Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sydney - 29 and 30 November 2010

I was quite excited about going to Sydney, and quite apprehensive given that it would - I had imagined - be non-stop stress and full-on exhaustion. In fact, it wasn't all that stressful, although I'll confess to being zombieish for much of Monday, and Wednesday (post-return).

The food aspects of the trip are as follows.

Qantas domestic (cannot comment on International) is still baffling. Obviously I requested VGML, and got the same as everyone else bar subbing some sort of bready roll item with a gluten free quinoa apple and ginger cake (in theory could've been okay - but I will not eat cake for breakfast). Sanitarium high sugar cereal (ignored) + full cream milk (which I loathe, but drank out of desperate thirst) + reconstituted orange juice (ignored) + tasteless watery coffee.

Much the same as offered in May this year bar the cereal - in May it was a different Sanitarium cereal, but the non-Vegos got Carman's museli - WHY? The coffee was markedly worse in November vs. May, when it was actually drinkable.

I remain baffled by Qantas's substitutions for VMGL recipients, given the omni offerings would've been perfectly suitable. After 4 hours' sleep, though, I didn't really care.

Lunch? Too tired and foggy to contemplate anything other than a double espresso and a ludicrously overpriced Sundowner apple courtesy of the Woolworths near Town Hall. ($5.99 a kilo! I pay less for organic!)

Dinner? My aunt, and later on cousin, were gracious enough to give up their Monday evening (despite a hellishly early start for both, too) and take  me out to dinner. By some physiological witchcraft, a session in the hotel gym actually woke me up (still not sure how my body manages this) enough to string some sentences together, so conversation wasn't a complete washout.

My cousin had nominated Sailor's Thai at The Rocks, which pleased me because I thought it would be nuts to go to Sydney and not have Thai food.

Sailor's Thai was, happily for my tired eyes, barely illuminated although less happily for my tired ears, somewhat noisy. I did like that one wall had a bank of bench seating, with lots of cushions. It looked more friendly, and reminiscent of middle European interiors.

My aunt and I opted for asian mushrooms with tofu, an entree portion of grilled prawns with green chilli sauce, and steamed rice. Choosing was harder than usual, because there were two menus - casual and formal, the former slightly more expensive and longer - and both had many, many options for vegetarians and pescetarians.

Service was prompt, thankfully. The prawns - four - were massive, intact beasts banded by grill marks and presented with the green chilli dipping sauce. The latter was sweet and sour, but not at all hot. I wouldn't have minded a bit of heat, but that's me. Lots of coriander lent some needed freshness. I was possibly a bit odd and ate the prawns complete - I don't have a problem with eating the shells, although at home I always shell them. I tell myself there are useful minerals in the shells... (Then again, as a child I used to eat the eggshells when I had boiled eggs, so obviously I am a bit weird.)

The tofu dish was the standout. A massive block, possibly two, of tofu which had a thin, crispy exterior around silky, warm beancurd. Not too much evidence of frying, thankfully, and the combination of textures was superb. The soft interior was reminiscent of a nicely poached egg. Mushrooms were extremely generous in quantity, and well varied in texture. The sauce was slightly too salty (and I LOVE salt), but otherwise delicious and enhanced with (I presume) whole soy beans and more herbs.

I don't usually order tofu in restaurants because I like the high-value dishes, and I still see tofu as an at-home sort of thing, but this was absolutely amazing.

When my cousin came later, she finished off the tofu dish and we ordered the eggplant salad with steamed egg and prawn floss (entree size). No one was quite sure what the prawn floss was - it looked like, well, fairy floss - and much of the salad seemed to be coriander. This was okay - not as amazing as the other dishes. The eggplant was not, mercifully, slimy. The egg seemed little different to a poached egg.

I'm sure it's possible to have an expensive meal there, but we didn't, and no one was left hungry. I noticed that the tasting menu was $90, which seems pretty good value for a hatted restaurant, especially one in Sydney.

Tuesday? Tuesday was conference food, which meant cakes and biscuits (NO), dismal sandwiches (NO. Had too many "mediterranean vegetable" offerings, thanks), more cakes (NO), and vast summer fruit platters (YES!). Being semi-sick of winter fruit and too frugal to splurge, I went slightly crazy on melon, pineapple and (especially) cherries, strawberries and grapes. Hurry up summer...

Thence back on a plane, for some more Qantas VGML madness. This time it was risoni (ignored - plane pasta, irrespective of shape, doesn't work; rice would have been better) with a tomatoey lentil stew and four broccoli florets and a banana. I don't normally eat bananas, but aeroplanes seem to be the location for abnormality.

Omnis got a dismal chicken stirfry, cheese and crackers and Toblerone. I'm not particularly bothered about the latter (ugh, Kraft), but cheese and chocolate are perfectly suitable for VGML folk, so why the substitution?

I like Sydney, though. Even in what was technically rubbish weather, the harbour still looks stunning, and at least I didn't have to spend my Sydney time navigating in a car, swearing at toll roads.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sydney Recommendations Sought

I will be in Sydney at the end of the month for a whistlestop visit. I don't anticipate getting more than one dining opportunity of my choosing, and it will be for dinner on a Monday night. As I will be relying on my feet as transport, it also needs to be in the vicinity of Kent Street, where I will be staying.

(I was a bit disappointed to find out that Tetsuya's is shut on Monday night!)

Cheap, healthy, vegetarian- (or at least pescetarian) friendly options preferred...

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Bread under cover

I recently borrowed out Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery from the library, and have been steadily making my way through it to see what else I can learn about bread making. It's an excellent book, and I suspect I will be buying my own copy soon.

Amongst other things, she discusses the use of earthenware or heavy metal covers, such as large flowerpots or stockpots, to cover bread while it cooks in the oven. I have read about this technique before, but I finally decided to give it a go - especially when she wisely remarked that a large Pyrex mixing bowl would do the job.

Basically, you make up your bread dough (I did two batches - unbleached white with poppy seeds, and 40/60 rye - both "kneaded" by stretching and slapping the dough in a very satisfying anger-dissipating manner, a la Richard Bertinet), let it prove twice with a bit of slapping and stretching in between to knock back the dough, and then leave it on a greased baking tray.

Heat up a pizza stone in a very hot oven (at least 230˚C) for half an hour or so.

Transfer the loaf to the stone and slash it. Cover it with the bowl. Cook for 30 minutes, remove the bowl, and give it another 25 or so minutes at about 190-200˚C.

The end result is a really good crust but quite a thin one - one of the problems I have had with bread in the past is an overly thick crust, because the outside cooked and dried out too much before the inside could expand and cook properly.

Poppy seeds

40/60 rye
Best bread yet! Until I win the lottery and can buy a steam oven, that is.

Next time I will try it with my sourdough starter. I can't wait!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

An unsolicited product review

An ironic subject for a post, given my previous rant. Rest assured, the ranting will continue.

A benefit, if you are an inveterate cheapskate, of commuting via a City Loop station in Melbourne is the distribution of free things during peak hour. Last week it was iced coffee flavoured milk - which was, like all flavoured milks, vile and far too sweet.

This week it was tights (mysteriously, many male commuters were lining up to grab a pair, much to the bemusement of the women handing them out), and ice cream.

Yes, c. 4pm near Southern Cross Station, whilst I was on my way to the Vic Market, I spotted a lurid Ben & Jerry’s Kombi van. Looking at the website, I see that this must have something to do with Free Ice Cream Fridays.

Notwithstanding the fact that errands and a significant commute were in between said ice cream and a reliable freezer, I barged in front of some excited, pleonexic schoolboys and grabbed a sub-500mL (i.e. A silly feeble American pint) tub of Strawberry Cheesecake flavour.

Figure 1: Dodgy Screen Capture

It made it home, largely still frozen, for which I suppose I have Melbourne’s stubbornly wintry weather to thank.

I’ve never quite got the hype about B&J. I know people get all funny (not funny ha-ha, funny-deranged) about it, as if ice cream can be anything other than literally cool, and there seems to be some cult of personality surrounding the founders and their “wacky” ways with bits of cookie, corn syrup and emulsifiers.

Which is where the first hurdle arises.

B&J is priced at the gourmet end of the market. It is packaged for the pseudo-hippy-hipster unconventional demographic. With an ingredients list that runs to several lines and seems to depend on emulsifiers and gums to (presumably) stabilise and improve the texture, the products don’t quite mesh with the stated ethos.

It doesn’t help, either, that I don’t have a sweet tooth - at all - and I’ve never much cared for the kid-like cookies/brownies/caramel/choc-chip/marshmallow theme, singly or in combination or in mixtures of other things.

However, ice cream is something I can just about bear because the cold temperature seems to mitigate the cloying effect of the mix, and it doesn’t seem to be quite so teeth-grittingly sweet as a cake/biscuit/chocolate bar. On the other hand, I will acknowledge that I am more keen on gelato, which has a cleaner finish owing to being made from milk and not cream.

[An aside - reading The Fat Duck Cookbook it seems that HB and I have very similar opinions on this matter, as he is also a gelato man, likes “clean” tastes and textures, and isn’t overly fond of excessive sweetness. He suggests adding sour cream to mixtures, to give a bit of acidity, and I will be testing this when the weather heats up. Given how ineffably good the sweet and savoury ice creams were at The Fat Duck, I have utmost trust in him.]

As a B&J neophyte, and with some latent interest in frozen confections, I was prepared to give it a go, and at least I’d be able to say that I had tried it.

Appearance: cream, some suspicion of pink bits here and there, ditto beigey “cake” bits. Not like the picture above, which seems to exaggerate the strawberry component. This was, in fact, barely discernable as mere blush smudges.

Texture: well, the ice cream bits were good. Smooth, but a bit too creamy and claggy in mouthfeel terms for my liking. But I’ve already explained that I’m abnormal in that respect. The cheesecake cake bits were a bit disappointing - not very cakey, and merely represented sweet, gritty interruptions. This is why I don’t like cake/biscuit bits in ice cream - they don’t seem to retain their integrity, and just turn to mush. And then it spoils the whole experience, viz. Cream-cream-cream-mush-mush-sugar-grit-cream.

Flavour: Ah. Well. Yes. I think “UNBELIEVABLY SWEET” sums it up. The strawberry aspect wasn’t very distinct, and neither was the cream cheese element, so it just tasted like slightly contaminated sugar-cream.

It’s officially recorded as having a sugar content of something around the 20% mark. Having tried it, I’m surprised it’s not higher.

Peace, love and ice cream? Peace from a diabetic coma, more like.

Like the product, I also find the ethical claims made by B&J a little hard to swallow, especially those relating to the environment. It’s hardly environmentally friendly to air freight ice cream from the US around the world.

If you want decent ice cream - even merely half decent would be better - there’s plenty of locally made stuff to enjoy, in more interesting flavours. The Maggie Beer Quince and Bitter Almond is pretty damn good, and I am looking forward to trying out Gundowring soon. Plus a rare benefit of warmer weather in Melbourne is that Casa del Gelato reopens for the summer season.

In any case, heavens, buy an el cheapo ice cream maker for around $30 and have some fun yourself. I made killer gelato last year with unpasteurised Jersey milk, and, arch banana hater though I am, I discovered that banana “ice cream” is astonishingly good.

In summary, B&J ice cream highlights that really you have two choices.

  1. Buy something better (and possibly less expensive/less 10-planet-lifestyle); or
  2. Use vastly superior ingredients, and make something yourself for almost no money.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Publicity Machine

It has recently become blatantly obvious that a number of well-known food bloggers in Melbourne, and no doubt elsewhere, have been contacted by publicity agencies and/or the publicity departments of major corporations. To their credit, I am aware of this because the arrangements have been disclosed. I am not accusing anyone of underhand cash-for-comment type behaviour, such as that which necessitated US FTC action. I will note, though, that the disclosure is invariably at the end of the blog post and in small, italicised (i.e. Less obvious) formatting.

I do have a few problems with these arrangements.

Firstly, from a reader’s perspective: the same food bloggers are now all blogging about the same things. I don’t want to read much the same post again and again.

Said bloggers came to my attention because they were articulate and original. They went to places that had perhaps less well-known because PR companies had not been involved, and raised awareness of cafes and restaurants to online readers in an honest, refreshing and genuinely novel manner. Real people, real places, real thoughts and real opinions. If not cafe and restaurant reviews, then it is product reviews.

This ethos is missing from so many recent posts, which now read like press releases or infomercials of the sort that I avoid as a non-commercial-TV viewer.

In at least one case, a blogger’s backgrounder/review mysteriously used near-identical wording to that on a product website, without attribution. At best this is lazy, at worst it is deceptive.

The bloggers’ sine qua non - of doing what everyone else wasn’t doing, and writing with both brain and heart - has gone.

If I want to read sponsored reviews (i.e. Reviews not properly named - let’s call them ads), I’ll look at a corporate website.

Secondly, these arrangements run the risk of bias. A lot of studies have been done on the medical profession, where corporate sponsorship has reached its zenith, and however much doctors think they are free from influence, this is often not the case. In the US, the problem is now recognised to be so serious that drug companies have, following extreme scrutiny, volunteered to stop giving doctors everything from pens to free dinners.

Is it really reasonable to believe that this sort of thing doesn’t influence people? Corporations need to pay attention to their bottom line - they wouldn’t have massive PR and advertising budgets if it didn’t work.

You may receive a packet of X from a company, but with no other products to compare it with, how is the reader supposed to know whether that product X really is worth buying? These reviews virtually constitute market manipulation/anti-competitive practices.

Moreover, it’s particularly egregious when the skew is in favour of massive multinational corporations who really don’t need a bigger market share, and should stop being such cheapskates and pay for some proper advertising instead of co-opting civilians.

I think the only time that a blogger has done a product review in a way that didn’t destroy all credibility they had, was Cindy and Michael’s couscous experiment - I was delighted to see that a more scientific (and unbiased) approach was taken, at their own expense. I took their opinions with less salt, so to speak, and I place more importance on what they have said since.

Reading food blogs has become a less pleasant activity. I’m learning less, I’m enjoying it less, and I’m not as inspired by my peers. The best I can say about bloggers’ disclosures is that they are red flags, and indicate that I perhaps shouldn’t bother reading.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Bread, and a rant about flour/food shops

I would prefer to write this because I have done some marvellous baking experiments lately, but when it comes to bread, I am rather stuck in a rut.

I do, however, have some pictures of some successes, which is remarkable for two reasons:

  1. I rarely remember to photograph anything; and
  2. I actually had some successes.

When I was in England for three months, staying with my father, I managed to get an incredibly good sourdough starter going. Remarkably, I left it on the windowsill near the Aga for the entire time and it never went mouldy or off in anyway. Possibly the heat of the Aga was mitigated by the chill of the single-glazed window, and created the perfect temperature for the yeasts. I was also chuffed that whatever wild yeasts were picked up from the air happened to be successful ones for bread-making.

I stuck to my usual sourdough, which is a variation Dan Lepard’s Barley and Rye loaf. I use rye only, because it is easier to find. I often make this because the proportions are so simple:

  • 300g unbleached strong flour, 200g other flour, 300g water (plus the usual refreshed starter).

With easy-peasy proportions like that, it’s a trivial matter to substitute or mix flours or liquids. I have a plain/rye/beer dough proving as I type this.

My father will not eat real bread, and stuck stubbornly to Tesco’s Tiger loaf (marginally better than Mother’s Pride, but still like polystyrene), much to my dismay. To mitigate the rubbish, I got into a routine of making at least one loaf of proper (albeit white) bread each week for him - 500g organic unbleached bread flour (Dove’s Farm), about 12g dried instant yeast, 300g water.

This was mixed until messy and porridgey, and left in a bowl overnight in the fridge or near the Aga for an hour or two. No kneading was involved.

This was then messily put into a well-oiled 0.5kg/1lb loaf tin, and put in the “hot” Aga oven, for about 45 minutes.

The results speak for themselves - magnificent loaves, no kneading or fuss at all. Possibly helped by the fierce heat of the Aga, which made loaf after loaf of perfect bread. My god, I miss the Aga:

Back in Melbourne, I revived my semi-dormant starter which had lingered at the back of the fridge for months. Two different experiments follow.

One, baking in a pot. I would have used a Le Creuset, but ours are ridiculously massive and the dough would have spread out like a pizza, hence the bodgy Pyrex.
This wasn’t bad, except for the shape (odd), the texture (spongey) and the bottom (soggy). The flavour was okay, but I can’t be bothered repeating the experiment with the Pyrex dish. Maybe I will try with cast iron…

Two, VERY wet dough (with about a tablespoon of treacle, for fun) slapped and stretched around a la Richard Bertinet (SO messy - found bits of dough that flew off mid-slap all round the kitchen later), baked on a pizza stone which had heated up in the oven set to its maximum temperature (300˚C! It set the smoke alarm off) and with a dish of cold water in the bottom:
This worked brilliantly, although the BEEP BEEP BEEP of the smoke alarm was rather annoying. I will definitely repeat this method again. I also love a little treacle in a rye dough - great colour and flavour. I would be interested to try malt with barley flour in the future, too.

Gratuitously, here's a shot of some quince preserve I made (quinces poached in the pressure cooker for 1 hour, with water, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, a bit of vanilla pod, then cooked with raw sugar until jammy. Pressure cookers are a godsend for quinces!):

Finally, a digression on flour and flaky foodie foisters:

When I was in England, the most experimental that I got was using different rye flours - my favourite in England was the Balcheldre Organic Stoneground Rye Flour. Compared with how much I pay in Melbourne for inferior flour, this is incredibly cheap at £2.55 for 1.5kg. Moreover, it was the best rye flour I have encountered - not too fine, not too light. It had ‘bits’ in it, and made a lovely, dark, gutsy loaf.

It was slightly gutting to see how much easier it is to get good, interesting flours at the supermarket in England. Woolworths has improved a little here in Melbourne, as I can get organic rye, buckwheat etc under the Macro brand, but there is still very little choice. No choice, really, in who makes the flour and no choice in the flour and grade of flour. Lots of bread-mixes which have rubbish added to them, and which are inedibly salty.

I know I was lucky to have a Waitrose near by, where the range was mind-boggling (they even had oak-smoked flour, which unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to try), but Tesco still had a decent range. Also, the flours were cheap. And organic.

Second point: upon fossicking through the cupboards at my father’s, I discovered two bags of flour from my previous visit - three years earlier. Not surprisingly, they were well past the Best Before date. However, when I opened them I discovered that there was not a hint of rancidity or staleness, which is all the more remarkable when one considers that one bag was rye flour and rye seems particularly liable to go horrible.

I used both for making the sourdough starter, and for baking bread. The results were delicious.

The white bread flour was Allinson bread maker’s flour, and the rye was Waitrose organic.

What I find interesting, if not troubling, was that this ostensibly ancient rye flour was fresher and sweeter tasting than the “fresh” stuff I buy in Melbourne. Perhaps proper bakers with more clout can get assurances from suppliers that the flour is really fresh, but for the amateur baker we must rely on shopkeepers who may not be as scrupulous about supply and storage as we would like. I regret to say that this is often the case with health food and organic shops, which not so much run by people as limp along. If anyone knows of a place where the owners and staff are actually serious and organised enough to not let food go off (and then sell it anyway!), I would be very interested to go there.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Attica - 6 August 2010

After reading various positive reviews (especially this one), I had wanted to go to Attica for my birthday last year. However, my PDC (my mother) wasn’t very enthusiastic after looking at the menu - I inferred that she thought it was too weird. We ended up going to Embrasse, which was lovely, but my Attica-desires remained unfulfilled.

When Attica was named in the top 100 restaurants in the world, and Mamma had experienced the deliciousness of “weird” food at The Fat Duck, she capitulated. In any case, I was going to be unashamedly selfish, and go where I damn well wanted.

I wasn’t actually clever enough to consider I might need to book well in advance, and so I couldn’t get a booking for my actual birthday. So, like last year, I had a “royal” birthday a few weeks later (and amused myself in the interim with a truffle I bought at South Melbourne Market).

Being an awkward sort of person, I asked whether it was possible to have the omnivore degustation adapted, so as to remove the meaty elements - leaving the fishy ones - and substitute with vegetarian courses where necessary. Having done this at The Fat Duck, I wasn’t too embarrassed about being a nuisance, and I was assured that this would be easily accommodated. I was, however, slightly taken aback when I confirmed my booking and was asked if chicken was okay. No, it definitely isn’t. No chicken, no pig, no beef, no lamb etc.

We were promptly greeted and seated. Tap water was brought out (and replenished countless times over the evening).

The table was set with a small bowl of salt flakes (I believe Murray River), house butter (which was excellent - and I am so picky about butter. If it isn’t French/Belgian, I will go without), and olive oil mousse.
The bread is, I believe, Dench (“Fitzroy bread”), and we had the choice of sourdough or seeded. We went with one of each and shared. I have bought both types from Dench, and they are superb. I liked that the bread was also warm.

My mother initially shunned the mousse, but after I tried it and observed how fantastic she was, she dug in with alacrity. The oil is apparently smoked, and then whipped and emulsified with xanthan gum, and topped with black salt. Fantastic texture and such intense flavour. I have never had olive oil that was quite so multifaceted - possibly thanks to the smoking.

The omnivore/vegetarian menu was discussed with me, and I agreed to do a straight swap with the equivalent vegetarian courses. I assumed - wrongly as it turned out - that the rest of the courses would be okay. More on that later.

Before the meal really got under way we were brought an amuse:

Heirloom carrots, chestnuts, fromage blanc and two types of broccoli - romanesco and, if I heard properly, pepper (the latter I have bought at South Melbourne Market - it’s delightfully purple but sadly loses its colour very rapidly. I was impressed that the colour had been retained).
The vegetables had been barely cooked, and one was able to appreciate the colours, flavours and textures. The tatsoi leaves were a mini-revelation as every other experience I have had with tatsoi has left me wondering what the point of it was.

For an amuse, I was impressed by how much thought had gone into the combination of elements and the presentation on the plate.

The first proper course was the famous snow crab. I must apologise for the gloomy picture, as the flash apparently misbehaved and I was already embarrassed about photographing my food. (I could only think of Giles Coren’s paywalled opinion on food bloggers, despite being married to one.)
This was presented on a volcanic black plate and did indeed evoke a snow capped mountain. The snow had a delicate horseradish flavour (surprisingly not an oxymoron - it really was just a hint of horseradish, rather than the usual blowing-your-head-off hit), and melted in the mouth. There were also crispy bits of puffed rice, jewelled rubies of barberry (deliciously piquant), and smooth and creamy crab beneath. Great mix of textures and complimentary flavours.

The next course was osmathus & crysanthemum broth, abalone, cuttlefish.
This comprised a little trivet of cuttlefish, abalone and dehydrated shiitake mushroom, with dried flowers, over which was poured a tea-like broth to gently cook the raw elements and rehydrate the dried ones. The broth smelled amazing, and had a lovely clear, slightly floral flavour.

What was a little disturbing was that I was told that “the dark bits” were slightly confit chicken wing.

Which was the first I knew about it.

I know I should have raised this at the time, because it’s not really okay to serve chicken to a diner who has already stipulated no meat (and that means poultry). And though I would always counsel other people in my situation to mention this to staff, I did not. And I ate it, because I am congenitally incapable of leaving food on plates. And it was very, very chickeny and somewhat spoilt the dish for me.

The rest of it was lovely, but I couldn’t stop thinking, “I just ate chicken”.

I just about managed to get over my shock and horror for “a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown”.
This was the subject of an article in The Age’s Epicure section this week, and I had been looking forward to it for months.

The King Edward potato is slow cooked for four to six hours in soil. (I exaggerated to my mother when I said, “Oh, about 40 hours…”). Like a completely topsy-turvey deconstruction of fish and chips, it had tiny slivers of tuna underneath, curd cheese (I think…?) and teeny tiny leaves. The potato had an amazing creamy, melting texture and an unexpectedly delicious soily flavour. The gastronomic properties of dirt clearly require further examination and experimentation, because the soil flavour was really good.

Next had “bass groper, almonds, garlic”. This was actually hapuka on the night. I have never had either fish, so I cannot comment on the sub, but the hapuka was superbly cooked - silky, but dense at the same time, and the roasted almonds were fresh and crunchy.
Alas, as it was served, I heard the dreaded words, “...and chorizo water”.

Oh Em Gee.

Again, I said nothing, but this was slightly distressing. The young man at the next table was far more sensible and did object to this when he was served the dish. It was obvious that he did not know - nor could not - from the description that any piggy elements were involved. Perhaps he had not mentioned dietary restrictions beforehand, but I had.

The properly meaty course came next: lamb, mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs. My mother asked what sauce of forbs was, and I hadn’t the foggiest. Fortunately this was explained to her as made from clover-type plants. Which makes me wonder what else there is in my lawn I could be exploiting.
I had: wild mushrooms, black lentil, eggplant. No lentils were discernible in this, alas, but the eggplant was superb - slightly crisp, largely silky. There were several varieties of mushroom, providing different flavours and textures (some chewy, some more delicate), and there was a generous, fabulous addition of chestnut puree. This was one of my favourite dishes on the night and ever. It is worth having the vegetarian degustation for this and I wish I had been at home and thus able to lick the bowl.Next: beef, seagrass, white cabbage. The cabbage element was the core of a wombok, and there had been some squid-ink action. The beef was certified Angus, although by that stage my mother seemed to just wolf it down (!!!).

I had: artichoke, tubers, soured sheeps milk, almonds. Both globe and jerusalem artichokes (which were roasted), and wafers of shaved jicama on top. I have always wondered - and said so - what jicama is like, because I see it at South Melbourne Market all the time. Tuberous nashi pear comes close.
A nice light course, which I needed by that stage. I was reminded how unbelievably good roasted jerusalem artichokes are. Note to self: eat more. (And they’re really rich in iron, too! Take note, vegetarians!) I’m not wild about globe artichokes, but these were lovely and fresh, and clean on the palate.

I was SO looking forward to this “savoury” sweet course, as I don’t really have a sweet tooth and I love experiments with flavours and expectations. It did not disappoint. It had many of my favourite food ingredients - beetroot, sour cherry, dried berries, yogurt - and a few surprises like the kiwi and avocado underneath. I loved the sorrel granita I had had at Embrasse, and I was thrilled to have it again. The dish was soft, crunchy, chewy, sweet, smooth, tangy, warm, cold… it had everything you’d want and it looked so pretty. I have also resolved to experiment with using avocado as a fruit, because this dish showed what potential it has.

Again, I wish I could have licked the plate. Stupid manners.

Finally: apple, olive, warm shredded wheat.
Much to my delight, Ben Shewry himself came out to serve this - I was extremely impressed, as I’ve never yet met a head chef when I’ve dined out, and these days one can’t always expect that they’re actually there on the night.

So. The dish. I could smell it before it was served and I got a fantastic hit of cinnamon.

Yes, it’s basically deconstructed apple pie.

Several types of apple - Pink Lady, Granny Smith and my favourite Braeburn - with custard and “crumble”, which was another amazing powder that Ben spooned on top. The warm crumble was sweet and wheaty and cinnamony and nutty and buttery and thoroughly delicious (yes, buttery powder. No, I don’t know how it was done, either, but it was brilliant). The apples were lovely, fresh fine ribbons, still juicy and fresh, which provided a welcome counterpoint to the intensely sweet crumble.

I said that I cannot ever have apple crumble again, because this dish is the pinnacle and everything else will be downhill. And it was lovely to have on a very miserable, cold, wet Melbourne winter’s night.

To my great surprise, it wasn’t all over. Whilst we politely declined the offer of coffee (though I slightly regretted this later, as I could’ve probably done with a tea), we were brought petit fours - which I forgot to photograph! Two cubes of chocolate fudge with black salt, and two tiny forks to eat it with. The fudge was very, very chocolately - it would have been excellent with an espresso - and I feel like I’ve had my chocolate hit for many months to come. It also reminded me that I must try fiddling with the fleur de sel and chocolate at home. I do have a weird love of salt.

Obviously because the last place I ate out at was The Fat Duck, that has raised the bar. Attica does do its own thing - it can hold its own as an excellent restaurant in its own right, and Ben Shewry demonstrates skill and intelligence in his menus and cooking. I don’t see a lot of intelligence in menus, so this is worthy of praise. What Ben Shewry and team do at Attica makes it worth visiting. I'm afraid that my run down of the courses doesn't reflect the complexity of the food at all, and I would struggle to remember all the components of each dish.

The service was good - the staff were friendly, professional (demonstrating a pleasing breadth of knowledge about the food) and were trying to make the dining experience as good as possible for guests. However, there were a few long gaps between courses, which is why the meal went for a whopping four and a half hours. I’m sure part of that was due to it being a very, very busy night. Unfortunately, it was a bit much for my mother, who fell asleep between courses.

My other quibble is about the meat in my dishes which I didn’t know about/wasn’t warned about. I had given ample warning about my requirements, and had suggested that if it was too inconvenient to adapt the omnivore menu, then I would have the normal vegetarian one. As I had been told that I could have an adapted menu, I thought I would be okay. This wasn’t the case on the night.

All right, so I didn't HAVE to eat it, and I could have sent it back, but I didn't feel comfortable doing that. I also don't think that I should have even had to consider whether I should make a fuss or not.

Does it detract from the overall experience? Reluctantly, I have to say, yes, it does. In Attica’s defence, it’s not as if I had the impression that the team didn’t care - I think they do, genuinely - so I hope that it was an oversight.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Tuesday 20 April 2010 - The Fat Duck, Bray

Two months ago, I spent several nerve-wracking mornings ringing The Fat Duck’s reservation line in hope of booking a table somewhere around my mother’s birthday. The process of getting a reservation is not as ridiculous as for El Bulli, but you must ring exactly two months before the day you want to dine, and the phone line opens at 10am (but is engaged from 9.55 onwards). If you manage to get through, you are put on hold to listen to an audiobook of Alice in Wonderland.

Having nearly worn out the redial buttons on the telephone trying to get through, I managed to speak to a very lovely human being and secured a table for two at 8.30. This was confirmed by email, and I responded by asking whether it would be possible to adapt the menu for my pescetarian preferences (yes, and excitingly I was told that the options would be “discussed” with me on the night).

Needless to say, I looked forward to April with increasing excitement.

Needless to say, I was extremely dismayed when I came down with a gastro bug only a few hours before setting off for Bray. A walk around fresh air in Oxford and a lump of dry bread just about fixed my nausea before we drove to Bray.

I am an unreformed philosophy dork, so I had to photograph this:

A warning to any future Fat Duckers - it is extremely easy to completely miss the turn off for Bray and end up in Windsor. Similarly, it is extremely easy to completely miss The Fat Duck itself, as it is sublimely anonymous.
Blink, and miss it.

The Hind’s Head, however, is a helpful landmark, and by locating it one can find The Fat Duck just a few doors away.

I was very glad that we were early, as we had enough time to walk around Bray itself and admire it during a springtime dusk. It is an exceedingly pretty village, and worth a visit in itself.

Although still a bit early, we entered the restaurant and were shown to our table. Quite a few diners were already there and delighting in profusions of liquid nitrogen.

Charmingly, the tables are all circular, which my mother particularly likes as she believes they are more friendly. They are laid with heavy white linen, and set with Fat Duck damask napkins. The china is limoges porcelain and the cutlery is French (meat eaters get Laguiole steak knives). Each table had a unique and exotic small flower arrangement, and a card on “Nostalgia Foods” in which Heston Blumenthal invites diners to fill out the decade in which they grew up and foods that are particularly significant for them.

We were brought tap water, served in Riedel glasses, and a plate of delicious green olives, while we examined the leatherbound menu (as an indication of what is coming - it is a tasting menu only, so one does not really choose from it as such) and a list of wines by the glass (including Chateau Mouton Rothschild for £240 a glass!).

As promised, the menu was discussed with me and proposals were made for altering and substituting some of the courses to suit my pescetarian tastes. All of which sounded utterly delicious.

We were also brought copies of the menu, sealed in envelopes to take home. The paper was described as "skin" paper, and does hav a very similar tactile quality. I adore good paper, and even I have never encountered anything so unusual.

Bread was brought out, and unpasteurised Jersey butter was placed on a small slab of black granite. The bread was “white” or “brown”, but of course was far superior to other breads. The “brown” was particularly good with a fantastic crust. My mother grilled one of the waiters on the bread, asking if it was made with rye flour - apparently not, just exceptionally good brown wheat flour, made by a baker to a Fat Duck recipe.

The bread was so good that, I estimate, my mother ate around ten slices of it throughout the evening. I only managed two…

With great theatricality, the first course was wheeled out on a trolley: Lime Grove - Nitro Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse. The trolley was set with an aerosol canister, a slightly smoking cauldron, a little green-dusted powder puff and plates. The waiter sprayed the air with the essence of limes, and expelled the mousse mixture onto a spoon. This was then “poached” in liquid nitrogen, placed on a plate and dusted with matcha. We were instructed to put the “mousse” into our mouths in one bite - for very good reasons. The exterior was frozen into a crisp shell, which yielded to a gloriously refreshing cool limey mousse. It was the most delicious palate cleanser I have encountered, and I loved the scent and taste of limes as I ate.

The next course was Red Cabbage Gazpacho - Pommery Mustard Ice Cream. This was presented in a little porcelain bowl, and comprised a fabulous magenta “gazpacho” with a quenelle of mustard ice cream. I love red cabbage, and this was extraordinarily intense. As a fanatical mustard consumer (with spoon, from jar…) the ice cream was a revelation. I vow to try savoury ice creams when I am back.

The third course was Jelly of Quail, Crayfish Cream - Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast. This course was also my first substitute dish, and you will have to bear with me given that I can’t exactly remember what I ate.

For both of us, this was presented in several parts. Firstly, there was a tray containing verdant moss, with two little plastic cases on top. We were told to pick one up, open it, take out the “film” and place it on our tongues, where it would dissolve. I can’t remember the exact order, but at some point some mysterious liquid was poured over the moss which smoked away in a dry icey/liquid nitrogeny cascade over the table. The smell of a forest was also spritzed around. We had a thin rectangle of “toast”, which resembled Finn Crisps in appearance, but was sublimely crisp, buttery, and covered in finely shaved pieces of truffle. All very woody. Then, in dishes that looked like the Egg Chair, we had the jelly and cream concoction. I believe mine was mushroomy, rather than quaily. It had two, maybe three, layers, the first being a rich transparent brown jelly that covered a smooth cream. The truffle toast was the absolute highlight. I do so love a woodland ambience.

Next was one of the most famous dishes on the menu - and, indeed, the concoction that brought Heston Blumenthal to our attention a few years ago: Snail porridge, with jabugo ham and shaved fennel. Mine was, naturally, lacking snails and ham. Both came out as bright green purees in little bowls, with fennel and various other micro leaves and bits on top. For what it’s worth, my mother loved the snail porridge. My vegetarian version was delicious - very fresh, and the fennel had retained its delicate crispness. I had expected it might be slightly limp, but it wasn’t.

For the omnivores, the roast foie gras with rhubarb, braised konbu and crab biscuit followed. The foie gras seemed like a large amount, segmented by the crab biscuits (again, these looked a bit like Finn Crisps) and accompanied by a streak of clear pink rhubarbness. My version had roast langoustine. The langoustine, the “biscuits” and the konbu were superb, and this course gave an intense hit of umami (my favourite taste ever). For me, this was definitely one of my favourite courses of the night.

Having watched Heston’s Feasts, I was excited that I would experience one dish that was developed on the Alice in Wonderland feast: Mock Turtle Soup, with Mad Hatter Tea. I, in fact, had “mock-mock turtle soup”, and owing to the inherently meaty aspect of one component, had a slightly different experience. Nonetheless, with aplomb, we were formally invited to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. We were presented with a cup and saucer, filled with “tea”, and a bowl containing a snail-like “egg” and what looked a bit like a liquorice allsort. My mother, the omnivore, was given a gold pocket watch and told to place it in her tea (here the courses diverged, as mine had already been done), whereupon it disappeared with careful stirring to leave flakes of gold leaf. We were both then told to pour the tea into our bowls.

The tea was, of course, an extraordinary clear broth (mine vegetable based, very umami). The “allsort” was beetroot and some thinly sliced white vegetable. There were micro leaves, and the snaily egg was a smooth jellyish orb that gave a lovely contrast to the “tea”. The preparation involved in a dish like this defies belief - that someone would go to the bother of a) creating such a complex piece of theatre and b) then turning it into something edible (with the help of tweezers!) is sheer artistic genius.

Another of my favourites, and a justly famous dish, comprised the next course: Sound of the Sea. We were brought large conch shells, from which protruded iPod headphones. My mother, spoiling the magic, exclaimed, “Oh, a shell with an iPod Shuffle inside!”. To which the waiter replied, “No, madam, it is a shell…”

Extraordinary rectangular trays came out, in the form of a wooden box (containing sand) topped with a sheet of glass/perspex. On top of this was more “sand” (edible - made from tapioca starch), a little “anemone”, some “seaweed”, “sea foam”, various bits of flotsam and jetsam and three perfect portions of fish. My memory is rapidly deteriorating, but one fish was definitely raw mackerel (my favourite) and the other two were white fish - possibly kingfish and haddock?

As one ate to the sounds of a seashore and gulls (“Like Whitley Bay,” was my mother’s rather unappetising analogy), one experienced the tastes (predominantly salty), textures (the fish melted in the mouth, the “seaweed” and “sand” gave crunch, the foam dissolved in an ozoney salty tang), and sights (self explanatory) of the seaside. Far more than mere “sound” of the sea.

It was all the best bits of a childhood trip, with none of the grimness of getting sand in your shoes afterwards.

Another fishy dish came next - salmon poached in liquorice, with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise, golden trout roe and Manni olive oil. The salmon was a curious rich brown oblong, almost looking as if it had been laquered and shellacked. Three little artichoke halves laid alongside in a row, and the plate was bordered by an avenue of pea-sized blobs of vanilla mayonnaise. I normally loathe mayonnaise, but this was a small enough quantity to stop me from feeling sick, and the vanilla (yes, you could see the seeds) added an absolutely divine dimension. I wouldn’t have thought that the subtle sweetness would have worked, but it did. The salmon was perfectly poached, by far the best poached salmon I have had, pink on the inside but with the slight savoury earthiness of liquorice. Not at all overpowering. If I remember correctly, there were also tiny little fragments of pink grapefruit (presumably winkled out with a pin), which cut through the richness. The olive oil was extremely fresh on the palate (not at all oily, thank heavens) and the artichokes were sweet and yielding. I could have eaten a plate of them alone.

The next course was another substitution for me, and more or less satisfied my particular gastronomic desires: roasted monkfish (a lovely sized piece) with morels, and a truffle and morel foam/cream/jelly. The latter came in a separate bowl, and was heavenly. I absolutely adore wild mushrooms, and this had all the flavours (plus the interesting textures of the morels and the foam and the creamy jelly underneath) I might want. The fish, perfectly cooked and allowing its natural sweetness to come through (no doubt enhanced by roasting) came with more morels. I was in fishy, mushroomy paradise.

My mother had powdered Anjou pigeon with blood pudding and confit of umbles. Now this one flummoxes me a little from the description. I could clearly make out the pigeon - the finest-grained meat I have ever seen (mahogany compared with builder’s pine) - but I’m not sure how the other components fitted in. There were a few dark red elongated comma shapes of sauce, which may or may not have been “black pudding”. I tried to extract more from my mother, but she is fixated on how good the pigeon was. And I, I’m afraid, was far too mycologically mesmerised to pay much attention to anything other than my own plate.

What isn’t on the website’s version of the menu is the palate cleanser course that followed, but it is one that viewers of Heston’s Feasts would have encountered: Hot and Cold Tea. Glass teacups and saucers were brought out, filled with a honey-amber liquid. We were instructed to drink it all at once. As we did so, we discovered that one side of the mouth experienced cold “tea”, whilst the other got hot “tea”. Very strange! The “tea” itself was also stupendous, honeyish, with hints of ginger.

The first dessert course was Taffety Tart, with caramelised apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon. This came out as a narrow rectangle of tart, comprising millefeuille-ish layers of crisp caramel pastry, with a crunchy seedy toffee topping, then a layer of piped fromage blanc, and finally (I think) the caramelised apple. Fennel seeds gave a gentle savouryness, and the candied lemon and rose were sensationally intense. Additionally, there was a quenelle of blackcurrant sorbet, which I described as “Ribena times ten”. The dish evoked toffee apples, Toffee Crisps (a secret childhood shame) and the demon blackcurrant cordial that was completely and utterly verboten when I grew up. Except, of course, this was highly sophisticated and far far nicer than anything a normal eight year old might have had. I cannot begin to describe how much I enjoyed this dessert - and I don’t like desserts.

Heightened expectations preceded the BFG, having seen it on In Search of Perfection and noted the lengthy recipe that can be found online. BFG stands, of course, for Black Forest Gateau, and this came with kirsh ice cream and “the smell of the Black Forest” (predominantly Kirshish). I have a considerable antipathy towards kirsch and the cream component of the usual BFG, so this could have been an ordeal. The plate comes out with a rather formidable matte chocolate tower, topped with a glossy dark cherry that oozes sauce down one corner, with a quenelle of kirsch ice cream on the side. The kirsch ice cream was a revelation, and forced me to completely reconsider my attitude towards liqueurs. The oozy sauce was curiously fizzy (like the fizzy coke bottles one could buy by the penny). The stalk of the cherry was, I later discovered, not a stalk but a fine threat of vanilla pod, and added a stunning dimension.

Then there was the cake monolith itself. As one sliced down one corner, one discovered that it was a multistorey affair: mousse, ganache, cream, incredibly dense (near-black) sponge, aerated chocolate (i.e. A really posh bit of Aero bar) and an extraordinary honey/caramelish biscuit base. At various points one encountered kirsch-soaked cherries, which had just enough sourness to counterbalance the bittersweet chocolate and boozy cream.

I would never, ever, normally order Black Forest Gateau, given that it has two of my bete noires - cream and liqueur. But this was so good that I had to eat it very slowly and thus prolong the experience. I could almost feel inclined to have a go at making it myself, bar the faff.

The last proper course (and we were offered a supplementary cheese course, but god knows who could fit that in too) was the “Whisk(e)y wine gums” - the name referring to both Scottish and American spellings, for reasons which became clear. Another inventive mode of presentation, we had picture frames set in front of us, containing a map of Scotland. Affixed to the map were little jelly bottles (a la the fizzy coke bottles), which corresponded to a little key - this explained that each bottle was flavoured with a particular whisky, and one whiskey, from different regions and distilleries. I was surprised by how much variation there was in flavour, as I had previously thought that all whisk(e)y was uniformly awful. Not so. We also had bottles of Glenlivet spring water to cleanse the palate between tasting (one gum being, appropriately, Glenlivet whiskey). My mother, a glass bottle fanatic, requested the top she could take the bottle home. The slightly bemused waitress admitted that no one had ever asked for that before, but she managed to fine one.

The meal ended with “Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop”, which some people opted to wolf there and then, but we kept until we got home.

The lovely candy-stripe bags contained the following:

A menu (which says “Smell Me! And does indeed smell of sweeties)

Aerated Chocolate - Mandarin Jelly

This was like the love child of an Aero bar, a jaffa cake and Terry’s chocolate orange - but made with superb ingredients.

Coconut Baccy - coconut infused with an aroma of black Cavendish tobacco.

My stepmother informs me that this is a grownup version of a sweet she had as a child, which was made from coconut and came in a tobacco pouch. I’m not a huge fan of coconut, but this is delicious. I can’t really taste the tobacco, but that’s perhaps because I left it a couple of days before consuming. Oops.

Apple Pie Caramel - with an Edible Wrapper (no need to unwrap)

What looks like a plastic wrapper actually dissolves in the mouth, and the caramel does indeed taste intensely appley. It is also, by far, the best “caramel” I’ve ever had.

The Queen of Hearts - she made some tarts…

This is quite astonishing. Inside the envelope is a Queen of Hearts “playing card”, made from white chocolate and filled with jam. Beautifully presented, and joyous to eat.

My mother was distressed that other diners left their pretty sweetie bags on the table, and commented on this to one of the waitresses as she cleared away the debris, enquiring if she ever thought it was upsetting that diners did not seem to appreciate the care and attention that went into the bags. And, by contrast, how thrilled we were by the entire experience. Very sweetly, we were brought a proper Fat Duck carrier bag for our sweetie bags, which just about one-ups every other cardboard bag I’ve seen. Hurrah!

I don’t know what more I can say about the Fat Duck. I hope this is not the only visit I ever make, even though I had initially described it as a “once in a lifetime experience”. I am shocked that the staff indicated that it can be hard to manage some people’s expectations, as I can’t imagine that anyone couldn’t be completely astounded and delighted. It is, without question, peerless and perfect.

Importantly, everything was actually delicious. There was not a single dish, component or combination that did not excite the senses and cortex. I could have easily licked every dish clean, and indeed, I noticed a few other diners wiping their fingers across the plates in order to get every last morsel (here the bread came in handy, too).

What was also notable, and unique, was the way every table seemed to resound with laughter. I have never been to a restaurant and seen so many people clearly enjoying themselves. Towards the end of the night, one couple even got engaged, with the woman holding a Tiffany box (complete with sizeable gem) asking her companion “Are you f***ing me? Are you serious?”. Amused staff watched on, before bringing champagne to the pair.

Clearly, a life-changing experience for many.

Ten out of ten, Heston! And ten out of ten for attention to detail. I wish everything in life was as well thought out and considerate - it is obvious that the entire restaurant is run to make diners feel special, contented, happy and entertained. I believe it shows, too, that Heston Blumenthal does what he does to please people - if only all people acted like that.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Sunday 18 April 2010: Villandry/Carluccio’s - Bicester Village, Oxon

For months, a planned trip to Bicester Village was keeping my shopping in check, as I promised myself that some initial self-restraint would be rewarded by the delights on (70% discounted) offer. It also posed some food opportunities, as my travelling companion (my mother) and I would have to find some decent nourishment from home.

Bicester Village does not have much choice on site. There is a pub nearby, which looked pretty ordinary (albeit pretty on the outside), as well as a Little Chef. Notwithstanding being Heston’d in the last few years (and a few pleasing surprises on the new menus, such as an emphasis on British produce), I am still far, far too embarrassed to set foot in a Little Chef.

So, Bicester Village itself on a Sunday evening would have to do.

In the evening, the small choice is whittled down as Pret a Manger and Starbucks both shut along with the shops. In any case, I boycott Starbucks and I’m fairly Pretted out at the moment. We were left with Villandry, and Carluccio’s.

Both of which should have been fairly reasonable.

Carluccio’s was warm and friendly, but my mother was very taken by the roast beef that Villandry offers as Plat du Jour on Sundays. When we got to Villandry, we were left standing around as the only waitress was completely absorbed with customers already seated. Eventually, as we were about to leave, she came over and said hello, but suggested that (post-9pm closing time notwithstanding - and this was only about 7.30) they were closing down for the evening. We also suspected that if any food was available, it would be extremely tired and dodgy.

So in the end, it was back to Carluccio’s.

I had high hopes. Although a chain, one still expects it to be a relatively high quality one. The menu seemed promising - there was plenty of choice.

My mother was “starving” and went for the lasanga tradizionale, which is weirdly made with lamb and beef, and focaccia served with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The focaccia came out in two enormous three inch high cubes, but the bread looked over yeasted and a bit weirdly spongy. The lasanga came out as a reasonably sized portion, although nothing particularly thrilling.

I followed my principle of ordering dishes I can’t easily do myself at home, and selected spaghetti alla vongole in bianco. This came out as an ENORMOUS plate of spaghetti with a few vongole here and there. It was also heavily coated in olive oil which made eating the spaghetti unamusingly messy and embarrassing. I was a bit annoyed, too, that there were very few vongole, that some shells were empty (with no sign of flesh elsewhere in the plate) and the odd shell was broken (I bit down on a fragment of shell and was lucky not to break a tooth). I valiantly managed about three quarters of what was there, but eating a lot of spaghetti with very little to taste other than oil and starch is quite tedious. I made my mother eat a bit of what was left, because I hate waste. Even she thought it was far too rich with oil.

I don’t foresee eating much pasta again in the near future.

As a post script, a little over 24 hours later, I spent the night vomiting. My mother was also affected, but to a vastly lesser extent. I can’t help but wonder whether there is any connection.