Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mint Leaf, London

Suffolk Place
London SW1Y 4HX Map

I've walked past Mint Leaf once or twice a month for the last two years without realising it was there. A friend had it recommended to him so when we were trying to decide where to go to for our monthly (or so) Beer and Curry night he mentioned that we should give it a try.

So we did.

Mint Leaf is down in the basement and that, combined with the lighting gives it quite a cosy atmosphere. The room is long and partitioned in the middle. One side of the partition is the bar, the other side is the restaurant.

They do a couple of tasting platters on the menu, one of which is vegetarian, so I chose to have that with a side of baby aubergines stuffed with cumin mash and goats' cheese

The tasting platter consisted of baby bell peppers filled with spiced potato and paneerpotato cakes cased with green pea and raisin and paneer stuffed with rose petal confit.

The food was very tasty, however special mention must go to the aubergine which was lovely and if visit Mint Leaf, I recommend you try it.

The dessert menu had a coconut creme brulee on it, and it was pretty good, getting an 8 on the scale.

The service was good and, pricewise it's fairly average for London. We were on a discount offer from Toptable which made it quite a bargain and we had a really good evening.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fat Duck, Bray

High Street,
Bray, SL6 2AQ Map

The Fat Duck was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005 and, since then, has made the number two spot its permanent home, behind El Bulli.

I've heard many wonderful stories about the food at the "Duck", and have always wondered whether they would do a version of their menu that was suitable for a vegetarian. Well, I can happily tell you that they do, and it is an experience that, whether you enjoy it or not, you are unlikely to forget.

We arrived early enough to have a quick drink in the Hinds Head, Heston Blumenthal's pub/restaurant, which is a few doors away from the Fat Duck restaurant. As our allotted time drew close, we wandered down to the restaurant and were shown to our table.

We then ordered a champagne to start the meal.

We had decided to do the tasting menu and I informed the maitre'd that I didn't eat meat or fish, to which she replied that wouldn't be a problem. The sommelier arrived shortly after and we told him that we would have the choice of wines matched to the dishes.

I'm going to concentrate on the vegetarian dishes that arrived, although I may mention in passing the dish on the main menu if I think it would be of interest.

A wooden bench was brought alongside our table and one of the waiting staff arrived with an array of shiny equipment. The stage was set for Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. Foam was dropped into liquid nitrogen and then sprinkled with green tea powder. You then placed this straight in your mouth to cleanse your palate. Which it did. It was very refreshing. It also caused faint jets of steam to come out of your nose.

Next, a plate arrived containing one square of red jelly and one square of orange jelly. This, we were told was Orange and Beetroot Jelly. "Try the orange one first," we were told. So we did. The orange jelly tasted of beetroot. The red tasted of orange. Very clever and a good amusing start to the meal.

Next came the first change to the set menu. I had Lentils, Peach Puree and Mint. Who would've thought that lentils and peach puree would work together. Take it from me, they do. Although the dish was only a couple of teaspoonfuls the flavour was intense.

Then we were back to the set menu with Mustard Ice Cream and Red Cabbage Gazpacho. Again, the combination of the flavours was superb. Tried separately however both did nothing for me. Once again, I am reminded that it is the combination of flavours that make up the overall experience and for me refusing a dish because I don't like one of the ingredients is something that I now try never to do.

Then came a piece of theatre as the next dish was delivered to the table. They were both themed around the truffle and mine was Butternut Squash and Truffle Veloute with Truffle Toast. As the truffle is dug from under the ground, to evoke the experience we were given a thin film to put on our tongue that had a very earthy taste. A box containing moss was put in the middle of the table and water poured over it. Mist and smoke began to pour from the box and covered the table. It was quite spectacular. Oh yeah, in all the excitement I almost forgot - the veloute was excellent.

Probably the most famous dish at the Fat Duck is the Snail Porridge. Now, as much as I detest snails when they eat my lettuces they're still not part of my diet, so I was wondering what I might get as a replacement for this course. A plate of what was described with a smile as Parsley Porridge was placed in front of me. This was the same porridge without the snails and with some of the thinnest slithers of sundried tomato that you can imagine mixed into the green porridge. On top of this were ribbons of celeriac. It was really tasty and had a very mild curry flavour. I was glad that I was able to share in at least part of the famous dish.

Next to arrive was Cep Mushroom, Almond Gel, Cherry and Chamomile. This was delivered as a substitute for a foie gras dish and was very nice. I'm a huge fungus fan and the “king of mushrooms” was a fantastic substitute. As you can see from the photo, the presentation was excellent.

And so it was time again for another piece of theatre. Two shells were brought to the table each with a pair of earphones coming from them. This was Sound of the Sea. Through the earphones we could hear the sounds of seagulls and the noise of waves crashing to shore. The dish that accompanied the aural experience was a culinary impression of the seaside with edible “sand” made, apparently, of tapioca, along with seaweed, various seafood (in my case it was mushroom slithers and bamboo shoots) and foam. The presentation was superb but most surprising was the reaction I had while I was eating it.

Initially the dish was quite interesting, but then I bit into a piece of what I think was some kind of seaweed. Suddenly my mouth was full of the flavour of the sea and I was transported back to the Leigh Cockle sheds where I used to go with my parents and grandparents when I was a young boy about 35 years or more ago. It was amazing, and a lump came to my throat as the memories came flooding back. I have never had a reaction like that to any food before – it was quite unexpected. Of all the wines that we had accompanying each dish, the Sake that we had with this one was the best match of the meal.

My next dish was Cauliflower Risotto, Carpaccio of Cauliflower and Cocoa Powder. This was the second time in a couple of weeks that I had had cauliflower with cocoa powder as Paul Gayler made a similar dish when I saw him at Café Spice Namaste. Needless to say, the risotto was lovely – the rice had a perfect al-dente texture and it had the perfect “gloopy” consistency that I love.

My next course was Vegetables with black truffle, celeriac foam and lemon and thyme veloute. The vegetables included baby turnips, chargrilled fennel, spring onions and mushrooms among others and they were wonderfully crispy and fresh. The foam and veloute complimented them perfectly. I love dishes like this that show how tasty fresh vegetables can be when cooked well.

Imagine a cup of tea where half of the tea in the cup is hot and the other half is cold. Now, imagine that when you drink it half you mouth is hot and the other half cold. Got that? Now, go to the Fat Duck and try the Hot and Iced Tea where your imagination is turned into reality. Amazing!

Next, it was time for a history lesson and a trip back to our childhood. We were handed a small parchment booklet telling the life story of Mrs Agnes B. Marshall. According to the booklet, Mrs Marshall was one of the greatest Victorian cooks and was the first person in England to write about the edible ice cream cone. We were then presented with a tiny ice cream cornet which was then followed by a miniature sherbet fountain.

It was now time for desserts and first up was Mango and Douglas Fir Puree and Blackcurrant Sorbet. It was beautifully presented and had a fabulous combination of flavours.

The other dish that is a Fat Duck staple is Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream. My wife had this, preceded by Parsnip Cereal and Parsnip Milk which was delivered in a small "Fat Duck Cereals" box! She said at the time that it was nice, however now, due to the amount of wine we had, she cannot remember it!

I missed out on “Breakfast” and instead I had Blackforest Gateaux. This was the dish that Heston did on his TV show In Search of Perfection. Needless to say it was pretty much perfect. It looked good and tasted wonderful. The whole thing was really light and the chocolate layer in the centre was marvellously crunchy.

And so with the delivery of some coffee and petit fours which included Carrot and Orange Lolly and Apple Pie Caramel in an edible wrapper our Fat Duck experience came to an end. It was pretty much unlike any other meal I've ever had. Sure, it's gimmicky, but that I think, is the point. It's about seeing what you can do with food, turning conventions on their heads but most of all about presented beautifully tasting food.

The service was friendly and timely and was never "snooty", which is a criticism I've seen in other reviews. In fact, there doesn't appear to be a dress code at the Fat Duck as there were people in the restaurant in jeans.

If you're vegetarian, there doesn't seem to be any compromise on quality or taste, and I was never made to feel that I was having a second class menu; it was just a fabulous afternoon.

Caldesi in Campagna, Bray

Old Mill Lane, 
Bray, SL6 2BG

A while back I did a course at La Cucina Caldesi in Marylebone and I've always promised myself that I would visit one of Giancarlo Caldesi's restaurants. On one of the bread courses at the Bertinet Kitchen I met Gregorio Piazza, the head chef at the new Caldesi restaurant in Bray, Berkshire.

When we were planning a weekend away for my birthday we decided that we would book a meal at Caldesi in Campagna.

Bray is a lovely little village about ten minutes from Maidenhead and is blessed with some of the best restaurants in Britain, if not the world.

Caldesi in Campagna is in a quiet little road off of the high street and is well set out. The tables are nicely spaced giving a good amount of privacy. The building is an old cottage and is well decorated and the original brick fireplaces and well done lighting give the place a really comfortable and “homely” atmosphere.

We had a drink at the bar when we arrived and Gregorio popped out to see us and have a quick chat. While we were talking, Giancarlo arrived and also said hello before they both disappeared to the kitchen.

We were then shown to our table and our orders taken.

I started with Uovo con asparagi e tartufo which was asparagus, truffle and poached egg. The asparagus, despite not being in season, was really tasty. It was slightly chargrilled which gave it a great flavour and the texture was nice and crunchy. The large slithers of truffle just added to the whole experience – I really enjoyed it. My wife had scallops which she said were really good. She is quite fussy about her seafood and said that this dish was one of only three that she has had in Britain where she can really taste the sea.

My main course was Tortelloni con mozzarella e melanzane - aubergine and mozzarella tortelloni in a cherry tomato sauce. The sauce was superb, it had a wonderful aftertaste of chilli that, while not very hot, added an edge to the dish that raised above it above other pasta in sauce dishes. I mentioned this to Giancarlo, who had been wandering around the tables, and he said that I should mop up the rest of it with some bread, which I duly did.

For dessert I had Stecche di Bombalini which were doughnut sticks with a crème patisserie and jam and my wife had a tiramisu of which I had a spoonful. Both were excellent and it was a perfect end to the meal.

Caldesi in Campagna is a really nice restaurant, very friendly and welcoming and with some great food.

As an added bonus, Giancarlo popped over again and invited us into the kitchen to say goodbye to Gregorio and we took some photos. It was a fabulous end to a great evening which we both thoroughly enjoyed.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Saf, London

152-154 Curtain Road,
Shoreditch EC2A 3AT Map

Saf is a relatively new restaurant in Shoreditch, about a five minute walk from Old Street tube. Its advertising, menus and website are quite clever and never mention that the food is vegan, they all refer to "Botanical Cuisine". To many diners this will hopefully remove the preconceptions of boring and bland unimaginative food that seems to dog the "vegan" description as Saf blows these ideas completely out of the water and if you decide not to go because of the "vegan" label, you will have missed out on some great food. In addition to being vegan, most of the food on the menu is raw and I was extremely interested to see what they offered.

We were seated at a large table that overlooked the kitchen which, at times, was quite interesting. We started with a round of cocktails and then moved onto the food.

I started with Beetroot Ravioli, which was very thin slices of beetroot served around cashew herb ricotta with balsamic figs and a side salad. It was very tasty, the beetroot was crisp and the balsamic figs were great. One of the others at our table had a dish described as Caviar. This consisted of "chive pearls" which were tiny little bubbles of chive. I've no idea how they did it, but they were quite impressive, reminding me of the kind of thing that Ferran Adria of El Bulli is famous for.

Next up we shared a "cheese" course between us. A cheese course? I hear you cry. In a vegan restaurant? Well, the"cheeses" are made from nuts and have a "cream cheese" consistency. The cheese plate consisted of a macadamia "cheese" an almond "cheese" and a cashew "boursin".

They were served with olives and some rather nice crackers. It was something a bit different and novel and, it was quite tasty.

For my main course I had Mixed Wild Mushroom Croquette, Truffle Alfredo and Baby Vegetables. This was presented nicely with a cylindrical tower of mushroom croquette alongside a large "teardrop" of truffle sauce. This was served on a slate slab and some carrots and baby turnips finished it of. As you know I'm a big fungus fan so any dish with mushrooms and truffles is a no-brainer. However, I wasn't sure what a raw mushroom dish would be like. Happily, it was great. It tasted cooked and it was served slightly warmed, so I wasn't sure how raw it was. However the menu marks any dish that has been heated over 48 degrees, and this wasn't one of them, so however it was done, it worked.

The desserts all sounded great and we tried a few different ones around the table. The apple sorbet was very strong and the vegan ice cream was a bit grainy. However, the peaches with courgette cake and "cream" was really nice and I had good reports of the chocolate tart too.

The service was extremely friendly and the waiting staff were very knowledgeable about all of the dishes and made some good recommendations, especially for their cocktail list.

Saf, as a concept, is great. I had to keep reminding myself that this was vegan food, it was so tasty. All the food was presented really well and arrived on a variety of different plates and dishes.

If you're looking for a tasty meal and something a little bit different then get yourself down to Shoreditch and give Saf a try.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Adventure Gourmet – Cafe Spice Namaste, London

16 Prescot Street,
London E1 8AZ Map

Adventure Gourmet is a new venture by Cafe Spice Namaste where they offer masterclass demonstrations by well known chefs. The one I attended was a demonstration of vegetarian dishes by Paul Gayler, the Executive Chef of the Lanesborough near Hyde Park Corner.

Paul Gayler has been one of my favourite chefs ever since I discovered his Pure Vegetarian cookery book on a trip to Australia, and I'd used one of his recipes in my Cordon Vert Diploma exam so I didn't want to miss a chance to meet him and see him in action.

I arrived in good time and he came over and introduced himself to me and the others that had arrived. Cyrus Todiwala, the owner of Cafe Spice Namaste came over shortly and very soon we were all chatting and joking.

Very shortly we were off and Paul was demonstrating how to make various vegetarian dishes. The audience was a mixture of enthusiastic amateurs like myself and professional chefs and others with a connection to the catering industry who were interested in diversifying their menus to include some really good vegetarian dishes. It is really encouraging to hear this and it was interesting to be able to chat to a couple of the chefs and to be able to exchange ideas.

The first dish that he made was Fonduta of Celeriac, Mushrooms and Compte on Truffle French Toast. It was basically a mushroom and cheese terrine wrapped in very thinly sliced celeriac. This was served on French toast, made with brioche (a truffle puree was beaten into the egg) and it was fantastic.

It was like feeding time at the zoo when he finished each dish as everyone gathered around to taste it.

Next up was Soft Goats Cheese with Roasted Apricot Chutney, Cracked Pepper Pastry and Banyuls. Again, this was another tasty and well presented dish. The pastry was made with filo with crushed peppercorns between each sheet. During the preparation of each dish Paul Gayler offered various tips on alternate ingredients, especially when cooking the dishes at home, what could be prepared in advance, as well as various amusing stories.

After everyone had demolished the goats' cheese it was time for a Cauliflower Risotto with Liquorice and Raisins. The risotto is mixed with a cauliflower puree to give it the creaminess as well as having a few florets in there and, at the last minute a liquorice jus is drizzled on the risotto. Oh, and just to give it a final twist the dish is given a dusting of cocoa powder. It sounds really weird doesn't it, but take my word for it, it works.

From the risotto we moved on to Brik of Aubergine and Squash, Green Couscous, Tagine, "Ras al Hanout" with Pomegranate Labna. This is a Morroccan dish consisting of aubergine, feta and squash enveloped in a thin pastry and it tasted great. The couscous was flavoured with a coriander oil and it was served with a harissa sauce and the pomegranite labne.
Finally, he made a Vegetable Thai Green Curry with Lychees, Green Peppercorns and Beetroot Jasmine Rice.

The curry paste was very hot, but a great recipe. The lychees gave an interesting texture to the dishes and the beetroot rice added an extra dimension.

After the demonstrations were finished, we all sat down for a lunch provided by Cafe Spice Namaste. This was a three course meal that consisted of a selection of starters including Cyrus's acclaimed beetroot and coconut samosas and a wonderful paneer tikka. This was followed by a thali that included a superb aubergine dish and finished with a rose kulfi. During the meal we all had a chance to chat with Paul Gayler as he joined us for the meal. Cyrus was also there for part of it too.

It was a really enjoyable morning, the atmosphere was informal and friendly and I learnt quite a bit. It was great to be able to meet one of my favourite chefs and to taste some of his dishes first hand.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Bignell Park Hotel, Bicester

Nr Bicester OX26 1UE Map

I stayed at the Bignell Park Hotel for a few days for work earlier this week. The hotel itself is okay, the staff are a bit grumpy, but the rooms are spacious and clean.

The restaurant boasts an AA Rosette and the food isn't bad at all. The restaurant somehow manages to have no atmosphere and I can only put this down to the wooden floor, tables, and high ceiling that manages to give it a feeling of a really unloved pub. It's odd, because for breakfast they put white cloths on the tables that makes it so much better, but these are removed for dinner service and you eat off of plain wooden tables.

The food, however, is very good. They have a separate vegetarian menu with three or four choices for each course. I stayed for two nights so was able to sample a couple of dishes which were pretty good.

The highlight of the main courses was a homemade wild mushroom flan with a white wine sauce. It was very nice and had plenty of mushrooms, which suited me down to the ground. It was served with a selection of vegetables and presented very nicely. The best dessert I had was a Panettone Bread and Butter pudding which was superb - very light and extremely tasty.

The breakfasts were good, consisting of a selection of cereals, croissants etc followed by a cooked breakfast. My favourite was a mushroom and cheese omelette that came with oodles of mushrooms, so that set me up for the day nicely.

Although the overall hotel service wasn't that friendly (although it wasn't unfriendly - just nothing special) if you're in the Oxford area, you could do worse than stay at Bignell Park.