Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Vapours, the Wheatsheaf, Eating Out West and cauliflower cheese

I seem to have gone down with a really weird virus (physical, nothing to do with computers) that's made my limbs go all heavy and only allows me to enjoy energy for two hours at a time, at which point I then have to swoon on the sofa or the bed like an over-corseted Victorian lady in need of her vapour-fix for another three hours while my energy levels top up again. As you can imagine, this is not fun, and not in the slightest bit glamorous. It's actually really, really boring, especially when I'm normally such a 'things to do, people to see, drinks to be drunk' sort of gal. Ah well - as my doctor pointed out, at least it's not Swine Flu, even if it's a pig to endure (he's like that, my doctor - has to leave you hanging on a bad pun after any given appointment).

Anyway, the virus is one of the reasons I haven't updated myself here for a while. Other reasons include a family visit (great fun, apart from when I gave in to being over-drunk and got into a fight about who loves Freddie Mercury the most with Mike's brother) (I like to think I won), attendance at the launch of the new-look 2009 edition of the 'Eating Out West' guide (an ace job, though I say it myself, but the updated version isn't available online yet so I can't link it) and a really fabulous review dinner at The Wheatsheaf, after which I declared Head Chef Lee Evans to be the very best I've ever come across, ever, despite having eaten four Michelin-starred dinners so far this year alone and recently taking a mini-foray into the pro-kitchen myself. Well, not that 'pro'...

A local gastropub/restaurant (and not the one you expect me to name-check at this point) are including my recipes for hazelnut and mozzarella burgers, cauliflower and leek cheese and white chocolate and Amaretto truffles on their 'Specials' board, credited to the Animal Disco Bistro (even though not all those recipes have appeared here yet) and made by my own fair hand for the first couple of nights. We're also 'in talks' (as they say) about getting together to produce a cookery book, but the people in charge of all this activity have asked me not to mention the name of the venture I'm in cahoots with here yet as they want us to be able to set up reciprocal links and do bits and bobs of other local publicity all at the same time, which means I might get more visitors here (including even some who leave comments, hint hint). Oooh, it's all so...well, a bit scary, actually. But also more than a bit frustrating, because I can't yet go ahead with the plan (it was meant to be my debut evening tomorrow) thanks to the non-Swine Flu. Oh, Mother Nature/karma/whatever can be so weird! But in a good way, I guess; there is, after all, usually a good reason for every hurdle that we have to stumble over en route to the finishing line. I'm not quite sure what this particular hurdle is all about, but as soon as I find out, I'll let you know.

I'm off back to bed now (thank god for daytime TV), but while I'm away, feel free to leave a comment (especially the very regular visitor who lives in Manchester - you know who you are; why don't you let me know, too?).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Classy Trash

Roast king scallops followed by a platter of langoustines, Goan curry and double tiramisu. “Oooh, someone’s been busy!” croon your satiated guests as you bask in the limelight of their awe-stricken compliments. “Yeah, you’ve been busy alright”, whispers the devil at your table. “You’ve just discovered why mum goes to Iceland”.

Some choose M&S. Others head straight for Waitrose. It takes an arch bluffer to brazen it out with a selection of ‘goodies’ from Iceland. But to varying degrees, we all do it. Habitual dinner party fakers subtly flaunt - or should that be flirt with? – their sins: “it would have been easier to buy the Mediterranean lamb all ready to go, but there’s something really satisfying about spending eight hours preparing a dish like this”. Meanwhile, virtual cooking virgins panic so much about ‘being found out’ that they vehemently deny that even the olives came ready-stuffed and invent over-complicated techniques for a bread and butter pudding that still holds the shape of the microwavable dish in which it came - which will, by the way, have been burnt, buried or stashed in the attic by now, just in case an inspector calls. Check the contents of the ubiquitous glass/cardboard/plastic recycling box by the door; if it’s strangely empty, you know your meal came from a glass/cardboard/plastic container that’s now languishing in a stranger’s bin three miles away.

Tonight (Matthew?), you are going to be Kerry Katona … in Nigella Lawson’s clothing; the guilty pleasure that drives those in pole position on the dinner party circuit.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

That's it! I'm checking in to the Priory

Last time I visited the Bath Priory, Chris Horridge was at the hob. Horridge is on a mission to rejig molecular structures and extract health-giving enzymes from familiar foodstuffs (if indeed, one is familiar with the delights of sycamore sap). I declared the results to be a “dynamic metagrobolis” ... but left feeling hungrier than when I arrived. Not so this time around.

Today, Michael Caines – a superchef with a significant talent that’s earned him more accolades than Slumdog Millionaire - is heading up the Priory brigade. Caines’ style is upper-crust accessible, his dishes as easy going on the eye as they’re graceful on the palate. The same could be said for his new environment: a discreetly glamorous romantic hideaway with an intriguing art collection, gorgeous gardens and lots of very, very plump cushions.

As part of the recent Priory revamp, dinner is now served in a dining room that, while still understatedly elegant, offers broader bonhomie than the overly-hushy zone I ate in last time around. The celebrities at the next table (who were, appropriately, vintage old school rather than new world Fame Academy) clearly felt very comfortable with the change; if it’s good enough for those who are naturally to the manor born, it’s certainly good enough for me. Having said that, if I’d have eaten Caines’ food on the Southgate building site, I probably still would have felt like Milady de Winter come the petits fours.

After several amuse gueule of tasty morsels substantial enough to constitute a first course, d’Artagnon’s panfried red mullet came accompanied by a dinky little bell pepper stuffed with delicate ratatouille and juicy buttons of chorizo enlivening a mellifluous melange of red pepper puree and gazpacho sauce. Meanwhile, my slow poached (therefore exceptionally moist) salmon came with a herb-infused roasted fennel and cream sauce that knew exactly when to hold back on any hint of flavour overload. After that, fennel puree, roasted langoustine and red wine sauce turned his headline act of Cornish seabass into an ensemble piece, while my main course bravely brought John Dory, belly pork, apple and ginger puree, crab cannelloni and lemon grass and ginger sauce together as one, only to leave me wondering if I’d ever view any of the components as a solo act again. For puds, Caines’ posh take on the Kinder Bueno (praline and milk chocolate mousse on hazelnut biscuit with nibbed cocoa ice cream spanned by - get this! - a delicate arch of spun sugar supported by gold leaf abutments) and a grown up trio of apple mousse, green apple sorbet and cider apple foam: both were consistently perfect on all counts.

Overall, the whole experience was absolutely stunning and, even in these cash-strapped times, worth every single penny of the £65pp price tag. His name is Michael Caines. A lot of people need to know that.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy, happy Easter Sunday

'That' lamb (see previous post) is in the oven and, on the shelf below, 'those' dauphinoise potatoes (ditto previous parentheses) are doing exactly what I wanted to do, namely slump their neatly-sliced selves (no thicker than a pound coin) into that rich, garlicky, creamy sauce. Okay, DP's do neither your waistline nor your heart any favours, but as a once-in-a-while, to hell with Nanny treat, they serve a wonderful purpose. I made a smooth smoked mackerel pate to be served with mini oatcakes for starters, and I rustled up the lemon tart yesterday, to allow it to set nicely (which it looks as though it has). All in all, this Easter lunch was all preparation; I'll steam some carrots and green beans while the lamb is resting, then all that needs to be done is a quick gravy (think I'll sluice the roasting pan out with a glass of port before I thicken it) and plate up. That should all take place at around 5pm; my prediction is that I'll be snoozing it all off by 7.30pm, and bringing the curtain down on Easter Sunday in proper, Bank Holiday slob style. Might this be the effects too much rosé with lunch? Nopey - not for me, anyway; I think I probably drank a fortnight's worth of units last night, so therefore won't be indulging again for at least 36 hours.

Last night was fun. We ate at The Circus (a chichi little contemporary bistro on the Hollywood side of Bath and not, unfortunately, the kind with clowns and dancing horses) which was quite delightful, even though the aioli that came with my steak was way, waaaay tooooo garlicky (but I ate it all anyway) and I was wearing a frock that displayed waaaay toooooo much cleavage (our fellow diners all had that stylish/sophisticated look that doesn't incorporate low, high or cheaply cut frou-frou). As anticipated, we did indeed see out the rest of the evening in GP, which is where the units were imbibed. Afterwards, we threw ourselves into a cab and sang along to George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' all the way home, carrying on as we climbed the stairs (sorry, neighbours). When I eventually worked out how the key to the door to the flat works, I succumbed to the worst bout of hiccups I think I've ever experienced. So while Mike got a head start on some much-needed sleep, I treated myself to a Morrissey/James disco in the kitchen, and sat up drinking tea and reading Jay McInerney's recent short story collection ('The Last Bachelor - it's really, really good) until the birds started singing and the hiccups had become a distant memory. So all in all, it was a pretty darn perfect evening (although I doubt my liver would agree).

Okay, time to set the table and cut the carrots into pretty little wedges. There are just a couple of random atmospheric observations left to share this time around:

(a) The fairground has come early to Victoria Park. I can see it from my window. It looks gorgeous at sunset, all lit up and promising; if Mike behaves himself (and I promise him he can have a hot dog), I might allow him to take me over there tomorrow.

(b) I've added Morrissey to my Fantasy Dinner Party guest list.

(c) Despite what lots of recipes may tell you, don't rinse your spuds after you've sliced them up for dauphinoise; they won't go as deliciously gloopy if you do.

That's all for now, folks! Have a treatsome Easter Sunday. If you've been given enough eggs to fit into one basket, go and pilfer somebody else's stash...

*VITAL UPDATE* (either funny or tragic, depending on how you get your jollies)

The lamb was OFF! And I mean totally and utterly rancid. I thought something a bit odd might be going on when all I could smell when it was roasting was rosemary and soap (how weird!). Then, when it came to carving time, it got weirder (no rosemary at all, just soap). So we tasted it.

Mike ate his bit and made a sort of "hmmmmm" noise. I had one chew and spat it into the bin - which is where the whole leg ended up two minutes later. So Mike dashed to the Co-op and came back with two packets of sausages (at least they were really good ones!), and he grilled them and we ate them with all the accompanying paraphernalia I've been banging on about here, none of which - thankfully! - was off. It actually turned out to be a lovely dinner anyway (Medad, bless him, said "I've never had such delicious sausages in my whole life"). Lordy, I can't wait to pay a visit to Waitrose tomorrow. Compensation will be sought...

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Hop to the Shops (and related fluffy tales)

Good Friday has rolled around again and, true to British Bank Holiday form, the weather is spectacularly dull (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron to digest). As I write, rain is splattering softly across the windows; good job, then, that there aren’t any alfresco plans in the pipeline - nor were there any in the recent past. Having had a work trip to Birmingham cancelled (thank goodness for that! I wasn't in the mood for travelling, especially not to Birmingham), the furthest I’ve ventured since last Tuesday night (River Cottage Canteen launch at Komedia, followed by a stunning production of The Tempest at the Theatre Royal, followed by a rather jolly nightcap at GP - hoorah!) has been to the local shops. But at this time of the year, they’re a treatful trip in their own right, especially for those who dream of what to cook for tomorrow’s dinner.

T’other day, I brought an armload of sprightly green leeks and a perfectly formed, creamy cauliflower at my local greengrocery for less than a quid. While the florets were steaming, I made a leek and English mustard sauce, combined it with a huge handful of Keen’s Cheddar (gorgeous! Buy some! Now!) and topped it with wholemeal breadcrumbs before slamming it into the oven for half an hour. Those who have forgotten the simple delights of cauliflower cheese should reunite themselves with this comforting old friend forthwith. We ate ours with torn-off chunks (the Animal Disco Bistro doesn’t pertain to be a fine dining establishment) from a free range organic chicken - an Easter gift from my butcher, no less! - which I prepared really simply by just shoving a few chunks of onion and lemon up its bum, splashing a bit of olive oil and salt on the breast and resting it on a few sprigs of fresh sage before roasting. That was on Tuesday; we’re still having chicken sarnies for lunch three days later. This morning I made a light smoked cod chowder (light because I left both potatoes and cream out) which, now cooked but off the heat, will be perfectly settled by suppertime, and on Sunday I’m going to roast a whole leg of spring lamb with a rosemary, garlic, fresh mint and lemon zest infusion-thingie, lemon and sage stuffing and fresh redcurrant sauce. I’m going to team it with garlicky dauphinoise potatoes - slowly cooked until the spuds reach melting point - and rustle up a lemon tart for afters; if that’s not the perfect Easter Sunday lunch, I don’t know what is.

If I don’t see you between now and the Big Day itself, may the Easter Bunny bring all your heart desires (and your tastebuds crave) to your doorstep. And enjoy that cauliflower cheese...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

To The Manor Born?

Having eaten at a similarly-pitched destination dining hotel nearby the evening before. Times’ food critic Giles Coren recently cancelled his reservation at the Bybrook Restaurant. “Countryside Michelin is countryside Michelin,” Giles wrote; “I just didn’t want all that flimflam two nights running”. Countryside Michelin? How very condescending (and, for a national critic, more than a little blinkered). Michelin is as Michelin does, worldwide – and ‘the countryside’ is no longer shorthand for ‘bumpkin’. And in this year’s red book roll call, the formal acknowledgement of Bybrook head chef Richard Davies was, in my humble opinion, the most well-deserved commendation of the whole newbie list. As for Giles’ other playground jibe: he may have endured too much fussy pudding up the road, but I can wholeheartedly report that the Bybrook – indeed, the whole Manor House Hotel experience – is a totally flimflam-free zone.

Seeing as I’ve set the pace of this review by quoting another food critic, I might as well quote myself. “If Castle Combe isn’t the prettiest village in England, I’ll eat my whole collection of Beatrix Potter books,” I declared, following my last visit. “The hotel itself is the epitome of country house perfection: an elegant pile of grand, stately home proportions, uber-glamorous but stuffed with character”. I couldn’t have put it better myself then, so I won’t attempt to now. But even a rifle through my own back catalogue doesn’t do justice to my recent dinner here.

After a Bellini in the seductive Full Glass bar, an amuse bouche of smooth artichoke foam and some warm, fragrant tomato bread, my starter of crab tortellini upped an ante that already scaled magnificent heights. Wrapped in the finest, silkiest pasta parcel imaginable, a moist, tender filling thrummed with the fresh flavours of a recent tide while a surf of lemongrass and sweetcorn added an almost exotic, softly sensual edge to temper the crab’s lively nip. His five fat scallops came resting on a button of dusky chorizo and a mini-puddle of smooth butternut squash puree, poached pear doing his finished dish all the favours that my lemongrass/sweetcorn chorus did for mine. This was seriously, properly good stuff, enjoyed in an intimate corner of a spacious, luxuriously decorated dining room, brought to us by smart professionals who made us feel like film stars from the moment we walked through reception (good job we’d dragged the glad rags out of the nether regions of the wardrobe before we left the house, then).

For mains, my luscious roasted sea bass came accompanied by a vanilla mash with the potential to veer too much towards a dessert theme were it not for the grown up, dusky undertones provided by a smoked bacon jus that brought everything together in perfect harmony. His meaty monkfish, meanwhile, came confined in a cloak of parma ham and resting on a light pearl barley broth, with parsnip puree and Jerusalem artichoke adding texture and balance. Talking of which: we opted for the by-the-glass wine recommendations to accompany each dish, a wise decision that added yet another dimension to a voyage of discovery headed up by one of the most competent (food) tour guides in the country. The wine option adds around another £27 each to the Bybrook’s £52/3-course set menu, but even in these credit crunchy times, you really do get much more than you pay for here.

After another unbidden treat in the form of an iced granita-topped fruit mousse, my honeycomb semifreddo turned out to be a pyramid of frozen honeycomb cream with a dandy-style honeycomb ‘feather’ in its cap next to a smaller mountain of raspberry soufflĂ© that added both wit and reason to the dish, leaving a raspberry e’spuma to supply a touch of brazen glamour. Aptly enough, his warm, melting Valhrona chocolate fondant with a fascinating tonka bean ice cream was a manly dessert, rich in sensual metaphor. The whole experience – on all counts – was absolutely perfect.

“Can you forgive me [for not going to the Bybrook]?”, Giles whined, at the end of ‘that other’ review. The more pertinent question might be whether he can forgive himself.