Friday, 30 September 2011
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
I’m in a large white atrium. To my right is a giant chess set, its black and white kings, queens and knights standing six feet tall and ready for battle. To my left, a trio of garden gnomes perch precariously on toadstools. It feels decidedly like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, though the ludic, Alice in Wonderland interiors are the work of Wallpaper* favourite Philippe Starck, and the scene of my reverie the St Martins Lane Hotel in London’s Covent Garden. The hotel’s restaurant, Asia de Cuba, has equally intriguing interiors, boasting book-lined pillars packed with nihilistic tomes such as The Politics of Powerlessness, monochrome portraits of besuited gentlemen, wooden floors so clean you could eat off them, and quilted columns that cry out to be embraced. The split-level space has something of a classroom feel – all wooden tables and chairs, battered books and low-hung filament bulbs. It’s rather like dining in a library, only a noisy one populated by beautiful creatures that don’t look like they do much reading.
A polished playground for the super rich and almost famous, as the name implies, Asia de Cuba’s fusion food takes inspiration from Havana’s Chino-Latino cafés. Having been ushered to our seats, I notice that Joanna, our Portuguese waitress, has a lotus flower tattooed to each wrist. “They symbolise having no attachments – to people, possessions, experiences even. I got them done when I moved to England,” she explains, recommending that my dining companions and I share dishes in order to sample the full range flavours on offer.
In a nod to London Fashion Week, our meal begins with a quartet of “Front Row” cocktails designed specifically for health conscious fashionistas. Bypassing the Runway Diva and Green Tea-nee, a J.D. Salinger fan, the pineapple-soaked Catch Her in the Rye catches my eye and whets my appetite. Joanna suggests we order two to three starters and two mains. I’m no mathematician, but between four greedy gourmands those sums don’t add up, so we go against the grain, ordering four starters and three mains.
The ensuing crispy squid salad sends me back down the rabbit hole. In a moment of panic, I have to check the comparative size of my fellow diners to make sure I haven’t shrunk, so colossal and seemingly unscalable is this squid mountain flecked with purple and green leaves like a Pollock painting. Wonderfully textured and surprisingly fresh, it’s like venturing into an edible garden dotted with succulent squid, squidgy banana and crunchy cashews. Served with a piquant chilli and ponzu sauce, our crab croquettes are snappingly fresh with a pleasingly moist interior protected by a crunchy suit of armor.
Meanwhile, the pork dumplings are soft, gelatinous and comforting, embryonic even, like womb food, while the spicy beef dumplings are unapologetically hot and indecently pink inside. Continuing with the spicy theme, razor-thin slithers of Thai beef carpaccio are hot as Hades, dissolving on the tongue like a communion host. Mercifully, cooling comes in the form of lemon-flecked salad leaves, avocado chunks and coconut shavings. Atop the beef mountain lies a solitary crispy wonton, which is fittingly bequeathed to me. Sharing a table with three men, I feel like a wonton mistress.
I play it safe with the wine match, opting for the reliable Laurenz V Friendly Gruner Veltliner 2010, which doesn’t disappoint. Crisp and clean, with notes of crunchy green apple and mouthwatering lime, it cuts through the fatty notes and subdues the spice. The main event is memorable. We audaciously order the Lobster Pad Thai, which, at £72, is unquestionably the most expensive main I’ve ever encountered on a menu. We’re so nervous about requesting it, that the bravest of the group coughs the order out then abruptly looks away, while Joanna scribbles down the hallowed words and we all bow our heads in a mixture of reverence and embarrassment. Curiously, the most expensive of dishes is marinated in the most inelegant of spirits: Malibu, associated more with impromptu house parties than fine dining. Despite my misgivings about the dodgy Malibu marinade, the dish is a triumph. Rich with creamy coconut, it’s decadent in the extreme – something you’d imagine Gordon Gekko ordering to try to impress Bud Fox. The flamboyance and sheer arrogance of the dish is very ‘80s, and glaringly anachronistic. I wonder how many orders they get?
Stealing the limelight somewhat from the other dishes, we also enjoy a more modest construction of achingly tender honey rum glazed pot roast of pork shredded into melt-in-the-mouth morsels, and textbook miso-cured Alaskan black cod. Delicate and delicious, it falls off the fork in swan white slithers, its silky texture sweetened by the miso marinade. We also sneak in a pair of cheeky sides – beautifully buttery lobster mash and plantain fried rice, which I could have happily scoffed by itself. Standing up against the rich and creamy lobster is the Grenache-based Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas 2009, recommended by Joanna. A serious wine with notes of black cherry, liquorice and spice, its velvety, voluptuous body grips in all the right places.
Dessert is a dramatic affair. The carrot cake is obese and slathered with a crest of what looks like shaving foam, while the Cuban Opera imitates an obelisk and encompasses layers of chocolate cake, butter cream and coffee mousse. Served erect with a chocolate musical note resting on a ball of ice cream amid urgent swirls of caramel sauce, I manage a mere mouthful. Defeated, I find space for the restaurant’s signature Mexican donuts, served with a deliciously sweet dulce de leche dipping sauce. Sprinkled with icing sugar, their fluffy centres ooze caramel and prove an ideal match for our final wine, a toffee-filled Taylor’s 10-year-old Tawny Port. Asia de Cuba is not a cheap eat, but if you don’t mind giving your credit card an extreme workout, you’ll be richly rewarded in the flavour stakes. Just don’t go for lunch – lunch is for wimps.
Asia de Cuba at the St Martins Lane Hotel, 45 St Martins Lane, London, WC2N 4HX; Tel: +44 (0)20 7300 5588
Monday, 26 September 2011
Tuesday, 20 September 2011
A rhinoceros is not something you’d associate with Champagne. The odd-toed ungulate and northeastern French wine region seemingly have very little in common, and yet in the space of three days, I had two encounters with the African animal – the first housed within an imposing painting hung above the bed on my hotel room wall, and the second in the form of a gargoyle jutting out from the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral. A symbol of fertility and courage, it was hoped that the rhino’s presence on the façade would imbue worshiping kings with physical and mental strength.
My journey to the land of bubbles begins in a civilized manner on a Sunday morning with a slender flute of ice-cold Gosset and a platter of aphrodisiacal oysters, so fresh you could clean your contacts in them, at the St Pancras Grand Champagne Bar in King’s Cross – the longest bar in Europe. Joined by fellow Champagne socialites Douglas Blyde and Denise Medrano, affectionately known as The Wine Sleuth, our fizz lesson continues in earnest aboard the Eurostar – in a carriage populated with beshrouded women festooned with bangles, with shot glasses of Champagne Pannier.
Ninety miles northeast of Paris, Champagne is France’s most northerly appellation. Curiously, the predominantly white sparkling wine is made from two black grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (a relative of Pinot Noir), and one white: Chardonnay. Each of the grapes brings something different to the sorting table – the Pinot Noir backbone, the Pinot Meunier fruit and the Chardonnay freshness, leading to a complex and attractive final blend. Champagne can also be made solely with Chardonnay (Blanc de Blancs) or the two black grapes (Blanc de Noirs). All sparkling wine starts life still. With Champagne, the fizz occurs in the bottle when a secondary fermentation takes place after sugar and yeast are added. The yeasts devour the sugar, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
A word bandied about daily in the wine press is “terroir”, loosely translated as “a sense of place”, and used to describe the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a region bestow upon its grape varieties. Champagne’s terrain is made up of deep layers of chalk, which often translates into the wines in the form of a steely mineral core. Of its 319 villages, a mere 17 have been designated as “Grand Cru” sites, which include Bouzy, Äy and Le Mesnil. Like Sherry, Champagne runs the gamut of styles from bone dry Zero Dosage to Doux, a sweet dessert wine.
But enough with the science. Our first pit stop is with small grower Champagne Henriet-Bazin in Villers-Marmery. We enter a domestic space populated with painted landscapes, a twig-filled fireplace and a giant urn in the far corner. A comforting smell of home cooking saunters through the kitchen door. Proprietor Nicolas Rainon’s wife is passionate about daring food pairings for Champagne, and seems keen to try out her latest discoveries on us, beginning with salt marsh lamb paté and Blanc de Blancs Brut, which works surprisingly well – the saltiness of the lamb complimenting the saline mineral notes in the wine. The most ambitious match of the meal was attempting to pit their Blanc de Noirs against the might of Boeuf Bourguignon, which was always doomed to fail, but the grainy pear tart and Rosé Brut combination is inspired.
Post feast, I’m licked hello by tiny winery dog Estéphe, named after the Left Bank Bordeaux commune. As proud as the Champenois are, I’m surprised he hasn’t been crowned with a name like Epernay. Nicolas ushers us into his scuffed 4 x 4, navigating the narrow streets into a forest where only he dares drive. After a perilous few minutes, we reach a clearing and are within touching distance of the vines. Shafts of afternoon light beam on the leaves, making them glow a vibrant green. After careering down a hill capable of totaling both us and the car, we pass a glass-fronted lighthouse and the iconic Mumm windmill, which plays host to A-list private parties.
Before death becomes us, we move swiftly on to Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart in the sleepy village of Ludes, where we’re greeted by gregarious proprietor Madame Laurence Ployez, resplendent in red. Bought in 1930 by her grandfather, the estate boasts an adorable B&B pregnant with flowers, which housed British soldiers during the Second World War, and safeguarded German soldiers after. A “Kill Hitler” scribbling written by a British soldier in 1939 is still visible in one of the rooms. When German soldiers besieged Ludes, the Ployez family fled to Pompadour in Southern France, building a wall between their two cellars before they left, in which to hide their belongings from looters.
After a tour of the cavernous cellars straight from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe short story, we sit out on the terrace, glass in hand, sun dipping deep, and indulge in Madame’s exquisite pastries while furry-footed chickens roam the well manicured lawn. The pair of Prestige Cuvées we try – 1996 and 1998 Liesse d’Harbonville are an exciting discovery. Elegant, poised and textured, they could hold their own against any of the Grandes Marques.
Capping off our adventure, we pay a visit to Champagne Jacquesson the next morning, run by brothers Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet. With a production of 300,000 bottles a year, Jacquesson bridges the gap between Grande Marque and grower Champagne. A hybrid of Vito Corleone and Jean-Paul Belmondo, we’re given a tour by the charismatic and outspoken Jean-Hervé, who proudly shows us his Chardonnay grapes being crushed to a soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel.
A coach cruises past the estate filled with raucous rogues tooting foghorns and screaming with glee. I presume a stag party has lost its way. “They’re our pickers,” says Chiquet. “They’ve just finished and are celebrating the end of the harvest.” Chiquet is audacious in his winemaking approach, shunning the idea of a house style in favour of producing the best wine he can each year from the grapes he’s grown. “There’s no point trying to imitate the big guys, I want to stand out from the crowd.”
Before hopping back on the Eurostar, we make a pilgrimage to the breathtakingly beautiful 13th century Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral. Inside, the interiors burn with jewel-like hues from a sea of stained glass. In one window, I spot Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon (after which the famous fizz is named) indulging in a spot of riddling, and in another, soaring saints by French painter Marc Chagall, but sadly, not a violin-playing goat in sight.
Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Monday, 12 September 2011
Thursday, 8 September 2011
En route we passed a lady dishing out Stevia covered strawberries from a silver platter, which were so divine in their sweetness, I nearly capsized attempting to grab a second. The most perilous part of the journey involved traversing a waterfall aiming to emulate the the Iguazu Falls. Luckily, we were provided with a giant umbrella on arrival, and so emerged only slightly sodden rather than soaked to the bone – just as well, given my white attire.
After our exploratory exertions, our thirst was slaked with a Stevia-infused Singapore Sling cocktail courtesy of the über trendy Experimental Cocktail Club, served from a giant cristal decanter by angle-faced sailor boys.
Should alcohol have proved too much, virgin cocktails were being handed out in plastic medicine bottles. The one I'm holding in the photo was empty when I found it, so I'm unable to report back as to the potency of the elixir inside.
After a blissful hour relaxing on the rooftop to a soundtrack of animated banter from an adventure hungry crowd, we were ushered from the comfort of cushions back down to the bustle of the perfume department via the book battered lift. The urge to pocket Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea during the ten second journey bordered on kleptomania.
Before leaving, we were given a Stevia plant as a gift. Spurting out of the canary yellow Selfridges bag it was housed in, I paraded my plant with pride down Oxford Street and received some odd looks from fellow tube dwellers on the way home as I munched, rabbit like, on the tooth-tinglingly sweet leaves.