29 July 2009

Pools & Pizzas

The last two days in Vegas, like the days that preceded them, were glorious. It would be tough to pick the best day of the six or so spent lapping up the life of luxury - although I could certainly cherry pick enough elements to compile a "fantasy day" - as every day had its charms and highlights.

Saturday saw us trawling around the biggest spa in the world, The Palazzo's Canyon Ranch. This basically rambles from The Palazzo to sister property The Venetian and features all sorts of funky touches, the best of which are the "anti-gravity chairs" in the "Wave Room". If that sounds like so much hippy bullshit, you might have a point. But with a few of the party nursing sore heads from Studio 54 the night before, sitting sort of upside down - the chairs hold you in such a way that there's no pressure on any single part of your body - while staring at backlit rippling water reflected onto the ceiling proved a very relaxing experience. Even for someone like me who, smugly, had spent all of 12 seconds in the nightclub before realising he just felt knackered, old and fat. Seriously, 41-year old bald blokes just look wrong in nightclubs. Give me a quiet bar, a nice glass of wine and the chance to have a conversation without screaming inanities across a table any day of the week.

After prising the sunglass-wearing sufferers from their chairs, we got to enjoy the delights of Azure, The Palazzo's private pool area. As with all of the private pool clubs we encountered, this meant ever present music: seriously, what happened to chilling quietly? Many places had abused the ears with the sort of bland, thumpy crap that apparently constitutes music these days. Does that make me sound old? I don't care. It's anodyne bollocks of the highest order. Azure, on the other hand, played some very pleasant chill out tracks. I'm still slightly anti the idea of music created specifically to be ignored in the background - oh yes, that's inspiring, music not to listen to - but the DJ here played some interesting remixes of familiar tracks at a gentle volume.

Mind you, once lunch appeared he could have played Metallica on an amp that goes up to 11 and I wouldn't have cared. Plates of healthy, light fare arrived courtesy of Wolfgang Puck and the not unattractive, bikini-clad Megan and, with more well judged Mojitos etc to wash it all down, lobster salad

the inevitable calamari, more heritage tomatoes and mozzarella
and light, crisp pizzas hit the collective spot. The smoked salmon pizza

was particularly good. I know it sounds like an abomination but that classic bagel combo of salmon and cream cheese on a perfect thin, crisp base? That's a good poolside lunch.

After a (fabulous) massage outdoors, and a wander around the shops, there was just time for a shower and a quick change before heading out to Botero at the Encore. Named after the artist and featuring a number of Botero originals, this is basically an upmarket steak house in a fine space, that spills from a typical restaurant setting into an open poolside area. And all indoors. The interim course of seabass with fennel was excellent - the sweetness of the yellow pepper bringing the whole dish alive

the much-touted steak was exceptional

and desserts such as ice cream cupcakes, praline lollies and other grown-up childish delights
started a theme that would be continued the following morning...

28 July 2009

So, Where Was I?

Where was I? Oh yes, that's right. Vegas. Sorry, can't resist the smugness. If it gets overbearing just remember how much you earned while I was abroad galavanting. As fun as it was, I'm about to make myself a "will work for food" sign and wander around the meeja bits of London...

So, we're up to Friday, if memory serves and that meant Caesar's Palace. After a walk around the Venus Pool Club - where I was plied with surprisingly good Pineapple Mojitos at 10:30am - a thorough deep-tissue pounding by Jesse at the Qua Baths and Spa, a spell in a ludicrously hot steam room and a thoroughly giggly cool down in the Arctic Snow Room (and yes, it does actually snow on you), the group hit Serendipity 3 for a Vegas take on classic American comfort eating.

Yep, we're talking onion rings

popcorn shrimp

frozen chocolate drinks

foot long hot dogs

loaded skins, burgers, colossal sundaes and, in my (failed) bid to be healthy a Caesar's Salad with shrimp

a pile of lettuce that stood about eight inches high and came with three croutons each the size of a Rubik's cube. Seriously, if I'd asked for the dressing on the side, it would have come in a pint glass.

On the plus side, the lettuce was fresh and crisp and delicious, the shrimp were fat and meaty and the dressing was punchy. On the downside, we're not exactly talking Neal's Yard parmesan, I ate it for 10 minutes without making a dent in it and the crouton, while visually impressive, was a bit of a failure. The crouton is there to provide some crunch and texture. The size of these, while photogenic, meant that only the outside had the requisite bite, while the inner mass was spongey and unsatisfying. It was another Mon Ami Gabi fries moment, to be honest, a bit of messing around for the sake of it, rather than with any real thought to the culinary process.

It was though the only false note as everything else hit the relevant buttons and piled on the calories. The strawberry milkshake alone, with its scoop of whipped cream, could have fed a small African village for a week. And yes, it probably should have done, but you could do the same guilt trippy thing with most of Las Vegas. Or you could choose to just enjoy it in the spirit with which the city has been instilled, of course. After all, where do you draw the line? And is it wrong to consider that moral point over yet another dinner?

Speaking of dinner - in a link that even local radio would turn down for reasons of clunkiness - that saw us heading out of Vegas to the amazing Red Rock Resort, via a couple of hours at the Hard Rock Beach Club Pool. Red Rock was a glorious experience, Hard Rock less so; well, to this old flabby git, anyway. The young folk seemed to be loving it - well, it's like every teen movie you've ever seen with added chlorine - while I spent the time working out which circle of hell it was. But different strokes and all that, and Friday evening more than made up for being made to feel very, very old.

Red Rock is a vast expanse of casino resort aimed at a very particular group of people: the locals. That means the payouts at the casino are more generous as they're looking for repeat business. However, they've also developed a fantastic hotel for those coming from further afield and some of the best amenities we found during our time there. It's certainly hard to resist the Cherry Suite, which is 4400 feet of pure opulence. If they ever set a webcam up in the six-person shower, I foresee an internet hit of Google-like proportions.

Anyway, dinner took us to Terra Rosa, and more Italian food. Ultimately, I'd say LAVO has the overall edge but some of the dishes here, particularly my beef and mascarpone panzerotti with osso bucco cream sauce and a companion's shrimp and lemon risotto, were exemplary. Best of all though was the Ferrari Carano Cabernet Sauvignon, from Alexander Valley, which was the single greatest glass of wine all trip. Or would have been if I hadn't had two of them.

That was all then followed by Counting Crows playing their Travelling Circus & Medicine Show at the poolside, one of the finest live music experiences of the last 10-15 years. Even only knowing two of their songs didn't detract from the enjoyment as they, and their musician friends Augustana, performed their little socks off. Sometimes you see these sort of hybrid gigs where the people on stage are clearly having a blast while simultaneously boring the audience. In this instance, the fun was contagious, and what a voice Adam Duritz possesses. Get at 'em on Twitter and try and persuade them to bring this moveable musical feast to London.

Tomorrow I'll tell you the story of smoked salmon pizza (a simple idea but what a good one) and of being served cakes for breakfast by people in pyjamas...

26 July 2009

And Now The End Is Near..

No, nothing melodramatic, just a Frank Sinatra reference. Given that I'm on "my way" from Vegas it seemed appropriate.

And what can I say? It's been everything the legend of Vegas suggested and then some. I'll blog the final few meals - including the brilliant and brilliantly silly final brunch at Simon - when I can upload pics but, at the mo, I'm on the ickle laptop on airport wifi with a battery that, like me, is about to crash and burn. At least I would if Virgin's plane home was leaving on time, bless 'em.

Still, airport time is a Zen-like experience. You can't do anything to hurry things along so you just have to accept it. For me, that's time to chill with the British contingent from the trip - legends one and all - make silly jokes on Facebook - sorry Richard, we admit you are rampantly heterosexual - and reminisce about the meals, the massages, the sunshine, the shows...

General consensus suggests that Border Grill was the stand out meal, but elements of Verandah, LAVO's family style dining and Botero pushed it a close second. The red wine at Terra Rosa was incredible - I'll look up the name when I can get my notes from the suitcase - and has given me a target destination for the Napa trip in October. And Counting Crows' Travelling Circus & Medicine Show was one of the best concerts I've been to in the last 15 years. And, as hinted above, brunch today at Simon was hilarious and tasty and camp: it's basically all of Vegas distilled into a single poolside meal.

Pictures, more random thoughts and musings to follow. See you on the other side...

24 July 2009

Vague In Vegas

It was inevitable really: the jet lag / fact that my body clock is completely screwed from three days in Denmark, half a day in London and then travelling to Las Vegas finally hit. Sadly, it hit during Ka, one of Cirque Du Soleil's resident shows here.

Actually, what am I saying? It's not sad at all. While the acrobatics were impressive, as with all Cirque shows it was "linked" with an indecipherable story and a load of portentous old bollocks and hugely, hugely annoying music. All of that crap is becoming a cliche which undermines the incredible performers and the astonishing staging. They're also a hideous, evil corporation these days that I've had way too many professional hassles with so maybe my verdict was coloured. Never mind, I actually saw a lot of the show but slumped my way through a fair bit and was wide awake for the interminable finale.

But hey, overrated French Canadian circuses are not the reason I'm here. I'm here for pampering - and dear God the spas are amazing - and the eating. Thursday saw us all get a late start so, having woken up at silly o'clock yet again, I went for a good long walk down The Strip, in order to avoid the breakfast temptation - be it hotel or classic diner - and work off some of the previous days' calories. It also meant I had a decent appetite by the time we got to the M Resort out in the desert and the light lunch provided - great grilled chicken and vegetables and some stunning cheeses - was perfect. It also meant that I wasn't stuffed while the next therapist pummelled my lower back, a mistake I'd made with the irresistible offerings at Border Grill. An in-hotel store called Babycakes provided some good sweet things too.

Dinner saw us at LAVO, the Italian restaurant at The Palazzo. One of the joys of this trip is that, because it comes with the city's blessing, the restaurants are laying on fabulous spreads, big sharing meals to showcase their best dishes. In the case of Border Grill, their best is "everything on the menu". LAVO, it must be said, push them a close second.

Italian restuarants, as I've often said to anyone who'll listen (and anyone who won't, I have no shame), instantly turn me into Tony Soprano. Well, in my head, at least. And, possibly, in waistline but I'm working on that. LAVO allowed me to indulge those fantasies fully, thanks to the star treatment - it helps when there's someone important from the hotel dining with you - and the "family style" platters of their best / favourite dishes. Hence, a slice or two of the largest meatball in Christendom, some very good prosciutto and perfect calamari paved the way for delights such as Lobster Pizza - sort of wrong, in theory, but oh so right in practice - a melt-in-the-mouth piece of fillet steak, a textbook Spaghetti Carbonara, the best veal escalope I've had for a very long time, slabs of salmon... Once again, I ate until my armpits expanded. In my defence, I picked at a spoonful of pudding - an Italian bread and butter pudding of great texture and better taste - and avoided the booze to some extent: two glasses of Prosecco is virtually a health drink by my standards.

After that, I rolled to Planet Hollywood which, before you panic, is a resort hotel and casino in Vegas, rather than just a slightly disppointing burger emporium. That was the setting for Peepshow, the striptease show that Mel B appeared in. Mel's buggered off to be replaced by a singer with a tremendous pair of lungs, and Holly Madison, a former Playboy Playmate / "close companion" of Hef, who also has a tremendous pair of enhanced lungs. Sadly, she dances like a pantomime cow - appropriate given the final udder-baring - and is like a cross between Gwen Stefani and Barbie. But the show itself was quite a spectacle and, let's face it, you have to see naked chest puppies in Vegas. It's a bylaw or something. If the show lost my interest at any point, at least I had recent memories of Italian food to keep me entertained.

23 July 2009

Dear Mon Ami Gabi

Sorry to go on about the French Fries but last night the very pleasant Nobhill Tavern at the MGM Grand delivered up some simple pleasures including a bowl of proper, salty frites.
I stuck a few in my pocket so this morning I can go round to Mon Ami Gabi and show 'em how it should be done. There are some things you can mess around with / put your own chefly spin on. French Fries are not one of them.

22 July 2009

Vegas Baby Vegas

Some places don't live up to the billing. Other places do. Las Vegas is not so much in the latter camp as having steamed through it, burst out the other side and created its own genre of being just like the movies. Only more so.

Yep, as Twitter types will be aware, I'm in Vegas on (yet another) press thing. And, as I supped a rather fine Mimosa this morning, watching the famous Strip from one of the Four Season's 180 Degree Suites while a very nice lady massaged my feet, I couldn't help but wonder: Where did it all go wrong?

Things stuttered slightly yesterday with a very disappointing meal. I'd initially written it all off to jetlag but, in retrospect, Mon Ami Gabi really doesn't deserve its classic French bistro look and status. It's theme bistro. Certain dishes - an excellent scallop gratinee, powerfully garlic-heavy escargots - were fine and the place feels like a chunk of Paris that's been dismantled and rebuilt, London Bridge like, in the middle of the desert. But the steaks were average - and the proposed pink cooking came uniformly brown throughout - the sauces underpowered and as for the "frites"... Don't get me started. Ah bollocks, too late.

Dear Mon Ami Gabi. Millimetre thin, deep fried potato shavings are not frites. Frites are slender and crispy, with a miniscule amount of flouriness more than backed up by the exterior crunch. They are not, and never will be, deep fried packing material. Seriously, what were you thinking?

So, while the city as a whole delivered all the surreal pleasures I'd expected - and I have the signed Donny & Marie photos to prove it - the food had proved disappointing. When that meal also follows several hours of very poor airline food (Virgin, good food can be served in the air, please try harder), it's dispiriting.

And then today, everything's been faultless. After an intermittent night's sleep - it usuall takes me at least a night to get used to a new bed - I got up early and (you'll be delighted to hear this Giles) spent an hour in the gym. I met the rest of the party - a thoroughly decent, multi-national bunch - in the lobby and we headed to The Four Seasons for breakfast at Verandah, with a view over the pool that kind of demanded a splash of sepia tone...

Beautiful pastries awaited us on our outside table, ditto a lovely fruit platter. Good coffee was poured, a freshly squeezed combination of watermelon and seasonal berry juices was every bit as refreshing and delicious as it sounded. And then a rather excellent pastry chef appeared with little plates of fantastic non-greasy doughnuts with assorted toppings.

What I thought was a Krispy Kreme-esque glazed doughnut turned out to be coated in a frosting with a delicate but impressive lemon flavour. And if I hadn't liked that one, I could have had my own made...

That was followed by huevos rancheros, a dish that I find very hard to resist when I see it on a menu, as those days are way too rare. It was a little polite - Vegas chefs, you won't offend me with proper spicing, really you won't - but the chorizo had some bite, the eggs were distinctly non-health and safety influenced (runny yolks, something that so many places seem terrified to serve) and the whole gloriously messy package was a very good bit of morning refuelling. The guacamole on the side was rather pretty too.

Lunch though was a different league. A restaurant called Border Grill offering Mexican food to the masses at the crowd-pleasing Mandalay Bay did not fill me with hope. However, thanks to chef Mike Minor's ability at the stove, it did ultimately fill me with probably the best Mexican food I've ever eaten. Even Andrea, the Mexican journalist on the trip, happily admitted that the food (from this non-Mexican son of Pittsburgh) was excellent.

Pick of the dishes would be the ceviche, blue-cheese and chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, a traditional Cochinita Pibil - pork you could cut with a fork and the application of gravity - and, making up for last night's disappointment, a piece of grilled, marinated skirt steak that I would have just as happily married as eaten. Well, I'm in Vegas. You do that sort of thing.

But trust me, if you're ever over here, visit. It's sensibly priced and the cooking is exceptional. I know they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas but with food this good, you've got to shout about it.

19 July 2009

Danish Tasties

The good news is I've finally got my netbook working again (cheers Will). The bad news is the memory's too small to handle photos so the shots of some rather lovely food from wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen will have to wait a day or two to get posted.

So does the city live up to Danny Kaye's billing? Generally, I'd have to say yes. It's a very relaxed place - the lack of traffic is amazing, the friendliness of the locals a joy - and, while the weather's not always been kind since Friday, we've managed to walk a lot of its (wide) streets and absorb some culture and calories.

Friday saw us pop into The Paul, one of Denmark's many Michelin-starred places, for a chat with head chef Paul Cunningham. If that doesn't sound a very Danish name, it's because it's not. Like me, Paul is an Essex boy: I was born in Romford, he came from Grays. "I win," he declared, before pointing out that, actually, there's probably not much in it. And besides, I think we've both shrugged off the obvious Essex-isms - a need to drive a Ford, a love of white socks - and broken free of the county's boundaries and reputation. I bloody hope so anyway.

Paul was charming company though, full of stories about Danish cuisine and Copenhagen's up-and-comers and also provided one of the best bits of pre-dinner snackage I've ever had. A glass of Ruinart champagne - a clean, crisp, pure Chardonnay "blanc des blancs" for the men, a Pub Landlord-ish delicately fruity Rose for the ladies - fat green olives and something smaller, similarly coloured but slightly crunchier. We were bemused so Paul put us out of our confused misery. They were peaches. Pickled green peaches from Italy. Once we knew, it became obvious and their slight fruitiness shone through. Are these available in London, anyone? I really need more of these little treats...

Sadly, The Paul was fully booked on Friday, but Paul's charming right hand man Daniel suggested a table for Saturday night which we took and a close neighbour and traditionally Danish spot called Grafton for dinner that night. Portions were enormous, bread was great, food was simple but comforting: a chunky veal schnitzel for Mrs L, a local stew called "Skipperlabskovs" for me. The translation - "lobscouse" didn't mean a lot but suggested something hale and hearty, like that what Liverpool is famous for, er, innit? That was exactly what I got, indeed, the waitress - who, like everyone in Denmark seems to speak English better than our average teenager - described it as "a stew of meat, potatoes, onions that's never come off the hotplate." I'd describe it as a slightly more solid cottage pie, covered in chives. Though under-seasoned and crying out for some gravy (or a hearty slug of Worcester Sauce), a spoonful of Mrs L's wine-rich sauce and a very generous grind of pepper improved it tenfold. You wouldn't serve it at The Paul but bugger me, after a day of travelling it really hit the spot. With a big beer - and lots of water, so relax Giles - the only catch was the price.

If anyone ever says to you how expensive London is, point them towards Denmark. It's ludicrous. Yesterday we paid £4 for a half litre of water. That large beer on Friday was £7.50. Even the relative simplicity of Friday's meal totalled - two courses, two drinks - around 80 quid. It's a wallet crushing place.

I'll get onto Saturday's cracking dinner in another post - not at The Paul due to financial constraints but still really good - ditto tonight's dinner. We've left the City centre hotel behind for the joys of the coast and a much, much nicer hotel. Funny isn't it? The Skt Petri might have the reputation and the rockstars (75% of Metallica were in residence while we were there) but it felt understaffed and over-designed. If Ikea did hotels, they'd be like the Skt Petri. On the other hand, The Skovshoved, where I'm writing this, is older, slightly more battered but oozes soul and character. I'm so glad I left the City to come to this rather than the other way round. That would have just been painful...

13 July 2009

100 Not Out... Part II

It's good to go back and read yesterday's posting, as today started with one of those all-too-common career wobbles. As all freelancers will know, the joys of the freedom and the opportunities can easily be lost on those days you get yet another phone call from the bank asking if you might actually pay them back something this month... After a few aborted projects, and the recession apparently biting budgets all over the media world, there are days when I wonder whether it's worth persevering with this line of work.

And then I re-read some of these things, remind myself of the big picture plan that the travel is providing, the fascinating people I've met over the years and suddenly the occasionally stilted cashflow doesn't seem so bad.

Take the Laurent-Perrier experience, for example. After that fabulous dinner, I was feeling uncharacteristically jaded the following morning. It wasn't the alcohol-consumption - Davey genes are good at preventing hangovers - as much as the cigar and the general lack of sleep. However, breakfast was as perfect as continental breakfasts get, fuelled by strong, French coffee and incredible, delicious pastries and breads.

The croissants, studded with little seeds, were butter-rich and a perfect foil for the home made jams, of which the rhubarb was the stand out. The tarte au sucre was a soft, slightly custardy joy, the fruits sun-ripened and sweet, the other cake - a traditional dish, the name of which I'm afraid I didn't catch - was rich and delicious.

It was a great way to start the day, particularly served in such a light, bright room, and with such great company. It was also rather nice to have a meal where champagne didn't feature...

The simple pleasures of this breakfast would have been the highlight of the trip if it wasn't for lunch... but more of that in a second. First, we had to visit Domaine Laurent-Perrier for an eye-opening tour of their impressive champagne production.

I won't bore you with all the details, particularly as there's an excellent history here, but some of the facts and figures are astonishing. For example, the house's "riddler" - a diminutive lady with remarkably normal sized arms and hands - can turn 60,000 bottles a day. There are currently 32m bottles of champagne stocked in 9km of cellars. The scale is astonishing, the passion tangible. And if there's a happier, friendlier place to work, I've yet to find it.As Anne-Laure showed Koen and myself around, every member of staff we passed wished us "bonjour" and, whether overall clad or in suits and ties, all chatted away merrily to each other. It feels like a family business that, even as its shot up the rankings from the 100th biggest label to the third, has maintained that sense of unity. I thought the mood at Neal's Yard Dairy was impressive: it's certainly the best atmosphere I've ever worked in. Laurent-Perrier though has it beat.

They also, rather inevitably, do a good lunch. Unlike many of my countrymen, I'm not a picnic lover. I'm not very bendy so sitting on a blanket attempting to eat a sandwich while wrestling ants for a piece of quiche is not my idea of a good time. The French - ah les Francais! - have us beaten on this one. And not just due to the quality of the bread.

From the opening salvo - a light egg and cheese tart, with explosively soft, sweet cherry tomatoes - to the most vibrant fruit bowl I think I've ever seen, this was another simple delight writ large. They came served in the little baskets traditionally used to gather the grapes: the aforementioned tart, a crusty baguette with ham and sun-dried tomatoes and, an idea I intend to pass off as my own sometime soon, a kilner jar of salmon, new potatoes and assorted flowers and herbs. Seriously, look at this presentation and tell me how anyone could resist...

12 July 2009

100 Not Out...

Funny how quickly it builds up, isn't it? This time last year, The Lambshank Redemption didn't exist. Now I find myself penning this, the hundredth post. And they said it wouldn't last. Actually, they said nothing of the sort, probably because it's just my idle food-related ramblings, not a matter of any importance and / or interest to the majority of the world. But anyway, a few months on, and here we are at a milestone of sorts.

Happily, events in the real world - as much as my professional life can be considered "real" - conspired to provide a landmark meal for this small personal landma
rk: dinner at Laurent-Perrier's chateau. There are champagne occasions and then there are champagne occasions...

The purpose of the visit was to see the making of Laurent-Perrier's new Christmas gift / marketing device: a pewter "aiguiere" (or bottle holder to you and me). And then - woo hoo - to see it in action over dinner at their chateau. Mind you, the dining started 24 hours before that in Paris.

As the only UK visitor on the trip, and given Wednesday morning's early start, I'd been dispatched to Paris on Tuesday afternoon, where I was due to hook up with Anne-Laure Domenichini, Laurent-Perrier's director of Communication and "Relations Publiques" and a Belgian journalist, Koen. Both turned out to be fabulous company, witty, warm, well-travelled and, over a delightful fish dinner at La Cagouille, the champagne and conversation flowed. Both spoke impressive English - particularly Anne-Laure who, it transpired, had spent some 12 years living in Wolverhampton. And yes, she could even do the accent.

While my French isn't awful, like so many English people I'm terrified of looking an arse when I try and communicate, but they humoured my muddled attem
pts and were extremely helpful when it came to translating the restaurant's menu. While I can get through with the foodie basics, my knowledge doesn't extend to razor clams and chervil and the like...

La Cagouille is a fine restaurant. As befits a place offering catches o
f the day, the menu changes daily and is scribbled on a whiteboard. Bread though comes with delicious little clams and the simple quality of this appetiser was continued through the meal. Oysters were delicious and meaty, my Troncons de Turbot (no, I didn't need help translating THAT one) wasn't terribly attractive (hence no pic) but was meaty, moist and nestled in a sauce mousseline of joyous richness. Because let's face it, what hollandaise needs is more calories... That was all then topped off with new potatoes that glistened with amounts of butter that would have James Martin saying "ooh, steady on..." and the meal was finished with a clafoutis that pressed all the best pudding-related buttons and a couple of cognacs from the restaurant's impressive collection.

I'll leave talk of pewtersmiths and such like for my actual feature, suffice to say it was a fascinating day. Mind you, I will mention lunch which came from a company called classcroute.com, looked like a heavily-packaged airline monstrosity... and was utterly delicious. Decent bread, a lovely duck salad, an excellent piece of unctuous cheese (when was the last time you saw something like this

in a packed lunch?) and a decent chocolate and (I'm assuming) passion fruit moussey cakey thing. Obviously, we washed it all down with a couple of bottles of Grand Siecle. (If you're ever looking for ways of improving your Pret sandwich, I can heartily recommend 135 quid bottles of bubbly as the perfect accompaniment.)

It wasn't though a patch - obviously - on what was to follow. After a drive through the beautiful scenery provided by the Champagne region, the car turned left into a drive and before us stood the chateau. Before I'd seen it, if I'd been asked to describe the place, I'd have imagined something exactly like this.

I'd have also predicted a meal of glorious, old-fashioned, rural French richness. After some delicate little amuses in the drawing room - and more, perfectly chilled Grand Siecle - we were taken through to the charming dining room for more, perfectly chilled Grand Siecle and a nigh perfect simple meal.

To start, a warm salad of langoustine, fennel and some delicate little blue flowers the name of which I didn't catch. To follow, a perfectly-cooked chicken leg with a truffle risotto of madly generous proportions: seriously, look at the size of that slice. As you know, I hate waste and they kept bringing it round... It would have been criminal not to.

After that, a cheese plate of the kind erotic cheesemongering dreams are made of. Each was perfectly kept and perfectly ripe, all were, apparently, local and it seemed my meal had peaked at the right time. Only it hadn't. There was still dessert, of course. And what a dessert. It couldn't have been simpler - pain perdu avec Fraises Mara des Bois - but the soft, fluffy pain and the intense, so strong they're almost artifical forest strawberries combined into perhaps the best pud of the year so far. It was also perfectly enhanced by Laurent-Perrier's vintage rose, the rather exclusive Alexandre

Then, just as the evening seemed to be over, we were ushered back to the drawing room for liqueurs - including a 1973 Calvados - and cigars. Have I ever mentioned just how much I love my job?