Friday, 12 December 2008
Chef Stephen Williams serves the best potatoes in London at Fulham gastropub The Harwood Arms and here's how he does it. Boil small Roseval potatoes until tender; drain and cool. Gently crush the potatoes using the heel of you palm until the skin cracks but the potato remains whole. Deep fry at 170° until crisp, then toss in garlic butter. Simple but utterly delicious.
Saturday, 6 December 2008
Friday, 5 December 2008
Reading London-based Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s second cookbook The Clatter of Forks and Spoons is a pain in the neck. Holding the monster-sized tome that weighs in at over 3lbs for extended periods of time doesn't help, but its the constant nods of agreement that are the real problem.
“Philosophy of life, politics, religion maybe – but cooking? It’s just people trying to sound more meaningful than they really are.” (Nods reflectively) Couldn’t agree more.
“What is good cooking all about? Knowing your ingredients, and understanding what goes with what.” (Nods knowingly) Yes, absolutely.
“What’s the use of chefs at all, I sometimes wonder, when there is food as simple and gorgeous as Dover sole or a native oyster out there?” (Nods vigorously) Oh, someone get me an Aspirin.
Although primarily aimed at the home cook, there’s so much culinary common sense crammed into the book’s 400-odd pages that no chef should be allowed within a mile of a professional kitchen without reading it.
A cookery booked named after a quote from The Dead by James Joyce with a picture of a sink on the cover was always going to be a class apart. Numerous articles, essays and extended introductions along with the evocative landscapes, still lives and portraits by photographer Kristin Peters break the usual recipe/photo mould.
Corrigan underlines his ingredient-led approach by profiling some of his favourite producers or “extreme artisans” as he calls them. A veritable Irish Mafia of “stubborn, cranky people” includes cheesemaker Bill Hogan of Schull in West Cork and the Seed Saver Association in Country Clare that conserve heritage varieties of fruit vegetables and grains.
Despite his enthusiasm for artisan produce, Corrigan resists being too prescriptive with his recipes. Apart from a general exhortation to spend less in the supermarket and more at the butcher’s shop and farmers market, you won’t have to search too hard to find ingredients for the majority of the dishes.
A love of cheaper cuts such as pig’s trotter and ham hocks and relatively inexpensive fish including mackerel, hake and gurnard means you won’t have to break the bank to cook from the book (although there’s plenty of luxury produce like wild salmon, lobster, grouse and foie gras too).
An eclectic range of dressings and sauces including Italian salsa verde, Catalonian romesco and North African harissa, and dishes ranging from Mediterranean influenced stuffed baby squid with chorizo and feta style cheese to Thai crab and mussel soup reflect the globetrotting style prevalent during the 1990’s London restaurant scene where Corrigan first made his name.
The Clatter of Forks and Spoons also tells Corrigan’s own story, from growing up on a farm in County Meath to the recent opening of his posh new Mayfair restaurant. Although Corrigan’s time cooking in the Netherlands, working with Stephen Bull and opening the Lindsay House restaurant in Soho are all covered, you can’t help feeling that there must be more to say about such a larger-than-life character (try reading Stephen Bull’s side of the Fulham Road restaurant story in his excellent Classic Bull: An Accidental Restaurater's Cookbook and you’ll see what I mean).
With the assistance of Shelia Keating (“without whom,” the author admits in his acknowledgements “the words wouldn’t be on the paper”), Corrigan has produced a volume that more than bears comparison to modern classics such as Alastair Little’s Keep It Simple and Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson.
The book embodies much of what is great about British cooking in the 2000’s, and by doing so guarantees it will be used for decades to come.
A medium Spanish onion - substitute two banana shallots if you feel the need to be superior.
A tablespoon of single estate, extra virgin olive oil – sunflower oil would do just as well but you don’t live on a council estate do you?
A clove of Lautrec garlic - imagine how impressed your friends will be!
A dessert spoon of smoked paprika – smoked, that’s good isn’t it? I could hug myself.
Two teaspoons of toasted cumin seeds – use ready ground cumin if you’re a big fucking pleb. (Actually, in this instance, toasting the seeds yourself makes a big difference to the flavour, so do as you’re bloody well told).
A tin of tomatoes – pay as much as you want for them, but try not to be too much of a middle class twat about it.
Take an 8inch Global chef’s knife and that really expensive black marble chopping board you’re so fucking proud of and put them in the bin because they’re shit. Finely chop your allium of choice on a plastic board that won’t blunt your perfectly adequate Victorinox household standard quality, black polypropylene-handled kitchen knife, because your name isn’t Gordon-sodding-Ramsay.
Heat the single estate extra virgin olive oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan until it smokes, then pour it down the drain and try and remember only to use it for salad dressings in future. Start again with the vegetable oil and gently sauté the onion or shallots until soft and translucent.
Smash the garlic with the side of your knife and mince finely while thinking exactly how much money you could have saved by buying the bog standard stuff. Add the garlic to the onions and stir quickly to prevent burning while reminding yourself to say, “I only use Lautrec garlic now, the difference in flavour is just amazing” the next time your pretentious friends come round for dinner.
Add the paprika and cumin and fry gently until your whole house smells like an old sock. Stir in the tomatoes and adjust the seasoning (google language tools: translate text “adjust the seasoning” from Foodiewankspeak to English =“add some salt and pepper”).
If you’ve had enough sense to buy Smart Price tomatoes, you might want to add some sugar or a dash of ketchup to counter their car battery acid-like qualities. Smug gits who traded their first born for a tin of San Marzano can omit this last step.
Simmer the sauce gently for 30 minutes and serve with roasted vegetables and cous cous flavoured with spring onions, mint, flat leaf parsley, coriander, lemon and that single estate extra virgin olive oil your just dying to use, while quietly muttering “this is a bit bloody Delia isn’t it?” under your breath.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Thursday, 20 November 2008
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
(with apologies to The Onion)
Every restaurant meal eaten will be written up on the internet by 2020, the government has announced. A new law passed today will make it illegal to eat food in a public place without reviewing it at length on the world wide web.
Customers will have to critically appraise their meals on a personal restaurant review blog within 48 hours of paying the bill or face heavy fines. Repeat offenders could be jailed for up to three months if they fail to report on the tastes and textures of dishes consumed.
“We applaud the efforts being made to record every mouthful of food digested in catering outlets worldwide,” said a government spokesperson. “However, they are currently unstructured and disorganised, leading to a less than comprehensive coverage.
“For example, we estimate that only 50% of all meals consumed at el Bulli have been documented. This new law will ensure that every single customer will be able not only to post photographs of themselves standing in front of the restaurant sign and posing with Ferran Adria, but to write in arse aching detail about every single thing put in front of them.”
Although news of the law has generally been well received, it has attracted some criticism from industry commentators who fear that a run on clichés could jeopardise the long term sustainability of the initiative.
“Emperor’s new clothes; the best meal of my life; perfectly cooked; acidity cuts through the richness; my companion plumped for – these are phrases vital to all restaurant bloggers. There’s a very real risk that their repeated use on such a massive scale could literally wear them out,” said an internet insider who wished to remain nameless.
The government have responded to the comments by saying that they have plans in place to mitigate the risk, should it occur.
“We have a crack team of our own bloggers working on new clichés to be phased in over the five to ten years which will ensure that no one phrase will be used to destruction.”
Monday, 10 November 2008
(with apologies to Harold Pinter)
A restaurant. A brightly coloured banquette.
Andre: Have you got beer?
Waiter: We do have beer!
Andre: I’m glad.
Waiter: Alhambra. On tap.
Andre: That sounds good.
The waiter exits. Andre takes in his surroundings. The large room bustles with life. On the table opposite, a famous theatre director leans towards his companion as if to underline a point. At another table, a group of young thrusting businessmen in open necked shirts talk in loud voices. A lone female diner taps away at a laptop while she waits for a friend.
Waiter: A glass of Alhambra. Can I get you anything else?
Andre: I’ll wait, thank you.
He studies the menu.
Martin: Sorry I’m late.
Andre: You’re not late, I’m early. I’m early for everything. Do you know what they call me?
Martin: No, what do they call you?
Andre: Mr Early. Do you know why? Because I command respect. No one uses my first name, not even my mother. She calls me sir.
Martin: Have you seen the menu?
Andre: Food? I never touch the stuff.
Martin: What do you fancy?
Andre: I can’t decide between the French bean salad with smoked ricotta and black olive dressing and the sautéed Cornish squid with black rice and aioli. Why don’t you choose for me.
Martin: The squid.
The waiter approaches the table
Andre: (to the waiter) I’ll have the tortelli of cavalo nero and mozzarella followed by sea bream ‘a la plancha’ with coco beans and pesto.
Martin: You’re a man who knows his own mind.
Andre: I’m decisive.
Martin: You know what you want and you go for it.
Andre: I don’t dither. You, on the other hand, couldn’t decide to jump off a railway track if there was a train coming.
Martin: I’m having deep-fried soft shell crab with tarragon mayonnaise followed by braised lamb with chilli and chickpeas.
Andre: You’re an enigma.
Martin: I’m an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
Andre: What’s that on the walls?
Martin: Damien Hirst.
Andre: Hasn’t he got anything better to do than hang around restaurant walls all night and day?
Martin: It’s butterflies; hundreds of dead butterflies.
Andre: At least they’re not on the menu.
Waiter: If I might make an interjection. I heard you talking about Damien Hirst and I wanted you to know that the butterfly paintings are seven metres long. Michael Craig-Martin, the godfather of the YBA’s painted the wall murals and selected the colour palette for the interior design.
Andre: I can see that. Anyone who has eyes can plainly see that the interior of this fine restaurant has been created by no less an artist than Michael Craig-Martin.
Waiter: You’re a Martin Craig-Martin fan.
Andre: I’ve never heard his name before in my life.
Martin: You’ve been drinking.
Andre: I’m rarely sober.
The maitre’d comes to the table
Maître’d: It’s raining cats and dogs out there, did you get wet?
Andre: I ran between the hailstones. I’m as crisp and dry as a newly printed five pound note.
Maître’d: Well, that is good news. I’m so glad. Hope to see you later. .
Andre: That is why this is one of the best restaurants in the whole of London – they know what the standards are and they keep to them. They reach and maintain the highest standards and never waiver from them, do you understand?
Martin: They’ve never waivered, at least not to my knowledge.
Andre: It would be more than his job’s worth.
The waiter delivers the starters.
Andre: My sainted Italian grandmother couldn’t have made better pasta than this.
Martin: Your grandmother’s Italian?
Andre: She’s from Peckham; in the south. How’s the crab.
Martin: You should try it. The batter is so crisp it will change your life. It’s changed mine already.
Andre: That’s life changing crab; there can be no mistake about it.
He sips his wine.
That’s a nice drop. I like a nice drop if wine, especially at six o’clock in the morning. There’s no better time to be drinking wine, especially Pinot Nero 2006 from Franz Haas. It’s even better at eight o’clock at night.
Martin: Do you know who owns this restaurant?
Andre: King and Corbin; men of integrity, valour and courage.
Martin: The salt of the earth.
Andre: You can rely on them.
Martin: They’ll never let you down.
Andre: They’ve never put a foot wrong yet.
Martin: They’re no fly by nights.
The waiter serves the main courses.
Andre: The fish.
Martin: It’s perfect!
Andre: It’s overcooked.
Martin: I can see that. The lamb is perfect.
Andre: It’s not overcooked, I can see that. It looks perfect.
Martin: There is no way on earth the chef could have improved upon it.
Andre: I should have ordered the charcoal grilled tuna with Provencal gnocchi. You can’t go wrong with charcoal grilled tuna.
Martin: It’s not all about the food.
Andre: It’s about other things. It’s about life and how to live it. It’s about seeing and being seen. It’s about art and dead butterflies.
Martin: It’s about colourful banquettes.
Andre: I’ll drink to that, even if it isn’t six o’clock in the morning.
The waiter delivers dessert.
Waiter: Could I interject?
Andre: We’d be delighted.
Waiter: It’s just that I heard you talking about the chef earlier. His name is Dale Osborne. I know him; he’s from Bournemouth. He used to work at the Orrery and The Wolseley. Now he works here. He likes cooking Spanish food.
Andre: No one can cook tarte tatin. It isn’t possible, it can’t be done.
Martin: There simply isn’t a physical method known to man.
Andre: The pastry chef has sold his soul to the devil. I know; I was there at the crossroads the night it happened.
Martin: What did he get for it?
Andre: A recipe for pear tatin.
Martin: Not one for rice pudding with caramelised oranges?
Andre: Evidently not.
The Waiter stands alone
Waiter: My grandfather introduced me to the mystery of restaurants and here I am still right in the middle of it. I have a sense of dignity and honour in my work that never leaves me; of service to a cause.
If I may, I’d like to make another interjection…
Slow fade to black.
The Dinner is a work of fiction. St Alban is a real restaurant.
St Alban, 4-12 Lower Regent Street, London, SW1Y 4PE (020 7499 8558; stalban.net)
Thursday, 30 October 2008
(with profound apologies to David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets)
Removing his reading glasses, Andre Batch stares down at his food. He’s seen a thousand similar plates before, and he’ll probably see thousands more before he’s done reviewing restaurants. Poking at the lump of meat with his Laguiole knife, he throws his dining companion a knowing glance.
“That’s been dead a while,” he says, his craggy face betraying not even a hint of emotion. Batch knows a piece of well hung t-bone venison when he sees it (even though it’s a highly unusual cut) and as he chews his first perfectly medium-rare forkful, his pleasure is unmistakable. Things could be looking up for new Fulham gastropub The Harwood Arms.
Amongst his fellow restaurant critics working the London district, Batch is something of legend. Stories of serial restaurant binges that have taken in half a dozen of the city’s top spots in a day are circulated with equal measures of awe and incredulity. But recently, the grizzled 50 year old been suffering from burn out.
“You know, when I first started reviewing restaurants, I’d get so excited about the prospect of a truly great lunch I could hardly sleep the night before,” says Batch, taking a sip of the delicious and reasonably priced Tarret Viognior house white from the south of France. “Now the thought of yet another gastropub makes me want to pull the covers over my head.”
Critics like Batch recognise two distinct categories of restaurant: dunkers and who’d-eat-there’s. Dunkers are the sure fire hits run by top professionals serving the sort of food anyone with even half a decent palette would crawl over their dying grandmother to eat.
Who’d-eat-theres tend to be either ego driven dens of pseudo-gastronomy that are bound to suffer an unsightly but natural demise due to sheer cluelessness; or cynical money making operations that use low prices to extend their natural life span just long enough for the original owners to sell out to a faceless corporation.
Batch knew all too well that Fulham Broadway was more likely to be home to the latter rather than the former, but pulling the case file, he was pleasantly surprised to discover the name of the pub’s owner.
“Brett Graham, yeah I know the guy. Cooks at The Ledbury in Notting Hill, he’s got a hell of a rep, and a Michelin star to hang on it too,” says Batch. “But how he hooked up with Mike Robinson is anyone’s guess.”
A presenter for cable TV channel UKTV Food, Robinson is not the most obvious choice of business partner for one of the country’s rising star chefs. But whatever Batch’s reservations, there’s no doubting the telly chef’s culinary credentials.
“I hear only good things about his other place The Pot Kiln in Berkshire. And apparently he’s handy with a rifle too,” says Batch noting Robinson’s predilection for shooting his own muntjac deer.
A menu can tell you a lot more about a restaurant than just what there is to eat and for a seasoned pro like Batch, it’s a smoking gun at the scene of the crime.
“You never want to feel laminate between your fingers. You can forget creativity and seasonality; they might as well have set the menu in stone,” he says while studying the Harwood’s single cream coloured sheet. “But they can print something like this everyday.”
Batch runs his eyes down the concise list of five starters, six main courses and five desserts. “With a menu as appealing as this, you have to keep your wits about you and use a process of elimination, otherwise you’re never going to make a decision.”
Batch learnt long ago to ignore enticing descriptors like “warm”, “crisp” and “slow braised” and concentrate on the main ingredients, but he’s finding it hard to ignore one particular element.
“Salad cream is critic bait, pure and simple. We’re all suckers for atavistic ingredients; we’ll fall for it every time.” And when his starter of smoked trout with leeks and wild sorrel arrives, he’s glad he did.
“It’s simple but masterful cooking, the work of a real pro. The leek vinaigrette is tender as a baby’s cheek and the contrasting pink of the trout looks beautiful on the plate with those wafer thin slices of radish and tiny sorrel leaves. There’s a little too much mustard in the salad cream, but overall, that my friend is a triumph.”
As the lunch wares on Batch looks increasingly at home among the scrubbed wooden tables, mushroom coloured wainscoting and leather sofas. A bowl of warm (there’s that word again) Bramley apple doughnuts with spiced sugar and a particularly good “flat white” coffee served by the enthusiastic, young Antipodean front of house, and he looks ready to settle in for the afternoon.
“In this job, you never know what’s going to hit you. That’s what keeps it interesting, even after all these years. The Harwood Arms could have been just another gastropub, but today at least, it was something else, something more.”
The meal seems to have reinvigorated the previously weary Batch, who begins to pontificate on how something as simple but original as the crisp potatoes with garlic butter served with the t-bone can be revelatory, when his mobile rings. A short conversation later and he’s heading for the door with dining companion in tow.
“A major West End restaurant has just announced a new chef and menu, I need to get over there,” he says and heads out into leafy Fulham in search of a taxi and his next case.
Gastrocide: A Day on the Eating Streets is a work of faction. The Harwood Arms is a real restaurant.
The Harwood Arms, 27 Walham Grove, London SW6 1QR (020 7386 1847; harwoodarms.com)