31 October 2010

The Centurion

Much has been written, discussed and Tweeted on the subject of just how long steak should be aged in order to make it taste even better. I've never participated because, if it's a decent piece of meat, I'm just going to enjoy it because it's a decent piece of meat: whether or how it's reached beefy puberty isn't a major concern.

The thing is, if you were to eat a 28 day aged steak today, can you really remember every detail of its texture and taste in, say, a week's time when you're tucking into something aged for an extra week? If you can - and I'm sure some of you probably can - good on you. Unfortunately,
my memory and palate don't really work that way which is why I keep schtum.

It is a subject that interested me though and, as proven by an enjoyable morning at Gaucho a couple of years ago, in order for me to do the comparison thing, I need all the options lined up before me. That removes some of the variables (as well as that extra week, two different restaurants are likely to use different suppliers) and also explains why I can now rank my chosen cuts of beef: ribeye first, sirloin and rump roughly equal second, fillet a surprisingly bland fourth. I needed an opportunity to do the same on aged meats - and thanks to Simon Majumdar and the good folk at Goodman, that's exactly what happened.

In a manner of speaking. With Simon carving out a career as a US TV presenter (and a US based happily married man), we'd arranged a spot of lunch for when he was back in the UK. Thrashing some options around via e mail, Simon made the sort of comment that makes any such conversation redundant: "John at Goodman did mention he had a 100 day old piece of beef with my name on it."

Which is why Simon and I found ourselves recently at Goodman in Mayfair, sipping a glass of red and a beer respectively, and ogling strange blackened lumps of beef like these. If anything was going to teach me what happens during the ageing process, it was a three-and-a-bit month old hunk of cow. "It was slaughtered on May 5," advised John of one of the pieces. Eek.

I was expecting something ripe and gamey and yes, there was a hint of cheese-like aroma to the raw meat. But it wasn't the overpowering scent I expected, more a hint of its age. John disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a plate of cuts and a comprehensive lesson in aging. A slab of belted Galloway, aged 35 days. A piece of something else - lack of notes due to over excitement - aged 45 days. And there, the fat melting softly at room temperature, strips of different 100 day steaks from Chile and Australia. There was a knowing grin from John, a few giggles of delight from yours truly, followed by a glass of splendid Rioja as we sat awaiting the results of John's expertise at meat sourcing, storage and Josper grilling.

What reappeared was delicious and educational. The 35 day was excellent and richly flavoured. The 45 day wowed with the iron-heavy, gaminess I was expecting from the 100 day. And the 100 day aged?

Unbelievably good, without a hint of the expected flavours. Instead of ripeness, there was a sweetness to the crust, partly one assumes the caramelisation, but that sweetness carried through to the flesh beneath. Soft but with some density, it was surprisingly subtle but very addictive. I try not to get into that whole "best" thing - a meal is frequently so much more than just the food - but if pushed I'd have to admit this would be in my protein top three of all time. If I was sad enough to keep that sort of mental list. Which, admittedly, I probably am.

Remarkably - or depressingly, depending on your medical position - we demolished pretty much everything on the plate, leaving only a small piece or two for a doggy bag (sorry Mrs L), and then decided that yes, actually, we felt better than we deserved (good protein, see, can't beat it) and that yes, actually, we did have room for a pudding and a glass of something sticky. This served as final proof that there are multiple stomachs within the human body (the main one, the pudding one and, my latest discovery, the hotel breakfast one) and a good reminder that while Goodman is among the very best of steak places in London, they're pretty damned adept at the other courses too.

I'm still not going to be drawn on what cut / ageing period / ageing process is the "best" but it was a hell of an educational experience. Hearty pats on the back then to Simon, John and David for the experience.

And one of these days - having now done Goodman for the In n Out tribute burger, a lunch in the kitchen and this elderly steak experiment - I'll go there for a normal meal...

24 October 2010

Such A Beautiful Horizon

I am, as I've said before, a lucky bugger. Well, provided you see a succession of low-paid journalism jobs as "luck", that is. Regardless, I seem to have stumbled into an existence where I pretty much get paid to do things I enjoy.

One of the most enjoyable of these - to some extent - has been the travel. This last year or so I've seen places I never expected to visit, and forged connections that have opened all sorts of interesting doors. I might occasionally gripe about itineraries but I hope I don't do that too much, or too loudly. Saying that, it is utter bliss when an opportunity arises to combine "work" - the quotation marks issued by pretty much everyone I know - with some proper downtime such as this week's all-too-brief jaunt to Barcelona.

It's 20 plus years since I'd last been to this welcoming city. It won't be 20 plus years until I go back. Admittedly I might not be able to afford the luxury of La Gran Hotel Florida next time but, as lovely as that was - it's on a hill overlooking the entire city - I'm pretty sure I will be able to afford the thing that gave me the most pleasure on this trip. That, inevitably, was the grazing around assorted bars and market counters. As we discovered a few years ago in New York, if you really want to get a feel for a place, you don't get it from the tourist attractions on your checklist. You get it from just hanging out.

Having sent out a message on Twitter asking for recommendations, I had a long list of places people thought I should go. After due consideration, and with the greatest thanks and respect to those kind contributors, I ignored all the advice and, together with Mrs L, we just roamed from Parc Guell down to the sea, stopping off whenever we were feeling peckish and allaying fears that places we chose might be "too touristy" with some faultless logic: what the hell, we ARE tourists.

First stop was, probably inevitably, the Boqueria and a couple of dishes with the lunch crowd at the bustling Pinotxo Bar. Elbow to elbow with market workers and business types, we savoured a cold beer while making quick work of tender baby squid with beans and a small dish of mixed mushrooms, all mopped up with fork, fingers and crusty bread.

That fuelled us for an hour or two of pleasant bimbling along La Rambla, enjoying the architecture, the crowds and the odd street entertainers (glad to see London hasn't quite cornered the market in people who are really good at standing still). Looping around, we headed slightly west, towards the Museu d'Art Contemporani through some rather studenty streets and squares, when the ramshackle charms of Bar Restaurant Romesco caught our collective eye. Perching at the counter, we wolfed through cold Estrellas, a "Catalan Salad" - essentially a regular salad topped, gracelessly but brilliantly, with chorizo, ham and other sliced meats and grilled prawns that came dotted with fresh garlic so pungent it almost burned.

It set us up for another hour or two of pottering, through boutiques and cathedrals and busy squares, before the lure of cold beer tempted us once more. Sadly, as we sipped, we learned that the kitchen had just closed, so the leg of jamon we'd spied behind the bar stopped looking tempting and started taunting. That meant the first place we found after that served jamon was going to get a new customer. That turned out to be the Taverna del Bisbe, where, contrary to some of the reports via that link, we had a very pleasant hour or more. Friendly, relaxed and, most importantly, capable of serving up jamon aplenty.

Plans to finish with pudding and sweet wine somewhere were scuppered by the lack of stomach space so, instead, we collapsed back in our room, enjoyed a little of the candied fruit we'd purchased earlier and fell asleep feeling a little bit more "Barcelonan" than we'd started the day.

18 October 2010

Simple Pleasures

Places like Patisserie Valerie are always disappointing. The cakes look impeccable, they ooze class and care, that first bite is going to be mind blowing... and then the reality sets in. It's all show. Fur coats sans undergarments, the taste never matches up to the appearance. You don't get that with a proper British cake though, do you? No, son, your British cake'll - sniff - do you proud every time. That's why I'm welling up as I give you Simple (British) Pleasure Number 10: a homemade Victoria Sponge. And Gawd bless 'em, everyone.

9 October 2010

Anything But Disposable

Anyone who followed the various Texas posts earlier this year - or, indeed, who follows me on Twitter - will know just how taken I was with the idea of the lunch truck. Austin has a fantastic number of such things, frequently owned / run by the best restaurants in the city, where they serve scaled down, takeaway versions of their best dishes for the busy lunchtime / office market.

It's a brilliant idea and can be healthy, hearty and a much appreciated change from the usual deskbound sandwich. Happily, London gets a taste of the same over the coming weeks thanks to Pearl's brilliant Jun Tanaka (seriously, Michelin, why no stars?) and Mark Jankel of the Food Initiative and their Streetkitchen project. They've got a classic Airstream trailer and turned it into a mobile kitchen, and from now until October 18 will be serving up a simple range of delicious food at Covent Garden (until October 14) and then at Old Spitalfields for the final days of the Restaurant Festival.

I sneaked a preview of the menu a few weeks ago and, while I had to run off before the cheesecake came out, can certainly vouch for the Jerusalem artichoke soup (with cob nuts and a lovely little brioche), healthy roast sweet potato and other bits vegetarian option, the faultless Loch Duart salmon with beetroot and mash and, perhaps best of all, the 16 hour braised featherblade of beef. Jun explained that all the dishes had to be capable of being eaten with a wooden fork as they wanted to make everything, from packaging to cutlery, completely biodegradable. The featherblade doesn't as much get cut by the fork as yield to it in an utterly wanton manner, the little beefy slut. It is a little bit good and about the best way of spending £6.50 I can currently think of. The entire range costs between £4.50 to £6.50 and, in order to make this a success, they need around 300 customers a day. If you're in the vicinity, be one of them. You really won't be disappointed.