Sunday, 27 February 2011


Last week was epic. After a seven course tasting menu at Trishna in Marylebone on Monday with the inimitable Wine Chap, Tom Harrow, who invited a group of food bloggers to slurp their way through 30 wines in order to find the perfect matches for his soon-to-launch 'Not Your Average Curry Night', on Tuesday I was invited to Bonds in the City, to review head chef Barry Tonks' modern European fare.

The restaurant resides in the Threadneedles Hotel. Built a tuppence's throw away from the Bank of England in 1856, the hotel originally served, unsurprisingly, as a bank. Its former life is still evident, from the vaulted ceilings and Corinthian columns in the restaurant, to the long, varnished bar, where the tills used to dwell. Speaking of bars, as I sit to sup my welcome cocktail – Champagne poured over rose Eaux de Vie, finished with fashionable goji berry liqueur – I'm told that the hotel has an 'honesty bar', from which guests are at liberty to take a drink in the hope that their honesty impels them to make a note of it in the accompanying record book. I rather prefer the idea of a 'dishonesty bar'.

Whilst admiring the impressive glass-domed ceiling in the lobby, which recalls St Paul's, I'm joined by four fellow food bloggers. We take to calling each other by our blogging names: Maison Cupcake, Cherie City, London Cocktail Guide and Fuss Free Flavours, and are soon ushered by a waiter wearing mauve across the American walnut wooden floors, to our round table. The room is populated with unquiet Americans. I can smell truffle oil in the air – which, in such an affluent part of the city, seems apt: the savoury smell of success. The sommelier appears and gives us a detailed run down of the wines we're about to imbibe, many of which, I'm pleased to discover, are English.

The meal begins with peasant bread and pleasantly salted butter, enjoyed with Balfour Brut Rosé 2006, which could confidently hold its own beside the best rosé Champagnes. To start, I opt for smoked eel. Its slick skin gleams like a painted nail, and the smokiness fills my lungs before I even cut into its swan white interior. Its bacon-like flavour is complimented by a scoop of horseradish cream, though I was hoping for more kick from it – the cream rendering it too mild. The eel marries well with the vinegary beetroot and mini mountain of cubed potato, and proves a good match for my buttery Plantagenet Chardonnay.

Whilst enjoying another English wine offering: Primrose Hill Tenterdon Estate Bacchus 2009, with its aromatic nose of elderflower, cut grass and gooseberry, we are presented with a crab salad and bruschetta 'inter' course. Generously doused in sesame oil, the dish is crunchy, textured and wonderfully refreshing. Talk soon turns to Fuss Free Flavours' latest hobbyhorse: the Mucky Book Club, which takes place every other Sunday at the Ship pub in Wandsworth. Founded by FFF, books read so far include The Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin and the infamous Story of O. I suggest that Lady Chatterley's Lover might be a good book to tackle, but FFF doesn't deem it mucky enough.

I digress. My main event is a sizeable square of slow cooked pork belly served with apple canon balls and garlic-fueled spinach purée. Sprinkled with sea salt, the skin is satisfyingly savoury, while the pork beneath it is rich, but slightly too fatty – said pig could have done with doing a few more piggy push-ups before he met his meaty end. The accompanying chorizo risotto however, is stunning. Served in a dinky black Le Creuset dish, the al dente rice has bite, while the sauce is meaty and full of flavour, taking me straight to Spain. The wine to match it is an exciting discovery: Denbies Redlands 2006 – a blend of Pinot Noir and Dornfelder made minutes from where I grew up in Surrey. It has a savoury approach and a juicy, red fruited palate with a licorice finish – easily the best English red I've ever had.

After such indulgence I can barely move, but am told excellent things about the cheese trolly, so feel it rude not to sample its delights. The waitress is a cheese fiend, and gives me an exhaustive explanation of each. I opt for Beaufort, Blue, Pont l'Evêque and Epoisse, the last of which, when drizzled with white truffle honey, makes for a sublime, other worldy flavour experience. The sweet-savoury playfulness of the truffle honey matched with the gooey Epoisse has me flinging my head back, St. Teresa-like, in the ecstasy of it all. Perhaps I should pen a short story on it and submit it anonymously to the Mucky Book Club?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The Gay Hussar

I'd heard many a story about the Gay Hussar before entering the red-fronted restaurant last Friday – tales of pink soup and whisperings of political plotting. There's even a yarn still doing the rounds that a concealed video camera resides in a window opposite the front door, which is beamed directly into 10 Downing Street.

Founded on London's Greek Street in 1953 by vivacious Victor Sassie (half Swiss, half Welsh), The Gay Hussar has a rich political history. Named after the high spirited Hungarian light cavalrymen renowned for turning up at taverns and asking for buckets of wine for their horses, by the mid '50s, The Gay Hussar was attracting the attention of politicians, publishers and even T.S Eliot, who became a regular.

Story has it that Tony Blair was first persuaded to run for Prime Minister at the restaurant in 1983. His party were serendipitously seated at table 10. Today, the tiny restaurant, no bigger than a train carriage, is wall-to-wall with political cartoons by Martin Rowson of the Hussar's loyal Labour partrons, who beam and gawp at you while you eat. From Michael Foot and Andrew Neil to Peter Mandelson, whose biography, The Third Man, takes pride of place on the bookshelf, heaving with political tomes. Mandelson shares shelf space with Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and... Karl Marx. 'Many of the books are signed first editions', says Polish manager John Wrobel – the face of the Gay Hussar for almost 30 years. The walls are peppered with the odd non-politico: I spot Jeremy Paxman making eyes at the late John Mortimer.

The carriage-like interior is accentuated by the wooden pews lining the central aisle. On my visit, the place is packed and buzzing with animated banter. It feels like I've stepped back in time and am on a train journey from Vienna to Budapest. The food would certainly suggest so. My menu is emblazoned with a happy Hussar in royal blue, putting an affectionate arm around his huge horse. The table is already furnished with a pair of fire engine red chilies, laying languidly in a white dish beside a salt and pepper pot with a twee floral design.

My Hungarian dining companion starts with the chilled wild cherry soup, while I opt for the chicken pancake at his suggestion. Candy floss pink, the soup recalls a fruity gazpacho, and tastes like liquid cherry yoghurt. Made with sour cream and white wine, it's incredibly refreshing, but slightly too summery on this wintry night. Swimming in the soup are de-stoned cherries, which reminds my companion, almost wistfully, of the cherry soup his mother used to make him back in Budapest from the cherry trees in their garden. My pancake meanwhile, is wrapped like a borrito, and has impressive girth. Finished with a dollop of sour cream, pinch of paprika and sprinkling of red and green peppers, it's hearty, comforting, and ideal for the cold snap.

Before moving on to the main, a tattily-dressed rose seller walks in, trying to flog his flowers from a black bucket, which seems to enhance the feeling that we're dining in another era. The main event for me is a veal Wiener schnitzel so big, it probably has its own post code. The menu suggests it is served with sautéed potatoes and a pepper salad, which I eventually find underneath the cloud-shaped schnitzel that fills the entirety of the plate. Despite its off-putting size, it's well cooked, and surprisingly refreshing when doused with lemon. The accompanying cucumber salad is the culinary highlight. Drenched in garlicky sour cream and paprika (are you noticing a theme here?), the crunchy cucumber strips are light, cooling and moreish, while my guest's vegetarian goulash with egg galuska is hailed a success.

From the 20-strong wine list, we opt against traditional Tokay, and instead go for a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Blaufrankisch blend from upcoming Hungarian producer St Andrea. The playful pastel label is misleading – this is a serious wine. Tart with cherry, raspberry and red currants, it has attractive notes of peppery spice and clove. The smooth palate echoes the red fruited nose, and refreshing acidity coupled with low tannins make it incredibly approachable, though I'm sure it will age gracefully. After a pre-pudding liqueur: pear brandy for me, bitter Unicum for my guest, I somehow find room after my gargantuan schnitzel for walnut pancakes, recommended by Wrobel.

Folded over into a fan shape and covered with warm chocolate sauce, the pancakes are childlike and indulgent, while my companion's rum cream and walnut dessert is too cream heavy and rum light. Despite my misgivings about the food, I had a memorable evening at the Gay Hussar. In our fickle, easily-bored city there's a reason why the restaurant has endured: it radiates character. From its tiny, train-carriage interior, to the cartoons on the walls and books poised precariously above diners' heads, a night at the Gay Hussar is like taking a holiday into the past.

The food may be rustic, anachronistic even, but it adds to the charm. I'm certain the restaurant's loyal clientele have little desire to see the menu modernized, for food is only part of the reason why people come to the Gay Hussar. And they clearly keep coming back. The place is more than a restaurant; it's an institution, and I urge you, dear reader, to go at least once for the experience.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

New in town: Chabrot Bistrot dAmis/QV Bar

With the new year comes new openings – not that London ever needs an excuse to roll a new restaurant/bar/club out. The pace of change in the capital's culinary scene at the moment is exhilarating. So many bars, so little time... I did manage to find the time recently to visit two newbies: Chabrot Bistrot d'Amis and the QV Bar at Quo Vadis in Soho. The former is the brainchild of Yann Chevris, former general manager of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.

Chevris has teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Thierry Laborde, formerly of L’Oranger, Le Gavroche and Le Louis XV with Alain Ducasse, and sommelier Philippe Messy – the youngest ever sommelier at a three Michelin-starred restaurant when he worked with Marco Pierre White at the Hyde Park Hotel.

Messy co-founded Sarment – a private sommelier service offered to seventy-five members globally each year, with Gearoid Devany in 2009. The company takes sommeliers from the world’s top restaurants and makes them available to their members. Each member has a dedicated personal sommelier to advice them on all aspects of wine buying, tasting, storage and investment. The joys of owning a platinum Amex...

Back to Chabrot: the 65-cover restaurant is named after a Dordogne ritual popularised during the food shortages of the second world war whereby red wine was poured into a soup bowl after the meal to ensure you got all the nutrients from the soup. The walls are lined with mawkish monochrome scenes of rural France and peasants breaking bread. It has a cosy feel, as if you've been before. And you probably have – Chabrot bares a striking resemblance to an upmarket Café Rouge, from the red walls to the wooden chairs – it's all reassuringly familiar.

The Southern French menu features bone marrow, duck liver pâté with Comté cheese popovers, homemade pasta with Périgord truffles, roasted foie gras with raisins, and Laborde’s signature dish: chicken stuffed with foie gras. On the launch night platters of warm, crunchy calamari kept the crowd pleased, along with charcuterie and cornichons, and mini macaroons. Befitting of a bistro, the wine list is predominantly French, starting at £19.50 a bottle, and includes top names such as Taittinger, Domaine Dujac and Château Montrose. Topping the list is Château Cheval Blanc 1998, at an eye-watering £900 a bottle.

Another new kid on the block is the QV Bar at popular Soho haunt Quo Vadis. Owners Sam and Eddie Hart decided the 'dead space' in the restaurant would be better suited as a bar, so converted the restaurant's entrance area into a laid-back bar serving up seriously good cocktails. On my visit, mixologist Paul Mant fixed me up a a pre-Prohibition era, cotton candy pink, Clover Club – named after a Philadelphia gentleman's club – made with gin, lemon juice and raspberry syrup.

A number of snacks reside on the bar menu, from cod fritters and QV burgers, through deliciously decadent pork scratchings pimped with oodles of apple sauce, to the culinary wonder that is their scotch eggs. Served sliced in half, bright orange gooey yolks to the sky, the breadcrumbs were golden, the meat most, and, for the final flourish, it was finished off with Frazzle-shaped slithers of crispy bacon. I had to wolf mine down, as I was running late for a reading of Allen Ginsberg's Howl at the Southbank Centre in honour of the forthcoming film starring actor/writer/model/Columbia student James Franco as the Beat poet. Rushing to make the reading, I ended up leaving my camera behind at the bar. It was worth it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Champagne Mumm lunch at The Ritz

There are certain rites of passage in the life of a gastronome, and lunch at The Ritz is one of them. When a Ritz-shaped invitation landed on my desk the other week, I almost fell off my chair with excitement. Writing for a drinks magazine, I'm never short of enticing invitations, but there's something special about The Ritz. It still stands for something.

And so it was, that I left the office last week and headed for Green Park under a cornflower blue sky with a spring in my step. The lunch was celebrating the launch of Champagne Mumm Cuvée R. Lalou 1999. A chilled glass of Mumm NV awaited me on arrival, along with a besuited swarm of thirsty wine journalists. There was palapable excitement in the room in anticipation of the feast. I'd bumped into a Mumm rep at the recent Bibendum EC1 tasting, and, having already tasted through the menu, he informed me that black truffles made an appearance in almost every dish. My mouth had been watering for a week.

After a brief introductory speech by winemaker Didier Mariotti, we were soon ushered from the floral drawing room, through a pair of giant, gold-knockered doors into the Rubens red William Kent room complete with soaringly high ceilings, gothic candelabra, swagging that would make Laurence Llewelyn Bowen weep with pride, and quirky paintings of long limbed birds.

I was sat next to Sotheby's head of wine Serena Sutcliffe MW, resplendent in turquoise. She told me of her pre-Sotheby's days working as an interpreter in Paris, and went on to mention the recent Picasso sale at Sotheby's, where a portrait of Picasso's 17-year-old blonde mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter went for £25m. "Picasso walked up to her in the street and said 'we're going to do amazing things together'", Sutcliffe tells me, her blue eyes bright.

After a verbal tour of the tasting menu from unsung head chef John Williams, lunch soon begins in earnest. As an experiment, we were to try six examples of the Cuvée R. Lalou, served at six different temperatures, two degrees apart from 6-16ºC, to explore how temperature effects the character of Champagne. The warmer the Champagne, the more dominant the Pinot Noir becomes in the blend.

The seven course meal begins in a spectacular fashion with a simple salad of Périgord truffles, king oyster mushrooms and Pecorino. The tangy cheese, papery mushrooms, heady truffle and citrusy salad make for a wonderful flavour combination. Both light and indulgent, intoxicating and refreshing – an oxymoron of a dish. Next up is carpaccio of smoked eel (pictured above), which looked like a play mat and tasted equally ludic, the eel perfectly complimented by the smokey slithers of pancetta and cooling beetroot cubes – inspired cooking.

During an inter course of bresse chicken Champenoise, I seize the opportunity to ask Serena which she considers to be the best wines she's ever tasted, having undoubtedly had access to the best wines in the world. She takes a moment to reflect, then replies: "Domaine de la Romanée Conti 1921 and Cheval Blanc 1921". I linger over her liquid memories, knowing these two wines will always remain mythical to me. A confit of Brixham turbot follows, served with oxtail in a hazelnut butter. The hazelnut was woefully absent from the butter, and the oxtail savagely stole the turbot's thunder with its feral, meaty flavour.

Stepping up the flavour a notch further, the turbot is succeeded by Anjou pigeon stuffed with foie gras in a black truffle sauce. I suddenly feel like one of Henry VIII's harem at a Tudor banquet – all we need is a harpsichord and silver goblets filled with mead. Rich and hedonistic, it was wonderfully indulgent, but my mind kept wondering back to the enchanting opening duo of dishes. But what of the wine? I wasn't able to detect vast amounts of flavour nuance from the differing temperatures, but the Cuvée impressed. It showed structure, power and elegance, with a toasty approach, and a smooth, nutty finish.

The surprise of the day came in the form of an egg cup filled with liquid Beaufort cheese, served with a trio of Marmite-laced soldiers. The cheese was soft, warm, and comforting, and once the soldiers had marched down my oesophagus, I tilted my head back and took it like a shot. I rather like the idea of cheese shots – we should drink food and eat drinks more. There's something rather quaint about a Marmite Croque Monsiuer – the former so quintessentially British, and the latter so unmistakably French. It represents a coming together of French and English breakfasts: diplomacy on a plate.

Before leaving the pleasure dome of The Ritz behind, I'm treated to a Mille Feuille of caramelised pink lady apples with Champagne ginger sorbet, artfully presented alongside a swoosh of caramel. The invigorating ginger sorbet had a biscuit halo, while the delightfully named pink lady apples were small and perfectly round, with a sweet, toffee apple flavour that went wonderfully well with the Mumm demi-sec. After a quick mint tea and miniature macaroon, I'm ushered out of the William Kent room, and back out onto the busy London streets. Still light, it feels as if waking from a dream, but the name card in my pocket serves as proof that for one afternoon, I lunched like a prince.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Video: Frédéric Castéja, Château Batailley

Wine and the City talks to Frédéric Castéja of Bordeaux fifth growth Château Batailley at the Bibendum EC1 pop-up tasting about the 2009 En Primeur campaign, his first impressions of the 2010 vintage, escalating wine prices, and the impact of the Asian market.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Divine bovine dinner at Gaucho Piccadilly

Last week was a poetic affair. Not only did we have Burns Night, where drams of whisky were clinked in celebration of the works of Scottish bard Robert Burns, but at Gaucho Piccadilly, proceedings also got a little lyrical. R&R Teamwork's inimitable Rupert Ponsonby turned bard for the night, at the restaurant's Divine Bovine dinner; a paean to beef. Dressed in a gaucho guise finished off with a red felt fedora fashionably tipped forward, Ponsonby swaggered to the stage and recited his self-penned Ode to a Cow (below) with passionate conviction.

Whilst watching the bovophile in action, the journalist opposite me, Financial Times columnist and published poet Harry Eyres regaled me with stories of unrequited love, and suggested I look up the poems of Horace, Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop and Thomas Wyatt, who wrote on how to live life in the face of mortality. And that's the beauty of poetry. There's a sense of urgency about it - a sense of time's fleeting nature being valued, and every second enjoyed.

Ode to a Cow

I love you cow, your rump, your tongue, I love the fact you’re so well hung. I love it when you touch my lips, especially when you come with chips.

I love your liver, crave your heart, in sausages you play your part. I love the shimmering of your skin, and pinkish succulence within.

I love the juices in your tail, that rich dark meat, my Holy Grail. I love your sirloin, yearn for fillet - with preferably someone else to grillit.

I love you blue, or in the raw, your rippling muscles I adore. And chopped up fine in steak tartare, I crave for more, like Oliver

I dream of beef, yes, fantasize, far more of cows than women’s thighs, but chicken, pig or boudin noir, will find no place in my boudoir.