Archive | Eating out RSS feed for this section

Adventures at The Spotted Pig

3 Jul

Spotted Pig burgerIt’s the darling of the New York gastropub scene (if indeed the Big Apple has enough to call it a scene) and it had the distinction of being the one and only New York restaurant I had ever heard of.

This makes it more than a coincidence that when looking for a dinner venue in a recent stopover near Manhattan that a colleague suggested we give The Spotted Pig a try.

Having only read about this place a few weeks previously after idly following a foodie tweet I was aware of a few key facts.

1) This was a genuine pub, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

2) It had a Michelin star.

3) You either loved it or hated it.

4) Chef April Bloomfield is British and a River Cafe peer of Jamie Oliver. He described her as ‘cooking like a ninja’.

The facade of the Spotted Pig was so anonymous that half our party walked straight past it without noticing. Inside it was small, cramped and kookie. It reminded me of a favourite pub of mine in Bristol (from the early 90’s), the Victoria, with nooks and crannies, small tables and not an inch of visible wall space that wasn’t covered by a picture.

A Girl and Her PigPride of place above the bar was April Bloomfield’s recently published cookbook – A Girl and Her Pig.

Excitement built. When we realised we could just forget the table waiting list and order at the bar it reached fever pitch.

If you are sitting at the bar you need to start with bar snacks.

We ordered a selection of starters to share – deviled eggs, devils on horseback (there’s a lot of devil in NYC) and chicken liver toast.

The bar staff were knowledgable, friendly and…Scottish. This was the most laid back Michelin star I’d ever encountered. Compared to JSW, my local Michelin starred venue in Petersfield, Hampshire, this felt like popping round to a friend’s for a mid-week dinner. I’m not knocking JSW and its contrived formality, but the Spotted Pig was so laid back that I felt like could sink into the bar stool and stay there all night.

Back to those snacks. The verdict was that they were pretty good. I wouldn’t have classed them as fine dining – that’s not Bloomfield’s style anyway – but her famous ‘anal rustic’ techniques shone through. It was detailed informality.

She has a signature dish and I was determined to try it. The Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort & Shoestrings (fries that is) was famous for its simplicity and the fact that Bloomfield refuses anyone the right to customise the dish. No salad, no ketchup, no mayo (unless you are Bob Dylan who by all accounts got given some by a starstruck waiter one night in error). This was a burger that was confident enough to say ‘I am brilliant, take me or leave me’.

I took it and  I took it medium rare. Some colleagues were more adventurous and went for pork belly or octopus. Not for me such extravagance. I wanted that burger. I wanted it even more when I saw one go past the bar on its way to a lucky diner.

The Spotted Pig burger is a triumph. It is served on a brioche bun with a perfectly crafted criss cross of griddle marks. It is accompanied by a mountain of shoestring fries which are perfectly seasoned, with salt and a significant portion of fried rosemary. I looked and it and thought that I would not be finishing it. A few mouthfuls in and I knew I had to. Initial impressions were that the fries were like posh chipsticks, but that wasn’t fair. These were not fries in any traditional sense and once I got my preconceptions about chips out of my head I realised that the Spotted Pig was doing something pretty special.

I’m usually a fast eater. I wasn’t aware that I was taking my time with this simple, but enormous, burger, but 30 minutes in I realised that everyone else had finished. I still had a fair few shoestrings to get down me. Part of this was because the fries were hard to eat. Most of it was because it was worth savouring.

We wandered off into the New York evening for a less salubrious few hours in a variety of bars, but the Spotted Pig was a fantastic start to the evening.

I can understand the critiscism that it doesn’t deserve a star, but as a gastropub, and a not particularly expensive one at that, it stands out head and shoulders over anything I’ve ever tried before.

Advertisements

New Orleans – a humid Harvester

20 Jun

Work took me to New Orleans last week. I had some pretty romantic pre-trip notions about what the city and its cuisine would be like. In the end none of those notions turned out to be true.

Creole cooking, at least the version we get in the UK, is not subtle at the best of times, but it’s flavoursome and unique. This was not a budget trip, so I expected I might be surprised about what the real thing presented.

My first exposure was ‘biscuits in sausage gravy’. This was not a dish that I was queueing up for. Actually technically speaking I was, but I was intending to skip the biscuits and go for the stack of pancakes at the end of the buffet. A US colleague had no intention of letting me play safe. ‘You gotta try the biscuits,” he said. “It’s a Louisiana tradition.”

I noted that he was not loading up on this dish himself, but as a good guest I obliged.

The biscuits in question are actually a fairly tasteless scone. It’s a good job that they are tasteless because the ‘gravy’ is not. Salty and sausagy, this stuff was a breakfast nightmare – a real heart attack on a plate. I honestly could see no appeal in this stodgy mess. Oh, how I wished I had stuck to my guns and hit the pancakes.

I’m aware that McDonalds incorporates local specialities into its menus around the world (it draws the line at roast pudding burgers in the UK) but I didn’t expect to be walking past a Lousiana MickeyD’s the next day and see the dreaded biscuits and gravy advertised for a dollar fifty. I didn’t drop by.

So, breakfast was hit and miss. Global breakfast conventions one, Southern specialities nil.

Later that day I had the opportunity to visit a New Orleans institution – K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme,this place is a fine dining introduction to Creole and Cajun. It has a waiting list. It has a dress code. When I told people where I was going there were gasps of jealousy.

Before I get to grips with the food, I need to make a few points.

1) I was pleased to get the chance to visit K Paul’s

2) I loved the atmosphere

3) The service was fantastic

4) Perhaps I just don’t get it

The starter I ordered was popcorn battered crab fingers. I was used to US sized portions. I offered to share it with my dining companions, fully expecting that I would struggle to finish it.

Where on earth did they dig up these crabs? You know the soldier crab, the one with one huge claw and one tiny one? K Paul’s crab fingers have left a huge number of soldier crabs wandering around with one large claw left attached. They really were tiny. (Disclaimer – I have no idea what type of crab it was. K Paul’s is not mutilating soldier crabs and then abandoning them to their fate.).

They were tasty, although the dipping sauce helped, but I was ready for my main course. I would have been ready even if I hadn’t given half my dish to my colleagues.

I chose blackened fillet and sweet potato mash. The waitress sold me on this in no uncertain terms. “It’s just….oh. Just….oh.”

I asked for it rare which was possibly a mistake. It was rare to the point of bleu. However, what distinguished it from your average rare steak was the thick layer of charcoal that encased the raw meat. This was blackened fillet after all, but had I been served this in any other environment I would have been unimpressed with the contrast. This could only be achieved by a grill set to nuclear.

Having said those uncharitable things there was a lot to like about this dish – notably the obscene amounts of beef on the plate, but in particular the delicious sweet potato mash. Yams are rapidly becoming my favourite vegetable.

I obviously hadn’t had enough of them because I ordered a sweet potato and pecan pie for dessert. I expected a large portion and I got a large portion. My dining companions looked on in pity and I struggled to down this monster slice of pie. Every bite was great, but the sheer volume created an ordeal. This was Man Versus Food, UK style.

Food in New Orleans is like the city itself. Exuberant, slightly sleazy and something you either love or hate. I was much closer to hating both than I expected. Spending a few days there was like being trapped in a giant US version of Harvester, only without the salad bar.

I could have made this myself

23 Apr

What’s the worst thing you could say about a meal out?

“I could have made this myself.”

It doesn’t mean that the meal is bad, but it’s a notch down from damning with faint praise and is one of the most disappointing feelings you can have about a much-anticipated night out.

Bad food can often be easier to cope with. You can complain.

A dish that tastes like something that comes off your stove at home on a particularly uninspiring day leaves you feeling like you are wasting your time and money. You eat it, sometimes plough through it, then pay the bill and leave with an unsatisfied sensation that ends up spoiling the rest of the day.

The prime culprits are chain Italians – Ask, Bella Italia and even Carluccio’s, but strangely not Zizzi which always impresses me. It must be the familiarity with that type of cuisine that does it. We almost all cook Italian and feel that we do it to a reasonable standard. The best Italian food is often the simplest, so when presented with penne in a tomato and sausage sauce which is undeniably good, you know that you could make it just as well at home as it had five ingredients and no processes of note. Like a diving competition where the judges’ scores are multiplied by the difficulty quotient of the dive, the enjoyment of a meal can be a factor of the execution and the complexity of the dish.

If you are going to serve something as simple as grilled ciabatta as a starter (Carluccio’s – this is you I’m talking to), it had better be a really good version.

Perhaps the chain Italian restaurants are on a hiding to nothing then – maybe all Italian restaurants are.

And when I have spent 2 years perfecting my Mexican repertoire I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing about Mexican restaurants as well.

 

In the red corner – mezze, in the blue corner – tapas

17 Apr

While ‘enjoying’ some particularly disappointing mezze the other day I started to daydream about what my perfect mezze/tapas meal would comprise.

Before I sat down to document my thoughts I decided that I should satisfy the purists and educate myself as to the difference between the two, but this turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Most sources reference the difference in origin (Spain for one, the Middle East for the other) but the concepts have merged so much in Western culture as to blur the boundary significantly.

In their respective mangled interpretations that we get in the UK, it is possible to make some sweeping generalisations; mezze seems to consists of bread and yogurt, tapas isn’t tapas without potatoes, eggs and meatballs.

Variation is not always easy to find with mezze and tapas, but the problem of being boring seems to afflict mezze more in my opinion. There is a middle-eastern cafe in my local town. It’s a nice but ultimately unexciting place, that sells pretty unexciting mezze in the form of a bunch of chopped vegetables and olives and several variations on the theme of yoghurt. Unfortunately this seems to come in enormous quantities, so by the time you have ploughed your way through enough of it not to appear rude, you don’t really feel much like a main course (which is a shame, because the mains at this cafe are excellent). The meat mezze there is excellent though, including an amazing spicy salami, but that is as much to do with the ingredients as anything.

My only experience of restaurant tapas in the UK is at La Tasca, but I had always felt they set the bar pretty high. My expectations have been raised in recent weeks following a visit to Singapore (of all places) where I enjoyed some stunning tapas. La Tasca may not cut it any more. There is also a worrying trend of pubs serving what they call a ‘sharing platter’ that seems to borrow a lot from both concepts in spirit, if not in quality.

All of this means it’s a good job that I love making and serving my mezze/tapas combo. Inspired by both cuisines, borrowing from others as well, I’ve refined a few dishes over the past few years. It should have its own name – mezpas perhaps, or tapze.

Here’s a typical platter:

  • red wine braised chorizo
  • home made baba ghounash
  • grilled pitta (cypriot if possible, but it rarely is 😦 )
  • mozarella or halloumi gremolata
  • potatas bravas
  • pepperdew peppers (neat)

The best thing is that it can all be thrown together pretty quickly, so with the aid of some elegant presentation you can be impressing guests with very little effort. You shouldn’t feel confined by my suggestions though.  Make the dishes that you love, the dishes that are easy to assemble and the dishes that you feel best sum up mezze/tapas.

Not-so-good Italian lentils

22 Mar

Italian lentils and sausageOh the joys of being ill. It’s been a while since my last post and that’s entirely down to a low-grade stomach bug that although it hasn’t laid me up, had completely scuppered any desire to eat good food. Strangely it left me with a desire to eat no-so-good food, or at least food that probably isn’t worthy of a food blog – burgers, crisps, anything quick, fatty and preferably salty.

Fortunately though I seem to be coming out the other side and I’m starting to get excited in the kitchen again. Rather worryingly though my palate still seems to be shot to pieces.

Sausages were on the menu, again, a few nights ago. Normally I would have these with chips, or a slightly healthier salad. This time I fancied recreating one of my favourite dishes – Italian lentils and sausage. The best example of this I’ve come across is served at an Italian restaurant not far from one of my company’s office in Ealing, London.

Osteria del portico is a lovely, authentic Italian, set back from the road near Ealing Broadway tube. It describes itself as an ideal place to forget the stresses of London life. I don’t doubt this because it can be genuinely idyllic, but unfortunately I only tend to eat there over working lunches, so it’s anything but a release from stress.

Fortunately the food is great and my favourite dish is one of their starters –  Lucanica e Fagioli – Italian farmed sausages, cannellini beans, basil & tomato with little chillies.

Armed with the memories of this perfect little plate of food, I set about creating something similar – or at least, inspired by it.

The result was what I hoped I could christen Italian lentils. I slowed fried some garlic and onions, adding some green pepper once they were softened. I tossed in a can of green lentils and some chicken stock, leaving it to cook down for 30 minutes or so.

When topped with some Sainsbury’s Pork and Parmesan sausages this looked like a pretty faithful ( in spirit) recreation of Osteria’s Lucanica e Fagioli. I’m afraid to say though that appearances weren’t everything. It’s remarkable how tasteless the lentils were. It wasn’t inedible, just dull to an extreme. Mrs G couldn’t manage more than a few mouthfuls. I did a little better.

I was genuinely surprised. I thought it would work, but it didn’t. In retrospect it needed tomatoes, or possibly just a hint of thyme.

None of this occurred to me at the time. My palate was way out of line.I’m not convinced it is yet back in sync. Stay tuned to find out if this is the end of the Last Gastronome!

Simple chapatis

5 Mar

I enjoyed a delicious Indian meal the other day at the Masala Gate in Chichester. One of the elements that stood out was the excellent chapatis that I chose to have instead of a rice dish – not something I normally do – and this inspired me to have a go this weekend at making my own.

I don’t live anywhere near an Asian supermarket, so this recipe doesn’t use genuine chapati flour, but instead combines two commonly available supermarket flours for a similar effect.

The result is easy to prepare, quick to cook, and pretty authentic – at least that’s what my guests told me.

Ingredients

175g strong Wholemeal bread flour
75g plain white flour
150ml water
Vegetable oil

Preparation

Mix the flours in a bowl and slowly add the water, mixing into a dry dough.

Knead for 5 minutes and shape into a foot long sausage.

Chop the sausage into 8 equal portions and place them to one side.

Heat up a medium-sized frying pan over a medium heat and place a drop of oil into it.

Start rolling out the chapatis into discs approximately 15cm across. They won’t turn out completely round unless you are a wizard with the rolling pin, but it doesn’t matter.

As soon as the first chapati is rolled place it in the frying pan and get started rolling out the next chapati.

For each chapati fry on each side for 30-40 seconds, until it starts to blacken in small circles. Don’t let it burn. If the circles start to get larger than a penny it might be heading that way. If you are lucky the chapatis will start to puff up a little.

For the next 10 minutes you’ll be juggling rolling and frying, but it’s not too tricky and the end result is a pile of delicious steaming hot chapatis, ready to serve alongside a curry, a dahl or a biryani.

The mystery of the abandoned food – case closed

5 Feb

On Saturday afternoon I tweeted a line that in retrospect seems fairly prescient.

Off to the Seven Stars nr #petersfield for some food later. We’ll be the ones eating quickly before the microGast has a meltdown

It wasn’t that fact that we were eating out that has me rivalling Nostradamus, but the fact that there was what can only be described as an ‘episode’ by child number 3.

On the surface of it, there was a family outing that was straight out of the pages of a house and home magazine. We all wrapped up warm and sauntered through the falling snow to our local pub. The lights of the Seven Stars beckoned us in and when we entered there was a low hum of conversation from the two or three other groups in attendance. The fire roared in the corner of the room. The beer smelt hoppy and enticing.

I didn’t waste any time ordering food, but with the experience of a three-time parent I went for the “bring the kids’ at the same time as the adults’ starters” technique. It never fails. We had even had the foresight to pack a light snack for the microGast.

The food was good – the Seven Stars is reliable – but by the time that my main arrived (Steak and Tanglefoot pie) microGast had had enough. Nothing could be done to console her. We walked her round the pub. We offered her chips. We showed her books. We ate with her bouncing on our laps.

In the end it was the usual story. The meal was bolted and washed down with a necked pint. One wonders if there is a correlation between the child to adult ratio of a table and the amount of the adults’ meals that are abandoned. I certainly left a good portion of chips, the majority of my veg and a nice serving of pie on the plate.

Do chefs realise that when there are children at the table, they shouldn’t take the huge amounts of leftovers as a personal insult?

Does anyone have any tips for avoiding this predicament? Answer on a postcard (or a comment) please.