Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Most Unsatisfactory Meal I've Ever Eaten

The chef at the restaurant I reviewed below had a serious fight with me after this review was published - he just didn't get that my pretentious flim-flammery was a carefully-written homage to his. Or maybe he did, hence the anger. Whatever; it's all history now (and I eventually managed to get the red wine stain out of my jacket). But still, I've XXX-ed his name out - if he's still around (he's certainly no longer in Bath), I wouldn't want to start another tiff in case he decides to throw the actual glass as well.

April 2007
Molecular gastronomy: the application of science to culinary practice, the search for foodie perfection ... or a case of the emperor's new clothes? Whatever your opinion, it's a food fad that's unlikely to have the same impact on your favourite neighbourhood bistro than the gastropub revolution had on your local boozer. But then again, it seemed unlikely that "chef extraordinaire" XXX would revolutionise one of Bath's longest established, traditional 'fine dining' hotspots with a menu that's far from tralatitious - but that's exactly what he's gone and done. The MG world, it seems, revolves around contradiction, controversy ... and confidence.

The ambience of the elegant dining room totally impugns the theme of XXX's menu (3/£55), which details a riot of cobnut infusions, bubbles of physalis and sour cherry snow. At first glance, it's far more literary than literal: laminates, compositions, emulsions, collages and various foams proliferate, while egg spume, aromas of tonka and even virtual mushrooms make appearances. Buoyed by pink champagne and canapes in the drawing room, we eventually selected starters of 'summer isles scallops with gelled apple balm and smoked cauliflower', and 'pigeon, minneola and roast barley', followed by 'chorizo roast monkfish, green leaf pulp, sesame potato puree with a spot of orange' and 'belly pork, fennel in various forms with a stroke of sweet paprika and quince sorbet' mains ... phew! Just relaying the detail here is a meal in itself, but the full-on frolics are yet to come. 

My courageous cohort's pigeon was unrecognisable as game: thinly pressed and rolled around the roast barley (or possibly the minneola) to create tight little tubes, alongside which the minneola (or possibly the roast barley) writhed in an excited flourish. My plump, tender scallops were complemented by an unpredictably oleaginous slick of apple-flavoured stickiness, and even though the cauliflower proved to be more of a suggestion than a reality (three tiny florets, a centimetre each in diameter, offering little in the way of smokiness), this self-confessed gastroporn junkie was, while not exactly smitten, definitely mesmerised.

 Next up, my monkfish, though deeply infused with a subtly sexy chorizo undertones, just didn't - well, just didn't do anything, all told. The silky waft of potato puree was surely the most elegant incarnation of spud ever, but unfortunately the 'spot of orange' seemed to have been lost somewhere along the kitchen physics superhighway. Meanwhile, CC's pork reclined on one of the 'various forms' of fennel (here cleverly disguised as what appeared to be half an onion), and the accompanying cubes of quince sorbet were umami personified. Both dishes came topped with a spindly finger of pork crackling, and both confounded, delighted and excited in equal measure. But it wasn't until the third course that I really experienced the complexities of XXX's personality. My rather timid choice of 'cheese our way', (a superb selection displayed on a rather intimidating trolley and served with huge savoury wafers, a dreamy cheese souffle and a little mouse fashioned
from half a quail's egg) was completely upstaged by CC's 'burnt creams of our garden flora, including pumpkin', which turned out to be four dinky pots of creme brulee, one of which featured fresh rosemary - that most aromatic and complex of British herbs - infused in cream and topped with caramelised sugar. Okay, our finale was magnificent. But, throughout this dynamic metagrobolis of a supper, if it hadn't been for the guidance of a chorus of diligent, thoroughly charming staff who performed a perfectly choreographed dance of attendance at every turn, this voyage of discovery could well have ended in total disaster. 

When we got home, we were both starving. When I went to bed, I felt distinctly queasy. When I look back on this meal now, I feel somewhat angry... and a little bit conned. So, this 'ere molecular gastrowhatsit thingie, then: a brave new world or the ultimate performance art irony? Let's hope it's actually just a passing fad.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Worst Meal I've Ever Eaten

I've been busy flicking through my saved-file memory bank on behalf of a Bath-based publisher who wants to publish a Top Ten selection of my best/worst reviews (hoorah!). And, when I came across this one (below), I just couldn't help, y'know, remind us of all of what restaurant reviewing could be like before the advertising sales team became our editors and we mere critics were allowed to say it like it is - or rather, in this case, was (the review was published in Venue in 2008). The restaurant is still open for business. I have, however, blanked out its name here 'cos hey-ho, karma, y'know...

The Worst Meal I've Ever Eaten
Life’s a journey, not a destination; to travel hopefully is better than to arrive; I would do anything for love but I won’t do that – such are the quotes, homilies and platitudes that inspire me when the (free range) chickens come home to roost. But I’ve yet to find a really good clichĂ© to pacify me when huge disappointment sets in.

I’ve been walking past XXX for years, and always thought that the cute little caff at the epicentre of Bath at its most picturesque looked rather inviting. I’d perused the daytime menu – sarnies, omelettes, afternoon tea, etc – and promised myself that one day, I’d pop in and check it out. But I never did. Until, that is, I came upon the restaurant's website (as you do), and found myself seduced by an unexpected emphasis on Moroccan cuisine. That little cafĂ© turns into a ‘Casablancan Bistro’ by night! White tablecloths are flung over the tables, the candles come out, and dishes such as kemroon m’shermal, kefta m’kaoura, briouats b’kofta are b’writ v’large. Wa-hey! Could this be an alternative destination for the Monday evening curry club that kick starts my social life for the week ahead?

Unfortunately, XXX is more likely to launch the next series of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares than appease our fevered exotic dreams. You can see the opening sequences now: Gordon sitting at an overdressed table – a cluttered riot of vast, vinyl-backed menus, sugar bowls stacked high with cubes and 65 items of cutlery all wedged between those poor, overlooked flowers and potential fire hazard candles. He has his head in his hands, an untouched plate of baby back ribs (‘The Best In Town!’) beside him and a dessert menu that includes ‘full cream tea’ and ‘toast with jam’ under his feet. His lamb tagine – meat tasting like it’s been boiled with Oxo cubes, the cous cous woefully under-seasoned - sits undigested in his stomach. “What the **** are they doing?”, he mutters to two confused tourists (the only other diners in the room). He picks up his notes, which include a printout from the website information: ‘evocative, colourful, and sophisticated, full of romance and rich with flavours’, it says. “Mexican fajitas! Pizzas! Ribs!”, he wails. “Where’s the passion? Where’s the …”

We know he’s going to find the Moroccan word for balls eventually. But on the night we visited, our chef’s were clearly big enough to give him the audacity to serve three portions of that lamb tagine alongside a weak, sad seafood version, a sea bass incarnation (which was actually okay-ish) and Moroccan brochettes that turned out to be a lamb kebab (“which needed a steak knife to cut”, according to my cute little guinea pig), a chicken kebab and a burger. Before that, we’d shared two platters – sorry, two ‘beautiful selections’ – of unidentifiable Moroccan mezze, which were just about passable … if you’re very, very hungry. With wine, our bill came to £25 a head. With hindsight, we should have gone for a curry.

Ah well; life is, I guess, either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Grub up!

The Problem
The latest UK food crisis started back in January, when Tesco own label beefburgers and Findus lasagnes were found to contain horse meat. Since then, countless other ready meals and takeaways processed by leading manufacturers (including supermarket own-label brands) have tested positive for similar levels of contamination ranging from traces of equine DNA to a full-blown meat content of 100% horse. The corporate response has gone into overdrive, with nearly all food manufacturers expressing outrage and sombre apologies, promising further investigations and renewing vows regarding impeccable, trusted sourcing of ingredients. The national response, meanwhile, varied from shock/horror to nonchalance/unsurprised, but the nation largely voted with their wallets; by the end of February, sales of frozen burgers, ready meals and takeaways were down by 60%.

The Solution?
Without wanting to sound like one of those worthy wannabe Nigella types, homemade really does seem to be the way forward for sourcing-aware folk in need of speedy midweek sustenance. As an added bonus, you might be able to save some pennies, too.

The Challenge
So: is it really possible to beat off-the-shelf prices by making your own? Could I make a lasagne (the ready meal that started the rumpus) cheaper than the cheapest off-the-shelf version (Iceland, 500g/1.5k, £1/£3)? Read on...

Ingredients (makes a 3k/10-serving lasagne)
900g minced beef
1 tin tomatoes
1 bottle passata
1 red pepper, sliced
2 carrots, diced
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
375g box of dried pasta sheets
1 pint semi-skimmed milk
4ozs butter
400g cheddar cheese
Handful of grated mozzarella

From the store cupboard: salt and pepper, plain flour, dried oregano, dried thyme, 2 bay leaves, nutmeg. glug of red wine (optional, but we opened the Chianti Classico we intended to eat with dinner anyway and sacrificed a small glass)

Use the first seven ingredients to create a rich meat sauce, seasoned with oregano, thyme, bay leaves and wine (if using); simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, make a thick cheese sauce seasoned with a grating of nutmeg, saving the mozzarella to sprinkle over the end result before baking. Assemble the lasagne in layers (meat sauce; pasta sheets; meat sauce; pasta sheets; cheese sauce; grated mozzarella) in a suitably sized baking dish. Bake in a hot oven for 35-40 minutes, until golden and bubbling on top.

The Result
With supermarket minced beef averaging at around £5.33 kilo at the time of writing and my preferred meaty matter (organic minced steak, eek!) coming in at almost double that price, the cost of my experiment would, of course, depend on the ingredients I used. For my beefy lasagne base in this instance, I used 900g of top-notch minced beef from Bartlett’s Butchers in Bath (£5.60 a kilo). Everything else on my list brought the total price for a whopping great 3 kilo/10 portion lasagne to just under £12 - only a fraction more than the Iceland version (which by comparison tasted of nothing much at all). For a nutritious vegetarian option, substitute roast vegetables (peppers, courgettes and butternut squash are all good) for the beef and bring the price down by at least 1/3.

The Pros
I knew exactly what ingredients were in my super-tasty, value-for-money supper. It’s a simple recipe and it tasted seriously, properly good. Portions froze well too.

The Cons
Best made on a day off: it took almost an hour to rustle up followed by 40 minutes in the oven, and benefited from being left to cool down and ‘settle’ for a couple of hours after assembling and before baking

The at-home takeaway: fast, fabulous, frugal quick fix food at a fraction of the high street price

• Squidge 500g lean minced beef, a splat of Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and a generous glug of beer together in a big bowl. Shape into patties and fry in a hot pan for four minutes on each side. The result? Four juicy beefburgers for less than £3

• Coat 2 x 75g dab fillets in a dusting of plain flour and fry in hot butter for two minutes each side. Meanwhile, line a white floury bap with a blob of tartare sauce, a squirt of tomato ketchup and a lettuce leaf, and you’ve got yourself a luscious fish ‘burger’ for less than £2

• Scrunch 400g lamb mince with 1tsp garam masala, 25g shelled, chopped pistachios and a drizzle of honey. Shape into ‘sausages’, grill or fry for around 8 minutes and stuff into pitta parcels with salad - that’s  4 x lamb kofta kebabs ready to go for approx. £6

• Make a dough with one and a half mugs of self raising flour, half a mug of warm water, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Tip onto a floured surface, knead lightly to combine and roll into a 1cm thick circle of a suitable size to transfer to a hot, oiled frying pan. Cook on the hob for around four minutes until base crisps up. Meanwhile, heat the grill to a hot setting, and blend half a tin of chopped tomatoes with chopped garlic, torn basil leaves and a pinch of sugar. Spread tomato mixture over dough base and top with mozzarella, olives, parmesan cheese and whatever else takes your fancy (anchovies, salami and Parma ham all work well). Place under hot grill (not too close to heat source!) for around five minutes until cheese is bubbling and the edges of the dough turning crispy, et voila: cheats pizza, pronto, for around a pound (depending on how lavish your choice of toppings).

• Mix 400g minced pork with approx. 40g breadcrumbs, 1tsp chopped sage, salt, pepper, a glug of vegetable oil and around 2tbs water together in a bowl. Unroll 1 x 320g sheet of ready made puff pastry and fill with the pork mixture to create four large sausage rolls or eight small ones. Bake in a hot oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown - total cost: approx. £4.20 for the whole batch.