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.