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.