Culinary Musings From the British Isles - Fat Duck's New Dish, Heston Blumenthal's "Seaside", Wright Brothers is the Place for Oysters, Steaks at Scotland's Champany Inn, Can Benares Pass Muster?, and Hoxton goes Molecular at Bacchus.
I managed to get in a good bit of eating on my recent trip to the continent. That is if you want to say that England and Scotland are part of the continent. Mind you, my favorite moment of the trip occured at Emirates Stadium where I saw Arsenal beat Manchester United in the last minute of extra time, but the trip was noteworthy for culinary diversity as well as a few moments of culinary brilliance and excellence. Maybe the most important moment (aside from that winning header by Thierry Henry that is) was when at a lunch at the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal graced us with a brand new dish that he has titled "Seaside" The dish is composed to look like its namesake, and part of the dish is the presentation of Ipod minis, replete with a recording of the seaside, and which you are instructed to wear in advance of the dish being served to "put you in the mood".
After enjoying the culinary parlor trick of the dish which made us all laugh, the dish was served and it was quite good, although it was clear to us that they are still tweaking it to try and perfect it. The dish contains three parts. "Sand" pebbles that are made out of an oil flavored with various miso pastes, and then when tapioca maltodextrin is added, it turns the oil into sand that is similar to the "soils" that one sees at various restaurants. Then there is the "debris" which has washed up on the beach which is four different types of seaweed topped with various shellfish including a stellar boudin made out of abalone and brill, which is delicious enough to eat by itself. Then the foam which is supposed to depict the sea as it washes up on the beach, is frothy clam and oyster juice. The dish is accompanied by a martini glass of "salt water" made from the same mixture as the sea foam, and which you are instructed to sip between bites of the dish. It was a very good dish, and much too complex to take it all in on the first experience. Personally, I dispensed with the headphones before the food service - some people keep them on we hear - but they added a bit of humerous theater to the experience. I believe the dish is destined to become a classic once Heston tweaks it into perfection (which could take three or four years given Heston's idea of perfection.) We also hear that Heston is on the verge of unveiling a second new dish called "Beef Royale" and we hope to have it the next time we are at the restaurant.
We didn't limit our exploits to fine dining. On the evening we arrived in London, we downed a gorgeous platter of oysters, as well as devouring a few other items on the menu, at Wright Brothers which is located just at the back of Borough Market. What with a bowl of cullen and skink, some oysters done rarebit style, a platter of oysters on the half shell, two different preparations of Colchester rock oysters, one with bacon and the other with piquillo peppers and a bit of aioli, and then a lobster from Scotland prepared thermidor, not to mention a reasonably priced bottle of Billecart-Salmon NV Rose Champagne, it was a great way to start off nearly two weeks of culinary exploits. Getting back to the glorious oysters on the half shell, we ordered Pousse en Clair, the three rock oysters on the right, and West Mersea which are the nine on the left hand side of the photo. While the PEC were good, the West Mersea were fabulous and if I had a do-over of this meal I would order a good dozen and a half for myself.
For years, maybe a good twenty of them, ever since I read the R.W. Apple's article about eating steak at the Champany Inn in Linlithgow, Scotland, I always wanted to dine there. Well when the football match was rescheduled from Saturday to Sunday a month and a half before my trip was scheduled to begin, I found myself with an extra day in London to kill. Soon enough, emails were exchanged and plans were made and seven of us had agreed to make the trip up to Scotland on a Saturday morning in order to have dinner at the restaurant that evening. Well we weren't disappointed. Clive and Anne Davidson's restaurant is a lovely place, and it is in keeping with the type of ambiance you find at a high quality hotel/restaurant in France. Paired with a well-stocked wine list, and the best smoked salmon we ever ate (smoked in-house and cut in a pleasingly thick style which is unusual for smoked salmon), the steaks were very good, charred on the outside while rare inside, and reminiscent of American style beef although I can't say they were as juicy as what I am used to eating in the states. But the entire experience was a great one and I look forward to returning.
As someone who is always in search of ethnic food which has been rearticulated into a fine dining experience, the announcement that London's Benares had just received a Michelin star caused me to book a table for a Friday evening dinner. Upon entering the second floor restaurant, located amongst the Rolls Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin and Porsche dealers in posh Berkeley Square, I was immediately struck that the restaurant was too large to be able to serve a cuisine worthy of that designation. Given the recent announcement, I was expecting an intimate dining experience where a serious chef serves 40 odd diners. But what I found was more akin to a place like Gotham Bar & Grill or Boulevard than to a serious dining experience. And the food showed it as well. Things started out well enough with some very good tandoori salmon. But after I was told by my server that the kitchen could only prepare the tandoori lamb chops well done, I stubbornly ordered them anyway, only to find them both overdone and cold when they were served (I could never quite work that combination out). I called the server over to complain and she whisked them away and I ordered the chicken tikka instead which tasted as if they used jarred tomato sauce that was full of sugar.
The surprise meal of our trip was at Hoxton's Bacchus. Before I go on, I should tell you that the restaurant's owner is a member of the OA discussion forum, and he specifically invited me to the restaurant for dinner. So on Saturday evening the week before last, Mrs P and I boarded the tube at Green Park for London's East End. After exiting at Old Street Station, we found we were among throngs of young people who were headed to Hoxton for the night out. It was like Woodstock (or maybe Night of the Living Dead) as literally hundreds of people were pouring into the neighborhood. We tried to walk to the restaurant but we were informed that we were better off going by tax which is what we did.
The restaurant is in an old pub converted to a restaurant. We were six for dinner (although various friends came by for drinks thoughout the evening) and the restaurant prepared a special menu in our honor. Well blimey, I have to say that while the meal wasn't perfect, much of it was quite good as well as interesting. The restaurant's chef is Nuno Mendez, who supposedly spent some time cooking in Spain, and Nuno has crafted a cuisine that is right out of the molecular gastronomy playbook. A standout dish was artichoke and honey-wine soup with pine nut ravioli, cepes and yogurt, and I also enjoyed a milk skin wrapped around various vegetables and flavored with a date puree I believe (pictured). I'm happy to see that someone is trying to bring modern cuisine to a wider audience, and at a reasonable price. I should add that in spite of the any shortcomings in the cuisine, I enjoyed it much more than my dinner at Benares, and more than a dinner I had at the Ledbury a week earlier. It's a place to keep your eye on, and it's on the list of places I intend to go back to on future trips to London.