28 April 2009

Happily Corrected

It always comes as a surprise when someone comments on a posting here because I genuinely have no idea who's reading. I've tried to add a counter but I'm clearly some sort of blog luddite because I'll be buggered if I can get one to work.

What's an even greater surprise is when the comments come from someone I don't even know - such as the people behind Mortimer's (see below) and Black & Blue. Accordingly, I am delighted to correct the posting below with regard to the chips - which are not from a packet, but hand cut on-site - and the puddings - also not bought in but made on site.

It's also a pleasant surprise when the owners want to set the record straight, even when the record is my idle, probably little-read food-related musings. That suggests a deep passion for the cause and that's great to see, particularly with this group. As a fan of steaks in general (yeah, you'd never guess, right?), I would love to see a decent chain take hold of London and provide something hale and hearty at the sort of price / quality ratio you can get all over New York. I'd always felt Black & Blue had the locations and the settings but fell short on the food. Now I'm informed of all of the above points and that they recently purchased their own butchers in order to control the quality of the meat more. That can only be a good thing and I am very, very happy to stand corrected.

27 April 2009

Back On Track

Another week ekes by, with very little of foodie note to discuss. Mind you, I did pop down to the Mortimer Grill last Thursday for what was a very surprising evening.

The surprise was two fold. First of all, having been to Black & Blue a few times before (once to review, the other times because I was unable to persuade whoever I was meeting not to go), I was expecting very little from this funkier, alternatively branded outpost. Initially I wasn't disappointed as The Mortimer Grill is apparently the noisiest restaurant in London.

Seriously, there are concert venues that should come down and study the acoustics and natural amplification. I could hear people the other side of the restaurant better than I could hear my companion. There was a woman on a back table I was seriously considering labotomising with a steak knife: "screech" is not an acceptable level of speech anywhere, love. By the time her equally hyperactive, screechy friend turned up, I was considering two steaks just to get two knives. Happily, the two of them together got them so excited they started making noises only dogs could hear and the rest of us were eternally grateful.

With my ears ringing and only a glass of slightly-less-than-chilled Chardonnay to soothe, I felt I was back on familiar Black & Blue territory. And then the food arrived. Either Mortimer's have a particularly good chef or the entire group has upped its sourcing because most of the meal impressed greatly. Scallops were fresh, meaty, gently yielding and perfectly cooked, and a very good match for the black pudding and pancetta accompaniments. The companion's grilled prawns were of similar quality and the next wine - a bottle of SA Chenin at a sensible £15 - arrived properly chilled which was a marked improvement.

The same standards applied for the steak - a "flat iron" (no, I didn't know what it was either) - which was deeply meaty, just the right side of chewy and matched by a potent, chervil-heavy bearnaise, and the sticky, crispy, very moist roast chicken. Chips came from a packet, by the looks of things, but a decent packet opened by someone who knows what they're doing with a fryer, and the accompanying salads were dotted with beautifully crisp, fresh walnuts. Puddings weren't much to write home about (again, I'd say bought in) but I'd go back for the scallops and Flat Iron again anytime. Even if the braying idiots are there and mic'd up again.

20 April 2009

Monday Monday

Bleurgh. It feels like a Monday, doesn't it? And my morning slump probably hasn't been helped by a basic lack of decent food opportunities over the weekend. We ate well - do you really think we'd starve?! - but with no roast or serious baking going on, it felt like a very different weekend. Still, with lots of errands completed, a bed ordered and the new TV (wibble) worth all the hassles of a Tube journey with a HUGE box, it was at least constructive if expensive.

There were a couple of foodie positives though. A little trip to Meera's, our local Indian snack shop, resulted in a glorious Bel Puri. Even the annoyance of finding no natural yoghurt in the fridge was appeased in decadent style, with the discovery of last week's double cream lurking at the back of a shelf. It was still good, so we mixed it with a couple of spoonfuls of mango chutney. So it's not exactly the authentic experience. Sod it. It got through some leftovers, added a sweet and creamy edge and added to a perfect TV snack.

Yesterday was a little better. We're doing a bit of freezer-clearing again - amazing how much leftover meat you can build up from three months of roasts - but managed to squeeze in a quick visit to Ally Pally's farmers market for a toasted cheese (a pretty decent imitation of Bill Oglethorpe's Borough Market toastie), a slab of very good carrot cake and some of Jason's excellent coffee plus a new discovery. We had a lovely chat with Alan Rosenthal of Stewed and tried a few of his "soul nourishing" slow cooked products. Yes, of course you can make your own stuff at home, but diaries don't always allow it and what we tried - particularly the Persian Chicken (with sour cherries and walnuts) - was excellent. We took home a pot of the chick pea, pumpkin and feta cheese with a view to mixing in some of those leftovers one night this week. More on that when it happens...

16 April 2009

Chicken Toast

Consider me admonished. All those empty promises to update the blog and then another week (and a bit) slips by. Scary stuff. So consider me admonished, blogging diarised and normal service to be resumed re foodie stuff.

I've been trying to take a wee break from the manic dining for reasons of economics and waistline and, having shed a couple of inches - just another six or so to go then! - and having finally rotavated the remainder of the plot, I'm feeling a little more energised. That heavy allotment work has been a long time coming but was worthwhile: we now have a full plot (a stupidly big 33m x 9m plot if you want specifics) we can grow on and space - finally! - to put a polytunnel. After two years of no tomatoes, that's a very good thing indeed.

Anyway, more on that as nature provides. Here's something that nature has already provided which, for want of a better word, I'm calling Chicken Toast.

I'm a big fan of the Simon Hopkinson approach to food and, personally, agree with his notion that people want to be chefs before they can cook. I'm on a mission to turn myself into a decent cook and I think I'm doing okay. I'm very happy with my roast chicken, for example - which is basically Simon's recipe with a little extra garlic and one more lemon. This results in loads of sharp, salty, meaty juices in the bottom of the pan and, after an afternoon spent merrily mopping it all up with some decent bread, I started to wonder if the bread and juices could be made more part of the meal, without having to chuck the roasting tray on the table. And they can...

I was down at Borough a couple of weeks ago and picked up a chicken from the game people on that middle row. I've usually done the Label Anglais thing but this time I didn't want loads of dark meat for curries or leftovers, I just wanted a good, tasty bird we could demolish over a couple of days and £8 for a Goosnargh chicken seemed to fit the bill.

So, the bird was "dressed" in the the juice of two lemons, a load of butter and plenty of salt and pepper. The lemon halves and a few garlic cloves were thrown inside and the whole thing was whacked in the oven and basted regularly for the next 90 minutes or so. The result? Skin that was crispy and addictive, tender meat that delivered amazing flavour and, after a decent rest, a tray full of butter, lemon and roasting juices.

With the oven getting back up to temperature, I sliced a good crusty ciabatta from Rhodes Bakery - I'd hoped to use Tortano but this was a good back-up option. I then took the slices, coated both sides in the juices and left them in the pan. The pan went back in the oven for 10 minutes or so and then I finished the slices off under the grill. I then served the chicken with a little potato salad, some chopped peppers, tomatoes, onions and avocado (dressed in freshly squeezed lime and orange juice, a current addiction), lots of fresh, peppery winter leaves from the allotment and a couple of slices of the now crispy, fat-soaked ciabatta. The words "nom" and "nom" sprang immediately to mind.

The best bit though? A couple of days later, I had the last slice of the golden, chicken-infused bread as the base for cheese on toast, made with Montgomery's Cheddar. And I'll be very surprised if anything else I eat this year comes close to being that good.

8 April 2009

Brothers In Arms

Yikes, another week disappears. This won't do and apologies to the, er, three relatives hanging on my every written word. Sort of.

The Great BMW Trip finished in glorious fashion. After the night at WEST - and a night's kip in the slightly odd, needs-a-kick-up-t
he-backside Mar Hall in Glasgow - we started heading south for the final destination: The Yorkshire Dales and a spa hotel called The Feversham Arms in Helmsley.

Owned - and injecte
d with infectious passion - by Simon Rhatigan, the Feversham was probably the best all round experience of the trip. While others excelled at comfort and others excelled in the kitchen, the Feversham has found a fantastic balance on both. It also combines the traditions of this pretty Yorkshire town and its lovely architecture while bringing things bang up to date with the spa, the courtyard hotel, the light airy feel of the dining room and, in particular, the beautifully appointed rooms and, for the most part, suites.

It is then a very good produc
t and you can sense the pride in the behaviour of the passionate, friendly staff. Yorkshire hospitality is one thing. Having every member of staff greet you by your name and smiling so genuinely suggests Rhatigan's got something very right. After an all too brief 24 hours there, it's clear he has.

A gorgeous room overlooking the
pool. One of the best, just-the-right-side-of-painful massages I've ever had. A bar with both an open fire and Timothy Taylor's on draught. A wine list that covers all price points and regions in creative fashion. A number of menus (tasting, a la carte and set price) that mean you can eat for a very reasonable sum... or, indeed, meander across all the options without any fuss. And food that combines Yorkshire heartiness with high end culinary flourishes.

A starter of scallops - pan fried, with a Champagne and carrot beurre blanc - met with plate-hogging approval from Mrs L, the merest sliver of perfectly cooked flesh making it across the table. Never mind, I was too busy burying my face in the simple joys of "ham, egg and chips": ham hock terrine, a still soft quail's egg and crispy potato straws in a combination that I intend to pass off as my own next time we have an open house.

These were swiftly followed by a lovely dish of Lemon sole, with langoustine, more of those meaty scallops and a chervil hollandaise that was delicious but not, as I've just discovered, terribly pretty when seen through the lens. The same can't be said for the roast leg of Yorkshire lamb though. Have you ever seen a more photogenic piece of protein?

Perfectly kept cheeses followed, the wine flowed and we reeled off to bed very happy campers. Even the knowledge that the real world was going to be beating on our door in just a few hours couldn't wipe the satisfied smiles from our round, ruddy faces. And so, with bellies full of very good scrambled egg

and waffles with bacon

- not to mention the neat "build your own" muesli kit on the buffet table - we got back in the car for the final drive and vowed to return. Feversham Arms, we salute you.

1 April 2009


So, that Scotch Pie. I was heading from Edinburgh to Glasgow - Mrs Lambshank was flying into the airport, you see, for the final leg of luxury living - and, after that pretty rubbish attempt at Eggs Florentine from a hotel that really should know better, I was quite peckish. And, frankly, in desperate need of a wee.

The thing is, when you're driving a car the approximate size of a barge and when you've also scratched it just a couple of hours before (look it wasn't my fault, someone was swinging into the car park the wrong way, I had to swerve and all things considered, even BMW think the little plastic panel under the passenger door is a better scratchable option than the entire front wing)... er, where was I? Basically, I was looking for a huge parking space with access to a toilet and then this odd little side street appeared with a bookies (always a good bet for a loo) and, as it happens, this bakery.

The smells emanating from the place were too tempting to ignore, and I popped my head round the door to see what was on offer. And there, lurking at the back of the shop, was a little hot cabinet that was the source of my olfactory joy. And there, lurking in the hot cabinet, was the little pie I showed the photo of yesterday. It didn't, of course, stay in that state for very long and soon looked like this

In a matter of wide-eyed seconds, the pie had vanished but for some buttery crumbs and, at that point, I did what any self-respecting foodie would have done when confronted by something so gleefully fatty and peppery and meaty and award-winning for a quid: I bought another one and demolished it at roughly the same pace. My excuse - aside from the value - was the poor breakfast and also the need to line the stomach a little before my long-anticipated to WEST.

Ah WEST... Have I waxed lyrical about St Mungo beer before? I think I might have but here's a quick background story. I first encountered WEST with Will of The Boy Done Food fame and various other writers on a press trip to experience Gourmet Glasgow. Oi, stop sniggering at the back, there's a LOT of good food in Glasgow that's never seen a deep fat fryer. Anyway, on our final day, we were shown around WEST, Petra Wetzel's Bavarian-style brewery in an old carpet factory on Glasgow Green. Petra and her dad had decided a while before that there were no decent German beers available in the UK and summised that perhaps the purity of the Scottish water might benefit German expertise and ingredients.

They were right and, earlier this year, the marvellous Ms Wetzel collected three gold medals at a German beer competition. That might sound insignificant but hang on. Before WEST got involved, no brewery outside of Germany has even been acknowledged, let alone pick up a prize. Nobody's ever had a sniff of a bronze... and along come WEST and they pick up three golds.

It is then quite good beer. The last time, Will and I had managed to swig down three all-too-brief samples on that whistlestop final day, thanks to our taxi being delayed for 10 minutes. This time, I had a more leisurely trawl through the range. The St Mungo is glorious and I'll wax lyrical for hours over its malty crispness and lingering flavours (hell, ask me nicely, I might even give you a bottle...) but I think I have a new love: the Hefeweizen. I can usually take or leave the wheat beers but the Hefeweizen is fruity, refreshing and packed with flavour and pleases from first drop to last.

Food at WEST is hearty and beer-absorbing and, as much as I love the place, I can't help but think there are a few things that would improve the dining experience. After my recent beefcheeks experience, I would say the stew needed another hour in the pot - a shame as the gingerbready gravy is bloody lovely - and the dumplings should go in around the same time to absorb some gravy. Still, puddings are spot-on and the beers are the best I've had in many a year of drinking. At the moment, if I die tomorrow in a strange toast-related incident, I want Jaipur and St Mungo at my wake. Yeah. They're that good. If you go to Glasgow, go WEST young man (or woman). And seek out Petra and tell her I sent you, because she's a sweetheart.