February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
A busy January has just flashed by and it’s almost the end of an alcohol-free month. In anticipation of that glass of cellar-cool Châteauneuf du Pape that I have lined up for tonight, finally I’m in the mood to write again about good food and wine.
There’s lots to write about so I think I’d better catch up belatedly with the best bits of Christmas and New Year before moving on to the various food projects that have been keeping me busy this month.
We spent Christmas once again in Klosters in the mountainous and picturesque canton of Graubunden in Eastern Switzerland. During the course of 6 days, we ate our way through the Klosters pages of the Gault-Millau guide (4 restaurants collectively clocking up a whacking score of 59 Gault Millau points out of a theoretical maximum of 80), pausing only for a pizza on Christmas Day by way of respite. To be fair, our skiing lunches were pretty austere – Gerstensuppe (barley broth – a local speciality) or Gulaschsuppe for the most part – so we felt justified in going for it in the evenings.
Night 1 Rustico 13 GM points cumulative GM points 13
First up was the aptly named Hotel Rustico where we arrived curious to discover how the much fêted chef Vincent Wong would pull off the fusion of Asian and Swiss cuisine for which he is famous.
The Rustico certainly looked the part:
We were ushered out of the snow into the warmth of the cosy wood-panelled dining room and handed a menu of largely cheesy delicacies – essentially fondue or raclette. The boys were thrilled, but where was the Asian-Swiss fusion cuisine we’d come for?
There was just a hint of this on the menu – I ordered the scallop-filled Capuns (a local ravioli-like speciality of savoury stuffing wrapped in chard leaves traditionally made with meat and breadcrumbs).
It looked pretty enough:
But disappointingly the scallops garnishing the Capuns were overcooked and possibly had arrived deep frozen rather than fresh on the shell and the filling itself was just plain stodgy. A dish that could of have been inspired but sadly the kitchen didn’t pull it off.
The fondue and raclette (not really a speciality of this region) were absolutely fine but we remained mystified as to the restaurant’s reputation for fine cooking.
A bit of research afterwards solved the mystery. We’d gone wrong on two counts. First, my Swiss-German being not so good, I’d booked us into the “Prättigauer Hüschi” rather than the restaurant proper (a bit like booking in for a bar meal rather than the full Monty in a country-house hotel). Second, the Rustico seems to have a bit of a chequered history and has changed hands twice in the last year or so, but the 2012 Gault-Millau guide has failed to reflect this still listing Al and Renée Thöny plus chef Vincent Wong as the management team. In fact Stefan Stocker and Martina Schele took over last year and shortly thereafter handed over to the current proprietors Anja and Jörg Walter. Herr and Frau Walter list AC DC, Swiss folk music and motorbiking amongst their shared interests. Does this perhaps give us a clue as to the direction in which they’ll be taking the hotel and restaurant?
Night 2 Alpina 15 GM points cumulative GM points 28
The Alpina is conveniently situated opposite Klosters’ busy little railway station – a model railway set writ large. It’s a slightly unprepossesing modern chalet-hotel type building that the owners have done their best to clothe with alpine charm. The boys were particularly taken (and I was too actually!) with the polar bear snow sculpture which sits as a pediment above the underground carpark entrance:
We were seated on a prime corner table and presented with the menus. This was a little scary at first as both starters and mains were labelled rather severely as single words.
I opted for “Tomato” and followed it up with “Lamb”.
The obligatory amuse-bouche arrived followed-up mercifully quickly (we were hungry after a day’s skiing) with the starters. The menu writing may have been laconic but the food itself was rather more sumptuous, not to mention playful.
Here’s what “Tomato” turned out to be – a tomato Caipirinha (much more on-trend than a Bloody Mary), tomato mousse and the most intense clear essence of tomato and rabbit:
The restaurant clearly has high aspirations and cooking standards to match. Nevertheless the restaurant had a warm friendly atmosphere and we all felt comfortable. Yes, there’s a touch of pretentiousness about some of the menu wording – chef Christian Kaiser went under the moniker “Pleasure Composer” and the front-of-house team led by Jacques Revel and Patricia Reumschüssel were referred to as “Creators of Happiness” but the staff themselves were so efficient and charming you can forgive the odd purple patch in the prose. The hotel website gives idiosyncratic yet revealing profiles of all the key staff and Herr Revel certainly gets my vote with his love of mushroom-hunting and dislike of animals, “especially cats”!
Next to arrive was my “Lamb” – saddle; liquorice flavours; peas; tomato-sauce; olive oil”
This was a beautifully cooked and subtly flavoured dish but a bit lacking in starch. I had to help myself to some of the boys’ inviting looking potato rösti which set off the lamb a treat.
This is another attractive feature of the restaurant – as well as the high gastronomy on offer there are also simpler dishes to choose from (Wiener Schnitzel; veal sauté Zurich-style with rösti) which suited the boys well and made for a more relaxing meal for us. There’s a separate menu for younger children too which invites children to the upstairs play area once they’ve finished their meal. Someone has clearly thought about the practicalities of dining out with a family.
The pudding menu continued in the same single-word/quadruple dish style. I opted for the massive rumbling cheese trolley which competed with the trains running in and out of the snowy stations. The rest of the table pronounced the “Passion-fruit” as particularly good and big enough to share between two, maybe even three (panna cotta; soup; sorbet; crème brûlée):
And if you don’t fancy splashing out on pudding, just order coffee and finish your meal with the extremely generous plateful of petit fours and chocolates instead.
We’d definitely return for a special night out as the Alpina pulled off the trick of both providing top-class cooking and keeping two hungry not to mention fussy teenage boys happy.
Night 3 Walserhof 17 GM points cumulative GM points 45
In points terms at least, we’d reached the culinary high-point of the week. It felt slightly surreal crossing the threshold of the Walserhof for the first time rather than peering expectantly from the outside through handsomely draped windows into the opulent interior.
Other reviewers say the hotel is a simple chalet with a relaxed and welcoming feel but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the exterior is low-key rather than glitzy and the welcome is attentive and charming but there’s the feeling that everything, absolutely everything, is carefully planned, checked, rechecked and “just so”. Having so many appraising staff eyes cast over one puts you imperceptibly on edge. With our thick down jackets and teenage boys in tow we felt a bit like the country mice visiting their smarter town cousins. The feeling of unease increased as we were seated too close for comfort adjacent to a couple clearly out for a special meal à deux. Something told me they weren’t going to enjoy fart jokes and football related banter…
The meal began with not one but two slender glass trays per person of amuse-bouches, each laden with triple or quadruple goodies. Here’s the more photogenic of the two:
Quite substantial for an amuse-bouche isn’t it? And strangely retro with all that kiwi fruit garnish and something that tasted suspiciously like prawn cocktail in a glass.
The bread basket proffered next was a thing of beauty – laugenbrötchen (pretzel-type rolls with a shiny salty coating); tiny square rolls topped with pumpkin seeds and finally brown walnut rolls. My goodness, after two helpings of the amuse-bouches and all that bread I was extremely full already.
The menu is full-on cheffy throughout – no comfort dishes sneaked in at the back here. This makes it a tad awkward not to say pricey to feed a pair of tetchy teenagers. Blimey, even at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, one of the world’s top restaurants no less, a lovely waiter leant over and whispered quietly in my ear that the kitchen could rustle up a freshly made pizza for the kids if that would be helpful.
I mused that this was notionally a hotel restaurant and wondered how parents managed to feed their children there, not only that but how it would be possible to eat in the restaurant more than once during a week’s stay given the quantity and richness of the food, and the time it took to eat it.
We’d all chosen the plainest starter we could find, the “Klosterser Chruutchräpfli mit Novaier Alpkäse” a gastronomic take on a local stuffed pasta speciality finished with mountain cheese. This doesn’t look like something from a rustic farmhouse kitchen though does it?
A still life on a plate isn’t it? We were busy admiring our food when Frau Amrein-Juon herself (she leads the front-of-house team and is married to chef Armin Amrein) tut tutted at our waitress and very carefully rotated each plate 180 degrees. That may be the way the chef wants it but frankly we didn’t mind if our plates happened to be upside down and it was rather intrusive to have our meal fiddled with in this way.
I’d ordered a main course based around turbot (the wonderfully named Steinbutt in German) mainly because I wasn’t in the mood for my other possible option, a darkly sticky braised veal cheek. The menu described the turbot as accompanied by Sauerkraut, Quarantina Bianca Genovese 1880 and white truffle. The combination didn’t sound immediately appealing and I had no idea what Quarantina Bianca was – I (wrongly) assumed it was a type of fortified white wine. I didn’t have high expectations for this dish but it turned out to be inspired cooking of the highest order.
This is how the dish looked:
I get quite excited thinking again about the lavish quantities of white truffle that our waitress carefully shaved over the dish. The aroma of white truffle as it hit the hot fish and mingled with the sauerkraut will remain in my memory for some time to come.
It transpires that the Quarantina Bianca is a special old variety of potato grown only in Liguria, Northern Italy. It’s waxy with a firm white rather than yellow flesh. It made the most amazingly flavoured and textured foamy pure white purée so ambrosial that I didn’t associate it with humble mash at all.
I’m not really a pudding person, but nevertheless chose a simply-named Iced Coffee from the section of the menu called “Walserhof favourites”. I’m not usually given to hyperbole about coffee-flavoured desserts either but this was divine, spoon after spoon of the most delicious iced, moussy, creamy concoction that I just had to finish served simply and unashamedly in a sundae glass. And yes, that tuile is sitting on a doilly like the ones your granny used to keep in her drawers:
Overall conclusion? I’d go again just for the Iced Coffee, but probably without teenagers making fart jokes. Definitely a Temple of Gastronomy where you the diner are subservient to The Chef, but goodness, he knows what he’s doing.
Save it for when you’re in the mood (and in funds for that matter) and fast for a week before you go!
Night 4 Chesa Grischuna 14 GM points cumulative GM points 59
The final stage in our gastro tour of Klosters. The Chesa Grischuna is yet another of the small, discreet and charming hotels that Klosters does so well.
No pictures of the dining room or any of the food I’m afraid as the lighting was just too subtle. You’ll just have to imagine a cosy wood-panelled room, linen clad tables, candles and the hum that comes from a room full of contented diners.
We had a lovely meal – in my case veal carpaccio, then vegetarian Capuns (yes, non-traditional Capuns again – see comments on the Rustico above). If at the Walserhof you the diner fall in with the requirements of the chef, here at Chesa Grischuna it’s the other way round – the impeccably polite and efficient waiting staff cater to your every need.
The place is impossibly romantic – I leant over and mentioned to my younger teenage son Arthur that as and when he felt like proposing to a future girlfriend, he could do worse than bring her here. Predictably enough, he turned bright red and commented “shut up Mum!”.
As we departed, we were given a small jar of homemade spiced winter berry jam as a parting gift. Some might think it twee but I was totally bowled over. We left in a warm happy fug and elder son George was persuaded to take our photo by the ice sculpture outside:
Rustico Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Anja and Jörg Walter
00 44 81 410 22 (0)80
Alpina Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Räto and Verena Conzett; Chef: Christian Kaiser
00 44 (0)81 410 24 24
Walserhof Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Armin and Corina Amrein
00 44 (0)81 410 29 29
Chesa Grischuna Hotel and Restaurant
Proprietors: Guler Family; Chef: Michael Bless
00 44 (0)81 422 22 22
November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Arguably the highlight of our recent half term trip to Naples was a pilgrimage to Da Michele, the self-appointed “Temple of Pizza” to sample the city’s most influential cultural export.
This venerable pizzeria, founded in 1873, has a shabby, typically Neapolitan exterior and is tucked away in a sidestreet (Via Cesare Sersale 1) in the centro storico not too far from the main station.
I mused as we waited to order how little this oven differed from the ancient Roman one we’d seen in Pompeii the previous day. Clearly the appeal of freshly-baked flatbreads is centuries old. It’s rather fun to imagine Caecilius and his chums tucking in to their own version of pizza (minus the tomatoes of course).
The interior of Da Michele is unfussy, in fact its two rooms could be described as austere – white and green ceramic tiles on the walls and simple marble topped cast iron tables lined up in rows.
The menu is equally minimalist – just 2 types of pizza, the classic Margherita (tomato sauce and cheese) and the even simpler Marinara (just tomato sauce without the cheese).
The place runs like a well-oiled machine. There’s a guy (and yes, the staff are exclusively male) to seat you and take your order which is then passed to the compact open-plan kitchen; the first chef forms the pizza dough into rough rounds; a second tops the dough with tomato, cheese and a solitary basil leaf; a third expertly flicks the pizzas into the oven with a wooden paddle; a fourth tends the fire and removes the cooked pizzas from the oven. Finally, in the corner of the room behind a small corner counter sits like a benign genie a venerable gent in a white coat collecting the money and keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.
Enough of the preparatory stuff – what was the pizza like? This is how it looked as it came out of the oven, truly a thing of beauty:
The crust was chewy rather than dry and crispy and frankly quite deliciously soggy in the middle. This meant it had to be eaten at least in part with a knife and fork though I couldn’t resist picking up the crust later on:
We subsequently discovered that we were sitting in the very same seats occupied by Julia Roberts when the film “Eat, Pray, Love” was filmed here a couple of years back. Dressed in a similar black sweater, the staff must have taken me for a Julia groupie. If only I had the hair and bone structure to match…
As we were seated so close to the open plan prep area I couldn’t resist having a closer peek at the pizza ingredients and attempting a brief chat with the kitchen staff.
The tomato topping was quite a runny sauce which was ladled onto the dough. I couldn’t tell if this was prepared using fresh or tinned tomatoes let alone whether they were the well-known San Marzano variety. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if these were tinned tomatoes nor, thankfully, could I remember the Italian word for a can so decided to abandon this line of questioning.
However, I did manage to pluck up sufficient courage to ask about the cheese.
“E mozzarella di bufala?” I yelled and pointed.
What luck! I’d made myself understood and the response came back:
“No – fiordilatte” – So it’s a cow’s milk mozzarella rather than the prized and frankly expected buffalo kind.
Buoyed up by my success, I kept the conversation going and enquired about the second harder and more finely grated cheese which went on to the pizza along with the mozzarella.
“Che formaggio?” I shouted and pointed at the second cheese container:
Bingo once again – “Pecorino!” was the response.
So now I, and you too now, know the secret to an authentic pizza topping.
And now the answer to the question I posed at the outset – how does the ultimate pizza from Naples compare with what I can pick up at my local Pizza Express in South Manchester?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Da Michele version gets my vote, BUT only just as I didn’t find it very much more wonderful than the pretty good pizza we can get back home.
September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve always been a bit lukewarm about Greek food – until recently my memories were of greasy moussaka washed down with cheap retsina sampled on an Interrail trip to Athens back in the 1980s. I followed this up with lurid pink taramasalata and overcooked lamb in the Oasis Kebab house catering principally for Cambridge’s student population.
After a week on the Ionian coast of Greece this summer, I’ve changed my mind. There’s nothing glitzy or overtly spectacular about the little seaside town of Paleros, but very soon, enjoying breakfast or a drink on the terrace looking out onto the rugged hills of the island of Lefkas becomes a daily pleasure:
And it’s rather delightful to see olives this way rather than in a bulk white plastic container on a deli counter:
While my thoughts are still on the cocktail hour, here are lemons growing on the tree just moments before they’re sliced into your gin and tonic:
There seems to be an inviting-looking taverna terrace on every street corner like this one belonging to the New Mill Tavern in Paleros:
A glance at the guestbook shows you that the New Mill is no run-of-the-mill (sorry!) taverna. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein and Delia Smith have all eaten here enthusiastically and and here’s what a certain Gordon Ramsay had to say:
And after a memorable evening meal there, I’d have to concur.
It isn’t the usual restaurant experience as there’s no menu, no prices on display (though don’t worry, the final bill won’t be unreasonable), no chef, no professional kitchen at all in fact. Proprietor Cathy who is both head chef and runs front-of-house (though it does seem a little disrespectful to refer to this august Greek matriarch in such familiar terms) welcomes you with chilled Greek rosé and a selection of dips.
Clockwise from the right we have a beetroot dip, a garlicky skordalia made with mashed potato, the classic tzatziki, and finally a soft mild cheese dip.
Cathy’s daughter charmingly suggests that you don’t overdo it on the dips and bread and, boy, is she right as the courses keep on coming! The dips were followed by the lightest grated courgette tart flavoured with a touch of cinnamon; next deeply savoury prawns baked with wine and garlic. Two more classic Greek dishes came next, an exemplary moussaka and a stifado. Groaning, we found room for the lightest baklava and a thimbleful of Greek coffee before the moonlight stroll back to our hotel.
Cathy cooks everything herself right there in her own home kitchen with just a little help from her extended family. She prepares what’s fresh and in season that day, no choice, no fads or foibles and in my opinion you can’t fail to enjoy whatever she serves up.
The food really was wonderful and definitely my kind of cooking – simple, fresh, carefully seasoned – beating any overworked restaurant dish hands down. I couldn’t wait to recreate some of Cathy’s food back home and although I didn’t find the right opportunity to ask for any of her recipes that evening, I’ve recently bought the excellent “Traditional Greek Cooking’ by George Moudiotis and have been trying out a few dishes back home.
So far, I’ve found his instructions clear and simple to follow and the end results very successful with an authentic Greek flavour. Here are my versions of tzatziki and skordalia, perfect for eating outdoors to accompany barbecued meat, fish or vegetables during out last few days of precious Indian summer…
Recipe for Tzatziki
Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.
Serves 8 as part of a mezze selection. The inclusion of dill gives the dish authenticity but you can use mint if you prefer.
1 large cucumber
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh dill or mint
salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g tub of full fat Greek yoghurt – I like Total, imported from Greece
Extra chopped herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and a few shiny black Kalamata olives to garnish
Peel the cucumber, cut it in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into small dice (3-4mm) and place them in a sieve. Leave them to drain over a small bowl for 30 minutes.
Mix the drained cucumber with the garlic, oil, vinegar, chopped dill or mint and salt and pepper. Mix in the tub of Greek yoghurt, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour or so to allow the flavours to meld.
Spoon into a serving dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with extra chopped herbs and scatter over the olives.
Recipe for Skordalia
Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”. This is the Greek island variant which adds mashed potatoes to the basic bread, garlic and oil mixture.
Makes 1/2 pint so serves 8 as part of a meze selection, or add a little stock and use as a thick sauce to accompany grilled fish, meat or vegetables.
3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar for soaking the garlic
a further tablespoon white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3 thickish slices day-old white bread, crusts removed
3 medium waxy potatoes, boiled in their skins and left to cool then peeled and put through a food mill or potato ricer
Soak the peeled garlic cloves in the wine vinegar overnight. Reserve the wine vinegar for another salad dressing or discard. Roughl crush the garlic with the salt in a pestle and mortar then tip the crushed garlic into the bowl of a food processor.
Soak the bread in water briefly, then squeeze dry with your hands and add to the processor bowl. Pulse quickly to mix then add the vinegar, salt and pepper and a little of the olive oil. Pulse again. Add the mashed potato and a little more olive oil. Pulse again. Continue adding the olive oil little by little, pulsing as you go, until it is all incorporated. Be careful not to overblend otherwise the texture of the Skordalia will be too sticky and gloopy.
Taste and adjust seasoning adding more salt, pepper, vinegar and oil as required.
August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Checking my AA road atlas before heading off to a long-planned reunion lunch, Mallory Court looked dangerously close to the industrial outskirts of Leamington Spa and Junction 13 on the M40.
I needn’t have worried as this is the view from the hotel terrace:
The M40 is there in the background but practically invisible. Mallory Court could be the setting for one of those beer ads “if Carlsberg did Motorway service stations” – long camera pan up the drive to the honey-coloured ivy-clad stone walls of the manor house; cut to guests sitting in cosy oak panelled dining room; lingering shots of guests sipping coffee on the terrace overlooking immaculate formal gardens…
So what was the occasion? Having exchanged nothing more than Christmas cards with Mike and Lynnette for years, it was Mike’s very good idea to meet up for lunch in the centre of England as we live at opposite ends of the country. We all met on a week long residential tennis course at Windmill Hill in Sussex in the early 1990s. Those who know me will confirm that my tennis didn’t really improve but we had the best of weeks – looking back I recall it as a week of sunshine, Glyndebourne, drinks and fun. Oddly (or perhaps not) I seem to have forgotten how to hit a double-handed backhand or how to apply topspin to my lob.
It was therefore very fitting for the three of us enjoy a hedonistic lunch after all these years. We had a lot of catching up to do so my attention was on conversation and company rather than the finer points of the food, which is after all how it should be.
Despite its name and initial impressions, Mallory Court is not an ancient manor but an Arts and Crafts trophy-house built in 1914 for a retired Manchester cotton baron. The house changed hands a number of times before being converted to a country house hotel in 1976. It’s now owned by Midlands entrepreneur (sounds posher than Brummy businessman doesn’t it?) Sir Peter Rigby who dabbles in hotels and airports as well as his main IT services business SCC Group.
The immediate impression on entering the hotel is one of welcoming efficiency. There are cosy armchairs to sit in and staff appear just when you feel like ordering a drink without the feeling of being hovered over. I always use the ladies’ loo as a bellwether of attention to detail in an establishment. Mallory Court did not disappoint:
After champagne and nibbles we were shown to our table in the dining room. White damask-clad tables are spaced discreetly apart to allow diners to talk business in privacy and there’s a comfortable, club-like atmosphere.
This is a Michelin-starred establishment so we began with the obligatory amuse-bouche. This comprised a tiny precise cylinder of smoked eel mousse together with vibrant magenta beetroot served three ways, the flavours pointed up with a scattering of micro-cress and flavour explosions from tiny shards of deep-fried caper.
I suppose the purpose of an amuse-bouche is for the chef to summarise his approach to food in one tiny little plateful. This is what chef Simon Haigh did here – what it told me is that this was a chef who likes classic combinations brought up to date, applies precision and attention to detail and has an eye for colour and texture. It came as no surprise to learn afterwards that Haigh learned his craft under Raymond Blanc at the Manoir au Quatre Saisons. In fact he seems intent on creating a Manoir-like atmosphere here in Warwickshire using produce (including that beetroot) fresh from his own kitchen garden.
I chose a rather weird sounding first course of egg purée, crispy ham hock and pineapple chutney, trusting the chef to turn it into something edible. This is what arrived:
The crispy ham-hock turned out to be a spring-roll type affair, and the egg purée a super smooth scrambled egg or perhaps a hot savoury custard. Very clever and no idea how you’d go about recreating it at home.
Main courses were a little more classic and little less off-the wall. Mike chose pork loin served with the most adorable Mirabelle plums looking like miniature apples:
Lynnette and I both chose sea bream with black squid ink risotto, squid rings and Mediterranean vegetables. This should have been served with fillets of red mullet, one of my favourite fish, but (disappointingly but reassuringly I suppose) they’d sold out by the time we ordered hence the substitution of sea bream.
Another picture on a plate, but with every element contributing to the harmonious balance of flavours. A square plate this time, as weirdly shaped crockery seems to be de rigueur these days for any restaurant with Michelin aspirations.
I’m not normally a pudding person, but this wasn’t an everyday occasion so I chose crème brûlée with honeycomb mousse and strawberry sorbet.
This was a perfect size for a post-lunch pudding and each element was technically perfect.
I’m sorry to say we were a little greedy at this stage and, purely out of intellectual curiosity of course, ordered another pudding to share – peanut ice cream with caramelised bananas and bitter chocolate tart. Peanut or peanut butter ice cream is popping up in smart restaurants everywhere these days and this one did not disappoint, nor did the intensely flavoured bitter chocolate tart:
We concluded our lunch with coffee and petit fours on the terrace outside.
In fact the coffee here is both cheaper and a darn sight better than a slop-bucket of Starbucks from WelcomeBreak Warwick North. So next time you’re speeding along the M40 I recommend you take the slightest of detours from junction 13 to refresh the soul as well as the body.
Mallory Court Hotel
Royal Leamington Spa
June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Suffolk seaside town of Southwold where we spent our half term holiday is somewhere life moves at a gentle pace and the sun always shines. Think of it as Trumpton meets Cath Kidstonville. It’s a place where the town council has no more onerous concern than opening the annual Charter Fair on the village green;
a place where the biggest news event of the year is that local brewer and wine merchant Adnams has started distilling its own very superior gin (very delicious with Fevertree tonic water, ice and, if you want to look knowledgeable, a strip of cucumber rather than the usual lemon);
and a place where the only dilemma that need concern one is whether to eat at the town’s flagship hotel The Swan:
or its more approachable Adnams stablemate,The Crown:
With our large mixed age party we plumped for the more relaxed atmosphere of the Crown. They don’t take bookings so to secure a good table (queues form outside the door in high season) we arrived promptly at the start of evening service at 6.00. The main eating area with oak beams and cosy snugs is by the bar but we asked to be seated in the adjacent airy dining room:
It has a certain understated elegance don’t you think? Having done a little research I see that it was recently redecorated/refurbished by international designer Keith Skeel who has worked with Donna Karan and Marco Pierre White amongst others. It’s a measure of how successful he’s been that you can’t tell that an interior designer has been at work here.
Enough of the décor and back to the food. The menu changes regularly, and offers (the now ubiquitous) Modern British cooking. There’s lots of intriguing things to choose from which is always a good sign, and head chef Robert Mace is clearly up to speed with current cooking trends – local, seasonal ingredients, carefully cooked cheaper cuts served alongside the more usual restaurant staples, witty touches like tonic flavoured jelly cubes served alongside gin-cured trout.Thank goodness there are no foams in sight – this is meant to be a pub after all.
I checked the Adnams website after our meal and worryingly, top of the list of situations vacant was that of head chef for the Crown. It looks like the talented Mr Mace (known as Macey to his kitchen colleagues) is moving on which must be a blow for the Crown – definitely a name to watch on the restaurant scene.
Back to our meal. We began with the savoury snack of the moment, two dishes of popcorn, one flavoured with pesto which was OK but a tad oily. The second dish, enlivened with chilli flakes and salt was much more like it and is a simple idea I’ll be trying out back home. Watch out book and recorder group!
I couldn’t resist choosing the rainbow trout cured with the aforementioned Adnams gin and served with cubes of tonic jelly and a cucumber-heavy salad – gin and tonic on a plate if you like:
The witty idea worked on the plate but if I were to rework this dish at home I would use the gin to cure salmon gravad lax style, I would intensify the tonic flavour of the jelly cubes, I would increase the cucumber and drop the rocket in the salas and finally add a citrus note to the plate which was missing.
Before deciding on the trout, I had been tempted by the rabbit three ways too. Fortunately, being a family occasion, sharing was encouraged so I could taste everything:
My main course was Dingley Dell pork cooked two ways – a chunky piece of fillet propping up a more flavourful strip of crunchy roast belly pork. The pork was served with excellent mash, steamed spinach and a creamy leek sauce. A good dish but perhaps a little autumnal for a summer evening? And I’d have preferred more of that crunchy belly pork.
Incidentally, the slightly twee Dingley Dell name (from the fictional village in Pickwick Papers) is the name of an entirely non-fictional high-welfare pig business based in nearby Woodbridge, Suffolk.http://www.dingleydell.com/
Outdoor-reared pigs are a familiar sight (and smell!) in the Suffolk countryside – here are a few pigs I snapped on the journey from Southwold to Halesworth:
I’m not usually a pudding person usually but the highlight of my meal was the quirky sounding peanut butter sandwich, complete with toast and lashings of raspberry jam:
The peanut butter had been transfigured into a smooth parfait, and the toast was crispy melba toast, lightly caramelised. Just perfect.
The Crown is an Adnams establishment and makes good use of the expertise of the wine merchant side of the business – the wine list is interesting and varied and there’s plenty of interesting wines offered by the glass, especially dessert wine.
GoodcCoffee afterwards was served without frills and service was friendly and efficient. I just hope they have some strong applicants for that head chef vacancy.
April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve spend quite a long time hanging about in Zürich over the years returning home from various trips to the alps and much preferring to fly from Zürich rather than Geneva. If you find yourself in the same position and are feeling a bit hungry, then read on.
First of all, how long do you have before your flight home?
A trip to the Steiner bakery, Migros supermarket and Confiserie Sprüngli, all in the airport shopping complex will provide you with the wherewithall for a cheese fondue plus dainty dessert for your return home, or a superior snack to produce on your aircraft tray table to the envy of your fellow passengers.
And it’s your last chance to grab a Brezel, the chewy knotted bread addictively flavoured with lye (aka caustic soda – I kid you not) which was the European forerunner to the American pretzel. A far cry from the packets of dry industrial snacks we know as pretzels back home. Pick up a plain one or, if you prefer, a split and buttered one filled with cheese or ham to make a superior sandwich, at the “Brezel Koenig” (Pretzel King!) outlet at Zürich airport. Fast food with a Swiss twist…
Probably worth breaking your journey to the airport by getting off a couple of stops early at Zürich’s magnificent main station the Hauptbahnhof. Enjoy a last taste of Swiss food together with some great people-watching opportunities at the stately institution which is the Brasserie Féderal within the main station concourse. It makes me wonder why we don’t have decent restaurants in stations back home in the UK. We have to make do with a snatched stale baguette and a half gallon of overpriced milky coffee. I would love to see a proper station brasserie within Manchester’s characterful Piccadilly or Victoria station buildings but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon…
After your meal, you’ve probably still got time to wander into Zürich’s main shopping district to the Jelmoli department store, a bustling glass and steel building:
which hides its secret food hall, the Gourmet Factory, in its basement:
It’s a great place for browsing and for picking up odd delicacies like Hawaiian black salt, a handful of imported wild mushrooms, a pack of Piedmont rice to pop in your hand luggage.
Lucky you! It’s worth heading off to Zürich’s atmospheric Old Town for a light lunch or spot of afternoon tea at the glamorous Café Péclard at Schober. Café-Konditorei Schober was an old Zürich institution given a makeover in 2009 by restaurant entrepreneur Michel Péclard. Think of Péclard as a Swiss version of Oliver Peyton or Terence Conran. The building has been completely renovated but keeping the quirky charm of its various rooms – think chandeliers, exotic murals and red velvet chairs.
Péclard’s next step was to hire French master-pâtissier Patrick Mésiano, the 36 year old Niçois with a Joël Robuchon pedigree who now has outlets of his own in Antibes and Monaco as well as this new Zürich venture. Mésiano’s influence is immediately apparent in the displays of elegant macarons, pâtisserie and chocolate in the shop which fronts the café interior.
Gaze first of all at the elegant wedding cakes in the window:
Then head inside past the pâtisserie and chocolate displays and wait to be seated:
And enjoy a signature hot chocolate and a dainty morsel or two in one of the café’s elegant rooms.
A place to see and be seen, not just for entertaining your maiden aunt.
As you leave, you can’t fail to notice the inviting shopfront of Heinrich Schwarzenbach, tea and coffee supplier to Péclard at Schober plus supplier of groceries sourced from all over the world. A great place to browse by all accounts but sadly as it was a Sunday when I visited I had to content myself with window shopping:
8001 Zurich, Switzerland
+41 (0)44 217 15 15
+41 (0)44 220 44 11
Péclard at Schober
+41 (0)44 251 51 50
Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren Kaffeerösterei
+41 (0)44 261 13 15
April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
A second post from our recent ski trip to Engelberg in central Switzerland. Truthfully, it’s not too difficult finding handy places to eat here because of the more compact nature of the resort compared to say Klosters or Zermatt. Also, the piste map helpfully lists contact details and thumbnail photos for all 16 mountain restaurants.
Nevertheless, here’s my choice of four of the best, just right if you’re planning a long weekend here perhaps?
At the top of the Stand cable car, or, if you prefer, at the end of the itinerary run down from Klein Titlis, you’ll find the traditional-looking Skihütte Stand. Don’t be fooled by the wood-cladding – it’s a relatively newly built structure which is just a little too close to the cable car for comfort as gazing out of the window at the metal gantries intrudes on the mountain idyll just a little.
The interior is rustic too – lots of wooden beams, bare slate and spectacular hunting trophies.
They do a reasonably priced dish of the day here, plus lots of Swiss classic dishes including, unusually, a refined version of the Vaudois speciality Papet, braised leeks and potatoes topped with a whole smoked sausage:
The Bärghuis (a central Swiss spelling of the Haupt Deutsch Berghaus) is a proper mountain hut with bedrooms as well as functioning in the ski season as a busy and popular restaurant. You’ll find the sturdy dark wood shingle-clad building at the top of the Jochpass chairlift.
Inside, you’ll be seated on shared refectory style tables and served by waitresses with the latest electronic gadgetry – no paper orders and bills here. The food is a mixture of hearty Swiss classics plus lighter pasta dishes and salads. Here’s the pretty-as-picture rösti with smoked salmon and horseradish which I ate here:
From the Jochpass, continue over the Graustock ridge taking the blue Engstlenalp run down to the chairlift. Incidentally you are now in the new canton of Bern with stunning views to the Haslital and beyond. Now follow the signposted path to the Rossbodenhütte, a 20 minute or so skate, push and shuffle along a lakeside path where you might see fisherman patiently sitting beside the holes they’ve cut in the ice, eskimo style.
We arrived here for an afternoon snack after climbing up and skiing down the nearby Graustock. Here am I basking on the sunny terrace with local guide Frédy.
They do a skiiers’ and walkers’ lunch here and lots of homemade goodies at other times of the day. We tried the apple tart and local speciality Haslikuchen, a dense Bakewell style start but made with ground hazelnuts:
A plate of the prettiest homemade biscuits arrived afterwards on the house. They were as fresh as could be, still warm from the oven. I would love to get hold of the moulds to try making these at home:
Finally, the Flühmatt, a farmhouse on the Brunni side of the valley. The Brunni ski area is rather under-represented in my mountain restaurant round-up as we skiied exclusively on the other side of the valley where the best snow was to be found. I’m not even sure you can reach the Flühmatt easily on skis but you can certainly walk there through the fields and forests. This is what we did on an evening outing organised by our hotel.
After a descent from the Brunni cable car our party of 40 hotel guests floundered through fresh snow half an hour or so before the welcoming sight of the Flühmatt came into view round a final bend. We were greeted on the threshold by steaming glasses of mulled wine (hot apple juice for the children):
We took off and hung up our snow-covered outdoor things and were ushered through into the cosy low ceilinged wood-panelled dining room. Just one dish was on the menu, the central Swiss speciality of Älplermagronen, pasta tubes baked with cheese and cream, topped with crispy brown fried onions and served with generous dollops apple sauce. Sounds weird but it hits the spot after a hike in the snow.
A riotous torchlit walk (or rather, slide) home through the forest rounded off the evening perfectly.
+41 (0)41 639 50 85
+41 (0)41 637 11 87
+41 (0)79 810 55 55
+41 (0)41 637 16 60
December 6, 2010 § 1 Comment
The recent scary news of shark attacks at Sharm el Sheikh reminds me that I’m due to write a sequel to my previous post describing our attempts to find a taste of the real Egypt during a recent package holiday.
That phrase “a taste of the real Egypt” has taken on a gruesome tint following the news of the death of one tourist and the maiming of three others – though they were not Egyptian but respectively German, Ukrainian and Russian. The news reports are big on sensationalism but short on key detail but a bit of delving reveals that the shark attacks all happened in the Middle Garden reef, adjacent to all the 5 star luxury establishments in the resort. We were some 10 miles further south in the mid-range price bracket – I knew there had to be a good reason for trading down…
Scenes like this one (not a brilliant picture I know but you try holding your breath and snapping through the minuscule viewfinder of a dodgy disposable underwater camera) look to be temporarily on hold while the guilty white-tip shark is hunted down. I feel shades of Moby Dick coming on…
Having spent most of our week in the water gazing at the incredible colours of the tropical fish, by the end of the week we decided it was time to eat some. This meant leaving the hotel compound and taking a taxi to the Old Market area of Sharm. This was the location of the first of the July 2005 terrorist attacks (it’s not just sharks you have to worry about here). The Old Market turned out to be a misnomer is it’s neither old nor is there a market there. You will find more marble shopping malls and inside you can get the bazaar feel by visiting one of the spice shops like this one:
I duly went in and haggled over the price of an odd selection of goodies: Bedouin tea, karkade (dried hibiscus flowers), kurkuma (I’m pretty sure this yellow powder is turmeric), and “black seeds” which appear very frequently on Egyptian bread (nigella also known as kalonji or, confusingly, onion seeds). Here I am clinching the deal after protracted negotiations and tea-drinking.
Transaction complete, our next task was to find somewhere authentic to eat. After asking round during the week and consulting our Lonely Planet guidebook I’d narrowed the choice down to two possibilities. The first was the straightforwardly named Red Sea Fish restaurant whose splendid display is pictured below:
Younger son Arthur decided that fish wasn’t for him this evening so that meant dinner was to be in local Sharm institution El Masrien:
The hotel staff had looked at me oddly when I’d asked if I needed to book here. Walking in it soon became apparent why. It’s more of a working man’s café than a restaurant – spotless formica tables, speedy service, TV in the corner and a short grill-based menu. Prices are cheap, very cheap as local Egyptians eat here and we saw that rare sight in Sharm, an Egyptian woman as, tourists aside, it’s a very male-based society.
We began on familiar territory with hummus, baba ganoush and pita bread (please excuse the random spelling of these Arabic words). All spanking fresh and full of flavour.
Thinking (wrongly) this wouldn’t be enough, I’d also ordered some grilled stuffed vegetables. This huge platter arrived which we failed to do full justice to:
The boys opted for kebabs as a straightforward choice – a mixture of shish (whole pieces of marinated lamb) and kofte (minced lamb with spices) both grilled over hot coals. These were wolfed down in seconds – I barely got a look in:
My choice was the more adventurous one of rice-stuffed pigeon. This splendid creature duly arrived allaying my fears of the scrawny feral birds pecking at detritus on the streets of Manchester:
The pigeon was impressive but my abiding memory of that evening will be watching a woman in full burqa delicately eating forkfuls of lamb – one hand would raise the fork to her facial area and at the last minute the other hand would dart up and swiftly swing aside the black veil and the speared morsel would disappear. I was transfixed but far too polite to try and video the performance.
So, next time you feel inclined to brave shark and terrorist attacks and visit Sharm, do consider leaving the gilded cage of your hotel compound and check out what the Old Market has to offer.
August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
No, not another piece enthusing about English beer but a story of trying to find something simple to eat in Vevey, a market town on the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) in the Swiss canton of Vaud.
During our summer tour of Switzerland I decided it was time to revisit some of my old haunts. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I spent 4 winters in Vevey working in the offices of a certain international food company. There was a whole team of us out there (referred to unimaginatively as the Equipe) and we must have dined at pretty much every half-decent restaurant within a 15 mile radius of the town.
Back then, the gastronomical heights were occupied by the legendary Frédy Girardet in his restaurant in Crissier above Lausanne. Just about everywhere else was readily accessible and welcoming, serving up generous portions of Suisse Romande cuisine. It was here that I first encountered the Swiss custom of the deuxième service: finish one plate of steak, potatoes, vegetables or whatever and it is whisked away and replaced with an identical one! A blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view.
Something has happened in Vevey in the last 25 years. It’s come out in a rash of Michelin stars and Gault Millau points. For example, I remember Brent as a sleepy little village just above Vevey’s brash neighbour Montreux. It’s now home to Le Pont de Brent, celebrity chef Gérard Rabaey’s 3 Michelin star 19 Gault Millau points restaurant.
Vevey itself is home to Switzerland’s answer to Heston Blumenthal, Denis Martin, whose 2 Michelin star 18 Gault Millau point restaurant is in the Rue du Château, close to the swanky lakeside Trois Couronnes hotel.
With 2 boys in tow (one teenage and one nearly so), we weren’t really in the market for a lengthy candlelit molecular gastronomy session. We were looking for something simpler, a pinte Vaudoise in fact.
What’s a pinte Vaudoise I hear you ask. This is what the official website of the Office of Vaudois Wines www.vins-vaudois.com has to say:
“A recommended pinte vaudoise is a public establishment, all or part of which constitutes a welcoming village inn where you can have wine and a meal. Its primary purpose is to feature Vaudois terroirs, food specialties and A.O.C. wines. Their managers pay great attention to welcoming guests and training their staff to be Vaudois terroir experts. Recommended pintes vaudoises are friendly, so that guests feel like coming back and recommending them to friends.”
Talking of local wines and vineyards, even these have moved upmarket with the intricately terraced Lavaux vineyards becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. The Lavaux is the 30 km long lakeside strip of land running from the picturesque Château de Chillon in the East to the outskirts of Lausanne in the West.
Scanning the list of pintes available both from the tourist office and the Office of Vaudois wines website, we discovered that we were in luck. Included was the restaurant of our hotel, the Hôtellerie de Châtonneyre, right in the middle of the wine village of Corseaux. The Chât, as we English had christened the hotel, hadn’t changed a bit in 25 odd years. As far as décor and plumbing went, this was not necessarily a good thing, but it was good to see the menu just as I remember it. For a first night in Vevey, there was only one thing to order: Filets de perche, frais du lac:
These small lake fish are found on most of the local restaurant menus. There was only one option to drink with them, a bottle of crisp white Chardonne from grapes grown on the hillside beneath which we were sitting on our sunny terrace.
The boys both ordered duck breast with potato galettes, equally delicious. Pudding was a rather wonderful gratin of raspberries (sabayon poured over fresh raspberries then the dish flashed under the grill to brown and caramelise just a little) served with a melon sorbet.
The next even we decided to visit another old haunt, the Auberge de l’Onde in the neighbouring wine village of St Saphorin. The lakeside village with traditional buildings and narrow winding streets is impossibly picturesque but not designed for the modern motor car as we discovered in an a frank exchange of views with a German registered SUV. You can sit outside on warm evenings:
We opted for the cosy dark wood panelled pinte dining room. It had about as much in common with a true traditional pinte as Heston Blumenthal’s pub does to a traditional British boozer. Why so? With the arrival of ambitious chef Patrick Zimmerman, the Auberge has been taken relentlessly upmarket and has gained a Michelin star and 15 Gault Millau points along the way. This means you won’t find many horny-handed locals supping here. On the night we dined, pretty much all the clientele were, like ourselves, tourists, from the UK, US and Italy.
Although the place felt rather precious, food and service were top class. I opted for the good value Menu du Jour featuring more lake fish, this time the féra (as far as I know unknown in the UK, Latin name Coregonus fera). This is a larger fish than the perch with firm white delicate tasting fillets, just right with the braised leeks, steamed potatoes and beurre blank type sauce with which it was served.
All well and good, but not truly authentic. It was not until we went back to the village of Chardonne where I rented apartment within the village house of Clos Jean-Louis that I spotted what I’d been looking for all along, the unassuming Café au Bon Vin. The menu features typical Vaudois dishes including the mysterious Malakoff. Apparently you can have two of these as a main course and if you like, a third in place of pudding. What were these things?
Thanks to the rather wonderful Swiss-authored food blog www.fxcuisine.com I discovered both that a malakoff is a deep-fried cheese stick and also found detailed instructions, photos and a recipe for whipping some up back home. I commend the blog to you.
Sadly, our discovery of the Café au Bon Vin was too late. We didn’t have time to try it out as we were en route to our mountaintop Mongolian yurt experience…
July 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
You know the ones I mean at the end of her fun “California Gurls” pop video feat. Snoop Dogg? http://www.katyperry.com/ Here they are balancing on my strawberry pudding with Kendal mint cake water ice:
So this is what funky head chef Lisa Allen gets up to in her spare time…
After years of thinking about it, I finally made it to Northcote (they’ve quietly dropped the Manor part of the name in an effort to sound up to date I think) in Langho, near Blackburn, Lancashire for lunch with my father Bob and stepmother Kath. It’s about an hour’s drive away which has been the problem all along – a bit too far for a convenient night out and a bit too close for a weekend away. By the way this Northcote is not to be confused with its namesake in Devon some 300 miles away in the SW of England.
A bit of background – Northcote is a small country house hotel founded in 1983. The business is owned 50:50 by chef Nigel Haworth and business partner from the hotel and wine trade Craig Bancroft. The restaurant gained a Michelin star in 1996 and has successfully held on to it ever since. Nigel has become well known throughout the UK in part thanks to regular appearances on BB TV’s “Great British Menu.” New head chef Lisa Allen stepped into Nigel’s shoes (he’s now executive chef) at Northcote 6 years ago aged just 23 and made her Great British Menu début earlier this year.
As you pull into the carpark, you wouldn’t immediately know that there’s anything special about the place. The hotel looks like what it is, a late Victorian gentleman merchant’s residence, comfortable, practical and solid looking rather than drop-dead gorgeous like its Devon namesake.
It soon becomes apparent that this is a slick and well run operation – everything happens smoothly and runs like clockwork. We were shown into the lounge area for drinks and the maître d’ quickly took us through the menu choices. I was delighted to find Lisa’s Great British Menu available in a number of formats as a lunchtime special so all 3 of us opted for that. Decision made. Here it is:
EITHER Levens Hall Wild Rabbit
& Leek Turnover, Piccalilli
Wild Morecambe Bay Seabass, Shrimp Toastie,
Growing Well Tomato, Samphire
Salt Marsh Lamb, Crushed Peas, Woodland Mushrooms,
English Onion and Sweetbread Fritter
Sunny Bank Farm Strawberries, Meringue,
Quiggin’s Kendal Mint Cake Water Ice
I opted for the rabbit turnover, Bob and Kath for the seabass. After drinks in the bar served with the lightest-ever pea mousse with bread crisps as a nibble, we were shown to our table.
The dining room itself is simply decorated in pale colours eschewing the overpowering brocade and dark stained wood look that some of the houses of this period have. I liked the plain white napery, solid cutlery and understated glassware. Nothing too fancy and all of good quality which I suppose is the house style. The ladies’ cloakroom, always a bellwether of whether the management pay attention to detail, was rather lovely in a cosseting kind of way:
The only lapse of good taste was my flashy “lay” plate which seemed at first to be blue and white willow pattern type of decoration but on closer inspection proved to be a faux-aged mugshot of Nigel… Fortunately the lay-plate was soon whisked away and the more aesthetically pleasing starters arrived. Here’s my dinky rabbit turnover with deconstructed piccalilli:
The pastry was crisp and the rabbit fillet within flavoursome and juicy. I was reminded as I ate what a good pickle picalilli is making use of the now sadly out-of-favour cauliflower. I really should make some soon.
Next up was the rack of saltmarsh lamb- a suitably summery dish made by the inclusion of the sweetbread and onion fritter. Delicious with a lipsmacking contrast of textures and flavours. The portion sizes are not too large which is perfect for lunch:
And then the rather glamorous strawberry pudding served in its Eero Arnio bubble-chair bowl on the now obligatory slate. I enjoyed the strawberry elements – a thin layer of jelly on top of strawberry mousse, plus whole fruit, also the textural contrast provided by those naughty little meringues but remain unconvinced about the mint flavour. The problem with mintcake is that it is a very pure mint flavour with all the green herbal elements removed but it is in fact these green herbal flavours that marry best with the strawberries. Having checked my trusty Harold McGee I think it’s the menthol which gives the pure almost medicinal mint flavour which is too predominant in mint cake whereas it’s the various terpenes and pyridines within the spearmint plant which give its fresh leaves their special aroma.
I felt quite starstruck when Lisa came out to meet us afterwards in her chef’s whites and clogs: she’s slender and elfin in appearance with a shock of ash-blonde hair, a bit like a young Annie Lennox. She is also down-to-earth and charming and is clearly passionate about what she does in the kitchen. It was a lovely way to round off our meal, along with the delectable miniature Eccles cakes.
Northcote Road, Langho,
Tel: 01254 240555
Fax: 01254 246568