Thursday, 30 December 2010

Beer and food pairing at The White Horse


Should beer be taken as seriously as wine? Can it match well with food? And do women even like it? I arrived at The White Horse in Parson's Green (or the Sloaney Pony as it's affectionately known) a Doubting Thomas.

I'd been invited along to a 'girlie beer evening' by the grandiosely-titled Rupert Ponsonby, founder of The Beer Academy and the man single handedly responsible for getting beer lists into a number of London's top restaurants. Under his duress, Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon serves every beer on its list in a different glass.

What Ponsonby doesn't know about hops and barely isn't worth knowing, and tonight was a brazen attempt to convert our cherry picked group into lifelong beer sippers – an educational device to begin filling a colossal gap in the market: 80% of UK women currently steer clear of beer. 'Beer is a disparate creature, which is wild, whacky and to be loved', Ponsonby begins.

While the mini burger canapés do the rounds, Ponsonby cleverly moves on to dispelling some popular beer myths, such as the idea that beer makes you fat. In fact, beer is made up of 95% water and contains 0% fat, 0% cholesterol and far fewer calories than the average glass of wine due to its low alcohol content, so a large glass of Zinfandel will do your waistline considerably more damage than a cheeky half pint of lager.

We sit down to eat and our first beer flight is ceremoniously poured in elaborate glassware. Ponsonby is big on serving beer in appropriate vessels. And there are many, from flutes and tulips to the amusingly monikered snifter. Only in Britain is the pint glass rife – in Belgium, where beer is treated with near beatific reverence, there are as many different beer glasses as there are Riedels for wine. I rather like the idea of the Belgian beer waiter scuttling around his cellar desperately searching for a specific receptacle to do justice to an obscure brew.

Paired with a gargantuan squash and quails egg tartlet, we imbibe a trio of beers: Innis & Gunn Blonde, Schneider Weiss and Goose Island 312. I'm charmed by the Innis & Gunn, which has changed my opinion of beer for life. Soft, creamy and mellow with a strong vanilla backbone from the American oak ageing, it slips down like silk. The Goose Island is intensely aromatic, with strong floral and honey aromas recalling Gewurztraminer and Torrontes, while the Schneider Weiss is rounded and sweet with a tropical banana edge.

While neither of the three are a divine pairing for the tartlet, they in no way jar with the flavour profile of the dish. Before beginning the second flight and main course, Ponsonby moves on to stress the importance of serving beer at the correct temperature - a rule all wine lovers will appreciate. Like white wine, most beer is best served chilled, as the delicate brews loose some of their aromas when exposed to heat. Darker beers can get away with being served Beaujolais style – lightly chilled.

On to the main event: a mammoth skate wing with hand cut chips, served alongside Belgian beer Duvel and Goose Island IPA. Smooth and creamy, the Duvel works incredibly well with the skate, while the Indian Pale Ale glints like a new penny in the glass, and has a distinctly hoppy finish. Desert is an exciting affair – chocolate truffle torte with lashings of double cream served with a duo of sweet beers: Liefmans Cuvée Brut and Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Finish.

The former looks and sounds more like a Champagne than a beer. Wrapped in red paper and sealed with a cork, the beer is only brewed once a year and fermented antique open vessels enriched with morello cherries. Aged for up to three years, different vintages are blended into what becomes the unique 'master blend'. The result is a curiously confected, slightly effervescent, intoxicatingly fruity, tooth-tinglingly sweet beer that tastes like cherry cola. The latter confirmed my love for all things Innis & Gunn. Like the Blonde before it, the Rum Cask hit the target with its voluptuous full body, rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious, rum-like vanilla spice. Both, admittedly, were incredibly good matches for the torte.

With 60 different styles to choose from, it's easy to find a beer to suit your palate - you just need to be open minded enough to experiment. Women's palates differ very little from men, and the idea that bitterness is not suited to female palates is a fallacy. But even if you're not big on bitter, there are plenty of easy going fruit beers, golden ales and wheat beers to explore. Whilst wine will always remain my first love, I've very much enjoyed my flirtation with beer. Dirt cheep and deliciously refreshing, it more than merits a second sip.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Nightjar


One night before Christmas, I was lead through an understated wooden door on City Road in Old Street and down a steep staircase into London's best kept secret bar - the Nightjar.

Named after a long-winged nocturnal bird identified by its distinctive warble, whose eyes twinkle like torches at night, the Nightjar is a charming '30s-style speakeasy serving up some of the best-mixed and most beautifully presented rare and revived cocktails in the capital.

Entering the dimly-lit subterranean space, the clock is wound back to an era of gin and jazz. The clandestine drinking den exudes early 20th century glamour, prettified with Art Deco mirrors, a pressed tin ceiling and a glinting copper gin still. Lining the far end are arched booths fashioned from coal cellars, packed with nattily dressed lounge lovers.

Soon after I arrive a hush falls upon the bar, and a man with a mop of mad curls takes a seat at a grand piano and begins tinkering. A whippet-thin lady in a sequined headdress takes to the stage and begins belting out melancholic Berlin jazz. Husky, haunting, hypnotic; she has crowd transfixed. Live music is the Nightjar's lifeblood. The informal salon models itself on an early European cabaret venue, and the live line up on Thursday and Saturday nights ranges from Rhythm and Blues and New Orleans jazz, to boogaloo, ragtime and swing, while vintage vinyl is on rotation late Friday and Saturday nights – the Last Days of Decadence meets the House of Elliot.

Belle Epoque and Prohibition era cocktails using the latest liqueurs, bitters and botanicals abound on the 36-strong menu, displayed in both a gold-bound book and a deck of cards, interspersed with Nightjar heroes: Buster Keaton, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker and Kiki de Montparnasse. Head mixologist Marian Beke, of The Langham fame, is at the top of his game. Each of the well considered cocktails on the list – including Hemingway's recipe for Islands in the Stream (Santa Teresa Claro rum, lime, green coconut water, angostura bitters and sugar since you ask), are mini masterpieces painstakingly laboured over and exquisitely presented in crystal glassware.

An ideal debauchery den for discerning drinkers, cocktails are taken incredibly seriously at the Nightjar, and thus, take a while to appear at your table. But I assure you they're worth the wait. On my visit I begin with a Ladybird, recommended by Beke. A mix of Santa Terersa Gran Reserva rum, lime, prune, Belgian truffle liqueur, Caribbean spices and orange bitters, the outside of the glass is dotted with chocolate (representing the ladybird's spots), which I dutifully lick off.

Shuffling the deck of cards and pulling one out at random, I move on to a BBC, a dark, decadent and deadly mix of Busnel Calvados VSOP, Becherovka cordial and Absinthe smoke served swimming in a huge ice ball. I've imbibed many a cocktail in my time, and the BBC is utterly unique. Smoky, sexy and seriously hard to drink any more than a sip of at a time, it's like drinking a bonfire sweetened by the blood of nymphs. While I recline languorously in my chair, feeling the effects of the green fairy, my drinking companion enjoys a playfully-titled Wibble, made with Plymouth gin, pink grapefruit, lemon and sugar.

The Nightjar is my secret find of late 2010. The Shoreditch speakeasy oozes laid back charm – its beauty lies in not trying too hard. A word of warning: don't come to the Nightjar if you're hungry. Aside from the customary almonds and olives, the simple bar snack menu includes courgette fritters, saucissons with cornichons, and cow's curd with Sherry vinegar and beetroot relish, but nothing substantial enough to fill up anyone with an appetite bigger than a sparrow.

The Nightjar, 129-131 City Road, London EC1V 1JB, +44 (0)20 7253 4101. Cocktails from £8.50.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dishoom


Many a kind word has been bestowed upon Dishoom since it opened in July, and rightly so. The pastel walled, trompe l'oeil tiled space pays homage to the vibrant Bombay all-day cafés of the '60s, which drew an eclectic clientele, from breakfasting students and lunching lawyers, to artists and writers in search of inspiration.

Set up early last century by Persian immigrants, nearly 400 cafés thrived during their peak in the '60s. Today fewer than 30 cafés remain. Drawing on their rich and colourful heritage, Dishoom, onomatopoeically named after the old Bollywood sound effect produced when a hero lands a good punch, serves up an all-day menu of Bombay bites in a buzzy, two tiered space bedecked with sepia family portraits running the gamut from beautiful to strange.

The canteen-like space, filled with low hanging filament bulbs and slow turning ceiling fans, looks like a colonial Leon by way of the Silk Road. The open kitchen displays a hive of frenzied activity. From where I'm sitting, I can see fish being tossed in piping hot pans and dinner plate-sized discs of freshly-made dough being thrown high into the air, then blasted in an oven and 'dishoomed' to the recipients table.

Dishoom give good bread. Their cheesy naan is unmissable. Served piping hot and hemorrhaging cheddar, it's so good I order a second helping before finishing my first. Rather than respecting any kind of divine order, dishes arrive as and when they are ready, which seems eminently sensible. Many of the Bombay Breakfast Club dishes appeal, from the bacon naan roll with chilli jam, to the spiced Bombay omelette, but my late dining hour render them off limits.

Before you begin, three complimentary dips are brought to your table: tamarind and date, yoghurt and mint, and chilli chutney. The pared down menu is designed for sharing, so my dining companion and I opt for a series of small plates, including a bowl of succulent Bombay sausages tumbled in tomatoey masala and playful, perfect-for-dipping, desi fish fingers.

The substantially sized lamb sheekh kebab with cumin and lime is disappointingly dry and lacking in subtlety, making me wish I'd opted for the spicy lamb chops rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies instead. My anger is appeased by dollops of soothing Raita – cool yoghurt with fresh cucumber and mint, washed down with tumblers of lightly smoked, sour cherry fueled Toscana le Chiantigiane Sangiovese.

The incredibly enjoyable dining experience is rounded off with a perfectly gooey chocolate fondant and a pot of house chai. Before leaving, I descend the poster-filled staircase to explore Dishoom's lower deck. The loos are a fascinating find, each containing a Damien Hirst-like cabinet of curiosities filled with bathtime paraphernalia from the subcontinent. I find myself momentarily transfixed by quaint soap pots and charming glass lotion bottles.

My enduring memory of Dishoom with be of the life-sized black and white poster in the ladies loos of a bare-chested man in a scandalously small pair of shorts puffing his chest out like a peacock to proudly show off a sash that reads: 'Best-built Parsi 1941'. Curiously, Parsi's were potty about bodybuilding in the '40s and '50s, just as the Bombay cafés were coming into their own. Dishoom more than merits a detour, and it will be exciting to see whether this eccentric Covent Garden site expands to other, equally deserved corners of the capital.

Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane WC2H 9FB. Tel: +44 (0)20 7420 9320. A meal for two with water and service costs about £35.


Monday, 27 December 2010

Inamo St James


Apologies, dear reader(s), for the three week hiatus. December always seems to whiz by in a flurry of festive obligations. At the start of the month I was offered the job of Staff Writer at The Drinks Business, which I will begin in the new year, so the month has been spent tying up loose ends at Decanter, which I bade a fond farewell to last week.

Aside from moving jobs, December has also been characteristically busy on the event front. Earlier this month, when the first bout of snow hit London, I ventured out into the white night layered up like a mille-feuille to attend the launch of Inamo St James. Arriving fashionably late, the 300-cover Regent Street restaurant was heaving. Standing in line, I noted familiar foodie faces interspersed with the odd celeb - model David Gandy acted as an alluring window display, while son of Salman, Zafar Rushdie, was busy entertaining a Sloaney blonde.

I found my dining companion, David Joseph Constable, sinking a saké Mojito at the bamboo bar. We were swiftly ushered through the sprawling space to our electronic table by a statuesque waitress in leopard print. Billed on its website as an 'Oriental fusion restaurant with influences from Japan, China, Thailand, Korea and beyond' (wherever that might be), Inamo's USP is its interactive ordering system. Diners are in control of their culinary destinies and are at liberty to order as much or as little as they desire from the electronic menu over the course of an evening.

The E-Table technology also allows you to choose your virtual tablecloth colour and design, spy on the chefs at work through the Chef Cam, and even book a taxi home. In a spectacular display of generosity (it being the press night), we were given free reign on the menu, simply split into 'small dishes', 'large dishes' and 'deserts'. The first five minutes of my Inamo experience were happily spent in silence, exploring all the E-Table's functions. My opening move was to turn our tablecloth a tasteful shade of violet, then, at the push of a button, I ordered two raspberry lemon cooler cocktails, which dutifully appeared at our table mere minutes later.

Inamo is ideal for the techno-savvy Twitter generation. There's enough on the table to entertain you to render polite conversation with your dining partner obsolete. And if you did desire to communicate, you could always send them a text, or even better, a Tweet, from across the table. Aware of my anti-social behaviour, I engage David in conversation, proposing that we order some starters. 'I've already ordered three, I think', David replies. And that's the thing. It's impossible not to fall prey to kid in a candy shop over exuberance at Inamo, making it a dangerous place for diners lacking in self restraint.

So the starters arrived in their droves. We tried bite-sized baby crispy prawns served, chippy style, in a paper cone, transparent slithers of kelp marinated sea bass (pictured) served with shiso and soy, which were slightly smoked and utterly moorish, seared tuna coated in black bean and wasabi with creamy cucumber miso, seared scallops with a lifted, lemony Yuzu dressing, Dragon rolls filled with tiger prawns and crab salad, pencil shaving thin slices of marbled beef with truffle vinaigrette and (finally) yellow tail sashimi in a sweet soy, truffle sauce.

Considering the restaurant was operating at full capacity, serving hoards of hungry, sharp-fanged journalists, the standard of the starters was impressively high. Some dishes, like the scallops, failed to reach the standard I have come to expect in London, but others, like the sea bass, yellow tail sashimi and marbled beef, were unique, exciting and extremely well executed. I often find myself more allured by starters than mains in restaurants, preferring to experience a little of a lot, than a lot of a little. Nevertheless, we felt it only right to sample a decent selection of mains, if only for a rounded overview of the cuisine on offer.

David fired up the 'larger dishes' menu on our E-Table, and started placing orders. I did the same. This is ill-advised, as we ended up with three mammoth salmon dishes glaring at us for the remainder of the evening. The main event included exquisitely cooked silky black cod in spicy miso that fell off the fork, soft, creamy, saké salmon cooked in cedar wood and served in a deliciously rich Hollandaise sauce, zesty, juicy, orange-fueled Tamarind duck breast and pan fried salmon glazed with Javanese sugar, which decency forced me to abstain from.

Quite how we found room for pudding is astounding, but it was worth fitting in. My vanilla-flecked strawberry crème Brûlée topped with mint was the highlight of the evening. Our overenthusiastic ordering resulted in an eye-watering £180 bill, but an equally fulfilling meal can be had at Inamo for a fraction of the price, and the progress of your bill can be checked at any stage by pushing the 'calculate bill' button.

Inamo St James will be a success. It's modern, stylish and faddy, like London itself. On our visit, the house music was booming and bar buzzing with trendy types sipping chic cocktails and milling about next to the tables. A number of the diners seemed irked by this, and rightly so. The drinking and dining spaces at Inamo need to be more clearly defined. Like Kyashii in Covent Garden and Aqua in Oxford Circus, there's something of the 'clubaurant' about it. It's an ideal place to take a date with whom you fear conversation may dry up. And if it does, you can book a taxi and make a quick exit without saying a word.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Roux at Parliament Square


Parliament Square has been hitting the headlines this week, for all the wrong reasons. The day after my visit to Roux at Parliament Square, hoards of disgruntled students descended upon the square to protest against Government plans to raise tuition fees. The result? A hostile protest ending in 150 arrests.

My excursion to Westminster was mercifully drama free, save for a touch of slipping and sliding along icy paths to get there. I arrived wind-slapped and with grit-filled boots, but was soon swept from the icy outdoors into the warm, beige bosom of the restaurant, which is housed in the premises of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

The evening began with a glass of the exceptional Nyetimber 2005 in the restaurant bar – a strange, grape-hued space stuffed with law books either side of a shrine to proprietor Michel Roux Jr, whose face beams out of multiple covers of his latest cookbook. Son of Albert and nephew of Michel Roux Snr, Michel Jr can usually be found heading up Le Gavroche or grilling contestants in MasterChef: the Professionals, and is widely regarded as London's pre-eminent classical chef.

Alas, Roux is decidedly absent from Parliament Square. And so is his protégé Daniel Cox – who left just 10 weeks after the restaurant opened in May. Toby Stuart from Galvin at Windows has since taken the helm. The spacious main dining room is somewhat lacking in character. A paean to purple and greige, the lighting is too bright, and the conversation too hushed. The private dining room however (pictured), has far more charm, from its stained-glass windows, sculpted chairs and art deco mirror, to the curious old menus furnishing the walls.

The main room may be dull, but the food is certainly not. Perhaps the bland decor is a deliberate device to allow the food to take centre stage. My dining partner - eminent London food critic Douglas Blyde, and I opted for the seven course tasting menu, priced at £65 per head, with an additional £40 charge for the matching wines – incredibly good value compared to the £55 three course á la carte.

There were so many highlights worthy of mention, and overall I found the food – served predominantly on circular black slates – well considered, well executed and extremely elegant. We began with a creamy, comforting parsnip soup amuse bouche, followed by a warm salad of Cheltenham beetroot (who would have thought), goat's curd, orange and pine nut. Delicate, fresh and exquisitely put together, the edible forest married well with the accompanying Alsation Pinot Blanc, which brought out the orange in the dish.

The following lasagne of Cornish crab and leek with Avruga caviar in a Champagne velouté was my standout dish of the evening. Soft, creamy and rich, the meaty crab, spliced with layers of crunchy leek, was lifted and fresh – a navigable island within a Champagne bubble bath, and worked well with the crisp, limey Rheingau Riesling. Next we were presented with a crunchy, textured, foie gras, pomegranate and radish salad with hazelnut crumble, which was bursting with flavour, but slightly overpowered by the honey heavy Château du Levant Sauternes.

We were then treated to a bite-sized chunk of silky soft, slow-cooked North Atlantic Halibut served with a mussel mousse and doll sized, mushroom strewn pancakes, which was matched with a closed and astringent white Rhône. The succeeding rump of beef with a croustillant salt brisket in a bone marrow sauce shone. The coin-sized circles of beef were tender, juicy and moreish, as was the salty, crunchy brisket, which harmonized well with the juicy, rum and raisin fuelled Thesaurum Corvina Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

A duo of puddings rounded off the night, one of which succeed and one failed. The tiny cube of lemon tart was zingy and refreshing, while the chocolate mousse and peanut parfait with caramelised banana was sickly sweet and cloying, but redeemed by the peanuts. The final wine pairing was an opulent, heady, black fruited Dom. Lafage Maury from the Languedoc – an exciting discovery. Despite the disappointing final course, I found it hard to find fault with the food. Beautiful, precise, and packed with harmonious flavours, this is classic cooking at its best. I only wish the decor tried harder to stir the soul.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Bar Battu, Brawn, Fulham Wine Rooms, Vinoteca Marylebone: London's wine awakening


Once could be called a fluke, twice a coincidence, but now with half a dozen respectable natural wine bars in operation around London town, it's safe to call it a movement. It all started two years ago with Terroirs - the Charing Cross-based brainchild of Les Cave de Pyrene's managing director Eric Narioo, who this week opened his second natural wine bar – Brawn, in Columbia Road, E2.

I remember being impressed with Terroirs when I visited shortly after it opened. There was something different about it, from the pared down interiors and laid back bistro food, to the exciting and varied wine list offering everything from the funky to the downright strange, it was clear Terroirs was onto something. It successfully tapped into a previously unexploited niche and quickly had Londoners lapping up its unadulterated wines.

Two years on, and I've heard talk of a serious dip in the quality of service. Complacency seems to have set in, and with its reputation secured, the bar doesn't feel it needs to try anymore. Wine folk are fickle, and we're quick to switch allegiance if standards drop, so the savvy Terroirs crowd of yore has migrated to Xavier Rousset's hugely successful 28-50 Wine Workshop and Kitchen in Fetter Lane, and more recently the newly-opened Bar Battu in the City.

28-50 isn't a natural wine bar per se, but does offer an extensive number of wines by the glass, along with an impressive collectors' list, which Xavier personally sources from private cellars. After much hype from the wine trade, I made the pilgrimage to Bar Battu last week, and was pleasantly surprised. I'm slightly distrusting of natural wines. I don't really understand them (there's no official definition of what constitutes a natural wine), and I'm often thrown by their unpredictability, cloudy appearance and savage aromas.

Despite my reservations, I think it's a fantastically brave move to open a natural wine bar in the City. If the wine trade are suspicious of naked wines, then the average punter must be positively fearful of them. But fear is borne of ignorance – all we need is to be taught. London is light years behind France in embracing the natural wine movement, and a decade behind New York, but with bars like Terroirs and Battu, we finally seem to be catching on.

I shared a bottle of white and red on my visit and enjoyed the symbols on the menu that help novices navigate the list of unfamiliar names – while a cloud predictably denotes cloudiness, a white bull appears next to semi-wild wines, and a red bull beside really wild ones. Our white Burgundy was light, fresh and uplifting, but the Languedoc red was fiercely feral. It smelt and tasted like a pig pen, and somewhat traumatised one of my fellow imbibers. But that's the deal with natural wines - you never quite know what you're getting until you open it.

I've yet to visit Brawn (it opened yesterday), but set in an old wood-turning mill in the gritty climes of Shoreditch, it promises an evolving list of 150 natural and biodynamic bins covering a range of styles and regions, including 12 wines by the glass and 500ml caraffe. Only time will tell if it has the muscle to compete with London's better established drinking dens.

Aside from the natural wine bar revolution currently gripping London, a sprinkling of sister wine bars have also popped up in the last month, beginning with the Fulham Wine Rooms in early November, which is hoping to mirror the success of the Kensington Wine Rooms. On my visit last week the vast, cavernous space was empty - making my friend and I feel like a pair of church mice in a wine cathedral. That said, it was nearly midnight on a Monday. The Enomatic selection was impressive - including favourites from Kensington such as Ken Forrester's the FMC, and new arrivals: a stunning Sassicaia 1998.

Last week, Farringdon favourite Vinoteca opened a sister bar in Seymour Place, Marylebone, completing a hat-trick of exciting openings in the past month. Having only worked in wine for the past three years, I've been lucky enough to join the industry at an incredibly fertile time, and the pace of change is showing no signs of slowing down. The mushrooming of forward thinking, relaxed, informed wine bars in the city is helping to put wine firmly on the cool map, and opening Londoners' eyes to the phenomenal selection of wines the city has to offer. I'm excited to see where the trend will move next.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

New in town: Eighty-Six, Cassis Bistro, Pommery E: Cube, Vista at The Trafalgar


The festive season is well and truly upon us, and with it a flurry of new bars and restaurants have arrived – some which will merely pop up and down again before the new year.

The last two weeks have been particularly busy on the launch front, so I thought I'd switch up my blogging style a bit with a round up of the hottest new openings around town. My first pitstop was at Eighty-Six restaurant, which opened last week in a converted Georgian townhouse on the Fulham Road, a space once occupied by the somewhat less salubrious Cactus Blue.

Founded by George Adams and Charlie Kearns, who cut their teeth at venues in Oxford and Verbier, Eighty-Six has lassoed Mark Broadbent of Bluebird fame as head chef, who was cooking up some quirky modern European comfort food on the opening night, including a rich, creamy lobster bisque and unctuous bone marrow served warm in the bone.

The three-tiered venue is a talking point in itself, beginning with a see-and-be-seen bar on the ground floor, up a spiral staircase to a smaller bar/lounge area filled with framed pictures of besuited, bushy tailed badgers and foxes, to the gold-panelled restaurant at the top, crowned by a mirrored ceiling. My visit was brief, but the canapés piqued my interest, and I'm keen to return to try the food.

Later last week I swung by the Pommery E: Cube bar, by way of the Winter Wonderland currently taking residence in Hyde Park. Walking through the fairground past wooden shacks selling everything from German brawürst and silly hats to Spanish churros, I got excited for the first time about Christmas. Europeans do Christmas markets with such flair, and it looks like we're finally catching on - even if we have to copy most of their culinary creations to make it work.

Inside the ultra violet E: Cube, the place is buzzing. The house music being belted out reverberates around the white padded walls, and it feels like I'm at some teenager's end of ski season wrap party. An intense smell of fondu permeates the cube. Rather than simply sniff it, I seek out the source, tear off some scraps of bread from a nearby loaf, and slather my plate with molten cheese.

Moving on to this week, on Tuesday I popped into the launch of Cassis Bistro on the Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. On arrival I spot Charles Campion keeping court, Champagne glass in hand. The space has a reassuringly casual air, with brown leather booths and simple gray brickwork. The food is traditional bistro fare - snails in pastry, scallop ceviche, an array of patés, hazelnut tarts - all very lovely, but haven't we seen it all before? I struggled to find a USP.

The night before I headed to the Vista roof bar at the Trafalgar Hotel, which has been given a Nordic makeover in time for Christmas in a hat tip to the Norwegian Christmas tree which will soon be furnishing Trafalgar Square. The erstwhile al fresco bar has been covered with a white canopy and filled with heaters, to keep the party people toasty all festive season, before it's dismantled on New Year's Day.

In keeping with the Nordic theme is a series of Scandi cocktails, including the devilish Fjord Escort made with Chambord, cream and cinnamon, and the dangerously delicious Stockholm Syndrome made with Hanger 1 poached pear vodka and Pommery Champagne, finished off with a fizzing sugar cube – after one sip I was sympathising.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Whisky and Indian food matching at Quilon


I seem to have written a lot on the subject of Indian food and drink pairing of late. A notoriously hard cuisine to match with wine and sprits, earlier this year I attended a dinner at Moti Mahal in Holborn matching Indian food with saké, which worked strangely well.

More recently, I returned to the restaurant to see how Indian wines fared with their native cuisine, and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines made from international varieties coming out of Grover Vineyards, in the Nandi Hills near Bangalore.

For the hat-trick, this month I attended a dinner at the Michelin-starred Quilon in St James's, to see whether whisky and Indian cuisine make good bedfellows. I don't pretend to be whisky fan – I can appreciate its complex array of aromas, but find the burn on the palate hard to swallow. The evening was hosted by self-confessed whisky nut Dominic Roskrow, who has recently published a 300-page tome on the subject: The World's Best Whiskies (£30). Quilon, which specialises in south west coastal Indian cuisine, has a 50-strong whisky list, so served as the ideal venue to put the pairings to the test.

The unassuming Roskrow is keen to divorce himself from any snobbery associated with whisky, which he views as 'a farmers drink' made in poor areas for people to celebrate and commiserate with. Roskrow touched on the need for whisky brands to reach out and communicate with the new generation of writers and bloggers coming through.

After his impassioned speech, mouthes were parched, and we were all keen to get our heads in a glass. First up we tried an Indian whisky: Amrut Double Cask, which had a young, intoxicating nose of barley, peat, cedar and spice - almost like Old Spice aftershave. The palate was smooth and creamy, with notes of vanilla and an aniseed finish. Next we imbibed a 1982 Karuizawa (pictured) from Japan, weighing in at a eye-watering 56% abv. The nose had lovely aromas of sea salt caramel, held up by an intensely peaty backbone. The charred, smokey notes made it taste like a liquid bonfire.

Third in line was my personal favourite: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon – by far the smoothest of the quartet. An attractive deep amber colour, it smelt like a sweet Oloroso, full of vanilla, caramel and toffee notes, along with walnut, varnish and maple. The American oak leant it an approachable banoffee pie character. Smooth, round and long, it was the only whisky I didn't add water to. Finally, we were presented with a serious Scotch: Glenkeir Macallan 17 Year Old Cask Strength, which showed great elegance, with citrus and orange peel aromas, along with the customary peat, wood and spice.

But how did these alcoholic giants fare with the delicate Indian food? They take their spices so seriously at Quilon they have three full-time chefs working soley on sourcing them, and import more spices than any other London restaurant. Head chef Sriram Aylur is a purist, known for championing subtle flavours and not using any butter of cream in his dishes – something I was disappointed to hear, as I'm into rich, heart-curdling food.

The food may have been lacking in fat, but it was far from lacking in flavour. It's easy for a chef to slather his dishes in butter for instant customer gratification, but it takes real skill to create big flavours from subtle ingredients. Standout dishes included exquisitely moist, soft and juciy Dakshini pepper chicken, a powdery soya bean chop with plum sauce, Okra Pachadi – fried okras mixed with yoghurt, ground coconut and cumin seeds (I ate the entire bowl intended for four), and curious pepper ice cream, which perfectly navigated the playful divide between sweet and savoury.

I can't come to any prolific conclusions about the suitability of whisky as a drink pairing for Indian food, as I switched to wine as soon as the food arrived. But perhaps that says it all: some drinks are best enjoyed on their own, and the alcoholic burn from whisky wouldn't work with dishes with any degree of spice in them. But the fun is in the experimentation, and I'm happy to be proved wrong.

The next whisky dinner hosted by Dominic Roskrow at Quilon takes place on 1 February 2011. Tickets are priced at £59.50 per person. To book, call Quilon reservations on: 020 7821 1899.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Interview with Tom Harrow of WineChap

Wine and the City catches up with Tom Harrow of WineChap, who was recently voted one of London's most influential people by the Evening Standard, to find out about WineChap's latest projects, from a new Bar Chick website, to a high altitude wine tasting in a private plane.


Monday, 22 November 2010

Wine Chap truffle and wine evening at Polpo


With truffle season in full flow, last week I was lucky enough to be invited to the latest WineChap Eno Club dinner – a Piedmont inspired truffle fest at Polpo in Soho, hosted by WineChap's flamboyant frontman Tom Harrow.

The ten course epicurean epic began with a trio of starters: deliciously textured and creamy chopped chicken liver with truffled leeks, a salty, gooey, potato and parmesan crochetta and a crunchy wild mushroom crostino, which were matched with a light, playful Langhe Arneis Nieve 2009 from Castello di Nieve. We were off to a sensational start.

Dressed in a pastel pink shirt accessorized with a clipped beard, the dapper, dandified Harrow, who was last week voted one of London's most influential people for his hugely successful WineChap iPhone app that irreverently analyses the wine lists of London's top restaurants, introduced each of the wines with an anecdote. He was due to fly out the next morning to northern Italy to take part in the famous White Truffle of Alba auction, where Decanter's Asia contributing editor, Jeannie Cho Lee, forked out a staggering €105,000 for a 900g truffle.

The bacchanalian feast continued with a trio of dishes laced with white Alba truffles, beginning with fresh taglierini with butter, which the waiter elegantly furnished with finely grated truffle, then moving on to the tastiest risotto I've ever experienced: scallop and fennel, dotted with white truffles. Soft, rounded, creamy and rich, yet with a freshness from the fennel, it was expertly cooked, and quickly devoured. The accompanying fennel, curly endive and almond salad was equally exquisite - light, freshy and lemony, with a nutty backbone, I could have munched a bottomless bowl of it.

The trio was matched with a sherbety Gavi di Gavi 2008, which Tom described as 'Chablis on a Vespa', and a glinting, ruby Villa Saparina Roero Andre 2006, that came in a curious bottle shaped like a Roman amphora, and sang of sour cherries.

Harrow believes that, rather than due to the terroir and growing conditions, northern Italy has a strong red wine culture because of the meat heavy cuisine –whites just wouldn't stand up. Moving on to the main event, both the food and wine went up a notch on the flavour intensity scale. First we tried calves liver and polentia bianca infused with truffle oil, which, although well cooked, was not to my taste.

But the succeeding grilled sliced flank steak, porchini cream and black truffle was the culinary apogee of the evening. Soft, juicy, heady, salty, sexy - I was in food heaven. The steak was accompanied by deliciously crispy mini roast potatoes that glowed like nuggets of gold. On the wine front, we tried a trio of double decanted Nebbiolos - Italy's answer to Pinot Noir according to Tom. First up was a Castello di Nieve Barbaresco 2006 – the wine served at Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's wedding, which was firm but feminine, with notes of rose, licorice, sour cherry and mint - Cruise has good taste!

We then tried Sperino Lessona 2006, which went divinely well with the meat. It has an opulent nose of sour cherry, and a voluptuous, full, spicy body. Rougher round the edges than the Barbaresco, it had something of the rogue about it; masculine to the Barbarescos feminine. We ended on a high note with Brovia Barolo 2004, which was rich and opulent, with notes of black cherry, plum and violets wrapped around huge, bear hug tannins. Dense and long on the palate, it had a treacly, minty finish - a most intriguing wine.

Desert was an exiting affair - beginning with sticky fig and goat's cheese bruschetta with walnuts, truffle and honey that was so exquisitely textured and flavoured (crunchy, nutty, savoury and sweet), I had to close my eyes in the pure pleasure of it all. We moved on to panettone and truffle honey ice cream, which matched incredibly well with the marmalade fuelled Arneis Passito and smelt like warm waffles.

After such epicurean heights, a small group of us wound down in the Groucho Club drinking espresso Martinis and discussing Danish cooking and the merits of brogues beneath a neon pink Tracy Emin scribble mounted on the wall. I called for a carriage at midnight, but a few hardy souls soldiered on. The next morning, a friend emailed to say that Damien Hirst and Fergus Henderson showed up shortly after I left and sunk a few bottles with them. I suppose that's the trick to life - knowing when the right time to leave the party is...

Wine Chap host regular Eno Club dinners. To find out about their latest events, visit: http://winechap.com

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Ravenswood wine dinner at 28-50


Last week the King of Zin Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, California, was in London to host a wine bloggers dinner at Xavier Rousset's wine workshop 28-50.

I remember quizzing Xavier about his next venture during lunch at the Fine Wine 2010 conference in Ribera del Duero in May. He mentioned he was about to open a sister restaurant to Texture, but this time he wanted to focus on wine, so had christened it 28-50 after the latitude at which vines are grown. Six months on and the place is heaving with both the wine trade and city slickers day and night - smart move.

Beginning with a glass of fizz, our group is soon ushered upstairs to a long wooden dining table overlooking the bistrot below. In the far corner I spot Tim Atkin and Victoria Moore, who were no doubt discussing the latest broadsheet wine writer transfers. It's like the end of the football signing season - everyone's on the move. Moore has just been snapped up by the Telegraph, and Fiona Beckett has filled the vacancy at the Guardian. So where does that leave Johnny Ray?

I digress. After an enjoyable interview that morning, I was keen to find out more about Peterson, so saddled up next to him. He'd brought seven Zins with him, from the wallet friendly 2007 Vintners Blend (£7.99), to the top end Barricia Zinfandel (£24.95). In keeping with his 'No Wimpy Wines' mantra, we were to drink Zinfandel from starter to pudding, so I chose the boldest dishes on the menu, to give them a chance of standing up against the big, bold, peppery beasts.

Peterson is a consummate raconteur, and spent most of the evening recalling tales from his winemaking past, from picking four tones of grapes during a thunderstorm under the watchful gaze of three ravens, and sleeping in fields in Spain, to being propositioned by a masseuse in the Middle East. During the starters (delicious duck rillettes for me) he tells me the winery is named after the leading man in Donizetti's opera Luica de Lammermoor - Sir Edgar, Master of Ravenswood.

'The raven is seen as a trickster god to the American Indians, so it wasn't a large leap to adopt it as my totem', admits Peterson, who promises free tastings for life to anyone who has the distinctive Ravenswood symbol permanently inked.

The winery has been making some of the world's best Zinfandels for over 30 years, and Peterson still seems fiercely passionate about California's native grape. Moving on to the main event, a suitably un-wimpy onglet of beef, the wines come into their own. Both the Tedelshi 2006 and Barricia 2006 stand out - full of sumptuous, brambly black fruit, pepper and spice, they are big, bold and grippy without being monsters, with a lovely licorice finish. I'm amazed at how smooth, soft and approachable the wines are, despite their high alcohol levels.

The final wine - Lodi 2005, is served in a mammoth bottle by a brave waitress. In our interview earlier that day, Joel had championed Zinfandel as a wine capable of ageing gracefully, describing how the best wines take on Northern Italian tar and roses qualities. Curious to experience the flavours first hand, I was disappointed not to see an old Zin in the line up. Perhaps I'll have to look into getting that tattoo...

During desert, our veins pumping with Zinfandel, Joel and I engage in a spiritual discussion. He concludes that the world is a magnificent accident and that we have to live as if there is nothing else afterwards, making each day count – an exhilarating and liberating philosophy. 'Did you always feel that way?', I ask. 'Hell no, I was a Christian fundamentalist at university, but a bit of Peyote put paid to that'.

Interview with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood

Last week I caught up with founder and chief winemaker of Ravenswood, Joel Peterson – in town to host a wine bloggers dinner at 28-50, to find out what winemakers need to do to get Zinfandel recognised as a world class wine, how zinfandel ages, how he felt about being bought by Constellation, and why there are so many 'wimpy wines' in the world. Find out what the King of Zin had to say here...

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Decanter First Growths masterclass


Saturday was an iconic day for the Decanter team. We hosted our First Growths masterclass at The Landmark hotel, bringing together the directors of the five Bordeaux First Growths: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild and Haut-Brion for their first ever public tasting in the UK - and their second ever in history.

All 90 tickets for the masterclass, spanning 20 years from 2008 to 1988, sold out within minutes of going on sale back in August.

Working at the masterclass, I was lucky enough to taste a sip of each wine at the end, after each measure had been poured. For me, the classic vintages – Margaux 2005 and Lafite 2000, really stood out.

Tasting notes:

Latour 2008
Dense blackcurrant, rich, opulent, perfumed, young but approachable, sleek, fine grain tannins, restrained and stylish, with a licorice and mint finish.

Mouton 2006
Rich blackcurrant nose, oak dominant, fleshy and voluptuous on the palate with big tannins to balance the bold fruit.

Margaux 2005
Rich, opulent, concentrated, delicious on the palate, elegant but voluptuous, velvety, powerful and rounded. Intense and pure – an iron first in a velvet glove. A wonderfully complete wine.

Haut-Brion 2004
Earthy, terroir-driven, fruiter on the palate, blackcurrant, black cherry, spice, chocolate and mint. Textured if a touch lean.

Latour 2003
Can taste the heat, fruit forward – plums, cloves, spices, developed but will go on, smooth, soft, very approachable, drinking fantastically now, upfront, baked fruit with an exotic finish.

Lafite 2000
Lovely development, sumptuous secondary aromas of game, leather and pencil shavings – classic, classy Bordeaux, silky, suave and textured on the palate, drinking perfectly now.

Haut-Brion 1998
Still youthful, fruit forward - black cherry nose, smooth, elegant, broody, grippy tannins, tight, concentrated and virile, with a licorice finish.

Margaux 1996
Oaky nose with vegetal, developed, savoury notes of game, leather, spice and smoke. Graceful with sleek, stylish tannins.

Mouton 1989
Autumnal, classy, forest floor aromas, sweet fruit, toasty blackcurrant, fennel, mint, full bodied, elegant and suave.

Lafite 1988
Still surprisingly fruit driven, blackcurrant, black cherry, mint, secondary aromas starting to come through, elegant, soft, supple, rounded, smooth and velvety - typical Lafite finesse.

First Growths masterclass

Wine and the City goes behind the scenes at the Decanter First Growths masterclass on Saturday at The Landmark hotel. A first for Decanter (and for the UK), this was only the second time in history that directors from all five Bordeaux First Growths: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Mouton Rothschild and Haut-Brion, have gathered together to taste their iconic wines in public. Find out what vintages the lucky ticket holders tasted here...

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Grover wine dinner at Moti Mahal


'It's time Brits drank Indian food with Indian wine, instead of a beer named after a snake', begins Amber Vaidya, brand ambassador for Indian winery Grover Vineyards, in an impassioned speech at gourmet Indian restaurant Moti Mahal in Holborn.

He'd gathered a group of journalists to celebrate Grover's entry to the UK, which was signed and sealed this summer through an exclusive partnership with Bibendum, who've taken on three wines in the Grover range: the Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Shiraz and La Reserve, voted best new world red last year by Steven Spurrier in his Decanter column.

Situated in the Nandi Hills, 40km from Bangalore, Grover Vineyards was founded in 1988 by defense equipment tycoon Kanwal Grover after seven years of research into the best grape growing areas in India. The 410-acre estate is planted with international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.

Buffered by the mountains, the vines are protected from monsoon winds and enjoy a long growing season, while the limestone rich soils imbue the wines with a mineral core. Keen to produce terroir-driven wines in the French style, Grover enlisted the help of Bordeaux-based super consultant Michel Rolland, who counts Angélus, Lascomes, Léoville Poyferré, Robert Mondavi and Casa Lapostolle among his high profile clients. Winemaking methods therefore, are distinctly French – La Reserve is hand picked and spends six months in French oak.

But what of the food? Moti Mahal's head chef Anirudh Arora has created a menu inspired by his childhood travels along the Grand Trunk Road, a 2500km stretch built in the 16th century that navigates the breadth of the country, pumping life through it. The five course menu begins with a Punjab dish: masala paneer with tomatoes and bell peppers, followed by succulent monkfish simmered in a tamarind, ripe tomato and ginger sauce – a dish made popular in Lahore, paired with the grassy, fresh, grapefruit-driven 2009 Sauvignon Blanc.

Next up is the culinary highlight of the night: butterflied leg of lamb seasoned with cinnamon and green chillies. The small, juicy morsels of lamb are the softest I've ever eaten - almost like lamb clouds, with an etherial tenderness, matched with the young, fruit forward, spicy 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz. The final main is chicken tossed in basmati rice, crushed fennel and saffron from the food capital of India – Lucknow, paired with the jewel in Grover's crown; La Reserve 2009.

Closed on first sniff, the wine soon opens up to reveal a bouquet of ripe red and black fruits, with hints of spice. On the palate it shows black currant, mocha, chocolate, vanilla and licorice, which fuse together into a long, pleasing finish. The feast is rounded off with an exquisite bread pudding made in reduced saffron milk served with cardamom ice cream. Having had my first sip of Indian wine at the London International Wine Fair this year, I was excited by the wines on show at the dinner. Displaying elegance, character, and a sense of place, they suggest a promising future for Indian wine. The Cobra days are over...

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Basque gastronomy evening


No one does culinary theatre better than the Spanish. And so it was that I was invited to go down the rabbit hole into an edible Basque Wonderland.


Held at the Wallace Collection in London's Manchester Square, the evening aimed to flaunt the culinary skills of three of Spain's most prestigious chefs: Andoni Luis Aduriz from Mugaritz, Martin Berasategi, and Pedro Subijana from Akellare.

Flaming torches light the way to the stately entrance of the Wallace Collection. On arrival, I'm lead through a round room full of Louis XVI furniture and a sculpture of Venus chastising Cupid, to a courtyard buzzing with hungry food hacks. Three wines are on offer, a Rioja Reserva and a pair of Txakolis; my poison of choice for the evening.

Showcasing the latest in new-wave Basque tapas, or 'pintxos', as they're known in the region, my culinary adventure begins with a passion fruit half topped with foie gras mousse – the epitome of a sensual food experience. The passion fruit, with its exoticism, edible pips and juicy centre, paired with the rich, creamy, foie gras, makes for an incredibly sexy match. Foodie hedonism at its best.

I'm then handed a medicine bottle full of blood red gazpacho, which I'm advised to shake before imbibing. Alas, nowhere on the bottle does it say 'Drink Me'. The three chefs are stationed in different corners of the room. Where they cook, a snaking queue follows. Subijana is surrounded by frying pans filled with large black stones. He places a solitary prawn on each and dramatically sets fire to the lot. The flames lick the crowd, and I have to check if I still have eyebrows left.

In another corner, Berasategi is indulging his inner pyromaniac, setting fire his millefeuille of foie gras, smoked eel and apple with a tiny blow torch. The result is an explosion of flavour and texture – creamy, crunchy, smoky, smooth, sweet and savoury, it's an inspired match in a league of its own. I have to be forcibly dragged from the stand.

The most intriguing dish of the night comes from Adoni Luis Aduriz, who plays with our perceptions of vision and taste with his trompe l'oeil edible pebbles on a bed of sand. The gray rocks are in fact clay-baked potatoes, and the sand bread crumbs. The drying sensation caused by the breadcrumbs feels like munching on a mouthful of sand, but when paired with the free range egg yolk dip, the rocks are rendered edible.

A plethora of puddings follow, the standout being Cinderella apples dusted in gold, with a pureed apple centre. Without thinking I pop the green stalk in my mouth, and am horrified to find it's chive - a culinary trick too far. And wasn't it Snow White who ate the poisoned apple?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Kyashii


Dining at Kayashii is an extraordinary experience. From the burly bouncer on the door to the blinding white decor, neon lighting and house music on rotation, it feels more like a club than a restaurant. Or, at the very least, a fusion of the two: a clubaurant.

Kyashii's club credentials are no coincidence. Having started life in the basement of the über bling Kingly Club, which opened (and closed) during the recession, the restaurant has taken over the entire site in a bid to make the venue more food-focused.

Its former life as a club is still evident. The bright white tables, plush leather seats and shiny white floor tiles are very Supperclub, or Bond by way of Marbella. It may have lost its disco balls, but Kyashii is very much a place to see and be seen. There's something very mid '90s hip-hop about the place. I can imaging P Diddy and Jay-Z cracking open the Cristal (pre Frederic Rouzaud dispute) and nibbling on sashimi here, shooting club scenes for their latest video.

The space is divided into four dining areas: a ground floor bar with a polished granite sushi counter for casual diners, the 'white room' - with white leather seating and Italian tiled flooring, a bespoke mezzanine level where you can spy on the chefs, and the 'blue room', where I dined, complete with a panoramic electric blue-lit fish tank teeming with tropical fish. Enveloped by the tank, it reminded me of the scene in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet when the star-crossed lovers first set eyes on one another through the glass.

Admiring the neon fish as they dart about in the tank, I feel pangs of guilt that I'm about to eat a shoal of their brothers and sisters. It's like having a cattle pen in a steak house. But what of the food? Head chef Jacky Yu (ex-Zuma) is clearly an incredible talent. The menu mixes traditional Japanese fare: sashimi salad with yuzu, black cod tempura, dragon rolls, with more unusual dishes: exquisite yellowtail ponzu with truffle oil, a foie gras sushi set including the standout foie gras beef tataki with nonomi-miso, and pan-fried beef fillet with dynamite mustard sauce.

The food is painstakingly cooked and artfully presented – the sashimi gleams it's so fresh. The dishes seem to mirror the surroundings – flashy and polished; almost too perfect. For those looking to flash the cash at a sleek and stylish sushi venue, Kyashii ticks all the boxes. But there's more to it that mere gloss – it delivers on both the aesthetic and flavour front. Don't let the ostentatious surroundings put you off – Kyashii couldn't be more serious about food.

Kyashii, 4a Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9NY, www.kyashii.co.uk, around £50pp.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Colman Andrews interview


Wine and the City catches up with American food writer Colman Andrews on a recent trip to London, to find out about his new book; Ferran Adrià: The Man Who Changed The Way We Eat, that traces the journey of the renowned El Bulli chef from dishwasher to culinary demigod. So was there a eureka moment for Adrià? Watch the video and find out...

Monday, 1 November 2010

Bompas & Parr Chewing Gum Factory

Wine and the City catches up with Sam Bompas, one half of Bompas & Parr, at Bompas & Parr's Artisanal Chewing Gum Factory at Whiteleys, to find out how the factory works and ask what madcap plans the boys are cooking up next...

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Bompas & Parr Chewing Gum Factory

Culinary wizards Bompas & Parr have found a new plaything. Moving on from the jelly moulds that made them famous, the pair have turned their hands, Wonka-style, to chewing gum.

Last week, the boys set up shop in Whiteleys, with a pop-up artisanal chewing gum factory. On arrival I'm swiftly lead to the dimly-lit Flavour Library, complete with haunting music on a loop, and scientific diagrams linking the 200 flavours on offer, from the play-it-safe strawberry and cotton candy, through the more adventurous white truffle and green pea, to the downright ludicrous curry, anchovy and hot dog.

I whiz around the aroma room, frantically opening flavour-scented jam jars in a bid to whittle down 40,000 possible combinations to my final two. Watermelon is divine, as is caramel, but they're both too predictable. Peanut jumps out of the jar, along with banana and almond, but I'm looking for something a little more playful. A mix of sweet and savoury perhaps? I strike upon what I believe to be an ingenious duo: foie gras and crème brûlée, having tasted something similar at a basque gastronomy evening the week before. It'll either be delicious or disgusting.

I write my flavour combo on a raffle ticket and hand it to the lady in a lab coat across the counter. She glances at it disapprovingly. The factory is proving so popular, punters have to wait for their numbers to be called, Bingo-style, by a bespectacled man on a megaphone. To ease my wait, I indulge in a Hendricks and tonic from a jam jar.

Finally my number's up, and I'm lead into the gum factory, a pink room lined with long wooden work benches. I'm given a gum-making tutorial by Sam Bompas himself, who dashes out the back to retrieve my flavours. He returns with a vial full of caramel coloured liquid, which I'm told to squirt on my clear gum base and then stir furiously. Icing sugar and citric acid is then added, and more stirring ensues.

'Would you like to add a colour?' Bompas enthuses. 'Why not make it bright green?', he suggests, squirting a few drops of green food colouring into the mixture. I stir it furiously, until it's the texture of Play Doh, then pick it up, douse it with icing sugar and roll it into small gum balls. Impatient, I pop one in my mouth, fearful of what I'm about to chew. Luckily, the crème brûlée dominates and it's surprisingly tasty.

The foie gras is definitely in there, but it's the custard-like, vanilla backbone that lingers. I finish rolling my pea green gum balls and pop them into a tiny white Bompas & Parr box. For their next trick the boys want to go one further and create a gum that changes flavour mid-chew, from savoury to sweet, recreating the Three-Course Dinner Chewing Gum Violet Beauregarde has the misfortune of eating when still in the testing phase in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, turning her into a giant blueberry. Wonka would be proud.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Ferran Adria interview

Wine and the City caught up with renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adrià on Monday while he was in London to promote his new biography by American food writer Colman Andrews. In the interview, Adrià opens up about the pressures of being a commercial chef, and his plans for El Bulli when it reopens in 2014 as a foundation for gastronomic creativity. Watch it here...

Monday, 25 October 2010

William Curley interview

Wine and the City catches up with master chocolatier William Curley to get his opinions on wine and chocolate matching, and find out about his latest project: recreating classics like the Jaffa Cake and Bounty bar.

Wine and chocolate matching with William Curley


With Chocolate Week in full flow last week, I was invited to a wine and chocolate matching event with master chocolatier William Curley, hosted by Quintessentially Wine at Curley's Belgravia shop.

Much has been made of wine and chocolate matching, and I was keen to hear from the master chocolatier as to whether he thinks there's anything in it.

Eight pairings were put forward, with wine writer Matthew Jukes picking the wines, and Curley the chocolates. Interestingly, only one of the eight wines was sweet. Jukes begins by telling us he's bored with the cliché that chocolate can only be matched with sweet wine, and tonight aims to prove that dry wine can pair equally well.

I admire his risk taking, and championing of daring pairings, but as I scale down white wine heavy list, I wonder whether he'll be able to pull it off. First up we try Ayala NV Champagne with a thyme & Scottish heather honey chocolate. Elegant and smooth with herbal notes, the chocolate is very pleasant, but I'm not wowed by the Champagne match.

Next up is a JJ Prum, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2007, paired with a jasmin choc. The wine has an intensely limey, slate-like nose, but the white flower and honey notes on the palate mirror the jasmin in the chocolate, bringing the pairing into balance. I'm hopeful for what's to come. The second of the still whites is an Etienne Sauzet La Tufera Burgundy 2008, paired with a wonderfully textured Piedmont hazelnut chocolate. While the mineral and citrus notes in the wine don't echo those of the chocolate, the hazelnut seems to bring out the brioche and wild honey notes in the wine. The best match so far...

Moving on to the reds, we try Curley's best seller, and the chocolate all chocolatiers are judged by: sea salt caramel, with a slightly mismatched garriguey Roussillon 2008. We then munch on a mint chocolate paired with a 2005 Parker Terra Rossa Cabernet Sauvingnon from South Australia's Terracotta-soiled Coonawarra region.

This is easily the best pairing of the night. The minty, medicinal, black currant fuelled wine is the epitome of what a Coonawarra Cab should be. Decadent and velvety on the palate, it fuses effortlessly with the chocolate, that attacks the palate pleasingly with a blast of fresh mint.

The penultimate pairing is inspired: 2006 Rene Rostaing Cuvée Classique from the Cote Rotie with a szechuan pepper chocolate. The peppery Syrah becomes even more pronounced after a bite of the chocolate, bringing the pepper to the fore from the savoury, gamey flavours. Last up we are treated to a sweet wine: 2006 Clos Dady Sauternes, matched with William's take on the Jaffa Cake.

Sipping the Sauternes and nibbling the Jaffa Cake, all the flavours intertwine until the one becomes indistinguishable from the other. The tangy marmalade in the wine perfectly compliments the orange in the Jaffa Cake. It occurs to me why chocolate is traditionally matched with Port, Sherry and Sauternes, and not dry wines. The pairings work. They make sense. There's a synergy there, a harmony, a fusion of flavours. I'm all for daring pairings, and pushing the creative envelope, but sometimes tradition wins out over innovation.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

El Cantara Soho


It's a crisp autumn evening and I'm out on the shisha terrace of the newly launched Spanish /Moroccan restaurant El Cantara Soho. The small outdoor space is effortlessly cool, and feels more SoHo New York than Soho London.

As I puff away willfully on my watermelon-flavoured shisha pipe, making patterns in the air from the resulting smoke, a woman emerges wearing a yellow snake and very little else.

The five-year-old snake – as long as the length of the smoking den – is called Sheba. 'She doesn't prey on humans', her owner assures me, as Sheba's head darts towards mine, her black, unblinking eyes fixed forward. I stroke her surprisingly soft yellow skin. Detecting some sort of bond forming, Sheba's owner impulsively wraps the snake around my shoulders. I'm terrified. Luckily, she only accessorizes my dress for a moment, before taking residence on other revelers' shoulders.

Inside I'm offered the house cocktail - Champagne and rose water, with a tiny chunk of pink Turkish delight at the bottom. The Moorish interiors are part Andalucían tea house, part Marrakesh harem. The small, arched, basement space is decorated with lanterns and paintings of flamenco dancers and bull fighters. When placed side by side, I'm struck by how similar their movements are.

Upstairs, the restaurant is heaving. Huge silver trays of chorizo, lamb kofte and pigeon pastilla are passed round, before a banquet of paella, and lamb tagine with cinnamon cous cous. Amidst the throng, a belly dancer emerges, nonchalantly twirling a pair of fire sticks. I scramble out of singeing distance and for a minute I'm mesmerized.

In the far corner a brunette couple are in full flamenco flow – she clicking furiously on castenets, he making dramatic sweeps with an invisible cape. A crowd forms around them and starts clapping in time to the wailing woman keeping the tune. I head back up to the terrace for another go of the shisha pipe. The evening is winding down, so I switch to mint tea and sticky baclava. El Cantara Soho, with its fusing of Moroccan and Spanish cuisines, seems a logical step for London, which is now, undoubtedly, the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Interview with William Biddulph of Wickham Vineyard

Wine and the City caught up with William Biddulph, winemaker at Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire, to talk about the 2010 harvest and the ever-improving quality of still English wine.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Wickham Vineyard harvest


In my three years at Decanter, I've yet to pick a grape. Until last weekend. With English sparkling's star in the ascendancy, I was keen to get out to one of our local vineyards and muck in with the picking.

Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire invited me to take part in their harvest last Saturday, along with members of WineShare - a vine sharing scheme that offers vine rentals in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, Chianti and Hampshire.

Picking starts predictably early, so I have to board the train in London, bleary-eyed, at 7.30am, in order to be there for the 9.30 start. The early start is made bearable by the beautiful weather. It's one of those perfect autumn days - bright, crisp, and full of sunshine. Looking out of the train window, the leaves on the trees burn bright with jewel-like hues - copper, ruby and amber – in their final blaze of glory before death.

A short taxi ride from the station and I'm at the vineyard, being ushered into a garden full of WineShare members huddled together in their wellies, clutching cups of coffee for warmth. Gulping down a coffee (it's too early for bubbles, even for me) winemaker William Biddulph hands round a bucket of pruning sheers and explains our mission for the morning - to pick as many grapes as humanly possible.

Biddulph, who looks like a foppish Jason Donovan, started life at Berry Bros, then spent the mid '90s in Gisbourne, New Zealand, taking the helm at Wickham five years ago as winemaker on the seven hectare estate planted with six white and four red varieties, including the epically named Triomphe d'Alsace; the grape we're about to pick, which will go into their Row Ash Red 2010 and Row Ash Rosé NV.

We're split into three groups and given a row each to work on. Basket and sheers in hand, I stand at my alloted spot and get picking. There aren't many rules, we just have to avoid unripe and over-ripe bunches. Apprehensive of the sheers at first, I soon find my rhythm and pick up picking speed. Seeing everyone else frantically picking around you helps spur you on. It feels a bit like a competition, but the more you pick, the quicker your basket gets emptied.

Mid pick, I pop a couple of the grapes in my mouth. They're small, round and inky blue-black like blueberries. They're lovely and sweet but incredibly tannic. I decide not to eat any more, and take to peeling one open instead. Behind the blueberry skin, the flesh is red and pigmented like Dornfelder. I squidge it between my fingers and ruby red juice squirts everywhere.

After a couple of hours, the sun is high in the sky and warming our backs. It's hard work, and I find myself looking at my watch and wondering when we might be rewarded with lunch. Every now and then a quad bike roars up my row and zooms away with the contents of my basket. Flagging a little, I wish were picking to music. I run through a picking soundtrack in my head of high octane tracks to keep my momentum up.

Snipping off the final few bunches on my vine, I scan the row and realise it's naked of grapes. Lunch beckons. I bound back to the garden and am treated to a banquet of a buffet. Famished from my morning's work, I ask for a bit of everything and the food seems to taste especially good having laboured for it. In three hours our small group stripped the vineyard of two tonnes of grapes. We toast our success with a glass of Wickham Special Release Fumé - a blend of Bacchus and Reichensteiner aged in French oak. I'm looking forward to the Row Ash Red being bottled, and to drinking a wine I helped make.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sumosan restaurant review


Nobu and Zuma dominate London's modern Japanese dining scene, gaining column inches as much for their celebrity clientele as for their food. Sumosan is something of a modest younger sister flying slightly under the radar.

Tucked away on a quiet side street off Green Park next to a Vietnamese art gallery, Sumosan's light, airy space is decked out in tasteful beige and lilac. The pared down interiors are very zen-like and calming.

I visited on a Wednesday lunchtime and the place was reassuringly buzzing with a mixture of wealthy Russian expats (the restaurant is Russian owned), office workers and ladies who lunch. Bypassing the á la carte menu offering the likes of seasonal Toro stuffed with foie gras, and sea urchin risotto, I opt for the reasonably priced five course lunch menu for £22.50, with a side of rock shrimp tempura.

Lunch begins with a refreshing cup of miso soup with tiny shiitake mushrooms, that serves as the perfect palate cleanser. Next up is a delicious, umami-rich Kaiso salad crammed with sesame seeds and peanut butter, which I enjoy with a glass of Domaine de Joy Ugni Blanc from Gascony. The rock shrimp tempura doesn't disappoint - made up of heavenly chunks of fried shrimp, lifted by the citrus Yuzu dressing.

A sashimi selection follows, featuring the usual suspects: salmon, tuna (which is air-shipped from the US at -80 degrees), prawn, and richly flavoured white bait, all of which match incredibly well with my crisp, lime-fueled 2008 Hunter's Riesling from Marlborough, New Zealand.

For the main event, I go for the Black Cod with Miso, keen to see how it fares against the Nobu version. I was slightly disappointed by its diminutive size - call it the Kylie Minogue of the fish world, but what it lacked in size it made up for in flavour. Sweet and rich with a melt-in-the-mouth texture, there are few flavour experiences that top that of well cooked Black Cod. It's all consuming, transcendental even, and I feel almost beatific reverence for the fish and the pleasure it produced. A tricky one to match with wine, my 2008 Tasmanian Pinot Noir from Devil's Corner, whilst not harmonizing completely, far from jarred.

Pudding is a decadent affair. I choose Sumosan's signature dish - a white chocolate fondant, which arrives in an exquisitely crafted golden cage made of latticed sugar. Gooey and toothy tinglingly sweet, it tastes like liquid Milky Way and matches surprisingly well with my Thienot 2002 Champagne, for which Sumosan are the sole suppliers.

Although I chose to drink wine, there's an extensive saké list to experiment with. Head Sommelier Jean-Louis Naveilhan offers eight different sakés by the glass, and saké flights – three sakés by the glass for £10.50. Naveilhan is adamant that the rice wine, which should always be served chilled, can be enjoyed throughout the meal, from apéritif to pudding.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tales from Jerez


Last week I spent a couple of glorious days in Jerez with Gonzalez Byass. I was particularly excited about going as I lived in Granada whilst at university and haven't revisited Andalucía in six years.

After checking in, I head out with team GB for tapas at the very Spanish hour of 10pm. Striking upon an gem – honest and unpretentious, we sit outside on plastic chairs, drink copious amounts of Tio Pepe and eat the charmingly titled 'Scrambled to the Boots'.

Our boots filled, we stop by bar Kapote for an Amontillado before bed, and host Jeremy Rockett regales me with stories of Times food critic Giles Coren's outrageous exploits on a recent press trip to Portugal, which end in Charles Campion putting him in a headlock.

Before going to sleep, I open the door to my balcony and sit, soothed by the cool night air, watching the stars and listening to the trilling of the cidadas. Luxuriating in the moment, I feel totally transported – a rainy gray London sky to a blanket of stars in a matter of hours.

Shortly after sunrise, we troop onto a bus and are driven out to the Gonzalez Byass vineyards, just outside the Sherry triangle. Disembarking, we're given a few minutes to roam. The morning light over the vineyard is haunting. A layer of mist hangs on the horizon, and spreads across the vines like gauze. The sun is still low in the sky, and everything seems so fresh and full of hope.

Our next stop is the Gonzalez Byass bodega, complete with a fire engine red Tio Pepe train, which looks like it arrived in Jerez by way of the Magic Kingdom. The tour begins in La Concha, a shell-shaped room designed by Gustav Eiffel before he transformed the Parisian skyline, built in honour of la Infanta Isabella, the 'nymphomaniac' queen.

We shuffle on to the barrel room, and I go off in search of artists and writers. French poet Jean Cocteau describes Sherry as 'the blood of Kings' on his barrel, while Picasso illustrates his with a raging bull. In the far corner of the room is a Sherry glass with a tiny ladder leading up to it, set up for the infamous Tio Pepe mouse I'd heard so much about. He makes an appearance one in every five visits. We wait patiently, holding our breath. Nothing. The group moves on but I'm determined to catch a glimpse of the elusive rodent, certain he is close by.

I stand in the doorway in silence and wait, camera poised, finger on the button. After a minute or two, a tiny figure emerges from under the barrel and scurries across the sand. I frantically focus the camera and take a few snap shots of my brief encounter. A second later, he's gone.

After an epic lunch at Juanitos that includes chocos (fried cuttlefish), langoustines and the house speciality – scrambled egg and crisps, Jeremy and I take a detour to Bodegas Tradición to check out their impressive art collection, which includes works by Goya, Velazquez, Murillo and El Greco.

But the painting that will stay with me is that of a cocky bullfighter with a missing front tooth and a black pirate hat, leaning against a wall, cigar nonchalantly in mouth, a dagger ready for action in his blood red cummerband. His robes are so richly rendered, from the regal purple cape he's wrapped in, to the soft brown embroidered jacket and ornate floral waistcoat. It's such a vivid image he seems utterly alive, as if he could leap out of the frame at any moment and ask for a light.