Sunday, December 23, 2007

Boxwood Cafe, London

The Berkeley
Wilton Place

My nephew is a bit of a Gordon Ramsay fan, so I decided that I would take him to the Boxwood Cafe for his sixteenth birthday. We made our way to Hyde Park Corner and thence to the Berkley Hotel, home of the Boxwood Café. This was my nephew's first visit to London and he was quite overwhelmed by the crowds, the tube and general noise of the big smoke. He's also not that adventurous with food (although better than he used to be) which is why I chose Boxwood as the least imtimidating of the Ramsay stable to introduce him to fine cuisine.

After our coats were taken we were shown downstairs to our table, walking past Stuart Gillies who was sat in the mezzanine area chatting to a couple of punters. Downstairs, the restaurant "proper" has quite a relaxed and, although I can't say informal - it's certainly not formal or stuffy, atmosphere.

We were given three menus each (3 course set menu for £25 a head, Taster (of which they do a veggie version too) at £55 per head and the a la carte) We decided to go a la carte.

For starters I chose a beetroot, pear and feta cheese salad. Very nice indeed. There were a couple of different kinds of beet and tucked in amongst the various layers were some slithers of shallott that gave the dish some nice pockets of different flavours. My nephew had a pea and leek tart of which I tried a small piece and have to say it was extremely nice - very light and creamy. He loved it.

For main course I had Ravioli of Italian winter squash with caramelized hazelnuts, parmesan, goat’s curd and soft herbs, and my nephew had Roasted loin of suckling pig with garlic roasted potatoes and grain mustard sauce.

The ravioli was delicate and perfectly cooked. The sauce was very similar to my saffron sauce (although a bit more watery…) and the pumpkin was sweet without being too sweet.

My nephew proclaimed his pork to be superb and he ate every bit, except for a small strip of crackling. As is my wont these days, I asked the sommellier to match a glass of wine to each meal. My nephew had a claret and I had an oaked chardonnay. The chardonnay went very well with the pasta, and my nephew said that the dry fruitiness of the claret cut nicely through the fattiness of the pork… (or was that the sommellier?) Anyway, he drank it all.

And so, to dessert. I had mentioned the reason for the visit when confirming the booking, and we were both delighted when his dessert (a chocolate fondue with marshmallows, biscotti and fruit) turned up with a candle in one of the marshmallows and "Happy Birthday" written in chocolate around the plate. Apparently it tasted pretty good too, as another empty plate would testify.

Myself, I plumped for banana sticky toffee pudding, which was quite simply the best sticky toffee pudding I've had. A coffee and bill later (£110 including tip) we left full and very happy.

I'm keen to try the veggie taster menu, so I'll be back there sometime in the New Year to give it a try.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Last weekend my wife and I made our annual trip to the German Christmas markets. This year we also took a trip to Salzburg in Austria to the markets there.

Munich has a vegetarian restaurant called Prinz Myshkin, which I've visited a few times before. This time however, the service was very slow - to the point that we decided not to have dessert despite the fact that there was a dish consisting of three different creme brulees! Having taken a hour and a half to serve us a starter and main, we decided that we just didn't have enough time to waste waiting for dessert.

The food that we did have was good, but it was disappoining to see that the menu has hardly changed in the three years that we've been visiting Munich.

We also went to Salzburg in Austria for a day where we discovered a host of different cuisines. As well as the normal restaurants offering various types of sausages and other meats, there were Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants. And all within a stone's throw of the cathedral in the old part of the city. We chose an Italian called Trattoria Da Pippo. We got there at just the right time as it began to fill up just as we were seated. We started with a really good cream of tomato soup, and the had pizzas which were very good. The service was good and the prices not bad either. If you're in Salzburg, you could do worse than visit Da Pippo.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Terre a Terre, Brighton (revisited)

71 East Street,
East Sussex BN1 1HQ

I last went to Terre a Terre in June 2006. This year, a friend and I made the trip down to Brighton on a very windy night. It was my friends first visit and I was hoping that it would be as good as my last trip.

From the front, Terre a Terre is fairly unassuming. However, once inside it opens up to reveal quite a sizeable restaurant with polished wooden floors and wooden tables. Upon arrival, we were given the choice of sitting at the large open area towards the rear of the restaurant which is quite noisy or one of the four tables near the front, where it was quieter. We opted for the latter and duly took our seats and were presented with the menu.

Choosing starters was easy as Terre a Terre offer a "tapas" of starters that includes most of the starters on the menu and more. Mains were more difficult as we wanted all of them… So, we ordered some wasabi cashews as an appetiser, drinks and the starters hoping that by the time the waiter had returned with the drinks and nuts we would have decided. And, as luck would have it, we had. So, we ordered dishes called "Fundamentally Fungus" and "Poke Mole and Turtle Soup." Oh, and a side of Smoky Scrunch Chips with Bang Bang Salt.

The wasabi cashews, although quite expensive for what they are, were fab. Not too hot, but just enough to give a pleasant kick and to keep you busy until the starters arrive. I guess its one of those indulgences you just have to try.

The starters arrived on rather a large plate and the waitress explained what each of the dishes were. Now, my memory is a little fuzzy on the exact contents, but here goes. There was sushi, Mushroom cappuccino and parmesan doughnuts, Spiced puff cakes and charred aubergine, sweet potato fritters, tandoori halloumi, various leaf and grain salads and foccacia bread. I'm sure there was more, but my memory fails me. It was all very nice, especially the tandoori halloumi and the sushi. It was also very filling and I was worried at one point that I may not be able to fully sample the rest of the menu.

There was a bit of a mix up when they delivered the wrong main courses. However, this was remedied quickly and politely and we both tucked into our not-insubstantial main courses.

My main was titled Fundamentally Fungus and the menu described it as "big rich mixed wild mushroom merlot regout, tarragon strands and shallots crammed into polenta crumb collars served with salsify frizz, roast barley buttered black cabbage toasted hazelnut milk and creamy mashed potatoes." And that's pretty much what it was. The mushrooms tasted very similar, if not the same, as the "mushroom cappucino" in the starter "tapas" and were served inside a polenta tube (for want of a better description) which was a very imaginative and tasty way of using polenta, one of the worlds most boring ingredients. The same mushrooms were also on the plate separately. The cabbage was lovely and the salsify "frizz" (foam) was divine. The creamy mashed potatoes were indeed creamy and extremely nice.

My friend had Poke Mole and Turtle Soup which consisted of sweet potato fritters served with a poke chipotle gazpacho, avocado mousse, lime oil and warm spice corn. The sweet potato fritters were, again, similar if not the same as the ones on the starter plate, and the gazpacho was quite spicy. The "bang bang" chips that we had to accompany the meal are a "must have" if you're ever here and come with a wickedly spiced guacamole, despite the fact that we were too full to finish all of them.

At this point, dessert looked an impossibility, but after looking at the dessert menu, we decided that we would "go for it". So, shortly afterwards "Bananas and Custard" and "Rain Vodka Cherry Chocolate Churros" were brought to the table. The bananas were caramelised and accompanied by custard, almond fried rice pudding, muscavado ice cream and a whisky and vanilla syrup. Apart from the rice pudding, which was tasty when first bitten, but then with every subsequent chew, became bland and glutinous, it was superb.

The cherries, although not to my taste, were pronounced a dessert marvel by my friend, especially when a cherry, accompanied by a piece of churro was then dipped into the chocolate and then eaten. Even I subscribe to this fact. Though I didn't like the cherries on their own, when eaten in combination with the chocolate and churro, they were very, very good.

This was then followed by a coffee (and I was delighted to find somewhere in England that serves "flat whites" - a milky coffee I came to love in Australia) and the bill which came (with tip) to a round ton.

Sure, its not cheap, but Terre a Terre has lifted itself above the usual "nuts & lentils" vegetarian restaurant. This is a restaurant that creates imaginative and tasty food that just doesn't need meat or fish.

Having been here before, I thought that this time the meals were much more "complete meals" rather than my last visit where you received a plate that seemed to consist of separate small tasters that ended up with too many ingredients and tastes on the same plate.

As a vegetarian, it is quite exciting to see a menu of this calibre where I can eat everything. However, as mentioned before, the prices mean that I am unlikely to frequent Terre a Terre that regularly, so if the tapas style starter idea was extended to a tasting menu where one could sample examples of many of the courses, I would be an eternally happy bunny.

I also think that a slight redesign of the restaurant would make for a slightly better dining experience. Although where we were sat was fairly quiet, being quite close to the door we did get disturbed by diners that were coming in later in the evening and standing around waiting for tables. By using this area as a waiting area on busy nights, serving drinks while the tables are made up etc the dining experience could easlily be improved, and quite possibly, more money made.

Also, the back of the restaurant, due to the open space, is quite noisy so white table cloths could help deaden the sound as well as giving it that more "high class restaurant" feel that it undoubtably deserves.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Benares, London

12a Berkeley Square House
Berkeley Square
London, W1J 6BS

Benares is a Michelin starred Indian restaurant in Berkley Square, run by Atul Kotcher, who you may have seen on tv in such programs as the Great British Menu.

The restaurant itself is comfortably lit with the tables well spaced. It's not too noisy, so holding a conversation is fairly relaxed.

This was another TopTable deal, three courses for £30 from a special menu. As the menus are restricted to two or three choices (or a single one if, like me, you do not eat meat or fish) it gives you the chance to try dishes that maybe you wouldn't choose from the menu normally.

For starters my choice was a tomato and goats cheese salad. Not something I would have normally chosen, and it was really quite surprising. What arrived on the plate was pretty much a Caprese Salad, except that it had goat's cheese instead of mozzarella. On first taste it tasted like a Caprese Salad too, but then very subtle Indian flavours started to appear that were fantastic. I've never had anything like it, it was quite amazing.

For main course, I had a red rice pumpkin risotto. Once again this had a sort of Italian/Indian flavour to it. The texture was just like a risotto, but it was nicely flavoured with Indian spices. Dessert was a panna cotta, which was perfectly set and had a really delicate flavour.

To accompany the meal, we had a complimentary glass of house wine, coffee and petit fours. We also matched wines from the wine list to the meals, which had he effect of doubling our bill. But we didn't mind, the sommelier picked some good wines which matched the food perfectly.
If you don't go silly on the wines like us, then this Toptable offer is great. Even if you do, then the food is still good value. The food at Benares is lovely, the service spot on and the surroundings are very pleasant.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Bertinet Kitchen, Bath

12 St Andrew's Terrace
Bath BA1 2QR

I've been makng the odd loaf of bread for a few years, but never been totally satisfied with the results, except for the focaccia that I was shown how to make at La Cucina Caldesi last year which I love.

I'd read good review of Richard Bertinet's book "Dough" so I thought I'd book myself onto the three day course that he runs in Bath.

The kitchen is in the centre of Bath, a ten minute walk from the station and a five minute walk to the baths themselves.

The first day of the course is an introduction to bread making in which Richard Bertinet shows his technique for creating and working the dough. The dough he makes is quite wet and he doesn't add any more flour to it. The way he works the flour, from beneath with his fingers rather than the traditional way from the top with the heel of your palm, stretches the gluten and traps a lot of air in the dough. This allows the dough to become less sticky without the addiion of extra flour.

After the demo it is our go to make the dough, with some help from Richard and his helpers. It takes a bit of getting used to, because it starts off so sticky that you are really tempted to add more flour. However, once you get into the swing of it, the dough becomes less sticky and starts to come together.
After resting the dough for a while, Richard then showed us how to make olive and parmesan breadsticks, fougasse and various fancy rolls. He also showed us how to make hollow "puffballs" that you can fill with salad.

Then it was our turn. We made white dough and wholemeal dough with which we made some nice star shaped buns with poppy seeds, plaited buns with sesame seeds as well as more breadsticks and fougasse.

Once the bread had baked, it was time for a late lunch and to sample the bread. The bread was gorgous, nice and airy, just the kind of stuff they serve in the best restaurants.

The second day was French breads during which we got to make baguettes, olive bread and flamiche and the final day was Italian breads in which we made ciabatta, foccacia and pizza dough.

It was quite hard work, as we were making several different doughs on each day and in different amounts. However, Richard is a really nice guy and all the days were great fun.

I came away from the courses with both of his books, "Dough" and "Crust" and various samples of the bread that we had made. Since returning from the course, I've made various loaves and rolls and even made the puffball salads for a dinner party I cooked for - and they worked!

If you are interested in making really good bread, then I'd definitely recommend the Bertinet Kitchen. Richard Bertinet lives and breathes bread and as well as making fantastic bread on this course you'll also learn a lot about the mechanics of baking and have a great time.

Demuths, Bath

2 North Parade Passage, off Abbey Green,
Bath BA1 1NX

Demuths in Bath has a really good reputation among vegetarians however, a recent visit by a friend of mine was quite scathing so I decided to see for myself. The place itself is on two floors and I was shown to a table downstairs. I was the only one there for quite a while, during which time I skimmed through some sample copies of the restaurant's cookbooks that they have for sale, and they looked pretty good, with some nice recipes.

The menu I was presented with wasn't overly inspiring, there were roughly half a dozen choices on both starters and mains menus, and also an appetisers menu with a similar amount of options. I forewent the appetisers and chose the Beetroot and Potato Patties from the starters and an Ethiopean Platter from the mains menu.

The starters menu was quite varied, however the mains contained a curry and the Ethiopian Platter (essentially another curry) a risotto, and a nut roast. As curries, risottos and nut roasts are quite often the "vegetarian choice" on a standard restaurant menu, I didn't think they showed the culinary possibilities that vegetarian food can attain no matter how good they might

The Beetroot Patties were three in number and were quite nicely presented spread with pea puree and accomanied by a raita and a few salad leaves. They were nicely spiced and the pea puree was good, but there was little or no beetroot flavour, which was a little disappointing. If the sweet beetroot flavour had been there, this would've been a splendid little dish. However, as it was the only real clue to the presence of the beetroot was the colour of the patties.

The Ethiopean Platter consisted of two different dhals (yellow split pea and red lentil and bean), spiced spinach and potato, and bean and carrot curry served on an pancake, Each of the individual ingredients were fine in themselves, but nothing special. However, the pancake was tasteless and, when eaten in combination with any of the other parts of the dish, somehow had the power to render them equally tasteless which was a touch weird.

For dessert I had Red Wine Poached Pears served with Blackberries and a Honey Labne. Again the presentation was very well done and it tasted really nice. The dish was sprinkled with honeycomb and it complemented the pears really well.

The service was quick and efficient, but not particularly personal. The prices seem to me to be quite high - £6 for a starter and £14 for a main course is a bit steep for this kind of fayre. My three course meal with a coke and a water came to over £35, which is very high.

Would I go back? Probably not. The food was okay, but nothing special, and it was expensive. It is nice to be able to be given a menu in a restaurant where I can eat everything on it, however I'd much rather have a smaller choice of really imaginative and tasty food than a dozen "so-so" items. Plus there was another restaurat next door that had quite a few tasty looking options on the menu a lo cheaper.

I have had some fabulous meals in vegetarian restaurants, Terre a Terre and Il Margutta in Rome, for example, but the majority of the best meals I've had have been in restaurants where the non-veggie meals have been top quality too, like Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons or The Lanesborough.

I guess, in the end, it all comes down to the skill and imagination (and attitude) of the chefs no matter what kind of restaurant they are in.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Gate, Hammersmith

51 Queen Caroline St
London, W6 9QL

Tucked away behind the Hammersmith Apollo (or Odeon as it use to be called) is the Gate vegetarian restaurant. It's a fair sized place, with a handful of tables outside and the rest lining the walls of a large, wooden floored hall on the first floor of a converted church. At first glance this strikes you more like a canteen rather than a restaurant, but the soft lighting and decoration (mostly large pictures of mushrooms) make it feel smaller. However, the tables are fairly close, so it's probably not the best place for intimate conversation.

So, what of the food. The menu isn't huge, with a selection of about half a dozen or so dishes in each section of the menu. However, to a vegetarian used to scouring menus to find the single dish they can eat, this is heaven! The only problem is, with such delights on the starter menu as butternut squash tart, fig and goats cheese galette and stuffed baby artichokes, what does one choose?
Luckily the Gate have solved this for you and offer a Mezze platter of all the starters and it is wonderful. The enormous plate arrived and consisted of:

Butternut Squash tart - Small cubes of tender butternut squash baked in a mixture of crème fraiche and gubbeen cheese.
Sweetcorn Fritters with spring onions, coriander and lime leaves, served with a sweet chilli dipping sauce.
Thai Salad - Green mango, paw paw, mouli, beansprouts, baby corn, mange-tout, coriander, mint with a thai dressing and peanuts.
Fig and Goats Cheese with caramelised onion on a puff pastry galette.
Sweet potato and pomegranite salad with tahini and saffron dressing.
Carciofini - baby artichokes stuffed with dolcelatte and wild mushroom fried in crispy beer batter.

It was all really nice, but special mention must go to the figs, artichokes and the Thai salad, all of which were outstanding.

So, onto the main courses. My Denis Cotter cookery book is based on recipes used for the Café Paradiso restaurant in Cork. One of my faves is cous-cous encrusted aubergine filled with a cream cheese and chilli mix. So imagine my surprise to find it on the menu of the Gate.

My wife decided that she would try it and compare it to the one I make. She said that it tasted different to mine, not better or worse which was very diplomatic and guaranteed me handing her train ticket back for the journey home. I tried it and she was right. And it was really nice too. The dish consisted of two slices of aubergine sandwiched around a spicy cream cheese and coriander filling which was then coated with spicy cous-cous and fried.

I chose a rotolo, which is roasted red pepper, grilled courgette and asparagus, smoked mozzarella rolled in thyme infused potato. It was like a very large sushi roll or roulade and tasted quite nice, but not as good as the aubergine.

There was a daily pasta dish on the menu which I tend to feel was a bit of a cop out, as it seemed to be a fairly standard dish of penne with sundried tomatoes. There was also a lasagne on the menu which, although it was presented really nicely, seems fairly unadventurous for what is generally mooted as London's top vegetarian restaurant.

And so to dessert. Despite the rhubarb, pear and ginger crumble, the pressed lavender and chocolate cake and the quince and polenta cake, the rules said that I must have the espresso crème brulee. Which I did.

It came with the others on the dessert mezze plate! So I got to try them all. The brulee was about a seven and a half as the custard could've been a bit firmer. The rest of the desserts were okay, but nothing special. The crumble was a bit disappointing, mainly due to the lack of any discernable crumble.

Would I go back? Maybe. I'd certainly go there for the starter mezze plate. The service was nothing more than you would expect down your local café, it was okay (the food arrived quickly) but could be a lot better.

The food at The Gate is definitely a cut above the veggie food available at most "normal" restaurants, however it could do with just a tiny bit more imagination and flair to show how good veggie food can really be.

Raymond Blanc Cookery School

Le Manoir Aux Quat' Saisons
Church Road,
Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD

A little while back, I reviewed a meal at Le Manoir, the restaurant owned and run by Raymond Blanc. Shortly after returning I discovered that they had a cookery school and ran a couple of courses that were (more or less) suitable for vegetarians.

One of the courses, Garden to Plate advertises itself as "This course will use the bounty of our organic garden to create wondrous vegetarian dishes" so when the opportunity came along to join the course, I jumped at it.

The staff at Le Manoir are extremely helpful and I rang to check the suitability of the course for non-meat eaters and was told that although the course focuses on vegetables there was one meat dish on the menu. Personally, that doesn't bother me, I would just not cook or eat it, but I know that some vegetarians would not like that. However, the chance to send the day being taught by a chef at a two Michelin star restaurant was more important to me than the fact that I would not be able to eat one of the dishes. Several days before the course, an overview of the menu arrived in the post, allowing me to peruse through the various ingredients and techniques we would cover.

Eventually, the day arrived and I made the trip to Le Manoir. After coffee, the others on the course and myself (there were seven of us in total) were shown around the cookery school kitchen which is next to one of Le Manoir's main kitchens.

We were handed out chef's jackets (which we got to keep - how cool is that?) and our tutor for the day, Vladimir Niza introduced himself. He is a nutritionist and food technology expert, which meant that not only could he cook good food, he could also tell you exactly what was happening while it cooked which added an extra dimension to the course.

And so to the cooking. The course was a mixture of practicals and demos and we cooked lemon and rhubarb tart, tomato and mozzarella tart, grilled goats cheese and vegetable salad (the meat-eaters did squid instead of the cheese) , mushroom crepes, plum crumble, artichokes and various other dishes. We also got to wander around the gardens at lunchtime, with instructions to feel free to taste any of the vegetables or herbs should we want to.

After lunch it was back in the kitchen to finish up and learn the secrets of Le Manoir's fruit crumble...
One of the things I find really encouraging about Le Manoir is their attitude to their ingredients. They are currently building a dossier that contains information about all their ingredients. For example, for the meat they use the dossier conatins information about where they come from, how they are fed, where they are slaughtered and general information about welfare conditions on the farm and their organic status. Similar information is held about the vegetables and other ingredients that are used. Vladimir informed us that Raymond Blanc's vision is to have every ingredient used by the restaurant sourced from within 50 miles by 2010. I think this is a fantastic idea.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable day, the food was great and I learnt a fair bit. I'd love to go back and do another course sometime, but I'm going to have to start saving for it as they aren't cheap. Still, it'll be nice to be able to wear my new chef's jacket at my next dinner party.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thackeray's, Tunbridge Wells

85 London Rd
Tunbridge Wells, TN1 1EA

Thackeray's had a Michelin star until about two years ago and if our excursion there on Saturday night is anything to go by, they should get it back pretty pronto.

The restaurant is about a five minute walk from our front door and is in a cottage overlooking Mount Ephraim and the Common in Tunbridge Wells. It has the distinction of having been stayed in by the author of Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray, hence the name.

The restaurant has a couple of downstairs rooms, nicely laid out (although a couple of tables are close enough that the waiters need to be quite slim to pass between them) and pleasantly lit. There is also a small bar tucked away in the corner. Upstairs, there are a couple of private dining rooms and another bar.

We were seated and we sipped a couple of drinks while perusing the menu. I had the luxury of my own vegetarian menu, which had a choice of two starters and two mains on it. I'm in two minds about separate vegetarian menus as I always feel as though a meat free dish should just fit nicely into a standard menu. It works in Italy, so why not everywhere else?

So, we ordered our food and very shortly we were presented with a choice of bread (black pepper, red pepper and olive) and then an espresso cup containing an amuse bouche of watermelon and ginger soup with a swirl of crème fraiche arrived. It was amazing. I'm not usually one for cold soups, but this was really light and refreshing.

For my starter I had a goats’ cheese and beetroot parfait. Now, goats’ cheese seems to be de rigour as a veggie option, so I wasn't expecting much but what arrived was quite different. In the centre of the plate was a small tower of alternating layers of goats’ cheese and thin beetroot slices. Atop this was a very tiny salad and the whole thing was surrounded by dots of a sauce topped by a tiny piece of walnut. The presentation was immaculate. The taste? It was pretty amazing. The cheese and beetroot were a perfect match.

My wife had chosen scallops and her plate arrived with four of them, each on top of a different puree, potato and mustard, spinach cauliflower and creamed corn. Again, the presentation was immaculate and her opinion upon tasting it was that it was “stunning”.

Thackery's have quite a lot of wines by the glass on their Wine List, so we asked the sommelier to recommend a wine from the list for each course. For the starters my wife had a Chablis and I had a Riesling. Both worked very well with the food.

For the main course, my wife ordered lamb. Perfectly cooked (she said) and accompanied by roast potato (just the one – perfectly cuboid...) a crispy aubergine skin topped with an aubergine puree, and caramelised onions with olives. Once again, the presentation was very picturesque.

My veggie option was gnocchi with wild mushrooms, a parmesan crisp and globe artichokes. It was presented very imaginatively. The gnocchi and mushrooms were bound together with a sauce in a sort of tower upon which was the parmesan crisp. On top of this was a couple of sections of quartered globe artichokes. Elsewhere on the plate was a puree. The gnocchi was great. However, as much as I love artichokes, and tasty as they were, they were out of place with this dish.

Wine wise, I had a Rioja and my wife had a Pinot Noir. Again, both matched the main courses very well.

Before the dessert, a small dish arrived for each of us containing a small banana and ginger roulade and very nice it was too.

And so to dessert. They all sounded very nice, so what to choose? Luckily, Thackery's do what they call a “Sharing Plate” which contains a selection of all the desserts. So, between us we sampled Trio of Chocolate Cannelloni, Raspberry Soufflé with Raspberry Jus, Apple Tart Tatin and Mango and Mascarpone Terrine. All very tasty and all accompanied by an extremely nice Californian black muscat.

Once we had finished the meal, we retired with coffee and Balvenie Doublewood (myself) and Tawny Port (my wife) to the upstairs bar, where we then proceeded to demolish a plate of petit fours.

We both agreed that we'd had a great evening and that we would return. The bill for the two of us came to £175 which included the tip that they had added on for us.

However, there was one more pleasant surprise to come.

As I handed over the bill and credit card, the waitress asked if we had enjoyed the evening.

“Excellent,” I replied, “and if your chef ever has a moment of madness and decides to do a vegetarian tasting menu, I'll give you my number.”

“No problem,” she replies. “Give us a ring a few days before your next visit and he'll sort one out for you.”

“I'm not a veggie,” says my wife. “Would I be able to have the normal tasting menu if my husband has the vegetarian one?”

“Of course,” replies the waitress.

We'll be back.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cinnamon Club, London

The Old Westminster Library,
Great Smith Street,
London SW1P 3BU

A couple of weeks back, I joined Toptable and was thrilled to discover that the Cinnamon Club was offering three courses and a free Cinnamon Bellini for £22.

I booked a table for a weekday evening to give it a go. The three courses were from a set menu and I added a message to the booking to check that the menu contained a vegetarian option. About half an hour after booking the restaurant phoned to tell me that there was indeed a veggie option for both starters and main course which goes to show that the Toptable booking system really works well.

So it was that I turned up on a very rainy weeknight to sample their fayre.

Despite it being a very imposing building, I walked past the restaurant first of all, as there is no huge sign proclaiming the name of the place, just a couple of very inauspicious brass plaques.

Hower, once inside, the restaurant is very well laid out in a large room, with a balcony around with bookshelves etc, keeping some of the majesty and atmosphere of the old library.

We were presented with the menus and after choosing, an amuse bouche arrived at the table. It was a very tasty little spicy dumpling.

My starter was crispy rice cakes served with a spicy sauce. I had expected something more like the earlier dumpling, but these were indeed very crispy and very nice.

The main course was rice pancakes served with mint chutney, dhal and vegetable curry. Both this and the other courses were very well presented, reminding you that this isn't your run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant. The pancakes and accompaniments were really nice, as was, apparently my friend's Barramundi and we ordered some bread to accompany the dishes. Three different types of naan arrived at the table, keema, plain and one with a sweet filling. These, of course, were extra to the special offer.

For dessert I had a very nice Banana and Ginger Parfait.

So, after a coffee we waited for the bill. And waited. We kept trying to catch the eye of the waiters as they passed without success. Eventually, we did manage to get the bill and paid. Apart from this minor quibble, it was an excellent night out and well worth the money. I shall definitely be keeping a close eye on the Toptable offers from now on.

Signor Franco, Tunbridge Wells

5a High Street
Tunbridge Wells
Kent TN1 1UL

You can walk past the entrance to Signor Franco's quite easily without noticing it, as it is just a small entrance between two shops.

The restaurant itself is up a flight of stairs flanked either side by autographed photos of many famous stars who, one assumes may have dined here (or at least et the owner) over the years. At the top of the stairs, the restaurant opens up into a very neat, airy space with white-clothed tables . Part of the restaurant is situated in a large "conservatory" area that overlooks the high street.

The menu is fairly standard Italian fare, which is just fine by me.

I started with Carciofi Alla Nerone described as "Warm Roman artichokes topped with marinated sun dried tomatoes in olive oil, fine herbs and served on a bed of rocket lettuce." The presentation was really good, the way that the petals on the artichokes had been trimmed made it look like a flower arangement. It tasted very nice too.

For the main course I chose Fagotti A Funghi Porcini (Fresh pasta filled with wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese, sauté in a cream wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese sauce.) It was quite nice. The only downside was that the porcini mushrooms were slightly bitter, and I'm not sure whether they were fresh or rehydrated ones. The sauce and the pasta filling were lovely though.

For dessert I had a pancake filled with custard and topped with an amaretto sauce. It was gorgeous.

The service throughout was pretty good, although we did seem to have quite a few different waiters throughout the evening. We're planning to go back some time and, when we do, we're going to make sure we get a table in the "conservatory" area.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Royal Tunbridge Wells

We moved to Tunbridge Wells a couple of months ago, and it's great to be able to walk to so many good eateries.

Of course there is my favourite Carluccio's which I have been to many times. and never been disappointed by the food or the service. We are now gradually working our way through the various other restaurants in the town. The Raj Pavillion is reviewed in an earlier post, but since then we've been to other local restaurants and cafes, so I thought I give you a quick run down with a brief impression of each.

The blurb says that only fresh ingredients are used and that no artificial colour, preservatives, SG or GM foods aer used. We popped in one evening for a pizza and it was really nice. The service was good, and really friendly.

Relish, 28 Camden Road
We popped in here one morning for breakfast. The restaurant itself has a sort of rustic feel to it with its wooden tables and floor. There is a small delicattesen sectio where you can buy various cheeses, vegetables and salads. The brekky menu was pretty good, and when the food arrived it was well cooked and there was plenty of it. On a subsequent visit however, the place seems to have headed downhill rapidly. The service was very slow and things were forgotten. They were advertising for a new chef. Hopefully they'll get things sorted out sharpish, as this could be a really good place if run properly.

Masala, 51 The Pantiles
The outside of the restarant looks quite imposing (despite the current scaffolding) and the Pantiles area of Tunbridge Wells is a lovely area. However, unfortunately the food wasn't that exciting and certainly not up to the standard of the Raj Pavillion.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, 41 Mount Pleasant Road
There are a few veggie options on the menu, which is nice to see and I chose the Summer Veggie Stack. What arrived was a teetering tower of roast vegetables that was impossible to eat "burger style" and had to be separated and eaten with a knife and fork. However, although it basically ended up as a plate of roasted veg, it tasted okay.

Wagamama, 54-58 Mount Pleasant Road
If you've been to a Wagamama, you'll know what to expect. If not, then it's definitely worth a visit. The food is cooked fresh and arrives at your table when it's ready. This means that people in your party get served at different times, side dishes arrive before mains etc. However, once you realise this (and the waiting staff do tell you when you order) it all works just fine. And, most important of all the food tastes great.

We've plenty more restaurants to visit and I'll be posting reviews on here as we try them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Raj Pavilion, Tunbridge Wells

20 Grove Hill Road,
Tunbridge Wells, TN1 1RZ

I've passed the Raj Pavilion may times on trips through Tunbridge Wells, but it wasn't until last weekend that we decided to visit. It was a review on Toptable that spurred my interest, so on Saturday night we popped along.

It was fairly crowded and, despite the fact that we hadn't booked, they still managed to fit us in.

The restaurant is on two levels, the ground floor and and a basement level. We sat downstairs in the basement level. The downstairs area is very airy, as the ground floor has a balcony that looks down into the downstairs level.

The menu is quite extensive. Along with the usual birianis, dhanzaks and baltis there is a large selection of their own specialities. For vegetarians there is a huge selection. All of the 'standard' curries have a vegetable option and there is also a separate vegetarian section in the specialities section.

For starters we shared Aloo Tikka (potato cakes) and Hot Vegetable Chatt (stir fried vegetables in a popadum shell). For mains I had Mali Vegetable Kofta and Brinjal Bhaji. My wife had a lamb dish. All of the dishes were well presented and and tasted really good, especially the Vegetable Chatt.

What impressed us most about the place was the service. It was a busy Saturday night ad apparently some of their staff hadn't turned up, so they were relying on a couple of temporary staff. To add to this there was a mix up in the kitchen that meant our starters were delayed. However, the staff kept us informed, made sure that we were looked after and when the bill came we weren't charged for the starter and a complimentary drink was delivered to the table at the end of the meal.
I know things go wrong sometimes and its a measure of a good restaurant if they can deal with it and keep the customer happy. The Raj Pavilion proved that they could.

Good food and great service means that we'll be back there before too long.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Organic Tuscany

Località Pino,
50052 Certaldo (FI)

Tel +39 347 328 9333

I decided that, this year, I would like to go on a weeks cookery holiday somewhere in Italy. Searching through the web, I found dozens upon dozens of options. Eventually Organic Tuscany caught my eye. One of the main reasons was that they run two completely vegetarian courses a year, so I booked myself on the first of them.

The course is run by Shilpa and her husband Riccardo from their house about halfway between Florence and Siena. They encourage an ethical lifestyle, and offer advice on travelling to the course by train and before the course, Shilpa put five of us in touch with each other so we could arrange to share a hire car once we were there.

There were seven of us in total on the course, which meant that the kitchen wasn't too crowded during the lessons. There were four cookery lessons during the week that covered pasta making, salads, desserts and various anti-pasti and side dishes, all of which used organic and fresh ingredients, many of which were sourced from local suppliers.

We also visited several organic farms and wineries plus had some time for sightseeing in Florence, Siena and San Gimignano.

When we arrived, we were treated to homemade pizzas cooked in Shilpa and Riccardo's wood-fired brick oven. I even got the chance to slide a pizza into the oven with one of those giant metal "spatulas."

The next morning was spent touring La Ginestra, an organic farm that produces its own honey, olive oil, flours and more. We then ate in their restaurant which I highly recommend if you are in the area.

The first lesson concentrated on pasta. One of Shilpa's friends, Chiara, who runs Sesamo in Barcelona took the lesson alongside Shilpa and we made tagliatelle and two sauces, the first a tomato and basil, the second a courgette and goat's cheese. We also did a really tasty orange and fennel salad and a tiramisu.
We then sat outside and ate the food we had made, accompanied by organic wine, good conversation and the odd firefly or two.

Despite the BBC weather website promising a week of sunshine the weather was very changeable. The next day we had a morning lesson, where we would cook lunch. Then we had an afternoon to visit San Gimignano.

For lunch we made a selection of crostini with different toppings - roasted pepper and goats cheese, melanzana and mint and tomato with olive oil and basil. We also made cannelini beans with tomato sauce, panzanella salad, chard and peccorino flan and panna cotta. Unfortunately the panna cotta did not set properly but it tasted wonderful, as did everything else.

The afternoon, unfortunately was a washout as torrential rain made walking around San Gimignano almost impossible although we did get to see a couple of spectacular rainbows during the afternoon and evening.

The next day we had a whole day free to visit Florence. The Organic Tuscany package includes tickets into the Uffitzi Gallery which has a huge collection of art including works by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Botticelli.

We took the train into Florence and, once there, we went to meet our tour guide who turned out to be a real old fashioned matron kind of woman - imagine the Two Fat Ladies and Rosemary Shrager rolled into one...

She was quite a character, forever telling us to keep up, speaking very loudly in a posh voice while telling other groups to be quiet and moaning at us for visiting the Uffitzi gallery on a Tuesday, as it was its busiest day! However, she did know her stuff and some of the tour was very interesting even if a little politically incorrect. One of the girls managed to 'escape' halfway through the tour, but the rest of us soldiered on. Eventually the guide left and rather than see the rest of the gallery we headed straight for a restaurant where I had a ribbolata (Tuscan vegetable soup) and pasta with porcini for lunch. This was followed by a fabulous gelato before heading back to the train station via Avis car rental so I could be added as a driver to the hire car.

The next morning we met Manuela who, along with Shilpa, took us through making our lunch.

We made a fabulous tomato and bread soup (papa al pomodoro) and a couple of sformati which are a sort of souffle like flan. For dessert we made a custard tart which was a bit runny. This we blamed on Jane's stirring it in more than one direction when she was told not to... It was all very tasty and the weather was lovely, so we were able to eat it, once again, on the terrace.

In the evening we went to La Spinosa an organic winery, where we had a quick tour before going onto their restaurant where we had a very nice meal starting with pear and pecorino with honey, followed by gnocci with pesto and tomato. Then we had vegetable flan with courgette souffle and finished with a fine cheesecake.

The next morning we all went for a walk into the Tuscan countryside and finished off with a picnic. The weather was gorgeous, sunny but not too hot and we were accompanied by the neighbours two dogs, Bianco and Spotty. The walk took us through vineyards and olive groves and we ended up at a church where we met Riccardo who had bought a couple of baskets full of food and wine.

We then went to a shady spot under a cedar tree that overlooked the valley to eat. Once we'd finished eating Shilpa gave a couple of us a lift back to the apartment while the others elected to retrace their steps and make their own way home.

In the early evening we all drove to Siena and had a guided tour of the Duomo and the streets of the city by a guide who was very enthusiastic and very interesting. Once the guided tour was over Shilpa left us to our own devices and, true to form we headed to a bar and then to a very nice restaurant that was on the 'recommended' list that Shilpa had provided.

We each ordered different meals from the menu and got to try each others, which was nice. A couple of the dishes were similar to ones that we have made during the week and the consensus was that ours were better.

Friday morning, we had the last of our cookery lessons. Manuela showed us how to make risotto, cheesecake, a lovely rice salad and a Tuscan dessert made with chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Once we had eaten, some of us visited Poggio Antico, a biodynamic farm, where I bought some pasta and cheeses.

We all met up early evening to go to Tenuta Moriano for some wine tasting. We had a tour around the cellars before trying the olive oil and the wine that the estate produces. We tried the San Genovase and the Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were nice but I preferred the San Genovase.

The lady conducting the tasting was very interesting. She told us of the process that they have to go through to be allowed to call their wines 'Chianti'.

After buying a couple of bottles and some oil we left to go to the Trattoria C'era Una Volta where we were to eat. The restaurant has an amazing view across the valley. We ordered a selection of antipasti followed by a different main course for everyone. That way everyone got to try a selection of all the dishes. It was all very nice, but the place was busy, so the service was slightly on the slow side. But that didn't spoil the evening, we all had a good time and said our goodbyes to Shilpa at the end of it.

So that was the end of my week. It was great fun and the people were fantastic. From the time I booked, the comunication between myself, Shilpa and the others was really good and, by the time that I arrived in Certaldo, I felt that I already knew everyone.

The week felt that it was a one off being run especially for us and you never had the feeling that you were just one of many courses that were being run over the course of the summer, the atmosphere was really personal, Shilpa and Riccardo made you feel incredibly welcome, almost like old friends.

The accommodation was in apartments attached to local farmhouses and was pretty basic, but it was fairly comfortable and clean. If you check out the cost of Organic Tuscany compared to other cookery courses you'll see it's considerably cheaper so don't go expecting four star hotels.

I thought it was great and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a fun "foody" week in Tuscany. On top of that, you learn a fair bit about the organic farms and producers in the area and, oh yeah, the food is fantastic!

Since originally writing this posting, Shilpa has added a third vegetarian week to the course diary both for this year and next, which is good news!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook & Paradiso Seasons by Denis Cotter

Cafe Paradiso Cookbook Paradiso Seasons

The secret, I think, of good vegetarian food is to produce a dish where there is no place for meat and, if it was there, it would be out of place.

Denis Cotter does just this.

These two cookery books have to have some of the most inspirational vegetarian recipes I have ever seen. I've had great reactions at a dinner party to the Oyster Mushrooms in Ginger Butter that I cooked from a recipe in the Cafe Paradiso Cookbook, and I have to agree with them, and the Sweet Chilli Fried Tofu with Leek and Coconut Broth from the second book managed to convince a meat-eating friend of mine that there is a place for tofu on this earth.

In both books he produces superb, complete dishes that really show what can be done with vegetables. Of the two books, I prefer the first one (Cafe Paradiso Cookbook) but the difference between the two is pretty marginal. The recipes are imaginative, colourful and above all, tasty. Some of them are a bit fiddly, but the effort is rewarded when you tuck into the finished dish.

I've been lucky enough to eat at his restaurant, and it is well worth a visit. And while you're there, stock up on the various local ingredients to use in the recipes when you get home.

Made in Italy: Food and Stories by Giorgio Locatelli

Made in Italy: Food and Stories

I was very impressed by the food in Locanda Locatelli and when Made in Italy was published, I ordered one immediately. I actually managed to end up with two copies, but that is another story.

Made in Italy is so much more than an Italian cookery book. As well as some superb recipes it also contains autobiographical accounts of Giorgio Locatelli's life and the history of Italy and Italian cooking.

Oh yeah, and it also looks great on your bookshelf.

The risotto section itself is worth having the book for. It is so well written and easy to read that by the time you've cooked your risotto you know the complete history of rice, what happens to it when it's cooking and how the various regions of Italy cook risottos differently.

If you only buy one Italian cookbook, make sure it's this one.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Perfect Day - Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Great Milton

Church Road,
Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD

Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons is a two Michelin Star restaurant run by Raymond Blanc. It is a huge manor house set in beautiful grounds on the outskirts of Oxford.

We could only get a lunchtime booking, the Saturday evening had been booked up months in advance but, as it turned out, it all worked out rather well.

We arrived at half past noon, and were shown to a table on the terrace where we were served drinks and appetisers. The appetisers consisted of various bite-sized pieces of foods served on slate. There were five of us and, having been informed of the dietry requirements of the group when I booked, we were presented with four vegetarian menus and one non-veggie one.

However, we decided that we would all go veggie and went for the ten course Menu Decouverte.

Once we had finished our drinks and nibbles, we were shown into the conservatory and seated at our table.

The sommelier suggested a couple of bottles of wine that would compliment the menu and the first dish was delivered.

Beetroot Terrine; horseradish and dill cream
This dish set the scene for the rest of the meal. It was a beautifully presented, perfectly cooked triangle-shaped piece of beetroot, served with a delicate horseradish sauce topped with a dollop of dill cream. Horseradish and beetroot were just made for each other and this dish tasted divine.

"Vieux Lille" cheese souffle, apple & celery salad; walnut dressing
This was a free-standing souffle, by which I mean that it wasn't delivered in a ramekin. The souffle had a very delicate cheese flavour and once you reached the middle of it, you discovered a "core" of melted Vieux Lille, a quite strong, salty cheese.

Salad of "Poivrade" artichokes, aged balsamic vinegar and garden herbs
This was a very light, tasty salad. The balsamic had the texture of syrup which meant that it clung nicely to the various salad ingredients rather than just ending up swilling around on the plate.

Risotto of spring vegetables and herbs, grilled sicilian tomatoes
The vegetables in this risotto were gorgeous. Their flavour of the peas, carrots and asparagus burst into your mouth as you bit into them. The rice was perfectly cooked, with the very slightest bite and the risotto was wet enough without being sloppy. Perfect!

Roasted sweet Romano pepper, tabbouleh; artichoke confit and spiced pepper jus
This, I think, was the prettiest of the savory dishes. The skinned, roasted pepper as stuffed with tabbouleh and then drizzled with a pepper sauce once it reached the table. The plate decoration was finished off with a line of tapenade which was then decorated with seeds.

Fresh tagliatelle pasta, seasonal vegetables; rosemary and Gruyere cheese sauce
This, along with the risotto, was my favourite of the "main course" dishes. The cheese sauce was so delicate that it allowed the flavours of the vegetables (peas, baby turnips among others) to take the stage rather than overwhelming them as it would've been so easy to do.

Before dessert, we were given the option of a cheese platter which three of us had. Each of us had a choice of three cheeses from a trolley groaning under the weight of many different cheeses. Between us, we tried a selection of goats cheeses, a couple of different blues, some herb-rinded ones and soft cheeses such as camembert.

"Carpaccio" of blood orange
This was another beautifully presented dish. Several microscopically thin slices of blood orange topped with a quinelle of orange sorbet. It sounds good, doesn't it? It was.

Exotic fruit "raviole" with "kaffir" lime leaf and coconut sorbet

Every so often, you come across a combination of food and drink that works. So it was with this dish. The "raviole" was made with various exotic fruits wrapped in thin orange slices. This was then served with cocpnut sorbet. The dish was really nice. However, accompanying it with a sip of Muscat took the taste to a new level, causing an explosion of flavours in my mouth. I think it was unanimous that this was the best dish of the day.

Coffee "Panna Cotta"; crunchy hazelnut praline, anis "creme glacee"
Served on its own, this would've been a perfectly acceptable dish. It was a small rectangular piece of coffee panna cotta between two praline wafers. However, up against the competition of the two previous dishes, it paled into third place.

We then left the conservatory and had coffee and petit fours out on the terrace once again.

The weather was beautiful and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the extensive gardens looking at the various brass statues that inhabit the grounds and looking over the organic vegetable garden and the various polytunnels that supplement the kitchen' ingredients. A few of the group even found some time to play some croquet.

Had we succeeded in booking an evening meal, we would've been denied this, most enjoyable, part of the day. Finally, at 6pm, the taxi turned up so we paid the bill and left for home.

It was, pretty much, the perfect day. The setting was superb and the food was great. It really goes to show that with imagination and skill meat-free food can be imaginitive, good-looking and, above all, extremely tasty. The service was good, but a touch impersonal. That's the only criticism I can come up with. There was nothing wrong with the service, they did their job perfectly, which is just as you would expect at this kind of establishment - it was just that we never quite felt that we "got to know" the waiting staff like we have at other restaurants. But that is just a small niggle. If you've a special day coming up and you want somewhere special to go, then save up your money (it's not cheap - the Menu Decouverte is £110 per head) and give Le Manoir a call.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Osteria Pizzaria Napoli'e, Westerham

Osteria Pizzaria Napoli'e
18a & b Market Square
Westerham Kent

Westerham, in Kent, is a small town that is pretty much populated solely by restaurants and antique shops. There are a few Italian restaurants in the town, one of which, San Bas, I've visited a few times and it is very good.

On Thursday night, my wife and I both had a hankering for pizza, so we decided to try one of the others, Osteria, which is tucked away in the corner of Market Square.

The restaurant itself is a fair size, with wood panelled walls covered in pictures of Naples and the surrounding areas. The tables are fairly close together, but far enough apart to not impinge on your neighbours. All this together evokes quite a nice atmosphere in the restaurant, especially once it begins to fill up.

So, what of the food. I started with an antipasti of grilled vegetables. This consisted of aubergine, courgette, mushrooms and pepper served wih various salad leaves. It was very nice, although I would've liked a splash more oil. My wife had a bruchetta which she said was very tasty. Some of the other dishes coming out for other diners looked very good indeed.

For main course, we both had pizza. I had a margherita with extra mushroom an onion, and my wife had a salami one. Both were very nice. The tomato sauce was really nice and there was plenty of it without it making the base soggy. All in all, very tasty.

That left both of us reasonably sated, so we forewent having dessert.

Osteria is a nice restaurant with a great atmosphere and good food, and it compliments the more contemporary cuisine of San Bas really well. It's nice to know that my local town has a couple of top Italian restaurants nestled among its antique shops.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


As a treat for our wedding anniversary, my wife and I went to Barcelona for the weekend.

I wasn't sure what the veggie scene was in Spain - I was expecting it to be reasonably poor, so I was encouraged when I discovered the Barcelona Vegetarian Guide website, which listed several vegetarian restaurants and a selection of restaurants that had a good selection of meat-free menu options.

However, in our short time in the city, we never actually got around to visiting any vegetarian restaurants to eat, although I did check out a couple of menus as we passed them on our travels.
There are several branches of Maoz in the city, which are effectively falafel and salad bars. The produce looked fresh and the bar itself looked very clean.

For lunch we braved a tapas bar and despite what the owner decided didn't contain meat or fish (we were offered sausages at one point!) we did have a lunch consisting of a Spanish omelette, potatoes and bread - not spectacular, but filling.

We found a restaurant called Unicornious fairly near to the Plaza de Catalunya, but we didn't go in as the menu didn't look that inspiring, consisting mostly of tofu and meat substitutes such as tempeh.

So, we decided to hit that haven of the veggie traveller, the Italian restaurant, of which there are plenty in Barcelona. The hotel we were staying at recommended La Perla Nera in Via Laeitana as the best Italian in the city. It must have good pizzas, as the pasta we had was certainly nothing to write home about. The spaghetti looked and tasted like it was a can of Heinz - very weird indeed. One of the desserts we ordered was pancakes covered in marmalade! We refused to pay for that as it was really disgusting. When we walked past the restaurant the next night there was a queue to get in. Like I said, they must do great pizzas, unless the Catalans have a peculiar affection for Heinz spaghetti or marmalade!

The next morning I did a Gourmet Walking Tour of the city. This lasted for about two hours and we were shown various old shops that had been producing the same food for eons, fancy chocolate shops, specialised delicattesons (where you could buy Tiptree Jam!) and, the highlight for me, Boqueria Market.

The market sells every conceivable food item you can think of (or seemed to) The displays were a sea of colour and were great.

There is a mushroom specialist there (unfortunately closed when I visited later on) that also stocks a range of edible insects, for those that maybe interested!

While in the market I noticed that there was a stall selling vegan fayre called Organic. I made a mental note to visit it once the tour was over Which I did, and had a huge, very tasty vegetable paella accompanied by a salad consisting of just about every salad item I could think of.

We had a great time in Barcelona, it's a lovely city and it'd be nice to go back as we didn't have nearly enough time to look around everything that we wanted.

Cricketer's Arms, Rickling Green

The Cricketers' Arms,
Rickling Green,
near Saffron Walden,
Essex, CB11 3YG

The Cricketer's Arms is a stone's throw from Stansted Airport and so, as we were staying at to Stansted in prepration for a flight to Europe, my wife and I thought we'd take the opportunity to try it out.

The restaurant is pretty easy to find, and is set in a gorgeous olde-worlde setting just opposite a large cricket green. The building has two restaurants plus a very comfortable bar, populated with large, relaxing sofas.

After choosing our dishes in the bar, we were shown through to the smaller of the two restaurants and, shortly after, the starters arrived.

True to my mushroom addiction, I had chosen pan sauteed wild mushrooms served on toasted brioche with soft poached egg and truffle. To be honest, although quite nice, the sauce was too strong for the rest of the ingredients and the taste of the mushrooms and truffle was completely lost. My wife had deep fried crab cake with spring onion risotto and tomato salsa which she enjoyed and said was very tasty.

For the main course I had sun blushed tomato gnocchi with grilled two cheese sauce. The dish was baked gnocchi, and was presented very well - the burned top of the sauce was cracked and resembled a lava flow. The gnocchi itself was tasty, but I'm afraid I was spoilt by the perfect gnocchi I had at Neal Street a few weeks back. My better half enjoyed her rump of Welsh lamb with champ potato and a tomato and mint salsa.

Dessert was a no brainer as Gaz's Creme Brulee Rules came into effect. The rasperry creme brulee, was a plain brulee with raspberries placed on top, rather than in the dessert itself but, this aside, it was a very pleasant dish indeed, rating an 8 on the scale.

In summary, we had a very pleasant meal, the service was good and the pub itself is very pleasant. If you're looking for somewhere to eat, and don't fancy the Birchanger Services on the M11, you could do a lot worse than detour a few miles to the Cricketer's Arms.

Also, if you're flying out of Stansted, the pub offers accomodation and will let you leave your car there and arrange a shuttle to and from the airport for you. We may well try this next time we fly from Stansted.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When Saturday Comes...

Last Saturday, we had a foodie day out in London. Starting with breakfast in Nonna Cappucinni, a small Italian deli' near our local railway station in Oxted, we then set off for the La Dolce Vita show at Olympia. La Dolce Vite was organised by the same people behind the Taste of London festival that we visited last year and was an exhibition of Italian food, fashion and property.

It wasn't a good weekend to be in London, as four tube lines were closed for "planned engineering." Two of the closed lines were the District and the Circle, which serve Earl's Court where we had to get the Olympia train. Add to this that the Ideal Home Show was also on at Earl's Court and you'll understand that the Piccadilly line was a little on the crowded side as it struggled to cope with the extra people that would normally be travelling on the other two lines.

Anyway, after a very round-about journey on the tube, we finally arrived at Olympia and the exhibition.

We headed for the food section, tasting various cheeses, sauces and sampling wines. We came away with some gorgeous gorgonzola, parmesan, some wine and some risotto rice. I also got to meet Giorgio Locatelli and got a signed copy of Made in Italy, his cookery book.

The show was pretty good and there were some nice ingredients to be had.

From there, we made our way to London Bridge and to Borough Market.

Boy, was it crowded! But it was great fun, loads of fantastic food of all sorts and we bought some bread and salad stuff for dinner which I used to make a rather nice pear and gorgonzola salad.

Luckily, the journey home was easier than the journey into London and, although we were tired, we'd had a great day.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Arrivederci Neal Street

I went to Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant about 18 months ago. I thought it was wonderful and had always planned to go back sometime but never got around to it. So, when I heard that it was closing in March due to the landlord deciding to redevelop the area, it spurred me on to visiting again.

So, on a Tuesday night, a friend and I visited the restaurant to pay our respects for the final time.

We decided to make the most of it and do the full Italian four-courser.

For starters we both had Trifolata Di Funghi Del Giorno (Mixed sautéed wild and cultivated mushrooms of the day with garlic and chilli served with carasau bread) which was great. The Neal Street Restaurant is the perfect place for mushrooms and truffles and this mix of king oysters, chanterelles and others were all perfectly cooked and very tasty.

Next up I had Gnocchi Di Patate Con Fonduta Al Tartufo Invernale (home made potato dumplings served with fontina cheese and black winter truffle fondue.) I have to say, this was the best gnocchi I have ever had. It as so light and fluffy it was incredible that it had stayed together when it was cooked. And yet it had, it was wonderful. The cheese sauce was the perfect conistency and the truffles were just the icing on the cake.

Not many Italian restaurants have a secondi dish that is suitable for vegetarians, but Neal Street is a welcome exception. Pizzoccheri Alla Valtellinese is oven baked buckwheat flat pasta with savoy cabbage, Bitto cheese, potato and parmesan. It struck me as a sort of Italian "bubble and squeak" and was extremely pleasant.

Dessert was a no brainer, as there was a Creme Brulee on the menu and Gaz's rules say that he must have that if it's available. It was served in a large shallow dish. The caramelised sugar topping was perfect, however the 'creme' was a little runny for my liking. It tasted great though, so on the Gaz scale, it comes in at a seven.

It was a fabulous meal and it was nice to see Antonio Carluccio dining on one of the adjacent tables. It's such a shame that the restaurant is closing, I just hope that he can find a new location and re-open before too long. In the meantime though, I'll just have to get my mushroom fix at his Caffes.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Valentine's Day

What to do? Do I take my other half to a nice restaurant, or cook her something. In the end, I decided to plunder my various cookbooks and cook a special meal for her, containing some of her favourite ingredients.

For starters, I decided to try an old favourite with a bit of a twist. Grilled Halloumi Cheese is always good, and I decided to serve it with deep fried rocket, sweet chilli sauce and hoisin sauce. Deep frying rocket was quite scary as, despite my best efforts at drying it, it still spat over the whole kitchen and threatened to give me first degree burns!

Anyway, it all worked great, and was very tasty.

For the main course I dug out my Paul Gaylor book and decided on Green Pea & Mint Ravioli with Saffron Cream Sauce and Truffled Beetroot Salad. This was the first time I had made ravioli since my Cordon Vert Diploma Finals and I 'cheated' a little bit by using a food processor to make the pasta dough, but it was one of the best pastas that I have made, and the filling worked beautifully. The saffron sauce was, if I say so myself, amazing and I'm making the dish again for Mother's Day.

For dessert, I decided to do something with rhubarb, one of my wife's favourites. It's not something I would normally eat, but I thought I'd give it a go, especially as I had cooked it.

Searching through my Dennis Cotter book, I came across Rhubarb Shortbread with Butterscotch Sauce. It looked very nice in the picture, so I figured I'd give it a go. I made the shortbread twice as I burnt the first batch. The second batch worked fine and the dish was a success.

The whole meal, washed down with some Verve Cliquot was lovely, and I was really pleased with it. Most important of all though, my wife enjoyed it too.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Imli, London

Imli Restaurant
167-169 Wardour Street, Soho, London, W1F 8WR
Tel: 020 7287 4243

When I was younger (much younger) one of my old stomping grounds was the Marquee Club in Wardour Street. It closed down many years ago, but it was still nice to find myself nearby at Imli's.

Imli serves what it describes as Indian food, Tapas style. This, I am led to believe is very similar to the street food you would find in India, but given a modern and stylish makeover.

The restaurant itself is very neat and tidy, airy and very clean.

Once shown to our table we were given a menu and told that the food is designed to be shared and that a selection of three or four dishes each would be about right for the average appetite.

First off, we chose Mushroom Tikki and Spiced Potato Cakes from the Light and Refreshing part of the menu. The mushroom tikki looked like three breaded mushrooms on the plate, but once they were cut into it was apparent that they were made of a mix of finely chopped mushroom, ginger and coconut that were then shaped to appear as mushrooms. These were served with a tomato garlic sauce. They were quite spicy and very nice. The potato cakes were made with ginger and chilli and were very spicy.

Next we ordered from the New Traditions section of the menu. I had Vegetable Brochette which was skewers of grilled panir cheese, courgettes, peppers and onion served on a spicy mushroom risotto. It was very nice, but the rice was exceptionally tasty.

For those of a non-veggie persuasion that read this, my friend had the Seafood Platter, consisting of peppered squid, fish cake with lime leaf and sesame garlic prawns, all of which were pronounced very good but I distinctly remember an extra pronouncement for the squid.

The next part of the menu is the Signature Dishes section. Once again my friend and I diverged paths and he ordered Keema Mushroom which consisted of slow cooked minced lamb and mushrooms served in two rather sizable puff pastry squares, while I had the Aubergine Masala which was diced aubergines sautéed with fresh curry leaves and tomatoes served with rice. It was lovely, beautifully tender and spiced to perfection.

As accompanments we ordered parathas and cumin mash. If you go to Imli, you must have the cumin mash, it is divine, and at only £1 a portion, a bargain too!

And so to dessert. Between us, we decided that there were three deserts that sounded nice. So we concluded that we'd keep to the Imli tradition of sharing and ordered all three! The Carrot Fudge was made up of shredded carrots, melon seeds and raisins reduced in sweetened condensed milk. I couldn't decide whether I liked this or not, and still can't. However, I had to keep going back and trying another mouthful just to be sure. It's certainly different, that's for sure. The Indian Caramel Custard is a coconut milk and jaggery crème caramel and was very nice. However our last choice, the Mango and Basil Sorbet, was gorgeous and the perfect dish to end the night on.

By the time we left at around 8.15pm, there were people queueing for tables. Imli is very popular and, judging by my experience here, justifiably so. If you go there, don't forget to try the cumin mash.

Locanda Locatelli, London

Locanda Locatelli
8 Seymour Street, London W1H 7JZ
Tel: 020 7935 9088

Giorgio Locatelli's book, Made in Italy is a fantastic cookery book. It's more than just that though, it is virtually the story of his life through food, and also the story of Italian food through Giorgio's life. Having read through the book, seen him at the Good Food Show, I just had to try his restaurant. So, my wife and I decided that we would visit there after we had spent the afternoon at the theatre.

It was just after 6.30pm when we arrived and sat in the small bar area while they got our table ready. While we were there, we watched Giorgio giving instructions to his staff and he then wandered over and said hello to every one that was waiting.

Shortly after we were taken to our table and the drinks we had ordered in the bar were brought over. Some grissini arrived along with the menus. We chose our starters and main course and spoke to the wine waiter to order a glass of wine that would go with the food we'd ordered. (I was driving so was limiting myself to a single glass) It actually worked quite well, as my wife ordered a different glass for each course.

So, to the food. A bowl of a selection of delicious breads (focaccia, olive and others) was delivered along with a dish of olive oil.

By this time, my wife had decided that she loved the place as it was smart, but not pretentious and had a lovely relaxed atmoshphere. And she wants to go back for her birthday, which I'm more than happy to do.

For starters my wife had pan fried scallops with saffron vinaigrette which she said was excellent. For main she had the day's special which was medallions of venison with mushrooms and vegetables. Again she said it was very nice, the venison was not quite to the 'melt in your mouth' stage, but very nearly.

The only items on the starter menu that were suitable for me to eat were salads. Initially I was disappointed, as I'm not a huge salad fan, but I ordered the Belgian endive salad with gorgonzola cheese and pear. I was very pleasantly surprised by what I got. Simple, beautifully presented and extremely tasty. The leaves of the endives were filled with grated pear and then stacked. On top of the stack was a lovely creamy piece of gorgonzola.

For main I decided to feed my truffle addiction and ordered the potato and mushroom gnocchi with black truffle. I've not seen quite so much truffle on a plate before and it was gorgeous. It had a very delicate sage butter sauce with it and my mouth is watering just thinking about it. I was really chuffed to find it in his book - it's definitely on my "to try" list.

As for the other items on the menu, there were plenty of "primi's" that I could eat and they all sounded lovely. As is the case with most Italian restaurants, the secondi consisted of mat and fish, but as we were having three courses (in the good old standad Brit way of doing things) it did not matter. However, it would be nice, occasionally to find a secondi that would be suitable for a vegetarian.

I was left to battle the puddings on my own as my wife was too full and opted for a port instead. I plumped for the chestnut mousse, warm chocolate foam, lemon thyme cream and brandy ice cream. The lemon thyme was such a surprise and so refreshing. The whole thing was lovely, and not too filling.

The people on the table next to us were friends of Georgio and when one of them asked if he could have crab instead of some other seafood in a dish, Georgio popped out to see them and say that he wouldn't do the crab as the sauce would be too strong for it. However he would do something else for him.

He was also talking about where he gets his fish from and that he'll only get it if its fresh etc… It was interesting. Every so often he would pop out of the kitchen to greet people as they entered the restaurant - it was really nice to see.

Then it was coffee and time for the bill. Including tip, £150ish. We didn't think it was bad for such a great experience, and we'll be back there later in the year for my wife's birthday.

Royal Dragon, London

Royal Dragon Restaurant & Karaoke
30 Gerrard Street, London W1D 6JS

Luckily, when we visited, on a Saturday lunchtime, the "karaoke" part of the restaurant's title was not in operation.

We had some time to kill in the West End, so we decided to head for Chinatown for lunch.

We picked a restaurant that had some veggie stuff on the menu that also had Chinese people eating in there, as we always find this a reasonable guide to quality. The menu advertised a vegetarian set menu for around twelve pounds, so in the interest of quickness and variety we ordered this.

Starters arrived promptly and consisted of a large plate of asparagus and aubergine tempura, crispy seaweed, some pastry thing and chilli dipping sauce, all of which were very nice, especially the aubergine.

Next up were lettuce rolls with vegetables, crispy noodles and hoisin sauce. Again, very good, although the vegetable filling was a little heavy on the sweetcorn kernels and certainly needed the sauce just to give it that extra kick.

The final course was a selection of vegetables with cashew nuts, vegetables with mushrooms, sezchuan tofu and vegetable fried rice. All really tasty, especially the tofu which was quite spicy.

The restaurant itself is quite modern in appearance, very crisp clean lines and dark colours. The service was good and the waiting staff made sure we had a never-ending pot of Chinese tea. All in all, it was a very enjoyable place to have lunch.