25 February 2013

Reaching For The Stars

I first went to Amsterdam when I was 11. I was with my mum, my stepdad and my sister. My memories involve someone trying to get the FA Cup commentary on the coach's radio, a canal boat tour and the tulips at Keukenhof Gardens. It's fair to say then that I didn't really see the Amsterdam most people go to Amsterdam to see. You just don't when you're 11 and with your mum, etc etc.  

Ridiculously, even though it's only really an hour away, I'd never made it back to Amsterdam until last year. Twice. Even more ridiculously though both visits were for less than 24 hours. The first was to cover a game preview for The Guardian which finished with a pretty decent Indonesian meal, a lot of karaoke and very little sleep. There are photos but nobody needs to see them. 

The second trip however... now that is one to brag about. I mean, any opportunity that means you can answer the question "up to anything this weekend?" with "yeah, I'm going to Amsterdam for dinner" earns many, many smug points - doubly so when you can answer the follow-up "really, anywhere nice?" question with "yes, The Grand. Sofitel have flown various Michelin-starred chefs in to cook a six course meal..." The fact that my very good friend Adam was going along to cover the event for another title just added to the general hand-rubbing glee. 

The event is called Stars, Food and Art, and it's a regular charity event organised by the hotel. The next one will be in London on March 21 at Sofitel St James with the likes of Christophe Muller, Michael Moor, Raymond Blanc and Guy Krenzer taking part. I know many don't rate the Michelin system particularly but, for those that like a bit of food pomp, circumstance and eccentric plating, that's got five stars: Muller's three plus Blanc's two. We had six or, arguably nine, if you include the three Claire Clark helped keep during her stint at The French Laundry

Patisserie legend Clark provided the final course - more on that below - but before she got to dazzle, the likes of Wolfgang Becker, Atul Kocchar and Ron Blaauw got to do their thing with, admittedly, one of the most organised brigades I've ever witnessed. 

Lebanese chef and TV presenter Joe Barza got things rolling with Trilogie de Mezze, which translates as you'd expect. While not the most photogenic plate of the night - I took about 43 of the dish and none of them were especially pretty - it was an intensely flavoured but suitably light start. 

Next up was Becker, of Becker's in Trier, Germany with St Jacques aux fines tranches de truffe d'automne et d'artichauts which sounds so much nicer than the English option I'm leaving it at that. Whatever you call it, it was the stand out dish of the night, the sort of dish that stops you dead in your tracks, stunning you into silence except for the odd whimper and a slightly louder one when the last mouthful was done. 

The job of following that fell to our own Atul Kochhar. On another night, Magret de canard fume, chaat de poires at oignons de printemps would have dazzled. Here, while impressive, it drew the short straw following Becker's subtle fireworks. 

Fourth course saw Amsterdam's Ron Blaauw step up to the plate(s). His toadstool-referencing Sole grillee de la mer du Nord, chou blanc, moelle de veau et cepes aux sauce 'vina jaune' was the best presentation of the night and, for me, another great course. It probably helped that it was matched with a little Henschke action - Tilly's Vineyard to be precise - and part of it was probably also down to be being allowed into the kitchen to watch the brigade assemble the plates. 

Made up of juniors and the event's other chefs, this was an exercise in teamwork and remarkable to watch. There's an argument that such presentation and precision is a bit silly but, actually, I like a little insanity to my dining, even if it did add make me feel slightly guilty for eating it. 

The "main" - if course five can be called that - came from David Higgs of The Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg. Bizarrely, two days later, I'd find myself in a huge London house eating more of Saxon's (excellent) cooking including a second go at Filet de faon rotie, radis bebe pochee, mais et coing. Yeah. Exactly. It was, essentially, venison, but sweeter and more tender as befits its youth - faon / fawn, in case you hadn't twigged.  

By now, with the matching wines working their respective magic, it was all something of a blur, albeit it a glitzy one. Claire Clark's dessert then captured the moment perfectly. Mania floral, was how it was billed - yaourt de roses cuit a la vapeur, framboise et pistache, l'abondance de petales de rose the explanation. It could have all been so much showing off and, yes, to be fair, it probably was. But it was also the sort of pudding that makes you giggle, with flavours, textures and beautifully judged sugariness summoning fleeting memories of childhood, while also being decidedly grown up. Keller clearly has the pick of patissieres. On this evidence, it's easy to see what he saw in this unassuming Brit. 

And then, suddenly, it was all over. Well, I say "suddenly", but somehow four hours had passed in a haze of exemplary service (by a team of hundreds), lively debate, musical numbers (by professionals, you'll be glad to hear, not by me as a tribute to my previous visit) and more delicious calories than I probably want to think about. 

As mentioned above, the next Stars Food & Art event takes place in London on March 21, at Sofitel St James. To book / for further info, all the essential info can be found here.   

17 February 2013

Look Back In Hunger

Over the last couple of days, the 2013 travel plans have started to fall into place. Next month's Seattle plans are really firming up, with a couple of other trips in the offing that, well, it might be tempting fate to discuss. Regardless, the planning and discussions have prompted two things. First of all, I've joined a gym in a desperate and long overdue attempt to undo past / balance current excesses. Secondly, I've been skipping back through photos of last year's travels, reminiscing on, well, the sorts of excesses I'm trying to undo. 

Many of the best memories came from a trip I did for MSN with the assistance of Motel 6, the US budget motel chain. A couple of US friends had terrified me by describing them as "kind of like your Travelodges... only not as good." Really? Assuming they have a roof and four walls, how is that even possible? 

As it happens, while slightly different to the usual standard of hotels I (happily) get to stay in, they're perfectly acceptable: clean, comfortable, cheap, with free wifi, lots of accessible power points (something some more expensive hotels could do with) and TVs. There's also a lot of them across the US, and the point of the trip was to show them as a good base for food trips. Point proven, I think... 

Anyway, that journey took me hundreds of miles from Brooklyn to Bangor and back to Boston via many memorable meals, some great people and the Maine Lobster Festival. A lot of the trip was inspired, somewhat inevitably by Adam Richman and Guy Fieri via their TV programmes - many episodes of which are on the PVR at any given time - and, particularly, the truly excellent TV Food Maps. If you're planning a trip to the US and have even the slightest interest in great local eating, I don't think there's a better source of information out there. The app is also fantastic. 

The trip took me from New York through Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, briefly into New Hampshire and up through Maine. There was a lot of seafood, a lot of local specials... just a lot of eating, frankly. Incredibly, looking back now, scanning notes and photos, I can't remember a single duff dish. There were things I wouldn't rush back for - a couple of burgers at small chains, a slice of cheesecake that wasn't as good as mine - but nothing terrible, for which I take my hat off to Messrs Richman, Fieri and TV Food Maps and to everyone who suggested places on the pre-trip post. Cheers. 

Some stand outs though... In Brooklyn I caught up with the lovely Libby, plus her friend Jordan for a fine graze from Pok Pok to The Meatball Shop via Paulie Gee's for some great Thai, a predictably good meatball slider and, perhaps best of all, a Hell Boy pizza drizzled with chilli-infused, Brooklyn-made Mike's Hot Honey. Purists will no doubt shudder but my predilection for spicy is now thoroughly documented and sweet, heat and meat sounds like a good mantra for life. It's certainly bloody tasty in this cheesy, wood-fired case. 

I could happily bore you with all the week's eating - I've got around a thousand photos from the week - but for now I'm going to stick to a few highlights from the first full day because, actually, looking at the pics, there are a few things that deserve proper mentions and posts of their own. So, for now, here's Brooklyn's Bedford Baking Studio, who provided the caffeine and cake hit that fuelled my lengthy grazing day. Great coffee, amazing baking - that little coconut macaroon pictured at the top of the post was spectacular - and owner / baker Tolga Eyidemir was just hanging out on the sofa and happy to explain his philosophy, Turkish heritage and the rather charming little sign on the counter. 

Then there are the tacos at La Superior, and the lovely waitress who brought me the two I'd ordered - the camaron al chipotle and the superb rajas - plus an extra (and free) cochinita pibil because "hey you're a food lover and we like those here."

There's also the superb ice cream at Blue Marble which made up for some oddly but appropriately cold service. And, just to prove it's not all little independents (you know, in the standard smug foodie way), here's one of the reasons I'm very excited that Five Guys is coming to London this year...