30 March 2009

Stop The Presses

Before I start on the more recent food events - Sunday's "chicken toast" really deserves a blogpost sooner rather than later - I thought I'd rattle on with another Scotland posting. From Edinburgh.

I'd been invited to stay at The Scotsman Hotel, which is billed as a five star boutique hotel. If you've ever been to Edinburgh, you'll certainly know the building, perched as it is in the middle of the Royal Mile and overlooking Waverley Station and the Scott Memorial.
As the name suggests, it used to be the home of The Scotsman newspaper and you can't help but admire the way they've adapted the interior - a former office and printing press - and come to terms with the Edinburgh landscape: the main entrance may look like it's on the Ground Floor, but it's actually on the fourth, and the swimming pool and gym which appear to be tucked in the basement, are actually on the ground floor. Confused? You will be, but it's all well-mapped out.

The room was spectacular - The Baron Suite, dontchaknow - with several TVs, loads of sofas, a desk overlooking the Scott Memorial (see above), a mini bar, DVD player, a huge power shower... all the trappings you'd expect frankly. Staff were also excellent, some of the friendliest on the tour. And the brasserie - the North Bridge - was a very solid performer indeed. I'd certainly eat there again but stay at The Scotsman? No. Can't see it happening.

It's not a cost thing. Well, maybe a little. But it's more that when you're paying this sort of rate - the Baron Suite should have been around £800 a night - do you really want to be reminded how much every item costs? The mini-bar tariff runs to two A4 sheets on the inside of the wardrobe door and covers everything from over-priced soft drinks and ludicrously expensive snacks to Jesus-how-much? booze and condoms at, er, £7.50 a packet (so it pays to come prepared). You're reminded that the Cowshed soaps and gels etc., are for your use - who else's would it be? - and that if you take them from the room you'll be charged. The water may be complimentary but take the bottle away and you'll be charged an extra £15. Internet access is eight quid an hour. It gets to a stage where you expect to find a price label on every sheet of toilet paper... Compare that to The Torridon, where they leave a little sherry decanter in your room (and top it up each night if you have a snifter), several miniature bottles of single malt, a teddy bear, have free wifi and tell you to take the Molton Brown bathroom goodies away because they can't re-use them. Yes, The Scotsman is more state of the art but which one would you rather stay in?

So, onto the food. Dinner in Edinburgh was a good opportunity to get together with the lovely Martha from Visit Scotland and try and repa
y some of her previous hospitality. So, over a couple of beers - and the inevitable White Lady for Martha - we tucked into some highly competent brasserie fare.

Steak tartare, as you'd imagine in a country filled with so many healthy, happy cows, was very good indeed. A little lacking in the spicy accompaniments, perhaps, but rich and buttery and good enough to stand solo. On the other side of the table, fresh crab was deemed fresh and certainly looked good.

Mains were also very decent and featured something new to me and Martha: stone bass. "It's a cousin of the sea bass," explained our very friendly Canadian waiter. A close cousin, I'd suggest, as I doubt I'd tell 'em apart in a blind tasting. Again though, there was no complaint over the skills of the kitchen or the quality of the sourcing. Sides of cauliflower cheese - a long-standing private joke which I'll explain sometime - and Epoisse gratinee potatoes were chosen out of curiosity rather than necessity but impressed, particularly the latter. Roll that name around your mouth a couple of times and contemplate thin, creamy, melt-in-the-mouth slivers of potato mixed with the pungent depth of Epoisse. Yeah. Exactly.

Puds were good old fashioned stuff. For me, the warm chocolate pudding, with candied peanuts and peanut butter ice cream. For Martha, a Floating Island with pink pralines and custard. Light, sweet, and a good way to finish.

For the time being I shall ignore the breakfast at The Scotsman. I'm in a good mood, I've eaten well and I don't want to think about insipid hollandaise, bitter and badly washed spinach and the head-hurting, over-zealous newspaper themed crockery. Besides, I feel a more detailed rant about hotel breakfasts in general coming on...

Tomorrow then to Glasgow - and a night of serious, delicious WEST beers. Not to mention the best pound I spent on tour on this joyous little, award-winning Scotch Pie...

Normal Service To Be Resumed

Where is the time going? And by that I don't mean this weekend's missing hour - thank you for that, you time-stealing bastards. No, I mean the speed with which March has vanished, and the alarming gaps between blogs. And, as it happens, the gaps between interesting foodie opportunities but that's maybe not a bad thing. The waistline could certainly do with a few nights off - and I might even blog about that in due course. The mission for the year is a 40lb reduction so I'll keep you posted.

Anyway, back to Scotland and the joys of The Torridon. After a
smashing "Full Scottish" at the Bridge Hotel - my one and only full fry-up of the week, as it happens given the waistline issues and the full-on nature of the trip - I had a lovely drive across country, from East Coast to West, cruising through some spectacular countryside. Scotland is one of those places where you can pull into a lay-by to enjoy what is clearly the most beautiful bit of countryside you've ever seen... only to drive ten minutes down the road and realise that no, actually THIS is the most beautiful bit of countryside I've ever seen - and then repeat that process every ten minutes for about a week.

There were a lot of those moments between Helmsdale and Torridon. Spectacular forests, vast Lochs, rolling hills, snow capped mountains... and then at the end of it, the welcoming delights of The Torridon. While a couple of places on the tour were slightly disappointing - stand by for the next blog for one of those - The Torridon was a joy. It wasn't the most luxurious place I stayed. It wasn't the best meal. But as a package, it's very hard to resist.

It's one of those places that is clearly aware of its (few) limitations and then does everything possible to overcome them. Roaring log fires in the reception, lounge and dining room. An incredible collection of 320+ single malts.

Charming staff. A welcoming cuppa and homemade cake on arrival. Free wifi throughout. A teddy bear on the bed - and a hot water bottle when they turn the bed down... it's those sorts of sweet, friendly touches that really impress. And, if the rain hadn't been horizontal by the time I got there - via what must be the narrowest A road in the UK - I might even have had a crack at archery. Instead, it was cake, a lovely hot shower, a little work and then dinner.

The Torridon chef Kevin John Broome is a former MPW sidekick and is clearly revelling in the "Scottish larder". Sometimes it lets him down a little - the local cheeses were rather disappointing (or possibly chosen for "safety" and mass appeal?) - but when it works, it's glorious. A dish of wood-smoked sea trout, soft boiled egg, natua sauce and celery salt was lovely, all rich and fishy and deeply comforting, and the ballotine of chicken with foie gras farcie, fricassee of chicken livers and mushrooms, vichy carrots and chive and onion gnocchi was one of the best chicken meals I can remember since becoming a fully paid-up foodie.

Sadly the cheese "issue" undermined the intriguing, and otherwise successful, squash pannacotta which was served with watercress caviar and a white cheese fondant. The pannacotta was perfect and surprisingly effective but cried out for a stronger cheese to lift it. And there was no excuse for the sorbets. Yes, they were well made, yes the flavours shone through but lime, tropical (which tasted of pink grapefruit) and black cherry? Hands up who said "sour". Individually they were fine and, if tasted throughout the day in a hot kitchen, they were probably perfectly refreshing. The three of them together though was a mouth-puckering experience.

Still, it was all forgiven quickly with the discovery of the aforementioned hot water bottle, a glass of Speyside - from the complimentary bottles in the room - and an incredibly comfortable bed. The love affair then continued with a great night's sleep, an early morning stroll down to the beautiful Loch

and an almost perfect breakfast of smoked salmon, proper scrambled eggs and, having spotted it on the menu, homemade black pudding. Yep. Home made black pudding.

How can you ignore that? It was rich, soft - the pearl barley a very welcome addition - and deeply flavoured. The only downside, in fact, is I now have to travel about 500 miles to get another slice...

22 March 2009

Stag Night

There was only one worrying thing about the trip to Old Pulteney. Where to stay? I'd had a few offers of lovely places but all looked to involve several more hours of driving or - worse - me putting my own hand in my pocket. Yeah, I know, how shocking...

Salvation was at hand though in the rather unlikely form of Shahnaz Pakravan, the former
Channel 4 newsreader and Tomorrow's World presenter who has turned her back temporarily on the world of TV to run The Bridge Hotel in Helmsdale instead, alongside her partner Christian Gross.

Set alongside the famous Helmsdale River, the Bridge is an absolute charmer and proof that sometimes the simple pleasures are the best. Surprisingly given Shahnaz's presence, the rooms are TV- and telephone-free and Helmsdale is a bit of a black hole as far as Orange service goes. However, the hotel does have excellent wi-fi throughout, so it's not all bad news if you're as hooked on technology as I am.

Mind you, in the spirit of their chilled vision, I tried to keep my internet activities to a minimum and it's probably no coincidence that I had the best night's sleep of the trip at The Bridge. Saying that, the hearty dinner no doubt played its part as well.

The Green Stag is the name of the Bridge's restaurant and my only question is what came first - the name or the crockery? One suspects it's the latter as it seems unlikely you'd luck into finding so much green stag embossed stuff. Sti
ll, it's good to have a theme and, in fact, The Green Stag has two - if you count really good food as a theme.

LIke so many Scottish locations, the focus here is on the natural "larder" the country provides. For this Highlands coastal town the bias is on hunting, shooting and fishing and the menu reflects this. Crab comes from the harbour every morning. Lobsters come from the harbour, via the big tank in the bar. Venison features heavily but, rather than the generic term, they specify the type of deer, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The result is the sort of menu that makes decision-making a very difficult thing. Fortunately, Shahnaz took pity on me, making a few recommendations - not to mention sneaking a portion of Snipe Pate on to my table.

Yes. Snipe Pate. Having once been a keen ornithologist - once a geek, alays a geek, right? - I was aware of the stubby round bird but had no idea what it tasted like. I can now confirm it's gamey and buttery and somewhere between chicken and, say, grouse. It also goes well with nice, sharp, crunchy gherkins and slabs of heavily-buttered bread. I wolfed that portion down, together with freshly caught Helmsdale crab - I believe the latest net expression to describe that is "nom nom" - and then moved onto the main course: red deer medallions in a green peppercorn sauce. Original? No. Delicately presented in some arty-farty stack? No. Very bloody tasty and a plate licked damn near clean? Hell yes. The meat was tender, the sauce robust, the veg perfectly cooked and buttery. To paraphrase the shouty one on Masterchef, The Green Stag can produce a good plate of food.

Puddings should have been an impossibility but I had the eating head on and the Frozen Honey & Cognac Cream had been suggested by two other members of the lovely staff. They were right, and the cream and booze and home made shortbread, drizzled honey and swirls of homemade quince jelly was both a fitting, hearty finish and the sort of pud that's been added to the list of desserts I intend to pass off as my own in due course...

21 March 2009

Every Wick Way...

Good evening and here is the news... Blogger gets back to reality in a week lacking dining excitement.

So much for the plans on the big Scottish catch-up. The car's gone, the real world has forced its way back in - in a big style - and it's only now I'm feeling "bloggy" and well fed enough not to be pining for the joys of the Scottish larder.

The Tuesday before last saw me reach the end of my trip north, and the place that had inspired the whole feature: Wick. Or, to be more precise, Pulteney Town, Wick's close neighbour and the site of the Old Pulteney Distillery. And it was worth the trip. From a motoring perspective, the drive was fabulous. If there's a better road to test a car than that stretch from Inverness to Wick, I'd love to drive it, particularly in a car like the BMW which hugged the curves and had enough power to cruise past the slow moving tankers when the road opened up. With an iPodded playlist of driving classics blaring and the windows open, it would have been a great experience anywhere. But with Scotland's natural beauty all around? Rolling fields, vast expanses of water - both Lochs and ocean - and all under a "Simpsons" sky... It was glorious.

Even if Wick had been a disaster, it would have been worth the trip. But Wick - particularly the Mackays Hotel - Old Pulteney and my host, Iain Baxter, contributed to making this perhaps the best day of the trip. Mackays has a certain prestige with trivia fans as the front of the hotel is on the world's shortest street. It looks like a fairly standard smalltown hotel but owner (and local sheriff) Murray Lamont has a few tricks up his sleeve. A car fan and a major foodie (Murray also owns Wick's off licence), Murray has made sure that Mackays' little cafe is the sort of local anyone would want. And so, with a belly full of glorious Cullen Skink and having hooked up with Iain, we took a short spin to the distillery...

If you've ever done the distillery tour thing, you probably know what to expect: the shiny, sanitised "McWhisky" experience. Old Pulteney is delightfully different and feels like a genuine work place, the sort of production line that's evolved over the years. Stills and vats and tanks have been squeezed in here and there and trailing the line of production will take you up and down stairs and in- and out- doors. The result is fascinating and authentic and gives you a genuine sense of both history and whisky production.

As I was leaving, Iain generously gave me the chance to decant my own bottle of cask strength Old Pulteney - bottle no. 2 of cask no. 2993, to be strictly accurate, which is 13 years old, aged in a second fill bourbon barrel, 61.8% in strength, a beautiful shade of amber and absolutely bloody gorgeous. Cheers Iain.

16 March 2009


Cor blimey, where does the time go? Two days of long drives and no decent connection - or stupidly expensive connection, shame on you supposedly modern Edinburgh hotel - and then Mrs L joined me in Glasgow for the return leg... Yeah, you're right. Mealy-mouthed excuses.

The real reason? I was too busy eating more good food to want to write about good food, and the eating and the Scottish air and the long drives and the whisky left me feeling very relaxed and sleeping for silly numbers
of hours every night. Anyway, I'm back now and energised and, save for a bit of Indian eating this Thursday, I shall use the next few days to reflect on last week's hospitality.

Last Monday saw me at The Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen, a spa hotel owned by Stewart Spence. Assorted Scottish friends I ran into later in the week made appreciative murmurs and declared it "the best hotel in Aberdeen." Admittedly, they also then went on to suggest it's number one in a field of one but never mind. It was clean, spacious, the staff were delightful, the room was comfy - if not to the elaborate standards of an £850-a-night suite in Luton Hoo - and the meal was simple and excellent. After the elaborate creativity of L'Enclume, a more straightforward dinner seemed in order. Not that it meant nuking the luzury quotient though...

The Marcliffe has become famous for two culinary offerings. The first is Jumbo Russian Red King Crab, those evil bastard crustaceans off that Extreme Fishing programme
. The second? Steak. "People in Aberdeen will only eat steak and chips," said the waiter, "but Mr Spence decided to offer the best possible steak." He then proceeded to tell me I should eat the steak because "it'll be the best steak you've ever eaten." That where I come from is fighting talk, so what else could I order? I'll have the 10oz ribeye then, matey, and let battle commence...

But first the King Crab. I've never really understood the point of crab. Yes, it's great if it's fresh and someone else has done the work for you, but a plate of claws and a shiny metal spike to remove about a teaspoon of meat? Sod that for a game of soldiers. The King Crab though is different, and a fine marriage of quantity and quality. Apparently Mr Spence tried it in a restaurant, declared it the most delicious thing ever and went about sourcing it for his restaurant. I'm glad he did. It's big, juicy, incredibly meaty, rich, yielding... and the meat flops out of the shell in a most alluring manner. And when you are forced to dig around for the remaining morsels, you keep finding bite after bite after bite. I had it served warm with a shirt-staining and delicate garlic butter. It was delicious - and fair play to the first person who looked at one of the huge homicidal, butt ugly beasties and thought "hmm, I wonder what THAT tastes like?"

And so to the inflammatory slab of Aberdeen Angus. The best steak I've ever eaten? No... But I'd put it in the Top Three. Properly charred, cooked to medium perfection - deeply purple with the fat just starting to melt - and gently resistant to the knife. It demanded proper chewing and released deep beefy flavour and juices aplenty as reward. Given that I liked it so much, I thus decided to hate the traditional / naff accompaniments of chips, onion rings, tomaro and mushroom. Only I couldn't. Yes, the chips could have been crisper but the onion rings had a satisfying crunch, a pleasing lack of oiliness and a wonderful fried onion flavour, while the mushroom and tomato had been well sourced, their respective, full bodied bite and juicy sweetness making an appealing foil to the excellent meat. I may even have let out a sigh or two at the sight of all the juices mingling so appealingly with the exemplary Bearnaise sauce. As you can imagine, a good hotel in Aberdeen is going to be rather popular to Texan oilmen and there's a bunch of chaps who know a thing or two about steak. The large group of loud Americans to my right all seemed to be return visitors, judging by the banter, and their companions - some very expensively dressed Japanese gentlemen who also know a thing or two about eating cow - all seemed to tuck in with gusto.

Pudding should have been an impossibility but those Scots are excellent hosts and smooth-talking swine. Mind you, when there's a dessert on the menu called Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb, Rhubarb I don't need much arm twisting. A combination of four rhubarb dishes, it filled the remaining gaps with sharp, fruity efficiency. A rhubarb sorbet of gentle sophistication cleansed the palate, a spoonful or two of perfectly cooked, just yielding stewed rhubarb filled the mouth and came with a delicate rhubarb foam, while rhubarb crumble and rhubarb tart ticked all the relative boxes.

As dinners went, there was nothing here to scare the parents or reinvent the wheel. But as an "antidote" - not that one was needed - to the delightful, probably Top Three of All Time delights of L'Enclume, this was as good a return to "real" eating as you're going to find. The Marcliffe, I salute you... And for the record, they also do a damn good breakfast. Tomorrow: Old Pulteney (undoubtedly the best, most "real" distillery I've ever visited), snipe pate and bits of red deer in a green pepper sauce...

11 March 2009

Lake's Superior (Part II)

Sorry all, I have rather kept you waiting, haven't I? However, I'm now officially on the "chill out" bit of the tour and, with a belly full of nice chocolate cake - indeed, one that looked so appealing it didn't last long enough to be photographed - I've got a little time to catch up on some blogging.

And so to L'Enclume. I've been trying to get to Simon Rogan's wittily creative Lake District ourpost for about four years and I think Mrs L was concerned that so much anticipation would lead to disappointment. Her concerns were: a) touching; but b) misplaced. It was everything I'd hoped it would be and considerably more.

Cartmel is a charming little village and, when you're trying to park a huge BMW and not scratch it before the nice men from their press department collect it next Monday, you realise just how little. There's barely a gate you can get through first time. I only point this out to illustrate the fact that this quaint town - previously best known for its race course and being the home of the Sticky Toffee Pudding - is an unlikely setting for Rogan's Michelin-starred cooking. Put it down to English eccentricity, perhaps. but it certainly works and the guest room element - L'Enclume has nine bedrooms available throught the village - is an added bonus. Our room, opposite two of Cartmel's three pubs (which, for the record, is a fine number for any tiny village), was a mix of Lake District charm and New York loft apartment. A lovely shower, a HUGE bath, the biggest TV I've seen this side of Selfridge's... but a little pot of home-made biscuits as well. And so, washed, watered and with a couple of biccies to keep us going (after Saturday's mistake, we skipped lunch), we wandered down the road to the restaurant.

As we supped bubbly and picked at some chilli and maple syrup popcorn (something I intend to copy and pass off my own one day very soon), we perused the menu. This wasn't for any great decision on our part, but just interest. Rogan has created three tasting menus so the choice is whether you have eight courses, 12 or 17 (if my maths and notes are correct).

First up, were a selection of amuses: a mushroom mousse-cum-pate, the sweet and sour plate of avocado and quince (pictured above), and the punsome Cod Lips Ses Amis: fried cod lips with a lovely mayo-style accompaniment, flavoured with sesame. The lips, like the cheeks, provide concentrated fish flavours without overpowering. It's not a pretty dish but they make an intense and fleeting appetite stimulant. And I love anyone that can do a decent pun so Simon was already scoring highly for Menu II & III's "stiffy tacky pudding" before this arrived. I think it's fair to say that Rogan joshes to a very high standard...

Tamarillo - a pomegranate/mango cross, apparently - provided the bitter sweet, plummy basis for a cleansing first course. Served as a martini, together with a coconut wafer, and topped with a spash of cream soda from a very bling syphon, it was a lovely, creative way to kick off, a playful moment of waiting staff / customer interaction.

Bread was next (house made and served with a lovely nutty pumpkin foam rather than butter) which heralded the arrival of Egg Drop Hot & Sour Soup. This was a vibrant broth of local shrimp and Asian flavours served alongside... a syringe? Oh yes. The syringe contains part-cooked duck egg which is then "injected" into the broth, forming a long, thin, delicious egg noodle that cooks in the heat of the liquid. Again, there was a slight air of pomp to it all but it's all done in such a knowing, funny way, it seems more involving than The Fat Duck experience.

Mrs L & me - plus a friend, his fiancee and his mum - went to The Fat Duck a few years ago. I loved it, friend loved it, Mrs L... was underwhelmed, particularly by the cost:enjoyment ratio. Her feeling was that it's clever but too eccentric, with moments of foodie madness for the sake of it. She's probably right but Heston is a genius, just one whose food you'd never attempt at home.. Simon, though, seems to share a similar exploratory ideal but it's all just... well, friendlier and more inspirational.

Right, domestic history over, back to the food. The soup was great - though a little more spice would have been good - while the next course, Malted Lamb Glaze & Cardamom, was as good as anything I've eaten in the last three years. Served alongside a white chocolate risotto, with malt foam and a cardamom glaze this was a mad combination but one with no wasted ingredients on the place. That, you see, is the difference between a genius like Simon Rogan and a wannabe like the chap at Cotswolds House.

Incredibly, the dishes then got better and better. "Crab in Ham with Hazelnut" was actually sweet crab meat, hazelnut puree, bright wheatgrass for decoration and flavour... and Iberico ham. That combination of acorn-influenced pig and the hazelnut was delicious, while the fattiness of the ham was matched by the richness of the crab. If I close my eyes, I can taste it now.However, if I do that, I drool all over my laptop...

And then came, for me, the stand-out of the meal, and the dish that confirmed L'Enclume's place in my Top Three Meals of All Time. Billed as Fried Halibut With Garlic & Juniper, this was a perfectly cooked rectangle of fat, firm fish sitting on top of sweet garlic puree, the almost floral hint of Juniper, little crunchy Japanese artichokes and wild mushrooms. Individually, each element was delicious. Together it was a combination of textures and flavours that made my eyes roll back in my head.

After that, the excellent Breast of Veal (with sweetbreads, star anise, citrus and sea fennel) was always going to pale a little. If it hadn't been for the Halibut though, the veal might have been the best thing I've eaten for years...

Then came pudding. With a slight detour for cheese. he excellent cheese trolley received a murmur of appreciation as it came through the doors and that was the point you realise just how special L'Enclume is. Because every table is eating roughly the same dishes - the only difference being portion control and number of additional courses - it's a shared experience, like all the best food-related activities. By the time other parties got to the cheese, we'd been asked for suggestions (such as "which one was it that made you drop you fork and whimper with pleasure?") and everyone was chatting away. For the record, the nigh-orgasmic cheese was an Epoisse-like washed rind that smelled awful and tasted like nothing else I've eaten. And coming from a former cheesemonger (and champion of British cheeses) that's praise indeed. The home made biscuits were also spectacular.

And there are still eight dishes to run through. Yes. Eight. The punning Expearamenthol Frappe - meringue, pear puree, frozen coffe and, er, eucalyptus ice cream was a palate cleanser extraordinaire. Chocolate Orange - with beetroot, pomegranate, almond and cocoa poder, cocoa nibs and a rich chocolate cream underneath it all - was impeccable. The the petit fours... oh god, the petit fours. Olive oil Turkish Delight was just delicious. Almond nougat with cassis jelly was superb. Shotglasses of Tiramisu flavours, chocolate straws with peppermint creams, perfect macaroons with black pepper and cherry jam were also good, but all trembled before the lemongrass ice cream enclosed in white chocolate.

I've got to stop. Not only is the battery dying but I'm fresh out of superlatives. If you get the chance, go. If you don't get the chance, make the chance. L'Enclume was a glorious experience.

10 March 2009

Lake's Superior

What a day. Only drove 200-and-something miles but it's taken six, seven hours thanks to tractors and slow-moving tankers. Never mind. The scenery was spectacular and if there's a better car-testing road than the A9 to Wick, I want to know what it is. Seriously. Big hills, stunning forests, wide open spaces and vast expanses of sea popping into view on a regular basis. The journey back from Wick to Helmsdale - where I'm about to dine, surprise, surprise - was breathtaking. I actually pulled into a layby at one point so I could just drink it all in: as in all of the above, plus a blazing, setting sun. It's left me with a silly grin all over my chops. Which, as Mrs Lambshank will no doubt point out, makes a difference from mayo. Or ketchup. Or peanut butter. Or anything else that I've eaten in the last hour or two.

The scenery alone made today an excellent day and I'll get to the blogging in due course. In the meantime - and thanks for the odd nag, sarky Tweet or Facebook message - it's time to digest L'Enclume...

(ooh, battery needs charging, I need a shower and that Scrabster halibut won't eat itself. Back later...)

9 March 2009

Isinglass Part II

So, where was I before yet another dinner interrupted proceedings?

We'll get onto tonight's meal in due course but it had a lot in common with Isinglass. The Marcliffe, like Isinglass, knows its audience and takes pride in doing the best by them. Isinglass has spotted a gap in its regional market - decent local eaterie - and taken it up a notch or two. The menu features lots of simple grills and things but there's some considerable flair here, hence the stew is made with ox-cheeks and cherry ale, the ingredients are all locally and, more importantly, well sourced and there are side dishes like haggis mash, kale with cream and bacon and cauliflower in a tempura-style batter with anchovies and capers. It's a great compromise between not scaring the locals but giving it some appeal to the more foodie-oriented.

As mentioned before, it's not without its flaws. The chips were poor and floury, the tempura batter, while tasty, was oily suggesting the pan might not have been hot enough, and the bread was pretty poor. But then that stew was exemplary (horseradish and oregano dumplings? yes please), I'm never going to turn down a starter of Lancashire Cheese Crumpet with beetroot and when it's all finished with a Horlicks pannacotta with shortbread "spoon", I was very taken. So, the pannacotta wasn't quite soft and wobbly enough and the shortbread was a little too soft. The flavours were lovely and it's something I'm going to try at home. Plus service was charming, there's a great room upstairs (think wine bar meets lounge in a Scottish country house) and they'll keep serving til very late in the evening. Given that it's a very short drive from Old Trafford, anyone watching United can now shun those infamous prawn sandwiches and get a decent stew instead. Before driving back to London...

A lovely meal, excellent value and a little inspiration: that's not a bad night out in my book.

Raising A (Isinglass)

All this eating and days of no wi-fi have messed up the schedule so apologies if anyone's feeling let down. Mind you, on the basis I'm getting a few "stop Tweeting, you're making me hungry you bastard" comments perhaps it's just as well. Anyway, before tonight's dinner - Aberdeen's Marcliffe Hotel - I thought I'd start posting about Saturday...

We stayed at Manchester's Radisson Edwardian which was lovely (well, until breakfast - how can so many hotels get that wrong?) but had to drive a little way out to Urmston for dinner. The venue was Isinglass, allegedly one of the most popular restaurants in the north and, on this evidence, it's easy to see why. Like the Hand & Flowers (see February), it's not without flaws but they're similarly easy to forgive. Any local neighbourhood restaurant that serves its kale with cream and bacon and offers haggis mash as a side is always going to be up there in my book.

7 March 2009

Hoo Do You Think You Are?

And so the journey "proper" is under way... And so far, it's been all I hoped it would be.

The car itself is a beast albeit in a good way. Clarkson would no doubt have lots to say - and a Sat Nav system that doesn't let you put in a whole postcode does seem pretty bloody daft - but, for this performance car virgin, I've got to say I'm impressed. It's slick, sleek, goes like the proverbial ploppies off a trowel, and packs some surprising economy under its alarmingly long bonnet. The gadgets are a lot of fun too. For someone who hasn't driven a new car for 14 years, it's amazing how far they've moved on. Quite frankly, an ejector seat and surface-to-air missles are about the only things left to add.

As I think I mentioned before, the feature I'm "working" on - and I mean that in the loosest, most calorific, oh-go-on-then-just-another-glass-of-red sense of the word - is a combination of BMW review and a review of the BMW lifestyle. It might seem unlikely then that the first stop was Luton. Yes. THAT Luton.

Say "food" and "Luton" to most people and they'll assume you're talking Subway or Nando's. However, not far from the airport (indeed, you can see it from the grounds) Luton Hoo is a spectacular stately home that's been converted to a hotel, restaurant and leisure complex. Having eaten in the brasserie last year - thank you again, Pam & Kieran - I was eager to experience the main house and, frankly, the rest of the hotels are going to have to go some to beat it.

The suite was amazing (those who know it, think the size of our flat, double it, add a bit and stuff it with antique furniture) and, once I'd finished running around it making "whoop" noises, it was time for a very, very fine dinner. In a suitably stately setting - check out the amount of crystal on the table - the food was spot-on.

The veloute of white bean and truffle oil may have overcome Mrs L's aversion to this overused kitchen condiment, while the Ten Hour Gloucester Old Spot married melting flesh and golden crackling to deeply satisfying effect. Milk-fed veal and slow poached salmon kept the mood going, a shared chocolate pud with mascerated raspberry fool made us very happy, and the cheese plate, while hardly a cutting-edge collection, was a well-sourced and well kept range of aged milk products. The extras were lovely too: a pear jelly and Roquefort foam was like upmarket baby food (and I mean that in the best possible way) and a Rhubarb and Lime sorbet refreshed the palate deliciously. It's not what you'd call Michelin-starred cooking but, judging by the fare at The Montagu Arms, it might not be far off. In the meantime though, enjoy this hugely appealing food for what it is: unfussy and honest dining of the sort I hope to repeat many times this week. Breakfast - some healthy fruit - was good too.