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.