine croquettes served with sherry-glazed vegetables and garlic aioli. Once again both dishes were presented beautifully. Upon dissection, the croquettes were very thin slices of aubergine coated with what appeared to be a pepper and tomato sauce and mozzarella. These were then wrapped up in deep fried in breadcrumbs. Very, very tasty, especially with the aioli.

Unfortunately my wife, who is a great lover of fresh fish, found the John Dory rubbery. Now, this may be because it's supposed to be like that, or that it was cooked wrong - I've no idea. The Head Waiter enquired as to why she hadn't eaten it and took it away. A moment or two later the waiter appeared again and said that desserts and coffees would be on the house! No protestations that it was cooked fine or anything - just a great "The customer is always right - keep them happy" attitude that means that a dodgy dish (either by choosing the wrong dish for your taste, being badly cooked or whatever) didn't spoil the rest of the meal.

And now, the desserts - which were of course, free. I was praying that there wouldn't be a brulee on the menu, as nice as I'm sure it would've been, I wanted to try something a little more interesting. Luckily, there wasn't. The menu was split into two sections - "Fruit" and "Chocolate". My wife chose a dish from "Fruit". It was a lemon parfait served with lemon mousse and various citrus fruits. When it came (again beautifully presented) she said it was really interesting as there was nothing "sweet" about it. I tried the lemon mousse and it was very light and refreshing. The lemon parfait was a bit too lemony for me.

I chose from "Chocolate" and had a peanut parfait with chocolate mousse. It was as nice as it sounds.

My only reservation about the place is some tiny print at the bottom of the menu that says "service charge included". When you get the bill, you just feel compelled to leave a tip (which we did) as the service was superb throughout, which effectively means that we did end up paying for dessert anyway. Apart from that little niggle, it was brilliant - I'd recommend it, and would love to go back. I'll just have to start saving those pennies...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Vegetarian in South Africa

One of the guys I was travelling with was proudly boasting that he had eaten around 14 different species on his last visit to Cape Town, so I wasn't really expecting much more than salads and maybe the odd pasta dish during the two weeks I was visiting.

I'd like to say that I was wrong, but with only a couple of exceptions, I wasn't.

South Africe, well Cape Town at least, is very very meat and fish oriented. As a veggie, it was quite difficult to find anything in restaurants other than those usual resorts of vegetarians, Italian, Indian and Mexican. The only exception to this was the Wild Fig which was superb, both in quality of food and choice.

I did get a Halloumi Cheese stir fry cooked for me in Ocean Basket, a fish restaurant that the group visited, and although it was quite tasty, it wasn't that exciting. Other than that, I had the usual round of salads and vegetable lasagnes. I had a vegetable pattie in one restaurant (it was either that or another salad) and room service at the Cullinan hotel consisted of an amazingly tasteless vegetable lasagne or pasta arrabiatta.

At the Courtyard Hotel they had a delivery service called Mr Delivery which consisted of a book of around a dozen menus. You cose your dishes, rang a central number and Mr Delivery would then go around the various outlets and collect and deliver your order. There were quite a few veggie options in this list, however, they were mostly Italian or Indian.

All in all, Cape Town isn't the place to go if you're after a vegetarian culinary extravaganza.

Hildebrand - Cape Town, South Africa

Pierhead, V&A Waterfront,
Cape Town, South Africa

The Hildebrand is an Italian restaurant at the V&A Waterfront complex in Cape Town, South Africa. Italian restaurants are usually a good oasis for vegetarians, and this was no exception. I visited it twice during the week I was there.

The first visit was at lunch time and I had the Tagliatelle Alfredo, which was tagliatelle with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. It was very nice, the pasta was cooked well and the sauce was very tasty. There was also plenty of it to fill me up.

The second visit was an evening affair, so I had the full starters, main and dessert. For starters I had garlic stuffed mushrooms and boy were they garlicky! Very nice though. These I followed with Ravioli Di Magro. This was your standard ricotta and spinach ravioli with a choice of Sage Cream or Napoli sauce. I chose the Sage Cream sauce. It was really nice, and set off the relative blandness of the ravioli nicely. The dessert menu had a creme brulee so, of course, I had to try it. It was pretty low on the scale, barely scraping a 6 as the custard was very grainy. Apart from that, the meal was very enjoyable.

Wild Fig - Cape Town, South Africa

Wild Fig
Liesbeek Avenue, Valkenberg Estate,
Mowbray, Cape Town, South Africa

The Wild Fig is situated next door to the Courtyard Hotel just outside Cape Town. For a vegetarian in South Africa, a restaurant with a single vegetarian option on its menu is a blessing, to find one with three options is not far off a miracle.

Because the hotel was a little way out of the town it gave me the chance to try a couple of the menu options as we visited the restaurant on a couple of occasions.

For starters I had the Deep Fried Camembert one evening and the Butternut Squash and Coconut soup on another. The Camembert was fied in a light beer batter with fig jelly and melba toast, and was very nice. The fig jelly was a nice change from the usual cranberry that you tend to get. The soup was just the right side of spicy and managed to walk the fine line of not being too bland due to the squash and being overly coconutty. It was a very nice start to the meal.

For the main course I had, on one evening, the Vegetarian Dolmades which consisted of braised cabbage leaves stuffed with saute├ęd aubergine, mushroom & basmatic rice, served with basil mayonnaise. It was presented realy nicely, and tasted great. It was also quite filling, although it still left room for the wonderful roast potatoes that accompanied every meal we had here.

On another evening I had the Thai Green Vegetable Curry. This was coconut milk infused with chilli, fried onions& poached with broccoli, baby corn & carrots and was divine. It wasn't too spicy and had was serverd in a large bowl with the accompanying rice on a separate plate. The ever present roasties were ideal for mopping up the last of the coconut sauce.

The dessert menu had a Creme Brulee on it, which was around a 7.5 on the scale. However, one of the desserts that we had recommended was Roasted Chilli Honey Nut Ice Cream Sandwich with chocolate sauce. This was almost worth the trip to SA itself. Chilli nuts sandwiched between two slabs of creamy ice-cream, just as it says. Wow! The chillies had a nice kick that was then cooled by the icecream and chocolate sauce. A fine dessert.

All of the dishes were well presented and the service was good. In fact, onone night the service was superb, with the waiter keeping the bar open late so we could sample some of their list of over 40 single malt scotches.

In short, if you're in Cape Town I recommend the Wild Fig.