Thursday, 26 November 2009

Hot dog, Ludlow slog, Abergavenny

Game consommé with bacon cream and a small game hot dog at Phil Howard and Rebecca Mascarenhas's new Kitchen W8 restaurant in Kensington is quite obviously The London Dish of The Moment and anyone who doesn't realise that is a fucking idiot, probably.

Do you think they'll put that on the reviews page of their website? It would look good next to Andy "Limpest Passive Aggressive Handshake in the Known Universe" Hayler's "Phil Howard does seems to have the magic touch" quote wouldn't it?

For those who haven't tried it (the hot dog, not shaking hands with Andy Hayler), it's "an intensely flavoured consommé based on grouse, venison, pheasant and mallard, topped with a rich, velvety foam. It is served with a small game hot dog, the sausage home-made and based on venison, hare and pork and it's topped with a sweet and sour “brown sauce” based on onions, spices, malt vinegar and beer." Sorry about all those "based-on"s but that's unedited (well this is a blog, I don't get paid for this you know) from the horses mouth. The baby foie gras potato served with grilled ox tongue and shallot purée is most definitely the Spud-I-Like.

Driving through torrential rain in the dark - for bloody hours - is not my idea of fun. But even The Shittest Journey couldn't take the shine off arriving back in Ludlow. I love the place and would probably move there if my wife didn't hate it with a furious passion (that probably has something to do with the fact that I forced her to take the annual family holiday there one year simply so that I could do a one day stage and eat at Shaun Hill's now legendary The Merchant House. Well, I enjoyed it).

Sadly The Merchant House is long gone (now a B&B), as is Hibiscus and apparently Mr Underhill's might not be long for this world, but don't tell anyone I told you that. So all we're left with is La Becasse. But that will do very nicely thank you. Will Holland is a very ambitious young Michelin starred chef and if you haven't heard of him before, you will very soon. He's in the rather spiffing new Yes, Chef!: 20 Great British Chefs 100 Great British Recipes book by Saturday Kitchen producer James Winter and James Bulmer, son of Derek of Michelin guide fame.

Dish of the night from the menu gourmand was the technically dazzling, rather unusual, but totally delicious confit leg and smoked loin of locally shot rabbit, foie gras terrine, passion fruit and celery salad, toasted brioche. I retired to my palatial suit at the charming De Grey's b&b a happy man and nodded off reading the Fat Duck Cookbook, which I've just review for foodepedia (did you see what I did there? Relentless self promotor, that's me).

After a bloody great bacon bap for brekkie and an interview with Chef Holland (coming to a publication near you soon, hopefully), it was time to get hopelessly lost trying to find The Walnut Tree Inn. I'd got hopelessly lost the last time I visited the place two years ago in order to interview the previously mentioned Shaun Hill for Restaurant magazine.

The restaurant is on the B4521, which is simple enough, except that in order to stay on the B4521 as you're driving away from Abergavenny town centre, you have to make a right into Grosvenor Road, otherwise your on the Hereford Road and heading in completely the wrong direction. One small problem - THE RIGHT TURN IS NOT FUCKING WELL SIGNPOSTED. What am I? Fucking psychic or something. OK, so I'd been there before, but that was two years and copious amounts of booze ago and my memory is not what it was. My memory is not what it was (boom, and further more, boom).

A good half an hour late and rather flustered, I was relieved to see a smiling Mr Hill waiting for me with a glass of champagne to calm me down (God, I hate being late). On my previous visit, the restaurant hadn't even opened so I was treated to a tasting with the brigade as the builders worked around us in the kitchen. This time I got a seat in the dining room and some of the best food I've had all year. The menu is a stunner; a list of everything you could possibly want to eat, and a few things you hadn't even thought of.

I toyed with the idea of ordering three starters (I was dining by myself) but Shaun isn't the type of chef to suffer that sort of foodie bullshit messing up his lunch service gladly, so I restricted myself to pheasant pudding with crisp sage and bacon (a sort of riff on quenelle de brochet; the tower of pheasant mousse filled with a hidden surprise of wild mushroom fricassee) followed by a sublime loin of Berkshire pork, belly and cheeks served with black pudding, mash and cabbage. Best of all however was an historically good muscat crème caramel with Agen prunes.

I joined Shaun for a chat in the bar after, and he was on his usual acerbic and hilariously undiplomatic form which made most of the conversation unrepeatable. It was a quiet Friday lunch but he was expecting to do around 160 covers the following day. "The only thing that gets me through it is knowing we're closed on Sunday and I won't have to do it all again the next day," he told me. But he also said that after 40 years in the business, he's never tired of the kitchen, "it's just all the other stuff I can't stand."


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