27 April 2011

200 Posts, Eight Courses, Three Stars...

New York seems a long time ago now - probably because it was - but, because I'm a bad blogger, there are still a few memories to cover here. As the title suggests, this post is, remarkably, the 200th in Lambshank history and, accordingly, it calls for something a bit special. Fortunately, thanks to Le Bernardin, there was only one contender for that "honour".

While I can understand Will's comment that, as good as Le Bernardin was, he'd generally just prefer a burger, I'm not sure I'd always agree. Sure, there's a purity to the burger
that almost always hits the spot - particularly the sort of oozing, drippy delights sold by the likes of 5 Napkin or The Meatwagon - and Michelin's idea of fine dining doesn't always match my own. But sometimes, the effortless class of a restaurant that has it all absolutely spot on just can't be beaten and, after eight dazzling courses (plus the usual extra bits and pieces you'd expect), the greatest wine matches it's ever been my privilege to sample, and service that's graceful, efficient and supremely friendly, I would have to declare Le Bernardin as one of the best meals of my life. That it also achieved it after years of expectation speaks volumes. A couple of years ago, Iqbal Wahhab introduced me to the wonderful Mandy Oser, right hand woman to Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert (and now also owner of her own excellent Hell's Kitchen bar, Ardesia). After that, any journalist or business contact I knew going to New York got an intro. Le Bernardin got some good coverage, friends got great meals and I got e mails telling me how I really needed to eat there. To say then I was anticipating something amazing when Will, Iqbal and I rocked up to the door would be something an understatement... but Eric and all his staff excelled at every possible opportunity.

I could go on. I could rave about each individual course. I could sigh repeatedly about Aldo Sohm's wine matching. I could repeat my overused line about the freshness of the fish ("a decent vet could have revived some of the ingredients"). I could even
order you to buy Eric's excellent book, but, basically, superlatives are slightly tedious to read. So, instead, here are some photos of the sort of food that warrants three Michelin stars, some brief annotation, the occasional "wibble" and an assurance that there are few better ways of spending $325 anywhere in the world...

Poached Winter Point oyster, Braised Leeks, Leek Foam, Crispy Potato Tuile. A little amuse that immediately refuted Eric's claim that "fish is the star of the plate, not the chef." Yes, you'd really have to struggle to bugger up an oyster this good but the sweetness of the leeks, the delicacy of the foam, the crisp contrast of the tuile? That's not nature, that's knowledge and talent.

Smoked Yellowfin Tuna "Prosciutto", Japanese Pickled Vegetables and Crispy Kombu. Yeah. Exactly. And the Vielles Vignees Chablis? Stonking.

Seared Langoustine, Mache and Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras, Wild Balsamic Vinaigrette. I know, I know. This came paired with a glass of Riesling, Kabinett "Rotlack". If I close my eyes, I can still taste this dish / combination. Mind you, that's also true of the next three courses and at least two of the desserts...

Osetra Caviar Nestled in Tagliolini, Warm Sea Urchin Sauce. The more time that passes, the more I'm naming this the absolute stand out dish. As well as featuring some of the best pasta that's ever passed these lips (and is no doubt beginning a lifetime on the hips), every aspect stood out and combined to something that made the world stop for a few minutes. The silky textures, the extreme, well, fishiness of the caviar, the subtle depths of the sauce... And sweetness (and slight saltiness) of the Greek wine - Thalassitis, Gaia Estate - gave it yet another dimension. Oh, and before you question how a dish this rich and glistening fits into my attempts at healthy eating, let me give you another picture to demonstrate the scale involved.

Now THAT'S a lesson in quality over quantity, if ever I saw one...

Warm Nantucket Bay Scallops, Baby Leeks, Kaffir Lime Mariniere. I have never eaten anything quite like this, from the incredible, Liliputian air of the tiny scallops (the biggest in the picture was barely a centimetre across) to the sharp bite of the lime. Cue more reeling and whimpering (into a glass of Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Les Caillerets, seeing as you asked).

Bread Crusted Snapper, Saffron Fideos, Smoked Sweet Paprika Sauce. Ah, such precision... More of that incredible pasta, a crust of incredible uniformity, fish of nigh-revivable freshness (well, yeah, with a bit of stitching as well) and a glass of Chiroubles, Christophe Pacalet.

Poached Turbot, Wild Mushroom-Black Truffle Custard, Spiced Squab Jus. No comment necessary.

Ah, the pre-dessert. By this point, the note taking had been shunned in favour of just sitting back and enjoying every mouthful (and some fine company: never underestimate the power of fine company). That's why all I can tell you about this little extra course is that it involved milk chocolate and a caramel of some description and came in a hollowed-out egg shell (a trick I know Tristan Welch uses to fine effect too). It also demonstrated just how brilliant Mr Sohm is with the pairing. He approached the table with a bottle of quite evil looking Trappist beer and poured a small measure for each of us. Sweetness and incredibly strong, dark beer? Surely some mistake... and then the fireworks started. Unbelievable. The rest of the night was then taken up watching other tables as they experienced the same revelatory, borderline When Harry Met Sally moments.

Into the home stretch now with this clever take on the Panna Cotta: Greek Yogurt, Candied Walnut, "Red Hot" Apple Gelee. And yes, it was pretty spicy, another quirk that shouldn't have worked but did. Mr Sohm demonstrated his geographical knowledge with a Torrontez Sparkling - Deseado Familia Schroeder, from Patagonia. It was perfect but hey, you probably guessed that by now.

And finally... this little chocolate mortarboard is actually a Dominican Cremeux, Vanilla-Sweet Potato Sorbet, Bourbon Caramel. Sweet potato sorbet? By this point, M. Ripert could have served me Marmite meringue pie with a tripe and Marmite sauce and I'd have willingly spooned it into my mouth. It was, of course, delicious.

While I try not to get obsessed with the notion of "best ever meals" - it's timing, it's circumstance, it's so much more than what's on the plate, etc - the memory of Le Bernardin is going to be one that lingers long.

3 April 2011

Veni Verde Vici

I was asked recently - by Daniel Young as it happens - where, in dining terms, I thought London is better than New York and vice versa. When you're discussing New York with one of its experts you don't want to come across as a complete arse so I panicked for a second or two as arsedom is quite possibly my natural state. Well, when I'm not being smug, obviously... But we're not going there again.

Actually, I'd spent a bit of time in the previous weeks trying to draw the parallels and the differences between these two great culinary cities. At the highest level, I think London holds its own. In terms of hole-in-the-wall places and neighbourhood secrets, we're able to hold our own too. If you'll excuse the rather clunky analogy, and the obvious exceptions that will spring to mind, I'd liken South London to the Lower East Side and North London to the Upper West Side. London's problem is the stupid psychological barrier the Thames throws up: if we had rivers on either side - and access to the brilliant Overland line - we'd be zipping about all over the capital. The Thames is a barrier that, frankly, is stopping too many people enjoying the good things in the other half of London.

Anyway, that doesn't really answer Daniel's question. What did - and, happily, in a satisfactory manner - was my recollection of Locanda Verde. Aside from gastropubs of varying quality, London, to my mind, stutters in the mid-range, those places where you could go and sit in charming surroundings, spend under £20 and enjoy a couple of courses and an excellent bottle of wine. That's not to say they don't exist (before you get all commenty on my arse - though suggestions are welcome) but my perception is you have to seek them out. In New York, you can't help but stumble on half a dozen every time you go out.

To some extent, Locanda Verde is the perfect New York restaurant. Looking back on the trip, there were so many highlights - and yes, the Le Bernardin worship will follow soon - but Verde is probably the one I'd like to repeat first and the one I'd recommend to any visitor. Le Bernardin was bloody amazing but then at $325 a head it blooming well should be. Locanda Verde was a fraction of that for four people, with some excellent wine choices, delicious hearty, Italian-influenced fare, an energy and atmosphere that just yell "New York" (all dark woods, white linens, A frame chairs and that distinctive "buzz") and some very happy staff. At the end of the meal, we even discovered that our waiter had got married that morning, was heading off on honeymoon after lunch but didn't want to miss his shift. That's either insane or indicative of extreme pride and a very nice place to work.

Starters come billed as Antipasti and arrive in portions that encourage sharing. Lamb meatball sliders were probably the stand outs (and the ones that encouraged Will to play "Land of the Giants"), although a fine Steak Tartare Piedmontese, mushroom-topped crostino and - yes, I do like vegetables actually - a vibrant beetroot and citrus salad gave them a run for the money.

The one "duff" note of the meal came as a shared pasta course. "My Grandmother's Ravioli" may hit the spot for chef / patron Andrew Camellini but didn't really press our buttons. That's not to say it wasn't nice - we still polished off each meaty little parcel presented - but the chef's obvious personal nostalgia didn't translate in the way, say, Douglas Santi's does with his mum's gobsmacking lasagne recipe at Babbo. Less a duff note then, more a very minor hiccup.

No such complaints with the "secondi" dishes. Hanger steak was as good as we'd eaten anywhere else this trip (and Lord knows how many cows died to make it all possible), fire-roasted garlic chicken was big, succulent and pungent, shaved porchetta sandwich was a fat-oozing joy, and the roasted scallops were rich, perfectly cooked and elegantly underscored and undercut with more citrus flavours. It was also good to see sprouts as a side dish and very tasty they were too: most vegetables are though if you roast them with pancetta and pecorino shavings.

Cheese (superbly kept) and a moist sticky pudding (of dates and toffee if I remember rightly, not that I got much of a look in) finished the meal, and us, off in belly patting style, fuelling Will and Iqbal for a return to the UK and Mrs L and me until, er, dinner at Le Caprice. Yes, it IS a tough job actually...