30 May 2009

FA Cup Snackage, Part II

What a thoroughly enjoyable game. A proper FA Cup Final and all paired with a proper cheeseboard... Montgomery's (tasting the best I can remember it, and I've eaten a lot of Monty's), Childwickbury (sweet, light, fresh and probably in a goat earlier this week), Cotherstone (as good as I've tasted it, a lot younger and creamier than of yore), and half a Tunworth of postively wanton ripeness.

FA Cup Snackage

I seem to have an uncanny ability to double book myself on days of important football games. The number of times I've been delighted to secure a hard-to-book dinner reservation at a restaurant only to discover I'll be missing a World Cup qualifier. Or, indeed, to arrange a (as it happens) lovely bonding / brainstorming sesh several weeks in advance and then discover it's Champions League Final night.

The one exception though is the FA Cup. While I'll be deeply cynical about the Big Four and their grip on the competition (sooner we get rid of 'em into a European Super League the better, frankly), it's a day I absolutely love, from build up to the lifting of the cup. Of course, with today's coverage being on ITV it's been a bit crap - and regularly dotted with plugs for Britain's Got Talent, for chrissakes - but that just gave me a bit of extra time to get down to Borough this morning and get some decent snackage in.

It's been a good week for food all round - the surrealism of last weekend's Beluga-fest and a lot of lunching (stand by for posts on Sushinho, Gilgamesh and the best meal out of the week, the £4.95 delights of Thai food at the Hammersmith Cafe) - but I think my pre-match starter has trumped most of it. Toasted Tortano from Neal's Yard Dairy. Some slightly warmed, mace-heavy, lemon splashed Morecambe Bay potted shrimps. A perfectly ripe Haas avocado (a bargain 50p from Elsey & Bent). A bottle - cheers Petra! - of WEST's St Mungo beer. Life doesn't get better.

Well, not until halftime, when I break out the Tunworth, more toasted Tortano, a slab of Montgomery's, a little Cotherstone (in awesome form) and a couple of ultra ripe Beefsteak tomatoes...

28 May 2009

Turkey Leftovers

It's been an odd week. Strangely, it's taken me less time to get over the weekend's hospitable insanity than the BMW trip. I think that's because nice hotels in the UK are something occasionally in our grasp. Weekends where you eat several grands worth of caviar (I finished somewhere around the £4K mark), get plied with Dom Perignon Vintage 2000, have bottles of Hennessy XO presented to you, bump into Sharon Stone on the dance floor while Seal's performing and it's still - technically - "just" a barbecue, stand about four feet away from Mariah Carey while she sings Hero, get so close to Sir Thomas of Jones you can feel the charisma... Well, that sort of thing doesn't happen often. And for "often" read "ever again in your life".

With a deadline looming, I should be trying to put the experience into words but it's so difficult when it seems so unreal. The sheer scale of the Mardan is outlandish: I can walk from my front door to Finchley Central station in less time than it took to walk from my hotel room to the hotel's private beach. That's an analogy that only works if you know me / have been here, of course, but the whole scale of the place is hard to put across. It's just, like, really big, you know?

24 May 2009

There's No Such Thing As A Free Brunch (pics)

Here We Roe

Just back from brunch - a little pre-walk slip, slap, slop action, as I believe those Aussies call it - and managed to take a few pics of the rather elaborate buffet. More to follow, but here's something to go with the one below...

23 May 2009

Beluga Lout

As I said yesterday, cameras were officially banned at last night's gathering. However it appears I was the only one who paid attention. Bah. Accordingly, I have no pics of the lobster au champagne, the beef Wellington, the stuffed quail or the vast selection of desserts.

Worse, I have no photographic evidence of the "carousel of appetisers" at the moment. Every table had a rotating centre piece loaded with 10 plates holding smoked salmon, Russian salad, sushi, odd plates of unidentified meat (I'm assuming it's a "Russian thing"), tomato and mozzarella... and on one magical disc, a dish - about a decent dessert bowl size - of caviar, circled by charming little dishes of the trimmings, from finely chopped chive to egg white, egg yolk and a soured cream gently flavoured, I'd say, with horseradish.

We know a story or two about caviar in our house. Mrs L was brought up cheerily wolfing the stuff down, not realising what it was or what it cost: her father received a large tin every year from a grateful client. It's the one food stuff she's an expert in, and don't dare pass off the French stuff as the real thing. She'll know. And I've seen waiters been made to crumble under her withering glare: think Paddington hard stare increased by a factor of 10...

Anyway, whenever funds allow around Christmas, I trudge to Selfridges and buy her a little tin. For various reasons, the price of caviar has increased dramatically in the last couple of years and, while I know Beluga is the preferred variety, it's outlandishly expensive and approximately double the price of Oscietra. Last year, for example, the Oscietra was around £80 for 28g. The Beluga was about £180.

Is it worth it? I didn't know. When you buy 28g and it's the other half's favourite food, you don't get many little eggs to share around. Last night however, all bets were off. That bowl was heaped. Plus after a small seating mix up, we'd already made a serious dent in the caviar before getting moved to a new table and a whole new bowl. Having done a little research this morning in terms of dessert spoon quantities and Beluga prices I reckon - gulp - that I did somewhere in the region of £1100 quid's worth. Obscene? Undoubtedly. But it was the opening gala for for the Mardan Palace in Antalya and given the "cabaret" was hosted by Sharon Stone and Seal, featuring Richard Gere, Monica Belucci, Paris Hilton and performances from some Turkish and Eastern European stars (including one in the single worst hairpiece of all time) plus Tom Jones and Mariah Carey, moderation didn't seem to be the watch word.

So is it worth it? No. In this current climate, when the world's in the state it's in - and thank you Sharon for reminding us earnestly at every opportunity about what we should be doing, because I take all my moral guidance from actresses who've flashed their front bottoms in major motion pictures - spending a moderate month's salary on a single plateful of sturgeon roe is clearly obscene. But my god it's delicious. Salty, but not too salty, slightly creamy in texture, but with a distinct bite... like Mrs L my mouth is now watering at the thought. I won't be fighting her for the spoon this Christmas morning but, like the rest of last night's event - and Tom Jones is, frankly, a fucking legend - it's a memory that'll take a long time to fade.

Talking Turkey

Ah, where did it all go wrong eh? There I was, a few years ago, a bored merchant banker predicting the end of the economy as we knew it and deciding there had to be more to life.

Well, I was right about the economy - although, admittedly, I was a little early baling out partly for that reason in, er, 1997. I was certainly right about there being more to life. Journalism might not always be the best paid of roles but goddamn the perks can be good. Hence I'm writing this on a hotel balcony at the Mardan Palace, overlooking the poolside dining area where tonight's opening gala will take place. And I'm also overlooking the stage

where tonight's cabaret - Seal, Tom Jones, Mariah Carey - will perform...

Sadly cameras are banned at the dinner tonight, so no extreme close-ups of my share of th
e promised lobster, king crabs and 45Kgs of Beluga that have been brought in. But here's a few from the journey so far.

First lesson: private jets are very convenient. And, whether that's the reason for a not bad at all airline meal or the fact that SAS, where the jet was from, is just a better airline remains to be seen. But it wasn't bad at all. Good smoked salmon, a piece of chicken that tasted of chicken and - hurrah, fans of 70's retro lagers - cans of Tuborg. Haven't seen that for years. I also liked the mini cruet set and the tiny clothes peg holding the rolled napkin together, because then I can play Land of the Giants...

Dinner last night was also fascinating. The Mardan - at £1bn it's Europe's most expensive resort, apparently - has 17 bars and restaurants within its vast grounds. Most of these took a station at a banquet in one of the four ballrooms. The wine flowed, and we got to wander back and forth between amazing seafood (some of the best oysters I've ever tasted, a beautiful piece of lobster), sushi, Chinese, Indian food (an excellent lamb curry), Italian, classically British (okay beef but artery-clogging and delicious gratin dauphinoise), salads, Turkish (they even had a doner table which we all secretly hoped would stay open later than the others), Japanese, Russian... and then, once sated on the savouries, about a third of the room was dedicated to puddings. Wibble.

Anyway, must dash. A very nice member of staff - one of several thousand it seems - has just brought in today's room snack: a long elegant box of pretty good chocolates...

17 May 2009

Tomato Is Another Day

So much for today's proposed strimming mission. A sneaky lie-in, a peak out the window at the grey but not terribly ominous sky... and then a torrential downpour that's forced a change of plan. Grr. Never mind. We have a nice errand to run, the donation of our "old" TV to the Mrs L's mum as hers has gone "mammaries skywards" as a friend of mine has it. And to continue his vernacular, last night's supper was the "labrador's undercarriage".

What was so good about it? Probably the simplicity, the freshness and the fact that it cleared a bit of space in the fridge. To start then, bruschetta. I've left a supermarket beefsteak tomato catching some rays for the last few days so it was all lovely and sweet. That got diced with a handful of basil from the plant on the window sill (99p late-ish one night from Waitrose and happily into its repotted third week) and a sprinkling of Halen Mon celery salt (one of the handful of good things at last week's RFF). This was then left to one side while we caught up with the week's ER (Neela and whatsit: was that the most tedious romance the series has ever had or what?) and Big Bang Theory (a show that's always been funny but it's really hitting its stride now). At the end of that little interval, the salt had drawn the juices out which meant there were lots to drizzle on the garlic-rubbed crusty toast, before topping with generous spoonfuls of chopped tomato and basil. As a bonus, I'd also discovered a bottle of Prosecco in the wine rack, which just added to the sunny spring mood.

After that, a fine 10-minute supper of tagliatelle (having remembered the remains of the packet in the salad drawer), some griddled asparagus and the piece of hot smoked salmon I picked up at Ally Pally's increasingly decent farmers' market last Sunday. The fish had dried a little, so I flaked it, added a couple of spoonfuls of creme fraiche, and then mixed it together with the chopped asparagus before tossing it into the tagliatelle. The result? A not-terribly-photogenic plate (hence no pic) but a spot-on TV supper.

14 May 2009

Full of the Joys of Zing

Is there a better Indian restaurant in London than Indian Zing? Manoj Vasaikar is a former head chef of Veeraswamy but his impressive CV includes stints in Mumbai as well as London. And Indian Zing is the perfect setting for his culinary flair. Think the subtleties and depth of flavour of Tamarind (particularly when Atul was in the kitchen), the spicing and mouth-tingling power of Tayyabs and the smart but accessible atmosphere of Mela. Maschler reckons it's Top Five in London, Harden's reckons its "classy and personable" and The Times, Guardian and Independent have all said similar things.

It's set in the unlikely stretch of King Street that's generally Little Eastern Europe, which is turning into a bit of a food haven. Will has been on at me for ages to hit 101 Kitchen and I will. However, to get to 101 I'm going to have to walk past Indian Zing and there are still so many things I haven't tried on the menu. Mind you, with a little encouragement from the staff and Manoj, we had a damn good try last night.

Somewhat inevitably, after some excellent Pappadums and Khakara (with their own, divine, home made pickles and things) we kicked off with the Mixed Platter. This featured Vegetable Bhanavla (a baked and griddled, light and cakey version of the ubiquitous bhaji), Green Peppercorn Malai Tikka (oh so moist chicken breast marinated in peppercorns and cheese), Prawn Kharphatta (prawns, aubergine, serious spicing, with caramelised onions, tomato and pickle masala) and Lamb Salli (minced lamb packed with febugreek, mint, coriander and other spices, stuffed with homemade paneer and the sort of dish I'd trample my own family to get more of). It was, by any stretch, an auspicious start.

And it all, somehow, got better. Karwari Fish Curry packed serious heat and coconut into a satisfying whole, lemon and ginger rice was simple and subtle, the naan was moist without being buttery, the paratha was the best I think I've ever had - so many textures, such great flavour - the house salad provided healthy, fresh support while the Bindi Do Pyaza finally showed me the point of okra. Even better was the Chauli Usal (lentils and mixed beans), Dudhee Bhopla (gourd and pumpkin with lentils and mustard seeds) and the absolute stand out: Kachumpulli Pork.

Yes, you read that right. Pork. In an Indian restaurant. And frankly it was a toss up between that special or the Beef Xacuti. As one of the friendly staff explained, Manoj's cooking 'is about the food, not the religion'. The pork was borderline pulled-pork in terms of melting texture, elegantly spiced and all cut through with a hint of vinegar. Having paced myself, I've got half a portion in the fridge that's already calling my name...

To finish, the "organic multi-seeded masala bread and butter pudding" may have sounded like one of the depressingly worthy "cakes" on sale at the RFF last weekend, but was actually a pleasingly dense, well-flavoured muffin-like take on bread and butter pudding. However, we were absolutely stuffed so instead we focused on the accompanying ice-cream and, particularly, the very pretty, very tasty, edible silver wrapped mango, roasted coconut and saffron kulfi.

And to really finish, my first experience of paan: betel leaf with sun dried rose petals, honey, spices, dried fruit, fennel seeds, and more, all held together by a clove. It's a traditional palate cleanser apparently, and something of a love/hate dish - and often veers between the two. The other side of the table really didn't like it, I was slightly more convinced, although there were moments it felt like you were eating a Lush store. However, they regularly gave way to tongue-coating pleasures of honey and sweet fruits and the feeling of freshness you're left with is a delight.

Oh, and to drink we had an Indian Sauvignon Blanc, the Sula Vineyards 2008. Apparently it's Californian expertise combined with Mumbai's terroir. Whatever the heritage, it was like everything else about this meal: damn near perfect.

11 May 2009

Blueprint Of Happiness

In the middle of a feature at the mo - is it wrong to earn money from Jordan and Peter splitting up? - so will add some more words soon. However, I felt the need to share the generously portioned joys of Blueprint Cafe's stonkingly good value lunch. Three vast and delicious courses for £20? Hard to resist. Throw in the views over the river (and what a sweet touch putting opera glasses on the table) and really great service and you're looking at a very good package. For the record, the above is a little pre-appetiser of asparagus in filo with parmesan, cold roast sirloin with celeriac remoulade, rabbit pie and some lovely veg. Hale, hearty, and really rather bloody lovely.

10 May 2009

Now THAT'S Real Food

Bread from the Celtic Bakers at Ally Pally. Bacon from a happy pig in Berkshire. Ketchup from a bottle by Heinz. Plus some Apple & Pear juice from the lovely Bradleys of Heron Valley. The result? REAL Food that widdles all over most of the offerings at the RFF.

The Dull Food Festival

Straw poll: just how dull was the Real Food Festival? Initially, as discussed with William and Simon, I thought it was because we were cynical old hacks who've just done too many foodie gatherings in the last 12 months. But the more I think about, the more I realise that while we are undoubtedly cynical old bastards, the show was a dull, predictable mish mash - and all too short on "real" food.

There were, of course, good things: Royal Berkshire Pork; Laverstoke Park's real buffalo; Heron Valley juices and cider; Henrietta's tea; Loopy Lisa's fudge... The problem was to get to them you had to wade through more organic sodding vegan cupcakes than anyone should ever see and gallon upon gallon of rapeseed oil. Is there EVER an excuse for a "cheese crust" pork pie? What the FUCK was that doing there? Shitty ice creams. Bleeding Sacla's foul pesto - and the fact that a product that bad was allowed to be a sponsor of the show speaks volumes. By the time I'd got to the chap proclaiming that his raw chocolate was "guilt free" I was ready to scream. What's the fucking point of guilt-free chocolate? The guilt is the best bit. If I want to eat healthily, I'll eat a tomato. If I want chocolate, I want it sweet and creamy and rich. I want angels dancing on my tongue. I don't want the sort of worthy feeling I'd have got from knitting my own tofu quiche, you TOSSER.

Frankly, I think the organisers should be ashamed of charging upto 18 quid a ticket when you'd have a better time wandering around any number of decent London markets or Selfridges' Food Hall. Disgraceful.

7 May 2009

Roes To The Occasion

I know, I know. No posts in a week and then two in a day. However, with the poorly other half battling a cold and a serious West Wing addiction, I can't get in to the other room to channel surf and besides, I'm still reeling from a glorious roam through the starters and bar menu at the lovely Coach & Horses.

The C&H is probably my favourite pub in London. The love affair started one night a couple of years ago with a bowl of egg, sausage and chips - which turned out to be lovely chunky crispy handcut chips, tossed with potent chorizo and all topped with a fried duck egg - and a pint of Timothy Taylor's. Since then, I've been lucky enough to get to know owners Giles and Col and lovelier hosts you'd be pushed to find. Young Henry in the kitchen also knows his stuff and I'm a sucker for his simple, traditional, brilliantly executed flare. Hell, I'm so much of a fan, young William even got them to make me a Scotch Egg cake for my birthday drinks.

No Scotch Eggs tonight, just a long-overdue and fantastic brainstorming chat, a lot of laughs, several pints of Timmy's and a few plates of straightforward, excellent grub. We munched our way through: Herring Roes on Toast (subtle and delicate, with a great caper hit to add sharpness, all on Henry's brilliant bread); Grilled Sardines; Asparagus with poached egg; Trotters on toast (incredible and worth a trip to Farringdon on their own); and the best charcuterie plate I've had for a very long time. Rich rilette, home-made picalilli, ale-cured ham (they cure it themselves, in fact) and, best of all, a delicious home-cured bresaola. Just brilliant.

Sunday Roast

It was, by any standards, a very good weekend. It's funny how getting away for a couple of days can really soothe the stresses of city life, isn't it? Particularly when those days involve catching up with good friends you haven't seen for too long, shooting lots of guns down at Bisley, getting all nostalgic at a village fete, meeting other friends' latest addition to the family

and enjoying a cracking Sunday roast with even more good friends you haven't seen for too long.

Impromptu, as I've recently discovered, is the way forward. Mrs L and myself regularly spend New Year with assorted old college friends of mine and their repsective partners. However, increasingly, trying to get together with this crowd the rest of the year is getting impossible. Unless you take the Camilla approach and announce "we're doing Sunday lunch on this date for whoever can make it" with just a couple of weeks notice. No fuss, no bother, no cross-referencing of diaries... and wouldn't you know it, everyone made it over.

As we were in the area anyway - and c
heers again Karen and Martin for your hospitality on Friday and Martin for arranging the gun fun on Saturday! - Mrs L and I stayed with Camilla and Kevin on Saturday night, which also meant we could pitch in with veg peeling

and batter-stirring on the Sunday morning in their lovely new kitchen. If there's a better way of spending a Sunday than listening to the radio, drinking good coffee and helping to prepare lunch for 10 good friends, I need to know about it.

The menu was a mighty one. To start, "Potage Crecy" - carrot soup to the rest of us - with some home-made sourdough...

followed by roast beef, Yorkshire puds, roast spuds,

peppers, carrots, parsnips and squash, plus steamed broccoli... and, if you could manage it, the fishy option of salmon en croute.

This was all followed by Eton Mess and Rhubarb Creme Brulee...

and a bit of a Mario Kart sesh on the Wii. Food can be incidental to an afternoon like this - it's the company that's the important bit - but this was a spread that more than held its own. Cheers guys. It was a blast.